Matthew 17:20 “For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Some promises in God’s Word seem too good to be true. Jesus promises that we can ask Him for anything, and my mind immediately goes to my Christmas list. There are lots of things I want in life. I want to be healthy. I want more money. I want to be “successful” at work. I want to be famous or popular. I want to run fast.
We all have our own wish lists of things that we want. Some are small and insignificant, while others can consume our entire lives in their pursuit. God has given us some wonderful promises in His Word that seem to show that He is ready to give us whatever we want.a And in Matthew 17, Jesus promised His disciples that if they had as much faith as the tiniest of seeds, they would be able to move a mountain! Furthermore, Jesus repeats this same promise two more times (see Matthew 21:21, Luke 17:6)!
So how can we have this kind of faith? Is God ready to give us everything we want? How do we move a mountain?
To answer these questions, we need to look more closely at what true faith looks like.
I love to reach the mountain top. We have a favorite peak to climb every year during our family vacation in the mountains. The hike can be difficult, but we battle the bugs and thorn bushes to reach the summit. It is all worth it when you get to the top! The trees pull away to a spectacular view of the mountains and the lake far below. The air is fresher, the bugs seem to quiet, and we take time to bask in the glory of our conquest.
Yes, the mountain top is great, but you can’t live there. We climb to the top to get our dose of nature, but we always need to return. As enjoyable as it is to be up high, we still need to come home for dinner. Our climb is not complete until we return back to the home below.
Jesus gives us mountain top experiences in our lives too. If you have known Him long enough, you are familiar with these times. These are the times when the trees part and everything falls together. You get a glimpse of His plan and you bask in the glory that He knows you and cares for you.
We are encouraged by the mountain tops in our lives, but we can’t live there. There is much more in our lives than to simply sit back and wait for things to go right. We have a lot more to do here on earth, and we have a lot more to learn.
Peter, James, and John had a mountain top experience in this next scene in Matthew 17. They had spent six days in the pagan society of Caesarea Phillippi when Jesus took the three of them up the mountainside. They climbed the slopes of snowy Mount Hermon for an overnight prayer meeting with their Lord. But once they were up on the mountain, Jesus prayed while his friends slept.
We don’t know all that the Lord Jesus talked about with the Father that night, but He must have prayed about His upcoming death and departure. It wasn’t even a week since He dropped the message on His shocked disciples — He was going to die and leave them! He must have been especially burdened for His bewildered followers as there, on the mountainside, He gave three of them a special glimpse of His glory.
All they knew of Jesus Christ was his outward, humiliated form, yet they trusted Him. They knew He was Lord although they still stumbled in their doubt. How could their Lord talk about dying? Didn’t He know the hideous torture that would await Him if He were captured by the Jews? Wouldn’t they all suffer the same fate? It is one thing to talk about denying yourself when they were on the mountain, but what about when they came back to the real world? How could they face their enemies?
The Lord allowed them to see a glimpse of who He really is. He is not just a simple teacher. He shone out with complete brightness, showing the glory of God. Next to Him stood Moses the lawgiver, for Jesus is the answer and the fulfillment of the law. Also next to Him stood Elijah the prophet, for Jesus is the answer to the promise given by the prophets.
The three disciples awoke to see Jesus in His glory, talking to the two great men of old. And once again, Peter couldn’t keep his mouth shut, exclaiming, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” The final kingdom is coming and it is time to build shelters! Let’s start with three shelters: for the Lord, for Moses, and for Elijah!
Moses and Elijah are great men, but they do not compare to the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter’s foolish statement puts the three of them as equal, but it is Jesus that they should be listening to. Peter needed to shut up and listen!
We should be encouraged by our experiences, but we cannot live by them. Peter, James, and John experienced the glory of Jesus Christ and instead of listening, they were ready to build shelters! The other disciples weren’t even allowed to know about this experience. They needed to follow His Word instead of trusting their own feelings and memories. They needed to listen to Him!
