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A Period of Testing - Jesus Prepares For The New World Order - Journey to Jerusalem - Triumphal Entry - Jesus Is Lord (19.3-22.46).
Having come into Judaea on the way to Jerusalem for His final visit, Jesus enters into a period of testing as to His status as a Prophet, a process which comes to completion in 22.46. This commences with a visit by the Pharisees to test Him on His views on divorce (19.3 ff). In reply to this He reveals that marriage is not something to be treated lightly, nor is it something to be manipulated by men, but is permanent and unbreakable, and yet also that a new day is dawning when marrying and having children will not be the main focus of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
The testing will then continue on as He is approached by various combinations of opponents concerning various contentious issues, once He Himself has entered into Jerusalem as its King. These combinations of opponents include:
We should note how every combination is deliberately different, none occurring twice, so as to emphasise how all are uniting against Jesus. Matthew was, of course, well aware that Scribes could be Sadducees, Pharisees or more general Scribes from among the laity, but his aim was to present a continual variety so as to give an impression of change.
These testings go on until they recognise the futility of testing Him any further because He always has an unassailable answer (22.46). Thus all the main political and religious elements in Jewry are seen as included in the opposition (the Essenes and the Qumran Community would have no particular reason for attacking Jesus. They were separatists and looked to God to deliver them from their enemies).
The combinations described by Matthew are deliberately intended:
As can be seen the Chief Priests are mentioned three times, and the Pharisees are mentioned four times, (although the latter more often if we take into account the Scribes), the former around the time of His purifying of the Temple, when He has drawn Himself specifically to their attention and has shown up their dishonesty in their dealings in the Temple, and the latter all the way through, for the Pharisees, who were to be found throughout Judaea and Galilee, were the ones who had dogged His footsteps from the beginning. It must be remembered in considering the parallels that most, although not all, of the Scribes were Pharisees (there were Scribes of the Sadducees and general Scribes as well).
Brief note on the Pharisees; Scribes; Chef Priests; Sadducees; Elders and Herodians.
The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism. They were in all around seven thousand in number but their influence far outweighed their numbers. They laid great weight on what distinguished Judaism from the world around them such as the keeping of the Sabbath, the payment of tithes and the various daily washings for the constant removal of any uncleanness arising from their contact with common people who did not in their lives ensure strict ritual purity. They saw themselves as responsible to preserve the purity of Judaism. They did not run the synagogues but had great influence in them, and their Scribes (Teachers) were influential in teaching the people. They believed in the resurrection and in angels, strove for ‘eternal life’ by obedience to the Law of Moses and the covenant, and sought rigidly to keep the covenant as they saw it, but often with a greater emphasis on externals than was warranted, as is man’s wont when initial enthusiasm has died down. This involved them in a rigid intent to observe the Law in all its detail, in which they were guided by the Traditions of the Elders (oral tradition passed down form the past) and by their Scribes. In general they looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, although with various viewpoints concerning him. They looked for God’s final deliverance of His people, when they considered that Pharisaic teaching would triumph. They waited patiently, but restlessly, for God to step in and remove the occupying forces as He had done in the time of their ancestors. Meanwhile they accepted the need for passive obedience to their conquerors.
The Scribes were the Teachers of Judaism. As well as Scribes of the Pharisees, who were by far the greatest number, there were Scribes of the Sadducees and general Scribes. The Scribes of the Pharisees laid great stress on the Traditions of the Elders which included secret information which they claimed was passed down orally from teacher to teacher from the past, and these especially included past dictates of former well known Scribes such as Shammai and Hillel. This teaching in general formed the basis of religious observation by the common people, although they did not conform to all its particulars, and were in general seen as ‘sinners’ because of this. The Scribes of the Pharisees were generally looked to by the people as the authorities on religious matters. Their influence in Judaea outside Jerusalem was paramount. While accepting the authority of the Chief Priests over the Temple, and compromising with them on various matters, they generally conflicted with them at every turn. They were bitter opponents, although they served together on the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews.
The Chief Priests ran the Temple and its ordinances which provided them with a source of revenue and great wealth. At their head was the High Priest. There was strictly only one functional High Priest, but as far as the Jews were concerned the appointment was for life, and when the Romans replaced one High Priest for another, religiously the earlier High Priest remained High Priest (thus Annas, the father of Caiaphas the High Priest, was still High Priest in Jewish eyes, as were any others who had been High Priest, had officiated at the Day of Atonement, and were still alive). The Chief Priests also included the high officials of the Temple such as the Temple Treasurer, the leaders of the courses of priests, and so on. It was their responsibility to supervise and maintain the cult with its many offerings and sacrifices. They were pragmatists and maintained a steady if uneasy relationship with the secular state, (they were despised by them and despised them in return), favouring the status quo. Their influence was mainly restricted to Jerusalem, except in cultic matters, for the whole of worldwide Jewry looked to the Temple as the centre of their religion and contributed their Temple Tax to the Temple authorities.
The Sadducees were a small but important sect, mainly, but not exclusively, restricted to Jerusalem and its environs. They were on the whole wealthy. They included the chief priests and their wider families. We do not know much about them for they died out with the fall of Jerusalem, and the information that we have about them has mainly come from their opponents who survived. Seemingly they did not believe in angels or in the resurrection. They accepted the teaching of the Law and, to some extent at least, the Prophets. But they rejected the traditions of the Elders. They were antagonistic towards the Pharisees, and were not favoured by the people.
The Elders of the people were the lay rulers and wealthy aristocrats connected mainly with princely families. Along with the Chief Priest and Pharisees their leading members formed a part of the Sanhedrin, which was from the Jews’ viewpoint, the governing body of Judaism in Jerusalem. As the Romans tended to leave local government to the locals, only intervening when it was considered necessary, they were very influential at this period. The Roman prefect/procurator lived away from Jerusalem in Caesarea, although coming to Jerusalem for the feasts in case of trouble.
The Herodians were members of Herod’s court (Herod ruled Galilee and Peraea, while the Roman prefect/procurator ruled Judaea and Samaria) or supporters of Herod. They may have been mainly a secular group, in as far as a Jewish group could ever be secular, favouring the status quo. Little else is known about them, but they would have political influence at Herod’s court and many of them would have positions of authority in Galilee and Peraea, which was why they were useful to the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus, even though they despised the Pharisees and the Pharisees despised them.
All of these would gather in Jerusalem for the Passover.
End of note.
During this period in Judaea and Jerusalem Jesus will be called on to deal with some of the main questions of the day, which will largely be used, either as a means of seeking to make Him unpopular with the people, or entrap Him into exposing Himself as a false prophet, or in order to get Him into trouble with the Roman authorities. These included questions on divorce (19.3-12); on prophetic authority (21.23-27); on tribute paid to Caesar (22-15-22); on the afterlife (22.23-33); on what is central in the Law (22.34-40); and on how the Messiah relates to David (22.41-45).
We should not be surprised at the opposition that Jesus faced for He was now publicly approaching the very centre of Judaism in order to make clear Who He was and why He had come. While in Galilee and its surrounds He had been a distant figure as far as the authorities of Jerusalem were concerned, apart from previous visits to Jerusalem, only affecting them when the northern supporters of the Scribes called on them for assistance (there were not many Scribes in Galilee). But once He approached Jerusalem and began to assert His claims more forcefully than before it was inevitable, either that Jerusalem would flock to Him, or that they would bitterly oppose Him. And the latter in general proved to be the case. On the whole Jerusalem did not welcome Him (His main popularity was among the visitors to Jerusalem for the Passover). It was in fact a very religious city and very much bound up with the cult. Few of them would accept Him. His views overthrew too many of their treasured views, and threatened to upset the status quo.
Intermingled with this description of opposition is a clear emphasis in Matthew on the fact that Jesus is coming to Jerusalem to claim His heavenly throne, and, through His death and resurrection, is about to set up a new world order.
This process began at His birth when He was established as and proclaimed as King of the Jews (1-2), and continued on with His being introduced by His forerunner (3). That was followed by a period of consolidation and establishment of His authority, until the moment of His ‘official’ recognition as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God by His followers (16.16). His heavenly royal status was then verified by the Transfiguration (17.5) and His payment of the Temple Tax from heavenly resources (17.25). At the same time He prepared for the establishment of His new ‘congregation’ (of Israel) (16.18; 18)
Now, taking up the thought found in 16.16; 17.5, 25 that He is the Messiah and His Father’s Son, enjoying royal authority, we will find:
Thus having in Galilee mainly (although by no means solely) stressed His presence as the Servant Messiah, in His approach to Jerusalem He is deliberately turning their thoughts towards Himself as the Coming King, something which the disciples appear to recognise, even if incorrectly, for their thoughts are still being shaped as they are being wooed from their own false ideas. They have yet to learn that the advance of the Kingly Rule of Heaven will take place in a very different way than they have always anticipated. See 20.20-22, 24-27; Mark 9.34; Luke 22.24.
So, far from this section depicting Jesus as offering Himself as the King and being refused, it reveals how He is in fact in process of turning the world upside down, and initially establishing the Kingly Rule of Heaven, preparatory to its massive expansion when He has been enthroned and crowned (28.18).
Meanwhile intermingled with these tests and this revelation of Jesus are a description of the foundations for the new Israel, firstly as epitomised in the young children who are typical of those who are ‘of the Kingly Rule of God (19.10-14), secondly in those who, in contrast with the rich young man, give up all things for His Name’s sake (19.11-29), thirdly in those who respond to His call and go to labour in His vineyard (20.1-15; 21.28-32), and fourthly in those who respond to the invitation to the wedding of the King’s Son being clothed in new clothing (22.1-10).
And all this is included within the framework of, on the one hand, His exposition concerning the true leadership methods for the new Israel in chapter 18 and His exposition concerning the false leadership methods of the old Israel in chapter 23.
Analysis Of The Section 19.3-22.46.
This whole Section may be analysed as follows:
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus begins to be tested, and in the parallel He ceases to be tested. In ‘b’ He questions the Pharisees about what the Scriptures say and declares that mankind cannot oppose what God has sovereignly declared about the oneness of man and woman in marriage, and their unique relationship, and in the parallel He questions the Pharisees about what the Scriptures say and declares that mankind cannot oppose what God has said about the Messiah, and His unique relationship with God. In ‘c’ Jesus deals with the permanence of marriage on earth and its importance in ensuring the unity of the family, and in the parallel He deals with the question of loving God and neighbour, thus ensuring the unity of His people. In ‘d’ He reveals that marriage is no longer incumbent on all and that it is permissible to refrain from it for the sake of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and in the parallel He deals with its non-existence in Heaven and its significance as regards the resurrection. In ‘e’ the attitudes of young children and of a worldly wise young man to the Kingly Rule of Heaven and to God are described, especially in relation to wealth, and in the parallel the attitude of those who question about the tribute money, who are also worldly wise, is challenged. Both raise questions as to what to do with wealth, and status in the Kingly Rule of Heaven. In ‘f’ men are faced with a choice about riches, but should consider that one day He will sit on the throne of His glory when all who have followed Him on His terms will be rewarded and will finally receive eternal life, for ‘those who are last will then be first, and those who are first will be last’, while in the parallel we have described the parable of the wedding of the King’s son when all those who are His will share His blessing, while those who refuse to come on His terms will be cast into outer darkness and will weep and gnash their teeth, for ‘many are called but few are chosen’ In ‘g’ we have the parable of the householder and the faithful workers in his vineyard, ‘the last will be first’, and in the parallel the parable of the householder and the faithless workers in the vineyard, the first will very much be last. The latter are being replaced by the former. In ‘h’ the attitude of the Jewish leaders towards Jesus is described and two sons are used as examples in order to bring out what the future holds, and in the parallel the attitude of the Jewish leaders towards Jesus’ authority is described, and two sons are cited as examples of what the future holds. In ‘i’ we have the reaction of the twelve to the rebuking of James and John, and what they should rather do in order to gain precedence, seek to serve, and in the parallel we have their reaction to the cursing of the fig tree, a parabolic rebuke of Israel, and what they are to do in order to gain precedence, demonstrate their outstanding faith. In ‘j’ the blind men call Him the Son of David and are healed (their eyes have been opened), and in the parallel the blind and the lame have called Him the Son of David and are healed (it is His enemies who are thus blind). Centrally in ‘k’ Jesus enters in humble triumph into Jerusalem, which stresses the central feature of the section, the revealed Kingship of Jesus which is about to burst on the world (compare 28.18-20).
Marriage And Divorce In The New Age (19.3-12). .
Having in chapter 18 laid down the principles on which His new congregation was to run Jesus will now begin to lay down the foundations of life in the new age in relation to marriage, divorce, and celibacy, humility as a basis for life, and attitudes towards wealth and family. He commences with the question of the basis of true marriage.
The Testing Of Jesus Begins. The Pharisees Challenge Jesus About Divorce (19.3-6).
Jesus is now approaching Jerusalem through Judaea, and whatever route we see Him as taking Matthew’s emphasis is on the fact that He has left Galilee and has entered Judaea (19.1). Furthermore it is made clear that He is doing so accompanied by Messianic signs (11.5). The crowds follow Him and He heals them (19.2).
But the inevitable result of His public entry into Judaea, headed for Jerusalem, where He will deliberately draw attention to Himself in the triumphal entry and cleansing of the Temple, is that He will be challenged by all aspects of Judaism, and this will enable Him to lay down the foundations of the new end of the age community which He is introducing (in ‘the last days’ - Acts 2.17; Hebrews 1.2; 1 Peter 4.7). His previous visits to Jerusalem had been on a quieter scale, but now He was forcing Himself on the notice of the differing religious and civil authorities, and pointing to the signs of the new age.
The first challenge made to Him is on the question of divorce. It was a burning issue among many in Jerusalem and it was one that had caused the death of John the Baptist, something which would not have been forgotten by the common people who had flocked to John. Perhaps the Pharisees hoped by this question to stir Him into speaking against Herod. However, at the very least it was intended to land Him in the midst of religious controversy on a subject about which there were strong feelings.
We should note that there was no question that brought out the way in which the Scriptures had been distorted by the Pharisees more than this question about divorce. The majority freely allowed divorce on the basis of a ruling of Moses, which had sought to regulate the custom of divorce prevalent among the people at the time. His purpose had been firstly in order to safeguard a woman, rejected according to the custom of the times (not in accordance with the Law), by ensuring that she had a ‘bill of divorce’, and secondly in order to prevent divorced people (who were divorced on the basis of custom, not of the Law, which made no provision for divorce) from again remarrying after the wife had first been married to another (Deuteronomy 24.1-4). But on the basis of it a large group of Scribes and Pharisees (who followed the teaching of the great Hillel) allowed divorce almost literally ‘for any cause’ (such as burning the dinner, or not being pretty enough). It was the most flagrant misuse of Scripture. It had not necessarily resulted in wholesale divorce in Jewish society because of the strength of family feeling and of custom, and because on divorce the marriage settlement had to be handed back, but there was probably a superfluity of divorce in Pharisaic circles (Josephus blatantly tells us how he put away his own wife for displeasing him), and if it once ever did become prevalent it would attack the very roots of their society.
Indeed the right to be able to divorce was something that Jewish men could be depended on to feel strongly about, for it probably gave them a hold over their womenfolk and made them feel superior. So to challenge these Pharisees on this question of divorce would be for Him to challenge the very basis of their own authority. Then once His views became known the crowds would have to decide who was most right. But one thing the Pharisees knew about their question, and that was that whichever side Jesus came down on He would offend a good number of people. What they probably did not expect, for to them divorce was simply a relatively unimportant matter which all accepted, and about which there was only disagreement concerning the grounds, was that Jesus would introduce a whole new aspect to the matter that would cut the ground from right under their feet. They may also have hoped that He would say something unwise about Herod, like John had done before Him. That would certainly have given them a lever for getting rid of Him. But instead Jesus reveals a totally new view of marriage, which He points out has been true from the beginning, thereby indicating the coming in under His teaching of a new world order.
Furthermore Jesus will in fact, in His dealings with His disciples, turn their argument round in order to demonstrate that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is here, and that marrying and having children is no longer to be the sole basis of society (the main religious teachers of Judaism held that it was the basis of society).
Note that in ‘a’ the question was the grounds on which a man could put away his wife, and in the parallel the reply is that what God has joined no one can put asunder. In ‘b’ the stress is on the fact that God made them male and female, and in the parallel that once they are married they are therefore now one flesh. Centrally in ‘c’ is God’s stated purpose for a man and a woman.
19.3 ‘And there came to him some Pharisees, putting him to the test, and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” ’
This particular group of Pharisees (no definite article) in Judaea clearly saw this question as an acid test of a prophet. Let Jesus now adjudicate on this fundamental disagreement that they had among themselves. Then they would see what He was made of. (Up to now their knowledge of Him was mainly only by hearsay from their northern brethren. We must not make the mistake of seeing the Pharisees as one strong united body. While they shared similar beliefs they belonged to their own separate groups). It was the beginning of a series of tests that would end when He had been thoroughly grilled and when all His opponents had been confounded (22.46) with their favourite ideas disposed of. Their question was as to whether it was lawful (within the Law of Moses) that a man put away his wife ‘for every cause’. In other words on any grounds that suited them.
It may be asked why this would be seen as ‘a test’. And the answer is because the question was one on which there was great division between different teachers, even between those two great past exponents of Pharisaism, Shammai and Hillel. It thus caused division among the Pharisees. It was a question on which the influence of Hillel was seen as strong (for his view suited the menfolk), but which was strongly contested. (The Qumran Community did not, in fact, believe in divorce at all, for they saw themselves as a holy community). Thus by His reply Jesus would indicate which party He was throwing His weight behind, or might even come up with some compromise solution.
Note that in true Jewish fashion the assumption is that only the man can initiate divorce. (Matthew leaves out the alternative possibility for the sake of his Jewish readers). It was the teaching of the Scribes who followed Hillel that divorce was allowable to a man for any ‘good cause’. But as that included burning the dinner it will be observed that what he saw as a good cause was simply the man’s displeasure at his wife. This was based on his interpretation of Deuteronomy 24.1 ‘some unseemly thing/something indecent in her (literally ‘the nakedness of a matter)’. He argued that it meant anything by which a wife displeased her husband.
The opposing view was that of Shammai. Emphasising ‘the nakedness’ he argued that its meaning was restricted to something grossly sexually indecent. He was always much stricter in his interpretations than Hillel and in this case, probably to everyone’s surprise, it brought him much nearer to Jesus’ position.
Neither, however, were interpreting the Scripture correctly. For primarily the purpose of Deuteronomy 24.1-4 was not in order to permit divorce as such, but was in order to safeguard a woman, on her being divorced according to general custom, so as to ensure that she was given a bill of divorce. (Thus it was protective, not permissive). This was in order that she might be able to prove that she was not officially committing adultery with any second husband whom she should marry, thus becoming subject to the death penalty for both him and herself.
It was also in order to limit what was allowable once a divorce had taken place. It was so as to prevent a remarriage of the same two persons once the wife had subsequently married another man. For to then go back to her first husband would have been seen as a kind of incest, and as committing adultery twice. It would have been seen as making a mockery of marriage and as a way of mocking God’s ordinance. It was indeed seen as so serious that it was described as ‘an abomination before the Lord’. The original purpose of Deuteronomy 24.1-4 was therefore in order to prevent a bad situation getting worse. That was why Jesus said ‘for your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to put away your wife’ (verse 8). His point was that divorce had not strictly been given God’s permission, even though it might happen in cases of gross indecency on the part of the wife (which was also not with His permission). For it was in fact a sin against the very roots of creation. They revealed their hardness of heart in continually wanting divorces. God therefore regulated the protection that should be given to the woman if that happened.
19.4 ‘And he answered and said, “Have you not read, that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female,
‘Have you not read?’ Jesus then turned their attention to what the Scriptures did say, and that was that God had made man ‘male and female’. The two were to be seen as one. Genesis 1.27 says, ‘God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them.’ In other words God’s image was reflected and revealed among other ways (e.g. their spiritual nature) in the oneness of the male and female. A man was thus incomplete without his female counterpart, and once they were joined together they were reunited as one. This was the basis and purpose of the creation of mankind.
‘From the beginning.’ That is, from Genesis 1.1 and what followed. There was never a time when it was not so, however primitive man was. Marriage was always intended to be monogamous and permanently binding, and had been from the beginning.
19.5 “And said, ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ ”
Indeed that was the only ground on which it was right for a man to leave his father and mother. It was so that he might cleave to his wife with the result that the two became one flesh, united and indivisible. Even filial obedience and family unity, which were so important in Israel, were nevertheless subservient to the fact of the uniting of a male and a female ‘as one flesh’. And by it they became one being in God’s eyes (compare Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6.16). A man’s wife was to become to him more important than anything else apart from God, for she would be a part of himself. (Of course this would not destroy filial obedience and family unity, for it would almost always be done in full agreement with both).
We should note that the verbs are strong ones. ‘Forsake (desert) his father and mother’ and ‘cleave closely to (be glued to) his wife’. It was a violent and fundamental change, and resulted in a fundamental alteration in both their lives. From that moment on they had a new focus of concentration, their oneness with one another.
19.6 “So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
And once the two have been joined in this way they are ‘one flesh’. They thereby reflect the image of God, the image of God’s own unity. Thus what God has joined together man must not try to separate. To break such a unity would thus be to sin grievously against God. This is not ‘just another sin’. It is to offend God drastically. It is to destroy His purpose in creation. It is to tear apart what He has put together.
