August 27, 2007

The Kingdom Of Heaven Is The Kingdom Of Christ

Posted in The Church at 11:36 pm by Caleb Winn

Chiastic Structures and Christological Symbolism in Matthew 13

 Welcome To The Kingdom

Throughout His ministry, Christ speaks often of the “Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew 13 provides one of the clearest examples of this, where Christ tells a series of parables that each examine a different aspect of what exactly the “Kingdom of Heaven” entails. At first glance, there seems to be little uniting the various parables and illustrations. Each of them may be understood individually as making a particular claim about the Kingdom of Heaven, and each seems to make sense apart from the others. I would argue, however, that the entire section of scripture (from 12:46 to 13:58) is one single, coherent – albeit subtle – argument for the Kingship of Jesus Christ over the throne of Heaven! 

Chiastic Structure

In the interests of conserving blog space, I have not posted the entire chapter here. I would highly recommend reading the entire passage in order to follow the flow of my argument.

The key to understanding this passage is the structure of the parables and the events surrounding them. In this section, I believe that Matthew employs a sort of chiastic structure, wherein events and illustrations mirror each other in order to highlight the central point.  For example, a simple chiasm might be diagramed as 

A           B           C       B        A

In this structure, the C point is central, and the A and B points on each side reflect their counterparts. In most cases, understanding C enables us to better understand A and B, and vice versus. This is essentially what Jesus is doing with His parables in Matthew 13, but on a much grander scale. 

An Introductory Parable About Parables 

Jesus begins Matthew 13 with a parable about a man sowing a field, and seeing that some of his seeds grew and flourished, while others were chocked by weeds, or scorched by the sun (13:1-9). 

Immediately following, Jesus’ disciples asked Him why He speaks in parables, and he provides a lengthy explanation for why He uses parables (13:10-17) followed by an explanation of this parable in particular (18-23). 

Christ’s justification for the use of parables is longer than His explanation for the parable itself, and it ought not be glossed over. It is also sandwiched between the parable, and the explanation, which should pique our curiosity as well. This may function as a miniature chiasm. The distinction that Christ draws between those who truly see and hear, and those who do not, mirrors the distinction between the seed which flourishes and the seed which dies out. 

The point here is that some will understand the truth, and others will not. 

Note that this parable, uniquely among those in this chapter, does not say “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It simply begins “A man went out to sow.” This seems to set it apart from the rest of the parables, which follow. Note also that the subsequent parables bear a striking resemblance to this first one. It seems as if this first Parable of the Sower is an introduction to those that follow, so we ought to keep it in mind as we move forward. 

Six Stories 

After the first, long parable, Christ then launches into a series of 6 shorter parables, with an explanation sandwiched in the middle as a sort of chiastic structure.

To briefly summarize, the parables argue that “The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . .” 

(1)  A Man Who Sowed Good Seed – But the enemy plants chaff with the wheat, so the man will separate them and judge the chaff at the time of the harvest (13:24-30). 

(2)  A Grain of Mustard Seed – It is small, but becomes great (13:31-32). 

(3)  Leaven – It causes bread to rise greatly (13:33). 

(4)  Treasure Hidden in a Field – It is worth selling everything you have (13:44). 

(5)  A Merchant In Search Of Fine Pearls – He sells everything he has. (13:45-46). 

(6)  A Net – It catches good fish and bad, which will be separated and judged in the end, back on shore (13:47-50). 

Parallels, Couplings, And Chiastic Reflections 

There are a number of points to draw here regarding the structure of this section. 

First, Jesus inserts an explanation of the first parallel right in the middle, between the image of the leaven and the image of the buried treasure. He also ends the explanation with “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” before moving on to the next parable. This is important in light of the introductory parable, and hearkens back to 13:9 and 13:14-17. The centrality is important, and should capture our attention as it dramatically changes the tone and pace of the passage. 

Second, the 1st and 6th parables are different similes for essentially the same concept. In both, the image is of good and bad thrown together indiscriminately, and allowed to grow and live together until the end of time, at which point they will be judged. 

Third, the 2nd and 3rd parables (mustard seed and leaven) are almost identical to each other, as are the 4th and 5th (buried treasure and pearl of great price). They can really be understood as a pair of couplets. Furthermore, the fact that they are so coupled, and that they are bookends for such a substantial break in the narrative flow, means that we ought to understand them as reflecting each other. 

Fourth, note the great parallels and contrasts of meaning between the 2nd/3rd parables and the 4th/5th parables. In the first couplet, the image is of humility. Mustard seeds and leaven are not impressive. They are very mundane, everyday objects. But the passage draws out a comparison between these boring images and the images of the buried treasure and the pearl. This makes sense in light of the way that Christ uses the images: the mustard seed is small, but grows great. Yeast is a minor ingredient in bread, but it makes the bread grow great. 

So the 1st and 6th parables reflect each other, while the 2nd and 3rd (as a single couplet) reflect the 4th and 5th (as a single couplet), highlighting the central point of the passage, which is the explanation that takes place in the middle.As a Chiasm, it could be graphed:

A              B1/B2           C              B2/B1                 A

Taking A Closer Look To See… What’s At Stake. 

In light of this, it is important to understand what this central passage says, both for its own sake, and in light of the surrounding parables.