It was not until years later that Peter learned his lesson. Both Peter and John would remember this time on the mountain as they witnessed the Lord’s glory. John spoke of it in the introduction to his gospel account:
John 1:14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
And just before his death, Peter used this memory to remind his listeners about the truth of the gospel:
2 Peter 1:16-18 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
We can be encouraged by the mountain top experiences, but we cannot look for a great experience to save us or to sustain us. We need to follow the truth of Jesus’ word. Experiences will never break through our unbelief, nor will they free us from our confusion. We need to listen to Him!
Matthew 16:24-28 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”b
Mark 8:34 – 9:1 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
Luke 9:23-27 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
This is the paradox of following Jesus Christ. Those who try to save their life will lose it. Those who lose their life will save it.
Jesus is taking His disciples from death to glory. He starts out with the announcement of His upcoming betrayal and death, and He ends his charge to them with the promise that He will come back in glory with the angels.
Likewise, if we are truly His followers, we must follow Him in His death. We must deny our own rights, pick up the ultimate humiliation and death – a Roman cross. That is what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Note that the contrast is by hyperbole. You will never own the entire world, nor will you sell your own soul. But what is important to you? Is success in this world more important than your soul? Because if you live for what you can gain in this world, you will lose the rewards from Jesus Christ, and may be in danger of losing your very soul.a
The successful in this world have no value in Christ’s kingdom. Those who lay aside their worldly rights will be rewarded in Jesus Christ’s kingdom.
What does it mean to deny yourself? We commonly use this term for dieting and physical training. We sacrifice an immediate pleasure in order to gain something greater in the long term. Although this is a meaningful application, the self-denial that Jesus is talking about here is much greater than passing up a favorite dessert or pressing harder in your workout routine. Jesus is saying to lay aside your pleasures, relationships, and even your human rights for the sake of His kingdom. But the point is not to be an ascetic nor a stoic. Rather, remember that your personal rights are meaningless in comparison to the rewards that will come from Jesus Christ himself.
The point is not about actions, it is about priority.
For example, Peter and the other disciples were shocked to find out that their leader was going to die. What is the value of following the Messiah if he was going to leave them? In answer, Jesus said that if you are to follow Him, then be prepared to die like Him. We need to die to sin (Romans 6), but we also need to die to our own rights. We need to give up the right to defend ourselves when we are maligned or persecuted. We are to give up the right to speak up and set the record straight when friends or family speak against us.
Jesus never promises that He will even things out in this life. Instead, He promises the opposite. If you were going to follow Him, life will never be fair.
He said to “take up your cross”. They didn’t know yet that Jesus would die on a cross, but this was a common expression in that day. It meant to die in the most miserable, humiliating, and degrading way. This was total debasement and humiliation.c d Are you willing to do that for Jesus Christ? Because that is what it will mean to be his disciple.
So what are your priorities? Are you looking to get ahead in this world? Are you looking to have a happy, successful life, and to be a nice Christian? What if that isn’t God’s plan for you? What will you be willing to let go? Your wealth or physical comfort? What about your health? Your family? Your reputation?
There is no way that we can predict what our life will be like. We often fear the worst kinds of life if we give it to Jesus, such as dying as a martyr or being handicapped for life. Jesus never gives us an outline of what specific hardships we will see in our life. We often fear the worst things yet He assures us that He will never give us more than we can handle. But the main issue is, what will it take to get you to look to Jesus so closely — so closely that nothing else matters. That you’re willing to lay aside everything to follow him. He is all that matters. That is what it means to follow him!
Jesus outlines two paths in this passage. The first path is the way of the world. It starts out in glory and ends in death. The second path is the way of Jesus Christ. it starts in death and ends in glory. Which path will you choose?
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 16:13-28, pages 200-210
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 16, The Church and the Kingdom
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 32, Peter’s Confession and True Discipleship, Luke 9:18-26
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 16:13-28, pages 47-49
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 8:27-30, pages 112-113
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 9:18-26, pages 166-167
 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, CHAPTER XXXVII: THE GREAT CONFESSION, THE GREAT COMMISSION, THE GREAT INSTRUCTION, THE GREAT TEMPTATION, THE GREAT DECISION (St. Matthew 16:13-28; St. Mark 8:27, 9: 1; St. Luke 9:18-27.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.viii.xxxvii.html
 D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 16:13-28
[a] The expression, “forfeits his soul” (Matthew 16:26), cannot mean that you could lose your salvation, as that would conflict with other Scripture (e.g. John 10:27-29). But the greater warning is that you may be like the poor soil in Matthew 13, and your worldly accomplishments prevent you from every trusting in Jesus Christ. Jesus also immediately mentions rewards, showing that even for those who believe, they will lose rewards with him when they are caught up in the things of this world.
