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The kingdom of heaven: God in action

Three parables teach us what God is like and how he treats us.

If you had one week to live, what would you discuss with your loved ones? Would you talk about the weather? Sports? Upcoming local elections? Probably not. With one week to live, those things don’t matter. You would talk about something important and worthwhile, something they need to know.

The gospel readings appointed for this month all take place near the time of Jesus’ death, two of them after Palm Sunday. It’s not hard to see what Jesus talked about when he only had a little time left on this earth. His topic of choice? The kingdom of heaven.

So, what exactly is the kingdom of heaven? Let’s start with what the kingdom of heaven is not. It’s not a location you can point to on a map. It’s not a group of people or the subjects of a king. It’s not like kingdoms or nations we know. After all, Jesus told us, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

The kingdom of heaven Jesus talks about is not a location, a people, or a reference to life in heaven. Instead, it’s an action, an activity. Simply put, the kingdom of heaven is God’s ruling activity in the hearts of his people.

That activity follows a simple pattern: Word, faith, fruits. God speaks to people through his Word. That Word creates saving faith in Jesus. Saving faith always leads to outward signs of faith, often called fruits of faith. This pattern is God’s ruling activity in the hearts of his people. That is the kingdom of heaven.

Why is the kingdom of heaven so important that Jesus discusses it at length in his final days? Because the kingdom of heaven tells us what God is like and how he treats us.

The kingdom and the vineyard

Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard owner who hired day laborers (Matthew 20:1-16). He hired workers at 6 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m., agreeing to pay each group of workers whatever is right. When quitting time came at 6 p.m., he paid all the workers a full day’s wage. Whether they worked for 1 hour or 12 hours, everyone was paid the same. Understandably, those who worked 12 hours weren’t happy. They thought they deserved more than the one-hour workers, even though they received a fair price for their work. The vineyard owner responded by saying, “I’m not being unfair to you. I’m being generous to them.”

When dealing with a sin most unreasonable, God responds with patience most incomprehensible. That’s what God is like.

You might hear that parable and cry, “Unfair! Those late-arriving workers don’t deserve what they got.” It does seem unfair. And that’s the point. God, represented by the vineyard owner, is unfair in how he deals with his people. He doesn’t give us what we deserve. Our sins deserve hell, and our wrongdoings warrant punishment. But God gives us what we don’t deserve—forgiveness of sins through Jesus and eternal life in heaven. Is God unfair? You bet he is! And that’s a good thing! We call God’s unfairness by many names: mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Full of mercy, grace, and forgiveness. That’s what God is like.

The kingdom and the tenants

Jesus told another parable (Matthew 21:33-43). A landowner planted a magnificent vineyard, rented it to some farmers (tenants), and went on a trip. At harvesttime, he sent some servants to collect the rent, which was a share of the vineyard’s crop. The tenants beat, stoned, and killed his servants. The owner sent more servants, but the tenants treated them the same. Finally, the owner sent his son. The evil tenants didn’t hesitate and killed him. Jesus then asks, “What will [the owner] do to those tenants?” The answer is undeniable: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end.”

You probably agree that those tenants deserve punishment, but didn’t they deserve to be punished much sooner? They defied the owner not once, not twice, but three times!

“Three strikes and you’re out” might work for baseball, but keep in mind that Jesus is telling this parable to the unbelieving Jewish leaders. They were the tenants in the parable, and God was the owner. Defying God once deserves punishment, yet God gave them three chances to fall in line. This description of the kingdom of heaven leaves us with one inescapable conclusion: God is extremely patient.

Look no further than your own life for proof of that. How many times have you committed the same sin over and over and over? That certainly deserves punishment. And yet, God still reaches out in his Word and calls you to repentance. What more could God do for sinners like us? He shows us mercy and grace beyond measure. He offers forgiveness before we even ask for it. He shows unfathomable patience as he calls us back to him time after time.

When dealing with a sin most unreasonable, God responds with patience most incomprehensible. That’s what God is like.

The kingdom and the wedding banquet

One more lesson teaches us about God. In this parable, a king held a wedding banquet for his son (Matthew 22:1-14). He invited his guests to come, but they refused. He invited them again, but they did not show. Finally, the king’s servants pulled people off the street to fill the wedding hall.

Later, when the king greeted his guests, he noticed a man not wear-ing appropriate wedding clothes. The king ordered his attendants, “Tie him up and throw him out into the darkness.” Harsh? Not really. All the guests from the street must have been given wedding clothes to wear, since they had none themselves. But this man refused the gift from the king, and so he didn’t belong.

The lesson of this parable is simple. To people who don’t belong at the wedding feast of God, our Lord offers a perfect garment and makes them welcome. He gives us the robe of Jesus’ righteousness. He supplies what we are lacking and fits us for heaven. He does that for the simplest of reasons. He loves us. He loves us all completely.

He loves eternally. That’s what God is like.

With a short time to live, Jesus focuses on the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because he’s really telling us what God is like. He tells us God is mercifully unfair and gives us what we don’t deserve. He tells us God is extremely patient and gives us countless chances to repent and turn to him. He tells us God is extraordinarily loving and fits us for heaven by covering us in Jesus’ righteousness.

A God that unfair, that patient, that loving—can it be true? Look ahead in the life of Jesus and see for yourself. See your Savior dying on the cross. See the living and dying proof of what God is like. See his merciful unfairness, his extreme patience, and his extraordinary love. See it and realize that’s how God treats you.

Author: Evan Chartrand
Volume 107, Number 10
Issue: October 2020

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