The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
The Purpose of the Parables
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
Matthew 13 opens with the Parable of the Sower.
Afterwards, the disciples asked our Lord why He chose to speak in parables (verse 10). He replied that the parables are for them because they have the capability of understanding holy mysteries. The people do not (verse 11).
In fact, Jesus speaks of a judgement on the people in this regard. They are present. They see Him. They witness His miracles. They hear his teaching. Yet, their unbelief prevents them from understanding. He speaks of the gift of comprehension via divine grace in verse 12: to those who have it, God will bestow even more, however, to those who do not have it, even what faculties one has to understand will be taken away. Therefore, the people can hear and see but not comprehend (verse 13).
John MacArthur explains that:
willful rejection becomes judicial rejection. Man says no, so God says no as well. God confirms men in their own stubbornness; God binds them by their own chain. And for them the parables become interesting stories and they really don’t know what the point is. Just riddles …
And the fact that we who love Jesus Christ understand the Bible is not a statement about our intellect; it is a statement about God’s gracious illumination of our hearts and minds. This is judgment. Look at it this way. When Jesus first came, His words were very clear. He said He was the King. He proved He was the King. He preached the Kingdom message. He said, “Here’s how it is in My kingdom.” He said, “Repent, the kingdom is at hand.” He gave them all they needed to know about the kingdom. They didn’t hear. They refused Him.
Some will say that is harsh. However, MacArthur goes on to say that Jesus made everything crystal clear up to that point so that people would recognise Him as the Messiah:
So, when they wouldn’t listen to the clear words that He spoke. And you remember back in Matthew 5 to 7, He would say, “The kingdom of heaven is like – ” and then He would use that analogy, salt or light or birds or lilies of the field and He would always explain its meaning? Therefore He said, “Seek ye first the kingdom and all these things will be added. It was always very clear what He meant. And then when they hardened their hearts and blasphemed Him and said He was from Satan, then He talked to them in riddles that He did not explain.
Our Lord extends the meaning of Isaiah 6:9-10 from the prophet’s day to His own (verses 14, 15).
MacArthur gives us Isaiah’s context:
Isaiah wrote that at a time of profound judgment on Israel. He had just pronounced a series of curses on them. He cursed them for all of their drunkenness, debauchery, their immorality, He cursed them for their bribery, He cursed them for their oppression of the poor. He cursed them for their hypocritical religion. And then, of course, at the height of all of that cursings, the King Uzziah died, and the country plunged into the darkest days in a long time.
They were on the edge of imminent conquering, and the Babylonian captivity came as that judgment. And Isaiah says to them, “Now God’s going to judge you; you wouldn’t hear and you wouldn’t see and now you can’t hear and you can’t see. You wouldn’t be converted and you wouldn’t be healed, and now you can’t be healed or converted.”
And it wasn’t long after that, Jeremiah echoed the message of Isaiah, and the great hordes came and swept away the people into Babylonian captivity. That was the first fulfillment of Isaiah’s words. And Jesus says, “Here’s the second.” So parables…listen carefully…are a judgment on unbelief. The fact that the natural man understandeth not the things of God is not only a statement about his ignorance. It is a statement about God’s judgment on that individual.
Matthew Henry warns us about God’s judgement of the greatest of sins (emphases mine):
A description of that judicial blindness, which is the just punishment of this. “By hearing, ye shall hear, and shall not understand what means of grace you have, shall be to no purpose to you though, in mercy to others, they are continued, yet in judgment to you, the blessing upon them is denied.” The saddest condition a man can be in on this side hell, is to sit under the most lively ordinances with a dead, stupid, untouched heart. To hear God’s word, and see his providences, and yet not to understand and perceive his will, either in the one or in the other, is the greatest sin and the greatest judgment that can be. Observe, It is God’s work to give an understanding heart, and he often, in a way of righteous judgment, denies it to those to whom he has given the hearing ear, and the seeing eye, in vain. Thus does God choose sinners’ delusions (Isaiah 66:4), and bind them over to the greatest ruin, by giving them up to their own hearts’ lusts (Psalm 81:11,12) let them alone (Hosea 4:17) my Spirit shall not always strive, Genesis 6:3.
Henry explains how divine grace operates in conversion:
Note, 1. That seeing, hearing, and understanding, are necessary to conversion[,] for God, in working grace, deals with men as men, as rational agents he draws with the cords of a man, changes the heart by opening the eyes, and turns from the power of Satan unto God, by turning first from darkness to light, (Acts 26:18). 2. All those who are truly converted to God, shall certainly be healed by him. “If they be converted I shall heal them, I shall save them:” so that if sinners perish, it is not to be imputed to God, but to themselves they foolishly expected to be healed, without being converted. 3. It is just with God to deny his grace to those who have long and often refused the proposals of it, and resisted the power of it. Pharaoh, for a good while, hardened his own heart (Exodus 8:15,32), and afterwards God hardened it, Matthew 9:12,10:20. Let us therefore fear, lest by sinning against the divine grace, we sin it away.
When we consider how many of God’s people had the commonly-shared hope that He would provide them with the Messiah, the Redeemer. Not all understood this the same way — the prophets communicated it best — but the universal anticipation among these people, beginning with Abraham, was of divine redemption and union with God.
How they would have loved being in Galilee or Jerusalem during Jesus’s ministry.
This is why MacArthur tells us to cherish the divine gifts we have to understand the divine Truth:
Today we have the Word. You say, “Jesus isn’t here to explain.” No, but He said, “When I go away I’ll send another explainer, the Holy Spirit. And He’ll lead you into all truth.”
Do you realize what a privilege we have? Do you realize that we not only have this book, but we have its author living in us to explain it to us? To interpret it to us? To apply it to us? How they of old hungered for that.
The other side of that is this second truth. Rejection of Jesus Christ means the decreasing darkness of unbelief. You don’t stay in the same spot. It gets deeper and deeper and deeper …
But it need not be so, for God calls you to Christ even this hour while you can still hear, and promises that if you receive the light of the Lord Jesus Christ, there shall be an ever increasing light, an ever increasing illumination of spiritual truth until, finally, someday you shall know as you are known in the eternal presence of the living Lord.
In closing, John’s Gospel cites the same verses from Isaiah. I wrote about John 12:39-41 in 2011. That exposition also has more explanations to understand and consider, particularly since Jesus prefaced His citation of Isaiah with this warning (John 12:35-36):
35 So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
The people of His time ignored and mocked Him.
May we never find ourselves in the same scenario.
Next time: Matthew 13:50-53