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The Prophetic Parables Of Matthew 13
By Arthur W. Pink
TABLE OF CONTENTS
There is little room for wonder, though there is much for humiliation, at the widespread ignorance and error that now obtains among the people of God on many of the leading subjects of Prophecy. For almost fourteen centuries, as "Church-history" clearly shows, prophecy was neglected. Those known as the "Church fathers," with only one or two exceptions, like Origen, devoted their time to wrangling over doctrines and the ordinances; while prophecy was ignored. In view of 2 Peter 1:19_"We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place"_and the general neglect of prophecy for fourteen hundred years, those centuries have very aptly been termed "The Dark Ages"_dark because the light from the lamp of prophecy did not illumine them.
Nor was it much better when the Reformers came on the scene. God forbid that we should utter one word of criticism against those honored men of God, but their hands were more than full in preaching the Gospel to a people who were utterly ignorant of it, in translating the Scriptures into their own mother-tongues, and in expounding the great fundamentals of the Christian faith. So busily occupied were they in those good works, they had little or no time to give to the real study of prophecy itself. As a matter of fact, practically all that the Reformers saw in the prophetical portions of Scripture was the foretold judgment of God upon the Satanic system of the Papacy, out of which they had been mercifully delivered.
Those who have any knowledge at all of human nature can readily understand how it would be with men who had been cradled in Romanism and who later had, by the grace of God, been enabled to see its blasphemous errors. When they came to the prophecies of Scripture, their thinking was colored by Romanism, and consequently when they met with an object which was the predicted subject of God's judgment, they viewed it through colored glasses. "Babylon'' was the Papacy; the "Man of Sin" was the Pope; the "Beast" was Rome, and so on. The sad thing is that most of those who have followed the Reformers, instead of studying the prophecies of God's Word for themselves, have done little more than echo what the Reformers before them said. In consequence, little or no advance has been made, and God's people at large today have very little more light upon prophecy than had their forefathers of three hundred years ago.
There is, therefore, pressing need for all Christians to give at least part of the time they spend in reading the Scriptures to studying its predictions. We purpose giving a series of studies on the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, which, in the writer's judgment, is, from the standpoint of prophecy, the most important chapter of all the New Testament. There is much in God's prophetic program which must necessarily remain dark until the parables of this chapter are thoroughly mastered. At present they are much misunderstood and misinterpreted.
It will be found that in Matthew 13:10, 11 the Lord Jesus has designated these seven parables "mysteries of the kingdom of heaven." This expression "the kingdom of heaven" comprehends in a brief form the contents of the whole chapter. This will be seen by a reference to verses 24, 31, 33, etc., where it will be found that each of the last six parables begin with "the kingdom of heaven is like unto." What is meant by this expression? There is perhaps no term in Scripture used so extensively, but which is so little understood. Though it is found in Matthew's Gospel only, yet it occurs there no less than thirty-two times. Thus our interpretation of this expression affects a great deal of Scripture, and a correct definition of it supplies the first key to the understanding of Matthew 13; for it should be obvious to all that none can begin to understand its seven parables until they have obtained a right definition of that term.
There is the utmost confusion today and a fearful amount of misunderstanding concerning the scriptural purport of this expression, "the kingdom of heaven." There are some who think that it refers to Heaven itself. There are others who understand it refers to that Church of which Christ is the Head. But there is one scripture in the New Testament which conclusively refutes both of these definitions. In Matthew 16:19 we find the Savior saying to Peter, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Most assuredly Christ did not give to Peter the keys of the Church; still less did He give to him the keys of Heaven itself. Then of what did He give Peter the keys? What does the reader understand by "the keys of the kingdom of heaven"? Could you give a simple and satisfactory explanation of this verse to a Romanist who came to you desiring help upon it? We have raised this point in order to show what a need there is for a careful inquiry and a close study of what this particular expression does not connote and what it does signify.
