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.
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.”
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.
The Parable of the Weeds
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.
The first three parables were all delivered to to the crowds in public, yet He gave a private explanation for the parable of the weeds. The story is simple: a farmer sowed wheat in his field, but while his men were sleeping, an enemy came and sowed weeds among his crops.b Both the good wheat and the weeds grew up together and the master would not let his servants pull the weeds for fear of uprooting the good wheat. Instead, he instructed the reapers to sort out and burn the weeds at harvest time.
He also explained the story. Jesus Himself is the one who sowed the good seed into the field of the world, growing sons of the kingdom. The enemy is the devil, and the weeds are his followers in this world. But at the end of the age, Jesus will send His angels to gather out the wicked ones from the world, sending them to Hell.
The word for weeds in the ESV translation of Matthew 13 is also translated as tares in many translations (e.g. KJV, NKJV, NASB). These weeds would have been darnel, a common wheat-like weed that lived in the Middle East. They looked identical to the young wheat when it first sprouted and as in the parable, the difference is only apparent when the real wheat begins to bear grain.c
But like the wheat and the tares, we cannot easily recognize God’s children from those who pretend to follow Him. As Jesus said, it is only by their fruit that you know them. But like the man in the parable, God does not immediately remove the weeds, lest He uproot His children. We need to live alongside them for the present time, knowing that Jesus will ultimately sort them out in the end.
There is another point about the weeds among us, although it is not contained in this parable. We are not to search out and isolate the weeds in our midst, but rather we are instructed to respond to all with patience, kindness, and gentleness.9 We don’t know others’ ultimate destiny, nor do we know if God will bring them to the truth, just like He did for each of us! See 2 Timothy 2:24-26.
But at the end, Jesus Himself will purge out the false believers, sending His angels to throw them into the “fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus commonly used this terminology to describe the punishment of an eternal Hell, separated from God and all His goodness. See here and here.
“Satan cannot uproot the plants (true Christians), so he plants counterfeit Christians in their midst.” – Warren Wiersbe4
“The great difference between the two is that those who are genuine bring forth fruit, whereas the others are without fruit and even are hurtful rather than helpful.” – H.A. Ironside2
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
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.”
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
Like the parable of the weeds, Jesus also delivered this parable to the public crowds. But unlike the previous parable, there is no explanation in scripture.
Jesus compared the kingdom to a grain of a mustard seed which was planted in a field. Although it is the smallest seed, it grows into a tree so that the birds come and nest into its branches.
The main point of this parable is that Jesus’ followers will see rapid growth. Like the mustard seed which starts out the smallest and grows to be the biggest in the field,d He will also attract a large following. But notice the birds: rapid size is not always a good thing. As the group of Jesus’ followers grows, it will become a shelter for all kinds of evil.
This parable has a twofold meaning: In the immediate context, His disciples will see a rapid growth of Jesus’ followers. It will grow large and look powerful, but this same group will also shelter unspeakable evil. This was fulfilled when the same crowds, in Jerusalem, yelled for His crucifixion (see Mark 16:6-15).e
“This ‘kingdom’ which you perceive – this crescendo of fascination manifested by the people – is an aberration; every sort of bird finds harbor in this, and it is manifestly not the kingdom promised by the Father.” – Doug Bookman8
In the larger context, this parable also applies to the growth of the church of Jesus Christ. His church started out with a small group (Acts 2), yet has spread throughout the entire world. However, the church has also become a haven for false teachers and other evil men (See 2 Peter 2).
“The way in which nation after nation has been brought out of the darkness of paganism, to a knowledge, of our blessed Savior has been truly miraculous; but oh, what unspeakable evils have been hidden in the professing church of the living God!” – H.A. Ironside3
The Parable of the Leaven
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.”
And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”
This parable is very similar to the parable of the mustard seed in that both parables depict rapid and extensive growth, both were delivered in public and neither has an explanation in scripture. Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to leaven (a rising agent, like yeast) that was hidden in flour until it permeated the entire dough.
Also like the previous parable, Jesus gave this message to His disciples in order to warn them about the large crowds that followed Him. The disciples, seeing the popular fascination, could easily conclude that Jesus would soon come as King!
