Mysteries of the Kingdom: The Course of the Church Age (Mat. 13:1-52)
Jesus got into a fishing boat and preached to the people who were on the shore. A likely location is a cove near Tabgha that forms a natural amphitheater. For photos of this place see “Christ’s Ministry on the Sea of Galilee” in Bible Times & Ancient Kingdoms, June 2016 edition.
1. The background of the parables
a. Jesus came and presented Himself to Israel as the promised Messiah and King (Mat. 1-10). We know that Jesus did not come to establish the Messianic kingdom; He came to die for man’s sin; but He did present Himself as the Messiah, knowing that He would be rejected. His rejection was necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy (Isa. 53:3).
b. He was publicly rejected by Israel’s leaders and representatives (Mat. 11-12; see especially 12:22-28).
c. Christ then offered Himself to anyone who would come—Jew or Gentile. It was not until Matthew 11:28-30 that Christ made this offer.
d. Having been rejected by Israel, Christ reveals the “mystery” period of the kingdom (Mat. 13:11). This is a special group of parables (Mat. 13:53). They reveal the mystery form that the kingdom of God will take during the church age. They begin with the sowing of the seed and end with judgment.
(1) A New Testament “mystery” is something hidden in the Old Testament and revealed in the New (Rom. 16:25-26; 1 Cor. 2:7-10; Eph. 3:3-6).
(2) The term “mysteries of the kingdom” in Matthew 13:11 refers to the course of the church age. This age was not foretold in Old Testament prophecy and is thus called a “mystery.” See Mat. 13:35. Old Testament prophecy saw the first and second comings of Christ, but it did not see the church age lying in between these great events. The church age is like a valley in between mountain peaks. The floor of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal is about 4,500 feet high. Looking north you can see mountains at the edge of the valley that are about 10,000 feet. Beyond that you can see the peaks of the central Himalayan mountain range that rise to over 25,000 feet. It looks like the high peaks are immediately behind the near mountains, but in fact there are unseen valleys in between. Likewise, Old Testament prophecy saw the peaks of the first and second coming of Christ, but it did not see the valley of the church age in between. The Old Testament prophecies of the kingdom revealed that Christ would suffer (Isa. 53) and would reign (Isa. 9:6-7). Nothing is mentioned, though, about a period of time in between these two great events in which God would temporarily set aside the nation Israel and build the church composed of Jews and Gentiles.
2. The purpose of the parables
Jesus taught these parables to reveal the truth of the church age to believers and to hide it from unbelievers (Mat. 13:10-17).
a. Jesus did not teach in parables to make the truth simple, as many have claimed. He taught in parables to hide the truth from willful unbelievers.
b. It is important to note that God does not arbitrarily blind some and open the eyes of others. It is those who do not receive the truth who are blinded. Jesus says that Israel closed her own eyes (Mat. 13:15). Compare Ezekiel 12:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:11-12.
3. The general message of the parables
They describe the course of the church age as that of increasing apostasy and error until the whole is leavened (Mat. 13:33). The whole will be leavened when the saints are raptured and the Great Whore of Revelation 17 will rule with the Antichrist. “To say that our Lord speaks of the church in these parables would be incorrect. He speaks of what we term today ‘Christendom,’ the sphere of Christian profession” (Gaebelein’s Annotated Bible).
4. The meaning of the individual parables
The Lord interprets the first two parables, and this interpretation is the key to understanding the rest. The field is the world. The man (sower, the purchaser of the field, the merchantman) is Christ. The seed is the gospel. The soil is the hearts of men. The birds are demons.
THE SOWER (Mat. 13:3-9, 18-23)
Compare Mark 4:14-20; Luke 8:11-15.
