Tag Archives: parables

A Heart that Bears Fruit for God (2 of 4)

This is the second part of the sermon I shared yesterday at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta. Here is my outline for the blog version of the sermon:

Part 1: What Is “Fruit”?
Part 2: Two Kinds of Hearers
Part 3: Isaiah 6 and Hardness of Heart
Part 4: Four Kinds of Hearers and One Goal


Now let’s read our entire text. (Read Matthew 13:1-23.)

I found only two commands in this entire passage. Both are commands to “hear”:

“He who has ears, let him hear… Hear then the parable of the sower.” (Matt. 13:9, 18) —Jesus to the crowds; Jesus to his disciples

The first command (v. 9) is presented in third person: “He who has ears, let him hear,” not “You have ears, so listen up!” The effect of this third person construction is to add emphasis, requiring each listener to ask, “Is he talking to me? Am I ‘he who has ears’? Am I hearing what Jesus wants me to hear?”[1]

This construction also implies that some listeners might not “have ears.” Jesus, therefore, is dividing his audience into two groups: Those who prove they have ears by using them, and those who might as well not have ears, because they aren’t hearing what he is saying.

The second command (v. 18) is in second person: “[You] hear then the parable…” Here there is only one audience: Jesus’ close disciples.

The verses between these two commands are about the same topic: The two kinds of hearers in Jesus’ audience. Let’s examine verses 10-17 more closely.

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

This chapter is the first time the word “parable” appears in Matthew. Jesus had already used short word pictures that could be classed as parables. This chapter, however, is full of parables, some of them extended. Something new is happening in Jesus’ teaching. The disciples are curious. So they come to him, perhaps over “lunch break” or at some other pause in his teaching, for a private explanation.

11 And he answered them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

Here are the two kinds of hearers: “You” and “them”—the disciples and the crowds. In Mark Jesus says “you” and “those outside” (Mark 4:11)—insiders and outsiders.

The first difference Jesus notes between the two groups is that one group has been given something that the other has not. “It has been given” is what Bible scholars call a “divine passive”; it is a statement written in the passive voice rather than the active voice (“it has been given” rather than “[so-and-so] gave it”). The implication is that God is the “someone” who did the giving. This statement, then, emphasizes God’s sovereignty.

What God gave to one group and not the other was the opportunity or ability “to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” Here we see our theme of “understanding” (hearts that understand and bear fruit). Jesus is saying that God gave his disciples the ability to understand his teachings about the kingdom, but God had not given the crowds that same ability. Why would he do this?

12 For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

This verse explains why God gave something to the disciples but not to the crowds.[2] The disciples have something that the crowds don’t have. Because the disciples already have this something, they will be given more by God. Because the crowds don’t have this something, they will lose even what they do have. What was this “something”?

If we scan chapters 8 through 12 (between the Sermon on the Mount and our text), we see that one thing the disciples had was simply a willingness to be Jesus’ disciples, giving up home and braving opposition to follow him. In Matthew 11:25 Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father… that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.” The disciples, at this point, had only very basic understanding of the kingdom of heaven. But they understood that Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom were worth hearing. They were willing to be Jesus’ “little children” and learn from him.

The crowds, in contrast, and especially their leaders, were refusing to receive Jesus and thus were refusing God himself (Matt. 10:40). They said John the Baptist had a demon and that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard (Matt. 11:18-19). Their refusal to repent led Jesus to compare them to Tyre and Sidon, to Sodom, and to Nineveh (Matt. 11:20-24; 12:39-41). Their leaders were already conspiring to kill Jesus (Matt. 12:14) and were accusing him of being in league with Satan (Matt. 12:24). And, in passages that form bookends to chapter 13, we see that even Jesus’ own family was failing to do the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven (Matt. 12:46-50; cf. Mark 3:21, where they say Jesus is “out of his mind”) and even his hometown of Nazareth took offense at him rather than believing him (Matt. 13:53-58).

What the disciples already have, then, seems to be the willingness to receive Jesus for whoever he may prove to be, unlike the majority of the crowds who have rejected him. Because the disciples already have welcoming hearts toward Jesus and his kingdom message, God will grant them deeper knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. “The Jewish people,” in contrast, “have rejected knowledge of Jesus, so ‘even what they have,’” including their identity as “being God’s kingdom people, will be ‘taken away’ by God” (Matt. 21:43).[3]

13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.

Now Jesus answers the disciples’ question, and now he places responsibility fully upon the crowds who have rejected him. Commentator Grant Osborne explains:

“The obduracy [hardness, stubborn resistance] that the people of Israel have shown in chs. 11-12 is the reason Jesus is speaking to the crowds in parables… Jesus responds to Israel’s rejection by using parables to confirm and anchor that rejection… The parables are ‘stones of stumbling deliberately placed in Israel’s path, much like what Isaiah was instructed to do in Isaiah 6.’”[4]

The Jewish crowds have persistently shown that they are not willing to listen to Jesus, so God will not give them the understanding that would lead to repentance and good fruit. The parables, then, are specially designed to convey truth to those who are receptive and hide it from those who are not. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father,” Jesus had already declared, “and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). Jesus refuses to “give dogs what is holy” or “throw [his] pearls before pigs” (Matt. 7:6). Instead, he decides to hide his teaching in metaphorical language that forces his listeners to puzzle over what he meant (and, incidentally, makes it harder for his opponents to incriminate him for what he said).[5]

This brings us to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6, which we will examine in the next post.