[b] Matthew 16:28 says, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”. Although some commentators have applied this statement to the second coming of Jesus Christ in Revelation, this would not happen in the lifetime of the apostles. Nor could this refer to the resurrection or the ascension of Jesus Christ, nor Pentecost, since none of these events presented the Lord as coming in His kingdom. The best explanation therefore is that this refers to the next scene 6 days later, when Jesus was transfigured and stood with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17). Peter, James, and John witnessed the Lord on that mountain and Peter would later write later that he was an “eyewitness of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16-18).1 2
[c] The cross was such a humiliating way to die that it was never mentioned in polite Roman society. Roman citizens were guaranteed to never have to die on a cross. “In the Roman world, the cross was a symbol of shame, guilt, suffering, and rejection. There could be no more despicable way to die.” – Warren Wiersbe3
[d] Jesus does not reveal to His disciples that He will die on a cross until His final journey to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:19).
Many people of Jesus’ day asked this question. Was He a prophet? Was He a great teacher? Was He a king?
But what about today? If Jesus was a prophet, did His predictions come true? If He was a great teacher, are any of His teachings relevant today? If He was a king, what happened to His kingdom?
Who was Jesus Christ?
Who is Jesus Christ?
Why does it matter?
Matthew has written the Gospel account to answer this specific question. In every scene throughout this book, Matthew has shown the answer to this question. But this answer is expressed the most simply and directly by Simon, as he responded to Jesus in Matthew 16:
Matthew 16:13-23 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
We live in uncertain times. I am writing this from isolation as the virus pandemic is sweeping across the globe. We have many questions about what will happen — to our jobs, our health, or our loved ones? Will God take care of our needs during these times? Is it OK to question God?
It is easy to get so worried about our own lives that we miss what is happening around us. We can get so focused on our own world and our own needs that we miss what He is doing around us.
Jesus gave that same answer to both His enemies and His followers when He was confronted in Matthew 16. He had crossed the Sea of Galilee only to be met by His enemies when they landed on shore. They demanded a final proof. They wanted to be wowed before they would believe.
But instead, Jesus showed them their blindness. They looked to the sky for the weather but they were blind to what God was doing in the world. The Kingdom of Heaven had come to them and they were missing it!
And yet His own followers were worried about their bread supply. They had forgotten how Jesus had — twice — fed massive crowds with lots of leftovers. He will take care of the physical needs — they need to be concerned with the truth of His good news!
Matthew 16:1-12 And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
It was a long, hot summer, and Jesus had been traveling for weeks. His enemies had mobilized against Him and He responded by leaving, taking only His disciples. He travelled north, to the pagan regions of Tyre and Sidon, only to be approached by a foreign woman with big need (see here). He healed her daughter, but then left town as the crowds began to gather.
Jesus Christ was less than a year from the cross, and He needed to prepare His disciples. They still did not understand and time was running out! After the crowds followed Him to Tyre, He then travelled further north to Sidon, then back around south and east to the Decapolis, the independent cities east of the Jordan River (now modern-day Jordan).
But even in this remote area, Jesus could not be alone. Great crowds found Him, begging for His healing touch for their loved ones. He stayed with them for three days, teaching them and healing them.
Jesus’ own people had rejected Him (see here), yet here in these foreign territories, the outsiders crowded to Him! But even through all of these interruptions, Jesus responded with healing and compassion, even to the point of feeding them when their supplies ran out!
Matthew 15:29-39 Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.
Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
I am sitting here reading this passage during a time of high stress. Life has been overwhelming. My plans haven’t worked out, so I need to try twice as hard. I’m disappointed by those I thought I could count on.
The perfect ingredients for a pity party!
And then I sit down to read this passage. I am far from any type of worship, and thoughts of devotion are far away. But I promised myself this morning that I would read the Bible, so I better get it over with!
