These are my teaching notes for the second week of the class I am teaching at my church. As said, these are my notes. When I teach a class, sometimes I end up following my notes very precisely, while other times it may develop a bit differently. A participant may answer a question so well, that I see no need to share the answer I had in my notes. Etc. But regardless, you can see my intentions.
Week 2, Matthew 13
Tonight we are going to look at the mystery form of the kingdom of heaven during the absence of the King. This is what Matthew chapter 13 is all about.
While the term mystery only appears a handful of times in the synoptic gospels, it plays an important role in Jesus’ teaching on the “end time” kingdom. And “end time” really just means the inter-advent age. It began when Jesus ascended into heaven in Acts chapter 1. Are we living in the end times? Well, yes, and we have been for 2000 years! We are waiting for the return of Jesus in glory.
The word mystery is found in Matthew 13:11, Mark 4:11, and Luke 8:10. In each case, mystery occurs right after the parable of the sower. Mathew 13 is more detailed and elaborates with more parables, so we will focus on Matthew 13. The Lord teaches in the Matthew 13 parables how matters will go on earth while He is not here.
To begin with one point: A question that the sower parable raises is: Why do some understand the kingdom and embrace Jesus’ message, while others do not?
Hiddenness is an essential part of mystery. There is temporary hiddenness where truths are eventually revealed or understood in a clear and complete way.
And then there is a permanent hiddenness – even when the truth is revealed, the full meaning still remains elusive to some people.
We will briefly return to Daniel, before delving into Matthew 13.
Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian wise men were puzzled by the dreams, while Daniel was divinely enabled to interpret them. Even though Daniel had an inspired ability in chapters 2 and 4, in the later chapters (7-12) even Daniel could not understand the visions of the future. These visions were for a much later time.
Me read: Daniel 12:8-9.
*Besides divine enablement being needed, what else is necessary for understanding to take place?
- God’s timing. It is the time yet in God’s redemptive historical plan for certain truths to be revealed?
This background of Daniel is important as we look at the nature of mystery in Matthew. Jesus makes a connection between mystery and parables. When the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, Jesus responds by saying that he is revealing mysteries to them, and he goes on to say more.
Let’s read Matthew 13:10-17 – This is after Jesus told the sower parable. Depending on your Bible version, mystery in verse 11 can be translated as mystery or secret.
*Take a few moments to quietly observe those verses. How might you summarize Jesus’ answer to the disciples? How might you condense it to a couple key points or thoughts?
*In verse 11, Jesus says that the knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been given to some, but not to others. Do you think God purposefully makes some people unable to understand the mysteries? And if that is the case, that does not seem fair, does it?
- One way to think of a parable is that parables both reveal and conceal, and understanding or hearing can depend on the soil of your heart. I don’t think God purposely hardens some hearts, but rather the nature of a parable or mystery will reveal the condition of someone’s heart.
- God won’t force people to believe who are unwilling. I think that divine enablement and spiritual receptiveness are required in order to understand unveiled wisdom – that is mysteries.
*If someone seems hard and resistant to spiritual truth, should we just give up on them?
Verse 12 said “Whoever has will be given more, and they will have abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” This reminded me of our discussion about wisdom last week.
To keep moving…After these verses in Matthew, Jesus goes back and explains the meaning of the sower parable. The parable of the sower addresses not so much the nature of the kingdom, but the reception of it. Then Jesus shares 6 more parables that typically begin with “the kingdom of heaven is like…”
These parables present truths about the kingdom of God in our inter-advent age, between the first and second coming of Christ.
Remember in the introduction last week, when certain OT expectations were fulfilled though Christ, there was as an unexpected or new dimension to it. The Jews were looking for their Messiah to come and establish his kingdom, but the way it played out was not how they expected it.
The OT expectation was for a consummate or complete establishment of God’s kingdom. Foreign oppression, unrighteousness, and injustice would be judged, dealt with – God’s enemies destroyed – and God’s kingdom established. This would be decisive, taking place all at once.
But in these parables, Jesus teaches that the advent of the Messiah and his kingdom does not happen all at once. It is a mystery form of the kingdom during the absence of the King.
The kingdom of God is inaugurated, it begins, and breaks into the earthly sphere. Matthew uniquely uses the phrase kingdom of heaven rather than kingdom of God. It seems he is trying to emphasize the distinction between heaven and earth, and the heavenly dimension irrupting into the earthly ministry of Jesus.