The idea of ‘one flesh’ comes from the fact that woman was seen as originally taken out of man. She was ‘bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh’ (Genesis 2.23). Thus by sexual union they were seen as again becoming ‘one flesh’. They formed ‘one man’ made up of two necessary parts. To separate them once they were thus united was therefore to be seen as the same thing as decapitating a man and destroying God’s handywork.
We should note from this Jesus’ emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond. For Jesus it was not something that was under the man’s control, and that could be kept or broken to order. The union was sacred, and any breach of it a travesty. It was sealed in the sight of God, and there was no breaking it without it involving a deep sin against God. The man and woman who have had sexual relations before God are thereby bound together by Him with a heavenly tie that cannot be broken. That is why the act of adultery is such a great sin. It breaks God’s handywork and attacks His very purpose in creation. Like the Israelites did, we look around for some way in which we can break it ‘lawfully’. But there is no way. It can only be done by an act of deep sin.
People talk as though if Jesus was alive today He would somehow be soft on sexual sin. They argue that if He had lived now He would have seen the error of His ways and would have agreed with them (is it not strange how people always think that He would take their side of the argument?). They argue that He was simply a child of His times. But here we learn differently. In a society where Hillel was seen as proclaiming the norm in allowing easy divorce, and where Shammai was seen as the tough one who tended to be a little hard, Jesus was in fact very much tougher than either of them. He was far from being a child of His times. Rather He leaned on the authority of Scripture. For while Shammai was certainly more strict than Hillel, he nevertheless accepted the divorces of those who were divorced under Hillel’s precepts and allowed them to remarry without it being seen as wrong. Jesus, however, declares that such a marriage is adultery and therefore forbidden. Jesus sees no place for broken marriages, or for the remarriage of the one who has broken the original marriage, within the purposes of God.
Jesus was thus introducing a ‘new’ concept of marriage which was to be observed under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. By it He was indicating that a new state of affairs was beginning. This was a sign that the Kingly Rule of Heaven had now commenced, making demands upon people the like of which had not been known before.
The quotation reveals traces of the Septuagint. This may suggest that at least some of what Matthew was saying was taken from Mark, for when Matthew ‘goes LXX’ it is usually when it could be due to the influence of Mark.
Brief Note on Divorce in the Old Testament.
There is nowhere in the Law of Moses any specific dealing with the question of an ‘allowable’ divorce in a marriage between two of God’s people, that is, of two people within God’s favour. The Pharisees had sought one and had made use of Deuteronomy 24.1-4 for that purpose. But that was because they had failed to see what Jesus had now brought to their attention, and that was that in God’s eyes anything that caused a separation between a man and woman who had been united in God’s eyes was not permissible under any circumstances. They were made one by the sexual act and must remain one until death broke the bond. That was why adultery had to result in death. It was to break that oneness. And the only remedy for that was death so as to maintain the principle. Having destroyed what God had put together they too must be destroyed.
Deuteronomy 24.1-4 was therefore describing a position which was unallowable in God’s eyes and yet which had to be legislated for because it happened. In it God was not giving approval for divorce, but was seeking to legislate for two things. Firstly the protection of a woman who, as a result of the custom which was against His purpose, had been thrown out by her husband (revealing his hardness of heart), and secondly the prevention of something that was abhorrent to Him. In the first case she was to be given a bill of divorce so as to protect her from false accusations which might be made in the future. In the second she must never remarry her first husband once she has been married to another, even if her second husband has died. That would be to treat lightly the unbreakable oneness of the initial marriage. It would be to make a mockery of marriage as though it was something to be entered into haphazardly. It would slight God, Who would not unite again what man had put asunder against His will.
All that can be said about this case in Deuteronomy is that the only grounds on which divorce was even explicitly allowed to stand (without all guilty parties being put to death) was in the case of a situation where the woman had been divorced because of ‘the nakedness of a matter’. It was this that Moses had allowed because of the hardness of men’s hearts. But it was not giving explicit permission for it, it was legislating for what should be done once it had happened ‘by custom’. And it was the definition of that phrase ‘the nakedness of the matter’ that caused the disagreement between Shammai and Hillel. However, in the Law of Moses ‘nakedness’ is usually associated with sexual sin, which was Shammai’s contention, and was probably how Jesus saw it in view of His ‘except in the case of porneia (sexual sin)’.
The point about sexual sin was that it, as it were, cancelled out the marriage bond because it had interfered with the oneness sexually between a man and a woman. What was meant by sexual sin is open to question, but it would seem that it was something that was seen as grossly indecent. While adultery was supposed to result in the death sentence for both parties there were probably many cases where that course was not pursued, especially when they had not been caught in the act, and in the cases of suspected adultery the woman may have chosen divorce rather than trial before the sanctuary, and been allowed it by her husband (compare how Joseph was willing to put away Mary privately for her then supposed sexual misconduct - 1.19). This may thus be what was mainly in mind here. Or it may have included other sexual behaviour which was seen as exceptionally disgraceful and as destroying the oneness between the man and the woman.
God’s true view of a divorced person was made clear in that a priest was not to marry a divorced person, for a divorced woman was seen as ‘defiled’ and ‘unholy’. They were displeasing to God and outside His sphere of holiness (Leviticus 21.7, 24; etc.). However, the fact that divorced women were allowed to live and remain within the camp demonstrates that they could be tolerated at a distance from the Sanctuary, something which could be seen as a concession on God’s part. It did not, however, give them His permission to divorce.
There were, however, certain circumstances in which ‘divorce’ was permitted, and these were to do with cases of marriages between someone under God’s covenant and someone outside that covenant (see Deuteronomy 21.10-14; Ezra 10; Exodus 21.7-11, see our commentary). That was why Paul later had to ‘legislate’ to allow for such marriages to continue in the case of a Christian (1 Corinthians 7.12-15). But concerning marriages between two persons within God’s covenant God declared ‘I hate divorce’ and forbade it (Malachi 2.15-17).
End of note.
The Pharisees Try To Argue Him Down About Divorce (19.7-9).
The Pharisees were clearly taken aback by Jesus’ words. They had expected Him to come down either on Shammai’s side or on Hillel’s. They had not expected Him to bring out that divorce was forbidden from the very beginning of creation. They felt that He must have overlooked Moses’ words on the matter. What of Deuteronomy 24.1-4? Notice in Jesus’ reply the difference between the Pharisees use of ‘command’ and Jesus use of ‘allowed’. His specific point is that Moses had not given permission for divorce, he had simply allowed it to happen, although not approving of it. Far from being commanded by him it was allowed under sufferance, and only then because he had to cater for the hardness of men’s hearts.
Not that in ‘a’ the question is concerning Moses’ command that a divorced woman can be ‘put away’, and in the parallel Jesus points out that someone who marries a wife who has been ‘put away’ commits adultery. In ‘b’ the putting away was allowed due to the hardness of men’s hearts and in the parallel if the man remarried he then committed adultery. Centrally in ‘c’ is that from the beginning divorce was not allowed.
19.7 ‘They say to him, “Why then did Moses command to give a bill of divorce, and to put her away?” ’
The Pharisees then triumphantly challenged Jesus on the basis of Deuteronomy 24.1-4. They could not deny what He had said about the creation ordinances in Genesis, but if He was right why had Moses ‘commanded’ that in the case of divorce a bill of divorce should be given and she be put away? They had Moses’ authority on their side.
19.8 ‘He says to them, “Moses for your hardness of heart suffered you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it has not been so.”
Jesus’ reply was that Moses had not ‘commanded’ the putting away of wives, but had simply ‘allowed’ it. And that had only been because of the hardness of men’s hearts. Men’s hearts had been so hardened against the will of God that they had established customs to allow divorce under certain circumstances. Moses had then simply sought to control the customs which they practised so as to prevent worse sin arising. What he had commanded was the giving of a bill of divorce for the woman’s protection when she was divorced. But ‘from the beginning’ it had not been so. Custom could not replace God’s stated will and purpose, and that was that marriage was inviolate. Man’s customs were in fact against the will of God. Nor did the Law permit them. It simply legislated for what happened after men had disobediently followed their customs.
19.9 ‘And I say to you, Whoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, commits adultery, and he who marries her when she is put away commits adultery.” ’
Thus in God’s eyes if a man puts away his wife and marries another he commits adultery. And anyone who marries the wife who is divorced also commits adultery. Both are sinning grievously against God. Note the, ‘I say to you’ (compare its constant repetition in chapter 5). This dictum has the authority of Jesus behind it.
There is, however, one exception to the rule, and that is where porneia has been committed. This word is wider than just fornication and adultery and is used to cover different kinds of sexual misbehaviour (see 1 Corinthians 5.1, 13-18; Ephesians 5.3; Colossians 3.5). Thus if there has been fornication of one of the parties to a marriage with an outside party before the marriage was finalised that would justify divorce, for strictly from God’s viewpoint that person would be seen as married to that other. It would include adultery, for such adultery would break the marriage bond, thus releasing from it the ‘innocent’ party in the same way as the death of the guilty party would (which was strictly required according to the Law). It could include bestiality (lying with an animal) for that too would break the marriage bond. It would probably include acts of lesbianism or homosexuality.
We should note that this ‘exception’ actually strengthens the significance of marriage. The exception arises because one of the parties has sinfully broken the marriage by an act which has made them in God’s eyes liable to die. Thus the idea is that the ‘innocent’ party can treat them as being ‘dead’ in God’s eyes. They are ‘cut off’. They are no longer within God’s covenant. Divorce from them therefore maintains the sanctity of marriage.
This exception was especially important for Matthew because a Jew (and therefore often a Christian Jew) saw adultery not only as a grounds for divorce but as actually requiring divorce. Adultery was seen as an unredeemable blot on the marriage. For Mark and Luke in writing to Gentiles it did not have quite the same importance and they therefore do not refer to it. They wanted rather to stress the permanence of marriage. But all would have agreed that adultery destroys a marriage for it is the equivalent of an act of remarriage (compare 1 Corinthians 6.16).
But in all our discussion about divorce we must not here lose sight of the fact that Jesus is laying down a new ‘interpretation of the Law’ under the Kingly Rule of Heaven (compare on 5.27-32). He is beginning to introduce His new world. And this radical change with regard to marriage is a first step in the process.
Jesus Offers The Opportunity Of Remaining Unmarried Like Himself For the Sake of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (19.10-12).
At this point there is a change of scenery. The Pharisees have probably departed and the disciples are now probably walking along with Jesus and following up on what He has said. It has shaken them as well as the Pharisees. They suggest that as far as they can see, if a man can never divorce his wife in spite of any problems that arise, perhaps it would be better for him not to marry in the first place. They hardly intended this to be taken as a serious suggestion, for to the Jew marriage was a duty. It was rather a counter-argument against what Jesus had said about the inviolability of marriage (a counter-argument possibly suggested by the Pharisees). Their point was that to make marriage such a hardship was to discourage the Jews, who looked on marriage and the production of a family as a duty as well as a privilege, in accordance with God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1.28), from actually marrying. Thus it appeared to them that Jesus’ teaching would result in the opposite of what was intended, the not to be thought of alternative of no one marrying at all.
We can compare with this startled question a similar startled question in 19.25. They are slowly beginning to be made aware of what the presence among them of the Kingly Rule of Heaven involves.
Jesus takes up this suggestion and replies that the alternative is in fact not quite so out of the question as they might think. History in fact demonstrated that God had decreed that many men were unable to marry. There were, for example, those whom the later Rabbis described as ‘eunuchs of Heaven’. Due to genetic problems at birth, or a later accident, their sexual organs did not function properly. Thus they were unlikely to marry. It was clear from this therefore that God, Who had allowed this situation to occur, did not require all men to marry. Furthermore there were men who had been rendered impotent at the hands of other men, eunuchs (castrated servants) who served in royal palaces and rich men’s houses. These were what the later Rabbis described as the ‘eunuchs of men’. This treatment had been carried out on them so that they would be more dedicated and less belligerent as servants, sometimes even having the privilege of watching over a monarch’s wives in the harem, and this too regularly meant that they did not marry.
Furthermore now, with His coming, there was a third alternative to be considered. Those who became virtual eunuchs ‘for the sake of the Kingly Rule of Heaven’. One partial example of this could be found in Jeremiah 16.2 where God had said to Jeremiah, ‘You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons and daughters in this place.’ Jeremiah had been forbidden to do what every Jewish man should do, as a testimony to the dreadful things that would soon be coming on other people’s wives, sons and daughters. So this was one case where marriage was forbidden in order to get over the message of God’s sovereignty and purpose in judgment.
But now an even more important situation had occurred in the arrival of the Coming One and the establishing of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Thus in this new emergency situation there was a call for those who were able to do so without sinning, to abstain from marriage for the sake of the Kingly Rule of Heaven so that they might be servants unfettered by the ties of wife and family, who were thus the better ready to face what the future held (compare 1 Corinthians 7.29-32). This was the only other grounds which could justify remaining single, as both Jesus and John the Baptist had. But such a change in men’s perspectives indicated the new situation which had now arisen. The Kingly Rule of Heaven was here. And God was, as it were, looking for ‘eunuchs’ to serve in the King’s house and do His bidding.
The case of Jeremiah may suggest that Jesus was indicating that by deliberately remaining single in order to advance the Kingly Rule of Heaven they too, like Jeremiah, would be giving a warning to the nation of the times of judgment that were coming, when Jerusalem itself would be destroyed. But certainly we may see in it an indication of the urgency of the times in the light of the fact that the new world was beginning.
Note that in ‘a’ not all can receive it, and in the parallel those who can receive it should. In ‘b’ and its parallel we have the two ‘natural’ ways of becoming ‘eunuchs’ which are not displeasing to God. Centrally in ‘c’ we find the unnatural way due to man’s sin.
19.10 ‘The disciples say to him, “If the case of the man is so with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.” ’
This comment was probably made by the disciples after the Pharisees had left the scene, the latter no doubt justifying their own position loudly as they went. It may well actually have been based on what the Pharisees were arguing, although out of earshot of Jesus, for they would not want to give Him another opportunity of showing them up. It was easier arguing with Him when He was not there. Indeed the Pharisees may well have considered this a clinching argument against what Jesus had said, that if people took Jesus seriously marriage would cease. Thus Jesus must be wrong, for marriage was God’s ordinance and there was no alternative.
They were, of course, not able to cite any alternative, for, to a respectable Jew, apart from celibacy, there was none. ‘Living together’ without marriage would not have been acceptable. And as most of them saw marriage and childbearing as a duty from God (some Essenes were an exception, but that was precisely because they saw the times as so threatening) that meant that in their eyes marriage must be encouraged, while they saw what Jesus was teaching as discouraging marriage. The disciples also clearly saw the logic in this and wanted to know what Jesus’ answer to this problem was.
The importance that male Jews placed on their right to divorce their wives, even if they did not often do so, comes out in this reaction of the disciples. It appeared to the disciples also that this statement of Jesus would make it inexpedient to marry, something that went against all that they had been brought up to believe. For the idea of marriage being a binding and lifelong commitment clearly appalled them. This was, of course, a reaction based on the ideas that they were used to (and demonstrates how male Jews looked on marriage as something under their control. They did not in fact consider that their requirement of the woman’s commitment to be lifelong unless ended by the man, whilst not making the same commitment in return, was grossly unfair). So the idea that divorce was not acceptable to God put a whole new perspective on marriage, and gave it far greater substance and permanence. And yet for that very reason it appeared to be going too far (they did not consider the fact that for the woman it had always been so). Surely then what Jesus had said would make marriage unattractive to men and something best avoided, and as that was an inconceivable idea (it was a man’s duty to marry), Jesus’ argument must be wrong. It was only a theoretical argument, for it was unlikely that many would abstain from marriage, but it sounded logical.
19.11 ‘But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this saying, but they to whom it is given.” ’
Jesus replied, “Not all men can receive this saying, but they to whom it is given.” The question here is as to what ‘saying’ is being referred to. At first sight this appears to be saying that obedience to God’s strict ordinance of total marriage faithfulness is difficult for most men, and can only be received by those enlightened by God (‘those to whom it is given’). The point then being that most men want a way out and that therefore all societies countenance divorce, even though it is contrary to God’s purpose. Or whether He is saying that the suggestion of the disciples would be hard for men to take because of their propensity towards marriage, but is in fact true for those who are enlightened. This last would tie in with the statement that follows that men of faith might follow this path for the sake of the Kingly Rule of God.
There has been much dispute over the question. It would not, however be in accordance with Jesus normal method to compromise on straight teaching and He never elsewhere suggests that the clear teaching of Scripture need not be followed. Indeed He stresses that it must be followed, and in 5.18 He speaks with disapproval of those who compromise on the teaching of the Law. Had He said ‘not all will receive it’ that might have been possible in line with 5.18. But He would not have agreed that they were ‘unable to receive it’. For there can really be no doubt that He would have seen all who heard Him as able to receive His teaching, especially as it was taken directly from Scripture. Furthermore on the basis of His reason for teaching in parables He would not have taught it openly if He had thought that they were unable to receive it.
On the other hand, as Matthew’s intention in citing these words is in order to lead in to what follows that would seem to solve the problem, for the application of these words must surely be determined on the basis of the ensuing argument, simply because it was these words that led into that argument. On that basis ‘this saying’ must be referring to the expediency or otherwise of not marrying. The idea is that Jesus will now point out that rather than what the disciples have said being a clinching argument against what He has stated, (His silence as to the matter indicating that it was nothing of the kind as subsequent generations of disciples would demonstrate), it does rather certainly hold within it a certain degree of truth, and that is that marriage is not always expedient, and that it is no longer to be seen as the be all and end all of life (indeed one day it will disappear - 22.30). This is the new truth that has been ‘given to them’ (compare 13.11), as demonstrated by what they have said. For the idea that a man did not need to marry, and that not doing so might be expedient for him, was almost as revolutionary an idea as the previous one.
For to most Jews marriage was seen as a God-given duty as well as a privilege. Thus Jesus was taking the one case introduced by the Pharisees, the permanence or otherwise of marriage, and possibly their argument against it, which they considered clinching because marriage was the duty of all men, and demonstrating that it did indeed justify some men in not marrying, and that the disciples had therefore rightly gathered from it a truth given to them by God. He is saying that they are right in suggesting that sometimes, contrary to popular thought, it is not expedient to marry, and that that is therefore a truth that has been ‘given’ to them (it is as important as that!). And He then gives three examples where it would not be expedient, one brought about by nature (or by ‘Heaven’), one brought about by men, and one brought about by the requirements of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
Note Jesus’ stress on the fact that all men cannot receive this saying, but only those to whom it is ‘given’, that is, those under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. The Pharisees and the Jews in general thought that such a statement was self-evidently wrong. Thus the fact that His disciples now see it as a possibility indicates that God has ‘given’ them understanding as to its truth. He is pointing out to His disciples that while for many celibacy is not an option (Paul put it this way, ‘it is better to marry than to burn with unrelieved desires’ - 1 Corinthians 7.9), for others it is actually a requirement for the sake of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. It had been true for John the Baptist. It was true for Him. In the future it would be true for many. A man who marries does not fall short of the glory of God (1 Corinthians 7.28, 36 with Romans 3.23), but neither does a man who does not marry (this was the new idea). It is simply that the former will have extra cares loaded on him which may hinder his service for God. On the other hand men must remember that not to marry might result in thoughts and behaviour that rendered their service to God void. Many who have embraced celibacy have sinned grievously against God and men, and have brought disgrace on the name of Christ. And even worse sometimes there are those who cover up their sins and allow them to continue for the sake of appearances, which makes them guilty of all their sins and more. Thus while each must choose to marry or not to marry according to what God reveals to him as his duty, and either is an open option, everything needs to be taken into consideration. Better the ‘burdens’ brought about through marriage, than sinful failure caused by not being married. Each must therefore decide before God what he can cope with.
19.12 “For there are eunuchs, who were so born from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs, who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs, who made themselves eunuchs for the kingly rule of heaven’s sake. He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.”.
This view of verse 11 is confirmed now by what He says in verse 12. For here Jesus is demonstrating that the practise of non-marriage has in fact been true for some throughout the ages, and is now even more true in the light of the coming of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. He is pointing out that there have always been some who could not marry, (even if they wanted to), and that that situation has now widened, and has become desirable for others because the Kingly Rule of Heaven was now upon them.
The basic idea of a eunuch was that he was someone who totally abstained from sexual activity. In the official sense only the middle type was a eunuch, for a eunuch was someone who had been castrated so that his whole attention would be concentrated on serving his master, often, although not necessarily, involving him in having responsibilities in the harems of great kings (as a eunuch he would not be a sexual threat to the women). Eunuchs were often looked on as men of unique devotion to their masters and as such deserving of high office, even though they could also be looked on with ridicule, partly because of their piping voices.
However, a considerable number of men were also ‘natural eunuchs’ (or to utilise a Rabbinic phrase ‘eunuchs of Heaven’). This arose either because of genetic defects at birth, or because of some accident or act of violence that rendered them so (consider the seriousness attached to the possibility of a woman interfering with a man’s genitals during a fight, the only crime in Israel which warranted the amputation of the hand - Deuteronomy 25.11-12). The description may also have been intended to include slaves forbidden by their masters to marry. For all such people marriage was usually not an option. Heaven had thus decreed otherwise. To all intents and purposes they were eunuchs, and no doubt sometimes insultingly called such. For no woman could be expected to marry a man who could not produce children.
It is an open question as to whether such people were originally intended to be excluded from the assembly of the Lord by Deuteronomy 23.1, or whether that simply referred to the deliberate castration practised in Canaanite religion. But they could certainly not be priests active in the sanctuary (Leviticus 21.20-21). On the other hand, if born to priestly families, they could eat ‘the bread of their God (verse 22). What they could not do included approaching the altar and going within the inner sanctuary behind the first veil (verse 23). The corollary of this, in view of their views on marriage, would be that no man should minister to God who was not married and did not pass on the seed of life. This treatment of maimed priests suggests, however, that such people were not wholly excluded from the assembly of the Lord, and that it was only those whose defect arose from idolatrous religion that were originally to be so excluded.
