AUTHOR’S NOTE: It is the intention of the editors of Focus Online to provide its readers with articles than can generally be read in five or ten minutes. Occasionally, however, the nature of a topic demands a more thorough discussion than can be related in such a brief article. Thus, the following article is much longer than is typical. Thanks to the editors for allowing this exception.
“All these thing Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them…” (Mt.13.34)
When we study the Bible, I think we tend to be a bit hesitant to use our experiences, and even our imagination, to try and put God’s instructions and narratives in an appropriate historical and practical context. For those of us who accept the scriptures as divinely inspired and therefore attempt to carefully study and follow them, such hesitation is understandable. There is the danger of imposing our own thinking upon God’s Word. Nonetheless, the events noted in the Bible involved real people who lived and thought and felt as do we. Granted, our technology and government and culture may differ from theirs, but our lives in response to the world around us are likely quite similar.
Consider, for instance, the apostles…as boys. If they were younger than Jesus, or even contemporaries, then they would have been raised in the shadow of Roman power with Herod Antipas as their local “king”. Being Galileans, they would not only have been reared in a primarily agricultural area (think “country boys”), but likely also in an area that particularly chafed at the Roman domination of their land. Galilee was well known as a rebellious region. They would have witnessed crucifixions, watched Roman soldiers abuse their power, seen firsthand the ungodliness of the Herodian family. It is almost certain that they would have played their version of “cowboys and Indians” on the hills of their homeland, only their heroes would be Joshua and Caleb and Gideon and Samson and David as they fought the Amorites, Midianites, and Philistines. I’m sure the biggest kid always had to be Goliath. Then they would come in for supper and hear their parents complain about the events of the day – the corrupt government, the heavy-handed Romans, the unfair taxes, the dishonesty and violence about them. At the synagogue, the rabbis would talk about Israel’s laws, their history, their prophecies. These boys would have been familiar with the empires of Babylon and Medo-Persia and Greece and Rome and the glorious anticipation of the Messiah and his kingdom that would rise to destroy Israel’s enemies and dominate the world, as in the days of David and Solomon. Moreover, they were growing up in an age of great Messianic expectation, for this was the fourth empire since Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan.2.44f); there were people around like Simeon and Anna (Lk.2.25f); and surely there were strange stories coming out of Judea about virgins giving birth and wise men from the east inquiring about the new born King of Israel.
During their youth – perhaps their late teen years and early twenties – John the Baptist begins preaching in the wilderness, calling for people to turn back to God because “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt.3.2f). Clearly some of these young men spent time in the presence of John, for one day the rugged prophet pointed across the crowd to another young Galilean man and designated Him as “the Lamb of God…the Son of God” (Jn.1.29-34). Over the next two days, Andrew and Peter and Philip and Nathanael begin following Jesus, convinced on the testimony of John that Jesus was the Messiah, “the King of Israel” (Jn.1.35-51). These four young men, along with another eight who at some point became regular disciples of Jesus, spent the next three years closely associated with God in the flesh, chosen by Him to be His special representatives. They saw the miracles; they heard the teaching; they watched the multitudes; they hesitated over the opposition from the religious hierarchy. And their intimate association convinced them that anyone Who could calm the seas, raise the dead, cast out demons, feed thousands with practically nothing, and defy the threats of His opponents could surely lead the nation of Israel to the heights of national glory. They had truly found the King.