In the inter-advent age, paradoxically two realms co-exist – those who belong to God’s kingdom and those who belong to Satan’s kingdom. Two of the parables, the Wheat and Tares and the Dragnet emphasize this point.
We have a collision of kingdoms during this age. It is often called the “already but not yet.” Already the kingdom has come, but not yet in its fullness. This creates a real tension for us as we live during the inter-advent age or the church age.
Last week, I mentioned continuity and discontinuity between the OT and NT. The “already but not yet” kingdom age fulfills the OT prophecies – the kingdom has come through Christ. This is continuity. On the other hand, it wasn’t as expected – the kingdom was only inaugurated. That is discontinuity – this unexpected interval of time.
In light of this, in a moment, we will briefly jump towards the end of Matthew 13. Remember that towards the beginning, in verse 11, Jesus said “it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”.
How do we define a mystery again? (A truth hidden but now revealed through Jesus Christ, often with a new or unexpected dimension.)
Now let’s see what Jesus says in verses 51-52. This is the end of the parable section of this chapter. Have it read…
– So there are things new and old in regards to the kingdom of heaven. This again is the idea of mystery, even though the word mystery was not used in those 2 verses.
Let’s finally look at some of these parables…
We will read Matthew 13: 24-30 which is the parable of the wheat and the tares, and its interpretation in verses 36-43. – Have read.
Let’s walk back through this with a few simple content questions.
* What crisis occurs at the beginning of the parable in verses 24-26?
* The owner’s servants offer to pull up the weeds in verse 28. What alternative does the owner propose and why, in verses 29-30?
*According to Jesus, what do the key elements of the parable stand for – see verses 37-39?
*Verse 38 says the field is the world. Do you think that includes the church? Because in one sense the world and church are two separate entities, but in another sense the church is a part of this world. So, what are your thoughts?
(I think it is both.)
*And what happens at the end of the age?
Thinking about the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would immediately bring in justice and vanquish evil, can you see how this parable would have been puzzling or even upsetting to the hearers? That the tares were going to remain among the wheat, instead of being pulled out at once!
I think we have similar concerns. Why does God allow evil things to keep happening? What doesn’t God go ahead and bring justice? – These are challenging questions, and we don’t want to offer trite answers. Theodicy would be a whole other class.
*But how can this parable help us understand God’s plan for dealing with evil? What hope does this parable offer us?
- Justice delayed is not justice denied. We can have a negative view of “judgment” but the coming judgment, in this context, should give us hope and even joy. God will eventually right all wrongs, and put this world right. See Psalm 96.
*Do you think that we as Christians have sometimes been guilty of pulling weeds prematurely? Or we’ve had a “pulling weeds” attitude? What might that look like?
- Something overt historically would be the Crusades.
But also…by taking matters into our own hands. There is a difference between justice and vigilante justice. There is a difference between making a judgment (discernment that something is right or wrong), and being judgmental.
We can lack mercy, not extend mercy to others.
Or we can pull weeds that are not actually weeds. Sometimes Christians can turn secondary theological or spiritual issues into primary ones. “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.”
*What if someone interpreted this parable to mean that we should just ignore injustice and never speak out in concern about evil or false teaching? “Leave the weeds alone! God will take care of it in the end.”
- Maybe the truth lies between the two extremes of pulling weeds and ignoring weeds. We don’t want to prematurely pull weeds or set ourselves up as the judge and jury, but neither should we have a lackadaisical attitude towards injustice or false teaching. God cares about injustice, and cares about truth.
- We pray in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s kingdom, and will, to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We live in the “already but not yet” and we will not successfully vanquish all evil in this age. That will happen when Christ returns, and we trust and wait patiently, even as we work for justice and truth.
I think this second parable of the wheat and tares is connected with the first parable of the sower and seed. Let’s do a quick review of the parable of the sower. We won’t read it out loud, but look in your Bible. It is told in verses 3-9 and interpreted in verses 19-23.
*What are the 4 responses to the gospel?
*So, what is the “success” percentage of the gospel seed?
Only 25%. That’s not really so good!
“A ministry is not a business venture, nor is Christianity a statistically favorable religion. Of the four soils Jesus mentioned, only one bears prolific fruit. Christ healed ten lepers, but only one returned to thank him. Nine others walked off the scene without so much as a backwards glance. Yet Jesus was undeterred. Had he determined the success of his earthly ministry by the number of people who enthusiastically embraced his teaching, he would have returned rather quickly to the carpenter’s shop.” – page 117-118 in Living in Light of Eternity by Rinehart, Navpress, 1986
So let’s keep these things in mind as we look at a couple more parables in Matthew 13: the parables of the Mustard Seed, and the Leaven. These parables are not interpreted by Jesus.
