Indoor Parables (Matthew 13:36a)
[September 17, 2008] Today we continue the parables of Jesus in Matthew 13. Matthew, the gospel writer, has organized his material very carefully into themes. You recall that the beginning of Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus as the Kingdom of the Heavens in His own person, who invites people into His sphere, His metaphorical “place.” Now in chapters 11-13, Matthew shows us how people reacted and continue to react to Jesus. The wise and intelligent do not understand Him because they are too sure of themselves. The only ones who “get it” are those to whom the Father reveals the Son. These are the ones who give themselves to the Son in faith and fidelity, loyalty and commitment.
In chapter 13 Jesus tells seven parables to describe this situation. The first is the parable of the Sower. The Word falls on the heart, but some do not bother to understand it, others do not let the Word take root and remain shallow, others are too preoccupied with other things. However, the Word does take root in some and is not choked out but grows to bear fruit. The next three parables are about the deceptive appearance of the kingdom of the heavens in the world, caused by illegitimately inflating it. In the parable of the wheat and tares, false believers grow among the true ones, inflating the numbers of believers. In the parable of the mustard seed—that refuses to remain a shrub but becomes a tree instead—the church becomes a power in the world and exercises worldly power. In the parable of the leaven, the unleavened bread of the church is inflated with corrupt teachings and practices. Jesus tells these four parables to the crowds outside (out of doors), and explains them only to the disciples.
Now, in verse 35, Jesus leaves the crowd and goes into the house. The house speaks of the community of believers, those who have entered His sphere, or in other words, the church. The teaching here is no longer about the appearance of the kingdom of the heavens in the world but about the reality of the kingdom in the world. The people on the outside only see the appearance, the people on the inside should know the reality.
The Sorting of the Wheat and Tares (13:36b-43)
First Jesus explains the parable of the wheat and tares. Remember that the field is not the church but the world. Those on the outside only see the wheat and tares growing together. Many people say that they are Christians, but many of them are false. When Jesus told the parable to the crowd, He emphasized the fact that the workers were told not to try to weed the tares out of the field but to let them grow together until the harvest. This means that we are to leave the false believers alone and by no means persecute or use legal or coercive measures against them, whether they are active heretics or the uncommitted who claim the name Christian but are such in name only.
Now, however, Jesus emphasizes the harvest. This is when the wheat and tares are sorted and the reality becomes clear over against the mere appearance. Even when Christ returns in judgment, we do not judge the others. The angels will separate the stumbling blocks and lawless ones from the kingdom and they—not us–will cast them into a furnace of judgment. Then the kingdom of the heavens will only have wheat and it will shine like the sun. In that day it will be called the kingdom of the Father. This is after the Lord returns. Only then will the reality of the kingdom really shine in the world.
In the present, we need to be patient and leave others outside the church in God’s hands. On the other hand, on what should we focus?
The Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Value (13:44-46)
Last week Jesus gave two tiny parables to make His point: the mustard seed that became a tree and the woman who mixed leaven in the flour. Likewise, this week Jesus gives another two parables, two parables that sharply contrast with the two from last week. They are similar to each other in that there is some object of great value and the person in the parable “in joy went and sold all that he had and bought” it. Our job now is to interpret these parables correctly and hear what Jesus is saying to us through them.
In both cases the thing of value should not be a mystery if we have been paying attention to the Gospel of Matthew. The treasure and the pearl are the kingdom of the heavens in the disciples, or if I can rephrase that, it is the kingdom of the heavens in the church. This is the whole thrust of Matthew’s gospel. In order for us to understand this, we need to know what the difference is between the church and the kingdom. The church is not revealed until chapter 16 and then in 17:22—20:16 Jesus teaches about the church in the light of the kingdom. We talked about this during the season of Easter.
The church is made up of all those who are believers. The believers are those who commit themselves to Jesus and depend entirely on Him for their salvation. In the church all are equally little ones, brothers and sisters, sheep and shepherds, who must care for one another without discrimination. Christ has purchased us by His perfect obedience to the Father and the offering up of Himself to the Father’s will on the cross. His obedience is what God requires of us, and the judgment that fell on Him is the judgment we have fallen under from which He frees us. In other words, when we speak of the church, everything is about grace, pure unmitigated and unmerited grace.
The kingdom, however, has to do with the fulfillment of God’s purpose in us and in the entire creation. The kingdom is the rule of God where all that resists and opposes God is overcome and where we are transformed to become all that Christ is in His blessed (and deified) humanity. It is the place of blessedness, but it is also a matter of reward—it has to be obtained. To be in the church requires faith in Christ, a giving of ourselves to Him in dependence. He carries the weight of it. To inherit the kingdom of the heavens require that we be faithful, that we live by the grace He has given us, that it has its affect on us, on our character and our lives.
When we accept Christ by faith and depend on Him for our salvation, we are eternally secure—we become the children of God and nothing can change that. However, we also come under His lordship. He becomes our Master and we come under the discipline of the Father. That has to do with the kingdom. The kingdom is the working out of the grace of God that is in us as believers.