Main Message: The gospel will be preached to all nations and resisted by the devil.
a. The seed is the gospel, which we are to preach to every creature and which is the power of God unto salvation to those who believe (Mark 16:15; Rom. 1:16).
b. The gospel falls upon different types of soil—signifying people and nations. Only a small part falls on good soil. Most men will not be saved. Though all men are sinners, all men do not respond to the gospel in the same way. We should preach the gospel to every person but focus our attention on those who are responsive. It is like fishing. I try to present my bait to every fish in the lake, but I pay most attention to those that bite!
c. Only a small part of seed falls on good soil. Most men will not be saved. Jesus said that “few there be that find it” (Mat. 7:13-14).
d. Salvation requires understanding the Word of God (Mat. 13:19, 23). No one can be manipulated into salvation if he is not willing to listen to the gospel. If an individual is not willing to read a gospel tract or invite a Christian into his home to teach him, he cannot be saved. On the day of Pentecost, the people were willing to hear Peter preach to them in many words (Acts 2:40-41). The Ethiopian Eunuch was reading the Scripture and trying to understand it and God sent Philip to help him (Acts 8:26-31). Cornelius was willing to call Peter and hear what he had to say (Acts 10). When Paul preached in Athens, some wanted to hear more (Acts 17:32).
e. The devil is very aggressive in trying to keep people from Christ (Mat. 13:19). Compare Mark 4:15 “Satan cometh immediately.” But he can’t keep people from believing unless they do not want to believe (2 Cor. 4:4). Evangelism is spiritual warfare, and the evangelist must have on the whole armor of God (Eph. 6:19-18).
f. The one who falls away does not have saving faith. Compare Hebrews 10:38-39. The “root” in verse 21 is Christ (Isa. 11:1, 10; 53:2; Rev. 5:5; 22:16). A profession of faith is always tested to determine its character. In our years of missionary work, we have seen large numbers of people become very interested in the gospel, then turn away from Christ because of persecution from friends, relatives, and society at large.
g. Even a true Christian can be unfruitful if he is not careful about how he lives (Mat. 13:22).
(1) The danger of care (Mat. 13:22). Care is dangerous when it hinders the individual from serving the Lord or when it causes him or her to disobey the Bible. Care comes to every person in this present world, but we must cast our care upon Christ and trust and obey Him (1 Pet. 5:7). Compare Matthew 6:30-33. God will take care of us if we put Him first. Care can cause an individual to neglect the assembly or to yoke together with an unbeliever in a business in order to make money. It can cause him not to be able to concentrate on studying the Bible and meditating on it “day and night” (Psa. 1:2). Care can cause the individual to become offended at God for allowing problems to come into his life or perhaps to become offended at the church for not helping him, so that he stops seeking and serving Christ. We see in this parable that Christians are not exempt from troubles. God allows us to be subject to troubles in order to try our faith and to produce spiritual growth (Jam. 1:2-4).
(2) The danger of riches (Mat. 13:22). Riches are deceitful because they offer the promise of happiness and satisfaction in life, but they do not fulfill that promise. The pursuit of riches has destroyed many (1 Tim. 6:9-10). Consider, for example, the many “get rich quick” schemes. “Many people have seemed to say yes to Christ, only to lose sight of spiritual things when worldly advancement beckons. Perhaps a promised promotion at work cuts right across a dawning conviction that one should become a preacher or a missionary. Or business booms at the cost of neglecting the gatherings of the Lord’s people” (John Phillips).
(3) The danger of pleasure (Lk. 8:14). It is not wrong to have pleasure, as God has given us all things to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17). But it is wrong to have pleasure that interferes with my relationship with and service of the Lord. For example, many have put sports and other things before being faithful to God’s house. And sinful pleasures have allured many souls into moral destruction. “Some people amount to nothing for God because they refuse to give up some destructive, dominating habit that gives them temporary pleasure” (Phillips).
h. The fruit bearers (Mat. 13:23)
(1) True believers bear fruit. This is the evidence of their salvation (John 15:1-2). The true believer hears Christ’s voice and follows Him (John 10:27). Does this mean that those who are chocked in verse 22 aren’t saved? It is possible. I know of many professing believers who don’t bear fruit for one reason or another. They are church members, but they don’t ever grow, don’t ever serve, don’t ever bear fruit. This is very dangerous ground to be on, because it is very possible that it means they haven’t been born again.
