Pastor Scott L. Harris
November 7, 1993
The Parables of the Kingdom
Parables in Context
This week we return to our study of the Book of Matthew. I hope last week’s sermon on a Biblical Perspective of Halloween was helpful to you in giving you a Biblical Grid by which you can carefully think through how to respond to the various cultural celebrations that occur in our nation. (See: Halloween: An Historical & Biblical Perspective). While we want to be separated from evil and worldly practices for the Scripture commands us to do so, we also want to use every available opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I trust that was helpful to you in accomplishing both of those goals.
This week, we turn our attention again to the 13th chapter of Matthew where we find our Lord telling a series of parables. Now it is important to once again set the context of these parables, for if we do not know the background and reason for them being told, it is impossible to know what they mean.
Recall first of all that the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders has been escalating for some time, and that it has now reached a peak with the Scribes and Pharisees falsely accusing Jesus of doing His various miracles by the power of Satan, and Jesus has denounced them for their hypocrisy (See: The Unforgivable Sin, Exposing The Heart & What Sign Are You Looking For?). It is at this point that we find Jesus changing His method of teaching the multitudes from straight discourse, such as in the Sermon on the Mount, to using parables. Parables are supposed to bring additional understanding to a point being made by illustrating it by an example from common life, but Jesus just gives the illustration without telling the people the point. Why? Jesus explains that to His disciples in Matthew 13:11-17. It was a means by which He could give to His followers an understanding about the mysteries of the Kingdom of God (verses 11, 12, 16, 17) while at the same time hiding that same knowledge from His enemies (verses 11-15). Jesus’ followers would be able to understand the parables because A) they would have the benefit of the Holy Spirit enlightening their minds, and B) Jesus would explain several of the parables to them in private. Jesus’ enemies would just become more confused because A) the natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 2:14) and B) they would try to understand what was said according to their already false understanding of the Old Testament. (See: The Purpose of Parables)
The purpose of these parables then is specifically to reveal some of the mysteries concerning the kingdom of God to Jesus’ followers, while confusing His enemies about those same mysteries. The Old Testament was not clear on many things that would happen in the future regarding the Kingdom of God. Verse 17 tells us that even the prophets themselves longed to understand these mysteries. They had operated under what it says in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children . . . “ Now God is revealing some of them through these parables.
Two weeks ago we examined the first of these parables and the explanation of it that Jesus gave to His disciples. The parable of the Sower revealed that the Kingdom of God was not going to come in the manner they had been expecting – a Messiah who would come as a conquering king that would not only throw off the yoke of Rome, but establish Israel as the center of the world (Ezekiel 36-39). This would be a man with a powerful sword and great political authority. Instead, we find that the kingdom would come through the simple act of proclaiming its message – “the word of the kingdom” (verse 19). In addition, we find that only a few would actually respond to that message and bear fruit. That is radically different than the expected military kingdom that would force everyone to submit. (See: The Parable of the Sower)
The second parable, that of the tares, is given in Matthew 13:24-30. I want to read it to you while giving you some clarifications of it, but we will not explain it until we reach verse 36 when Jesus does so.
The Parable of the Tares
He presented another parable to them, saying. (The “them” is the multitudes. This is given at the same time as the parable of the Sower. This second parable is also agriculturally based). “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares also among the wheat and went away.” (The men sleeping were not failing to do their job, but were resting after their days work. The enemy would have come at night to do his dastardly deed).
“But when the wheat sprang up and bore grain, then the tares became evident also.” The “tares” are seed of lilium tenulentum also known today as “bearded darnel.” This plant and wheat look alike until they head with grain, then they can be distinguished from each other. Darnel is not only a problem as a weed, but it is also a susceptible host to “ergot,” a fungal disease of grain that can be poisonous when consumed by humans.
27 “And the slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?'” The servants would have expected some weeds within the field, but there were so many they were confused about how it could be. They thought maybe the seed had been bad to start with, but the owner knew differently. 28 “And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!'” The owner immediately recognized that the condition of his grain could only have been caused by his enemy. One commentator noted that this must have occurred on occasion because there was a Roman law established which prohibited the practice as a means of revenge.
The owners’ servants went to help and so ask, “‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No; lest while you are gathering up the tares, you may root up the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.'” If the weeds were removed now, some of the wheat would also be damaged since by this time their roots would be intertwined. The best way to deal with the problem at this point would be to wait and separate them at harvest. The tares being burned up and the wheat taken into storage.
