Structure of the Passage
Discourse 3: Parables to the Crowd: The Kingdom of Heaven (Mt. 13:1–52)
The setting (Mt. 13:1–2)
Parable of the sower (Mt. 13:3–9)
Interaction with the disciples (Mt. 13:10–23)
Reason for parables (Mt. 13:10–17)
Jesus explains the parable of the sower (Mt. 13:18–23)
Parable of the weeds (Mt. 13:24–30)
The enemy’s plot (Mt. 13:24–26)
The landowner’s response (Mt. 13:27–30)
Parable of the mustard seed (Mt. 13:31–32)
Parable of the yeast (Mt. 13:33)
Editorial conclusion: The biblical basis for parables (Mt. 13:34–35)
Parables to the Disciples (Mt. 13:36–52)
Interaction with the disciples (Mt. 13:36–43)
Parable of the hidden treasure (Mt. 13:44)
Parable of the expensive pearl (Mt. 13:45–46)
Parable of the net (Mt. 13:47–50)
Parable of the householder (Mt. 13:51–52)
Rejection in Nazareth (Mt. 13:53–58)
a. Narrative transition (Mt. 13:53)
b. Rejection in Nazareth (Mt. 13:54–58)
i. Reaction to Jesus’s teaching (Mt. 13:54–56)
ii. Jesus’s response to rejection (Mt. 13:57–58)
Chiastic structures of chapter 13:
A Parable of the sower: Hearing the word of the kingdom (Mt. 13:1–9)
B Disciples’ question and Jesus’s answer: Interpretation of the sower (Mt. 13:10–23)
C Parable of the weeds: Good and evil (Mt. 13:24–30)
D Parables of the mustard seed and leaven: Growth (Mt. 13:31–33)
E Explanation of parables and interpretation of the weeds (Mt. 13:34–43)
D′ Parables of treasure and pearl: Sacrifice (Mt. 13:44–46)
C′ Parable of the net: Good and evil (Mt. 13:47–50)
B′ Jesus’s question and disciples’ answer: Understanding parables (Mt. 13:51)
A′ Parable of the homeowner: Trained for the kingdom (Mt. 13:52)
A Overture: Arrival and ministry in Jesus’s hometown (Mt. 13:54a)
B The Nazarenes are astonished (Mt. 13:54b)
C Five questions from the Nazarenes, bracketed by πόθεν [pothen, where] … (Mt. 13:54c–56)
B′ The Nazarenes are offended (Mt. 13:57a)
A′ Response: Jesus is dishonored and does few miracles in his hometown (Mt. 13:57b–58)
Jesus intended his parables to reveal truths of the kingdom to his disciples and to conceal these truths from others. Therefore, He teaches the crowd in the form of parables, so that only those who take heed of His preaching and love Him will understand. He clearly makes distinction between good and evil, and speaks of the eschatological end of the world, in which the good and evil which has grown up together will be separated, and the expansion of God’s Kingdom in the world will be fully visible.
Exposition of the Verses
Verse 1-3 The Setting
Once again, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of people. Being inside a house when His family arrived, He leaves the house and travels to the Lake of Galilea where He speaks from a boat, while the crowd remains at the shore. He has a message for the entire crowd, for he speaks about them. After delivering this message, Jesus goes back into the house (v. 36).
Verse 3-9 Parable of the Sower
The parable which Jesus speaks – called “parable of the sower” is actually a parable of the seed, representing the mixed messages people give to the Word of God. This is the first time the word “parable” is used (παραβολή), and will further be used in Mt. 13:3, 10, 13, 18, 24, 33–36, 53; 15:15; 21:33, 45; 22:1; 24:32. Παραβολή is the NT equivalent of the word מָשָׁל (māšāl; cf., e.g., 1 Sam. 10:12; Num. 23:7, 18; Ezek. 17:2; 21:5; 24:3) in the Hebrew Bible. Both words are used to describe a proverb, an enigma, a riddle, a taunt, a simile, or an allegorical story.