(2) Believers bear different amounts of fruit depending on their zeal for serving Christ. Each believer should aim for 100% fruit to the glory of Christ. 100% fruit is for those who are 100% sold out to the Lord.
(3) Bearing fruit is not by self-effort nor is it by merely “resting” or waiting on God (John 15:3-4; Mat. 11:28-30; Gal. 2:20). It has been rightly said that we must work as if everything depended upon us and trust God as if everything depended upon Him.
(4) Understanding the Word is necessary for bearing fruit (“heareth the word, and understandeth it,” Mat. 13:23). The Bible is the Word of God that produces fruit in the believer’s life, but it must be read and studied and understood. The Word of God must be desired by the believer like a newborn babe desires his mother’s milk (1 Pet. 2:2). The believer who is lazy in regard to learning God’s Word will never bear much fruit.
(5) Christian growth requires honesty (Lk. 8:15). Contrast guile (Psa. 32:1-2; John 1:47). Contrast hypocrisy (Ananias and Sapphira). There are those who seem to understand the gospel and who say the right things but their lives don’t match their words.
(6) Christian growth requires patience (Lk. 8:15). Growth doesn’t come quickly; many trials have to be endured.
THE TARES (Mat. 13:24-30; 36-43)
Main Message: The devil will raise up false Christians and corrupt churches alongside of the truth.
a. We see the sower, who is Christ (Mat. 13:37). Believers are ambassadors for Christ, but it is Christ who is actually doing the sowing of the gospel and the miracle work of salvation.
b. We see the enemy (Mat. 13:24, 38-39). He is called the enemy, the wicked one, and the devil. He is opposed to God and to Christ. He is the god of this world and blinds the minds of those who do not believe the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). He is active in resisting the gospel everywhere in the world and throughout the age. He is a liar and a deceiver and a corrupter. He cannot destroy the wheat, but he can introduce tares.
c. We see the slumber (Mat. 13:25). God’s people must stay alert and vigilant against the devil’s activity (1 Pet. 5:8). Church leaders must be vigilant to guard the door of church membership from unregenerate professors and every type of error.
d. We see the wheat and the tares. False Christians and true will grow together in the world during this age.
(1) The wheat is a beautiful picture of true believers. Wheat doesn’t form deep and permanent roots into the earth. Likewise, believers are pilgrims in this present world. Wheat is an annual crop. It is harvested each fall. Likewise, believers have been continually harvested from the earth since Pentecost. Wheat dies downward as it ripens upward (Phillips), and the believer is to die to this world and set his affection on this above (Col. 3:1-4). Wheat absorbs the sun and bears physical fruit in its grain, and the believer takes in God’s Word and bears spiritual fruit. Wheat bows its head as it bears fruit, as the believer lives his life in continual worship to God.
(2) The tare looks like wheat but it has a different character. This is a picture of those who profess Christ but are not born of the Spirit. In some ways they act like true believers, but they don’t bear the fruit of a true believer. It is by the fruit that wheat can easily be distinguished from the tare. The grain of a tare is not a sweet, edible fruit. Jesus taught that those who do not bear fruit are false (Jn. 15:1-2, 6).
(3) The wheat and tares growing together in the world depict the two programs that operate side by side in the church age. The devil’s program of the mystery of iniquity (2 Th. 2:7) works alongside the Lord’s program of the Great Commission (Acts 1:8). Both will operate until the Rapture of New Testament saints. At that point the mystery of iniquity will hasten on to its end by the revelation of the antichrist and by his ultimate destruction in the lake of fire.
e. We see the harvest. The tares are not destroyed until the end of the age (Mat. 13:30). The church age has an end. Today is the day of salvation, but the opportunity will not last forever.
