Separation at the end, Matthew 13:47-50

You have surely noticed that, whether in good situations or bad, mostly our lives just rock along in a routine set of events. We take that as the way of the world and expect it, but one day all of this will suddenly stop. Then what?

Matthew 13:47-50

47 Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.


With the words once again (verse 47), Jesus launches another parable using a common element of life in Galilee, the dragnet. A dragnet could be hundreds of feet long and perhaps 6 feet wide. The top of the net was kept on the surface by floats, and the bottom forced to hang down by the use of weights. Teams of people could stretch such a net out into shallow water and gradually drag it ashore, or the net could be deployed between two boats. Either way, the dragnet scooped up whatever fish were in its path.

Jesus said that the dragnet caught all kinds of fish (verse 47), and Keener suggests that the Sea of Galilee had about 24 kinds of fish.[1] Not all were edible, and not all met the kosher requirements set down in the law. So, the fishermen dragged the net ashore and started separating the acceptable from the unacceptable.

The Parable of the Dragnet is one of the few parables that Jesus explains. He spends no time whatever on the dragnet process but focuses only on (1) the separation of the wicked from among the righteous, and (2) the terrible circumstances of the wicked after the separation.

Of all the English versions, only KJV (sever the wicked from among the just) and NASB (take out the wicked from among the righteous) rightly preserve the italicized word, translated from the Greek original. It may be that this detail is not significant, but possibly the wicked are trying to hide among the righteous. After all, who is going to step forward voluntarily to be thrown into a blazing furnace?

The parable seems to serve as Jesus confirmation that his present kingdom would indeed lead to a time when evil is obliterated.[2]

Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t eliminate evil people? How does this parable address that question?

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

[1] Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 392.

[2] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 491.

The Discovery of ANY Lifetime, Matthew 13:44-46

Because parables are flexible and humanity’s collective imagination is also, parables have been made to mean a myriad of fanciful things. Here is a novel idea: when Jesus says some text is about the kingdom of God, then that text is about the kingdom of God. Now we can take a rest. (smile)

Today’s parables answer a question that is still crucial today: just how valuable is discovering the kingdom of heaven?

Matthew 13:44-46

44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.


Kline Snodgrass likes to say that the Parable of the Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl are twins, just not identical twins.[1] In fact, neither is a full blown parable because they lack a developed plot. They are similitudes because they make a simple comparison about the kingdom of heaven. This comparison is done by the repeated phrase the kingdom of God is like, a phrase found four times in Matthew 13:44-52.

Jesus is not the treasure hidden in the field or the pearl of great value. Those ideas could be part of two useful parables, just not these two parables! Instead, Jesus continues his efforts to give his new disciples a more comprehensive understanding of the kingdom of heaven. We have no right to hijack his effort in order to make some point of our own, no matter how true that point might be.

The Treasure

Once again, facts will help us get started in interpretation. In the ancient world, there were no banks or combination safes, so the best that people could do was to hide their valuables in the ground. Also, people did not live as long then as we do now, and unexpected death was more frequent. For these reasons, finding buried treasure became a symbol for amazing luck that approximated winning the lottery in our culture.

Another factual issue is the state of the law in the first century. Some modern people have felt that the man who found the treasure and reburied it before purchasing the field was behaving unethically by our standards. Of course, our standards are irrelevant, and this similitude never raises the issue of legality or ethics. Under ancient laws, all is resolved when the field is purchased.

