The following is an excerpt from Dr. Sam Waldron’s “Theonomy: A Reformed Baptist Assessment“. Future posts will be referencing this important analysis of the kingdom parables.
The Two-Age Structure of Redemptive History
- This age and the age to come taken together exhaust all time, including the endless time of the eternal state. (Mt. 12:32, cf. Mk. 3:29; 10:30, parallel, Lk. 18:30, I Tim. 6:17-19).
- This age and the age to come are qualitatively different states of human existence and qualitatively different periods in the history of the world.
- This age and the age to come are divided by the second coming of Christ which ends this age and inaugurates the age to come.
- This age is and always will be an evil age.
(To see the support and argumentation for the above propositions, please see the full paper)
The Two-stage Coming of the Kingdom
Properly understood, no more complete or clear teaching on the coming of the kingdom occurs in the NT than that of the seven parables of the kingdom found in Matthew 13. It is peculiarly appropriate that we should examine these parables since Gary North makes them the subject of extended comment in Unconditional Surrender.
The theme of these parables is pervasively present in Matthew 13. It is the Kingdom, or more precisely, the coming of the Kingdom. Cf. verses 11, 16, 17, 19, 24, 31, 32, 44, 45, 52. We will treat this theme by means of four points.
- Their Common Emphasis.
- Their Specific Emphases.
- Their Comprehensive Teaching.
- Their Present Relevance.
1. Their Common Emphasis
The common emphasis of these parables flows from the fact that they all address the same problem or question. This question flowed out of the historical situation in which Jesus and his disciples found themselves. The Jews in general conceived of the coming of the Kingdom as a glorious deliverance from all their troubles. Political and temporal victory would be its results (John 6:15; Acts 5:35-39). Even those Jews with a more spiritual expectation like that of John the Baptist viewed its coming as equivalent to the judgment of the wicked with irresistible might (Matt. 3:2-12.) In such a context, Jesus came preaching the nearness and then the actual coming of the Kingdom (Matt. 4:17; Mt. 12:28, 29). A man like John the Baptist gladly embraced Jesus as the one who would usher in the glorious and irresistible coming of the Kingdom. But when Jesus continued to preach and even preach the actual presence of the Kingdom (Mt. 12:28f.) without the onset of the glorious consummation, John the Baptist with such preconceptions began to have doubts (Matthew 11:2-6), 11. Verse 11 refers to knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom. If a man like John would struggle with the seeming inconsistency of Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom with what the Old Testament itself had led the Jews to expect (Dan. 2:44), Jesus’ disciples would not be immune to the same doubts. The question was: How could the all-conquering, glorious eschatological Kingdom of God be present in the former in the former carpenter turned itinerant preacher and his Galilean followers? Compare Ladd:
While the parable may have an application to the gospel in the world during the church age as older interpreters thought, this is not its historical meaning. The Sitz im Leben of the parable is Jesus’ announcement that the Kingdom of God had come among men. The Jews thought that the coming of the Kingdom would mean the exercise of God’s mighty power before which no man could stand. The Kingdom of God would batter the godless nations (Dan. 2:44). The dominion of wicked rulers would be destroyed and the Kingdom be given to the saints of the Most High, that all nations should serve and obey them (Dan. 7:27). In apparent disagreement with the Old Testament promises, which were elaborated in great detail in the contemporary apocalyptic expectations, Jesus said that the Kingdom had indeed come upon men, but not for the purpose of shattering evil. It is now attended by no apocalyptic display of irresistible power.(34)
Ridderbos says that the problem addressed is the “modality of the coming of the Kingdom of God.”(35) The common emphasis of these parables is that the Kingdom has come and is present, but that this is inseparably related to its future, glorious consummation. It is present in its initial phase, in other words, in a form mostly unexpected by the Jews.
2. Their Specific Emphases
Each of the parables picks up this common emphasis and elaborates it in its own peculiar fashion.
a. The Parable of the Four Soils.
