Are the “Parables of the Kingdom” in Matthew 13 supposed to be read positively, or negatively? What I mean is that some preachers and writers talk about growth and how the kingdom is becoming nearer and larger. Others seem to find a lot of sin and failure in these parables. To me it seems like this is more about the bias of the person commenting, than what the Bible says. Are either of these views correct? How can I know?
Your question raises a good challenge. Matthew 13 is among the most read and preached passages in the New Testament, with resulting viewpoint diversity. How can we find a clear teaching in these parables?
Some “keys” are given in Matthew 13 and in the parallel accounts from Mark (ch. 4) and Luke (chs. 8 & 13). What we can see first is that parables are not disconnected stories. There is a systematic method in their use. Additionally, God’s Word is consistent in the use of types and symbols. Let’s start by looking for a few keys.
Use the keys
In John 10:35, the Lord asserted, “Scripture cannot be broken.” He said this while applying a then 1000-year-old scripture (Ps. 82:6) to expose His audience’s unbelief. Truth is consistent. Later revelations agree with earlier ones, provided both are correctly understood. In these parables, note the Lord’s response when asked to explain the parable of the sower. Mark records: “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mk. 4:13). Our key here is that parables use and provide consistent information.
Another key is found in Matthew’s record of the same conversation. Matthew did not record the statement from Mark. Instead, he noted this: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt. 13:11–12).1
The key in that statement is that to gain more understanding of God’s Word, I must submit to God in what I already know. For the unbelieving crowds, no light was given. They refused to acknowledge Jesus as God’s promised Messiah, even though the Old Testament clearly pointed to Him, so the added layers of parables would only confuse them further. But the Lord’s sincere followers asked for help, and received it. Both Matthew and Mark then record the Lord’s interpretation for the parable of the sower. Later, He also clarified the parable of the wheat and tares (Mt. 13:36–43). According to Mark, “privately to His own disciples He explained everything” (Mk. 4:34).
Symbols are consistent
While explaining the parable of the sower (Mt. 13:18–23, Mk. 4:13–20), the Lord compared the activity of the birds to the work of Satan. Surprisingly, some commentators read the parable of the mustard seed a few verses later (Mt. 13:31–32, Mk. 4:30–32) and fail to see the same symbol! They only see “growth” and claim it is good. Normal growth is good, but abnormal growth is harmful.
The Lord’s audience would recognize the picture. According to sources I have read, mustard was cultivated as low bushes and farm laborers could readily harvest it. But if a plant had a good growing season and was not pruned, it could sometimes grow rapidly to 20 or 30 feet in height without first developing a good structure. The overgrown plant was less useful to people and attracted birds. It was generally unwise to give birds a home in your fields, as they eat farm crops and defecate filth and foreign seeds wherever they perch or nest.
Today most of us are not farmers, although farm terminology is still widely known.2 But God’s Word interprets itself by the Spirit of God. The parable of the mustard seed should be clear from the parable of the sower. The kingdom would figuratively begin with a tiny seed, but eventually become overgrown to a state where it could support enemy work. Sadly, the present-day professing church demonstrates the same condition. It maintains a form of how it began, but is overgrown with added human ideas which enable enemy work.
One more comment on birds. Birds in Scripture are not always a negative symbol. Under the Law both clean and unclean birds were defined, and the Law for sacrifices sometimes specified types of pigeons (doves) for offerings. When Scripture uses birds in a specific way, these tend to be clearly identified. But a random group of birds is often associated with unclean activity such as carrion feeding.3 Thus, some symbols have multiple uses but can be understood in context.
Look for the themes
Themes are common in parables, especially when a gospel account groups parables together. One thematic key in Matthew 13 is the phrase “the kingdom of heaven.” It is a different phrase than “the kingdom of God” which is also used in the Bible. When the disciples asked about the parable of the sower, consider how Matthew and Mark record the Lord’s initial response:
“And He answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given’ ” (Mt. 13:11).
“And He said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything is given in parables’ ” (Mk. 4:11).
