Secret things: Seeing but they don’t see, and hearing but they don’t hear
The book of Matthew contains the most complete account of the parables of the kingdom of heaven in the gospels. In Matthew 13, we have seven of those parables grouped together. The number seven is a scripturally significant number, so there must be some reason that the Tax Collector has for this group of seven. These are not the only parables of the kingdom of heaven, as I can count at least five others just in the book of Matthew, see #1- Matthew 18:23-35, #2- Matthew 20:1-16, #3- Matthew 22:1-14, #4- Matthew 25:1-13, #5- Matthew 25:14-30. Others may be considered parables of the kingdom of heaven even if they do not contain that key phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like…” since even the parable of the sower does not contain that phrase, see Matthew 21:28-32, 21:33-45, 18:12-14, 19:23-24, 24:32-35 for some examples. Mark 4 seems to be given on the same occasion as Matthew 13 and contains one parable not included by Matthew, see Mark 4:26-29.
Because Matthew has such a complete version of certain events, I believe it is possible that Matthew was writing down some of these events and sermons as they occurred. True, the Holy Spirit later would give him understanding concerning all of these things, but the Tax Collector accustomed to logging every transaction may have transferred his skills over to be a scribe of the kingdom of heaven, writing as he went. The three examples that stand out to me the most are the Sermon on the Mount, see Matthew 5-7, the seven parables of the kingdom of heaven, see Matthew 13, and the Olivet Discourse, see Matthew 24-25. Matthew’s details of the words of Christ in these three passages are much more complete than any of the other gospel writers. Instead of relying on memory, crowds, the preaching of other apostles, Matthew could have been referring to his own notes when compiling his gospel.
The reason for this study of Matthew 13 is because it constitutes the next post in The Tax Collector’s Guide to Fulfilled Prophecy. In this chapter we have the words “in them is fulfilled the prophecy” and another phrase “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet”. That is fulfilled prophecy in the life of Christ. So I am going to look at the two prophecies which are quoted and try to explain the significance of each one. The first thing we should notice is that this is the first time that Matthew records Jesus as speaking the words instead of writing them himself as part of the commentary. Thus far, Jesus has quoted the prophets, explained the relationship between His words and the words of the prophets, but it is Matthew who has been writing the phrase, “This was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” Here in Matthew 13:14 it is Jesus who uses the phrase “fulfilled prophecy” and then quotes the prophet Isaiah.
This may explain why Matthew adopted this style of writing. He was following the example of His Teacher and Lord. Jesus used the phrase “fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah” so this was a cue for Matthew. Matthew decided that he will also reveal the prophets with this same language. Each time a prophecy was fulfilled in the narrative, he adds an aside which states, “This was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet.” He follows the example of Christ who imparted knowledge to him by pointing out fulfilled prophecy, and then in turn imparts knowledge to us. Examples thus far are Matthew 1:22-23, 2:15, 2:17-18, 2:23, 4:13-17, 8:16-17, and most notably, 12:15-21.
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. 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.
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.
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 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.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.
Make the heart of this people dull,
And their ears heavy,
And blind their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes,
And hear with their ears,
And understand with their hearts,
And turn and be healed.”
Jesus calls the parables “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” in Matthew 13:11. These mysteries are revealed to the disciples, so there is no point in touting them as being unable to understand. Two of the parables are explained to the disciples in Matthew’s narrative. The reason why they are called mysteries is explained in the text. The public was in a state of disbelief concerning Jesus as the Messiah. Certainly they came, they witnessed miracles, asked for healing, but they failed to repent. Here the Kingdom of God was in their midst and they sat there like bumps on a log. Christ was presenting Himself, but the truth was hidden from their eyes. The disciples had believed in Him, but they were a minority. Because of His love for the nation of Israel, He continued to present Himself, but in a way that they would not completely understand.
The first parable explains the reason why so many could not understand, see Matthew 13:18-23. Hardened hearts allow the devil to remove any remnant of the truth from their hearts. A shallow response results in temporary joy but not repentance. The cares of the world choke out the fruit of the Word of God. The blindness of the nation of Israel can be attributed to the sinfulness of the hearts of people. When God’s voice calls out to you to repent and you do nothing, that manifests the evil in your heart. This is what had happened in response to the preaching of John the Baptist and then Jesus and then the disciples as they were sent out in Matthew 10. Many had repented constituting that believing remnant, but so many more failed to repent and remained in unbelief.
The disciples question Jesus on His methods. The amazing thing is that He answers them. Imagine being able to ask the Son of God a question and He gives you the answer. This shows just how blessed these men were. They had repented, they had joined Jesus in the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom, now they were being entrusted with the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. No wonder Jesus said, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear,” and again, “I thank you, O Father, because you… have revealed [these things] unto babes.” Can you imagine talking with the Son of God about the way life works? You could ask Him for clarification on something He taught and He would take more time and explain it to you.
As Jesus explains why He taught in parables, He quotes from Isaiah. His initial response just says, “It is not given to them to understand.” Well that seems like a non-answer at first. But in the overall context of Matthew’s narrative, it should be obvious. They won’t repent, so they can’t understand. The disciples had repented and believed the gospel, so they could understand. Because they possessed this, they were given more. Those that hadn’t repented didn’t have anything, and even what they had would be taken away. Based on this, it explains why Jesus taught in parables. He presented the truth, but in a way that those who repented would understand but those who hadn’t repented would not understand. It’s kind of ironic that Jesus taught about the blindness of those that heard in a way that their spiritual blindness would not allow them to comprehend. Their spiritual deafness wouldn’t allow them to hear about their spiritual deafness.
The Commission of Isaiah
Isaiah 6 is a well known passage to many. It’s convenient too, comparatively speaking. Many passages in Isaiah can be long and complex, but Isaiah 6 is 13 verses long, being a complete unit in itself. Since 5 chapters have preceded, we can assume that Isaiah had revelation given to him before this, before his formal commission. Now after having been God’s spokesman for a bit of time, He sees a vision of God in His glory, and we can safely say because of John 12:37-41 that Isaiah saw Jesus Christ in all His glory in this passage.
Isaiah is led by God through a transformation and there are several steps to this transformation. He begins with a consciousness of loss. Uzziah (Azariah) has just died. Uzziah guided the nation of Israel in a right way, seeking out God by Zechariah, see II Chronicles 26:1-5. For 52 years the nation of Israel could depend on his godly leadership. Now the nation was in crisis as they pondered who would take his place. From here Isaiah is led to a consciousness of God. This is because God allowed him to see a vision of Himself, the true King of glory. The train of His robe filled the temple as angels worshiped Him. This vision of glory leads Isaiah into a consciousness of self and sin. When we see God in His true holiness, His light exposes our sinfulness. This is the reason for Isaiah’s cry, “I am undone!” The prophet pronounces the prophetic woe upon himself! Instead of some city or nation that deserved God’s punishment, he realizes he has to look no further than his own heart to find someone worthy of God’s wrath. From here Isaiah is led to a consciousness of cleansing. This is symbolized in the angel bringing the living coal to cleanse his lips and atone for his sin. From here Isaiah is led to a consciousness of commission and this too is initiated by God. Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Immediately after Isaiah is cleansed, God is demonstrating a need for someone to go on His behalf. God hasn’t cleansed Isaiah so he can sit around enjoying his new status. He cleansed him to use him. Isaiah responds, “Here am I, send me.” This leads into Isaiah’s commission to go to the nation of Israel.
Here’s the depressing part. God explains to Isaiah that as he goes to preach to the nation of Israel that they will be spiritually blind and deaf to what he has to say. I would be confused. God is saying, “Go and preach to these people but they won’t be able to understand.” What would the point be, really? There is a certain element of faith involved in any act of obedience, but part of us wants an explanation. Why should I preach to these people who just won’t believe or even understand? But within this passage there is a bit of hope. There is the mention of healing, being converted, and understanding with the heart. So it is possible that this could happen, even though their spiritual blindness prevents it. This is where we have to back up and look at the whole panoramic view of all of creation and all of the scriptures as a whole. The whole human race and the nation of Israel in particular are all in sin. God’s grace reaches out to us and a remnant believe and trust in Him. Prophets, priests, pastors, preachers all proclaim His truth and some believe, but the majority remain in darkness.
Back in Deuteronomy 29:29 God had something to say about secret things to the nation of Israel. Following this were prophecies concerning the conversion of the nation of Israel as a whole, see Deuteronomy 30:1-10. The day would come when Israel’s sinfulness would be taken away and they would be given a new heart. Isaiah has already foretold of this coming time in Isaiah 4. Now it seems that God is telling Isaiah that the nation of Israel will remain in a state of spiritual blindness in spite of many insightful and even beautiful prophecies. So basically, “Go and preach to this people, but they will not be converted as a whole in your lifetime.” There will, however, be a remnant that will believe, see Isaiah 1:9. Praise the LORD that Isaiah was obedient in preaching and prophesying even though he knew that most would remain in their blindness. We have so many beautiful passages in his book. Matthew has already pointed out at least 4 passages which were fulfilled in the life of Christ.
This passage in Isaiah is not just applicable to the life and prophecies of Isaiah. Any of God’s messengers could claim this principle and prophecy as applying to their ministry. The Chronicler summed it up in this way at the end of his book, “And the LORD God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy.” see II Chronicles 36:15-16.
