Narratives with Meaning
“The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63).
— John Bivol
Not only the apostles and disciples saw the spirit of God in our Lord, but even temple officers remarked, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46 ESV). It is difficult to understand why anyone would not follow such a man if invited. The time his disciples spent with him was their greatest experience in life. However, they still had questions. What would happen next and when would the kingdom be established? What was their reward going to be, and how long until Jesus returned?
Halfway into his ministry, Jesus gave a powerful sermon on the shore of Galilee that helped answer some of their questions. It was composed of seven parables, recorded in Matthew 13.
His words were a test to determine who truly thirsted for the word of God and was ready to follow Him. The parables gave hope, not only to those listening, but to all Christians throughout the Gospel Age, including those of our day.
At the time, the disciples expected Messiah to bring freedom to Israel shortly and to rule all of the nations. Through these seven parables, Jesus introduced fundamental concepts about the kingdom of God. Each parable described a specific feature of this kingdom, but also had a common theme of spiritual growth. Jesus revealed the steps of Christian progress, beginning with planting the seed of truth in the hearts of men.
The seven parables appear to parallel the seven stages of the church, described in Revelation.
Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9; 18-23) — Ephesus
This parable describes a man sowing seed in his field. As he sowed, some seed fell on the path and was eaten by birds. Seed also fell on rocky ground and was scorched by the sun. Other seed fell on thorny ground and was choked. Finally, seed fell on good ground and produced the desired grain.
The seed in the parable pictures the word of God which falls onto four different types of people, pictured by the various types of soil. This describes the various heart conditions of those who hear the word. Some seed fell by the wayside and was eaten by birds. Other seed fell on stony ground and could not prosper. Some fell among thorns and were choked. But the seed that fell onto good ground brought forth abundant fruitage. The personal lesson is that the Lord is looking for those with hearts that bring forth spiritual fruitage in abundance.
The parable also illustrates the initial outreach of the word of God at the beginning of the Gospel Age. The sowers were the Lord and the apostles. In Revelation, the corresponding first church is Ephesus. Bro. Russell suggests that the name means “first,” or “desirable” (R5992:3). This describes the purity of those first converts and leaders. However, the church is later criticized for leaving her first love, an indication that the seed also fell onto stony soil, or hearts.
Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43) — Smyrna
Jesus= next parable compared the kingdom of heaven to a man also sowing his field. While the man slept, an enemy came and sowed tare seeds in his field. As the wheat and tares grew, the man’s servants noticed the two crops and suggested the tares be removed. But, they were told to allow both to grow until harvest time so the wheat would not be mistakenly plucked up with the tares. In the harvest, at the end of the age (Revelation 18:4), the tares would be removed and burned. This parable reveals that down through the Gospel Age, the field, picturing Christianity, would be a mixture of true believers (wheat) and believers in name only (tares).
To counteract the truth being dispensed in the early stages of the Gospel Age, Satan, the wicked one, sowed seeds of error and worldliness into the Christian world. This prophetically points to the second stage of the church, to a time after the apostles were gone (Matthew 13:25). The “mystery of iniquity” became more prominent in the church at this time (2 Thessalonians 2:7). The second church, named Smyrna, is described in mixed terms. “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty (but thou art rich), and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9).
Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31, 32) — Pergamum
During the next period, the church grew in worldly power. Jesus described it as a tiny grain of mustard seed that became a tree large enough for birds to lodge in its branches. The pagan Roman Empire, which first persecuted the church, reversed course and adopted Christianity as its official religion. The nominal Christian empire gained dominance over the civil power of the state. During the Pergamos stage of the church, Jesus, in Spirit, commended the persecuted class, saying, “thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth” (Revelation 2:13). These saints spoke out against pagan doctrines, such as the trinity and eternal torture. But spiritual “fornication” had set in, and the mustard tree was becoming powerful against the truth.
Jesus said those who listened, and overcame by what the Spirit said, would eat of the hidden manna and receive a white stone with their new name written therein (Revelation 2:17). Those who truly hear the word of truth are to receive it properly and not to seek worldly advantage.
Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33) — Thyatira
In this short parable, Jesus described a woman who hid some leaven in three measures of flour until the entire batch was leavened. This suggests that at first, the flour was not all corrupted. However, in time the woman’s action caused the whole to become filled with leaven.
