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Introduction to Matthew 13

Michael Hardt

It is rarely possible to understand a chapter of the Bible without taking into account its context. If this is generally true, it is especially so in the case of Matthew 13.

The context

The Gospel of Matthew (a) presents Christ as the king, and (b) sets out the dispensational change connected with His coming. Chapter 13 of the gospel follows on directly from, and is a consequence of, what is described in the preceding chapters: 


The king introduced (His genealogy, His reception by strangers and His rejection in Israel)

The king proclaimed, anointed, and tested

5–7The principles of the kingdom
8–9The power of the kingdom
10The messengers of the kingdom
11–12The kingdom rejected.

This brief outline shows that the presentation of the king was swiftly answered with His rejection. In chapter 11, John the baptist, the herald, is in prison. In chapter 12, the Lord demonstrates power over Satan by casting out a demon, but the Pharisees maliciously ascribe this miracle to the power of Satan (v. 24). This is the starting point for the teaching of chapter 13. The opening statement is that the Lord leaves the house (symbolic of the house of Israel) and goes to the seaside (symbolic of the nations, cf. Isa. 17:12; Rev. 17:15). A great crowd gathers, and the Lord starts setting out, in a sequence of parables, the form the kingdom was now going to take: it was going to be a mysterious kingdom, a kingdom of the heavens, the kingdom of the absent king.

Speaking many things in parables

Verse 3 offers another important detail: The Lord ‘spoke to them many things in parables, saying, Behold, the sower went out to sow …’. This is the first time the word parable occurs in the New Testament. The disciples, struck by this method of teaching, asked the Lord: ‘Why speakest thou to them in parables?’ (v. 10). The Lord’s answer is telling. It confirms that the teaching of the parables of the kingdom of heaven is directly related to the rejection of the king: ‘Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens, but to them it is not given’ and ‘because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear nor understand’ (vs. 11, 13). This was a case of ‘judicial blindness’. The Lord quotes from Isaiah to show this: ‘for the heart of this people has grown fat, and they have heard heavily with their ears, and they have closed their eyes as asleep’ (v. 15). This is solemn indeed. They could not see because they had refused to see. 

On the other hand, there are the disciples. The Lord pronounces them blessed (v. 16). They were privileged, and so are we: ‘For verily I say unto you, that many prophets and righteous men have desired to see the things which ye behold and did not see them, and to hear the things which ye hear and did not hear them’ (v. 17).

How many parables?

Matthew 13 is often referred to as ‘the seven parables of the kingdom of heaven’. However, some have counted six parables, others eight and others ten: 

SixIt is stated six times in this chapter that ‘the kingdom of the heavens is (or has become) like’ something (vs. 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47).
SevenThe parable of the sower (vs. 3–9) is not introduced by the same phrase but is sometimes taken to be a parable of the kingdom of the heavens. It is certainly a parable, for it is prefaced by the words ‘he spoke to them many things in parables’, the disciples refer to it as a ‘parable’ (v. 10), and the Lord confirms this (v. 13). It is also true that it deals with ‘the mysteries of the kingdom’ (v. 11) and likens the seed to the ‘word of the kingdom’ (v. 19). However, as we shall see, the clause ‘the kingdom of the heavens is like’ has been omitted for a reason. 
EightThe phrase ‘the kingdom of the heavens is like’ also occurs in verse 52, which might be thought to suggest a further parable. However, here it is ‘every scribe discipled to the kingdom of the heavens’ that is likened to something (in this case a householder), not the kingdom as such.
TenSome speak of ten parables of the kingdom of the heavens. They count the six parables in Matthew 13 and add the four further parables of the kingdom of the heavens in other chapters (18:23; 20:1; 22:2; 25:1).

The following table contains an overview of these parables and, where provided, their explanation by the Lord.

No.Parable Reference (in Matt.) Explanation
The sower13:3–913:18–23
1The tares among the wheat13:24–3013:36–43
2The mustard seed13:31–32 
3The leaven13:33 
4The treasure in the field13:44 
5The pearl of great price13:45–46 
6The net cast into the sea13:47–50 
The householder13:52 
7The king who took his servants to account18:23–35 
8The householder who hired labourers20:1–16 
9The king who made a marriage for his son22:2–14 
10The ten virgins25:1–13 

In this article, for the reasons given earlier, references to ‘the seven parables’ relate to the first seven items in the table above. 

The ‘three sevens’

Three passages in the Bible contain a series of seven items, and there is an interesting relationship between them. The three passages are: 

  • Leviticus 23: the seven feasts of the Lord;
  • Matthew 13: the seven parables of the kingdom; and
  • Revelation 2–3: the seven letters to the seven churches.

