Exposition of Matthew 13:1-9, Parable of the Four Soils – Part 1

Probably the greatest obstacle you will face in going deeper on the parable of the four soils is that what you already know is likely wrong. Parables conceal, not reveal! France says that modern readers think of parables as helpful illustrative stories, so they miss the point that parables mean nothing until they have been explained.

Keep in mind that the things Jesus teaches in this section come just after being accused by the Jewish religious leaders of doing his mighty deeds by Satans power. On that same day, these events unfold.

Matthew 13:1-9

1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Commentary

In observing the Parable of the Four Soils, you must learn to carefully consider the context. You would be surprised how many questions can be answered by simply reading the surrounding setting of a verse or parable. And, if you learn to do this consistently, you will find that various Christian authors sometimes try to support their views by giving a Bible reference whose context tells you otherwise. This may not be intentional; they may simply be restating what they have read elsewhere.

In Matthew 11-12, we saw a lot of opposition to Jesus, and in Matthew 13 we find numerous parables, which mention the kingdom of heaven a phrase referring to Gods kingship in verses 11, 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47 and 52. It is reasonable to think that the Parable of the Four Soils deals in some way with both Gods kingship (as expressed in Jesus) and the opposition to that kingship. France explains that chapter 13 shows the disciples how Gods kingship can be resisted by his own people and sets the disciples expectations about the reception their witness will receive.[1] But it does so using parables, a form that is not self-explanatory.

The Parable of the Four Soils is clearly important. Matthew, Mark and Luke use it as their first substantive parable, and it is one of only two parables that Jesus explains in detail.[2] The reason for this primacy will unfold when I interpret the parable, but, for now, I will simply say that unless you obey this parable, none of the others will matter!

Kline Snodgrass prefers to say that this parable is a fourfold [resemblance] because it presents four instances of sowing only one successful followed by an appeal for hearing.[3] Such parallels were common in the ancient world. As France observes, the way Jesus structures the parable forces the reader to think about obstacles to growth and not just about the happy ending.[4]

Interpreting the Parable: Part 1

It is hard to imagine what thoughts might have been tumbling in Jesus mind as he left the house where so much had happened and walked to the lakeside where he sat down (verse 1). He had to know that a large crowd would follow him there. Because Jesus entered and sat down in a boat (very likely with his disciples) many more people would be able to hear what he said (verse 2). Perhaps they expected him to teach as he had before, not knowing that those days were done.

You may have noticed the repetition of the phrase went out in verses 1 and 3. Jesus uses a particular Greek verb (exerchomai) to picture the farmer going out to spread seed on his land (verse 3). In writing his Gospel, Matthew chose that same verb to describe Jesus departure from the house to go down by the lake. Matthew is probably trying to give a subtle hint that Jesus is the farmer sowing seed. Since Jesus separates his interpretation of the parable from its initial expression, I will do the same, but taking note of parallel language is part of your task in interpreting the Bible. Fortunately, the NIV translators preserved the parallel language in their English translation. That does not always happen!

By focusing on four different types of soil, the parable helps us see how the farmer was thinking about his crops yield. Even within the single type of soil actually producing a crop, the variation in yield was readily apparent. Jesus audience certainly knew about such different outcomes, but, although they might have some guesses, they did not know what Jesus was trying to say about these differences. Parables conceal!

Was it possible for Jesus opponents to use these words against him? If so, how? My answer is no, but, as I tell my wife, I was wrong once.(smile)

After declaring the complex parable, Jesus gave a terse command (verse 9). I am fond of the NET Bibles translation because it captures the force of Jesus words: The one who has ears had better listen!

Copyright 2017 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)499.

[2] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008)145.

[3] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 146.

[4] France, Matthew, 504.

 

Wanting to See, Matthew 12:38-42

Surely, we would agree that if we want to see something, we are more likely to see it. When my wife and I go to Ecola State Park (on the Oregon coast) we look for Haystack Rock to the south, down the stunning beach.

Imagine a situation in which the object someone wants to see is affirmatively present, and clearly visible, yet they do not see it. I think we would agree that, in such a situation, something is fundamentally wrong. Jesus confirms!

Matthew 12:38-42

38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.

39 He answered, A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomons wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

What Old Testament figures are named in these verses?

Commentary

We have in verse 38 what looks like an innocuous request, but that is not the case. Just at the moment when Jesus has spoken about being judged for careless words about God, then (verse 38) the scribes and Pharisees make a statement to Jesus. Matthew introduces that statement using a pattern that Greek grammar tells us is significant because it draws special attention to the speech that follows.[1]

Matthew 12:39-40 39 He answered, A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Osborne explains that the Jewish religious leaders are asking for a heaven-sent spectacle, something that Jesus has already proven he will not do to draw attention to himself (Matthew 4:1-11).[2] Jesus also uses the verbal pattern to heighten the significance of his refusal and reasons (verse 39). He first notes the ongoing demand for a sign and his decision not to grant one. If you have been following Jesus ministry of healing and casting out demons, then you understand that asking for one more miracle on top of hundreds cannot be a serious request.

