Matthew 13 contains Christ's explanation of His use of parables as a way of teaching. In analyzing these parables, we discover the King's personal view of His Kingdom through the past, present, and future of the history of His church. They seem not to reveal as much about the church's eternal characteristics as about its day-to-day efforts resulting from Christ's work in coming into the world. They act as a prophetic summary of the historical development of God's church. The recurring phrase "kingdom of heaven" denotes Christ's work through His church to make known "the word of the kingdom" (verse 19), that is, to announce the good news of the coming Kingdom of God.
The chapter contains eight parables. Jesus gave the first four to the mixed multitude, while He told the last four to the twelve disciples in private. After the first series of four parables, Matthew writes, "All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them" (verse 34). These four parables describe the outward characteristics of the church, the working of the mystery of sin against the church, and the extent to which the Evil One is allowed to go in his opposition. The remaining four parables illustrate the inner characteristics of His church. After the eighth parable, Matthew makes another concluding statement, ". . . when Jesus had finished these parables, . . . He departed from there" (verse 53).
The parables can also be grouped into related pairs that illustrate the church's different characteristics:
First Pair: The Sower (verse 3) represents the relationship of the church to the different groups of people with which it comes into contact while doing its work. The Tares (verse 24) represents the relationship of the church to the wicked one and his agents.
Second Pair: The Mustard Seed (verse 31) represents the dynamic growth of the church from small beginnings even while adversaries confront it. The Leaven (verse 33) represents the progress of the church against and despite the contagious outspread of sin.
Third Pair: The Treasure (verse 44) represents the preciousness of Christians to Christ, who can see their hidden value and sacrifices all to possess them. The Pearl (verse 45) represents the preciousness of the church to Christ, who sacrifices everything to acquire it.
Fourth Pair: The Dragnet (verse 47) teaches that the good and evil who intermingle on earth will be completely separated in the judgment. The Householder (verse 52) represents the work of the true minister and teacher who feeds the household of faith from a rich storehouse of essential spiritual treasures.
Taken together, the stories describe the characteristics and dynamism of the church, its formidable obstacles, and its ultimate victory. They show Christ working through His messengers to preach the gospel of the Kingdom between the time of His first and second comings.
The first parable, The Sower, and the eighth, The Householder, are key, the first introducing and anticipating all of the parables, and the last concluding and reflecting back on the whole, stating the church's purpose and duty under the authority of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus finished the first seven parables, He asked His disciples, "Have you understood all these things?" That they understood made it possible for Jesus to conclude with a final parable that reveals the responsibility of the disciples as "scribes" in the church, "instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven" (verse 52). The apostles, and the church Jesus would build, would bring forth a treasure of knowledge and understanding, "things new and old."
Jesus teaches us by the simplicity and shortness of His parables that directness and brevity are effective teaching tools. His method stands in sharp contrast to the involved and lengthy style of some Bible commentators. Jesus gave clear and precise illustrations to which His audience could relate. Farmers listened to pictures of agricultural life. Wives could grasp His word pictures from home life. Merchants could relate to illustrations from the business world that translated into spiritual principles. Jesus also spoke of common civic duties and social events. Portrayals of nature scenes provided Him with analogies with which to express spiritual truth. Jesus used pictures that fit the occasion in a way that preserved their naturalness.
Only Christ's disciples can really understand the true spiritual principles involved in the parables, "because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" (verse 11). They were inspired by His Father in heaven, "[for] all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15), therefore "blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears, for they hear" (Matthew 13:16).
Martin G. Collins
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part One): Introduction
Christ did not speak in parables to make the meaning clear to just any reader! From the very beginning, God has supervised the writing of the Bible so that it cannot be understood without outside help. Even prophets and righteous men of old did not understand, nor did the multitudes who heard the parables of Christ. According to Romans 11, the meaning is veiled from most of mankind until the day God offers them salvation. They are relegated to unbelief until a later time (i.e. the Millennium or Great White Throne Judgment), lest they rebel and must be destroyed.
The seed is the Word of God, and its hitting the ground is not the end of the story. A variety of things can happen that will affect the growth of that seed. Some might fall on stone, others might be buried too deep. Rain may come and wash away some of it. Birds may devour others. But because life is in the seed, something will happen.
In the last century, archeologists found wheat and cotton seeds in some of the burial chambers that they excavated. Those seeds—which were probably anywhere from 2,000-4,000 years old—grew when put into the right soil. The spirit of life was still in them, even though they had lain dormant for thousands of years.
This is dramatic confirmation that, if a seed is sown, it will do something when it lands in the right kind of soil. Jesus shows in this parable that the environment affects the seed's growth. When we make the proper application—people are the ground, and our environment and what we do after receiving the seed—the word of truth, containing the doctrines—is what affects its growth. In this analogy, growth represents sanctification, which is the formation of God's image in us by living His way of life empowered by His Spirit. What we do with the seed is "work[ing] out [our] salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). It is the equivalent of rain, sunshine, weeding, fertilizing, so that the potential for fruit is the greatest. Sanctification is worked out through application, by living the doctrines and the truths of God.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Unity (Part 5): Ephesians 4 (B)
In the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9, 19-23; also Mark 4:3-9, 14-20; Luke 8:4-8, 11-15), Jesus reveals why those who hear the gospel of the coming Kingdom of God are not always receptive in the same way. People who are called have their minds opened, the Holy Spirit enabling them to take it to heart, yet many see its surface value but do not internalize it. The parable illustrates the church's relationship to the different groups of people with which it comes in contact.
