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The Gospel according to Matthew

Author

It has been suggested that the Gospel was written by a converted scribe, "Matthew" being a pun. He makes much effective use of the Hebrew style haggeda or spiritual story-telling, so he was probably a trained scribe. This is rather different from the modern history writing style, and should be interpreted differently. The writer was expected to make changes to the story to emphasise its spiritual meaning. The author of Matthew apparently did just this, and was also clearly steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. Burridge calls this "the most Jewish of Gospels".[1 p.67]

An alternative view identifies the author with the tax collector who became a follower of Jesus in Matthew 9:9, cf. Luke 5:27.

Either of these theories are consistent with the author being particularly literate and a habitual record-keeper, and probably conversant with the Aramaic, Greek and Hebrew languages.

Content and structure

Matthew 1:23 tells us that the theme of the book is "God with us". He returns to it at the end when Jesus promises in the Great Commission to remain with us. It has traditionally been associated with a human face (one of the four living creatures in Ezekiel 1:4–28 and Revelation chapters 4–6) which highlights Jesus teaching the people in five discourses[70 p.7].

Matthew's Gospel is divided into three sections by the two identical phrases "From that time on Jesus began to ..." which occur in Matthew 4:17 and Matthew 16:21. The themes of the three sections appear to be Jesus's birth and upbringing in private; Jesus's public ministry preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven; and Jesus's sacrifice for sins. In the first Jesus appeared to be an ordinary person; in the second he lived as a prophet; and in the third he revealed himself as the Messiah. The prophetic message of the middle section "the Kingdom of God is at hand" can be examined in the light of Marcus Maxwell's view that all prophecy is conditional on the hearer's response. Some commentators argue that the messianic Kingdom was at hand if the Jews would accept their messiah; but they did not, so even the kingdom they tried to cling to under the Romans was destroyed around 70 C.E. (Matthew 21:42–43, cf. Luke 19:26).

Matthew's Gospel makes particularly subtle use of the Old Testament, usually without telling the reader to look for the allusions that are present. See 1 Corinthians 1:22. Matthew seems to have had a wealthy Greek-speaking background or target audience, because he includes many references to property, and where Aramaic terms are used he explains them in Greek. Matthew's Gospel is reckoned by many to have written after Mark, using Mark's Gospel as the main source but with much new material added, most notably the Sermon on the Mount. See comment on Mark 13:4. The argument for a late date is supported by the use of words like ecclesia that, it is said, did not exist at the time of Christ. However, see comment on Matthew 16:18.

Comparison of Matthew with Mark shows that:

  1. Matthew is hard on the Pharisees: often where Mark has Jesus criticising the scribes or teachers of the law Matthew corrects this to refer specifically to the Pharisees, e.g. Mark 12:28 copied as Matthew 22:34, and Mark 12:38 copied as Matthew 23:2.
  2. Matthew is easy on the Apostles, e.g. Mark 10:35–45 copied as Matthew 20:20–28.

The latter seems to fit in with the late date, when the Apostles were highly respected church leaders. Matthew also emphasises their authority, e.g. the keys of heaven in Matthew 16:17–19 and 18:18, cf. the way the authority of the Ruler of each synagogue was regarded as authorised to excommunicate or admit people, and to declare actions legal or illegal. Thus the church is the new synagogue and the Apostles are its rulers. This thinking comes from the Hebrew word "shalich" which is directly equivalent to the Greek word from which we get Apostle. It means "sent" in the sense of one sent not as a messenger but with executive authority. Effectively the person he represents undertakes to abide by any decisions the delegate makes while acting on his behalf. The High Priest used to send emissaries with that authority, and the High Priest had to keep any promises made by the emissary. This has been transferred into the C of E teaching about Absolution, where Christ's authority is delegated to the Priest.

The additions to Mark comprise the genealogy and five blocks of additional teaching, each concluded with the words "When Jesus had finished these sayings ...". The arrangement of these seems to follow the pattern of the five books of the Pentateuch, implying that he saw Jesus as giving a "new Law" yet not taking anything away from the old law (unlike Ephesians 2:15). This laid heavy demands on people hence Paul's condemnation of the "Judaisers" and "Circumcision Party".

In New Testament times there was dispute between Rabbis not only about resurrection but also divorce, because Deuteronomy 24:1 is not particularly clear (though Malachi 2:16 is!). Job asked in Job 14:14, "If man dies, will he live again?" The hard-liners led by Shammai allowed no divorce apart from cases of unchastity; the liberals led by Hillel allowed divorce for almost any dissatisfaction. Matthew 19:7 agrees with Shammai, whereas Mark 10:4 is much more radical, confirming a strict interpretation but implying that a wife might divorce her husband. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul agrees with Mark's recollection of what Jesus said.

Matthew 11:29 "take my yoke upon you" quotes Ecclesiasticus where Wisdom (equivalent to the Law) is speaking. The concept here is one of "standing under" (hypostatis), three underlying hypostases (or realities) of God. God makes himself real to us through Wisdom, through the Law, and through the Word, a much more satisfactory model than three persons of the trinity. This is the concept that John developed in to the "Logos" (see John 1:1). John Stott describes the three persons of the Trinity as "distinct personal modes of being" [2 p.66]. C S Lewis[3 p.138] asks us to visualise this as we were "flat-landers" who exist in two dimensions and can comprehend a square, being asked to visualise a cube by thinking if it as squares in three planes. It may seem contradictory for several squares to make up one object, but in the higher order of existence where cubes are found it is perfectly natural. In the same way, in God's higher existence a being with three persons is perfectly natural.

Matthew seems to give Joseph's account of Jesus's early life while Luke gives Mary's side of the story[2 p.74]. However, whatever the differences, it seems that the beginnings of both are trying to prove two points:

  1. Jesus was God from the beginning, and
  2. his origins fulfilled prophecies connecting him with both Bethlehem and Nazareth.

"There is a particular focus on the decisions that Joseph and Mary have to make and how they make them. The Gospel writer understands them to be exemplars of all that is required in people of faith. For Matthew, the angelic visitations provide guidance and reassurance".[54]

Matthew explains the tension between Bethlehem and Nazareth by means of the exile in Egypt, and Luke uses the census. Some say that the census seems less plausible because to be counted you usually don't go elsewhere to be counted, rather you stop moving about. However, Quirinius made a census not of people but of taxable property.[4 p.88]

Matthew makes much use of recapitulation: Moses (e.g. exile, law), Joseph (dreams, betrayal, Egypt, restoration), as shown by the order in which events are recounted, which always matches something in the Old Testament. For example, there was a sense that the Jews had been adopted as sons at the Exodus from Egypt (Deuteronomy 1:31 and Hosea 11:1 "out of Egypt I have called my son"), after which they crossed the sea and entered the desert for 40 years. Jesus's adoption is seen in baptism and subsequent testing in the desert for 40 days. The three temptations seem to represent three archetypal sins which the Hebrews committed in the desert, as described against Matthew 4:1.

Matthew chapters 5–7: The Sermon on the Mount

According to Matthew 5:1–2, the sermon was addressed to both the Disciples and the crowd. We should assume that Jesus would say much the same to us. It seems to be an important part of Jesus's teaching, yet we often shy away from it, probably finding it too challenging. If it is truly important we must face up to it. The life of Jesus shows how it works in practice.

The sermon warns us not to be legalistic; it follows that the sermon itself is not to be interpreted legalistically. We seem to have an in-built bias towards legalism, and as we read the Bible, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, we must watch continually for the onset of legalism. As soon as we find ourselves interpreting the Sermon on the Mount legalistically, we can be sure we have misunderstood it.

The Sermon on the Mount has been compared to the Pole Star: a reference point to steer by, which is essential, though you never get there (see Exodus 20:2 on whether the "Ten Commandments" similarly illustrate what righteousness looks like, rather than commanding what we should do). The practical outworking of the Sermon on the Mount is given in Romans 12–14 and in James, but in many ways the theoretical outworking is more important.

The relationship between the Sermon and the Law is shown most clearly in Chapter 5, where a number of statements start with the words "You have heard ...". In each case Jesus says we must not simply meet the requirements of the law, but exceed them. This is consistent with his statement in Matthew 5:17 that he had not come to sweep away the Law; rather he has come to show us the attitude of mind that pleases God by practical love (actions not feelings) that fulfils the law. God seeks willing compassion not grudging compliance. We must co-operate with the Holy Spirit as he changes us into the kind of people that the sermon describes.

Generally the Sermon replaces outward holy actions with inner purity[5]. Paul's explanation the Law was given to reveal Sin (Romans 3:20, Romans 5:20 etc.) is the key to understanding Jesus's purpose. Jesus found that some claimed to have kept the Law and to be free from Sin; thus the Law had not been effective for them, so he had to give a stricter Law to achieve the desired result. This puts us all on an equal footing: none of us can claim to keep this Law. The haughtiness of the Pharisees is swept away; we are all sinners together. We must all approach God as the publican did, seeking mercy with humility.

Jesus starts with the "Beatitudes", explaining that happiness is not to be found where most people look for it, but in relationship with God. Then he speaks against pride ("the essential vice, the utmost evil...the completely anti-God state of mind" [3 p.107]), legalism and selfishness. He warns us against ostentatious public praying, and teaches the "Lord's Prayer" addressed to "Abba". Jesus concludes by exhorting us do not be anxious but trust God, because true security is to be found in God, as illustrated by the "house on the rock" image.

Commentary

1:1

The author seems to be deliberately imitating Genesis 1; the first two words of the Gospel in the original Greek are Biblos which starts with the same consonant b as the book Genesis, followed by geneseos ("Genesis"), which Burridge[1 p.67] says is a deliberate allusion, because the author then frequently uses the type of genealogical phrase found in Genesis.

1:2–16

At first sight this appears to be a Jewish way to begin a book. Matthew sees no need to go back before Abraham, who he takes as his starting point, unlike Luke who goes back to Adam. Also the style seems formal when compared with the story-telling style in Luke 3:23–38. However, the inclusion of four women among the men, not to mention the fact that three of them were gentiles (Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah, and also Tamar was probably a Canaanite[1 p.68]), and at least three (Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba) bore children in dubious circumstances and a fourth (Rahab) was a harlot by profession, is a radical departure from the Jewish way of giving such an account.

Perhaps the author was trying to forestall unkind remarks about Jesus's irregular birth, e.g. John 8:41. Note that Jesus is sometimes called "Son of Mary"; naming after the mother is said by some to be a sign of illegitimacy, which is consistent with the story of the Virgin Birth, which might otherwise be doubted because not all the Gospels record it and most Epistles ignore it. However Burridge[1] says it is to remind us [and Joseph?] that this is God's son.

1:16

The name Mary is the same name as Miriam, sister of Moses.

1:17

The 42 generations reflect the 42 months of Daniel 9:24 and Revelation 11:5. Six groups of seven names have been completed, suggesting that the era of forward-looking promises and prophecies has run its course.

1:18

See comment on Luke 2:5.

1:19–20

Joseph was inclined, even before God intervened, to take the least harmful response to the situation he found himself in, aiming to quietly ignore Leviticus 22:21f. There is more to righteousness than obeying rules (Hosea 6:6).

1:20

Joseph had a lot to think about: as "a righteous man" he would be very uncomfortable being betrothed to a girl who was pregnant.

1:21

The birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:1–5) was miraculous like that of Jesus; Isaac also was to be sacrificed and received back alive (Genesis 22:2).

By giving Jesus his name, Joseph took on himself the role of father. Thus Jesus was adopted by an earthly father, opening the way for humans to be adopted by our heavenly Father.

1:23

The word "Immanuel" appears within several familiar phrases. The author places it not only here at the beginning of the gospel but also right a the end in Matthew 28:20 "behold, I am with you". The birth of Christ was a sort of fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14 but a much more satisfactory one is prophesied in Revelation 21:3. The angel's use of the name "Immanuel" quotes Isaiah 7:14, which also mentions a young woman, and Isaiah 8:8 where he is identified as the owner of the land of Israel.

It has been claimed that Jesus, even as a baby, retained the infinite power and knowledge that he had in heaven. The founders of the Oxford Movement disagreed, preferring the doctrine "kenosis" meaning emptying. To claim that he retained knowledge that an ordinary baby lacks is to fall into the heresy of Docetism, saying that he only seemed to be a human baby. As I see it, he retained his identity, his character and his authority; he left behind his knowledge, power, and immunity from death.

In Isaiah 7:14 the Hebrew word that is represented here as "virgin" actually means "young woman", an imprecise word that could mean a young wife[2 p.84]. LXX[6] translated it using the Greek word parthenos that implies virginity (like the old English word "maid"; the modern technical term for virgin birth is "parthenogenesis") and that translation is used here as evidence in favour of the Virgin Birth being fulfilment of prophecy. This is reasonable given that Isaiah did not use the usual word for a wife, as one would expect in a sentence about birth, but the less usual one for a younger woman; this may be the reason for the Septuagint choosing the word for virgin.

It has also been pointed out that most of the descriptions of Jesus's birth (such as Mary's question "How can this be?" in Luke 1:34, and Joseph's anxiety over Mary's pregnancy) become meaningless unless we accept that she was a virgin. Similarly our birth to new life is not achieved by anything we do but by God.

2:1

"In this Gospel passage, each character ultimately has to decide to whom their lives will pay homage." [60]

The word "magi" is thought to share a common origin with the word "magician" and indicates people learned in all sorts of sciences. It has been claimed that the Magi were Zoroastrians, who believed in dual gods of good and evil. This religion survives in the Parsees in India who are descended from people exiled from Persia in the 7th or 8th centuries CE.

Christmas Carols assume that there were three, probably because three gifts are mentioned. Ethiopian tradition has it that there were six "wise men": the King of Ethiopia, the King of Yemen, the Kings of Upper and Lower Egypt, and one of them brought two of his brothers. This, with support from Isaiah 49:5–7 and 60:3, is why the Christmas Carols refer to them as "kings". Some carols mention a place called Ophir; this is derived from Ptolemy, and probably equates to the modern Dhofar[42].

The fact that Kings came to worship the baby Jesus indicates that his status was recognised as soon as he was born. Kings bearing gifts were prophesied in Psalm 72:10. The homage of the Magi shows that Jesus is superior to Astrology and earthly kings.

Star: see comments on verse 2 and verse 9.

See Appendix 2 Essenes concerning prophecy of Herod the Great's rule.

2:2

Star: cf. Isaiah 9:2. The reference to a star in the east may mean something that the Magi saw while they were at home in the east, or a star at its time of rising[65], rather than a star that was fixed in the eastern sky.

Some commentators imagine a comet or supernova as the "star", but cannot explain why it is not recorded in the highly reliable Chinese records, nor how a comet, usually seen as a portent of disaster, could be interpreted as a sign of the birth of a king[65].