While it is easy to find fault with the Pharisees, how do you sometimes stop short of living by faith while waiting for a sign from God?

Since it was not obvious how any sign related to Jonah could be given (verse 39), Jesus explains it in verse 40. Remember that Matthews Gospel was written after the death and resurrection of Jesus, so Matthew knows that his readers will interpret the words of Jesus in light of his death followed by his resurrection three days later.[3]

Matthew 12:41-42 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomons wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.

To understand verses 41-42, keep in mind that shame and honor provided the framework of the dominant moral system. Jesus is contrasting the Jews unbelieving response toward him with the positive response of the Ninevites to the preaching of Jonah. The Ninevites will find honor at the judgment by having repented at the preaching of Jonah, but the Jews of this generation will have only shame from their rejection of Jesus, because Jesus is greater than Jonah. A further source of shame for the unbelieving Jews at the judgment will be the fact that the Ninevites had been Gentiles of the most cruel and violent sort prior to their repentance.

The legendary wisdom of Solomon had convinced the Queen of the South (1 Kings 10), yet the current religious leaders were not listening to the greater wisdom of Jesus (verse 42), so she will rise with honor to condemn them at the judgment. Their shame will know no bounds.

[1] Steven, E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 150. We saw this device earlier in Matthew 11:25. The pattern consists of redundant verbs of speaking, often “answered and said.”

[2] Osborne, Matthew, 485.

[3] By Jewish reckoning, any part of a day counted as a full day. Jesus was in the grave from dusk on Friday until Sunday morning. Osborne, Matthew, 486.

The Power of Words, Matthew 12:36-37

Perhaps you remember learning as a child to say, in response to taunts:

Sticks and stones will break my bones / But words will never hurt me.

To the contrary, Jesus says our words can hurt us forever.

Matthew 12:36-37

36 But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.

Who must account for their words?

Commentary

Frivolous. That is probably my best summary of social media. My apologies to those who indulge. For those who use social media in a hostile way, the summary might be: hateful. The unfortunate truth is that the twenty-first century offers more opportunity than ever to misuse words.

Personally, I subscribe to the speech-act theory, which holds that there is little to no difference between speech and action. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer explains that we do something in speaking: “To speak is not simply to utter words but to ask questions, issue commands, make statements, express feelings, request help, and so forth.”[1] So true!

A great deal of what goes on in Matthew 12 hinges on words. The people light a fire under the Pharisees by calling Jesus “Son of David” (verse 23). The Pharisees attribute Jesus miracles to the power of Beelzebul (verse 24), an alternate name for Satan. Jesus says that such blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (verse 32), either now or later.

Against the idea that the First Amendment authorizes us to say whatever we like, Jesus says that we will be compelled to account for every empty word (verse 36). The crucial word in this phrase is the Greek adjective argon, which the standard Greek lexicon takes here to mean: “a careless utterance which, because of its worthlessness, had better been left unspoken.”[2] In agreement with “careless” are English versions HCSB, ESV and NASB. The NET Bible is close to that with “worthless.” I suppose the reason that I don’t like the NIV’s choice (“empty”) is that speech-act theory leads me to think that no word fails to make an impression. Remember that the words Jesus was condemning were words about God.

Now that we know what kind of words Jesus condemns, we need to return to verse 36 for some important work. Jesus informs us that we will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word. Does this mean that Christians can never joke about anything in a playful way? No! But it does mean that we speak about God in a respectful way without exception.

How will this revelation affect the way you speak, both to God and to others?

Some of you were peeved that the NSA was monitoring your electronic communications. Well, I have news for you: God has a surveillance program that records every word you say! Further, he may react to our words in real time. Jesus signals the importance of what he is saying in two ways. First, he begins with the phrase “I tell you,” a method of highlighting what follows. Second, he uses a certain Greek particle that marks a development in the progress of an account. To say words are important is one thing, but to bring them up on the day of judgment puts the matter on another level.

Verse 37 makes it obvious that our words are considered to be a fruit that makes it possible to show whether we are a good tree or a bad tree, in the metaphor of verse 33. If you have never been to court, understand that the difference between acquittal and condemnation is huge. As my old textbook on sea power said with classic understatement: “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day.” One day that you do not want to be ruined is judgment day!

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally prepared for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005) 63.

[2] BDAG-3, argon, careless, q.v.