Sermon preached on Luke 13:18-14:6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 06/05/2022 in Novato, CA.
Jesus’ ministry began by declaring the coming of the kingdom, that it was at hand. But then he spent times like this explaining what exactly that meant and what the coming of the kingdom would look like. His teachings here challenge simplistic assumptions and faulty expectations that people had about the nature of the coming kingdom. And of course, you can’t have a kingdom without a king. So, Jesus’ teachings here also challenge what people were expecting about the Messiah King that would be coming. Jesus, of course, is that long expected Messiah King. So then, we’ll consider our passage in the order seen in the text. First, we’ll consider the two related parables about the kingdom, verses 18-21. Then, second, we’ll consider how Jesus is asked if there will be few in the kingdom, verses 22-30. Then lastly, we’ll consider how Jesus is warned about Herod wanting to kill him, verses 31-35. These points all show how the actual coming of the kingdom will surprise common expectations.
We begin in our first point then to consider these two related parables. I love how in this section we see Jesus asking these questions in verses 18 and 20 and which he then answers. Verse 18, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” And again, in verse 20, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” Jesus then gives parables as the answer to these questions. These questions teach us what might seem obvious. Parables are similes. They are given as analogies to use familiar circumstances to teach us about something, typically something about the kingdom. That is what Jesus does here. The parable of the mustard seed and the parable about the leaven teach us about the kingdom.
In this instance, these two parables are clearly meant to be taken together. Sometimes we see Jesus give a string of different parables that each give us a different point of teaching. But sometimes like here he gives two parables that both generally make the same point. In this case, these two parables teach that the kingdom will be something that starts off small but over time slowly grows over time into its fullness. Therefore, when Jesus previously announced the imminent coming of the kingdom, it didn’t mean that the kingdom would imminently come right away in its full size and glory. It is these two parables that tells us to expect rather a gradual growth and expansion of the kingdom. In fact, like a tiny mustard seed, or like leaven, its beginnings may look humble, small, and trivial. But it will over time grow and expand into its final glory.
So then, thinking specifically about the first parable, we remember how small a mustard seed is in comparison to the final mature tree. It can grow to be 10 or 15 feet. Here’s where we shouldn’t overthink analogies. There are certainly seeds for different kinds of plants that will grow to far bigger trees, such as redwoods. That misses the point. Jesus is simply using an analogy that teaches that the kingdom’s coming does not bring immediate worldwide visibility. It will need to grow and expand over time, like how a mustard seed turns into a mustard tree. In this parable, Jesus then emphasizes how the tree will grow into something useful for the birds to nest in. As a seed, it couldn’t do that. But as a mature tree it can and does. Some commentators point out how later in this passage Jesus mentions the Gentiles from all over the world coming into the kingdom and sees that illustrated even here with the birds. When the kingdom grows to its full height, it will become a home and refuge for its citizens.
Thinking then about the second parable, we remember that it is proverbial that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, Galatians 5:9. The amount of leaven needed to be added is very small compared to the amount of flour that you are adding it to. In this case, it says that they were adding it to three measures, which was probably in modern terms almost a bushel, so probably somewhere around 50 pounds or so of flour. So, quite a big amount of flour, and yet just a little leaven would turn work its action to leaven it all. So, here again, something small, has a big effect. And here again, that growth and change takes time. What is also an interesting nuance here with the leaven is that the change takes place on the inside. You notice the change outwardly, but it is an internal effect. Taken together with the previous parable, and we appreciate that the growth of the kingdom has both and internal and external aspect to it.
These two parables then would have challenged any who assumed that as soon as the Messiah came that he would immediately or in short order usher in the fullness of the kingdom. As we step back and take a look at things today, we realize that Jesus’ parables here were quite fitting. When Jesus came at his first coming, there really was a real beginning of the coming of the kingdom. When Jesus first came, it was like that mustard seed was planted. It was like the leaven was placed in that flour. Since then, the kingdom has been growing and maturing into what it will ultimately be. But it’s not there yet. Jesus’ parables challenge any incorrect ideas that the fulness of the kingdom would come suddenly and all at once. Instead, he teaches the gradual coming of it into maturity. And we get to be a part of that growth today as citizens here and now of this kingdom.
