What does Matthew 13 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
A huge group of people follow Jesus from the overcrowded house He was teaching in at the end of the previous chapter to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. So many people gather around Him that they cannot all see and hear Him. To solve this, Jesus gets in a boat and sits just a bit offshore. The crowd stands on the beach and listens as He begins to teach them in parables (Matthew 13:1–3).

Parables are usually short stories designed to emphasize a greater truth. The main purpose of a parable is to make large or abstract ideas easier to grasp. By relating something to more common experiences, parables make those deeper concepts more accessible. At the same time, because they rely on symbolism and metaphor, parables can be somewhat obscure. They certainly blur minute details, but those are not their primary purpose. The disciples ask Jesus to explain at least one to them, which He does during this chapter.

Jesus intentionally avoids explaining the meaning of the parables to the larger crowd, however. He tells the disciples that it has been given to them to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Israel at large, however, especially her religious leaders, was rejecting Jesus' role as the Messiah and the truth His miracles were powered by God. Because of that, Jesus says the people would fulfill Isiah's prophecies about those with dull hearts who will not see or hear or understand. The idea is that the people were resistant first, and in response, God amplified their misunderstanding as a form of judgment. Christ's disciples, though, are blessed to be able to see and hear what so many prophets and righteous people longed to see and hear down through Israel's history (Matthew 13:10–17).

Matthew notes that Jesus now teaches the crowds in parables partly to fulfill a prophetic statement in Psalm 78 (Matthew 13:34–35). These specific teachings are in the context of Israel's response to Jesus' ministry. While there are useful parallels to how the gospel is received, or rejected, the main purpose of these teachings is not to present a litmus test for salvation. The parable of the sower, in particular, has been picked apart in an effort to create a sort of "salvation spectrum," but this is not the intent of the message.

The first parable taught to the crowd is that of the sower who was planting a field. To get the maximum harvest, farmers would scatter seeds right over the border of the prepared soil. So, some seeds fall on hard-packed paths which are not ready for planting; birds eat those. Other seeds land on thin soil and begin to grow, but underlying rocks prevent growth; those sprouts die in a heatwave. Other seeds fell among thorns that choked the plants as they grew, preventing them from being abundant. Finally, some seeds landed on good soil and grew to have enormous yields (Matthew 3:3–9).

Jesus explains—only to His disciples—that the seeds represent the word of the kingdom. Those who do not understand it are the hard soil of the path. Such persons are hardened or resistant, and the message never even penetrates the surface. Satan snatches away that truth like a bird grabbing a seed. Rocky soil represents those who seem to accept the truth, but without any depth. As soon as difficulty comes, they wither and fail. Thorns represent competing interests from the world, like money. Lives choked with those distractions have no room to allow truth to flourish. The good soil is those who receive the word and are productive with it (Matthew 13:18–23).

The kingdom of heaven is described by Jesus using yet another parable. This one involves a man who sows grain in a field. His enemy comes by night and scatters weeds among the good wheat seeds. This is a known tactic used to sabotage another person's crops. The plant in question is likely darnel, also called tares: inedible grasses that look almost exactly like wheat until they produce seeds. Rather than uproot the good wheat, the farmer wisely waits until the harvest. At that time, all the plants will be harvested, but the weeds will be separated out, bundled up, and burned (Matthew 13:24–30).

In a later moment, Jesus explains to His disciples that He is the farmer, and the field is the entire world. The children of God's kingdom are the good wheat, and the children of the Devil are the weeds. For now, both will be allowed to live and grow. In the end judgment, however, they will be separated, and the evil ones will be thrown into a furnace (Matthew 13:36–43).

In a similar teaching, Jesus depicts the use of nets to catch fish. As the net is pulled through the water, it collects many different things. Once everything has been caught, fishermen sort what's valuable from what's not. In the same way, God's final judgment will distinguish between those who are His children and those who are not (Matthew 13:47–50).

The kingdom of heaven is also compared to a grain of mustard seed that grows to a large plant. This represents how the kingdom will be great and glorious, just as the Old Testament predicted—but not immediately. Rather, it will grow into that state (Matthew 13:31–32).

Christ also symbolizes the kingdom of heaven is like leaven in flour. What appears to be a tiny thing—small amounts of yeast—hidden among something large—a huge batch of flour. Likewise, the kingdom's apparently small, obscure beginning will come to affect the entire earth (Matthew 13:33).

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, or a costly pearl. Wise people recognize the value of these items and give up everything else to acquire them. The point of these parables is not that one must sacrifice everything to obtain salvation, but that there is a clear difference in value between earthly things and heavenly things. Giving up all we have only seems radical when we don't realize how valuable the rewards of the kingdom really are (Matthew 13:44–46).

When Jesus asks the disciples if they comprehend all He has told them, they answer "yes." They certainly grasp more about how the kingdom of God will be, compared to what they knew before. Jesus relates this to a wealthy person who shows others his treasures—both what is old and what is new. This represents the disciples being trained to teach others how lessons of the Old Testament fit with revelations from the New Testament. Despite the disciples insisting they know exactly what Jesus is saying, later incidents in Matthew's gospel show they still lack complete understanding (Matthew 13:51–52; 16:21–23; 26:6–13).