This parable’s emphasis is that the Kingdom of heaven is present in the sowing of the Word of God. Ladd asserts, the single emphasis is upon the nature of sowing: The present action of God’s Kingdom.(36)
It is “the word,” the “word of God,” “the word of the kingdom,” the decisive, messianic word of power that Christ, as the Son of Man, has to say on earth and in which eo ipso the kingdom of heaven is revealed and has come. And the fact that this word can be compared to seed, and he who speaks the word to a sower, is the instruction about the modality of the kingdom of heaven that has come with and in Christ. This is the redemptive-historical purport of the parable. Its spectacular aspect is its simplicity which is the confirmation of the incomprehensible supposition: this is the way of the kingdom of God, “A sower went out to sow — and nothing further; and this means the new world of God.”
The emphasis is elaborated in two directions. First, the presence of the Kingdom is consistent with the rejection of the Word and its consequent fruitlessness in the lives of some who hear it. Ladd remarks,
Rather, the Kingdom in its present working is like a farmer sowing seed. It does not sweep away the wicked. In fact, the word in which the Kingdom is proclaimed may lie like seed on the roadside and never take root; or it may be superficially received only to die; or it may be choked by the cares of the age, which is hostile to the Kingdom of God.(38)
If the Kingdom is present as sowing, such fruitlessness is explicable. Second, the presence of the Kingdom is yet vindicated by the amazing fruitfulness of the Word in those who receive it.
b. The Parable of the Tares
This parable elaborates what was implicit in the first one. The Kingdom of God comes in two stages. It will come as the eschatological harvest, but it must for that very reason come first as seed-time. Extraordinary as the thought must have seemed to the Jewish mind, until that time, good and evil men will co-exist in the world in the time of the Kingdom. The coming of the Kingdom does not mean the immediate destruction of the wicked.The Messiah comes first as sower than as harvester. It is not his will that the wicked be immediately destroyed.
The issue between the servants and the landlord is not the question who is to execute the separation, nor what kind of separation it is to be, but when it will happen. Though the servants desire to carry out an immediate separation, the landlord determines that it shall be postponed till the day of the harvest, for–thus he tells his servants–you might pull out the wheat in gathering the tares. . . .
. . . Since the kingdom comes like the seed, and since the Son of Man is first the sower (vs. 37) before being the reaper (vs. 41) the last judgment is postponed. The delay is implied in this difference. Whoever sows cannot immediately reap. The postponement of the judgment is determine by the modality of the kingdom of God that has already come with Christ.(39)
The meaning of the parable is clear when interpreted in terms of the mystery of the Kingdom: its present but secret working in the world. The Kingdom has come into history but in such a way that society is not disrupted. The sons of the Kingdom have received God’s reign and entered into its blessings. Yet they must continue to live in this age, intermingled with the wicked in a mixed society. Only at the eschatological coming of the Kingdom will the separation take place. Here is indeed the revelation of a new truth: that the Kingdom of God can actually come into the world, creating sons who enjoy its blessings without effecting the eschatological judgment.(40)
c. The Parable of the Dragnet
The point of this parable is almost, if not completely, synonymous with that of the Tares. Not only in agriculture, but also in fishing, two distinct phases occur. First, there is gathering, then there is separating. Until the time of separation, good and bad co-exist together.
d. The Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl.
Two related emphases are present in these twin parables. First, Jesus intimates that the Kingdom is present in a hidden and unexpected form. (vs. 44, “treasure hidden in the field,” vs. 45, “Finding one pearl”). Second, Jesus declares that in order to possess the Kingdom there will be the need of total sacrifice. To a Jew with ideas of a glorious, earthly kingdom, possessing the Kingdom meant glory, riches, fame, and honor. Jesus said a flat “no” to that idea. Possessing the Kingdom would rather mean the total sacrifice of this world’s possessions.
e. The Parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven.
