“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 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” (Matt 13.11-13).
What do you see when you read this text? What do you hear in your heart (i.e., your mind’s eye)? Look at the words. Observe. If you don’t take time to observe what is written, then you will struggle coming to the right conclusion.
A Brief look at Matt 13:11-13…
Jesus’ intent seems pretty clear here. “To you it has been given to know…but to them it has not been given…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.”
Jesus has made the purposeful decision to reveal the truth to those of His choosing, but to withhold that same knowledge of the truth from others. He speaks openly, but it is veiled unless further aide is given by God.
Considering the Alternative
Let’s suppose for a moment that Jesus taught in parables to make the truth more accessible to those in Israel. Let’s ignore for the time being what Jesus said was His reason for speaking this way, and for the sake of argument assume that He spoke plainly to the people because He wanted all people to embrace the gospel of the kingdom. What then?
The Problem with those in the Know…
One of the issues that we encounter in the gospels is that those who were in the know—the leaders of Israel—had a difficult time ascertaining the meaning of Jesus’ message. I bring these individuals up first because if anyone should “know” what Jesus was saying—what He was teaching from Scripture—it was them. I mean, they studied God’s Word vocationally. They were the esteemed teachers in Israel. Surely, they’d be able to make sense of Jesus’ preaching/teaching. However, as you will see, something they liked to bother him about, was speaking more plainly.
Here are two examples:
- At the feast of dedication— “So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10.24; see also v. 6).
- At His mock trial— “If you are the Christ, tell us…Are you the Son of God, then?” (Luke 22.67a, 70).
But when Jesus spoke plainly what was the response? Depends on His audience, right? To the types mentioned above it was unbelief. Not only did they not believe Him when He told them, but their response was one of outrage.
- Responding to those at the feast, he said, “I told you, and you do not believe…I and the Father are one. The Jews picked up stones again to stone him” (John 10.25, 30-31).
- Responding to his accusers at the pseudo-trial, he said, “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer” (Luke 22.67b-68).
The Problem is not unique…
What’s interesting is that even when Jesus spoke plainly to His own, there were times when they did not comprehend his meaning. After Peter rightly identifies Jesus’ as “…the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16.16), the Lord begins telling His disciples what is necessary for Him to endure: “…that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16.21). Immediately, Peter begins to rebuke Jesus. He says to him, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt 16.22). Of course, from this we get the popularly known retort of Christ: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man!” (Matt 16.23).
What we find, and perhaps it was because of how harshly Jesus told Peter to shut up, is that when the Lord broached this subject again, the disciples were confused by it but would only discuss it amongst themselves (e.g. Mark 9.32; Luke 18.31-34)
Which means what? No not the retort, but the source of the confusion on Peter’s (and the disciples) part. Simply this, in order to understand the truth of God, you need God to reveal it to you.
Natural hindrances aside…
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying our natural incapacity to see things as they truly are. We all have blinders of various forms (e.g., traditions, theological convictions, emotional biases, etc.) that we will struggle with from time-to-time (or at least ought to). However, the point that I am making, and I think it is clear from biblical testimony that I am correct, is that without God opening our eyes to the truth we will fail to see.
Evidence on the way to Emmaus…
There seems to be no better instance of this fact than Jesus’ encounters with His disciple’s post-resurrection. Specifically, I am reminded of the road to Emmaus. Here we are told of two of Jesus’ disciples (perhaps husband and wife as some suggest?) that, in the words of the Lord, were “…slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24.25). In spite of the fact that all of them had been instructed in the Word of God throughout their lives, and under the special tutelage of Christ Jesus Himself, it was not until the Lord began to “open the Scriptures” to them that they began to see the truth (Luke 24.32).
As I said, God must open our eyes before we can see. Likewise, God must open our ears before we can hear (cf. Deut 29.4). Exactly what we find in Jesus’ statement to His disciples in private as He prepared to explain to them the meaning of His parable(s):
“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…” For “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, [yet] to them it has not been given” (Matt 13.13, 11 respectively).
