Parables of the Kingdom
Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9; Mark 4:1-9; Luke 8:4-8)
Jesus left the city to sit by the shore of Lake Galilee. A great multitude gathered, so Jesus entered a boat, using it as a platform to address the multitude on the shore. Luke tells us that the crowd was made up of people from numerous cities throughout Israel. Thus Jesus had been picking up followers as he traveled through the towns of Israel.
Matthew’s account states it is “the same day,” but we don’t know which day is being referenced. However, the use of the phrase helps us to understand that Jesus did not waste time while he was on earth.
None of the gospels record all the parables Jesus used. Matthew records the most, but Mark contains one that Matthew didn’t use. Luke only records two, but mentions in Luke 8:10 that there were multiple parables taught.
The first parable is that of a sower who scatters seed in his field. As can happen, the scattered seed does not always land in the best soil. Some fell on the path of hard-packed earth and rock near the field; others fell on unprepared, rocky ground; still others in good soil, but it was out toward the edges where the weeds easily sprouted; but the rest fell on the fertile field.
The seed on the path was eaten by birds. The seed on the rocky soil grew for while, but quickly died because they did have sufficient roots. The seed on the edges also grew, but the weeds also came up and choked out the wheat. But the seed on the field grew to produce more seed, though each produced varying amounts.
Jesus ends the parable with the admonition, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 13:9). In other words, for those inclined and are able to understand what was said, pay attention to its meaning. It serves as a warning that there is more being said than what appears on the surface.
It is difficult at times to put ourselves in the position of Jesus’ audience who are hearing his words for the first time. In this parable, we have the benefit of learning its meaning from Jesus’ later discussion of it. We have heard preachers talk about these parables many times, and we have pondered them ourselves. Would we have understood the parable any better than the people gathered or Jesus’ disciples if this was our first exposure to it? I highly suspect that most of us would have scratched our heads, thinking “the words are true, but what’s his point?”
Why Parables? (Matthew 13:10-17; Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10)
Not surprisingly, the disciples could not figure out what the parable meant. When they could talk to Jesus private, they asked what it meant and why was he speaking in parables.
Jesus stated that some things his disciples needed to know, the multitude was not to know. Therefore, he spoke in parables, stories with hidden meaning, while in public so that only those who sought understanding would understand his message. In part, the hiding of the meaning could be what Paul referred to in I Corinthians 2:6-11: “However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him." But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God” (I Corinthians 2:6-11). Thus, one reason for the hidden message was to teach without changing important upcoming events.
The mystery Jesus refers to is discussed at length in the New Testament. A major point in the hidden message was that the kingdom was not limited to the Jews. It would be open to the Gentiles though the means of faith and not physical birth (Romans 16:25-27; Ephesians 1:7-10; 3:1-12; Colossians 1:25-28; I Peter 1:10-12, 20).
Jesus also stated that he spoke in parables to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. The parables are not difficult to understand once you get the sense of how they operate, yet the great religious minds of the day would completely miss the points while humble hearts of common people eager to learn would grasp them. Thus the lack of understanding would prove how poorly these great minds knew God’s Word. The disciples were particularly blessed because the things they would understand were things prophets in the past eagerly desired to learn, but were unable to do so.
Explanation of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:18-23; Mark 4:13-20; Luke 8:11-15)
The understanding of the Parable of the Sower is important because it serves as the foundation for understanding the other parables. As Jesus told his disciples, if you can’t grasp this one, you wont be able be able to understand the rest.
The key to understanding parables is to identify the symbols: The seed is the word of God being spread. The ground represents the type of people receiving the word of God. Four types of people are described.
The hard ground of the path represent people who hear the teachings of God, but it doesn’t enter them – that is, it makes no impact in their lives. What little they receive is quickly lost to sin.
The stony ground represents people who gladly receive the word of God, but they have no roots in themselves. That is, their faith is shallow, often times based on the actions of others, and not a faith that comes from a deep personal conviction. Examples would be children who become Christians solely because their parents are Christians or their friends are Christians. When the going gets rough and challenges to their faith arises, these shallow-rooted Christians have nothing to draw upon to sustain them and they die away.
The thorny ground represents people who receive the word, but they do not leave the world behind. While trying to hold on to both, the cares and distractions of the world eventually chokes out their faith in God (Matthew 6:24; Luke 16:13). An example are people who convert to Christianity because life is hard and they need help, but when the strain of life eases they no longer see a need for God and they slide way.
The good soil represents those who with noble and good hearts both hear the word and understand it. That is, they accept the word of God because it makes sense to them. They have a personal conviction that it is right and they find strength in its teachings to carry them through both the good and bad times in their lives. These people aren’t just pew sitters. You can see who they are because they are actively involved, bringing other people to Christ. They won’t all be equally effective, as circumstances will impact their effectiveness toward God’s cause. Some will bring some to Christ, others will bring many to Christ, but the common trait is that they are winning souls. Luke’s account also reminds us that they do so with patience; that is, they have a long-term view of their work and are willing to invest the effort required even if the results are not seen immediately.
Parable of the Farmer (Mark 4:26-29)
Patience is a required character trait in a farmer. It takes a year’s worth of effort to bring in a crop and until that crop is gathered, you do not know how effective your efforts have been. The farmer prepares the soil and scatters the seed, but the actual sprouting of the seed is not under his control. Exactly how it happens is not something he needs to know. The farmer plants the seed, but it is God who causes it to grow. “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (I Corinthians 3:5-7).
Those who work toward the spreading of the kingdom need reminders that growth doesn’t come all at once. The word of God is scattered and eventually some of it grows. Even then it takes time for the Christian to mature to the point that he can begin spreading the word in turn (I Peter 2:1-3; Hebrews 5:12-14). We may not know how the word causes a Christian to mature, but we can see the results in a Christian’s life.
Some read Mark 4:29 as saying that when a Christian is fully mature, that God then comes to gather him in to His heavenly kingdom. A major problem of this view is that it changes the meaning of who is the farmer. We started out stating that the kingdom, that is the church, is like a farmer. That meaning should be retained until the end.
A farmer does not benefit from his crop until it is fully matured and has yielded seed of its own. The church is not able to benefit from its work until those it has taught and nurtured to maturity have in turn developed the ability to spread the word of God to others. You can see this throughout the world. Some churches grow by leaps and bound as its members produce an abundant harvest, while others dwindle away because there are not enough seed bearers. The growing churches are often the ones strongest in faith and love for God. The dying churches are consumed with internal problems.
Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30)
Continuing the theme of farming, Jesus gives a parable of a farmer who sows good seeds, but, as every farmer knows, the world produces a lot of weeds. An enemy sowed tares in his field so that when grain began to appear, the tares also sprouted. The word translated as “tares” or “weeds” is a reference to the darnel, or false wheat. It is similar to wheat, but its seeds are black and have no food quality. In its early stages of growing, it looks just like regular wheat, thus making it difficult to remove. It is not until the plants are close to ripening that the difference is seen.
The servants are confused by the appearance of plants that have not been sown, but the master explains that they had done what was right, but an enemy sabotaged their efforts. The servants wanted to know if they should removed the false wheat immediately, but the master said to do so would damage the true wheat just before the harvest. It was better to wait for the actual harvest and then separate the good from the bad.
When the harvest eventually comes, the false wheat is removed and destroyed allowing the true wheat that remains to be easily harvested.
The explanation of this parable comes later in the text, so we will hold off as well for a moment.
Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32)
The next parable focuses on the growth of a seed. Notice in Mark 4:30 how Jesus engages the minds of his audience by asking them first to think of an illustration for the kingdom. He then gives them the perfect illustration. You cannot necessarily tell by looking at the size of the seed the resulting size of the plant. For example, the mustard plant has extremely tiny seeds, but when it grows, it can becomes large enough for birds to roast in its branches. In the Palestine area, mustard plants can reach a height of ten feet.
When teaching the word of God, you cannot tell in advance the type of Christian who will result. The seemingly smallest beginning might surprise you by becoming the strongest Christian who is able to bear and support others (Proverbs 4:18). This is a theme that frequently appears in Christ’s teachings (Matthew 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30).
But here the focus is on the church. Jesus is explaining that at its beginning, the church will appear small and insignificant, but it will soon grow much larger than anyone would expect (Isaiah 11:9; Malachi 1:11).
Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33)
The parable of the leaven in bread continues the theme of the growth of Christ’s kingdom. In the making of sour dough bread, a small amount of yeast laden dough is mixed in with a fresh batch. Very quickly the yeast multiples and the entire batch is now filled with yeast.
The theme is much like that of the mustard seed, but here the focus is upon the hidden nature of the spreading of the kingdom. The result is obvious, but the actual spreading of the kingdom is not easily tracked. The growth of yeast is one that changes the nature of the medium in which it grows, much as Christians impact the nature of society around them by their influence.
Parable of the Lamp (Mark 4:21-23; Luke 8:16-17)
The parable of the lamp warns us not take the idea of hidden too far. The kingdom spreads across the world in a fashion hidden from the rulers of the world – thus preventing them from stopping it, but spread is caused by each individual Christian letting his faith shine before others.
A lamp is worthless if its light is kept hidden. In fact, a hidden light will shortly go out. A lamp is meant to be placed in a prominent place so that its light can reach to the dark corners.
The meaning of Mark 4:22 is debated, but I believe Jesus is setting the stage for a detailed discussion that will come later in Matthew 10:26-27 and Luke 12:2-3. Jesus used parables, but not to obscure the spread of the gospel, but to hide the meaning for a while from those who could cause it damage – just as a newly lit flame is protected in the cup of a hand until the wick ignites. When the time comes, the light of the gospel will need to be publicly displayed to do what was intended. It is the apostles and Christians after them’s responsibility to broadcast the message.
Jesus’ Continued Use of Parables (Matthew 13:34-35; Mark 4:24-25, 33-34; Luke 8:18)
Jesus continued to use parables in his public teaching. Matthew points out that this fulfilled a prophecy found in Psalm 78:2-3. As this Psalm continues in Psalm 78:4 we learn that it was not to remain hidden but to be spread from generation to generation, just as the Parable of the Lamp stated. Thus Jesus public statements were in parables, but privately he explained his words so that later the disciples could spread the message.
Again we return to the point that there were teachings made by God that prepared the world for His will, yet were done in such a way as to remain a mystery until the proper time came for them to be revealed. Jesus did much to clarify what was taught in the past and this was spread to the world by the Apostles (Ephesians 3:9-10).
Mark’s account also explains to us that how a person listens to the parables affects what he gains from the parable. The more a person knows, the more he will understand. Those who attentively listen will gain more knowledge, but those who do not have a mind to follow God will not benefit from the teachings (James 1:22-25).
Explanation of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:36-43)
After the multitude had left and Jesus was alone with his disciples in a home, they asked the Lord for an explanation of the parable of the tares. As with the other parables, the key to understanding begins with identifying what the major parts of the parable represent. The sower is Jesus. Where earlier parables connected the seed to the word of God, in this parable the seed is what that word produces – sons of God. The enemy is Satan and, thus, the seed that he scatters represents his followers (I John 3:6-10). The field itself is the world (not the church) and the gathering at harvest represents the end of the world. Those gathering the harvest are angels (II Thessalonians 1:6-10).
Thus one point being answered by this parable is the question, “Why doesn’t God do something about the evil in the world?” Destroying the evil would harm the good. While having evil people in the world is not ideal, leaving the situation alone until the end will result in a relatively better crop of good people in the end. Thus God’s children must exist in the world (I Corinthians 5:9-10). And the world will at times infiltrate Christ’s kingdom (Matthew 13:41).
In the end, the good will be separated from the bad. The followers of Satan will be destroyed, while the followers of Christ will be gathered in (Daniel 12:2-3; Psalm 9:17). The weeping and gnashing of teeth is to express the extreme anguish and hopeless of the wicked’s situation. Once the wicked are removed, the righteous will shine forth.
Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44)
This parable focuses on the value of the kingdom of heaven. It is like discovering hidden treasure; so valuable that a person is willing to sell everything he has to possess it because the result is worth more than what he currently has (Psalm 19:10; Proverbs 3:13-15; Philippians 3:8). While many reading this parable think of a treasure chest, what is being considered is more on the order of a mine. A treasure chest could be carried off, a mine needs to be bought so that its treasures can be dug out.
Parable of the Valuable Pearl (Matthew 13:45-46)
Like the prior parable, this parable is also about the value of the kingdom. Where the hidden treasure was seemingly found by accident, here the valuable pearl – the church – is found by one who diligently sought such treasure (Proverbs 2:4-5). Recognizing the value of what he has found, he too sells everything he has to possess this one item.
Therefore, between the two parables we learn that some people will stumble upon the church, while others learn about it because they were purposely seeking it. In either case, it is the recognition of its value that causes them to invest all that they have into the kingdom of God.
Parable of the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50)
This parable revisits the same theme touched on in the parable of the wheat and the tares. The church is compared to a fisherman’s dragnet. While pulling in fish, it is not able to distinguish between the good and the bad. All are pulled in together and then afterwards it is sorted out. Jesus makes sure we understand that the sorting out will take place in judgment.
Jesus is pointing out the simple fact that while the kingdom continues in this world, it will be composed of good and bad people. It is not possible to clearly make a distinction at this time (I Corinthians 11:17-18). This does not mean that obvious error should not be dealt with; such is taught in numerous places in the New Testament. Instead, this should serve as a warning that no church will exists without some members who will not make it to heaven.
Parable of the Householder (Matthew 13:51-52)
The last parable is about the understanding of parables. Jesus asked the disciples if they understood what he taught them. They acknowledged that they did. Jesus then points out that every scribe who learns about the kingdom is like a person who brings out old and new treasures from his home.
A scribe’s primary duty was to copy the books of the Law, but due to the nature of his job his detailed familiarity of the Law made him an ideal teacher of the Law (Ezra 7:6, 10). A scribe, instructed concerning the kingdom, is able to bring out points from both the old and new laws, thus greatly enriching his hearers.