Matthew: The Parables of the Kingdom, Part 2: Jesus speaks in parables

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on May 12, 1998

Matthew 13:10-17, 34-35

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Please turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew, chapter 13.  Matthew 13 contains seven great parables of the Lord Jesus Christ.  In each of those parables He speaks about the nature of the kingdom.  Remember that the disciples were expecting a Messiah, and they were expecting the kingdom,  but they were gradually learning from Jesus that the Messiah was different from the way they had expected Him.  And they were now learning, too, that the kingdom was going to be a little different than they expected it to be, in fact, each of the seven parables about the kingdom found in Matthew chapter 13 tell us something different, unexpected, about the kingdom. 

In the parable of the sower, which we saw a couple of weeks ago, in verses 1-9, and in the explanation of that parable, which begins in verse 18 of Matthew chapter 13, for instance, we learn that though the disciples were expecting mass conversion to the Messiah in the age of the kingdom of the heaven,  that, in fact, the Lord Jesus says, by the parable of the sower,  that there would be many who would reject His teaching.  And even some who followed Him flatteringly would, at last, be falling away because of the love of the world, and of riches.  And only those who believe and embrace Him, the seed that fell on the good soil, would, indeed, follow the Messiah.  And so He was correcting the disciples’ misunderstandings about, their misconceptions of the kingdom by telling this parable. 

Now the disciples were perplexed by Jesus’ use of parables with the multitudes.  It was not that Jesus had never used parables before.  He had used parables.  There is a parable at the end of Matthew chapter 7, there is even a parable contained in Matthew 12.  But, it is very apparent, as we will see in the passage, that Jesus now begins to use parables to an extent and in a way that is different and beyond that which He had used them before.  And so the disciples are frankly befuddled by what the Lord Jesus is doing.  For it seems like the Lord Jesus is deliberately trying to obscure His message by speaking in these dark sayings, these parables, these similitudes, and these symbols.  Why is He speaking this way?  And that is the passage that we are coming to today in God’s word.  Turn with me to Matthew chapter 13, beginning in verse 10.  Hear God’s holy, inspired and inerrant word.   

Matthew 13:10 

Our Father, we ask that You would open our eyes that we might understand this scriptural truth.  Apply it to our hearts that we might not be blind and deaf before the light and truth of the gospel.  We ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

Today, as we look at Matthew chapter 13, vv 10-17, and also vv 34 and 35.   We have an opportunity to hear from Jesus’ own lips an explanation as to why He spoke in parables.  I have heard numerous scholars and theologians describe why Jesus spoke in parables.  I’ve heard folks explain in great and intricate details about how parables were a much more effective teaching method than discourses and outline addresses, and so Jesus spoke in these parables to hold people’s interest and to get them to understand concepts which would have been too hard for them to understand otherwise.   That is very interesting, but that’s not what Jesus says at all.  Jesus did not say that that is why He used parables, and He does not say that that is why He used parables especially from Matthew 13 on.  The Lord Jesus tells us exactly why He spoke to the multitudes in parables, and this, in and of itself, will give us an opportunity to do some healthy self-examination, and also, to learn a little bit about how we ought to learn from biblical parables in general.         

Jesus was approached by his disciples who clearly recognized that He  was doing something a little bit different than He had ever done before.  As we have already said, it was not that He had never used parables before.  Previously Jesus had used parables to illustrate something that He had already explained very clearly.  Now, Jesus is speaking to the multitudes exclusively in parables and He’s not telling them things in the parables that He’s already explained to them.  In fact, He tells them the parables, and then He only gives an explanation of the parables to the disciples.  And the disciples are all confused about this.  I mean, isn’t the purpose of the communicating that the other person or persons to whom you are attempting to communicate can understand.  And it seemed as if Jesus was speaking in such a way that His audience could not understand Him, and this perplexed the disciples.  And so they come to Him with a question.  And Jesus gives them basically a triple answer. 

He says to them, first of all, that He uses parables in order to judge unbelief.  And then, He uses these parables as a fulfillment of prophecy,  and He uses these parables to show forth the sheer grace of the gospel.  And in that answer, there are a number of spiritual truths on which I would like us to focus today.  