Jesus explains that the sower is the Son of Man, and that the good seed are the “children of the kingdom,” which is the Church. As the weeds (”the sons of the evil one” or non-Christians) grow up among the good seed, the Son of Man allows them to prosper. But at the harvest (”the close of the age”) He will send his harvesters (”angels”) who will separate the righteous from the unrighteous, and cast the latter into that place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

Though His explanation is limited to the parable of the weeds, the analysis applies perfectly to the parable of the net, as well. Good fish and bad fish are caught up in the same net, and are not separated until they reach the shore. To cement the parallel, He even uses the same language: the “angels” will separate the fish, and cast the bad fish to the place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

This much is clear, then: the explanation makes sense of the parables of the sower and of the net, and argues that there will be a reckoning at the end of time during which the Godly will be spared, and the wicked punished.

But how does this apply to the reflected couplets? How does this image make sense of the mustard seed and the leaven, or the buried treasure and the pearl?

The answer to this question requires us to take a step further back and look at the context surrounding all of these parables. In so doing, I think that we will discover that these parables show us how to be a “good fish,” by recognizing the supremacy of Jesus Christ. 

Taking A Step Back To See… Christ The Unappreciated 

The first clue is the way that the events surrounding this series of parables seem to reflect each other. It makes sense to group this section together from 13:1 (The parable of the sower) to 13:50 (the conclusion of the last parable) or 13:52 (Jesus final statement of reflection about the parables). But in expanding our focus to include the surrounding passages, we can see a clear parallel between 12:46-50 and 13:53-58. 

In the former section, Jesus rejects His mother and brothers while speaking to the people. While the passage is not explicit on why they came to get Him, Jesus’ response seems to imply an assertion of His divine calling. While His mother and brothers represent His domestic attachments and home life in Galilee, Jesus rejects that identification and instead proclaims that His family is composed of all who serve His Father in heaven, rather than His earthly father. From this, it seems as if the passage is a repudiation of those who would consider Him a mere man, and a statement about His divine nature and holy calling. 

This is a clear parallel with the events that transpire immediately following this series of parallels, where the people of His hometown do not recognize His authority and respond in astonishment. To further reinforce the connection between the two passages/events, they even make reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers (13:55)! And just as in the earlier incident, Jesus’ divine calling is not recognized, for the people of His hometown cannot see Him for who He truly is. 

Taking It All In To See… Christ As King 

Understanding this context allows us to make sense of the entire passage, then. At the end of time, Christ will send His angels to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the good fish from the bad. And those who shall be saved from the fire are those who “have ears to hear” and recognize Jesus Christ as Lord. They are not fooled by the diminutive nature of the mustard seed or the leaven. They recognize a great treasure when they see it, and they will give their all in the service of Almighty God. 

The mustard seed that is overlooked because it is so small becomes the greatest tree; it is the buried treasure, worth selling everything to find! 

The leaven that seems so small and unimportant can leaven three measures of flour; it is the pearl, worth selling everything to find! 

This is where understanding the chiastic structure of these parables really pays off, in that it causes us to grasp the full meaning of each parallel as a part of the greater whole. By understanding how the mustard and leaven are mirrored reflections of the buried treasure and the pearl, both sets of images gain greater power. The passage calls us to recognize the value of the mustard seed, and the glory of the leaven. 

The people of Jesus’ hometown could not recognize this, for they saw only a carpenter’s son, born and raised among them. Their eyes were blinded by familiarity so that they could not perceive the glory of the Son of Man. It is this attitude against which Jesus warns, through the Spirit-fueled gospel writing of Matthew. 

A Final Note 

I did not include this earlier, because I am not entirely certain of my extrapolation, but it occurs to me that the tree of bitterness and the leaven that raises three measures of flour may be images of Christ’s death on the cross, and His resurrection after the third day. This adds greatly to the already rich symbolism of the passage. For Christ’s death was a humble, even humiliating one. It was seen as a final defeat. But where men see defeat, God sees victory! The agony of the Cross has become the joy of our salvation! The seemingly worthless mustard seed and leaven are the means by which we may approach the throne of God, free from condemnation. It is this that will enable us to escape the harvester’s fires at the end of days. 

Praise be to God, who shows us “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world,” and gives us eyes that can see, and eyes than can hear! By His grace, and His grace alone, we are able to hold fast to Christ, and to sell all that we have for Him, our pearl of great price, our treasure that was buried in a field, and yet rose again!

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2 Comments »

  1. Nathaniel Winn said,

    I always read the Parables of the Kingdom (Capon’s division is: Kingdom, Grace, Judgment) as having a pointed message to the religious leaders. (Maybe I’m actually thinking of parables of Judgment? Yes.)

    Anyway, good read!

  2. Kirsten Ferreri said,

    You use the ESV! I’m so glad – I thought I was the only one.

    Hm, seems like a lot of the surrounding material is related to recognizing things of value. For example – the passage is framed by the arrest and execution of John the Baptist, who in this context is a mini-Christ of sorts – he prefigures Jesus’ arrest and death, and Jesus uses a great deal of Messianic language to describe John’s mission and persecution.

    I’d be interested to look at this in light of the immediately preceding “chunk” of Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, which is all about how to behave like a member of the kingdom. Why does that come before recognizing the king? They seem to be sort of related – lots of morally-tinged language in these parables – but they’re not exactly the same thing. Hm. At this point I’m just thinking out loud, really.

    *scuttles off to read Matthew again*


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