Some speculate that the Bible says little about the "star" because the Gospel writers did not want to imply that astrology is an appropriate way to seek the truth. However, the Magi said they had seen some celestial sign of Jesus's birth, but what? Modern astronomers have identified various possibilities:

  1. between 7 B.C.E. and 3 B.C.E. there was a "triple conjunction" of the planets in the constellation Pisces (which astrologers associated with Judaea[65]), that is, a conjunction repeated three times in fairly quick succession — an extremely rare event;
  2. in 6 B.C.E Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were seen clustered in the constellation Pisces[65];
  3. a Roman called Maternus wrote in 334 C.E. about an eclipse of Jupiter by the Moon in Aries on 20 March 6 B.C.E. and again on 17 April 6 B.C.E. which was seen by astrologers as signifying the birth of a divine king.[7]

We might also speculate about the glory that the shepherds saw "shining" around Bethlehem (Luke 2:9). However it is clear that the astronomical explanations, though obscure, have the right authenticity, timing and significance, and their very obscurity explains why the Gospels do not record the exact details — no layman could fully understand what the Magi were excited about!

2:5

Herod knew enough about Judaism to identify the Magi's question with God's Christ, and yet he had the audacity to try to thwart God's plans. Perhaps he was thinking of Jeremiah 18:7–10 which tells us that Biblical prophecy is not just tomorrow's newspaper printed today, but rather the consequences of a certain course of actions. The prophesied result is often optional; the hearer can choose to repent and avoid it by doing God's will. However, the forces of evil also heed prophecy, and try to understand God's plans through it in order to defeat them, which is why Revelation cannot and must not give a blow-by-blow account of God's final victory.

It seems remarkable that even in the apparently corrupt court of Herod the Great one could obtain the correct answer to the question "where will the Christ be born?"

2:6

This quotes Micah 5:2.

2:7

Herod's question about when the star appeared might have got a vague answer if (as seems likely — see verse 2) it was not something sudden and dazzling like a supernova but the result of a movement like an eclipse; such a thing doesn't "appear", but it becomes obvious over a time what the climax will be. Consequently Herod could not be sure when Jesus had been born, so he ordered all that the infants under the age of two should be killed.

2:8

Magi: see verse 1.

2:9

The text does not actually say that the kings used the star to guide their journey. They told Herod that they had seen a star informing them of a royal birth, and he sent them to Bethlehem, and the star remained visible as they went.

2:11

The presence of signs in the heavens is curious; cf. the triumphal entry to Jerusalem when Jesus said "I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out". The Magi were gentiles; so the gentiles recognised the Messiah before the Jews did! Jesus received gentile worshippers right at the start of his life.

The Magi make a contrast with the shepherds; the shepherds were poor, probably ignorant, and Jewish; the Magi were rich, knowledgeable and gentile. We are shown the rightness of all types of people coming to worship Jesus. They also met Mary; where was Joseph? The gifts fulfilled Genesis 37:25, Isaiah 18:7 and Isaiah 60:6, and can be compared with the tribute brought to Solomon, the greatest king of Israel; see comment on 1 Kings 10:2.

2:15

cf. Hosea 11:1.

2:16–18

The massacre of the children in Bethlehem can be compared with the Egyptians trying to exterminate male Hebrew babies in Exodus 1:16. This was a dangerous time for Jesus and his family. cf. Psalm 91:7 and Isaiah 43:3.

The historical accuracy of this passage is confirmed by an archaeological dig in Bethlehem which discovered a mass grave dating from Herod's time containing the skeletons of about 100 infants.[8] The skeletons need not all be boys to confirm the story; the soldiers may not have stopped to be careful about the gender of the children who they killed.

2:20

cf. Exodus 4:19. The similar wording portrays Jesus as a new Moses.

2:21

This verse parallels the wording of the previous one, presumably to emphasise that Joseph did precisely what he was told to do, and that this simple obedience was the key to his important ministry to Jesus and Mary.

3–4

These chapters seem to show Jesus being prepared for his ministry of taking away our sins through his obedience to death. In Matthew 3:15 Jesus consciously takes the place deserved by the sinful. Then he is obedient perhaps to the point of hallucination through prolonged fasting, and resists temptations to disobedience.

Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are; therefore he must have had other temptations, perhaps at other times. The example of Jesus shows that it is normal to suffer spiritual attack after blessing, and it is not sinful to be tempted.

3:1

cf. Isaiah 40:3. Matthew's account of John the Baptist is very similar to that in Luke 3, but he emphasizes Jewish Pharisees and Sadducees coming to John, while Luke emphasizes soldiers and tax-collectors.

3:2

John's message "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" was taken up by Jesus in Matthew 4:17, and he told his disciples to preach the same message in Matthew 10:7.

3:4

cf. 2 Kings 1:8. Royalty are usually preceded by people wearing rich gowns in bright colours; Jesus came to be a much more humble sort of king, so it was appropriate that he was preceded by John the Baptist.

3:6

= Mark 1:5. Sinners came and confessed their sins; Jesus was in their midst, but having no sins to confess, he kept silent and was affirmed by the Father (3:17).

3:9–10

See comment on Matthew 18:12.

3:11

cf. Acts 2:3. John's statement is curious because at that time it was not generally expected that the Messiah would be divine; did he regard Jesus as more holy?

3:12

The winnowing fork is the tool for separating the wheat from the chaff, which involves rough treatment, because they tend to cling together. Similarly the angels who were sent to get Lot and his family out of Sodom before its destruction had to be rough with them (Genesis 19:16).

3:13

= Mark 1:9f, Luke 3:21f, John 1:29f.

God's words echo Isaiah 42:1.

3:14–15

The Jews used baptism as a symbol of "turning over a new leaf"; the water symbolised a cleaning process. Going for baptism signified a public acknowledgement of sin and announcement of repentance. However, in Jesus's case there may be more of a sense of the Old Testament anointing the New, fulfilling Daniel 9:25–26. In Luke 16:16 Jesus says that the start of John's ministry was the start of the New Testament era.

John the Baptist was rightly concerned that the sinless Son of God could not come to him to acknowledge sin and repentance. But baptism was not irrelevant to Jesus; in a sense it was particularly relevant to him, because in submitting to it he was accepting his unique calling by showing his willingness literally to die for us and to trust his rebirth to a new life to the hands of his Father.

Jesus was baptised because his ministry was to take the place of sinners. This event is therefore rightly regarded as the watershed where Jesus's ministry starts. Its importance is demonstrated both by the Father's confirmation and the immediate start of attacks from the enemy. Also, by submitting to John's baptism, Jesus authenticates it and a clear link is made between the Prophets and the New Testament.

Christian baptism is a human action that symbolises death (going into the water) and new birth (coming out of the water). In submitting to the baptizer the baptised signifies willingness to die to old ways and be reborn into a new life. (Paul compares it to burial in Colossians 2:12, and says what has to be put to death in Colossians 3:5.) And the action can be expected to receive a response from God, corresponding to the dove (representing the Holy Spirit) descending on Jesus.

3:16–17

See comment on Luke 3:21.

The voice and the Holy Spirit at Jesus's baptism fulfils the Servant Song in Isaiah 42:1. A voice said similar words at the Transfiguration. Jesus's commission was confirmed after going into the Jordan; the Hebrews were given instructions after crossing the red sea. Jesus may have regarded this voice as his authority for ministry (Matthew 21:23–27).

3:17

= Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, cf. Matthew 4:1. A dove and the desert are connected in Psalm 55:6–7. Doves seem always to represent innocent victims; not only Psalms 55 and 74 but also the name of the tune to which Psalm 56 was set, and the use of a dove or young pigeon for sacrifice (Leviticus 1:14 and 12:6).

4:1–11

The 40 days in the wilderness is reminiscent of the Israelites' 40 years of wandering (Deuteronomy 8:2); see also Appendix 1 Lot, or (more powerfully) Moses' 40 days receiving the Law, see Mark 1:13. Each was followed by a vivid demonstration of God's power. The desert was the place where the Hebrews learned to follow the pillar of fire (Exodus 13:18, 13:21), learned to rely on God rather than a full cupboard (Exodus 16:4), and received the Law (Exodus 24:12).

Wilderness is morally and spiritually essential because it reminds us that humans do not own and control everything. We have to leave civilisation for the wilderness to face loss of control — or at least, to know that the possibility of doing so still exists — to get a proper perspective.[9] The wilderness is also a place where everyday distractions are far away and thoughts that might ordinarily be hidden by those distractions are exposed and need to be dealt with.

The writer to the Hebrews says that "Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are". The three temptations recorded here are therefore usually regarded as generic examples, representing sins of the body, mind and spirit. The Hebrews fell for them all, but Jesus resisted them all. Unfortunately there seems to be little consensus about how they are representative of all temptation. This link opens a new window showing my offering.

The book that follows Hebrews in the Bible is the letter of James. James 1:12–13 exposes a puzzle. The miraculous incarnation of Jesus as a man gave him the same susceptibility to temptation that we have, though he is God, who naturally is immune to temptation. In fact, if you define sin as disobeying God, and temptation as an inclination to sin, then it is ridiculous to speak of God being tempted. Jesus's dual nature had curious effects.

Nouwen explained the three temptations as the compulsion of the world to be relevant, spectacular and powerful.[10] An alternative view is that society lures all of us using three "P"s: power, prestige and possessions.[11] Society tells us to value these things and use them as a measure of success, but the Christian regards them as temptations. Philips wrote "Self-control is the key to our lifelong health and happiness", citing scenarios where patience led to the optimum reward.[12]

Jesus "was in the wilderness for us just as surely as he was crucified for us".[13 p.43] The prayer-book Collect for the first Sunday of Lent confirms it "O LORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights...".

Research at the University of Chicago shows that we spend on average three to four hours a day resisting temptation by willpower. Willpower, regardless of what it is trying to achieve, uses a measurable amount of energy (glucose, specifically). Our willpower gets depleted with use. However "Willpower resembles a muscle also in that it can be strengthened by exercise." When one is tired of resisting the temptation to eat, one is less able to resist any temptation. That is why dieting is difficult.[14]

4:1

See comments on Matthew 3:17 and James 1:13.

4:2

See comment on Mark 1:13.

4:3–4

= Luke 4:4. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3, cf. John 6:27. Unlike Esau (Genesis 25:29–34) he resists this temptation. cf. Hebrews 12:16. So scripture taken out of context can be used by Satan to divert us from God's way, and only our knowledge of other scriptures will keep us from error.

Without the scriptures we have no map and no compass to help us find the way. By checking our consciences against scripture we know what we ought to do. Therefore I do not think that this story tells us that we must quote scripture at Satan to defeat him — he knows what it says already, and used it as a starting point when tempting Jesus — rather it tells us that we must know what the scriptures say, so that we know which actions to do, and which to avoid.

4:6

Satan quotes Psalm 91:12. See comment on Luke 24:25–27.

4:7

Jesus appears to be quoting Deuteronomy 6:16.

4:9

This is the temptation Jesus warned us about in Matthew 16:26.

4:10

One key difference between us and Jesus is that he defeated Satan in his own right but we cannot; therefore we must tell Satan to depart "in Jesus's name" so that we rely on his superior power.

4:12

Perhaps John's imprisonment made Jesus seek the security of a more remote region.

4:15

The quotation is from Isaiah 9:1.

4:17

John's imprisonment, which brought his ministry to an abrupt end, prompted Jesus to take over the work of preaching repentance.

The words "from that time" recur in Matthew 16:21 and thus divide the Gospel into three sections. Matthew sees this as a pivotal event, the beginning of a new phase in Jesus's life.

Jesus's message "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" was originally used by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:2, and he told his disciples to preach the same message in Matthew 10:7.

4:18

See comments on Mark 1:16 and Appendix 2 Net.

4:19

In Genesis 3:9 God called for Adam and Eve to walk with him in the Garden of Eden; here Jesus calls disciples to walk with him in order to learn his ministry; and today the Holy Spirit calls us to follow too. God is still trying to get us to relate to him.

4:20

The immediate reaction to Jesus's call is like that of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19–21.

5:1–2

It appears that the Disciples gathered around Jesus, as a class around their teacher, but the crowd was also able to hear. See comment on Luke 6:17.

5:3–11

cf. Matthew 11:5. See remarks about the Sermon on the Mount in the background to Matthew's Gospel. Matthew puts the Beatitudes (nick-named the "beautiful attitudes") in the future tense — things will someday be good for the poor — unlike Luke 6:20f and 2 Corinthians 12:9. Perhaps the Beatitudes promise that the injustices of this world will be put right in heaven, cf. the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19f). See also Luke 18:9–14. But in the present age, the "blessed" should have an easy conscience and ready access to God.

Jesus takes the simplistic rewards for right living in Psalm 1 and turns them into a more subtle statement perhaps inspired by Ecclesiastes 7. It appears from these words that the poor of this world have most to gain from the Gospel, while those who have used the system to become rich can only lose out.

There is tension even within the Beatitudes themselves: those who strive for righteousness tend to disturb the peace. Perhaps the purpose of the Beatitudes is to remind us that there are two sides to every coin. Many things that seem attractive, such as wealth and power, actually draw us away from God, so we should not pursue them.

The Beatitudes emphasise that Christian values are directly opposed to worldly values, which is why each beatitude is counter-intuitive. When Jesus met people who considered themselves rich they went away empty-handed (Luke 1:53, and see comment on Luke 14:15) or rather their hands were full of the same things as when they arrived. Only those with empty hands leave with gifts. (see Morisy[15 p.69] for practical instances of the grace of the poor).

When Jesus says that the merciful shall receive mercy, does he imply that the unmerciful will not? Jesus's comment that "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last" (Matthew 19:30) completes the picture.

Our deepest desire is for God, and our more earthly desires are echoes of it[67 p.12]. The Beatitudes can be understood by looking for a sequence of conversion events. Verses 3–5 describe realisation of need; verse 6 describes receiving the Holy Spirit; and in the following verses the fruits of the Spirit appear. Also it is instructive to consider how Jesus reacted to people who were humble etc., remembering that "he who has seen me has seen the Father".

A Franciscan blessing, widely disseminated on the internet, captures the sense:

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half truths and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

5:3

Poor in Spirit cf. Psalm 34:18, Psalm 37:11, Psalm 51:17, Isaiah 5, Joel 2:12–13.

The "blessed" are people that God considers special. It follows that, even if they receive no obvious blessing, we must not look down on them, and nor should we feel disregarded by God if we find ourselves in these situations. We are "poor in spirit" when we recognise "the reality of our unworthiness in contrast to God".[17]

There is a Gospel for the rich (e.g. Luke 19:7): the "poor in spirit" are those who, like Christ, do not reckon wealth something they own, something to be grasped, but a gift from God to be used. They view themselves modestly, releasing their money for generosity.[19] Their money often enables them to exercise choice and control, but they do not see it as any use for salvation, but rely on God. They are characterised by a willingness to give to the poor, rather than despising the poor, and by thankfulness for what they have, rather than complaint. They are free from slavery to money, and free to use it well.

