Exposition of Matthew 13:18-23, Parable of the Four Soils – Part 3

Why do people have different responses to Jesus and his message? This question is as relevant today as it was when Jesus brought his light to Galilee.

Matthew 13:18-23

18 Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.


In his explanation of the parable, Jesus reveals why his message has received a mixed response. The fault lies not in the message but in the hearts of the listeners. Even the good soil manifests different levels of fruitfulness. The complex parable gives the disciples a framework for understanding what is going on.

The path

Buried in NIVs imperative listen (verse 18) is the Greek personal pronoun for you that leads off the sentence to give it emphasis. The blessedness of the disciples mentioned in verses 1617 is expressed by the fact that they, and not others, are now to receive a plain explanation of the parable.

The first case is the seed sown along the path (verse 19), and Jesus makes clear that the hard path is a metaphor for a heart that hears the word about Gods rule but does not understand. Their failure to hear gives the evil one opportunity to snatch the word from their heart. Thus do many of Jesus contemporaries make the same error as their ancestors and reach the same result. Osborne correctly calls this response studied rejection.[1] NO CROP.

The rocky ground

Though Galilee was very fertile, certain areas had a thin layer of topsoil over a layer of rock. In the story world, some seed falls on this soil (verse 20), and it would seem that a celebration is in order. Not so fast!

Jesus describes the initial reception of the word as receiving it at once with joy. Jesus suggests that initial response, even feeling joy, is not the relevant measure of spiritual success. Indeed, Jesus says this person has no root in himself (NET, ESV), a condition that France interprets as a lack of inner conviction.[2] Osborne explains that the root of a tree or plant is a common ancient metaphor for commitment.[3] The lack of a root makes their response both temporary and reliant on favorable external conditions. When persecution or trouble comes, they stumble away as quickly as they showed initial joy. NO CROP.

Among thorns

Remember that the soil represents the openness or receptivity of the hearers heart to the word (seed) of God being sown. Some hearts already have plants that are thriving when the seed falls among them; those pre-existing plants are thorn bushes. The thorn bushes represent worldly cares and the deceitfulness of wealth. The worldly cares should be familiar to all of us, but expectations from family and society stand high on the list. The deceitfulness of wealth, and the inability of anyone to serve both worldly wealth and God at the same time show how the thorns choke the word. NO CROP.

The good soil

Jesus says the good soil represents those who hear the word and understand it. For us to understand what Jesus means, we must critique how modern people think. Hear in our culture means something like sitting and listening to a sermon, and then going home unchanged. Understand in our culture means grasping something conceptually. Today someone may say that Beijing is the capital of China. I am informed of concepts, but my behavior is unchanged. If I use the information to fly to Beijing as a man who belongs to Jesus, then I am hearing and understanding in the sense Jesus means.

How would a Christian who knows you well, describe your relationship to Jesus? Would it be more about being satisfied with knowing sound doctrine, or would they comment about how your faith translates in love and care shown to others?

If no crop results from Jesus word that has fallen into the soil of my heart, then no hearing and understanding have taken place. But as my behavior and actions put Jesus words into practice, then we have: A CROP! And that crop shows a level of production proportional to my demonstrated devotion to Jesus.

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

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)513.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)520.

[3] Osborne, Matthew, 514.

Exposition of Matthew 13:10-17, Parable of the Four Soils – Part 2

If you hear ten sermons on the Parable of the Four Soils, chances are that every one of them will mostly ignore the center section (verses 10-17) and press on toward the interpretation Jesus gives later (verses 18-23). We do better to pay attention to the way Jesus presented the parable. Though the center section is difficult, it will reward our attention.

Perhaps your best introduction to this section would be to consider your own level of spiritual interest. The fact that you are reading this blogis a mark in your favor.

Matthew 13:10-17

10 The disciples came to him and asked, Why do you speak to the people in parables?

11 He replied, Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

15 For this peoples heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes.

Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.


The disciples immediately sense the difference in Jesus teaching because he is using parables (verse 10). Here is the crucial difference between Jesus disciples and others: when puzzled, the disciples come to Jesus to seek further information. Of course, their question might also express mild criticism of this course change.

