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.
In Matthew 13:10-17, Jesus explains the purpose of parables. It is not to expand the meaning, but to hide the meaning from the people whom He did not want to understand. Only with the Spirit of God can we really understand the parables, but He has to give us the understanding. Certain keys unlock parables, and if we do not have the keys, we will miss the meaning, and the interpretation will be wrong, off track.
Other parts of the Bible tell us that it takes the Holy Spirit to give us "ears to hear" (see I Corinthians 2:6-14). To understand spiritual things, we must have the Spirit of God in our minds - we must have the mind of Christ - that in turn opens up the Bible's "mysteries." Of course, the other major key is the Book itself, because the interpretation of the parables is within the Bible. It is not necessarily just the scriptural context of the parable; rather, the entire Bible contributes to opening up the parable's meaning. In other words, a parable does not stand alone. It must "fit" within the Bible's revelation.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Parables of Matthew 13 (Part 1): The Mustard Seed
Matthew 13 contains eight parables of “the kingdom,” and commentators generally interpret them all with the church in view. However, Christ spoke the first four to the multitudes (Matthew 13:2, 34, 36), and the setting suggests that His public teaching better suited the degenerate state of the physical nation than the growth of the yet-to-be-established church. Luke 13:10-20 contains two of the four—the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven—and in that account, Jesus plainly gave them in response to the nation's existing, degenerate belief system.
Whereas Jesus spoke the first four parables to the folk of Judea and Galilee—explaining two of them to the disciples—He told the last four parables solely to the disciples (Matthew 13:36). This suggests Jesus was turning His focus to a different aspect of the reign of God: the spiritual nation that would bear the fruits of the Kingdom—that is, the church.
However, despite the change in audience, the last four parables still connect to the first four, providing positive instruction to the disciples and now the church. We see the close connection in the parables' deliberate structure, which few take into consideration.
As with the rest of God's creation, His Word displays an order and beauty in its organization. The parables in Matthew 13 are arranged in a chiasm (also known as an introversion or epanados), a structure wherein similar ideas are repeated but in reverse sequence. In plain terms, the first and last parables form a pair because they teach about a common theme. Similarly, the second and seventh, the third and sixth, and the fourth and fifth parables form pairs because their respective lessons closely relate. In general, the first parable of each pair, spoken to the multitudes, presents a problem to which the second, spoken to the disciples, provides the spiritual solution.
The term chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, which we know as the letter X. The pivotal point of the X, and the crux of the chiasm, lies at the intersection. Applying this to the parables of Matthew 13, the decisive truth of Christ's teaching is found in the middle of the chiasm, the Parable of the Leaven (fourth parable) and the Parable of the Hidden Treasure (fifth parable). The previous parables lead up to this pair, and the remaining parables build upon their pivotal understanding.
David C. Grabbe
God's Kingdom in the Parables (Part Three)
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
Jesus clearly declares that the Israelites have closed their own eyes and ears (verse 15) - they made a conscious decision to do so. This can be done by simply choosing to ignore what God says or neglecting what has been given to them. They have ignored the works of His hands - the Creation - by which it is clearly shown that He is (Romans 1:20)! Because the carnal mind is enmity against God (Romans 8:7) and does not want to be tied down to a relationship with God, it prefers to do something else.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part Eleven)
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
Matthew 13:1-3 show the context and setting for Christ's teaching:
On the same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the sea. And great multitudes were gathered together to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore. Then He spoke many things to them in parables. . . . (Emphasis ours throughout.)
While it is easy to read over these details, they are crucial for grasping Christ's meaning because they show that Jesus spoke the first four parables (the Sower, the Wheat and the Tares, the Mustard Seed, and the Leaven) to “great multitudes.” Verses 34-36 confirm that He preached to the people at large at this point rather than strictly to His disciples:
All these things [the first four parables] 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 kept secret from the foundation of the world.” Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”
In the first four parables, Jesus is speaking primarily to the physical nation, the remnant citizenry of the earthly Kingdom of God. Even though they could not grasp the parables' full depth, He was still responding to the attitude and approach of the nation shown in the previous chapter, particularly of the leadership that continually rejected the dominion of heaven.
While Christ's teachings apply on multiple levels, it is paramount to grasp the primary meaning before looking for other applications. The complete fulfillment of the Kingdom was far beyond what the folk of Judea and Galilee could comprehend, yet He still spoke to them. The parables were not exclusively for His disciples, just as His prophecy, “The kingdom of God will be taken from you” (Matthew 21:43), was not spoken to His disciples. In short, the King had a message for the subjects of the physical Kingdom that He had established. He was giving them a testimony—a final chance—and when they rejected it, He focused on the budding spiritual nation that had Abraham's faith rather than merely his blood (Galatians 3:15-29).
David C. Grabbe
God's Kingdom in the Parables (Part One)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 13:16: