Tag Archives: Michael Wilkins

Commentary on Matthew 26 (The Last Supper)

During the week before the Passover Feast, the Jewish authorities have been looking for a way to arrest Jesus and they finally find one. In Matthew 26, verses 14-16, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples, betrays him. Judas goes to the chief priests and offers to help them arrest Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. This amount represents about four months of wages for Judas. To put this in perspective, this would be the equivalent of about $18k for the average American worker today.

Why would Judas offer to betray Jesus? Scripture does not tell us directly, but we can guess. Craig Blomberg, in , offers the following: “Perhaps most plausible is an intermediate view, which sees Judas as growing increasingly disenchanted with the type of Messiah Jesus is proving to be, a far cry from the nationalistic, military liberator the Jews hoped would free them from Roman tyranny.”

On Thursday afternoon of the Passion Week, Jesus arranges for himself and the twelve disciples to eat the Passover meal that evening in a large upper room in a private home. Jesus and his disciples recline on three couches that form a U-shape (referred to as a triclinium). The food and wine are in the center of the U. The meal would only start after sundown because Passover begins after sundown.

Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains how the Passover meal would have looked:

The ‘Haggadah of Passover’ was the set form in which the Exodus story was told on the first two nights of Passover as part of the ritual Seder (‘order’). The expression ‘Haggadah of Passover’ then came to be used for the entire Seder ritual as well as for the book containing the liturgy and ritual narration of the events of Deuteronomy 26:5–9 (first referred to in m. Pesah. 10). Central to the meal were three foods—unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and the Passover offering (lamb in temple days)—along with the four (traditional) cups of wine.

During the meal, each of the disciples would dip bitter herbs into a mixture of nuts, fruit, and vinegar to lessen their bitterness. Also, bread would be dipped in sauces. Just before the meal begins, Jesus announces to the disciples that he “who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me.” The mood of the meal turns to sorrow as each of the disciples asks Jesus, “Is it I, Lord?” Judas asks Jesus if it is him, and Jesus answers, “You have said so.” It seems likely that Judas and Jesus’ conversation is private because the other disciples don’t seem aware that it is Judas who will betray Jesus. Otherwise, they surely would have confronted him during the meal.

In verse 24, Jesus affirms that the betrayal was prophesied in the Old Testament and is thus part of the divine plan. However, the person who actually betrays Jesus is responsible for freely choosing to do so. Judas will be damned because of his betrayal. Presumably, Judas leaves the meal at this point, although Matthew does not report it (his departure is reported in John). The other disciples still don’t suspect what he is up to.

Jesus then begins the Passover meal by breaking bread and saying a blessing over it, but he also gives a new command to the disciples: “Take, eat; this is my body.” Blomberg explains Jesus’ meaning:

A common loaf would be distributed to all. The unleavened bread originally symbolized the haste with which the Israelites departed from Egypt (Exod 12). For additional laws about how to celebrate the feast, see Lev 23:4–8; Num 9:1–14; and Deut 16:1–8. Jesus now invests the bread with new meaning. It foreshadows his body figuratively broken and literally killed in his upcoming death.

Deflecting intra-Christian debates about whether the bread is, in some sense, actually Jesus’ body, Blomberg writes,

As Jesus holds up a loaf and declares, ‘This is my body,’ no one listening will ever imagine that he is claiming the bread to be the literal extension of his flesh. Moreover, in Aramaic these sentences would have been spoken without a linking verb (‘is’), as simply, this, my body and this, my blood. As frequently elsewhere, Jesus is creating a vivid object lesson. The bread symbolizes (represents, stands for, or points to) his crucifixion in some otherwise unspecified sense.

During the Passover meal, four cups of wine would be consumed. Each had special significance, according to Michael Wilkins.

(1) The first cup initiated the ceremony with the Kiddush, the cup of benediction, a blessing over wine that introduces all festivals. (2) The second cup just before the meal and after the Haggadah of the Passover concluded with the singing of the first part of the Hallel (Ps. 113–114). (3) The third cup was drunk after the meal and the saying of grace. (4) The fourth cup followed the conclusion of the Hallel (Ps. 115–118) (m. Pesah 10:1–7).

