The eight Kingdom parables of Matthew 13 provide a fascinating look into what “the kingdom of heaven is like.” Take a deeper dive into this passage.
Peppered throughout the Gospel accounts are parables Jesus used to teach about the Kingdom of God. Many of those parables begin with the familiar phrase, “the kingdom of God is like” or “the kingdom of heaven is like.”
One chapter in particular, Matthew 13, stands out because it contains eight Kingdom parables, more than any other chapter in the Gospels.
Today many people consider the parables to be easy-to-understand truths presented through the stories of everyday life. But that’s not what Jesus Christ said!
When the disciples asked Him why He spoke in parables, Jesus told them, “It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (verse 11).
Jesus said most people wouldn’t understand the spiritual meaning of the parables!
To gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in this chapter, we need to step back and then take note of the chapter’s structure. We also need to look at its context within Matthew’s Gospel.
Matthew 13: mirror-image structure
The parables in Matthew 13 are not arranged haphazardly, but within a purposeful structure. Matthew uses a common Hebrew poetic device, termed a chiasmus by modern scholars, to call attention to the way Jesus taught.
Merriam-Webster defines this literary device as “an inverted relationship between … parallel phrases.”
What does that mean? Think of a mirror image. Jesus addresses the first four of eight parables to the general crowds, then He specifically addresses the last four to His disciples. The second set of four parables provides a mirror image of the first set.
As the accompanying illustration shows, there are a few other paired elements in the poetic structure.
The first is a pair of questions. Immediately after the parable of the sower, the disciples asked Jesus why He taught in parables (verse 10). Immediately before the final parable, the parable of new and old treasures (verse 52), Jesus asked His disciples whether they understood His teachings (verse 51).
The final pair of elements is at the center, the focal point of this type of structure. Matthew explains that “without a parable He did not speak to” the multitudes (verse 34). After sending the crowds away, Jesus begins instructing His disciples in private (verse 36).
Matthew has arranged this chapter to emphasize the difference between the way Jesus taught the multitudes and the way He taught His disciples.
Context: a growing hostility
Before considering the meaning of these parables and the mirror structure, we need to consider the context.
Leading up to chapter 13, Matthew paints a picture of the growing hostility among the religious authorities toward Jesus. Chapter 12 describes confrontations with Jesus about His disciples plucking a few kernels of grain on the Sabbath (verses 1-8) and about His healing of a man with a withered hand (verses 9-14).
The Pharisees even accused Jesus of casting out demons through the power of “Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (verses 22-30).
Following this vicious false accusation, Jesus called the Pharisees a brood of vipers (verse 34). The rest of the verse, together with the next verse, is critical to understanding the parables of Matthew 13. Jesus explained that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). It is clear that the Pharisees made their accusation because their hearts were not right.
Jesus then said that a “good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things” (verse 35). What did this additional statement mean?
Jesus was referring to the role of the scribes and Pharisees as teachers. In essence, a teacher teaches good things only when his heart is right; a teacher with an evil heart teaches evil things!
Jesus, the good Teacher
“On the same day,” Matthew tells us at the start of chapter 13, Jesus “sat by the sea.”
This simple verse contains two important ideas. First, when Jesus taught the crowds and the disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven, He did so on the same day that the Pharisees had confronted Him. Those confrontations would have been fresh in His mind.
Second, Matthew notes that Jesus “sat,” calling attention to the posture of Jesus. Why?
First-century teachers, unlike modern teachers, commonly sat. Jesus was sitting to teach, which is why “great multitudes were gathered together to Him” (verse 2).
From the very beginning of chapter 13, then, Matthew wants his readers to think of Jesus in the role of teacher. Jesus, though, is the good Teacher, teaching “out of the good treasure” of His heart.
The final parable in the chapter, the parable of new and old treasure, brings the readers back to this same concept, describing a scribe, or teacher, whose treasure (teaching) is good.
The “kingdom of heaven is like” parables themselves
Each parable in Matthew 13 provides some insight into the Kingdom. The parable of the sower does not use the expression, “the kingdom of heaven is like,” but each of the remaining seven parables does. Most of the parables are short, clearly providing single points of understanding.
Fortunately, Jesus explained the two longest and most complex parables, the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the tares.Fortunately, Jesus explained the two longest and most complex parables, the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and the tares. The first is about who can understand the word (the message of the Kingdom of God), contrasting these individuals with others who hear the word but fail to hold onto it.
Key concept: understanding
Understanding is a key concept in this chapter. In fact, the word understand appears five times, in verses 13, 14, 15, 19 and 23.
The first three uses of the word are quotes from Isaiah 6. In that chapter Isaiah received his commission to prophesy to a people who would not listen. Jesus explained that this prophecy continued to apply. The last two uses of the word understand occur in Christ’s explanation of the parable of the sower.
The parable of the sower
In the parable of the sower, Jesus told about a farmer planting seeds on four types of soil—the wayside, stony places, among thorns and on good ground (verses 4-8).
Matthew recorded Jesus’ explanation of this parable to His disciples. He identified the seed as “the word of the kingdom” that Satan snatches away from those who don’t understand. These are the seed sown by the wayside (verse 19).
Jesus warned about “tribulation or persecution” creating stony places that test endurance (verse 21). He cautioned that “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches” would be like thorns that “choke the word” and make the hearer unfruitful (verse 22).