As a side note, I think it is important to clarify that these parables do not mean that the growth and expansion of Christ’s kingdom will be seen in terms of the visible church on earth. What I mean is that while the growth of those being saved into Christ’s kingdom is cumulative over time, the actual number of true Christians alive on earth and thus part of the visible church has and will vary. Sometimes the visible church on earth has been very visible with lots of members. Sometimes it has dwindled and its light grown dim. But the gates of hades will not prevail against it. But that doesn’t mean these parables aren’t accurate. Let me give you an analogy with COVID case counts: cumulative versus current. The cumulative number doesn’t ever decrease. It can increase in number, but won’t decrease in number. But the current case count, of how many people who currently have COVID, can fluctuate wildly. So then, the visible church on earth might have its size fluctuate up and down over time in history. But the number of the elect who are being called and converted unto Christ is indeed growing and never decreasing.
Let us now turn in our second point to consider this question they ask Jesus in verse 23. They ask him if those who are saved will be few in number. In light of these parables, that is a fitting question at this point. It also reveals another surprising aspect about the coming of the kingdom. Think of this in light of the previous parables. If the kingdom starts out small and only over time grows bigger and bigger, what does that mean for the current generation? You might imagine people wondering if that means that only a few will be saved when the kingdom is small and just getting started. So, Jesus is asked about whether only a few will be saved or not.
In classic Jesus’ teaching fashion, he doesn’t give them a straightforward answer. He responds with related information that does infer certain answers to this question. So, he begins to answer by saying in verse 24, to “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” The fact that the door is narrow, begins to suggest that only a few will enter. In fact, the verse goes on to say that many will seek to enter, but won’t be able to. But you see the focus in this response. While it implies an answer to the original question, that only a few will be saved, it redirects the question to get people to think about whether they themselves will be saved. This call to “strive” is a call to really seek out this way to enter the kingdom because it is in fact only a narrow way. Therefore, we are called to make every effort to seek to be a part of his kingdom. Indeed, the way to salvation is narrow, but the good news is that the narrow way is to receive it as a gift through faith in Jesus Christ. We must acknowledge our sin and humble ourselves to turn to Christ and be saved by his grace. There are many other ways people try to go to save themselves. But there is just this one way. This is what must be of utmost importance to us. Seek to be saved in Christ Jesus, through faith in him, for he is the only way of salvation.
This is important, because Jesus says there will come a time when the door will be shut to that narrow way. That speaks of the final day of judgment. Then, many will try to get in then so to speak, but it will be too late. I know some people hold out a vain hope that after you die God will give you one last chance to find salvation in him. But that is not what the Bible teaches. It teaches that now is the day to be saved. Now is the day to repent of your sins and turn in faith to Jesus Christ to be saved. There is coming a day when it will be too late; that this offer of grace will no longer be available. That you will be turned away, being told, “Depart from me, I never knew you!” You will end up in weeping and gnashing of teeth per verse 28 when you end up excluded from the kingdom and instead receiving the hell of God’s wrath. Again, this is what will happen at the final day of judgment.
I would note this point about the final day of judgment is a helpful contrast to the previous parables. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven speak of the slow start and gradual growth of the kingdom compared to others may have thought it was going to be something sudden. But here Jesus’ teaching reminds that one day there will in fact be something sudden about the coming of the kingdom. The time for gathering people into the kingdom will suddenly come to a swift end. It will be dramatic and permanent. So, while the kingdom is slowly growing, don’t let that fool you into delaying becoming a part of this kingdom.
So then, as Jesus addresses this question on if there will be few or not in the kingdom, he goes on to mention some of the people who will be there in the kingdom. Yes, of course, there will the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yes, there will be the prophets. Everyone expects those people to be in there, and that expectation is not wrong. But the fact that so many Jews here are being described as being cast out, is meant to surprise. But then notice that in verse 29 it says that there will be many people from all over, the north, south, east, and west, that are received into the kingdom. In other words, there will be many of the Gentiles that are saved and become a part of Christ’s kingdom.
Do you see how this also is a shocking and surprising truth Jesus told them here about the coming of the kingdom. Many Israelites will end up excluded while many Gentiles will end up included. And so, the question here to Jesus was if there would only be few who are saved. Jesus doesn’t give them a direct answer. But he is speaking to the question. Will there be few saved? He basically says that among Israel there will be less than one might expect, but among the nations, there will be more than one might expect.
This challenges what many Jews at that time would have assumed about the coming of the kingdom. Jesus reinforces this surprise when he says in verse 40, “Behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The word “behold” there expresses the surprise. And the idea that first will be last, etc., expresses the unexpected twist. So many that would have thought themselves saved, will find they are not, and so many that people would not have expected to be saved, will be. Realize that he is saying this to people who generally went to church every week and did a lot of outward acts of religion. Notice that what precedes and follows this passage is an almost identical lesson about Sabbath keeping and how the Pharisees were really trying to keep it, even to a fault. Jesus is saying to people who looked very religious and thought themselves vary religious that the way is narrow into eternal life. They need to really strive to make sure they are truly saved. I love the balance here. You don’t want to fall into the trap of being a legalist Pharisee who is just ultimately a hypocrite. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t really strive to repent of your sins and look in faith to live as a disciple of Christ.