Just before the third cup of wine was to be passed around, Jesus again gives a new command. Blomberg explains that the third cup is “tied in with God’s promise, ‘I will redeem you,’ in [Exodus 6:6c] and hence specifically to his original liberation of the Israelites from Egypt (m. Pesaḥ. 10:6–7).

Jesus ties the cup of wine to the blood he will spill on the cross. This blood sacrifice will result in the forgiveness of sins for many people (those who accept Jesus). This language echoes Isaiah 53, where Isaiah speaks of the Suffering Servant, or the Messiah who will come. But Jesus is also announcing the beginning of a new covenant. Wilkins writes:

The traditional cups of the Passover celebration now offer another stunning illustration for Jesus to show that his sacrificial life is the fulfillment of all that for which the historical ritual had hoped. This is the new covenant that was promised to the people of Israel by God: ‘The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’ (Jer. 31:31, 34).

In verse 29, Jesus tells his disciples that he will not ever drink wine at another meal with them until the great banquet that accompanies the inauguration of the messianic kingdom at the end of the age.

The combination of eating bread and drinking wine, as Jesus directed during this Passover meal, has become known as the Lord’s Supper. Blomberg believes there are two key reasons for celebrating the Lord’s Supper:

One looks backward; the other, forward. First, we commemorate Jesus’ redemptive death. Second, we anticipate his return in company with all the redeemed. These two points remain central to all three Synoptic accounts and should form the heart of any theology of this ordinance.

After the meal, the disciples accompany Jesus out of Jerusalem and back east to the Mount of Olives, where they will spend the night. When they arrive, Jesus surprises them by telling the eleven remaining disciples that every one of them will abandon him because of the events that would transpire this Thursday night. When a shepherd is struck, his sheep will scatter. However, unlike Judas, the disciples will get another chance to renew their allegiance to Jesus after he rises from the dead and meets them in Galilee.

The disciple, Peter, once again sticking his foot in his mouth, insists that even though all the other disciples abandon Jesus, Peter will never do so. Jesus corrects Peter and tells him that he will deny Jesus three times before dawn breaks Friday morning (before the rooster crows). Peter, however, vows along with the other disciples that he would die before denying Jesus.  How is Peter’s denial of Jesus different from Judas’ betrayal Jesus to the chief priests? Blomberg writes:

Peter’s impulsive denial of Jesus is obviously not as treacherous as Judas’s premeditated betrayal, but Jesus has already said that any who disown him ‘before men’ he will disown before his Heavenly Father (10:33). So the difference between Peter and Judas lies primarily in their subsequent behavior. One may either deny or betray Christ and be forgiven if one genuinely repents. Without repentance (a change of heart followed by right action), both remain equally damning.

To Which Generation Does Jesus Refer in the Olivet Discourse? Part 3

Michael Wilkins, in , offers a twofold interpretation. He writes:

The identity of ‘this generation’ has vexed interpreters. Perhaps it is easiest to see a twofold reference, as Jesus has done throughout the discourse. The disciples to whom Jesus is speaking on the Mount of Olives is most naturally ‘this generation’ who sees the events of the destruction of the temple, which shows the applicability of the discourse to A.D. 70. Yet within the context of Jesus’ statements about the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the age, there must be primary applicability to those at the end of the age who see the events surrounding the abomination of desolation occurring. When these signs of the end of the age appear, those waiting for his arrival are to recognize that their redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28). The generation that sees these things occurring will be the generation that sees the Lord appear.

Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), offers the following suggestions:

This saying is consistent with the similar prediction in [Mark] 9:1 (‘There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come in power’). It is apparent that Jesus’ generation expected to see the fulfillment of the things prophesied in the discourse. And indeed the predictions were partially fulfilled in the events of the first century. That generation saw the destruction of the temple and some of the signs, or at least events that paralleled the signs that will portend the second coming of the Son of Man. But Jesus’ generation did not see the second coming, nor did it see the consummation of the kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of the generation of the last time, not his disciples’ generation. Since ‘this generation’ in Mark refers elsewhere to those who are rebellious and blind (8: 12, 38; cf. Matt 11: 16; 12: 41, 42, 45), it could be used in that sense here, yielding the sense that wickedness will continue until the coming of the Son of Man. Another view is that ‘this generation’ refers to the generation that sees the ‘abomination that causes desolation.’ One further view is that ‘all these things’ refers only to the ‘signs’ of the end rather than to the end itself (Bock 2005, 523).