So Jesus’ argument is that there have always been at least two types of men for whom it was inexpedient to marry, natural ‘eunuchs’ and man-made eunuchs (It was known for some of the latter to ‘marry’. Strictly, however, it would not in Jewish eyes be a true marriage for it could not be consummated. Consider possibly Genesis 39 where Potiphar was ‘a eunuch of Pharaoh’ but married. Although the question then is whether the word translated ‘eunuch’ had come to mean ‘high official’). The Rabbis later in fact clearly distinguished between the two, they spoke of ‘eunuchs of Heaven’ and ‘eunuchs of man’, and the idea was therefore almost certainly prevalent in Jesus’ day. This clearly demonstrated that God had made allowances for some who could not marry due to natural reasons (due to Heaven) or violence done to the person (due to man). It had not therefore, even in ancient days, always been the duty of a man to marry under all circumstances, for God had made the world otherwise.
That being so He then adds a third type who need not marry, a type resulting from the fact that the Kingly Rule of Heaven has come, that is, of those who deliberately refrain from marriage and from sexual activity ‘for the sake of the Kingly Rule of Heaven’. That indeed is in mind as a possibility in 19.29, and we should always allow the context to speak for itself. But such abstinence could only at that stage have had the purpose of enabling that person to serve the Kingly Rule of Heaven with full devotion, in the way that eunuchs did in the case of their masters, and in the way that both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself had (although both died while comparatively young, certainly young enough still to marry, which had possibly, although not necessarily, saved them both from the charge of failing in their duty to God, and this was especially so with Jesus as He had had younger brothers to bring up and provide for). For in fact all priests, including the High Priest, along with all Jewish males, considered it their duty to marry and bear children, demonstrating that none saw marriage as hindering a man from being holy. Thus this exception that Jesus proposed would appear to Jews to be an unusual exception. We can compare with this Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7.8, 27, 32. His point was that from now on devotion to God and the production of spiritual children could replace the normal duty to marry and bear children.
There is no question of this indicating a higher form of service or something to be reserved for a certain class of ministry. Peter was married, as were others of the Apostles. It is rather a matter of their putting themselves in the position of being able to serve the Kingly Rule of Heaven in the best possible way in circumstances when it would enable them to commit their whole time to pleasing the Lord (1 Corinthians 7.32). For some that would be by bearing children and bringing them up to serve Him (it is largely this ministry that has often perpetuated the church at times when love for Him has grown lukewarm. See 1 Timothy 2.15), for others it would involve being free from cares and responsibilities so that they could minister better in an itinerant ministry or in difficult situations (1 Corinthians 7.29). Each should determine what was God’s purpose for him or her, and serve Him accordingly.
This is further evidence that Jesus saw the Kingly Rule of Heaven as now a present reality. It was precisely because that was so that He could introduce the idea of ‘eunuchs’. For all knew that the term ‘eunuch’ regularly signified someone with particular loyalty to a monarch. Here then it signified someone with a particular loyalty to the cause of the Kingly Rule of Heaven and its King (an idea prominent in this section). It was one of Jesus’ vivid illustrations. He did not intend that they would physically become eunuchs, only that they would behave like eunuchs.
‘He who is able to receive it, let him receive it.” Jesus recognises that not all men will be able to recognise this truth, for it went against all that most of the Scribes and Pharisees taught and practised concerning marriage. Nevertheless, Jesus says, it is a truth open to those who will receive it, to those to whom it has been ‘given’, and that includes His disciples. Let them therefore now receive it. These words emphasise what a revolutionary idea this was seen to be, and that it should therefore have awoken His disciples to recognise the new situation that was coming. So the whole passage stresses that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is now entering a stage of extreme urgency. The world is about to be turned upside down with the result that marriage is no longer to be seen as a man’s first priority. It was very much a practical wake up call. The last days were here.
The Basis Of The New Kingly Rule Is To Be Humility - Jesus Calls Young Children To Him To Be Blessed, For They Are An Example Of Those To Whom The Kingly Rule of Heaven Belongs (19.13-15).
A change of view about marriage has indicated that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was now present among them, and Jesus now further emphasises this latter fact by welcoming young children to Him to be blessed. This balances out the message of the last passage. There some were called on to abstain from marriage for the sake of the Kingly Rule of Heaven, because important matters are now in hand, but now He reminds them that they must never forget that it is the products of such marriages who form an important part of that Kingly Rule of Heaven that they are to serve. Let those who abstain from marriage not get above themselves, and see themselves as the important ones. Producing children and bringing them up in the Lord is a means by which many women work out God’s saving work within them and are thus pleasing to God (1 Timothy 2.15). As He has previously done, He now again points out that the Kingly Rule of Heaven is for those, and only those, who will come to it with the humility and openness of children (compare 18.1-4), and that applies to all. There is no room for any to feel ‘better’ than another.
However, as well as balancing off the previous passage, this incident is also preparatory to the one that follows. For in that incident a ‘not so small’ and rather worldly-wise child (the rich young ruler) will be found to be so taken up with his riches that he has no time for the Kingly Rule of Heaven. In his case he is not prepared to come to Jesus as a little child and thus receive the blessing he seeks, and so he goes away without it. Because his attitude is not that of a little child he is not open to receive Jesus’ blessing.
Note that in ‘a’ young children are brought so that He may lay His hands on them, and in the parallel he does so. In ‘b’ the disciples rebuke them, but in the parallel Jesus welcomes them.
19.13 ‘Then were there brought to him little children, that he should lay his hands on them, and pray, and the disciples rebuked them.’
The practise of mothers taking their children from one to twelve years old to the Scribes for God’s blessing at certain feasts such as the Day of Atonement was well known in Israel. There the Scribes would lay their hands on them and pray for them. Thus these women are treating Jesus as a Prophet and on a par with the Scribes.
The words used for ‘little children’ can in fact signify children of various ages up to twelve. We should not therefore see these as babes in arms. It was not babes in arms that the Scribes were called on to bless. These were thus simply children of various ages.
But the practical disciples, knowing that Jesus was tired, and not counting the blessing of little children as very important, rebuked them (their mothers) for seeking to break in on their Master for such a petty reason. Perhaps they were aware that He was on the point of departing (verse 15) or perhaps they had their minds set on larger matters, the things that awaited them in Jerusalem about which Jesus was speaking so mysteriously. Or perhaps they were repudiating the idea that ‘blessing’ could just be passed on by the laying on of hands. Whichever way it was they saw the children as an intrusion. For to them more important matters were on hand. Indeed matters so important that all their ideas about marriage had just been turned upside down. And yet all these women could think of was having their children blessed and prayed for! It was just not acceptable. So they sought to turn them away.
19.14 ‘But Jesus said, “Allow the little children, and forbid them not to come to me, for of such is the kingly rule of heaven.” ’
Jesus’ however, immediately disabuses them and tells them to allow the children to come to Him, and not to forbid them. The indication is that they are to be always ready to receive those who come humbly and with an open mind. Indeed He points out, it is to those who come to Him with the humility and openness of little children that the Kingly Rule of Heaven belongs. ‘Of such is the Kingly Rule of Heaven’. That is what the Kingly Rule of Heaven is all about. For all who would enter the Kingly Rule of Heaven must come in humble submission like a little child.
There was in this a gentle rebuke to the disciples themselves. Even yet they had not learned to have the humility and openness of a little child. If they had they would have welcomed these children as He did, and would not have sought to turn them away. Their problem was that they were still involved in great plans, indeed too involved in them to consider what was really important. Thus they were not in themselves fulfilling the potential of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Had they had eyes to see it at the time they would have recognised that they were not thinking correctly about what was coming. Their eyes were on the coming struggle that they considered to be ahead, but Jesus’ eyes were on all who in humility and openheartedness were open to receiving and following Him and His ways. These children whom He welcomed were already a sign of the blossoming of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (as depicted in chapter 13).
19.15 ‘And he laid his hands on them, and departed from there.’
Having given His disciples this further lesson Jesus then laid His hands on the children, and no doubt prayed for them (as they had asked), before ‘departing’ and going on His way towards Jerusalem. The children are thus made an important part of His journey to Jerusalem. How different His reception will be there, from those who should have known better, as compared with His reception here. The lost sheep of the house of Israel are flocking to Him. The false shepherds are waiting to destroy Him.
The purpose of the laying on of hands was always for identification and to indicate mutual participation. We can compare Genesis 48.14; Numbers 27.18; and the regular practise of laying hands on offerings and sacrifices. When the Scribes performed this act on the Day of Atonement their purpose was that God might bless each child whom they had identified before Him. Here therefore Jesus was identifying Himself with these children before His Father and seeking God’s blessing on them as those identified by Him.
The Rich Young Man Who Did Not Have The Humility And Openness Of A Little Child Because He Was Too Caught Up In His Riches And Thus Could Not Enter Under His Kingly Rule (19.16-22).
In total contrast to these receptive children who have nothing to offer but themselves was a rich young man whose heart was seeking truth, and who coveted the gift of eternal life. And it is this young man who now approaches Jesus. But sadly in his case there are other things that take up his heart. He does not come in humility and total openness. He is hindered by other things that possess his heart. And so when the final choice is laid before him, instead of coming openly and gladly to Jesus as the little children had done previously, he goes away sorrowfully, unable to relinquish the things that gripped his soul. He was thus unable to come with the simplicity of a little child. He had discovered that he could not serve God and Mammon (compare 6.24).
Note that in ‘a’ he comes eagerly seeking eternal life, and in the parallel he sorrowfully relinquishes eternal life because of his great possessions. In ‘b’ he is eager for eternal life, and in the parallel he is offered treasure in Heaven, which assumes eternal life. In ‘c’ he speaks of true goodness and in the parallel Jesus calls him to true goodness. In ‘d’ he is told that if he would enter into life he must keep the commandments, and in the parallel he claims to have done so but says that he knows that he is still lacking something. Centrally in ‘e’ Jesus summarises the sermon on the mount in terms of the commandments and Leviticus 19.18.
19.16 ‘And behold, one came to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” ’
In Mark 10.17 this is rendered, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ But that is simply a difference in emphasis in translation from the Aramaic. The young man had the idea of true goodness, the goodness which is God’s, in his mind. And he wanted this prophet, Whom he saw as having something of that goodness, to explain it to him. (He may well have said, ‘Good teacher, what good thing must I do --’, but trying to decide what Jesus said in the Aramaic is always a little dangerous, for we quite frankly never know. We should, however, note that the dropping of ‘good’ before Teacher would be in accordance with Matthew’s abbreviating tendency. It may well therefore have originally been there. But once he dropped it he clearly had to slightly rephrase what followed in terms of what Jesus had said in order to bring out the idea behind the question).
One reason for the different way in which Matthew presents it may well have been his awareness of the Jewish reluctance to apply the word ‘good’ to men when speaking in terms of God (compare how he mainly speaks of the Kingly Rule of ‘Heaven’ rather than God, even where the other Gospels use ‘God’). But in view of 28.19 he is clearly not avoiding the term for his own theological reasons. For that verse demonstrates that he is quite clear about his own view of the full divinity of Jesus. Nor is he toning down Mark, for the next verse makes quite clear that the word ‘good’ is still to be seen as connecting Jesus with God. Thus, assuming that he has Mark’s words before him, and probably the original Aramaic that Jesus spoke, which some alive would certainly have remembered, he must have had some other motive. And that can surely only have been in order to emphasise that what the young man is really concentrating on is the question as to how he himself can become ‘genuinely good in a God-like way’. Matthew is not arguing about wording, he is conveying an idea.
The young man is clearly well aware that only the truly good can have eternal life (compare Daniel 12.2-3, especially LXX). But he is also aware that he himself is not good. He knows that somehow there is something that keeps him from being able to be described as ‘good’. What supremely good thing then can he do so as cap off all his efforts and so ensure that he will have eternal life? In the way he phrases it Matthew has the ending in mind. He knows what ‘good thing’ the young man must do, trust himself wholly to Jesus. And he knows that he will refuse to do it.
For the idea of eternal life in Matthew compare 7.14, 18.8, 9; 19.17b, 29; 25.46.
19.17a ‘And he said to him, “Why do you ask me concerning what is good? One there is who is good.” ’
Mark has here, ‘why do you call me good?’ But both are again conveying the same idea, the one writing mainly for Gentiles, the other for Jewish Christians. It has the same reasoning behind it as Matthew’s expression ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ as compared with Mark’s ‘the Kingly Rule of God’. It is a way of saying the same thing while avoiding something which might be regarded as using the idea and name of God too lightly. But to ask someone of ‘what is good’ indicates the view that that person is ‘good’ without actually saying so. Only a supremely good person could know what was supremely good.
And that is clearly the implication that Jesus takes from it, for He says, “Why do you ask me concerning what is good? One there is who is good.” He is asking the young man why he applies to Him a concept that only applies to God. And He is suggesting that he should think through the implication of what he has said. He has recognised a unique goodness in Jesus, that is why he has come to Him and not to the Scribes. Let him then consider the implications of that. Jesus is not denying that He Himself is good. He is asking him to think what, if it is true, that then indicates.
19.17b “But if you would enter into life, keep the commandments.”
Jesus then points out to him in what true goodness consists. It is found by wholly keeping, from the heart, all the commandments of God without exception (contrast James 2.10). Let a man but do that and he will enter into life (eternal), for it will indicate a full relationship with God. It will be to be God-like. The idea may specifically have in mind Amos 5.4, 6, 14 where life is to be found both by seeking God and by seeking His goodness. The two are thus seen as equated. The idea is that no man can seek true goodness without seeking God, and vice versa. And it is through truly seeking God that men find goodness. We can compare with this Jesus’ indication that those whom God blesses will seek righteousness (5.6), and as a result will be ‘filled’ with righteousness, as He Who is the Righteousness of God, and His salvation, comes in delivering power. Jesus is not, of course, telling him that he can earn eternal life by doing good works. He is saying that anyone who would enter into life must be truly good, a goodness which they cannot achieve in themselves, a goodness which they must find through Him. Paul says the same, ‘Do you not know that the unrighteous will not enter the Kingly Rule of God?’ (1 Corinthians 6.9). And then Paul lists the kind of people who cannot hope to do so, and goes on to explain that it is only be being washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God that it becomes possible (1 Corinthians 6.11). Jesus has in mind that if the young man would enter into life he must be willing to come with the humility and openness of a little child and receive from God through Him what pertains to goodness.
But He is very much aware that the young man’s mind must be disabused of all its wrong ideas. This young man before Him wants, as it were, to climb into Heaven on the stairs of some wonderful ‘goodness’. He wants to enter it proudly as the trumpets blare about his great achievements (6.2). He wants the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees (5.20; 6.2). The last thing that he is thinking of is humbling himself as a little child. So Jesus knows that He must first bring his high opinion of himself crashing down. He knows His man. And He knows that unless he learns that his righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, he cannot enter under the Kingly Rule of God (5.20).
19.18-19 ‘He says too him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness. Honour your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” ’
The young man is delighted with the answer that he must keep the commandments. This is what he is looking for. So the question now is as to which commandment will enable him to do the one good thing that will surmount all the other good things that he has done. How can he achieve the pinnacle that he is seeking?
Jesus replies, with what can only be seen as a brief summary of Matthew 5.21-48, by citing the commandments which relate to behaviour towards men, and includes within them Leviticus 19.18, that he must love his neighbour as himself. This was especially pertinent when considering the action and attitude of heart of a wealthy young man. It summarised all the other commandments. In a sense it was the pinnacle of all manward commandments (22.39).
Note that Jesus is doing here the same thing that He has commanded His disciples to do. He is teaching men to obey all God’s commandments to their fullest extent (compare 5.17-20). That is what, in the end, salvation is all about. It is to bring us holy, unblameable and unreproveable into His sight (Colossians 1.22) through the imparting of His own mighty righteousness (5.6). It is that we be made like Him (1 John 3.2). Nothing less than this will do. Never listen to anyone who says that you can be saved without wanting to be righteous, for the one will result in the other.
The order in which He pronounces the commandments is logical. First He pronounces four of the last five commandments in order, and then He personalises the whole in terms of parents and ‘neighbours’, thus covering all aspects of social life. No sphere remains untouched.
(Matthew is probably here summarising a wider description of what was required. Comparison with Mark and Luke reminds us that each writer gives us the pith of what was said without pretending to record the whole. It is giving us the truth of what was said. They did not record whole conversations, any more than newspaper reports do, otherwise the writers would soon have run out of space).
19.20 ‘The young man says to him, “All these things have I observed. What do I still lack?” ’
However, the young man is now disappointed. He had had such high hopes. But all that Jesus had told him was what he had heard before from others. And yet it had not been enough. He did not stop to consider whether he had genuinely kept all these commandments (and Matthew intends us to read them in terms of the sermon on the mount). With the presumption and limited experience of a young man he was convinced that he had. And yet he knew that what he had done was not enough. He was still aware of a great lack. There was still hope for him, for at least he recognised that he was not good enough. (Once a man begins to think that he is nearly good enough, and has but a little further to go, he has lost hope. For the first principle of salvation is that a man recognise his own total inability to be good enough. That indeed was why Jesus had begun by emphasising that true goodness was of God).
19.21 ‘Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” ’
So Jesus now gives him his answer, the answer to which He has been aiming. He has claimed to love his neighbour as himself, so let him become like a little child in his response to Jesus. Let him show his love for his neighbour. Let him sell all that he has, and give it to his poor neighbours (in the same way as, if he had been poor, he would have wanted others to do to him). And then let him come and follow Jesus. Here was the ‘good thing’ that he could do, to wholly follow Jesus with all hindrances removed. And if he did it he would inherit eternal life, for no one could ever come wholly to Jesus like this and be disappointed. Jesus would do the rest. We should perhaps note that implicit in the idea of ‘following Jesus’ is listening to Him and responding fully to His words. Jesus is not just saying ‘sign on and join the ranks’. He is saying ‘respond to Me and to all I am and to all I say like a little child would, and leave the consequences to Me’ (compare John 10.27-28). He is saying ‘believe in Me and follow Me’.
For if he does this he will be being ‘perfect’ (complete) like his Father in Heaven is perfect (5.48) because he will be distributing all that he has on the undeserving (5.45) and then following the great Life-giver Himself, the One sent from God, the source of all truth. He will be ‘letting go, and letting God’. Furthermore by doing this he will lay up his treasure in Heaven (6.19), (a confirmation that the contents of the sermon on the mount really are in mind in this passage). Thus if he is genuine in seeking goodness he now knows how it can be brought about, by wholly following Jesus, with all his temptations and burdens laid aside, and thus being open to all that Jesus can give him. Then the way to eternal life will have opened before him.
The later Rabbis taught that no one should immediately give away more than one fifth of their wealth. And there was wisdom in what they said. For men should give time for thought concerning such things. But Jesus’ very point is that the case was different at this point in time. For this was another indication (like the idea of possibly not marrying because the Kingly Rule of Heaven was here) that the Messianic age was here. The Kingly Rule of Heaven is among them, and is about to burst on the world. Now is the time to press forcefully into it. Now is the time for a man to put all else aside and throw in his lot with Jesus. It was neck or nothing time.
19.22 ‘But when the young man heard the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions.’
At these words the young man was stopped short in his tracks. Up to this point he had been convinced that he would do anything that Jesus suggested. But he had not expected this. It was unfair. Jesus wanted him to take the commandments literally! He actually wanted him to do what they said (compare 7.21-27). But he knew that he could not forego his riches. And he now also knew that he could not follow Jesus while being unwilling to yield up his riches. (And he also knew that he had not after all kept all the commandments). So he was now at an impasse. And he went away sorrowfully. And Jesus let him go. For He knew that until the hold that the riches had on his heart had been broken that young man could never receive eternal life. He could never come responsively like a little child to Jesus. We may perhaps note that this young man was the first person we know of who actually openly rejected Jesus call to ‘follow Me’ (but compare 8.18-22). Soon almost the whole of Jerusalem (in contrast with the pilgrims) would do the same.
The growth in the idea of ‘following’ Jesus in Matthew is interesting, and in fact Matthew has two concepts of following. The first is the following that demands everything. The four brothers left their nets and their boats and followed Him (4.18-22). The unknown Scribe was reminded that following Him would involve having nowhere to lay his head (8.19-20). Another disciple was warned that he must immediately leave all the affairs of home behind to follow Him (8.21-22). Matthew was called on to instantly leave all his business interests behind (9.9). See also the ex-blind men in 20.34; and the women in 27.55. Indeed all who would be His disciples must take up their cross and follow Him (10.38; 16.24). In each case this was to leave all and follow Him (19.27). So this young man was being called on to follow in a goodly line. In contrast are those who follow because they want to learn and want to be healed, some of whom would continue to follow while others turned back (4.25; 8.1, 10; 9.27; 12.15; 14.13; 19.2; 20.29, compare John 2.23-25; 6.66). So in a sense the young man was not the first to turn back, simply the first who did it so blatantly, not recognising the crisis point at which the call had come to him.
