Teaching With Illustrations
JESUS is apparently in Capernaum when he rebukes the Pharisees. Later the same day, he leaves the house and walks to the nearby Sea of Galilee, where crowds of people gather. There he boards a boat, pulls away, and begins teaching the people on the shore about the Kingdom of the heavens. He does so by means of a series of parables, or illustrations, each with a setting familiar to the people.
First, Jesus tells of a sower who sows seed. Some seed falls on the roadside and is eaten by birds. Other seed falls on soil with an underlying rock-mass. Since the roots lack depth, the new plants wither under the scorching sun. Still other seed falls among thorns, which choke the plants when they come up. Finally, some seed falls on good soil and produces a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, and some thirtyfold.
In another illustration, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a man who sows seed. As the days go by, while the man sleeps and when he is awake, the seed grows. The man does not know how. It grows all by itself and produces grain. When the grain ripens, the man harvests it.
Jesus tells a third illustration about a man who sows the right kind of seed, but “while men were sleeping,” an enemy comes and sows weeds in among the wheat. The man’s servants ask if they should pull out the weeds. But he replies: ‘No, you will uproot some of the wheat if you do. Let them both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the reapers to sort out the weeds and burn them and put the wheat in the barn.’
Continuing his speech to the crowds on the shore, Jesus provides two more illustrations. He explains that “the kingdom of the heavens” is like a mustard grain that a man plants. Though it is the tiniest of all seeds, he says, it grows into the largest of all vegetables. It becomes a tree to which birds come, finding shelter among its branches.
Some today object that there are tinier seeds than mustard seeds. But Jesus is not giving a lesson in botany. Of the seeds that Galileans of his day are familiar with, the mustard seed really is the tiniest. So they appreciate the matter of phenomenal growth that Jesus is illustrating.
Finally, Jesus compares “the kingdom of the heavens” to leaven that a woman takes and mixes into three large measures of flour. In time, he says, it permeates every part of the dough.
After giving these five illustrations, Jesus dismisses the crowds and returns to the house where he is staying. Soon his 12 apostles and others come to him there.
Benefiting From Jesus’ Illustrations
When the disciples come to Jesus after his speech to the crowds on the beach, they are curious about his new method of teaching. Oh, they have heard him use illustrations before, but never so extensively. So they inquire: “Why is it you speak to them by the use of illustrations?”
One reason he does so is to fulfill the prophet’s words: “I will open my mouth with illustrations, I will publish things hidden since the founding.” But there is more to it than this. His use of illustrations serves the purpose of helping to reveal the heart attitude of people.
Actually, most people are interested in Jesus simply as a masterful storyteller and miracle worker, not as one to be served as Lord and to be unselfishly followed. They do not want to be disturbed in their view of things or their way of life. They do not want the message to penetrate to that extent.
So Jesus says: “This is why I speak to them by the use of illustrations, because, looking, they look in vain, and hearing, they hear in vain, neither do they get the sense of it; and toward them the prophecy of Isaiah is having fulfillment, which says, ‘ . . . For the heart of this people has grown unreceptive.’”
“However,” Jesus goes on to say, “happy are your eyes because they behold, and your ears because they hear. For I truly say to you, Many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things you are beholding and did not see them, and to hear the things you are hearing and did not hear them.”
Yes, the 12 apostles and those with them have receptive hearts. Therefore Jesus says: “To you it is granted to understand the sacred secrets of the kingdom of the heavens, but to those people it is not granted.” Because of their desire for understanding, Jesus provides his disciples with an explanation of the illustration of the sower.
“The seed is the word of God,” Jesus says, and the soil is the heart. Of the seed sown on the hard roadside surface, he explains: “The Devil comes and takes the word away from their hearts in order that they may not believe and be saved.”
On the other hand, seed sown on soil with an underlying rock-mass refers to the hearts of people who receive the word with joy. However, because the word cannot take deep root in such hearts, these people fall away when a time of testing or persecution comes.
As for the seed that fell among the thorns, Jesus continues, this refers to people who have heard the word. These ones, however, are carried away by anxieties and riches and pleasures of this life, so they are completely choked and bring nothing to perfection.
Finally, as for the seed sown on fine soil, Jesus says, these are the ones who, after hearing the word with a fine and good heart, retain it and bear fruit with endurance.
How blessed are these disciples who have sought out Jesus to obtain an explanation of his teachings! Jesus intends that his illustrations be understood in order to impart truth to others. “A lamp is not brought to be put under a measuring basket or under a bed, is it?” he asks. No, “it is brought to be put upon a lampstand.” Thus Jesus adds: “Therefore, pay attention to how you listen.”
Blessed With More Instruction
After receiving Jesus’ explanation of the illustration of the sower, the disciples want to learn more. “Explain to us,” they request, “the illustration of the weeds in the field.”
How different the attitude of the disciples from that of the rest of the crowd on the beach! Those people lack an earnest desire to learn the meaning behind the illustrations, being satisfied with merely the outline of things set out in them. Contrasting that seaside audience with his inquisitive disciples who have come to him in the house, Jesus says:
“With the measure that you are measuring out, you will have it measured out to you, yes, you will have more added to you.” The disciples are measuring out to Jesus earnest interest and attention, and so they are blessed with receiving more instruction. Thus, in answer to his disciples’ inquiry, Jesus explains:
“The sower of the fine seed is the Son of man; the field is the world; as for the fine seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; but the weeds are the sons of the wicked one, and the enemy that sowed them is the Devil. The harvest is a conclusion of a system of things, and the reapers are angels.”
After identifying each feature of his illustration, Jesus describes the outcome. At the conclusion of the system of things, he says that the reapers, or angels, will separate weedlike imitation Christians from the true “sons of the kingdom.” Then “the sons of the wicked one” will be marked for destruction, but the sons of God’s Kingdom, “the righteous ones,” will shine brilliantly in the Kingdom of their Father.
Jesus next blesses his inquisitive disciples with three more illustrations. First, he says: “The kingdom of the heavens is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and for the joy he has he goes and sells what things he has and buys that field.”
“Again,” he continues, “the kingdom of the heavens is like a traveling merchant seeking fine pearls. Upon finding one pearl of high value, away he went and promptly sold all the things he had and bought it.”
Jesus himself is like the man who discovers a hidden treasure and like the merchant who finds a pearl of high value. He sold everything, as it were, giving up an honored position in heaven to become a lowly human. Then, as a man on earth, he suffers reproach and hateful persecution, proving worthy of becoming the Ruler of God’s Kingdom.
The challenge is placed before Jesus’ followers also to sell everything in order to obtain the grand reward of being either a coruler with Christ or an earthly Kingdom subject. Will we consider having a share in God’s Kingdom as something more valuable than anything else in life, as a priceless treasure or a precious pearl?
Finally, Jesus likens “the kingdom of the heavens” to a dragnet that gathers up fish of every kind. When the fish are separated, the unsuitable are thrown away but the good are kept. So, Jesus says, it will be in the conclusion of the system of things; the angels will separate the wicked from the righteous, reserving the wicked for annihilation.
Jesus himself begins this fishing project, calling his first disciples to be “fishers of men.” Under angelic surveillance, the fishing work continues down through the centuries. At last the time comes to haul in the “dragnet,” which symbolizes the organizations on earth professing to be Christian.
Although the unsuitable fish are cast into destruction, thankfully we can be counted among the ‘good fish’ that are kept. By exhibiting the same earnest desire as Jesus’ disciples did for more knowledge and understanding, we will be blessed not only with more instruction but with God’s blessing of eternal life. Matthew 13:1-52; Mark 4:1-34; Luke 8:4-18; Psalm 78:2; Isaiah 6:9, 10.
▪ When and where does Jesus speak with illustrations to the crowds?
▪ What five illustrations does Jesus now tell the crowds?
▪ Why does Jesus say the mustard seed is the tiniest of all seeds?
▪ Why does Jesus speak in illustrations?
▪ How do Jesus’ disciples show themselves to be different from the crowds?
▪ What explanation does Jesus provide of the illustration of the sower?
▪ How do the disciples differ from the crowds on the beach?
▪ Who or what is represented by the sower, the field, the fine seed, the enemy, the harvest, and the reapers?
▪ What three additional illustrations does Jesus provide, and what can we learn from them?