A Bible Lesson on Matthew 16:13-17:8

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

We pick up Matthew’s account of Jesus after a confrontation with Jewish religious leaders.  He is taking the disciples aside, away from the Jewish crowds, up into a predominantly gentile area.  The disciples have been with Him over 2 years at this point, growing in their understanding of who He really is.  It is time for Jesus to teach them very explicitly about who He is and what is soon to come for Him and them.  It is significant in our day of confused religious “pluralism” and secularism, where most people seem unable to see how anything could possibly be objectively and universally true, that Jesus takes the disciples to the region of Caesarea Philippi, and in that place draws from Peter the magnificent confession of Him as the Christ.  In terms of religious claims, this region was “it.”  It was a region loaded with (14!) temples of Baal worship, the Greeks maintained that the “god” Pan had been born there, and Herod the Great had built a magnificent and extremely visible white marble temple there in honor of the godhead of Caesar.   There, in the shadow of the shrines of competing pagan and secular religions, Jesus brings the disciples to the point of confessing His Messiahship.  The picture is one of 12 ordinary men, in the shadow of all the religious and secular claims of the world of their time, confessing the Lordship of Jesus.  Not a bad example for us today.

Matthew 16:13  Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

In asking this question Jesus is purposely employing the Messianic language of Daniel 7:13-14.

Daniel 7:13  “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.

14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.

He is implicitly claiming His place as the Christ, the anointed One.

14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

There’s general agreement that Jesus must be something out of the ordinary: maybe John come back to life, or maybe one of the prophets returned, perhaps even Elijah, the forerunner of Messiah, or perhaps Jeremiah.  The Jews had an extra-Biblical legend that just before the exile to Babylon, Jeremiah had taken the ark of the covenant and the altar of incense out of the temple and had hidden them in a cave on Mount Nebo, and that before the coming of Messiah, he would return and produce them and God’s glory would return to the nation.

15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

The issue is never what everyone else is thinking in their ignorance.  It is instead, “You’ve been graciously given a measure of light by God.  What are you personally going to do with it?”  The grammatical construction emphasizes the “you.”  YOU (plural), who do you say?

16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Peter, speaking on the behalf of all, nails it.  He clearly doesn’t understand the full implications of what he says, but he gets it exactly right.  This is not simply some Jewish prophet or even one of many competitors for the attention of man in a place of “religious diversity” like Caesarea Philippi.  This is instead the Christ/Messiah/God’s promised One, the One who has rightful claim to the throne of David, and the Holy Son of God.  This is the One who has exclusive right to the exclusive worship of every creature in the Universe.  This is a magnificent confession, completely emphatic and completely on target.  Apparently in Greek it is ten words that includes the definite article 4 times.  It is literally something like “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, the living One.”  Get this right and live consistent with it, and there is life.  Get it wrong and you have nothing.

Green commenting on the phrase title “Christ” or “anointed one” notes that 3 sorts of figures were anointed with oil in the Old Testament economy: prophets, priests, and kings.  Jesus is all of these.

17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.

It is the work of God that we come and bow the knee before His Son.  It’s absolutely essential, but not something that Peter or any of the rest of us would come to on our own.  Absolutely no human being comes to a real understanding of who Jesus is except through the revelation of the Father.  It is all of grace.  We saw that Jesus (in Matthew 11:27) said that only the Father reveals Him (Jesus) to a person, and only He (Jesus) reveals the Father to a person.  It is indeed, all of grace and all God’s doing.

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

There is (both in Aramaic and Greek) the famous play on words here.  The meaning of Peter’s name is “rock.”  Simon, son of John, from now on, you’re “Rocky,” and with rocks such as you, I’ll build My Messianic people, My community of those called out by grace.  You’re the first to fully confess Me, and so you’re the first stone in My building to be built of living stones.  The gates of death and hell will not stand against that community of faith.  Death won’t be able to hold Me or My church.

The “gates of hell” is better rendered “the gates of death.”  The idea is that the church is an eternal one.  It will not die and be shut in by the gates of death.  The people of God, Christ’s church, will live forever.