"For whom is your money good news?" [18] Some may give until it hurts, thereby entering into the suffering of the poor, but this is not the essence of the concept. Basically the idea is that the rewards in the next world far outweigh the costs in this. As Paul said, "I count all things as refuse compared with the outstanding benefit of knowing Jesus as my saviour".

Christianity is becoming dominated by the "middle class", which might seem natural in a society that is dominated by the middle class, but does not reflect Jesus's priorities. There are a number of expectations placed on many church-goers that are more acceptable to the middle class than working class: no smoking in church; use several books at once; listen to theoretical discussion; keep silent unless invited to contribute; behave with dignity at all times.

Someone seeking to minister to the poor should bear in mind that God has given them a particular kind of blessing and joy, which we should look for in order to co-operate with what God is doing in their lives. Each of us should not complain but rather celebrate the life God has given us and his presence in it. We do this not by denying our discomforts but by recognising that each has a flip-side of blessing.[20] See comment on Jude 16.

The situations mentioned in the Beatitudes operate as "means of grace" like the Sacraments. Perhaps the poor have a special closeness to the truth on account of "their closeness to the stark realities of life".[21] But also the Bible gives evidence that God chooses poor and ordinary people to fulfill his purposes, as Mary's Magnificat celebrates (Luke 1:46–55).

5:4

Those who mourn This Beatitude is missing from Luke 6. The thought may parallel that in Psalm 23:4 and Psalm 34:18, and its inclusion here suggests that Matthew is more interested in OT allusions than Luke. Those references could apply to either personal bereavement or despair at the state of the world; the beatitudes hang together better if it means the latter. Alternatively it may promise blessing to those who accept suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

5:5

cf. James 4:10. "Meek" literally means something like "moderate" as opposed to extreme, a philosophers' word introduced when earlier Greek ideas about everything being polarised into opposites like good and evil fell out of favour. It implies open-mindedness, seeing both sides, willingness to listen, and courtesy. Some scholars believe it may have come over to the original hearers as a joke, rather like saying "blandness is the peak of achievement". However, a more accurate translation of the Greek is "Blessed are those who recognize their total need of God".[22]

The benefit "inheriting the earth" may indicate a restoration of the situation before the Fall.

But perhaps we should be looking to comparable passages in the Bible to understand this verse. Psalm 37:9 says that it is those who trust in God who will inherit the land, so perhaps Jesus is calling for a patient trust rather than anxious striving. Again, not every individual will inherit the whole land; this is a corporate blessing.

5:6

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness might mean hunger for personal holiness or for justice to be done everywhere. The same is true of verse 20 which develops the theme. Perhaps the ambiguity is deliberate because both meanings are intended. There is also ambiguity about whether incomplete blessing now or complete blessing in heaven is meant.

5:7

The merciful are those who empathise with people who are suffering. This is therefore not a ministry limited to those who are in positions of earthly power. Indeed, a poor Christian can be actively merciful (rather than merely sympathetic) using God's resources. cf. Psalm 24:3–4, James 2:13.

5:8–9

The pure in heart and the peacemakers cf. Psalm 24:3–6.

5:10–12

The persecuted Those who promote good are opposed by those who gain by evil. Members of God's enlarged family should be ready for persecution — see Matthew 10:24–25. We may ask "why?" but we have to remember that not only do we live in a sinful world, but also we are part of the problem; we all choose Satan's way sometimes, causing others to suffer, so none of us can "cast the first stone" (John 8:7). We all deserve judgement and punishment for our sins, though we hope through the Gospel for God's mercy. We are also representatives of our innocent but suffering Saviour who warned us that we will be treated similarly (Matthew 10:24f). Of the two, it is far better to suffer when we are innocent, because that is Christ-like and noble (1 Peter 4:13–16). The mystery of suffering is not that some suffer, but that some apparently do not. cf. James 1:2

Bonhoeffer[23] interprets this verse as showing that someone who suffers for a righteous secular cause will be blessed in a way that leads them toward God; Mary makes comparable statements in the Magnificat in Luke 1:52–53. See also comments on Matthew 10:14.

5:13

Salt is found in a number of places from which analogies might be drawn, such as tears and bread. It has been suggested that in biblical times rock-salt was sold in its unrefined state, and contained both Sodium Chloride and many other soluble or insoluble substances, and that it was used by washing out the sodium chloride leaving a residue that still looked like rock-salt but had no further use. Whether or not this speculation is correct, it is clear that both salt and light are useful only inasmuch as they get into unsalted and dark places and change them. The salt and light get diluted and appear to be weakened when in fact they are increasingly effective. Sometimes we fall into thinking that we are called to be "all sweetness and light" but in fact sweetness does not come into it. We need to learn to be meek yet salty. Salt is dry and rather bitter at times. Wet salt is disgusting and tends to get discarded.

Salt changes its environment in a number of ways: it is sometimes used to boost a cleaning process; it makes one thirsty; it brings out flavour; it acts as a preservative.

5:16

Taken at face value, this verse means that we're to let our light shine. But actually it isn't our light, but God's light, reflected off us — rather like the moon, reflecting the sun's light into dark places. Witnessing with our lives helps but is not sufficient. People will not know to give the glory to God unless we tell them that he is the source of our strength.

But this verse needs to be interpreted alongside others that appear to say the opposite such as Matthew 23:5; see comment on Matthew 6:3–4.

Re-interpreting the Law

5:17

Jesus says he does not want to abolish the Law, but he immediately starts showing how he interprets it. His interpretation is stricter than the letter of the Law, showing that the Law is insufficient to save; it is an indication of the way to go, but not the eventual goal. He starts by giving his own interpretation of three of the Ten Commandments, presumably to show what he means by worked examples. Then he moves on to other Old Testament laws. See comment on Psalm 1:2 and Matthew 16:19.

5:18

cf. Ecclesiastes 3:14. The apparent contradiction between Jesus's mercy to sinners (e.g. the woman taken in adultery) and his statement that not one iota of the Law shall pass away is explained by Galatians 3:1–14 and demonstrated in Mark 7:18–19. See comment on Psalm 1:2.

5:19

For a list of verses describing the qualities of great people, see Index G, Greatest Person.

"Do not commit murder"

5:20–26

See comment on Matthew 5:6. Jesus is now going into detail about his interpretation of the Law, which was a traditional way for rabbis to teach. He starts with the 6th commandment (Exodus 20:13). All three Synoptic gospels record Jesus using the Greek word for murder, clarifying the Commandment[3 p.104]. Killing under orders in war, or applying the death sentence, are not covered.

5:20

As an example of "the righteousness of the Pharisees", consider Saul persecuting the church (Acts 8) before meeting the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road (Acts 9). As a pharisee, he persecuted those he considered ungodly. He was righteous in his own eyes, but failed to show the character of God.

Nobody on the planet is good enough to go to heaven without spoiling its perfection. The only way to go to heaven is to be made perfect when you die. That calls for humility on our part, and we shouldn't be scornful when other people are annoying or stupid.

5:21–22

Jesus appears at first sight to be altering or superseding the law of Moses. However this is precisely what he said in verse 17 he had not come to do. The key is verse 43 where it is clear that what the people had heard was different from what Leviticus actually says ("love your neighbour as yourself") so Jesus is getting at the teachers who have indeed relaxed the law to mean less than God intended and therefore are the least in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is here teaching us how the law should have been interpreted.

Jesus calls for mercy instead of persecution. See comment on Psalm 1:2.

5:22

Words can hurt as surely as weaopons. Matthew 7:3–5 reminds us that criticizing others for faults that we also show is hypocrisy, and it is for hypocrisy that we will be judged when we criticize others. It is not the anger that is sinful, but the hypocrisy behind it. See Ephesians 4:26. Jesus uses as examples two different insults: the first means "fool" or "dimwit", that is, someone lacking intelligence, and the second means someone lacking moral fibre. Luke 10:27 indicates that Jesus seeks purity in our thoughts as well as our actions.

5:23–26

Our tendency to be annoying or foolish means that we must be on the lookout for the need to apologise and seek reconciliation for what we have done wrong. The matter is so serious that it should take priority over worship.

The 20th Century revivals have often had reconciliation between Christians as their starting point, opening the way to reconciliation with God through repentance. The process may be painful but is worthwhile.

"Do not commit adultery"

5:27–28

Jesus continues to discuss his interpretation of the Law, moving on to the 7th commandment (Exodus 20:14). The Greek word translated "look" means sustained watching rather than an accidental glance.

5:29–30

To think that Jesus is advocating self-mutilation, as some do, is ridiculous; he spent much of his ministry healing people, particularly of blindness (Luke 7:21). To understand what he means we should start by noting the context of these two verses: verse 28 is about looking lustfully and verse 31 is about divorce, a likely outcome of looking lustfully. So Jesus has not changed the topic but the whole of this section is about sexual purity. Our eyes and hands may be put towards sinful use in the service of our lustful desires, or they can be used to serve God.

Jesus is not telling us to mutilate ourselves, which would leave us without the possibility of either sin or service, and with reduced capacity for receiving God's blessing (Luke 9:62). The lesson we are to learn is the same one as taming the tongue in James 3:1–12. We have free will, and God's rightful rule over everything is only effective in our bodies if we are careful to use them in obedience to him (Luke 9:23, Romans 13:14).

5:31–32

See comment on Matthew 19:9.

"Do not swear falsely"

5:33

Jesus continues to discuss his interpretation of the Law, now dealing with the 3rd commandment (Exodus 20:7).

5:34–37

cf. James 5:12 and Sirach 23:9.

Other laws

5:38–47

The Sermon on the Mount is about not being legalistic. God wants us to go beyond saying "you don't deserve that" without considering what the person really needs. Jesus sees that the purpose of the Law was not to make people keep it, but to show them that they are sinners needing God's mercy. Therefore we should not resist an evildoer as if we were perfect and they were despicable. We should consider, what motivates the person to behave like that? What is it that they need? Have I withheld what is their due? And now we're loving our enemies, wondering what they need, and how they can be helped.

5:38

cf. Exodus 21:24. Jesus has moved on from discussing the Ten Commandments to the other Old Testament laws.

5:39

cf. Lamentations 3:30, Luke 6:29, Romans 12:19.

5:41

Perhaps Jesus meant that just doing what you are forced to do for others is sin; God wants us to do a lot more — see Appendix 2 Sin.

5:44

cf. Exodus 23:4, Job 31:29, Matthew 5:20. David (in Psalm 69:21) and Jesus (in Matthew 27:34) were both given vinegar to drink when they were thirsty (a bitter "cup"). David lived under the Old Covenant and was allowed to curse his enemies (Psalm 69:28), whereas Jesus practised the New Covenant requirement to "love your enemies" when he prayed for their forgiveness (Luke 23:34). Thus Jesus demonstrated by his own actions that part the Sermon on the Mount should be taken as literal instructions — though some of it is given figuratively, such as Matthew 5:29–30.

5:48

cf. verse 20; Jesus concludes his interpretation of the Law. The trouble with laws is that you can keep them, and think you're a model citizen, so the problem must be everyone else. So Jesus raised the bar. The word often translated "perfect" is translated elsewhere "mature" or "adult"; it implies a process that takes time. The idea of reaching perfection inspired the monastic movement. Pagan ideas think of perfection as a static condition; Gregory of Nyssa, a Christian writer of the 4th Century, said that the Christian understanding is the opposite; to be human is to change. Also we must be clear that we are talking about moral and spiritual perfection, not physical perfection.

6:1–21

These verses show that praying, giving or fasting in order to impress others is ridiculous; the prayer might be addressed to God but the intended audience is other people so the words are likely to bounce off the ceiling. God is not likely to answer, because he is unlikely to be the one who is glorified. The result is that an action that ought to have had a spiritual effect has an earthly effect instead. Verses 21–23 comment that such actions are a symptom of spiritual blindness; the implication is that if only one could see clearly how important eternal things are, earthly cares would fade into insignificance. Verses 24 to the end of the chapter diagnose that such showing-off indicates insecurity; insecurity comes from not trusting God for our needs. If we are in a proper relationship with Him, and fix our thoughts on heavenly things, he will look after our earthly needs as well.

6:2

The word translated "hypocrites" is literally "actors" i.e. posers. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. That means you will be able to pray about things to which you have given your money.

6:3–4

These verses need to be interpreted alongside Matthew 5:16 which appears to say the opposite. The key to the conundrum is to note that our good deeds are to draw attention not to us but to God. We must avoid pride, which is the thrust of this verse. We are not to concel our good deeds, but neither should we show off.

6:4

cf. Acts 20:35.

6:5f

Jesus may be proposing of Daniel as a model (Daniel 6:10) though (having no room to call his own) he went into the hills — Matthew 14:23.

6:7–11

It is not entirely clear whether the first two of these verses are just part of the argument leading to verse 11 (relating to our relationships with God, that is "pray for what you want and need") or a separate instruction (relating to our relationships with people, that is "be bolder asking for favours"). The former is the usual interpretation.

6:9–13

The Lord's Prayer (also found in Luke 11). Matthew places it in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, implying that prayer is central to godly life. There is no record that Jesus himself ever prayed using precisely these words, so it seems likely that he did not expect his disciples to recite them either, but to see this as an indication of how to talk to God. Hooker[24] argued that since Jesus was talking to Jews who were used to reciting whatever prayers one recited in synagogues or at home, Jesus was teaching them how to do something new, by giving a pattern for making up their own prayers. Nevertheless Hooker supported the idea of reciting the Lord's Prayer in worship, as a benchmark against which the other prayers can be checked.

"the Lord's Prayer...consists of six petitions: three expressing our passion for the glory of God (his name, kingdom and will), followed by three expressing our dependence on his grace (for our daily bread, forgiveness of our sins and deliverance from evil). Dependence is a fundamental attitude for all of us whenever we say the Lord's Prayer."[25]

By putting God first, the prayer echoes Matthew 6:33.

6:9

Our: the word traditionally used in English translations is plural which implies praying together, so prayer can and should be a communal activity, but note also that Jesus often prayed alone (Luke 5:16), so we should do both.

Father: the word Father was applied to Zeus[26], and is found in Psalm 89:26, Isaiah 63:16 and Jeremiah 31:9. Calling God "Father" fits with Jesus's teaching about being child-like in Matthew 18:3f.

When Jesus taught the disciples through the parable of the man disturbed in the night by a neighbour with hungry visitors wanting bread, the key players in the story include the man's children. The man is reluctant to get up to answer his friend's request, yet if one of his children made a similar request his reaction would be much more positive and generous. We are God's children, and can expect not the grudging response that Jesus describes, but the generous response natural to a father. Stott[2 p.69] quotes Jeremias pp 19–20 as saying that "nowhere in the prayers of ancient Judaism — a treasure all too little explored — is this invocation of God as Abba to be found...Jesus on the other hand always used it when he prayed". The closest that Judaism comes to this is a prayer in the current Reformed Synagogue Service Book (Morning Service V) which addresses God as "Our Father, Our King" — a respectful address rather different from Abba or "Daddy" (cf. Psalm 89:26). We should not think that Jesus was diminishing the greatness of God when he taught us to use a familiar term with the Father, but that he was indicating that Christians are elevated to the status of fellow-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17).

Name: the Hebrew word for "name" conveys something more like "nature".

6:10

This is the heart of the prayer. "When we pray for God's Kingdom to come, we are not asking for an earthly or territorial kingdom but for God's kingly reign and rule (already inaugurated by Christ) to come more fully into our lives, both individual and corporate." [27]

The word "will" is used in the legal sense, as in "Last Will and Testament", meaning what God wants to happen. The fact that we are told to pray for God's will to be done and his kingdom to come means that these things have not fully happened yet. We live in a time not of victory but of battle. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves where God's will is not being done, and focus our prayers there.

6:11

daily bread: cf. manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4).

6:12

=Luke 11:4. Does this verse mean that we will only be forgiven if we manage to forgive those who offend us? Or does it mean, we have no right to ask more, though we hope God will be generous? cf. Ecclesiasticus 28:2; see comments on verses 14–15.

6:13

the time of trial: Testing is painful, and we get plenty of it, but it can lead to growth — James 1:2–8, 1 Peter 1:7. Jesus prayed not to be tested in Matthew 26:39.

When the Lord's Prayer is recited 1 Chronicles 29:11 is usually added at the end.

6:14–15

Prayer is blocked by lack of forgiveness. How can one pray for somebody against whom one holds a grudge? (see Matthew 5:44). Also since mercy is central to God's work, someone who will not forgive is not in tune with heaven. c.f. verse 12, Matthew 18:35, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37, John 20:23. The principle is illustrated by the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21f.

Before Moses, revenge was unlimited. "An eye for an eye" put a limit on it, but violence might still be unending. So, only the principle of forgiveness, as exemplified by Matthew 5:38–39, can bring peace to the earth.[28]

6:19–24

These verses are all about greed and coveting. Jesus mentions the eyes because they are pivotal in our approach to life. Do we see the glass half full (and give thanks) or half empty (and whinge)? Do we see what others have and covet it? We should remember that lust for wealth draws us away from God (:24). See Philippians 4:17 for St Paul's idea of one way of accumulating wealth in heaven, and John 6:27.

6:20

cf. 1 Corinthians 3:15.

6:22–23

This verse indicates that what went before is a kind of blindness.

6:24

If we could see clearly we should understand that if we consistently obey something other than God, such as economics, we depose God from his rightful throne in our lives. See also Luke 14:26.

These verses read, in English translations at least, as if "you cannot serve God and mammon" was the pivot that explains the drift of this whole paragraph, but careful reading shows that verse 19 is the key, and "God and mammon" is just one item in a list of ways in which greed can catch the unwary.

6:25f

The words "Take therefore no thought for the morrow" could be seen as an invitation to eat drink and be merry, or to live beyond our means; but surely that's not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus was talking to a large crowd in the middle of nowhere. They probably should have been at work, but they'd taken time off, because Jesus's teaching and healing was important. So perhaps they were half listening, and half worrying about the jobs they hadn't done. So Jesus said "seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness", affirming their decision to spend time with him, just as he affirmed Mary while Martha worked in the kitchen (Luke 10:38–42). Rather than building up treasures on earth, we should focus on treasure in heaven. C H Spurgeon said "anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength". This teaching seems quite obvious, yet we find it so difficult to put it into practice. "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). See also James 4:13–16.

6:26

cf. Matthew 12:12; see comment on Luke 12:24.

6:31

Jesus is not urging that we shouldn't work for our food and clothing. The Sermon on the Mount is about priorities; our main concerns should be about the Kingdom of Heaven, and other concerns should take second place.

6:32

Why is it necessary to ask, seek and knock for what we need given that our Heavenly Father knows our needs? Jesus tells us it is unnecessary to tell God what we need. It seems ridiculous to think that God ignores our needs until we press for help, because he loves us (though the necessity of Moses to keep his hands uplifted in prayer for the battle shows that evil may obstruct the flow of God's blessings to us).

The most likely explanation is that it is good for us to ask, because then

  1. we have acknowledged our own insufficiency;
  2. we have acknowledged that while God may usually give even pagans what they ask for, he might not always give it,
  3. it may be necessary for us to declare formally our will, even if it conflicts with our natural desires, as did Jesus at Gethsemane, and
  4. when God's provision arrives we will know where it came from, which glorifies God.

It also focuses our minds on observing God's choices, from which we learn first-hand about his character.

6:33

Jesus is effectively quoting Psalm 37:4. cf. Mark 7:18–19, John 4:32, Romans 14:2, Romans 14:17–22. He puts God first in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13).

7:1–2

This should be read alongside the teaching in the subsequent verses about specks and planks in the eye, where we can see that we do have a duty to try to help each other, but not with a judgemental attitude. See also 1 Corinthians 5:12–13.

Children often say "it isn't fair". We all choose legalism very readily. God is just, and if we choose to apply the law to others, it applies to ourselves also, as shown by the parable of the man forgiven a huge debt (Matthew 18:23–35). If we judge others, we are also judged — and inevitably found wanting. Arnott says that experience shows that if we hold onto a judgmental attitude rather than forgiving a hurt we lay ourselves open to attack, and we hold back the unforgiven person from being recreated by God's spirit.

7:1–5

This is a carpenter's parable! The words "do not judge" cannot mean "do not use your judgment", which cannot be reconciled with verse 6, but must mean "do not condemn".

Don't condemn, but help! That is how God treats us. (We are not being told not to exercise our faculties for judgement, because otherwise we could not see the speck in our brother's eye, or determine which pearls we should not put before which swine.) What we must not do is to set ourselves up over our fellow-men. We are all sinners. We see sin in others but we do much the same things ourselves, particularly when we remember that hate is akin to murder (Matthew 5:21) and lust to adultery (Matthew 5:27). The fundamental problem, the sin that blinds us to our own faults, is pride[62].

There are varying interpretations of the application of God's standards to our constantly varying human societies. There are varying interpretations of the apparent conflict between "not being under law but grace" and "not one iota being cancelled". God will see to it that all are judged fairly, perhaps even generously, according to their understanding — see Amos 1–2. Our judgements of others are a clear indication of our understanding of how God's standards apply in our environment, thus giving a fair way of establishing the standards against we should be judged.

"New converts may have zeal but they do not always have wisdom and maturity"; our ministry to others ought not to begin until some of our own issues have been dealt with.[13 p.42] cf. St Paul after his conversion. Jesus "was in the wilderness for us just as surely as he was crucified for us".[13 p.43]

7:4

The analogy of the plank in the eye seems absurd. This is a carpenter speaking and specks and planks (and perhaps dust in the eye) were his everyday experience. The plank sounds like hyperbole taken too far but we are presumably supposed to learn from this that our secret sins, the sins hidden within our hearts, are seen by God as very serious indeed. If our brother needs help in removing his speck of dust, will we not also need help in removing our plank? Not only is our plank larger than the other person's speck, it prevents us from seeing the other person's situation clearly.

Therefore, rather than drawing attention to the problems of others, our conversation should dwell on seeking help and forgiveness for our own sins from those affected or able to help. It is absurd and offensive to consider the small faults others more worthy of comment than the gross faults of our own. If we have a real problem with our brother's behaviour then Matthew 18:15f tells us what to do.

7:6

Pigs and dogs were considered unclean animals (2 Peter 2:22, Proverbs 9:8). What is it that we must not cast before swine? Is it Holy Communion? Or does it mean don't preach to them about their specks of dust because the fundamental problem is they are not trying to see?

The usual interpretation is that we should not to witness before people who have already rejected it, as in Matthew 10:14, Acts 13:51. See Luke 16:19–31: the refusal to send more warnings to those who are perishing (like Jonah) may illustrate the meaning of "pearls before swine". Perhaps this is a case for "preaching constantly, if necessary using words", that is, letting our different way of life do the witnessing. It seems reasonable to apply this passage to other situations where good intentions can have bad effects, such as giving money to a beggar who seems likely to spend it unwisely.

Perhaps we should also look at the other side of the coin and ask if we are failing to give the best to our brothers, who will appreciate it, while preaching to those who do not. Preaching is useless to anyone who has not accepted God's authority; they must first be loved into the Kingdom. Then they will know what the pearls are for.

7:7–27

Through these verses there is a recurring theme that entering the Kingdom of heaven requires significant effort.

7:7

cf. John 14:13–14.

7:9

cf. Psalm 84:11.

7:10

=Luke 11:11.

7:11

cf. Luke 11:13.

7:12

cf. discussion of the "Great Commandment" in Matthew 22:37–39. This seems unconnected with verses 11 and 13. Luke 6:31 seems more appropriate, and we should not read too much into the context because the gospels differ on it. This verse (known to most as "do as you would be done by") is probably the only phrase in the Sermon on the Mount that those who glibly claim to live by it (but have probably never read it) would recognise. It has been known from ancient times; the Rabbis called it the "golden rule".

The verse seems so clear that it needs no explanation, yet it is profoundly difficult in practice, being utterly contrary to our natural selfishness. Biblical living cannot be done as a secret intellectual exercise, because it fundamentally alters how we relate to everyone we meet.

7:13

This is generally considered to be the start of a summing-up and conclusions section. We appear to have a variety of paths to choose from, but Jesus says that in reality there are only two, because all bar one lead to the same destination. "Destruction" is the work of Satan, and must equate to hell, because it is the opposite of Creation which is the work of God. That multitude of paths is actually a single very broad path.

However, we must be careful not to confuse the narrowness of the path to God in a legalistic way. We all lose our way from time to time; the point is that we need to recognise when we have strayed, and take urgent steps to find the path again. Fellow-Christians can help us on both counts.

The different widths of the paths has the result that those who are indecisive and aim for the middle way are bound to find themselves on the broad way — see Sin. This means that hedging your bets will not succeed. The broad path is also the easier one — see Lot.

It is curious that there are gates on these paths. Paths remain available but gates can close. If you delay going through a gate you might not be able to do so later. You might be able to open the gate from this side but not from the other. This implies that the path to God may close up for us, for example at death, or when the last trumpet sounds. On other occasions Jesus spoke of a door rather than a gate; you cannot see what is the other side of a door, so you have to infer what is there and enter by faith rather than by sight.

7:13

St Augustine wondered what makes this gate so small; he concluded that it is not that it is strait or narrow of itself, but that we wish to take in our pride, our self-will, our sins.

7:15

The section about false prophets leaves a number of unanswered questions. Who should act and how? The sermon appears to be intended for all to hear so presumably we should all consider what we are taught critically in the light of the Bible. However, elsewhere Jesus says that good shepherds protect their flocks, so perhaps pastors have a special duty to protect their flocks from false teaching. This fits in well with Jesus's statement that a pastor who leads the flock astray would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.

7:16–18

cf. James 2:17.

7:21–23

cf. Luke 6:46, Acts 19:13f and see comment on Mark 14:45.

"What you do speaks so loudly that I can't hear what you say." [68]

7:22

cf. Jeremiah 23:38-end. How do we recognise false prophets? Firstly we compare their ideas with the Bible. But also we should look for a tendency to damage rather than build up the flock. Most false prophets deny Christ's divinity, or his humanity, or say that the wide road is okay.

7:23

cf. Hosea 8:2; if the similarity is deliberate, Jesus is implying that people are in danger of complete destruction, the fate prophesied to Israel and, because they did not repent, duly carried out (see on Hosea 13:8–9). Also cf. Luke 12:8.

7:24

The sermon should have the effect that its hearers act differently afterwards. Jesus speaks of actions so different as to be a clear indication of the allegiance of the heart (though the difference becomes clearer with time, as shown by the parable of the weeds). Hearing the right things and saying the right things may fool ourselves and those around but not God, who looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), cf. Matthew 23:23.

These verses would have resonated with the contemporary Stoic philosophy, which taught that human wounds are self-inflicted.[29 p.189]

7:27

Peter learned a related lesson in Matthew 14:30; when he looked at the problem the storm overcame him, but while he looked at the Lord, he stood firm.

8:3

This simple verse may not convey to modern readers the enormity of what Jesus did. By touching a leper he risked infecting himself and made himself ritually unclean. Christian healing is not without cost.

8:4

Don't talk, act! Actions speak louder than words.

8:5–13

cf. Numbers 20:1–13, John 4:46.

8:15

Healing is preparation for service.

8:16

See comments on Mark 1:32.

8:27

cf. Psalm 89:9. See comment on Mark 4:39.

9:2

The NRSV omits the clear meaning that the paralytic was being brought to Jesus.

9:5f

See comment on Mark 2:5f.

9:6

See comment on Mark 2:9.

9:9

cf. Luke 5:27, and see the "Author" section above.

9:10

Unusually, we are not told in whose house this incident occurred. A natural reading of the text suggests that it was Jesus's own house that was full of tax collectors and sinners[69].

9:11

cf. Ecclesiasticus 9:16.

9:13

Jesus seems to be quoting Hosea 6:6; he wants us to be merciful ("going the second mile") because God is merciful to us.

9:18

See comment on Mark 7:32.

9:36

The Gospel, the good news, can be understood as the promise of guidance.

9:38

The "Lord of the harvest" is God the Father — cf. John 15:1.

10:2 f

cf. Mark 6:30. This is the only time the Disciples are referred to as Apostles in Matthew's gospel. The reason is clear: for once they have been acting as Sent Ones, not as students at the feet of a lecturer. But this new role required a long apprenticeship as Disciples first.

10:3

Thaddaeus: see Appendix 1.

10:4

"Cananaean": see comment on Mark 3:18.

10:5f

The instruction to go to the Jews only on this first mission echoes Acts 13:46, Romans 1:16, Romans 2:9–10 and Romans 3:2. This was a particular mission to be carried out in a particular way (:10) and with particular dangers (:17); a different mission is described in Luke 10:1–24. We may not face such opposition but we should be no less committed.

10:7

Jesus told the disciples to preach the message "the kingdom of heaven is at hand" which he preached in Matthew 4:17, and which was originally preached by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:2.

10:14

=Mark 6:11, Luke 10:11. It is said that the Jews brushed the dust from their feet when entering Judea from Gentile country. Therefore this action indicates that the people are outside God's covenant.

Going somewhere else is one of three responses to persecution that can be considered biblical; the other two are to endure it (Acts 5:29) and to use the law to protect us (Acts 25:11). See also 2 Timothy 3:12 and 1 Peter 4:13–19, and comment on Matthew 5:10.

