Through the Bible in a Year: Matthew 13 to 17

This is another long commentary. I hated not giving you the information because I know there are those who will really benefit from it. So today, I have introduced a new convention. Some of the sections are marked "(Advanced)." Children and beginners can deal with these sections at some other time, or maybe in another read through next year. Or they could be set aside for leisure study.

Matthew 13:3-15: The Parables

I mentioned yesterday that you would see a change in the way Jesus taught the people after the Pharisees blasphemed the Holy Spirit. Now, everything is in parables.

The reason that Jesus gives is interesting, and it could be frightening if we don’t keep it in context. Does God really want people to have hardened hearts and not hear the Word of God?

The answer is yes, but it is not random people. We saw yesterday that it is the "wise and prudent" from whom he hides the word (Matt. 11:25, NASB). These are those that are wise and prudent in their own estimation rather than having a true wisdom in humility before God. God speaks of them often (e.g., Jer. 9:23-24; 1 Cor. 1:27).

Thus, the point of parables is that when Jesus speaks to a crowd, he lets the Father choose who will hear and who will not hear. Parables come, and if the person "has ears to hear," then the Father will let him understand the parables. If not, then the Word of God has not been thrown to pigs and dogs (Matt. 7:6).

Matthew 13:16-23: Those Who Have Ears To Hear

In private, among those who have ears to hear, Jesus spoke more plainly, being willing to explain each parable carefully even when he seemed a little frustrated with their lack of understanding (Matt. 15:15-16).

Matthew 13:18-23: The Word

In modern times, when we say "The Word," we usually mean the Bible. That is far too small a way to use "The Word."

Jesus himself is called the Word of God (Jn. 1:1-3). Every time God speaks, in any way, it is the Word of God. Even further, though, the Word of God can be like a seed that is planted in our heart that actually grows (Acts 6:7; Jam. 1:18,21-22; 1 Pet. 1:23).

On a practical basis, we need to understand that we have the Word of God living in us, growing in us … if we are Christians. Just as we must not underestimate the supernatural power of being a Spirit-filled human being (as a result of entering the new covenant with God through Christ), so we must not underestimate the power of the Word of God within us.

It is because of the Word of God that "you may all prophesy, one by one" (1 Cor. 14:31).

We need to get out of our religious boxes and not confine the idea of prophecy to standing up in church and shouting, "Thus saith the Lord!" In a church of three or four hundred people, you may not all prophesy one by one in that manner. It would be disorderly (1 Cor. 14:31-33).

Instead, the apostles lived as people in whom the Word of God lived. They spoke what the Holy Spirit gave them to say. How many times did Peter pass the crippled man at the Gate Beautiful before the day that he fixed his eyes on him, pulled him to his feet, and healed him in Jesus’ name? (Acts 3:2-11). Would the crippled man listening to Paul have been healed had Paul not known that the Word of God comes in more forms than the Scriptures? (Acts 14:8-10).

Matthew 13:18-23: The Hearers (Advanced)

It will help us to remember that not everyone is meant to hear. We can wear ourselves out hoping to reach people that God has no intention of reaching because they are among the wise and prudent from whom God is purposely hiding the Word.

There are those that will not hear. We can speak the Word, but we cannot open spiritually deaf ears on our own. God must do that. Just as Jesus began to speak in parables and to leave the sorting of men to his Father, so we must leave the sorting of men to our Father. We must simply be faithful to let the Word of God grow within us through fellowship with God by his Spirit, through the study of the Scriptures, and through following the Spirit and the Word of God as they move inside of us—all balanced by the wise input of spiritual brothers and sisters who are with us in the church and without whom we are always in danger of deception (Heb. 3:13; Eph. 4:11-16).

Matthew 13:24-30: Tares Among the Wheat (Advanced)

This is an important parable to remember. We must be careful of our judgment, and we must be careful that in driving out those that we think are not qualified to be in the church, that we are not plucking one of our Father’s plants.

