An Advancing Kingdom

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on August 25, 2019.

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:31–35).

Falsely accused and illegally tried, Jesus stood before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33). The question was likely not one of fact gathering but of conciliation to Jesus’ accusers. Jesus’ response, however, was a matter of fact: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36). Jesus’ response was a foreign concept to Pilate, as it is to many today; this earthly kingdom is not all there is. There is another, a heavenly one.

Little did Pilate know that King Jesus had “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). Therefore, Jesus, the humble servant, stood before Pilate, according to “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), the King of kings before a governor of few. Oblivious to the truth and assuming temporal authority, Pilate rhetorically and ignorantly asked Jesus, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (John 19:10). But Jesus, Truth personified, knew the truth that Pilate did not, responding, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11a).

According to the sovereign, redemptive plan of God, Jesus, the Son of Man, the Son of God, was crucified, dying not only a sinner’s death but suffering divine wrath for sin. For our sake, He who knew no sin was made to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21), crucified for the sake of the elect. Yet, death could not hold Him, and He who died resurrected on the third day conquering sin and death, a valiant victory of our King. He who came preaching the gospel of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 4:23) inaugurated its coming in His victorious resurrection and commissioned His Church with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). Such a great commission is in fact the mission of the Church and the means of advancing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Yet, despite such a regal commission, the advancement of Christ’s kingdom can be as unassuming as Jesus was before Pilate. Like a tiny mustard seed, which grows into a large plant, the kingdom of heaven advances. Like yeast mixed into dough, which leavens the whole loaf, the kingdom of heaven advances. It is not a kingdom to be built, because it already exists. It is not a kingdom to be protected, because it cannot be conquered. It is not a kingdom of earth but is the kingdom of heaven, a spiritual kingdom, a visible kingdom, a revealed kingdom.

A Spiritual Kingdom

To say that the kingdom of heaven advances may conjure up images of the Crusades, commissioned Christian jihads, so to speak. But the heavenly kingdom is a spiritual one, advanced not by the sword but the Spirit. How this happens is not overtly obvious. Just as the baker does not see the yeast permeate the dough or the gardener see the seed germinate, so the kingdom’s advancement is not initially perceived. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, the work of the Holy Spirit, like the wind which “blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes”, works spiritually advancing the kingdom of heaven one new birth at a time (John 3:8).

The kingdom of heaven is best understood spiritually as the reign of Christ over His redeemed people. The Christian has been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). This is not like moving from one country to another but is a spiritual transfer from the dominion of Satan to Christ, a supernatural yet imperceivable occurance. The result of course is perceivable in the life of the Christian and the church but, we should exercise caution in describing good deeds done in this life as advancing the kingdom.

While there are plenty of opportunities for Christians to show the love of Christ to our neighbors, the kingdom of heaven advances not through service but conversion. The kingdom of heaven advances not by social justice, political liberation, or economic equality. Rather, the kingdom advances by the life-giving ministry of the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

We witness the example of this in the book of Acts. The mustard seed of the kingdom of heaven, planted at Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, began to sprout immediately. With his sword sheathed and Spirit filled, the Apostle Peter preached anything but a seeker-sensitive sermon at Pentecost and that day through the spiritual work of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the gospel, three thousand souls were visibly added to the heavenly kingdom. Therefore, while the advancing kingdom of heaven is indeed spiritual it is manifested on earth through the visible church.

A Visible Kingdom

As the visible manifestation of the heavenly kingdom, if there are only two kinds of people, children of the devil and children of God (Matt. 13:37-43), then it is “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). Christ has chosen and commissioned the church alone to advance the kingdom of heaven. This does not imply that the church is perfect, however. Far from it! But our Savior is.

It is not upon the rock of a sinner that Christ builds His church but upon her confession of Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). It is not against a perfect church that “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Matt. 16:18) but an eternally forgiven one. It is not to a faultless church that the keys of the kingdom of heaven are given (Matt. 16:19) but a redeemed one. And, it is not a flawless church that binds or loosens on earth what is bound and loosened in heaven (Matt. 16:19) but it is a visible one, “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2).

There is, sadly, an Evangelical myth that the church is faltering, its mission is failing, and it’s up to us to fix it. Perhaps we could contemporize the worship music, elevate the emotions to distract the mind, reduce the preaching or eliminate it all together, because not everyone is an auditory learner and who needs to be lectured? Entertain to evangelize and monitor consumer demand. De-emphasize hell but emphasize inclusion, forget the gospel but remember social justice, and above all just be real, because authenticity is the new gospel. But history reveals that our “fixes” render a church that is no longer the church, and Americans are excelling at this.

