After the Parable of the Sower, the disciples ask Jesus why he is teaching in parables (Matthew 13:10-17). Until Matthew 13, Jesus has not used parables to teach the crowds.
The reason this type of teaching is a problem is that this is the first true parable that Jesus has used in the Gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount used figurative language (speck in your neighbor’s eye, salt and light, etc.), but now he is using a full blown, easy to hear but difficult to understand, parable!
The Secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven
Jesus explains why he now teaches in parables He says the “secrets of the kingdom” of heaven are given to the disciples (not the crowds) (13:11). “Secrets” is not esoteric knowledge. The Greek μυστήριον refers to something which must be revealed to be known. It is not the answer to a riddle which can be guessed from the clues, but more like “What have I got in my pocket?”
When something is described as a mystery, the idea of a revelation of something not previously revealed. A mystery is something that simply was not revealed before. It is not something that was there all along and you didn’t understand it. A mystery was something that was a secret, unknown, in the past, but is now being revealed to man.
What is the Mystery of the Kingdom?
The idea of kingdom is all over the Old Testament, so what is the secret part? Based on Jesus’s teaching in the parables of the kingdom, the unrevealed part of the Kingdom is the commitment required of the disciples of the Kingdom. “That there should be a coming of God’s kingdom in the way Jesus proclaimed, in a hidden secret form, working quietly among men, was utterly novel to Jesus’ contemporaries. The Old Testament gave no such promises.” (George Ladd, The Presence of the Future, 225).
For many Jews in the Second Temple period, what got you into the Kingdom was being Jewish. Now Jesus is teaching that not everybody who is Jewish is going to be included. In fact, many who were considered outsiders to the Pharisees (unclean, Samaritans, Gentiles, etc.) will be included, and surprisingly the Pharisees will be excluded.
Rather than attack the Romans, Jesus attacks Satan and destroys his kingdom, first through the miracles and preaching of his ministry, and then finally through this death and resurrection.The Jews only expected the physical kingdom, not the spiritual one that Jesus initiates. The Kingdom is present in Jesus’s ministry because he is the king and he is exercising his control and authority over all things, especially those things that were a part of Satan’s realm.
What is the current “state of the Kingdom”? Is the Church the Kingdom?
Some argue that we are living in the kingdom, as established by Christ during his ministry, especially in his death and resurrection. This is the typical reformation position and implies several things. First, the church replaces Israel as God’s people, and secondly, there is no future literal kingdom that follows the second coming. This position is difficult to support if one desires to read the Old Testament prophets seriously.
The “restoration from exile” theme appears in nearly every prophet, with dozens of texts that imply a future utopian like period when God will rule earth. From looking at the Pauline epistles, especially Romans 9-11, there is certainly an anticipation of a restoration of the nation of Israel in the future. It is very often observed that the sort of Kingdom teaching found in the gospels disappears in the Pauline letters.
The kingdom cannot be present today because the King is gone, and the authority of the King is not being exercised today (although the Catholic church would say that the Pope exercises the King’s power for him until he returns!) Later in his ministry, Jesus explains that the kingdom will go into a “dormant” stage, when he is away, and will return in the future. He does not say that during that time the Jew and Gentile will be saved in one body, that is a mystery saved for the Apostle Paul to reveal. The interval seen by Jesus was a brief time of testing of Israel prior to his glorious return with “all his saints” (Matt 24-25).