One day, after Jesus had endured a lengthy and particularly pointed series of accusations and discussions with the Pharisees (Mt.12), the Lord walked out to the Sea of Galilee (Mt.13.1f). As great crowds continue to follow Him, He enters a boat, pushes away from the shore and begins to speak to the gathering. Matthew’s record is not purely chronological, and it is possible if not likely that the events of this day took place almost two years into the personal ministry of Jesus. At this point, surely the apostles had heard Jesus speak repeatedly on the kinds of themes recorded by Matthew in the sermon on the mount (Mt.5-7). While His instruction there and elsewhere is certainly challenging, it is also very clear, direct, and not especially difficult to understand. On this day, however, Matthew says that the Lord “spoke many things to them in parables” (Mt.13.3), going on to note in v.34 that He offered only parables to them. Instead of the beatitudes, or warnings about hypocritical worship, or instruction in the true meaning of the Law about marriage or lust or anger, now the Lord begins telling stories about farmers and herbs and women cooking. While Jesus was not unaccustomed to using parables, on this occasion He apparently offered no elaboration or explanation, and this sudden irregularity prompted the apostles to ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (v.10). The answer of Jesus is telling, and is in fact the key to a proper appreciation of the seven kingdom parables recorded in Mt.13. Four of the parables are offered to the gathered crowd, which included both the disciples and the multitudes (v.3-35). The remaining three are offered only to the disciples, Jesus having dismissed the crowds – the crowds that were likely scratching their heads at the stories they had just heard.
In v.11f, Jesus tells the apostles/disciples that the parables were intended for them: “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” He elaborates, observing that the multitudes were not truly interested in His teaching and that the parables were designed to reveal truth to the apostles while hiding it from those who were following Jesus for the show and not for the message (v.13-15). The apostles, however, were intent upon learning what these things meant (in v.36 they ask for an explanation of the parable of the tares; in Mk.4.10 and Lk.8.9 it is the apostles who ask the meaning of the parable of the sower). After all, within a year or so, Jesus would be ascended back to God and they were the ones who would be preaching and promoting the kingdom of heaven. It was important that they properly understood it. The expectations and anticipations of their youth had not prepared them with an accurate appreciation of the nature of this kingdom. And in these parables, Jesus was about to reveal to them “mysteries” – things that God had not yet made known. According to v.17, many of God’s previous spokesmen had entertained questions about God’s king and kingdom, yet had been left wondering as God had not fully revealed certain aspects of His will. Now, however, these young, zealous, patriotic Galilean men – men filled with the ambitions of those personally attending to Israel’s long awaited King – were about to be blessed with some information never before revealed. “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear” (Mt.13.16).
Given the explanation of Jesus in Mt.13.10-17, I would propose that we step back and take another look at the parables offered on this occasion. With the exception of the parable of the sower (v.3-8), they each begin with the introduction, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”. And even the parable of the soils is explained by the Lord in terms of “the word of the kingdom” (v.19). If the apostles were looking at Jesus as the coming Ruler of a temporal, military kingdom – and I propose that they almost had to think in those terms – then the parables which follow were each intended to help them properly understand the nature of the kingdom that they would be preaching. In this context, each story underscores something about Christ’s domain – its reception and rejection; the way it will impact the world; the way it will begin and the nature of its spread; the way it will be received and the judgment of God upon those who claim to be citizens. Moreover, there is a sense in which they build upon each other. Every one of these seven parables stands in opposition to the earthly concepts that are typical of a military kingdom. Such appears to stand beneath the offerings herein. And while we do not necessarily misuse these remarkable stories and their appropriate applications (generally anyway), we do fail of a greater appreciation and use when we fail to consider them in their original context. Thus, with these thoughts in mind, consider the kingdom parables…
Mt.13.3-8, 18-23 – the parable of the sower
As with the parable of the tares (v.24-30, 37-43), Jesus offers a detailed explanation of this parable. The seed is the message of the kingdom (v.19). We are not told if “the word” denotes the mere proclamation of its advent, the identity of its King, the laws governing it, or its true nature. None of those things is really the point. Instead, the clear lesson is that people will react differently to this message. In v.19, some will have no interest in nor understanding of the kingdom, and Satan will occupy their minds so that they fail of any further consideration of it (“he who received the seed by the wayside”). V.20-21 describes those who “receive the seed on stony places” as people who are initially receptive to the kingdom message but have no strength of foundation and fail of productivity when faced with “tribulation or persecution.” Those “who received the seed among the thorns” (v.22) are similarly people whose convictions and loyalty are thwarted by “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches.” Finally, v.23 describes receptive hearts that hear and understand the word and lead productive lives in the kingdom. We generally interpret this parable to describe the hearts of people who hear the gospel and their typical reaction to such. Certainly that is descriptive of what we see regularly. Yet consider such from the perspective of the apostles taking the message of the messianic kingdom to the first century world, and especially to the Jews. What self-respecting Jew would reject the messianic kingdom and the rise of Israel to world dominion? Yet the seed by the wayside makes it clear that the apostles would face such people. And in a military/temporal glorified Israel, just who would bring about tribulation and persecution on its citizens (v.21)? All of her enemies would either be converted or destroyed (Ps.2; 110)! Morever, if Israel once again prevailed over all of the nations of the world, certainly God’s people would enjoy the milk and honey promises of the Mosaic law and see a return to a time like that of Solomon where the nations of the world brought their wealth to God’s people and silver would be as commonplace as stones in the street (1 Kings 10.27). How could “cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” choke out the very kingdom that alleviated such cares and supplied such riches?
