NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Part I (con’t)
Verse 10: The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Why do you use these stories to teach the people?”
It is somewhat odd that the disciples would ask this question, seeing that one of the first people to use a parable in illustrating a moralistic idea was Jotham in the Old Testament when he addressed the leaders of Shechem. It involved an olive tree, a fig tree, a grapevine, and a thornbush.1 And what about the prophet Nathan’s famous story to King David about the man with many sheep stealing his neighbor’s one sheep to feed some visitors.2 And the Psalmist used a parable in Psalm 49, as well as Asaph in Psalm 78. So this method of teaching was not new.
King Solomon was quite emphatic about the intent and purpose of his own nuggets of wisdom: “These sayings will help you understand proverbs, stories with hidden meanings, words of the wise, and other difficult sayings.”3 From the earliest times, we have been told that “A parable has been justly defined to be a comparison or similitude, in which one thing is compared with another, especially spiritual things with natural, by which means those spiritual things are better understood, and make a deeper impression on an honest and attentive mind. In a parable, a resemblance in the principal incidents is all that is required; smaller matters being considered as a sort of drapery.”4
Even the prophet Isaiah found parables useful.5 Likewise, in Ezekiel, we find these instructions from God to the prophet, “Then the word of the LORD came to me. He said, ‘Son of man, I have a story with a hidden meaning for you to tell the family of Israel.’”6 And the Lord admitted that He had given many similitudes to His prophets to make His word clearer.7 I found an interesting discussion on parables by the great Jewish thinker, Maimonides, who said “…One of our Sages said, ‘If a man loses a pebble or a pearl in his house, he can find it by lighting a candle worth only one bronze coin. Thus, the parables in themselves are of no great value, but through them the words of the holy Law are rendered more understandable.’”8
Early church preacher Chrysostom has this to say in complimenting the disciples when they came to Jesus to seek a better understanding of these parables. He writes: “We have good cause to admire the disciples. Longing as they do to learn, they know when they ought to ask. They do not ask in the presence of the crowd. Matthew shows this by saying, ‘And they came.’ But to show that this is not a conjecture, Mark has expressed it more distinctly by saying that ‘they came to Him privately.’9 This is what His brothers and His mother should have done. It would have been better if His family had not called Him out and made a scene. But observe the disciples’ gentle affection, how they have much regard for the others and how they seek the other’s good first and then their own. ‘For why,’ they ask, ‘do You speak to them in parables?’ They did not say, ‘Why do You speak to us in parables?’ On other occasions as well we can see their kindness in their human relationships, as when they said, ‘Send the multitude away,’10 and ‘Do you know that they were offended?’11”12
In other words, a parable, like an inexpensive candle, is worth far less than the nugget of wisdom one is searching for, but it becomes very valuable when we understand that by using its light such nuggets can be found. Very few of today’s disciples seem to be cognizant of the implications in Jesus message here. So often believers speak to the worldly people about heavenly secrets and mysteries that even they themselves don’t understand nor have had explained to them. No wonder it’s so hard to attract the sinner’s attention. Why would someone sit on a hard pew and listen to a loquacious speaker for an hour when they understand very little of what is being said? We can successfully communicate God’s Word by using the vernacular of the listener. By the way, there is a big difference between vulgar and vernacular speech.
Jesus used the common dialect of His day to explain heavenly things, even though He still left some of them scratching their heads wondering what it meant? Believe it or not, I have been criticized for reading English translations of the Bible that do not contain, “Thou,” “Thee,” and “Thus.” I’m sure the day will come when those old translations of the Bible written in earlier forms of English will still be used and even believers in the audience will not know what the words spoken here by Jesus really meant. The impact made by God’s Word on the listener is not necessarily in its classic pronunciation but in its everlasting power.
Verse 11: Jesus answered, “Only you have been given the opportunity to know the secret truths about God’s kingdom. Those other people cannot know these secret truths yet.”
When our Lord speaks here of secret truths, it is not something that was hidden on purpose, which God is reluctant to reveal, but it refers to truths and wisdom that are only attained through instruction and study. The Aramaic Version uses the term “mystery,” which clearly suggests something that needs to be explained. And the reason those others could not comprehend these mysteries is because their minds had not yet been opened by the Holy Spirit.
