Matthew 13 is a loaded chapter in the Gospels. It’s so full of rich parables that we often break them up into smaller pieces. That’s warranted and necessary at times, obviously. After all, the whole Bible is a unified story, but we can’t digest the fullness of the Bible in one sitting. However, if we only ever feed on disjointed fragments, and never bring those pieces together into a full picture, we end up not being able to see the forest for the trees. So, we’ll try to take a section of the trees in Matthew’s gospel and see what that part of the forest looks like.
First some ground rules: Read Matthew 13:1-52 before this article. Read it a few times. Then remember—context, context, context. Any study of the Bible requires an understanding of context. This involves understanding what all is being spoken as one continuous narrative, but also how that narrative fits into the greater story and the historical and cultural factors that influence the speakers/hearers. This will be a lengthy article, but to break it into sections would go against this very point! (Hah)
A general overview of Matthew 13’s context: Jesus is speaking to a crowd initially, but there are also places where he is teaching only his closest disciples. Jesus understands the dynamics of a crowd. You’ll always have a mixed audience. Some will be enthralled by the message, some will be indifferent, some will be enraged, and some aren’t even listening. A striking example of this is in John 6—right after Jesus feeds the five thousand, the crowd is offended by His claim that he is the true bread of life, and many turned away from him. Perhaps they were like the crowd in John 2:23-25, who really only followed Jesus to catch a glimpse of an exciting miracle. The crowd that gathers in Matthew 13 isn’t any different. With that in mind, and with the goal that we want to look at a full “episode” of teaching from Jesus instead of disjointed fragments, let’s examine a continuous episode from Matthew 13:1-52.
The Sower (Matthew 13:1-23)
This is one of the few parables in this section that Jesus provides an interpretation for. There is one sower (Christ), one seed (“the word of the kingdom”), and four different soils that the seed lands on. Only one of those four is soil that actually allows the seed to produce fruit. When the disciples ask Jesus privately to explain this parable, he confirms that not everyone who hears a message actually “hears” the message (“…seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” Matthew 13:13). Let’s look at the mixture of different soil types that Jesus describes.
1) First there’s the path. The seed that is sown here is eaten up by the birds, who Jesus equates with the evil one. Ground that is trampled into a path is firm and compacted. It has been shaped over a long time and is not easily molded. We can easily see the metaphor for a hard heart and a stubborn mind. That seed isn’t sinking in, and it’s not going to germinate. If we reject the seed because of our hard hearts, it’s easy pickings for the enemy.
2) Then there’s the rocky ground. There’s more opportunity for the seed to get buried here—in fact, there may be a perfect crevice that the seed could fit through, receive some moisture, and germinate. Jesus said this is like people who eagerly receive a teaching, but they have no root. As soon as difficulty comes, that plant withers away. This is reminiscent of the John 6 example mentioned earlier.
3) The soil with thorns will allow that seed to grow for a time, but then the thorns, which represent “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches,” choke the life out of the plant so that no fruit is born.
4) The good soil is one who hears the word, understands it, lets it take root, and allows God to produce fruit.
The “word of the kingdom” is sown over a mixture of soil types and is taken up (or not) at varying degrees. The types of soil may represent the mixture of different individuals overall, but also, we may display a mix of all these soil types throughout our own lives. Maybe we have thorns we need to remove. What cares of the world are preventing you from bearing fruit for the Kingdom? Worrying about things that might happen or about things outside of your control? That anxiety is choking out the truth of God’s word. Even worry about good things! Parents, are you constantly worried about your children? Is that consuming your heart? (I know some of you need to hear that—anxiety is something I’m working on pulling out of my own soil…) Maybe we need a tiller to break up the ground of our own heart. What or who are you hardened toward? Maybe some rocks need to get thrown out. What area of your life is suffering from an inability to receive God’s word? May your heart become increasingly good soil as you walk with Christ and bear much fruit!
