New Testament,  Theology

Do Jesus’s Kingdom Parables Support Postmillennialism?

Postmillennialists often appeal to Jesus’s parables in Matthew 13 as clear evidence that the kingdom will increase from a small contingent to take over the whole world, so that most of the world becomes genuine believers in Christ. The two most common parables appealed to by Postmillennialists are the parable of the mustard seed which becomes a tree, and the leaven which leavens the whole lump.

He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

Matt 13:31–33

It is beyond question that these parables teach an expansive kingdom which begins very small and expands beyond what anyone could reasonably expect. However, to draw the idea that these parables teach a kingdom which conquers the entire world is quite problematic for a variety of reasons.

The Tree as a Common Metaphor for Kingdom

Using a tree as a metaphor for kingdoms is quite common in Scripture. In Daniel 4:20–25, God gives Nebuchadnezzar a dream about a great tree which is described in the same terms as Matthew 13. Similarly, Assyria is depicted as a tree in Ezekiel 31:3–9. Both of these examples of “kingdom trees” are depicted as an expansive tree where the birds of the heavens come and make their home in the branches and the beasts of the field can rest in the tree’s shade. This sounds quite similar to what we read in Matthew 13!

This similarity in description is intentional. Both Babylon and Assyria were significant kingdoms (although at no time did they rule the entire world). Prophets regularly used the tree as a kingdom metaphor, and Jesus is following that pattern in Matthew 13. The parable was not intended to be interpreted as taking over the whole world, so that the majority of the world would be Christian. Actually, the main difference in Matthew 13 is that there is no chopping down of the tree! The point is that Christ’s kingdom cannot be destroyed. It will always continue.

The parables of the kingdom as tree or kingdom as leaven are meant to indicate growth from small beginnings. But to infer world-wide conquest through these parables is surely to miss the point. Furthermore, postmillennial presuppositions of worldwide salvation is problematic for a variety of reasons from the other parables in Jesus’s teaching.

Postmillennial Problems in Jesus’s Parables

In addition to the above information, there are a number of observations from the surrounding parables that go against the postmillennial position.

Jesus Taught the Gospel Will Be Regularly Rejected

The first parable recorded in Matthew 13 is the Parable of the Sower. In this parable, Jesus is clear that as the gospel goes forth, there will be three types of soils where the gospel does not find true root (although it sometimes looks like it). However, there will be true reception of the gospel where a variety of fruit will be born out.

It would be incorrect to say, based on the parable, that 75% of people who hear the gospel will reject it. However, we also cannot say that this parable leaves us with any impression that the gospel message will receive worldwide acceptance at any stage. Rather, it appears that rejection will be common, and perhaps even more common than acceptance. Additionally, Jesus seems to say that this parable is the key to interpreting the other parables. He chides His disciples, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13). So, according to Christ, understanding this parable seems to be at the basic foundation of understanding the proclamation of the kingdom message.

Jesus Taught Satan is Active in Causing People to Reject the Gospel

One of the key observations in the Parable of the Sower is that Satan is active and operative in prohibiting the reception of the gospel message. Matthew refers to “the evil one” who “comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart” (Matt 13:19). Mark refers to this one as “Satan” (Mark 4:15), and Luke calls him “the devil” (Luke 8:12). Regardless, it is clear from each of occurrences of this parable that Satan is active and unbound in his ability to deceive individuals.

This is in contrast to many eschatological positions which believe that Satan is currently bound (cf. Rev 20:3). When pressed, postmillennial advocates say that Satan is only bound in his ability to deceive the nations, not individuals. However, one is hard-pressed to see the difference in meaning, since a nation is made up of individuals. Furthermore, are we really supposed to say Jesus’s command to disciple and baptize the nations (the same word) does not relate to individuals there (Matt 28:19–20)? It is a difficult argument to hold logically and seems based on presuppositions and not on exegesis.

Jesus Taught that There Will be Sons of the Evil One Until He Returns

In Matthew 13:36–43, we receive Jesus’s own explanation for His Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Jesus’s point is that the good seed are “the sons of the kingdom,” but the weeds are “the sons of the evil one” (v. 38). Jesus says that we should expect both to exist side by side until the end of the age. Many postmillennialists believe that this will be true, but in minority percentages. In other words, in their viewpoint, there will be a small contingent of unbelievers, but the majority will be believers. However, that theological thought is nowhere present in this parable (or anywhere else in the parables).

In fact, in agriculture, weeds tend to outperform the actual crop! This is because weeds are typically well adapted to their environment to efficiently exploit available resources such as water, sunlight, and nutrients. They can germinate and establish quickly, often spreading through prolific seed production or vegetative propagation. Additionally, many weeds have mechanisms that allow them to tolerate adverse conditions and compete aggressively with crops for space, light, and nutrients. Although it is perhaps appropriate to apply all of this to the parable, minimally we must agree that Jesus is teaching the numerous existence of evildoers until the end of the this age.  

Concluding Thoughts on Jesus’s Teaching

The parables of Jesus are an amazing didactic section of Scripture about the kingdom of God. However, some have tried to interpret the parables as teaching that Christians will eventually take over the whole world, so that the majority of the world will become genuine believers in Christ before Christ returns. However, a look at the details of Jesus’s parables challenges that belief.

Additionally, we have Jesus’s clear teaching in Matthew 7:13–14, that many will follow the easy way which leads to destruction, but few will find the way that leads to life. Putting together the parables on the kingdom as well as Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, one should not expect the majority of the world to embrace Christ. One can be as optimistic as he wants, but that won’t change the meaning of Jesus’s teaching.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

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