Notice that Jesus, Messiah, is inextricably linked to His people, His assembly, His church, those who are His by virtue of their confession of who He is.  It’s significant that Jesus says it is His community.  He thereby again claims to be one with the Father.  (Otherwise it would be God’s community.)

19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Peter is here singled out for responsibility, that Jesus in Matthew 18:18 clearly indicates is also given to the rest of the 12 and the church more broadly.   (Matthew 18:18  Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.)  Peter will bind and loose in several senses.  In one sense, wherever the Gospel is preached it frees some and consigns others (via their rejection of the Truth) to eternal punishment.  Peter is the first preacher in the early church.  In another sense, Peter is called on in the early church to declare what kinds of actions are in line with the Christian revelation.  The Jewish Rabbis commonly used the terms “bind and loose” in this sense, in the sense of declaring what was forbidden and what was allowed.  Peter was in some ways “chief among equals” (in the 12 and the infant church) when questions such as what was to be required of gentile converts were discussed.  (See Acts 15 in this regard.)

The church and its God-ordained leadership must have authority in our lives.  Post-moderns resist that, to their terrible detriment.  This statement (of course) says nothing close to God being obligated to follow through with whatever Peter (or any of the rest of us) independently declares.  What it says is that what Peter (and the rest of the 12 and the church more broadly) set out in accord with the will of God in terms of prescriptions for conduct, has eternal consequences and God-given authority.  Peter and the church act as stewards of what is true and has been passed to us by the God of the Bible.

20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

The time has not come for what they know to be spread abroad.  They must first really understand what the Messiahship of Jesus means, before blabbing it around.  They expect things quite different from the plan of God.  Think what a mess of things the masses would have made if they were “sure” that this guy Jesus was their long-awaited political liberator.  Even the disciples are not going to see the whole picture until after the resurrection.  Jesus must prepare them for His suffering as Messiah.  Green said, (the popular expectation) “… was too small, too nationalistic, too materialistic and earthbound.”

21 From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Peter has correctly identified Jesus.  Now Jesus explains the nature of His sacrifice on our behalf.  This is central.  He’s Messiah. He’s the Son of God.  But if that’s all there is, you and I are doomed.  His identity is essential, it is completely necessary, but it is not sufficient for our redemption without His work.  Ryle wrote, “On matters of church government, and the form of worship, men may differ from us, and yet reach heaven in safety.  On the matter of Christ’s atoning death, as the way of peace, truth is only one.  If we are wrong here, we are ruined forever.  Error on many points is only a skin disease; error about Christ’s death is a disease of the heart.  Here let us take our stand.  Let nothing move us from this ground.  The sum of all our hopes must be that ‘Christ has died for us.’ (1Thess. 5:10) Give up that doctrine and we have no solid hope at all.”

This suffering is miles from what was the popular expectation for Messiah.  To be someone like the Isaiah “suffering servant” passages prophesy?  No way!  The Jews were looking for someone that would liberate them from the Romans and return them to national glory.  The disciples may have been slightly more enlightened by this time, but they certainly weren’t ready for Jesus to be killed.

22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

This is so like us and so wrong-headed.  Here’s Peter, a mere mortal, wanting to protect and give advice to the One he’s just acknowledged as the Son of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  Absurd.  Peter has signed on with Jesus, but still thinks that he knows best and is in charge.  There is warning here.  Boice said, “It is easy for us to be exactly right one minute and terribly wrong the next.  One minute Peter is a prophet, a true spokesman for God.  The next minute he is advancing the agenda of the devil, not realizing that in trying to deflect Jesus from the cross, he is actually asking for his own damnation since apart from Jesus’ death neither he, nor any of us, can be saved. … If we are going to be right in spiritual things, it will only be to the extent that we study the Bible and grow in understanding.”   Green wrote, “Whatever spiritual experiences we may have had, we remain just as fallible and weak as ever before.  There is no plateau of spirituality to which we can ascend and be forever thereafter raised above the weaknesses that assail others.  Sin and failure are to be found in all the saints.  In this lifelong spiritual battle, victory is achieved only through ceaseless vigilance.”

