The parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and tares, which Jesus privately explained to his disciples, both illustrate aspects of the kingdom of God and the process involved in bringing people under his dominion. From Jesus’ explanation of those parables we have the keys to help decode the other parables. ‘And he [Jesus] said unto them, “Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?”’ (Mark 4:13). This statement tells us that there is a commonality between the parables. That commonality comes from the symbols used and the subject of the kingdom of God as it would manifest itself on the earth following the establishment of the church up until the end of the age.
The four parables that this article sets out to explain have often been misinterpreted because preconceived notions about the kingdom of God have been superimposed and the symbols manipulated to suit the supposed meaning rather than letting the scriptural interpretation of the symbols reveal the actual meaning. The consistency of biblical symbols and idioms is vital for the correct understanding of the parables.
Parable of the Mustard Seed
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.’ (Matthew 13:31–32)
It was a common Jewish idiom to describe something of relatively minuscule size as being as small as a mustard seed. Jesus used the idiom on another occasion to show that even a little of true faith could accomplish great things that would not appear humanly possible. ‘…for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, “Remove hence to yonder place;” and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you’ (Matt 17:20). Although the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds, it is indeed very small compared to other herb seeds and would have been one of the smallest known to Jesus’ audience. Certain varieties of mustard plant in warm climates can grow to a considerable size and become large bushes, enough for small birds to perch in. A mustard plant can’t become a large tree, but for a garden herb it can be of relatively large size, especially in contrast to the size of its seed. A large tree would therefore represent excessive growth beyond what is natural.
The popular explanation of this parable is that the mustard seed pictures the small beginnings of the church and its growth into a large tree pictures the spreading of the gospel throughout the whole earth. The expanded church would then provide sanctuary to all who would choose to lodge in it. This interpretation does not recognise that the ‘birds of the air’ do not represent anything good. Jesus explained in the parable of the soils that the birds of the air represent Satan and by extension the demons also (Matt 13:4,19). The parable of the mustard seed shows us that from the original small church [mustard seed] that Jesus [the man] established in the world [the field] there would occur a large outgrowth [mustard tree] that would provide a place for unclean spirits [birds of the air] to reside. This should not surprise us because the parable of the wheat and tares and the parable of the dragnet also illustrate the wicked element that would exist during the church age. At the end of the age the wicked shall be sifted from amongst the righteous and the righteous shall be gathered into God’s kingdom. With the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the profusion of Christian denominations in our present age, Satan has certainly gained a foothold in the outgrowth of the seed that God originally planted. Just as Satan has sown his tares amongst the wheat, so too have the unclean spirits found a home within the apostate Christian churches. Wherever the gospel has been preached, the wicked who twist and pervert the Scriptures have been present also.
The book of Revelation refers to the political and religious systems of this world as Babylon the great, which became the habitation of evil spirits. ‘And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, And is become the habitation of devils, And the hold of every foul spirit, And a cage of every unclean and hateful bird’ (Rev 18:2). Jesus may have also intended an allusion to the vision of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, in which he saw a tree that grew to be great and provided shelter for the beasts of the field and the birds of the air (Dan 4:20-22). All earthly systems of government will eventually experience the same fate of being destroyed to make way for the righteous rule of Jesus Christ.
Parable of the Leaven
Another parable spake he unto them; ‘The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.’ (Matthew 13:33)
The parable of the leaven is in many ways similar to the parable of the mustard seed. So too is the popular explanation, which supposes that the leaven put into the loaves represents the spreading of the gospel to eventually fill the the entire earth. The problem with this explanation is that everywhere else in the Bible, leaven is symbolic of sin. Leaven has the effect of puffing up and spreading to infect the whole lump of dough. This is an accurate picture of how sin and pride affect individuals as well as groups of people. Under the Old Covenant it was forbidden to use leaven in the offerings to God, which were a shadow representation of the sinless life of Jesus Christ. Paul likened leaven to ‘malice and wickedness’ (1Cor 5:6-8). Jesus warned his disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, which referred to their hypocrisy and traditions contrary to God’s law (Luke 12:1; Matt 23:28). Because Scripture is consistent we can be sure that leaven in this parable does not represent anything good.
Before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham was visited by Yehovah and two angels. Jesus may have been alluding to the three measures of meal made into cakes that Abraham provided for his three guests (Gen 18:6). There is also the association of unleavened cakes as part of the peace offering, which was a voluntary offering eaten as a symbol of communion with God (Lev 7:11-13). Leaven should never have been part of that meal. The leaven in the parable therefore represents the introduction of false doctrine into the community of God’s people. Over time the contagion of sin spreads until there is nothing left that has not been leavened. ‘…When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?’ (Luke 18:8).