It is because the great majority of Christians, including most of their leaders and teachers, have no right understanding of this term_"the kingdom of heaven"_that they encounter so much in Matthew's Gospel which is perplexing and puzzling to them. Let us refer to one other passage where this expression occurs so as to make more manifest the prevailing ignorance. In the opening verse of Matthew 22 we read, "And Jesus answered and spake unto them again by parables, and said, The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king which made a marriage for his son," etc. Now go down to verse 11: "and when the king came in to see the guests he saw there (at the banquet itself) a man which had not on a wedding garment: and he said unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither, not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king, Bind him hand and foot," etc. How many of our readers are really satisfied with the explanations which they have heard or read of this passage? Our only object in calling attention to it now is to point out that it is one of the parables relating to "the kingdom of heaven," and to show that until we obtain a correct definition of this expression there is not a little in Scripture which we shall never begin to understand.
Before we are ready to take up in detail the subject of "the kingdom of heaven" we need first to weigh the wider expression of "the kingdom of God," and in considering this we must begin where Scripture begins, and that is in the Old Testament. In the remainder of this article we shall attempt nothing more than an outline of "the kingdom of God" in the Old Testament.
In contemplating "the kingdom of God" in the O. T. Scriptures great care must be taken to distinguish between two aspects of it. First, Scripture speaks of an unlimited kingdom of God, namely the sovereign rule of the Most High over all His vast dominions. Such scriptures as Daniel 4:34,35 refer to this aspect of His kingdom: "And I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honored Him that lives forever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation. And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing: and He does according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth, and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?" This rule of God over all His creatures is universal, absolute, and eternal. But Scripture also speaks of a limited kingdom, which is restricted both in its scope and time, which is neither eternal nor universal; and it is not until we learn to distinguish between these two separate aspects of the "kingdom of God" that we rightly divide the Word of truth and secure the key which unlocks quite a little of the Old Testament.
This second aspect of God's kingdom is what may be termed the dispensational one: it is localized and temporal. This is God's kingdom on earth, where His rule is publicly manifested over and is owned by men. It was first established among the children of Israel, when the Lord Himself was in their midst, when He made the mercy seat upon the ark His throne, and dwelt between the cherubim. That was God's "kingdom" on earth. In Joshua 3:11, 13_a passage which takes us back to a point not long after Jehovah took up His dwelling in Israel's midst_occurs a striking expression: "Behold the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passes over before you into Jordan ...... and it shall come to pass, as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests that bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of Jordan, that the waters of Jordan shall be cut off from the waters that come down from above; and they shall stand upon an heap." It is to be carefully noted that here is the first time in Scripture that God assumed this title, and that here it was connected with the ark, and was assumed on the occasion of Israel's passing through the Jordan: it was Jehovah formally taking possession of that land which He had given to His people. Had Israel remained in subjection to their King and obeyed His laws, not only would He have continued in their midst, but through them He would have governed the whole earth_as He will yet do in the Millennium. Proof of this is found in the fact that during the brief seasons they remained obedient, He overthrew their enemies and subdued the surrounding Gentiles.
But Israel waxed disobedient and rebelled against Jehovah their King. "And the Lord said unto Samuel, `Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them'" (1 Sam. 8:7). For centuries after this the long sufferance of God continued to bear with them, but in the days of Ezekiel the Shekinah-glory_His manifested presence in their midst_departed. This is referred to in Ezekiel 10:18, "Then the glory of the Lord departed from off the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim;" and Ezekiel 11:23, "and the glory of the Lord went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city." First the Shekinah-glory left the ark in the holy place, then gradually receding, it left the temple, then going farther away it stood over the Mount of Olives, until it vanished from their sight. God had forsaken His earthly throne and dwelling-place.
