Marshmallows, the Gospel, and the Kingdom of God

The Marshmallow Experiment, conducted in the 60s, was a groundbreaking study of 4 and 5 year-old children who were brought individually into a room with one marshmallow sitting on the table. They were each given a choice: eat the marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and get another marshmallow. Follow up studies showed that the children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow had more success in life. Learning to apply delayed gratification pays dividends.

The same concept applies to our spiritual lives.

Many churches emphasize sharing the good news, the salvation message, the gospel, of Jesus, and by that they mean that if one believes in Jesus, he or she will gain eternal life. That is the all important first step, for sure, but to stop there is like a 5-year-old who couldn’t wait 15 minutes to eat the marshmallow and missed out on the second treat.

Jesus said “The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” and that he was sent to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to many people. Notice that Jesus didn’t say that he was proclaiming the good news of how individuals can get to heaven. He was proclaiming a much broader and larger message: the good news of the kingdom of God. The good news about salvation is critical, but in my experience, too often churches stop there and do not proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. What’s the difference? Does it matter? I think it does.

When we believe in Jesus, we are new creations, we are in relationship with God, by the Holy Spirit we have the ability to perceive things that we were blind to before, and we enter into the kingdom of God. As new creations, we begin working with Jesus to reveal his kingdom, promote flourishing for our families, communities, and world, and contribute to the everlasting new heaven and new earth. If that sounds a bit out of our reach, take a look at what Jesus said about the kingdom of God. It starts small.

He 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 seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’

He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.’” 

Matthew 13:31-33

Matthew 13 contains seven parables about the kingdom of God, and we see from the first two that people react differently to the good news and that those who don’t get it will grow up with those who do, but God will give them every opportunity to open their eyes. God’s kingdom begins small, like a mustard seed or a teaspoon of yeast in a batch of pizza dough. But that mustard seed and yeast will both produce much more than expected. Jesus goes on to say that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field or the finest pearl, and that we’d be wise to sell everything we own to obtain the kingdom, for it will all be sorted out in the end, as the parable of the fishermen’s net demonstrates.

The kingdom of God is an extension of the saving message of Jesus, or to put it another way, the saving message of Jesus is the first part of the good news of the kingdom of God. We can accept Jesus and be saved, but if we don’t learn and grow beyond this point, the first marshmallow, we will miss out on understanding and participating in the rest of Jesus’s message, the full message of the kingdom of God. However, if we see the kingdom as a treasure or a valuable pearl, if we work with Jesus to display the kingdom of God and advance it, even sacrificing our worldly possessions and status to do it, then we will become mature followers of Jesus. The second marshmallow will be very gratifying, but it takes time.

God uses our small efforts of planting and kneading, and by his power and sovereignty, he advances his kingdom. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God during his life on the earth, but it will not fully arrive until Jesus returns. We feel the tension of wanting to contribute to the kingdom of God while living in kingdoms of the world. Are we planting mustard seeds and working yeast into our dough? Do we even know what that looks like?

Working in the kingdom of God is a bit like raising children. We want them to be all they can be, to reach their potential, to work diligently in school so that they’ll have every opportunity as adults. As we know, kids don’t always understand the benefits of delayed gratification. Encouraging them to do their best work is like planting mustard seeds. It gets old. Constantly suggesting that they try it again, work harder, is like kneading dough. It’s exhausting. Sometimes we feel like we’re not contributing anything of value and the reward is rarely immediate.

Parents do their best to teach their children the advantages of delayed gratification and model it for them, and children must learn to put what they’ve learned into practice. Similarly, we come to know Jesus, we are taught who he is and what he has done, we recognize people who model living for the kingdom, and then we have a choice to put that knowledge into practice, or not.

God’s kingdom will come whether or not we contribute to it, but the marshmallow experiment shows us that it’s to our great advantage if we participate in its advancement. Have you been taught the full story of the kingdom of God? Do you think there’s a difference between sharing the gospel and communicating the good news of the Kingdom of God? If the concept of the kingdom of God is a mystery to you, like it was to me for years, let’s talk about it.

Photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash

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