James Patrick’s Blog

March 5, 2009

What is the point of theology? Thoughts on Matthew 13

Filed under: Exegesis — alabastertheology @ 2:03 am
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Why this blog?

With a blog containing “theology” in the address, I must acknowledge at the very start that all true ‘study of God’ begins in His own revelation of Himself.  Without this, we are just blind men making declarations to each other about the nature of colour.  As Moses put it, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons for ever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” (Deut. 29:29)  Or as Paul expressed, even more beautifully, “… a true knowledge of God’s mystery – Christ – in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:2-3)

My aim in this blog is to publish in an easily accessible way some of the thoughts I am having about theology, particularly relating to biblical studies.  The Bible has been my favourite book from before I could read, my parents have given most of their lives to helping it be translated into new languages, and I have had the opportunity to study it with some of the best scholars in the world.  That said, I make no claim to be any more an ‘expert’ in the Bible than any other believer; without a mature love for Jesus and for others, knowing “all mysteries and all knowledge” adds up to precisely “nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).  Even worse, it can lead to arrogance, and with that, deception and ultimately terrible judgement.

Ephesians 4:11-16 makes it clear that the different gifts of leadership in the church have been given by Jesus to equip believers “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”, no longer deceived by every passing wind of doctrine and deception.  It is only in unity, growing and learning together in a context of practical application, that we will truly know the truth about Jesus.  For this reason I want to submit my various thoughts about Him and His word to the community of believers – not only to broaden people’s understanding, but to fit these ideas together with those of others and see the Church “grow up in all aspects into Him”.

Matthew 13:3-52 – A paradigm for Christian theologians

While pondering on what a Christian paradigm for theologians might be, I considered Colossians 2:1-12 (a passage that inspired me during my initial university years), but was drawn to Matthew 13 instead as an explanation from the mouth of Jesus Himself.  The concluding statement of His lecture on the subject talks about ‘scribes of the kingdom’ – a perfect description of those of us God has blessed with a particularly intellectual approach to faith.  The section of Matthew’s gospel in which this lecture is found is actually 12:46 – 13:58, but that will be the subject of another blog post coming shortly.

Structure:  Jesus’ lecture about ‘scribes of the kingdom’ is made up of two parables, each with their explanation.  However, each parable is separated from its interpretation by a digression, and similarly the explanation of the second seems to have been interrupted with a digression.  So the pattern we have, then, is the following:
A Parable of Good & Bad Soil (13:3-9)
C Digression [increase, Isaiah quotation, value] (13:10-17)
A’ Explanation of Parable of Good & Bad Soil (13:18-23)
B Parable of Good & Bad Seed (13:24-30)
C Digression [2 parables of increase, Psalm quotation] (13:31-36)
B’ Explanation of Parable of Good & Bad Seed (13:37-43)
¬  Digression [2 parables of value] (13:44-46)
¬  Explanation of parallel Parable of Good & Bad Fish (13:47-50)

Themes:  In the first parable, the ‘seed’ is the “word of the Kingdom” and the ‘good soil’ on whom the seed was sown is “the man who hears the word and understands it”, producing fruit.  On the other hand, in the second parable, the ‘good seed’ are the “sons of the kingdom” themselves, and the ‘field’ is the “world”.  This means that the first parable focuses on how the revelation (‘seed’) is received by the soils, i.e. value, whereas the second parable focuses on how the believers (‘good seed’) continue to grow until the final judgement, i.e. increase.

The first digression dealt with both themes, on either side of the quotation from Isaiah.  In the first part Jesus taught that the revelation of the kingdom will surely increase for the sons of the kingdom, and in the second part Jesus taught that the revelation of the kingdom is of great value such as many prophets and righteous men of old longed to see it.  Similarly, the two parables of the second digression both teach that the ‘tree’ of believers will increase until all the world is filled, while the two parables of the third digression both teach that the value of this hidden treasure of revelation is such that it is worth selling everything else to buy.

There is an alternation, though, between the personal and the corporate in these parables.  The first parable is all about personal valuing of the ‘word of the kingdom’, while the second is about the corporate increase of the ‘sons of the kingdom’ in the world.  In a similar way, the personal increase of revelation and the corporate value of it as described in the first digression is inverted in the corporate increase of ‘sons of the kingdom’ in the second digression, and by the personal value of revelation in the third digression.

Exegesis:  We find, therefore, a very carefully structured lecture on both personal and corporate aspects of revelation as they involve the ‘sons of the kingdom’.  The crowds who have ears are urged to hear (13:9), although Jesus makes it clear that this revelation has only been granted to certain individuals (13:11).  What is more, those who have received revelation of the ‘seed’ of the word must not stop there, but rather understand it and bear fruit like good soil (13:23); the disciples themselves are urged to hear, since they have ears (13:43).  But on the other hand, while they can be confident that the increase of the knowledge of the kingdom will continue in the world despite the presence of sons of evil (13:31-33, 43), its treasure is valuable enough to require one who understands its worth to sell everything else in order to acquire it (13:44-46).

Jesus’ summary statement to the disciples in verse 52 clarifies and confirms these analyses.  The disciples (and we who ‘understand’ like them) are said to be ‘scribes… of the kingdom’, and equated with heads of households who are able to reveal from their collection of treasure “things new and old”.  This clearly combines both value and increase, since the collection of treasures is continually growing.  If we connect this with the parables in 13:44-46, it would suggest that the scribe of the kingdom whose mind has been opened to God’s revelation must keep themselves ready to sacrifice everything for the joy of new treasures discovered.  If we connect it instead with the parables in 13:31-33,  it would suggest that the treasures of knowledge of the kingdom, like the sons of the kingdom themselves, will continue to grow until every part of the world is affected.