All these clarifications are things that Jesus’ listeners would have understood for themselves, since they were all familiar with the agricultural practices of the day. Since we are not as familiar with their agriculture, we needed to add the clarifications. Now you are at the same place they would have been. Jesus did not stop to explain it; He just went on to the next parable and explained it later as we shall too.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Matthew 13:31-32, “He presented another parable to them, saying, ‘The kingdom of the heavens is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all seeds; but when it is grown is larger than the garden plants, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of heaven come and roost in its branches.
Now some have gotten all bent out of shape and said that Jesus cannot be omniscient, He is wrong, the Bible is incorrect, we cannot trust it because the fact is that a mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world. Several other plants including tobacco, some orchids, and various wildflower and weed seeds are smaller. But Jesus is not making a universal botanical statement, but He is making an illustration using what was familiar to the people to whom He was talking to make His point, and His particular reference was to the plants found in their gardens, and mustard seed is the smallest of any of the garden plants they would have known about. It would have been silly for the Lord to have mentioned some plant they had never heard to use as a comparison feature in this parable. The mustard seed was commonly used in the ancient Near East as a figure of speech to represent something extremely small. Ancient Jewish literature will sometimes use a mustard seed as the comparison to describe how small something is.
The meaning of the parable is actually quite simple. Just as a mustard seed is small and grows to
be very large, so the kingdom of heaven will start very small and grow to be something very large. The particular mustard plant talked about here in the parable could grow to be 10 to 15 feet tall, and as its branches became firm it would be used by the birds as a nesting place. So it is with the kingdom of heaven. It would start small and grow to be a place where many will be able to find shelter.
The expectation was that the kingdom of heaven would come boldly, and rapidly establish itself and exert its power and authority over all. There was no mystery that it would become large, but it was a mystery for it to start so small. Jesus started with a small following that only amounted to 120 people at His ascension (Acts 1:15), which would not even be considered a large church now. Yet those few “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6) and provided the structure and foundation upon which all of Western Civilization was built, and in a real sense even all the Islamic countries were built off that same foundation since Islam is really only a corruption of Judaism and Christianity mixed with Arab paganism.
Some have made a lot of discussion about whether the birds in the parable illustrate evil or not. Jesus did not explain them and it can quickly get speculative either way. To be honest, I do not think it matters. The professing Church, the present manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth, has benefitted all of mankind – both those in the church and those who are evil and outside the church. Both good and evil have nested in the shelter provided by the structure that the church has given to the world.
The parable of the mustard seed illustrated the mystery of the kingdom of heaven’s small start which would grow to be great. And that should give us encouragement today as well. Should our nation continue in its current path away from God, it will never get away from Him, and our mission remains the same as those in the First Century – proclaiming the news of the Gospel. We may feel small and insignificant at times, but God uses just that very thing to do great things.
The Parable of the Leaven
Matthew 13:33 “He spoke another parable to them, “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three pecks of meal, until it was all leavened.”
This parable is very similar to the previous one, in that it speaks of the expansion of the kingdom starting from something very small to something very large. In the parable of the mustard seed, the emphasis was on the outward, visible expansion. In this parable, the emphasis is on the inward nature of that expansion. Again, remember that the people, and especially the religious leaders, were looking for the kingdom of God to come with great power. It would be something outward and mighty that would come about majestically and suddenly. Yet here we find the opposite. The kingdom starting small and expanding inwardly and affecting all that is around it.
We need to be careful of how we seek to do things. No true Christian is happy about the state of our nation. I don’t believe there are any believers that do not long for revival and to see our nation return to its heritage of trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, we must be careful about how we think that will come about. It will not come about by political efforts or even in gaining political power. Sure it was nice to have people like Ronald Reagan and George Bush at the helm of this nation and stemming the tide of the flood of immorality sweeping over us, a flood the current President seems to be assisting, but all even they did was slow things down some. Consider that even during the twelve years of their administrations when conservative politics was much stronger, most indicators of our nation’s morality have degenerated. Violent crime – UP (7.58/1,000 – 1991); Divorce – UP (1,187,000 in 1991); Cohabitation – UP (66 percent now cohabit before marriage 40 percent of those who cohabit do not marry – of those who do marry 75 percent will divorce); Illegitimate births – UP (28 percent National, 1991); Teen pregnancy and abortions – UP (doubled from 1972 – 1992); Single parent families – UP (28.6 percent in 1991); child abuse – UP (400 percent since 1976).
Leaven (yeast) is often used in the Scriptures to describe something influential because of the way it influences the baking process. It is used to describe the influential nature of both evil things and good things, and here it is the kingdom of God, a good thing, described as leaven.
