VII. the Parables Exemplified in the Early Church
"To Him shall prayer unceasing
And daily vows ascend;
His Kingdom still increasing,
A Kingdom without end."
We have seen that our Lord described in His Parables the general character and nature of "The Kingdom of Heaven." Consequently, if the Church established by the Apostles under the guidance of the Holy Ghost is "The Kingdom of Heaven," it will necessarily be found to agree with the description thus given. Let us therefore now consider how far the history of the Church, in the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, agrees with the picture of "The Kingdom of Heaven" drawn beforehand by the King.
The Parable of the Sower admits of frequent illustration if we understand the seed to refer, in a general sense, to the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, whether it is preached to men outside the Kingdom or to those within it. The birds are continually carrying off the seed from thoughtless and hardened hearers; opposition and persecution and temptation still scorch up the seed in others; and worldliness and love of money still choke that which was beginning to grow well in many hearts. And we can see all these characters, in those who were first called to be members of the Church of Christ. The Jews, generally, in all places visited by S. Paul, from whom he was forced to turn away in despair of producing any effect (Acts xiii. 46), were like the wayside on which the seed fell only to be devoured. Such also was Felix, who "trembled" as he heard S. Paul reasoning "of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come," but went away and "left Paul bound" (Acts xxiv. 25-27); and Agrippa "almost persuaded to be a Christian" (Acts xxvi. 28). Of hearers in whom the seed is scorched up by the fire of temptation or persecution, we may see instances in Ananias and Sapphira, who fell under the temptation to appear zealous while being really worldly (Acts v. 3); or in John Mark, who was disheartened at the seeming difficulties before him, and turned back from Pamphylia (Acts xiii. 13), leaving S. Paul and S. Barnabas to go on without him. Of those in whom the seed is choked by the weeds of worldliness and love of money, there were many examples. Simon Magus, who after renouncing his sorcery and being baptised, thought that the power of the Holy Ghost might "be purchased with money" (Acts viii. 19, 20); Demas who "loved this present world" so much that he abandoned S. Paul in the hour of danger (2 Tim. iv. 10); and the many of whom S. Paul spoke with tears, "whose God is their belly, whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things" (Phil. iii. 19). And, lastly, of those in whom the seed bears fruit an hundredfold, it seems almost invidious to select examples. But such were the martyr Stephen, who prayed for his murderers (Acts vii. 60); Tabitha, "full of good works and almsdeeds" (Acts ix. 36); Cornelius, upon whom the Holy Ghost fell even before he was baptized (Acts x. 46); S. Luke, "the beloved physician" (Col. iv. 14), "whose praise is in the Gospel" (2 Cor. viii. 18).
The Parable of "The Tares," which described the sad outward appearance of "The Kingdom of Heaven," was unhappily at once exemplified in the early Church. Among the first members of the Church of Christ were found Ananias and Sapphira "to lie to the Holy Ghost" (Acts v. 3); and Simon Magus to bring upon himself the reprimand "your money perish with you" (Acts viii. 20). And, as years passed on, we find S. Paul writing to the Church of God at Corinth to reprimand its members of schism (1 Cor. i. 12); of being "carnal" and encouraging "envying and strife and divisions" (1 Cor. iii. 3); of "fornication," and that not merely in a single instance (1 Cor. v, vi); of tampering with idolatrous feastings (1 Cor. viii); of disorders in their religious assemblies, and especially of gross profanity in the celebration of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. xi); of strange misuse of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. xii, xiv); and of denying the great doctrine of the Resurrection (1 Cor. xv. 12). All of these charges show how strongly the tares began at once to grow among the wheat. And, in later years, the same Apostle warns the Elders of Ephesus that "grievous wolves" will enter in among them "not sparing the flock" (Acts xx. 29); referring probably to the Gnostic heresies against which the First Epistle of S. John is mainly directed.
Let us pass on to happier examples. The Parable of "The Mustard Seed," describing the outward spread of "The Kingdom of Heaven," is illustrated by almost every chapter of the Acts. Beginning with the little seed of an hundred and twenty members, the Church increased at once to thousands on the Day of Pentecost (Acts ii. 41, 47). Then, as the increasing numbers required that Deacons should be ordained to assist the Apostles, we read that "the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly, and a great company of the Priests," recognising, we may suppose, the fulfilment of the sacrificial types in the person and work of the Lord Jesus, "became obedient to the Faith" (Acts vi. 7). Then by the Providence of God this multitude of the believers was scattered through the persecution which arose about Stephen, and they "went everywhere preaching the word" (Acts viii. 4). So that next "Samaria received the word of God" (Acts viii. 14). Then the good news spread to Damascus, and to Antioch in Syria (Acts ix, xi. 19).