But as the local churches are successfully rendered ineffective and irrelevant, know this: Christ’s Church is as healthy as it was on the day of Pentecost and is advancing the kingdom of heaven despite our modern remedies. The gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The keys to the kingdom firmly in grip, the gospel shall be preached, disciples made, the sacraments administered, and Christ’s commands obeyed, because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to our King. Although “the purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (WCF 25.5), Christ preserves His church by His Spirit enabling the means of the kingdom’s advancement.

And because such means are founded on His authority in heaven and on earth, the advancement of the kingdom of heaven shall not be thwarted. It cannot be thwarted; the One who commissioned has already conquered. It is the church that goes to our neighbor and the far reaches of planet earth, by the power of the Holy Spirit, preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, making disciples one born-again soul at a time, planting local churches that forgiven-sinners-called saints might assemble to worship our God in Spirit and in Truth and obey His commands, glorifying and enjoying Him forever.

Like a mustard seed planted, like leaven in the dough, the kingdom of heaven grows, spreads, advances. Through the preaching and teaching of the Word disciples are made and grown. The gospel never gets old. The Word of God does not return empty but accomplishes its purpose (Isa. 55:11). Just as disciples grow in their understanding of God’s Word so the reach of the church grows, not inwardly to stagnation but outwardly to the world. Not confined to national boundaries, the church of Christ transcends borders taking the gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 7:9), gathering an international assembly of praise (Ps. 67:4). Let the nations be glad; indeed! (Ps. 96:10).

Yet, to the world the church is nothing but foolish unless it contributes socially and civically, a sentimental distraction from work and leisure. Consider the absurdity of baptism. Who came up with such an impractical idea? Sprinkling water upon a child is almost as silly as upon an adult. There is no pragmatic benefit to baptism, and yet within the church we rejoice in the visible sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace with those who profess faith in Christ and their children (WCF 25.2).

Consider the absurdity of the Lord’s Supper. Sparse in serving and negligible in worldly substance, the Lord’s Supper is a waste of time and resources. You can’t even get a decent meal out of it. Who calls that a supper? There is no pragmatic benefit to the Lord’s Supper except for those who “inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death” through the visible elements of bread and wine (WCF 29.7).

Consider the absurdity of prayer. To whom does one pray if there is no one there? Is it nothing more a practice of reflection and meditation, a calming method to inner peace? (Studies show that people who pray live longer; so, there’s that.) There is no pragmatic benefit to prayer, yet for the true disciple it is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (WSC 98).

Consider the absurdity of the preached Word and the valuable time that you have wasted this morning. Unless it’s a good story or an inspirational speech for self-improvement, an exposition of the text of an ancient and archaic tome is irrelevant. Besides, who has an attention span long enough to listen, when you could be checking your phone obsessively?  There is no pragmatic benefit to the preached Word unless it be the declared exposition of the God-breathed Word (2 Tim. 3:16), the rule of faith and life (WCF 1.2).

The kingdom of heaven advances on earth through the visible church to whom Christ communicates the benefits of His mediation by the outward and ordinary means of grace, namely the Word, sacraments, and prayer (WLC 154). An absurdity to the world? Certainly. The ordinary means of advancing the kingdom? Undoubtedly. So, the kingdom of heaven advances spiritually and visibly, but this does not mean that it is seen or understood. Just as Jesus taught in parables, not to entertain but to hide that which requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit, so the kingdom advances, hidden yet revealed.

A Revealed Kingdom

God spoke through the Prophet Asaph, as recorded in the 78th psalm, “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us” (Ps. 78:2-3). Quoting from this psalm, the Apostle Matthew renders it differently: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” Similar but uniquely different, the parables of Jesus are different than the “dark sayings from of old” precisely because of who He is, the Son of God, the King of the kingdom. That which was dark from age to age is hidden from those without eyes to see or ears to hear but is revealed by the Spirit of Christ. That which was hidden is revealed in this: “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:4-6).

Therefore, Jesus’ parables hid the truth from those in the dark, but that which was hidden before the foundation of the world is revealed to those chosen before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). The kingdom of heaven is flourishing on earth since its inauguration but is disregarded by the world. It advances while sin, wickedness, and rebellion continue, but as the advancement continues there will be a conclusion, the close of the age (Matt. 13:39), and the consummation of the kingdom of heaven.

Like a tree grown from a mustard seed, like a fully leavened loaf of bread, the heavenly kingdom will be a kingdom on earth. That which is spiritual will also be physical and that which is hidden will also be revealed. With sin removed, the righteous in Christ will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:41-43). And the King of heaven will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no longer a reality; mourning, crying, and pain will be no more, for the former things will pass away (Rev. 21:4). Until then, the kingdom of heaven advances; spiritually through the ministry of the Holy Spirit; visibly through the church; and, revealed to us by the grace of God.

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim. 1:17).

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