As we go through the rest of this narrative, keep this initial teaching in mind: There’s mixture in the kingdom of God. It will be purified in the end, but right now we deal with the good and the bad. It’s not a utopia—not yet. It seems strange to consider God’s Kingdom as something that contains flaws, doesn’t it? But even if we discount those that actively look to sabotage the Kingdom from within, we know that none of us are perfect. John Nugent puts it well in his book, Endangered Gospel: “God’s treasure was meant to be carried in clay jars (2 Corinthians 4:7). The weakness of the messenger does not negate the strength of the message. The reality is, there can be no such thing as a perfect church. A church that fulfills its responsibility attracts new people. When new people come, they bring all of their imperfections with them. So the church is constantly in the process of helping imperfect people who do not yet seek first God’s kingdom to begin seeking it first.”
Jesus continues this theme in the following short parables. Reading them within that context sheds a lot more light on what he was getting at.
The Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30,34-43)
In the parable of the weeds, Jesus shifts the image from one good type of seed falling on a mix of different soil types to a mixture of seeds being sown in a field: one for wheat and one for weeds (or tares). The servants are confused—why are their weeds in our perfectly sown field of wheat? Why is there a mixture of good and bad, fruitful and non-fruitful? Should we go ahead and try to clean out the bad? The master tells them an enemy has sown the weeds, but they must wait until the time of the harvest or else when gathering the weeds, they would root up the wheat as well.
Jesus privately explains the meaning of this parable to his disciples as he did with the parable of the sower. The Son of Man is the one who sows the good seed, the field is the “world,” the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. Seems pretty straight forward, but consider that the weeds are growing right alongside of the wheat. They aren’t subdivided in any way. Jesus explains that at the end of the age the angels “will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers and throw them into the fiery furnace.” What do we do with this? There are weeds in God’s Kingdom?
(Wheat, left. Walther Otto Müller, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Darnel, right. Winkler, Eduard., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Darnel is the type of weed that Jesus would have been referencing. As you can see in the image, it looks very similar to the wheat!
We must realize that we’re all weeds without Jesus. It’s his life within us that has transformed us from weeds to wheat. He didn’t make us wheat just so we can point out those who we think are not wheat. We should be people that are willing to live as wheat among weeds, with the hope that our witness to the one who transformed us would impact those around us.
What about the teachings we have on church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5, for instance)? Isn’t that “identifying a weed?” I pondered on this question a lot and sought some insight from several folks I trust. To quote John Nugent: “He has not appointed his followers to be kingdom police checking out everyone else’s kingdom work. We should focus on what God has given us to do. We should not be going around looking for weeds. We should be sowing the seeds of God’s word. It’s a matter of focus.”
Certainly, if someone is leading the flock away from the truth, we should intervene, just as we should if we see a brother or sister walking away from Christ. But, as John Nugent continued, “We are not really in the business of driving people out who don’t quite get it right. We need to be patient, give God time to work on people, and trust him to judge when his time is right.”
And to that point, we should reference what Jesus says at the end of the Matthew 18:15-20 passage. He is with us if a decision of expulsion must be made. He is taking the lead. We must be sure that we always surrender the reins to him.
And so, I believe part of Jesus’ emphasis here is simply that we need to set realistic expectations, not that we need to be looking for weeds on an individual basis, trying to root them all up. The quote from Endangered Gospel above is again pertinent.
The enemy wants to sabotage the King’s field. We know that he ultimately won’t be successful, but we still have to deal with his attempts. That involves weeds masquerading as wheat. Many of the letters in the New Testament warn us of this threat. In Acts 20:29-31, Paul warns the Ephesian elders of fierce wolves that will be present within their own number. So as a general principle, this comes as no surprise. What was surprising to me is that those people are, for now, considered to be part of God’s Kingdom. But then I remember, even Jesus had a Judas in his inner circle!
In Gerhard Lohfink’s book, The Forty Parables of Jesus, he says: “Jesus’ preaching and practice did not correspond to [a] model of a holy, self-separating community…Above all, the Jesus movement was made up of despised people, social outcasts, and sinners. So, Jesus gathered, but he did not segregate…Jesus would certainly not have equated the sinners with whom he associated with poisonous weeds. The point of comparison would have been the association of holy and unholy, good and evil. Now, at this hour, a clear and clean distinction cannot be drawn. In fact, Jesus said elsewhere, we have to suppose that the real wickedness does not lurk among the sinners but is at home with those who elevate themselves above the outcasts and the sinful.”