But instead, He used this parable to warn them about the evil influence of the Pharisees. The Pharisees had shown that they were committed to unbelief (see here and here), and their influence will permeate the crowds (see also Matthew 16:6). As in the previous parable, these same crowds that are now following Him will soon be screaming for His death!
This parable also teaches us a long-term lesson. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, false teachers can turn people away from the truth. Just because people are interested in Jesus Christ doesn’t mean that they are committed to Him. Both 2 Peter and Jude warn about the dangers of false teachers (see also the post here).f
Finally, Jesus would later warn His disciples about the dangers of false teachers in the end times:
“For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”
The Parable of the Hidden Treasure
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Jesus had left the crowds and gone into the house (Matthew 13:36). He then explained the parable of the weeds to them and taught them with more parables.
The first private parable compares the kingdom of heaven to a hidden treasure. A man finds the buried treasure, covers it up, and then sells all that he has to buy the field.
Through this parable, Jesus was telling His disciples that the truth about His kingdom may have been hidden, but it is now revealed to those who have known Him. The kingdom will cost them everything but it will be worth it.g h
The Parable of the Valuable Pearl
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Similar to the previous parable, this private message was for Jesus’ disciples only. The kingdom is like a merchant who discovers a highly-valued pearl. He then sold everything he had and bought that pearl.
Also similar to the previous parable, Jesus is teaching them that the kingdom is worth everything you have. In contrast to the previous message, the kingdom may have been hidden in the past, but now it is in plain view. It is more valuable than anything you possess.i
The Parable of the Dragnet
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This parable is very similar to the initial parable of the weeds. Both of these parables teach that the angels will separate the evil and the righteous at the end of the age. Both are given specific explanations in scripture, so the effort at interpretation is much less difficult.
The fishermen in first-century Palestine had three typical methods for casting nets. They could cast a small net from the shore (e.g. Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:18) or they could lower the nets from a boat (e.g. Peter, James, and John in Luke 5:1-11). But the final way of fishing was with a large dragnet. This was a huge net which was deployed with one end anchored to the shore while the other end was towed out to sea with a boat. The net would then be dragged back into shore, capturing everything in its path.The fishermen would then need to take everything captured by this net, sorting out the good catch from the worthless items.13
Many of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen and could easily relate to this analogy. Just like the huge dragnet, the angels will sort out humanity at the end of the age. Those who are truly righteous will be kept, while the others will be thrown into fires of Hell.j
“The preaching of the gospel in the world does not convert the world. It is like a huge dragnet that gathers all kinds of fish, some good and some bad.” – Warren Wiersbe4
New and Old Treasures
“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
This final statement is not necessarily a parable, but Jesus uses this as final analogy about the kingdom. The disciples all affirmed that they understood all of His previous parables. Note that they understood all of them — even the ones that we don’t fully understand today!k
His final point about the kingdom is that it contains treasures of both old and new. Jesus has not done away with the old law (see here), but rather He has enhanced it with new treasures. The scribes — the experts in the Jewish law — now have the opportunity to teach about the kingdom, adding new treasures to their understanding.l
We can get caught up with the small parts of these parables and often miss the bigger picture. It is too easy to focus on the minutia about each parable and fail to understand what Jesus is teaching.
This message is no longer for the public. They have rejected Him, and He is now only teaching those who believe. But for those who believe, He has the following messages:
Many will hear the Word, but few will believe (see previous post here).
There will be pretenders among those who say they follow Jesus Christ. Jesus does not remove them immediately but will remove these pretenders in the day of judgement, sending them to the flames of eternal torment.
Beware the rapidly-growing ministry which has no depth. It can become a shelter for evil.
Beware the influence of false teachers. They can sway entire crowds who have not committed to Him.
But through it all, the kingdom is valuable. It is like the buried treasure which is worth spending all you have to possess it.
It is like the valuable jewel that you see, worth more than anything you own.
At the end of the age, the pretenders will be removed from the true believers, and be cast into judgement.
This was Jesus’ message to His disciples and is a reminder for us today. But how am I challenged when I read it?
- We once were all pretenders, headed for the fires of Hell. Thank God that He saved us!
- May we have compassion for those around us who don’t know Jesus Christ. They are headed for the same fate as the weeds in the field.
- Don’t worry about big numbers. Worry about depth. Depth in your own life, and depth in those whom you influence.