Now in our last point, I want us to think about this warning given to Jesus starting in verse 31 that Herod wants to kill him. Remember that Herod’s jurisdiction covered Galilee and also the region of Perea that Jesus was likely in at this point. Remember, where Jesus is at during this section of Luke. We were reminded of it back in verse 22 that Jesus is continuing to head his way toward Jerusalem. Remember, we are in that period of ministry recorded by Luke where he is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem, and doing a lot of ministry along the way, including in the region known as Perea, which was east of Judea on the other side of the Jordan River. So then, some Pharisees come to warn Jesus about Herod wanting to kill him.
We might note that it is quite likely that the Pharisees weren’t really concerned about Jesus’ wellbeing. So far, they have been generally painted as opponents of Jesus. The fact that Jesus thinks he can send a message back to Herod through them suggests they might as just as well have been in league with Herod. But apparently Herod wants Jesus out of his region. Very likely these Pharisees thought the same thing. It’s been suggested that they hoped Jesus would flee to Jerusalem which would have been outside of Herod’s jurisdiction, but also where strong Jewish support would have been as that is where the top Jewish ruling council of the Sanhedrin was located.
But notice Jesus’ response. He acknowledges here that he is in fact ultimately going to be going to Jerusalem. But it is not because of Herod’s threat. No, it is part of his plan. Nor will it be according to Herod’s timeline. That’s what Jesus is getting at when he says what his plans are using the language of today, tomorrow, and the third day. Basically, he’s saying he’s going to keep to his own schedule. Right now, he is busy with his ministry which includes not only his teaching, but casting out unclean spirits and miraculously healing people.
Notice that Jesus’ response here shows he is not concerned about the death threat. In fact, Jesus affirms that he will be killed – just not directly by Herod. Instead, he will do what it seems Herod wants – to flee his region. Yet, Jesus won’t leave Herod’s territory in order to escape death. Jesus will leave his territory in order to find death. So, again, Jesus predicts his upcoming death on the cross. And here he even prophesies that it will happen in Jerusalem. And so here Jesus gives yet more shocking and surprising information about the coming of the kingdom. He says that the king must first die. That he must be rejected by his own and put to death. Though Jesus makes the point that it shouldn’t be too surprising at all, given Jerusalem’s track record. It has repeatedly through the centuries rejected and persecuted the prophets God has sent them. Jesus will follow the pattern again when they put him to death.
Jesus laments over Jerusalem. We see his heart and grief for this wayward people. I think of how Paul likewise in Romans 9 mourns over so many Jews that rejected their king in Jesus. Jesus declares God’s judgment upon them when he says they are forsaken. Just to further drive this all home, he says there in the final verse that they won’t see him again until they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” There is great irony there, as that refers to his triumphal entry when he does finally arrive in Jerusalem. There, when the people of Jerusalem say that of him, it is to acknowledge him as Messiah. Yet just a few days later Jerusalem would reject him and put him to death. So, Jesus references here their apparent reception of him at Jerusalem that only stands as a witness against them when they shortly thereafter are true to form and reject him.
Saints of God, today we’ve spoken about all these surprising aspects about the coming of the kingdom. And yet these wouldn’t have been a total surprise for anyone who had properly understood the Scriptures that foretold these things. But it does remind us that our plans are not God’s plans.
Let us then today recheck our assumptions and expectations. Today, Jesus challenged their expectations about the nature of the kingdom and how it would come. May this challenge you too. May you examine how you have been thinking about the nature of the kingdom and its current growth right here and now and adjust your thinking where needed. And today, we’ve seen Jesus challenge those who thought they were a part of Christ’s kingdom and were not. May this challenge you and cause you to do some self-examination. Are you striving to enter into his kingdom via this narrow door? We’ve seen today that means to be striving to be a part of his kingdom through repenting of our sins and putting our faith in Jesus.
So then, as Christ’s disciples we’ve seen today that we are now in this time period where the kingdom is growing and advancing. Let us see how God calls us to participate in that advance of the kingdom. Let us be a part of the kingdoms’ growth and the leavening action here and now and unto glory.
Copyright © 2022 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.