Peter’s wrongheaded statement here is no small thing, no laughing matter, and Jesus’s reply is sharp.

23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Rocky, you’re another kind of rock at the moment.  You’re a big rock that I might trip on.  Remember that in the wilderness, Satan came to Jesus with the “easy way,” with plan B, a way that would avoid all this pain and suffering.  Jesus’s reply in the wilderness was in some of the same words He speaks here to Peter.

Matthew 4:10  Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'”

It is important for us to see, however, the difference between Jesus’s reply to Satan and His reply to Peter.  To Satan He says “be gone.”  To Peter He says “be gone behind me.”  The first banishes Satan from His presence.  The second tells Peter, who has been thinking and talking like Satan, to fall in behind Him like the follower he is, rather than to continue to assert his independence.  Satan is beyond redemption.  Fallen men who will repent and assume their right place as creatures are redeemable.

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Hendricksen’s paraphrase (paying special attention to the tenses) is: Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wishes to be (counted as) an adherent of mine, he must once and for all say farewell to self, decisively accept pain, shame, and persecution for my sake and in my cause, and must then follow and keep on following me as my disciple.”  Green commented, “… No fight, no victory; no cross, no crown.  Followers of Jesus must not forget that there is inevitably a lifelong battle to fight.  They are called to follow their Master in suffering, but are promised a share in his triumph.”

25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

As part of this whole sequence of events, these verses make perfect sense.  Jesus has said to the disciples that for Him to submit Himself to the will of the Father will result in suffering and death at the hands of the Jewish leaders.  Peter has exemplified our human rebellion and said that he has a better idea.  Jesus rebukes him and now says, “If you’re to have any part of me, you must submit your will entirely to God, put your own selfish ambitions to death, and follow Me as I obey the Father.”  This is not popular stuff, but is but the only way.  In any other way lies destruction.

This “deny yourself” business is not to be heard to be as trivial as abstaining from this or that for a period.  The point is rather one of obliterating “self” as the ruling principle of one’s life, and putting in its place the will of God.  That’s the kind of stuff that made Jesus willing to suffer and die.  That same stuff is required of real disciples, and if we will see clearly, it is the only attitude that makes any sense in the light of God’s great mercy toward us sinful creatures.

Think again of the call of this very same Matthew that is writing here.  Jesus came by the tax collection station and said “Matthew, drop everything and right now run along after me, no questions asked …”  And that is exactly what Matthew did.  He completely obliterated “self” as the ruling principle of his life, and ran along after Jesus.  That is true of every real disciple of Christ.

The taking up the cross is not simply bearing the hard things that come to all of us in life.  It is rather, voluntarily taking on death to our apparent temporal self-interests.  It is purposely taking the hard way for the glory of God and the benefit of others.

27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

Christ will repay each person according to what he has done.  These are not matters of idle philosophy, but rather matters of reality.  We will either truly believe that Jesus is both Christ and God and come along after Him, living consistently with His own self-denial, or we will not.  That real choice will be seen in actions.  Post-modern foolishness attempts to substitute warm feelings and “knowledge” for right actions, “thinking”/”feeling” one way while “acting” another, having it both ways.  That is a delusion.

Verses 25 and 26 say that while to some degree it is possible live skillfully in temporal self-interest and more or less “come out ahead” in this life, dying with the most stuff, that it’s a bad bargain.  Human beings can’t both live for self and for God.  It’s one or the other, and the former perhaps “works” for a few years, but then turns to eternal misery.  The latter is joy eternal.

Matthew 17:1  And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

The best guess seems to be that they are on one of the lower peaks of Mount Hermon, near Caesarea Philippi.  Luke tells us that Jesus is now here to pray.  We’ve just heard Peter first make the magnificent confession of Jesus as both Christ and God, followed by his foolish suggestion that Jesus shouldn’t suffer, for which Jesus rebukes him and tells him that both Christ and His followers will of necessity put to death their own selfish interests and choose the will of God.  France commented, “The one who is to suffer is God’s chosen Messiah, his Son, whose true nature is revealed in divine glory.” Ryle wrote, “The corner of the veil was lifted up, to show them their Master’s true dignity.”  Calvin quite eloquently made the point that this episode will later serve to highlight for the disciples the truth that Jesus went willingly to the cross, that this is the glorious One, who indeed could have completely obliterated all opposition if that was His way.  He was going to suffer, but not out of weakness, but rather strength.

