Jesus is apparently in Capernaum when he rebukes the Pharisees. Later that day, he leaves the house and walks to the nearby Sea of Galilee, where crowds gather. Jesus boards a boat, pulls out from the shore, and begins teaching the people about the Kingdom of the heavens. He does so by means of a number of illustrations, or parables. His listeners are familiar with many of the settings or features that Jesus mentions, making it easier for them to grasp various aspects of the Kingdom.
First, Jesus tells of a sower who is sowing seed. Some seeds fall alongside the road and are eaten by birds. Other seeds fall on rocky ground where there is not much soil. The roots that develop cannot reach down far, and the new plants are scorched by the sun and wither. Still other seeds fall among thorns, which choke the young plants when they come up. Finally, some seeds fall on fine soil. These seeds produce fruit, “this one 100 times more, that one 60, the other 30.”
In another illustration, Jesus likens the Kingdom to when a man sows seeds. In this case, whether the man sleeps or is awake, the seeds grow. Just how, “he does not know.” (Mark 4:27) They grow by themselves and produce grain, which he can harvest.
Jesus then tells a third illustration about sowing. A man sows the right kind of seed, but “while men were sleeping,” an enemy sows weeds in among the wheat. The man’s slaves ask if they should pull out the weeds. He replies: “No, for fear that while collecting the weeds, you uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and in the harvest season, I will tell the reapers: First collect the weeds and bind them in bundles to burn them up; then gather the wheat into my storehouse.”
Many who are listening to Jesus know about farming. He also mentions something else commonly known, the tiny mustard seed. It grows into a tree so large that birds can lodge in its branches. About this seed, he says: “The Kingdom of the heavens is like a mustard grain that a man took and planted in his field.” (Matthew 13:31) Jesus, however, is not giving a botany lesson. He is illustrating spectacular growth, how something very small can grow or expand into something very large.
Then Jesus draws on a process that is familiar to many of his listeners. He likens the Kingdom of the heavens to “leaven that a woman took and mixed with three large measures of flour.” (Matthew 13:33) Although such leaven is hidden from view, it permeates every part of the dough and makes it rise. It produces considerable growth and changes that are not readily discernible.
After giving these illustrations, Jesus dismisses the crowds and returns to the house where he is staying. Soon his disciples come to him, wanting to understand what he meant.
BENEFITING FROM JESUS’ ILLUSTRATIONS
The disciples have heard Jesus use illustrations before, but never to this extent. They put to him the question: “Why do you speak to them by the use of illustrations?”
One reason he does so is to fulfill Bible prophecy. Matthew’s account states: “Without an illustration he would not speak to them, in order to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet who said: ‘I will open my mouth with illustrations; I will proclaim things hidden since the founding.’”
But there is more to Jesus’ use of illustrations. It serves to reveal the attitude of people. Many of them are interested in Jesus simply as a masterful storyteller and miracle worker. They do not see him as someone to be obeyed as Lord and to be unselfishly followed. (Luke 6:46, 47) They do not want to be disturbed in their view of things or their way of life. No, they do not want the message to penetrate that deeply.
In answer to the disciples’ question, Jesus says: “That is why I speak to them by the use of illustrations; for looking, they look in vain, and hearing, they hear in vain, nor do they get the sense of it. And the prophecy of Isaiah is being fulfilled in their case. It says: ‘. . .The heart of this people has grown unreceptive.’”
That does not, though, apply to all who are hearing Jesus. He explains: “Happy are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear. For truly I say to you, many prophets and righteous men desired to see the things you are observing but did not see them, and to hear the things you are hearing but did not hear them.”
Yes, the 12 apostles and other loyal disciples have receptive hearts. Accordingly, Jesus says: “To you it is granted to understand the sacred secrets of the Kingdom of the heavens, but to them it is not granted.” (Matthew 13:11) Because of their sincere desire to understand, Jesus provides his disciples with an explanation of the illustration of the sower.
“The seed is the word of God,” Jesus says. (Luke 8:11) And the soil is the heart. That is a key to getting the sense of his illustration.