The last two of these fill the great gap left in the first. Leviticus 23 sets out the Jewish calendar which, prophetically, shows God’s plan of salvation for His earthly people Israel, from the cross (passover) through to the millennium (feast of tabernacles).[1] The first four feasts have already been fulfilled (up to Pentecost). The last three refer to the future of Israel. Between the first four and the last three feasts there is a long but indeterminate gap (historically, the exact duration differed from one year to another). This prophetic gap (between Pentecost and the feast of trumpets, that is, the regathering of Israel) represents the Christian era, the time in which we live. It is covered by Matthew 13 and Revelation 2–3, albeit with a different focus: Matthew 13 shows the development of the kingdom and Revelation 2–3 describes the public church testimony during this time. 

The kingdom

The subject of the kingdom is vast, and better dealt with in a book than a paragraph. In summary, God’s plan for the first creation involved the rule of a man over the earth (Gen. 1:28). Following his fall, God revealed His purpose that another man should take the place of supremacy: the Son of man, under whose feet all things will be put (Ps. 8:6). At the same time, it was going to be the Lord, who would reign, and this ‘for ever and ever!’ (Ex. 15:18). The Old Testament is full of glowing descriptions of this coming kingdom. In particular, it shows: 

  1. It will be a literal kingdom, with its centre in Jerusalem or Zion (Ps. 2:6; Isa. 2:3; 24:23; 52:7).[2] 
  2. The kingdom will be introduced by judgment (Ps. 2:6–9; 110:1–2; Dan. 2:44–45; 7:13–14, 26–27; Isa. 66:15–16).
  3. It will be a kingdom marked by righteousness and peace (Ps. 72; Isa. 2:2–4; 9:6–7; 32:17; Mic. 4:3–4; Zech. 14:9).
  4. This kingdom will extend to the Gentile nations. They will be subject to Israel (Isa. 11:10; 14:1–2; 32:1; 49:22–26; 60:2–16; 61:5–9; Dan. 7:13–14; Micah 5:7–8; Zech. 8:22–23; 14:9).

The kingdom of the heavens

Now, let us take the two points together: the Old Testament promises a literal kingdom under Messiah, and the first twelve chapters of the New Testament inform us that this kingdom has been offered to Israel in the form of its king, but has been rejected. This raises the question: What will happen now? Will the kingdom be lost forever, or will the king crush His enemies and set up His kingdom nevertheless?

Exactly at this juncture, we encounter the parables of the kingdom of the heavens — which answer these questions: it is neither of the above. Instead, the kingdom will now become a matter of mysteries (v. 11); that is, take a mysterious form, not apprehended by the world. 

The kingdom is referred to as ‘the kingdom of heaven’, more precisely translated as ‘the kingdom of the heavens’. This term is used 32 times in the Bible and, significantly, all of these references are in Matthew (the reason being that this designation relates to dispensational change, which is the focus of Matthew). In the first twelve chapters we learn that this kingdom had now drawn near (e.g. 3:2). Now, its ‘mysteries’ are unfolded (13:11).

So, what is the kingdom of the heavens? Is it the same as the kingdom in the Old Testament, why is it called ‘the kingdom of heaven’, and is it the same as the kingdom of God’? As a brief answer: 

  • It is the same kingdom as the one promised in the Old Testament, but when referred to as ‘the kingdom of the heavens’ the focus is on the phase of the kingdom when Christ is absent.[3]
  • The Lord called it the kingdom of the heavens because He — the king — had been rejected on earth, and following His death and resurrection would be in heaven. The kingdom is not in heaven, but on the earth — it has to do with the field, the world (v. 38), there is an active enemy, there are thorns, the anxious care of this life, the deceit of riches, etc.
  • The term ‘the kingdom of God’ emphasises the moral aspect of the kingdom (cf. Rom 14:17). It is used five times in Matthew (6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43) in relation to things that were true before the Lord’s ascension. 

The seven parables

The seven parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13 illustrate the origin of the kingdom. The sower sows the seed. This is during the Lord’s service on earth and therefore before His ascension to heaven, which is why this parable is not called a similitude of the kingdom of heaven. 

The remaining six parables describe its development during the time of the king’s absence. The first three of these relate to the outward development: 

1.The taresSatan introduces into the kingdom what is false and spoils it.
2.The mustard seedThe kingdom grows from a very small beginning to become an immense system.
3.The leavenEvil enters and increasingly permeates the kingdom.