I. Parables judge unbelief.
And the first you will see in verses 10-12.  In those verses we learn from Jesus that parables judge unbelief.  And we learn in those passages, in those verses, that the gospel divides mankind into two camps.  We must recognize the kingdom principle of gospel division.  The gospel divides the world into two camps: those who embrace it  and those who reject it.  And there is no third category.  There is no third group.  The gospel divides the world into two parts: either those who accept it or reject it.  Look again at those verses.  The disciples come to Jesus and ask Him the question  “Why are you teaching in parables?” After they had heard the parable of the sower, they recognized that Jesus is shifting His approach in speaking to the multitudes.  Whereas previously He would have addressed them in a sermon or discourse, and, perhaps, in the context of this discourse used a very earthy or common illustration and perhaps even employed a parable.  Now,  He is speaking to them in very long and detailed and involved parables, which apparently delight the hearers and keep their attention, but which absolutely confuses and confounds them because they don’t understand what Jesus is saying.  And the disciples are asking Jesus “Why are you doing it?”  I want you to not misunderstand.   They are not asking  ‘Why are you now using parables.’  They are asking ‘Why are you so extensively, and exclusively and deliberately using parables in your teaching, the people really are not getting what you are saying, Jesus?  Why are you doing this?’  That’s the question that they are asking.

And Jesus’ answer begins in verses 11 and 12.   First of all, and I want you to know that this is very significant for this passage, for Jesus is wanting to encourage his disciples, and that means you and me,  He is wanting to encourage His disciples throughout this passage.  The first thing that He says to His disciples in response to the question that they ask is: “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”  The first thing He says is that they need to recognize the great grace that they have received in being able to understand the truths about the kingdom of heaven and about himself as Messiah that He has revealed to them.  You see, understanding and embracing the gospel is always a matter of grace.  And we ourselves must recognize that the reason that we are believers gathered to worship Him is not because of our innate goodness,  or because of our wisdom, or because of our position, it is only because of the sheer grace of Christ.  Man is responsible to believe, but seeing the kingdom, understanding the kingdom, embracing the kingdom with a heart – only the Spirit can cause that.  Only the divine and gracious work of the Holy Spirit can enable us to understand and embrace the gospel of grace. 

The second thing that Jesus says to the disciples is even more provocative.  He says to them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,  but to them it has not been granted.” Now let me stop right there and say, I did not say those words.  Calvin did not say those words.  Jesus said those words: “To you it has been granted, but to them it has not been granted.”  He provocatively comments that it has been granted to the disciples to understand, but it has not been granted to the multitudes.  In other words, He is telling them there that it God’s gracious and divine electing power which has drawn them to Himself, and enabled them to know and understand the truth.  And He gives no explanation here as to why that was not granted to the multitudes. 

Let me just say again, that’s not adding a thing to this.  I did not use the word grant.  Jesus did.  I didn’t say that He granted to some and not to others.  Jesus did.  Presbyterians and those of the Reformed faith are not adding to the word of God when they say that God divinely blesses some and He does not grant to others.  Those are Jesus’ words.  If you don’t like that doctrine, then you don’t like what Jesus is saying.  It is not something that John Calvin said that’s got you out of sorts; that’s Jesus speaking.  Now, He does not explain it there.  Be clear.  There are going to be other places where the Lord Jesus will go into this in much greater detail, but let’s not miss this biblical truth of divine election. 

And then, He quotes them a proverb.  In verse 12 you will see this proverb:  “For whoever has, to Him more shall be given.  And He will have an abundance.  But whoever does not have, even what He has shall be taken away from Him.”  In other words, Jesus says to the disciples, in response to their question of  “Why are you speaking to the multitudes this way, why are you using parables?”  He says, because the people have rejected the plain teaching I have been giving them week after week, month after month, all throughout the land.   Because they are rejecting My plain teaching,  now I will take away even that which they had opportunity to hear, and I will speak to them in parables to confound them, because their hearts have been obstinate in unbelief.  Because they have refused to believe that I am the Messiah, because they have refused to embrace the gospel of the kingdom of heaven, now I will speak to them in dark sayings and proverbs.  In other words He is saying, ‘My parables are a judgment on the unbelief of all those in Israel who refuse to believe in me.’  

