A little-known truth from the Gospel accounts is that in addressing the public, Jesus deliberately obscured His meaning on occasion. Contrary to popular opinion, telling a story in the form of a parable was one of Jesus’ ways of hiding His point from the general public. It seems like a strange claim to make about the One who came as God’s messenger to humanity. Why the apparent contradiction?
Four of the parables were given in public and four in private. The public parables were spoken from a boat anchored offshore in the Sea of Galilee so that the large crowds onshore could hear well. The private parables were given later in a house to the inner circle of disciples. The contrast between the two sets of messages provides the explanation as to why Jesus sometimes obscured the truth.
Take the first of the public parables, the famous story of a man sowing seed: “Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on stony places, where they did not have much earth; and they immediately sprang up because they had no depth of earth. But when the sun was up they were scorched, and because they had no root they withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up and choked them. But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 13:3–9).
The audience listening on the seashore would have related easily to the everyday rural imagery. But did they grasp the spiritual implications of Jesus’ words? Surprisingly, they weren’t intended to.
This is difficult to understand. Why speak in commonplace images if the audience wasn’t supposed to understand the spiritual significance? The answer becomes clear in a later conversation, when the disciples asked Jesus, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” (verse 10).
Jesus’ reply confirmed his intention and reveals for us a common misconception about the Bible. He said the reason He spoke to the public in parables was “because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. . . . Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (verses 11 and 13).
Perhaps there’s an important lesson for us here. We have access to Jesus’ explanation; we can read and understand it. We should also recognize that there were those who didn’t want to understand in Jesus’ own time. We need to ask ourselves, what is our preference?
We bear responsibility for our present-day privileged understanding of Jesus' message in a way that the generation of His time did not.
To put it in other words, we bear responsibility for our present-day privileged understanding of Jesus’ message in a way that the generation of His time did not.
Seeds of Truth
When in subsequent private discussion with the disciples Jesus explained the spiritual message underlying the parable of the sower, He said that it was about hearing the truth. Some who hear truth don’t value it; others hear it but get distracted along the way by the preoccupations of this life.
The parable of the sower also emphasized the importance of acting on the truth with enthusiasm and energy. “Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside.” Such a person hears but does not act on the truth he’s hearing.
Next, “he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while.” Such a person permits personal difficulties to overcome early understanding of truth. “For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.”
Then there’s the person who lets the preoccupations of life get in the way of truth: “Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful.”
Finally, the person “who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (verses 18–23). From this we can see that the future kingdom of heaven will begin with those who pursue and practice spiritual truth in this life.
The Gospel writer Mark has recorded an additional part of this parable. He writes about seed as it grows.
Quoting Jesus, he says, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26–29).
This tells us that the follower of Jesus Christ is committed to the development of spiritual character now for the coming kingdom of God—a lifelong, continually developing spiritual growth to be harvested for good use by God.
Planted by the Enemy
In the second parable of the first set of four related by Matthew, Jesus explained that “the kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares [weeds] among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn”’” (Matthew 13:24–30).
Once again the people on the seashore heard an interesting agrarian analogy. But the deeper significance was not evident to them.
Once again the people on the seashore heard an interesting agrarian analogy. But again the deeper significance was not evident to them. That’s obvious from the fact that later, in the house, even the disciples asked for clarification.
Explaining, Jesus said: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (verses 37–43).
This is a very clear overview of Jesus’ teaching about eternal life. But, He warned, there is an enemy, Satan the devil, who tries to disrupt the development of the true followers of Christ. He does this by surrounding them with lawless behavior in an effort to choke them off from right action. At the end, in the judgment, the righteous who have not been deterred will gain eternal life in the kingdom of God to be established on the earth.
Jesus’ third public parable was about a very small seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (verses 31–32).
The hidden message here is that the kingdom of heaven starts out very small in this age and grows to encompass the whole earth in God’s future society on earth.
A similar principle is covered in the fourth and final parable to the public, the parable of the leaven or yeast: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened” (verse 33).
This is a picture of the transformation of human beings and the continual spread of the kingdom of God, like yeast permeates dough to make bread rise. It’s a kingdom that begins in this life with the believer and finds its next great fulfillment in the coming of Jesus Christ to reign on the earth.
After these four parables, Jesus left the crowds and went back to His house in Capernaum. It was there, alone with His disciples, that He gave the final set of four parables: the parable of the hidden treasure, the parable of the pearl of great price, the parable of the net, and the parable of the householder’s treasure.
The parable of the hidden treasure says: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (verse 44). It is an analogy to teach that the kingdom of God is something of unsurpassed value for which no sacrifice is too great.
Nothing should prevent the believer in his quest for the priceless truth, and having found it, he should treasure it above all else.
The next parable makes a similar point: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (verses 45–46). Just as a merchant trading in fine jewelry looks for the very best, nothing should prevent the believer in his quest for the priceless truth, and having found it, he should treasure it above all else.
The third parable given inside the house was about the good and the bad existing side by side in the world until the judgment: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet [or fishing net] that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (verses 47–50).
The final parable pictured the knowledge of the kingdom of God as the private treasure of those faithful in this life: “Then He said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old’” (verse 52). Here’s a description of the person who has recognized the truths that lead to a life that is pleasing to God, the person who presses on toward the kingdom of God, delighting in the priceless, newly discovered treasure.
Matthew’s account of this concise set of parables shows Jesus teaching His disciples truths that the majority of the public could not appreciate—spiritual gems. But He also taught that it was the duty of those who could understand to hold on to such truths with all of their being. They would experience the values and promises of God and live a successful, godly life. They would also have an expectation of the kingdom of God ruling over the whole earth.
Matthew's account of this concise set of parables shows Jesus teaching His disciples truths that the majority of the public could not appreciate.
Parables and Parallels
Now let’s pause a moment and recap, because there’s an impressive pattern in the parables of Matthew 13. Take the first and last parables together:
The first, outside by the sea, was the parable of the sower—a public message about receiving the truth. The last, inside the house, was the parable of the householder’s treasure—a private message about receiving the truth.
Then, again outside by the sea, was the parable of the tares, or weeds, picturing the good and the bad developing together, to be separated at the judgment. Inside the house, Jesus gave the parable of the net—the good and the bad caught together, again to be separated at the judgment.
Next to last outside by the sea was the parable of the mustard seed, a single object representing the kingdom. Inside the house again, the parable of the pearl; once more, a single object representing the kingdom.
And the final parallel: outside by the sea, the parable of the yeast, which is hidden material. And inside, the parable of the treasure in the field; again, hidden material.
There is a remarkable symmetry to this pattern of the parables, found mostly in Matthew’s Gospel but certainly echoed in the other Gospel accounts. These eight parables reveal a great deal about the coming kingdom of God on earth. That kingdom was the heart and core of Jesus’ message, yet so few today understand it or anticipate it.