(1) This does not refer to sin and error in the churches but to sin and error in the world (“the field is the world,” Mat. 13:38). Thus the ecumenical interpretation is wrong. Many misuse this parable to teach that we should not exercise discipline or separate from false Christians, but that we should wait for the Lord to do the separating. The New Testament epistles plainly teach us to put away those who sin in the churches (1 Cor. 5) and to mark and avoid those that teach false doctrine and that follow false forms of Christianity (Rom. 16:17; 2 Tim. 3:5; Titus 3:10-11).
(2) This shows that Rome’s doctrine of persecuting and destroying those she considered false in “Christendom” was wrong. The churches have no authority to punish sinners in the world.
(3) The parable is a severe warning to nominal Christians. False Christians like Judas can sometimes deceive the saints, but they cannot deceive God. He knows His own (2 Tim. 2:19). The believer proves his saving faith by his changed life. Good works are not the way of salvation, but they are the evidence of salvation (1 John 2:3-4).
THE MUSTARD SEED (Mat. 13:31-32)
Main Message: The parable of the mustard seed becoming a tree depicts the true church of Jesus Christ experiencing abnormal growth and becoming the home of evil things.
a. The seed of the mustard plant signifies New Testament churches as founded by the apostles. They are small and weak and unimpressive in the eyes of men, but they are strong in faith and in God’s power. Compare Matthew 17:20 where the mustard seed is likened to faith in God’s Word. The church at Philadelphia epitomized the true church -- “for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name” (Rev. 3:8).
b. The tree depicts the weak, despised churches becoming large and impressive through the process of apostasy. The mustard plant becomes “a great tree.” See Luke 13:19. While it is true that the mustard plant that grows wild in Israel can become a large shrub, it does not become a great tree. This is a description of unnatural growth. It is a description of apostasy, as the Roman Catholic Church and her daughters turned the simple “religion” of Christ into one of worldly grandeur, with popes and archbishops and bishops and priests and liturgy and sacraments and cathedrals and veneration of the saints and pilgrimages.
c The birds that lodge in the tree have already been interpreted as evil in the Parable of the Sower (compare Matthew 13:4 with verse 19). They are demons and professing Christians and teachers controlled by demons. Compare I Timothy 4:1 and 2 Corinthians 11:13-15. The simple church that Christ established has become one of the largest religions in the world, full of demonic teachings and practices.
THE HIDDEN LEAVEN (Mat. 13:33)
Main Message: Christianity will gradually increase in error until it is entirely apostate. “Till the whole was leavened.”
a. The three measures of meal picture Christ and His Word and His doctrine. It reminds us of the three measures of the meal offering (Num. 15:9). The fine flour depicts Christ’s pure, perfectly balanced character. The absence of leaven (Lev. 2:11) depicts Christ’s sinless nature. The oil poured on the flour (Lev. 2:15) depicts the Holy Spirit (Jn. 3:34). The frankincense (Lev. 2:15) depicts the sweet odor of Christ’s life before the Father (Mat. 3:17). The three measures depicts the Trinity dwelling in fullness in Christ (Col. 2:9).
b. The woman pictures false teachers, for the woman is not supposed to teach (1 Tim. 2:12). The false religious system in Revelation 17 is pictured as a woman. Paul warned that evil men and seducers shall increase throughout the church age (2 Tim. 3:13). Spiritual error will progress until “the whole” of “Christianity” is leavened.
c. The leaven pictures false doctrine (Gal. 5:7-9) and sin in the churches (1 Cor. 5:6-8). The churches are to continue in the apostles’ doctrine (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11:1-2). Jesus warned of the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Mat. 16:6). The leaven of the Pharisees was to add human tradition to God’s Word, which we have today in the form of Roman Catholicism and the cults such as Mormonism. The leaven of the Sadducees was skepticism. They did not believe in angels and the resurrection. We have this today in the form of theological modernism. Leaven depicts that which is pleasing to the natural man. “When sourdough is added to meal, the result is appetizing. Flour by itself has little taste, but when yeast is added, the dough becomes light and savory. Christianity, however, was never designed to delight the flesh any more than unleavened bread at Passover was supposed to be tasty. On the contrary, God called that bread ‘the bread of affliction’ (Deut. 16:3)” (John Phillips). Contemporary Christianity attempts to make the things of Christ appealing to the natural man. It downplays the necessity of repentance and self-denying sacrifice. It is “seeker friendly.” Toward this end it uses worldly music and dress and entertainment to “jazz up” the gospel, but it is apostasy. It is contrary to the doctrine of the apostles.