Answering a Common Objection
But to argue that God must first reveal the truth to us, before we understand sounds wrong to the average person. It strikes against our sensibilities. It seems to go against common sense. Surely, if Christ taught the truth, then the people were capable of responding to it. “Why, would the all-loving Jesus keep things veiled to some, but reveal it to others?”
The reasoning goes…
When he says “he who has ears, let him hear” the logical way to take that statement is at face value. Generally, we all have ears, therefore we are all capable of hearing—i.e. comprehending/understanding, as well as, listening and obeying. And so, we find statements like these by the learned:
“…Jesus seems to say that He uses parables to conceal the truth from the people…However, to believe that Jesus deliberately withheld saving truth from people is to attribute malice to Him, and this is not compatible with His character as it is portrayed consistently in the New Testament.”
I’d originally cited this in my first post (HERE). The theologians that wrote these comments are of the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition; denominationally, the Church of the Nazarene. That being said, they do present a popular perspective within Evangelical culture.
Even though Jesus says “this is why I speak in parables” the authors are not convinced. This evidenced by the use of the phrase “seems to say.” Basic grammar mitigates against this slight of hand.
A little grammatical aide…
“This is…” provides the reason why Jesus “speak(s) in parables.” It offers the reason, the state of being—i.e., the grounds for why things are the way they are. Similarly, I might say “This is a baseball,” or “This is the reason he can’t run; his leg is broken.” I am telling you the what and the why.
- “What is this object?” Answer: A baseball.
- “Why can’t he run? Answer: his leg is broken.
Jesus is telling his disciples that He gives to whomever He so chooses to give what He gives. It is His to give, not ours to demand.
Both Harvey Blaney and Carl Hanson believe if Jesus “deliberately withheld saving truth from the people” He’d be acting maliciously. Though common enough, it is a bold claim. Granted from their point of view to make distinctions between who shall and who shall not have the truth is out of character for Jesus. While I empathize with this position (it is one that I formerly held), our answer must be derived from Scripture and not an emotive or psychologically disturbed response.
Feelings are not the standard…
It does not matter if I view something as unfair, who I am to argue against God? It does not matter if some are given more and I am given less, will not the judge of the earth do what is right? Fear before God is what garners true wisdom and knowledge. Humility before the Lord is required, but who is truly humble before God? Who truly fears Him? Scripture says, “No…not…one…” (Rom 3.10-11), it is truly a miracle of Sovereign grace that any of us look at the Triune Creator God in this light.
Remember that before Jesus sends out his disciples—the twelve and the seventy (Luke 9; 10)—he gives them the condition for how they are to respond to their audiences. Those that receive the gospel message of the kingdom are to be given the healing peace of the Lord, but those who refuse are to be given the dust off their feet. Only those that had “ears to hear” were blessed, but the others were condemned.
Returning to Luke 10
The Lord claims that the “hearers” who received the message with joy, heard as an act of Sovereign grace. Where? When He says,
“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Luke 10.22).
I’m sure that someone will try to argue that Jesus’ statement here does not mean what it “seems to say.” However, if we would only look back a little earlier in the text, we will see that it does mean what it says. For the ones who reject the gospel and receive the sign of dust to which they shall return (symbolic of the judgment of death/condemnation, of that which the serpent and his offspring eat), Jesus says the following:
“I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day [Day of Judgment] for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. ‘The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me’” (Luke 10.12-16).
We are told at least two things in this declaration by the Lord for those who rejected the gospel as presented by His disciples:
- First, and this is the one most readily recognized, is that our sin is defined in degrees. The more light we have been given of the truth, the more we will be held accountable for. Sodom, Tyre and Sidon did not have the same witness of God as Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, therefore, their judgment (punishment) will be lighter than those who entertained the Son of God and His representatives in their midst.
- Second, and this is the one glazed over either purposely or due to a blind-spot, is that those cities of Sodom, Tyre and Sidon would have repented if they’d been given the same amount of light, but they weren’t. Why weren’t they? If it is out of character for Jesus as the Son of God to withhold information necessary for salvation, then why didn’t God in the past reveal the truth to those cities who “would have repented long ago…in sackcloth and ashes?” Well…how do you go about answering that question? Do you turn the words of the Lord, or do you turn to your own rational reasoning?
