NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Part I (con’t)
In other Jewish writings we find that such rural areas served a special purpose. Some Rabbis taught that parts of the agrarian areas were fit only for breeding cattle.1 But these farming areas were also thought of as the exporter of good things. There is an interesting phrase in the Song of Solomon that requires deciphering in order to fully understand what he was talking about. It reads: “Daughters of Jerusalem, I am dark and beautiful.”2 In a Jewish commentary on this verse, a Rabbi offers an explanation that the term “black” or “dark” is another way of saying, “bad” or “disobedient.” And the term “beautiful, is a metaphor for overcoming this dark mindset and bad behavior through God’s grace. In other words, God was still able to make something beautiful out of their lives in spite of the damage sin may have caused.
According to the Rabbis, one of those instances was their dark days in Egypt,3 but that was countered by their beautiful delivery through the Red Sea.4 Another was their dark behavior in the wilderness by constantly complaining about food and water,5 but the beauty that came when Moses cried out to the Lord and He answered by providing just what they needed.6 And on another occasion when their dark attitude provoked God in the wilderness,7 yet God’s presence and Shekinah glory in front of the tabernacle brought back their beauty.8 Then again, the dark day when the spies came back out of Canaan with a bad report,9 and yet Joshua and Caleb showed the beauty of faith.10 Then it is explained by looking at the disobedience of Achan, yet the beauty brought back by the obedience of Phineas.11 And finally, in the words of one Rabbi about Israel’s transformation: “I am made beautiful by Joshua. The kings of Israel rendered me black, but the kings of Judah rendered me beautiful. And although I am a mixture of blackness and beauty, through all these enumerated events and conditions of things, I am perfected in beauty by my prophets.”12
So in other words, many things came out of the barren areas of that region; the Law, the Tabernacle; the Sanhedrin; the Priesthood; the Office of Levites; the Kingdom of Israel; and all the good gifts which God gave to His people. No wonder John the Baptizer’s appearance in this rural area east of Jericho, just like Moses’ leadership in the desert of Sinai, was seen as a good thing by many who believed that he was sent of God to announce the coming of the Messiah. But when we look at the topography of that region, sometimes the term was used to identify areas some distance from cities or towns rather than a barren wilderness. We have such a phrase in English which we refer to as the boondocks, to describe the backwoods, hinterlands, or rural areas, which are thinly inhabited yet blossoming full of life. This will help us understand exactly what John the Baptizer meant when he called for making a new way in the wilderness that became a metaphor for the Jews’ lack of faith, weak belief, and self-centered service to God. And what a metaphor for those Christians delivered from sin’s bondage who were once close to God, but now seem to be living in a wilderness because of their separation from Him in their faith and practice. This may be what Peter had in mind when he spoke of coming out of darkness into His marvelous.13
Verses 2-3: “John said, ‘Repent now, because God’s kingdom is now very near.’ John is the one Isaiah the prophet was talking about when he said, ‘There is someone shouting: “In the desert, prepare the way for the Lord. Make a straight road for Him.’”
It is not unusual to see a cartoon in newspapers or magazines of some disheveled, bearded individual holding a sign or carrying boards strapped to their shoulders with the words “Repent!” written on them. I’ve seen them myself on the streets of New York City in Times Square. Not only do 98% of those who see these cartoons or signs not understand what repent means, but I dare say that 80% of those who draw them and carry them, along with Christians in the pew, do not understand the word when used in a sermon. Talk to a number of them and they will describe the scene of a person either standing, or on their knees, before the altar, weeping and crying as they cry out to God for forgiveness of their sins. While this certainly is an emotional norm and commensurate with repentance, it does not truly define repentance.
It not only means turning to God for forgiveness, but simultaneously turning away from one’s sinning when asking God for forgiveness, with the intent of never sinning again. The Greek word used here literally means to: “change one’s mindset,” “to have a complete change of heart.” But since Matthew wrote this in Hebrew, we find a similar expression in Ezekiel: “Therefore, house of Isra’el, I will judge each of you according to his ways,’ says Adonai Elohim. ‘Repent, and turn yourselves away from all your transgressions, so that they will not be a stumbling-block that brings guilt upon you,’”14 In the context of what both Jesus and John the Baptizer preached, it meant “turning” from one’s sin of disobedience and “returning” to God in obedience. Note the combination of turning “from” and turning “to.” And what makes this so remarkable is that turning from one’s sins is impossible unless at the same time one turns to God — otherwise one will only turn from one set of sins to another!
One Jewish scholar says: “The Jewish understanding of repentance on this point is that each individual must do it, yet it requires God’s grace to be able to do it — “Turn us to You, O ADONAI, and turned we will be.15”16 Another Jewish translation puts it this way: “Adonai, turn us back to you; and we will come back.”17 I offer my own translation here: “ADONAI, turn us around so we can come back to You.” According to some Jewish literature, it is not without justification then that when a liberal Jew, raised with little knowledge of Judaism, later adopts a conservative Jewish lifestyle, he is termed by other Jews as having mastered repentance, that is, one who has “completely turned” from his nonobservant ways and “wholly returned” to serving God in the manner prescribed by Orthodox Judaism.
In modern Christianity this was often the case when a backslider returns to God and began living according the teachings of God’s Word. With this understanding, perhaps we can better grasp the message that John the Baptizer and Jesus preached and why the leading priests were so against it. They felt there was no need for such repentance. They were already living a holy and responsible life according to God’s laws. Besides, if they approved of what John the Baptizer was preaching as right, they were then labeling what they preached as wrong. Jesus also preached concerning the Kingdom of God as John did. However, with one stark difference. When John was asked about this Kingdom, he could only point toward Christ and say: “He is the way”. But when Jesus was asked, He was able to explain and quickly preempt anyone else’s definition by pointing to Himself and stating: “I am the way!” I have found in my own ministry that when it comes to backsliders, the most difficult thing they must overcome is not that they have sinned, nor that they need forgiveness, but that by coming back to God it is an open admission they had done wrong. This was also the major obstacle keeping the Pharisees from accepting Jesus as their Savior.
The portion quoted by Matthew about the voice crying out is found in Isaiah. Matthew did not use this referral as a quote with a hidden message. Rather, to him it was Isaiah speaking prophetically of John the Baptizer. However, the standard rendering in the King James Version: “The voice of him that cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make a straight highway in the desert for our God,’”18 has promoted a serious misinterpretation of the text. We find this same understanding echoed in Greek writings: “But when a voice shall through the desert land come bearing tidings to men, and to all shall call to make straight paths, and from the heart cast wickedness out and illuminate with water all the bodies of mankind, that being born again they may no more from what is righteous go at all astray.”19 The Hebrew actually reads, “A voice cries out: ‘Clear a road through the desert for Adonai! Level a highway in the desert for our God!’”20 In fact, the oldest known Hebrew copy of Matthew’s Gospel puts it this way: “A voice of one crying, in the desert prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a path for our God.”21 That’s why newer English translations have rendered it this way: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”22 One portion of Isaiah reads: “Listen, there is someone shouting: ‘Prepare a way in the desert for the Lord. Make a straight road there for our God. Every valley must be filled. Every mountain and hill should be made flat. The crooked roads should be made straight, and the rough ground made smooth. Then the Glory of the Lord will be shown to everyone. Together, all people will see it.’ Yes, this is what the Lord Himself said!”23
To understand this declaration, we must remind ourselves that the desert, road, mountain and hills are metaphors for the Jews spiritual journey and their compliance with laws, rites and rituals. It was another way of saying that a new way to salvation was coming with direct access to God, and they were called upon to be ready and open-minded to receive the Good News in order to travel that road. So we can see that the crier is not in the wilderness crying out, but is crying out for a path to be made in the wilderness. That the term “wilderness” becomes a metaphor for the barren wasteland of belief and understanding of God, His Word, and His true plan of salvation. This is borne out by the fact that Jesus did not arrive at the Jordan for baptism from the wilderness, but He came down from Galilee where He had been raised and was living since the age of five.24
1 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Kama, folio 79b
2 Song of Solomon 1:5
3 Psalm 106
4 Exodus 15
6 Exodus 24
7 Psalm 78
8 Numbers 9
9 Ibid. 13
10 Numbers 25
11 Joshua 7
12 Midrash Rabbah on the Song of Solomon, pp. 167-168
13 I Peter 2:9
14 Ezekiel 18:30 – Complete Jewish Bible
15 Lamentations 5: 21
16 Jewish New Testament Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Loc. cit., Complete Jewish Bible
18 Isaiah 40:3-6 – King James Version
19 Sibylline Oracles, Book III:408-414
20 Complete Jewish Bible, loc. cit
21 Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 New International Version
23 Isaiah 40:3-6
24 See verse 13