Last time, we finished our study of Matthew 12 in which Jesus warns the scribes, pharisees, and the Israelites of that day about the dangers of repentance without an accompanying saving relationship with God’s Spirit. In teaching that lesson, Jesus used the example of a man who was healed from demonic possession, but since he had not replaced the evil spirit with God’s Spirit the demon returned with seven more demons leaving the man in an even worse state than before he was healed.
Then at the end of Matthew 12, when Jesus’ mother and brothers asked to see Him, Jesus used the opportunity to teach us that our true family are our brothers and sisters in Him, especially when our profession of faith in Jesus Gospel causes estrangement within our earthly family.
Matthew 13:1-3a & 10-17 & 34-35 – The Purpose of Jesus’ Parables
Matthew continues here in chapter 13 telling about Jesus’ teaching several parables later that same day.
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables…Matthew 13:1-3a [ESV]
Before we study the parables themselves, we need to first quickly look at exactly what a parable is. First of all, a parable is a story or an instructional illustration that carries with it some moral lesson. Parables take the form of a comparison between an intangible or esoteric idea and a concrete example from everyday life with which the audience is well familiar. Specifically, many of Jesus’ parables begin with the simple phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like…”
NOTE – As pointed out in a previous study, Matthew’s gospel is the only place in God’s Word where we find the phrase “kingdom of heaven.” Mark and Luke use the phrase “kingdom of God” in relating Jesus’ parables.
Before we move on, let’s take a moment to reflect on this scene. Very likely this teaching of Jesus took place along the shore of the Sea of Galilee in or near the town of Capernaum, which Jesus used as a sort of home base for His Galilean ministry. As we know, one of the main industries of Capernaum was fishing. Except in winter, the heat of the midday can be quite oppressive at the Sea of Galilee which lies about 600 feet below sea level. Thus, most of the fishing was done very early in the morning, during the evening twilight, or at night. The intense dispute between Jesus and the religious people of the town we studied in Matthew 12 probably took place in the morning, so when He went outside later on, many of the fishermen’s boats would have been lying idle awaiting the cool of the evening. Jesus seized the opportunity to take advantage of the natural amphitheater provided by the lake and its steeply sloping banks to teach these parables from one of the unused boats to the crowds who frequently gathered to witness His miracles, and hear His teaching.
We’ll study each of the parables Jesus taught from this boat in detail. But first let’s take a look at Jesus’ explanation concerning why He gave so many of His teachings as parables.
10Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11And 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. 12For 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. 13This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.Matthew 13:10-13 [ESV]
I have to be perfectly honest here. This passage has always made me angry with God. It doesn’t seem fair. In fact, it seems outright cruel. I understand and accept that God’s will is sovereign. I know and trust that God is always perfectly righteous and holy. Nevertheless, I am angry that He has ordained things in this way. If I had my way, there would be no judgement between the sheep and the goats like Jesus spoke of in Matthew 25:31-46. In my world, my dear departed mother and millions like her would never face eternal torment in the lake of fire. If I were God, I would have mercy upon them because they were basically good people who only took an occasional misstep. Even though they never accepted the gift of salvation from Jesus, I would allow them into my heaven anyway.
This is because – like many people – I fail to grasp the depth of God’s hatred of sin. Intellectually, I comprehend that a perfectly holy God cannot abide in the presence of unrighteousness, but in the very depth of my gut, I can’t fathom how utterly sin disgusts God, nor the intensity of His love for His creation that drove Him to sacrifice Himself on the cross so that the perfectly holy God can abide in the presence of sinful man.
But my personal feelings aside, let’s delve into the passage to see what God would teach us through it.
At first blush, it might seem that Jesus is just throwing up His hands and giving up on those outside His circle of devoted disciples. But is He? We can find a clue in Jesus’ response to the Jews who confronted Him in the temple and asked Him to tell them plainly whether He was the Christ (Messiah) they were (and still are) awaiting.
25Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.John 10:25-26 [ESV]
Clearly Jesus knows our hearts. He knows those who will choose to believe in His Gospel and receive His gift of eternal life that He promised to Nicodemus in John 3:16. He also knows who will reject His Gospel and face the eternal condemnation that Jesus called “the second death” at God’s final judgement upon all mankind which we read about in Revelation 20. So that then begs the question, why did Jesus continue to preach the Gospel to these who had rejected it – albeit only in parables? The answer to that question is a matter of timing. Certainly some – even most – people do reject the Gospel initially, and don’t come to a saving faith in Jesus resurrection – which is the Gospel’s core – until sometime later. The seed of salvation planted in someone’s heart by a faithful witness (or even in the case of these Jews at the Sea of Galilee by the LORD Jesus Himself) may take years to germinate into a saving faith within that person’s heart.
Thus the parables that Jesus taught, weren’t really intended to bring those who heard them at the time to immediate salvation. Instead they served a twofold purpose:
- They planted the seed of Gospel truth in the hearts of those who heard them.
- They provided an example of Gospel preaching to those disciples present when they were first taught, who then continued to reach out to the lost by repeating them.
Indeed, we who read these parables today are living recipients of that Gospel preaching passed down through the years from Jesus, to His disciples who were present to hear Him teach them as He sat in the boat, to those who recorded these parables in God’s written Word, to Christian teachers who continue to preach the Gospel through these parables still today. Thus we see the answer to Jesus’ prayer for His disciples (and us) in the garden of Gethsemane on the night He was betrayed to be crucified.