More to the point, parables mention those matters needed to figure out the parable; you never interpret a parable by what is not there.[2] What is there tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a hidden treasure that is worth everything you have to acquire (verse 44). Beyond that, the man gives all he has with joy to get the hidden treasure. France brings out that, in making this transaction, the man is acting in pure self-interest.[3]

The Pearl

To understand the Parable of the Pearl, you need to know that a merchant (Greek emporos) was a man who traveled by sea, searching for goods he could buy wholesale for later sale. France does justice to the word by calling him a trader.[4] This man was on the prowl, searching for fine pearls (verse 45). In antiquity, such pearls were found in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean.[5] Unlike modern times, such pearls were then considered the most valuable of all items, and some sold for what would be tens of millions of dollars today

When he encountered the special pearl, he briefly departed to sell everything he had so that he could buy it (verse 46). The kicker is that he bought the special pearl to keep it, not to sell it. The kingdom of heaven is a show-stopper, a possession worth everything. We have a word for something like that: priceless. Search until you find it!

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

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008)242.

[2] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 244.

[3] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007)541.

[4] France, Matthew, 538.

[5] Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 392.

The Wheat and the Weeds (Part 3), Matthew 13:36-43

Sometimes it is difficult to see people struggle because the wicked seem to prosper. Some who have done great wrong never even go to trial, much less to prison. Human experience cries out every day for a great and long-delayed balancing of justices scales.

The proverbial doubter loudly wonders why God allows disastrous or cruel acts to occur, somehow supposing that such deeds should corrected by instant miracle or immediate punishment. Given the passage of a little time, can we say that anyone would remain unpunished? Perhaps it would be wiser to hope that God will sort things out in his own good time.

Matthew 13:36-43

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.

37 He answered, The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 40 As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.


The disciples wisely chose to wait until Jesus entered the house before asking for an explanation of the Parable of the Weeds. Keep in mind that we have already learned that the weeds were darnel, a plant easily mistaken for wheat and one capable of causing great harm.

Verse 37 again bears the marks (in Greek) of a significant statement or new development. Jesus quickly delivers a set of identifications (verses 37-39):

  • the one who sowed the good seed = the Son of Man [Jesus]
  • the field = the world [not the church]
  • the good seed = the people of the kingdom
  • the weeds (darnel) = the people of the evil one
  • the enemy = the devil
  • the harvest = the end of the age
  • the harvesters = angels

Note carefully that a seed in this parable stands for a person; back in the Parable of the Sower, the seed stood for the word taught about Gods rule. When you study Gods word, it is important to be attentive rather than assuming that things never change, and that includes symbols used in parables.

The phrases people of the kingdom and people of the evil one (verse 38) need further explanation. These phrases rely on the same Jewish idiom. A son of the kingdom is a man who has repented and followed Jesus, thus being characterized by the rule of God. The same would hold for a daughter of the kingdom. So, these people of the kingdom are Jesus disciples. A similar analogy holds for the people of the evil one, who are like the devil; they are not Jesus disciples and are outside the house, ignorant of this deeper knowledge.

After Jesus finished making the identifications for the parable, he began speaking about the dynamics that will occur at the end of the age. In fact, Jesus concentrated more attention on the end of the age than anything else. Every Jew knew that the end of the age was the time of final judgment, when everything would be sorted out. Jesus wants us to be sure that we know: the kingdom has begun to spread, and even though judgment is delayed, it will come at the appropriate time.

Events unfold swiftly when the Son of Man sends out his angels to sort the people of the evil one from the people of the kingdom. What is plain is that everyone who rejects Jesus will wind up in the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (verse 42). So, those opposing Jesus will be overwhelmed by shame, crushing regret and suffering.

The situation for the righteous (verse 43), those who have repented and become people of the kingdom ruled by the Father, is one of honor and splendor. This is a brief description of the vindication that Jesus disciples will receive at the end of a long, hard road. They will shine like the sun.

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

The Wheat and the Weeds (Part 2), Matthew 13:31-35

We have learned that Jesus is offering many glimpses of the rule of God that he has brought to the world. One of the biggest questions is how Gods kingship will propagate and change over time. That question is almost as important today as it was in the first century.

Matthew 13:31-35

31 He told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.

33 He told them still another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.

34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.