The small difference is important. Matthew focused on Jesus as Messiah and King and what that meant for Israel. But Israel was a mixed group from the beginning of its history. All descendants of the twelve tribes claimed their birthright in the land, but not all walked by faith (compare Rom. 9). Likewise, the kingdom of heaven includes all who claim to belong to the King, real or not, and the “kingdom of Heaven” parables in Matthew 13 speak to this mixed condition. But in Mark 4:11, a line is drawn: only true followers of God belong to the “kingdom of God” while others are “outside.”4
So, the kingdom continues in a mixed state for a season, where evil difficulties arise from both outside and inside. Eventually, God will perform a necessary sorting and the unbelievers will be removed and judged. (Again, compare Romans 9-12). These themes recur frequently in Matthew 13 and beyond.
I hope this provides help for your question! One final note on your concern about commentators reading out their own biases. That can be a real problem and even godly, careful teachers will slip occasionally. But I believe today’s discussion will give you a basis for further study. God’s Word must be valued. You must read it carefully for yourself and be convinced by God’s Spirit of the meaning. Commentary should not be used as a crutch. Good commentators can only be helpers who walk along with us.
1. Mark and Luke record the Lord making this statement, or perhaps repeating it on another occasion, after providing the parable of the lamp in a jar. Compare Mark 4:21–25 and Luke 8:16–18. Matthew records the same parable in Matthew 5:15–16 without noting the follow-up statement. It might be helpful to remember that Mark’s account is understood to be the most chronological account of the three synoptic gospels, while Matthew and Luke sometimes re-arrange events and dialogue to reveal themes and moral structures.
2. One term we still know, but possibly only as a harvest festival decoration: “scarecrow.” Note the relevance of its original purpose to this discussion.
3. For both examples of birds in the same passage, examine Genesis 15:7–11. This is prior to the Law being given, but again, Scripture is consistent. God told Abram (later, Abraham) what His requirements were for a sacrifice and the Law did not contradict these when given around four centuries later. As a man of faith, Abram further understood that these sacrifices should be protected from defilement.
4. Here, I should note there is a long-running debate whether all New Testament references to the “kingdom” refer to the same thing, meaning Matthew’s use of the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” would be synonymous with “kingdom of God” elsewhere in the New Testament. I put the following to your consideration: First, the Spirit of God who prompted Matthew to write, had a purpose in the terms he used. Second, Matthew is the only New Testament writer who uses the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” yet he also uses “kingdom of God” at least five times in other contexts (6:33, 12:28, 19:24, 21:31, 21:43). Mark and Luke show the Lord must have used the phrase “kingdom of God” quite a lot, so if these were functionally identical, I would expect that either all gospels would use both terms interchangeably, or else each gospel would use only one term consistently. But Matthew is obviously aware of both terms and seems to be using them distinctly. I believe we should assume this is purposeful, and see if it helps us understand the meanings of the various passages, unless other Scripture shows us otherwise.
I enjoyed your post. I particularly appreciate the emphasis on being careful and consistent with Scripture. I also appreciate your acknowledgment that there are differences of view on some aspects. I do disagree with you on the composition of the kingdoms. First, it is evident that believers will not always agree on every point of doctrine. We must show grace to allow differences when they do not touch fundamental doctrine. Second, we must acknowledge that this is a complex topic and it is not only necessary to seek consistency among various individual passages of Scripture, but we must also seek a consistent doctrine encompassing the more general subject—the kingdom of God. When you make a distinction you effectively create two kingdoms. I think this creates many questions and loose ends. I wrote a post on the keys of the kingdom which touches on some issues.
I appreciate your feedback, and we agree there is only one kingdom and only one King, who is Christ. While I may not be discerning many aspects of the kingdom deeply, I don’t see why this prevents “kingdom of Heaven” and “kingdom of God” from showing different aspects, or why that understanding would create a larger problem for kingdom teaching in Scripture. A sphere of claimed allegiance and a sphere of true belonging both point to the same thing, but the second group is necessarily smaller. When I do a New Testament word search on “kingdom of Heaven” where it appears in Matthew, then “kingdom of God” and then just “kingdom” and look at the context, I believe I find a lot of biblically consistent use of “mixed company” language in Matthew regarding the kingdom of Heaven, but a lot of “bright line” language everywhere else. Did you have a different thought on those uses?