He Shall Save His People
THE DISCIPLES were told not to herald the kingdom to anyone except “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt.10:5). Now in Matthew 13, Jesus speaks to the crowds in parables, and in fact, “apart from a parable He spoke nothing to them” (13:34). He changes His emphasis from the nearness of the kingdom to the secrets of the kingdom which are made known only to the disciples (13:11). The rest are made deaf and blinded with stoutened hearts “lest at some time they . . . should be turning about, and I should be healing them” (v.15).
The way in which our Lord conducted His ministry to Israel is full of surprises. The messenger’s prophecy to Joseph had been that Jesus would save His people from their sins (Matt.1:21). Yet this goal has not yet been announced to the people. To the contrary, Jesus has warned that “broad is the gate and spacious is the way which is leading away into destruction, and many are those entering through it. Yet what a cramped gate and narrowed way is the one leading away into life, and few are those who are finding it” (Matt.7:13,14). The call for repentance has not been heeded by those to whom it was given; hence the Lord declared, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! . . For Tyre and Sidon shall it be more tolerable in the day of judging than for you” (11:21,22).
In short, Jesus has not pointed the people to His position as Saviour from their sins. He has predicted that only a few would heed His message about the kingdom and find the way to life. He has told the disciples to go only to Israelites. And now he speaks in parables which He will not explain to the people in general, lest they repent, and He tells the disciples the people as a whole have been blinded.
NOT GIVEN TO KNOW
We can say all we want about the disciples eventually being commissioned to disciple “all the nations” (Matt.28:19), and we can try to convince ourselves that Jesus kept truth hidden only from those who had already shown they would not receive it, but these facts do not change the fact that the ministry of Jesus did not result in saving the very people who received it, and the testimony of our Lord is that this failure finds its roots in divine prophecy made centuries before. It is clearly the operation of God.
What was happening “filled up” (Matt.13:14a) the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9,10 which says as translated from the Hebrew: “Go, and you will say to this people, Hear yea hear, yet do not understand; and see, yea see, yet do not know. Stouten the heart of this people, and make its ears heavy, and make its eyes squint, lest it may see with its eyes, and with its ears it may hear, and with its heart, it may understand.”
To the vast majority of the people of Israel, it was not given (Matt.13:11b) to understand what Jesus was saying. It was not given to them to perceive and to know, lest they should be turning about and the Lord be healing them (Matt.13:15).
Jesus was able to speak plainly. He could have avoided the use of parables, or in using them to give the explanation of them to everyone. But He did not minister to the people this way; He did not tell them openly and plainly these secrets of the kingdom; for if He did take this approach in His ministry the people would have repented and turned about from their ways and He would have saved them. He spoke in parables, lest they should be healed! The word heal comes close to the idea of save, and is often used to picture the broader work of deliverance from any danger. But Jesus spoke in such a way that the people would not turn from their ways and be saved.
SPEAKING IN PARABLES
The parables in Matthew 13 are elucidated to the disciples by the Lord. They indicate that only a few Israelites will enjoy the “superfluity” of blessing in the kingdom (v.12). This is in accord with the ways of God, which are not our ways. God blinds the hearts of the many and grants understanding to the few. He sows, or places, the various individual types of people in a situation favorable or unfavorable to the firm reception of the Word (Matt.13:18-23). Some who heard Jesus speak did so while placed in an environment that was hostile to understanding and appreciating the message, being sown “beside the road,” or “in the thorns.”
Nothing could so clearly present the truth that the kingdom will come and be administered in a way that glorifies God. To those who were given, more was to be given (13:12). The privileged blessings of the kingdom would not be enjoyed by every Israelite, for only a few would be granted the insight and the faith to treasure these blessings and “shine out as the sun” (v.43) in the kingdom. These blessings are given in accord with God’s operation in placing Israelites in environments which either are conducive or not conducive to understanding and heeding of the Word.
FIRE AND GNASHING OF TEETH
In view of these many factors limiting the effect of Jesus’ teaching in the hearts of His people, we surely must take special care in attempting to understand His warnings of judgment. If someone is sown “among the thorns,” that is, receives the word in an environment (in which they were “sown”) of many worries of life and struggles to earn money, they will suffer loss for it. But God’s wisdom, in placing only a few in situations where they will understand what they hear, cannot be honored if the lamentation and gnashing of teeth of the many is eternal and hopeless.