On the other hand, this parable is often taken too far today and used to justify the fact that we never put anyone out of the church, nor do we make much effort to know the lives of the flock well enough to know if anyone needs to be put out of the church.

The church must be protected. The apostle Paul is very clear about this (1 Cor. 5), and we must find the balance between the mercy and patience of the parable of the tares and dealing with things that must be dealt with inside the church of 1 Corinthians 5.

Matthew 13:33-35: The Leaven

Some parables are not explained by Jesus, and they’re subject to a lot of interpretations by Christians. It’s not my place to interpret parables for you, as you should be able to tell from the context of our reading today.

I do want to point out, though, that these are parables. Every tiny detail does not need to work out. It’s enough to get the main points.

Also, we have to be careful to question our assumptions. "Leaven" is often used negatively in the Bible, especially in the apostles’ writings. That may mean that in this parable leaven is something bad, and it’s talking about how the church will be corrupted. It is also possible, however, that we must question our assumption and look at leaven not as something bad, but simply as something that tends to permeate everything it becomes a part of.

Matthew 13:47-52: End Times (Advanced)

Jesus says some things about the end times in the parable of the fishing net and in the parable of the wheat and tares that are interesting.

Anyone who has been a Christian for very long is familiar with the term "rapture." Rapture is a reference to the return of Jesus, where he raises up all the dead in Christ, and then living Christians immediately follow. At that point, Paul says, we will be "with the Lord forever" (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

Jesus’ parables, however, don’t paint exactly the same picture. In the parables, there is the return of Christ with his angels, and then his angels gather the wicked out of the kingdom.

It’s sort of backwards from the rapture idea. One has the saints pulled out; the other has the wicked pulled out.

What I think is important to remember is that there are two types of prophecies (and maybe more). There are warning prophecies, clear and straightforward, telling you how to prepare for some upcoming event or warning you that you’ll be punished if you don’t repent. Those are straightforward and easy to interpret.

Then there are prophecies which are sent for the future as landmarks and proofs that large, important events are on the right path.

No one has ever been able to figure out the second type of prophecy in advance. No one—not anyone—sorted out the prophecies of Christ before his first coming. There were numerous theories about the Messiah, but not a one of them was correct until Jesus showed up and explained the Scriptures and then fulfilled them.

We should be very careful about having confidence in any theories we have about the second coming of King Jesus.

Matthew 13:58: Not Many Miracles

The Bible tells us that Jesus didn’t do many miracles in his hometown because of their unbelief. I have to wonder how many miracles we miss out on because of the unbelief of America and most of the western world.

Don’t be surprised if you hear many more miracle reports from the front lines of missions in third world countries, where the people are still "ignorant" and "superstitious." Sometimes those are code words for "believing" and "in touch with spiritual things."

God has always hidden things from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. It is not our brilliant scientific insights that are "exposing" miracles and thus preventing them from happening. No, they happen all the time.

The fact that I’m sitting here typing this commentary on my last day of chemo after two weeks of radiation prior is a testimony to the miracle of prayer. Those things happen on a daily basis if you’re watching.

There’s an interesting blog by a Christian living in the Middle East who ministers to Muslims. You may be interested in his quite honest stories about praying for healing for Muslims.

Matthew 15:1-14: The Traditions of Men

Nothing on Matthew 14. I felt it could speak for itself.

You should notice the little regard—in fact, the distaste—that Jesus had for adding man’s traditions to the Word of God.

Tradition is not a bad word in and of itself. The traditions of the apostles are the Word of God (1 Cor. 14:37; 2 Thess. 2:15). It is to the apostles that God commissioned the bringing of the Gospel to the world (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; John 14:26; 16:13; 17:8, 18-20).

The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ. (Clement, 1 Clement 42, A.D. 96)

The Church, though dispersed through the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith … (Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:10:1, c. A.D. 185)

I could produce dozens of quotes like that. Just as Moses brought the Law to Israel, and it was inappropriate for the elders to add traditions to the Law later, so the apostles bring the Gospel to the church, and it is inappropriate to add traditions to the traditions of the apostles (Jude 3).

Matthew 15:21-28: The Syrophoenician Woman

I mentioned yesterday that Jesus was hard on Gentiles because he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Nonetheless, when they stood in faith, he gave them what they wished and often remarked upon the greatness of their faith.

In this case, it’s the Syrophoenician woman, and her persistence is phenomenal.

Whenever we run across such examples of faith, it is good to look at the reading and consider what really marked her as a woman of faith. Her persistence, clearly knowing that Jesus could do what she was asking him to do, was the hallmark I see. You may see something more. The point in either case is to learn to imitate her.

Matthew 16:1-12: The Frustration of Jesus

In chapter 15 we read that Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. He fed more than 4,000 people with seven loaves and a few fish. He healed whole crowds of people, who were left marveling.

Immediately, thereafter, we read at the start of chapter 16 that the Pharisees asked him for a sign.

Is it any wonder that he told them forget it?

Worse, his disciples immediately follow by worrying about whether they had remembered to buy bread for a man who can feed thousands of people with a few loaves! Is it any wonder he said, "How can you not understand?" (v. 11).

Matthew 16:13-20: Peter the Rock (Advanced)

This passage of Scripture has been a hotbed of contention between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants ever since the Reformation. To any serious student of history, however, it cannot be.

Jesus calls Peter the Rock in this verse, and says that he will build the church on Peter. The Roman Catholic Church has historically interpreted this to mean that because Peter lived in Rome and appointed the first church leaders in Rome, that everything Jesus says here applies to the leaders at Rome, in particular their bishop, who is now known as "the pope."

Since Protestants don’t agree with this, they have attempted to use the Greek word for Peter (petros) and the Greek word for rock (petra) to distinguish between Peter and the Rock. They have also tried to deny that Peter ever really went to Rome.

Historically, none of these arguments work. The reason that the name Peter is petros and rock is petra has to do with the way names work in Greek. Peter, being a man, needs a name ending in -os. You don’t name guys Petra, not in ancient Greece. It messes up the language.

On top of that, if you’ll excuse my flippancy here, any 1st grader can tell that Jesus is calling Peter the rock from the context. You will rarely go right when you pick at words to make a sentence say something drastically different than what it seems to say. (The exception is if you can prove a translation error, in which case there are plenty of good translations out today. You should be able to get at least one or two of those to back your new wording.)

Peter, obviously, is not the main rock of the Church. Jesus is. Jesus is called the chief cornerstone repeatedly (Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:5-7). Together, all of us are being built up into a spiritual habitation for the Lord, and we are all stones in this building (1 Pet. 2:4-10). This does not change the fact that Jesus said what he said to Peter, the very first rock added to Jesus in the building.

Secondly, there is abundant historical evidence that Peter was in Rome. It is the consistent testimony of the early Christians, and even Protestant scholars admit that Babylon was almost certainly a code name for Rome in 1 Peter 5:13, indicating Peter wrote that letter from Rome and even describes himself as an elder there (5:1).

However, there is no historical evidence that any early Christians tried to transfer Peter’s authority to the church at Rome. Roman Catholic apologists have made diligent, and disappointingly dishonest, attempts to establish that they did, but those don’t hold up. The first Roman bishop to claim that he had primacy over all churches—or perhaps only over Roman and north African churches—was Stephen, and that wasn’t until over 200 years after Christ. His claims were rejected by everyone.

The full historic arguments are covered at Is the Roman Catholic Church the One True Church as briefly as possible. The arguments are far too long to address here, but I am confident, after numerous debates with Roman Catholic apologists, that the arguments are not doubtful.