The Mustard Seed (verses 31-32)

First, we will find it useful to get some facts on the table to help us interpret what Jesus says in this Bible passage. Even though mustard seeds are extremely small (1-2 mm) less than half the diameter of the lead in a fine-point mechanical pencil even smaller seeds are known. But the existence of smaller seeds is beside the point because Jesus used mustard seeds as the proverbial standard for smallness in the Jewish and Greco-Roman world.[1] Mustard seeds germinate quickly and grow to a height of about ten feet.

We can learn something here about parables and similar stories. They frequently include exaggeration and must not be subjected to an overly strict or literal interpretation. This trait made them more useful and flexible when speaking to audiences accustomed to such material.

The Mustard Seed presents an analogy between {the mustard seed and mustard plant} and {the present and future kingdom}. I have gotten free with symbols here to make the analogy more clear. All facts about mustard seeds are irrelevant except for the one fact that it starts as such a tiny seed and grows so large when it becomes a mature plant.[2] That one things makes it comparable to the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus used the Mustard Seed to address a question burning in the hearts of many people in Galilee about the kingdom of heaven: is that all there is? Jesus had done many marvelous things, and his teaching easily outclassed anything they had ever heard, but Roman rule over Israel remained unchanged, and evil had not been finally defeated. This was not the glorious kingdom they had been led to expect.

Using the Mustard Seed, Jesus says that the small and unimpressive beginning for the kingdom of heaven should not be used to make assumptions about its final scope. Snodgrass says, The point is that what one sees with Jesus will lead to what one hopes for in the kingdom. … The future kingdom is already present in Jesus teaching and work.[3] As such, the Mustard Seed is a statement of hope and confidence.

The Leaven (verse 33)

The farther I get into research about these parables and similitudes, the more it has become apparent how alienated I have become from the land and its products. After all, my fruits and veggies come as full-grown, finished products at the store!

So, again we start with a few facts. Today we do not generally bake bread and other baked goods as they did in the ancient world. In their efforts to make what is ancient feel more modern, numerous English versions mention yeast in verse 33. NIV, NET, NLT, HCSB and CEB versions all inaccurately say yeast. Other versions, KJV, ESV and NASB, correctly say that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven. Yeast and leaven are not the same.

Leaven is nothing more than fermented dough. Ancient bakers kept aside a small lump of dough from the previous baking and kneaded [mixed] that into the fresh dough so that its leavening effects would spread throughout. When mixing was done, a small lump would again be reserved to do the same thing next time. The leaven contained gas-producing bacteria which helped the bread rise, making it easier to eat. [So does bakers yeast, but that is another story.] Today we call bread made the ancient way sourdough.

So, in the simple story Jesus tells, a woman takes the leaven and mixes it into sixty pounds of flour, enough to feed bread to 100-150 people.[4] Except, Jesus did not say that the woman mixed the leaven into the flour; he said that she hid (Greek egkrupto) the leaven in the flour. Note that ESV, KJV and NASB lead the way among English versions by preserving the meaning hid. What is the point of this word choice? Once you put that leaven into sixty pounds of flour, the leaven is inside doing its vital work even though you cannot see it. The active agent makes the bread rise even though it is hidden from view.

Just as the leaven transforms an enormous amount of flour, so the rule of God transforms the world in a powerful and significant way even though its activity is hidden. Both parables, the Leaven and the Mustard Seed, portray the surprising large effect of something small and unobservable.[5]

In verse 34, we move on to a reminder from Matthew that Jesus spoke to the masses only in parables. He gave the leaders who had plotted to kill him nothing with which to accuse him. The words attributed to Jesus in verse 35 are a paraphrase of Psalm 78:2. The first half of verse 35 explains how Jesus deals with outsiders. The second half of verse 35 informs us that the disciples received things hidden since the creation of the world. Matthew explains that both approaches were revealed by Asaph in a prophecy long ago. The Son of Man fulfilled prophecy. He still does!

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

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008) 220.

[2] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 220.