2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.

He was “transfigured”/transformed/changed.  Mark and Luke say:

Mark 9:3  and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.

Luke 9:29  And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.

What can one say?  The disciples must have had their breath taken away.  It’s one thing to have some understanding that Jesus is the Messiah and even see him do the miraculous.  But it’s quite another to see Him take on a completely unworldly appearance.

3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

Moses was the law giver, the one that led the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt.  He was the one that met God face to face in a cloud on Mount Sinai.  Elijah was the prophet widely held by the Jews to have been the greatest of the prophets, the one that was to appear to prepare the way for Messiah.  He was the one that didn’t suffer death, but was taken up to God’s presence in a chariot of fire.  These are the ones talking with Jesus.

Luke says:

Luke 9:30  And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah,

31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Jesus, the fulfiller of the Law and the Prophets is talking with Moses and Elijah about His impending Passion.  The word “departure” is the word “exodus.”  Moses, the leader of the exodus from Egypt is speaking with the Son of God about His provision for us, an exodus from our bondage to sin, hell and the grave.

Peter again blurts out.  Luke indicates that it was as Moses and Elijah were leaving that Peter jumps in.  There’s a whole lesson in itself there about our human desire to remain forever on the mountaintop.

4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Peter is babbling.  What he proposes is just silly.  What real purpose could it serve?  Besides, it is just wrong-headed.

Mark 9:6  For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

He wants to prolong this experience, but in his babbling, he says something really quite inappropriate.  He is presumptuous in even figuring that he has a place to butt in here.  He really ought to be in a “speak when spoken to” mode.  But even worse, Peter unthinkingly lumps Jesus together with Moses and Elijah.  Should he make three lean-to’s on the mountainside?  There are three important people here, right?  The answer of the Father is clear.

5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Here is the Shekinah glory of God, the visible presence of the Father that led the Israelites in the wilderness and filled Solomon’s temple at its dedication.  And the voice says “It’s my Son that you ought to be paying attention to here!”  This is not Jesus and two equals discussing strategy here.  These are representatives of the Law and Prophets speaking as creatures, with the very fulfillment of the Law and Prophets.  The Father speaks of Jesus in exactly the terms used at His baptism in Matthew 3:17 and then adds “listen to Him.”

Ryle wrote this: ” ‘Hear ye Him.’ Let us see, in these words, a striking lesson to the whole Church of Christ. There is a constant tendency in human nature to ‘hear man.’  Bishops, priests, deacons, popes, cardinals, councils, Presbyterian preachers, and independent ministers, are continually exalted to a place which God never intended them to fill, and made practically to usurp the honour of Christ.  Against this tendency let us all watch, and be on our guard.  Let these solemn words of the vision ever ring in our ears: ‘Hear ye Christ.’

The best of men, are only men at their very best. Patriarchs, prophets, and apostles,—martyrs, fathers, reformers, puritans,—all, all are sinners, who need a Saviour: holy, useful, honourable in their place,—but sinners after all.  They must never be allowed to stand between us and Christ. He alone is ‘the Son, in whom the Father is well pleased;’ He alone is sealed and appointed to give the bread of life; He alone has the keys in His hands: ‘God over all, blessed forever.’ (Romans 9:5.)  Let us take heed that we hear His voice, and follow Him; let us value all religious teaching just in proportion as it leads us to Jesus.  The sum and substance of saving religion is to ‘hear Christ.'”

This is consistent with what God told the people of Israel long before through Moses.

Deuteronomy 18:15  “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers–it is to him you shall listen–

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.