So in the parable of the treasure hidden in the field, the kingdom in us and in the church is the treasure. The apostle Peter says that our adorning should not be with outward treasures but with the “hidden man of the heart in the incorruptible adornment of a meek and quiet spirit, which is very costly in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:4). Christ finds it first, but it is hidden because His glory—the glory that is brighter than the sun—is hidden from the eyes of men and the only ones who see it are those to whom it is revealed. But Christ saw the treasure and valued it so much. Seeing God’s purpose gave Him such joy that He renounced everything of His own—even laying down His own sinless soul on the cross—and bought the field in which the treasure lay. By His death He inherited the earth, so that among us He could have the church and in the church He could obtain the kingdom. As Paul says, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God,” but “when Christ our life is manifested, then you also will be manifested with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4). So the man in the parable is Christ who obtained the kingdom in us.
The same is true of the merchant seeking fine pearls. The kingdom in the church is the one pearl of great value. Pearls are objects of great beauty. Again, Jesus paid the price of His own sinless soul in order to obtain this pearl.
That Christ should pay such a price for the glory of God and for us, so that we can have the glory of God, should make us worship Him. What love this is!
But we would be missing the point if we stop there. The main point is this: that if we would obtain the kingdom, we too must forsake all that is our own (Luke 14:33) and “buy” it. The five wise virgins in chapter 25 bought extra oil for their lamps. In Revelation 3:18 Jesus counsels the church “to buy from Me gold refined by fire that you may be rich, and white garments that you may be clothed and that the shame of your nakedness may not be manifested, and eyesalve to anoint your eyes that you may see.” You see, there is a price to pay. In Luke 12:33 Jesus says that the Father is pleased to give you the kingdom but you must “sell your possessions and give alms; make for yourselves purses which do not become old, an unfailing treasure in the heavens, where thief does not come near nor even moth corrupts; for where your treasure is, there also your heart will be.” He who would lose his soul for my sake, He says, shall save it (Matthew 16:25; see John 12:25-26). We have salvation from sins, forgiveness and the gift of eternal life, when we first believe. But the salvation of our souls for the obtaining of the kingdom is costly and we do not obtain it in this life. We can be those who take advantage of the Lord and be lazy or self-serving disciples, and then when we appear before Him we will be ashamed. Or we can be faithful to Him, not valuing the world’s garbage but the Lord’s treasure, and we can be useful to Him now for the sake of His church and the obtaining of the kingdom within the church. For the sake of the church, Paul says, “I suffered the loss of all things and count them as refuse that I may gain Christ … [and may] lay hold of that for which I also have been laid hold of by Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8, 12). Paul goes so far as to say that “death works in us that life may work in you” (2 Corinthians 4:11). If we want to serve God’s purpose, there is a price.
The pearl is something obtained by experience. We emphasized this before, that the pearl represents the beautiful thing that God works in us by dealing with our sin. In Matthew 7 the pearls that we must not cast before pigs is this inner beauty that results from removing the plank of wood from our own eye. It is something obtained by the Lord’s dealing with us, by suffering. Suffering itself does not make us a pearl. It is how we suffer, it is the offering up of our suffering in obedience to and praise of God.
For too long the church has reacted against the false gospel of salvation by works and has only emphasized the free grace of God—to the point that “grace” has become cheap grace. But cheap grace produces tares. We need to emphasize Jesus’ message in the four gospels. Disciples, if they would be worthy of the name and not just living off of the blood, sweat and tears that others have shed for them, need to value the treasure and the pearl of the kingdom and sell all that is their own and buy it. Christ must be the first and most important value in our life, not in word only but also in deed.
The Dragnet (13:47-50)
The last parable is about a dragnet, which was a long net strung between two boats. One bottom end of the net would be weighted and the top would be floated, and the boats would drag it. This is how our preaching and sharing of the Gospel should be. We should not discriminate but share the Gospel with all, all species of fish. This is like the parable of the sower. Like the sower who casts seed on every sort of ground, it is not up to us to choose who is worthy and who is not. We spread our seeds everywhere; we spread our net wide. It is not our net anyway, but belongs to Christ. When the net is drawn in the end of the age, it is Christ who will separate the bad fish from the edible ones. Again, the net is not the church but the proclamation of the kingdom.
The Scribe (13:51-52)
Jesus ends His parables by speaking of a scribe. We are used to thinking of scribes as the bad guys because Jesus is often arguing with them. But the scribes were those who could read and write, who studied the Scriptures and were responsible for copying the Scriptures. Rabbis are scribes. The people of Israel always needed scribes and so does the church. The church needs literate teachers, scribes “discipled to the kingdom of the heavens.” They are like the master of a house who can bring out of his stores of treasure things new and old. The house, again, is the community of believers (the church). The scribe has access to the store of treasures and brings them out. The old treasure is the Scriptures of Israel. The new is all that Jesus is in Himself, and all that He teaches and accomplishes as the Messiah. The scribe brings out both the new and the old. The church needs to receive these treasures.