10:16

Disciples should be wary of opposition, both from visible and invisible enemies of the Gospel. Satan is described as the accuser in Revelation 12:10, and Jesus as our advocate in 1 John 2:1. The best defence against accusation is innocence. The book Esther shows how godly people, acting courageously yet innocently, can defeat evil.

10:17–25

Jesus warns his workers of any dangers that they face, and allows escape (Matthew 10:23). Matthew 5:10 shows that suffering is not without its reward.

10:28

This verse supports the idea that Christians (and perhaps non-Christians too) have immortal souls in bodies that are, as a consequence of the fall, subject to decay and death, but when we die we will be given new bodies that are eternal.

10:32

See Revelation 20:12.

10:34–36

cf. Micah 7:6, Luke 12:51–53. Notice that husband and wife are unaffected ("what God as united, let no man divide"), and business relationships are also unaffected.

10:37–39

= Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23.

cf. Matthew 16:24, Luke 19:12f, John 10:10. "The real significance of 'taking up the cross' is that the action is consciously chosen, and it is chosen in the awareness that it could be a costly decision".[15 p.107]

10:39

= Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, and Luke 17:33. The teaching is also comparable with Luke 6:20.

10:40–42

cf. Psalm 82, Matthew 25:31–46. Jesus is not avoiding the concept of reward. The world loves to see people get their reward now, yet those are the ones who will receive no reward in heaven (Matthew 6:2 etc.). The world despises those who receive no reward now, because it cannot see what happens in heaven. See comment on Matthew 5:3.

We need not fear adopting a mercenary attitude of thinking about rewards in heaven, because what is on offer there (the presence of God) is something only the pure in heart can desire.[30 p.118]

An example of a person receiving a prophet's reward for receiving a prophet appears in 1 Kings 17:8–24; the widow who received Elijah was miraculously fed and her son restored, which would not have happened if she had rejected Elijah.

11:2–3

Mother Teresa had doubts too. She wrote in 1958: "My smile is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains. People think that my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing, and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they knew!" In another letter, she writes: "I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and that he does not really exist!"[31] See comments on verse 4 and Hebrews 11:13.

11:4–5

These miracles that Jesus cites to the disciples of John the Baptist are those prophesied in Isaiah 29:18–19, Isaiah 35:5–6 and Isaiah 61:1–2. Jesus is effectively summarising his travelling ministry. But, given that Jesus was clearly fulfilling most of these prophecies, why did John need to ask the question at all? There are four possibilities:

  1. John was not at liberty to witness Jesus's ministry because he was imprisoned (Matthew 11:2), and Jesus seems not to have fulfilled literally the prophecy in Isaiah 61:1 of liberating captives (of which John, being in prison, would be keenly aware);
  2. as Jesus's cousin, perhaps he was too close to Jesus to see easily his true nature;
  3. he had been warning of judgment (Matthew 3:7) but Jesus was showing mercy;
  4. he was in some sense the re-incarnation of Elijah who heralded the Messiah (Matthew 11:14), but he did not recognize this himself (John 1:21).

Jesus did not give a direct answer to John's question but told the disciples to say what they had seen and heard (which fulfilled scripture).

There are two lessons for us to learn here.

  1. we need to know our Bibles well enough (through regular reading) to recognize fulfilment of its prophecies, which is what Jesus expected John to do.
  2. when we are asked about our faith, most of us are called simply to be witnesses, just saying what we have experienced, letting our hearers make their own deductions from that.
11:14

Jesus is referring to Malachi 4:5...

11:15f

...Perhaps Jesus wants his hearers to read on and heed the warning in Malachi 4:6.

11:16–17

Jesus makes a nice contrast between dancing and mourning; cf. Romans 12:16. His critics refused to dance to John the Baptist's tune, saying it was too austere, but nor would they dance to Jesus's tune, saying it was too worldly. Their habitual cynicism cut them off from what God was doing.

11:19

cf. Ecclesiasticus 9:16.

11:25–27

cf. John 17.

11:28

Jesus is paraphrasing Leviticus 19:2.

11:29–30

"Take my yoke upon you" echoes Sirach 51:26 where Wisdom is speaking. Sirach 40:1f describes the heavy yoke on mankind, a yoke of anxiety and envy, but Jesus says his yoke is easy. A yoke is not a way of avoiding work, but a device for making it easier to bear; so "my burden is light" doesn't mean we can sit back doing nothing. A Christian should expect to work for God. What is it that we should learn from Jesus in this respect? He got up early to pray, and trusted God as the day unfolded. And if we are able to keep step with him as would two animals yoked together, we will be led in the right direction at a sensible pace.

It seems that we are to swap burdens with Jesus, entrusting our burden to him and taking on his zeal for God's kingdom, which is a more manageable burden that our own worries and striving.

12:1–14

The two halves of this passage relate to each other in a way that clarifies the meaning. In verses 1–8 Jesus explains the theory — mercy is more important to God than legalism — and then in verses 9–12 he demonstrates how it works in practice — he heals on the Sabbath, though the legally minded consider it wrong. See also People in the Bible: David.

12:3

See comment on the parallel verse Mark 2:25.

12:12

cf. Matthew 6:26; see comment on Luke 12:24.

12:17–21

The quotation is from Isaiah 42:1–4.

12:20

The quotation is from Isaiah 42:2–3.

12:28

"Kingdom": see Appendix 2 Kingdom.

12:31–32

=Luke 12:10. Price page 99 says that the unforgiveable sin appears to be failing to spot the liberating work of the Holy Spirit. Bishop Jonathan Clark[61] expands this idea, saying that you commit this sin if you see evidence that your theology tells you is godly, but say the opposite; see comment on 21:27.

See also Deuteronomy 29:19–20, Amos 2:7, Acts 5:1–11, 1 John 2:18–27, 1 John 5:16. "By refusing to recognize his saving work for what it was — attributing it instead to Satan — the scribes were cutting themselves off from the possibility of salvation."[32]

12:36

See comments in Appendix 2 Judgement and cf. Mark 4:22.

12:46–50

cf. Psalm 69:8.

12:50

cf. John 15:14. The restriction in Leviticus 25:49 was fulfilled by Jesus our redeemer who describes himself as our "brother and sister and mother".

13

The seven "parables of the kingdom" in Matthew seem to be arranged so that the sequence fits the experience of an individual, starting with hearing the message and ending at verse 49 with the judgement.[33 p.60]

13:1–9

Jesus spent enough time in prayer to be able to see things from God's perspective. Here he describes it in everyday language.

The explanation (verses 18–23) indicates that this parable is about how well God's word is spread and received. The sower spreads the seed liberally, echoing God's liberality. He does not pre-judge the receptiveness of the soils, but gives each one the opportunity to receive the seed.

In order to assess the effectiveness of God's word in us, we need a guide to what God's word is meant achieve. The Lord's Prayer seems suitable:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name.
Am I conscious of my adoption into God's family? Am I aware of God's loving care? Do I respond with worship and obedience? Do I promote his honour and authority, rather than my own?

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Do I want the things God wants? Do I pay attention to his word, so that I know what God wants? Do I share his compassion for the poor, the ignorant, the lost? Do I seek to do something about it by my words, actions and prayers? Am I growing towards a maturity that will sow the next generation of seeds in other people's hearts?

Give us this day our daily bread.
Do I trust God for the strength I need? Am I content with bread, rather than complaining about the icing on my cake?

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Am I becoming less selfish, moving on from past mistakes and bad habits, and becoming increasingly generous and forgiving?

13:5–6

cf. Jeremiah 17:7–8.

13:8

Hundredfold: cf. Genesis 26:12.

13:9

Jesus seems to be challenging people to think in order to understand; see verses 13–14.

13:10–12

cf. Isaiah 6:9–10, Mark 4:10–12. Parables.

13:12

The principle of the lazy servant losing even what he has is repeated in the Parable of the Coins, Matthew 25:28–29.

13:13

Some say that all we can understand of heaven is a few glimpses, shown in the visions of the prophets, the parables of Jesus and the "types" of the Old Testament; the reality is beyond us.

13:18

cf. Mark 4:3–8, Luke 8:4–15. Though the parable is called the Parable of the Sower, the sower is not called to do any more than sow; he is not blamed for the patchy results.

It is about the various ways that individuals respond to God's message[33 p.14]; the parable would be particularly apt if the crowd could see a sower nearby while Jesus spoke[33 p.12]. Though the parable is primarily about our response to God, it also speaks to those who are discouraged by the lack of response of those to whom they witness. The seed in the parable is sowed everywhere, regardless of the situation. The way the message is received does not depend on the quality of the message (in other words, the quality of the seed) nor the quality of the preaching (since the sower is not criticised) but almost entirely on the attitude of the hearer. Indeed, even in good soil the response is quite variable.

The understanding of this parable fundamentally affects the interpretation of the other "Kingdom" parables. Indeed, since Jesus taught in parables, this "is in fact a parable about parables".34

See also Barry Stronge's paper The Kingdom Parables in which he argues that Jesus is describing four phases of the proclamation of God's message.

13:19–23

Christians should not be critical of others, but of themselves, as shown by the parable of the man with a plank in his eye. So we should think first of ourselves as the soil. In what ways do we have opportunities to receive God's seed? He speaks to us:

  1. through his word the Bible (which we should read regularly and thoughtfully),
  2. through the situations in which we find ourselves (like the disciples finding themselves surrounded by hungry villagers in Matthew 14:15),
  3. through our Christian brothers and sisters (perhaps saying what seems a simple thing to them which speaks far more deeply to us),
  4. and occasionally through hearing the word of God prophetically.

The last three of these all need to be checked at least against the first, and preferably against all the others, for confirmation.

13:24f

The parable fits well if the weed is Darnel which looks like wheat until the seed head appears, though the reason for leaving the weeds alone is not that they cannot be distinguished (an expert can do it) but that their roots are intertwined so you cannot uproot the weeds without damaging the wheat also. Jesus wants his people to be increasingly different from the world, no longer like young wheat and darnel that cannot be distinguished, but the mature plants that are easily separated, so that the harvest may proceed successfully.

We are free to bear good or evil fruit. That is why increasing evil is permitted towards the end times (Revelation 3:16). See also Matthew 26:46. This parable teaches us not to try to cleanse the Church of people who seem to us to be against us rather than for us; the owner told his servants not to attempt that task until harvest time.[33 p.29]

13:28

The parable does not need the mention of an enemy in order to make its point. It follows that the enemy is mentioned in order to make an additional point: God's goodness is opposed by real forces.

13:31–32

The words resemble Nebuchadnezzar's in Daniel 4:10, where the tree represents the King himself (Daniel 4:22). See also Mark 4:30–32 and Luke 13:18–19.

13:33

Having told a parable from the daily lives of working men, Jesus now tells one from the daily lives of his women listeners. Making bread may sound like a normal and good activity, so the spread of the yeast could be seen as a good thing. However, in the Old Testament (familiar to those who heard Jesus speaking) yeast symbolises impurity.

Therefore this parable means that a little sinfulness can spread through our lives, or through a church, or even a country.[33 p.41] Paul uses this interpretation in 1 Corinthians 5:6–8. See also comments on Luke 13:20.

13:44–46

These two short parables show that sometimes God surprises us by breaking into our life when we are not expecting it, but at other times people seek and find him. They also include both rich and poor. In both cases the the truth is hidden; otherwise we would not treasure it.

13:44

Verse 44 describes metaphorically a person who has turned away from worldly living to a new life; they need God's defence to avoid back-sliding. cf. Psalm 119:162.

13:45–46

"In some interpretations of the parable, the merchant represents the believer, who, after much seeking and finding of good things, finds that uniquely great thing, the Kingdom of heaven. In Matthew's Gospel, the phrase is used to convey the idea of the area of God's rule. We enter it only by surrendering to the King: Jesus himself. The merchant recognises that everything else he has held on to is worth nothing compared to this treasure, and that nothing is worth keeping if it stops him getting hold of the pearl of great value."

"But the parable can be understood in another way: the merchant is God, who demonstrates that he will hold nothing back in order to claim that which is most precious. The pearl of great value represents you — and me — for whom God gives up his only Son in order that we may know ourselves as loved, claimed, belonging, 'held' close to God's heart as his most valued treasure." [43]

13:47–48

See comments on John 21:11.

13:51–52

Commentaries agree that these verses affirm the disciples as the teachers of the Gospel, who should convey new ideas as well as those taught from the Old Teastament by the scribes.

13:55–56

This verse indicates that Jesus grew up with four brothers and two or more sisters.

14:7

=Mark 6:23.

14:13

"What had happened" refers to the death of John the Baptist, Jesus's cousin and herald. One can speculate that John's arbitrary death at the hands of those in power may have pointed to Jesus's own fate. Whether or not this is so, Jesus certainly wanted time to think and pray about this event.

The boat offered a convenient way of obtaining some comparative solitude. Many of the disciples were fishermen who could happily occupy themselves in nautical matters, regarding Jesus as a passenger. Yet the people followed; there is a tension between their wants and needs, and those of Jesus and his disciples.

14:14–21

The feeding of the 5,000, found in:
Matthew 14:14–21, Mark 8:1–9, Luke 9:12–17, and comments under John 6:1–14
cf. the feeding of the 4,000 in
Matthew 15:32–38, Mark 6:35–44

14:15

The disciples set us a good example of what to do when a need becomes apparent to us: we should bring it to the Lord.

14:16

Jesus's reply is disconcerting and places great demands on his followers.

14:17

=Mark 6:41, Luke 9:13. cf. 1 Samuel 17:40, 1 Samuel 21:3, Ezekiel 47:1. The disciples offer the admittedly limited resources available to them; we should do likewise when a need is apparent.

14:18

The disciples place their entire resources before the Lord. Until they do so his power makes no contact with the situation. Followers of Jesus (who gave up everything, even his life) are to do likewise, giving up their lives to his direction.

14:19–20

cf. Mark 6:41, Luke 9:16 and John 6:11; see also Psalm 145:15 (which points to the Manna in the wilderness) and the feeding of the 4,000 in Matthew 15. Jesus is likely to have used the traditional words for Passover "Blessed are you, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth". The Jews would have noticed the similarity to 2 Kings 4:42–44 and would conclude that Jesus was comparable with Elisha.

The disciples gave all they had (cf. Mark 12:40–44) to Jesus, putting it all under his power; the result was a miracle. That is the difference between inviting Jesus alongside (so that we benefit from his advice and comfort) and letting Jesus take over as Lord (so that his power is released). Despite giving all their food to Jesus they did not go hungry; if anything they became exhausted at the amount to be cleared up! Their "all" seemed inadequate, but when it was put in Jesus's hands it became ample.

This passage sets a good example in environmental management: waste was avoided and no mess was left behind. See also comment on John 6:1–14.

