10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 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. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ 16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
In the middle of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds—right between the parable itself and His explanation of it—Jesus offers an explanation of why He tells parables at all. His words are fascinating and illuminating and, in many ways, just as enigmatic as some of the parables He tells. Yet, they shed valuable light on the nature of the Kingdom and of salvation and how some hearts have receptive soil and others are just rocky ground.
In His explanation, Jesus speaks of two groups, one of which is blind and deaf to spiritual things and the other of which can see and hear what He is saying. These two groups will form our two points of consideration.
The Lost: Blind and Deaf
We will begin with the blind and the deaf, with those who cannot hear and receive what Jesus is saying.
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”
This is a most interesting question. On the one hand, it is a simple request for information. They are questioning Jesus on what we might today refer to as His pedagogy, His method of teaching. After all, if the message of Jesus was the message that the world most needed to hear, why would He not simply speak plainly? Was Jesus being purposefully difficult or was He perhaps “telling it slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it, in an effort to be kind to those who might not be able to handle all the truth at one?
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
No, as we will see, that does not seem to be what Jesus was doing. This was not a matter of easing people into the truth. Rather, this is a matter of some being able to receive the truth and some not being able to. But the disciples do not know that yet.
But there is something else about the disciples’ question. Is it not possible that they are masquerading their own confusion under this question about Jesus’ method? After all, in just a moment, Jesus will interpret the parable for them. Is it possible that while asking about others they are really saying, “Why will you not speak plainly to us?” Well, even that cannot be the whole truth of the matter at hand, but it is likely part of it.
Now we see Jesus’ answer.
11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 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. 14 Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
Consider what Jesus says about those who do not hear what He is saying.
- “to them it has not been given [to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven]”
- “from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away”
- “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand”
- “this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear”
- “their eyes have been closed”
In verse 14, Jesus tells us that this is in fulfillment of Isaiah. He then quotes a portion of Isaiah 6, which reads more broadly like this:
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, 12 and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.
There are two realities at play here, one of which seems straightforward and the other of which is more difficult to understand. The first is that those who are outside of Christ are spiritually deaf and blind. They cannot hear the truth. They cannot see the truth.
Perhaps you have seen this at play in your own life? Perhaps you remember when the truth of the gospel hit your ear but not your heart, when you just did not connect with it at all. Or maybe you are seeing this reality at play right now in your own family or at work or at school. Maybe there are those in your orbit that simply do not understand why you are following Jesus and why you find the gospel compelling. This is painful to watch, the inability and refusal of those you know and care about not merely rejecting the gospel but seemingly being unable to even hear it at all!
The other aspect of Jesus’ words, the one that is more difficult, is that parts of this sounds as if it goes beyond a mere recognition of the inability of the lost to hear and into a divine hardening of the hearts of the lost so that they will not. For instance, that fact that it “has been given” (v.11) to God’s people to hear and understand certainly suggests that it has not “been given” to the lost. Jesus’ reference in verse 15 to “their eyes they have closed” sounds like more than a simple recognition that they have blinded themselves. In these words and the issues surrounding them the whole issue of predestination and election rises to the surface, with all of its questions.
On the other hand, aspects of Jesus’ words here sound less determinative. When, for instance, in verse 13, Jesus says “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand,” that sounds more like a recognition of their spiritual state and not any kind of causing of it. Likewise, in verse 15, before “their eyes have been closed,” we hear, “this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear.” Does this suggest that the “closing” of their eyes is a result of the fact that their “hearts have grown dull”? In other words, is the dulling of their hearts the result of their sin and rejection of Jesus and this gives rise to a divine recognition of their rebellion in the form of a sovereign hardening of their hearts and stopping of their ears?
It is fascinating to watch interpreters of scripture wrestle with this. Consider, for instance, a few notes from two popular study bibles on the market today. Consider their theories about what is happening here.
Theory #1 – The hiding is merciful.
The HCSB Study Bible note on Matthew 13:10-13 is very interesting.
The hiddenness component of Jesus’ teaching may seem harsh, but since greater exposure to truth increases one’s accountability to God in judgment (11:20-24), the concealment may represent God’s graciousness toward those whom He knew would be unresponsive.
I must say I find this to be the oddest approach. Here the commentator is suggesting that since greater accountability comes with greater knowledge then it is actually merciful that Jesus is shielding the lost from a plain proclamation of the gospel so that their judgment is not more severe. The assumptions behind that are interesting to consider, but, for our purposes, we must say that there is nothing in the text and especially in Jesus’ words to suggest that is why He spoke in parables. The idea seems to be that Jesus is saying something like, “You are already damned, but if I speak plainly you will be even more damned.” He does not hint at such a thing in His explanation of why He speaks in parables.
Theory #2 – The hiding is partial is temporary.
On the other hand, the HCSB Study Bible offers a more substantive point when it says:
The application of this text to Jesus’ contemporaries probably implies that Israel’s hardened rejection of Jesus was not permanent, since Is 6:11-13 showed that the hearts of the people would someday be softened and that God would preserve a righteous remnant in Israel. The word “never” (Gk ou me) in the phrases never understand and never perceive means “will absolutely not” rather than “never will.” Thus the picture is of stony resistance, not permanent resistance.