I can think of no better passage for Jesus to quote than this one right here when speaking of the blindness of people in the face of spiritual truth. The hearts of mankind do not change even when the Son of God steps into the world as the Ultimate Prophet. Our hearts remain deaf and blind to God’s truth when we are in a state of unrepentance, and remember, this can be very religious unrepentance. Here in the gospel of Matthew, the nation of Israel is portrayed as being in a state of spiritual blindness. Jesus likens the entire episode to the commission of Isaiah which assured him that Israel’s blindness would not be lifted even in the midst of his prophecies. Here also, the blindness of Israel will not be lifted even though the Messiah is right in front of them.
So what does it mean that this prophecy is fulfilled in them, meaning in the unbelieving nation of Israel? The scriptures should very easily explain what fulfilled prophecy means. The prophecy is held to be as occurring in the here and now. The prophecy was fulfilled (occurring in the here and now) in the days of Isaiah, Micah, and Hosea. The prophecy was fulfilled during the Babylonian exile, during the return from Babylon, and during the inter-testament period. Now the prophecy is being fulfilled during the ministry of Jesus Christ. Israel remained in blindness throughout the writings of the apostle Paul, see Romans 11:28. They remained in blindness during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, the diaspora, and the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. So this prophecy is still being fulfilled because Israel is still in a state of national blindness. Fulfilled prophecy is not a case of “it happens once and then it’s over”. Sometimes that is the case, such as with the virgin birth. But in other instances there can very easily be an ongoing fulfillment over a long period of time, or multiple times when the prophecy is coming to life right in front of us in real time and space. However, we should be very careful about pointing to events around us and saying that these are fulfilled prophecy without first studying the entire context of God’s word concerning a specific prophecy.
All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Then he left the crowds and went into the house.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark saying from of old,
Things that we have heard and known,
that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children,
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deed of the LORD, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.
He established a testimony in Jacob
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our fathers
to teach to their children,
That the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
So that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
And that they should not be like their fathers,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.
The second passage quoted from the OT is Matthew’s commentary quoting Psalm 78. Some might find this quotation strange or out of place, or some may even say Matthew was reinterpreting this Psalm to have a different meaning than originally intended. If we only pay attention to the one verse that is quoted, it might seem strange. If we look at the whole psalm, we might come away with a different picture.
Psalm 78 gives us the principle that Israelites were supposed to teach their children the things that God had done for them in the past. This is how the psalm opens up. However, the way in which these things are taught are in the form of a dark saying, or riddle, or perhaps we might even use the word “parable”. If we are only studying the verse that Matthew quotes, we simply apply the general principle that sometimes things are taught in ways that are hidden to some or difficult to understand. The children of Israel taught their children the ways of God in riddles and here comes Jesus teaching the children of Israel in the same way.
If, however, Matthew had something grander in mind, and I think he did, then we should examine the psalm as a whole and conclude what its overall theme is. The two things that are prevalent in this psalm are, #1- God’s loving, faithful actions toward Israel as His people, and, #2- Israel’s unbelief and sinfulness in light of God’s unwavering commitment to His covenant. Again and again, God is faithful and can be trusted. But again and again, Israel does not trust God. I have a pastor-friend with an overactive imagination. He says that sometimes as he is reading through the stories of Israel that he hopes that perhaps as he is reading, the story might be slightly different this time. Maybe, this time they will believe in God and trust Him. But NO! Every time he reads the story, the Israelites still get it wrong and don’t trust God. The psalmist uses language that contrasts so greatly the faithfulness of God with the unfaithfulness of Israel. God is doing so much for them, yet they are so unappreciative and selfish. God is putting up with them, holding back His anger and wrath, and they sit back complaining; all the while God is providing for them every thing that they need. As I read through this psalm, I almost want to shout at the pages in my Bible like my pastor-friend, “Don’t you understand? Why are you so blind? God is doing everything for you!”
The setting for this psalm is probably post-exile during the days of Ezra. I believe the psalms of Asaph were written by the children of Asaph for reasons that I outline in this post here. The author wrote the psalm to demonstrate God’s faithfulness in spite of Israel’s unbelief. It is interesting where the psalmist ends. To end the psalm with David as shepherd would hint at God’s covenant with David to bring forth the Davidic Messiah to which the nation of Israel was now looking forward. The idea of passing this parable from father to son (or parents to children) would have taught the Israelites that they still had the responsibility of teaching their children the scriptures. The setting of having been in exile for 70 years and then returning to Jerusalem and surrounding areas should not discourage parents from training their children in the ways of the LORD.
Here is the real mystery hidden in the psalm, or in the parable which we know as Psalm 78. Why would God continue with Israel in the midst of her spiritual rebellion, or should we use the words “spiritual blindness”? Read through the psalm again. Doesn’t it provoke the question, “God, why would you put up with these people? Why would you continue to be faithful to your covenant when they are so unfaithful to it?” Now imagine a young Israelite child, growing up in Jerusalem after the exile while the Persian Empire is reigning over them, as they listen to this psalm. Imagine the questions in their mind. “We are God’s chosen people. God has always been faithful to us. Any calamity that has come upon our nation is something that we have brought upon ourselves. We are sinful, yet He loves us and cares for us. Why?” That is the real mystery contained within Psalm 78.
