In Matthew 13, Jesus taught his disciples about the Kingdom by means of parables. The interpretation of these parables, as noted previously, has been debated, even amongst dispensationalists. The reason for the debate is the phrase “the mysteries of the kingdom” in verse 11. The question rests on the meaning of the term mystery.
Many dispensationalists interpret mystery as that which was not previously revealed. For example, in Ephesians, the church is called a mystery. In this context, it seems that Paul is indeed making this distinction. In the Old Testament, God did not reveal any teaching about the Church. That is, reading the Old Testament, no one will find any prophecies about the Church age.
If the word mystery has the same meaning in Matthew 13, then Jesus is teaching something about the Kingdom that was unknown in the Old Testament. Some dispensationalists understand this new thing to be a spiritual form of the Kingdom during the Church age. The spiritual form does not preclude the future, literal Kingdom, however. Instead, what Jesus teaches about the Kingdom is fulfilled during the Church age in his absense, even though the Kingdom and the Church are not equated. The true church is one part of his over-arching spiritual Kingdom.
For an example, the parable of the weeds is about a man who plants a field of grain. A villain plants weeds in the man’s field so that the grain and weeds grow up together. The grain and weeds must coexist until harvest because any attempt at removing the weeds early will destroy the grain. During harvest, then, the weeds and grain are both harvested, the grain brought into the barns and the weeds destroyed. If this parable refers to the Church age, then the grain refers to true believers, while the weeds refer to those who pretend to be believers. At the end of the dispensation, a judgment will separate the two groups.
Alternately, if the word kingdom has the same meaning that it has in the Old Testament, then these parables are not describing the Church age, but the Kingdom age. In this case, the interpretation is similar, but it departs on two points. First, the timing of this parable is during the future, earthly Kingdom, not during a mysterious form that takes place during the Church age. Secondly, the Judgment that separates the weeds and grain takes place at the end of the Kingdom age, not at the beginning of the Kingdom.
The Old Testament speaks often about the Kingdom of God to come. Because it does so, much of what is taught in these parables could be understood already; Jesus is not necessarily giving new information about the Kingdom. What he is doing is clarifying the misunderstanding the disciples had about the Kingdom and about the role Jesus plays in establishing his Kingdom.
There are two problems with the view of the mysterious form of the Kingdom. The first problem is that it is simply unnecessary. Interpreting the Kingdom parables as modern day Christendom is not a necessary interpretation. A valid (and better) interpretation could be had (i.e., the parables refer to the future, earthly Kingdom.).
The second problem is that it puts dispensationalists into an uncomfortable corner. One of the primary characteristics of Dispensationalism is consistent interpretation. It is one thing to say that Jesus is adding additional information to the Jewish doctrine of the Kingdom. It is another to say that the word kingdom has completely changed its meaning. It once was a physical Kingdom where Jesus sat on a particular throne over a particular people. Now it refers to the entire earth, both saved and unsaved, where Jesus reigns in some invisible manner. This inconsistent interpretation should not be allowed.
In conclusion, the best interpretation of the word mystery is that it has more than one possible usage. It does mean something newly revealed (as in Ephesians 1), but it could also mean something misunderstood, the true meaning of which is now being made clear. Thus, the parables of the Kingdom describe in more detail the nature of the coming Kingdom.