The Kingdom of God in the Gospels - 1:
The Unique Nature of the Kingdom
Scripture Reading: Mark 4:21-32
Text: Matthew 13:31-35
Suggested Songs: 119:1,3,4; 36:3,4; 298:1-3; 187:1,2,5; 124:6
Sermon by Rev. Harry Van Dyken
Minister in the Orthodox Christian Reformed Churches
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 21, No. 6
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Congregation, beloved of The Lord Jesus Christ:
We are very familiar in this world with the setting up of kingdoms. In world history we know of kingdoms which men tried to establish as world kingdoms. One has but to think of the great image which Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream, with the head of gold and the shoulders and chest of silver, the belly and thigh of brass, the legs of iron, and the feet of iron and clay. It was a God-given picture of those kingdoms which would endeavor to conquer the world. One has but to notice a Napoleon, a Hitler, a Mussolini, to know that there are and have been in all ages those whose dream has been to set up one world government over which they would be the heads. Each time this has happened, it has come about in a similar way. It would come with a great show of force, of power.
The Jews of Jesus’ day expected that when the Messiah would appear, He also would come with a great show of power over against the Roman empire, the Roman power that ruled the world in that day.
Jesus teaches us concerning the kingdom of heaven and of Jesus the king of that kingdom, that it is just the opposite of the expectation of the Jews, and just the opposite of the kingdoms of this world. To the citizens of that kingdom, He shows that kingdom to be unique.
Let us look at the following points regarding the unique nature of the kingdom, in which it stands alone, it stands out from all others, and is entirely different:
1. Its divine origin;
2. Its apparent insignificance;
3. Its organic growth;
4. Its surprising spread; and,
5. Its parabolic unfolding.
These two parables in particular, which Christ used (and He used many), stress how the kingdom of heaven is established. They stress what happens here in the midst of this world, and that there is a kingdom which will finally be the kingdom in the world. In one sense it is already today the kingdom in the world. We have the assurance of our Lord and Savior that this kingdom is served by every other kingdom that arises. This is true because the king of this kingdom controls and holds all these other kingdoms in His hands, that no matter what might they may display, He places them at the service of His kingdom, so that His kingdom may work out to its final victorious culmination. This will be finalized when our Lord and Savior, our king, returns upon the clouds of heaven with the trumpet and with the great shout of the archangel.
How does this kingdom begin? In one sense it began in paradise, you know. There God spoke forth and the earth and the heavens were created. God spoke forth and man stood upon the face of the earth. God made man in His image and placed him as king over this kingdom. That was the establishment of God’s kingdom.
And then, as you know, something happened that turned it upside down. Satan came with his temptation to say that God was not king, with man as king under Him, but that man was king. Satan claimed that man did not have to answer to God. Man listened to that.
Now in this situation of rebellion, God cast off and cursed those whom He had placed as kings. The kings in this earth also came under the curse of God through man’s sin. How then can we speak of the kingdom of God? How is this kingdom introduced?
Christ speaks in a parable. In this parable He speaks of that which was introduced from the outside. It is something different. Do we have here simply another mustard seed? No, it is a particular mustard seed which the gardener takes and plants in his garden. He plants it among the herbs of that garden. Then this mustard seed which is so insignificant, grows into a plant that stands out so much above the other herbs of the garden that it almost takes its place among the trees.
Church of Christ, Christ speaks of intervention. Christ speaks of a hand that reaches down into the garden of His world to plant a plant. It is of His planting. It is not, then, that in the whole situation of this world there arises out of this bin of mustard seed, a mustard seed that is greater than all the other mustard seeds, and so is able to conquer the other mustard seeds and establish a kingdom. No, not at all! It does not arise out of the seed of this world. It comes from above. It is intervention. It is God reaching into the history of man with that which seems so insignificant.
Children, you remember as we have gone through the Old Testament together and considered this kingdom of God, this covenant line which God established, that it always seemed to be something which did not amount to much. Always the line of death, the line of Satan’s work, was so much bigger. And it seemed in a way to be so much more powerful than that line of God’s promise which seemed always to be threatening to break.
And yet, every time it seemed as if it were going to break, God reached down: with a flood; with a call to Abraham; with a son born to parents who could not have children; and with a call of the angel of death upon the mighty power of Egypt. And so on down through the history of Israel God intervened in a special way. Never do we see Him call out from among men that which is in itself mighty to say, "Here is something or someone with whom I can conquer the world."