Ouch! Have I acted like the Pharisee who despised the tax collector (Luke 18:10-14)? Our efforts are not to be directed at identifying and uprooting those we see as weeds. We live in him and by him, we grow, and we bear fruit. Just as he is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:1-11), so too is he the soil and we are the fruit from it.
The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32)
Who hasn’t heard this parable? It’s often presented as a picture of the gospel growing from a tiny seed into a huge tree—it seems small and insignificant from the start, but it will become a great kingdom. To be clear, God’s Kingdom will certainly overcome all and is the everlasting kingdom! I fully affirm this fact. I just don’t believe that’s the point of this parable. If we look at this story without extracting it from its context, we’ll come away with a different interpretation.
First, what is this mustard seed that Jesus is referencing? There is no consensus among scholars. One common herb grown in that region was Black Mustard (Rhamphospermum nigrum), which has been said to grow up to ten feet tall. Typical growth, however, is only about three feet tall with a thin and wispy branching pattern. Since Jesus seems to be talking about a garden and that was a popular spice, I’m inclined to think this was the plant in mind, but I can’t say for certain. Another possibility is Nicotiana glauca, which is a woody plant (more of a shrub or small tree). If we go too far down this rabbit trail though, I think we’ll miss the point.
(Black Mustard, Rhamphospermum nigrum. Katrin Schneider, korina.info – CC-BY-SA-4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
While growth rate is a point of emphasis for sure, I believe the emphasis is actually an abnormal growth rate. Black Mustard can grow rapidly, but for it to grow into a “tree” that birds could nest in would paint a picture of something highly unusual, especially in someone’s garden as Luke records it (Luke 13:18-19). This abnormal growth might even be looked as deviant, as the plant overshadows the rest of the garden. When we read all of Matthew 13, there is a lot of undeniable negativity—3 out of the 4 soils are bad, the weeds are bad, the net has a lot of bad fish, leaven is always bad (contrary to popular belief in this chapter). Jesus isn’t speaking in a bunch of disjointed short stories—he’s painting a consistent picture. There’s something about the Kingdom that he wanted his disciples (and us) to understand. He’s warning us that in this “already but not yet” period of the Kingdom, it’s not going to be perfect. There will be bad soil in the ground, there will be weeds in the field, and we may see some “mutant growth.” Doesn’t world history illustrate this perfectly when Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire? When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, suddenly becoming a Christian was a politically advantageous position. “Nesting” in this puffed-up “tree” of the Kingdom becomes a comfortable spot for the corrupt rulers of the day. And that leads us to the birds…
The nesting birds are a clear picture of corruption. Remember what the birds were an example of in the first parable. In fact, birds very often are used as symbols of the evil one or something unclean, so Jesus’ analogy is hardly a new thing. See Genesis 15:11-16 where birds of prey represent an evil omen of Israel’s future bondage in Egypt (which is cross referenced in Deuteronomy 28:26 and Jeremiah 7:33). Also, in Genesis 40:16-19, Joseph interprets the chief baker’s dream to mean that Pharoah will behead him, and the birds will eat his flesh! Hardly desirable images. This is certainly not to say that there are not positive usages of birds (the Holy Spirit is represented as a dove, for instance), but it is important that we interpret passages in their immediate and wider contexts. It bears repeating: Jesus is in mid-stride with a consistent teaching here. He has already defined the birds (Matthew 13:19). He has also already clearly established in this same conversation the idea of a mixture of good and bad together. Since we don’t have a side-bar explanation of this parable like we do the soils, the wheat and weeds, and the net (as we’ll see), it behooves us to base our interpretation of this parable alongside the others. The birds are like the weeds—making their home in and amongst the true kingdom citizens. And this home is made even more hospitable due to some abnormal growth.
Sometimes a lack of direct explanation is frustrating. Why can’t it just be laid out in black and white? Jesus’ first disciples wondered the same. But we know that Jesus wanted his message to reach only those who were truly seeking. All the disciples ever had to do was ask Jesus what he meant, as they did many times. Those who don’t have ears to hear or eyes to see won’t ask. They won’t seek. They won’t knock. (Matthew 7:7-11) Jesus is an artist. His metaphors and comparisons paint incredibly rich portraits for those who look on them intently. And the more we seek, the more we see! (Matthew 13:12).