Your responses are welcome in the comments below!

[1] Schuyler Signor, “The Third Person Imperative in the Greek New Testament,” M.A. Thesis presented to the faculty of Abilene Christian University, April 1999. http://kingstonnychurchofchrist.org/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/THE_THIRD_PERSON_IMPERATIVE_IN_THE_GREEK_NEW_TESTAMENT.31201317.pdf  Accessed June 28, 2018. (pp. 2, 22, 23)

[2] “The “for” () that introduces the verse makes it the reason for God’s grace-gift (divine passive “will be given” []) only to the insiders.” Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9457-9458). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[3] Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9467-9468). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[4] Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9473-9474, 9484-9485, 9490-9491). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. Osborne quotes Witherington (Matthew, 264) in the final line.

[5] Sometimes even Jesus’ enemies understood the basic thrust of his parables, however: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them” (Matt. 21:45).

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Study Resources for Matthew

If you use the Christian Light Publications materials for Sunday School, you will be studying Matthew for March and April. This is a bit last-minute and I’ll need to be brief, but I thought I’d share a few suggested resources. If you have other resources, feel free to share them in the comments below.


My favorite Matthew commentary is the big one by R.T. France in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series, widely considered a “must-buy.” It was written when he was an older man, so it has a maturity and wisdom that some commentaries lack. It is based on the best scholarship, but it is not hard to read. France’s method as he wrote this commentary was to simply read Matthew and write commentary. Only after this did he check to see what other commentators have written and what he previously wrote in his earlier, shorter Matthew commentary. So this is a commentary on Matthew, not a commentary on commentaries! Some readers don’t like France’s take on Matthew 24 (he emphasizes how part of the chapter was fulfilled in A.D. 70), but (a) I think he get’s it right and (b) we’re not studying that chapter this go around, anyway. I haven’t read this commentary through, but the parts I’ve read have been consistently insightful.

If you don’t want to invest in France’s 1169-page volume, here are a few others that would be helpful for most Sunday School teachers:

Other Suggestions

  • Lesson 1 is about the Sabbath (Matthew 12). I am pleased to see the commentary recognizes that Christians are not required to observe the Jewish Sabbath, and that we are not judged on whether we keep holy days (Col. 2:16-17). I affirm that we were designed to experience regular times of rest (some of us need the reminder), but a proper understanding of the Sabbath’s fulfillment in Christ, both now and in the future (see also Heb. 4), should prevent us from setting rules for others about holy days. For more help on how such things changed with the coming of the new covenant, see “The Law of Moses and the Christian” by Dorsey on this page (also Moo’s essays), and the “New Covenant Theology” talks by Steve Atkerson of New Testament Reformation Fellowship on this page.
  • Lesson 3 is on the relationship between tradition and the word of God (Matthew 15). I once preached a sermon on Mark 7, a parallel passage. You can find my Scripture outline for Mark 7 here, and you can find my (slightly modified) sermon notes here. My sermon notes include a lot of rather pointed (some of you might think too pointed!) application questions to help us sense the force of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees.
  • Lesson 6 is on Jesus’ resurrection (Matthew 27-28). While his book does not deal directly with this Scripture text very much, I cannot help but mention Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright. If you are like me, you will disagree on some secondary points but walk away truly surprised anew by the hope provided by Jesus’ resurrection!
  • Lesson 7 is on the permanence of marriage (Matthew 5 and 19). I don’t feel well qualified to give recommendations on resources for this topic, so I’ll just mention some of the resources that are on my want-to-read list. Some conservative Anabaptists have found Jesus and Divorce (Wenham and Heth) helpful. Here is a booklet by Clair Martin that the Biblical Mennonite Alliance published on the topic. Here is an online book by H. Van Dyck Parunak that takes a conservative position on most questions. Here is a booklet by Finny Kuruvilla about the question of remarriage after divorce. The most influential scholar on this subject in the evangelical world is Instone-Brewer, who mentions a book by Andrew Cornes as being “the best presentation” of the opposing conservative viewpoint. Divorce and remarriage involves complex exegetical and pastoral questions, and we will not serve people well with poorly thought-out answers or approaches that avoid the Scripture passages that raise the hardest questions. (I do not say this from a desire to be critical, for I still do not have solid answers for all my own questions.)
  • Lesson 8 is a parable (Matthew 20). You might want to add a book on parables to your library, such as Interpreting the Parables by Craig L. Blomberg (463 pages) or The Parables of Jesus by David Wenham (256 pages). For detailed scholarship look for Klyne R. Snodgrass, and for fascinating cultural insights see Kenneth E. Bailey–best compared with a more traditional commentary. (Note: I own Snodgrass and Bailey, have enjoyed other works by Blomberg, and see Wenham is recommended by a trusted source.)

Since I’m a bookish sort of fellow, a lot of the above recommendations are books. Don’t buy them all at once. 🙂  But do consider buying one or two that are likely to serve you well for years to come. A good book is a wise investment, especially when that good book is a book that helps you understand the Best Book.

What other resources would you suggest for studying and teaching Matthew? Share them with other readers in the comments below. Thanks!

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