The basic message from Jesus is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14).
This message has two parts. The first part is what Jesus called the gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” The second part is the response to the gospel that Jesus called for people to make: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
What did Jesus mean by the term “kingdom of God?” We find clues to the meaning of this term in Jesus’ parables (stories). Almost two-thirds of Jesus parables refer to the kingdom of God. (Note: the writers of the books of Mark and Luke use the term “kingdom of God” and the writer of the book of Matthew uses the term “kingdom of heaven.” Both terms refer to the same thing.)
One of Jesus’ parables is known as the parable of the “sower.” We should examine this parable first because Jesus considered this parable the key to understanding all of his other parables. When the disciples of Jesus asked him to explain the meaning of the parable of the sower, Jesus replied, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all of the parables?” (Mark 4:13).
The parable of the sower is given by the writers of Matthew (chapter 13), Mark (chapter 4), and Luke (chapter 8).
The following is the parable according to the book of Matthew:
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:3-9).
When the disciples asked Jesus to explain the parable, Jesus said:
“Hear then the (meaning of the) parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand (accept) it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in his heart; this is what is sown along the path.
“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for awhile, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.
“As for what is sown among the thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and delight in riches choke the word and it proves unfruitful.
“As for what was sown on good soil, this is he who hears the word and understands it; he indeed bears fruit, and yields, in one case hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:18-23).”
The “seed” that is sown is called the “word of the kingdom” (Matthew), or the “word” (Mark), or the “word of God” (Luke). Jesus uses the term “word of God” to refer to the “commandment of God” (Mark 7:9, 7:13) or God’s laws. According to the parable of the sower, the “word of God” is sown “in the heart.” God’s laws (commandments) are known intuitively, or naturally, by everyone.
Jesus described himself as “a man who told you the truth which I heard from God” (John 8:40) but Jesus did not make any exclusive claim to “hearing” God’s truth. Jesus said, “It is written in the (Hebrew) prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God’(Isaiah 54:13). Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45).
According to Jesus, all people are taught the truth by God, and those who “hear” (pay attention to) and “learn from” (accept) the truth are attracted to the teachings of Jesus because “my (Jesus’) teaching is not mine, but His who sent me; if any man’s will is to do His will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God, or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:16-17). “For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has Himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak” (John 12:49).
Jesus taught that God’s two basic commandments can be summarized as “you shall love God” and “you shall love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:37-39). Jesus refers to God’s commandments as the “word” of God (Mark 7:9; 7:13). Although the parable of the sower teaches that the “word of the kingdom” or the “word of God” is known by everyone, each person must choose whether or not to accept this truth and put it into practice in one’s own life.
In the parable, Jesus gives four examples of how individuals respond to the “word of God” which is “sown in the heart.”
Some individuals reject God’s law of love completely, like a hard path that will not allow seeds to take root. They let the temptation to do evil devour the truth, like birds devour seeds on the hard ground. In Jesus’ day, the temptation to do evil was personified as the “evil one” or the “tempter.” (This personification should not be taken literally but the temptation to do evil is real.)
Other individuals initally accept God’s law of love in a superficial way, like the thin, rocky soil receives the seed, but when it becomes difficult to follow the way of love, they abandon it. They let the truth wither away.
Other individuals let God’s law of love get entangled and choked out by materialistic concerns.
However, some individuals accept God’s law of love and produce the fruits of love — good deeds — in various amounts. In the parable of the sower, the “word of the kingdom” is sown “in the heart” but only “he (she) who hears and understands (accepts) it; he (she) indeed bears fruit” (Matthew 13:23).
In addition to the parable of the sower, Jesus gave a number of other parables about the “kingdom of God.”
Here is the parable of the hidden treasure:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field” (Matthew 13:44).
According to the parable of the hidden treasure, the kingdom of God is valuable ( “like a treasure”). It is contained within something (“it is hidden in a field”). It can be discovered (“a man found it”). And finally, the kingdom of God can be acquired at some cost (the man “goes and sells all that he has and buys the field” to possess the treasure).
Here is the parable of the pearl:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45).
According to the parable of the pearl, the kingdom of God is valuable, “like a pearl of great value” and it can be acquired at some cost, the merchant “sold all that he had and bought it.” The parable of the pearl adds the point that the kingdom of God can be found by searching, the “merchant was in search.”
Next is the parable of the mustard seed. It is found in Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; and Luke 13:18-19. The parable in Mark is as follows:
“And he (Jesus) said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’.”
From the parable of the mustard seed, we learn that the kingdom of God is sown or planted somewhere. It is small in the beginning but it grows, and serves a useful purpose.
Next is the parable of the leaven:
“And again he (Jesus) said, ‘To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till it was all leavened’ (Luke 13:20-21).”
Leaven, of course, is a substance that is put into dough causing fermentation to make the dough rise when baking bread. The parable of the leaven suggests that the kingdom of God is intentionally put into something and it has a permeating influence on whatever it is in.
To Jesus, the “kingdom of God” meant the rule of God on earth. Jesus believed that God’s kingdom would come as God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Jesus taught that it is God’s will, or “commandment,” for us to love God and our “neighbor.” Through his parables, Jesus taught that God’s laws are known to everyone. They are planted like a seed “in the heart.”
The kingdom of God comes, in the beginning, through an individual’s search and discovery of God’s natural laws within himself or herself. The recognition and acceptance of God’s natural laws have an inner influence that permeates the individual’s life.
Although the kingdom of God begins within the individual, it does not end there. The kingdom of God has an “outward” aspect to it. The acceptance of God’s way of love becomes evident in the deeds of the individual. In the parable of the sower, the seeds “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” In the parable of the mustard seed, the plant “grows up and puts forth branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
The kingdom of God is the reign of God’s law of love in individuals and in human society.
Jesus said that the kingdom of God is “at hand.” What did Jesus mean by the term “at hand?” We find the answer to this in a conversation that Jesus had with a Jewish scribe. “The scribe said to Jesus, ‘You are right, teacher, you have truly said that He (God) is one, and there is no other (God) but Him; and to love Him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than burnt offerings and sacrifices.’ And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he (Jesus) said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.'” (Mark 12:32-34).
It is clear that the scribe was “not far from the kingdom of God” because he recognized that God’s basic laws for humankind are “love for God” and “love for neighbor.” The discovery, or recognition, of God’s natural laws is the first step toward the reign of God’s laws in an individual’s life.
Of course, the kingdom of God, or the reign of God’s laws, becomes a reality in a person’s life only when a person chooses to live by these laws. The scribe was “not far” from the kingdom of God because the scribe recognized God’s laws. The next step would be for the scribe to “enter” the kingdom of God by obeying these laws.
When Jesus said that the kingdom of God is “at hand,” he meant that we are “not far” from the kingdom when we recognize God’s laws of love for God and love for neighbor. And the kingdom of God becomes a reality for us when we choose to follow God’s laws as we live each day. The kingdom of God is truly “at hand” for anyone to discover.