No kidding?  Do you think one might remember this for a while?  We hear about it from the pens of both Peter and John.

John 1:14  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

2Peter 1:16  For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,”

18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

Post-moderns are generally too casual in their thinking about being in the presence of God.  Indeed except for the presence and sponsorship of our Savior the Lord Jesus, it would be a completely terrifying prospect.

7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”

“Rise and have no fear.”  Unless Jesus is divine, this is empty.  He must supply what is needed here, or this is really no help.  Thank God, He has the goods and has compassion for us His sheep.

8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

This is loaded with symbolism.  They see only Jesus, not Moses, not Elijah.  It is He who is supreme and it is He who can bring them safely into the presence of the Father.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Matthew 14:13-36

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Jesus has begun to be the object of resistance from the religious establishment, and has been teaching and preparing His disciples.  Now news has come that John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod Antipas.  This is an occasion for prayer and quiet.

Matthew 14:13  Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

This “desolate place” is not an arid desert, but rather an uninhabited part of an area that at this time is full of villages of decent size, in all probability even a grassy spot.  Jesus is simply headed out of town to the countryside with His disciples.

14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

This is an interruption of a spiritual retreat for Jesus and His 12.  But Jesus is never without compassion for human beings.  The need for rest and quiet doesn’t trump the presence of those asking for help.  And it goes on to late in the day.

15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

They are out in the country.  There are no taco stands or even village markets nearby.  The disciples really have nothing with which to see that this crowd gets fed.  But the fact that they have no resources that bear on this situation is not the end of the matter.  Hendriksen commenting on this passage correctly makes the point that a disciple’s lack of resources (or the disciple’s fatigue, or …) does not absolve him or her of responsibility to respond.

16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The “you” is emphatic.  A true rendering might be something like “you, you give them something to eat.”  Now, with humans, this is an impossibility, a command that can’t be executed.  It is testimony to the fact that the disciples don’t yet understand who Jesus is, that they make their response from the point of view of humans alone.  God fed Israel in the wilderness for 40 years: many more people for a much longer time.

17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.”

Hendriksen said, ” … these men are giving an answer not of faith, but of near despair, ‘All we have here is …’; ‘We do not have (anything) here except five bread-cakes and two fishes.'”  They don’t yet see Jesus as even in the class of Moses or an Old Testament prophet like Elijah, let alone as the God and King of the universe.

18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Jesus could have simply called food into existence out of nothing … and (as Boice suggested tongue in cheek) had it appear in each person’s pocket!  But for His purposes, He uses the disciples and what they have.  What they have is, naturally speaking, completely inadequate, but that’s never the point.  He always uses His people and only as He acts is what they have sufficient for the task He’s set.

19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

He took, He blessed/gave thanks, He broke and He gave.  This was the pattern in the upper room and on the Emmaus road.  This is majestic in its simplicity.  And in this manner, the One who made all and presently sustains all feed those who are hungry this late afternoon.

20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.

This is perfect.  Messiah provides more than enough.  But there is not a ridiculous amount left over considering how many are fed.  There’s a lunch basket for each of the disciples to carry to for the next few days or to give to the poor in the next town they enter.  But there’s no huge waste.  Just as there was manna for the day in the wilderness of the Exodus, there is exactly the right amount here.

21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

He made, He compelled.  Taken together, the four Gospels tell us that at this point Jesus wanted to be alone and pray, that He wanted to rest, and that He wanted to prevent the crowd from moving toward taking Him by force to be their kind of king.  He sends the people home.  He’s responded to their human need, but His fundamental mission is not to simply feed people for a day and it’s not to be the king they expect.  It’s to be about His Father’s business.

23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.

25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.

This is between 3AM and 6AM.  They have been rowing for hours and have to be exhausted at this point.  They are in some amount of danger.

26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear.

In these circumstances, when a figure is spotted walking toward them on the water, they are probably justified in being alarmed. Is this friend or foe?  This is not in our experience with human beings.