The truth is that the words of Jesus as He notes various reactions to the message of the kingdom would stand diametrically opposed to the way the apostles likely viewed the kingdom of God. It must have made them stop and think, puzzled over this strange revelation. Yet when they would start preaching the true kingdom of Christ, these are exactly the obstacles they would face. Many would reject the truth; many others would receive their words, but fall away due to hardship or temporality. While they now cannot imagine any of Israel who would oppose the impending kingdom, they will soon appreciate the truth of this parable. They needed to know that they would be refused. But they also needed to know that there would be good hearts – people who would listen, understand, embrace, trust, and prosper in this new realm. Such preparation would be vital to their persistent work of spreading the seed.
Mt.13.21-30, 36-43 – the parable of the tares
Of the seven parables offered in Mt.13, this may be the most challenging, and the one most often misinterpreted – which is unusual given that Jesus fully explains it to the apostles (v.37f). The story itself is not difficult – a man plants his field with good seed; an enemy plants “weeds”; the plants sprout and the servants discover the deed; the owner delays any separation of the good and bad until the harvest (v.24-30). In the explanation, Jesus identifies Himself as the owner; the field as the world; the good seed as “sons of the kingdom”; the tares as the sons of Satan; Satan as the enemy; the harvest as the judgment day; etc.
It has frequently been proposed that this parable is intended to teach the disciples that there would be ungodly men found among God’s people. Some of this misapplication grows out of the common confusion that identifies the kingdom of God with the church of God. Even for those who insist that the kingdom and the church are identical concepts, such cannot be so in this parable, for Jesus notes that “the field is the world.” In the parable, the good and bad seed are sown in the field, and the wheat and tares are harvested out of the field. Thus, the field cannot be both the world and the church. Clearly, the parable notes that there will be “sons of the kingdom” and “sons of the wicked one” in the world. Then, in v.41, Jesus observes that the harvest represented the time when the angels would “gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness.” Connecting these ideas demands that the field is the world (v.38), and that such is within the rule of Christ – the kingdom (v.41). This parable does not describe what will happen within the church but what will happen within the world when the seed – the “word of the kingdom” from the previous parable – is sown. While the king is reigning, there will be those who recognize His rule and those who oppose, and such will be the case until the end of time. God will then gather the evil “out of the kingdom” and punish them. He will also glorify the righteous as they “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (v.43 – possibly a reference to the final manifestation of the kingdom, as described in 1 Cor.15.24f?).
