Category Archive: Bible – NT – Matthew
In Matthew 9:35ff., Jesus sees Israel battered and cast down, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he says to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful; the workers are few.”
Why does the imagery change from animals to plants, from sheep/shepherd to harvest/workers? It would make sense for Jesus, seeing the crowds like sheep without a shepherd, to tell his disciples to pray for workers to gather in the flock.
Jakob van Bruggen (Matteüs) proposes that Jesus is speaking, not of workers needed for gathering in the harvest but of workers needed for distributing the plentiful harvest to care for the flock.
I’m not persuaded that explanation really works. After all, “Send out workers into his harvest” is not the clearest way to say “Send workers out to Israel with the food that has been harvested”!
On the other hand, when Jesus does send out his disciples, he returns to the imagery of sheep/shepherd (10:6: “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”) and he speaks, not of gathering, let alone of gathering in a harvest, but rather of giving (10:8: “Freely you have received; freely give”).
The woman with the flow of blood who thought that she would be healed if she could only touch the tassel on the hem of Jesus’ garment was, according to D. A. Carson’s commentary, “superstitious,” though Jesus heals her anyway. Granted, she was in fact healed when she touched that tassel. But, says Carson, Jesus “said that it was her faith that was effective, not the superstition mingled with it” (Carson, Matthew, 230).
But … what was superstitious about her belief? What definition of “superstition” can Carson be working with?
How much better to say with Gibbs:
With regard to the woman with the hemorrhage, Jesus flatly declares that she had faith to be made well, and he in no way criticizes her for being superstitious. It is just as easy to interpret her desire to touch the hem or tassel of Jesus’ robe (the datum that leads Carson to accuse her for “superstition”) as a sign of her remarkable faith; she knows that she only needs the slightest contact with Jesus to be healed and saved (Matthew 1-11, 484).
In Matthew 9, Jesus tells the parable of the wineskin: You don’t put new wine in an old wineskin, he says, or the new wine (as it ferments) will burst the old wineskin. Rather, you put new wine in a new wine skin, and in that way *both* are preserved.
It’s pretty obvious what “both” means here: It has to mean the new wine and the new wineskin.
And yet more than one commentary seems to think that Jesus is saying that by putting new wine in the new wineskin, you’ll preserve both the new wineskin and the old wineskin, leading to conclusions about Jesus’ concern for the old systems, structures, practices, or whatever.
Davies & Allison, usually no slouches as commentators, are particularly confused and confusing on this point:
“In its broader context, which concerns fasting, this clause makes for a positive relation between an old practice (fasting) and the newness brought by Jesus. That is, even though the immediate subject of ‘and both will be preserved’ is the new wine and the new wineskins, the redactor was probably thinking of wineskins as symbols for something from the past, and of the need to preserve them.”
Huh? They acknowledge that “both” refers to (1) new wine and (2) new wineskins … but then they talk as if “wineskins” (new and old) refer to “something from the past,” and as if Jesus is concerned somehow — in spite of what they know “both” means — about preserving the old practices/system (i.e., the old wineskins).
It makes my head spin.
There are seven evenings in Matthew’s Gospel (8:16; 14:15, 23; 16:2; 20:8; 26:20; 27:57).
Not every instance of “it was evening” begins a new section — 16:2 and 20:8 certainly don’t! — but the number of evenings does interest me, suggesting as it does that the reference to evening ends a day or (as in Gen 1) begins a new day.
In turn, and that would suggest that there may be eight “days” in Matthew, the eighth being the day of resurrection, beginning with 27:57, which certainly seems fitting.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, 16:2 and 20:8 don’t seem to fit into any sort of seven- or eight-day pattern. Still, if you happen to see some such pattern or know of an essay where someone works this out, I’d be glad to see it.
[Update, March 15, 2016: It turns out that Peter Leithart has an essay on exactly this topic!]
In Matthew 15, when the Canaanite woman asks Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter, Jesus is initially reluctant: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
But earlier, in Matthew 8, when the centurion — clearly a Gentile — asks Jesus to heal his servant, Jesus seems willing: “I myself will come and heal him” (8:7).
Some suggest that his words should be translated as a question: “Shall I come and heal him?” And some (e.g., Davies and Allison) even insert what they think is the implication: “Shall I — a Jew — come and heal him?” The effect is to make it seem as if in this story, as in Matthew 15, Jesus is reluctant to heal a Gentile at first, but then, in response to the Gentile’s faith, goes ahead and does it.
But even if this is a question — and there’s no reason it has to be taken that way — it really doesn’t imply much reluctance. At most, it elicits a further response from the centurion. Jesus is willing to heal the centurion’s servant.