Jesus has already given the reason in Luke 10:21, just as he did for speaking in parables in the Matthew 13 passage cited at the beginning of this post. It was (it is) God’s “gracious will” to hide these things from some and give it to others.
Any questions or comments? Feel free to throw them my way. This is the end of my discussion on this particular matter, but for those interested I offer a little extra.
APPENDIX: Psalm 78
A Brief look…
Psalm 78 provides some (not all) of the reasoning behind Jesus speaking in parables (cf. Matt 13.34-35). If you read this particular Psalm in its entirety you will come away with seeing two types of people being discussed. Those who “hear” the Word of God and those who refuse to “listen.” The obedient have been taught these things from their youth (v. 3) and have made a commitment to teach them to their children (v. 4), in honor of the commandment (vv. 5-7). This in order to prevent them from following in the footsteps of rebellious ancestors (v. 8).
The rebellious “…did not keep God’s covenant, but refused to walk according to his law” (Psa 78.10). This was due to a willful spirit that “…forgot his works and the wonders that he had shown them” (Psa 78.11). The writer of this Psalm, says they “tested” and “spoke against God” (Psa 78.18, 19). A habit the rebellious and hardhearted and stiff-necked continued to do; something that the Lord continually judged them for. As their history attests: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert! They tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Psa 78.40-41).
I won’t go through the whole Psalm (read it if you will), but this dividing line that the psalmist highlights between those who had “ears to hear” and those who did not is seen throughout Israel’s whole history. At the foot of Mount Sinai, every turn in the desert, the first generations unwillingness to trust in God to give them the promise land, the years of failed conquest after Joshua’s passing, the period of judges, even the period of kings reveal this truth.
Only the hearers entered God’s rest when others could not (cf. Heb 4.1-11). Only the hearers refused to bow the knee to Baal (cf. 1Kgs 19.18). Only the hearers were willing to embrace what God had spoken as true and trustworthy and worthy of applying to life. They remembered, they revered, they embraced in faith. Thus, the opening of this psalm reveals the distinction of who has “ears to hear”:
“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!” (Psa 78.1; italics added).
 All Scripture unless otherwise noted shall be of the English Standard Version (ESV).
 Blaney, Harvey J. S. and Carl Hanson, Exploring the New Testament, Ralph Earle, ed. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, , 1961), 101.
 Why this text? Why not stick with Matthew’s gospel since I used it as a stepping stone for the content discussed in this post. For starters, I am of the firm conviction that the Bible in its entirety is an exemplar model of continuity. The document flows from beginning to end with the same intent and overarching message of God, mankind, and the Lord’s dealing with us. Secondly, the manner in which “seeing” and “hearing” are used in the Bible is more often than not synonymous. Seeing can be both physical and abstract. The same is true of hearing. More is intended with the use of those words than the mere physical activity that we often attribute to them.
For example, “seeing the kingdom of God” as recorded in John 3 is not merely seeing a visible manifestation of the kingdom (cf. Luke 17.20-21), but being able to comprehend and understand the inner workings of the kingdom; which, according to the apostle Paul is not a mere physical activity such as eating and drinking, but a manifestation of the Spirit’s power (cf. Rom 14.17). In what way? In obedience to the King of glory. A desire that is not common to mankind, but a manifestation of the Spirit’s inner working—His regenerative effort—on that which was once fallen, hardhearted and stiff-necked. The same then can be said of “hearing” which is more than a physical activity, but a volition of the will of man revealed through acts of obedience. Therefore, to respond positively to the gospel through correct “seeing and hearing” is seen in the Luke 10 passage where Christ’s representatives were sent to preach the good news. Those who had “ears to hear” embraced the apostolic message, evidenced via miracles of healing, gifted in peace with their God. Those who did not, as we see in the discussion above, received condemnation.