It’s not a long passage, and since I didn’t really pay attention, I read it again. It is a familiar scene about a foreign woman begging Jesus to heal her daughter. About the third time through, I start to realize how selfish I am. I have been so caught up in myself!
In this scene, a foreign woman approached Him, begging Him to heal her daughter. But Jesus wouldn’t help her until she completely humbled herself. She needed to put away any pride and then to simply trust in Him. But she had enough trust to believe that He would heal her daughter, and for Jesus himself to commend her, “Great is your faith!”
Matthew 15:21-28 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Many people think about Jesus Christ in terms of religion, which, to them, is a list of do’s and don’ts. Do good things and God will be happy with you. Do the wrong things and expect His guilt and punishment.
This idea is nothing new. Even in the first century, when Jesus was on earth, people still thought along these lines. The Greeks and Romans had a pantheon of gods and goddesses who would curse and destroy you if you dared to cross them. Even the Jews, though they knew of the one true God, had forgotten what He required of them.
There was a scene in the life of Jesus Christ, when He was confronted by the religious leaders. He had fed 5,000 people, yet the leaders were more concerned that they didn’t wash their hands properly! They didn’t purify themselves before eating.
There are some scenes in the Bible that we quickly skip over. Why spend time on a scene that we can’t relate to? How could this possibly apply to my life?
But more than any other, this scene captures the core difference between the religious leaders and Jesus Christ. What can you do to be accepted by a perfect God? What makes you ugly in his sight?
What can you do to fix it?
Matthew 15:1-20 Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
This was another post that I wrote while studying John’s Gospel Account, over 5 years ago. I happened to encounter this passage again when studying Matthew and it is amazing how timely this message is!
It is such a great reminder as I go through crises in my own life that God is still in control! Like Peter, I need to keep my eyes on Jesus as He walks on the water!
In the next scene in John’s gospel account, we see both Jesus and his disciples at a time of crisis. It is often at these times, when we are at our limits, that we find out what we have and what we truly need.
For Jesus, this was a critical turning point in his ministry. He has spent the last two and a half years presenting himself to the nation of Israel, showing that he is their king. Jesus had spent the entire day teaching and healing a huge crowd of over 20,000 people, and now they want to make him a king by force. The people like what he has to say and are interested in his miracles, but they refuse to submit to him as Lord. Jesus will spend his remaining year preparing both his disciples and himself for his…
I originally posted this study when going through the Gospel of John, back in 2015. This also covers the same events in the current study of Matthew.
My original post estimated that Jesus had fed about 20,000 people. We know that He fed “5,000 men, plus women and children”, but upon further reflection, a size of 20,000 seems unduly high. The number of recipients that day was probably about 10,000 to 15,000. It was still a very large crowd for Jesus to feed!
What do you do when your plans are destroyed? How do you react when your day is thrown into chaos?
How do we handle it when God sends an opportunity in the form of a major interruption?
I have been studying the life of Jesus Christ, trying to understand more about his life and his ministry. The recent study in John 5 demonstrates that Jesus was fully God. He was fully equal to God the Father in his works, in giving life, and in authority. There are no secrets between the Father and the Son.
But Jesus was also fully human. He did not exercise his divine power unless he was directed by the Spirit. Jesus had to grow and learn. He got tired. He felt pain, hunger, and loneliness like the rest of us.
Jesus would also make plans which would get interrupted. One of the best examples of…
I had a difficult time trying to find an appropriate picture for this post. I couldn’t find a suitable picture of Nazareth, especially the way Jesus would have seen the town in the first century. I like this picture of the road through the trees because it reminds me of my own hometown. There is also a lot of symbolism with the road, the trees, the branches, and the roots, which reminds me of coming back home.
I originally worked on this study several months ago, but I am publishing this after a recent visit back home. It is amazing how quickly we fall into our traditional routines when we return home, and how we tend to expect the same from each other. This passage in Matthew 13 reminds me that I need to watch and listen more, even when I return back to a comfortable place.