When this parable is examined on its own (as is often the case), it’s easy to extract another meaning altogether. But that’s precisely the point: We were never supposed to lift these tiny fragments out of their place in the story. I believe this part of Matthew’s gospel is a notable example of the pitfalls of that study method. And another perfect example of that comes in the next verse…
The Leaven (Matthew 13:33)
We’ve all heard this verse in isolation. It’s commonly cited as a way to say that the gospel will slowly spread throughout the earth until everyone comes to the King. I wholeheartedly believe that one day every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11), and the Kingdom will one day be the only kingdom left standing. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was talking about here. Not only does that idea not fit the flow of the narrative, but it completely ignores the consistent symbolism of leaven in all of Scripture.
Part of the context we always have to keep in mind is the audience Jesus is speaking to and their cultural background. The Jews listening are all too familiar with the symbolism of leaven—they’ve heard the story of the Exodus every year for their entire lives, and they’re quite familiar with the sacrificial system. Let’s start with Exodus to get more of that context.
The Israelites have been in bondage in Egypt for 400 years. God has raised up Moses for the mission of bringing them out of Egypt and into the promised land. Pharoah has not responded to the plagues, as God knew he wouldn’t. The warning of the final plague has gone out. The Lord will strike down every first born in the land unless the blood of a spotless lamb marks the doorway of the house. But first, some preparation! (See Exodus 12 for all the details.) For seven days, they were to only eat unleavened bread. Not only that, but they also had to get every speck of leaven out of their houses. And if they failed to do that, they would be cut off from Israel! (Exodus 12:14-15)
That sounds awfully harsh, doesn’t it? But look at the great mercy that God shows when the Israelites leave Egypt. It wasn’t just the Israelites who left. A “mixed multitude” left with them (Exodus 12:38)! God had an open-door policy to join in with his people. He even provided an avenue (circumcision) for that mixed multitude to officially become part of his people, to be as a native Israelite (to be “wheat,” if you will). If they didn’t want to be circumcised, God was merciful to still allow them to be with the people as a “stranger who sojourns among you” (Exodus 12:48-49). What an awesome and merciful God. Raise your hand if this is the first time you heard about a “mixture” leaving Egypt with the Israelites…
And certainly, Israel’s history is full of examples of “outsiders” that became great blessings—two perfect examples being Rahab and Ruth, who are even in the genealogy of Jesus! But we can’t ignore the problems that would come about because of this mixture either. For example, a son of an Israelite and an Egyptian blasphemed the Name. A decree was given that whether a native or a sojourner, blaspheming the Name would result in death (Leviticus 24:10-12). Also, the “rabble” (as the mixed multitude was called) had a strong craving for meat while they wandered in the desert. This influenced even the native Israelites to complain to God about the manna he provided. God, in his mercy, provided quail. But because of their lustful desire, they gorged themselves on God’s gift and he punished them severely. There are many more examples, both good and bad, of the results of mixture in the nation of Israel. It was most definitely a foreshadowing. And Jesus didn’t want his disciples to forget that just because he was inaugurating the new kingdom, a mixture was still going to be present.
(www.yourbestdigs.com/reviews/best-bread-machine/, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Why leaven? Why was that such an important symbol?
For one, the unleavened bread serves as a practical reminder of their rescue from Egypt. They had to leave in haste. They had no time to allow their bread to rise. They had to escape!
We know what the spotless lamb represents—it’s a picture of the blood of Christ. A gift that washes us, cleanses us, and makes us holy (Colossians 1:22). And because that blood represented a cleansing and allowed the Lord to “pass over” their house, they had to actually cleanse the impurity out of the house. Leaven represented that impurity. God was making Israel into his holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). They are leaving behind their old life and being consecrated to God in a new life. This is a “new creation” story. They are starting fresh. Paul makes this same connection in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. The word translated as “sincerity” there in vs. 8 is the Greek word for purity.
Jesus himself compares the bread of the Passover meal to his own body—the purity of the unleavened bread is matched with the purity of the body of Christ (Luke 22:19).