Harvesting was a common picture in the Bible (Isa. 55:10–11; Ps. 126:5–6; 2; Ezra 4:26–32; 8:41; 9:31–37; 1 Cor. 3:6–9). Here, there are four types of soul, and in the first three of them, there is no crop because the soil either falls besides the path, is eaten by birds, falls on shallow soil, or is choked by thorns (Job. 31:40), meaning that the soil is good but there is no place to grow as other plants take its place. In the fourth case, the ground is fertile and there are crops. The rocky soil of verses 5-6 refers to an underlying shelf of bedrock, not multiple rocks in the soil. Such soil warms rapidly and the seed sprouts quickly, but the plant soon wilts as the soil loses moisture (cf. James 1:11). So there is initial growth, but not lasting growth. The size of the harvest (Mt. 13:8-9 is not very clear. If “thirty-fold” means thirty bushels harvested for every bushel sown, it would be a good but not unimaginable crop, but if, as is more likely, it means that each germinating plant had thirty grains it is probably on the low side of normal. In that case sixty-fold is an averagely good crop, and a hundred-fold very good, but not miraculous. Is it kingdom success, where many are brought to Christ? It does not really matter, for the message is to the crowd and regards their acceptance of the message of God.
Verse 10-23 Jesus’ interaction with the disciples
Reason for Parables (Mt. 13:10–17)
In Jesus’ parables He describes the response of Israel to the Kingdom. The same will count for the church, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. For the disciples it is unclear why Jesus speaks in parables (see also Mark 4:10-12; Luke 8:9-10). Jesus answers that the message of the Kingdom is not for everyone, but for whom God choses to reveal it. It is a secret. This verse speaks of election of the knowledge of God. It is clear now that many have rejected Christ and His message, and though Jesus has spoken in parables before (Mt. 7:24–27; 9:15–17; 11:16–19; 12:29, 33, 43–45), this mysterious language increases.
In verse 13-15, Jesus echoes Isa. 6:9–10, and the prophesies are fulfilled (see also John 12:39–40; Acts 28:26–27). Continuing opposition to God’s word and warnings results in the hardening of hearts, and thus increasing failure to hear, see and understand God. The disciples of Christ have been blessed by hearing and understanding, for they are close listeners and lovers of Jesus words, and therefore exceed the Pharisees, the scribes, or what we would call the theologians of today. The “little ones” of whom Jesus spoke before have an understanding of God that the best Jewish experts do not have. They have an intimate knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is therefore when Peter confesses Christ to be the Messiah, that Christ tells him that this knowledge is through the Father’s revelation (Mt. 16:15–17).
This passage is very strong on God’s sovereignty. Matthew 13:11–15, with its citation of Isa. 6:9–10, is one of the strongest biblical affirmations of God’s prerogative to reveal himself as he sees fit. This statement is perhaps as striking as Matt. 11:25–27, which speaks even more bluntly of God “hiding” the kingdom message from those who reject it. Matthew 11:27 also goes beyond Mt. 13:11–15 in affirming that Jesus shares the divine prerogative of revealing the Father to whomever he wills.
Verse 18-23 Jesus Explains the Parable of the Sower
Verse 18 starts with “you therefore,” meaning the disciples who have been given the privilege to hear, see and understand Jesus’ preaching. Jesus explains how the Kingdom message is first of all received by hearing. To those who hear superficially, the seed will be snatched away by Satan. The seed that sprouted in shallow soil and withered in the sun stands for a fickle hearing of the message where initial enthusiasm turns to apostasy (Matt. 24:10) due to problems or persecution (cf. Mt. 5:11–12; 10:16–25; 23:34–36; 24:9–13). The seed that sprouts and grows but is choked by thorns stands for a promising hearing of the message that ends because of competition from secular concerns, especially greed (cf. Mt. 6:19–34.) All the seeds (except the first ones) grow somewhat, but none bear fruits. The fourth group of seeds are those who obey and follow Jesus faithfully, those who have counted the cost, die of themselves, and live through and for Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the sower here, but also prepares the disciples for their ministry. When Satan comes, it is easy for him to pluck the seeds of the ground. Those are hearts hardened by sin, and divine abandonment. When believers give themselves to greed, and material desire, discipleship becomes hard and unattractive. This is shown later with the man who had “many possessions” (Mt. 19:16–22) and therefore did not follow Jesus. Those with mere emotional ties to the gospel have short roots, and are easily ripped out of the ground, yet those who have a strong foundation, roots that go deep in the word and are unoccupied with earthly desires, those are the ones that become strong, and bear fruit for the Kingdom. Those will be harvested with joy in due time. The degrees of fruit bearing prevent judging, and legalism.