Jesus had concluded one of the longest days of His ministry. He healed a demon-oppressed man, earning both skepticism from the crowds and accusations from the religious leaders. He accused the Pharisees of a blasphemy which could not be forgiven (see here). He was confronted by the scribes and Pharisees, demanding a sign (Matthew 12:38), and was interrupted by His mother and brothers (Matthew 12:46). He taught the series of parables (see here and here). And in the evening, He crossed over the Sea of Galilee, passing through a storm, and healing two violent men on the other side.
Perhaps it was simply exhaustion that then led Him back to his hometown of Nazareth. He had met violent rejection in His earlier visit, but something brought the Lord back again to the town where He grew up.a It may have been as simple as family business or the need to see familiar faces that drew Him back, but the most likely reason is that He came to give them one last chance to believe.
“And the sands of thirty years had buried the tale which the shepherds had brought; the wise men from the East had returned another way; the excitement which their arrival in Jerusalem and its object had caused, was long forgotten.” – Alfred Edersheim5
Matthew 13:53-58 And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
Mark 6:1-6 He went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.
Jesus had spent over a year traveling through Galilee, preaching, teaching, and performing miracles (see here and here). He gathered large crowds and the people were excited to see what this man would do next! But when challenged, the people would rather listen to their leaders, believing He was from the devil, than over Him as their King (see here).
Facing the unbelief and rejection of the people, Jesus changed His method of teaching. He no longer taught directly about the kingdom of heaven, but instead, left His message encoded within parables.
Matthew 13:34-35 All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Mark 4:33-34 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.
These parables were simple illustrations that conveyed a much deeper spiritual truth. But they had a twofold purpose:
They illuminated the truth for those who believed. Jesus explained the meaning of many of His parables, but only privately to His disciples when asked.
They concealed the truth from those who would not believe. He no longer taught truth to those who rejected Him.
See the previous post for more details about the purpose of parables.
This section of Matthew’s gospel account (Matthew 13) contains a series of parables about the kingdom of heaven. But we only have explanations in Scripture for three of these parables (See the previous post for the first parable, the Parable of the Sower).
Therefore, we face the same question that Bible scholars have faced since the days of the early church. How do we interpret these parables? What do they mean? Why did God give us these parables if He didn’t also show us the meaning?
As we look at each of these parables, it is important to remember the following principles:
Who was the audience? We often look at these stories and jump to what it means for us. Yes, there is truth in each of these stories that we can apply to our lives, but don’t forget that Jesus was not addressing 21st-century Christians when He was speaking. Who was He speaking to?
What were the circumstances? What were the events in Jesus’ life when He was teaching these parables? How would these events direct His message?
What does other Scripture say? Jesus never taught a message that contradicted other words from God. Therefore, any interpretation of His teaching — including the parables — must be consistent with the rest of Scripture.
And finally, we cannot be dogmatic about our own conclusions when they are not in scripture. We can make inferences and assumptions, but we always need to go back to God’s Word as the source of truth and authority. See also the link here for more information about how to read and understand God’s word.
So why didn’t Jesus explain all of His parables? Pastors and Bible scholars have provided several possible answers:
First, remember again that Jesus was directing His parables to His disciples, not to us. Therefore, the disciples might have understood their meaning without further explanation. All of these parables are references to their culture and their times, using illustrations that they could easily recognize. The messages would have been easier for them to understand than for us who are much further removed.
But there is still a mystery in these parables which we cannot simply explain by the culture and the times. The entire crowd heard the parables but the meanings were hidden from the unbelievers.
Beyond the simple cultural understanding, these are other common answers for why we do not have explanations for all of Jesus’ parables:a
His message may have been already clear to the disciples. This is similar to the cultural understanding, but the disciples had spent the entire day with Jesus, and therefore would have the best context for understanding what He was about to teach them.
Jesus might have explained the parables, but the explanations were never recorded in Scripture. Matthew may have simply not seen it necessary to include all of the explanations.
Many times we don’t understand the parables because we try too hard. Jesus isn’t necessarily drawing a parallel to every nuance of these stories. We drive ourselves into confusion when we look for a spiritual allegory for every aspect within a parable. For example, in the parable of the pearl, we don’t need to understand the value, consistency, or location of the pearl.
Jesus may have intentionally left some of His parables unexplained. He didn’t always explain everything about Himself, as the disciples were often not ready to understand Him. The understanding could come later (see also John 16:25-26).