- God’s kingdom will cost us but it is worth everything we have!!
For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
Previous post: Who will Listen?
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 13:24-52, pages 180-185
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 13, The Mysteries of the Kingdom
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 51, Two Aspects of the Kingdom of God, Luke 13:18-21
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 13:24-58, pages 38-40
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 4:26-34, pages 100-101
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 13:10-21, pages 181-182
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, CHAPTER XXIII: NEW TEACHING ‘IN PARABLES’, THE PARABLES TO THE PEOPLE BY THE LAKE OF GALILEE, AND THOSE TO THE DISCIPLES IN CAPERNAUM (St. Matthew 13:1-52; St. Mark 4:1-34; St. Luke 8:4-18.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.viii.xxiii.html
 Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 8. https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/15-the-unpardonable-sin-and-a-shift-to-parables.html
 John MacArthur, The Kingdom and the World, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, Apr 4, 1982
 John MacArthur, The Power and Influence of Christ’s Kingdom, Part 1, Matthew 13:31-32, Apr 18, 1982
 John MacArthur, The Power and Influence of Christ’s Kingdom, Part 2, Matthew 13:33, Apr 25, 1982
 John MacArthur, Entering the Kingdom, Matthew 13:44-46, May 2, 1982
 John MacArthur, The Furnace of Fire, Matthew 13:47-52, May 9, 1982
[a] There are other explanations which are not worthy of including in this post, except to point out their deficiencies. These explanations either (a) deny the reliability of Jesus’ words, claiming that He was wrong to teach the way He did, or (b) they add mysticism to the words, claiming that you need some extra knowledge in order to understand God’s Word. All of these deficient explanations deny the simple, reliable, and complete teaching of Jesus Christ as recorded in Scripture.
[b] A common practice of revenge in that day was to sow weeds into your enemy’s field. There was even a Roman law against it.9
[c] Some commentators also propose that the darnel mentioned here may be a wild, fruitless variety of cultivated wheat.7
[d] Some have criticized the parable of the mustard seed for its horticultural accuracy. The mustard seed is small, but it is not the absolutely smallest seed in the world. The mustard plant grows into a large bush but it is difficult to call the grown mustard bush a tree. However, these criticisms are easily answered:
- Regarding the seed size, the mustard seed was the smallest seed planted by the Jewish people in first-century Palestine.2 5 The point of the mustard seed is its comparatively small size.
- Regarding the tree, this is not necessarily a technical term. The point is that the grown mustard plant is “larger than all the garden plants.”
[e] Interpretative challenges in the parable of the mustard seed:
We don’t have the interpretation of this parable so we must look at other scripture in order to understand the message. There are three Biblical themes in this parable which must be considered:
- The mustard seed: The term “mustard seed” is used throughout Jesus’ teaching, including comparing it to valid, active faith in Matthew 17:20. But Jesus was using the popular idiom of His day, as the Jews would use a “mustard seed” to describe something very small and insignificant.7 In both cases that Jesus describes the mustard seed, it is not about the goodness of the seed, but rather the insignificant size of the seed that is important.
- The tree: Jesus says specifically that the mustard seed becomes a tree. The tree usually depicts greatness in the world (e.g. Daniel 4, here).Therefore, many interpreters see the tree as worldly greatness. In this view, the greatness of the tree shows the rapid growth of the church throughout the world. However, this view would only make sense as the parable is applied to the church. It weakens when you consider Jesus’ disciples. How would the tree apply to them?
- The birds: Although we have many positive connotations of birds today, birds are commonly used in scripture as messengers of evil. The most obvious reference for this is the earlier parable that Jesus taught on the same day — the parable of the sower. In the parable of the sower, He clearly represents the birds as the messengers of the devil.2 4
Some see this growth as a good thing. Sometimes this parable is applied to the gospel, the church, or to the kingdom in general1 7, that Jesus is teaching that the kingdom will start out small but grow great and powerful. They often bring up the mustard seed and view this as the outcome of faith, which will grow great. Once you start to believe it will grow into something huge.
- One problem with this view is that it neglects the context. Jesus is teaching this message to His disciples after He has been rejected, both by the leaders and the people. The previous parable of the sower shows that most will not receive the word.
- The problem with applying this parable to the church is its future fulfillment.