The origin of this kingdom is divine. There is no human instrumentality in the planting of this kingdom. It is the stone that is cut out of the mountain without hands in that vision of Nebuchadnezzar, which Daniel told him and interpreted for him. That stone cut out without hands, that mysterious stone which, in comparison to the great image is nothing. And yet, as it comes rolling down that mountain side, it grows and grows, and then when it strikes that image, the image simply disappears. There is nothing left of it!
"For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." It is very similar, church of Christ, to that which appears in the seventeenth chapter of Ezekiel. There is among the cedars of Lebanon a cedar which is great and mighty! It was the cedar of David. From that cedar in Lebanon Israel expected so much. And in a way, God had told them to expect much. And yet God sends into that forest of Lebanon a woodsman who cuts down that great cedar. And now what? Out of the top of that great cedar He plucks just a little shoot; just a little branch. He plants that shoot again in the forest of Lebanon. It becomes the great tree that rises above all the trees of the forest. "This is the Lord’s doings, and it is marvelous in our eyes."
The kingdom of God shall be established, church of Christ. The kingdom of God is here. The kingdom of God will come to its full culmination, not with the rising of a super race such as Hitler dreamt of; not with the rising of a mighty nation with super power, but the kingdom of God is here because God planted a little seed, because God put a little leaven in the lump of the dough of this world.
It is God who puts it there. It is He who reached in from the outside to open up this dough, the dough of this world, this covenant-breaking dough, and put into it the leaven of the Word of God. Unless we see that, we fail to see the one basic thing which makes the kingdom of God unique among all kingdoms; it makes it completely different.
If we have not seen that, then indeed, the position of the kingdom of God in this world is an utterly ridiculous position. Then when people begin to talk about a Christian’s stand over against a great big, powerful Canadian Labour Congress, they are making such big fools of themselves that it is ridiculous. Then too, when we as Christian parents say that our children cannot be trained by the state, and that we have an obligation to God in which God calls us to answer for what kind of education we give then and we insist on teaching them in the light of God’s Word, we are fools! If this is just another kingdom in competition with the other kingdoms, similar to them and with the same kind of origin, then the little Christian school is just a big laugh! It is ridiculous! How possibly shall our ideas of wisdom and knowledge and our conviction as to what constitutes real learning have any kind of currency or impact, meaning or significance in all the schools around us?
Except that God planted it. It is part of the working, living yeast which God put into the dough. It is the ground-breaking of this little seed whose power is the power of heaven. Then the world can boast and vaunt itself, and He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; He shall have then in derision.
Church of Christ, the yeast and the seed are apparently insignificant. Christ particularly and purposely chooses such an illustration. He takes a seed which, He says, is less than all the seeds. He takes that from which we expect practically nothing. After all, if you want bigness, might and power, then you’d better start out with that which is big, mighty, and powerful. The same is true of the leaven. Here is a big lump of dough, and now into that big lump of dough is put a little yeast or leaven. Don’t expect that that little bit of leaven is going to mean anything to that big lump of dough. It is too small. It is too insignificant! It is that of which Isaiah spoke in chapter 53, "He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from Hin; He was despised and we esteemed Him not." Jesus of Nazareth! Can any good come out of Nazareth? Shall any good, shall any Messiah, shall any kingdom of God come out of Galilee?
That was not new, Church of Christ. Israel should have known that that wasn’t new. Look back at Abraham in Canaan — a possessor without a possession. Look back at Israel in Egypt — a slave band in bondage to a great and mighty nation. How was this going to mean anything? And yet you read in the Psalms that Jerusalem shall be the place where Egypt shall finally come. Even of the Egyptians it must be said, "This man was born there", speaking of Zion!
Insignificant, even at the first. If you look at the line of Seth or Abel, Abel disappeared quickly under the power and might of Cain. You see the descendants of Cain become mighty in the earth. You hear Lamech boast of his power and his might. And when you read again of the descendants of Seth you just do not read very much. You do not find very much of this world’s greatness. It just isn’t there!
Once again you ask yourself as you come to Noah, "What is it now?" The Lord says concerning Noah, "There is one man I find righteous in the earth." One man! And that is the kingdom of God! Yes, his family was included — because the kingdom is covenantal. Just one man, and that is the kingdom of God. Insignificant!
How much more important was Caesar Augustus to world history than was Jesus of Nazareth. The historians of that day did not bother to notice the Christ, though they had written much about Caesar and the Caesars — you will find volumes on them. Josephus mentions Him, for he is a Jewish historian. Apart from that you will not find very much. Insignificant!