It is often customary at this point to explain why this only applied to the rich young man. And in a sense it does, for each of us have our own idols that have to be dealt with. But we make a mistake if we think that Jesus’ demands are any less on us. For in the end it is only as, like a little child, we relinquish all that we have and come humbly to Him that we too can find life. That we too can be ‘saved’. We may do it in different ways. We may not understand all that is involved. But if there is some particular thing that has a hold over our lives then we can be sure that we cannot come like a little child to receive salvation until we are willing for that thing to be dealt with. We cannot bargain with Jesus. We cannot make a trade with Him. We must come just as we are leaving everything else behind. What He offers us is free, but it costs everything, even though we may not consciously be called on to relinquish it all at once. In this young man’s case we must remember that a crisis decision was necessary, for Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, and He knew what lay ahead. Thus for the young man it was in a sense ‘now or never’. Never again could he be given this unique opportunity. When we are moved to seek God we should beware. It could be our last special opportunity too.
The Basis Of The New Kingly Rule - The Impossibility Of Salvation Without God Being At Work (19.23-26).
In Matthew 5.3-6 it was those who had been ‘blessed’ by God who were poor in spirit, repentant, meek, and hungry after righteousness. In 11.6 it was those who had been ‘blessed’ by God who would not be caused to stumble at the way in which Jesus was carrying out His work as the Messiah. In 11.25-26 it was the Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, who had hidden things from the wise and prudent and had revealed them to ‘babes’. In 13.16 it was because the disciples had been ‘blessed’ by God that they saw and heard. In 16.17 it was because he had been ‘blessed’ by God that Peter had recognised Jesus’ Messiahship. Now we learn that it is only those who have been so blessed by God who can be saved. In the end, therefore, the reason that the young man had gone away was because he was not one of those ‘blessed by God’. For without that it is impossible for a man to be saved. This is a constant theme of Jesus, and of Matthew. No man can come to Him except it be given him by the Father, that is, unless the Father draws him (John 6.37, 39, 44). For it is those who have been blessed by God who believe and who consequently have eternal life (John 6.40).
Note that in ‘a’ we have described for us how hard it is for a rich man to enter the Kingly Rule of Heaven and in the parallel we are informed that all things are possible with God. In ‘b’ the impossibility of a rich man entering the Kingly Rule of God is described, and in the parallel Jesus confirms that it is indeed impossible for men. Centrally in ‘c’ comes the question ‘who then can be saved’. And the answer is clearly ‘all whom God chooses to save’.
19.23 ‘And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I say to you, It is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingly rule of heaven.” ’
As the young man walks away Jesus recognises the conflict that is taking place in his mind, and turning to His disciples says sadly, “It is hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingly Rule of Heaven.” The reason behind His statement is quite clear from the young man’s dilemma. Riches prevent a man from being willing to follow fully in His ways. And the implication of it is that if a man would enter the Kingly Rule of Heaven he must first deal with the question of his riches. For to be under the Kingly Rule of Heaven means that all his riches must be at God’s disposal. And for a rich man that is very hard.
Here was one who could have become ‘a son of the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ (13.38) but he had turned away from it. Some see ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ here in verse 23 as signifying the eternal kingly rule beyond the grave. (It could not mean a millennial kingdom, for rich men will not find it hard to enter that). But Jesus has made abundantly clear that the Kingly Rule of Heaven has in fact ‘drawn near’ (4.17), and that it is among them (Luke 17.21) and has ‘come upon them’ (12.28), and is therefore there for all who will respond to it. And the impression given here is surely that the young man has been faced with that choice and has failed to take his opportunity. For the Kingly Rule of Heaven is not a place, it is a sphere of Kingly Rule, and a sphere of submission which is past, present and future.
That the Kingly Rule of Heaven, which initially was intended to result from the Exodus (Exodus 19.6; 20.1-18; Numbers 23.21; Deuteronomy 33.5; 1 Samuel 8.7), has in one sense always been open to man’s response comes out in the Psalms and is especially emphasised in Isaiah 6 (see Psalm 22.28; 103.19; 93.1; 97.1; 99.1; Isaiah 6.1-11). That it is now present among men in a unique way is made clear in 11.12; 12.28; 13.38; Luke 17.21. That it will be taken out and offered to the world is made clear in Acts 8.12, where it parallels taking out the name of Jesus; Acts 19.8, where it parallels the proclamation of ‘The Way’; Acts 20.25; 28.23, 28 where it refers to ‘the things concerning the Lord Jesus’. Consider that Paul would have had no reason for trying to persuade and teach the Jews about something that they believed in wholeheartedly, the future Kingly Rule of God (Acts 28.23). What he was seeking to bring home to them was that the Kingly Rule of God was now open to them in Jesus. Compare also how he will say in his letters that ‘the Kingly Rule of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14.17) and that we (believers) have been ‘transported into the Kingly Rule of His beloved Son’ (Colossians 1.13). To Paul, as to Jesus, the Kingly Rule of Heaven (God) was both present and future, present in experience and future in full manifestation. It can thus be entered now,
19.24 ‘And again I say to you, “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingly rule of God.” ’
Jesus then seeks to make the position even clearer by the use of a vivid contrast, “It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingly rule of God.” By this He is saying that it is not only hard, but will require a miracle (which is what He then goes on to point out). There is absolutely no reason for not taking the camel and the needle’s eye literally. The camel was the largest animal known in Palestine, the needle’s eye the smallest hole. The whole point of the illustration lies in the impossibility of it, and the vivid and amusing picture it presents is typical of the teaching of Jesus. Jesus no doubt had in mind the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, who considered that rich men were rich because they were pleasing to God (compare Psalm 112.3; Proverbs 10.22; 22.4), and that through their riches they had even more opportunity to be pleasing to God (and mocked at any other suggestion - Luke 16.14). They taught that riches were a reward for righteousness. But Jesus sees this as so contradictory to reality that He pictures them as by this struggling to force a camel through the eye of a needle. In other words they are trying to bring together two things that are incompatible. So in His eyes their teaching was claiming to do the impossible, as the example of the rich young man demonstrated, it was seeking to make the rich seem godly. And the folly of this is revealed in the fact that it is ‘the deceitfulness of riches’ which is one of the main things that chokes the word (13.22). In this regard the Psalmists regularly spoke of those who put their trust in riches, and thereby did not need to rely on God (Psalm 49.6; 52.7; 62.10; 73.12; Proverbs 11.28; 13.7). This was not to say that rich men could not be godly. It was simply to indicate that it was unusual.
‘The Kingly Rule of God.’ It is difficult to see in context how this expression can be seen as differing in significance from ‘the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ in verse 23, for both are indicating a similar situation. It may simply therefore have been an alteration made for the sake of variety. On the other hand we must consider the fact that Matthew’s purpose here might well be in order to emphasise the contrast between ‘man’ and ‘God’ in terms of the impossibility of entry. The camel cannot go through the eye of a needle, for the two exist in different spheres sizewise, how much less then can a RICH MAN enter into the sphere of GOD’s Kingly Rule. The idea is to be seen as almost ludicrous. The change is then a difference in emphasis.
19.25 ‘And when the disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” ’
The disciples, who had been brought up to believe that the rich were prosperous because of their piety, were also ‘greatly astonished’. After all the rich could also give generous alms to the poor, could make abundant gifts to the Temple, could afford to offer many offerings and sacrifices, and had the opportunity of doing so much good. And by such they made a name for themselves (compare 6.1-2) Surely none were in a better position to please God than the rich. So if they could not ‘be saved’ what hope was there for others?
They had similarly been greatly astonished at Jesus’ ‘new’ teaching about marriage (19.10). They were awaking to the fact that Jesus was introducing a new world.
In context ‘being saved’ indicates ‘having eternal life’ (verse 16) and ‘entering into the Kingly Rule of Heaven’ (verse 23). Those who ‘are saved’ enter into a sphere which will result in eternal blessing, both in this world and the next.
19.26 ‘And Jesus looking on them said to them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” ’
Jesus now points out that the age of impossibilities has arrived. He draws their attention to the fact that God can in fact save both rich and poor. For while doing this is impossible with men, with God all things are possible. By this He first makes clear that salvation is a miracle that only God can accomplish, and secondly He draws special attention to its source. It is those whom God has chosen to ‘bless’ who will be saved. The idea that God can do the impossible is firmly imbedded in the Old Testament. See Genesis 18.14; Job 42.2; Zechariah 8.6. And now it has begun to manifest itself in the salvation of men and women.
The Basis Of The New Kingly Rule - Jesus Now Explains The Future For All Who Fully Follow Him (19.27-29).
In order to fully appreciate what Jesus now says here we need to consider the similar words spoken at the Last Supper as described in Luke 22.24-30. There the context is specifically that of the disciples having false ideas about their future role, and Jesus is warning them that such ideas are to be quashed because they are dealing with something totally different than they know. There it is in the context of Him stressing that it is those who want to lord it over others (by sitting on their thrones) who are the ones who are least like what the disciples are intended to be. He stresses that in the case of the disciples it is the ones who seek to serve all, like servants serving at table, who are really the greatest, and He then points out that that is precisely what He Himself has come among them to be (compare 18.4; 20.25-28). And it is in that context that He cites the picture of the apostles as destined to sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel and expects them to understand it in terms of what He has just said (Luke 22.30).
Now taken at face value the ideas are so mutually contradictory that it is incredible. At one moment He appears to be warning them most severely against seeking lordly glory, and at the next moment He seems to be promising them precisely that and encouraging them to look forward to it, knowing that they are expecting His Kingly Rule soon to be manifested. In other words in this view He is depicted as promising them the very thing that He is at the same time trying to root out of them, and making both promises within seconds of each other. He is seemingly inculcating the very attitude that He is trying to destroy. We find this quite frankly impossible to believe. It suggests therefore that in fact Jesus meant something very different than He appears to be saying at face value (and that Luke knew that He did), and that He expected His disciples to understand it, so that we thus need to look a little deeper at its parabolic significance in order to appreciate its significance (in the case of Luke see for this our commentary on Luke 22).
The second thing that we need to take into account in this regard is Jesus’ love for parabolic representation. Regularly in His parables His servants are pictured as men of great importance who are called on to serve faithfully. They are pictured as people placed in great authority, and that on earth for the purpose of a ministry on earth (18.23-24; 25.14; Luke 12.42; 16.1; 19.12-13). They are seen as given positions of great splendour. But in contrast we have already been warned about how they must carry out that service. They are to carry it out by serving humbly (Luke 12.36-37; 22.26-27; see also Matthew 18.4; 20.26-27). Thus He pictures His servants as on the one hand having great authority and power, and yet on the other as needing to be meek and lowly and menial in serving others. And He pictures the latter as the greatest service that there is, so great indeed that it is what He Himself is doing while on earth (20.26-28; Luke 22.26-27), and is also what He will do for them in the future Kingly Rule (Luke 12.37). For He is one Who Himself delights to serve, and is among them as One Who serves, and will go on serving into eternity, for God is a God Who delights to serve and to give. He is the very opposite of what we naturally are. That is what He has done through history (note Exodus 20.1-2). That is the measure of true greatness. So although His authority is total and His power omnipotent He continually serves His own.
Can we really think that the One Who sets such a picture before them of service is going to encourage them by presenting them with a goal that contradicts all that He has said at a time when they are vulnerable to such ideas? If there was one problem that the disciples had at this time above all others it was wrong ideas about their future importance, ideas which were making them almost unbearable (20.20-24). Would Jesus really have been foolish enough to feed those wrong ideas by saying, ‘Don’t worry, you are going to lord it over everyone in the end’? Quite frankly it is inconceivable.
The third thing that is to be taken into account is that the promises then made to other than the twelve relate mainly to this life (verse 29). What they are promised is that whatever they lose for His sake they will gain the more abundantly here on earth (this is even clearer in Mark 10.30), as well as eternal life. If He wanted to encourage His disciples by pointing to their future glorified state, why did He not do the same openly with the others? Thus the obvious conclusion is that what He promises to the disciples is parallel with what He promises to the others, and that both therefore relate mainly to this life.
The fourth point to be considered is that these words are followed immediately by a parable that warns against presumption, in which it is emphasised that God promises to deal with all men equally when it comes to ‘reward’. But this sits very uneasily with the idea that twelve of those to whom He has spoken have already been promised thrones as a reward! (Even given that the context is Matthew’s arrangement).
And the final point that has to be considered is that when James and John did take Jesus’ words here too literally and made their bid for the two most important of the twelve thrones (20.20-22) Jesus immediately pointed out what their real destiny was, that they were not to seek thrones, but were to share His baptism of Suffering and to be servants of all as He was (20.23-28), and this immediately following the parable where all were to receive equal. If He was really offering them literal thrones He should have been praising their ambition.
Let us now summarise the arguments:
But what then can Jesus mean by the words ‘You who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ without it giving the disciples too great a sense of their own importance? What could He be trying to signify to His disciples? In the light of our criticisms above we would expect the obvious solution to be that He was indicating to them their prominent positions of service in regard to their future task on earth. Having that in mind as a possibility let us continue the phrases used and see if they at all fit in with that idea.
This first raises the question as to what Jesus means by ‘the regeneration’ (palingenesia). Now in dealing with this question the tendency is to go to apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament as interpreted in the light of Jewish apocalyptic (neither of which used palingenesia) and then to translate them in that light. But if there is one thing that is clear about Jesus it is that He is not tied in to such ideas. Rather He takes them and reinterprets them in His own way in the light of God’s programme as He sees it to be. For that is what He has come to bring, regeneration, a new creation (Romans 6.4; 2 Corinthians 5.17; Galatians 6.15).
What then is the ‘regeneration’ (palingenesia)? The word can simply means ‘a becoming again’ or a ‘being born again’. But how is it used elsewhere? It is used by the Egyptian Jewish philosopher Philo of the renewal of the earth after the flood. It is also used by Paul of the ‘renewal’ of the Holy Spirit in men’s lives when they come to Christ (Titus 3.5). Now if, as seems probable, the dove in 3.16 was symbolic of the dove returning after the flood, indicating the issuing in of a new age (Genesis 8.11), and thereby indicated the coming of a new age in the coming of the Messiah along with the deluge of the Holy Spirit, this ties in with both Philo’s use and Paul’s use. Here therefore it will indicate the new age that Jesus is introducing as begun in His ministry and consummated in the coming of the Holy Spirit. A new nation is being brought to birth. Thus it is the time when the Holy Spirit comes to renew men and women (Isaiah 44.1-5; Joel 2.28-29; Ezekiel 36.25-29; Acts 2.18). It is the time when God breathes new life into His people (Ezekiel 37.9-14). It is the time when men and women stream out from Jerusalem taking His Law (Isaiah 2.2-4). It is the time when the waters stream out from God’s Dwellingplace bringing new life to all (Ezekiel 47.1-12 as explained in John 7.37-38). In other words it has in mind the ministry of Jesus followed by Pentecost and after. Compare the description of the work of John, which was ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the righteous’ (Luke 1.17) and that but as an introductory renewal. And that is to be followed by ‘out of your innermost beings will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7.38). This is a regeneration indeed.
But when will the Son of man be seated on the throne of His glory? Matthew makes that quite clear in 26.64, it is ‘from now on’ when He comes on clouds into the presence of the Father to receive the Kingship and the glory (Daniel 7.13-14); it is when He receives all authority in Heaven and earth (28.18); it is when He is glorified (see John 7.39 where it is directly connected with the coming of the Spirit); see also John 12.23; it is when He receives the glory that He had with His Father before the world was (John 17.5); compare also Acts 2.34-36; 7.55-56. He will thus sit on the throne of His glory after the resurrection when He is ‘glorified’ and returns to the glory that was His before the world was. That is, He receives the throne of His glory after His resurrection when He comes to His Father on the clouds of Heaven to be enthroned (Psalm 110.1 with Acts 2.34; Daniel 7.13-14). See also Revelation 4-5 where the idea of glory is prominent (Revelation 4.9, 11; 5.12, 13). Then He will bring His throne with Him when He comes again to sit on the throne of His glory (25.31); compare Ezekiel 1 where it is on such a travelling throne that God carries out His judgments on the earth.
How then will the Apostles sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel? The idea is taken from Psalm 122.5. ‘Jerusalem -- there the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord, -- for there are set thrones for righteous judgment, the thrones of the house of David’. The picture can be compared and contrasted with Isaiah 2.2-4. The picture here is of all the tribes of Israel streaming up to Jerusalem in order to obtain truth and righteous justice from those appointed by the Davidic King, who will sit on ‘the thrones of the house of David’ (thus representing the Davidic kingship) overseeing ‘the tribes of Israel’.
In fulfilment of this Jesus is now promising to the disciples that the days when those ‘thrones of David’ will be set up under His Messiahship are shortly to come about, when here on earth they will be able to serve Him in readiness for His final coming, taking responsibility for the new Israel, sharing in His authority, manifesting His glory, receiving a hundredfold in this life, and all this in terms of acting as servants just as the King Himself has (as expanded on in 20.20-28).
And this, at least initially, will be over ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’, that is the new Jewish Christian ‘congregation’ formed in Jerusalem and spreading out into the world. What better picture could there be of this than what happened in Acts 1-6? Here were twelve men anointed and empowered to serve the Lord’s anointed (Acts 4.27. 29-30; 5.31 compare Acts 2.1-4, 33). Here was the new Israel, flowering out of the old (Romans 9.6). Here were God’s appointed ‘princes’ ruling in Jerusalem (Acts 1-12). Thus Jesus is saying that the greater David will receive His glorious throne (in Heaven), and His representatives will then be established in Jerusalem as of old, bringing truth and righteous justice to the people. It is noteworthy that it was specifically in the days of David and of the Exodus (2.15) that Israel was represented by all ‘the twelve tribes’. Only under Moses, and David and Solomon, were they all united. Thus what better description of Jesus’ new congregation, seen as the product of the new Exodus (2.15) and of Jesus’ position as ‘the son of David’ (1.1, 17), than ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ who were destined for redemption and over whom David held sway.
And from Jerusalem they will continue to exercise their power (Acts 1-11, 15). And from there His word and His Law will go out to the world (Isaiah 2.2-4; Acts 1.8). And in accordance with the teaching of Jesus they will do it in humility and meekness, as servants of the people (18.1-4; 20.25-28). There indeed they will (parabolically) ‘sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’, as thousands flock to His new congregation.
And for the first few years of the Christian era this is precisely what happened, and it would continue ‘literally’ for some years. And then it would expand into something even greater as many Gentiles became united with the twelve tribes of Israel (James 1.1). And then the Apostles will continue to ‘sit on their thrones’ and adjudicate (Acts 11.1-18; 15.6-29) while the twelve tribes of Israel expand beyond all imagining. That is how John understood it in Revelation 5.10.
For in the end the ‘twelve tribes of Israel’ becomes a description of the ‘congregation’ of Jesus Christ (16.18; 18.17; James 1.1; Romans 9-11; Galatians 3.29; 6.16; Ephesians 2.11-22; 1 Peter 2.9 (compare Exodus 19.5-6); Revelation 7.1-8; 21.12-14). For the true church of ‘believers’ is the true Israel (John 15.1-6; Romans 11.17-26) made one in the One Who is Israel (see 2.15). For a more detailed argument see excursus below.
Jesus is thus promising His Apostles that the ‘regeneration’ will shortly come, and that as a result of their faithfulness in following Him they will then be established as His representatives of truth in Jerusalem, thus establishing the new Israel by His power and authority. And so it would prove to be. (They had no carefully worked out schemes like we have. They saw it all as on the verge of fulfilment and would see it in that light).
Note that in ‘a’ they have ‘left all’ and in the parallel those who have left all will receive a hundredfold (in this life - Mark 10.30). In ‘b’ they have followed Jesus and in the parallel those who have followed Him will enjoy the exercise of His authority in the new age among the new people of God.
19.27 ‘Then answered Peter and said to him, “Lo, we have left all, and followed you. What then shall we have?” ’
Peter’s question reflects the growing desire and expectation among the disciples of a future that is unfolding which will shortly result in their receiving their ‘reward’ for following Jesus. At this stage it is constantly reflected. See for example 20.20-24; Mark 9.33-35; Luke 9.46; 22.24-27; and even after the resurrection in Acts 1.6. They were looking, in accordance with the beliefs of the times, for a triumphant Messianic campaign which, once God had reversed the tragedy of His betrayal and death, would result in glorious victory, freedom for the Jews, and eventual worldwide domination. And they saw themselves as being an important part of it. Thus we can understand Peter’s eager question. The glittering prize was in front of their eyes, and accordingly they were looking forward to ruling Israel, exercising authority over the nations, enjoying great riches, and taking part in the Triumph of Christ. And that is why Jesus then has to point out to them that the way in which they must do this is by vying among themselves to be the servants of all (20.25-28; Luke 22.26-27). The greatest in the Kingly Rule of Heaven will be as a little child (18.4). Whoever is great among them must be their servant (20.27; 23.11). And do we think that such attitudes will change in Heaven? In Heaven men will not be seeking thrones. They will spurn thrones (Revelation 4.10). They will be eagerly asking, ‘how can I be of service’? Just as Jesus Himself will be doing (Luke 12.37; 22.27). In the light of the perspective of Heaven a literal significance to verse 28 would have no meaning. It would be a totally foreign concept. In Heaven and the new earth we are not all to be behaving like kings, but are all to be seeking to be the servants of all. And the rewards will not be physical, but spiritual. It is true that we will share with Him in His throne, but His throne is a throne of service.
19.28 ‘And Jesus said to them, Truly I say to you, that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” ’
And Jesus confirms the promise. But He is signifying a very different thing from what they are expecting. The renewal is coming, the time of blessing promised by the prophets, the time of the ‘becoming again’. For the King will shortly take the throne of His glory through resurrection (28.18; Acts 2.34-36; Psalm 110.1 with Acts 2.34; Daniel 7.13-14; Ephesians 1.19-22; 2.6), and then He will advance with them throughout the world making disciples of all nations and teaching them to observe all that He has commanded them (28.18-20). And they will have a definite part to play, for they will have authority over the new congregation, and will be responsible for its maintenance and discipline (18.15-20). Like the judges of the house of David before them they will ‘sit on thrones’, at first in Jerusalem, and then as they advance into the wider world, judging the twelve tribes of Israel, the living church of Jesus Christ (Psalm 122.5).