And finally, John D. Grassmick, in Mark, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes:

’Generation’ (genea) can refer to one’s ‘contemporaries,’ all those living at a given time (cf. 8:12, 38; 9:19), or to a group of people descended from a common ancestor (cf. Matt. 23:36). Since the word ‘generation’ is capable of both a narrow and a broad sense, it is preferable in this context (cf. Mark 13:14) to understand in it a double reference incorporating both senses. Thus ‘this generation’ means: (a) the Jews living at Jesus’ time who later saw the destruction of Jerusalem, and (b) the Jews who will be living at the time of the Great Tribulation who will see the end-time events. This accounts best for the accomplishment of ‘all these things’ (cf. vv. 4b, 14–23).

After my study of all these different viewpoints, I find myself leaning toward Brooks, Keener, and Blomberg. However, this is certainly not an issue to be dogmatic about. I have great respect for all these scholars, and it’s quite possible that other interpretations are correct.

Commentary on Matthew 16-17 (The Transfiguration)

At this point in Jesus’ ministry, he has demonstrated to his disciples repeatedly who he is. Most recently, he fed a crowd of 5,000 men with 5 loaves of bread and then walked on the Sea of Galilee. In chapter sixteen, Jesus asks his disciples if they understand who he is. Peter correctly answers that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfills all the OT prophecies.

Starting in verse 21, however, Jesus reveals to his disciples, for the first time, where his ministry is ultimately leading. He will go to Jerusalem, be tortured and killed, and then be raised from the dead three days later. Verse 21 effectively introduces the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, because all of the following text will focus on the road to the cross.

Peter, the very disciple who just correctly identified Jesus, then takes Jesus aside and rebukes him! Peter tells Jesus that Jesus must be wrong about his suffering and dying at the instigation of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. In Peter’s mind, the Messiah should not suffer at all, but immediately start his glorious reign. Jesus responds to Peter by telling him that Peter is playing the role of the devil, for the devil does not want Jesus to accomplish his mission. Satan had already tempted Jesus in chapter four by offering him power over the entire earth. He could skip the suffering and death of the cross; all Jesus would have to do would be to worship Satan.

In a similar way, Peter is trying to convince Jesus to inaugurate his messianic kingdom, but without going to the cross. Peter’s desire for Jesus is directly counter to God’s plan. Peter has become a stumbling block to God’s plan.

In verses 24-26, Jesus teaches the disciples that following him (doing the will of God) will entail suffering and perhaps even death (this is the meaning of “taking up your cross”). And, in fact, according to church tradition, all of Jesus’ closest disciples would die as martyrs, except for John. The reward for suffering and possibly dying for Jesus is eternal life. Without gaining eternal life, this earthly life is pointless. The wealthiest person has gained nothing if she hasn’t dedicated her life to Jesus.

But why should followers of Jesus accept suffering in this life? Because Jesus is going to return to earth and judge everyone for the choices they made during their lives. Those who chose to faithfully follow Jesus will be rewarded according to their deeds. Those who chose to reject Jesus will be judged according to their deeds. Therefore, the person who suffers greatly for Jesus on earth will be more than compensated when the Messiah begins his future reign.

Many Christians are surprised that all people will judged for their deeds at the inauguration of the messianic kingdom, but this idea is clearly taught throughout Scripture (see Ps 62:12; Prov 24:12; Rom 2:6; 2 Cor 11:15; Rev 22:12). When Jesus speaks of himself as being the judge of all mankind, he is likely alluding to Daniel 7:13-14 and applying all of the OT passages on divine judgment to himself.

Jesus then reassures his disciples that some of them will receive amazing confirmation of his Messiahship before they die. That confirmation would come one week later for Peter, James, and John, Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus takes them up to the top of a mountain and before their very eyes he is transformed. “[H]is face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Recall how Moses’ face shone with glory after his encounter with God in Exodus 34. Not only that, but Moses and Elijah are standing there speaking to him!

What does the presence of Moses and Elijah signify? Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary writes:

they were key representatives of the law and prophets [or, the entire Old Testament], they lived through the two major periods of Old Testament miracles, they were key messianic forerunners whose return was often expected with the advent of the Messiah, and they were often believed never to have died but to have gone directly to God’s presence (2 Kgs 2:1–12 makes this clear with reference to Elijah; in the case of Moses the belief is based more on intertestamental literature like the Assumption of Moses).

Michael Wilkins, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), further elaborates on the presence of Moses and Elijah:

They represent the Law and the Prophets witnessing to Jesus as the Messiah who fulfills the OT (cf. 5: 17) and who has the eschatological role of initiating the kingdom of God (4: 17). Moses was considered the model prophet (Deut 18: 18) and Elijah the forerunner of Messiah (Mal 4: 5– 6; cf. Matt 3: 1– 3; 11: 7– 10). Both had visions of the glory of God on a mountain— Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 24: 15) and Elijah on Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19: 8).

Peter’s first reaction is to figure out a way to get Moses and Elijah to stay, so he offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But Peter is cut off when a bright cloud overshadows them and a voice booms out, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” God the Father repeats the same words He spoke when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, but He adds “Listen to him” to emphasize to Peter, James, and John that they are not to question his road to the cross. It is the road Jesus must take.

Blomberg reminds us how the cloud is connected to the God of the Old Testament:

The cloud reminds us of the one that overshadowed Moses on Sinai, leading to his dazzling splendor when he descended from the mountain (Exod 34:29–35, on which cf. also Paul’s remarks in 2 Cor 3:7–18), the cloud that enveloped the tabernacle when God’s glory filled it (Exod 40:34), and the cloud that followed the Israelites by day throughout their wilderness wanderings (Exod 40:36–38).

After the disciples fall on their faces in terror from hearing the voice of God, Jesus tells them to rise and not be afraid. When they arise, Elijah and Moses are gone. Jesus is standing there alone. Blomberg adds, “The disciples must focus on Christ alone. He will prove sufficient for their needs.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Commentary on Matthew 5 (Sermon on the Mount)

In chapter four of Matthew, Jesus had commanded his followers to repent for the “kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This announcement would have caused those following him to ask questions. Louis Barbieri, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, places us in the mind of the Jews hearing Jesus.

Natural questions on the heart of every Jew would have been, ‘Am I eligible to enter Messiah’s kingdom? Am I righteous enough to qualify for entrance?’ The only standard of righteousness the people knew was that laid down by the current religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees. Would one who followed that standard be acceptable in Messiah’s kingdom?

Chapters 5-7 in Matthew are known as the Sermon on the Mount and they consist of Jesus answering these questions for his disciples. Barbieri explains that

Jesus’ sermon therefore must be understood in the context of His offer of the kingdom to Israel and the need for repentance to enter that kingdom. The sermon did not give a ‘Constitution’ for the kingdom nor did it present the way of salvation. The sermon showed how a person who is in right relationship with God should conduct his life.

Verses 2-12 are known as the “Beatitudes.” Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains the origin of the term:

The name ‘beatitude’ is derived from the Latin noun beatitudo, because the first word of each statement in the Latin Vulgate is beati (adj. related to the noun), which translates the Greek word makarios (traditionally rendered in English as ‘blessed’).

The Beatitudes are a description of the kinds of people who will populate the kingdom of heaven, which is both present, with Jesus, and future, when he returns to reclaim the entire earth for God at his second coming.

The “poor in spirit” are those who acknowledge their complete powerlessness and spiritual bankruptcy without Jesus. Those who are economically deprived (materially poor) are often more likely to acknowledge their reliance on God than those who are wealthy. The “poor in spirit” have the kingdom of heaven now and will have it more fully at the second coming.

Those who “mourn” are those who grieve over their personal sins and the sins of mankind in general. It could also refer to those who are suffering in this life. In the future kingdom of heaven, God promises to comfort these people.

The “meek” are those who are humble and gentle. They will rule with Christ over the new heavens and earth in the future kingdom.

Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” yearn for God’s moral laws to be established and obeyed by all mankind. In the future kingdom, this will indeed be the case.

The “merciful” are those who are forgiving and compassionate toward others. They will receive this compassion from God in His kingdom.

The “pure in heart” are those who display a single-minded devotion toward God. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, writes:

Purity in heart refers to moral uprightness and not just ritual cleanliness. The Pauline theme of the impossibility of perfect purity in this life should not be imported here. Rather, as with ‘righteousness’ in general for Matthew, what Jesus requires of his disciples is a life-style characterized by pleasing God . . .  . The ‘pure in heart’ exhibit a single-minded devotion to God that stems from the internal cleansing created by following Jesus. Holiness is a prerequisite for entering God’s presence. The pure in heart pass this test, so they will see God and experience intimate fellowship with him. This Beatitude closely parallels Ps 24:3–4.