For us, we don’t always know the explanations for everything Jesus said. There are still many things that He has yet to reveal.
It is great to hear stories of success, about great men who have gone out to conquer evil rulers, rescue the oppressed, and live happily ever after! It is great to dream stories about these heroes.
It is also great to hear about famous preachers, and what they accomplished. Peter preached two sermons and thousands came to believe in Jesus Christ. Leaders of the reformation, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin challenged kings and rescued entire countries from the grip of the Medieval Church. Even in modern times, I remember watching at a Billy Graham crusade as thousands poured into the aisles, coming down to receive the good news of Jesus Christ.
These are all great memories, but it also catches me short. Why can’t I do that? Why don’t we see this power every day?
Are we missing something important when we don’t have these kinds of results?
It may be surprising to know that Jesus addressed this concern. It is easy to look at popular figures or large crowds, but Jesus showed that His way is not the way of popularity. He taught His people for over a year, yet both the leaders and the people rejected Him.
And so He changed His focus. Jesus would delay His earthly kingdom, focusing instead on His true followers and showing them about His heavenly kingdom, which surpasses everything we can see or hear or touch.
He also changed his teaching. He now started teaching in parables — simple metaphors which taught about the kingdom, but required a private explanation.a
“The word parable means “to cast alongside.” It is a story, or comparison, that is put alongside something else to help make the lesson clear.” – Warren Wiersbe4
And his first parable of this new teaching was a simple story about farming. A farmer went out to sow seed, but it was only on the good soil where the seed could germinate and produce fruit. The other soils — the barren path, the thin rocky soil, and the weed-choked polluted soil — could not sustain growth and were therefore fruitless.
But it was only in private with His disciples that He explained this message. His Word would go out to many different listeners, but many of the responses would be barren and fruitless. Only those who were of the good soil were capable of receiving it and producing fruit.
Matthew 13:1-23 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 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. 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 is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘“You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.” For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
We all respond differently to the surprises in life. When we see something new, we react with a wide range of responses including boredom, skepticism, interest, commitment, or excitement.
We often respond to God in the same way. Depending on our mood and our personality, we can be either skeptical, dismissive, or listening and ready to follow Him. There are too many times that God tries to get our attention, yet we instead dismiss or explain away what He is trying to tell us.
But what about the rest of the people? They still followed Jesus wherever He went. But sadly, they liked His miracles, listened to His teaching, but would not believe Him (see here). He was only a great teacher to them, a popular act.
It has been about two and a half years into His ministry, and only a year away from the cross, when He reached a turning point. The people brought to Jesus a demon-possessed invalid who had been rendered blind and mute, and He cast out the demon and healed the man. In one act, He gave irrefutable proof that He was their coming King: He healed the blindness, made the mute speak, and cast out the demon. He left no room for doubt!
But even with such proof, the people still refused to believe. They went to their leaders (the Pharisees) for an explanation, and they were quick to accuse Jesus of being empowered by the devil. Jesus responded to the Pharisees that their arguments were senseless and His power showed that kingdom has come.
But Jesus then went a step further, judging their accusations. Whoever is not with Him is against him, they would not be forgiven for speaking against the Holy Spirit, and their words show that they were evil.
After this scene, Jesus began to turn away from the crowds, focusing instead on His disciples. He will teach parables in public which are only explained in private (Matthew 13). He will also take His twelve closest apostles away from Jewish territory as He begins to prepare them for His arrest and crucifixion (Matthew 14-17).
Matthew 12:22-37 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
We celebrated the Fourth of July recently, complete with picnicking and fireworks. Through all the excitement and the fun, this national tradition helps us to remember the price that was paid for our nation’s freedom.
We also have other traditions which help us to remember what is important. There are many traditions in the church, from major events such as Christmas or Easter, to smaller events such as Sunday worship or the Lord’s Supper.
We all also have family traditions. Our family has a favorite vacation spot to visit every year. Other families have a favorite restaurant or a special way to celebrate accomplishments. The traditions make the events special.
But sometimes, our traditions can get in the way. They are important, but some things are even more important.