The church is to change things the same way yeast does in cooking. It does not swell up and overwhelm the flour, it slowly but steadily permeates the flour causing the flour to react differently than it would have otherwise. The church is to be a force of influence that changes things from the inside out. Should Christians be involved in Politics? Of course, for that is part of what we should influence, but our hope is not in politics, but in revival brought by the Holy Spirit. When the hearts of the people are changed, then the outward structures will also change. Our part is simply to be used by the Holy Spirit in proclaiming the truth. He does the rest.
The mystery revealed by these two parables is that the kingdom of heaven would start small, but through its inward influence it would become a great entity in which even the unregenerate would find refuge.
In Matthew 13:34 and 35, which we discussed in detail two weeks ago, we are reminded that Jesus spoke to the multitudes many things in parables, but He only spoke in parables and in so doing fulfilled prophecy concerning Himself. He revealed mysteries to His followers, while concealing the revelation from His enemies.
The Parable of the Sower Explained
In Matthew 13:36, we find that Jesus has returned to the house in Capernaum where the disciples ask Him to further explain the parable of the Tares. Note that though they understood the central figure of the illustration – the Tares, not the wheat – they did not understand its meaning.
Jesus explains it in Matthew 13:37-43 with the various elements described in verses 37 to 40. “And He answered and said, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels.”
Now note that the field is the world, not the church. Confusion about that has misled many interpreters. The kingdom of heaven exists on several levels. To have a kingdom you need a king, subjects, and a realm. Jesus is the king who has various subjects and different aspects of His realm. There is the kingdom of heaven as a real place where the throne of God is located. When Jesus talks about entering into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20), He is talking about those who are members of the kingdom, those who belong to the king as both His children and subjects. But there is also the sense where everything is within God’s kingdom. Though Satan may be the “god of this age” and the “prince of the power of the air” he is still subjected to the limitations God places upon him. His very existence, as is the existence of every non-believer, is only by God’s toleration of him.
The mystery about this parable is not having the tares sown by the devil, for that would be expected of him, but of God’s toleration of those tares to remain alongside the wheat. The people were expecting the fulfillment of Zechariah 14:9ff which says, “And the LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one . . . “ the rest of the chapter describing the plagues and punishments that will come on to any that rebel in any way against Him. They were expecting the complete removal of all that opposed the Lord, so to find out that kingdom would have that kind of toleration was quite a revelation of God’s merciful patience with mankind.
But Matthew 13:40-43 complete Jesus’ explanation which tells us that God’s longsuffering will come to an end. “Therefore just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”
This completed the revelation of the mystery. The fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies about a wrathful God taking vengeance on His enemies and then setting up an all encompassing kingdom in which rebellion would not be tolerated would come, but not until the day of the Lord at the end of the age. Until then, there would continue to be tares among the wheat because, as Peter put it in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” That is the period in which we are in now, the Church age, the age of Grace. But this age will come to an end, and that could be at any time. After that comes judgment for those who, as 2 Thessalonians 1:8 put it, “do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” For those that do know God and obey the gospel, there is entry into eternal life as one of God’s children.
Jesus ends His explanation with the phrase: HE WHO HAS EARS, LET HIM HEAR.
This simply means, “I have told you the truth, take heed to it.” The mystery has been revealed. The Old Testament prophecies would be fulfilled, but there would be an age before then in which God would continue to be patient with sinners, in which the earthly manifestation of His kingdom, the true church, would grow from something very small to something of great size and influence the whole world.
Christians take heart – God can and will do great things through us regardless of how insignificant we feel. Sinners, take heed, God is patient, but judgment will come. Are you prepared for it? If not, you need to talk with myself or one of our elders today.
In a few minutes we are going to have a baby dedication. We take this seriously, because we want our children to be prepared for life. We want them fully aware about both God’s love for man and His hatred for sin. We desire them to know the joy of forgiven sin and of having a relationship with a loving savior and be spared the sorrow of His wrath against unrepentant sinners. We have four sets of parents this morning that want to dedicate themselves publicly before God and you to raising their children according to God’s commandments as set forth in the Scriptures.
They are all aware of the serious nature of what they are about to do. All of them have gone through various classes or assignments so that they know what the Scriptures teach parents regarding the rearing of their children. I am going to ask them to go get their children if they are downstairs and prepare for the dedication ceremony. While they are doing that, I would like us to be reminded about God’s pattern for the family by responsively reading the Scripture insert in your bulletin.
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