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. 20“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.John 17:17-21 [ESV]
Jesus’ prayer in the garden makes it very clear the intended audience for the Gospel preaching given though His parables is nothing less than all mankind – past, present, and future.
14Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:Matthew 13:14-15 [ESV]
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15For 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.’ [Isaiah 6:8-10]
The passage Jesus referred to here is taken from Isaiah’s vision of God’s heavenly throne.
1In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3And one called to another and said:Isaiah 6:1-10 [ESV]
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
4And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; [undone, destroyed, doomed, ruined] for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
ASIDE – Isaiah was petrified at having seen God because of the warning that God had given to Moses in Exodus 33:20 that no one can see God and live.
This passage from Isaiah is packed with richness. Unfortunately, we don’t have time to delve into it fully. Before we move on though, note that Isaiah himself did nothing to cleanse himself from his uncleanness. It was purely the grace of God Almighty working through the ministry of the seraph by which Isaiah’s guilt was taken away and his sin atoned for. Thus Isaiah did not die despite having seen the LORD. What an amazing picture this is of our own salvation. It is purely by God’s grace through the ministry of Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross by which our own sins are atoned for and our guilt taken away. Thus we don’t have to die in our sins. Instead, by Jesus’ sacrifice of His own life in our place, we are able to receive eternal life in His glorious presence rather than the punishment of death which is rightly ordained for our sins.
For now, the message God gave to Isaiah which Jesus referenced in answer to His disciples question regarding parables is what’s relevant to our study in Matthew 13. Isaiah was sent with God’s message to people who were just going through the motions of the ordained temple worship. Their hearts weren’t in it at all. How similar they were to many today who profess Christianity but have no relationship with the One who could save them out of death in their sins. In Jesus’ own ministry, those to whom Jesus taught only in parables followed Him seeking only to witness His miracles or receive miraculous healing for themselves. Few were interested in the true salvation out of sin He offers. If Jesus called these “a wicked and adulterous generation,” and refused to put on a show for them, how much more will He reject their modern day equivalent. Once again Isaiah offers a warning.
20Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,Isaiah 5:20-23 [ESV]
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
21Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
22Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
23who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right!
NOTE – It is very intriguing to compare the vision of God’s throne we find in Isaiah 6 with the similar visions in Ezekiel 1, Daniel 7, and Revelation 4.
16But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.Matthew 13:16 [ESV]
Blessed indeed are we who have recognized the truth of Jesus’ Gospel. What is truly amazing is we ourselves really had nothing to do with our “conversion.” It is deeply humbling to ponder that hour when we first believed, and realize that we ourselves would never have opened our eyes to see the Truth. We didn’t make a decision to finally listen to and obey God’s Spirit on that day. He intervened in our lives in such a way that we could no longer deny His lordship. Remember that these disciples to whom Jesus was explaining the purpose of His teaching through parables did not choose to follow Jesus on their own. He chose them specifically.
16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17These things I command you, so that you will love one another.John 15:16-17 [ESV]
17For 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.Matthew 13:17 [ESV]
Speaking to His disciples on this particular day when they asked Him why He always taught in parables, Jesus confirmed to them (and us) here in Matthew 13:17 that He was indeed the promised Messiah for whom the Jews had been waiting since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden. Sadly, as we have remarked throughout our studies, most of the Jews – even the “righteous” – failed to recognized Jesus’ fulfillment of the ancient Messianic prophecies which their forefathers had longed to see fulfilled, because Jesus’ nature as the suffering servant foretold in Isaiah 53 didn’t match up with their preconceived notion of their King’s coming as a conqueror who would overthrow their oppressors like Israel’s leaders in the book of Judges or their beloved hero King David. Recall Jesus’ answer to Pilate when asked whether He was a King.
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”John 18:36 [ESV]
34All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable.Matthew 13:34 [ESV]
Here in Matthew 13:34 Matthew reminds us once again that Jesus taught the crowds only with parables. Mark gives us a little clearer insight into why Jesus did this.
33Jesus used many similar stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they could understand. 34In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables; but afterward, when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them.Mark 4:33-34 [NLT]
By using parables, Jesus taught the people on their own level of understanding, knowing as we previously saw that just hearing the parables would plant the seed that might spring up for some of them into true understanding of the meaning of the parables and a saving faith in the Gospel message underlying them.
But even with His devoted disciples, Jesus didn’t share the entire story of His Gospel, knowing that until He was crucified and subsequently raised from the dead they would not be able to accept what He wanted to impart to them. He told them this plainly in the upper room on the night He was betrayed when He promised the gift of His Holy Spirit.
12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.John 16:12-14 [ESV]
35This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:Matthew 13:35 [ESV]
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” [Psalm 78:2]
The prophet to whom Matthew refers in this verse is Asaph the psalmist. Asaph was a Levite who was appointed head of the singers of the priestly service in the tabernacle during the rule of King David – 1 Chronicles 25. Asaph also composed 12 of the psalms in God’s Word. How wonderful it is to anticipate hearing Asaph himself sing these songs as part of our own heavenly worship someday.
The psalm to which Matthew refers here in Matthew 13:35 is Psalm 78.
1Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;Psalm 78:1-4 [ESV]
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
2I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
3things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
4We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
NOTE – Psalm 78 is a succinct summary of the Israelites’ 40-year wandering in the wilderness of Sinai after the exodus from Egypt, which is detailed in the book of Numbers.
Now we hopefully have a better understanding of why Jesus always taught the crowds in parables. God willing, next time we’ll take a more detailed look at the parables of Matthew 13 themselves, beginning with the parable of the Sower and Jesus’ own explanation of this parable to His disciples.