Such was the growth of the Church in the first ten or twelve years. Then Antioch became a fresh starting-point, and within the next twenty years, under the efforts of S. Paul and S. Barnabas and others, the glad tidings spread from Antioch to Cyprus, and from Cyprus to the coasts of Asia Minor (Acts xiii, xiv). Then after extending through many provinces of Asia, the Gospel tree spread forth its branches to Macedonia (Acts xvi. 11); and from Macedonia to the ancient cities of Greece (Acts xvii, xviii); and from Greece to Italy and Rome, the capital of the world. With this Parable of "The Mustard Seed," we may connect that of "The Seed growing secretly" (S. Mark iv. 26, 27), and we may think how little the rulers of the old world imagined, that there was a power at work among them, which would change the moral character of the whole Empire. The Church of Christ was extending her influence secretly and unnoticed, or noticed only to be despised by the ruling classes. Yet within three hundred years the faith of Christ became the professed religion of the Roman Empire.
But the spread of the Church of Christ was not merely an outward extension in the number of professed members. The Parable of "The Leaven" had set plainly the power which "The Kingdom of Heaven" would exercise over the hearts of men. And of this also we may find examples in almost every chapter of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. See the leaven working in the first members of the Church, who lived together in such love and unity that "they had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need" (Acts ii. 44, iv. 32). Think of the devoted lives led by the Apostles, "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame" (Acts v. 41) for their Lord's sake. Other instances may be seen in Stephen praying for his murderers (Acts vii. 60); in the character of Barnabas, "a good man full of the Holy Ghost and of faith" (Acts xi. 24); in the Elders, who were ordained by S. Paul in the different cities which he visited, and who handed on the knowledge they had gained to their more ignorant fellow-countrymen, "feeding the Church of God" (Acts xiv. 23, xx. 28); in the case of Aquila and Priscilla instructing Apollos (Acts xviii. 26); in the Ephesian converts burning their books (Acts xix. 19); in Lydia taking care of S. Paul at Philippi (Acts xvi. 15); and in the love shown to him afterwards by the Philippians in general, his "dearly beloved and longed for," his "joy and crown" (Phil. i. 3-8, iv. 1-10). Other signs of the leaven working in the hearts of the faithful may be gathered from a variety of expressions in the different Epistles, pointing to the changed lives of the members of the Church (1 Cor. vi. 11); while the Apostles were continually urging their converts to let the leaven work more freely upon them, and become more apparent in the holiness of their lives, in the putting off "the old man," and in the putting on "the new man" (Ephes. iv. 22, 24).
The Parables of "The Treasure" and "The Pearl," which set plainly the priceless value of salvation, and the different ways in which it becomes known to men, may be illustrated by several instances in the early history of the Church. One finds the truth, as it were, by chance, like some hidden treasure. Such was the man of Ethiopia finding, as he crossed the desert, an apparently chance traveller able to expound to him the prophecies of Messiah (Acts viii. 27); and such was the jailor at Philippi, stopped in the act of committing suicide to be baptized by his prisoners (Acts xvi. 27, 30). Another finds "The Pearl" worth all the world besides, only after long search. Such was S. Paul, who sought for it in intense zeal for God, and found it in the Voice which said, "Why persecute you Me?" (Gal. i. 14, Acts ix. 4). And such was Cornelius, whose prayers and alms called down the blessing from above which brought to him the knowledge of His Saviour (Acts x. 30-48). While the value which men set upon the discovery was shown by the joy with which all things were given up for the sake of Christ, when men "did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God and having favour with all the people" (Acts ii. 46, 47); when they rejoiced "that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His Name" (Acts v. 41); when being expelled with violence from one city they went on to the next, and, instead of complaints, "the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Ghost" (Acts xiii. 50-52); and when one could say, who had given up all his earthly prospects and high position among his fellows, "what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ" (Phil. iii. 7, 8).
The last Parable of the series, "The Draw-net," referring as it does to the final separation at the end of the world, cannot be illustrated by example.
Of the other Parables of "The Kingdom of Heaven" describing special circumstances which affect the subjects of the Kingdom, only one, "The Marriage of the King's Son," seems to be capable of illustration by examples. And this is abundantly illustrated throughout the Acts of the Apostles in the history of the extension of the Church. As soon as the Gospel spread to Gentile lands, we find the Jews in general persistently refusing to accept the Lord Jesus as Messiah and to become members of the Church. Thus at Antioch in Pisidia, after the glad tidings had been so published that "almost the whole city came together to hear the Word of God; when the Jews saw the multitudes they were filled with envy, and spoke against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming." Then the literal fulfilment of this prophetic Parable followed. "Paul and Barnabas waxed bold and said, It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you; but seeing you put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles" (Acts xiii. 44-46). And, in a similar way, the last chapter of the Acts of the Apostles records how the Jews in Rome brought upon themselves the warning Words of S. Paul, "Be it known, therefore, to you; that the salvation of God is sent to the Gentiles, and that they will hear it" (Acts xxviii. 25-28).
Thus we find the Parables of "The Kingdom of Heaven" exemplified and fulfilled in the history of the early Church. And any doubt still lingering in the mind of the reader, about the Church of Christ being "The Kingdom of Heaven," may be dispelled by the clear testimony of the facts recorded in Holy Scripture.
From The Kingdom of Heaven - What is it? by Edward Burbidge M.A. Published under the direction of the tract committee by Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in August 1879. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
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Kingdom of Heaven - E. Burbidge
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