Now at this point, God, in a dispensational way, assumed a new title. In 2 Chronicles 36:23 we read, "Thus saith Cyrus, king of Persia, all the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord God of heaven given me." So in the opening verses of Ezra we are told that this same Cyrus made a proclamation saying, "The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has charged me to build Him an house at Jerusalem." These are the first occurrences of this Divine title in Scripture. It is no mere casual expression, but the employment of it marked a great crisis and denoted a radical change in God's dealings with the earth. It will be found that this is a characteristic title of God in those books which treat of the captivity of Israel. It emphasized the fact that, while His eternal throne can never be given up, God's dispensational throne upon earth had been forsaken.
In the stead of His visible throne in Israel's midst, God set up another throne upon earth, a throne which He delegated to men, and which was to continue throughout the times of the Gentiles_an expression which concerns the interval during which the Gentiles have dominion over Jerusalem. This is the theme and subject which is developed in the book of Daniel. In its second chapter, where we have recorded Nebuchadnezzar's dream and the Divine interpretation thereof, we find that the prophetic significance of the great image furnished an outline of the history of the times of the Gentiles and the character of their rule over this earth (see vv. 37-39).
The prophetic dream of Nebuchadnezzar looked forward not only to the end of the four Gentile world-empires, but also beyond them, contemplating another and a future empire which would be totally different in character. In verse 44 we are told, "And in the days of these kings (the "kingdom" before referred to) shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all the kingdoms, and it shall stand forever." This was the fifth kingdom, the promised kingdom of Messiah. Further details concerning it are given in Daniel 7:13, 14, "I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought Him near before Him. And there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve Him; His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed"_ compare Luke 19:12, 15.
After Daniel, the voice of prophecy was soon silenced, and for four hundred years the people of Israel remained in a state of eager expectation, waiting for God to fulfill His promises. Next appeared John the Baptist, who took up the kingdom message just where the O. T. prophets had dropped it. In Matthew 3:1, 2 we read, "In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand_it was "at hand," because the King Himself was about to appear in the midst of the Jews. When John said, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand," what do you suppose his Jewish hearers understood by that expression? They had the whole of the O. T. in their hands, but that is all which they then had. Obviously, all their thoughts would naturally turn to that kingdom which the Son of Man was to receive in heaven at the hands of the Ancient of days.
It is to be noted that the Baptist's preaching was "in the wilderness of Judea." The position occupied by the Messiah's forerunner was a sad portend of the outcome of his mission. John appeared outside the temple, away from Jerusalem. And his message, "Repent ye," bore witness to Israel's sad spiritual condition_I do not need to say "Repent ye" to a people who are walking in communion with God. "Repent ye" was a word for those who were away from God.
Then appeared the One whom John heralded. The King Himself once more drew near to Israel on earth. He who had of old vacated His earthly throne and who had in the days of Ezekiel retired to heaven, and who from that time onwards became known as "The Lord God of heaven," had in matchless grace incarnated Himself in human form, and because He was now once more upon earth, because the King Himself was present in Israel's midst, the Kingdom was "at hand." Therefore, we are told in Matthew 4:17, "From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Both the "signs" (Matthew 11:4; 16:3) and the "powers" (Heb. 2:3; 6:5) of the kingdom_the Messianic, earthly one _.were displayed by Christ. Humanly speaking, everything was ready for the establishment of that which had been promised by Daniel. Nothing was wanting but this_loyal hearts to welcome and receive the Divine-King. But, alas! this was lacking: "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not" (John 1:11).
The steps of the Messiah's rejection are traced in Matthew 12, which we shall take up in our next chapter. Because Israel rejected their King, He temporarily rejected them, and therefore the setting up of His Messianic kingdom on this earth was postponed. The King would depart from this world and be absent for a lengthy season, before He returned again and set up His kingdom_see Luke 19:12, 15. In the interval of His absence the "kingdom" takes another form. It is now His kingdom among the Gentiles, and is found wherever His authority if publicly owned; it is the sphere of Christian profession: in a word, Christendom.