As a big pro basketball fan, the NBA trade deadline is always one of my favorite times of the year in sports. In no other league do you have teams trading away marquee players mid-season, or, in the case of my hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, trading almost literally half their roster in one day. It’s an exciting time, made only more so in the social media age where you can get lost constantly refreshing the Twitter feeds of various league insiders.
A lot of the conversation this year leading into the deadline revolved around my Cavaliers and their star player, this kid from Akron named Lebron James. You may have heard of him before. The Cavs are in this tricky situation where his contract is up at the end of this season and it’s not a given that he’ll resign with them. (It’s not a given that he’s leaving either, but I don’t want to turn this into a sports podcast, I am going somewhere with this.) A lot of the talk around the league this week was over whether or not the Cavs should try to make trades to entice him to stay or should they make moves to plan for a future without Lebron.
ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst did a media tour where he said the decision was simple. Lebron James is so special, is this once in a generation (maybe even lifetime) kind of player, that you do whatever you can to keep him around. Sure, he can introduce a lot of drama to the team. Sure, he sometimes tries to lead through passive aggressive Instagram posts. Sure, he’s guarded to the point it can handcuff you as a front office because you’ll never know what he’s going to do next. But at the end of the day, it’s worth it. All the drama is worth it. Whatever you have to do from a personnel perspective, it’s worth it.
No matter what you have to give up to have him on your team, you do it. Gladly. Because there’s no replacing Lebron James.
What I’m saying is that the kingdom of heaven… is kinda like Lebron James. Allow me to explain…
Coded Messages, Part 3
Parables of the Kingdom
For the past two episodes, we’ve taken a look at the parables in Matthew 13. What are parables? As John MacArthur writes, “ingeniously simple word picture[s] illuminating […] profound spiritual lesson[s].” They’re the stories, metaphors, similes, and figures of speech that Jesus uses to teach about the Kingdom of God.
They have a double role, of sorts, though. On one hand, yes, they take spiritual realities and reshape them into slices from every day life to make them more easily understood. On the other, they require interpretation and further learning. Without the explanations of the parables, they can sometimes feel obtuse or hard to parse. You have to already be bought in to glean their fruits.
Parables almost always have one main thrust. We’ve likened them to an airplane. Just as a plane has a destination that it is traveling to, the parable has a target. It’s headed in one direction. Once you decide to get on the plane, on the way to the destination, you can look out different windows and see different things. So it is with parables, you can see different points of contact between reality and the parable, you can observe other secondary truths that are in line with the primary truth of the parable’s main point.
So, episode one we talked about the Parable of the Sower. It’s there we learn that different people are going to have different reactions to hearing the Gospel and it’s the responsibility of the listener, not the speaker, for the way they receive the message. The main thrust is the question, “What kind of soil will you be?”
Episode two, we focused primarily on the Parable of the Weeds. That parable teaches that the world is a mixed field of wheat and weeds, righteous and wicked, and that at the end of history a harvest will be had and the weeds will be burned away while the wheat shines on forever. It forces us to confront the reality that there is a judgment that we will all face one day. Secondarily, it helps us understand that the presence of evil people around us is no accident or dereliction of duty, but part of God’s plan. We must only be patient, one day he will make it right.
This episode, we’ve got three parables (well, technically four) that we’re going to look at that all go in separate directions, but all revolve around this theme of the Kingdom.
What is the Kingdom?
I suppose before we move forward, though, we should take some time to define the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. What do those phrases mean?
In short, the kingdom of God is the reign and rule of God. It’s not a place or a location. It has no fixed point on the map. It is wherever God is bringing about righteousness.
If you zoomed way out, you might be tempted to think, “Well, God created everything and is sovereign over everything, so everything is the kingdom of God.” That’s not how that phrase gets used, though. It’s more specifically about his saving reign and rule. It’s used to talk about where God’s will is being done and his name is being praised.
The terms kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are interchangeable. The Jews were reluctant to verbalize the name of God to ensure it wasn’t being taken in vain, hence why the term “kingdom of heaven” shows up as often as it does. Those terms are used to express this same idea.
So, to enter the kingdom is to submit to God’s reign and rule. To have it is to walk in the righteousness given to us in Christ when we acknowledge him as Lord. This is what it means when we talk about the Kingdom.
The parables in this chapter are all about the Kingdom in different ways. Jesus introduces them all with, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” Today, we’re going to look at a few that wrap up this section of parables. First, the parables of treasure.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
– Matthew 13:44–46 (ESV)
These two parables are really one parable. They communicate the same idea. They’re both talking about the value of the kingdom.
The first parable talks about treasure hidden in a field. Now, buried treasure wasn’t actually that uncommon in Jesus’s day. If you wanted to secure your valuables, there were no banks with safety deposit boxes to put them in. To make sure no one else could get to them, you had to bury them somewhere only you knew about.
This happened often when an invading army was coming, for instance. Rather than leave their valuables in their house where they could be plundered, people would bury them somewhere for safe keeping. Then, if you happen to get jacked by the soldiers coming in, well now you have this treasure buried out in your yard and no one knows where it is.
That’s the kind of situation we have in the first parable. It actually is a slice of life back then. Nowadays, the idea of buried treasure is cartoonish. Then, it was a legit possibility.
Now, legally, whoever found buried treasure got to own it. It didn’t really matter where they found it. The old Roman law was essentially, “Finders keepers.”
There were situations where it could get more complicated. Like, for instance, you’re working for someone else and in the process of digging or whatever, you find some treasure. The employer could claim that you were acting on their behalf and take the treasure for themselves. Kinda like how if you write or make music or art for an employer today, they own the work, not you.
When the guy in the parable buys the land, he’s locking in the treasure for himself. He’s taking away any challenge anyone could have to his possession of it. By burying it again and buying the land, no one else can lay claim to it.
Now, of course, this kinda seems sketchy to us. Buying someone’s land from them that they didn’t know had buried treasure on it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be, given their cultural norms, but even if it is, I don’t think it matters. It wouldn’t be the only time Jesus has pointed to someone doing something unethical in a parable and delivering a lesson through it. It might even aid the point here, honestly. He’s so dead set on having the treasure, not even ethics can stop him!
Now the pearl merchant parable is almost identical, but there’s one interesting cultural note here. Pearls were the diamonds of the ancient world. Anything that we would scribe to diamonds as a precious stone, for all intents and purposes, just copy/paste those right on to pearls when you come across them in Scripture. This is a merchant dealing with the finest things and stumbling across the ultimate in his searching.
There’s a double focus happening here in these two parables. Two things that get highlighted in the parables for us to learn from.
The first is joy, the joy of selling everything. Have you ever been so happy you sold everything you owned? I know that I have not, but that is what happens here with our characters. That’s really interesting. You don’t have someone selling everything to make ends meet or to pay something off. It’s not done out of obligation or done begrudgingly. It’s done out of joy.
I’d argue that God wants us to be motivated by joy. Ultimately, it’s response to his grace and his character that should motivate us to serve him, not fear or obligation.
Look at the Ten Commandments. Here’s one of the most famous pieces of law in the entire Bible. Yet, how does it start?
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
– Exodus 20:1–2 (ESV)
He starts by reminding Israel of the blessing they’ve received. Then he proceeds with the commandments. Blessing, then commands. That’s the pattern. It’s a pattern that Jesus continues in his teaching.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus giving commands from the mountain, typifying him as the New Moses, but how does the Sermon on the Mount begin? With the Beatitudes. First the blessings, then the commands. The blessings are there to spark joy and the joy should be what motivates disciples to action.
This has large implications, not only for those of us who teach, but for all Christians as we’ll see more clearly in a bit. How do we try to motivate fellow Christians to serve the Lord? Joy or fear? How do we try to motivate those who haven’t decided to follow Jesus to do so? Joy or fear?
I think this is why the whole “Hell House” idea always sat so awkwardly with me. Do you know what I’m talking about? Every Halloween, Churches put on what are essentially “Haunted Houses for Jesus” where the stated goal is to scare people into the Kingdom. Sort of takes the old bumper sticker, “Try Jesus, it’ll scare the Hell out of you,” literally.
I’d gone to these a couple times when I was a teen. My church had even contemplated running one. They always felt a bit off to me and I could never really put my finger on why. I mean, if we’re getting people to accept Jesus then isn’t it a good thing? All’s well that ends well, right?