Now this exchange is profound, and it ought to have several different impacts upon us.  First of all, we ought to be profoundly thankful and humble that the Lord has granted us to know the gospel.  The reason why we have been saved out of the fire is not to be found in us.  It is only in the grace of God.  And friends, that ought to change the way we look at those who do not know Christ.  We cannot look at those who are outsiders to the gospel,  and sort of pat ourselves on the back and say, “Well, you know, the difference between me and Him is that I believe.”  Well, why did you believe?  And why did he not?  Jesus says,  “It has been granted to you to understand.”  And that humbles, there’s no one who can stand in the kingdom and be proud.  There’s no one who can stand in the kingdom and say, “I earned this, I’m better, I deserve this.” Because it has been granted to you to know and to believe.  My friends, we ought to fall on our faces before almighty God in thanksgiving that He has spared us what we deserve, and He has given us far beyond what we ever deserved in the grace of the gospel. 

There’s a hymn we sing about that.  I’d like you to take your hymnals out and look at it.  In hymn number 469, a hymn that we sang last year for our missions conference, How Sweet and Awesome is the Place.  The second and third and fourth stanzas are basically wrestling with the very question the disciples are wresting with in this passage: “While all our hearts and all our songs join to admire the feast, each of us cries with thankful tongues, ‘Lord, why was I a guest?’”  There’s the question:  “Lord, why me?”  Why have I been saved as a firebrand, plucked from the fire?  And here’s the answer, or here’s the continuing question: “Why was I made to hear your voice and enter while there’s room when thousands make a wretched choice and rather starve than come?  “Twas the same love that spread the feast, that sweetly drew us in, else we had still refused to taste and perish in our sin.” You see, the answer is not in us, it is in the love of God. 

Please understand, when the Presbyterian says to you that our wills are not free, and we do not on our own, and of our own accord embrace God before He embraces us, the Presbyterian is not denying that you make real choices.  The Presbyterian is not denying that you have a form of human capability to choose: the Presbyterian is stressing that it is only by God’s grace that we are able to receive, and embrace and understand the gospel of salvation, and that the difference between those who believe and those who do not is not that some are better than others innately, or some are more believing than others innately.  It simply is the love and the mercy and the grace of God.  And you can’t be proud about any of that.  You have nothing, nothing in yourself to pat yourself on the back for.  The Lord Jesus has saved us by grace alone, and He speaks about it in this passage. 

There’s another thing that we learn in this passage.  This passage divides the world with the gospel.  You must either be for it or against it.  Isn’t it interesting that Jesus Himself divides the world into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’  Whoever has, more shall be given.  Whoever has not, what he has shall be taken away.  The gospel divides the world.  And the judgment day will reveal those whose hopes have been substantial, and those whose hopes have been in things which are going to pass away.  And if your hope has been in anything but Christ, anything but His gospel, then at the last day it will show itself to have been an ephemeral hope, a transient hope,  a hope which is not going to be sound or substantial.  In fact, that also applies to our growth in grace.  This passage reminds us that in spiritual things, there is no such thing as standing still.  You either grow, or you decay.  Listen to what William Hendriksen says: “In matters spiritual, standing still is impossible, a person either gains or looses, He either advances or declines.”  Now listen to Jesus’ words again: “For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance.  But whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”  Now listen to Hendriksen: “In matters spiritual standing still is impossible.  A person either gains or looses, He either advances or declines.”  

You see, you cannot profess Christ, and then fail to grow in grace, for God’s plan is for those who have embraced Him to grow in grace.  And if you are indifferent to the word of truth and to the changing power of the gospel of salvation, then you are indifferent to Christ Himself. 

The same principle holds true in the common sphere.  Some of you may, like me, have learned an instrument, or half learned an instrument when you were a child.  When I was five, or six or seven, my mother coaxed me into training on the piano, taking piano lessons.  And like many of you young men, when I got to be ten or eleven and all my buddies were playing sports and it was not so cool to be playing the piano anymore, I began to beg my mother not to take those piano lessons.  And I said, “Mom, I’d just rather play basketball and baseball, I’d just rather not do the piano lessons.  None of my buddies are doing it.”  And she said, “Ligon, if you quit piano you regret it for the rest of your life.”  “No, mother I won’t.  I want to quit it right now.  I’ll never regret it.”  And of course, I regret it and I say,  “Mother, why did you let me quit?  You should have made me keep on.” But I had taken long enough that I knew how to play certain things.  About five years after I stopped playing, I could still remember two songs from when I had taken.  Ten years after I stopped playing, I couldn’t remember anything.  Right now I can sit down on a keyboard and I cannot remember anything that I learned when I first took those piano lessons.  You see, in the common sphere, even if you half-learned something and you stop practicing, if you stop putting it to work, you loose it.  If you don’t use it you loose it.  The same thing is true in the spiritual sphere.  If you waste the word of God, when it comes to you faithfully, even that will be taken from you.  And the latter will be worse than the former.   