The Feast of Weeks, also known as Pentecost, also involves leaven—but this time Israel is told to present leavened loaves to God. So, it must represent something good and pleasing here, right? Nope. They are to present these loaves to God as a “wave offering,” and then seven spotless lambs, one bull, and two rams as a burnt offering. The leavened bread actually represents their own sin as a nation, while the burnt offerings represent the atonement for those sins. (Leviticus 23:15-18)
Leviticus 7:12-14 discusses more offerings of bread. First mentioned here is the peace offering. It is an offering of unleavened bread, and it’s a foreshadowing of the peace that Christ is to us, who through his perfect sacrifice reconciles to God (Ephesians 2:13-18). The second is the thanksgiving offering which involved leavened bread. Similar to the offering at the Feast of Weeks, this offering is one of thanksgiving that God has offered this peace to even impure beings. These leavened loaves are not burned (Exodus 23:18, Leviticus 2:11); they are actually given to the priest for food.
Again, we’re talking about the symbol of leaven, not leaven itself. Clearly the Israelites used leaven in their everyday lives to bake bread. In Matthew 16:6-12, Jesus even has to clarify that he’s speaking symbolically of leaven when he tells his disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They start looking around for literal bread to get rid of, completely forgetting that Jesus just did two huge miracles with leavened loaves of bread.
In addition to Matthew 16 and 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, other New Testament passages also carry forward the allegorical use of leaven for evil or sin (see Luke 12:1, Mark 8:15, Galatians 5:9). Paul uses the phrase “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” That’s not an original line from Paul—he took it straight from Jesus’ teaching here! “Purging the leaven” from the body of believers is also a direct reference to the Israelites purging the leaven from their houses during the Passover.
Jesus isn’t pulling a fast one on his listeners. He isn’t trying to get them to see leaven in a new light. He’s trying to get them to see the Kingdom in a new light! It’s precisely because of their understanding of the symbol of leaven that makes this a mind-bending exercise. Just as his other parables in this section are paradoxical, this one is no different. Yes, there are weeds in the kingdom and there is leaven in the kingdom…for now.
“But,” some might ask, “didn’t Jesus say the Kingdom of Heaven Is like leaven? If leaven is bad, how could God’s Kingdom be bad?” Let’s say, for instance, that leaven is equivalent to false teaching (which is what it was compared to in Matthew 16:5-12). Jesus isn’t saying the Kingdom of Heaven is like false teaching, but rather that there will be false teaching within the kingdom. The many warnings in the New Testament letters attest to that fact.
This sure is a long discussion for just one verse! Jesus is quite the artist—his words are rich, and those riches are inexhaustible (Ephesians 3:8)! As such, we have a few more items to mention for this parable:
Jesus says the woman hid this leaven in the flour. This has the connotation of a subversive act. The Greek word used in Matthew, enkryptō, can mean simply to “put in.” However, in Luke’s account of this parable (Luke 13:20-21), the Greek word more specifically means to “conceal” or “keep a secret.”
The mention of “three measures of flour” would have also brought to their minds the fellowship offering in Genesis 18:1-15 (see vs. 6 for the same measure of flour!). That wasn’t just some random coincidence. And that much dough makes way more bread than anyone would make on a typical day. No, Jesus is purposefully leading his hearers to this story. For Jesus’ Jewish audience, adding leaven to the fellowship offering, a meal with God and his angels, would have brought horror! This was a clear act of sabotage. It’s interesting too that Sarah is a point of focus here in Genesis—her lack of faith in God’s promise and her flippant attitude. Who did Abraham ask to make the “cakes” (unleavened, round, flat loaves)? Who did Jesus say hid the leaven in the flour? Sarah’s laughter, which she tried to hide from God, is the woman’s leaven, hidden in the dough. Whoa!
One other item of note that I make no conclusions about here but will mention out of sheer curiosity—there are seven kingdom parables in this teaching of Jesus. There are seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3. This parable of the leaven is the fourth parable told. The fourth letter to the church in Thyatira is about a woman (Jezebel) who sabotaged the church there by concealing false teaching under the guise of prophecy. In fact, there may be some interesting correlations with all the letters to the churches and these kingdom parables. I leave that to you to investigate!
The Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44)
The next parable of mixture Jesus presents is the treasure hidden in the field. The treasure is buried, covered by dirt and impurities. The man doesn’t just buy the treasure itself—he buys the whole field that contains the treasure. Going back to the wheat and the weeds, that field contained the true treasure (the wheat), but the master owns the whole field, weeds and all. At the proper time, the treasure will be taken up out of the field and enjoyed in its pure state.
