The Inclusive, Exclusive Kingdom

Luke 13:18-30

1 November 2009

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


It doesn't look very promising, does it?

There's this one man, from a perfectly ordinary background who travels around the country preaching. He's got a small, rag-tag bunch of followers. Not one of them is wealthy or educated or well-connected or influential. They don't seem to have anything in the way possessions or a place to meet.

At the same time, there's vigorous opposition from the massive, powerful religious establishment. They don't have any weapons, not visible ones, anyway. They're bound to be crushed: you can't argue with the synagogue, and you can't fight the Romans.

Yet this man is saying something extraordinary. He's claiming to have brought the kingdom of God. It doesn't look much like any sort of kingdom! Is he mad? Deluded? Wicked? What is going on?

That's the context into which Jesus is speaking in our passage this morning, and the theme of the "kingdom of God" is what ties our reading together. We begin with it in verses 18 and 20, and end with it in verses 28 and 29.

Now, the kingdom of God is simply the realm in which God is king. Of course, in one sense God is sovereign king over every particle in the universe. But the story of the Bible is that creation has rebelled against God, and mankind has rebelled against God. However, there are still parts of the world that recognise him as king, that bow to his sovereignty. These are the kingdom; the kingdom of God is the realm of creation that acknowledges him as king. It's what we pray for in the Lord's prayer: your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our reading Jesus tells us three key things about this kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is Extensive

First, from this unpromising start the kingdom of God will grow to be extensive.

Verse 18, Jesus asked, "What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches."ref

The mustard seed was known for its tiny size. In Matthew's account Jesus says, it is the smallest of all your seeds.ref But here the focus is more on the size of the resulting plant: not technically a tree, but a big plant, probably up to 12 feet tall. Large enough, in any case, for birds to find shelter in its branches.

Jesus' point is clear: from a tiny, almost invisible, beginning, the kingdom will grow. The kingdom will become extensive. In fact, from its negligible start in an obscure backwater of the Roman empire, its branches have grown to reach into all the world.

Today, something around a billion people worldwide would claim the name Christian. They are in every country in the world, of every language and colour, from every walk of life and background. The kingdom of God has truly become extensive.

The Kingdom of God is Effective

Jesus' second point is that, from this unpromising start the kingdom of God will grow to be effective.

Verse 20, Again he asked, "What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough."ref

Jesus asks us to imagine a large amount of flour: three measures, which is about 21kg, 14 of our bags. Anyway, enough to feed at least a hundred people. She takes a small, relatively insignificant amount of yeast and kneads it in.

It's such a small thing, you might wonder of it would matter if she left it out. But actually it makes all the difference. The yeast is living and active, and in the moisture and warmth it begins to ferment, gradually creating little bubbles throughout the dough. If it's well mixed in, it makes all the difference between having nice fluffy loaves and having solid inedible lumps of concrete.

The NIV translation lets us down a bit here. In the original the emphasis is not on the fact that the yeast is all through the dough, but that it leavens, or raises all the dough. The emphasis is on the effectiveness of the yeast: a little tiny bit of yeast, a seemingly insignificant amount, makes all the difference to the final outcome.

In the same way, the kingdom of God that Jesus was announcing might have seemed futile and irrelevant at the time, but it would work. The kingdom would be effective. It would make a difference in the world. And it has been effective, and it will continue to be effective. God is at work in lives and communities across the world: healing, changing, building, strengthening and saving. Often in small, almost invisible ways, but when all taken together, the kingdom of God is immensely effective.

So these two little pictures are designed to encourage us. From apparently humble, negligible, insignificant beginnings, the kingdom of God has become extensive, and the kingdom of God has become effective.

Do you sometimes feel that your faith has become marginalised in our society? Christianity is losing its influence over our laws, our government, our public life. Church attendance is fading rapidly. Bible knowledge is almost non-existent. Christmas and Easter are almost secular festivals now. (My daughter's school all drew posters to advertise the local Christmas celebrations, and it turned out that she was the only one to draw a nativity scene.) We are sometimes under attack for being prejudiced, intolerant, anti-intellectual. But more often we're simply ignored. How many of the people out there care in the slightest what we're doing in here?

Does all this discourage you? It discourages me! But Jesus would want us to be encouraged by his words: the kingdom of God often seems insignificant, but it will be extensive and effective.

If we are going to be part of God's kingdom work, we need to be out there. The phenomenal growth of the kingdom of God over the centuries has occurred because people have been bold in taking the message to new places (making it extensive) and putting it into practise (making it effective). In the same way, you and I need to be extending and effecting the kingdom.

So, we need to continue to spread the light and love of God in our secular workplaces, to talk at the school gate and with our neighbours, to write to our MPs, to pray for our world. Like the yeast worked into the whole batch of flour, we need to be thoroughly mixed and kneaded into the world, not hiding away in our little packets.

Is there anywhere round here you know where the gospel hasn't reached? Is there anywhere round here you know where the gospel needs to work? How is God kneading you into the world to make his kingdom more extensive and more effective?