The “peacemakers” are those who work to reconcile people to God and to each other. They will be subjects in God’s future kingdom.

Finally, in verses 10-12 Jesus explains that the person who does all these things will be persecuted because the world rejects this lifestyle. A person who is living for God will inevitably be attacked, but Jesus promises that they will be rewarded in his future kingdom.

In verses 17-20 Jesus answers his critics who claim that he is undermining the Hebrew scriptures (“Law and Prophets” is shorthand for the entire Old Testament) with his teaching. Jesus corrects them by saying that he is not contradicting the Scriptures, but rather he is fulfilling them. Through his teachings, life, death, and resurrection, he will not only fulfill the messianic prophecies, but he will explain and demonstrate the intended meaning behind all of God’s Word.

Jews at this time believed that the only way to enter the future messianic kingdom was to adhere to the legalistic rules laid out by the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, however, clearly states that the righteousness attained by following their rules is insufficient. How so? The scribes and Pharisees were focused on external and outward obedience to God’s Word. Jesus will teach in the remainder of chapter five that obedience to God’s Word starts inside a person. It must be inside-out.

Jesus will give six examples of Pharisaical teachings and then correct them. What is he trying to accomplish with these six illustrations? Michael J. Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains:

This section of the Sermon on the Mount is commonly called ‘the antitheses’ because six times Jesus says a variation of, ‘You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you.’ This has been mistakenly interpreted to mean that Jesus makes his teaching the antithesis of the OT itself (e.g., Luz 2007, 277– 79), as if he were overturning and declaring incorrect the testimonies of the OT. But in reality Jesus is contrasting his interpretation of the OT with faulty interpretations and/ or applications of the OT. In each of the antitheses, Jesus demonstrates how the OT is to be properly interpreted and applied, and thus, how the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled (cf. 5: 17). This elevates Jesus above all interpreters, making his pronouncements equivalent with Scripture itself.

The scribes and Pharisees held sway over the common people, mapping out a course for attaining righteousness through their interpretation and application of the OT. They emphasized legalistic, external obedience to the Law without calling attention to an inner heart-obedience. They were therefore ‘hypocrites’ in their practice of the Law (see on 6: 1– 18), and were responsible for leading the people into hypocritical practices. Jesus looks at several examples of how they had done this, and demonstrates how correct interpretation and application of the Law must be based upon proper intent and motive. Jesus does not say, ‘Hear what the OT says,’ but rather, ‘You have heard it said.’ He is not negating the OT, but the people’s incorrect understanding and application of it.

Given time constraints, we will skip to the fifth illustration in verses 38-42. In these verses, Jesus teaches his followers about retaliation when they are wronged. The OT guidelines, captured in the saying “eye for an eye,” are meant to limit retribution or retaliation. A person can only be punished in proportion to his crime. For example, if you stole a relatively inexpensive object from your neighbor, your neighbor is not allowed to seek capital punishment, as this is clearly disproportionate punishment.

Jesus, however, teaches that his disciples need to go even further with regard to personal retaliation against those who are oppressing them. If a person insults you (a slap on the cheek in Jewish culture), do not retaliate with an insult back at that person.

If a person sues you to gain some disputed property (in this case a tunic), do not fight his legal case, but offer him an even more valuable piece of clothing, a cloak. Wilkins explains the historical context of the tunic and cloak:

The tunic was the basic garment, a long-sleeved inner robe similar to a nightshirt that a person wore next to the skin. It was often worn short by men and ankle length by the women. The ‘cloak’ was the outer robe (cf. 27:35; John 19:23–24), which was an indispensable piece of clothing. When it was given as a pledge, it had to be returned before sunset, because it was used by the poor as a sleeping cover.

Roman soldiers were legally allowed to force Jews to help them carry their equipment for a distance. In this situation, a disciple of Jesus should not resist, but instead offer to carry the equipment even further.

If people ask you for help, help them by giving to them or letting them borrow something they need.