Verse 24-30 Parable of the Weeds
Another parable regarding a field and a harvest is given. Yet Matthew here speaks of a parable that is “set before them.” Like a meal that is presented to the disciples to nourish them. Matthew introduces this parable again with the introduction formula: “the Kingdom is like…” (ὅμοιός ἐστιν). A second time the farmer plants seeds, here the seeds are “good.” This time an enemy comes at night and plans weed, and together the weed and the grain comes up. The slaves complain to the landowner, who leaves the weed to grow together with the grain, for the grain may be damaged if the weeds will be removed. In the end of days, the wheat will be harvested and taken safely in the barn, while the weeds will be burned (Mt. 3:12; 6:26). Jesus leaves the crowd without explaining, though many might have understood the message as it relates to the previous parable. Jesus here makes a clear distinction between good and evil, the landowner and the enemy, the wheat and the weed, the cosmic forces.
Verse 31-33 Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the yeast
The parable of the mustard seed is very short (Mark 4:30–32; Luke 13:18–21). Jesus introduces this parable with the same introductory formula. This parable means that the Kingdom of God has a seemingly very insignificant beginning and grows from that point out, and becomes large and plentiful, and birds will nestle in this plant. A similar view is given in Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a tree in which birds (nations of the earth) nestled (Dan 4:12, 21).
The parable of the yeast speaks of this small substance which goes through an entire loaf of bread and influencing it completely. The amount of flour leavened by the yeast is literally “three satas” (σάτα τρία). This is surprisingly large, since a σάτον was about thirteen liters. Three measures would amount to almost forty liters, nearly a bushel of flour, enough to feed around 150 people. The yeast is small, and hidden, but has enormous power to change the substance of the entire loaf.
Explaining these two short parables is somewhat complicated. Many say that it speaks of evil within Christianity. The leaven and the bread would be the unbelievers, who mix with the believers. Postmillennialists see these parables as the growth of the Kingdom until Jesus returns, while especially he classical dispensationalists interpret the imagery as portraying the presence of evil within professing Christendom. However, from the context we see that Christ is showing the mystery of the kingdom of heaven, namely the growth from little through God’s rule. Birds or yeast need not always be viewed as symbols of evil, since a lion may signify Satan in one context and Jesus in another (1 Pet. 5:8; Rev. 5:5). These parables both speak of the deceptively subtle yet dramatically significant growth of God’s kingdom. We saw even John the Baptist doubting at the coming of the Kingdom, and the lack of growth, but the Kingdom will grow despite all the opposition, and the struggles. That which is small and humble now, will be the greatest, just like the entire Kingdom message entails.
Verse 34-35 Conclusion of the Parables
Jesus speaks to the crowd in parables, and in private to His disciples He explains much of his teaching. Another prophesy is fulfilled. Ps. 78:2 speaks of this, referring to the unbelief of Israel, and the hardness of their hearts (Ps. 78:8, 11, 17–22, 32–33, 36–37, 39–42, 56–58), which led to God’s discipline (Ps. 78:21, 31–34, 59–64). Yet God remains faithful, and David shepherds Israel as Godly king, and later the Messiah who finds the same unbelief and hardness of heart, but who shepherds gently and kindly the lost.
Parables to the Disciples (Mt. 13:36–52)
Verse 36-43 Interaction with the Disciples
Jesus returns to the house, leaving the crowd alone. In private, Jesus explains the parable of the weeds (Mt. 13:37–43a) and warns the disciples to be attentive to this message (Mt. 13:43b; cf. 11:15; 13:9). He explains the parable by explaining all the seven key-features:
1. The sower (Jesus; cf. Mt. 13:24) sows
2. good seed (the children of the kingdom; cf. Mt. 8:12) in
3. the field (the world; cf. John 4:35). In contrast,
4. the enemy (the devil) sows
5. weeds (the children of the evil one; cf. Matt. 5:37; 6:13; 23:15; John 8:44; Acts 13:10; 1 John 3:10). There will be a
6. harvest (the end of the age; cf. Matt. 3:12; 9:37; Isa. 18:4; 27:12; Jer. 51:33; Hos. 6:11; Joel 3:13; Rev. 14:14–20; Ezra 4:26–37; 9:17;) with
7. reapers (angels; cf. Matt. 24:31; 25:31–33; Rev. 14:15–19; 1 En. 54.6; 63.1).