A moment’s thought will confirm that these words cannot be taken too literally. Jesus was speaking to the twelve. Was He then promising them twelve thrones? One of them at least would receive no throne. Thus it cannot be intended literally. Of course we try to solve the problem by debating who will be the substitute. But that is to reveal how pedantic our minds are. For there were in fact not even twelve tribes of Israel in a literal sense, nor can be for they have become too intermingled with the nations. Most of the tribes had almost completely disappeared into oblivion by the time of Jesus. Thus this is a pictorial representation of the truth, and not to be taken literally. It is indicating the authority that the Apostles will enjoy over the new congregation.
‘The throne of His glory.’ The idea that the Son of Man will sit on the throne of His glory when He comes out of suffering into the presence of the Ancient of Days is found in Daniel 7.13-14, and Jesus takes up that picture in 26.64, and declares that it will be ‘from now on’. As a result of His resurrection He will ‘come on clouds’ (a sign of divinity) into the presence of the Father to receive the Kingship and the glory, and His enthronement and its consequences will be made apparent to the whole Sanhedrin. Then He will receive all authority in Heaven and earth (28.18); then He will be glorified (see John 7.39 where it is directly connected with the coming of the Spirit); see also John 12.23; then He will receive the glory that He had with His Father before the world was (John 17.5); compare also Acts 2.34-36; 7.55-56. Thus He will ‘sit on the throne of His glory’ after the resurrection when He is ‘glorified’ and returns to the glory that was His before the world was. He will receive the throne of His glory after His resurrection when He comes to His Father on the clouds of Heaven to be enthroned (Psalm 110.1 with Acts 2.34; Daniel 7.13-14 with Matthew 26.64). See also Revelation 4-5 where the idea of glory is prominent with regard to His present enthronement (Revelation 4.9, 11; 5.12, 13). And it is then that the Apostles will exercise the authority and power that He has given them (Acts 2-11).
Later He will return on His throne when He comes again to sit on the throne of His glory (25.31), but it is noteworthy that there is no thought there of the participation of the Apostles. We can compare with this throne Ezekiel 1; 3.12-13, 23; 10 where it is on such a transportable throne that God carries out His judgments on the earth. When He comes in glory as Judge it will be as accompanied by His holy angels (25.31; compare 16.27; 24.30-31), not by His Apostles. This is, of course, apocalyptic language describing the indescribable in vivid human terms. The reality will be far above anything that we can imagine. (That is why from another viewpoint, the viewpoint of salvation, Jesus will bring with Him all His resurrected people, and those who are alive at His coming will be transfigured, and will rise to meet Him in the air, and so ever be with the Lord - 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18).
19.29 “And every one who has left houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”
And it is not only they who will be blessed in this life. All who along with them have left houses and family and lands ‘for His sake’, they also will receive a hundred fold ‘in this time’ (Mark 9.30), and will finally inherit eternal life. Thus the way of following Jesus will be a way of great blessing on earth, when His people will receive far more than they have lost by leaving everything for His sake. The Apostles will receive ‘thrones’ and the remainder will receive ‘a hundred houses, a hundred brothers, a hundred sisters, a hundred fathers, a hundred mothers, a hundred children and a hundred pieces of land’, this flowing into eternal life. In other words they will enjoy the Kingly Rule of Heaven and its blessings now, and will enjoy it in its consummation later.
That we are not to take this too literally is also abundantly clear. Do we really want a hundred fathers, a hundred children, and vast lands? They are as symbolic as the thrones. It is rather a further pictorial representation of a greater truth, that God will give overflowing blessing in return for our sacrifices and our full dedication. To the Jew children and lands were their two most precious possessions.
‘For My name’s sake.’ Here is the central crux. Their eyes have been fixed on Him and they have followed Him. They have not done it for a church, or for themselves, or out of love for an ideal, they have done it out of love for Him. They have done it because of Who He is. And thus they will receive all the blessings that He has come to bring.
‘Will inherit eternal life.’ This specifically connects back to the previous story of the rich young man. That had begun with the question, ‘what must I do to have (inherit) eternal life?’ (19.16; Mark 10.17). Here is the reply. What a contrast there is between all that Jesus has just described and the rich young man. He had returned home with his riches intact but he had lost all the spiritual blessings which have just been described, including eternal life. And he has lost his treasure in Heaven, while these who have forsaken all and followed Him have both friends, and family, and riches beyond imagining, and in the end will enjoy and inherit eternal life, both now (John 5.24; 10.10) and in the future.
EXCURSUS On ‘Is The Church The True Israel?’
It must immediately be stressed that we are not by this question asking whether the church is a kind of ‘spiritual Israel’, or whether it is a kind of ‘parallel Israel’, or ‘replacement Israel’. That is to misunderstand the question. The question being asked is whether the early church saw itself, and is seen by God, as the true literal Biblical Israel, His firstborn who came from Egypt? (Compare Matthew 2.15). In this regard we should note that Jesus spoke to His disciples of His new community in terms that did actually indicate Israel for He spoke of ‘building His congregation/church (ekklesia)’ (16.18) and He did it as the One Who had truly come out of Egypt (2.15). In the Old Testament the ‘ekklesia’ was one of the words used to indicate ‘all Israel’. This suggests therefore that Jesus was here thinking of building the true congregation of Israel. And while this came after He had said that He had come only to ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10.6; 15.24), (that is those of Israel who were wandering and without a shepherd), it also followed the time when His thinking clearly took a new turn following His dealings with the Syro-phoenician woman, when He began a ministry in more specifically Gentile territory, offering the children’s bread to ‘the dogs’. His ‘congregation’ was thus to be composed of both Jews and (ex-) Gentiles.
But did Jesus see His new community as the new Israel? That He does so is in fact made clear in John 15.1-6 where He describes Himself as the true vine with believers as the branches. The old vine has been stripped away and rooted out (Isaiah 5.1-7), and replaced by Jesus and His followers. This is confirmed in Matthew 2.15 where He is spoken of as God’s Son who is called out of Egypt, words originally referring to Israel (Hosea 11.1). He is the true representative of Israel Who alone totally left Egypt behind (see on 2.15), and all who would be the new Israel must be conjoined with Him.
Thus there is good reason to suggest that when Jesus in Matthew 16.18 spoke of the ‘congregation/church’, it was with the purpose of equating it with the true ‘Israel’, the Israel within Israel (Romans 9.6), as indeed it did in the Greek translations of the Old Testament where ‘the congregation/assembly of Israel’, which was finally composed of all who responded to the covenant, was translated as ‘the church (ekklesia) of Israel’. We may see this expression then as indicating that He was now intending to found a new Israel, which it later turned out would include Gentiles. Indeed this was the basis on which the early believers called themselves ‘the church/congregation’, that is the congregation of the new Israel, and while they were at first made up mainly of Jews and proselytes, this gradually developed into including both Jews and Gentiles.
That the old Israel as a whole has ceased to be so in the Apostles’ eyes is in fact made clear in Acts 4.27-28 where we read, “For in truth in this city against your holy Servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, were gathered together, to do whatever your hand and your council foreordained to come about.”
This follows as an explanation of a quotation from Psalm 2.1 in Acts 4.25- 26:
The important point to note here is that ‘the peoples’ who imagined vain things, who in the Psalm were nations who were enemies of Israel, have become in Acts ‘the peoples of Israel’. Thus the ‘peoples of Israel’ who were opposing the Apostles and refusing to believe are here seen as the enemy of God and His Anointed, and of His people. It is a clear indication that old unbelieving Israel was now seen as numbered by God among the nations, and that those who have believed in Christ are seen as the true Israel. (The same thing happene at the Exile when the old idolatrous Israel was rejected and became part of the nations, with only a remnant forming a new Israel). As Jesus had said to Israel, ‘the Kingly Rule of God will be taken way from you and given to a nation producing its fruits’ (Matthew 21.43). Thus the King now has a new people of Israel to guard and watch over.
The same idea is found in John 15.1-6. The false vine (the old Israel - Isaiah 5.1-7) has been cut down and replaced by the true vine of ‘Christ at one with His people’ (John 15.1-6; Ephesians 2.11-22). Here Jesus, and those who abide in Him (the church/congregation), are the new Israel. The old unbelieving part of Israel has been cut off and replaced by all those who come to Jesus and abide in Jesus, that is both believing Jews and believing Gentiles (Romans 11.17-28), who together with Jesus form the true Vine.
Thus the new Israel, the ‘Israel of God’, sprang from Jesus. And it was He Who established its new leaders who would ‘rule over (‘judge’) the twelve tribes of Israel’ (Matthew 19.28; Luke 22.30). Here ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’ refers to all who will come to believe in Jesus through His word, and the initial, if not the complete fulfilment, of this promise occurred in Acts. (See the arguments above and the arguments in our commentary on Luke 22 with regard to this interpretation). This appointment to ‘rule over (judge) the twelve tribes of Israel’ was not intended to divide the world into two parts, consisting of Jew and Gentile, with the two parts seen as separate, and with Israel under the Apostles, while the Gentiles were under other rulers, but as describing a united Christian ‘congregation’. Thus those over whom they ‘ruled’ would be ‘the true Israel’ which would include both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. These would become the true Israel.
Make no mistake this true Israel was founded on believing Jews. It was Israel. The Apostles were Jews, and were to be the foundation of the new Israel which incorporated Gentiles within it (Ephesians 2.20; Revelation 21.14). And initially all its first foundation members were Jews. Then as it spread it first did so among Jews until there were ‘about five thousand’ Jewish males who were believers to say nothing of women and children (Acts 4.4). Then it spread throughout all Judaea, and then through the synagogues of ‘the world’, so that soon there were a multitude of Jews who were Christians. Here then was the initial true Israel, the ‘remnant’, over whom the Apostles presided.
But then proselytes (Gentile converts) and God-fearers (Gentile adherents to the synagogues) began to join and they also became branches of the true vine (John 15.1-6) and were grafted into the olive tree (Romans 11.17-28). They became ‘fellow-citizens’ with the Jewish believers (‘the saints’, a regular Old Testament name for true Israelites who were seen as true believers). They became members of the ‘household of God’ (Ephesians 2.11-22). And so the new Israel has sprung up following the same pattern as the old, and as finally incorporating believing Jews and believing Gentiles. That is why Paul could describe the new church as ‘the Israel of God’ (Galatians 6.16), because both Jews and Gentiles were now genuinely ‘the seed of Abraham’ (Galatians 3.29).
Those who deny that the church is Israel and equate Israel with the ‘old unbelieving Jews’ must in fact see all these ‘believing Jews’ as cut off from Israel (as the Jews in fact in time did). For by the late 1st century AD, the Israel for which those who deny that the church is Israel contend, was an Israel made up only of Jews who did not see Christian Jews as belonging to Israel. As far as they were concerned Christian Jews were cut off from Israel. And in the same way believing Jews who followed Paul’s teaching saw fellow Jews who did not believe as no longer being true Israel. They in turn saw unbelieving Jews as cut off from Israel. As Paul puts it, ‘they are not all Israel who are Israel’ (Romans 9.6).
For the new Israel now saw themselves as the true Israel. They saw themselves as the ‘Israel of God’. And that is why Paul stresses to the Gentile Christians in Ephesians 2.11-22; Romans 11.17-28 that they are now a part of the new Israel having been made one with the true people of God in Jesus Christ. In order to consider all this in more detail let us look back in history where we discover that there was never a time when ‘Israel’ was composed solely of Jacob’s descendants.
When Abraham entered the land of Canaan having been called there by God he was promised that in him all the world would be blessed, and this was later also promised to his seed (Genesis 12.3;18.18; 22.18; 26.4; 28.14). But Abraham did not enter the land alone. In Genesis 14 he had three hundred and eighteen fighting men ‘born in his house’, in other words born to servants, camp followers and slaves. One of his own slave wives was an Egyptian (Genesis 16) and his steward was probably Syrian, a Damascene (Genesis 15.2). Thus Abraham was patriarch over a family tribe, all of whom with him inherited the promises, and they came from of a number of different nationalities.
From Abraham came Isaac through whom the most basic promises were to be fulfilled, for God said, ‘in Isaac shall your seed be called’ (Genesis 21.12; Romans 9.7; see also Genesis 26.3-5). Thus the seed of Ishmael, while enjoying promises from God, were excluded from the major line of promises. While prospering, they would not be the people through whom the whole world would be blessed. Jacob, who was renamed Israel, was born of Isaac, and it was to him that the future lordship of people and nations was seen as passed on (Genesis 27.29) and from his twelve sons came the twelve tribes of the ‘children of Israel’. But as with Abraham these twelve tribes would include retainers, servants and slaves. The ‘households’ that moved to Egypt would include such servants and slaves. So the ‘children of Israel’ even at this stage would include people from many peoples and nations. They included Jacob/Israel’s own descendants and their wives, together with their servants and retainers, and their wives and children, ‘many ‘born in their house’ but not directly their seed (Genesis 15.3) and many descended from different races. Israel was already a conglomerate people. Even at the beginning they were not literally descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many of them were rather ‘adopted’.
When they left Egypt this mixed nation were joined by a ‘mixed multitude’ from many nations, who with them had been enslaved in Egypt, and these joined with them in their flight (Exodus 12.38). At Sinai these were all joined within the covenant and became ‘children of Israel’. These included an Ethiopian (Cushite) woman who became Moses’ wife (Numbers 12.1). Thus we discover that ‘Israel’ from its commencement was an international community. Indeed it was made clear from the beginning that any who wanted to do so could join Israel and become an Israelite by submission to the covenant and by being circumcised (Exodus 12.48-49). Membership of the people of God was thus from the beginning to be open to all nations by submission to God through the covenant. It was a religious community not strictly a racial one. And these all then connected themselves with one of the tribes of Israel, were absorbed into them, and began to trace their ancestry back to Abraham and Jacob even though they were not true born, and still retained an identifying appellation such as, for example, ‘Uriah the Hittite’. (Whether Uriah was one such we do not know, although we think it extremely probably. But there must certainly have been some). And there were indeed regulations as to who could enter the assembly or congregation of the Lord, and at what stage people of different nations could enter it (Deuteronomy 23.1-8) so that they then became ‘Israelites’.
That this was carried out in practise is evidenced by the numerous Israelites who bear a foreign name, consider again, for example, ‘Uriah the Hittite’ (2 Samuel 11) and the mighty men of David (2 Samuel 23.8-28). These latter were so close to David that it is inconceivable that some at least did not become true members of the covenant by submitting to the covenant and being circumcised. Later again it became the practise in Israel, in accordance with Exodus 12. 48-49, for anyone who ‘converted’ to Israel and began to believe in the God of Israel, to be received into ‘Israel’ on equal terms with the true born by circumcision and submission to the covenant. These were called ‘proselytes’. In contrast people also left Israel by desertion, and by not bringing their children within the covenant, when for example they went permanently abroad or were exiled. These were then ‘cut off from Israel’, as were deep sinners. ‘Israel’ was therefore always a fluid concept, and was, at least purportedly, composed of all who submitted to the covenant.
This was the situation on which the prophets commented. They made quite clear that there was a distinction between the true Israel (those who were truly obedient to and responsive to God) and the Israel who were ‘Not My People’ (Hosea 1.10). Only those who were purified and refined would be the true Israel (Zechariah 13.9; Malachi 3.3).
At the time of the initial return from Exile the Jews who returned saw themselves as Israel (Ezra 2.2 ff. Note their self-designation, ‘the number of the men of the people of Israel’), and they refused to allow the idolatrous Jews who had previously been left in the land to have any part with them in Temple worship unless they abjured all idolatry and worshipped YHWH wholly (Ezra 6.21). Such idolaters were excluded from the new Israel.
When Jesus came His initial purpose was to call back to God ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10.6), and in the main, (in the first part of His ministry and with exceptions e.g. John 4), He limited His ministry to Jews. But after His dealings with the Syro-phoenician woman, He appears to have expanded His thinking, or His approach, and to have moved into more Gentile territory. And later He declared that there were other sheep that He would also call and they would be one flock with Israel (John 10.16).
Thus when the Gospel began to reach out to the Gentiles those converted were welcomed as part of that one flock. But the question that arose then was, ‘did they need to be circumcised in order to become members of the new Israel?’ Was a special proseletysation necessary, as with proselytes to old Israel, evidenced by circumcision, in accordance with Exodus 12.48? That was what the circumcision controversy was all about. If those who entered into that controversy had not seen Gentiles as becoming a part of Israel there would have been no controversy. That is why Paul’s argument was never that circumcision was not necessary because they were not becoming Israel. He indeed accepted that they would become members of Israel. But rather he argues that circumcision was no longer necessary because all who were in Christ were circumcised with the circumcision of Christ. They were already circumcised by faith. They had the circumcision of the heart, and were circumcised with the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2.11), and therefore did not need to be circumcised again. Thus they were truly circumcised in Christ into Israel.
In Romans 11.17-24, therefore, Paul speaks clearly of converted Gentiles being ‘grafted into the olive tree’ through faith, and of Israelites being broken off through unbelief, to be welcomed again if they repent and come to Christ. Whatever we therefore actually see the olive tree as representing, it is quite clear that it does speak of those who are cut off because they do not believe, and of those who are ingrafted because they do believe, and this in the context of Israel being saved or not. But the breaking off or casting off of Israelites in the Old Testament was always an indication of being cut off from Israel. Thus we must see the olive tree as, like the true vine, signifying all who are now included within the promises, that is the true Israel, with spurious elements which cling to them being cut off because they are not really a part of them, while new members are grafted in. Any difficulty lies in the simplicity of the illustration which like all illustrations cannot cover every point.
This argument, however, is false. For the true Vine is Jesus Himself. And yet the fact is that some can be cut off from the true Vine. This hardly means that Jesus is deficient, or that the true vine is to be seen as partly a false vine. The illustration is simply seeking to indicate that they should never have been there in the first place. They are apparently members of the true vine but are in fact spurious. Outwardly they may appear to be members of the true vine, but inwardly they are not. The same can be said to apply to the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Those who are gathered into the net of the Kingly Rule of Heaven divide up into ‘children of the Kingly Rule’ and ‘children of the evil one’. The latter are never thus a true part of the Kingly Rule. Indeed their very behaviour reveals that they are not under God’s Kingly Rule. In the same way then the olive tree is an Israel composed of true believers, and is such that unbelieving Jews have to be cut off because essentially they are not a part of it. Outwardly they had appeared to be, but they were not. They had had their opportunity but had refused. In each case it simply means that there were spurious elements connected with them that were masquerading as the real thing, which simply have to be removed. The problem arises from the difficulty of conveying the concept in simple pictorial terms, rather than in the basic concept. We must never overpress illustrations. For the true Vine can hardly really have had false members, otherwise it would not be the true Vine. In each case, therefore, it can clearly be seen that in fact those ‘cut off’ or ‘ejected’ were never really a part of what they are seen as cut off from, but only physically gave the appearance of being so. In other words, as Paul said, ‘not all Israel are the true Israel’ (Romans 9.6). Many professed to be but were spurious ‘members’. They were fakes. This stresses the difference between the outward and the inward. Not all who say ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingly Rule of God, but only those who by their lives reveal that they truly are what they profess to be (Matthew 7.23).
This idea also comes out regularly in the Old Testament where God made it quite clear that only a proportion of Israel would avoid His judgments (e.g. Isaiah 6.13). The remainder (and large majority) would be ‘cut off’, for although outwardly professing to be His people they demonstrated by their behaviour that they were not His people. And thus it was with the people of Israel in Jesus’ day. They were revealed by their fruits, which included how they responded to Jesus.
But in Ephesians 2 Paul makes clear that Gentiles can become a part of the true Israel. He tells the Gentiles that they had in the past been ‘alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of the promise’ (2.12). They had not been a part of it. Thus in the past they had not belonged to the twelve tribes. But then he tells them that they are now ‘made nigh by the blood of Christ’ (2.13), Who has ‘made both one and broken down the wall of partition --- creating in Himself of two one new man’ (2.14-15). Now therefore, through Christ, they have been made members of the commonwealth of Israel, and inherit the promises. So they are ‘no longer strangers and sojourners, but fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God, being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ (2.19-20). ‘Strangers and sojourners’ was the Old Testament description of those who were not true Israelites. It is therefore made as clear as can be that these have now entered the ‘new’ Israel. They are no longer ‘strangers and sojourners’ but are now ‘fellow-citizens’ with God’s people. They have entered into the covenant of promise (Galatians 3.29), and thus inherit all the promises of the Old Testament, including the prophecies.
So as with people in the Old Testament who were regularly adopted into the twelve tribes of Israel (e.g. the mixed multitude - Exodus 12.38), Gentile Christians too are now seen as so incorporated. That is why Paul can call the church ‘the Israel of God’, made up of Jews and ex-Gentiles, having declared circumcision and uncircumcision as unimportant because there is a new creation (Galatians 6.15-16), a circumcision of the heart. It is those who are in that new creation who are the Israel of God.
In context ‘The Israel of God’ can here only mean that new creation, the church of Christ, otherwise he is being inconsistent. For as he points out, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters any more. What matters is the new creation. It must therefore be that which identifies the Israel of God. For if circumcision is irrelevant then the Israel of God cannot be made up of the circumcised, even the believing circumcised, for circumcision has lost its meaning. The point therefore behind both of these passages is that all Christians become, by adoption, members of the twelve tribes.
There would in fact be no point in mentioning circumcision if he was not thinking of incorporation of believing Gentiles into the twelve tribes. The importance of circumcision was that to the Jews it made the difference between those who became genuine proselytes, and thus members of the twelve tribes, and those who remained as ‘God-fearers’, loosely attached but not accepted as full Jews. That then was why the Judaisers wanted all Gentile converts to be circumcised. It was because they did not believe that they could otherwise become genuine Israelites. There could be no other reason for wanting Gentiles to be circumcised. (Jesus had never in any way commanded circumcision). But Paul says that that is not so. He argues that they can become true Israelites without being physically circumcised because they are circumcised in heart. They are circumcised in Christ. So when Paul argues that Christians have been circumcised in heart (Romans 2.26, 29; 4.12; Philippians 3.3; Colossians 2.11) he is saying that that is all that is necessary in order for them to be members of the true Israel.
A great deal of discussion often takes place about the use of ‘kai’ in Galatians 6.16 where we read, ‘as many as shall walk by this rule, peace be on them and mercy, and (kai) on the Israel of God’. It is asked, ‘does it signify that the Israel of God is additional to and distinct from those who ‘walk by this rule’, or simply define them?’ (If the Israel of God differs from those who ‘walk by this rule’ then that leaves only the Judaisers as the Israel of God, and as those who do not walk by this rule. Can anyone really contend that that was what Paul meant?) The answer to this question is really decided by the preceding argument. We cannot really base our case on arguments about ‘kai’. But for the sake of clarity we will consider the question.
It cannot be denied that ‘kai’ can mean ‘and’, and as thus indicate adding something additional. But nor can it be denied that it can alternatively mean, in contexts like this, ‘even’, and as thus equating what follows with what has gone before. ‘Kai’ in fact is often used in Greek as a kind of ‘connection’ word where in English it is redundant altogether. It is not therefore a strongly definitive word. Thus its meaning must always be decided by the context, and a wise rule has been made that we make the decision on the basis of which choice will add least to the meaning of the word in the context (saying in other words that because of its ambiguity ‘kai’ should never be stressed). That would mean here the translating of it as ‘even’, giving it its mildest influence. That that is the correct translation comes out if we give the matter a little thought. The whole letter has been emphasising that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek (3.28), and that this arises because all are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. All are therefore Israel. So even had we not had the reasons that we have already considered, how strange it would then be for Paul to close the letter by distinguishing Jew from Greek, and Gentiles from the believing Jews. He would be going against all that he has just said. And yet that is exactly what he would be doing if by ‘the Israel of God’ he was exclusively indicating believing Jews. So on all counts, interpretation, grammar and common sense, ‘the Israel of God’ must include both Jews and Gentiles.
In Galatians 4.26 it is made clear that the true Jerusalem is the heavenly Jerusalem, the earthly having been rejected. This new heavenly Jerusalem is ‘the mother of us all’ just as Sarah had been the mother of Israel. All Christians are thus the children of the freewoman, that is, of Sarah (4.31). This reveals that they are therefore the true sons of Abraham, signifying ‘Israel’. To argue that being a son of Abraham is not the same thing as being a son of Jacob/Israel would in fact be to argue contrary to all that Israel believed. Their boast was precisely that they were ‘sons of Abraham’, indeed the true sons of Abraham.
Again in Romans he points out to the Gentiles that there is a remnant of Israel which is faithful to God and they are the true Israel (11.5). The remainder have been cast off (Romans 10.27, 29; 11.15, 17, 20). Then he describes the Christian Gentiles as ‘grafted in among them’ becoming ‘partakers with them of the root of the fatness of the olive tree’ (11.17). They are now part of the same tree so it is clear that he regards them as now being part of the faithful remnant of Israel (see argument on this point earlier). This is again declared quite clearly in Galatians, for ‘those who are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham’ (Galatians 3.7).
Note that in Romans 9 Paul declares that not all earthly Israel are really Israel, only those who are chosen by God. It is only the chosen who are the ‘foreknown’ Israel, the true Israel. See 9.8, 24-26; 11.2. This is a reminder that to Paul ‘Israel’ is a fluid concept. It does not have just one fixed meaning.
The privilege of being a ‘son of Abraham’ is that one is adopted into the twelve tribes of Israel. It is the twelve tribes who proudly called themselves ‘the sons of Abraham’ (John 8.39, 53). That is why in the one man in Christ Jesus there can be neither Jew nor Gentile (Galatians 3.28). For they all become one as ‘Israel’ by being one with the One Who in Himself sums up all that Israel was meant to be (2.15; Isaiah 49.3), the true vine (John 15.1-6). For ‘if you are Abraham’s seed, you are heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3.29). To be Abraham’s ‘seed’ within the promise is to be a member of the twelve tribes. There can really be no question about it. The reference to ‘seed’ is decisive. You cannot be ‘Abraham’s seed’ through Sara and yet not a part of Israel. (Indeed if we want to be pedantic we can point out that Edom, related to Esau and not descended from Jacob, in fact ceased to be Edom and became, by compulsion, a part of Israel, and of ‘the twelve tribes’, thus adding to ‘Israel’s’ diversity. This occurred in the days of John Hyrcanus. Furthermore thousands of Gentiles in Galilee were forced to become Jews under Aristobulus and made up a good number of ‘Jews’ who responded to the teaching of Jesus.. So even the Jews themselves clearly recognised that being a part of Israel was a religious matter not a racial matter).
That is why Paul can say, ‘he is not a Jew who is one outwardly --- he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and the circumcision is that of the heart’ (2.28-29 compare v.26). The true Jew, he says, is the one who is the inward Jew. So he distinguishes physical Israel from true Israel and physical Jew from true Jew.
In the light of these passages it cannot really be doubted that the early church saw the converted Gentile as becoming a member of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are ‘the seed of Abraham’, ‘sons of Abraham’, spiritually circumcised, grafted into the true Israel, fellow-citizens with the saints in the commonwealth of Israel, the Israel of God. What further evidence do we need?
In Romans 4 he further makes clear that Abraham is the father of all who believe, including both circumcised and uncircumcised (4.9-13). Indeed he says we have been ‘circumcised with the circumcision of Christ’ (Colossians 2.11). All who believe are therefore circumcised children of Abraham.
When James writes to ‘the twelve tribes which are of the dispersion’ (1.1) he is taking the same view. (Jews living away from Palestine were seen as dispersed around the world and were therefore thought of as ‘the dispersion’). There is not a single hint in his letter that he is writing to other than all in the churches. He therefore sees the whole church as having become members of the twelve tribes, as the true dispersion, and indeed refers to their ‘assembly’ with the same word used for synagogue (2.2). But he can also call them ‘the church’ (5.14).
Yet there is not even the slightest suggestion anywhere in the remainder of his letter that he has just one section of the church in mind. In view of the importance of the subject, had he not been speaking of the whole church he must surely have commented in his ethical instruction on the attitude of Jewish Christians to Christian Gentiles, especially in the light of the ethical content of his letter. It was a crucial problem of the day. But there is not even a whisper of it in his letter. He speaks as though to the whole church. He sees the church as one. Unless he was a total separatist (which we know he was not) it would have been impossible for him to write as he did unless he saw all as now making up ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’.
Peter also writes to ‘the elect’ and calls them ‘sojourners of the dispersion’, and includes in that description believing Gentiles. For when he speaks of ‘Gentiles’ he always means unconverted Gentiles. He clearly assumes that all that come under that heading are not Christians (2.12; 4.3). The fact that believing Gentiles are among those to whom he is writing is confirmed by the fact that he speaks to the recipients of his letter warning them not to fashion themselves ‘according to their former desires in the time of their ignorance’ (1 Peter 1.14), and as having been ‘not a people, but are now the people of God’ (1 Peter 2.10), and speaks of them as previously having ‘wrought the desire of the Gentiles’ (1 Peter 4.3). So the ‘dispersion’ that he writes to include converted Gentiles and it is apparent that he too sees all Christians as members of the twelve tribes (for as in the example above, ‘the dispersion’ means the twelve tribes scattered around the world).
In unbelieving Jewish eyes good numbers of Gentiles were in fact becoming members of the Jewish faith at that time, and on being circumcised were being accepted by the Jews as members of the twelve tribes (as proselytes). In the same way the apostles, who were all Jews and also saw the pure in Israel, believing Jews, as God’s chosen people, saw the converted Gentiles who entered the ekklesia (congregation, church) as being incorporated into the new Israel, into the true twelve tribes. But they did not see circumcision as necessary, and the reason for that was that they considered that all who believed had been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ.
Peter in his letter confirms all this. He writes to the church calling them ‘a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession’ (1 Peter 2.5, 9), all terms which in Exodus 19.5-6 indicate Israel.
Today we may not think in these terms but it is apparent that to the early church to become a Christian was to become a member of the true twelve tribes of Israel. That is why there was such a furore over whether circumcision, the covenant sign of the Jew, was necessary for Christians. It was precisely because they were seen as entering the twelve tribes that many saw it as required. Paul’s argument against it is never that Christians do not become members of the twelve tribes (as we have seen he actually argues that they do) but that what matters is spiritual circumcision, not physical circumcision. Thus early on Christians unquestionably saw themselves as the true twelve tribes of Israel.
This receives confirmation from the fact that the seven churches (the universal church) are seen in terms of the seven lampstands in chapter 1. The sevenfold lampstand in the Tabernacle and Temple represented Israel. In the seven lampstands the churches are seen as the true Israel.
Given that fact it is clear that reference to the hundred and forty four thousand from all the tribes of Israel in Revelation 7 is to Christians. But it is equally clear that the numbers are not to be taken literally. The ‘twelve by twelve’ is stressing who and what they are, not how many there are. There is no example anywhere else in Scripture where God actually selects people on such an exact basis. Even the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19.18) were a round number based on seven as the number of divine perfection and completeness. The reason for the seemingly exact figures is to demonstrate that God has His people numbered and that not one is missing (compare Numbers 31.48-49). The message of these verses is that in the face of persecution to come, and of God’s judgments against men, God knows and has sealed His own. But they are then described as a multitude who cannot be numbered (only God can number them).
It is noticeable that this description of the twelve tribes is in fact artificial in another respect. While Judah is placed first as the tribe from which Christ came, Dan is omitted, and Manasseh is included as well as Joseph, although Manasseh was the son of Joseph. Thus the omission of Dan is deliberate, and Ephraim, Joseph’s other son, is equally deliberately excluded by name, but included under Joseph’s name. (This artificiality confirms that the idea of the tribes is not to be taken literally and that the exclusion was because of the names). The exclusion of Dan is because he is a tool of the Serpent (Genesis 49.17), and the exclusion of the two names is because of their specific connection with idolatry in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 4.15; Amos 8.14; 1 Kings 12.30; Hosea 7.1, 8; 8.9; 9.3).
So here in Revelation, in the face of the future activity of God against the world, He provides His people with protection, and marks them off as distinctive from those who bear the mark of the Beast. God protects His true people. And there is no good reason for seeing these people as representing other than the church of the current age. The fact is that we are continually liable to persecution, and while not all God’s judgments have yet been visited on the world, we have experienced sufficient to know that we are not excluded. In John’s day this reference to ‘the twelve tribes’ was telling the church as a whole that God had sealed them, and had numbered them, so that while they must be ready for the persecution to come, they need not fear the coming judgments of God that he, John, will now reveal, for they are under God’s protection. (In fact, of course, both in Jesus’ day and our own day twelve genetically pure tribes of Israel did not and do not exist. They are lost in the mist of time).
In fact the New Testament elsewhere confirms to us that all God’s true people are sealed by God. Abraham received circumcision as a seal of ‘the righteousness of (springing from) faith’ (Romans 4.11), but circumcision is replaced in the New Testament by the ‘seal of the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 1.22; Ephesians 1.13; 4.30). It is clear that Paul therefore sees all God’s people as being ‘sealed’ by God in their enjoyment of the indwelling Holy Spirit and this would suggest that John’s description in Revelation 7 is a dramatic representation of that fact. His people have been open to spiritual attack from earliest New Testament days (and before) and it is not conceivable that they have not enjoyed God’s seal of protection on them. Thus the seal here in Revelation refers to the sealing (or if someone considers it future, a re-sealing) with the Holy Spirit of promise. The whole idea behind the scene is in order to stress that all God’s people have been specially sealed.
In Revelation 21 the ‘new Jerusalem’ is founded on twelve foundations which are the twelve Apostles of the Lamb (21.14), and its gates are the twelve tribes of the children of Israel (21.12). The new Jerusalem thus combines both. Indeed in Matthew Jesus has said that he would found his ‘church’ on the Apostles and their statement of faith (Matthew 16.18) and the idea behind the word ‘church’ (ekklesia) here was as being the ‘congregation’ of Israel. (The word ekklesia is used of the latter in the Greek Old Testament). Jesus had come to establish the new Israel. Thus from the commencement the church were seen as being the true Israel, composed of both Jew and Gentile who entered within God’s covenant, the ‘new covenant’, as it had been right from the beginning, and they were called ‘the church’ for that very reason.
In countering these arguments it has been said that ‘Every reference to Israel in the New Testament refers to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ And another expositor has added the comment, ‘This is true in the Old Testament also.’
As we have seen this is so clearly untrue that it is difficult to see how anyone who knew the Old Testament could claim it. But let us give it a fair consideration. And the truth is that such statements are not only a gross oversimplification, but are in fact totally untrue. They are an indication of mindset, not of considering the facts. For as we have seen above if there is one thing that is absolutely sure it is that many throughout Israel’s history who saw themselves as Israelites were not physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (regardless of how we think about the term ‘Israel’). Many were descended from the servants of the Patriarchs who went down into Egypt in their ‘households’, and were from a number of nationalities. Others were part of the mixed multitude which left Egypt with Israel (Exodus 12.38). They were adopted into Israel, and became Israelites, a situation which was sealed by the covenant.
Indeed it is made quite clear that anyone who was willing to worship God and become a member of the covenant through circumcision could do so and became accepted on equal terms as ‘Israelites’ (Exodus 12.47-49). They would then become united with the tribe among whom they dwelt or with which they had connections. That is why there were regulations as to who could enter the assembly or congregation of the Lord, and when (Deuteronomy 23.1-8). Later on proselytes would also be absorbed into Israel. Thus ‘Israel’ was from the start very much a conglomerate, and continued to be so. There was no way in which it could be seen as being composed only of physical descendants of Abraham unless we ignore the testimony of the Old Testament. They may have tried to convince themselves that they were, but there was absolutely no way in which it was true.
Nor is it true that in Paul ‘Israel’ always means ‘physical Israel’. When we come to the New Testament Paul can speak of ‘Israel after the flesh’ (1 Corinthians 10.18). That can only suggest that he also conceives of an Israel not ‘after the flesh’. That conclusion really cannot be avoided.
Furthermore, when we remember that outside Romans 9-11 Israel is only mentioned by Paul seven times, and that 1 Corinthians 10.18 clearly points to another Israel, one not after the flesh (which has been defined in verses 1-18), and that that is one of the seven verses, and that Galatians 6.16 is most satisfactorily seen as signifying the church of Jesus Christ and not old Israel at all (or even converted Israel), the statement must be seen as having little force. In Ephesians 2.11-22 where he speaks of the ‘commonwealth of Israel’ he immediately goes on to say that in Christ Jesus all who are His are ‘made nigh’, and then stresses that we are no more strangers and sojourners but are genuine fellow-citizens, and are of the household of God. If that does not mean becoming a part of the true Israel and entering the commonwealth of Israel it is difficult to see what could.
Furthermore in the other four references (so now only four out of seven) it is not the present status of Israel that is in mind. The term is simply being used as an identifier in a historical sense in reference to connections with the Old Testament situation. It is simply referring to the Israel of the Old Testament days (of whom some were ‘Not My people’). So Paul does not refer to the Jews of his own time as ‘Israel’. Thus the argument that ‘Israel always means Israel’ is not very strong. Again in Hebrews all mentions of ‘Israel’ are historical, referring back to the Old Testament. They refer to Israel in the past. Again the present Jews are not called Israel. In Revelation two mentions out of three are again simply historical, while many would consider that the other actually does refer to the church (Revelation 7.4).
However, in Romans 9-11 it is made very clear that the term ‘Israel’ can mean more than one thing. When Paul says, ‘they are not all Israel, who are of Israel’ (Romans 9.6) and points out that it is the children of the promise who are counted as the seed (9.8), we are justified in seeing that there are already two Israels in Paul’s mind, one which is the Israel after the flesh, and includes old unconverted Israel, and one which is the Israel of the promise.
And when he says that ‘Israel’ have not attained ‘to the law of righteousness’ while the Gentiles ‘have attained to the righteousness which is of faith’ (9.30-31) he cannot be speaking of all Israel because it is simply not true that none in Israel have attained to righteousness. Jewish believers in Christ have also attained to the righteousness which is of faith, and have therefore attained the law of righteousness. For many had become Christians as we have seen in Acts 1-5. Thus here ‘Israel’ must mean old, unconverted Israel, not all the (so-called) descendants of the Patriarchs, and must actually exclude believing Israel, however we interpret the latter, for ‘Israel did not seek it by faith’ while believing Israel certainly did.
Thus here we see three uses of the term Israel, each referring to a different entity. One is all the old Israel, which includes both elect and non-elect (11.11) and is therefore a partly blind Israel (11.25), one is the Israel of promise (called in 11.11 ‘the election’), and one is the old Israel which does not include the Israel of promise, the part of the old Israel which is the blind Israel. The term is clearly fluid and can sometimes refer to one group and sometimes to another.
Furthermore here ‘the Gentiles’ must mean those who have truly come to faith, and not all Gentiles. It cannot mean all Gentiles, for it speaks of those who have ‘attained to the righteousness of faith’ (which was what old Israel failed to obtain when it strove after it). Thus that term is also fluid. (In contrast, in 1 Peter ‘Gentiles’ represents only those who are unconverted. Thus all words like these must be interpreted in their contexts).
When we are also told that such Gentiles who have come to faith have become ‘Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise’ (Galatians 3.29) we are justified in seeing these converted Gentiles as having become part of the new Israel, along with the converted Jews. They are now actually stated to be ‘the seed of Abraham’. This clarifies the picture of the olive tree. Old unconverted Israel are cut out of it, the converted Gentiles are grafted into it. Thus old Israel are no longer God’s people while the converted Gentiles are.
It may then be asked, ‘What then does Paul mean when he says that ‘all Israel will be saved’?’ (Romans 11.26). It clearly cannot mean literally ‘all’ of old Israel, both past and present, for Scripture has made quite clear that not all of them will be saved. Does it then mean all Israel at the time that the fullness of the Gentiles has come in? That is unlikely as there is no stage in world history where all the people of a nation have been saved at one point in time. It would not be in accordance with God’s revealed way of working. But, and this is the important proof that all the old Israel will not be saved, it would also make nonsense of those passages where God’s final judgment is poured out on Israel, and it is therefore clear that all Israel will not be saved. Does he then mean ‘all the true Israel’, those elected in God’s purposes, ‘the remnant according to the election of grace’ (11.5), who will be saved along with the fullness of the Gentiles? That is certainly a possibility. And if that is to happen in the end times it will require a final revival among the Jews in the end days bringing them to Christ. For there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which men can be saved. We would certainly not want to deny the possibility of God doing that. That may be why He has gathered the old nation back to the country of Israel.
But the most likely meaning is that it refers to the ‘all Israel’ who are part of the olive tree, including both Jews and the fullness of the Gentiles. That in context seems to be its most probable significance, and most in accordance with what we have seen above. After all, ‘all Israel’, if it includes the Gentiles, could not be saved until the fullness of the Gentiles had come in.
But what in fact Paul is finally seeking to say is that in the whole salvation history God’s purposes will not be frustrated, and that in the final analysis all whom He has chosen and foreknown (11.2) will have come to Him, whether Jew or Gentile, and will have become one people, the true Israel.
In the light of all this it is difficult to see how we can deny that in the New Testament all who truly believed were seen as becoming a part of the new Israel, the ‘Israel of God’.
But some ask, ‘if the church is Israel why does Paul only tell us that it is so rarely?’. The answer is twofold. Firstly the danger of the use of the term and as a result causing people to be confused. And secondly because he actually does so most of the time. For another way of referring to Israel in the Old Testament was as ‘the congregation’ (LXX church). Thus a reference to the ‘church’ (congregation) does indicate the new Israel to all who know the Old Testament.
But does this mean that old Israel can no longer be seen as having part on the purposes of God? If we mean as old Israel then the answer is yes. As old Israel they are no longer relevant for the true Israel are the ones who are due to receive the promises of God. But if we mean as ‘converted and becoming part of believing Israel’ then the answer is that the God will have a purpose for them. Any member of old Israel can become a part of the olive tree by being grafted in again. And there is a welcome to the whole of Israel if they will believe in Christ. Nor can there be any future for them as being used in the purposes of God until they believe in Christ. And then if they do they will become a part of the whole, not superior to others, or inferior to others, but brought in on equal terms as Christians and members of ‘the congregation’. It may well be that God has brought Israel back into the land because he intends a second outpouring of the Spirit like Pentecost (and Joel 2.28-29). But if so it is in order that they might become Christians. It is in order that they might become a part of the new Israel, the ‘congregation (church) of Jesus Christ’. For God may be working on old Israel doing His separating work as He constantly works on old Gentiles, moving them from one place to another in order to bring many of them to Christ. It is not for us to tell Him how He should do it. But nor must we give old Israel privileges that God has not given them.