The church would be unknown to the disciples at this time, yet they fully understood what Jesus was teaching them (Matthew 13:51).
- The other problem with this view is the meaning of the birds. The immediately previous context uses the birds to describe Satan’s servants. For the commentators who see the church as a shelter for the nations, how is this a positive thing?
- To interpret this parable that the kingdom will experience worldwide success contradicts the first parable (the parable of the sower), where Jesus taught that many will hear but few will believe.4
“In the parable of the sower and soils, the birds stood for Satan, who snatches the seed (Mark 4:15). If we are to be consistent in our interpretation, we must take this into consideration, for both parables were taught on the same day.” – Warren Wiersbe5
[f] Interpretive challenges in the parable of the leaven:
Some Bible commentators extend the theme of false teachers in this parable, applying the woman and the three measures of grain to the interpretation. They see the woman as the great prostitute of Revelation 17,2 and the fact that a specific number of measures were given (i.e. three measures) indicates that there is a defined limit to their influence.1 There is no Biblical problem with this interpretation, but it makes for a very intricate explanation to a simple parable. In addition, it is hard to apply this complex explanation to Jesus’ primary audience for these parables: the disciples.
This parable (the parable of the leaven) is so closely associated with the previous parable (the parable of the mustard seed), that the interpretation of the first parable greatly influences how you interpret the second. Most teachers who interpret the mustard seed as a positive growth will also interpret the leaven as a positive influence.
The key to this parable is how you interpret the leaven. I have followed the principle that leaven is always associated with evil and wickedness. Jesus even warned His disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). The Old Testament rituals prescribed cleaning out leaven from households in order to demonstrate ceremonial purity.
The alternate interpretation is to interpret the leaven as a positive influence in this parable. For this interpretation, the leaven is not evil in itself, but rather it portrays a growing influence. Therefore, they see this parable as showing the permeating effects of the gospel, either in the world, the church, or in our own lives. Teachers who hold this position also point out that Jesus compared the kingdom to the leaven itself (“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven”), so therefore the leaven must be the kingdom. However, there are problems with this interpretation:
- The argument that “the leaven must be the kingdom” is not necessarily valid. Jesus used the entire parable as an illustration about the kingdom and the comparison does not force us to only one aspect of the parable. The instruction about the kingdom is the entire scene: both the leaven and its effects. We have seen in the parable of the weeds that there are both positive and negative aspects in these lessons.
- Every other reference to leaven in scripture is negative (Exodus 12; Leviticus 2:11; 6:17; 10:12; Matthew 16:12; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Galatians 5:9).1 Therefore, the simplest explanation of scripture is that this reference to leaven must also be negative.2
“The disbelieving attitude of the Pharisees, which seems so aberrant and inconsequential to you in the face of the popular excitement which you so enjoy, will in fact spread throughout the nation soon enough.” – Doug Bookman8
[g] Interpretive challenges in the parable of the hidden treasure:
Like many of the other parables in this chapter, we don’t have an explanation in Scripture for its meaning. The key point here is the treasure. What is the treasure?
After studying this passage, I am convinced that since Jesus was directing this message to His immediate disciples, the simplest explanation is that the treasure must be the kingdom itself. While there are other explanations, with many of them being finely wrought, these other interpretations would not have made much sense to His disciples who were standing there at the time.
Some commentators interpret this parable so that the treasure is the message of salvation. They point to 2 Corinthians 4:7, where the gospel of Jesus Christ is described as “treasure in jars of clay”. However, there are a number of problems with this interpretation:
- The message of the gospel is not complete without the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, these events are still more than a year away and are completely unknown to His disciples. Therefore, He could not have been teaching them about the message of the gospel at this time.
- The gospel is not hidden when God has given us the light (2 Corinthians 4:3-6), nor does the sinner “find Christ”.4
- The man needs to buy the field in order to access the treasure. This interpretation would therefore ultimately make salvation a matter of purchase.
Many other commentators interpret this parable to be about the future of the Jewish people. In this case, the treasure is the Jews. Although they are being temporarily set aside because of their rejection, Jesus redeemed them when He bought the field.1 2 In this case, the interpretation of this parable is similar to the truths taught in Romans 11. The fact that the treasure is hidden points to the Jews’ current state of rejection. The field was bought when Jesus died on the cross. The fact that the treasure remains hidden at the end of the parable shows that the Jews have not yet come back to Him.