Let’s turn back to Matthew’s quotation again and see fulfilled prophecy from this psalm. Matthew states that Jesus spoke in parables that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet. The prophecy in Psalm 78 concerns the blindness of the nation of Israel contained in a riddle form. Here is Jesus in front of the spiritually blind nation of Israel presenting Himself but they are still unable to understand. All He can do is speak in parables since they cannot comprehend. Matthew points out from Psalm 78 that this has been the way all throughout Israel’s existence. They are taught in riddles, dark sayings, and parables, and still cannot comprehend God’s love for them. The prophecy of teaching them in parables was fulfilled, meaning brought to life, when Jesus taught from the boat these “mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.”
These parables, or secret things, all concern the kingdom of heaven and the way it was being presented to the nation of Israel. I will try to briefly sum up all seven of them succinctly. #1- The power is in the word (logos) which has power to transform a heart, but a heart that receives it sincerely. #2- For those who insist that the kingdom of heaven is not only something that happens in the heart, but something that is established here on earth, Jesus reveals the following truths in the parable of the wheat and the tares. The kingdom of heaven will exist but not in a pure form. Wheat (the righteous) will be intermingled with tares (fake wheat) until the end of the age. The judgment preached by John the Baptist will happen (see Matthew 3:12 for harvest analogy) but not immediately during the preaching of Jesus Christ. #3- The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which is very small. This same grain of mustard seed is all the faith needed to perform a miracle, see Matthew 17:20. Yes, we have a small start with a handful of disciples, but the end result will be greater than all other seeds sown. #4- The power of the tiniest bit of leaven to transform 3 measures (9 gallons) of wheat flour is simply amazing. Even though we only start with a small portion, eventually, it will change the entire world. The same power that causes that tiny little seed to grow into a huge tree will cause that leaven to transform the entire lump of dough. God uses the most insignificant things like sheep among wolves, leaven in bread, a tiny seed in the ground. #5- The final three parables are given after the crowds have been sent away by Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure in a field. The rest of the world cannot see it, but when someone discovers it, the only response that makes sense is to put everything else behind for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. #6- Here the kingdom of heaven is like the merchant man. When that merchant man finds the pearl of great price, he sells everything for that one pearl. This is similar to the previous parable, but the emphasis is different. The kingdom of heaven is both a treasure hidden, and the man desperately seeking the treasure at the same time. #7- This parable is like #2, but here is the emphasis is slightly different. In parable #2, the kingdom of heaven was like a man sowing good seed. Now the kingdom is like a dragnet which gathers all together. The first had emphasis on the pure work of the Son of Man. This has emphasis on the separation that happens at the end of the age. The wicked will be taken from the pure work that the Son of Man began, leaving only the righteous to enjoy the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
It seems so simple to a Christian reading this passage almost 2 thousand years later. But in the context of what Christ was doing at that time, this could be considered a dramatic shift. John the Baptist had said the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and it was at hand – in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But the kingdom of heaven would not bring about a fiery judgment immediately. God’s grace will hold back judgment allowing the wicked to remain intermingled with the righteous. The power of the kingdom of heaven will change the world, but it has a small, almost insignificant start. That little bit of leaven is unnoticeable right now, but eventually everything will be changed because of it. The nation at large really could not understand this. Only individuals who had repented were allowed to understand these mysteries, or secret things.
Matthew the Tax Collector, being one of them, affirmed with the rest of the disciples, that he had understood all of these things, see Matthew 13:51. This qualified Matthew to be a scribe of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew includes this closing statement by Jesus which is not in any other gospel. “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.” What an interesting proclamation for Jesus to close with! This is why I believe Matthew was writing down events and sermons that occurred as they happened. Matthew was receiving new revelation from Christ, and later he would go back and compare the events with the “old” scriptures. This would enable him as a scribe of the kingdom of heaven to present Christ’s ministry (new treasure) while demonstrating “fulfilled prophecy” from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, and from the psalms (old treasure).
Can you imagine the thrill that ran through Matthew’s heart as Jesus said those words? Here he is perhaps recording the words of Christ and Jesus proclaims him as a scribe of the kingdom of heaven. This Tax Collector was considered an outcast by the religious Pharisees of the day, yet he is the one who brings us the most complete account of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. This “new treasure” Matthew pairs with 2 pieces of “old treasure” from Isaiah 6 and Psalm 78 to show us the whole picture of Christ revealing Himself to His people but yet hidden from their eyes. No wonder Matthew remembered this saying of Jesus and included it in his gospel!
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman