• 6 February 2024

Matthew Chapter 13 – A Pastor’s New Year Resolutions

EPW Blog Chapter 13 Title

I don’t know if any of you made any New Year’s Resolutions this year, and whether you have managed to stick to them(!), but as we continue our blog series on Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 13 presents pastors with some vital resolutions to meditate upon and seek to implement in the year ahead.

You may recall that the great shock of Matthew 11-12 was the way in which the sceptics and religious leaders rejected Jesus despite all the extraordinary things he had done to prove that he was God’s promised King, come into God’s world. It may remind us of those in our own communities who heard about Christ over Christmas – a time of year when people are often more willing to come to church and listen to the gospel. However, all too often, it is only a small number who want to investigate further or who wish to make a start in the Christian life. 

In Matthew 13, we read of vast crowds coming to hear Christ and yet, by the time we reach v10, those who want to hear more from him are relatively few.  This has been the case throughout church history.  As Jesus’ kingdom advances and is opposed, it forces people into two distinct groups: those who accept and obey God’s King and those who oppose and reject Christ. Who is in the kingdom? At the end of chapter 12, Jesus says that his family are those who sit and listen to his word. And then chapter 13 starts with Jesus going out to teach the crowds in parables. Do you see? There is a division: some are in and others are out. And that highlights our first resolution for 2024:

1. Don’t be dull – Be humble, as you listen to Jesus
(Matthew 13:1-17)

    As the disciples ask the Lord why he speaks in parables (v10) we learn two things. First, we see that it is those who come humbly to find out more from Jesus who receive the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. These are not super-spiritual secrets, but simply grasping that Jesus is God’s unstoppable King of an unbeatable kingdom. So, parables are a way in which Jesus lavishes the benefits of belonging to God on his people. Hence (v12), whoever has some understanding will be given more. All such knowledge is a gift from God but how we listen really matters. God’s kingdom is revealed to those who listen humbly and hungrily. How can we do that in 2024 – on our own each day, one to one with others, in small groups and at church on Sundays? As Jesus says, He who has ears, let him hear.

    And it is vital we learn to listen well because the second thing we see (vv10-17) is that God hardens those who refuse to listen to Jesus. That may be a surprise for us depending on what we have heard about parables. You see, vv13-14 suggests that Jesus did not use parables to make things easier to understand. Instead, He used parables to make things difficult to understand – to veil the truth from those who are unwilling to come humbly and learn from the Lord. In quoting Isaiah 6, Jesus is saying that what happened in his day is exactly what Isaiah said would happen when God sent him to preach the gospel. People in the prophet’s day had hearts so hard, eyes so blind and ears so deaf that God’s judgement on them was that they would never see His salvation. It is hard to imagine a worse job than Isaiah had, to preach into such a dull, hard-hearted culture. I must confess that I have some sympathy with the disciples in v10. Can you feel their frustration? Huge crowds are coming to hear Jesus, but these parables look like a public relations disaster. But notice what the Lord is saying. For those who refuse to listen and are therefore wilfully blind, Jesus uses parables so that they will not hear and will not see the truth. 

    And what causes it (v15) is having hearts that are dull or calloused.   In other words, unfeeling and impenetrable – in much the same way as our hands become hardened by repetitive hard work. Isaiah 6 and Matthew 13 teach us that it is also easy for our hearts to be hardened to the truth that Jesus is God’s great King. As pastors, we will know people who have heard lots of talks and read lots of helpful books and yet remain as confused and far away as ever. Tragically, we may even see glimpses of that blindness in ourselves from time to time. It is not possible to be neutral and to make no response to the Lord. Only Jesus loves enough to warn us of the danger of keeping him at arms’ length and hardening our hearts to his word. If we do so, we will end up rejecting him. 

    And that is all the more tragic given the way in which God blesses beyond imagining those who come humbly to listen to Jesus (vv16-17). Jesus wants us to know that Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel longed to have the revelation that we have today as we read our Bibles. It is an enormous privilege. And it is worth asking ourselves if that is how we see it. Is it how we view our time with the Lord each day searching the scriptures? Is it how we see going to church to hear the scriptures read and taught? Blessed are our eyes and blessed are our ears because we have seen and heard what others longed to see and hear, namely that Jesus is God’s great King, bringing in His glorious kingdom.

    That is the first key resolution for 2024 for all pastors – if God’s King speaks through his word, we want to be his subjects who, first and foremost, are humble as we listen to Jesus. However, if being dull is our first danger as Christian ministers, surely our second danger is being distracted. Our second resolution for 2024 should be:

    2. Don’t be distracted – Be focussed, as you live for Jesus
    (Matthew 13:18-43)

      It would have been very easy for Jesus’ followers to have unrealistic expectations about the Christian life and, as a result, to be knocked off course when opposition comes. In the parable of the sower (13:1-24), Jesus urges his followers to be focussed on gospel proclamation. It is no surprise that we have seen Jesus preaching the gospel (in chapters 1-9) because the kingdom grows by the widespread proclamation of his word. So, when he sends out his disciples in chapter 10, what do they do? They preach the word! And as Jesus explains the parable (vv18-23), notice the centrality of the word again and again. Pastors, we must be focussed: our primary task is to preach the word (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2).

      And nothing is more likely to distract us than when we see mixed responses to God’s word. Our confidence can be dented (v19) when we see the word snatched away from people, almost as soon as they hear it, and (v20) we can we can be rocked when we see someone start well but then quickly fall away. When people who appear interested in Christian things face pressure or persecution from family or friends, the rootless Christian withers. Similarly, our confidence in God’s purposes can be thrown when (v22) we see people appear to be going well but work pressures increase, or money worries, health concerns, peer pressure, and all sorts of anxieties crowd in and squeeze out their faith. Thankfully, Jesus is upfront and honest and wonderfully realistic about Christian ministry. He wants us to expect all sorts of mixed responses and not to be knocked off course when we encounter them.

      Sadly, church leaders often doubt that God’s word can change people and transform society. And that can lead many churches to look elsewhere for solutions, to seek other ways to make an impact – whether running social projects or having the most entertaining youth work or the trendiest minister. Compassion and care for the poor is of course a basic Christian instinct, and finding fun ways to engage with children and adults is helpful, but we must be clear that they are not how Jesus says he will build his kingdom. The kingdom grows by the widespread proclamation of the King’s word. Did you notice the good soil (v23)? Despite all the mixed responses, there will still be an enormous harvest to the preaching of God’s word.

      The parable of the wheat and the weeds is explained in vv36-43.  Jesus is the one who sowed the seed, and the field is the world. The good seeds are the children of the kingdom, and the weeds are the sons of the evil one, sown by the devil himself. What is Jesus’ point? Well, surely it is that the wheat and weeds will grow together, simultaneously and vigorously. Side by side with the advance of the kingdom will be the growth of evil. Sadly, we can see this across the world today – great gospel growth matched by awful brutality and suffering.

      The persistence of evil can also knock us off course. If Jesus is God’s King, why does he allow evil? Why doesn’t he exercise his royal rule and root out all rebellion? Jesus’ response is very striking.  Notice, when his followers ask if they should go and gather the weeds (v29) Jesus replies, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them’. You see, out of concern for his own people, the Lord of the harvest orders a deliberate delay (v30). Jesus delays putting an end to all evil in the world because he loves his people so much. I don’t know when you heard and responded to the gospel but aren’t we glad that Jesus didn’t return before we did? Aren’t we glad the Lord didn’t call for the harvest the night before or even the hour before we turned and trusted in Christ and so moved from being part of the weeds to part of the wheat?

      However, the delay will not last forever because, at the harvest, the Lord has ordered a definite division (vv40-42) into two groups with two very different destinies. Jesus says his judgement will be universal (all who sin and rebel against him will be weeded out, v41) and his judgement will be final (there will be no second chance, v42). I think v42 is meant to shock us – helpless and hopeless, eternal weeping and regret for those who will not humble themselves to come to Christ, for all who insist on rejecting him.

      So, pastors, let’s not be distracted this year. Instead, let’s be focussed on our key task of preaching the word. And as evil is all around us, often unchallenged and unchecked, let’s remember that Jesus says there will be an end to evil. Jesus will win so we must not give up! On that day (v43), there will be a glorious future for God’s people – with no weeping and no wickedness.  Instead, we will shine like the sun in the kingdom! He who has ears, let him hear.

