Matthew 13, Part 1
-Supporting Idea: Many people will reject the truth because of Satanic opposition, their own hard hearts, and because God will blind them further. But some will receive the truth and bear spiritual fruit.
Jesus’ first parable might be thought of as a parable about parables. It explained the need for parables, because of the varying responses God’s Word receives from different people, for this reason, the parable of the sower is a suitable introduction to the discourse. It reveals a secret about the kingdom and justifies Jesus’ use of parables.
The question that the parable of the sower answers is, Why do some respond in faith to the Messiah while others do not? The disciples may have been asking themselves, What went wrong? Why are people not accepting the king and his kingdom? Is there a problem with the king? Or his message? Jesus’ first parable suggested there was no problem with the farmer (Messiah), or the seed (his message), but the problem was with the soil (the people hearing).
The parable placed people—all of whom have been exposed to the truth—in more than the two categories of “faithful” and “faithless.” Jesus used the parable to demonstrate the variety of reasons the faithless avoid trusting or fall away from faith. Again, the problem was not with an ineffective teacher or his truth, but with the condition of the hearts of the listeners. And opposition from the kingdom’s adversary, Satan, and his counterfeit kingdom cannot be discounted. Jesus stated that the devil himself was involved in this process (13:19).
Verses 10–17 are not an arbitrary interruption, separating the parable (13:3–9) from its explanation (13:18–23), but an integral part of the message of the parable. It contains Jesus’ explanation as to why he used this new parabolic teaching method.
Parable of the Sower
Parable of the Sower
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 He who has ears, let him hear.”
How many of us sow seed, but have never checked to see if the ground has been plowed?
Grass seed analogy.
13:1–2. That same day provides both a chronological and thematic connection between this discourse and the preceding context of Jesus’ rejection of Israel. Another connection with the preceding context is found in the mention of the house, meaning the one in which Jesus was teaching when his family came to speak to him (12:46–50). This was the same house to which Jesus would return for the private portion of the discourse (13:36)—probably Peter’s house in Capernaum (8:14).
Jesus sat by the Sea of Galilee (lake, 13:1) and in a boat (13:2), because sitting was the posture a teacher assumed in that culture, reflecting the respect he received from his listeners. In contrast, the crowd stood (13:2). In many cultures, this is a sign of honor to the teacher and the sacred Scriptures he is teaching, but in this instance it was also necessary because of the pressing crowd.
13:3–8. The many things Jesus spoke in parables certainly included what was written in 13:3–52. It is possible that there were other parables that Matthew did not record.
The parable of the sower requires little comment, because Jesus himself explained the parable in 13:18–23. Note that the farmer sowed seed or several different kinds of soil. The soil along the path (13:4) would likely have been hard-packed from much traffic. There would be little or no vegetation or loose soil to hide or bury the seeds, so the birds could easily find them. The birds represent the devil, “the evil one” (13:19). Note also the variable quality of even the good soil (13:8); even among that which is conducive to fruit bearing, some soils do better than others.
As is common in storytelling today, Jesus used patterns of threes—three bad soils and three variations on the good soil. Usually the first two examples set a pattern, and the third example departs from that pattern, revealing the central message of the story. In this parable, the first three soils set the pattern of poor response to the seeds, and the fourth soil was the contrasting positive example.
13:9. Jesus repeated the challenge that Matthew first recorded in 11:15, after identifying John the Baptizer with “Elijah, who was to come.” He will repeat the same wording in 13:43, and the challenge is explained thoroughly in the following context (13:10–17).
In fact, the distinction between those who have ears to hear and those who do not is central to understanding all of Matthew 11–13. In chapters 11–12, the conflicts revealed the contrast between those who willfully chose to disbelieve in the face of overwhelming evidence, and those who humbly accepted the evidence and responded in faith and obedience to the Messiah. Those who had ears to hear would not only find understanding about the parable, but would realize that the parable was talking about their willingness to hear. Those who did not have “ears to hear” would go on in denial about the parable’s implications about their own unwillingness to hear.
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “ ‘ “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
13:10. The disciples noticed Jesus’ shift in teaching style. He was changing over to parables as his primary method of public teaching, so they inquired about his reasons. He took this opportunity to explain to the disciples, in plain language, the root problem of Israel’s disbelief.
13:11–12. Jesus’ answer implied that the secrets about the kingdom are unknowable apart from God’s determination to reveal them. Just as Jesus had complete authority about who would receive knowledge of the Father (11:27), he also had complete discretion as to who would receive the secrets about the kingdom of heaven.