This is exactly what has materialised in church history. As William Kelly once put it:[4] ‘Then follows the rise of what was great in its littleness till it became little in its greatness in the earth’. The idea that things will gradually improve throughout the time of the kingdom and that, somehow, the preaching of the gospel will lead to the conversion of the world runs against (not only observation but) the plain teaching of this chapter. It is the confusion between ‘gospel of the reign’ with an imagined ‘reign of the gospel’. The kingdom will be established in power, through judgment, not through the gospel.

The last three parables describe what is of value within the kingdom: 

4.The treasureThe value of believers
5.The pearlThe value, unity and beauty of the church
6.The net cast into the seaThe result of the gospel, and the judgment at the end.

So, despite the efforts of the enemy — despite the intrusion of evil — there is in the kingdom what is genuine and valuable to God.

Whilst the first four parables were spoken from the boat so that the crowds could hear (v. 2), the Lord addressed the last three to the disciples only, after He had dismissed the crowds and entered a house with the disciples (vs. 34–36).

The kingdom and the church

The kingdom is not synonymous with the church. The church consists of true believers, living stones, members of the body of Christ. The kingdom contains all these but also nominal Christians. This explains why the wheat and tares are to be left to grow together in the kingdom, whereas in the church what is sown by the enemy is to be judged; and why leaven, a type of evil, permeates the kingdom but is not allowed in the church (1 Cor. 5:6, 13; Gal. 5:9). 

The public kingdom postponed but not displaced 

So, if the Lord predicted that the kingdom would take a mysterious form — that it would exist in this world as a sphere where Christ was professed (and obeyed by some) — is this the final fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies relating to the kingdom? Put another way: Is the literal kingdom still to come, or has it been replaced, or displaced, by the kingdom of the heavens?

Clearly, the kingdom promised in the Old Testament (a literal kingdom, with its centre in Jerusalem, extending to the nations, introduced by judgment, and marked by righteousness and peace) has not arrived. For anyone trusting God and His promises, the conclusion is as inevitable as it is happy: The literal kingdom is still to come. Perhaps more precisely: the phase in which the kingdom takes the literal form predicted in the Old Testament is still to come. It is the same kingdom, but these are two very different phases. One is marked by the absence and the other by the presence of the king.

This is perfectly in line with the teaching of Christ in and after Matthew 13. Nowhere does He give the slightest indication of replacement or displacement. On the contrary:

  • In chapter 19, He predicts that a time will come when ‘the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ (v. 28). 
  • In chapter 23, the Lord makes it clear that this would only occur following their repentance (v. 39).
  • In chapter 24, He announces His future coming with the clouds, in power and glory (v. 30).
  • In Matthew 25, He links His coming in power with the judgment of the nations, and the inheriting of the kingdom (vs. 31–34). 
  • In Acts 1, when the disciples asked Him just before His ascension, ‘Lord, is it at this time that thou restorest the kingdom to Israel?’ (v. 6), they referred to the expectation of a literal kingdom. No syllable of the Lord’s response gave the slightest indication that this expectation was wrong. He only pointed out that they were not to know the time when this would occur. 

Following His resurrection, the New Testament writers confirmed the prospect of His coming in power, followed by the judgment of His enemies and the setting up of the literal future kingdom (e.g. Acts 3:21; 17:31; Rom. 8:19–22; Col. 3:4; 2 Thess. 1:7–8; Heb. 1:13; 10:13; etc.). The book of Revelation confirms that the 1,000-year reign is still future (‘after these things’ — Rev. 1:19; 4:1) and is preceded by the appearing of Christ, the judgment of the enemies of God, the binding of Satan, and the first resurrection (19:11–20:5). 

If this prospect still existed at the time of writing of the New Testament (up to the end of the first century AD) then, clearly, the literal kingdom could not have been replaced by the kingdom of heaven: ‘For the gifts and the calling of God are not subject to repentance’ (Rom. 11:29).



[1] The feasts were the subject of an earlier issue of this magazine (issue 1 of 2012).

[2] Many other references confirm the same (e.g.: Isa. 12:6; 27:13; 60:14; 62:1–12; 66:10–20; Jer. 3:17; Joel 3:16, 17; Micah 4:7, 8; Zeph. 3:14–17; Zech. 2:10–12; 14:16–21).

[3] There is one reference in which the term ‘kingdom of the heavens’ is used in a way that extends beyond this time of Christ’s absence (Matt. 8:11) — but it is the same kingdom.

[4] Lectures Introductory on the Gospels, Gospel of Matthew.