27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

“It is I.”  This could be rendered “I AM,” the personal name of the God of the Jews.  Whether the disciples heard it this way or not is perhaps unclear.  But for us looking back on the account, this is surely there.  These guys are doing what they have been told to do by Christ.  Things aren’t going well.  There is even reason to be terrified.  But the I AM comes and says “Take heart.  Don’t be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

We’re not really told whether this was appropriate on Peter’s part.  It’s surely consistent with his character and nature.  Some think that Peter was out of line here.  Others see him as a model of Christian courage and faith.  The text doesn’t make it clear how to think about the request.  But it does teach us something unambiguous about real Christian faith.

29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.

Peter is here in at least Christ’s permissive will.  He’s quite literally in over his head, but he’s walking toward Christ.  So for the moment all is well.

30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

As long as the focus is on Christ, Peter is OK.  But as he takes his eyes off Christ and begins to calculate the danger, he begins to go under.  Jesus had told him to come, and was working the miraculous on his behalf.  But ceasing from reliance upon the immediate moment by moment provision of Jesus, he sinks.  He’s no match for the circumstances.  The provision that Christ gives is not somehow a package that operates on its own independent of Him.  Believers don’t carry it around in their pockets to be pulled out and used at their whim.  Peter is sinking.  The “faith heretics” would say he has no faith.  But the truth is that he has some amount of real faith in that he does have sense enough to cry out for mercy!  That’s a declaration of dependence on Christ.

31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Better Peter had not taken his gaze off Christ, had remained fixed on Him and His provision, had not started calculating the danger and impossibility of what he was doing at Christ’s call.  That is “little faith,” literally unbelief/to be divided in two/to be of double mind.  But Jesus is merciful and saves His weak people when they come to their senses and cry out to Him.  That’s surely inferior to relying constantly in the first place, but it’s some faith.

32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This is the first time Matthew reports the disciples worshiping Jesus.  He’s taught with authority.  He’s healed the sick.  He’s fed the multitude.  Now He’s walked on water and saved Peter from drowning, and they begin to get the picture.  The full-throated confession of Peter is coming in Chapter 16, but this is significant progress.

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick

36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Matthew 13:1-23

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a lesson on one of Christ’s most famous parables, then one of His “hard sayings,” and then His explanation of the parable.  The parable is that of the sower/soils.

A parable is literally a “laying or casting along side of each other” two things for comparison purposes.  Many people have described them as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.”   They’re short and to the point, intended to make a few points clear by drawing analogy to things that the hearer already knows.  They are not extended allegories, where every detail is meant to have significance.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory; the story of the sower/soils is a parable.

The parable of the sower/soils addresses a question that we all ask ourselves and was surely in the minds of the disciples as they began to perceive the different reactions to the Master.  “How is it that some respond to the Gospel and others do not?  How come everyone doesn’t want to follow Him?”

Matthew 13:1  That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

2 And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach.

The context is that Jesus has begun to receive serious opposition.  In Matthew 12:14 we can read that the Pharisees have already begun to plot to murder Him.  They are accusing Him of being demon-possessed and demanding that He show them signs.  At the same time there have been huge crowds pressing in on Him and He has been healing their sick.  By this point, Jesus has chosen the disciples and they’ve already had their first experience on the road, preaching without Him physically present.  Now another large crowd gathers and Jesus begins to teach.  Notice that there are at least two different groups listening here: the crowd and the disciples.  This parable will speak to both of them.

3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow.

Apparently, this could be better translated “the” sower: Jesus, or us as His representatives.  It’s, of course, possible that as Jesus is teaching there is a farmer visible on the horizon, working his field near the lake.  Fields of this day and area were long narrow strips separated by footpaths used by both men and beasts.  There wasn’t a nice Iowa county road system, but these footpaths were tramped down by use, baked in the hot middle-eastern sun and hard as concrete.

4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.

Farming practice of the time was to broadcast seed by hand over land that had either already been plowed, or would subsequently be plowed.  The point here is that since the field ran right up to the footpath, inevitably some (small) part of the seed was going to fall on the path.  And there’s another factor at work for that which hits the path.  The birds come and snatch it away.

