The Growth of the Kingdom

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At this point some will object: "If Jesus is King now, why aren't all the nations converted? Why is there so much ungodliness? Why isn't everything perfect?" In the first place, there's no if about it. Jesus is the King, and His Kingdom has arrived. The Bible says so. In the second place, things will never be "perfect" before the Last Judgment, and even the millennium described by certain popular writers is far from perfect (in fact, theirs is far worse; for they teach that the nations will never truly be converted, but will only feign conversion while waiting for their chance to rebel).

Third, although the Kingdom was established definitively in the finished work of Christ, it is established progressively throughout history (until it is established finally on the Last Day). On the one hand, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is now ruling the nations with a rod of iron; He is now seated in power above all other rulers in heaven and earth, possessing all authority. On the other hand, the Bible also teaches that the Kingdom develops progressively, growing stronger and more powerful as time goes on. The same letter to the Ephesians that tells us of Christ's absolute rule over creation (1:20-22), assuring us that we are reigning with Him (2:6), also commands us to put on armor for battle against the devil (6:10-17). There is no contradiction here - just two aspects of the same reality. And the fact that Jesus is now ruling as King of kings is precisely the reason why we can have confidence of victory in our conflict with evil. We can experience progressive triumph now, because Jesus Christ definitively triumphed over Satan in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

Jesus told two parables which illustrate the Kingdom's growth. Matthew tells us:

He presented another parable to them, saying, "The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds; but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches."

He spoke another parable to them, "The Kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three pecks of meal, until it was all leavened" (Matt. 13:31-33).

The Kingdom was established when Christ came. But it has not yet reached its full development. Like the mustard tree, it started out small, but will grow to enormous size (just as the stone Daniel saw became a mountain and filled the whole earth). The Kingdom will grow in size, spreading everywhere, until the knowledge of God covers the earth, as the waters cover the sea. The Kingdom's growth will be extensive.

But the Kingdom will also grow intensively. Like leaven in bread, it will transform the world, as surely as it transforms individual lives. Christ has planted into the world His gospel, the power of God unto salvation. Like yeast, the power of the Kingdom will continue to work "until all is leavened."

After looking at this parable, you might wonder how in the world anyone could deny a dominion eschatology. How can you get around the force of this verse? Here's how: the defeatist simply explains that the "leaven" is not the Kingdom, but is instead a picture of how evil heresies are planted into the Church by the devil! Incredibly, his case is so desperate that he will resort to sleight-of-hand tricks, turning a promise of the Kingdom's v/c-into a promise of the Church's defeat. Note well that all is leavened; the verse is teaching total conquest, by one side or the other.

According to Jesus, therefore, which side will win? Contrary to pessimists, Jesus did not say that the Kingdom is like dough, into which someone sneaks destructive, evil leaven. He said that the Kingdom is like leaven. The Kingdom started small, and its growth has often been unobtrusive and sometimes virtually invisible; yet it continues to ferment and transform the world. Where was Christianity 2000 years ago? It consisted of a mere handful of people who had been commissioned to disciple the nations — a small group who would be persecuted by their own countrymen and opposed by the armed might of the most powerful empire in history. What chance would you have given for their survival? Yet the Church came out of the conflict vie-

toriously, the clear winner by a mile; Rome and Jerusalem didn't get past the starting gate. The last twenty centuries have witnessed progress that only the willfully blind could deny. Has the yeast of the Kingdom spread everywhere? Of course not; not yet. But it will. God has predestined us for victory.

He was like those sent by the householder to receive the fruits of the vineyard from the husbandmen; for he exhorted all men to render a return. But Israel despised and would not render, for their will was not right, nay moreover they killed those that were sent, and not even before the Lord of the vineyard were they ashamed, but even He was slain by them. Verily, when He came and found no fruit in them, He cursed them through the fig-tree, saying, "Let there be henceforth no fruit from thee" [Matt. 21:19]; and the fig-tree was dead and fruitless, so that even the disciples wondered when it withered away.

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet: "I will take away from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the scent of myrrh, and the light of a lamp, and the whole land shall be destroyed" [Jer. 25:10], For the whole service of the law has been abolished from them, and henceforth and forever they remain without a feast.

St. Athanasius, Letters [vi]


Reading the Bible in terms of the Paradise theme can deepen our understanding of even the most familiar passages of Scripture. Suddenly we can understand why Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5, for example, describe the covenant people as "the Lord's vineyard." As we have seen, this was a reminder of man's original state of communion with God in the Garden. It was also a reminder that when God saves His people, He constitutes them a renewed Garden (or Vineyard), and thus the Biblical writers used the imagery of planting, trees, vines, and fruit again and again to describe salvation in its various aspects (John 15 is a well-known example). It is important to recognize also, however, that Garden-imagery can be used to describe apostasy and the Curse, for the very first breaking of the covenant took place in the Garden. God had given Adam a commission to cultivate and guard His "vineyard"; instead, Adam had rebelled against the Landowner, and was cursed and cast out, forfeiting his inheritance. This twin image of the vineyard, as the place of both blessing and cursing, is an important concept in the Bible, and became the setting for one of Jesus' most striking parables, the story of the Wicked Vinegrowers (Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5 should be read along with this).

There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. He then leased it to vinegrowers and went into a far country. Now when harvest time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinegrowers, that they might receive its fruit. But the vinegrowers took his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did the same thing to them. The last of all he sent his son to them, saying, "They will respect my son." But when the vinegrowers saw the son, they said among themselves, "This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance." And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him (Matt. 21:33-39).

In His grace, God had sent prophets to Israel throughout her history, and always the men of God had been treated viciously. "They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground" (Heb. 11:37-38). The fact is that Israel had consistently rejected God's word and mistreated the prophets, right from the beginning. As Stephen accused them (just before he was murdered by Jewish leaders): "You men who are stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become" (Acts 7:51-52).

Israel's wicked treatment of the prophets reached its zenith in the murder of God's Son, as Jesus foretold in His parable. He then asked his hearers, "When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinegrowers?"

They said to Him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and will lease his vineyard to other vinegrowers, who will render to him the fruits in their seasons." Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it" (Matt. 21:40-43).

The Jews had spoken their own sentence of condemnation. Indeed, the vineyard would be taken from them; the Lord would come and destroy them, and give the vineyard to obedient workmen who would render to Him the fruit He desired. The Kingdom was to be taken from the Jews and given to a new "nation." Who would this nation be? The Apostle Peter (after citing the same Old Testament text Jesus used) gave the definitive answer, writing to the Church: "You area chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who were once not a people, but are now the people of God; who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy" (1 Pet. 2:9-10). The clincher is that God had used this identical language in speaking to the covenant people of Israel at Mount Sinai: "You shall be My own possession among all the peoples . . . and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Ex. 19:5-6). What once had been true of Israel, Peter says, is now and forever true of the Church.

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