But what then is the consequence of what we have discussed? Why is it so important? The answer is that it is important because it is this very fact (that true Christians today are the only true people of God) that means that all the Old Testament promises relate to them, not by being ‘spiritualised’, but by them being interpreted in terms of a new situation. It is doubtful if today anyone really thinks that swords and spears will be turned into ploughshares and pruninghooks. However we see it that idea has to be modernised. In the same way therefore we have to ‘modernise’ in terms of the New Testament many of the Old Testament promises. Jerusalem must become the Jerusalem that is above (Galatians 4.20 ff). ‘The land’ promised to Abraham becomes a land enjoyed above, the ‘better country’ (Hebrews 11.10, 16). Sacrifices and offerings must become spiritual sacrifices and offerings (are Christians to be the only ones in the new age who kill and ‘hurt in His holy mountain’? - Isaiah 11.6-9). And so on. But the central principles of the prophecies remain true once the parabolic elements are reinterpreted. And they apply to the whole Israel of God.
End of Excursus.
Reward Under The New Kingly Rule - God Will Reward Men As He Wills Not According To Their Deserts (19.30-20.16).
All that we have been considering is now applied in parabolic form to all the servants in God’s vineyard. None who heard the story would doubt that God’s vineyard was Israel, for Israel is regularly pictured as God’s vineyard in the Old Testament (Isaiah 5.1-7; 27.2-6 compare Matthew 21.33-42). Thus it includes those who will serve as judges and overseers over the twelve tribes of Israel (19.28), and those who for His sake will forsake land and loved ones in His service (19.29). It includes all who are called to work as labourers in His vineyard (9.37-38). And here Jesus emphasises the need for none to be presumptious. While He will reward them they should not be looking for rewards. They should be looking for God to deal graciously with His own. For the owner of the vineyard of Israel (20.1; 21.33) will pay all His workers equally, whatever their labours, as long as they have laboured faithfully once called upon to do so. And that is because the reward is not of deserving, but is of grace. Thus none has any right to more than any other.
But we may ask, if all are to be paid equally, what about Jesus warning elsewhere concerning grades of reward (5.19; 6.1-20; 18.4; 25.14-25)? The answer probably lies in the type of reward in mind. The denarius was what each man required for his family to live on. It represented a day’s wage. It indicated equal sufficiency and provision for the daily needs of all. The idea in the end is that all the ‘saved’ will eat at His table. All will have sufficiency. All will enjoy the light of His presence (Revelation 21.22-23; 22.5). The extra ‘rewards’ are really rewards which result from our dedication and obedience, and these will result in the production of a more fulfilled person, resulting in our being the ‘great’ and the ‘least’ (5.19). Our reward will be in what we have become in ourselves through the working of the grace of God as a result of our continual responsiveness, even though this is often depicted in earthly terms for our appreciation and as our incentive. In fact the reward is often depicted in terms of being put into a position where greater service can be offered. We will have been made more like Him the more we have responded (1 John 3.2). And yet all will be presented holy, unblameable and unreproveable before Him (Colossians 1.22). Here is the divine paradox. All will be wholly satisfied, but some will have a greater capacity for satisfaction than others. None will consciously miss out for they will each enjoy their own level of satisfaction. And yet some will be enjoying more satisfaction than others, because they have built up the capacity to do so in their lives. That is the nature of His rewards.
We should note here that in fact Matthew, although rewards are described in 6.1-18, has only one parable which speaks of differences of reward, and that is found in Matthew 25.14.30, and even then it is not the main lesson of the parable. Thus while we must certainly take heed to the idea of rewards, and that each will receive in accordance with what he has done, whether good or bad, we should not refine on it too much in Matthew. (In fact the majority of such parables come in Luke). To Matthew rewards are only a small part of the larger picture (although unquestionably there). It is the power of God at work and man’s final destiny which is his greatest emphasis (see chapter 13; 18.23-35; 21.33-41; 22.1-13; 25.1-13, 14-30, 31-46).
Note that in ‘a’ many will be last who are first, and first who are last, and in the parallel the last will be first, and the first last (Note the reversal of the order). In ‘b’ we have the man who owns the vineyard and seeks labourers, and in the parallel the description of Him as the One Who does His own will and is good, with the right to do what He wants with what belongs to Him. In ‘c’ is the agreement to work for a denarius, and in the parallel the statement that they had agreed to work for a denarius. In ‘d’ we have the description of the passing of the day, with all its ramifications, from the owner’s viewpoint, and in the parallel the complaint of the original workers concerning that passing of the day from their viewpoint. In ‘e’ the workers said no man had hired them, and in the parallel they were hired. Centrally in ‘f’ is the call to account of all the workers in the vineyard.
19.30 “But many will be last who are first, and first who are last.”
After referring to the blessings that His disciples will enjoy as they labour for Him Jesus adds a warning to make all beware of presumption. Presumption is to be avoided because, as the following parable makes clear, all will be rewarded equally, and God will deal with each one as He wills. This statement would sit very strangely if He had already just promised thrones to the Apostles as a guaranteed future blessing after they had performed their labours, and especially so as one of them would certainly not receive one. But it does sit very well if those thrones signified their time of working in the vineyard and is a warning against losing out.
Jesus’ point is that their walk in the Spirit (12.28; 3.11) must be maintained. For many who get in early, and develop quickly, but find the going hard, will finish up last, because their attitude is poor (last but not lost. This is not speaking of Judas). While many who start slowly and develop more gradually will end up first. For each of us progress must thus be continuous if we are to receive the fullest blessing, whether we commence at the first hour or the eleventh hour. This is what the ensuing parable is now all about as verse 16 makes clear.
But it is also about something else, and that is the pure goodness of the owner of the vineyard. It make quite clear that he represents God. Only God would show such goodness in such a fashion. For His concern was not only to get the harvest in, or the work done, but also to give full satisfaction even to those who did not deserve it.
20.1 “For the kingly rule of heaven is like to a man who was a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.”
Here we have a further description of what the Kingly Rule of Heaven is like. Compare 13.24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47; 18.23-35; 22.1-14; 25.1-13. Note that it is like something that is continual through the lifetimes of His listeners. In other words the Kingly Rule of Heaven is being experienced as a present experience. This is the obvious way of reading it unless we have to manipulate it in order to fit a theory.
And what is the Kingly Rule of Heaven like? It is like a man who is a householder/estate owner and owns a vineyard (compare and contrast 21.33). And this estate owner goes out early in the morning to hire labourers into His vineyard. Thus He is calling them to come under the Kingly Rule of Heaven so that they might serve Him. Here we have the indication that all His disciples are now being recruited for His mission (9.37-38), and will continue to be so. They are to be sent out to bring in the harvest.
In those days those who had no strips of land, or insufficient strips of land, of their own, would hire themselves out to the more wealthy landowners in order to earn a living. And this was done by standing in the market place or the great square around the gate of the city and waiting for the hirers to come along. This was necessary for them so that they could earn money so as to put food into their childrens’ mouths. And a denarius was a normal days pay for such workers. It was in fact all that larger families could do to survive on such a small amount. And workers like this were despised and looked down on. They were seen as almost penniless and little better than slaves. They subsisted on whatever work they could get.
‘Early in the morning.’ This would be at dawn, indicating the commencement of the new Day. There is here a further indication of the commencement of the new age.
20.2 “And when he had agreed with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.”
In this case the estate owner agreed with the workers whom He hired from those who were standing there, a fair wage for a day’s work, one denarius. Then He sent them to work in His vineyard, no doubt under His manager (verse 8). The labourers were quite satisfied. He had offered them the usual rate for the job. That was important. God cheats or underrates no man.
20.3-4 “And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing in the marketplace idle, and to them he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And they went their way.”
Presumably the work was falling behind with the result that His manager informed Him that more workers were needed. Or perhaps we are to see in it simply the goodness of heart of the estate owner although in that case why not hire all at once? But the purpose of the details is not in order to explain the estate owner’s reasons but in order to get over the idea of a gradually ongoing situation. So He again goes out to look for labourers, this time at roughly 9.00 am. And in the marketplace He finds that there are still many labourers who have not found work. So He again selects out some workers. They would have been there from early morning, but no one had previously hired them (verse 7). To these He promises that He will pay ‘whatever is right’. To this they agree, for they know that they cannot expect a full denarius, and they are desperate to obtain work. And like the others they go to work in His vineyard. Note the deliberate emphasis on the fact that they are to trust the estate manager to do what is right.
20.5 “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same.”
Again perhaps His manager twice warns Him that with the workforce that they have the work will not be finished by the evening. But whatever the reason He goes out around noon and then again around 3.00 pm. (15.00 hours). And again He hires labourers on the same terms as the previous ones at 9.00 am, the terms of trust and obedience. His operations are to go on all through the day.
20.6 “And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing, and he says to them, ‘Why do you stand here all the day idle?’ ”
But still the workers prove insufficient and the call comes for more workers (compare 9.38). So at around 5.0 pm (17.00 hours), at ‘the eleventh hour’, He goes out and He still find labourers whom no one has hired. And He asks them why no one has hired them. The purpose of the question is in order to demonstrate that they are not layabouts, but have genuinely been there all day waiting for work. By this time they were aware that for that day at least, their children would go hungry.
It should be noted here that the assumption is that those who are not labouring for the estate owner are ‘idle’ (not working). It visualises only one occupation that is worthwhile in this coming new age, that of serving the Lord of the vineyard.
20.7 “They say to him, ‘Because no man has hired us.’ He says to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ ”
So they inform the landowner that the reason that they are still there, (having stood there be it noted through the heat of the day), is because no one has hired them. We can imagine how they were feeling, and even more their great delight when the landowner hires them at a time when they were past hope. Their pay for work at the end of the day might be small, but it will be better than nothing, and for that they are grateful. It may at least buy some stale barley bread for their families to feed on.
20.8 “And when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard says to his steward, ‘Call the labourers, and pay them their hire, beginning from the last to the first.’ ”
Then when evening comes the Estate Owner calls to His manager and tells him to line up the labourers so that they can receive their pay. Paying at the end of the day, on the same day, was a requirement of the Law (Leviticus 19.13). And He tells him to pay the last who were employed first. His gracious treatment continues to the end.
20.9 “And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a denarius.”
When the men who had been employed at the eleventh hour came forward they expected very little, and they must have been astounded when He paid them a denarius. This was not what they had anticipated at all. They had expected only a fraction of a denarius. But we are to gather that the estate owner was a good and righteous man, and recognised that they had been without work through no fault of their own. And He also recognised that they would have families to feed. Thus He had determined to pay them enough to feed their families. The generosity of heart is intended to indicate that he is like God (compare 5.45), and that He will meet sufficiently the needs of all His people (compare 6.30). We are left to imagine the overflowing gratitude and praise that would fill their hearts.
20.10 “And when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more, and they likewise received every man a denarius.”
When the men who had worked all day saw his treatment of the others their eyes would glisten. Clearly they would be paid much more than a denarius. And they came forward confidently to receive their due. But they too only received a denarius.
The intermediate workers are not mentioned in the final payout, and the assumption is that they too were paid a denarius. But their importance in the parable is in the indication that the estate owner continued to call on people to work in His vineyard all through the day, and called on them to trust Him to deal rightly with them in the end.
We must remember that this is a parable. It is not saying that all who commence work at the very beginning will be dissatisfied at the end, or that none of the others will be dissatisfied. It is using extremes to bring out a lesson. We may in fact happily assume that some would in real life be content with their denarius.
20.11-12 “And when they received it, they murmured continually against the householder, saying, ‘These last have spent but one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ ”
The workers who had worked all day were furious and muttered among themselves, pointing out to each other that they had worked throughout the whole day, bearing the burden of the greater part of the work, and working even when the sun was hottest. And yet this mean-minded, ungrateful rich estate owner had only paid them the same as He had paid those who had only worked from 5.00 pm to nightfall. They ignored the fact that it was what had been agreed, and that these others had waited hopelessly in the sun all day with only despair in their hearts. They did not consider it fair. And our hearts are so hardened that we tend to agree with them, for we all like to think in terms of what we deserve, failing to recognise that if we too got what we deserved our case would be hopeless. But the question that will now be answered is, was their attitude right? (Note that this is not a parable about wage negotiations and fairplay. It is a parable about a gracious and good Estate Owner in His dealings with unfortunates and the fact that our attitude should be the same).
20.13 “But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I do you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?’ ”
The estate owner, who was a good man, then gently took one of them aside, and calling him His ‘friend’, an act of graciousness in itself, He pointed out that He had done him no wrong, for He had paid him exactly what he had agreed. Why then was he grumbling when he had received the amount agreed in their contract?
20.14 “Take up what is yours and go your way. It is my will to give to this last, even as to you.”
Then He pointed out that what He had done was what was in accordance with His own will, and that was to pay a living wage to everyone regardless of their misfortune at not finding work until late on (in fact a good Union principle). This stress on the owner’s ‘will’ is a further indication that he represents God Who does according to His own will, and we should ever be grateful for the fact that it is His will not to give us what we deserve, but to benefit even the least deserving.
20.15 “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Or is your eye evil, because I am good?”
Then He explained His purpose. His money was lawfully His, so that He could do with it what He would. And because He was a good man He had decided to pay the unfortunates who had not been able to find work until late, sufficient to feed their families. This was an act of His own goodness, not a matter of what was deserved. (He had not withheld part of their denarius with which to help others). For His purpose had been in order to ensure that none went without. Thus He had performed His will, and He had done what was right, but He had also gone further. He had done what was more than right, He had done what was ‘good’ (compare 19.17). This clearly identifies him as representing God, and not just any benefactor.
‘Is your eye evil.’ This metaphor almost certainly has in mind Deuteronomy 15.9 where it represents the eye that is ungenerous towards the needy. It is a rebuke indicating that with all their claims to what was lawful their hearts were not set to obey the Law as promulgated in Deuteronomy 14.28-15.11, the Law of generosity to the poor. It also brings out the principle on which the Estate Owner was working, that of benefiting and providing for the poor and needy. The evil eye, ungenerous itself, was looking at One Who was truly good, and therefore it could not understand. But how glad we should be that God is like this. For few of us, even if we survive the burden and heat of the day, do it without some failure. How wonderful then it is to know that in the end we will still hear His ‘well done’.
20.16 ‘So the last will be first, and the first last.’
And thus the story tells us that because of God’s goodness and graciousness, and because our spirits can so easily become jealous and hardened, it is often the last who become first, while the first become last. This is a warning, not a threat. The sad thing in the parable is that it was the men who had worked hardest who came out worst, not because they were not fairly paid, but because they were ungracious and mean-spirited and finished up dissatisfied.
It is interesting how often commentators at this point cite stories where a man who only worked a short time did as much in that short time as those who had worked all day. It emphasises our sense of fair play. But that is almost to cancel out the point of the story. For the point of the story is not that we get what is due because of what we have accomplished, but that if we have done our best God is so gracious that we all get far more than we deserve, regardless of how much we have done. The point is that God is generous beyond deserving to those who seek to serve Him and that we should not be looking at what others get, but wondering at His graciousness in giving us so much when we are the least deserving.
For the real emphasis of the story is not the workforce, nor on what they received, but is on how we should conceive the goodness and graciousness of God, and on the fact that we will all come out of His vineyard with far more than we deserve, because of how good and generous He is. It is that our rating does not depend on what we deserve, but on His goodness alone. Once again they learn that the new world is upon them, a world unlike any known before, a world where the only criterion is the good, and where men receive far more than they deserve. (In fact, of course, God had always been like this, but now it is revealed as the very basis of the new age).
Thus the idea that ‘the last will be first, and the first last’ warns against presumption when we are dealing with Someone Who is the very opposite of all our reasoning, because He does not think in terms of what we deserve, but in terms of love. None can set himself up above any other, and the Apostles least of all. If this was not intended to prevent the Apostles getting the wrong idea about their ‘thrones’ we do not know what else would have been. And shortly we shall learn how necessary it was (20.20-28).
Those Who Follow Jesus Are Not To Be Self-seeking But Selflessly Seeking To Serve All, In The Same Way As He As The Servant Is Doing Among Them, Something Especially Revealed In His Giving Of His Life As A Ransom For Many (20.17-28)..
Had the evangelists not been fully truthful in all that they wrote this story would have been passed over. Here are two of the greatest of the Apostles and they behave so abominably that we can only blush for them and hang our heads in shame. And it is not hidden in a footnote. Matthew in fact milks it for all he is worth, not out of a spirit of jealousy, but in order to bring out the great contrast at this point between the Apostles and Jesus. As He was going forward to a cross of shame, their eyes were fixed on their own glory. They would let Him down to the end. And we have been letting Him down in the same way ever since.
The account is to be read in the context of Jesus’ words about the twelve sitting on twelve thrones (19.28), which enflamed their imaginations so that they had to be put firmly right (20.25-27), and the parable of the labourers in the vineyard which they had blatantly ignored (19.30-20.16), accentuated by the fact that Jesus has set His face to go to Jerusalem (20.17) and has just informed His Apostles again of the terrible end that awaits Him there (20.18-19), something which has clearly passed them by. For us the readers it is quite clear which words of Jesus were prominent in their minds, and which words should have been.
Indeed their perfidy is brought out even more by their use of their mother as their messenger. She was well known to Jesus (and would later behave much more nobly) and they probably hoped that her influence would sway things their way. So little were they aware of the momentous things that they were dealing with.
But what the story does bring out most of all is the total contrast between their own self-seeking and what Jesus was calling on them to be. For He brings out that He does not want them to be thinking about prestigious thrones. He wants them to be thinking about true service, and that in terms of His own service as the Suffering Servant. If this does not indicate that His words about twelve thrones have at this point been totally misinterpreted we do not know what could. (After all if they were to be taken literally there is some excuse for the behaviour of the two, they were after all two of the chosen three. All they would then be doing was pre-empting Peter. But this was not what Jesus had meant at all).
Note that in ‘a’ we are told that Jesus was voluntarily going up to Jerusalem to be condemned to death and in the parallel that he has come to give His life as a ransom for many. In ‘b’ we learn of the behaviour and ways of the Gentiles, and in the parallel the disciples are to be the very opposite of that. In ‘c’ the mother of ‘my two sons’, the sons of Zebedee exposes her self-seeking, and in the parallel the Apostle reveal their self-seeking (they were not angry at the request, they were angry at its implications for them) and their anger at ‘the two brothers’. In ‘d’ she pleads that they may sit on His right hand and His left, and in the parallel He says that to sit on His right hand and His left is not His to give. In ‘e’ He points out that they do not know what they are asking. They are asking to share His cup. And in the parallel He declares that they will indeed share His cup. And in ‘f’ the writer brings out emphatically the total unawareness of the Apostles of what they are asking, for they boldly declare that they ‘are able’, when we all know that they will actually forsake Him and flee (26.56). Although, of course, in the end they did come through triumphantly and serve Him nobly regardless of the cost.
20.17 ‘And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples apart, and on the way he said to them, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.” ’
‘As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem.’ Matthew does not want us to miss the context. What is to follow must be seen in the light of that fact that Jesus had His eyes fixed on a cross in Jerusalem.
Eager that His chosen twelve Apostles should be prepared for what was coming, He took them to one side on the journey and again emphasised what His fate was going to be. And He makes clear that it will happen to Him as ‘the Son of Man’. The picture of the Son of Man emerging from suffering and going on the clouds of Heaven to receive kingship and glory was by now well known to them (Daniel 7). But He stresses it again, and again reminds them that it will be at the hands of the Jewish leaders, the Chief Priests and the Scribes, those upstanding leaders of religion in Jerusalem. Such a suggestion was in accordance with the Scriptures - see Isaiah 50.6; 53.7-8. It would have caused no surprise to Jeremiah (e.g. Jeremiah 19.1; 20.1-2; 26.11).
‘Will be delivered.’ The verb is impersonal. It thus probably signifies that it is God Who will deliver Him up. All that is happening is within the will and purpose of God.
‘And they will condemn him to death.’ Jesus knew what His fate must be for He was walking in the way of the Suffering Servant (20.28; Isaiah 53). He is indicating that this will be an official sentence of the Sanhedrin. This is suggested both by the verb and by the Chief Priests and the Scribes sharing one definite article, demonstrating that in spite of their enmity towards each other they would be acting together. While they could not carry out the sentence, they could certainly pass such a sentence, and regularly did.
20.19 “And will deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify, and the third day he will be raised up.”
The fact that He must die means that Jesus is aware from the beginning that it will be at the hands of the Romans, for they alone had the power to carry out the death sentence. But here it is spelled out for the first time, as is the fact that His death will be by crucifixion. This would come as no surprise to One who had constantly spoken of taking up the cross. Indeed the whole process simply indicates the normal expectation for a condemned Jewish criminal, mockery, scourging and crucifixion. Jesus would have heard of it being carried out on the followers of Judas the Galilean when He was a lad, and He may well have witnessed such incidents Himself. The only unusual feature, given that He is to be executed, is that He will be raised on the third day. For this see on 16.21. The resurrection of the Suffering Servant is assumed in Isaiah 53.10-12, and implied in Daniel 7.13-14.
20.20 ‘Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, worshipping him, and asking a certain thing of him.”
In the context of His speaking of His death the mother of two of His disciples, James and John, seeks Him out, accompanied by her two sons. She bows humbly before Him and indicates that she has a request to make. The mother of the two sons of Zebedee (see 27.56) was probably called Salome (Mark 15.40). She may well have been Jesus’ aunt (John 19.25). This last would explain why she feels that she can intervene here, and why Jesus commits His mother to his cousin’s care at the cross.