Jared C. Wilson is an author that has written a great many wonderful and helpful books and in The Prodigal Church, he writes, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” He means it mostly to beware pastors from trying to steer people by their consumeristic tendencies, but I think it works equally well in this setting.
When you motivate by sparking joy, you create a disciple that enthusiastically seeks to serve the Lord. When you motivate through fear, you create a disciple that views God as this cosmic hall monitor who is just waiting for them to screw up. I’d hazard a guess that many of these folks end up thinking of salvation as no more than “fire insurance” and never find deep, fruitful life in Christ.
The kingdom of heaven is not likened to a trap to avoid, but the finest precious gem the world has ever known. Selling everything is a pleasure, not a burden, because having that treasure becomes your chief goal. Frederick Bruner writes this in his commentary:
“[…] joy is the engine of change. One could say that “joy is the engine of sacrifice” if it were not for the fact that neither the farmer nor the businessman thinks for a moment that he is making a sacrifice at all.”
– Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13–28
Give people a picture of God and his grandeur such that they joyfully sell everything to buy the field.
The second focus is the selling of everything. First there’s the joy of selling, then the selling itself. Joy enables the selling, but it’s only through the selling that the treasure is gained.
The Kingdom is so valuable that it’s worth giving up absolutely anything to obtain it. To be a part of it. The man and the merchant both sell everything. They have nothing left except for the treasure they’ve found. The obvious implication here is that they aren’t going to turn around and now sell the treasure. No, they’ve bought it to hang on to it.
They have nothing left except for the treasure, which means they have it all. One author wrote a book whose title sums this up quite nicely, “Jesus + Nothing = Everything”. If you have nothing but Jesus, you’ve got all you need.
Salvation is free, but it will cost you everything. Surely, for Jesus, our salvation cost him everything. He sacrificed it all to make a way for us to approach the Father. Now we don’t have to work or buy our righteousness, it’s been given to us through Jesus’s death and resurrection.
There will be things, though, that we will have to give up when we follow Jesus. Following his commands will cost us things. It may cost you relationships. It may cost you sexual expression. It may cost you opportunities. It will certainly strip away anything else that you try to hang your identity on. What the parables show us is that it’s worth it.
Jim Elliot was a missionary who wrote this in his diary, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” 62 years ago, he, along with some others, went to Ecuador and never returned. They went to preach the Gospel to the Huaroani people and were killed by them for it. Elliot talked the talk in that diary and backed it up with his life even to death!
Thankfully for those of us in America and in the West, the odds of our being martyred are infinitesimally small. That’s not the case for our brothers and sisters in the middle east and in parts of Asia and Africa, though. Anyone who trades their life for Jesus is a winner. That’s a trade worth making every single time.
With those two focuses of the joy of selling and the selling itself, we see Jesus balance them in his teaching and his ministry time and time again. I rather like this familiar passage from Matthew 11 where he does so quite brilliantly.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
– Matthew 11:28–30 (ESV)
Joy goes first. “Come to me and find rest.” Then command, “Take my yoke upon you, learn from me.” Joy of the Gospel should go first, but the Demand of the Gospel should always be a step behind.
The point in the parable is that nothing is too costly to lose. Whatever you have to give up, it’s worth it. There is nothing that having the Kingdom can cost you that is not worth losing.
Parable of the Net
The second parable we’ll cover today is so close to the Parable of the Weeds, I don’t think we need to spend too much time on it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
– Matthew 13:47–50 (ESV)
There’s three stages here. The net gathers the fish. The good fish go into containers. The bad fish get thrown away. It’s strikingly similar to the Parable of the Weeds where the crop gets harvested, the wheat gets stored in the barn and the weeds get burnt up.
It’s a different image and it’s one from daily life for fishermen in that day. The word net there is “sagēnē” (sigh-ya-nay). It’s a dragnet that floats vertically in the water, with bobbers on top and weights at the bottom. You cast it out there, then reel it in and capture all the fish between you and the net. In terms of commercial fishing, it sure beats going at it with a pole and pulling them out one by one. It’s essentially still used today, the name has morphed into seine (sayn) and it’s been tweaked but still functions more or less the same.