[3] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 225226.

[4] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 527.

[5] Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 233.

The Wheat and the Weeds (Part 1), Matthew 13:24-30

Even uneducated people know that evil plays an active role in our world; they may even have a greater experience of it than those who have been to college. Since Jesus came bringing the rulership of God to this world, and did so long ago, what can we say about the ongoing presence and power of evil? Will things always be like this?

Jesus tells us how our world is and how it will be. Listen up!

Matthew 13:24-30

24 Jesus told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 The owners servants came to him and said, Sir, didnt you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?

28 An enemy did this, he replied. The servants asked him, Do you want us to go and pull them up?

29 No, he answered, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.


Matthew 13 is full of parables about Gods rulership — also known as the kingdom of heaven — and we learned from the Parable of the Sower that the world will divide in its opinions about Jesus. We all have a horse in this race: knowing how God is going to respond to the division over Jesus. Will he do nothing? Will he destroy the world to eradicate the opposition? Or perhaps something in between.

As you know, Matthew 13 contains many parables that Jesus taught concerning the rulership of God — also known as the kingdom of heaven (verse 24). Each one is designed to teach a different facet of Gods rule through Jesus to help his disciples know what to expect. The crowd hears the parable and can discern what the subject is, but Jesus has already made clear that he will explain the parables only to his disciples (Matthew 13:11).

From the whole of the parable, we learn that the main character is a farmer who has servants to carry out the work; in verse 25 he is simply called a man who sowed good seed. We are soon told that the seed is wheat (Greek sitos). Verse 25 bears the mark — in Greek — of a fresh development: an enemy came in the night sewing darnel (Greek zizanion) all over the field where the wheat was newly sown.

Essential Background

NIVs translation weeds for the darnel makes it sound relatively harmless, failing to reveal why an enemy might do this. We will review the facts. First, wheat and darnel are very hard to tell apart until the plants are more fully grown. Wheat (Latin: Triticum aestivum) and darnel (Latin: Lolium temulentum) are two different species from the same biological family of plants.

Now, here is the kicker: darnel often produces a fungus that releases a toxin useful in repelling insects. If darnel is harvested with the wheat and ground into flour, a person eating that flour will experience a drunken nausea, possibly because an ether compound is part of the toxin. That is why the Latin name for darnel includes the adjective temulentum, meaning drunken in English. Sowing a field with darnel was such a hostile act that the Romans had a law against doing it.[1]

The presence of darnel among the wheat makes the crop commercially useless, but the plants are difficult to tell apart until the heads of grain form, at which time the difference is obvious.[2] This fact will make verse 26 easy to understand. By the time the difference was clear, the roots were so intertwined that pulling the darnel would harm the wheat. Action was only practical at harvest time.

The Mixed Field

As soon as the heads emerged, the difference between darnel and wheat could be seen throughout the field (verse 26). Naturally, the owners servants told him at once (verse 27). He knew immediately that an enemy had done this to the wheat crop (verse 28). Since the owner was unwilling to risk damage to the wheat, the best option was separation of the darnel from the wheat at harvest time (verses 29-30), a labor-intensive operation.

The final stage of the parable was to bundle the darnel for burning, possibly as fuel since forests had gradually become scarce. The wheat would get priority treatment by being placed in the barn (verse 30). In this way the parable ends, without explanation. Jesus will explain the parable to his disciples in verses 37-43.

Snodgrass informs us that this parable has been misused more than any other by people who interpreted it as talking about a mixture of good and evil in the church.[3] But, as we will see in a future lesson, Jesus explained that the field in which the seed was sown was the world (verse 38). This is another example of what I spoke to you about before: many interpreters try to make every part of the Gospels directly about us rather than giving an interpretation comfortable in the original context. You can learn a lot about reading and interpreting the Bible by the simple expedient of avoiding that erroneous practice.

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

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 521.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 526.

[3] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008) 214.

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.