The main emphasis of these parables is again that the Kingdom comes in two phases. More especially, Jesus is affirming that the present, apparent insignificance of he himself and his followers is no bar to their being the present manifestation of that Kingdom which would one day attain supreme dominance. Jesus’ answer is first the seed, then the tree. First the absurdly small bit of leaven in over a bushel of meal and then the whole leavened. Ladd says,
The burning question faced by Jesus’ disciples was how the Kingdom of God could actually be present in such an insignificant movement as that embodied in his ministry. The Jews expected the Kingdom to be like a great tree under which nations would find shelter. They could not understand how one could talk about the Kingdom apart from such an all-encompassing manifestation of God’s rule. How could the coming glorious Kingdom have anything to do with the poor little band of Jesus’ disciples? Rejected by the religious leaders, welcomed by tax collectors and sinners, Jesus looked more like a deluded dreamer than the bearer of the Kingdom of God.(41)
Jesus answer is, first the tiny seed, later the large tree. The smallness and relative insignificance of what is happening in his ministry does not exclude the secret presence of the very Kingdom of God.
The parallel with the parables of the tares and dragnet shows that the ultimate triumph in view is that of the age to come, the consummate Kingdom. It is not the golden age of the Post-millennialists.
While rejecting the post-millennial interpretation of these parables, the question of whether Jesus is here emphasizing the growth of the Kingdom must still be answered. In other words, Jesus’ primary stress is on the beginning and the end, but does he also stress the middle period, the growth of the Kingdom? Ladd rejects this idea of process.(42)
The idea of process or growth, however, demands neither Post- millenialism, nor evolutionary theory. There may be progress without post-millenialism. The framework of seed-time and harvest illustrates the idea of a process of maturation. It is noteworthy, however, that such a process of maturation by itself would never bring harvest. There must be the direct intervention of the harvester.
Evolutionary theory is not necessary either. It is the direct activity of God and His word of power that brings both growth and harvest. It is not an immanent evolution, but an action of the transcendent God through His word that brings the Kingdom. Ridderbos says,
Yet it is unnatural to have an eye only for the beginning and the end and to eliminate at all cost all that lies in between. Everything depends upon the idea that is formed of the way in which progress is made from the small beginning to the wonderful end. For the fact that the final coming of the kingdom is entirely based on God’s action shows that the end is not the completion of an immanent process of development. And this is also true of the beginning. The whole of the manifestation of the kingdom is the fruit of divine action. The seed is the word of God spoken by Christ with authority. This word of power will one day make all things new. But between the beginning and the end there is a history. In this history the word has made progress and has had its effect. This progress cannot be thought of in the sense of the modern idea of evolution, but in that of the plan and work of God.(43)
The following exegetical considerations point to the presence of the idea of growth in this passage:
- The Parable of the Sower implies the germinal power, the amazing fruitfulness of the Word. Cf. Mt. 13:8, 23. But note that growth and progress co-exists with the reality of fruitlessness in this parable.
- The parallel occurrence of the Parable of the Mustard Seed in Mark 4:30-32 gives a clearer emphasis to the idea of growth by its use of three, durative present tenses in verse 32.
- The context of Mark 4:30-32 points to the idea of growth. Cf. the parable found in 4:26-29. The term, , and the delineation of three stages of growth point up the idea of growth.
- The context of the Parable of the Mustard Seed as it is found in Luke 13:18-20. Note the connection between verse 10-17 and verses 18-20. Those verses emphasize the present power of Jesus’ word to heal the sick, humiliate his enemies and gladden the multitude with the word of salvation.
- The allusion to such parables as that of the mustard seed in Col. 1:6, 10, 11 confirms the presence of the growth idea in them. Note the verbal parallels of with Matthew 13:32 and with Matthew 13:23.