How then can it grow? Its growth is organic. That is why, when Christ wishes to speak of the spread of His kingdom, He does not employ the figure of a great army. He does not employ the figure of a great conquering host. But He employs the picture of life; a life that grows and reproduces. It is a figure of life which brings forth life, covenantally, under the blessing of God. The growth of the mustard seed is an organic growth, a growth of life. And so every part of that growth is a part which is in living connection with that start which has rooted down into the earth. There is no other addition. There can be no addition by brute power.
You see the contrast there is between this kingdom and the picture of a Hitler, a Napoleon. Do you know what Napoleon’s problem was? In trying to establish a kingdom of life, he had wrought so much death that he could not keep going. How do you establish life out of death? Yet that is precisely what the world is trying to do all the time — to establish a kingdom of life out of the kingdom of death, out of the forces of death, and out of the means of death.
Christ does not use that picture. He uses the picture of life. It is life which grows and multiplies and adds to itself! That connection with the origin is always a living connection. That is why the mustard seed grows into such a remarkable plant — because it is living. That is why the leaven permeates the whole lump, because of the life that is there. It is life that reproduces and thus gradually works into the whole piece of dough.
There is only one other way that there is growth in the kingdom of God. That is by grafting. The grafting takes place into the living mustard tree, or, as Paul speaks of it, the olive tree. Christ speaks of it in the gospel of John as the vine. These wild olive branches are cut off the wild tree and are grafted into the natural olive tree and partake of the life of this natural olive tree. Therefore they become a living part of that tree.
That is the mission of the church, is it not? That is the church reaching out to bring others into this living union with Christ.
There is no other way! That is what makes the covenant so important, beloved. The growth of God’s kingdom is organic, including children and children’s children. That tree is growing. We are branches in it. We have a tremendous responsibility, then, because in that tree, as we see from other parables which Christ relates, He places the responsibility for the branching out of these branches on us. Then, if there is a branch that breaks its connection with the tree, which cuts itself off, then that whole branch is gone.
I wonder sometimes whether we think about this enough in the kingdom of God. I wonder if we realize that, with God’s blessing, the growth includes not just some children, but children’s children, and children’s children’s children, broadening and multiplying as it grows into a great big branch with all kinds of side branches. So, if we cause that branch to be cut off, what a tremendous covenantal responsibility is ours. For then we have killed a branch in God’s tree, in God’s mustard tree. Its growth is organic. Once again, this places tremendous responsibility on us for the training of our children, for that is a branch, that tree budding and shooting out. What will it grow to be?
Tremendous responsibility! If it were simply a dead connection, one would not have to worry. You can always bring in more dead wood. But this is living. You can’t replace living tissue with dead tissue!
It has been surprising. Out of this rather unknown figure, Jesus of Nazareth, who for three years preached and taught, and then was hung on a cross, came the whole church of all the ages. The rulers of that day said, when they crucified Him, "Now we’re done with that trouble maker. This is the end of it." And Pentecost saw this New Testament plant break forth out of the ground. 3000 were saved on Pentecost, "so that the birds of the heavens came and lodged in the branches thereof."
There is no bluster. There is no boasting. There is no big show of power. Yet it keeps on growing. The leaven quietly works in the lump until you finally make the discovery that the little piece of yeast which was put into that dough is now controlling the whole lump. That is because the dough was dead and the yeast is living. And now the whole lump is living.
Growth in the kingdom of God is surprising because, once again, this growth is organic. Yes, the world will laugh and scorn, beloved, for the world cannot see or understand this. Of course they cannot understand this. It is withheld from them. That is why Christ spoke in parables. He said, "I speak in parables so that My own people will understand it better; and that the world will not understand at all." You will ask how that can be. It was simply because Christ was telling stories of life, and the world only understands stories of death. They would have understood if He had told a story of death, of an army that goes over and destroys another nation and then takes its place. What happened to the nation destroyed? It is dead. It is no more. That is not life, it is death. The world understands that. But He comes with stories of life — that which the living, with living ears and living eyes can hear and see and understand.