In verse 40, Jesus starts explaining what will happen at the end of time, when the harvest will come, and evil will be separated from good by the angels of God. Evil to be burned (Matt. 3:12; 5:22; 18:8–9; Dan. 3:6), and good to be harvested into heaven. Satan’s people are the lawless ones, the ones who will be pushed with pain, while the sun will shine over the righteous, God’s people (Mt. 13:43; cf. 17:2; Judg. 5:31; 2 Sam. 23:3–4), and they will shine as the sun. The contrast is sharp. Yet it is Christ who shines as representative of the Father, while Satan works in lies, a wolf in sheep’s clothes. He imitates the sower, planting his seeds, but seeds of destruction. Satan is here presented as a spoiler, there is nothing constructive about him. The intensity of the Kingdom’s struggle is visible here. The subtlety of evil, the fierceness of evil, yet the contrasting outcome.
Verse 44-46 Parables of the Hidden Treasure and the expensive pearl
The following parables show the value of the Kingdom. The first man values the treasure he found (by accident) so highly that he sells all he has to purchase the field in which the treasure is found. This parable refers to the material sacrifice which God asks in discipleship. The parable about the pearl speaks of a man who actively searches for the pearl. Both men value something so highly that they are willing to give up all they possess to purchase this valuable good. France comments: “The fact that what the dealer had to sell included presumably other, lesser, pearls might however have led the hearers to reflect on the value of the kingdom of heaven in relation to other competing ideologies; once you have it, you need no other. Hence the emphasis on the fact that this is just one pearl, whose value eclipses all others put together.”
The parable speaks of a positive response to the Kingdom, and those who are willing to sacrifice so much will receive a reward in heaven (Mt. 19:27–29). Despite the lure of wealth and worldly distractions (Mt. 13:22), millions continue to follow Jesus at great cost in the present life but with greater prospects for the future. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).
Verse 47-50 Parable of the Net
The parable of the net is very similar to the parable of the wheat and the weed. Jesus immediately explains the parable in the verses that follow. The net of which the passage speaks is a net with weights on the sides that is thrown into the water and captures fish. Other passages speak of how heavy it can be to haul in (Luke 5:4–9; John 21:6–8).
Verse 49 explains the parable. The angels are fishermen, who will make distinction between the good fish and the bad fishes. Perhaps this is a subtle reminder of the universality of the kingdom mission, which is mandated to “all the nations” (28:19–20). The net does not discriminate as it gathers the fish, and neither should disciples of the kingdom as they fish for people (cf. Mt. 4:19; 22:9–10).
Verse 51-52 Parable of the Householder
Jesus asks the disciples: “do you understand now?” Many examples He has given have all the same meaning. Believers and unbelievers are living side by side in the Kingdom, and Satan will use subtle ways to plant his evil wherever he can. The eschatological end of the world will be the final outcome: eternal damnation or eternal bliss. The hostility toward Jesus and the disciples has dramatically increased, and Jesus has revealed more and more of its consequences.
In this last parable, Jesus calls the disciples he has trained legal experts or scribes of the kingdom because their ministries will entail teaching the kingdom message as they draw upon what Jesus has taught them and teach their own disciples new truths tied to old truths (cf. Mt. 23:34; 5:17–48; 9:16–17; 11:11–13).
It is surprising that Jesus speaks of legal experts when it regards His disciples, for legal experts have been His enemy so far. The reason is that in their teaching capacity, the disciples will function in Matthew’s Christian Jewish community like the legal experts in the larger Jewish community. Here, the new and old things should be understood in light of Jesus’s teaching that he has come not to cancel but to fulfill the law and the prophets (Mt. 5:17–20). But the new things, the ultimately definitive teachings of Jesus, are mentioned first as the legal experts’ primary resource.
Verse 53-58 Rejection in Nazareth and His response
Jesus returns from Capernaum and returns to His hometown Nazareth. The people there know Him as the son of a carpenter (builder τέκτων), and know that He has never received rabbinical education (John 7:15). The people take offense on Jesus, and therefore they fall into the same sin as the cities Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum (cf. Mt. 11:20–24). Jesus’s response reflects on the common human experience that well-known people are often not highly regarded by those who knew them before they achieved fame. Jesus does not many miracles in His hometown. Perhaps because there was no faith, as Jesus links faith to miracles (Mt. 8:10, 13, 26; 9:2, 22, 28–29; 14:31; 15:28; 17:20; 21:21–22). Likely He refrains not because He is not able, but rather because He chooses not to.