Matthew 13:11 He replied, You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but they have not. (NET, emphasis added)

The NET Bible does a better job with verse 11, so I have shown it above. Though you cannot tell in NETs translation he replied (verse 13), Jesus signals in Greek that his words are both important and surprising.[1] Note the bold-face words: Jesus is making a powerful contrast between his disciples (you) and others (they). You can see that the pronoun you, appears at the start of the sentence for emphasis. Jesus is willing to explain the secrets of Gods kingship to the disciples, but he is not revealing these secrets to those who are uninterested.

If that interpretation sounds unlikely, look at verse 12. Those who have a relationship to Jesus will get an increasing amount of understanding, to the point of abundance. Those lacking a relationship to Jesus will get nothing and fall ever farther away. Once again, in verse 13, Jesus uses Greek words that signal introduction of a key idea: the national response against Jesus fulfills what Isaiah the prophet had said long ago (verses 13b-14).[2] When plain teaching authenticated by miracles does not penetrate someones heart, their heart is hardened against change. Isaiah says that they will not repent.

When never means maybe

Before I discuss verse 14b, I want to explain why finding the right interpretation matters to you. Jesus was speaking about how Jews resisting the knowledge of God gradually degraded their ability to respond to God at all. The principles he lays out also apply to people we know who have heard about Jesus but are holding him at arms length or rejecting him entirely. Do those people have any chance at all of responding later, or has their opportunity for eternal life been lost forever?

A closer look

Matthew 13:14b (NIV) You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.

Matthew 13:14b (NET) You will listen carefully yet will never understand, you will look closely yet will never comprehend.

It is not uncommon for translation disagreements to occur in spots where the New Testament quotes (or paraphrases) the Old Testament. Matthew 13:14b is such a place, because Jesus quotes Isaiah 6:9-10. NIV’s translation sounds beautiful with its rhyming combination ever … never. This combination is an adverbial idea stressing time. But NET’s translation shows that other choices are possible, even preferable. NET also uses an adverbial idea the right approach to this grammatical knot but the words carefully and closely are adverbs of intensification, not time.

We are not finished with verse 14b, until we deal with the translation never. New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg is not fond of never as an English translation of the Greek phrase: Ever and never are somewhat misleading translations in light of Isa. 6:13, which looks forward to a future restoration of at least some of those who are now obdurate [hardened].[3] Blomberg prefers this translation of verse 14b: You will surely hear but not understand; you will surely see but not perceive. This is a generalization, and some specific exceptions may occur. How do I know exceptions exist? Because, as Blomberg noted, God declares that a remnant of believing Jews will always remain. Snodgrass explains that having ears to hear is one mark of the remnant in the time Jesus is teaching.[4]

Blomberg certainly put his finger on the right issue. A certain two-word phrase in Matthews Greek text means one of the following: never, not at all, by no means, or certainly not. If Jesus meant never in its normal English sense as NIV believes than no descendant of Abraham from that moment until the cross would put their faith in him, including his mother and brothers. We know that is not true.

So, we have two alternatives: 1) try one of the other meanings for the two-word phrase, or 2) take the phrase in a figurative sense rather than a literal one. Snodgrass prefers the figurative sense. He argues that the harsh language if Isaiah 6:9-10 was intended to shock the Israelites so that some would hear and follow. Jesus used this Isaiah passage for the same purpose, not literally but forcefully, to provoke the people and bring about both hearing and obedience.[5]

At the end of our interpretive effort, certain facts are decisive: 1) In spite of the harsh language of Isaiah 6:9-10, Jesus is still trying to reach the Jews, and 2) The set of four similitudes includes the good soil that receives the seed and produces a crop. So, the situation of those listening to Jesus is dire, but not hopeless.

A time like no other

Our Lord said some things that Christians ignore; perhaps they have been poorly briefed. The period of time that Jesus spent in the physical presence of his disciples was a time of unparalleled blessing (verses 16-17). Who says so? Jesus. That time was special!

We, on the other hand, are in a similar position to many prophets and righteous people (verse 17) in that we do not have the amazing experience that the first disciples had. Of course, our position is wonderfully enriched by the presence of the Holy Spirit within every believer and the knowledge of Jesus resurrection.

What is sometimes harder for us is to get is that not every word in the Gospels is addressed to us, even though we can still gain insight from it. Some of what Jesus said was meant to be applied on the spot, but not later. The statement that the disciples were benefactors of a special blessing is such a case.

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

[1] Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 145, explaining redundant quotative frames.

[2] Runge, Discourse Grammar, 49, on how certain Greek phrases introduce key ideas.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 217.

[4] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008)161.

[5] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 160-161.

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.


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?


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?


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.

Putting Your Heart on Display, Matthew 12:33-35

Contrary to what many think, we have to make judgments about others on a routine basis. Jesus both models and teaches how we can determine the people we want as our friends and the ones to keep at arms length.

Matthew 12:33-35

33 Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. 35 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.

List the metaphors you see in this short passage?


Matthew 12:33 is one of the most difficult to understand in Matthew’s Gospel, particularly because most of our English versions fail to make its original meaning clear. We will take a closer look.

My rough translation:“Either take as an example that a tree is good, and so its fruit is good. Or take as an example that a tree is rotten, and so its fruit is rotten. Because it is from its fruit that a tree can be understood.”[1] (Matthew 12:33).

My paraphrase:“If you want to understand the quality of a tree, start with its fruit. Good fruit means that the tree is good. Rotten fruit means that the tree is rotten.” (Matthew 12:33).

After producing my analysis above, I discovered the following translation (or paraphrase) of verse 33 from the New Living Translation: “A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.” This shows once again that NLT tends to shine when idioms are being used by the authors of the New Testament books.

This understanding of verse 33 may be confirmed from the context. Jesus has been healing people and casting out demons. Everyone understands that these acts are good, approved by God, as is shown by their pensive question, “Could this be the Son of David [the Messiah]?” (Matthew 12:23).

That question shows that the people who saw Jesus work his miracles of healing and exorcism understand those deeds to be good, and so they take the person doing the deeds to be good. They are judging Jesus by his fruit. However, the Pharisees are trying to confuse everyone by saying that Jesus works his miracles using Satan’s power (Matthew 12:24). With their spiritual authority, they are trying to sell the idea that it was a rotten tree that produced this good fruit.

When we get to verse 33, Jesus is reminding the crowd of the right way to judge a tree, and that is by the quality of the fruit.

Having shown that the Pharisees are guilty of such intentional evil that they cannot be forgiven, Jesus adopts a metaphor for them that John had used: “You brood of vipers” (verse 34a). As vipers, their mouths contain poison! The lies they have told about Jesus come from evil hearts, just as the rhetorical question in verse 34a suggests.

When we get to verse 35, the metaphor seems to change to viewing the heart as a well and the words from the Pharisees’ mouths as the overflow from their innermost self, their heart. Jesus has already said that they are evil, so their poisonous words make a consistent picture. Small wonder that people would stay clear of them.

In verse 35, Jesus contrasts two kinds of people using the metaphor of a treasure house. This verse has two instances of the Greek verb ekballo that we have previously seen with the meaning “cast out” or “drive out” in relation to demons driven out of a person by Jesus. Here ekballo occurs with the meaning “bring forth” and represents the actions taken by the person themselves. The good man brings forth good treasures, while the evil man brings forth evil treasures. Imagine a Christian showing kindness to another person, or a terrorist killing them without an editing thought.

Verse 35 begs the question: what kind of treasures are you storing? Have your treasures changed quality since you gave your allegiance to Jesus Christ? Explain.

You can see that Jesus has used the metaphors of the tree, the well and the treasure house to say that what is in the heart will emerge to be seen by others, especially God. People can only see our deeds and our words, but God knows our hearts and everything that emerges from them!

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

[1] BDAG-3, poieo, take as an example (meaning 5.b.); kai, and so (meaning 1.c.), q.v.

Restraining the Strong Man, Matthew 12:29-32

I have often mentioned metaphors, and I have done so because the Bible has an abundance of them. When Jesus says, I am the bread of life (John 6:35), he is speaking metaphorically, not literally. Two noted experts explain that metaphors help us understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another.[1] The importance of metaphors lies in the fact that they help us try to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally, such as spiritual realities.