Application:  In response to Jesus’ teachings here, there are several appropriate responses: (1) Let us thank God that He has sovereignly chosen to reveal to us the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in an ever-increasing way;  (2) Let us properly appreciate the awesome privilege we have to explore truths that “many prophets and righteous men” in previous generations longed to understand;  (3) Let us be sure to hear the word and understand it, allowing it to take root in us unchoked by greed or anxiety, and bear much fruit;  (4) Let us be confident in the unstoppable advance of the knowledge of the kingdom that is spreading throughout the earth even now, and contribute to its advance;  (5) Let us as ‘sons of the kingdom’ take care to avoid being ‘stumbling blocks’ or practising lawlessness, but rather endure to the end in righteousness;  (6) Let us never lose our readiness to ‘sell everything’ purely for the joy of ‘owning’ particularly valuable mysteries of the faith; and finally, (7) Let us be faithful as teachers in the Church to keep bringing out from our treasures both new and old insights to be appreciated by others.

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2 Comments »

  1. This post is very clear and a very interesting passage of scripture. One which I have been interested in it’s meaning for a long time. You have said that we should ‘thank God that He has sovereingly chosen to reveal to us the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in an ever-increasing way’. What catches my attention is the last phrase, ‘ever-increasing way’. What does this mean? Does this support the idea, which has been often quoted in some circles, that ‘revelation is progressive’. Part of the implication of this thought is that since God gives his revelation about Himself through the scriptures in a progressive way, the body of believers today know certain spiritual truths that have never been known before, that we know more than, say the church fathers; that we have learnt what was revealed to them and have understood that, and more revelation has been given to us. If this thought is true how can we still remain faithful to the truth?

    Comment by Dieks — January 18, 2010 @ 12:00 am | Reply

    • Thank you for your comments. The point is very important, and I think I would have answered differently even just a few months ago. I have become convinced, however, that all the prophets between Moses and John the Baptist ‘prophesied’ in the form of divine interpretation of the revelation that had been given to Moses (cf. 2Pet 1:19-21), and that as Jesus Himself testified, “Moses wrote about me” (John 5:45-47). Moses spoke face to face with God both on Mount Sinai and in the tabernacle (this must have been with God’s physical representation, the Angel of the LORD, i.e. pre-incarnate Jesus), and I have been increasingly amazed at the clarity and deliberate intention with which Moses wrote about the coming Messiah. For example, the book of Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers was carefully composed with a focus on the ‘high priest’ to come, who would win a victory against sin purely by himself because of the people’s wickedness, thus enabling them to enter their inheritance (from the mention of ‘Phinehas’ at the climax of the genealogy in Exod 6:14-25, to Phinehas’ atonement and covenant of peace in Num 25:1-18; 31:1-54 – compare this theme with Deut 32:34-43 [note that Jesus’ mother Mary was apparently descended from Aaron, presumably via Phinehas – Luke 1:5, 36]). Moses was writing about the Messiah deliberately in his composition of the Pentateuch, and communicating to Israel the significance of God’s prophetic actions and words at that time, through the seventy ‘prophets’ who received his Spirit of revelation (Num 11). This then became a pattern for all the prophets who came after him, each being given insight by the Holy Spirit into what Moses himself had said, and expounding upon different aspects of it by reference to pictures and dreams and visions they themselves were receiving. In a sense, the revelation of Jesus was ‘complete’ and completely accurate even to Moses, although the understanding of this revelation by the whole community of God’s people has been progressive as God brings more prophetic insight to them by His Spirit [as I said, “He has sovereignly chosen to reveal to us the mysteries… in an ever-increasing way”]. The point is, the content of the revelation is a person Himself, which means that from the first time God said, “Let there be light”, to the revelation of His Son in the flesh, to the soon return of our Davidic king Jesus to earth, the revelation itself has been complete, though its comprehension is progressive. Moses was given more than any other prophet until John the Baptist, who saw Jesus face to face, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater, because they know by the Holy Spirit the truth of God’s revelation through Jesus in his death and resurrection – the fulfilment of all Scripture. The New Testament was simply ‘filling out’ the revelation that had been given in the Old Testament, with reference to the manifestation of this true Word of God as the man Christ Jesus. The more we understand of God’s revelation throughout all of Scripture, the more prepared for her Husband the Church will be, ‘cleansed by the washing of water with the word’ (John 13:7-11; 15:3; Eph 5:26-27). I do believe it is possible to understand certain spiritual truths today by the Spirit more than the church fathers did, and even to understand certain spiritual truths that were revealed by Jesus to the apostles but may not even have been recorded in the New Testament (e.g. Luke 24:25-27, 44-47), because everything has been written already in the Scriptures, and even if we didn’t have the New Testament, the Old Testament would be enough to ‘make us wise for salvation through faith which is in Jesus the Messiah’ (2Tim 3:15). Even prophecies of what is yet to come at the end of this age, which Jesus cited and referred to, as did Paul, Peter and John, are all founded on the Scriptures, and all prophecy of today may be tested by going back to the enduring Word of truth.

      Comment by alabastertheology — February 5, 2010 @ 8:23 am | Reply


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