Typical interpretations are that the mustard seed and leaven forecast the positive growth of the church. The great tree is the expansion of the church. It will begin small but spreads throughout the world. Leaven is the gospel that quietly spreads with significant results. One study Bible I looked at said this about the Mustard Seed parable: “It is a promise that the kingdom would become a force to be reckoned with. Do not despise small beginnings!”
*If you have a study Bible maybe there are similar types of interpretations?
I am not saying such interpretations are wrong. It is certainly true that the church began small and grew in size and influence.
But maybe there is another way to look at these parables.
Let’s read Matthew 13:31-33. Have read.
I’m going to present a series of observations that are food for thought.
♦ Notice the parable of the Mustard Seed mentions a man, a field, and seed – just like the 2 parables before it about the Soils, and the Wheat and the Tares. When Jesus explained that, he said the sower was the Son of Man (that’s Jesus), the field is the world, and the seed is God’s Word. It seems that consistency would lead us to assign these meanings to the Mustard Seed parable too.
♦ Remember that in the parable of the soils only 25% of the seed had good spiritual results, and in the wheat and tares parable, good and bad are mixed together.
♦ Another observation is that a mustard seed produces a plant that is more like a large bush or small tree. Typically, it is 6-12 feet high, and spreads quite wide. It is more bushy and dense. In light of this, if the mustard seed grows into a big tree that birds flock too, something has gone wrong. It is unnatural or abnormal growth for a mustard plant.
♦ And these birds that nest in the branches. What do the birds represent in the Soils parable? Look at verses 4 and 19. – The birds are agents of evil for they snatched away the seed, the Word of God, that had been sown on the pathway.
♦ The next parable mentions leaven, and leaven in the NT is usually associated with an evil or corrupting influence. For example, in Matthew (16) and Mark (8) Jesus warns against the leaven of the Pharisees – and it is a warning against their hypocritical teaching and actions. And in 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, the apostle Paul says they need to get rid of the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, and instead have new unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
So, considering these observations, I think some interpretations from a different perspective are warranted or at least a possibility.
*Before I share a couple interpretive ideas, what are your thoughts? Do any of those observations make you see those 2 parables differently?
Maybe this isn’t just about the positive growth of the church, and maybe this is more like a warning and a prediction from Jesus about problems and weaknesses that the church will have in the inter-advent age.
1. The church has too often changed its emphasis from seed-sowing to tree-growing, consumed with success, having influence, having large attendance at church services, etc. We can see this historically when Constantine supposedly became a Christian and the Roman Empire became Christian overnight and the church became this giant entity. But more recently, in the 20th century, a business paradigm was applied to the church and there was an obsession with church growth – it was a whole movement and focus.
Maybe the church shouldn’t be trying to be a big tree, but more like a low lying mustard bush – Like Jesus, who humbled himself and came to seek and serve the lost. I mentioned that the one study Bible I had said the Mustard Seed parable: “is a promise that the kingdom would become a force to be reckoned with. Do not despise small beginnings!” – I don’t like that idea at all. It sounds almost the opposite of how we should want the church to be perceived by people.
“Don’t mess with us! We are a force to be reckoned with!”
It sounds the opposite of the Beatitudes that Jesus taught us.
2. Maybe these parables are warning us that there will be false teachers in the church (the birds in the trees) and we need to be careful about what is influencing us. A little false teaching, just like a little leaven, can unfortunately be very influential and deadly for genuine Christianity. False teaching about Christ is of special concern. If we get it wrong about Jesus, we lose Christianity.
A couple more of the mysteries that we will look at in the weeks to come, involve the importance of truth about the person and work of Christ. Next week we will look at the mystery of godliness, and the sixth week we’ll look at the mystery of iniquity and the anti-Christ.
As we close, based on the lessons we’ve learned today, what are some ways we can pray for ourselves and the church? In other words, how can we apply some of these truths in regards to the content of our prayers?
- Spiritual receptiveness and divine enablement to hear and understand God’s truth. That we will have ears to hear, and not be deaf to spiritual truth.
- That we will be seed-sowers, looking for opportunities to tell others about Jesus Christ.
- Wisdom and discernment about how to live in a wheat and tares environment
- Humility and perseverance in our faith during the inter-advent age