The idea is that all the fish are getting caught in this net. None of them are going to be too wily to get away. Seine net comes out, they’re toast. So now you’ve got all these fish and you have some you want and some you don’t want. Some might be diseased, some might be too small, some might go against Levitical law that only allowed for eating fish with fins and scales, so eels and stuff like that gotta go. The sorting of the fish is a common picture for fishermen.
There’s another interesting tidbit hidden in the original Greek. In English, it’s rendered “fish of every kind” but what Matthew literally wrote was “fish of every race”, which is a weird thing to say about fish. We don’t really talk about animals in terms of race. It seems like Matthew is jumping ahead to the application with his word choice here.
See the net, the final judgment, it’s coming for everyone. Every kind of person. Every race, every tribe of people. Your ethnic makeup will not automatically sort you into one pile or the other. You’re judged individually by where you fall; in with the righteous or out with the wicked. No one is safe from that process by birthright. No one is automatically ruled wicked. Everyone is dealt with individually.
This parable, much like the Parable of the Weeds, lays out the reality of the judgment and the sorting that awaits us all. Everyone is going to have to stand before God and give an account for themselves. Everyone is going to be judged wicked or righteous. There is no escaping this. The net will pull you in.
Masters of the House
We have one final parable here in Matthew 13 and we end our Coded Messages series here:
“Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
– Matthew 13:51–52 (ESV)
Jesus asks the disciples if they’ve understood these parables and they all say, “Yes.” Now, if you know the disciples, you might be a little suspect of their answer here, but Jesus takes it at face value. They’re telling the truth, they really do understand what Jesus has been talking about.
That seems like a meaningless little tag before we get to the parable, but it’s actually what the last parable is wrapped around entirely. Jesus begins with “therefore” and any time we find “therefore” in Scripture, we have to ask, “What is it there for?” It’s a word that inextricably links what comes after with what has come before. It’s because the disciples understand the parables, that Jesus links them to the master of a house in this parable.
He’s calling the disciples “scribes” “trained for the kingdom of heaven.” That’s a pretty impressive title to give to random fishermen and outcasts. Because they’ve sat under Jesus’s teaching, they are now scribes who are not only just as good as the scribes of Israel, but better because they can offer something they can’t. They can bring out treasures both new and old, the scribes of the day could only produce the old.
What jumps out to me immediately, though, is that Jesus isn’t teaching them for their own sake. He’s teaching them so that they will, in turn, teach others. Jesus equips disciples to equip disciples. There’s a pretty clear application here in this parable: don’t just store up the treasure of the knowledge God has given you, bring it out and share it!
Jesus says that these Kingdom Scribes bring out treasure both new and old. Now, treasure can be used to mean either the valuables themselves or the place where the valuables are stored. Here it is the latter. But what does he mean by new and old treasure?
Scripture and application?
Old Testament and New Testament?
It’s trickier to wrap your head around than you might think at first glance and I’m not sure there’s a silver bullet answer to delineate that cleanly. What I do know, is this: Jesus and his teaching is always the New. I know it’s been nearly 2000 years since the resurrection, so it feels pretty old to us to now, but Jesus is always the New. He is the new wine. We will never have any reason to improve on or dispense of the teaching of Jesus. Look at what he says in the Great Commission at the end of Matthew:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
– Matthew 28:19–20 (ESV)
The charge to us as disciples never changed. It is still about making disciples that observe the commands of Jesus. They might cease to be en vogue, but they never cease to be central. That is always going to be the core of what it looks like to follow Jesus. It doesn’t get better than that.
Like I mentioned, the scribes in Jesus’s day, they couldn’t bring the old and the new out. They only had the old. They only prized the old. Disciples of Jesus are trained to prize both the old and the new. We can look into the Old Testament and see God’s grace and mercy at work. We can point to the New and see how Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets and creates a path to God for us.
Ultimately, the application here is straight-forward. Learn from Jesus and share what you learn. Study the Bible. If you can take classes at a Bible college, great! Read and think deeply about God. Listening to a podcast like this is probably a good step in that direction, if I do say so myself. Take it all in so that you can put it into practice and share it with others. In that order would be helpful, I think. Though I do know there are a great many things that are far easier for me to say than do. Don’t know about you, but I’m still working on “Love your enemy.” You get the point, though.