This interpretation — that the treasure is the Jewish people — contains good theology but it also has problems:
- The primary issue is, as mentioned above, that this level of Jewish redemptive theology would be lost on the Jesus’ disciples at that time. The truth about His plan of redemption would not be revealed until much later.
- The entire theme of Matthew 12 and 13 is the rejection by the Jews, and the marked change of Jesus’ teaching, moving only to His disciples. His message about the unbelieving Jews is one of condemnation, which is the opposite of the interpretation presented here. Why would Jesus have stopped His message of condemnation to tell His (Jewish) disciples that their people would be redeemed?
- This interpretation also has the risk of being “too fancy”. Interpreters are seeking to map every nuance of the parable to an event in redemptive history.
[h] Some critics have voiced an ethical dilemma in the parable of the hidden treasure. Wasn’t the man being secretive when He covered up the treasure in a field belonging to another? Wasn’t it deceptive to go and buy the field when the previous owner didn’t know of its value?
First, don’t forget that this parable is simply an analogy about finding treasure. We can get lost in the details when we try to account for every nuance in the stories presented. In this case, the point of the parable is the value of the treasure and the man’s commitment to sell everything he had to obtain it. The state of the previous owner is irrelevant to the parable.
Secondly, this is consistent with Jewish law and culture. It was a common practice for first-century Jews to secure valuables by burying them on their property (see here), and this would frequently leave unknown treasures buried in the fields (e.g. if the original owner died or was taken away).12 According to Jewish law, the treasure would go to the finder when it was found. Therefore, the man was being generous to the owner in seeking to buy the field.7
[i] Interpretive challenges in the parable of the valuable pearl:
Most of the explanations for this parable have already been covered with the interpretive challenges in the parable of the hidden treasure. This parable also has no explanation in scripture, so we are left looking to understand why Jesus was teaching this message to His disciples.
Many commentators see the valuable pearl as the message of the gospel. The gospel is incredibly valuable, and some commentators even go as far as to point out the gates of Heaven in Revelation 21:21. However, like the previous parable, this interpretation becomes a lot weaker when you remember that Jesus was teaching this to His disciples at the time of His rejection, about a year before He would go to the cross. The future events of His death and resurrection are still unknown to them.
Many other commentators interpret this parable in that the pearl represents the church. The merchant is Jesus who has come to redeem the church to Himself (e.g. Titus 2:14). The treasure will be revealed in the future while the pearl is visible today. Many times they also compare the properties of the pearl to characteristics of the church (i.e. the pearl represents oneness, it was formed under water, it is a product of stress, etc.). While this interpretation represents good theology and some great thought, it has some significant problems:
- The concept of the church was still unknown to the disciples. Jesus would begin to mention it later (Matthew 16:18), but the church itself was not established until Pentecost, after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2).
- The entire comparison about the properties of the pearl is too fancy. You need the breadth of scripture in order to possibly understand it and to arrive at this conclusion. The point is not the nuances of the pearl; the point is that the pearl is extremely valuable.
[j] “How is this [parable of the dragnet] different from the parable of the wheat and the tares? The parable of the wheat and the tares is about the coexistence of evil. This parable is about the separation” – John MacArthur13
[k] The disciples answered that they understood all of the parables that Jesus had taught that day (Matthew 13:51). It is very helpful to remember this when interpreting some of the more difficult parables in this chapter. The meaning may not be very clear to us, but it was clear to the disciples. Therefore, we should only look at interpretations that the disciples would also have understood.
[l] There is a lot of commentary about Jesus’ use of the word “scribes” in Matthew 13:52. Although the scribes were often associated with the evil Pharisees, it is important to remember that the office of a scribe was a profession, and not a system of beliefs. A scribe was a man who was so dedicated to God’s word that he had committed his life to maintaining and copying the law. The scribes traced their origins to Ezra when he returned from exile.
Some commentators interpret this statement about scribes as directed to Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, according to this interpretation, He calls them scribes here to either reflect or encourage their knowledge of scripture. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that this verse is the only place where Jesus uses this term, “scribes,” for His disciples. It refers to the specific Jewish profession everywhere else.