      And yet, does it sometimes feel like we are losing the battle? In addition to urging us not to be dull as we listen to Jesus, and not to be distracted as we live for Jesus, the Lord also wants us not to be discouraged as we serve Jesus. And that is our third key resolution for 2024:

      Don’t be discouraged – Be convinced, as you serve Jesus
      (Matthew 13:31-52)

        As we live and speak for Christ today and as we witness many people close their eyes, shut their ears and turn their backs on Jesus, the Lord knows it is easy for us to be discouraged. It is even possible for us to wonder if it is worth serving Jesus.  Matthew 13 is written not only to prepare us for what to expect as we live and speak for Christ, it is also written to embolden and encourage us to do so. So, as we read vv31-33, it is obvious that Jesus knows that serving him will often look insignificant and unremarkable. The Lord knows that our ministry can often appear to be pathetic. And so, Jesus reminds us of two vital truths to convince our minds and hearts.

        First, Jesus reminds us that there is unparalleled power in gospel proclamation. Jesus says it will lead to dramatic growth. The mustard seed was chosen not because it creates the biggest tree.  The mustard seed was chosen because it is the smallest seed, and so its growth is extraordinary and out of all proportion to its starting point. It is an allusion to the Old Testament picture of the kingdom of God as a massive tree planted by God that will grow and grow and grow and spread and spread and spread so that all nations shall be blessed by it (cf Ezekiel 17). Do you see? A tiny start and yet extraordinary growth. The Lord wants us to see that this unstoppable kingdom will have dramatic growth.

        It also leads to dynamic change. If the emphasis in the mustard seed parable is on growth, the yeast parable underlines the amazing transformation that takes place. Like yeast (v33), the gospel has dynamic power. As it is proclaimed, it powerfully penetrates people and through them, it has a profound impact on society and the world. We will all be able to think of people who have been radically changed by hearing the gospel and the history of many countries testifies to the wonderful impact of the gospel.  In 18th and 19th century England, historians describe the radical change that was wrought by the gospel preaching of men like George Whitfield, John Wesley and others. Politicians like Shaftesbury and Wilberforce and bankers like John Thornton were converted and founded the Clapham sect which went on to transform society and the British empire as a result. Why? Because there is unparalleled power in gospel proclamation.

        Jesus reminds us that there is nothing more precious than being in Jesus’ kingdom. The two little parables in v44-46 underline the range of people in the kingdom. The first man appears to be an amateur strolling in a field when he suddenly stumbles across treasure. The second man was a professional antiques dealer who finds a pearl of great value – the kind of thing he has been searching for his whole life. One stumbles upon the value of the kingdom suddenly and unexpectedly. The other man discerns the value of the kingdom over time and after careful consideration. I guess we will know Christians like both of these men. One stumbles into church for a wedding or funeral. He may even be resisting God or running from Him. And yet, he hears the gospel and it all makes sense to him. Suddenly, everything changes. Many other people are more like the seeker, restless and keenly aware of their own mortality and perhaps trying anything and everything to know God. The kingdom is full of those who stumble in and those who seek and find the wonderful value of knowing Christ. 

        However, as different as these two men are, Jesus wants us to see that they are also very similar. Both find something of tremendous value, and both make an incredible response. The first man sells all he has and, in his joy, he buys the field. The second man sells everything in order to buy the pearl. Both appear single-minded and utterly determined. At all costs, they must secure the treasure. I wonder what we would have thought of them acting in the way they did – would we have thought they were mad? Jesus wants us to see that their response, although incredible, is utterly rational. Both men give up all they have for what they find because both men realise that what they have found is of infinite value. Jesus wants us to see that knowing Jesus, living and serving him is the most worthwhile thing in the world. So, pastors, as we serve Jesus, let us be thoroughly convinced both about the power of gospel proclamation and about the infinite value of knowing Jesus.

        And, notice as Jesus concludes this chapter, he knows that only if we are convinced about the precious privilege we have as Christians (v47-50) will we give ourselves to sharing that wonderful gospel with others (v51-52). So, three resolutions for the year ahead for us to meditate over and pray upon for ourselves and each other:

        1. Don’t be dull – Be humble, as we listen to Jesus.
        2. Don’t be distracted – be focussed, as we live for Jesus.
        3. Don’t be discouraged – be convinced, as we serve Jesus.

        To read previous posts in this series and other blogs, visit:

        Equipping Pastors Worldwide Blogs