Of the seed sown on the trampled-down soil alongside the road, he explains: “The Devil comes and takes the word away from their hearts so that they may not believe and be saved.” (Luke 8:12) In speaking of the seed sown on rocky ground, Jesus means the hearts of people who receive the word with joy but the word does not take root deep in their hearts. “After tribulation or persecution has arisen on account of the word,” they are stumbled. Yes, when “a season of testing” comes, perhaps opposition from family members or others, they fall away.
What of the seed that falls among the thorns? Jesus tells his disciples that this refers to people who have heard the word. These, however, are overcome by “the anxiety of this system of things and the deceptive power of riches.” (Matthew 13:22) They had the word in their heart, but now it is choked and becomes unfruitful.
The last type of soil that Jesus comments on is the fine soil. This refers to those who hear the word and accept it into their heart, getting the real sense of it. With what result? They “bear fruit.” Because of their circumstances, such as age or health, not all can do the same; one produces 100 times more, another 60 times more, and another 30 times more. Yes, blessings in serving God come to “ones who, after hearing the word with a fine and good heart, retain it and bear fruit with endurance.”
These words must be particularly impressive to the disciples who have sought out Jesus to get an explanation of his teachings! They now have more than a surface grasp of the illustrations. Jesus wants them to understand his illustrations so that they, in turn, can impart truth to others. “A lamp is not brought out to be put under a basket or under a bed, is it?” he asks. “Is it not brought out to be put on a lampstand?” Thus, Jesus advises: “Whoever has ears to listen, let him 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.”
In asking that, they display quite a different attitude from that of the rest of the crowd on the beach. Evidently, those people hear but lack the desire to learn the meaning behind the illustrations and their application. They are satisfied with merely the outline of things set out in the illustrations. Jesus contrasts that seaside audience with his inquisitive disciples who have come to him for more instruction, saying:
“Pay attention to what you are hearing. With the measure that you are measuring out, you will have it measured out to you, yes, you will have more added to you.” (Mark 4:24) The disciples are paying attention to what they are hearing from him. They are measuring out to Jesus earnest interest and attention, and they are blessed with more instruction, more enlightenment. Thus, in answer to his disciples’ inquiry about the illustration of the wheat and the weeds, 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 who 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. He says that at the conclusion of the system of things, the reapers, or angels, will separate weedlike imitation Christians from the true “sons of the Kingdom.” “The righteous ones” will be gathered and will eventually shine brightly “in the Kingdom of their Father.” And what about “the sons of the wicked one”? The outcome for them will be destruction, a just cause for “their weeping and the gnashing of their teeth.”
Jesus next blesses his disciples with three more illustrations. First, he says: “The Kingdom of the heavens is like a treasure, hidden in the field, that a man found and hid; and because of his joy, he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.”
He continues: “The Kingdom of the heavens is like a traveling merchant seeking fine pearls. Upon finding one pearl of high value, he went away and promptly sold all the things he had and bought it.”
With both illustrations, Jesus highlights a person’s willingness to make sacrifices for what is truly valuable. The merchant promptly sells “all the things he had” to obtain the one pearl of high value. Jesus’ disciples can understand that example regarding a precious pearl. And the man who finds treasure hidden in a field “sells everything” to possess it. In both cases, something valuable is available, something to be obtained and treasured. This can be compared to the sacrifices a person makes to satisfy his spiritual need. (Matthew 5:3) Some of those hearing Jesus give these illustrations have already shown a willingness to go to great lengths to satisfy their spiritual need and to be his true followers.
Finally, Jesus likens the Kingdom of the heavens to a dragnet that gathers up fish of every kind. (Matthew 13:47) When the fish are separated, the good ones are kept in containers but the unsuitable ones are thrown away. Jesus says that it will be the same in the conclusion of the system of things
Jesus himself was doing a type of spiritual fishing when he called his first disciples to be “fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17) However, he says that his illustration about the dragnet applies in the future, “in the conclusion of the system of things.” (Matthew 13:49) So the apostles and other disciples hearing Jesus can sense that very interesting things are yet to develop.
Those who heard the illustrations given from the boat are further enriched. Jesus is showing his willingness to “explain all things privately to his disciples.” (Mark 4:34) He is “like a man, the master of the house, who brings out of his treasure store things both new and old.” (Matthew 13:52) In giving these illustrations, Jesus is not showing off his teaching ability. Rather, he is sharing with his disciples truths that are like a priceless treasure. He truly is a “public instructor” beyond compare.