II. Those who reject the truth fulfill prophecy.
There’s another thing we learn in this passage, you’ll see it in verses 13-15.  Jesus wants us to understand these parables that He’s speaking in the context of Old Testament prophecy.  Remember, we said that over and over in these seven parables, He tells us about the unexpected nature of the kingdom.  The disciples were expecting the kingdom to be one way, and Jesus shows them that the kingdom is another.  Well, in this passage whenever He quotes from Isaiah chapter 6, vv 9 and 10, and He shows us again a way in which the disciples were expecting the kingdom to be different from the way it really was.  Jesus gets more specific in verses 13-15.  He says, because many see His miracles but do not understand them or embrace the truth which He teaches, therefore, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled.  Because of the hardness of their hearts, because they have seen Christ’s miracles, and they have heard His preaching and they have not embraced that, because they have seen and heard and yet not understood and believed,  therefore, God will judge them in fulfillment of prophecy by speaking to them in dark sayings.  Jesus knows that this is going to perplex the disciples.  The disciples were expecting Jesus’ kingdom to roll like a juggernaut; for there to be thousands conversions to Christ the Messiah in Israel; for the Gentiles to stream into Jerusalem to praise Him; for the kingdom to be set up.  And yet Jesus is standing here saying, “Oh no, many of My generation will reject Me.  They will reject My truth, they will reject My person.”  And Jesus knows that’s going perplex the disciples, and so He reminds the disciples of this passage from Isaiah’s call to the ministry, and He says, “Look, My ministry is going to be just like Isaiah’s.” 

If you have your hand in your Bible you may want to flip back to Isaiah chapter six, vv 9 and 10.  We read Isaiah 6:1-7, and sometimes we even get to verse 8, because that’s such a good missions verse, where Isaiah says, “Here I am, send me.”  But Isaiah 6:9 and following offers some perplexing things that we often overlook.  And I want you to note that in Isaiah’s commission, after Isaiah said, “O.K., Lord send me.  What’s my message?”  The Lord said, “O.K., here’s your message: go tell the people,  ‘Hear, but don’t understand.  See, but don’t embrace Me,  lest you believe on Me and I spare you of your sins.’”  And you can imagine Isaiah, the evangelist’s response to that: ‘Lord, couldn’t we have a more positive message to give to the people?  I mean, couldn’t I give a message where they all become believers and Israel is revived and reformed and the church is wonderful and we all obey God and everything is great?’  Preach to them,  ‘Because they have been obstinate all these years, in My preaching of truth to them, of the word of truth through prophet after prophet, you preach to them  judgment and condemnation, because they rejected my truth.’  And Jesus is saying to His disciples,  ‘It’s going to be the same way in My preaching ministry as it was in the ministry of Isaiah.’  Jesus’ emphasis here is to show that man’s heart is so darkened by sin as to reject the light of the gospel.  Just like the children of Israel rejected the light of the prophets, so will the children of Israel in Jesus’ day reject the light which came through the Lord Jesus Christ. 

And you note, by the way, if you’ll look at Matthew 13,  Jesus says in a very striking way, in verse 14,  “In their case the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled.”  He doesn’t just say that this prophecy has been fulfilled, He says, “In their case,”  in the case of the people who are hearing Me but not believing in Me, ‘the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled.  In your own sight, in your own hearing, disciples, the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled because the people of God are rejecting the glorious message of the kingdom by the mouth of the Messiah just like they rejected Isaiah’s message.  They heard the word of truth and they rejected it.’  Jesus is showing that it is not the lack of the glory or the power or the effectiveness of the message that keeps people from embracing the truth,  it is their own darkened hearts.  They are corrupted by sin.  And they hate God.  That Old Testament quote reminds us that the problem of unbelief lies in the heart of man.  It’s not that God has not been convincing enough.  It’s not that He has not given us enough evidence, it’s not that He hasn’t spoken clearly enough.  It is that our hearts are hardened.  Man’s deepest problem lies within himself.  And that’s why C. H. Spurgeon could say, “Alas, our heart is our greatest enemy.”  And that’s why Augustine had that quote on his wall: “From myself save me, O Lord.”  We are our own worst spiritual enemies.    And Jesus reminds us of that by quoting Isaiah. 