I like the way one Hebraist scholar puts it: “A number of religions both then and now claim to make available special knowledge or mysteries to an inner circle. Biblical religion is not so. Its truths are available to all who read and believe the Bible. While Yeshua walked the earth there was an inner circle of disciples who received precisely the knowledge necessary to disseminate God’s truth to all men throughout all generations. But nothing in Scripture supports the notion, found today in cultish, occult and New Age circles, that true Christianity depends on teachings that are supposedly above or beyond the Bible.”13 As we have already seen, Jesus did not teach anything that went beyond what the Word of God had already spoken of, but revealed and expanded its mysteries such as no teacher before Him had ever done, or will ever do.
There is an interesting story in Jewish writings that pertains to this concept of exploring what God has already given us, instead of looking for something new and novel. Read the whole story slowly and absorb its meaning: “A certain synagogue reader went to stand in front of the Ark in the presence of the Rabbi, and began by praying: O God, You are great, mighty, terrible, majestic, powerful, awful, strong, fearless, faithful, revered. He prayed on and on and on. The Rabbi finally cut the prayer short and said to him, ‘We don’t need to hear all this? Has not Moses our Master already mention them in the Law,14 and have not the men of the Great Synagogue come and inserted them in the Tefillah,15 so that we need not recite them, and yet after you recite them once you still keep on going! It is as if an earthly king had a million denarii of gold, and someone praised him for possessing silver. Would that not be an insult to him’?”16 In other words, repeating what we already know is not how one grows in the knowledge of God, it is letting God speak to us through those words that can impart greater wisdom.
The Rabbi continues: “Everything is in God’s hand except reverence for God, as it says, And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you but to have reverence.17 Is reverence for God such a little thing? Has it not been said: The Holy One, blessed be He, stores nothing in His treasury except the reverence He receives, as it says, Reverence for the Lord is His treasure?18 — Rabbi Hanina illustrates this with a parable: if a man is asked for something big and he has it, it will seem like a small thing to him; but if he is asked for something small but does not possess it, it will seem like a big thing to him”.19
In other words, if God asks us to use any talent or ability we already have, we should not make a great deal out of it because it will come naturally. But if God asks us for something small, like being faithful and honest or committed and dedicated and we lack such virtues, that should become a big deal to us and motivate us to acquire it. This should give all of us something to think about because this is what Jesus was trying to say to His disciples.
We find a similar thought in Jewish writings: “Many have discerned sufficiently with their mind’s eye to expound on the Chariot in Ezekiel and yet they never saw it? — What says Rabbi Judah to this? — It all depends on the discernment of the heart, and the expounder by focusing his mind to comprehend.”20 In other words, perception must accompany enlightenment in order for hidden truths to be seen. And from what Jesus said concerning His disciples, their understanding is based on who they are listening to, and He is the Son of God. Therefore, God reveals His secrets to whom He chooses. And as He has said in His Word, the ones He selects are those who keep asking, seeking and knocking.21
One early church writer wants his readers to focus on this: “Notice how Jesus says, ‘To you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.’ He did not say ‘to you it is given’ to someone who has no knowledge whatever of good and evil. All rational souls are given a chance to understand the difference between good and evil. Yet not all have the grace of knowing the mysteries of the kingdom. It is not the fault of God who does not give, because this general rational knowledge is available, but of the person who does not ask or make haste or work in order to be ready to receive the kingdom. If you pursue this general knowledge of good and evil—that is, if you make good use of what you can know—you will be ready to receive the special knowledge of knowing the mystery. But if you have hidden that general knowledge in the ground, that is meant to supply nature’s needs, how will you merit the special knowledge that is meant as a reward for good will or works?”22
So to make this somewhat clearer to believers today, Jesus is saying that the true understanding of God’s Word is not given to the unconverted sinner. Only those who have become new creatures in Christ possess the spiritual insight necessary to comprehend what God says in His Word. Never ask an atheist, agnostic or unbeliever to explain the Bible to you, they can’t. However, unless believers use their ability to study and absorb God’s Word, they will be equally lacking in knowledge of the Scriptures. To show the necessity of being student’s of God’s Word, Jesus now offers more insight as to its benefits.
Verse 12: The people who have some understanding will be given more until they have all they will need. But those who do not have much understanding will lose even the little understanding that they already have.
In the manuscripts found in the cave at Qumran near the Dead Sea in Israel, there is a reference to the “Teacher of Righteousness” in one of the fragments that goes like this: “He was the Priest [in whose heart] God set [understanding] that he might interpret all the words of His servants the Prophets, through whom He foretold all that would happen to His people.”23 But with that understanding comes responsibility. This is not a matter of greed, but a case of hunger for more understanding of God’s Word.