That is why this power is transforming power. You know that the dough in which you place the yeast is never the same dough again. It is transformed. It is changed. It was dead but it is now alive. There is that much of a change. That is precisely the transforming power of the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ, the Word of God, came into this world. He did not come with a lot of fanfare — that is still to come. He will come with a lot of fanfare and with a trumpet sound. He will come with the shout of the archangel, upon the great white throne, and every eye shall see Him, and every knee shall bend. But when He came in fulfillment of promise to establish that which God had been establishing in the Old Testament, and finally establishes in this seed which is sown in the midst of the earth, there is no trumpet sound. There are no parades. There is no big shout and cry that goes up in the world. And yet that Word of God transforms the world. And yet we may say that the biggest part of that world is not touched by this life-giving power. It all depends on what you mean by world. You know, in the days of Noah there was one righteous in the world. Forty days later, after God had spoken, Noah and his family constituted the whole world. That was the world — God’s world. He took death away. But not in its entirety then. It was a picture for us of what is going to happen. The real world is that which God is recreating by the transforming power of this seed, of this leaven. That is the real world, the new heavens and the new earth where righteousness dwells.
That is the only world which has real meaning, the meaning of life. Al1 else shall be done away, destroyed. All else shall burn with a fervent heat.
It has tremendous power, church of Christ. Do we know it? It has tremendous power that changes from death to life, that transforms completely. That is the church, the kingdom of God.
This is the uniqueness of the church here in the midst of this world as it does its work under God. Do we know it as such? Do we know that transforming power in our hearts and lives, people of God? Is it true that we really are not just different because our neighbors mow the lawn on Sunday and we don’t; or because our neighbors go to the beach and we don’t on Sunday; or because we go to church and possibly they do not, or maybe they do, but with certain differences. No, that is not the difference. If that were the case, you could just as well be comparing the mustard plant with some other plant. But no, it isn’t that! It is in its origin of life! It’s death or life! It is a dead piece of unleavened dough that can never grow. Or it is that into which the yeast of God’s Word has been placed and transformed it.
Is that what we are? Alive? Alive so that as we move over the opposition in victory we do not leave them dead, but alive? Then they are one with us because the Word has changed them. That is so different from anything the world has ever known that it cannot be compared. The church moves in the midst of people who are dead and they come alive. They come alive by the transforming power of the mustard seed, of the leaven.
Christ teaches this in parables. "All these things Jesus spoke in parables to the multitudes and without a parable spoke He nothing unto them." That is the way it had been prophesied by Asaph in one of the Psalms. The world spreads its propaganda and sends out its armies. But our blessed Lord talks about gardens and plants and dough and yeast.
Isn’t it strange? He talks about a lowly housewife who takes some measures of meal which had been harvested and ground up. It is not alive anymore — the germ has been killed. She mixes it up with some other ingredients — it is still dead — then she puts some yeast into it. He tells that story.
You won’t hear that kind of propaganda from the powers of this world. You won’t hear it anywhere. The world would think it utterly silly. Russia would say, as they say of the whole gospel, that it is a sedative for those who are dissatisfied with their lot here on earth — a sedative for the working man.
Only Christ could do it, for, once more beloved, these are stories of life, not death. They are stories of the kingdom of life. That is why it fits and that is also why those outside the kingdom could not and cannot understand them. The whole matter of understanding the kingdom of heaven is a matter of understanding life.
This stranger from Galilee, this root out of dry ground; it is simply impossible! God had taken the root of Jesse which looked dead, cut off, destroyed, and He caused a little sprout to grow out of that dead-looking root. That little sprout which grew out of that dead-looking root He has caused to cover the whole earth.
You see what it means to be vitally, organically, integrally related to the Lord of life, Jesus Christ. It means that by His transforming power you have been given a name and a place in His kingdom, in the history of the world. It is finally the only thing worth mentioning. All the other is mere dressing. All the other is a garden in which this mustard seed shows itself to be different. That is the only purpose it has. It must serve the kingdom.
Church of Christ, do you know this life? Are we participating in this life and, therefore, in this unstoppable growth? You cannot stop life, not even with death; not if God has interposed, not if He puts this life here and guards and protects it. You cannot stop that life! It will grow over all the nations. But are we part of it? Are we participants in this tremendous, glorious program of God? Are we exercising that wonderful privilege? Or are we taken up with our own little kingdom we are building? Not with a seed which grows, but by hook or by crook. Are we so taken up with our own little kingdom that we haven’t time to get into the mainstream of this living transformation which God has established?
Where is our kingdom consciousness? Where is it in this community? What place does it have in our family life and in our church life?
Where is it, young people, as you gather for Young People’s Society? Where is the consciousness that you are a part of this great work of God and that therefore the things of death have no place in your life?
Like a mighty army moves the Church of God.
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided; all one body we,
One in hope, in doctrine, one in charity.
Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross...
Strange! The cross, the death mark — for that is what it is. It is the symbol of death, the cross of Jesus. Yet out of that symbol of death proceeds the life which is the life of that army...
With the cross of Jesus going on before.