If the apostles/disciples thought of the kingdom in temporal/military terms, this would be an important parable. In the OT prophecies, the king/kingdom to come is portrayed as dominating and destroying His/its enemies (Ps.2; 110; Isa.11.4,13f; Dan.2.44; etc.). It would be reasonable for them to conclude that the coming kingdom would effectively eliminate from the entire world any who would stand opposed to God and His people. Yet they needed to know, and the parable thus instructs them, that the coming King/kingdom would not remove all evil from the world and would not bring to an end the corruptive work of Satan. The apostles would have to do their work in a polluted world. And the reason for God’s determination is seen in v.29 in the parable – “lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them.” The root system in wheat and tares is such that, when planted close together, they intertwine, making it impossible to pull up one without pulling up the plant next to it. While this element is unexplained, common sense dictates the concern. If God destroyed all evil men from the world when the gospel was first preached, how could He hope to bring the lost to repentance, to show His grace and mercy, to attract ungodly men by His love, goodness, and longsuffering nature? How many of us would think differently of God if He destroyed us all in our immaturity and rebellion, before we’ve had the opportunity to reflect, regret, and repent? Such practical realities involve concepts that the apostles had certainly never considered. Yet, how important would this information be to their work? Without it, they would likely be disillusioned by the failure of the King to destroy His enemies. But with such information, they could continue to plant the seed, knowing that Christ would ultimately fulfill the aforementioned prophecies in the day of judgment.
Mt.13.31-32 – the parable of the mustard seed
The previous two parables, when properly understood, might be somewhat discouraging for men who looked for a kingdom that overwhelmed and dominated the world. They have just learned that not everyone would accept the King/kingdom. They have also learned that the King would not remove His enemies from the world. Are the prophecies then suspect? Would the King really prevail? Is there some weakness in the kingdom, some flaw? The parable of the mustard seed again reveals something about the coming reign of Christ – “the kingdom of heaven is like” the smallest of seeds to be found in a typical herb garden. Yet this particular seed produces a plant that is larger than any other in that garden, large enough in fact that birds can actually build their nests in its branches.
While the Lord does not explain this parable, its meaning should be fairly easy to apprehend. What begins as small and somewhat insignificant grows to be grand and significant. The kingdom would be first promoted by a small group of ex-fishermen and tax collectors and political rebels in the capital city of a captive nation in the backwater of the Roman empire. It would not make its entrance into this world in some grandiose way. But it would thrive, grow, prosper in its influence until it filled the entire world, and transcended every other kingdom. In Dan.2.34-45, the kingdom of God begins as a stone but becomes a mountain that “filled the whole earth.” The parable of the mustard seed appears to be the equivalent of that prophecy. Yes, there will be rejection and opposition, but Christ’s reign would be effective in dominating all of His creation. Rest assured, apostles, you are promoting the true King.
Mt.13.33 – the parable of the leaven
As the lesson from the mustard seed involved the certainty of the dominance of the kingdom, the parable of the leaven appears to address the means by which such domination will occur. The intriguing feature of leaven/yeast is the unseen nature of its influence. It can be added to dough and its presence will permeate that dough so that the entire lump is affected, causing the dough to rise. However, its influence is invisible to the naked eye. We may see the effect of leaven, but we don’t see it actually spread through the dough. Such imagery is used to describe the kingdom of heaven.
A temporal/military kingdom concept would demand a period of conflict – a war. How could Israel overwhelm the world without battling Rome and any other enemy that stood in the way? One of the conceptual obstacles which must have faced the apostles regularly involved the reaction of Jesus to conflict. While He did not shy away from questions and did not hesitate in His criticism of His detractors, He is also portrayed as frequently moving about Galilee and Judea, rarely staying long in any given location. Matthew records in Mt.12.14f that Jesus withdrew from the region when He knew that the Pharisees were plotting to destroy Him, noting that such action was in keeping with the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 42.1-4. Observe that part of that prophecy reads, “He will not quarrel nor cry out, nor will any one hear His voice in the streets” (v.19). Jesus did not call upon the multitudes to riot, to mobilize, to physically overwhelm His enemies. His rule would not begin with some glorious series of battles, winning His place in history alongside of Joshua, Gideon, Samson or David. Rather His rule would permeate the world silently, spread from community to community and heart to heart. The Messianic kingdom would indeed “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17.6), but would do so without grandiose fanfare or warfare. And individually the influence of the King would tacitly pervade the heart of a man so as to outwardly transform his entire life. The dough would rise, but the apostles would not always see the leaven doing its work.
Mt.13.44 – the parable of the hidden treasure
This parable is the first of three that Jesus relates to the disciples in the absence of the multitudes. Matthew states that Jesus had dismissed the crowds (v.36) and, having entered into a house, first entertains the question of His disciples concerning the parable of the tares in the field. After that explanation, Jesus offers the final three parables. As with the previous four, these would be vital for the apostles in their work. They have been instructed that their efforts would be met with much rejection (sower); that evil would not be removed from the world when the King ascended to His throne (tares); that the kingdom would “begin” small, but indeed spread and dominate the world (mustard seed); that the spread of the kingdom would not be due to visible, temporal means but would do so almost without observation (leaven). In the next two parables, Jesus addresses the value of the kingdom and the inevitable circumstances of those who will accept such (the “good ground” of v.23 and the “sons of the kingdom” in v.38).
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field…” In the story, a man is working a field that he does not own. He may be a sharecropper or he may simply be a hireling. He finds a treasure hidden in the field and re-hides it. He then sells all that he owns so that he might buy the field and possess the treasure that he has found. It is easy to lose sight of the object lesson and begin to inquire about the man and his actions. Is he being honest? What about the owner of the field – wouldn’t the treasure be his? I would propose first that such considerations are not intended to be entertained as integral to the meaning. But I would add that if the treasure truly belonged to the owner and that he had hidden it in his field, then he would not sell the field. Again, however, such considerations are not the point. So what is the Lord trying to teach these men? Simply that the reign of Christ is of such preeminence and value that those who recognize it will sacrifice everything in their life in order to participate in it. Such is the lesson of both this parable and that which follows. The distinction of the parable of the treasure in the field, however, is that the man who found it was not looking for it. He was simply working in the field. He did not go out treasure hunting. He was occupied with temporal concerns. But when he did find the treasure, he recognized its value and sacrificed everything in order to possess it. The apostles needed to be encouraged about the work that they were going to do. Surely their concepts concerning the kingdom had been challenged thus far. They must have been confused, intrigued, perhaps disappointed and discouraged. This was not a kingdom that imposed itself upon the world, but rather appealed to those who recognized its worth. And they needed to know that there were people who would see that value. They needed to be prepared to promote it in any and every circumstance because not everyone would be searching for the true King. Some would be simply going about their day to day affairs when they were confronted with the truth. Some, according to the parable of the sower, would dismiss the message. But others would see the kingdom as a treasure to be sought and those receptive people would forfeit all for the honor of citizenship. The seed must be sowed, even in fields full of busy, temporal people.
Mt.13.45-46 – the parable of the pearl merchant
I propose that this parable is correspondent to that of the treasure in the field. Here the kingdom is likened unto a pearl merchant who spends his time searching for merchandise that is valuable. When he finds one outstanding pearl, though it is valued highly and can be attained only at great cost, he is so consumed with it that he sells everything in order to buy it. The value of the kingdom and the sacrifice necessary to participate in it are features in this parable that are analogous to the previous one. The distinction is in the circumstance of the persons. The man in the field is merely working in the field; the pearl merchant is looking for what is valuable. There are those in this world who are constantly seeking, ever searching for what is profitable, valuable, intransient. Like Solomon in Ecclesiastes, they are dissatisfied with all the world has to offer and actually come looking for the kingdom. The apostles needed to be encouraged that such people were out there – that sometimes their job would be easy. Such things would take place in the governance of Christ.