Matthew 16:13-20: Can the Church Fall? (Advanced)

Jesus says that the gates of Hades will not be able to stand against the church which will be built upon Peter (as well as the other apostles—Eph. 2:20).

Does this mean the church can never fall, as some major ancient churches claim in defense of themselves?

If it does, then Jesus’ prophecy failed because overall, the "church" suffered a terrible fall in the fourth century. It merged with the government, allowed the government to control many of its leaders, and became filled with people who never would have been allowed into the church before that time. The result was violence, bloodshed, intrigue, and political involvement that makes the church after the fourth century incomparable with the church before it. (See Fall of the Church for more information.)

So what does Jesus mean?

Notice that it is the "gates" of Hell that will not stand before the church. Gates are not offensive weapons against which the church must defend. Gates are defensive weapons, and rescuing people from Hades is what the church is all about!

When the church stands and obeys Christ, the gates of Hades will be completely ineffective at stopping it.

When it marries the world, loses holiness, enters into fellowship with the unrighteousness (2 Cor. 6:14-18), and puts its cares in the things of the world, then the gates of Hell will still not prevail. They will simply stand, unassailed by a worldly, counterfeit church.

Matthew 16:21-23: Peter Rebukes Jesus!

You know things are wrong when the disciple is rebuking the Master!

We must all be aware that just because we have recently come from the height of our spirituality, we are not immune to being influenced by earthly, self-confident thinking. In fact, perhaps we are more prone to thinking wrongly because our spiritual high may have made us overconfident!

Peter’s great pronouncement, which led to Jesus’ calling him "Rock," was followed immediately by rebuking him and even calling him "satan," or "the adversary," as satan can be translated.

Matthew 16:28 – 17:8: The Kingdom of God with Power

Each time we read in the Gospels that some of the apostles will soon see the kingdom of God coming with power, the statement is followed by the story of the mount of transfiguration. This was the preview that the most central apostles received of the the kingdom of God with power.

Matthew 17:9-13: Elijah

Once again we have a taste of a prophecy (Mal. 4:5) that everyone thought they understood in the time of Jesus, and Jesus gives a completely different twist to it. The coming of Elijah was fulfilled by John the Baptist!

This wasn’t because God couldn’t actually send Elijah. Several apostles had just seen Elijah talking with Jesus. God could have sent him, but he chose instead to send John the Baptist in the spirit and power of Elijah.

Despite the fact that all Christians know this, many still await a coming of Elijah as though they’ve forgotten Jesus’ interpretation!

Perhaps there is a literal coming of Elijah before the last day, but it would be good if we held all our thoughts about end time prophecy very lightly, knowing that God is not in the habit of revealing the whole story in advance, but just giving enough to bolster our faith and provide a roadmap as the events happen.

Matthew 17:14-21: The Demoniac (Advanced)

When Jesus and the apostles returned from the mount of transfiguration, they discovered that the other apostles had been unable to cast the demon out of a boy.

Jesus casts the demon out, and when the apostles ask why they could not, Jesus tells them it’s because they don’t have enough faith. If you have a King James Version or New King James Version, you’ll find your Bible adding that this kind of demon only comes out by prayer and fasting.

It’s not in the more modern translations because our study of the texts of the apostles writings that have been saved makes us think that Matthew did not originally write the statement about prayer and fasting.

I believe I have already mentioned to you that historically, God has not gone out of his way to preserve exact sentences and words for us. No inspired texts have come down to us without some confusion in tiny specifics. For example, some texts of Matthew have that sentence, but most don’t.

In this case, Matthew may not have written the part about prayer and fasting, but Mark did (9:29).

There’s something to learn from that. It’s not necessarily true that such power was only possible if prayer and fasting happened first. The apostles themselves, lacking in faith at that time, would have needed prayer and fasting to build their faith. It’s not that prayer and fasting, necessarily, were required for the demon to leave. In the end, the problem was their lack of faith, not their lack of prayer and fasting, but prayer and fasting can be a route to greater faith.

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