Matthew 12 is a crucial turning point in the ministry of Jesus Christ. He has been traveling through Galilee with His disciples, teaching and healing, and proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand (see here). He has offered the kingdom to the Israelite people and this chapter (Mathew 12) is their response.
Starting first with the leaders, then with the people, they all reject Him! Hereafter, Jesus will change His focus from gathering the crowds to teaching His own disciples.
This first part of this chapter shows three scenes of conflict with the religious leaders. They have been following and challenging Him (see here and here), but their conflict now moves to outright hostility. And the cause of their conflict is over one of their most precious of the Ten Commandments — the Sabbath Day!
The Sabbath was one of the most most treasured days by the Jewish people. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day, thereby giving us the pattern to keep the seventh (“sabbath”) day holy. This was one of the Ten Commandments, to “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8-11).
The Jewish people showed their love for God and His law by faithfully keeping this commandment. The rabbis went further, giving specific rules for how to honor God on His Sabbath. By the first century, these traditions had grown into an elaborate system of rules and regulations governing what could and could not be done on the Sabbath.a
But Jesus was different on the Sabbath day. Because He did not follow their traditions, he must not be honoring their law and their day that they so treasured. They started out by questioning Him, then went to overtly challenging Him, and finally to conspiring to destroy Him.
Yet through all of this, Jesus answered all of their challenges. He never violated the Sabbath commandment, nor did He criticize their traditions. However, He did challenge their understanding of their own laws, their own history, and their inconsistency in trying to uphold the Sabbath. There are some things which are more important than traditions.
We have our ideas of what it means to come to God, thinking that God only wants us if we are good enough. We need to live a good life. We need to help others who are in need. We must go to church and pray a lot. We need to be kind and gracious to each other.
It is as if we are saying that God will take us only if we are niceor good enough!
But in Matthew’s Gospel Account, Jesus takes time from His teaching to call out to those who need Him. The kingdom of heaven is not about who is rich, who is smart, who is powerful, nor who is well educated. It is not even for the religious, but for those who are weary and worn down. It is for those who trust in Jesus Christ.
He doesn’t call the religious and the devout — instead, He sends them a warning.
He doesn’t call the smart and clever — instead, He shows His wisdom to the simple ones.
And finally, He doesn’t call the hard workers to earn their way into His Kingdom. Instead, He calls the weary and overloaded.
Just as in His Sermon on the Mount, He didn’t come for the successful and powerful, He came for the broken and grieving. Only the needy ones can know what it really means to trust in Him!
What does it mean to come to Him?
It means that we must first repent. No matter how spiritual or religious we may act, we need to turn from our own ways and follow Him.
It also means that we need to trust Him like a child. We can only know Him as He reveals Himself to us.
And finally, it means to come to Him for rest. He will take away our overwhelming burden if we only come to Him. We still have the responsibility to obey and follow Him, but He promises that “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:20-30 Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, 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. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
All four of the gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — start with the ministry of one man. Even before anyone knew about Jesus Christ, John the Baptist was preaching in the desert. He called himself, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness”and had a single message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” See here for an introduction to John the Baptist.
John was truly a great man. He did no miracles, yet he captivated the entire nation. They thought him strange, yet they came by the thousands to the wild desert to hear him preach. Even the religious leaders respected him, though they refused to believe him.
John was the greatest of men, yet even he was not immune to problems. His ministry was rapid and powerful, but it ended just as rapidly when Jesus started teaching (see here). King Herod had him thrown into prison when he publicly condemned the king’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias.a
John languished in prison for over a year.b It was there, in his dark prison cell, that John’s doubts began to arise. Was Jesus really the promised one? Was He really their coming Messiah?
Everyone had their plans for the Messiah. Everyone had their expectations. The nation of Israel looked for a king to defeat their enemies. The religious leaders wanted a king to enforce their traditions. Jesus’ own disciples looked forward to when they would help Him rule (see here). And even John the Baptist looked forward to a Messiah who would punish and purify this sinful generation.
I heard an evangelist preach about how Jesus would make your life better. Everything falls into place, according to him, once you trust in Jesus Christ. Some such evangelists have even brought testimonials from devoted followers. They show the chaos in their lives before meeting Jesus, and then the dramatic improvements afterward.