There are two different perspectives we can examine this parable from:
Imagine the man in this parable represents Jesus. When he gave “all that he has” on the cross, he gave it all for the whole world (Philippians 2:5-11). He bought and redeemed the whole world (John 12:44-50), even dying for those who nailed him to the cross. But there is something incredibly special to him in this world—his bride, his church, his body. He gives us all an opportunity to be a part of that treasure.
Now imagine that you are the man. You’ve come upon that treasure that is God’s Kingdom. This is a free gift from God, but it comes at a great cost. We know what it cost Jesus. Just as it cost him his life, it should cost us ours as well! If we truly value this treasure, it’s not a difficult decision to give up everything else. Trading earthly treasure for heavenly treasure is an easy choice if we understand the true value (Matthew 6:19-21). Mike Breen in Building a Discipling Culture uses the parable of the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-13) and the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30) to discuss “spiritual capital” versus “financial capital.” We can only serve one of these two masters, and we will ultimately choose the one we assign the highest value. We know which one the rich young ruler valued most—he went away sorrowfully when Jesus confronted him with the truth in his heart. The disciples retort that they’ve given up their homes and lives to follow him. Jesus affirms their choice, saying that indeed they’ll receive so much more by laying aside the treasures of earth (Luke 18:28-30).
And this is one way that the “rabble” in the field will identify themselves in the end—they won’t forsake all to take hold of the treasure. They won’t buy the field. And in that choice, they will be weeded out of the Kingdom.
Have ears to hear! Ask deeper questions. Seek the treasure and you’ll find it. (Proverbs 2:1-5)
The Pearl of Great Value (Matthew 13:45-46)
This parable is similar to the treasure hidden in the field. Again, the merchant can represent Jesus or us.
Jesus gave it all for the pearl—his bride, his church, his body. This is the most precious jewel in Jesus’ eyes. He gave up even his equal position with God to obtain this jewel (Philippians 2:6-7).
Likewise, when we see the value of this pearl, it’s not a hardship to give everything else up for it. We value it most of all.
There seems to be many pearls in view here, but only one in that mix is the precious pearl of the merchant’s eyes. At first glance to the unsuspecting person, they might just see a collection of common pearls (like the weeds might look like wheat at first glance), but when we have eyes to see, the one pearl of great value comes into focus, and it is the only thing worth having.
(Muséum de Toulouse, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
It’s also worth noting that an oyster is actually considered unclean by Jewish law (Leviticus 11:10-12). This precious jewel is enclosed in something unclean. Jesus is making something clean inside the unclean. There’s a purification going on in this mixture.
The actual process the oyster undergoes to create the pearl deserves a closer look. A contaminant (like a grain of sand) infiltrates the oyster’s shell. It endures this adversity by excreting a substance called nacre, coating the grain of sand with layer after layer of this beautiful component. The result is a precious pearl, the redemption of the suffering the oyster endured. Without Christ covering us and making us pure, we would be nothing more than that contaminant.
Again, the rabble won’t endure the hardship to create the pearl. They also won’t pay the cost to buy the pearl.
Frank Viola, in The Insurgence Podcast (episode #110) said: “We know we value something if we are willing to sacrifice for it.” Amen!
The Net (Matthew 13:47-50)
Jesus comes full circle with this last parable here, and again this time, like the wheat and the weeds, he offers an interpretation and highlights his teaching of the current mixture in the kingdom that will be sorted out in the end.
The sea of Galilee was full of all kinds of fish, but only a few species were edible. When fishermen lowered their net and dragged it through the water, they caught all the fish indiscriminately. It wasn’t until the nets were drawn onto the shore that the fish were sorted.
Jesus gives the interpretation: there are evil among the righteous. They’re together for now—in the same ground, in the same fields, in the same garden, in the same loaf of bread, in the same market, in the same net. At the proper time, He will do the sorting.
(Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
We think of God’s Kingdom, and we think of perfection. And it will be so! But now we are still in the refining stage. And we thank God for his mercy! If we had to come to the Kingdom already refined, I’d be on the outside myself.
