Jesus saith unto them, “Have ye understood all these things?”
They say unto him, “Yea, Lord.”
Then said he unto them, “Therefore every scribe which is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, is like unto a man that is a householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.” (Matt. 13:51–52)
It is always easier to judge others than ourselves, and the disciples are often treated as easy targets. As heirs of two millennia of commentary and sermons we are stunned to have the disciples, after listening to eight parables, respond to Jesus’ question with a simple affirmative. We are tempted, perhaps, to object that they could not possibly have fully understood. But there was no chiding by Jesus; He accepted their response! Moreover, He then directed a ninth parable to them. Each of the previous eight were parables about the Kingdom of Heaven itself; this one was about those who were “scribes,” learned men, of the Kingdom who could instruct others. Jesus believed they did, in fact, “understand.”
“Have Ye Understood?”
The word “understand” may cause a misconception on our part. In a scientific age it can be used in a very comprehensive sense that is not here in view. The word used by Jesus means “to put together.” Jesus was asking if they had made the connections in the parables of the sower, the seed growing by itself,1 the wheat and tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the hid treasure, the pearl of great price, and the draw net. Did they get the drift of the lessons they were taught about the Kingdom? That was the essential question.
The Jewish expectation of the messianic kingdom was far different than the slow, steady, but certain growth these parables suggested. The Jewish hope was for a Messiah who would rid them of Rome and create a strong and prosperous political state in Palestine. The conception of the Messiah was thus largely a political figure whose power would be measured by the political, economic, and military power of the nation. King Jesus described several aspects of His Kingdom as being very different. When He asked if they understood these parables, He was not asking them if they had a comprehensive knowledge, but if they had “put it together.” Did they get the gist of what he was saying about the Kingdom He had begun? “Yea, Lord.”
Early in His ministry, as evidenced in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had spoken very clearly. He performed miracles freely, at times to all who came. He invited, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt. 11:28–30).
Shortly after those words were spoken, things changed. The scribes and Pharisees devised talking points to scare men away from Jesus. They claimed His undeniable miracles were themselves evidence of demonic influence (Matt. 12:22–37; Mark 3:22–30). This was a slander its hearers could not forget or easily ignore. Some used it, no doubt, as an excuse not to commit to Jesus.
After that point, Jesus suddenly began speaking to the multitudes in parables. Yes, there were still multitudes following Him, hoping, like Herod Antipas, to see a miracle. The crowds could not stay away, but they were not there in faith. Jesus described them at this point:
For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them. (Matt. 13:15)
Two groups now marked the hearers of Jesus, His disciples (in the larger sense) and those whose hearts were now waxed gross, that is, their innermost being was grown fat, callous, or dull. Once the blasphemous slander of the scribes and Pharisees had circulated, the lines were clearly drawn, and Jesus recognized them. He began speaking in parables. The change to parables so caught the disciples by surprise that they asked Jesus the reason for it. His answer was very blunt:
Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. (Matt. 13:11–12)
By grace, some came to believe in Jesus. To their faith, more was given in abundance, grace upon grace. To those who had no faith, that clarity of communication would be taken away. Alfred Edersheim called this the “judicial”2 aspect of the parables, but it was not the parabolic style alone which kept them from understanding, but their own spiritual deadness. The first parables of Matthew 13 were given to the multitudes in the presence of the disciples, who understood them. They only asked for clarification about a single aspect of one parable (the “tares,” the problem of evil in the Kingdom, see Matt. 13:36); when asked if they understood all eight, they responded “Yea, Lord.” Parables were understandable to the believing disciples, a grace upon grace.
The Kingdom of Heaven
What was it that the disciples “understood” or put together that the multitude, spiritually deaf and blind, could not? They understood the parallels between these teaching images and an aspect of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us very briefly note some of the many lessons of this discourse:
1. The Parable of the Sower: Not all who hear the message of the Kingdom will become part of it (represented not by the sprouting of the seed, but by fruit-bearing, see Matt. 7:20, etc., Matt. 13:8, 23).
2. The Parable of the Seed Growing by Itself: Those who sow seeds in the Kingdom must believe that the harvest will come, and live in terms of that certainty.
3. The Parable of the Wheat and Tares: Throughout its history, there will be evil in the Kingdom, but it is not given to the servants of the King to remove them, though the judgment of evil men at the final judgment is promised.
4. The Parable of the Mustard Seed: The Kingdom of God’s beginning seemed insignificant; but it would grow and bless the earth’s inhabitants.
5. The Parable of the Leaven: The Kingdom’s means of growth is not visible, but that growth is happening, and it will pervade the earth.
Then, Jesus sent the multitudes away, and spoke three more parables to them alone.