Mt.13.47-50 – the parable of the dragnet
The last parable offered on this occasion is not especially difficult and is in many ways considered a parallel to the parable of the tares. Certainly there are features that are similar. Both are explained and both detail the separation of the wicked and the just at the day of judgment. Both involve the work of the angels and both portray the punishment of the ungodly in precisely the same terms (v.42 and v.50). So why would the Lord repeat a message? Because the parables are diverse in one significant element. In the parable of the dragnet, the kingdom is likened to a net that gathers fish “of every kind” (v.47). According to the story, the filled net is drawn onto the shore and the fishermen then separate the good fish from the bad, retaining the good and disposing of the bad. As He explains this parable, Jesus notes that, at “the end of the age” the angels will “separate the wicked from among the just.” In this parable, the kingdom appears to be portrayed in a more limited sense than is pictured in the parable of the tares. In the parable of the tares, the kingdom involves the world – the entire earthly domain over which Christ reigns. In the parable of the dragnet, however, the kingdom is not the sea, but the net which gathers fish out of the sea. The idea seems to be that there will be those who are considered to be “within” or accepting of the kingdom (kingdom citizens), though they are in fact wicked and faithless men. They are no longer in the sea, but in the net. And there they remain until the day of judgment, when they are finally separated “from among the just.”
Yet again, here is a principle that the apostles needed to prepare for, and would eventually experience repeatedly. There will always be charlatans among God’s people – the wicked among the just. Numerous epistles, letters written by some of these very men listening to this parable, identify and warn against false teachers and ungodly influences that were arising from within the very body of believers (Acts 20.28f; 1 Cor.3.16f; 5.1f; 15.12f; 2 Pet.2.1f; 1 Jn.2.15f; 3 Jn.9f; Rev.2-3). This parable, in fact, seems to teach the lesson that men have often attributed to the parable of the tares – there will be unfaithful men within the churches. And while it is the obligation of God’s people to strive for doctrinal purity and unity, it appears that there will be wicked among the just until the Lord returns. But this is the great strength of the parable – the King knows who are the just and who are the unjust. His sovereignty is beyond human deception. His knowledge, wisdom, vision are infinite. He knows His own. And though the apostles might continually in their work run into those who are fighting against the kingdom from within its citizenry, they are not to become disheartened. Just as there will continue to be evil in the world, there will continue to be evil within the people of the kingdom. But in the end, when all things are concluded and every enemy destroyed, the King will judge properly. Their job was to spread the seed. The Lord would handle the harvest.
For this group of young, zealous Galileans, the kingdom parables had to be invaluable. Given their discussions with Jesus over next year or so, and particularly in view of their kingdom question in Acts 1.6, they do not seem to have fully understood the meanings of these parables on this occasion. Even though they claim to such appreciation (Mt.13.51), it seems certain that these principles and truths would not become practical to them until after the Spirit fully reveals all things to their minds (Jn.14-16; Acts 2). However, in keeping with the sentiment, Jesus here plants the seeds of truth in their hearts. How many times did these men, years later when lying in bed in some foreign town after a day of work spreading the gospel, gaze into the dimness of the night and offer a prayer of gratitude for this knowledge? How many times did these principles keep them going in the midst of discouragement and frustration? How often was their faith refreshed as they reflected on the omniscience of Jesus Who had predicted and described all of the events they were encountering?
In a statement of conclusion, Jesus Himself notes the import of this series of parables (v.52). They had been instructed in the true nature of the kingdom. They now had learned of mysteries that had not previously been revealed. They knew that many would reject the kingdom; that the Messiah would not remove evil from the world at His enthronement; that the influence of the kingdom would indeed spread; that such influence would not come from political or military movements; that some folks would not be looking for truth, but would recognize it when they found it and would give all to be a part of the kingdom; that others would come seeking it, also willingly sacrificing everything for the knowledge of the King; and that, in spite of all, there would be evil men who were considered a part of the kingdom, but who were really imposters and that the King knew who they were and would properly judge them. None of these elements fit the concept of a temporal and military dominion. Yet they were and are vital concepts to appreciate and to promote. Thus the Lord finishes with this parable of admonition: “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old.” Their job, having thus been enlightened, was simple. Go preach the kingdom. And preach it right.