The way metaphors are normally used is to explain something unfamiliar by using language about something familiar. All of us have experienced bread, and that experience allows us to understand something about Jesus and to share that understanding with each other.

When I encounter a Bible passage, one of the first things I do is find the metaphors in it. They provide new windows into the passage — a metaphor, of course!

Matthew 12:29-32

29 Or again, how can anyone enter a strong mans house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

What metaphors do you see in verse 29?


Of course, verse 29 relates strongly to its context, particularly verse 28, where Jesus has mentioned casting out demons by the Spirit of God as proof that the rule of God has overtaken the Pharisees and their allies. Typical of his writing, Matthew 12:30 looks back to Isaiah 49:24-25, where God promises to rescue his people from their oppressors.[2] In Isaiah’s prophecy, the enemy is described as a warrior or conqueror –powerful, but certainly no match for Yahweh!

The strong man of verse 30 is a metaphor referring back to the warrior/conqueror in Isaiah, the one defeated by God. But, in the context of Matthew 12, particularly verses 22 and 26, the strong man represents Satan. The exorcisms performed by Jesus are a direct attack on Satan’s kingdom, represented metaphorically by his house. The possessions (verse 30) that Jesus carries off are another metaphor for the human lives that Satan had enslaved through demon-possession or other means.[3]

Unfortunately, there is a lot of room in verse 29 for misinterpretation. Every time Jesus meets and defeats Satan — such as the temptation in Matthew 4 or the cross in Matthew 27 — someone wants to make it into a total and final defeat. For example, one group of conservative theologians argues that Satan was bound by the first coming of Christ so that he can no longer deceive the nations.[4] I consider that view to be wishful thinking since the New Testament contains a significant number of warnings about resisting Satan and his forces (Ephesians 6:11-17, James 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8-9). The truth is that, in this age, Jesus defeats Satan at will, yet Satan retains a significant ability to injure Christians and the church in general.

A Troubling Paragraph

Few paragraphs in the New Testament have caused as much anxiety as verses 30-32. Jesus begins with a metaphor in verse 30, and that metaphor could be either shepherding sheep or harvesting grain. Both activities involve gathering and scattering, but shepherding is the best option here. No room was left for neutrality about Jesus; his many miracles had proven his authority beyond all reasonable doubt. Those not gathering with Jesus were hunted by wolves.

But the nature of that reasonable doubt about Jesus miracles has been debated. Turner rightly points out that some theologians tend to generalize the unpardonable sin (verse 31) by equating it with ordinary unbelief.[5] Others want to make the unpardonable sin about murder, adultery and divorce, which in twenty-first century America cuts a wide arc through the population. One Roman Catholic source reduced the unpardonable sin almost to the vanishing point, preferring instead to emphasize the complete authority of the Church to forgive sins.[6]

Reading the text (verses 31-32) appears to narrow the sin to two elements:

  • Stubborn rejection of the most direct possible evidence: miracles worked by Jesus in the person’s presence.
  • Attribution of Jesus miracles to Satan’s power rather than to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Any sin that cannot meet those requirements may be serious, but it cannot be the one Jesus is talking about.

Solid advice about the unpardonable sin comes from Craig Blomberg, who notes that: (1) only Jesus enemies are in any danger, and (2) professing believers who fear they have committed the unforgivable sin demonstrate a concern for their spiritual welfare which be definition proves they have not committed it.[7]

Of course, the Holy Spirit did not stop working miracles through followers of Jesus. Whether it is possible to commit the unpardonable sin by claiming those are works of Satan is open to question. Personally, I have never favored living near a cliff, and balancing on one leg there seems inadvisable. :)

What should trouble us more is that those who persist in refusing to give their allegiance to Jesus will ultimately wind up in the same grim situation as those who committed the unforgivable sin. Even at this moment, God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus still offers amnesty to all who will accept it. Gather with Jesus while time remains!

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

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 5, 193.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 481.

[3] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999) 364.

[4] David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 322.

[5] Turner, Matthew, 323.

[6] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.) 423.

[7] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 204.