But Mark 8:19–21 urges us to look for a deeper meaning. Consider this:

So one meaning is, Jesus satisfies all Israel. He is the living bread, the Good Shepherd who takes them to a green and pleasant land, the land flowing with milk and honey, that was promised so long ago. It isn't about us having to be totally committed, but about Jesus being totally sufficient.

Thousands: St Augustine suggested that the miraculous feeding of multitudes was a sign of our potential to influence many: if you share your bread with many people, you end up in want, but the more widely you bring peace, the more you have.

14:20

Leftovers: see comment on Mark 8:8.

14:22–32

cf. Mark 6:48. Jesus had told the disciples to sail to the other side of the lake without him. Now it was night time, and the disciples were in trouble. They were half-way across and miles from land, and they were in a terrible storm which was sinking their boat. Despite being professional sailors and fishermen they were desperate. Several factors seem significant:

  1. They were doing what Jesus had told them to do. This was a task they felt well able to do in their own strength, being professionals, but somehow that wasn't enough for God's will to be done.
  2. They needed Jesus's help, to do what he had told them to do. We could all too easily fall into the same trap, thinking a task is easy, when in fact it has a spiritual dimension, and needs prayer.
  3. They felt alone, but Jesus was near enough to hear when they called to him.
  4. Jesus's reply included the name God used of himself at the burning Bush (Exodus 3:14): I AM.
  5. Jesus's presence and power made miracles possible.
  6. Jesus rescued them, in two ways: firstly he raised Peter up when his faith failed, and then he calmed the storm, so the disciples' efforts succeeded, when before they'd been failing.

The disciples looked to Jesus and were saved, like the Israelites looking at the bronze snake in Numbers 21:9.

14:29

It seems Peter succeeded in walking on water for a while, even though he sank eventually. Nowadays we talk of "walking on water" when we want to say that a task seems impossible. But the message from Peter's experience is that the impossible becomes possible if you can see Jesus in the situation with you, if you trust Jesus to give you the strength to do it, if you ask for his help, and if you have the courage to step out in faith. "the church will have to learn afresh to walk towards the Lord as Peter did, not along smooth paths and up fine staircases with handsome balustrades, but on water".[16]

"We might focus on Peter's humiliating loss of nerve and sinking under the waves, but we could choose, instead, to see the magnificence of his faith. Rather than see a man who nearly drowned, why not choose to recognise the one man in all history who walked with Jesus on water, who had the courage to get out of the boat?"[35]

14:30

See Matthew 7:27 and Philippians 3:10. The rescue was at the last-minute as usual, when human efforts have proved useless, as in Acts 12:5–6.

14:32

cf. Psalm 89:9. See comment on Mark 4:39.

14:36

Hem: cf. Isaiah 6:1.

15:21f

This passage, in which Jesus is untypically reluctant to respond to a request, is puzzling. If he didn't plan to minister to gentiles, why did he go to Tyre and Sidon in the first place? To escape persecution?

Rosalind Brown makes three interesting points: it was counter-cultural for a rabbi to speak to a woman in public; perhaps he adopted that stance at first in order to demonstrate the need for progression from their traditions to behaviour that reflects God's mercy; and this is "the only recorded time when someone took Jesus to task and emerged victorious".[36]

Alternatively one could compare this passage with the miracle at Cana in John 2. In both cases Jesus was reluctant to act but responded to urging. See also Prayer.

15:23

Perhaps Jesus simply wasn't sure what he should say or do.

15:27

Matthew adopts the traditional insult by a Jew for a Gentile: dogs. Mark 7:27 softened it to more like "doggies" but Matthew does not. It is strange that Jesus responded coldly to a confident woman, whereas he led on a distant woman (the woman at the well, John 4:6–20). Nevertheless, the message is clear: God's grace is available to gentiles as well as Jews, if they ask for it, as in Acts 10:17f.

15:28

Perhaps the woman's faith-filled answer revealed that the Holy Spirit was extending his ministry from the Jews to the Gentiles, as prophesied in Isaiah 49:6.

15:32–38

The feeding of the 4,000 in
Matthew 15:32–38, Mark 6:35–44
cf. the feeding of the 5,000, found in:
Matthew 14:14–21, Mark 8:1–9, Luke 9:12–17, John 6:1–14

cf. 2 Kings 4:44, Psalm 145:15. Jesus may have used the traditional words "Blessed are you, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth".

15:37

Leftovers: see comment on Mark 8:8.

15:38

Thousands: St Augustine suggested that the miraculous feeding of multitudes was a sign of our potential to influence many: if you share your bread with many people, you end up in want, but the more widely you bring peace, the more you have.

16

This chapter is about spiritual discernment, and knowing who Jesus is. Verses 1–4 show the Pharisees' failure to understand the signs of the times. In contrast, Peter is shown to be unusually discerning, and his credentials as the "rock" of the church are begun. The Pharisees are critical of Jesus, but some of the disciples realise he is the Messiah. Then Jesus teaches them what being the Messiah really means.

16:6

See comment on Exodus 12:15.

16:13

This must have occurred several days after the calming of the storm on Galilee, because they have now walked overland to the Mediterranean coast. Jesus apparently thought they needed time to reflect on what they'd seen.

16:16

= Luke 9:20; the "Great confession": Peter is apparently basing these words on what he heard and saw in his own home in Luke 4:41. His growing belief might have been confirmed by seeing Jesus still the storm (Mark 4:39), walk on the water (Matthew 14:25), offer claim to offer exclusive salvation (John 8:58) and forgive sins (Mark 2:5). His belief was soon confirmed by the Transfiguration. Some of the other disciples took far longer to reach the same point (John 20:28). cf. Acts 9:5.

16:17

Jesus first affirms that Simon Peter is tuned in to God.

16:18

Then Jesus affirms Simon Peter as a rock on which the church will be founded (but see comment on verse 23); so being tuned into God and knowing who Jesus is are the essentials for a stable church.

cf. Isaiah 22:22–24, John 1:42, Revelation 3:7–8. The word ecclesia, often translated "church", actually means a gathering, or congregation. It is a way of writing in Greek the Hebrew word for the congregation of Israel, a phrase that has been used to represent the people of God since Deuteronomy.[33 p.177]

Jesus changed Simon's Jewish name for a Greek one; was that a hint that he should be Jesus's representative to the Greek-speaking world, as in Acts 10:9f?

16:19

Powell[37] points out that binding and loosing is mentioned on only two occasions (verses 16:19 and 18:18) and these are the only contexts in the New Testament where Jesus specifically referred to the church. In chapter 16 he spoke of building the church, while chapter 18 is about dealing with those who wander astray, and verse 20 promises his presence. Modern commentators see "binding and loosing" as a reference to decisions about applying scripture to a contemporary context, rather than the idea that the church has the power to forgive sins (cf. John 20:23); Matthew 18:21–35 warns us against any thought that the church might refuse to forgive sins. Matthew's Gospel gives the church the authority to identify sins, that is, to decide what is sinful and what is not, in the light of scripture; cf. discussion on Matthew's approach to authority concerning the way the authority of the Ruler of each synagogue was regarded as authorised to excommunicate or admit people, and to declare actions legal or illegal. This is what Jesus was doing in his re-interpretation of the Law (see Matthew 5:17–22).

Powell goes on to identify the principles that Jesus applied, which the church should follow. Specifically:

The strong words "bind" and "loose" emphasize that individual Christians do not have the right to dismiss the church's teaching on what is sinful; Matthew's "great commission" (28:20) makes it clear that Christians should be taught to be obedient, and the church has authority because Jesus is in its midst. We might also bind things both on earth and in heaven when we hold on to hurt rather than releasing it in forgiveness — see the comment on Matthew 7:1–2.

cf. 2 Kings 2:24, which shows that what we say binds heaven inasmuch as we are God's representatives and his glory requires it. Also David was declared sinful over his adultery with Bathsheba, but the murder of her husband Uriah is passed over, as is the years when he lived by cattle-rustling as a bandit. War and banditry seem to have been considered normal at the time, but adultery was not, and God judged David accordingly.

There are a couple of examples in the Acts of the Apostles of Peter using this authority. Issues of race and nationality underlie both of them:

  1. The complaint in Acts 6 that the church was looking after the Hebrew widows better than the Greek-speaking ones.
  2. The row in Acts 10 about Peter going to preach to the gentiles. He described his vision of the sheet filled with unclean animals, and the words "kill and eat", followed immediately by some gentiles knocking on the door. Peter went with them and told them the basics of Christianity, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit as the apostles had been at Pentecost. And so Peter showed the church that God wanted gentiles, even gentiles who had not first become converts to Judaism, to be given equal membership.

If we had to rely on this verse alone we might think this authority was given to Peter alone; however in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23 Jesus repeats it in addressing all the disciples using the plural "you". This is commonly interpreted as giving authority to the wider Church, and the prayer book quotes this verse in the ordination service. In the ASB[38] service Ordination of Priests, John 20:23 is the set Gospel reading. The context of the giving of this authority is the giving of the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). Compare also 1 Chronicles 9:27 where the keeper of the keys was responsible for the safety of the holy city.

16:21

The words "from that time" were used previously in Matthew 4:17 and thus divide the Gospel into three sections. Matthew sees this as a pivotal event, the beginning of a new phase in Jesus's life.

16:23

In some translations Jesus describes Peter as a "stumbling block"; the rock on which the church will be built (verse 18) can get in the way of the Gospel. Peter's misconception is put right soon afterwards in the Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, affirm Jesus's identity and his coming death.

16:24f

In order to let God be God, we have to stop insisting on our own way.

16:25f

= Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, and Luke 17:33. The teaching is also comparable with Luke 6:20. According to an NIV footnote, the same Greek word is translated "life" and "soul" in this passage.

16:26

This is a temptation Jesus experienced in Matthew 4:9.

17

Following chapter 16 which concerned discerning who Jesus is, a few are allowed a glimpse of his true nature.

17:1

Took three: cf. Exodus 17:5 and Mark 9:2. Six days: cf. Exodus 24:16.

17:2

Transfiguration: cf. Psalm 80:3, 7, 19, Isaiah 60:1, Mark 9:2f, Luke 9:28f, 2 Corinthians 3:7–13, 2 Peter 1:17–18. See Mark 9 and 2 Peter 1:19 for commentary. The radiance of Jesus echoes the glory in the cloud in Exodus 24:17.

17:3

Luke 9:31 tells us what they were talking about.

17:5

Cloud: cf. Exodus 19:16.

17:6

Afraid: cf. Exodus 19:16.

17:10–12

= Mark 9:11–13. The question refers to Malachi 4:5; Jesus has already answered the question in Matthew 11:14, indicating that this "Elijah" is John the Baptist, as prophesied in Luke 1:17.

God had promised through the prophet Malachi to send Elijah back to the Jews before the arrival of the Messiah (Malachi 4:5). King Ahaziah knew Elijah's distinctive appearance (2 Kings 1:8) and John the Baptist looked like that too (Matthew 3:4a). The fact that Elijah came first, as prophesied, is a small confirmation that Jesus is the Messiah; that is why the question put to Jesus was an important one.

17:20

See comment on Mark 11:23.

18:1f

For a list of verses describing the qualities of great people, see Index G, Greatest Person.

18:3

The idea of being childlike fits with Jesus teaching us to pray "Our father..." (Matthew 6:9).

18:12

The lost sheep don't have to do anything; their salvation is entirely the work of the shepherd — but we are Christ's body, and must be ready to play our part in searching for the lost. Many people in Israel in Jesus's time, particularly the Essenes, thought that only a few — a "remnant" — of the Jews would be saved (cf. John the Baptist's words in Matthew 3:9–10).[40 p.25] By emphasizing his mission to save the lost, Jesus seems to be rejecting that view, and in fact he wants to save even the gentiles.

18:18–19

See Matthew 16:19 above regarding binding and loosing, and 2 Kings 2:24. People will be judged according to their obedience to the Church's judgement of what is good and what is evil. What we say binds heaven inasmuch as we are God's representatives and his glory requires it. Acts 15:1–21 shows this in action.

The fact that these two verses are adjacent suggests that decisions about what Christians should and should not do need not be taken at a national or international level, but that small groups of Christians can make their own decisions, which will be upheld in heaven.

18:20

This statement started coming true as soon as Jesus rose from the dead; for example, when Jesus met with the couple on the Emmaus road (Luke 24:13).

18:21

Peter realises that Jesus will require more forgiveness than the Jewish tradition of three times. cf. Luke 17:4.

18:22

It is said that the Greek "seventy seven" is ambiguous and can mean seventy plus seven or seventy times seven, but the clear meaning is that we are not to count offences and forgivenesses. This means forgiveness "without any limit".[29 p.156] Swete[33] says that Jesus was probably alluding to Genesis 4:24 [33] suggesting that extreme revenge must be replaced by extreme forgiveness. In 1 Corinthians 13:7 Paul broadens this to say that love endures all things.

CS Lewis suggests that the need to forgive 77 times might not arise from 77 offences, but from 77 occasions when the memory of an old hurt comes to mind again, so we need to forgive it again[66 p.27].

18:23–35

The story of the unmerciful servant who owed ten thousand talents (a phenomenally large amount of money) is designed to offend us. In so doing it brings home the injustice of the servant's action in denying to his colleague (who owed a tiny fraction of the amount[33 pp.87–88]) the mercy that was shown to him. His action was legal but not reasonable[33 p.91]. We have to go beyond the law — cf. the Sermon on the Mount. Therefore being merciful to our fellow believers it is not a matter of mercy but justice — see the comment on Matthew 7:1–2.

The final punishment after the servant was found being unmerciful (verse 34, which indicates torture) was considerably worse than that originally imposed (verse 25) when his only crime was debt perhaps arising from dishonesty. Jesus indicates in verse 35 that God requires us to be merciful and forgive from the heart; see the references below. However he also points out that God can be relied upon to forgive at least as much as the seventy times seven times that Jesus asked of Peter, provided we can honestly repent after committing the same sin seventy times seven times.[33 p.95]

The enormous debt, equivalent to the national debt of a European country today, must represent the cost of the sacrifice of the Son of God. That is a debt we can never repay; "this parable isn't really about justice; it's about forgiveness." [59 on 29 September 2017]

See also James 2:13 and the comment on Luke 19:12.

18:35

cf. the Lord's Prayer: Matthew 6:12 (= Luke 11:4), and Matthew 6:14–15, Mark 11:25, Luke 6:37, John 20:23.

19:3

The question was meant to force Jesus to take sides in a topical argument. Hillelite rabbis had recently invented an "any cause divorce" in place of the traditional causes of adultery (Deuteronomy 24:1) or neglect (Exodus 21:10–11). It was based on the fact that Deuteronomy 24:1 can be read as implying that causes other than adultery exist. Shammaite rabbis disagreed with this interpretation, and so did Jesus.[39]

19:4

Jesus started by affirming marriage.

19:5

See comment on Mark 10:8, 1 Corinthians 6:16.