Jesus uses three components—the sower, the seed and the soils—to indicate the differences. His story shows the fate of the sown seed, the different types of soils on which it fell, and the resulting effects. Though Jesus names it "the parable of the sower" (Matthew 13:18), the subject matter sheds particular light on the diverse soils. Nevertheless, the sower does not play a minor role in the parable, since without Him no sowing would occur, without which there would be no possibility of fruit. However, the sower represents a group, as well as Jesus Himself (Matthew 13:37). The language suggests any typical sower, so God's ministers may be considered sowers of the gospel as well. The Parable of the Sower is essential because it introduces and anticipates the whole series of parables in Matthew 13.
Martin G. Collins
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part Two): The Parable of the Sower
Jesus describes quite a number of variables here, and we could add such things as weather, insects, viruses, molds, parasites, soil quality, and seed quality.
What happens when we plant an apple seed? In due time, the seed grows into a mature tree, which produces far more than just one apple. In all likelihood, it will produce many bushels of apples for many years. The apples fall to the ground or are carried away from their point of origin—sometimes very far away in the stomach of a bird or a horse. New seeds are then deposited on the ground, and the "spreading" cycle begins anew to be repeated almost endlessly. Of course, there are some impediments to this process, but where the factors are right, both apple trees and their fruit can increase greatly.
Suppose someone plants a choice morsel of gossip into another's ear. If that sin falls on fertile "ground" (a person with all the "right" proclivities for carrying it to others without regard to consequences), who knows how much destruction can be caused! If that person tells ten others, and these in turn tell ten more, in three cycles one thousand people are involved in this sin! It is entirely possible that not even one person in that thousand would see himself as a cog in the process of spreading potential destruction!
Paul confirms this in II Timothy 2:16-17. "But shun profane and vain babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer." The New English Bible translates that last sentence as, "The infection of their teaching will spread like a gangrene." Conduct like this will bear bad fruit because human nature provides very few impediments to sin. Human nature can produce nothing else, as Paul writes in Romans 8:6, "For to be carnally minded is death." To add to the tragedy, human nature almost always drags others into its curse along the way to death.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Little Things Count!
An overview of Matthew 13 is essential, because we need to understand the whole context to see what Jesus was trying to get across to us. A particular Bible translation may divide the chapter into only seven parables, but there are eight parables in Matthew 13. Usually the eighth is combined with the seventh parable. In a way, the eighth follows the seventh, but it is a parable in its own right. It should stand alone.
These eight parables can be divided into three sections. The first consists of the first four parables: the Parable of the Sower, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Leaven. The second section consists of the next three parables: the Parable of the Hidden Treasure, the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price, and the Parable of the Dragnet. The third section is the last parable, the Parable of the Householder, who takes out of his treasury both old and new.
The titles of these three sections give an idea of what Jesus emphasizes in Matthew 13. We can title the first section "Satan's Plan to Destroy the Church." The second section can be titled "God's Work on Behalf of the Church," what God does to make sure that Satan does not destroy the church. The third section can be titled "The Ministry's Duty to the Church."
Notice the comment Matthew makes following the first section. In Matthew 13:34 is an explanation why the first four parables can be titled "Satan's Plan to Destroy the Church":
All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: "I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world."
What was kept secret from the foundation of the world? Satan's plan to destroy God's plan of salvation, which He is fulfilling through the church.
Matthew 13:34 applies specifically to what Jesus had just said, but it also applies generally to all the parables. Through them, Jesus opens up matters that have been concealed from the foundation of the world. In Psalm 78:2, it does not say, "I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world." Instead, it says: "I will utter dark sayings of old," providing another clue that what Matthew 13:34 refers to in respect to the first four parables is dark. Jesus is speaking of dark mysteries, dark things happening. These can only be Satanic things, bad, negative things inspired by the Devil.
What Jesus spoke before verse 34 is primarily negative, not positive, and these negative things have been hidden from man since the foundation of the world. What happened at the foundation of the world? Adam and Eve sinned. That was the first step in Satan's plan—"Get them while they're young"—and he has been doing the same thing ever since. Jesus touches on this in the first parable.
So, in the first half of this chapter, Jesus is saying, "Look, My disciples, this is the plan that you must fight against. If you understand what is in these parables, you will have a pretty good idea of what is happening spiritually."
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part 1): The Mustard Seed
The seed represents God's Word communicated in various ways: in preaching, writing, and acts of divine intervention. Those God chooses understand the gospel because it comes only by the power of His Spirit. Without this spiritual power, the hearer is susceptible to having God's knowledge stolen by Satan, the accuser and tempter.
God's Word sometimes falls on the ears of people whose hearts are calloused by sin, on whom it makes no real impression. Like seed on a hard-packed road, it is consumed before it ever has a chance to develop. Such hardened people soon lose interest in Christ's good news and continue in the ways of the world.
Martin G. Collins
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part Two): The Parable of the Sower
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 13:9: