Do Matthew and Mark Contradict Each Other’s Accounts of Jesus Walking on Water?

Both Matthew and Mark record the miracle of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee. Matthew, however, includes two details that Mark does not. First, Matthew reports that the disciple Peter also walks on water when Jesus calls him out of the boat. Second, Matthew reports that the disciples all confess Jesus to be the “Son of God” after seeing the miracle. Since Mark leaves these details out, are the two accounts contradictory or inconsistent? Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), discusses the divergent accounts:

The parallel accounts (Mark 6: 45– 52; John 6: 15– 21) do not mention Peter’s venture into the water. This would be a remarkable thing to omit, if in fact both Mark and John knew it to be a fact. Does their silence call Matthew’s truthfulness into question? The key to explaining their silence is to recognize each narrator’s freedom to pursue different emphases. Matthew has repeatedly emphasized Peter and continues to do so throughout this section (e.g., 15: 15– 20; 16: 16– 23; 17: 24– 27). It is common for different narrators to draw out different details from the same or similar events. The different details often highlight each narrator’s specific purposes in writing.

In this case, we see Matthew’s unique emphasis on Peter’s leading role and his sometimes impetuous behavior. Peter is rebuked in this story for having ‘little faith,’ which is a common Matthean complaint about Jesus’ disciples (6: 30; 8: 26; 16: 8; 17: 20; France 2007, 567). Jesus will later teach his disciples about the faith that moves mountains (17: 20), a faith that would have kept Peter safe on the water had he not let fear get the better of him. Matthew’s inclusion of this incident provides an ‘illustration of the vulnerability of the disciple who allows doubt, the natural human perspective, to displace the faith which relies on the supernatural power of God’ (France 2007, 567). Another likely reason Matthew included this interaction with Peter is that Matthew reveals Jesus as divinely powerful and as the sustainer of his people (Morris 1992, 382– 83). Peter calls out to Jesus as ‘Lord’ (kurios), the same title used elsewhere to address Jesus with respect (e.g., 8: 21) or as a false declaration of faith (e.g., 7: 21). But here it means far more. Jesus is walking upon the water in the middle of a furious storm, something that elevates him above any other figure that Peter has ever known.

With regard to Matthew’s inclusion of the disciples calling Jesus “Son of God,” Wilkins writes:

This confession of Jesus’ deity is not present in the parallel accounts (Mark 6: 45– 52; John 6: 15– 21). If the confession really occurred, how could Mark and John choose not to include such an important saying? This is the first time that the disciples use the title ‘Son of God’ to address Jesus, and it is uncertain just how much they truly understand, for it was only at the resurrection that they became fully gripped with the radical truth of Jesus’ divine identity and ontology. The three accounts in the Gospels are witness to their growing, yet imperfect understanding of Jesus’ identity.

Mark’s account shows that the disciples still had only rudimentary understanding of who Jesus was as Messiah. Mark narrates, ‘They were completely astounded, because they had not understood about the loaves. Instead, their hearts were hardened’ (Mark 6: 51– 52). John’s parallel account says simply, ‘Then they were willing to take Him on board, and at once the boat was at the shore where they were heading’ (John 6: 21). Matthew’s eyewitness account focuses on both their growing yet imperfect understanding.

The three parallel accounts are historical testimony that allows us to see that, at the time of this event, it was still too much for the disciples fully to understand Jesus as the incarnate God. But their understanding is certainly increasing, because Matthew tells us that they worship him in response to his calming the sea. Recognizing Jesus to be God’s Son will be part of the continuing divine revelation that is expressed later in Peter’s climactic confession: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!’ (16: 16). They are understanding more clearly that Jesus is uniquely related to God the Father, as those at Jesus’ baptism heard, and they will hear themselves at the transfiguration (3: 17; 17: 5).

To summarize, divergent accounts do not entail contradictory or even inconsistent accounts. Each of the Gospel authors were emphasizing different aspects of Jesus’ life. They each had different goals and purposes in mind when writing their biographies. Before we cry “contradiction” when we see differing accounts of the same events, we need to dig deeper to understand why there may be differing perspectives among the four Gospel writers.

Commentary on Mark 6 (Jesus Feeds 5,000 and Walks on Water)

After Jesus has sent out his disciples to preach to the towns of Galilee (probably around the second year of his public ministry), they return to him and give him reports of what they accomplished. Jesus, seeing they need rest, takes them to a desolate place so that they can be alone.

Mark notes that this is a busy time, for “many were coming and going.” In the parallel account in the Gospel of John, we read that the Passover Festival was near, so this would explain why there were huge crowds of people “coming and going” during this time.

As Jesus and the disciples travel by boat on the Sea of Galilee to a remote place, a crowd of people spot them and follow along on land. Evidently, their boat was close to land and could easily be seen from the shore of the lake.

In verse 34, when their boat goes ashore, Jesus sees the great crowd that has followed them and he has compassion on them, first by teaching them and then by feeding them. James A. Brooks writes, in vol. 23, Mark, The New American Commentary,

’Sheep without a shepherd’ is an Old Testament picture of Israel without spiritual leadership (Num 27:17; 1 Kgs 22:17; Ezek 34:5). Jesus is pictured as the Good Shepherd who feeds the new Israel (cf. Ezek 34:23; Jer 23:4). First he ‘fed’ the crowd with his teaching. Mark frequently emphasized that Jesus taught.

The miracle that follows is recounted in all four Gospels, so the early church obviously considered the feeding of the five thousand to be an extremely important event in Jesus’ ministry. The only other miracle attested by all four Gospels is the resurrection of Jesus.

Because it was late in the evening and they are in a desolate region, the disciples ask Jesus to send the crowds away to buy food for themselves. Jesus responds by telling the disciples to feed the crowd. They complain that it would take 200 denarii to feed a crowd this size (between 15-25,000 people total).

One denarius was equivalent to an average worker’s daily wage. The average daily wage of an American today is about $210, so that would equate to about $42,000! Most of us don’t have $42,000 sitting around to feed a crowd of people who have come to hear us speak for free, so the disciples are understandably panicked.

Unperturbed, Jesus asks them to see how many loaves of bread they can find among the crowd, and they return with five loaves and two fish. Jesus instructs the crowd to divide themselves into groups of fifties and hundreds and sit down on the “green grass.” Note that the grass would have only been green in the spring around the time of Passover, so this little detail nicely harmonizes with the Gospel of John’s timing of this miracle.

Jesus then says a blessing over the food and sends the disciples into the crowd with bread and fish. When they return, everyone in the crowd has been fed and there are twelve baskets left over with bread and fish.

This miracle account refers in several ways to the Old Testament, as noted by James Brooks:

As already observed in the comments on 1:4, in the Old Testament the desert was the place where God met, tested, and blessed his people. Specially important was the experience of Israel in the wilderness following the Exodus. After the testing involved in that experience, ‘rest’ was promised. Note how Mark introduced that idea (v. 31). Also the ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (v. 34) recalls Moses’ description of Israel in Num 27:17; and the ‘hundreds and fifties’ of v. 40, the organization of Israel in Exod 18:21, not to mention the resemblance between the loaves and the manna. The literal rest in the desert and later in the promised land following the Exodus did not satisfy, and the prophets and psalmists began to look forward to a better rest in the messianic age. . . . Mark saw in Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand an eschatological Moses giving perfect rest to and supplying all the needs of his people. The feeding anticipates the messianic banquet at the end of the age. The kingdom is at hand. The miracle as such is not as important for Mark as what it reveals about Jesus. . . .

The prophet Elisha performed a similar miracle according to 2 Kgs 4:42–44. In fact, Mark’s wording owes something to this account and possibly 1 Kgs 17:9–16. Mark may also have seen in the event Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

Immediately following the miracle of the feeding of five thousand, Jesus sends the disciples back into their boat to travel across the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee to meet him in a town called Bethsaida. Jesus goes by himself up on a mountain to pray alone.

Between 3 and 6 am, Jesus sees the disciples rowing their boat against the wind (they have gone way off course and are stuck out in the middle of the lake.) Jesus decides to go to them by walking on the lake. As he approaches the boat, they see him and think he is a ghost.

Jesus tells them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” John D. Grassmick, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, remarks:

The words It is I (lit., ‘I am,’ egō eimi) may simply convey self-identification (‘It is I, Jesus’), but they are probably intended here to echo the Old Testament formula of God’s self-revelation: ‘I am who I am’ (cf. Ex. 3:14; Isa. 41:4; 43:10; 51:12; 52:6).

Jesus climbs into the boat and the winds calm down. Mark records that the disciples are amazed because they did not understand who Jesus really was, even after seeing Jesus feed five thousand people.

The miracle of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John. Only Luke does not record it.

 

Was Mark the First Gospel Written?

Although we may never know for sure, the majority of biblical scholars think that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that the other Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, used Mark as a source. Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), why this view is the dominant one.

Markan priority appears to be the most prudent position for several reasons: (1) Mark’s literary style sometimes lacks the sophistication and polish often seen in Matthew and Luke. This phenomenon is more easily explained in terms of Matthean and Lukan improvement upon Mark, rather than Markan degradation of Matthean and Lukan style.

(2) In the Markan Gospel Jesus and the disciples are sometimes portrayed in a manner that appears undignified. More often than not these potentially embarrassing passages are touched up or omitted altogether by Matthew and Luke. Again, it is easier to explain the phenomena in terms of Matthean and Lukan improvements upon Mark, rather than the reverse.

(3) The phenomena of agreements and disagreements among the Synoptic Gospels are more easily explained in reference to Markan priority. Among other things, we observe that where there is no Mark to follow (e.g., no infancy narrative, no ‘Q’ material) this is where Matthew and Luke diverge from one another. This observation is more easily explained in terms of Markan priority and Matthew’s and Luke’s independence from one another than in terms of Mark writing last and making use of Matthew and Luke. Markan priority also avoids the problem of trying to explain Luke’s inconsistent use of Matthew.

(4) The small amount of material that is unique to the Gospel of Mark also supports Markan priority. This material consists of 1: 1; 2: 27; 3: 20– 21; 4: 26– 29; 7: 2– 4, 32– 37; 8: 22– 26; 9: 29, 48– 49; 13: 33– 37; 14: 51– 52. In reviewing this material we should ask which explanation seems most probable, that Mark added it or that Matthew and Luke found it in Mark and chose to omit it. The nature of the material supports the latter alternative, for it seems more likely that Matthew and Luke chose to omit the flight of the naked youth (14: 51– 52); the odd saying about being ‘salted with fire’ (9: 48– 49); the strange miracle where Jesus effects healing in two stages (8: 22– 26); the even stranger miracle where Jesus puts his fingers in a man’s ears, spits, and touches his tongue (7: 32– 37); and the episode where Jesus is regarded as mad and his family attempts to restrain him (3: 20– 22). If we accept the Griesbach-Farmer Hypothesis [that Matthew was written first], we would then have to explain why Mark would choose to add these odd, potentially embarrassing materials, only to omit the Sermon on the Mount/ Plain, the Lord’s Prayer, and numerous other teachings and parables found in the larger Gospels.

(5) The final consideration that adds weight to the probability of Markan priority has to do with the results of the respective hypotheses. The true test of any hypothesis is its effectiveness. In biblical studies a theory should aid the exegetical task. The theory of Markan priority has provided just this kind of aid. Not only has Synoptic interpretation been materially advanced because of the conclusion, and now widespread assumption, of Markan priority, but the development of critical methods oriented to Gospel research, such as Form and Redaction Criticism, which have enjoyed success, has also presupposed Markan priority.

In countless studies, whether dealing with this or that pericope, or treating one of the Synoptic Gospels in its entirety, it has been recognized over and over again that Matthew and Luke make the greatest sense as interpretations of Mark; but Mark makes little sense as a conflation and interpretation of Matthew and Luke. The evidence is compelling that Mark represents the oldest surviving account of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. What sources the evangelist Mark made use of, if any, will in all probability remain a mystery. That he made use of some written material seems likely. That he made use of some eyewitness testimony is also probable; it cannot be ruled out.

Commentary on Mark 6 (Death of John the Baptist)

The traditional view of the Gospel of Mark is that it was written by John Mark, a follower of the apostle Peter, during his missionary travels, between AD 50-70. Most biblical scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first Gospel written, and that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from it when writing their accounts. Early church fathers wrote that Mark collected his stories about Jesus’ life from Peter.

Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), explains the purposes of Mark in writing his Gospel:

Mark’s opening verse makes the Gospel’s purpose clear: ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1: 1). Mark very carefully chose his language, deliberately echoing the language of the imperial ruler cult, as seen in an inscription in honor of Caesar Augustus: ‘the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning for the world of the good news.’ Mark challenges this imperial myth, asserting that the good news for the world began with Jesus Christ, the true Son of God (see Mark 15: 39, where the Roman centurion admits upon seeing the impressive death of Jesus: ‘This man really was God’s Son!’).

From this extraordinary claim at the beginning of his narrative, to the sudden and dramatic discovery of the empty tomb, Mark takes pains to show that Jesus is truly God’s Son, despite rejection by the religious authorities of his time and his execution at the hands of the Roman governor. The Julian emperors, whose latest and most unfortunate manifestation at the time of the publication of Mark is the demented Nero, can provide no compelling candidates for recognition as the Son of God, whose life and death are truly of benefit to humankind. To the Roman world Mark proffers Jesus and his message of the kingdom of God and by doing so encourages the faithful to remain steadfast, and enjoins the critics and opponents of the Christian faith to reconsider.

As Jesus’ ministry continues, his forerunner, the man who baptized him in the Jordan River, is executed. Mark tells the story of John the Baptist’s execution in chapter six, starting in verse 14.

In verses 14-16, Mark tells his readers that King Herod hears about Jesus and becomes concerned that he is John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod assumes that a raised John the Baptist would have supernatural powers and be able to perform the kinds of miracles being attributed to Jesus.

There are other rumors about Jesus, however. Some say he is the second coming of Elijah (as prophesied in Malachi 4:5) and others say he is a new prophet sent by God to the Israelite nation. Herod, though, is convinced Jesus is the John the Baptist, back from the dead.

Before we continue, who exactly is Herod? The Herod of Mark 6 is more precisely named Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great (the Herod whom the magi visited when Jesus was born) and tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (4 BC – AD 39). When Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, died in 4 BC, his kingdom was split into three parts by the Roman emperor. Antipas was given the portion of the kingdom that encompassed the regions of Galilee and Perea (see map below from Nelson’s 3-D Bible Mapbook).

map

Antipas married Aretas, the daughter of king of the Nabateans (region in yellow above). But while visiting Rome, Antipas became infatuated with the wife of his half-brother; her name was Herodias. He promptly divorced Aretas and married Herodias (who divorced her husband as well).

Stealing his half-brother’s wife was truly scandalous and the Jews in his kingdom were horrified. John the Baptist loudly criticized the marriage as an offense against God, citing passages such as Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21.

Antipas arrests John the Baptist and places him in prison at the fortress of Machaerus (in the southern portion of Perea). According to Mark, Antipas does this because of pressure from his wife, Herodias. She despises John and wants him executed, but Antipas is hesitant to do so because he sees John as a holy man.

That would change when Antipas throws a birthday party for himself at one of his fortresses, possibly Machaerus. During the festivities, Antipas invites his teenage step-daughter to dance for a room full of drunken men. The young girl is named Salome, and she is the daughter of Herodias and her former husband.

Antipas is so pleased with her performance that he rashly offers her whatever she wants, up to half his kingdom. Only the Romans could divide his kingdom, so he is making a drunken promise that he can’t even keep.

Salome goes to ask her mother what she should request, and Herodias tells her to ask for John the Baptist’s head. At this point, Antipas will be publicly embarrassed in front of the Galilean nobility and military commanders if he refuses her request, so he gives the order and John the Baptist is executed.

David Garland comments, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary):

The account reeks of gross impiety. Birthdays were pagan celebrations. Drunken revelry, a princess dancing at a stag party (she must leave to consult her mother), and execution without a trial all smack of rank paganism. The grisly detail of John’s head brought to them on a platter caps off a banquet already polluted by excess.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, confirms that John the Baptist was executed by Antipas at Machaerus. Josephus, however, stresses that John was killed for political reasons. Antipas saw John as a growing threat to his rule. Craig Evans writes:

Josephus confirms that Herod imprisoned and executed John the Baptist, but his details differ as to why exactly John was killed (Antiquities 18.116– 119). At most points the two accounts can be reconciled, and where they cannot be reconciled there is no good reason to give Josephus preference. Although Josephus chooses to emphasize the political dangers that John posed to Herod, and Mark chose to emphasize the moral dimension, the two accounts are in essential agreement. Herod’s disgraceful dismissal of his wife, the daughter of the king of the Nabateans, and his unlawful marriage to Herodias his sister-in-law prompted John’s condemnation. John’s condemnation focused on the immoral and unlawful aspects (which Mark mentions), while Herod’s fears focused on the political dangers (which Josephus narrates). Later, Josephus himself mentions the inappropriateness of Herod’s divorce and remarriage (Antiquities 18.136).

After John is executed, his disciples retrieve his body and give him a proper burial, a preview of Joseph of Arimathea’s burial of Jesus. John the Baptist is the forerunner of Jesus both in life and death.

Was It Right for Jesus to Conceal Spiritual Truths by Using Parables?

In Matthew 13 Jesus explains to his disciples that he is using parables to teach truths about the kingdom of heaven. However, because parables are allegorical or metaphorical in nature, they are often difficult to interpret without further explanation. Jesus is only willing to explain the parables to his followers, but not to the crowds that were assembling to hear him speak. Why would Jesus do this? Wasn’t he putting up unnecessary barriers? Shouldn’t he have explained the parables to the crowds?

Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), explains what Jesus was accomplishing by speaking in parables:

First, he tested the hearts of listeners. Parables act as a spiritual examination, prompting a response that indicates whether the listener’s heart is open to Jesus’ message, or whether it is hardened. If the listener is hardened to Jesus’ message, the parable stimulates confusion or outright rejection and prompts him to turn from Jesus and the truth (13: 11– 15). If the person’s heart is instead open, he will come to Jesus for further clarification about the parable’s meaning— as the disciples do (13: 10)— and eventually understand the truth embedded in the parables (13: 51).

Second, the parables give instruction to those who are responsive. The parables reveal and instruct Jesus’ disciples on the nature of the kingdom of heaven, showing how it operates in this world in a way very different from what the religious leaders and the crowds expected. By use of parables Jesus gives indications of the development of the kingdom (sower: 13: 18– 23, 36– 43; tares: 13: 24– 30; mustard seed: 13: 31– 32; leaven: 13: 33), the incomparable value of the kingdom (treasure: 13: 44; pearl: 13: 45– 46), membership in the kingdom (net: 13: 47– 50; cf. vineyard: 21: 43; two sons: 21: 28– 32), and service in the kingdom (teacher of the law: 13: 51– 52).

The positive response of the disciples is seen in their asking for further explanation (13: 10, 36), the reward of which is Jesus’ explanation of the parables (13: 18– 23, 37– 43) and parabolic teaching directed to them that reveals additional truth about the mysteries of the kingdom (13: 44– 52). While the disciples are not perfect in understanding, they possess the potential and desire to progress. Ultimately they will understand because they have been obedient to listen and hear (13: 51).

Jesus wasn’t excluding anyone who wanted to understand his teachings and follow him. He was, however, excluding those who were listening to him in order to confirm their own rejection of him. There is a volitional side to understanding. If you tell me something that I don’t like or that I don’t want to be true, then I will not attempt to understand nor embrace what you have to say.

Commentary on Matthew 13 (Parable of the Soils)

Jesus is teaching near the Sea of Galilee, but the crowds are so large that he climbs into a boat and moves out into the water. The crowds then gather on the beach to hear him. This takes place well into his ministry, possibly two years.

Unlike his previous teaching, he only communicates parables to the crowd. R. V. G. Tasker and I. H. Marshall explain the meaning in the New Bible Dictionary:

‘Parable’ is ultimately derived from Gk. parabolē, literally ‘putting things side by side.’ Etymologically it is thus close to ‘allegory,’ which by derivation means ‘saying things in a different way.’ Both parables and allegories have usually been regarded as forms of teaching which present the listener with interesting illustrations from which can be drawn moral and religious truths; ‘parable’ is the somewhat protracted simile or short descriptive story, usually designed to inculcate a single truth or answer a single question, while ‘allegory’ denotes the more elaborate tale in which all or most of the details have their counterparts in the application. Since ‘truth embodied in a tale shall enter in at lowly doors,’ the value of this method of instruction is obvious.

The first parable he teaches is known as the Parable of the Sower. The sower is scattering seeds on the ground to grow a crop. However, when the sower scatters the seeds, they fall on four different kinds of soil: soil along the path, soil on rocky ground, soil with thorns growing in it, and finally good soil. As most of Jesus’ listeners were familiar with scattering seeds, they would have understood the imagery Jesus is using to tell the parable. However, since we are two thousand years removed, here is some background from Michael J. Wilkins in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary):

Seed was sown ‘broadcast’ style by scattering it in all directions by hand while walking up and down the field. The average rate of sowing wheat varies from twenty pounds per acre (22.5 kilograms per hectare) upward, which allowed for wasted seed. Fields were apparently plowed both before the seed was sown and after, plowing across the original furrows to cover the seeds with soil. . . . It was common for seed to be scattered on the hard paths that surrounded the fields. Birds would swoop down as the farmer walked on and eat the seed.

Conditions for farming in many areas of Israel were not favorable. The hardships that many people experienced included insufficient amounts of water and soil. The terrain in most cases was uneven and rocky, with only thin layers of soil covering the rock. Seed that landed on this shallow soil could begin to germinate, but it couldn’t put down deep roots to collect what little moisture was in that parched thin layer of earth. Sprouting seed would soon wither and die in the hot sun (13:6).

Sometimes thorns were also hidden in the soil, so the farmer could not see them to pull them out by the roots. Therefore, when seed was planted beside the thorns, the thorns would grow rapidly and crowd out the seeds.

With regard to the good soil, Craig Keener notes in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament:

Thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold are tremendously good harvests from Galilean soil. The Jordan Valley normally yielded between ten- and a hundredfold, so a hundredfold need not be a miraculous harvest (Gen 26:12; cf. Amos 9:13). But for much of Palestine, the average yield was tenfold (meaning that 10 seeds were harvested for every seed sown), and all the figures Jesus reports here are very good yields.

Once Jesus has finished, his disciples pull him aside and ask why he has started teaching in parables. Jesus explains that only those who are truly following him (his disciples) will have the parables explained to them. The parables are revealing the secrets (mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven. Those who aren’t following Jesus will not hear the parables explained, and thus will remain ignorant about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.

What does Jesus mean by the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven”? Up until Matthew 13, Jesus has been presenting himself to the Jews of Galilee and Judea as the Messiah, the long-predicted King of Israel. He has performed miracles, he has fulfilled prophecies, he has taught with authority, yet most Jews were rejecting his claims to be the Messiah. In fact, in Matthew 12, the Jewish leadership attributes his miracles to the power of Satan!

Given the rejection of Jesus as their King, Jesus will now start revealing to his disciples that the kingdom of God (heaven) that the OT predicted will be delayed until Jesus returns to the earth some time in the future. Until he comes back, however, the kingdom of God will exist, but in a different form than what the Jews would have expected. Jesus, then, is going to reveal to his disciples the characteristics of this new form of the kingdom which will exist between his first and second coming. This new form has never been revealed before, so that is why it is referred to as a “secret” or “mystery.”

Why would Jesus only want his closest followers to be told about the new form of the kingdom of God? Because the crowds that are coming to hear him speak are mostly composed of people who don’t accept his claim of being the Messiah and who don’t want to dedicate their lives to him.

Reflecting on verses 13-15, Craig Blomberg writes, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary:

The hidden aspect of the parables’ message is thus both a cause of and a response to people’s unwillingness to follow Jesus. ‘Seeing’ and ‘hearing’ are each used in two different senses here, once for simple sensory perception and then for the kind of insight that leads to acceptance of the gospel and discipleship. ‘Understanding’ is a key word for Matthew in this chapter, especially in vv. 19 and 23, where he adds the term to his sources. The language of v. 13 is taken almost verbatim from Isa 6:9–10, LXX. Jesus declares that the words of Isaiah are now being fulfilled.

The word for ‘fulfill’ here (anaplēroō) is different from before, the only time in the New Testament this verb is used with reference to Scripture. Verse 14a probably means the prophecy of Isaiah applies to them—i.e., the pattern of behavior in Isaiah’s time is repeating itself and being completed in Jesus’ day among those who reject him. . . . Meanwhile v. 15 explains the current plight of those who reject Jesus. God confirms such people in their hard-heartedness in response to their freely chosen disobedience (as in the larger context of God’s call to Isaiah to prophesy to rebellious Israel; cf. also the sequence of events in Rom 1:18–32). Jesus sees his preaching in parables, in part at least, as a kind of judgment from God upon unbelieving Israel.

As for Jesus’ disciples, they are blessed. They will be taught the meaning of the parables, and thus the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. They are learning things about the kingdom that not even the great prophets and saints in the OT were privileged to know.

In verses 18-23, Jesus explains the parable of the sower to his disciples. The seed represents Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of heaven. The four soils represent four different kinds of responses to Jesus’ teaching.

The first kind of person (soil on the path) never understands Jesus’ words and Satan snatches away the words before any understanding does occur. This does not a represent a person who simply needs more instruction to understand. This person willfully rejects the message they are hearing and they are therefore culpable.

The second kind of person (soil on rocky ground) receives Jesus’ words, but as soon as he is troubled or persecuted for his beliefs, he abandons Jesus.

The third kind of person (soil with thorns) also receives Jesus’ words, but money and earthly distractions make him an unfruitful disciple.

The fourth kind of person (good soil) receives and understands Jesus’ words, and becomes extremely fruitful in the kingdom of heaven. This is the only kind of person whom Jesus commends. To be fruitful means to be obedient to God in everything you do. Michael Wilkins adds his thoughts about the crop produced in the life of the good soil:

Many think that this ‘crop’ refers to converts won to Christ through the believer. This no doubt is partially correct, but in this context it refers to something more fundamental—the transformation of a person who has encountered the kingdom of heaven. In the fourth soil the crop represents the outworking of the life of the divine seed (cf. 1 John 3:9), with special reference to the production of the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22–23), and the outworking of the Spirit in the gifts of the Spirit in the believer’s life (1 Cor. 12). This results in personal characteristics produced by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), the external creation of Spirit-produced righteousness and good works (e.g., Col. 1:10), and indeed, new converts won through the believer’s testimony (e.g., Rom. 1:13). The ‘crop’ produced is the outward evidence of the reality of inward life of the kingdom of heaven.

Even though it is depressing to learn that only one of the four soils actually succeeds as a member of the kingdom of heaven, it should also be noted that the fourth kind of person produces a new crop that is thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold. Thus the fourth soil more than makes up for the other three soils and their failure to produce.

A final word about the parable. Although the parable primarily speaks of fruit-bearing, there is a sense in which Jesus is referring to entrance to the ultimate kingdom of heaven. In other words, he is speaking about what we commonly refer to as salvation, or being saved.

Most commentators agree that the first soil is not saved and the fourth one is. However, there is no consensus about the second and third soils. Some argue they are not saved and some argue they are. I do not know the answer to that question, but I will say that everyone agrees that the only soil Jesus commends in the parable is the fourth. So, any Christian who does not aspire to be like the fourth soil is completely missing the point of the parable. The first three soils don’t cut it in Jesus’ kingdom.

Are Christians Not to Judge?

Numerous people have read Matthew 7:1 out of context and come to the conclusion that Christians aren’t supposed to judge anybody’s behavior. David Croteau, in Urban Legends of the New Testament, writes an entire chapter to explain why this conclusion is incorrect. First, Croteau fleshes out the faulty position:

All forms of judging are commanded to cease. Don’t judge other people, believers or unbelievers, based on what you see them doing, on their lifestyle, on how they dress, or on what music they listen to. Jesus is calling us to a higher standard, to put aside our differences and live in unity with one another. Judging others disrupts unity; it divides the church. The world is looking at us wondering if we’ll ever be united, if we’ll ever demonstrate love for one another. The more we judge one another, the weaker our witness will be.

Croteau then explains, in detail, what Matthew 7:1 does not mean.

The Greek word translated ‘judge’ by virtually every Bible translation has a range of meanings. It can refer to making a selection (‘prefer’), passing judgment based on the correctness of something (‘discern’), or judging someone to be guilty (‘condemn’).  The prohibition in Matthew 7: 1 is against condemning other people. Jesus is commanding them not to be severely critical and judgmental. The Sermon on the Mount calls on Christians to judge others in the sense of being discerning.

Jesus’ illustration immediately following this prohibition is primarily intended to communicate the hypocritical penchant humans have for criticizing others while tolerating the same (or worse) behavior in themselves (Matt 7: 3– 5). Jesus concludes that illustration by saying that after the log is removed from your own eye, then you will be able to see clearly enough to help your friend by removing the speck from his eye. This means that you will have to see the speck, the ‘minor shortcoming,’ in order to remove it. This involves judging (in the sense of discernment) on some level.

In Matthew 7: 6, Jesus prohibits his followers from giving ‘what is holy to dogs’ or from tossing ‘your pearls before pigs.’ Obedience to Jesus’ words requires discerning the identity of the ‘dogs’ and of the ‘pigs.’

Finally, how are Jesus’ followers expected to watch out for ‘false prophets’ (Matt 7: 15) if they are prohibited from discerning who is false? From the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, one passage in particular sticks out as relevant: Matthew 18: 15– 20. Jesus commands his followers to rebuke fellow followers when they sin. The process outlined in these verses involves much judging, again, in the sense of discernment. John Stott aptly concludes that ‘the command to judge not is not a requirement to be blind.’

In the context of the entire New Testament, a prohibition against discernment appears to fail as well. Jesus’ own teaching in John 7: 24 appears to contradict Matthew 7: 1 on the surface: ‘Stop judging according to outward appearances; rather judge according to righteous judgment.’ Here is an explicit command from Jesus to ‘judge,’ using the same word as in Matthew 7: 1. In the context Jesus is discussing how the Jews (or possibly the Jewish leaders) were passing judgment on Jesus (referring to discernment) regarding his actions on the Sabbath (see John 7: 23). So he commands them to cease discerning based on ‘mere appearances’ (NIV), a phrase that refers to a ‘superficial’ discernment. Instead of discerning superficially, they are commanded to discern based on a ‘righteous judgment.’ Jesus is explaining that a right or correct judgment of himself will lead them to conclude that he is actually fulfilling the laws of circumcision and Sabbath (cf. John 7: 22– 23).

Croteau goes on to provide other examples in the New Testament where Christians are commanded to judge. He concludes:

A strong case can be made that the overall teaching in the New Testament is for Christians to be discerning in areas including others’ sin and false teaching. Christians should diligently discern in at least both of these areas.

If Christians are to judge, then what is Jesus teaching in Matthew 7?

In contrast to interpreting Matthew 7: 1 as a prohibition against discernment, it is a prohibition against an overly judgmental attitude. Jesus’ disciples are to be committed to a righteous life, but he does not authorize them to have a judgmental attitude. The reason Jesus prohibits this is spelled out in the second half of 7: 1: ‘so that you won’t be judged.’ While this phrase could mean that by being censorious you invite others to be overly critical of yourself, it most likely means that when you are overly critical of others, God will judge you with those same standards. Being quick to condemn others is inviting the condemnation of God on your life.

People are incapable of knowing with any certainty another person’s heart, nor can we know their motives. Stott concludes: ‘To be censorious is to presume arrogantly to anticipate the day of judgment, to usurp the prerogative of the divine Judge, in fact to try to play God.’  Rather than requiring blindness, Matthew 7: 1 is ‘a plea to be generous.’  Augustine summarizes Jesus’ teaching this way: ‘We are taught nothing else, but that in the case of those actions respecting which it is doubtful with what intention they are done, we are to put the better construction on them.’ This is what some call giving ‘the charitable assumption.’

For further thoughts on Matthew 7, see the post entitled “Should Christians Judge?”

Is the Golden Rule Unique to Christianity?

Some Christians mistakenly believe that Jesus was the first person in history to express the ethical precepts taught in the Golden Rule. Many of the things Jesus said and did were unique in history, but we must also remember that Jesus’s intent was to fulfill the Hebrew scriptures. Much of what Jesus says and does are then based upon the words already recorded in the Old Testament. In addition, the Bible teaches that God has etched the moral law into the heart of every man (Rom 2:14-15) , so that nobody can claim ignorance of it. Therefore, it would be surprising if an ethical maxim like the Golden Rule had never been uttered by anyone before Jesus. So what is the history of the Golden Rule?

Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), writes about the Golden Rule:

This maxim is a commonly accepted basis of human civilization, and has been expressed in other contexts throughout history in both positive and negative forms. Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca (4 BC– AD 65) expressed the principle positively, ‘Let us show our generosity in the same manner that we would wish to have it bestowed on us’ (De Beneficiis 2.1.1), while Chinese philosopher Confucius (551– 479 BC) stated it negatively, ‘Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you!’ (Analects 15: 23; for other examples, see Betz 1995, 509– 16).

The precept appears to have been a common theme in Judaism at the time of Jesus. Tobit gives a negative form of the principle, ‘Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. And what you hate, do not do to anyone’ (Tobit 4: 14b-15 NRSV). Hillel the Elder, an authority on Jewish Law (c. 70 BC– AD 10), supposedly held this motto, ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.’ In the only text in the whole of rabbinic literature that attributes the saying to Hillel, the Elder goes on to say, ‘That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn!’ (b. Šabb. 31a; see Alexander 1997, 363– 88).

Wilkins goes on to address the criticism that Jesus is adding nothing new to the Golden Rule with his teaching.

Critics have denied the uniqueness of Jesus’ teaching because this Golden Rule has been expressed in other contexts throughout history. Although the basic idea can be found elsewhere, Jesus’ expression of the Golden Rule represents a more demanding interpretation of love of one’s neighbor than was normal among other teachers of the time (France 2007, 284). Jesus’ teachings were significant because of the authority with which he taught as the Son of God who has come to fulfill the Law (5: 17– 20; 7: 28). Whereas other expressions of this saying indicate ethical aspiration, Jesus declares that the Golden Rule is the normative manifestation of his followers’ discipleship.

Commentary on Matthew 6-7 (Sermon on the Mount, continued)

We continue to look at the Sermon on the Mount in chapters six and seven of Matthew. We will analyze the Lord’s Prayer, judging others, and the Golden Rule.

In chapter six, verse 5-6, Jesus instructs his disciples to pray in a way that does not bring attention to themselves. Prayer is a private matter between you and God, not an activity meant to show how spiritual you are. Craig Blomberg writes, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary,

As with almsgiving, Jesus does not rule out all public behavior but stresses the private side of piety. Public prayer is very appropriate when practiced with right motives. But public orations should represent the overflow of a vibrant personal prayer life. What is more, prayer ought not to be used to gain plaudits, summarize a sermon, or communicate information to an audience but should reflect genuine conversation with God.

In verses 7-8 Jesus warns his disciples to not pray like pagans. Pagans would typically recite long, formulaic prayers that would invoke numerous names of the deity they were praying to. The purpose was to use the right phrases and names of the deity to make the prayer efficacious. A mistake in the words chosen would mean that the deity would not respond to the prayer. Instead, we should think of God as our father who knows exactly what we need before we even ask. Jesus then offers an example prayer for his disciples in verses 9-13. This has come to be known as the “model prayer,” “Our Father,” or “Lord’s prayer.”

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

The first step is to give proper respect to the name of God in your prayer. Recall that a name includes one’s nature, character, and authority. We are to reverence God.

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

God’s will is already done in heaven where He has not allowed His creatures’ sins to pollute. But our prayer is that one day God’s reign and authority will reach to our world as well. We are praying that God will someday bring His sinless perfection to the earth.

“Give us this day our daily bread”

We are to rely on God every day to provide us sustenance. There are no guarantees of a long life, but each day we pray for God to provide the essentials.

“and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

We should ask God every day to forgive us our sins, but He will not do so if we refuse to forgive the sins others have committed against us.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Blomberg explains what this verse meant to Jesus’s listeners:

’Lead us not into temptation’ does not imply ‘don’t bring us to the place of temptation’ or ‘don’t allow us to be tempted.’ God’s Spirit has already done both of these with Jesus (4:1). Nor does the clause imply ‘don’t tempt us’ because God has promised never to do that anyway (Jas 1:13). Rather, in light of the probable Aramaic underlying Jesus’ prayer, these words seem best taken as ‘don’t let us succumb to temptation’ (cf. Mark 14:38) or ‘don’t abandon us to temptation.’ We do of course periodically succumb to temptation but never because we have no alternative (1 Cor 10:13). So when we give in, we have only ourselves to blame. The second clause of v. 13 phrases the same plea positively, ‘Deliver us from evil’ (or ‘from the evil one’ [NIV marg.], from whom all evil ultimately comes). This parallelism renders less likely the alternate translation of the first clause as ‘do not bring us to the test’ (‘test’ is an equally common rendering of peirasmos) either as times of trial in this life or as final judgment. If we are praying for rescue from the devil, he is more likely tempting than testing us (cf. under 4:1). God tests us in order to prove us and bring us to maturity (Jas 1:2–4; 1 Pet 1:6–9). Such tests should not be feared, nor should we pray for God to withhold them.

Verses 14-15 reiterate the thoughts in verse 12. If you are an unforgiving person, then God will likewise not forgive you.

As we move to chapter seven, Jesus tells his disciples how they should judge. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus is not commanding his followers to never judge, but he is instructing us how to judge. Blomberg elaborates on verses 1-2:

’Judge’ (krinō) can imply to analyze or evaluate as well as to condemn or avenge. The former senses are clearly commanded of believers (e.g., 1 Cor 5:5; 1 John 4:1), but the latter are reserved for God. Even on those occasions when we render a negative evaluation of others, our purposes should be constructive and not retributive. So Jesus is here commanding his followers not to be characterized by judgmental attitudes . . . . The immediate practical rationale for his command is that others, including God, may treat us in the same manner we treat them.

Verses 3-5 illustrate the kind of hypocritical judgment that Jesus condemns. A person who is sinning badly has no right to judge another person for the same sin. We must first deal with our own sins before we judge the sins in others.

Dogs and pigs were scavenging animals in ancient Palestine. They often lived in squalor and ran around the streets of many towns looking for food. They were known to turn on humans and attack them. To Jews, calling someone a “dog” or “pig” was a grave insult. So when Jesus says, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you,” he is advising his followers not to waste giving truth to those who are hostile to what you are saying. When you give them truth, they will simply turn on you and attack you.

Verse 12 embodies what has come to be known as the Golden Rule. Jesus instructs his disciples to do to others what we wish they would do to us. He adds that this maxim sums up much of the Hebrew scriptures. Notice how this maxim is similar to “love your neighbor as yourself.” They essentially are saying the same thing.

Can Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Be Reconciled with Luke’s Version of the Sermon?

Because the New Testament contains four biographies of Jesus (the four Gospels), there can be up to four parallel accounts of the events recorded about Jesus’s life. These accounts will contain similarities, but also differences, to each other because each of the four Gospel authors had different intentions and purposes when composing their biographies.

An example of this is the Sermon on the Mount, as recounted in Matthew 5-7. There is a sermon recorded in Luke 6 which bears clear likenesses to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. How can we reconcile these two accounts? Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible) analyzes the popular scholarly attempts to relate these two sermons.

He first notes the similarities:

[B]oth sermons come in the context of Jesus’ widespread speaking and healing ministry among the crowds (4: 23– 25; Luke 6: 17– 19); both begin with beatitudes; both give significant ethical teaching on love and judging; both emphasize the necessity of bearing fruit; both conclude with the parable of the wise builder.

But there also differences:

Matthew does not include the ‘woes’ of Luke’s beatitudes (Luke 6: 24– 26); Luke does not include the majority of the antitheses found in Matthew (5: 21– 48); Luke’s version of the ‘Lord’s prayer’ does not occur in his sermon but elsewhere (Luke 11: 1– 4); Luke 6: 17 puts the setting in a ‘level place,’ whereas Matthew describes a ‘mountain’ setting (5: 1).

Wilkins then examines three hypotheses about how the two sermons are related:

First, the similarities lead some to assert that Matthew and Luke present two distinct summaries of the same sermon (e.g., Bock 1994, 553; Carson 2010, 154; Osborne 2010, 160– 61).

Second, the differences lead others to suggest that Matthew and Luke record two different sermons, which Jesus gave on separate occasions but included similar content (e.g., Blomberg 1992, 96; Morris 1992, 93). Any good preacher will repeat effective illustrations and preaching points, a fact that lends support to this view.

Third, still others propose that either Matthew or Luke (or both) gathered together teachings that Jesus gave on separate occasions and presented them as if they were given in one sermon (e.g., Betz 1995, 44– 45; France 2008, 154– 155; Guelich 1982, 35; Hagner 1993, 69). The latter is usually suggested because there are parallels to Matthew’s sermon scattered throughout Luke’s Gospel (e.g., cf. 5: 13 in Luke 14: 34– 35; 5: 14 in Luke 11: 33, etc.; see Hagner 1993, 83, for a complete listing).

Wilkins’ take on these three hypotheses follows:

Since Matthew and Luke both imply that their sermons were given on one occasion, the third view is least likely. The first view is strengthened by observing the same general context, the general order, and the similar geographical setting (a mountainous area can feature flat spots) of both sermons. The second view is strengthened by recalling that Jesus went about teaching and preaching all through the countryside of Galilee for nearly two years, and he almost certainly repeated much of the same content on numerous occasions. Since nothing of great importance relies on the solution to this question, it may be best to say that until further insight is gained either the first or second view is preferable.

We don’t conclusively know how the two sermons are related, but we have some good ideas. As Wilkins says, the first and second views are preferable, but we need more evidence to decide between them.

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