Matthew 13 is the second of our Lord’s three major discourses in the first Gospel, cf. ch. 5-7; 24-25. It consists mainly of a series of seven parables which relate to the time between His two advents. Except the first, these are said to refer to the kingdom of heaven. They are therefore widely known as Parables of the Kingdom.
Verse 52 could also be regarded as a parable, although it is distinct from the others in that the reference is not to the kingdom. It probably relates to our Lord’s ministry to the disciples - perhaps also to their coming ministry in His name. The householder is said to be ‘bringing forth out of his treasure things new and old,’ the ‘old’ referring to Old Testament truths already understood and the ‘new’ to those now to be revealed.
The Lord Jesus Christ refers to ‘the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven’, v. 11. These were ‘new’ truths, withheld up to this point but now revealed. ‘Mysteries’ (Gk musterion) related to the silence imposed upon initiates into the secret rites of religious cults. This word was now adapted to truths being unfolded to believers - ‘(that) which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints’, Col. 1. 26. The idea is not of difficulty in understanding, the usual meaning of ‘mystery’ in our day, but of a truth withheld until an appropriate time and for an appropriate people - in this case, disciples of Christ.
A whole new set of ideas was being unfolded in these parables of the kingdom. The Old Testament had spoken of the Christ coming to reign on earth on the throne of David. It had also been stated that the King would be rejected, Isa. 52. 13-53. 12, but the implications of this had not been understood.
The Lord was now bringing a startling revelation of a spiritual kingdom between two advents! The earthly kingdom for which they had looked, in fulfilment of the covenant promises given to Israel as a nation, was to be held in abeyance. The Christ would not after all reign over Israel at this stage. A hitherto unseen era would take place in which the Lord would gather out a people for Himself from all over the world.
The timing of this discourse is significant. Notice the natural progression in Matthew thus far: the principles of the kingdom, chapters 5-7; the credentials of the King, chapters 8-10; growing opposition and rejection of the King, for which Israel would be judged, chapters 11-12. In these parables the Lord Jesus Christ now sets the scene for events to follow the ultimate rejection of the cross. The risen Christ would raise up a spiritual kingdom, a heavenly people who would live and reign with Him. Events surrounding this hitherto unrevealed stage in the divine plan of redemption are now unfolded in pictorial form.
Events at the end of this age leading up to our Lord’s second advent, the regathering of Israel and the fulfilment of the Old Testament covenant promises of a kingdom on earth would be presented in the Lord’s third major discourse, chapters 24-25. But the interim period is now progressively set out.
Care should be taken in how parables are interpreted. They are stories about familiar things on earth which are used to convey spiritual truths. It is vital that the focal point or points of each parable be established, for therein lies the message. Parables are not allegories in which every detail has a significance. To treat them as such, as some have done, is inevitably to become confused.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that only one point in any parable is significant. This is unnecessarily restrictive and equally will lead to misinterpretation.
The disciples asked the Lord why He used parables. In reply He said that they were an effective means of conveying spiritual truths to them, yet withholding these truths from unbelievers who would readily understand the story but not the meaning. His reference, ‘to them it is not given’, v.llb, no doubt had the recalcitrant Jewish leaders specially in mind. Verse 12 may even indicate that they would lose even that spiritual insight which they already had. In speaking by parables He was fulfilling the Scriptures, Isa. 6. 9, 10.
Parables were part of our Lord’s process of selection. Those with understanding showed that they were disciples; those without that understanding, that they were not His. This use of parables was foretold in the Old Testament, ‘All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto 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’, cf. Ps. 78. 2.
However, even the disciples did not always understand the message. Here, two of the kingdom parables needed an explanation by the Lord, vv. 18-23; 36-43. Understanding came progressively, as Mark makes clear in his gospel, ‘And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear (understand) it. But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples’, 4. 33, 34.
Matthew usually uses the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ rather than ‘kingdom of God,’ mainly employed by other gospel writers. All but the first parable in Matthew 13 are introduced by the phrases, ‘The kingdom of heaven is likened unto (may be compared to)’, or ‘The kingdom of heaven is like’.
Some have thought the two phrases to be synonymous, but this seems unlikely. By definition, the kingdom of God would include only the saved - preclude the lost. But the kingdom of heaven seems to include both believers and professed believers. This distinction will become clear as we deal with the parables of the wheat and tares, mustard seed and dragnet in future articles.
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