An Early Church teacher and writer made this comment: “In people who are teachable and well disposed to receiving the divine words, the Holy Spirit will make His abode, increasing in them His gifts. But in those who have acquired only a tiny spark of light and have been negligent even with that, even the little that they formerly had becomes utterly quenched and is taken from them. This is what some Jews have experienced, who received a light from the law but gained no increase from it. When the Truth arrived, they became dim-sighted toward it; even what they had has been taken away.”24
And the anonymous Early Church writer we mentioned before adds this thought: “It is certainly possible for something to be added to someone who has. But it is impossible to take away from him who does not have. How are we to understand this? If something is taken away from him who does not have and yet he does not have anything to begin with, what is taken away from him? Here is how we should understand this. He who has a mind and does not do justice with it pertaining to God’s glory but rather occupies it with earthly things, of him we say: having he does not have. For though he has a mind and can see, he is said to be blind. That person already has nothing who brings nothing to God.”25
As a seminary professor, when I taught Hermeneutics I encouraged my students to always look for more to learn. For example, if they spotted an important word in the text, and went to a Bible concordance to see what the original word was behind it, don’t stop there. After they found the translated Hebrew or Greek word, then go to the Bible lexicon to find out how it is used in that particular verse. Find out if it was used as a verb, noun, adverb, etc. Then see if it is in the past, present or future tense. Once that is determined, find other verses where this same word is used in different contexts until they are firmly convinced that their exposition will be correct because they understand what the author of the text was saying, to whom it was addressed, why he said it, how he said it, and how it can be understood and used today.
I wanted them to take what they already knew, but because of their hunger and thirst for more they would be motivated in wanting to know more. On the other hand, those who only take a cursory look at the text, then preach what they think it says, will find that as they add to it by way of speculation and assumption they will get further and further from the truth. Don’t let that become a habit, or it will destroy your own confidence and the assurance others have in you.
This is not wishful thinking, it is the promise Jesus made in this verse. But there is also a downside to not having any interest or motivation to become more efficient and schooled in the Word of God. Our Lord says that if any of His children are not interested in learning, then He will have little interest in teaching them. Not only that but what they did learn at one time will not be kept alive by the Spirit in the hearts and minds. Instead, they will turn to the simple teaching of men and be led further and further away from the One who is called the Way, the Truth and the Life.26
Let’s look at this through the eyes of an illustration: Let’s say that when you were young you learned to play a musical instrument, or you were interested in building up your muscles at the gym, or even played a certain game with expertise. But as time went by you used this talent less and less. As many have discovered, after awhile you become less and less proficient in playing that instrument; your muscles turn into fat; so even a child can beat you at the game you once mastered. Elsewhere, Jesus made it quite clear: “Blessings will fall on those who hunger and thirst to know how to live and do what’s right, for they will be satisfied.”27 And the apostle Paul told young Timothy: “For yourself, concentrate on winning God’s approval, on being a workman with nothing to be ashamed of, and who knows how to use the word of truth to the best advantage.”28
There are some 75 references in the Bible to the need to study God’s Word. So if God thought it was important, and Jesus tells us that it was important, and the Bible points out how important it is, then ask yourself: “Shouldn’t it be important to me?”
1 Judges 9:7-21
2 II Samuel 12:1-7
3 Proverbs 1:6
4 Treasury of Scriptural Knowledge, loc. cit.
5 Isaiah 5:1-7
6 Ezekiel 17:2; (cf. 20:49; 24:3-14)
7 Hosea 12:10
8 Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Introduction, Letter of the Author to his Pupil Rabbi Joseph Ibn Aknin, p. 90
9 Mark 4:10
10 Luke 9:12
11 Matthew 15:12
12 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 45.1
13 Jewish New Testament Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 See Deuteronomy 10:17
15 Jewish Prayer Book
16 Combined story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachoth, folio 34a; Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Megillah 25a; and Seder Tohoroth Masekhet Niddah 16b
17 Deuteronomy 10:12
18 Isaiah 33:6
19 Babylonian Talmud, ibid.
20 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Megilah, folio 24b
21 Matthew 7:7
22 Anonymous: Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 31
23 The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 7th Edition, 1QpHab VII, 8-10, Penguin Classics, p. 71
24 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 165
25 Anonymous: ibid.
26 John 14:6
27 Matthew 5:6
28 2 Timothy 2:15 – J. B. Phillips New Testament Translation