The Gospel of Luke shows us that Jesus began his public ministry in an instance of brilliant audacity. He went to church on the Sabbath like a good Jew, proclaimed the coming of the Lord’s favor according to the prophet Isaiah like a good preacher, and then, stunningly, in essence said, “This prophecy is about me” like a good instigator. The congregation was stirred, pleased. Who wouldn’t want to hear that the prophecy of Isaiah 61 was being fulfilled? They “all spoke well of him” and found his proclamation “gracious” (Luke 4:22).
But the tide turns. As so often is the case throughout the Gospels, the crowd attracted to Jesus becomes the crowd crying for his blood. What happened? Jesus finished his self-centered sermon and sat down among them. Maybe that’s what did it. He should have drawn a sword or issued an altar call. Instead he took a seat.
“Wait a minute. Isn’t this Joseph’s kid?” someone says.
Hearing their murmuring, Jesus adds a coda from the pews:
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:23–27)
What happens next is one of the quickest mood shifts in the history of mood shifts. The crowd that had been marveling, that had been struck with the impression of grace, “were filled with wrath” (v. 28). Instead of shaking his hand at the narthex door, they drive him out of it. Right out to a cliff, ready to throw him off.
Now, I have preached some bad sermons in my day (and have plenty of bad sermons yet to preach), but none of my sermons—as far as I know—ever drove anyone to want me dead, still less to physically attack me. But if we are reading the text correctly, we will see it wasn’t a bad sermon that stirred up wrath, but a good one. A very good one. It was the inauguration of the public ministry of the climactic good news itself, actually. But something in that addendum drove the point home in such a way that it drove its hearers to murderousness.
Jesus recalls the way God has preserved his people in the past by passing over the likely to minister in the nooks and crannies to the unlikely. In a nutshell, he is saying to his congregation, “You probably won’t accept me. So this message is not for you. It’s for widows and Syrians.” This is what we might call a public dis-invitation. They don’t teach this model in preaching classes at seminary. Some pastors work for years to perfect the art of the altar call. No one practices an altar refusal.
From the very beginning, Jesus insists that the kingdom is not for the healthy but the sick (Matt. 9:12). The prophecy itself makes this clear! Who is the gospel for, according to Luke 4 and Isaiah 61, but the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive, the mourner, and the faint? And if we may add in the preamble to Jesus’s epic kingdom announcement, the Beatitudes introducing the Sermon on the Mount, we include the meek, the hungry, the thirsty, the pure, the merciful, and the peacemaking.
Jesus is turning something upside down, and for that the angry crowd wanted to turn him upside down.
But really Jesus is turning something right side up. And when we read the parables he employed to teach the crowds throughout his ministry, we could do a lot worse than to see them as narrative portraits of rebellion against rebellion. The rightful king has landed, and he is leading an insurrection against the pretenders to his throne.
As the crowd in Nazareth has Jesus between rocks and a high place, he calmly passes through them and walks away. Jesus, like the stories he told, didn’t look like much, but the power of the eternal God was in there.
This story in Luke 4 illustrates something central about the illustrations we call the parables; namely, that they are not for everyone. Jesus’s message of the day of the Lord’s favor sounds wonderful... until he says it’s only for certain people. He says a similar thing about the parables. On the one hand, this is counterintuitive because we think of the parables as “sermon illustrations” of a sort, stories designed to make Jesus’s teaching plain and clear and easy to understand. But on the other hand, the way the parables actually function is entirely intuitive—which is to say, you either get them or you don’t. More on that in a bit, but for now, let’s pan out to see the larger context of Jesus’s ministry. The parables can’t be understood without it.
The Gospel of the Kingdom
When Jesus, and John the Baptist before him, went about preaching that the kingdom of God (or “heaven,” to use Matthew’s circumlocution) was “at hand,” they were clearly not saying the kingdom was coming thousands of years from then. They had no illustrated charts or infographics chronicling an eschatological timeline involving Israeli statehood, Russian tanks, American Blackhawk helicopters, Swiss supercomputers with ominous nicknames, and UPC tattoos. They said, “It’s here. It’s arriving now.” In Mark 1:14, Jesus seems as unequivocal as you can get: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
This makes sense when we read back in Luke 4 that Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Matthew summarizes the message of Jesus as “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23; 9:35).
The gospel of the kingdom is the announcement that Jesus the Messiah has arrived and has begun restoring God’s will on earth in and through himself. The fulcrum upon which this restoration turns is Christ’s substitutionary work in his sinless temptation, suffering, death on the cross, and resurrection from the grave.
Through Adam’s disobedience, sin entered the human race, affecting human dominion and the environment. Look at all that is cursed in Genesis 3:14–19. If we cannot tell from the world itself that the whole place is messed up and we along with it, the truth is plain enough throughout all the narratives that make up the Bible. From the fall of mankind onward, the Scriptures show us the breakdown between man and God, man and man, and man and the created world. When Adam and Eve, deceived by the Serpent and driven by their prideful lusts, ate the forbidden fruit in the hopes of greater peace, the result was the diminishing of it. So the Old Testament portrays a broken world groaning under the weight of the consequences of its sin. But it also portrays the loving faithfulness of a holy God who will not let sin and the Serpent have the last word. Every new day the patriarchs are breaking covenant, and every new day God is keeping it.