From the very lessons of these parables, the meaning of the burning of the darnel (v.30) cannot be everlasting hell. It is more than irreverence, it is a denial of His wisdom and righteousness to speak of God as annihilating or tormenting forever those whom He has blinded, from whom understanding has been taken away, through the instrument of the Adversary.
Their stoutened hearts will bring them eventually to “a furnace of fire” and “lamentation and gnashing of teeth,” but to speak of these results of their sins in terms of the traditional hell is to twist the Scriptures and its revelations of the living, wise and powerful God of all goodness, out of all recognition. God Who kept them from turning about from their self-centered and proud ways will bring them to the realization of the evils of these ways. But this too will be for their good and the glory of God.
As the farmer burns up the darnel after it has been separated from the harvested grain, so also God will exclude those deceived by Satan from the blessings of the kingdom. But this “furnace of fire,” characterized by intense sorrow over their loss will certainly have benefits of opening their eyes and hearts to the truth and an appreciation of God. The sentence is severe, and we would not minimize the severity of its significance, but it is a judgment of God, Who judges in accord with truth and for purposes that harmonize with His glorious Being. This fire and this weeping are divine operations of condemnation, but they are not expressions of some sort of everlasting, hopeless reprobation. Our Lord is not speaking of hell, and it is shameful to obscure His place as Saviour by thus twisting His words.
THE SAVIOUR'S WISDOM AND POWER
But also, this fire and weeping is not God’s means of saving from sin. It may open up their eyes, but it cannot save these sinners from their sins. Nor indeed does the hearing and believing and heeding of the Word save the disciples from their sins. It is Jesus alone Who saves His people from their sins. Though this is not being made known as He traverses the land of Israel, it will be the solid foundation for all the blessings of pardon and rule and life promised to that people.
But for now, here in Matthew 13, that is not being made known even to the disciples. What is being made known, however, is great and glorious! Even in His own country where He was not honored, the people were astonished at His “wisdom and powerful deeds” (Matt.13:54).
In this, the people of Nazareth were not thinking of a kind of wisdom that depends on human beings using their free will to change their thinking and their will in order to make themselves worthy of the kingdom. They were not thinking of a kind of power that is dependent on their own independent decisions in order to be employed. And they were not thinking of a power that sent and kept sinners in pain and lamentation forever, or annihilated what it could not save. Instead, they were thinking of a wisdom that knew hidden things about themselves and revealed secret things from God, and they were thinking of a power that healed and blessed.
THE WISDOM OF THE CROSS
We have been granted further revelations of divine wisdom and power in the wisdom and power of the cross. What was being shown by the blinding of many hearts and the choosing of a few disciples to understand and heed Jesus’ words is shown also in our own calling. “For you are observing your calling, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh; not many powerful, not many noble, but the stupidity of the world God chooses, that He may be disgracing the wise, and the weakness of the world God chooses, that He may be disgracing the strong, and the ignoble and the contemptible things of the world God chooses, and that which is not, that He should be discarding that which is, so that no flesh at all should be boasting in God’s sight” (1 Cor.1:26-29).
This wisdom of choosing fishermen over the learned Pharisees, or people like the Corinthians (and us) over others who seem more deserving, is a wisdom that brings out the power and grace and love of God. But it does not exclude His righteousness and involve sending those who are not called to endless punishment. Indeed, the greatest example of stubborn phariseeism was Saul of Tarsus!
The wisdom of the cross is to save in full recognition of the entire helplessness and hopelessness of sinful humanity. “For the love of Christ is constraining us, judging this, that if One died for the sake of all, consequently all died” (2 Cor.5:14). In reality, those who are wise according to the flesh are not wise; no one can truly be called strong or noble. These value judgments are only temporary, part of what seems to be so for the present. But in faith, we see all put to death in the death of Christ, and all headed up in the Christ in vivification and reconciliation.
Since this is so, the teaching of everlasting hell is proven false. It is a doctrine that distorts and hides God’s character and that denies His deity. “O, the depth of the riches and the wisdom and the knowledge of God! . . . seeing that out of Him and through Him and for Him is all: to Him be the glory for the eons! Amen!” (Rom.11:33,36).
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