You may feel as insignificant as a mustard seed, or as invisible as yeast mixed with flour. But that's OK. The promise of Jesus is that, because you bring the kingdom of God, it will grow, it will work.

The Kingdom of God is Exclusive

But the sad truth is, although the kingdom of God is extensive and effective, it will never encompass everybody. This is because the kingdom of God is also exclusive. This is what Jesus tells us in verses 22 to 30.

The Jews had always believed that the kingdom of God was exclusive: basically they were in it, and everybody else was out. That is what prompts the question in verse 23, Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?"ref The questioner is asking Jesus to confirm this view, that only the few, that is the Jews, would be saved. Perhaps he is puzzled by what Jesus says about the extensiveness of the kingdom.

Anyway, Jesus' response is that, yes the kingdom is exclusive, but not in the way they thought it was. It's definitely not a case of Jews in and everybody else out, but it is exclusive in two other ways.

First despite it's extensiveness, the kingdom has a narrow door.

Jesus says, verse 24, Make every effort to enter through the narrow doorref. Does this remind you of something he said in the Sermon on the Mount? Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.ref

Jesus is the door or gate to the kingdom. There is no other way in apart from repentance and faith in Jesus. That's why it is narrow, and the sad truth is that few find it. Many people try hard; many of the world's religions are very demanding indeed. No doubt there are earnest God seekers among them. But as long as they continue to reject Jesus, they have no hope. As Jesus said back in verse 5 of the chapter, unless you repent, you too will all perish.ref There is no other way in. The kingdom has a narrow door.

Second, despite its extensiveness, the kingdom has a time limit.

One day the door to the kingdom will be firmly closed, and after that no-one else will be able to enter it.

Verse 25, Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Sir, open the door for us.' But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.'ref

There will come a time when the door will be closed. Like an ocean liner setting sail, the gang-way will be lifted up and no-one else will be able to come on-board. We know from elsewhere that this time will be when Jesus comes again: by then it will be too late. The kingdom has a time limit.

So, coming back to the question Jesus was asked, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?"ref Yes, relatively few will be saved. But it's not the ones you think it will be.

The questioner thinks the few who are saved will be Israel, the Jewish nation, and to hell with the rest. But Jesus tells him not to be complacent. Look at verse 28, There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.ref

This is a warning to the Jews of his day. The Jewish patriarchs may be firmly in the kingdom, but the Jewish people cannot take for granted they will be there too. Instead, God will gather non-Jews to his kingdom from all over the world. Verse 29, People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.ref

We find that the kingdom of God is both more exclusive than they anticipated — many Jews would be shut out — and more inclusive than they anticipated — many non-Jews, Gentiles, would be welcomed in.

So, once again, Jesus turns the expected order of things on its head. The Jews were God's original chosen people: they believed that they were first. They despised the Gentiles. They believed that God would never get round to saving them. Against this, Jesus says verse 30, Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.ref Many Jews would be excluded, and many Gentiles included.

So the kingdom of God is both more exclusive and more inclusive than they expected.

What are we to make of this warning about the exclusiveness of the kingdom of God? The danger for us is like the danger for the Jews: assuming we're in when we aren't.

We need to remember that turning up to church does not in itself ensure we belong to the kingdom. Knowing our Bibles does not ensure we belong to the kingdom. Saying prayers and doing good deeds does not ensure we belong to the kingdom.

The grave danger is that it is possible to listen to Jesus' teaching and to enjoy fellowship with God's people and yet not be part of that people. Listen to what Jesus says in verses 25 to 27.

Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, 'Sir, open the door for us.' But he will answer, 'I don't know you or where you come from.' Then you will say, 'We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.' But he will reply, 'I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!'ref

It's an horrific scene. The excluded people are pleading: look, we listened to your teaching; we turned up at your meetings; what more do you want? But twice he says he doesn't know them, and the door is shut in their faces.

On that day, will Jesus say he knows you or not? You may be here, and it's nice to see you, but do you know Jesus? Is he your friend? Does he dwell in your heart? Do you delight to pray to him, to follow him, to cherish him? Have you entered by the narrow door?

If not, if you are in any doubt whether you know Jesus for yourself, then feel the urgency of this passage. Jesus says to you, verse 24, make every effort, strive, strain yourself, to enter through the narrow door. Make Jesus your Lord; confess your sins to him; make him your friend. Time is running out.


So we find that the kingdom of God is both more inclusive than we expect and more exclusive than we expect.

The kingdom is inclusive because it becomes extensive, like a tree with branches reaching out into all the world, not limited to one people or place or time. And the kingdom is inclusive because it is effective in all the world, thoroughly worked in, not kept apart for a privileged few.

Belonging to God's kingdom depends only on whether we know Jesus. That's why it is so inclusive: anyone can know him, from the least of us to the greatest. It doesn't depend on our age, intelligence, race, what we've done or what we haven't done, or even how good or bad we are. All that matters is that we make Jesus our Lord.

But that's also why it is so exclusive: in the end, because of their proud hearts, only relatively few will make him their Lord. Are we going to be among them?