The promise of vindication may come as early as Genesis 3:15, which casts a long shadow to the foot of the Messiah in the New Testament, pierced in crucifixion yet victorious in the crucifixion over the Serpent. After the four hundred years of silence that began at the closed door at the end of Malachi, God’s people are ripe for redemption. Jesus’s preaching ministry from top to bottom proclaims this inevitability and the purpose and effects thereof. In his incarnation he is the second Adam (Rom. 5:12–14), redeeming the human experience from the first Adam’s failure. In his teaching he is Wisdom made manifest, fulfilling the Law and the Prophets and actually embodying what they foretold. In his miracles he is signaling the in-breaking of God’s restorative kingdom. In his suffering and crucifixion he willingly submits to the wrath of God owed to true sinners and thereby satisfies the wages of sin and conquers its power. In his bodily, glorified resurrection he conquers the power of death and becomes the firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:22–24) of the promises like those in Psalm 16:9–10 and Job 19:26. Everything rad is coming true.
But if the gospel Jesus and his disciples preached was the gospel of the kingdom, what is the kingdom, exactly?
Some may say that the kingdom is heaven, and in some sense it is, but too many who say this have in mind a celestial place of disembodied bliss, the place the Scriptures sometimes refer to as paradise. Matthew, as we have noted, speaks of “the kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God,” but what is in view here is not some extraterrestrial, spiritual locale. Matthew’s intended audience is Jewish, and because the name of God is unutterably sacred, he substitutes “heaven” where the other Gospels use “God.” Therefore, Jesus was not really preaching that the location of paradise is “at hand,” at least not in any material way. In any event, since God is omnipresent and the locale of paradise, whatever that locale is, is best thought of as the place where God is, heaven has in some sense always been at hand. For instance, heaven broke into earth in the temple religion of the Old Testament Israel. Heaven was “at hand” in the Most Holy Place. No, when Jesus preached the kingdom, he was not specifically talking about the place we often think of when we hear the word “heaven.”
Some will say that the kingdom of God/heaven is the church. There is an element of truth in this as well, but it still will not do. The church indeed cannot be prevailed against by the gates of hell (Matt. 16:18), which sounds a lot like the forecast of the kingdom in Daniel 2:44 (among other texts). But the kingdom and the church are distinguished in numerous places. In Luke 17:21, Jesus says that the kingdom is “in the midst of you,” which makes little sense if the kingdom is you. It could be that Jesus is saying the kingdom is in the midst of you plural, you together, as in the body of believers. But when we read the descriptions of Jesus and his disciples preaching the gospel of the kingdom and hear the commands to the church to preach the kingdom, it ought to be clear that Jesus is not preaching “the church,” still less that the church ought to be preaching itself. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” (2 Cor. 4:5).
The place heaven is not the kingdom, and the people called the church is not the kingdom, but the gospel of the kingdom of God tells us something about heaven and calls the church to do the telling. The kingdom is the manifest presence of God’s reign. George Eldon Ladd puts it like this:
When the word refers to God’s Kingdom, it always refers to His reign, His rule, His sovereignty, and not to the realm in which it is exercised. Psalm 103:19, “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” God’s kingdom, his malkuth, is His universal rule, His sovereignty over all the earth.... The Kingdom of God is His kingship, His rule, His authority. When this once is realized, we can go through the New Testament and find passage after passage where this meaning is evident, where the Kingdom is not a realm or a people but God’s reign. Jesus said that we must “receive the kingdom of God” as little children (Mark 10:15). What is received? The Church? Heaven? What is received is God’s rule. In order to enter the future realm of the Kingdom, one must submit himself in perfect trust to God’s rule here and now.1
Again, there is some sense in which those who receive the kingdom “receive” the church and heaven, but those are the benefits of embracing the yoke of God’s sovereignty, the implications of the gospel. What the gospel announces is that the God-man Jesus of Nazareth is doing the Messiah’s work of tearing the veil between heaven and earth through his sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection. He brings the manifest presence of God’s reign into fallen mankind and broken creation. And since he is bringing this reign in and through himself as king, he is preaching himself.
The parables, then, serve this end: they proclaim, in their unique way, the gospel of the kingdom of God and Jesus as king of that kingdom. The glory of Christ is to be had in the parables, provided the parables are had at all.
But while the glory of God has been brought to bear in the reign of Christ in and through Jesus’s ministry and atoning work, the effects of sin continue and the brokenness is still to be endured for the time being. Habakkuk 2:14 holds out a vision for the world’s end that has God’s glory covering the entire earth like the waters cover the sea—itself a parallel to the Revelation forecast of Jesus as the illuminating sun of the new heavens and the new earth. In the teachings of Paul and Peter, in the prophecies of John in Revelation, and in the teachings of Jesus himself, we understand that while God’s kingdom is “at hand,” it is also not fully here. We may say that Jesus Christ inaugurated the kingdom, but he has not yet consummated it. He will do this at his second coming. Therefore, a biblical understanding of the nature of the kingdom of God keeps in tension the reality that the kingdom is both “already” and “not yet.” As we will see, the parables capture this tension as well.
1. George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 20–21.
Taken from The Storytelling God: Seeing the Glory of Jesus in His Parables, by Jared C. Wilson. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
The prodigal son. The good Samaritan. The treasure hidden in a field. Most of us have heard Jesus’s parables before. Yet if these stories strike us as merely sweet, heartwarming, or sentimental, we can be sure we’ve misread them. In The Storytelling God, pastor Jared Wilson helps us to see how Jesus’s parables reveal profound spiritual truths about God, humanity, the world, and the future.