Those who already had some knowledge—because they responded with humble faith to what had already been revealed—had been good stewards of this information. They would be entrusted with more (particularly through their understanding of the parables). These people, because of their faith, had received God’s gracious favor. However, those who had consciously rejected the Messiah would receive only judgment, beginning with Jesus’ withholding of insight by the use of parables. These outsiders had enough knowledge of the truth to be hostile against Jesus, but even that insight would be further clouded by their disbelief. Jesus’ teaching style was designed to give them little help as long as they persisted in their rebellion.
This has application even today. It is a dangerous thing to hear and understand God’s truth, and then to consciously choose to disbelieve it. Such people will become less and less aware of their own doom, as they slide deeper into denial of the Messiah. However, those who respond to God’s word with open hearts will find an ever-widening road to further insight and reward.
13:13–15. Because of God’s determination to bless those who believe and to judge those who disbelieve, Jesus changed his public teaching style to parables—teaching tools that would further polarize believers and skeptics. To further explain his use of parables, Jesus described the condition of the skeptics. The paradox of seeing, but not seeing, and hearing, but not hearing, is resolved when we realize that the first reference to each sense has to do with their physical senses. The second reference to each sense is figurative, referring to the eyes and ears of their hearts—their capacity to accept or reject the truth laid before them.
By adding they do not hear or understand (13:13), Jesus clarified this distinction, but he also hinted that part of God’s judgment on the outsiders was a growing unawareness even of their own willful disbelief. The human heart is amazing in its capacity to convince itself of a falsehood—even one it has perpetrated itself. We are capable of lying to ourselves and coming to a point where we believe our own lies.
In them implies that the following prophecy from Isaiah did not apply to those who believed—only to the willfully disbelieving who bring this judgment on themselves.
The prophecy of Isaiah 6:9–10 comes from Isaiah’s vision of Yahweh in his throne room. In Isaiah 6, in the face of Yahweh’s glorious perfection. Isaiah fell on his face and proclaimed his uncleanness. An angel cleansed Isaiah’s lips, qualifying him for his task as messenger to rebellious Israel. Isaiah then volunteered for the job of messenger, in response to Yahweh’s invitation.
Isaiah was instructed to go to Judah with the truth. But because of Judah’s rebellious disbelief, Isaiah’s teaching would serve as God’s instrument of judgment, causing the people to galvanize their hearts even more against the truth. Judah had gone beyond the point of being able to avoid judgment. So Yahweh sealed his case against them by taking them even farther from any possibility of restoration.
In the Isaiah context after Jesus’ quote, Yahweh described the results of his judgment—the devastation of the land and the exile of the population—but left Judah with the hope of the faithful remnant, the “stumps” of the tree of Judah, from which the “holy seed” would grow back (Isa. 6:13). The period of judgment would purge and purify Judah, restoring the nation to its original purpose and ultimately producing the Messiah, who would be the final solution to Israel’s rebellion.
While Jesus’ parables would serve the same purpose as Isaiah’s teaching—to further harden the hearts of willful disbelievers—the hardening of first-century Israel’s heart was already well-advanced, and their judgment well-deserved.
The Lord’s heart remains open, even as disbelieving hearts grow colder and harder. Verse 14 uses the Greek double negative ou me twice, meaning Israel would “by no means, absolutely not” understand or perceive the truth they had been continually seeing and hearing.
Both times the word heart (kardia) or hearts is used, it refers to the collective “heart” of all Israel. The concept of corporate solidarity was much better understood and accepted in first-century Israel than it is today in Western culture, with our emphasis on the individual. God does deal with whole peoples and nations at a time. Israel as a whole was characterized as having a calloused heart, and God would judge the nation accordingly. But he had not forgotten the remnant of the faithful (11:25–30; 12:48–50).
The figurative closing of Israel’s ears and eyes is voluntary; they are not victims of some disease” or “injury.” Note especially that they have closed their eyes.
At any time Israel could have “turned” (epistrepho) for healing (i.e., forgiveness and spiritual restoration), by seeing, hearing, and believing God’s message. But the mission of Isaiah and Jesus was to speak the truth, further galvanizing the resistant hearts of the unbelieving people and driving them further from repentance and healing, as an act of God’s judgment. God had given Israel many chances, but now his patience had run out. Judgment was beginning.
13:16–17. In contrast with calloused Israel (the emphatic placement of your heightens the contrast), the disciples’ eyes and ears were open, accepting God’s message and his messenger. They were therefore blessed (makarios, “happy”; cf. 5:3–12). The disciples’ eyes and ears were also blessed because of the privilege they enjoyed, which many prophets and righteous men of past ages longed for. Those past heroes remained faithful, even though they never saw the ultimate fulfillment of the promises they claimed. The disciples claimed these promises and were eyewitnesses to their fulfillment in Jesus. I tell you the truth adds emphasis to the greatness of the disciples’ privilege (13:17).
Weber, S. K. (2000). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 193–195). Broadman & Holman Publishers.