I was reading through the contents of a Christian Music album recently. The songs were filled with messages about the peace and happiness of knowing Jesus Christ. I am very glad to hear this — He promises to give us a “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory!”
But there is more to the picture. There is also a cost to following Jesus Christ. It is rare to hear about it in songs or testimonials, but you are now a target by the enemies of God!
Jesus has been instructing His twelve disciples, sending them out as apostles to preach in His name (see here). He promised to give them His power and authority as they proclaimed His urgent message. The King is here!
But as Jesus continued to teach them, He gave them broader instructions. He showed events that would happen beyond their specific time, and what would happen to all of His followers — not just the twelve apostles. As we look at His message, we see that we will be persecuted for trusting in Him. Our decision to follow Him will cause conflicts — even in our own families! But where are we placing our trust and respect? Should we trust in the power of mankind or in the Almighty God? Whose side are we on when we encounter trouble?
And finally, Jesus promises that we will not be alone. We have help from each other, but even more so, the Father who knows us is with us every step of the way.
The opposition against Jesus was growing. In the previous section, the Pharisees began to accuse Jesus of healing by the power of the devil (see here). He realized that His time was growing short, and so He was even more urgent in sending His message to all of the Jews. Instead of going alone, He now sent out six teams of disciples to also preach His message of the kingdom. In this way, He was able to successfully cover the entire region of Galilee in a short time.
He chose twelve of His disciples and commissioned them as “apostles” (literally, “one who was sent”).a He gave them His own authority to cast out demons and to heal the sick, and then sent them out two by two.
“The Twelve were disciples before they became apostles. That is, they were learners in the school of Christ before they were commissioned as apostles and sent forth as couriers of the King, to proclaim that the long-looked-for kingdom of the heavens had drawn nigh.” – H.A. Ironside2
“Power is the ability to accomplish a task, and authority is the right to do it, and Jesus gave both to His apostles.” – Warren Wiersbe6
Many people talk about being religious. Some are proud and some are humble. There are devout men and women of all religions, who have sacrificed more than I can even imagine.
The world religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam dominate the news headlines.
Some look at the religions in the world as the best thing about ourselves. “Their faith makes them a better person” is a common philosophy, regardless of what they believe.
Some look at religion as the biggest problem in the world. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, once said that “faith is one of the world’s great evils”, and that “religion is a force for evil”. Many others have looked through the religious disasters of history (e.g. crusades, persecutions, terrorism, etc.) and concluded that religion is a problem, not a help to society.
Jesus was often called a “Rabbi” or a “Teacher”, indicating that He was a respected religious leader of His day. He lived in the deeply religious society of first-century Israel. He taught devotion to His followers and commended them for their faith. Yet in the end, His greatest enemies were also the religious leaders who tried to destroy Him.
But when He talked about religion, He cared little for the customs and traditions of His day. He cared only for what God had taught! When Jesus taught about faith, it wasn’t enough that they had faith. They needed to have faith in Him!
It wasn’t the presence of their faith. It was the object of their faith.
It wasn’t enough to trust their traditions. They needed to trust Him!
When Jesus looked at the religious landscape of His day, he responded, not with respect, nor with anger, but with compassion. He saw a nation of people who were lost in their own religion. They were so caught up in their customs that were missing God.
Matthew 9:36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
He described the people as “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”. Their religion had failed them. The religion of their day was totally unequipped to address the problems that these people faced. And more importantly, the problems were only an illustration of the main failure of their religion. Their religion was unable to show them how to get to God.
The narrative of Matthew 9 shows five scenes where Jesus met with the harassed and helpless. Their religion had failed them.
But as He showed, the important thing is not about being religious, it is about knowing Jesus Christ!
Matthew 9:18-38 While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus rose and followed him, with his disciples. And behold, a woman who had suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. And when Jesus came to the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. And the report of this went through all that district.
And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him, and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, “See that no one knows about it.” But they went away and spread his fame through all that district.
As they were going away, behold, a demon-oppressed man who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the mute man spoke. And the crowds marveled, saying, “Never was anything like this seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “He casts out demons by the prince of demons.”
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”