III. The blessings that come with understanding. 
And finally, in verses 16 and 17, Jesus reminds the disciples again of the blessing that they have, of the spiritual sight which has been granted to them by the Lord.  And we ourselves must determine more fully the glory of the gospel privileges that have been granted to us.  Look at His words again: “Blessed are your eyes because the see, and your ears because they hear, for truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desire to see what you see, and did not see it, and hear what you hear and did not hear it.” God’s gospels,  and even the parables, are a great blessing to the disciples in a double way.  

First of all, they are a blessing because the disciples understand these parables.  Even though these parables mean nothing to those that are perishing, they mean a great deal to the disciples.  You know how it is when you have been taught something by a professor and then he goes back and gives an extended illustration.  The illustration can make an impact on you that could not have been made by the simple outline of the lesson.  But it only makes an impact on you because you’ve heard the lesson.  If you have not been filled in on the lesson, it’s just an interesting story that does not make any sense.  Think of David and Nathan.  Nathan told David a very interesting parable.  That parable had a very acute point.  It would have made no sense to David had he not already gone through the experiences with Bathsheba.  And once Nathan named David as the man about whom the parable was being spoken,  David immediately could identify each of the points of the parable and how it applied to him.  I know a company where there was a disgruntled employee.  He was upset about the way certain things were being done.  He sent around a parable about the head of the company to everybody in the company right after he got fired.  The people who were new in the company wondered if these were the ravings of a maniac.  What does this have to do with anything?  The people who had been in the company a long time looked at that parable and said,  “Oh, I know what so and so means.  I know what He’s saying.”  You see, the parable in and of itself means nothing, if you don’t understand the content it is meant to illustrate. 

So for the disciples,  these parables were not confusing sayings, they were sayings filled with truth because they had heard the explanation of the parable from the Master himself.  So even the parables were blessings to them, just like they are blessings to us.  That’s why you look down at these  parables and you scratch your head and you say, how could these multitudes not understand that?  The answer is crystal clear.  It’s crystal clear because God, in His grace, has granted you to understand.  It’s plain.  It’s crystal clear because He has revealed it to you.  But for those who don’t understand the content, they might as well not come that day. 

The disciples are also blessed because Jesus says that they have been granted to see something that even the prophets had not been granted.  Abraham, Moses, and David, Jeremiah and Isaiah.  They had longed to see the things that the disciples had.  God had not granted to show those things to them.  Do you realize the privilege you have?  I want you to think about it for a minute.  Abraham, the friend of God, did not see the revelation of God’s grace and love which you have seen.  I want you to take that in.  The beloved friend of God, Abraham, could not sing with understanding the way that you can sing,  Beneath the Cross of Jesus.  He saw it darkly.  He longed to see it in the distance.  But God revealed it to you in a way far beyond Abraham, and Isaiah, and Jacob, and Moses and David.  Do you see that privilege?  To you realize the sheer lavishness of God’s love in revealing that to you?  I dare say that Abraham wanted to see this more than I did.  But the Lord has granted it to us!  To see Him!  His love and his grace are lavished.  Do we appreciate that?  Do we sense the glory of our position, and do we sense the responsibility that that privilege entails?

My friends, in the last day, Bertrand Russell and all of the other skeptics will be standing around the throne of judgment and they will be arguing vigorously with the almighty, “But you didn’t give us enough evidence.” There’s going to be an Old Testament saint like Abraham, or like Jeremiah, WHO is going to stand up and say, “I believed, though I had not seen in the fullness which you have, and yet with all the light that God gave you, you rejected the truth.”  And they will cast their vote of “Yea, and amen” when the Almighty casts that infidel into hell.  Do we realize the privilege that we have, and have we embraced the gospel in all its life? 

Let’s look to the Lord in prayer.

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