Matthew is the only gospel writer who uses the term “Kingdom of Heaven.” This is probably because Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, for whom heaven is a euphemism for God. It is a way of speaking indirectly, and thus deferentially and respectfully.
Matthew informs us that “Kingdom of Heaven” means the same thing as “Kingdom of God”:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
—Matthew 19:23-24, NIV
Let’s gaze at the Kingdom of Heaven as we would gaze at a diamond, turning it over in our hands, to see how the light plays off each facet.
[Jesus] told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”
—Matthew 13:31-32, NIV
Even though you don’t think your Christian obedience and your Christian witness is very significant, it will yield huge results.
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
—Matthew 13:33, NIV
The gospel transforms you, beginning with you faith, gradually expresses itself through everything you do, and culminates in full devotion and transformation.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
—Matthew 13:44, NIV
When you buy a field, it is over 99% dirt. Churches are like that. Sometimes they have politics and hypocrites, and sometimes the pastor isn’t so great; but it is still a good investment to “buy” the church to get the heavenly treasure within it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
—Matthew 13:45-46, NIV
It makes sense to sell everything you have to put your money into a sure thing. The hard part is determining if it is a sure thing. There are lots of stories of people who bet on sure things and lost. But this is the sure thing par excellence; there can be no loss. It makes sense to throw everything you have into it; it makes no sense not to do so.
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
—Matthew 13:47-50, NIV
Any discussion in Scripture about the future is a prophecy, which means it is a warning, not a train schedule. As Jonah experienced, people can repent and escape danger. So for all we know, it may turn out in the end that the angels have no bad fish to toss out.
This parable has a different message. The angels have to pick the good ones out from the bad ones, which means they are all mixed together, and the angels take care to find the good ones. You don’t need to worry about being the dolphin in the tuna net. You don’t have to live in a gated Christian community to be sure of your salvation, you can get down and dirty with your service, like Mother Teresa in Calcutta; God will find you wherever you are and reward you.
“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.
“Yes,” they replied.
He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
—Matthew 13:51-52, NIV
If we affirm that God is incarnate in Jesus Christ in the first century, we cannot despise anything just because it is old. And if we affirm that the Holy Spirit is active in the world today, we cannot despise anything just because it is new. We need not be slaves of the past or swept away with every spiritual fad; our criterion is not whether something is old or new, but whether it is faithful to the gospel. So our worship and our spirituality must contain things old and new. It must be a contemporary expression of ancient truths and practices.