19:6

See comment on Mark 10:8, 1 Corinthians 6:16. Jesus was not rejecting divorce out of hand, but rejecting the Hillelite liberal interpretation mentioned in verse 3.

19:7

See comment on Deuteronomy 24:1. Jesus's approach to solving a problem is to turn to scripture.

19:9

Jesus ended this section by interpreting "unfaithfulness" in the sense that would be assumed if it were used in a divorce court. In those days a court might regard not being a virgin when married as a case of unchastity, but this is not necessarily what Jesus meant; it could be any failure to keep the marriage vows, such as failure to "love and cherish".

Comparing Matthew 5:31–32 with Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18 shows that Matthew wrote that Jesus allowed divorce in the case of unchastity while Mark and Luke wrote that he did not allow it under any circumstance. This difference is called the Matthaean exception; see comment on 1 Corinthians 7:10.

[Some argue that] if stoning for adultery were standard practice, there would be no possibility of divorce, because a dead person cannot be divorced. Jesus could not then have said "No divorce except for adultery" (Matthew 5.32, 19.9), but, if stoning were not standard, he could have said, "No divorce, because remarriage is a form of adultery" (Mark 10.11–12, Luke 16.18), reflecting the fact that an unpartnered woman could hardly survive economically without a man or men to support her, with the expectation in return of the sexual favours enjoyed by a husband. The Matthaean exception, which has caused so much exegetical and pastoral angst (divorce for porneia, unchastity, makes the woman an adulteress), can, however, be interpreted as no exception at all, merely a critique of the logic of the wording: you can't make a woman an adulteress if she has already qualified as an adulteress by her unchastity.[57]

19:13–15

cf. Mark 10:13–16 and see comment on Luke 18:15–17. It seems that the joy and trust of a child are like the attitudes that are appropriate in heaven. Receiving a gift like a child is quite different from the half-hearted assent that many people hope will be sufficient to get them into heaven. The relevant characteristics are humility that admits dependency, willingness to be taught, and the ability to experience wonder. Pride and cynicism are the enemies of these. Unfortunately as life proceeds we tend to become increasingly fearful, mistrustful, deceiving, unloving, scheming, and unwell. These things spoil Christ's image in us and will take us to hell unless we are saved by Christ.

19:19

Having started listing some of the Ten Commandments, which the man might be able to say he'd kept, Jesus subtly added Leviticus 19:18, which is open-ended.

19:21

See comment on John 3:1–8.

19:22

Jesus let the man go away sad because it showed he had made his point: the man was not, as he had supposed, fully dedicated to obeying God. But now that the problem was recognized, it could be solved — see Luke 18:10–14.

19:24

See comment on Luke 18:25, and cf. Mark 10:25.

19:28

cf. Psalm 122:5, Revelation 21:14, Acts 8:1. The Twelve will judge the tribes of Israel; they will do it in Jerusalem; so it is fitting that they stayed there when all other Christians fled.

19:29

Jesus confirmed that there will be a reward in heaven for serving him on earth.

19:30

cf. Genesis 25:22–28, Mark 10:31, Luke 13:30, and the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–11. Some see this as a deliberately illogical statement, which urges us not to think at all about a competition to be first[56]. The same can be said of Jesus telling Peter to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:22); in other words, don't try to count. However, the Magnificat speaks of the rich being sent away empty, which brings the saying to life.

20:1–16

A vineyard was an established metaphor for God's kingdom, as in Isaiah 3:14 and Isaiah 5:1f. Jesus's version may be related to his "I AM" sayings; see John 15:1f. The parable of the labourers in the vineyard was Jesus's reply to Peter's comment in Matthew 19:27.[33 p.102]

We can read this parable from many points of view. We can focus on the owner's generosity when we would expect to find the profit motive defended by legalism. We can focus on the resentment of the first workers, who wanted fairness rather than needs being met. We can focus on the agreements, noticing that the first two were contractual ("Old Covenants") while the third was an informal invitation; "we are not under law but under grace" (Romans 6:14).

It may seem that the workers engaged last were the lucky ones, because they did little work but were paid in full. However, they had already suffered several hours of worrying where their next meal, and that of their families, would come from. They might not have been good workers; otherwise someone would have hired them.

The parable specifically says that the workers are paid when the day's work is completed; this indicates that the parable is about rewards after our life is done, that is, in heaven. Jesus uses the parable to illustrate his point about the last being first, which he says both before (Matthew 19:30) and after (Matthew 20:16). Peter thought he had earned some credit for the hardships he was enduring "on the road" with Jesus; Matthew 19:29 confirms that he will, but the parable warns us that God does not work as we would expect; we can't earn our place in heaven, and we will be surprised at the distribution of rewards there.

There is a political element in this story that is not apparent to modern readers: if the Law had been observed, each Jewish family would be farming its ancestral land, returned at the year of Jubilee even if it had been sold in the meantime. But some Jews had built up extensive estates, taking over ancestral and common land (like the Enclosures Acts in Britain) making the peasants unemployed.[40 p.25] Therefore, by paying them all a day's wage, Jesus's employer is doing what he can to overcome a systematic injustice.

A Denarius or silver "penny" was a worker's pay for a day (Matthew 20:2), but is reckoned to be enough only for subsistence rather than giving any hope of improvement.[40 p.27] The workers grumbled but perhaps Jesus retains the right to give his servants no more than subsistence. We are given what we need, not what we think we have earned.

Swete goes on to suggest that the three groups of labourers represent three stages of relating to God. One might suppose that these are the Old Testament, the New Testament, and some final reconciliation with God yet to be revealed. God brings in new workers not because the existing ones have been rejected but because they cannot cope with the massive task. Perhaps those who were employed last are paid first for the same reason as the widow who was praised by Jesus when she put all she had, though it was very little, into the temple treasury (Mark 12:43).

The parable should not be construed as meaning that all are rewarded equally in heaven; the parable of the talents denies that.[33 p.106] It simply shows that duration of service is not a key parameter. See also Luke 6:23, Romans 4:4, 1 Corinthians 3:5–8.

The message of the parable is that we should ask no more than what we need, which is admission to heaven, and not focus on the rewards for service that we hope to receive there.

20:19

=Luke 18:33. Fulfilled in Matthew 27:26.

20:20f

cf. Mark 10:35f. The brothers and their mother sought earthly fulfilment, but inadvetently opted for earthly suffering followed by fulfilment in heaven.

20:22

Jesus is apparently using the word "cup" to mean suffering (cf. Isaiah 51:17f, Matthew 27:34, Matthew 26:39), but it is not clear that the disciples understood it that way, and what they were taking on themselves by saying "we can". If they did understand, this was a bold answer. They were eventually martyred too.

See Appendix 2 "Cup".

20:25–26

For a list of verses describing the qualities of great people, see Index G, Greatest Person.

20:29–30

cf. Mark 10:46–47 where one of the blind men is named and the other ignored!

20:31

See comment on Mark 10:51.

21:1

See comments on 2 Samuel 5:6–8.

21:2–7

See comments on Mark 11:2. Matthew interprets the poetic parallelism of Zechariah 9:9 as meaning two animals, while John 12:12–16 interprets it as the prophet trying to find two ways of describing the same animal to fit the poetic form (see comments on Genesis 4:23–24) [63]. Strange[64] quotes Origen as explaining the fact that Matthew mentions two animals while the other gospel writers only mention one, by saying that the young and old animals are an allegory for the New and Old Testaments. Alternative interpretations are that the young animal on which Jesus sat was harnessed to a more experienced one for training purposes[29 p.105], or that Matthew was making sure that his version showed the literal fulfilment of Zechariah 9:9 which only mentioned two animals to fit the Jewish poetic parallel-phrase structure. cf.1 Kings 1:35.

21:9

= Mark 11:9, John 12:13, cf. Psalm 118:25–26. Though the word Hosanna has come to be seen as a cry of praise, its literal meaning is "save us". These shouts are fulfilled in Revelation 7:10. The crowd was calling on Jesus to fulfil their ideas of what the Messiah should do (drive out the Romans, etc.), so it had become a command. We cannot command God; he is the boss! No wonder they shouted "crucify" soon afterwards when he pursued a different agenda.

While John 12:12–13 says, and Matthew 21:9 and Mark 11:9 imply, that a great crowd of the people of Jerusalem cheered Jesus into the city, which would make the cries of "Crucify" a couple of days later a cruel reversal, Luke 19:37–38 limits the cheering to the disciples.

21:10

The accuracy of this passage is sometimes questioned on the grounds that the inhabitants of Jerusalem knew by this time who Jesus was, so the question was unnecessary. But if one sees a crowd and hears a commotion in the street it is natural to ask "what's going on?"; the outsider cannot see what is happening at the centre. The question "Who is this?" makes sense when understood in that way.

21:11

"Prophet from Nazareth" was an oxymoron to an inhabitant of Jerusalem, because they held it in contempt.[41]

21:12

cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19.

21:13

Jesus quotes Isaiah 56:7. He was not upset at the buying and selling for its own sake, but because the proper focus on God was obscured, and Gentiles were hindered from joining in.

21:18–27

See Mark 11:12–24 for a fuller account, and cf. Luke 13:6–9.

21:19

cf. Psalm 7:36–37, Psalm 37:35–36, Jeremiah 8:13, Joel 1:12f and Micah 7:1; = Mark 11:12–21; Jesus is calling the people to repent.

21:21

See comment on Mark 11:23.

21:23–27

Jesus may have regarded the voice at his baptism as his authority for ministry (Matthew 3:17).

21:27

See comment on Matthew 12:31. The religious authorities in Jerusalem were charged with declaring what was godly and what was not. By refusing to make such a declaration regarding John's baptism they abandoned their role and lost their spiritual authority.[61]

21:33

Jesus is quoting Isaiah 5:1–2 so his hearers would have understood that this saying was a threat to judge Israel harshly on account of its failure to identify the Son; Isaiah 5 was followed by the Exile of the people to Babylon and desolation of the whole country. See also comment on Mark 12:1f.

21:41

Matthew thought that the reference to the vineyard being given to others after the death of the owner's son meant that the mission to the gentiles could only start after Jesus's death.[40 p.65]

21:42

cf. Psalm 118:22. See comments on Acts 4:11–12.

21:46

Typically, the recipients of Jesus's unwelcome message wanted to "shoot the messenger".

22:1–14

The fate of the incorrectly dressed man sounds very harsh. Apparently wedding robes were available to everyone, so not wearing one was sinful. Perhaps everybody was issued with one as they came in, so being caught without one implied having crept in through a back way; or he was offered a robe like everyone else, but refused to wear it; "The gift must be accepted and the grace received"[59 on 2 October 2017]. cf. the foolish virgins in Matthew 25.

Linen: cf. Revelation 19:8. Heaven, and everything in it, is perfect; humans are not. Humans can only go to heaven without spoiling its perfection if they are made perfect when they die. Presumably the "wedding garments" represent this gift of perfection which qualifies us for heaven.

22:16

See Appendix 2 Essenes.

22:17

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's" (cf. 1 Peter 2:13) does not only tell us to pay our taxes as good citizens should. It also implies not giving to Caesar what Caesar asks for but is outside his authority, for example, if he bans the worship of God. The disciples followed the example of Daniel 6:7f and put this into practice in Acts 4:18–20.

22:30

Jesus saying that there is no marriage in heaven seems related to the idea that there is no ownership in heaven.[30 p.119]

22:34

It seems that the Pharisees, having heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, thought they had won; so Jesus put them in their place in verse 41f.

22:36

= Mark 12:28f.

22:37–40

"The Summary of the Law." Jesus refers to Exodus 20:3, Leviticus 19:18, and Deuteronomy 6:4. cf. Matthew 7:12. John links this commandment with the one in verse 39 in 1 John 4:20. See Appendix 2: Law.

22:41–44

See comment on verse 34 concerning the purpose of this question; believing in an after­life doesn't make all theological problems disappear. Jesus's unanswerable question about whose son the Christ was might sound like crude point-scoring, but in fact he was making it clear that they did not understand the scriptures about the Messiah. Therefore they should not complain when he did things they did not expect the Messiah to do.

22:44

Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1.

23:5

cf. Deuteronomy 6:6–9 and 11:18–21. See comment on Matthew 6:3–4.

23:11

See comment on John 13:1–17. For a list of verses describing the qualities of great people, see Index G, Greatest Person.

23:23

Here Jesus gives his own thinking on ethics: the basic virtues required are justice, mercy and faithfulness. God himself shows these characteristics; see 2 Timothy 8:13. God cares about inner godliness, not outward observance of rules (1 Samuel 16:7).

23:25

The Old Covenant visibly makes the outside clean because the blood is sprinkled on (e.g. Exodus 24:8) whereas Christians are to take it internally (Matthew 26:26f, John 6:52).

24:1–28

See comments on the parallel passage Mark 13:4.

24:3

= Mark 13:4 and Luke 21:7. We are not allowed to know when the end will come.

24:20

Cataclysm on the Sabbath would be disastrous for the Jews because they would be forbidden to run, and could only walk a "Sabbath day's journey".

24:32–42

Jesus follows his comments on the day of judgment with three parables about being ready for his coming in glory. This is the first, and suggests that though we cannot know the time in advance, there will be tell­tale signs.

24:43–44

cf. Luke 12:39, 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 2 Peter 3:10. This is the second of three parables about the final judgment. When we are caught off-guard we are seen as we really are. Imagine a cellar where on switching on the light suddenly one sees rats racing for cover; without the element of surprise one would never see them. Surprise doesn't cause rats, but it might reveal them. Likewise Christ will come suddenly and find us as we really are. Therefore the Second Coming may be a time of embarrassment for us all.[3 p.162]

24:45–51

This the last of three parables about being ready for the day of judgment. It emphasises the importance of being ready at all times.

25

In interpreting the parables one should remember that the hearers were not Christians. Jesus interprets these parables in Luke 12.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins is a particularly challenging one because those who eventually fell short of their objective got so far: they were chosen, accepted the invitation, and were at the right place, yet it was all wasted because of poor preparation. This seems to indicate that one can be nearly saved, and expecting to go to heaven, yet not make it. This will happen if we fail to respond in obedience to God's claims on our lives now[33 p.71] so there are two ways to miss salvation: rejecting the call, or failing to prepare as instructed.[33 p.82] cf. Luke 17:34–36 and the man without a wedding garment in Matthew 22:1–14.

25:1

The presence of girls in the party means that the Bridegroom, previously accompanied by his male friends, has now come to collect his Bride.[33 p.122] The fact that they have lamps implies that a torch-lit procession is planned. That would make it sensible to use small hand lamps, with little oil capacity, rather than larger stationary lamps.

See also Appendix 2 Prophecy.

25:10

The error of having insufficient oil was compounded by the ridiculous idea of going for more at midnight; perhaps this is an indication of desperation. If the guests had not left the party all would have been well, as in the parable of the guests making excuses for missing a banquet.

