What comes to mind when you think of the kingdom of heaven? Based on the visions of Old Testament prophets and descriptions found in Revelation, most of us think of heaven only as a physical place. Even Jesus said that in his father’s house, which most people assumed referred to heaven, there are many dwelling places where God’s children would abide.
But what if there’s more to the promise of the kingdom of heaven than it only being the place where we will reside after we pass from life on earth to the sweet by and by that awaits on the other side? I think that’s partly what Jesus is talking about in the parables that are found in Matthew 13.
When Jesus used the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” he meant something slightly different from what we would expect. He wasn’t talking about heaven just as our final destination. He used it as the term to ultimately describe what it meant for God to be present with people, especially in the here and now.
Jesus tells them that the kingdom of heaven is like a small mustard seed, a small amount of leaven (yeast), an unnamed treasure in an abandoned field and an expensive pearl.
Jesus’s listeners would not have viewed mustard seeds or leaven as good things. They both represented things that were nuisances that, as they grew, had corrupting qualities because they overcame and negatively affected their surroundings. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven was like a mustard seed that would grow into a weed that people would be disappointed in and would want to get rid of. And the kingdom of heaven was like a baking component that would more likely be thrown away than used.
He goes on to say that the kingdom of heaven is like a man who buys a field because he found a great treasure in it, but doesn’t tell the original owner of the field that he found the treasure there. That sounds like a shady business practice to me. And the kingdom of heaven is like a jeweler who, while out hunting for a bargain one day, comes across a pearl that’s worth more than any other precious stone that he already has. That jeweler then goes and sells everything he has, essentially bankrupting himself, to buy this one jewel.
In the parables of Matthew 13, Jesus uses questionable seeds and leaven to show that the kingdom of heaven, would start out small, like a mustard seed or pinch of leaven, but grow into something people could never imagine. He also uses the stories of questionable business practices to show that the people that would make up that kingdom hold tremendous value in God’s eyes. So much value that heaven would send its greatest gift, Jesus the Son, as a sacrifice to the world so we could be restored to right relationship with God.
If this is what the kingdom of heaven is about, God’s body as represented through the Church and its growth from a small band of believers to a world-influencing movement of faith, and God’s willingness to pay for the birth of the Church through the sacrifice of the Son, how can that change our views of heaven?
Heaven is no longer a place that’s off in the distance or way up there. Heaven is available to us right now through the sacrificial work of Christ. Heaven becomes recognizable to other people in the world through how we treat them and embody God’s love for all creation. We can all begin to see heaven, not just as a place, but as the people and relationships that represent our God and creator. That sounds like the kind of kingdom that I want to be a part of. I pray that you do, as well.
Terrell Carter is assistant professor and director of contextualized learning at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kan., and pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church in Webster Groves, Mo.