What, then, accounts for the difference, for Jesus’ willingness to heal the Gentile centurion’s servant but his reluctance (at first) to help the Canaanite woman’s daughter precisely because she’s a Gentile?
I’m not sure we can know for sure.
One factor may have been that in the case of the centurion, as Luke tells us (but Matthew doesn’t), he was already a God-fearer, who had built a synagogue and who was highly regarded by the Jewish elders, who served, in fact, as his mediators to bring his request to Jesus.
But it strikes me that it’s possible that, while the centurion himself was a Gentile, the servant may not have been. The servant may in fact have been a Jew, and so, while the request for healing comes from a Gentile (mediated by the Jewish elders), it is still a request for healing a Jew, someone “of the house of Israel.”
Matthew tells us that the crowds were astonished because Jesus taught with authority, not like their scribes (Matt 7:29).
I’ve sometimes heard people condemn the scribes for this lack of authority, as if there was some problem with the way they taught. “All they did,” people say, “was quote one rabbi after another. But Jesus didn’t quote people” — and the implication sometimes seems to be that preachers today should somehow be more like Jesus than like those scribes, drawing on other people’s commentaries.
Well, that’s not really what Matthew means. Jeffrey Gibbs (if I may draw from another person’s commentary) puts it well:
None of their scribes taught with such conviction. Nor should they have. Any authority that a scribe might possess in his teaching would be completely derived from the authority of the Scriptures. Any other teacher in Israel would need to substantiate what he proclaimed by citing from God’s Word. Jesus, however, teaches God’s Word from out of himself, with unfettered power and divine authority, and the crowds were astonished at this (400).
In Matthew 7, when Jesus talks about the narrow gate and the narrow way and about the wide gate and the broad way, how are the gate and the way related to each other?
Commentaries debate about this. Most often, it seems, they think the gate comes first, followed by the way. Jeffrey Gibbs, on the other hand, sees it the other way around: first you travel by the narrow path and then you go through the narrow gate into the kingdom.
The former approach, it seems to me, ends up with the narrow gate being virtually meaningless. After all, it’s not as though going through the narrow gate actually brings you into the kingdom, then. Instead, it puts you on the narrow way — but you still have to stay on the narrow way instead of the broad way, which means that the gate itself is irrelevant.
(This, it seems to me, is a problem in The Pilgrim’s Progress: Christian passes through the narrow door, but that simply leads to a path, with temptations galore to go off the path. But then what is that narrow door? What does it symbolize? Christian still has quite a distance to travel after going through it before he gets to the cross even. So what’s the point of this door?)
Gibbs’s suggestion makes much more sense to me: You need to seek and find the narrow gate (“Few are they who FIND it”), and the way there is the narrow way, which you need to find and stay on, in spite of all allurements toward the broad path or elsewhere.
Better yet, I submit, is Van Bruggen‘s approach: The gate and way aren’t part of one picture (a gate leading to a way, a way leading to a gate) but rather two images, side by side, the first — the gate — focusing on entering into the kingdom or not, and the second — the way — focusing on the process.
When Jesus talks in Matthew 6:19-21 about “treasures on earth” and describes the earth as the place “where moth and consumption destroy and where thieves break through and steal,” I suspect we think of clothing, eaten by moths, and of money stolen by thieves. (The word I’ve translated “consumption” here doesn’t mean “rust,” for which James 5 uses a different word, but rather means “eating” and in Malachi 3:11 refers to grasshoppers or locusts.)
Interestingly, though, in Isaiah 51, we have similar language, but there it’s applied to *people”: “Do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults, for the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool” (51:7-8).
This destruction coincides with the change in the heavens and the earth: “The heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner” (51:6). These things are temporary but, says Yahweh, “my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished…. My righteousness will be forever, and my salvation from generation to generation” (51:6, 8).
Coming back to Matthew 6: we take Jesus to be talking about rich clothing (which can be eaten by moths) and about gold and silver. And rightly so. But notice that in the earlier context, the hypocrites have their reward in the praise and notice they receive from men, while the righteous are to wait for their reward from God their heavenly Father, who sees their alms, prayers, and fasting in secret (6:1-18).
If we hear Matthew 6 in the light of Isaiah 51, then, it’s not just clothing and gold that Jesus has in view. There is coming a change in the heavens and earth — the coming of God’s kingdom in the near future, in Jesus’ time — and the very men whose praise and notice we’re tempted to seek as our security, our treasure, will be consumed and destroyed. But God’s saving righteousness is forever, and that is the treasure on which we’re to pin our hopes.