Jesus has invited all to his feast. In Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus compares the Kingdom to a king giving a wedding feast. When those who were invited first refused to come, the king tells his servants to extend the invitation to “as many as you find.” And so, the servants went out, gathering “all whom they found, both bad and good.” Both bad and good! But when the feast commenced, the king sorted through the guests. When the king determined a guest to be unworthy, he was cast out. Many are called, many are invited, but only a small number are chosen in the end (Matthew 22:14). The way is narrow, and few find it (Matthew 7:14).
Again, Jesus compares the Kingdom to ten virgins who took their lamps to meet the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13). Five of those virgins were foolish, five were wise. When the bridegroom came, the foolish missed his arrival because they didn’t have oil for their lamps. The bridegroom shut them out of the feast.
In The Insurgence Podcast (Episode #111), Jeffrey Harley brings out an interesting note from T. Austin-Sparks: Even Cain and Abel represent this mixture. They both acknowledged God and offered sacrifices to him. But when faced with the ultimate choice of following God or his own desires, Cain chose the latter (Genesis 4).
Don’t misunderstand—there is another kingdom that is totally outside God’s Kingdom. There are many fields of all kinds of other weeds, if you will, that are not included in this mixture. Afterall, Jesus said as he was handed over to be crucified: “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) Satan is referred to as the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11), the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). Satan has his own claim on this earth right now, but God has already won the victory. He is reclaiming the earth for himself, and we get to play a part in that! (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21) Satan’s rule and reign is on borrowed time. He and all who pledge allegiance to that world order will be destroyed in the end (1 Corinthians 15:24). The weeds in God’s Kingdom will also join them (Matthew 13:40-42).
So, we know we have enemies outside, but we must be aware that there are weeds within too. Rome wasn’t in Jesus’ inner circle, but Judas certainly was. We pray for refinement of those weeds, and we praise God for the refinement that he is currently offering to us. We shouldn’t be worried about pointing out the weeds in the field because we are all still in the process of refinement ourselves! If you are part of his body, you are at present being transformed, your mind is being renewed (Romans 12:2). Let us not focus on putting magnifying glasses on others in the kingdom, but rather let us continually examine ourselves. Do I have ears to hear and eyes to see? Am I keeping my heart open to his truths? May my soil never be so hard that his seeds cannot penetrate the surface.
Don’t label the soils of others, just sow the seed. Don’t try to pluck out the weeds, just be the wheat that produces the fruit. Don’t try to identify the fish, just be the good fish.
After Jesus tells these seven parables, Jesus asks the disciples if they understood. They claim to have grasped it—who’s to say if that was actually true at the moment. But Jesus explains that they are being trained to take what they have known and what is being revealed to them now. They are being specially prepared to paint the complete portrait of God’s Kingdom that until that time had been shrouded in mystery.
And even following this episode, the disciples get to see play out exactly what Jesus was teaching. That mixture in the kingdom is present even in Jesus’ hometown (Matthew 13:53-58). The Jews in Nazareth didn’t want to believe in him because they thought they already understood who he was. They were wise in their own eyes. They only treasured what was old and their current understanding and had no openness to what was new.
I sincerely hope this deep dive into the parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13 was valuable to you. This subject has been marinating in me for a while—many conversations over breakfast with a dear brother, bouncing thoughts off my wife, in-depth studies with friends, listening to podcasts, reading articles, and having many brothers and sisters critique my notes. Much of it is still marinating now, but I had to go ahead and compile what I had, if for no other reason than for my own study down the road. I encourage you to do your own deep dive! Find another set of parables and dig in. Parables are meant to go well beyond the superficial. After all, Jesus used the parables to mask the message from those who were “wise in their own eyes” (Matthew 13:13, Isaiah 5:21) His kingdom truths are hidden from the wise but revealed to the children (Matthew 11:25-26, Matthew 13:16-17). It’s the great mystery that Paul speaks of (Ephesians 3:4-13, Colossians 1:26-27). Explore the mystery. The riches are inexhaustible!
I also encourage you to check out these awesome resources for further study into God’s Kingdom. A lot of the material in this article can be credited to these guys:
- Frank Viola, Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom – Insurgence: Reclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom – Frank Viola | Beyond Evangelical
- The Insurgence Podcast – The Insurgence Podcast | a podcast by Frank Viola (podbean.com)
- John Nugent, Endangered Gospel – Endangered Gospel
- The After Class Podcast – After Class Podcast (libsyn.com)