3. Their Comprehensive Teaching
Taken together these parables give us a comprehensive view of the Kingdom. With respect to the prospects of the Kingdom during this age, both pessimism and unalloyed optimism must be rejected. A realistic optimism is, however, warranted by these parables. Growth and progress will occur, but not such growth or progress as will supersede the problems which confronted the early followers of Jesus and their faith. For many, the word will continue fruitless. Good and evil will continue to co-exist in the world and in the community created by the Kingdom. Sacrifice will always be the order of the day for those who would possess the Kingdom. Yet, in many, the word will cause extraordinary and fruitful effects and over-all growth will continue.[Sorry, I have no idea how the following appeared in the original PDF)
Mixture of Good and Evil Growth of
= Sacrifice for Kingdom = Kingdom
Fruitlessness of Word Amazing Fruitfulness
/Judgment of all the wicked
= Consummate Kingdom-Separation of righteous and wicked
\Glory of Righteous
4. Their Present Relevance
North–to do justice to him–does emphasize the idea of historical continuity present in these parables. He rejects any Premillennial and by implication any Postmillennial disruption of the historical continuity which these parables teach will obtain until the absolute consummation.(44)He, of course, also emphasizes the growth of the Kingdom as it is set forth in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven. It is, however, at this point that North’s treatment becomes imbalanced. The fact is that two other ideas are taught very clearly in these parables. One is the continuance of evil in the present phase of the Kingdom with its concomitant impact on the Kingdom, i.e. widespread fruitlessness in the preaching of the Word, persecution and the necessity of sacrifice in this age. This is the special emphasis of the parable of the tares, but it is the implication of several of the other parables. This growth of evil in this age is also the explicit teaching of other passages in the NT (2 Thes. 2:7, 8; 2 Tim. 3:1, 12, 13; Rev. 20:7-9). It is when North negates these realities by distorting the emphasis on growth in the parables of the kingdom that he departs from the analogy of Scripture. This distortion and departure becomes evident in the following passages in Unconditional Surrender.
Satan’s kingdom is being conquered by the gospel, not by the sheer force of God’s angelic host. The terms of surrender are ethical. The offer of salvation is not being made to Satan’s angelic host, but to his earthly troops. Christians are steadily seeing the defeat of Satan’s human forces, for Satan suffers continual defections. As the power of the gospel increases its zone of sovereign mastery, even more will defect. He will have only the remnants of any army when the final trumpet sounds. He will be trying to hold the fort in the last outpost. And the gates of hell shall not prevail. . . .
Seventh, the treaty of peace is extended to all areas of those cultures that surrender to God unconditionally. The whole of society must be put under dominion. Societies can rule under God’s sovereign authority, as Israel was called to do, or they can become tributaries to God’s conquering kingdom, as the nations far from Israel were expected to do (Deuteronomy 20:10-11), or else they are to be destroyed (Deuteronomy 20:12-15). There is no “King’s X,” no escape hatch. . . .(45)
Theonomists like North and Rushdoony refuse to accept the Biblical paradox of the parallel growth of good and evil in the present age. Their dialectic sees only two alternatives: “pessimillennialism” or postmillennialism, optimism or pessimism. It is because of this artificial dichotomy that Rushdoony repeatedly lumps amillennialism with the most pessimistic forms of premillennialism.(46) While it is true that some forms of amillennialism do tend to be quite pessimistic, there is an alternative to the alternating pessimism and optimism of chiliastic expectations. It is the optimistic realism of Biblical amillennialism.
There is a theological logic behind the parallel growth of good and evil in the present age. This theological logic, once understood, will tend to corroborate it. Simply stated, it is this. Biblically, both good and evil are capable of maturation individually, corporately, and historically. Evil matures as it rejects light and is progressively hardened. Good matures as it progressively recognizes and rejects evil. It is in the very interaction of light and darkness that this maturing process takes place. In a certain sense it is the very growth of good, the more brilliant shining of light, which is responsible for driving historical evil to its wicked consummation.