25:12

See comments in Appendix 2 Judgement.

25:15–30

See comments on the parable of the talents in Luke 19:12, and Matthew 18:23 concerning the value of a Talent. The English word Talent derives from this parable.[33 p.352]

25:27

Jesus portrays the master as a very hard man, even demanding illegal usury in order to maximise his profit.

25:29

Jesus used the same words in another context, which might shed more light on what he meant, in Luke 8:18.

25:31–46

cf. Psalm 82, Matthew 10:40–42, Luke 10:29–37. The separation of the sheep and the goats looks like the heart of the Gospel, where Jesus spells out what he wants us to do. His concern for the disadvantaged was prophesied in Isaiah 6:1–4. See Appendix 2 Peace.

The description "Son of Man" probably reminded hearers of Daniel 7:13, and perhaps Psalm 80:17 (see AV).

Many modern commentators say that the preceding judgment accounts relate to the judgment of Christians, but this one relates to the judgment of non-Christians on the basis of how they treated Christians. In support of this interpretation, which relies on Jesus taking ill-treatment of his followers personally, they cite passages like Matthew 10:40 and Acts 9:4.

This passage does not mean that one can earn a passage to heaven, rather it is simply a practical observation[15 p.7].

25:31

There is a clear implication that Christ's rule is postponed until some future date.

25:32

Everybody will be gathered; nobody escapes.

25:34

One inherits what one did not earn.

25:35–36

It is surprising that Jesus takes the point of view of the disadvantaged, to the extent that if we ignore them, he takes it personally.

26:6

Cf. Mark 14:3 and John 12:1–2. See also Appendix 1 Mary Martha and Lazarus.

26:7

"the moments of our personal engagement with [Jesus] are truly beyond all price".[45]

In this verse and Mark 14:3 the ointment is poured onto Jesus's head (soon to be disfigured by the crown of thorns), but John 12:3 emphasizes the anointing of his feet, suggesting a link with the coming washing of the disciples' feet in John 13.

26:8–9

cf. Mark 14:3–6, John 12:1f. Perhaps Matthew the tax-collector (Matthew 9:9) was especially indignant at the waste of a valuable resource! The accusation that the ointment was wasted parallels the apparent waste of Jesus's life on Good Friday.

26:11

Jesus acts as Advocate, as in Mark 2:25 and Luke 10:38–42. Poor: cf. Deuteronomy 15:11.

26:12

See comment on Genesis 37:25.

26:15

See comment on Zechariah 11:13.

26:26

This passage parallels Mark 14:22, and Luke 22:19 which has additional detail. Jesus is likely to have used the traditional words "Blessed are you, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth".

Penelope Wilcock comments "He lifts up the cup to God of his own blood soon to be shed — a cocktail of fear and agony, torture and death — and he gives thanks!" [53]

26:27

= Mark 14:23. The Passover celebrations involved several ceremonial cups; it is not clear which one is referred to. It may be that the apparently parallel passage in Luke 22:17 actually refers to a different episode within the same meal.

26:28

cf. Jeremiah 31:31, Mark 14:24, Hebrews 8:10. Matthew has added explanation ("for the forgiveness of sins") to Mark's simple account. The phrase "blood of the covenant" echoes Exodus 8:20, but in the Old Testament the consumption of the blood was forbidden because "life was in it" (Leviticus 17:10–14); "by prohibiting the consumption of a land/aerial animal's breath/blood amalgam while allowing the consumption of a fish's blood, it would appear that the Levitical/Priestly tradents were focussed on prohibiting the consumption of the breath that was amalgamated with the land/aerial animal's blood." [58]

But in the New Testament Jesus commands his followers to drink the wine that represents his blood, in order to participate in the covenant. Thus the Old Covenant does not give us life, but the New Covenant does.

26:32

cf. Matthew 28:7, Matthew 28:10. Galilee: see comment on Matthew 28:16.

26:37

cf. Moses being supported by Aaron and Hur while he prayed for the battle against the Amalekites, in Exodus 17:12. Moses was weaker than his supporters, but even in his moment of weakness the disciples look very frail beside Jesus.

26:39

=Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42; cf. Genesis 22:5. Hebrews 5:8 shows that when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness his strength to resist was built up, and when he went to the cross his strength was proved beyond doubt. Testing is painful, and we may pray against it (cf. Matthew 6:13) but nevertheless we still get plenty of it. Jesus uses the word "cup" in a surprising way: see comments on Psalm 23:5–6. cf. Matthew 20:22.

Cup: see Appendix 2 "Cup".

26:46

See comments on Mark 14:42. It is said that the Greek word traditionally translated "betrayer" is translated differently elsewhere in the New Testament, with a meaning more like "giving up", e.g. in Matthew 4:12, when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee, and Romans 1:28 "Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done". The darnel is allowed to flower, so that it can be separated from the wheat without damaging the crop (Matthew 13:24f).

26:47

See comment on John 18:3.

26:50

Jesus calls Judas friend because only a friend can betray you cf. Psalm 41:9, Psalm 55:12–14, 20–21. See also comment on Mark 14:46.

26:53

This statement proves that Jesus went voluntarily to die.

26:56

Perhaps the male disciples fled while the women remained because the authorities saw the men as threats but not the women.[46 p.89]

26:63–64

See comment on Isaiah 53:7. When we read "... the Son ..." we think of the Son of God, as did Jesus's contemporaries, but Jesus preferred to call himself the Son of Man (apparently quoting Daniel 7:13). It seems that the term "Messiah" had become associated with such unhelpful connotations of military glory (see Acts 1:6) that, though he was the Christ, he avoided the term altogether, and concentrated on describing a suffering Son of Man.

26:64

See comment on Mark 14:62.

26:65

The High Priest was forbidden to tear his clothes by Leviticus 21:10.

27:3–8

There is an alternative version of Judas;s death in Acts 1:17–19.

Thirty: cf. Exodus 21:32, Leviticus 27:4, Zechariah 11:13

27:9

Thirty: See comment on Matthew 27:3.

27:12 and 14

Jesus did not respond to his accusers; God does not have to answer to humans. cf. the end of the book of Job, and Psalm 39.

27:21

The crowd was doing evil when it called for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus but, as so often happens, God was able to turn the evil to good.

27:24

Pilate's claimed innocence did not last long; in verse 26 he had Jesus flogged. In any case, he was already guilty of doing nothing when an injustice was happening before his eyes and he held ultimate power. "The gesture of washing his hands of responsibility was pointless. He was responsible. Jesus could not have been executed without his permission, or at least connivance." [59 on 5 October 2017]

27:26

See Luke 23:16, and cf. John 19:1. Barabbas was guilty and Jesus, though innocent, tok his place. This is a symbol of our salvation.

The historical truth of Jesus's execution is confirmed by Tacitus:

"To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital." [47]

Tacitus is describing here the persecution under Nero, which the emperor justified by blaming the burning of Rome on the Christians.

27:29

Exodus 28:38 indicates that wearing something on the forehead indicates that sin is being dealt with. Jesus bore our sins and the crown of thorns (also related in Mark 15:17 and John 19:2) meant that his forehead was stained with his own blood. Perhaps the crown of thorns symbolises the way Jesus was bearing our sins. Jesus wearing a crown of thorns on his head was like the ram caught by its horns in a thicket (probably with thorns around its head) in Genesis 22:13.

27:32

=Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26. The choice of a foreigner to carry Jesus's cross is intriguing; was it motivated by racism?

27:34

See comment on Matthew 5:44.

27:35

= John 19:24. cf. Psalm 22:16–18. Those who were present at the crucifixion responded in different ways that illustrate the responses people make today. The soldiers sat; some jeered; some wept; some watched and considered. Which pattern best fits us?

"The cross is not an answer that leaves us comfortable and assured; it is a question that leaves our faith hanging by a thread." [55] Those of Jesus's followers who were watching must have wished they could do something, though it was clear that there was nothing they could do. Often we feel we ought to be doing something, as if we were saved by our works. Perhaps we should remember that at the foot of the cross it is totally clear that we should not do but just be.

Meanwhile the soldiers, ordered to carry out an act so barbaric they were in danger of suffering psychological damage, may have used the business with casting lots for his clothes as a welcome distraction from the appalling scene.

27:37

See comment on John 19:19.

27:39–43

cf. Psalm 22:7–8.

27:45

The darkness fulfilled Amos 5:20 and Amos 8:9–10, and perhaps Joel 2:31. It cannot have been caused by a solar eclipse, because a solar eclipse can only happen at a new moon, but Jesus was crucified at Passover (John 13:1), which always happened at full moon.

27:46

cf. Mark 15:34. Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 expressing his distress. It is interesting to look at the end of Psalm 22 to see the hope that kept him going. It is said that the fall has distorted the relationships between man's body, mind and spirit. We are spiritually dead. Presumably what Jesus is experiencing here reflects our unsaved condition, cf. Psalm 39. In fact, Deuteronomy 31:6 says that God does not forsake anyone.

27:47

cf. Psalm 22:17.

27:48

cf. Psalm 22:15.

27:50

Psalm 55:17–18 prophesied that the Christ would die within a single day.

27:51

Matthew is telling us that the resurrection was a cataclysmic event that changed things forever. He cites the sort of dramatic events that are associated in the Old Testament with theophany cf.1 Kings 19:11. The presence of an angel in Matthew 28:2, whose appearance recalls Daniel 7:9–10 and 10:6, reinforces the message that God is at work, and anyone who intrudes is in danger, but not those to whom God chooses to reveal what is happening, who are told "do not fear".[48]

This earthquake was followed by another in Matthew 28:2.

Torn: cf. Mark 1:10, Luke 21:26.

27:52–53

These verses indicate fulfilment of Daniel 12:2.

27:54

The centurion "didn't, of course, mean by those words what Christians believe — that Jesus is divine, sharng God's nature. For a Roman, a 'son of God' (which is how the NRSV footnote renders his words) is a person of absolute righteousness." [59 on 6 October 2017]

27:61

This verse explains how the women "saw where he was laid" in Mark 15:47 and Luke 23:55, which confirm that the tomb that was found empty was the correct one.

28:2

See comment on Matthew 27:51–53. This was the second earthquake, the first being in Matthew 27:51.

28:7

Jesus is already in the world and we are called to follow him there. cf. Matthew 26:32, Matthew 28:10. Galilee: see comment on Matthew 28:16.

28:10

cf. Matthew 26:32, Matthew 28:7. Galilee: see comment on Matthew 28:16.

28:16

There are now eleven disciples because Judas is no longer counted among the twelve (Matthew 27:5 says he hanged himself) and Matthias has not yet been appointed to take his place (Acts 1:26). However, Peter, despite his denials, is definitely included.[44 p.944]

The mention of Jesus directing them to Galilee refers to Matthew 26:32, Matthew 28:7, and Matthew 28:10. Why was the reunion to be in Galilee? We are not told the reason, but presumably the disciples felt safer there, away from the authorities in Jerusalem and the place of Jesus's crucifixion and burial. In this respect Matthew's account is difficult to reconcile with Luke 24:33 and Acts 1:4 which say that the Eleven remained in Jerusalem until they met the risen Jesus; see comment on Luke 24:47–49. It is possible that Matthew wanted to show that the event was comparable with occasions in the Old Testament when God met people on mountains, such as when Moses received the Law.[49 p.885] The mountain is that in Matthew 17:1.[50 p.674]

28:17

This is a very brief summary of the events described in John 20, which includes the doubts of Thomas. The unexpected appearance of the resurrected Jesus was a terribly confusing and (in view of their recent failure to follow him to the end) embarrassing experience for the Apostles.[44 p.412] We should be encouraged by the fact that the Apostles suffered[50 p.674] "the hesitation natural to those confronted by a unique and 'impossible' occurrence".[51 p.944–5]

28:18

Is this the biggest claim that it is possible to make? Jesus had implied it earlier, in Matthew 11:27. It was the Father who gave this authority to Jesus;[50 p.674] cf. Daniel 7:13–14. The word "came" implies that they first saw Jesus at a distance, and then he came closer to them with words of encouragement and empowerment.[44 p.412]

28:19

cf. Luke 14:16–24, Luke 24:47–49 and Acts 1:8; see comment on Acts 2:5. This "Great Commission" resembles the command to subdue the world in Genesis 1:28. All kinds of people are to be called to discipleship, without circumcision being required. The authority mentioned in verse 18 gives Jesus the right to demand obedience from everybody and everything.[50 p.674]

The Greek makes it clear that baptizing and (:20) teaching are aspects of the process of "making disciples"; "in the name of" means "into allegiance with", and those who are baptised can expect some experience of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[44 p.414]

The Apostles had themselves been "made disciples" by Jesus since their call in Matthew 4, and were now commanded to continue the process. Baptism represents total commitment to a life governed by Jesus's commands.[51 p.944–5]

When we read "...the Son..." we think of "the Son of God", but Jesus preferred to call himself the Son of Man (apparently quoting Daniel 7:13). Perhaps the term "Messiah" had become associated with such unhelpful connotations of a military role (see Acts 1:6) that, though Jesus confirmed that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:17), he personally avoided the term, preferring "Son of Man" (e.g. Matthew 16:13).

"Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" reflects the involvement of all three at Jesus's own baptism in chapter 3.[49 p.886] Some consider this a later addition to the text after the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated. But the there is no historical evidence of the earliest texts being different.[44 p.415] The idea of the Trinity might be traced back to the presence of three heavenly beings in Daniel 7.[50 p.674] Perhaps the Eleven did not understand Jesus's words as implying a triune Godhead at this stage, despite passages like Matthew 11:27–30.

The descriptions of early baptisms record people being baptized "into Christ" rather than the Trinity, so this command was either not followed to the letter, or was not understood as a liturgical formula.[44 p.415] However, the production of Matthew's gospel might have caused the earlier version seen in Acts to be replaced by the version here.[52 p.203]

It seems curious that Jesus commanded his disciples to baptise when there is no evidence that he did it himself (though he had been baptised). It has been suggested that Christian baptism could not have the desired effect until the Holy Spirit became generally available after Jesus's resurrection.

28:20

The Church is to continue Christ's work in Christ's strength. The Apostles are to teach people, in order to implement the authority that Jesus claims in verse 18. Teaching is therefore one of the key roles of the church.[50 p.674] This includes teaching what Jesus did (teaching by example) as well as what he said.[49 p.885] We in turn inherit the duty to fulfil this command.

"The end of the age" means the time when God's kingdom has come "in its fullness", and that the closing phrase "I am with you" acknowledges that the Apostles cannot undertake this daunting task in their own strength; it also echoes the word Emmanuel ("God with us") in Matthew 1:23, giving Matthew's gospel a classic Jewish symmetry.[50 p.674]

References:

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  8. Christianity+Renewal magazine March 2001 p.49
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© David Billin 2002–2020