5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil,

This rocky soil isn’t soil with a few stones in it, or big surface rocks that could be dug out and made into a stone fence.  It was a thin layer of pretty decent soil over a hard continuous limestone base.  It was soil that would support some shallow growth, but that when the sun really began to cook, didn’t have enough moisture in it to support any substantial plant.

6 but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.

The sun gives life to plants that are healthy and properly rooted.  It withers those that are not.

7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

From what commentators say, it seems that there are many weeds in Palestine that produce serious thorns.  If one fails to get a weed’s root, even otherwise good soil can harbor them and ruin a crop.  The soil here is simply already occupied.  It cannot support both the weed and the good seed.

8 Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

The seed, on good soil, produces a crop.  There are a couple of points here.  In the first place, the life is in the seed, but it is unfruitful without appropriate soil.  The seed is the same, location to location!  There is nothing wrong with the seed where there is no crop.  In the second place, there is a picture of real abundance here.  Apparently, for this time and place, a 30-fold yield was a normal/good one.  Here the yield is at least 30-fold and as much as 100-fold … all of this soil is good soil, even though some of it produces more than the rest.

Now, before Jesus explains the parable, He tells the disciples some things in plain language about how the Word of God comes to and affects both the believer and the unbeliever.  This has to do with how that Word was presented by Jesus and how the church should think about both its acceptance and its rejection.

9 He who has ears, let him hear.”

He who has ears: both those in the crowd and the disciples.  There’s warning here for those who would be either callous or casual about the Gospel.  There is encouragement here for the disciples whose job it is to sow, but may be beginning to ask “How come not everyone is joining up???  Why the resistance from the Pharisees? What happened to the cheering crowds that were here a few days ago?”  There’s instruction here for you and me as we think about how those around us do or do not respond to the Gospel.

10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”

We need to let Jesus answer this question for Himself.  Modern theologians want to make parables out to be purely verbal illustrations.  They are verbal illustrations, but that is not all they are.  They are more than just a word picture that makes a point easy to understand.

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.

To you it has been given.  Here is the sovereign hand of God.  Why is it that some humans see the grace and God and flee to Christ, while others do not?  It is clear that anything like a complete “understanding” of this is beyond our finite capacity.  But it is not beyond the control or knowledge of our Creator.  That “to you it has been given” is no basis or reason for pride.  It is not a matter of merit on the part of the “you’s.”  It should rather be a matter of gratitude and humility and wonder.

God’s kingdom is a secret or mystery, not in the sense of being hidden from plain view, or being abstruse or hard to comprehend, but in the senses of 1) not being anything we would have guessed if God hadn’t revealed it to us, and 2) not being something that can be understood by approaching it in the frame of mind of a self-sufficient rebel against our Creator.  It was formerly unknown, but is now revealed to all who will see and approach in humility.  To those who refuse to bow the knee, it remains incomprehensible.

Consider (as Barclay suggested) the Lord’s Supper as an example.  What does that look like to those outside the Christian faith?  It seems a strange little ceremony where Christians nibble a little bread and drink a little grape juice.  To believers, it is something quite other, a corporate declaration of the essentials of the faith, an appropriation of the sacrifice of Jesus for our sin.  It is in plain sight and genuinely precious, but apparent nonsense where there is no faith.

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.

Moderns don’t like the sound of this verse.  It’s not egalitarian.  It’s not “fair.”  It’s not “generous.”  But that is just our mush-headed silliness talking.  This is a statement about the way that life is.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.  We never stand still in life.  We are either getting stronger or weaker.  We are either moving toward Christ or away from Him.  There is no neutral.  We either embrace the light that we are given and are given more, or we dodge it and go further into darkness.  This is no unfairness on God’s part, this is simply the nature of being.  How could it make any sense for a person to have contempt for what he or she knows of the Gospel and to also be showered with deep insights into the faith?  That would be absurd.

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.