Another problem with the popular interpretation is that the other parables use sowing of seed as an idiom for the propagation of the gospel, not the introduction of leaven. Also, in the other parables, it is a man (picturing Jesus Christ) who sows the seed of the gospel; however, in this parable it is a woman that hides leaven in the dough. Because the Bible uses a woman symbolically to represent his chosen people (Rev 21:1-2), a woman is also used to represent false religion and the introduction of wickedness. The contrast is that the former is a virgin (2Co 11:2; Rev 19:7-8) and the latter a harlot (Eze 23:30; Rev 17:4-6). If leaven in the parable represents the gospel, then why is it hid? The gospel is something to be proclaimed, not hidden. What Jesus was illustrating in the parable of the leaven was the deceitful introduction of sin through a false religious system that would spread like a contagion in the church and lead to total apostasy.
Parable of the Treasure Hidden in a Field
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.’ (Matthew 13:44)
Most commentators would tell you that this parable speaks of the sinner who finds the truth and because it is so precious, gives up everything he has for the sake of the kingdom. It is true that we should give priority to the kingdom (Matt 6:33) and be prepared to give up all for the imperishable crown (Jas 1:12), however, it is not the meaning for this parable. Sinners do not find the truth by seeking it, nor is there any price we can pay to obtain the truth. When the sinner discovers the gospel he should not conceal it from others and keep it only to himself (cf. Acts 4:20). Scripture shows the truth comes to us because of a special calling from God. ‘No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him…’ (John 6:44). We are then faced with a choice of either accepting or rejecting the truth. Scripture also teaches that there is nothing we have that can be exchanged for the truth or salvation. ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God’ (Eph 2:8). The popular explanation breaks down on all points.
Jesus told us that the field represents the world (Matt 13:38). Who was it that gave up everything to purchase the world? This can only be referring to Jesus Christ. ‘For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved’ (John 3:17). ‘Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: Who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you’ (1Pe 1:18–20).
The treasure is therefore meant to represent the people in the world who Jesus would obtain as a result of his sacrifice. Until Jesus purchased us we were lost. ‘For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost’ (Luke 19:10). Yet the church is to remain in the world until the time of the end when God shall send out his angels to gather the elect (Mark 13:27). The parable implies that the treasure, when discovered, was not removable, otherwise when the man found it he could have simply taken it without having to obtain the field in which it was hidden. Also implied, is that the man intended to keep it concealed until he was able to extract the treasure at a later time. The mystery form of the church is yet to be made manifest because we are still in the flesh. It remains a mystery because the world is presently in darkness and not able to see who God’s people are nor does it know us as we shall be. ‘For the earnest expectation of the creature [creation] waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God’ (Rom 8:19). God’s people are precious in his sight (Psa 72:14; Tit 2:14), which is why we are likened to a treasure. Jesus knew why he had to purchase the world. He knew there was a treasure there and he paid the price of his own blood for the forgiveness of all mankind’s sins so that he might be able to extract that treasure and make it his own.
Parable of the Pearl of Great Price
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.’ (Matthew 13:45–46)
Having already understood the meaning of the parable of the treasure hidden in a field, the meaning of the pearl of great price should be obvious. The merchant man is Jesus Christ and the pearl represents his precious church. Jesus is the one who has paid the price for removal of sin and purchased us to be his own. It is he that sought us out, not the other way around.
A pearl is an interesting symbol to use because it comes from inside an unclean creature according to God’s instructions on clean and unclean foods. The process of its formation comes about when a piece of grit inside the oyster causes an irritation. Then oyster then coats the grit with layers of a secretion until a pearl is formed. While a pearl may be a fitting symbol for something rare and precious, it is not a good symbol for the word of God as some commentators try to make it. God’s word does not come out of anything unclean, but the church does!
Jesus also used a pearl symbolically on another occasion to represent something precious. ‘Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you’ (Matt 7:6). In this case, the context of what Jesus said was about being careful when correcting others. What is holy is God’s truth and our pearls represent valuable advice we can give (cf. Luke 6:45) These things should not be offered to people who don’t appreciate them. In all cases Jesus used the pearl and the treasure as symbols of something precious. Just because God’s truth is precious, shouldn’t lead us to interpret either the treasure or the pearl as being God’s truth. The symbol of the field, representing the world, is the key to understanding that the treasure hid in the field and the pearl of great price are both representative of the church. We are the treasure God is seeking!
Entering the Kingdom
Although this present world is under the influence of Satan and Jesus Christ is yet to return to this earth to establish his kingdom, there is a manifestation of God’s kingdom on this earth through those God is working with in this age. The Kingdom Parables illustrate the time period of the church age and the process by which God is bringing people into his kingdom. They also show that false believers and false doctrines will coexist with the true believers during that process. Not all those who are invited will respond and at the end of the age there will be some who are cast out of the kingdom.
Through the redeeming work of Jesus, we have been delivered from the power of darkness and transferred from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God (Col 1:13-14). While we believers belong to the kingdom of God and our citizenship lies in heaven (Php 3:20), we have not yet entered into the kingdom of God. There is still an ongoing process and the believer must endure to the end to qualify to enter. ‘Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2Pe 1:10–11). Only when we are given our incorruptible spirit bodies can we enter the kingdom of God and receive our inheritance as rulers with God (1Co 15:50). This is the goal of all true believers.