In the message from Matthew 13:1-17 on Sunday, we looked at the dual purposes for which Jesus taught in parables. Parables were designed to deliver the secrets of the kingdom of heaven to believers and to conceal them from unbelievers. We noted that in concealing the truth from unbelievers, God gives them what they want. Conversely, in revealing the truth to believers, God gives them what they want. But I noted a question that still lingered in my mind: why do believers want the truth of the kingdom, but unbelievers don’t?
Those of us who are “enthusiastically reformed” tend to run to such questions. We can even be bothered by texts like the one we studied on Sunday because it teaches that the concealing of the truth is a response to unbelief. We are uncomfortable saying that unbelievers don’t understand the truth because they don’t believe. We reformed folks would rather say, “no, they don’t believe because the truth hasn't been revealed to them.” And that is true – unbelievers don’t believe because their eyes have not been opened to the truth. We should all affirm that as biblical truth. But that is not the point that Matthew 13:10-17 makes.
We all have our favorite topics, hobby horses, and soapboxes. I once heard of a preacher who would conclude every sermon, no matter the text or topic, with, “And now, a few words on baptism…” My tendency is to do that with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, but I don’t ever want to be guilty of forcing every text into my systematic theology, or forcing my systematic theology into every text. The main point of the sermon should be taken from the main point of the text. That’s why on Sunday I shied away from answering that lingering question about why believers want the truth.
But now that the sermon has been preached, let’s scratch the itch. Why do believers want the truth and unbelievers do not? The short answer is that some have been enabled to believe and to desire the truth and some have not. The default condition of man is deadness in sin; rebellion against God; allegiance to the devil, the world, and the flesh; and complete self-deception (Rom 1:18-23, 28-32; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph2:1-3). Man is unable to take the first step toward God or to please Him in any way (Rom 8:4-8). It is God who must act upon the human heart to give repentance and faith so that the sinner might believe and be saved (Acts 5:31, 11:18; Eph 2:4-10; 2 Tim 2:24-26). He acts in this way according to His own gracious choice (John1:12-13, 6:44, 6:65; Rom 8:28-30, 9:15-18; Eph 1:3-6).
So the ultimate reason that some desire truth and that others do not is that God has graciously acted upon some and not on others. This fits well with what we studied in Matthew 11:25-30 a couple of months ago. God has graciously revealed the truth to some and justly concealed it from others.
Our passage on Sunday, Matthew 13:1-17, taught that those who have embraced the initial revelation of Christ (by God’s sovereign grace) are given additional revelation in the form of knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven; those who rejected that initial revelation (according to their own sinful nature) are denied any further revelation. In other words, believers receive the temporal blessing of further revelation, while unbelievers receive the temporal judgment of an inability to comprehend any truth. Matthew’s emphasis was not on God’s sovereignty over the believing or the unbelieving, but rather on the responsibility of man to believe and obey the truth.
Interestingly, Mark’s version of this story emphasizes God’s sovereignty rather than man’s responsibility. Look at Mark 4:10-12:
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven."
Compare this with what we saw in Matthew 13:13: 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.
Mark teaches that Jesus taught in parables so that the people would not obey the gospel; Matthew teaches that Jesus taught in parables because the people did not obey the gospel. Which is right? They both are. They are simply emphasizing different angles of the same event. Mark emphasizes God’s sovereignty while Matthew emphasizes man’s volition. The Jews’ rejection of Christ was due both to the sovereign rule of God and to their own desire to disobey.
Should it trouble us that Mark and Matthew do not emphasize the same thing or that they do not tell the story from the same angle? Certainly not. This is why it is a blessing to have four Gospels instead of just one. Each Gospel writer wrote to a unique audience for a unique purpose to make a unique point. We are beneficiaries of each. When studying one, we should focus on its intent and message, allowing its unique context to inform our understanding and convey the Spirit-inspired point.
Posted by Greg Birdwell