In the Mark and Luke versions of this statement, it is “so that they do not see.”  Here it is “because they do not see.”  The idea is not that Jesus came to hide things from humans.  Rather, He came to make the salvation of God evident.  He declared the truth in plain terms.  God doesn’t keep humanity in the dark.  But there is also the matter of not throwing pearls before swine.  Where there is no heart for the truth, where there is no taking of the first step of humble submission to Christ, where simple obedience is lacking, it would be inappropriate to speak of further matters in explicit terms where they would be held up to disdain and mockery.  Parables express profound realities in the clothing of simple stories that look like “nothing” to the person at war with God.  The consequence is that seeing they don’t see and hearing they don’t hear what is really being taught.

Jesus now quotes here from Isaiah 6:9-10

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.’

This is

Isaiah 6:9 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.”

The context in Isaiah is the call of the prophet.  God is saying that Isaiah’s preaching will have the ironic effect of causing hard hearts to be harder, and ultimately bringing God’s justly deserved judgment.  There is pathos here, no hard vindictive condemnation.  But it is a fact that truth rejected brings judgment, not blessing.  Jesus is saying that His parables will have the same effect as the prophet’s preaching.  To soft, honest hearts, desirous of God’s glory, the parables will bring light and life.  To ones proud and hard, they will not be understood and will not bring light.  Cole rightly said, ” …parables test not the intelligence, but the spiritual responsiveness of the hearer.”  One can’t really “get” a parable without having bowed his or her heart to Christ.  They must first be approached in Christian humility if they are to be rightly understood intellectually.

16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.

As in the beatitudes of Matthew 5, Jesus exclaims “How fortunate your eyes and ears!”  How to be envied your position, to really see, to really hear.  This is great mercy and privilege.  We’ve been given the whole of God’s great Gospel.  We have light abundant.

17 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.

The light God has given is to be cherished, not presumed upon or treated lightly.  We never exhaust its depth.  Jesus points us back to the saints of old who looked forward to His coming.  They could only cast themselves on the mercy of God without any clear understanding of how God was going to deal justly and finally with human sin.  But we know.  How fortunate our eyes and ears.

As we walk through life, there are those we’ll come in contact with who will fail to bow the knee.  They are not to square one.  There is no sense in expecting them to understand the teaching of Jesus.  One can only begin to do so from a place of submission to Him.  But those who know Him, who have ears, ought to hear.  Jesus now gives the meaning of the parable.

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower:

19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path.

Some people are like seed along the path. — We want to know “why?” (more or less like the two year old who asks “why, why, why?” to a series of answers his parent gives). — Jesus doesn’t tell us why.  Instead, He states the empiric fact that some people are like seed along the path, and He says plainly that there is a second influence at work, the enemy of our souls, Satan.  But note that this influence is possible only because of the condition of the soil.

20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy,

21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.

The joy in verse 20 seems to be genuine.  There is again pathos here.  These people recognize the Word of God for what it is, and have some intent to embrace it.  But there is no staying power.  Jesus has told us plainly that in addition to the ordinary trials that come with living in a fallen world, His disciples will experience trials because they belong to Him.  It’s part of discipleship.  But while those trials establish true faith and dependence upon Christ, they destroy shallow and rootless attraction to the Gospel.  Again, we want to know, “But why?”  Jesus simply leaves us with the empiric fact.

22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

 Here is not quick withering, obvious quick death.  Instead it is just slow strangulation.  Other, competing things just get in the way.  We know from other of Jesus’s parables that the end of this is not good either.  The unfruitful plant is good for nothing and is eventually dug up so the space can be used by another.

This would be a most disheartening picture if we stopped here.  But Jesus goes on.

23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

There are ways that Jesus has laid out that the Word can fail to produce fruit.  But the fact is that in spite of this, the farmer will have an abundant crop!  God has promised:

Isaiah 55:11  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

We and the disciples want to know “Why don’t they believe?”  Some of us even think we have it figured out and are willing to argue about it.  But Jesus tells us all we really need to or can know.  The seed is the same.  The seed is good.  Somehow, the only difference is the soil.  In some cases, the soil will not be productive.  But on the other hand, there WILL be a harvest, an abundant one.  God’s Word will do its work!

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.