The sixth illustration, in verses 43-48, is perhaps the most challenging to Jesus’s followers. Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. God Himself provides the blessings of sunshine and rain for all people, even those who hate Him, therefore we are to imitate Him.  Jesus points out that if you only love your family and friends, then there is nothing special about you. Even tax collectors and idol-worshiping pagans do that. Craig Blomberg adds:

Christians must love their enemies (v. 44). Otherwise they are no different than tax collectors and pagans, two groups classically despised by orthodox Jews—the first for working for Rome in collecting tribute from Israel and the second because of their false religion (v. 46). Almost all people look after their own. The true test of genuine Christianity is how believers treat those whom they are naturally inclined to hate or who mistreat or persecute them.

In verse 48 Jesus tells his disciples to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is Jesus giving his disciples an impossible task? Blomberg writes:

The paragraph begun in v. 43 closes with a command that may equally summarize all six antitheses. ‘Perfect’ here is better translated as ‘mature, whole,’ i.e., loving without limits (probably reflecting an underlying Aramaic tamim). Jesus is not frustrating his hearers with an unachievable ideal but challenging them to grow in obedience to God’s will—to become more like him. J. Walvoord rightly observes, ‘While sinless perfection is impossible, godliness, in its biblical concept, is attainable.’ But such godliness cannot be comprehensively formulated in a set of rules; the ethics of the sermon are suggestive, not exhaustive.

Does Matthew 3:16-17 Support Polytheism?

The doctrine of the Trinity simply states that God consists of three persons in one essence. The three persons are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Matthew 3:16-17, all three are present at the same time and in the same place. So, do these verses support the doctrine of the Trinity or do they instead point to tritheism, the idea that there are three distinct and separate gods (the position of Mormons)?

Michael Wilkins, writing in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), argues that tritheism is not supported by the totality of the biblical witness.

At this early date of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is only hinting at what will later be made clearer in his Gospel and in the rest of the NT— that there is one God, but within that oneness of essence there are three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Tritheism is certainly not a biblical option. The OT repeatedly affirms that there is but one God: ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deut 6: 4), and both Jesus and the apostles repeat this truth (Mark 12: 29; 1 Cor 8: 4, 6). Likewise, Jesus will emphasize the divine nature of Father, Son, and Spirit, and Matthew will begin pointing to this stupendous truth.

As Morris states, ‘Matthew has certain trinitarian interest’ (Morris 1992, 68). Matthew concludes his Gospel with another trinitarian allusion in Jesus’ instruction that new disciples are to be baptized in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (28: 19). This is the oneness of God in three personal distinctions.

Matthew lays out a clear picture of Jesus’ deity by drawing upon OT prophecies. Prior to the incarnation, the strong divine language of some of the prophecies could not be adequately understood, leading to diverse views concerning the nature of the Messiah (see Kaiser 1995). But for Matthew, the reality of the incarnation now makes clear God’s revelation through the prophets: Jesus is God the Son, who is in vital relationship with his Father God, in the power of the Spirit of God. That all three members of the godhead share the same essence does not lead to an expectation that they cannot be present and active in the same scene. If they could not simultaneously participate in a scene such as this, they would in fact not be three persons.

Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes add in When Cultists Ask:

Matthew 3:16–17 supports the doctrine of the Trinity, though in itself it does not prove the doctrine. Trinitarians base their understanding of the nature of God on the accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture. Taken by itself, all that the passage proves directly is that there are three different persons in the Godhead. It does not show that these three persons all share one and the same divine essence. . . .

Scripture taken as a whole yields the doctrine of the Trinity that is based on three lines of biblical evidence: (1) evidence that there is only one true God; (2) evidence that there are three Persons who are recognized as God; and (3) evidence for three-in-oneness within the Godhead. Scripture uniformly teaches that there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; 32:39; 2 Sam. 7:22; Ps. 86:10; Isa. 44:6; John 5:44; 17:3; Rom. 3:29–30; 16:27; 1 Cor. 8:4; Gal. 3:20; Eph. 4:6; 1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Tim. 1:17; 2:5; James 2:19; 1 John 5:20–21; Jude 25). Yet Scripture also calls three persons God—the Father (1 Peter 1:2), the Son (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8), and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3–4). Scripture also indicates three-in-oneness in the Godhead (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14). The accumulative evidence of the whole of Scripture indicates that God is a Trinity.