And He encouraged His followers to be those on the good ground who hear, understand and bear spiritual fruit (verse 23).
Learn more about the parable of the sower and understanding in our article “Parable of the Sower: Why People Don’t Understand.”
The parable of the wheat and tares: righteousness and judgment
The parable of the wheat and tares is about righteousness and judgment, which are also key concepts in the chapter.
In the parable of the wheat and the tares, Jesus compared the time leading up to the Kingdom of God to a farmer and his enemy both planting in the same field. This led to wheat and tares (noxious weeds) growing side by side, until the harvest (verses 24-30).
Again, Jesus gave the meaning of this parable to His chosen disciples.
“He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels” (verses 37-39).
Jesus identifies the good seeds as “sons of the kingdom” who are “righteous” (verses 38, 43) and the tares as “sons of the wicked one” who “offend” and “practice lawlessness” (verses 38, 41). The lesson for Christians is to seek God’s righteousness and avoid Satan’s way of lawlessness.
Learn more about the parable of the wheat and the tares in our article “When Will the World End?”
The parable of the dragnet
The parable of the dragnet mirrors the parable of the wheat and the tares, repeating the themes of righteousness and judgment.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away.
“So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (verses 47-50).
In light of the confrontations of the previous chapter, the tares and the bad fish of these two parables remind the reader of the Pharisees, who brought forth evil things from their evil treasures (Matthew 12:35).
Now let’s read the four short parables in the middle of Matthew 13, then look at their meaning and how they relate to each other.
The parable of the mustard seed
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches” (verses 31-32).
The parable of the leaven
“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened” (verse 33).
The parable of the hidden treasure
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (verse 44).
The parable of the pearl of great price
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (verses 45-46).
Meaning of these four short parables
When the third parable (verses 31-32) states that “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed” and the fourth (verse 33) compares the Kingdom to leaven, they are making the same point. The Kingdom starts small.
This does not mean that Christ had already established the Kingdom on earth at that time. It will not be established until His second coming. Instead, these parables refer to His preparatory work through His disciples and Church.
While the crowds could not understand, the disciples could, and Jesus used two parables to convey to them the great value of the gift of understanding that they had been given!Remember that these two parables are addressed to the multitudes who could not understand, and who may have dismissed the ministry of Jesus Christ as insignificant.
The fifth parable teaches that “the kingdom of heaven is like treasure,” and the sixth indicates that the kingdom “is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls.” These are the first parables addressed solely to the disciples. While the crowds could not understand, the disciples could, and Jesus used two parables to convey to them the great value of the gift of understanding that they had been given!
These four short parables lie at the center of the mirror structure, two each on either side of the statements emphasizing the difference in the way Jesus taught the multitudes and the way He taught the disciples.
“Whoever does the will of My Father”
Before looking at the final parable, we need to consider another passage in Matthew 12. At the end of the chapter, when told that His mother and brothers were outside waiting to see Him, Jesus proclaimed that “whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (verse 50).
Doing the will of the Father is another way of saying obeying the Father. This important concept emerges in the final verse of chapter 12, just before Jesus sat down to teach by the sea.
Then notice the way the people of Christ’s hometown later dismissed Him as being unimportant because they had known Him for years. In fact, “they were offended at Him” (Matthew 13:57) because they knew His mother, His brothers and His sisters (verses 55-56). These references to family members occur immediately before and immediately after the parables of the Kingdom.
We should take away from this the connection between obeying God and having a relationship with our Elder Brother and our Father.
The parable of the householder with new and old treasures
So what about the final parable, the parable of the householder with new and old treasures?
Jesus said, “Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old” (verse 52).
The chiastic structure of the chapter ties this parable to the parable of the sower.
What’s interesting is that, unlike the sower in the parable of the wheat and the tares, the sower in the first parable is not identified. Why?
In his book Interpreting the Parables, Craig L. Blomberg explains that although “the primary reference is to God,” secondary references “to Jesus or his disciples as sowers of the word … are entirely appropriate” (1990, p. 227).
In the same way, the parable of the householder with new and old treasures can refer to Jesus as the good Teacher, but it can also point to the role given to Christ’s disciples and His Church.
Remember, this parable comes on the heels of a question Jesus asked and the disciples answered. When He asked whether they understood, they replied, “Yes, Lord” (verse 51). Only after that answer, and with the transitional word “therefore,” did Jesus offer this final parable.
Tying the Kingdom parables together
The eight Kingdom parables show that not everyone can understand the word now, that understanding is a precious gift, that God’s work starts small, and that all people will be judged. In addition, the context of the chapter links the obedient heart to the ability to understand.
But this final parable moves on from understanding to duty. The disciples had been given the precious gift of understanding, but not merely for their own sake. They had received this gift so that they would have a treasure from which they could draw in teaching others.
This should be a reminder to us that God’s blessings on us come with responsibility to prepare for the Kingdom of God. Though we as individuals may not take on the role of teacher, true disciples are part of a Church commissioned to “make disciples of all nations” and to teach “them to observe all that [Christ has] commanded” (Matthew 28:19-20).
That Church also preaches the good news of the Kingdom of God in all the world (Matthew 24:14) and prays fervently for that Kingdom to come (Matthew 6:10).
Knowing what the Kingdom of God is like should stimulate us to even more want to be a part of it and to share these exciting truths with others God is calling. Learn more in our free booklet The Mystery of the Kingdom.