Commentary after commentary claims that the way to resolve the apparent contradiction between Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light so shine that men may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”) and 6:1 (“Take care not to do your righteousness before men to be seen by them”) is by focusing on intention. On the one hand, we aren’t to do good works before men to be seen by them, as if that and that alone, were our goal. On the other hand, we are to do good works before men to be seen by them so that they will glorify God.
But what these commentaries all seem to overlook in their exclusive focus on intention is that Jesus is talking about different sets of good works, different kinds of good works. Matthew 6:1 does not stand by itself, or as a conclusion to Matthew 5. It introduces a new section of the Sermon on the Mount.
The earlier section — which includes the works we are to do in order to be seen by men so that they will glorify our Father in heaven — talks about how we deal with anger and lust, with eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth, with the inconveniences that oppressors heap upon us, with our enemies.
The section that 6:1 introduces has to do with the three foundational acts of Jewish piety: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These acts, unlike the acts of ch. 5, are not to be done to be seen by men.
Jesus does not say that it’s okay to do these things in public, in an attention-getting way, so long as our motive is evangelistic and not self-aggrandizing, so that people will glorify God and not us. Rather, he says to do these things … but to do them in private, to not let your left hand know what your right hand is giving, to shut yourself into your inner room to pray so that no one watches, to look normal — or even as if you’re feasting — when you’re fasting.
That is to say, in his instructions Jesus does not focus simply on intentions (though intentions matter) but on actions that guard against our wrong intentions getting the upper hand.
Is there an allusion to Psalm 121 in Matthew 17?
Matthew has just told us about Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain. Up on the mountain, Jesus is shining “as white as light” and a “bright cloud” overshadows them, which ought to make us wonder if that light was visible to those down below. But when Jesus and his three mighty men come down the mountain into the dark world below, they find a demon-possessed boy. That’s what Mark tells us. But Matthew tells us that the boy was moonstruck. I’m not entirely sure what that means and I’m not persuaded that it can simply be identified with epilepsy, though it seems similar. But what’s important here is that the word implies a striking by the moon.
Now consider Psalm 121, which begins:
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.
In Matthew’s Gospel, who is on the hills? Jesus is, where he shines with glory. He is the one from whom help comes for those down below, and they ought to be expecting it, though as the story shows they are not. Interestingly, the man who comes to Jesus for help calls him “Lord.”
The psalm goes on:
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
Here we have, it seems, exactly what the boy was suffering from: he was struck by the moon. But his father calls upon the Lord, who was on the hills, and his son is rescued.
In Mark 13:32, Jesus says, “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (cf. Matt. 24:36). That’s somewhat puzzling. Is it a limitation on Jesus’ omniscience, as if God the Father knows things that God the Son doesn’t? That can’t be. So is it saying that Jesus as a man doesn’t know things that God the Son knows? Even so, that’s still puzzling.
A friend of mine argued once for a different approach: When Jesus says that even the Son does not know the day and hour, he said, he is speaking of knowing something in order to pass it on to others. Neither the angels nor the Son has been given the knowledge of the day and hour in the sense that neither is commissioned to reveal it and make it known to us.
I haven’t studied this passage and so I won’t claim that this is the right interpretation. But the other day, I was reading Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 10 (Psalm 9, part 2, for Augustine). In that exposition, he mentions those passages in Mark 13 and Matthew 24. Lo and behold, he says exactly what my friend said:
What, then, is so hidden as that which is said to be hidden even from the judge himself, not as far as his knowing it is concerned, but as regards his revealing it? (Expositions of the Psalms, 1:158, emphasis mine).
Klaas Schilder on Jesus’ suffering when Peter rebuked him when he was preaching about his upcoming suffering, rejection, and death:
And for the Saviour, fully aflame as He is with love for mankind, it is far worse suffering to meet a satan of flesh and blood than to confront that one great Devil who is sheer spirit. Jesus Himself is human. He called Simon Barjona a friend. And a friend’s opposition to the task which God placed upon the Son of man is a burden outweighing a thousand times the enmity to Him and the Father breathed out by the Demon of the pit.
Hearing His bride speak and act satanically, seeing a human being, one of those for whom He is giving His life, become an instrument of Satan, observing the flesh in Simon Peter assert itself to take exception to heaven’s law of atonement through fulfillment, and all that, mark well, at the moment of Christ’s prophesying — that must have been Jesus’ severest suffering up to this time. For He knows all the while that this same rebellion of flesh against spirit will presently nail Him to the cross. — Klaas Schilder, Christ in His Suffering, p. 20.