Matthew has no motive for introducing their mother here (Mark does not mention it) and it therefore suggests an eyewitness testimony by one who was there. ‘Asking a certain thing of Him’ indicates that he had noticed the delicacy of her approach. She had probably learned of Jesus’ comment about the Apostles as soon to sit on twelve thrones overseeing Israel, and like all mothers she no doubt felt that no one could be more suitable than her boys for a place of honour. So she seeks to ensure that they will have every opportunity. The act is typical of a strongminded mother and she may well have been Mary’s elder sister (I could visualise my mother doing the same). But Matthew makes quite clear that James and John are deeply involved, and it is with them that Jesus discusses the matter.
20.21 ‘And he said to her, ‘What is your wish?’ She says to him, ‘Command that these my two sons may sit, one on your right hand, and one on your left hand, in your kingly rule.” ’
When Jesus indicates His willingness to hear what she has to say she asks Him to ‘command’ that her two sons have the places of privilege when He takes up His kingship, one on the right hand and the other on the left. She assumes that He will have autonomous power, and will be able to command what He wants. This suggestion fits well with Jesus having mentioned twelve thrones, for it indicates that she is not seeking a unique position for them, only one of special privilege among ‘equals’, which even now they appear partly to enjoy (and John will have the favoured place at the Last Supper). After all someone has to have them, why not then her sons? Her very request brings out the growing sense that was permeating the wider group that Jesus was planning something special when He arrived at Jerusalem.
For the idea of being on the right hand and on the left hand compare Nehemiah 8.4. See also Psalm 16.11; 45.9; 110.1; Matthew 26.64; Acts 7.55-56. In Josephus there is an example of a king whose eldest son sits on his right hand, and his army commander sits on his left. Matthew probably intends his readers to compare these words with his words in 27.38, where those who are on His right hand and His left may be seen as sharing in His sufferings. No wonder Jesus says, ‘you do not know what you are asking’.
The request indicates that at this stage at least, the Apostles had no conception of Peter as being in a settled position as their official leader, and the two might well have felt that his gaffes (16.22-23; 17.4; 19.27) had opened up the way for them.
Note the mention of ‘two sons’ which parallels in the section chiasmus the later parable of the ‘two sons’ (21.28), and in the local chiasmus the ‘two brothers’ (verse 24). While possibly a little embarrassed they are standing by hoping for the best. And it is therefore to them that Jesus turns in order to dispose of the question once for all. For He knows that they have been very much involved in their mother coming to Him.
20.22 ‘But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They say to him, “We are able.”
Jesus then turns to the two young men who are standing there, possibly a little embarrassed, but certainly hopeful. They are totally involved with the request. And He points out to them that they do not know what they are asking. For if they did they would have recognised that they were now seeking places of intense and continual suffering.
So He asks them whether they think that they really will be able to drink the cup that lies immediately ahead for Him (the ‘I’ is emphatic), the cup that He is about to drink and of which He must drink (26.39, 42). This picture of the cup as a symbol of the drinking of suffering and of the undergoing of the wrath of God is a regular one in the Old Testament. The Psalmist declares, ‘In the hand of the Lord there is a cup and the wine is red’ and it is for all the wicked of the earth (Psalm 75.8). Isaiah tells us that Jerusalem had ‘drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of His fury’ (Isaiah 51.17). God tells Jeremiah to ‘Take the cup of the wine of this fury at my hand and cause all the nations, to whom I send you, to drink it’ (Jeremiah 25.15). See also Jeremiah 49.12; Lamentations 4.21; Ezekiel 23.31-34; Habakkuk 2.16; Psalm 60.3; Isaiah 51.17; 63.6; Obadiah 1.16). In the words of Job, ‘let him drink of the wrath of the Almighty’ (Job 21.20). A similar picture is taken up in the New Testament (26.39, 42; Revelation 14.10; 16.19; 18.6). It is the cup that Jesus must drink to the full and it is to be given to Him by His Father (John 18.11). It is a cup the content of which we will never be able to appreciate in spite of all the information that we have been given and the passage of two thousand years of study.
But the two eager young men who stand before Him have no inkling of this. They think rather, either of the cup of the exertions and trials that will be involved in establishing the Messianic Rule, or the cup of authority and power which they will drink at the King’s table. And they feel capable of drinking both. So they boldly declare, ‘we are able’. The one thing that they had no thought of was an ignominious cup. However, these words will soon catch up with them, when they will be given the opportunity to prove them, for in a few days time, at the first whiff of His cup, they will forsake Him and flee along with the others. That at least the twelve were united about. But this must be said for them, that they remained together and did not flee from Jerusalem.
20.23 ‘He says to them, “You will indeed drink my cup. But to sit on my right hand, and on my left hand, is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared of my Father.” ’
All this Jesus knows. But as He looks at them, He loves them, and He is indeed aware of what they must suffer for His Name’s sake. So instead of pointing out that they are mistaken and have no idea what they are promising, He descends to a certain extent to their level and acknowledges that they will indeed drink of His cup, at least to some extent. For both will in future be called on to suffer in the cause of Christ. Both will shortly endure regular imprisonment and beatings (Acts 4.3; 5.18, 40), and James will later be beheaded by Herod Agrippa 1 (Acts 12.2), while John will suffer in other ways, as will all the disciples. It would be a bold person indeed who would suggest that John would pass through the tribulations of the first century AD and remain unscathed, and the traditions of John’s sufferings in the mines on the Isle of Patmos may well contain some truth (compare Revelation 1.9).
This kind of enigmatic reply by Jesus is His regular way of avoiding going into detail over things about which the disciples are mistaken, (compare also Luke 22.38; Acts 1.6-7), but concerning which there is no point in giving an immediate explanation. He knew that there was much that they still had to learn and appreciate before they could be taught more fully.
But then He points out that, whatever they may feel themselves capable of, the privilege of being those closest to Him in authority is not within His gift. It is for those for whom the Father has prepared it. Initially at least we may well think that Acts reveals that it was Peter and Paul who were allocated these positions, with John taking one up once they were dead. But they did not see themselves in that way. And that was in a future that was at present not yet known. Jesus’ point, however, is that it is God Who will choose the future church leadership, not man, not even Himself. God prepares each man for the task that he has to do (John 15.16; Acts 13.2; Galatians 1.15).
20.24 ‘And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation concerning the two brothers.’
When news reached the ears of the ten about this attempt to pre-empt the allocation of the most important positions, they were furious. Each of them felt that they had a right to stake a claim, and felt that this was an underhand way of going about it. But it was merely in each case an act of selfishness. All wanted to be equal, as long as they were among those who were more equal than others. For each wanted the most important ‘throne’ for themselves. And it is then that Jesus makes clear what is actually involved in occupying one of the thrones that He is offering.
20.25 ‘But Jesus called them to him, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” ’
He points out to them that it is the way of the world, and especially of the Gentiles who are the very ones who will exercise their power against Him (verse 19), that rulers lord it over people, and great ones vaunt their authority over people. This is what sitting on a ‘throne’ means to them, and it is true even of the most benevolent. Thus anyone who seeks for such a position is behaving like the Gentiles, and behaving like the Gentiles is synonymous with the worst possible type of irreligious behaviour (5.47; 6.7, 32; 7.6). It is to behave as one not involved in the Kingly Rule of Heaven.
20.26-27 “It shall not be so among you. But whoever would become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever would be first among you shall be your slave.”
But it is to be very different among the Apostles. That is why this seeking after positions is so unseemly. For the one who would be great among them must seek rather how they can serve, and the one who would be first among them (sitting at His right hand or His left) must recognise that it involves acting like a slave. This is what ‘sitting on a throne’ involves under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. And this attitude of heart, unnoticed by them, has been, and will continue to be, His constant theme (20.1-15 - where they are common labourers; Luke 12.37 - where Jesus Himself serves at table for those who have humbly served Him as house servants; Luke 17.8-10 - where the servants acknowledge their unworthiness; Luke 22.27 - where they are to emulate His humble service).
It is evidence of the sinfulness of men’s hearts that religious people who want to emulate the Gentiles take such terms as ‘servant’ (diakonos) and turn them into titles of honour, and eagerly court them that they might be had in honour. But that is not Jesus intent here. The idea of Jesus is of genuine service, lowliness and humility (11.28-30). The man who seeks to be a minister or a deacon so as to be had in honour, is not worthy of the position. And the one who thinks himself to be ‘something’ when he is such simply demonstrates his unsuitability for ministry. For those who truly serve Him see themselves as the slaves of Christ and the slaves of others (verse 27). They have no sense of superiority at all.
20.28 “Even as the Son of man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
And they must take as their supreme example the Son of Man. He Who was destined to come out of suffering to receive the throne and the glory, had not come to exercise lordship and vaunted authority, nor to look to men to serve Him and cringe be humble before Him, nor to sit on a throne of pride. Rather He had come to serve, and His future throne would be a throne of service (Luke 12.37; 22.27). And in the last analysis His service on earth would in His case involve Him in total humiliation and in giving His life a ransom for many. He would fulfil the sacrificial ministry of the Isaianic Servant.
That the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 50, 53 was in mind here can hardly be doubted. Jesus was declared to be the Servant after His baptism (3.17) and at His Transfiguration (17.5), while the context here is one in which the idea of lowly service is emphasised, and it comes at the end of Matthew’s ‘Isaianic section’, the section in which he cites Isaiah by name to the exclusion of all other Scriptural writers, see 3.3; 4.14; 8.17; 12.17; 13.14) prior to His presentation of Himself as the King (see introduction). But in this case, as Jesus has not specifically cited Isaiah, so nor will Matthew. Compare and contrast possible other references to Isaiah 53 in 26.27-28; 27.12, 57. Note further how ‘to give His life (soul)’ parallels ‘you make his life (soul)’ (Isaiah 53.10).
On top of this the idea of ‘the many’ is prominent in Isaiah 53.11-12, and the whole chapter is involved with His giving of His life as a lifegiving sacrifice, epitomised in the guilt offering in Isaiah 53.10, and thus as a ransom, a price paid for deliverance. The idea of God’s deliverance of His people by ransoming them is found in Isaiah 35.10, where it results in deliverance from the enemies of God; in Isaiah 43.3-4 where He gives up other peoples as a ransom on His people’s behalf; in Jeremiah 31.11 where He ransoms and redeems His people (Jacob), delivering them from a stronger than he; in Job 33.24 where the ransom He has found delivers from the Pit; and in Hosea 13.14 where He will ransom His people from the hand of the grave. In Isaiah 53 this is portrayed in terms of a sacrificial offering so that God’s righteous demands are also satisfied. We can compare with this Jesus’ words at the Last Supper ‘this is my blood of the covenant which is shed for ‘many’ for the forgiveness of sins’ (26.28), where the reference is equally clearly to Isaiah 53.10.
‘Ransom (lutron)’ is used only here and the parallel passage (Mark 10.45), in the New Testament, although Paul uses ’antilutron (substitutionary ransom) in 1 Timothy 2.6. In secular Greek lutron was used for the ransom of a prisoner of war or of a slave. In LXX it was used of the price a man paid to redeem his life which was forfeit because his ox had gored someone to death (Exodus 21.30), the price paid for the redemption of the firstborn from death (Numbers 18.15), the price paid by which the next of kin obtained the release of an enslaved relative (Leviticus 25.51-53) or the price paid for the redemption of a mortgaged property (Leviticus 25.26). It was a payment made to obtain release and freedom, paid in substitution for what was obtained. Compare 1 Peter 1.18; Hebrews 9.12.
‘A ransom for many’ equals ‘lutron anti pollown’. This unquestionably refers to a substitutionary ransom (anti combined with the idea of ransom must be substitutionary), and thus a price paid for deliverance (compare 1 Corinthians 6.20; 1 Peter 1.18-19), while the ‘guilt offering’ (‘asam) of Isaiah 53.10 is the sacrificial equivalent of a ransom, as can be seen from the description of the vicarious guilt offering in Leviticus 5, and note also that there ’asam also indicates a compensatory payment. And indeed the whole of Isaiah 53 is the picture of someone giving Himself for His people. It is not difficult therefore to see in it the payment of a price for their deliverance.
Thus the theme of forgiveness and salvation continues. In 1.21 He was called Jesus because He would save His people from their sins. In 6.12 He has taught His disciples to pray for the forgiveness of their sins. In 18.23-35 He has revealed the hugeness of God’s forgiveness to the totally undeserving. In 26.28 He will reveal that His blood of the covenant will be shed for the forgiveness of sins. It is in these terms that we can see the payment of the ransom, for He comes as the One Who has come as the Servant on Whom our iniquities were laid (Isaiah 53.6), as the guilt offering offered on our behalf (Isaiah 53.10), that we might be forgiven (Leviticus 5.10), and as the One through Whom we will be accounted righteous because He has borne our iniquities (Isaiah 53.11) .
It is sometimes questioned how far this idea of a ransom paid can relate to the earlier context, in that it was not something in which His disciples could follow Him. They could not offer themselves as a ransom (indeed they needed themselves to be redeemed). But two things must be born in mind, firstly that He wishes to give an example for His disciples to follow of supreme sacrifice, and secondly that while, of course, it is true that His disciples could not emulate His sacrifice to its fullest extent, Paul certainly saw them as participating in it to some extent as they gave themselves up to suffering and tribulation in order to expand the Kingly Rule of God and win men to Christ (Colossians 1.24). And there is no doubt that elsewhere also Jesus saw His own self-sacrifice as the very pattern of true Christian love, and as thus an example of the love that His disciples should have for each other (John 15.12-13).
Among The Pilgrims On The Jericho Road Leading To Jerusalem Blind Men Declare Him To Be The Son Of David Preparatory To His Triumphal Entry (20.29-34).
As we have already seen, Matthew’s Gospel opened with an emphasis on the fact that Jesus was the Son of David (1.1, 17, 20), and He was depicted as coming as ‘the King of the Jews’ (2.2), and in the first two chapters the prophet on whom Matthew focused by name was Jeremiah (2.17), (all other citations were anonymous), for it was from a background of gloom and judgment that He would come. But then from 3.2 onwards the focus turns on Isaiah, the prophet of deliverance. All named citations from this point to chapter 13 are from Isaiah (3.3; 4.14; 8.17; 12.17; 13.14), and the coming King becomes also the Servant of Isaiah (3.17; 8.17; 12.17). It is indeed mainly as the Servant that He now ministers among His people, although it is also made clear that He is the Son (consider 3.17; 11.27; 14.33; 16.16; 17.26 and all references to ‘My Father’) and His kingship is never far out of sight. But from this point on the main focus is decidedly turned back on Him as the King, and the Son of David (repeated twice and see 21.9, 15), although it is as the King Who has to suffer, and there are continuing indications of the Servant (26.28; 27.57; and see Isaiah 50.3-8; 53). Once again, however, the only prophet emphasised by name will be Jeremiah (27.9), note the similar distinctive wording to 2.17) the prophet of bad tidings prior to final hope. All that Jesus had come to do in the beginning is coming to fulfilment.
We note in this story that follows that two blind men have their eyes opened, in contrast with the fact that Israel’s eyes are not opened (13.15), and they thus see Jesus as the Son of David. It is a call to all to open their eyes in the light of what will follow (there is a further emphasis on the blind seeing in 21.14). Perhaps there was also a hint here that this opening of the eyes was also needed by the two ‘blind’ disciples just described in verses 20-23. They too were still partly muddling along in the dark.
One further thought we would add here. Blind men were a regular feature of Palestine at this time, and they were to be found begging wherever men went. Furthermore the Jericho Road at Passover time would have its fair share of blind beggars, and we need not doubt that many of them, aware of the special activity when Jesus was passing, would enquire as to what was happening. And when they heard that it was the great healing prophet who was widely reputed to be connected with Solomon, the son of David, they would naturally cry to Him for healing as ‘the Son of David’. Thus there may well have been a number of blind men healed that day.
This connection of the title ‘Son of David’ with Solomon (see introduction on the Titles of Jesus) may well explain why Jesus never tries to dampen down its use, as He does the title Messiah. It did not have the same overtones as ‘the Messiah’ even though also used of him. It was a title regularly found on the lips of those who sought healing and deliverance, for Solomon’s remedies were famous. Thus this scene may in fact have been repeated a number of times in the course of that day. It may be remarkable to us, but the disciples no doubt witnessed such scenes again and again, and the people who genuinely followed Jesus probably included among them their fair share of blind men who had been healed. Thus strictly speaking there is no reason why this should not have been a different healing from those mentioned in Mark and Luke, although performed around the same time. If Matthew was present at this healing Mark’s words may well have brought this particular event into his mind whether or not it was the same as Mark’s (as remembered by Peter). Indeed a hundred such healings which occurred over Jesus’ ministry could probably have been described in the same or similar words (compare 9.27-31).
For this healing is not described here because it was a particularly remarkable healing, but because it illustrated a point that the evangelists wanted to bring out, that while the Jerusalem that awaited Jesus was blind, those who were open to Jesus’ words, especially the humble and needy, would see. (Compare 21.14 and Mark’s clear use of the story of a blind man to illustrate the gradual opening of the disciples’ eyes in Mark 8.22-26).
Note that in ‘a’ the great crowd followed Him, and in the parallel those who had had their eyes opened followed Him more fully. In ‘b’ the blind men cry for mercy, and in the parallel declare that what they want is for their eyes to be opened. In ‘c’ the crowd call on them to be quiet, and in the parallel Jesus calls on them to speak. Centrally in ‘d’ their cry is that the Son of David will open their eyes.
20.29 ‘And as they went out from Jericho, a great crowd followed him.’
‘As they went out from Jericho.’ In other words, ‘next stop Jerusalem’, after climbing a thousand metres (three thousand feet) up the winding Jericho Road for about twenty five kilometres (sixteen miles). The great crowd would be of pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem, many from Galilee, and many of whom had attached themselves to Jesus’ party because of their respect and love for Jesus. Like many today they followed Him in a desultory but generally benevolent way, in contrast with those who were against Him, but they were not genuine followers in the fullest sense (compare John 2.23-25).
20.30 ‘And behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David.” ’
There would be many blind men begging outside Jericho, and these were but two of them, for this was a favourite spot for beggars at Passover time, for pilgrims approaching Jerusalem would be feeling generous. One of these blind men mentioned here may well have been the one mentioned by Mark. But it should cause no surprise that there was more than one, for even beggars get lonely, and Matthew’s constant indication of companions for needy people whom they met (which would be perfectly natural) suggests an eyewitness, and possibly one with a deep awareness of what it had meant to be excluded (as a public servant) from the company of others. Jericho at Passover time, being on the Jerusalem Road for those who came from Peraea and the Jordan Rift, would be a prime begging site, and those who were begging there would tend to seek companionship.
Luke describes the healing of a blind man in similar circumstances prior to reaching Jericho. This may have been because there were in fact two Jerichos, old Jericho and new Jericho, and he was thinking of the modern one. Leaving behind the old Jericho would be especially significant to Matthew, for it was from Jericho that the conquest fanned out after the Exodus. Or alternately it may have been a different blind man, for with the beggars gathered on the Jericho Road there would no doubt be many healings that day. Jesus never refused any who called on Him.
‘They heard that Jesus was passing by.’ No doubt they had become aware of the huge cavalcade and had asked what was causing it. They had probably long hoped that they would come across Jesus. And now that time had come! So they cried out persistently, as those who would not be denied, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David.” ’ It was a deferential request, probably made to someone whom they knew was descended from Solomon, the son of David. Solomon was famed for his cures, and rumour had it that this prophet had some of his powers (compare how the title Son of David is regularly used in connection with the demon possessed and the blind - 9.27; 12.23; 15.22 and here). It was probably this rather than its Messianic significance that they mainly had in mind (as with the Canaanite woman). Son of David was, however, also a Messianic title and is found as such in the Psalms of Solomon. Thus their thoughts may have included both, for Passover was the week when the title of the coming Son of David was one on everyone’s lips (21.9), and Matthew almost certainly sees it as preparing for His welcome into Jerusalem. That is why he reminds us that the words were repeated more than once.
20.31 ‘And the crowd rebuked them, that they should hold their peace, but they cried out the more, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David.” ’
The two blind men were clearly causing some uproar because the crowds told them to keep quiet. The respectable pilgrims accompanied in many cases by their families would not want beggars mixing with the crowds. But the more the crowd tried to shush them, so the more they cried out “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David.” They recognised that this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and they were not going to miss it.
20.32 ‘And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, “What do you wish that I should do to you?” ’
Jesus was the One present Who was never too busy to hear the cry of distress, and He stopped on His journey and called them to Him, asking them what He could do for them. He could have had little doubt about what they wanted, but it was His practise to make people face up to what they were asking, and to make them express at least some faith.
20.33 ‘They say to him, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” ’
Their request was simple, that their eyes might be opened. The idea of the ‘opening of the eyes’ has a double meaning. It could signify the making of a blind man to see, especially as a Messianic sign (11.5 with Isaiah 35.5), but it could also signify the opening of spiritually blind eyes to the truth (Isaiah 42.7; Acts 26.18; Ephesians 1.18). They were actually asking the easier option, but Jesus gave them both.
20.34 ‘And Jesus, being moved with compassion, touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight, and followed him.’
For moved with compassion He touched their eyes and they immediately received their sight and followed Him. The personal contact was very much part of Jesus’ methods (compare 8.3, 15; 9.25, 29), and the compassion a constant feature of His ministry (9.36; 14.14; 15.32), while the immediate total success of the healing was His trademark. So Jerusalem was receiving advanced warning that the time promised by Isaiah was here, and that it was at the hands of the compassionate and powerful ‘Son of David’. The One Who could open blind eyes was now approaching.
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