The Hidden Kingdom and the Purpose of Parables (Pt 1)

Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”

He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. (Matthew 13:10-13)

As many commentators have noted, Matthew 13 marks a significant shift in Jesus’s ministry — it’s the moment he began teaching in parables. Prior to this, his proclamations and teachings had been more straightforward (in the Sermon on the Mount, for example).

The parable of the sower is the first, but from this moment on, parables would be Jesus’s primary method of speaking to the crowds. To his disciples, in more private gatherings, he continued to teach more directly — usually by interpreting the parables at his followers’ request.

This change was noticeable enough that the disciples themselves asked about it. Why was Jesus speaking to the crowd in parables?

God the Storyteller

A parable, as Jesus used it, is a story — usually set in the daily, ordinary life of human beings — that illustrates something about the kingdom of God. The word parable comes from the same root as parallel; it literally means to lay something alongside something else.

In his parables, Jesus talked about sowers and seeds and soil, fishermen and nets and pulling in catches, housewives and widows and prodigal fathers. And he laid all these things alongside the kingdom of heaven, allowing us to understand one through our natural understanding of the other. In his stories, the mundane things of human life become windows into the realm where God dwells.

This both invites us to see and experience the kingdom and, simultaneously, dignifies the mundane things of material existence.

Just as Jesus was God incarnate in ordinary human flesh, so he clothed the secrets of the kingdom in ordinary human life, in our relationships, our work, our economic endeavors. Everything about our world is ennobled by the touch.

The point of any parable is, of course, the point of the parable — what we might call “the moral of the story.” Jesus told parables to communicate specific things about the kingdom. But God is a great storyteller, and he has chosen this world of ours as the context for his salvation story — in a meta kind of way, parables can help us see that too.

The Secret of the Kingdom

In any case, the parable of the sower did, as I said, mark a significant change in how Jesus talked to the crowds who gathered to see and hear him. It also marked something of a change in what he taught.

Prior to this, Jesus had proclaimed the coming of the kingdom, taught extensively on the law of God, and proclaimed his own identity as the Messiah and even more, as Yahweh in the flesh. (As we’ve seen, he did this in many more or less oblique but still very discernable ways.)

On the basis of these declarations, he called upon people to respond to God as God was working through him and his disciples — to receive God by receiving him.

Now, though, he shifted into a new theme: through parables, he began to reveal what the coming of the kingdom would actually look like.

(The narrative layers to this are amazing. What better way could there possibly be to explain the coming of the kingdom than a parable — which, by cloaking divine truth in the commonplace, works almost exactly the same way the coming of the kingdom does?)

The kingdom simply wasn’t going to come the way anyone expected, or wanted, it to.

On this passage, Dr. Allen Ross of Beeson Divinity School writes:

What is being revealed to the disciples is not the person of Jesus or the nature of God, but the coming of the kingdom into history in advance of its glorious manifestation (Ladd, Presence, pp. 218-242). It was commonly known that God was going to bring in His glorious kingdom by supernatural manifestations and judgments. But the mystery of the kingdom is what no one was expecting, that the kingdom which is ultimately to come in great power has already begun to enter the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within people. All of the parables deal with this present form of the kingdom, which Jesus explained to the disciples, but did not explain to the crowds expecting some dramatic deliverance. Even the parables that are teaching some ethical truth have to be understood in the light of the present form of the kingdom.

When the disciples asked why Jesus was teaching in parables, he told them that the secrets of the kingdom had been given to them, but not to everyone else. This word “secrets” is the Greek mysterion. It’s a familiar word in the New Testament, frequently employed by Paul, who had great insight into the mystery of the kingdom.

In New Testament usage, “the mystery” is something in the plan of God that was concealed within the Scriptures for ages and generations — essentially “hidden in plain sight” — never to be fully understood until Jesus came and revealed it through his life, death, and resurrection. This is one of Paul’s central themes: that in the days in which he lived, the mystery had at last been revealed.

For Paul, the mystery had three related components: that God would be manifest in the flesh and would defeat the powers of darkness through the scandal of his own suffering; that in so doing, he would reconstitute the people of God such that God’s family would include the Gentiles through faith; and that this would accomplish the uniting of God with his people — the reconciling and ultimate uniting of heaven and earth (1 Timothy 3:16, 1 Corinthians 2:7-10, Romans 11:25-27, Romans 16:25-26, Ephesians 1:8-10, Ephesians 3:2-11, Colossians 1:15-27).

In Ephesians 1:8-10, he spells it out explicitly: “With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (NIV, my emphasis).

Or, to use the shorter form in Colossians 1:27: “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (NIV).

By no coincidence at all, the “secrets” (or mystery) Jesus simultaneously cloaked and revealed through parables is very much the same: to quote Dr. Ross again, he was explaining “that the kingdom which is ultimately to come in great power has already begun to enter the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within people.” The mystery of the kingdom is indeed “Christ in us, the hope of glory.”

(If I may digress for a moment, this understanding of the kingdom must cause us to abandon any notion of the gospel of Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again as a kind of “plan B.” The so-called “church age” is not just an interruption of God’s original plan. Something like this is commonly taught in dispensationalist literature, but it simply fails to see the mystery — much as Jesus’s own generation failed to see it.)

This unexpected form of kingdom come — a hidden, slow, organic, and inward form — was revealed to the disciples, but not to the crowds. As Jesus said, “Whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.”

This seems unfair, until we realize why some “do not have”: “because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.” Like the hard ground in the parable of the sower, some will receive the same invitation, the same chance at life — but simply will not receive it.

By this point in Jesus’s ministry, that had become abundantly clear. Remember that he had preached, healed, declared himself, and worked miracles in front of the crowds. This truly was the day of their visitation, and like the sower indiscriminately scattering seed everywhere,, even onto unhospitable ground, Jesus had invited them all to receive him.

But that isn’t what most people did. Some, like the Pharisees, entrenched themselves in opposition to Jesus. Others followed Jesus purely to satisfy their own curiosity, demanding signs and party tricks. Some tried to co-opt him into their own designs for deliverance.

Only a few received him. Those few, as Jesus said shortly before beginning to preach in parables, were the new family of God — “my brothers and sisters and mother.”

Many were called. Few were chosen. The chosen, as Jesus would make clear through a later parable, were those who chose to respond.

If you derived some benefit from this blog, please consider leaving a tip. I’m grateful!

P.S. Hey, did you know that my award-winning Christian fantasy series The Chronicles of Kepos Gé was inspired by the parable of the sower? You can start reading it with book 1, Seeds, today (get it from Amazon, another online retailer, or my online store).


This is Part 222 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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