The Life of Jesus Christ: Jesus’ Kingdom Parables

Matthew 13

If you spend some time reading through the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, you will quickly notice the great amount of quotations they include from Jesus Himself. His teaching, besides His deeds, occupy a vast amount of space. Of this teaching content, much of Jesus’ message comes in the form of parable. Some scholars calculate a full third of Jesus’ teaching is parable.

While this form of communication and teaching is still around, it has definitely adapted since the time of Jesus in the ancient near east. For Jesus, the Hebrews of the ages before Him, as well as the Greeks after Him, parables were commonplace and useful. Think of a parable as a short illustrative story that exists on two levels: the literal image portrayed and the deeper, often spiritual, meaning expressed by it. In many ways a parable (especially in the way Jesus used them) acts like a concave mirror up close, it reflects something to the listener/onlooker while magnifying and increasing their focus on an important teaching point.

Biblical parables can be extended similes (using “like” or “as”), example stories with characters we are supposed to emulate or avoid, extended metaphors, a series of related metaphors or even simple proverbs or prophetic oracles. Jesus’ parables used everyday images and contexts to communicate to his audience, which were rural agriculturalists, primarily Jewish. His most common images therefore come from agriculture or horticulture, domestic life and home, social contexts such as a wedding or spiritual backgrounds such as temple worship or prayer.

There are a few helpful guidelines when you encounter one of Jesus’ parables in the Scripture. Consider these four things as you observe, interpret, correlate and apply the text:

1. The structure and sequence of the parable is important. Pay attention.
2. The parable context and its main character(s) are critical. Pay attention.
3. A simple theological point - sometimes more than one - lies at its center. Understanding and applying this point is understanding the parable.
4. The emphasis of a parable is usually at the end. Often the conclusion of a parable will hold the twist or major evidence to its main point.

All of Jesus’ parables are intended to teach and instruct. Of the full collection, many of them specifically address principles of discipleship, such as the teaching parable of the vine and the branches in John 15 (one of John’s very few parables). But Jesus also primarily uses parables when teaching about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. These parables form a significant component of the whole collection and will be our focus in this particular study.

In addition to the interpretive points above for general parables, what I have found fascinating about the kingdom parables, especially the 12 such in Matthew, is that God the Father or Jesus the Son of God/Man is always the main character of the parable (the flat character that has the focus; the dragnet parable does not mention a main character, but an assumed boat captain would coordinate with either the Father or Son).

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew identify Jesus’ mission as it relates to the Kingdom of God from their very outset. Jesus’ first words in Mark are “The time if fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand [meaning: to draw near; not to be too far in the future; coming soon]; repent and believe the gospel” (1:15). Matthew 4:17, the transitional text between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and His sermon the the mount, says, “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” [meaning: same word as in Mark 1:15 above].

Obviously Jesus has a lot to say about the Kingdom of God/Heaven. This phrase and concept appears in His famous sermon on the mount several times, including two of the beatitudes. The Kingdom of God also appears in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus says that we should “seek first the kingdom” and all of the rest of our needs will be supplied. Later in the gospels, Jesus gives Peter, and even later the rest of the disciples, the “keys of the kingdom.” In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), the Kingdom of God is how Jesus invites people into salvation.

Today, we will examine parts of Matthew 13, one of his most prolific collections of Jesus’ kingdom parables (paralleled in Mark 4). Matthew organizes five major discourses of Jesus in his gospel account. The first is the sermon on the mount. The third discourse begins in Matthew 13 and contains seven individual kingdom parables, two with lengthy explanations. There are more kingdom parables in chapters 20, 22 and 25.

Beginning with perhaps the most well-known and shared kingdom parable (also in Mark 4 and Luke 8), the parable of the sower, Matthew then records an interaction between Jesus and his disciples about parables themselves, why Jesus uses them and their part in parabolic teaching as His disciples.

There seems to be multiple reasons why Jesus chooses the teaching form of parable to reveal spiritual and theological truths, including truths about the Kingdom of God. In Jesus explanation we see:

1. With His parables and explanations, Jesus identifies a difference between His disciples (likely includes some women) and the crowds of outsiders. His disciples have the incredibly special blessing of access to Jesus and the mysteries of the kingdom.
2. Parables seem to be just the right fuel for both faith and self-centeredness. For those with growing faith, parables are nourishment. For those with suspicion, evil or selfish intent, parables impart increasing spiritual blindness and deafness.
3. There is a prophetic aspect to the use of parables. This is why Jesus quotes Isaiah 6.
4. Parables have an unusual stickiness. They are memorable, perhaps even growing and maturing in one’s memory.

Taken together, Jesus’ kingdom parables reveal the imminent, near, soon coming and soon-to-be-full reign of God. In fact, there are some good arguments to suggest that these parables, along with other statements of Jesus about the kingdom, reveal that it is already inaugurated and active in the present; both already and not yet in fullest expression.

Some of the “static” kingdom parables simple reveal the nature of this kingdom and its central figure. Other more “dynamic” parables focus on the responsiveness, attitude and preparedness of any who would be included in its blessings. Both have application for us today.

The nature of a kingdom and the blessings of its citizens are shaped by the heart of the King. These connected ideas, centered on the holy character and gracious deeds of our Creator/Redeemer King, are a faithful yet woefully inadequate picture of the beauty of “the kingdom of God” in the gospels.

Family Discussion Questions:
1. Dad or Mom share a story with a moral lesson from your childhood or your parents childhood that your kids don’t know. Point: stories have a powerful way of communicating truth in a memorable and relatable way. Parables are multi-level stories with a specific teaching point or theological truth at their heart.
2. Read the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:3-9. Open it up for full discussion and try to get everyone involved. What do you think this story is supposed to do in the people that hear it?
3. Who is the main character? What do you find peculiar or important about him?
4. What is special or different about the four different places the seed falls?
5. What do you think is the main point or application from Jesus’ parable?
6. Now read Jesus interpretation in Matthew 13:18-23. Open it back up for full discussion. What surprised you most about Jesus’ explanation?
7. As a family, identify three application points from this passage.

Small Group Discussion Questions:
1. How would you define parable to a non-christian friend?
2. Why does Jesus prefer to teach in parables? What do you make of His explanation in Matthew 13:10-17
3. Read the 4 interpretive helps for parables above. Discuss them with your group. Try them out on the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 (this is not a kingdom parable).
4. What is specific and different about Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of God?
5. What do you find most surprising, unusual, exciting or difficult about the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9 - with explanation in 13:18-23)?
6. What is the main point of the parable of the tares and the wheat in 13:24-30? Does the explanation help in 13:36-43?
7. What is the revealed truth in the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven? (13:31-33).
8. What about the short kingdom parables of the treasure and pearl in 13:44-46? Who do you think is the man/merchant character? What is the point?
9. What does the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16 reveal of the Kingdom of God?
10. What about the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22:1-14?
11. Matthew completes his record of Jesus’ kingdom parables in 25:1-46, the entire chapter. If you have group time, read these individually and then open up for discussion.
12. After a significant exposure and study of Jesus’ kingdom parables in Matthew, what do Jesus’ words cumulatively reveal about the Kingdom of God? Do you consider it to be near or now? Not yet here and coming or active already? What is the main impression of application on Jesus’ listeners, disciples?
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