The chapter concludes with a trip to Jesus' hometown of Nazareth, where the people reject Him despite His wisdom and the mighty works He performs. Since they know Him—or, rather, think they do—they refuse to even consider new information. In fact, they're insulted at the suggestion that someone they think little of could be so important. Since the people are insincere and disinterested (Matthew 7:6), Jesus does little supernatural work there (Matthew 13:53–58).
Verse Context:
Matthew 13:1–9 turns the focus back to Jesus' spiritual teachings, with the parable of the sower. As Jesus sits in a boat just offshore, He tells the crowd about a seed-thrower whose seed fell on a path, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on good soil. Only the seed on the good soil is productive. Jesus later explains the meaning of the parable to His disciples (Matthew 13:18–23), but He does not fully explain it for the crowds.
Matthew 13:10–17 comes in between Jesus' telling of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1–9) and His explanation of that story (Mathew 13:18–23). The disciples ask why Jesus so often uses parables when teaching crowds of people. According to Jesus, the disciples are privileged to know secrets that the prophets and righteous people longed to know. His use of unexplained parables, in part, is because Israel has rejected Jesus as the Messiah. This will fulfill Isaiah's prophecy about those with dull hearts who will hear without understanding. Otherwise, they would turn and be healed.
Matthew 13:18–23 explains the lesson behind the parable of the seed-thrower who dropped seeds on four different types of soil (Matthew 13:1–9). The hardpacked soil of the path represents those who don't understand teaching about the kingdom of heaven, so the evil one steals it away. The rocky soil is those who receive the Word gladly but fall away under pressure. The thorny soil is those who are unproductive because of the cares of life and lies about money. Only those who receive the Word and reproduce it represent the good soil. While this is an important explanation, Christians often differ about how those categories relate to specific issues such as salvation. The four groups represented are not necessarily meant to form a spectrum; each has its own lessons to teach.
Matthew 13:24–30 contains the parable of the wheat and the weeds, also known as the parable of the wheat and the "tares." Christ will later explain this as a metaphor for God separating believers from non-believers in the final judgment (Matthew 13:36–43). He tells the crowd of a farmer who sowed good wheat seeds into a field. His enemy, though, sabotaged the field with weeds. This probably meant planting a worthless plant that looks deceptively like wheat. The farmer sensibly waits, allowing the wheat and weeds to grow together rather than risking damage to the wheat by uprooting the other plants. At the harvest, the farmer will tell his workers to gather up the weeds and bundle them to be burned.
Matthew 13:31–35 contains two short, closely-related parables about the kingdom of heaven. One refers to a tiny mustard seed which soon outgrows all the garden plants; it becomes like a tree. The other parable describes the leaven a woman puts in flour to make it grow. Both parables show that the kingdom of heaven will be tiny, at first—with just the disciples. Quickly, though, it will grow into something surprisingly large. Matthew quickly reminds his readers that Jesus taught only in parables at this time, fulfilling yet another prophecy.
Matthew 13:36–43 follows Jesus away from the crowds and back into a house with His disciples. They ask Him to explain the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24–30). Jesus tells them He is the farmer, and the field is the world. The good wheat seeds represent the children of the kingdom, and the weeds—also known as "tares," likely an inedible plant that looks like wheat—are the children of the Devil who planted them. The harvest is the judgment at the end of the age. Then the reapers, God's angels, will gather all the wicked and all forms of sin and throw them into the fiery furnace. The righteous, though, will shine in the kingdom of their Father.
Matthew 13:44–46 contains two short and related parables about the value of the kingdom of heaven. The first depicts a treasure hidden in a field. The man who finds it gladly sells everything to buy the field, so he can acquire the treasure. Likewise, a pearl dealer trades all his wealth in exchange for a pearl of enormous value when he finds it. Both stories show that inclusion in the kingdom of heaven is worth any amount of sacrifice. Whatever is lost in pursuit of the kingdom of heaven is a small price to pay, considering the value of what is gained.
Matthew 13:47–50 contains a parable about fisherman. This is closely related to the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24–30). Fishermen use a dragnet to bring up a large catch, which includes many kinds of fish, good and bad. The workers sort the fish, discarding those which are "bad." Jesus immediately explains that this is like the angels who will come and separate the evil from the righteous at the end of the age. They will throw those who reject faith in Christ into the fiery furnace where there is anguish and misery.
Matthew 13:51–52 concludes the section on the parables of Jesus with a question. Jesus asks His disciples if they've understood His words. The disciples say yes. Jesus uses one more short parable, comparing a scholar trained in godly things to the master of a house showing his old and new treasures to someone. Christ, for His part, is teaching both the meaning of older Scriptures, and the new fulfillments coming from God. This also means the disciples should teach others what He has taught them: the unified meaning of Old Testament Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus.
Matthew 13:53–58 describes Jesus' trip to His hometown of Nazareth. The people are astonished at His teaching and miracles, but they do not respect Him. Instead, they ask where His wisdom and power come from. Many of these people would have known Jesus from His youth, and they know His earthly family. That includes Jesus' mother and half-siblings. Rather than accept His words, the hometown crowd is offended. So, Jesus refuses to do many miracles because of their unbelief. Because the people think they already everything about Jesus, they ignore His actual message.
Chapter Summary:
Matthew 13 focuses mainly on a series of parables. Jesus first describes these to a large crowd along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Later, in a house, He explains to the disciples the meanings of the parables of the sower, the weeds, and the fish caught in the net. Jesus then travels to Nazareth, teaches in the synagogue, and is rejected by the people of His original hometown.
Chapter Context:
Matthew 13 follows Jesus from the overcrowded house at the end of the previous chapter to a crowded beach on the Sea of Galilee. He teaches a large crowd in a series of parables, which He doesn't fully explain. However, He reveals their meaning to His disciples inside a nearby house. Jesus pictures the kingdom of heaven as a sower, a sabotaged field of wheat, a mustard seed, and a pearl dealer, among other things. He then travels to His original hometown of Nazareth where He is rejected by the people He grew up with. This leads Matthew back to depictions of Jesus' miracles, after sadly recording John the Baptist's death.
Book Summary:
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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