That would seem to make sense. If Jesus is saying that the blindness and deafness of those who have rejected Him is in one sense a fulfillment of Isaiah 6 and if in Isaiah 6 we see some evidence that some of the blind and deaf will, in time, repent, that nuances a bit any overly-aggressive theory of election which would seem bound to the idea that the blind and deaf in our passage must inevitably remain so since they are either passed over by divine grace or actively predestined to damnation. The fact that Jesus appeals to Isaiah 6 gives a measure of hope for the blind and deaf.
Theory #3 – The hiding is determinative.
And some interpretations, like this seen in the ESV Study Bible, stress the predestinarian aspect of Jesus’s words.
God sovereignly uses the parables to either harden a person’s heart so that he or she will be unable to respond (v. 15), or to elicit the positive response of coming to Jesus, asking for an explanation, and accepting his message (cf. v. 10).
Here, the parables are actively employed in the hardening, tools used “to either harden a person’s heart…or to elicit the positive response…”
What are we to make of this? Let me suggest a few things.
First, determine that the text and the words of Jesus will shape your theology and not vice versa. You cannot read the Bible with a mindset of, “Well, if Jesus says something I do not like I will somehow make it fit my theology so that I do like it.”
Second, it is ok to let certain tensions rest in scripture, like the seeming tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. After all, why do we think that these profound issues must all sit nicely on our shelves with a bow on them? There is a note of election here, or a tone of it at least. On the other hand, the possibility of some, in time, repenting and seeing and hearing the truth should temper that a bit too. We must allow seemingly competing truths to rest in balance in the economy and wisdom of God.
Third, if we are to be “whole bible theologians,” it behooves to ask what the rest of scripture says. And, on this point, I think that two passages share further light.
First, do note that in Romans 1 the lost becoming “futile in their thinking” and their “foolish hearts” being “darkened” is a result of them “not honoring him as God or giving thanks.”
21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools
In other words, there is a connection between the sinfulness of man and our spiritual blindness. The author of the 5thcentury commentary on Matthew, the Opus Imperfectum, observed:
You understand that the fault is not Christ’s for not wanting to speak openly but theirs for not wanting to hear when they were hearing. For it was not because Christ spoke in parables that they seeing did not see, but it was because seeing they did not see that Christ spoke to them in parables.
Keep in mind the context of Matthew 13. We have watched the scribes and Pharisees reject Jesus, argue against Him, and turn from Him for twelve straight chapters! However else you interpret our text you cannot make it mean that Jesus looks upon good hearted people who are truly wanting to believe Him and strikes them arbitrarily with spiritual blindness and deafness! The context will not allow such an idea! No, they refused to see, so they did not see. So while there is a predestinarian note in all of this (and I do not think that should be denied) there is also a note of human responsibility.
We also need to remember that in 2 Corinthians 4 Paul speaks of the devil as an agent of blinding.
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
Here, it is “the god of this world” who “blind[s] the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing…” So, again, however else you might want to stress the predestinarian elements of Jesus’ words, there is also a note of spiritual warfare and a sense in which it is the devil who blinds us to the truth, albeit, not without (a) divine allowance and (b) human capitulation to wickedness.
So let us conclude with this:
- The lost cannot see or hear the truth.
- God is sovereign in the salvation of His people.
- Yet humanity is responsible.
- The devil seeks to blind us and render us deaf to the gospel.
- We must not allow our idea of divine sovereignty to lapse into blind fatalism whereby we give up hope. Some who are deaf and blind now may yet hear and see and believe!
The Saved: Seeing, Hearing, Believing
And what of the other group, those who can see and hear and believe?
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
Consider what Jesus says about His people.
- “To you it has been given to know…”
- The eyes and ears of the saved are “blessed.”
- The people of God are shown the truth that the wise of the world cannot and will not see!
The point is clear enough: we should be profoundly grateful to the goodness and mercy and grace of our great God! Just think of it. The deep truth of the universe is hidden from all who reject Jesus, including any great philosopher or scientist or thinker who does so, and is revealed instead to any little boy or girl who believes that Jesus is Lord! Robert Jastrow once famously wrote:
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
What, then, is our responsibility? Is it not to cry out to the blind and deaf to trust in Jesus and see and hear the truth? Is it not for us to take light to the darkened minds of humanity and call upon all to leave their darkness behind? Is it not for us to plead with the perishing to come home to the God who made them, loves them, and laid down His life for them?
 Holman Bible Editorial Staff, Holman Bible Editorial Staff. HCSB Study Bible (Kindle Locations 134138-134140). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Holman Bible Editorial Staff, Holman Bible Editorial Staff. HCSB Study Bible (Kindle Locations 134142-134146). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible (Kindle Locations 118219-118221). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.
 Thomas C. Oden, ed., Incomplete Commentary on Matthew (Opus imperfectum). Ancient Christian Texts. Matthew, vol. 2. Trans. by James A. Kellerman. Ser. Eds., Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p.240.