The corresponding church is Thyatira. There, the woman is named Jezebel and under her influence the church committed spiritual fornication with the kings of Christendom. Her desire for wealth and power was the leaven that led to a spiritually adulterous relationship (Revelation 2:20-23). The lesson for true believers is to remain pure in the worship of God by endeavoring to hold to pure doctrines.
The next three parables were spoken only to the apostles (see Matthew 13:36). These were meant for the more mature, as described in Hebrews 5:14.
Treasure Hid in a Field (Matthew 13:44) — Sardis
“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in the field; which a man found, and hid; and in his joy he goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field” (ASV). This short parable portrays Jesus himself, who left the heavenly glory to redeem the church and the world by purchasing it with his blood. He bought the field which contained the treasure. After giving the longer, more detailed parables where sin and error are prominent, Jesus now revealed that saving humanity was important to him and that he treasured this world.
In the tabernacle, the blood of various sin-offerings was poured on the ground by the High Priest. This is similar to Jesus’ parable and indicates that, in addition to atoning for sin, Jesus also purchased the dominion of earth, the field of Jesus’ parable (see Leviticus 4:7, 18, 25, 30). He gave up his life as a spirit being and the glories of heaven, to dedicate himself to the work of salvation. With his human life, he purchased the field and is now the legal owner of man and his dominion.
The corresponding church is Sardis. There, Christianity reached its lowest level of spirituality. Only a few names had not defiled their garments. These walked with the Lord and are worthy. Jesus said he would not blot out their names from the book of life. The reason he could make this promise was because he had purchased the field and its treasure. He has the right to grant life or take it away.
This parable emphasizes the importance of valuing the things Jesus values. When we dedicate ourselves to God, we commit to the work Jesus has died for, the restoration of all that was lost.
Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45, 46) — Philadelphia
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Jesus compared the pearl of great value to the kingdom of heaven. The call to glory, honor, and immortality makes all other pearls of little value. Those who accept this call gladly sell all they have and dedicate themselves to the service of God.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matthew 7:6). These pearls are also valuable and represent the truths of God’s word. These truths have faced great opposition but have endured and become even more precious.
These truths are not always easy to find. There is often a price to pay in labor and sacrifice. But the effort is rewarded with wonderful insights into the mind of God. In this parable, along with the previous ne describing a hidden treasure, both men understood the great value in what they saw and sold all they possessed to attain them. Their sincere desire depicts the heart appreciation of those who love God’s word and are willing to devote themselves to it.
The corresponding church is Philadelphia, the period covering the Reformation. Many pearls of truth were found during that time. The most notable pearl was the doctrine of justification by faith. This truth made it clear that one’s relationship with God is based solely on the merit of Christ.
A significant connection to the Philadelphia church is made in Revelation 3:8. “I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name.” Approaching God through any other means than the merit of Christ is a denial of the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice. It is the merit of the ransom, and our acceptance of it, that opens the door to heaven. This wonderful pearl of truth enlightens the path to God. No man can shut this door.
Parable of the Net (Matthew 13:47-50) — Laodicea
This is the final parable of Jesus’ sermon. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a net cast into the sea, gathering every kind of fish. After the initial gathering, the fish were sorted, with the good gathered into a vessel and the undesirable ones cast away. Jesus shared the time setting of its fulfillment when he said, “So it will be at the end (consummation) of the age” (verse 49 ESV). This parable describes an additional selection process that takes place among the saints at the end of the age. This is during the Laodicean period, as the Lord discerns between lukewarm followers and those fervently doing God’s will. The overcomers are granted to sit with the Lord in his throne, while the lukewarm are spewed from his mouth.
This parable is different than the separation of wheat from tares. The tares are left in the field to be burned. This separation is after the fish have been drawn out of the sea. Bro. Russell explains, “A variety of other kinds of fish have gotten into the Gospel net, some from worldly ambitions … others because of social privileges and standing, others because they desire to breathe a moral atmosphere … etc.” (R5048).
As Jesus ended his sermon, he asked his disciples if they understood his words (Matthew 13:51). After their affirmative response, he said “Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old” (verse 52). In other words, those who believed him were now responsible to share the treasures of the kingdom with others. As the Gospel Age progressed, he would send “scribes,” or messengers, to each stage of the church to help believers understand old truths in ways new to them. This responsibility naturally passes on to all who believe. Living at the end of the Gospel Age is a special privilege. More truth has been revealed during the harvest than at any previous time during the age. These pearls should be treasured in each heart and inspire every believer to faithfulness. The words of Jesus are truly spirit and life. He has given to us the words of eternal life (John 6:68). The wise will understand.