Jesus wants to make disciples that make disciples. That’s not just a job for pastors or church staff. That’s the calling of every Christian. Every disciple of Jesus is a minister of the Gospel. Peter says it like this in his first letter:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
– 1 Peter 2:9 (ESV)
He doesn’t say, “But your pastors are a royal priesthood.” All believers in Christ are a royal priesthood. All believers in Christ are called to proclaim his excellencies to those in darkness and beckon them to the light. Learn from Jesus, learn from Scripture, learn from your pastors and teachers. Fill your treasure full and bring it out to others to share.
It was tough to trace a through-line for these parables at the end of our parable section here, because they don’t necessarily share one theme. Or do they…? There’s not one neat lesson that they all speak to simultaneously, but in sequence they connect and build off each other.
First, buy the field. What does it mean to buy the field? It means to submit to the reign and rule of Jesus. Put him in the place of first importance in your life. Center your life around him. To use the language of the parable, make him your treasure.
We live in a culture that is still rather Christianized here in the States and I think the result of that is a lot of people that think that their generic belief in “God” means they’re saved. They would say, “I believe in Jesus” but they make no effort to follow his commands save for the convenient ones they’re not tempted to break anyway. They partition their “faith” (if you can call it that) off from the rest of themselves and don’t allow Jesus to impact the way they live their lives to any degree. They may occasionally attend church, but it’s simply to check a box and say they did and the moment their feet hit the sidewalk, they’re done with their religion for the week. It does them no benefit for us to pretend that they have saving knowledge of Jesus. The loving thing to do is to point out that they, in fact, do not.
John Piper has long used this “treasure” language to delineate the difference and I think it’s useful, especially in light of our text today. Do you treasure Jesus? Is he the most important thing to you? Are you trying to live a life that honors him? Have you submitted your life to his reign and rule? Do you joyfully give yourself to the obedience of his commands? That is what it looks like, practically, to follow Jesus. That’s what it means to buy the field.
When we obtain that treasure, it secures our righteousness. When the judgment happens, when the sorting commences, we’re sorted with the righteous. Not because we earned it, but because Jesus earned it and has bestowed it upon us. By all measures, we deserve to be tossed out with the wicked. Even our best efforts to joyfully obey the commands of Jesus will fall short. The key there, is the effort. It demonstrates that we have embraced Jesus and are trying to honor him in all we do.
As we learn and grow under his lordship and leadership, as we’re continually blessed we must use that to bless others. We’re taught to be teachers, every one of us. That doesn’t mean that everyone should start a Sunday school class or a podcast or cultivating a gift for teaching. It means that all of us are called to be in community with other believers and sharpen each other. It means that all of us are called to share Jesus with the people around us who do not yet know him. We’re all called to share what we learn as scribes trained for the Kingdom.
Maybe that looks like getting involved in a small group at your church. Not leading it, but just contributing to it. Maybe that looks like mentoring someone. Maybe that looks like inviting a coworker to an Alpha class. There are as many different expressions of this as there are followers of Jesus, because we’re all different and have different gifts and opportunities. But find ways to use the gifts and opportunities you have to share the treasures you’ve been given.
When you realize how great the treasure is, you’ll sell everything to have it. When you have it, you’ll be sorted with the righteous one day. Until then, bring the old and new out of your storeroom and share it with the world.
That’s the message of the parables.
Stay tuned for a sneak preview of our next series, Feedback.
Sorry we’re a little late this week. Life got in the way in a pretty spectacular way and then this week the migraine gnomes really went to town. Appreciate your understanding. I find that these days I can make plans to have things done at a certain time, but whether or not I actually get there is a bit of a dice roll. Hence why I’m now a podcaster and not a pastor!
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How do people respond to Jesus? Like the Parable of the Sower showed us, some reject him completely. Some accept him half-heartedly. Some embrace him fully. At this point in his ministry, those lines are becoming more and more distinct and the people make up their minds about him. Jesus has put his message and himself out there and now Matthew helps us get a picture of the Feedback.