THE TREASURE HID IN A FIELD (Mat. 13:44)
Main Message: This parable depicts Christ’s purchase of and preservation of Israel and the kingdom of God (Ex. 19:5; Psa. 135:4).
a. The field is the world. Compare Mat. 13:38.
b. The treasure is the kingdom of God which has been hid the world in the form of Israel. “On this planet God intends to display His royalty. His kingdom is to be located here by deliberate design, as part of His eternal plan (Mat. 25:34). God’s plans for our planet have centered in the nation of Israel ever since the days of Abraham. God selected the children of Israel to be His people, put them in the land He is pleased to call His land and gave them a capital city He calls the city of the great king (Psa. 48:2). For a brief while the planned kingdom became openly visible as God raised up David, placed him on an everlasting throne (2 Sa. 7:8-17), and crowned him with glory and honor. ... The Old Testament kingdom had at best been a shadowy picture of the ultimate Messianic kingdom. ... In the mind of God, however, the kingdom still existed and with the advent of Christ it could come into its own. ... The treasure of God’s kingdom on earth was here all the time, but it was quite unsuspected by most” (John Phillips).
c. The man who found the treasure is Christ, the Son of God who became flesh.
d. Christ bought the field with His precious blood (1 Pet. 1:19). Like Boaz, Christ became the kinsman redeemer. He was rich but He became poor that He might be the Redeemer (2 Cor. 8:9). He bought the treasure with joy (“for joy thereof,” Mat. 13:44). Compare Heb. 12:2.
e. Christ has re-hidden the treasure during the church age (Lk. 19:42; Rom. 11:25-26).
f. One day He will uncover and take possession of the treasure. This is described in Revelation 5-6, where Christ takes the scroll from the Father’s hand and opens the seals. The scroll contains the title deed to the earth and Christ’s kingdom. Christ will judge the world and return to sit on its throne.
THE MERCHANT SEEKING GOODLY PEARLS (Mat. 13:45-46)
Main Message: This parable depicts the purchase of the church.
a. The merchant is Christ. He is the one who seeks and saves sinners, and He has been doing this ever since Adam fell.
b. The pearl is the church. The only other mention of a pearl in Scripture is Rev. 21:21, which refers to the pearls from which the gates of the New Jerusalem are fashioned. The pearl was not considered of value to the Jews just as they did not value the Gentiles, but Christ valued them.
c. The price for the pearl was Christ’s atonement on Calvary (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
THE NET (Mat. 13:47-50)
Main Message: This parable looks to the end of the age at the return of Christ and the separation of the wicked from the righteous in preparation for the establishment of Christ’s kingdom. The sea represents the Gentile kingdoms, just as it does in Revelation when the antichrist comes out of the sea (Rev. 13:1). The parable looks at the same event as Mat. 3:12; 13:40-42; 25:41; Rev. 14:9-11. Those who receive the mark of the beast and those who do not receive the message of the Jewish evangelists described in Revelation 7 will not enter into Christ’s kingdom.
Consider some lessons from this parable:
a. Angels will be active in the establishment of Christ’s kingdom in a visible way. In the church age, angels are active but their activity is largely hidden from the eyes of men. Even if we meet them, we are unaware that they are angels (Heb. 13:2).
b. Hell is a place of fiery judgment. This is repeated and emphasized in Scripture, and Jesus warned about hell fire more than anyone. The fire of hell is mentioned about 20 times in the Gospels.
THE HOUSEHOLDER (Mat. 13:51-52)
Main Message: Both the Old Testament and the New Testament are for church-age believers. Though the church is not under the Old Testament covenant, we learn from the Old Testament (1 Cor. 10:11; Rom. 15:4).
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