6. The Parable of the Hid Treasure: Those who find the Kingdom will know its importance, and gladly value it above all earthly possessions.
7. The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price: Those who seek the Kingdom of God (like some of those early disciples who had searched the Scriptures and been followers of John) will, by grace, know it when they see it.
8. The Parable of the Net: As in the Wheat and Tares, the Kingdom will encompass and identify evil men in its midst, but their ultimate fate is left for the judgment of God.
The Forgotten Parable
After assuring Jesus that they understood all eight of these parables Jesus provided yet another one. It was based on their professed understanding. Each of the first eight had been about some aspect of the Kingdom itself. Now He gave a parable about the responsibility of those who understood, whom He called scribes of the Kingdom.
But the scribes had just joined the Pharisees in blasphemy (Mark 3:22ff.), yet Jesus now calls His own disciples to be scribes. What was His meaning?
The scribes had once been experts in legal matters, who committed legal proceedings and contracts to print. During the Babylonian Captivity and thereafter, their role grew to that of experts on God’s law and its application. They were experts on how the case law had been applied. Theirs was a valuable function, but they had fallen into a couple of traps by the first century. First, they gave precedence to the traditions of how to keep the law over the law itself, which became academic. Second, theirs was a technical and mechanical understanding of obedience rather than an ethical one. The scribes were therefore the theologians behind the false ideas of the Pharisees. They were often the foes of the Kingdom, yet Jesus now calls on those who understand to be scribes of His Kingdom!
The calling of a scribe was to study the law of God, interpret its meaning, and understand its application. Jesus was saying, in effect, “You understand what I am saying about my Kingdom? Then as scribes of my law I have another parable for you.”
Jesus described the scribes of the Kingdom of God as being like householders, the patriarch or master of their family and its resources. As such they were in possession of the treasure, the wealth of the Kingdom. They were its stewards. From their understanding of the words of Jesus, the law of the Kingdom, they were to bring out “new and old.”
The modern mind thinks of old as stale if not outdated. Moreover, we see what is new too often as iconoclastic, and challenging the old. This is a subtle problem when we refer to the “Old and New Testaments.” We develop a dispensational theology in line with our modern perception of adjectives.
“New” does not refer to young here and “old” does not mean antiquated. The reference is to things “fresh” and “ancient.”3 The scribe of the Kingdom of Heaven, having studied the law of the King, understands it as the disciples had just indicated to our Lord. Their responsibility was to distribute that wealth in terms of the old, ancient, orthodox truths, but in new, fresh ways. One of the functions of a scribe, remember, was to study the case laws of Scripture as well as understand their applications over time, and then suggest how to apply them in “new” instances with a contemporary context:
Because the Kingdom of God is old, ancient as God is ancient, it has ever new applications. Methods, manners, men may change; but this underlying principle of Divine government abideth, rooted in the nature of God, and active in redeeming grace, and it blossoms fresh in every generation among the sons of men.4
We are called to make the Kingdom new, fresh in our lives, in that of our families, our churches, as well as every other area of life and thought.
It seems, at times, that the ground around us is a wayside, or rocky, or choked by thorns. If we understand as the disciples did, however, we will see the certain and inevitable progress of His Kingdom. We are part of it, it is priceless, and we are to so value it that we think the things of this world nothing in comparison.
This is what Jesus told His disciples of their responsibility if they understood His Kingdom teaching. Do you understand?
1. The parable of the seed growing by itself is found only in Mark 4:26–29.
2. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Book III, Chapter XXIII.
3. See G. Campbell Morgan, Studies in the Four Gospels, “Matthew XIII. 51,52.” (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1931) p. 178.
4. ibid., p.179.
- Mark R. Rushdoony
Mark R. Rushdoony graduated from Los Angeles Baptist College (now The Master’s College) with a B.A. in history in 1975 and was ordained to the ministry in 1995.
He taught junior and senior high classes in history, Bible, civics and economics at a Christian school in Virginia for three years before joining the staff of Chalcedon in 1978. He was the Director of Chalcedon Christian School for 14 years while teaching full time. He also helped tutor all of his children through high school.
In 1998, he became the President of Chalcedon and Ross House Books, and, more recently another publishing arm, Storehouse Press. Chalcedon and its subsidiaries publish many titles plus CDs, mp3s, and an extensive online archive at www.chalcedon.edu.
He has written scores of articles for Chalcedon’s publications, both the Chalcedon Report and Faith for all of Life. He was a contributing author to The Great Christian Revolution (1991). He has spoken at numerous conferences and churches in the U.S. and abroad.
Mark Rushdoony lives in Vallecito, California, his home of 43 years with his wife of 45 years and his youngest son. He has three married children and nine grandchildren.