Categories
encouragement theology

The Parables of the Kingdom

bread on brown wooden chopping board

Thoughts from Matthew 13…

 

Jesus had spent over a year traveling through Galilee, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles (see here and here). He gathered large crowds and the people were excited to see what this man would do next! But when challenged, the people would rather listen to their leaders, believing He was from the devil, than over Him as their King (see here).

Facing the unbelief and rejection of the people, Jesus changed His method of teaching. He no longer taught directly about the kingdom of heaven, but instead, left His message encoded within parables.

Matthew 13:34-35
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Mark 4:33-34
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.

These parables were simple illustrations that conveyed a much deeper spiritual truth. But they had a twofold purpose:

  • They illuminated the truth for those who believed. Jesus explained the meaning of many of His parables, but only privately to His disciples when asked.
  • They concealed the truth from those who would not believe. He no longer taught truth to those who rejected Him.

See the previous post for more details about the purpose of parables.

This section of Matthew’s gospel account (Matthew 13) contains a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven. But we only have explanations in Scripture for three of these parables (See the previous post for the first parable, the Parable of the Sower).

Therefore, we face the same question that Bible scholars have faced since the days of the early church. How do we interpret these parables? What do they mean? Why did God give us these parables if He didn’t also show us the meaning?

As we look at each of these parables, it is important to remember the following principles:

  • Who was the audience? We often look at these stories and jump to what it means for us. Yes, there is truth in each of these stories that we can apply to our lives, but don’t forget that Jesus was not addressing 21st-century Christians when He was speaking. Who was He speaking to?
  • What were the circumstances? What were the events in Jesus’ life when He was teaching these parables? How would these events direct His message?
  • What does other Scripture say? Jesus never taught a message that contradicted other words from God. Therefore, any interpretation of His teaching — including the parables — must be consistent with the rest of Scripture.

And finally, we cannot be dogmatic about our own conclusions when they are not in scripture. We can make inferences and assumptions, but we always need to go back to God’s Word as the source of truth and authority. See also the link here for more information about how to read and understand God’s word.

So why didn’t Jesus explain all of His parables? Pastors and Bible scholars have provided several possible answers:

First, remember again that Jesus was directing His parables to His disciples, not to us. Therefore, the disciples might have understood their meaning without further explanation. All of these parables are references to their culture and their times, using illustrations that they could easily recognize. The messages would have been easier for them to understand than for us who are much further removed.

But there is still a mystery in these parables which we cannot simply explain by the culture and the times. The entire crowd heard the parables but the meanings were hidden from the unbelievers.

Beyond the simple cultural understanding, these are other common answers for why we do not have explanations for all of Jesus’ parables:a

  • His message may have been already clear to the disciples. This is similar to the cultural understanding, but the disciples had spent the entire day with Jesus, and therefore would have the best context for understanding what He was about to teach them.
  • Jesus might have explained the parables, but the explanations were never recorded in Scripture. Matthew may have simply not seen it necessary to include all of the explanations.
  • Many times we don’t understand the parables because we try too hard. Jesus isn’t necessarily drawing a parallel to every nuance of these stories. We drive ourselves into confusion when we look for a spiritual allegory for every aspect within a parable. For example, in the parable of the pearl, we don’t need to understand the value, consistency, or location of the pearl.
  • Jesus may have intentionally left some of His parables unexplained. He didn’t always explain everything about Himself, as the disciples were often not ready to understand Him. The understanding could come later (see also John 16:25-26).

For us, we don’t always know the explanations for everything Jesus said. There are still many things that He has yet to reveal.

Categories
encouragement theology

Who Will Listen?

blur close up focus ground

Thoughts from Matthew 13…

 

It is great to hear stories of success, about great men who have gone out to conquer evil rulers, rescue the oppressed, and live happily ever after! It is great to dream stories about these heroes.

It is also great to hear about famous preachers, and what they accomplished. Peter preached two sermons and thousands came to believe in Jesus Christ. Leaders of the reformation, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged kings and rescued entire countries from the grip of the Medieval Church. Even in modern times, I remember watching at a Billy Graham crusade as thousands poured into the aisles, coming down to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.

These are all great memories, but it also catches me short. Why can’t I do that? Why don’t we see this power every day?

Are we missing something important when we don’t have these kinds of results?

It may be surprising to know that Jesus addressed this concern. It is easy to look at popular figures or large crowds, but Jesus showed that His way is not the way of popularity. He taught His people for over a year, yet both the leaders and the people rejected Him.

And so He changed His focus. Jesus would delay His earthly kingdom, focusing instead on His true followers and showing them about His heavenly kingdom, which surpasses everything we can see or hear or touch.

He also changed his teaching. He now started teaching in parables — simple metaphors which taught about the kingdom, but required a private explanation.a

“The word parable means “to cast alongside.” It is a story, or comparison, that is put alongside something else to help make the lesson clear.” – Warren Wiersbe4

And his first parable of this new teaching was a simple story about farming. A farmer went out to sow seed, but it was only on the good soil where the seed could germinate and produce fruit. The other soils — the barren path, the thin rocky soil, and the weed-choked polluted soil — could not sustain growth and were therefore fruitless.

But it was only in private with His disciples that He explained this message. His Word would go out to many different listeners, but many of the responses would be barren and fruitless. Only those who were of the good soil were capable of receiving it and producing fruit.

Matthew 13:1-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.

“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”