NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Part III (con’t)
Verse 33: Then Jesus told them another story: “God’s kingdom is like yeast that a woman mixes into a big bowl of flour to make bread. The yeast makes all the dough rise.”
Now Jesus goes from the seed itself, to how the flour made with these seeds can be affected by a thing called yeast. In Jesus’ day wild yeast occurred naturally on the surfaces of fruit as a fungus. Women would submerge such fruit in water with sugar in it (especially the peels) and leave it in a warm place so it would start fermenting in a few days. They would then transfer it to a new brewing batch. Another way to make yeast at home was to put a medium size potato into one quart of unsalted water and boil it until it is done. Remove the potato, and drain the water into a container. Mash the potato and add one teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt to the potato water. Allow the mashed potato to cool to room temperature then add enough potato water to make a one quart mixture. Cover the container and then set it in a warm place and allow the mixture to ferment.
The whole idea behind our Lord’s story of the small mustard seed and the pinch of yeast is that they both, though very small, can have a significant effect on things much larger than themselves. As far as yeast is concerned, it works by consuming sugar and excreting carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts. As soon as yeast, bread dough, and water are stirred together, enzymes in the yeast and the flour cause large starch molecules to break down into simple sugars. The yeast metabolizes these simple sugars and exudes a liquid that releases carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol into existing air bubbles in the dough. If the dough has a strong and elastic gluten network, the carbon dioxide is held within the bubble and will begin to inflate it, just like someone blowing up bubblegum. As more and more tiny air cells fill with carbon dioxide, the dough rises and we’re on the way to glutenous bread. It certainly may be that the reason why Jesus chose yeast as an example, is because He knew that what yeast is to flour, so pride is to man’s ego.
The Aramaic Version renders this verse: “The kingdom of heaven is likened to leaven which the woman took and buried in three measures of flour until it all was leavened.” The NIV has “large amount.” The Greek says: “three satas,” which is about 19 quarts or 21 liters. The measure of flour used by this woman was considered the standard amount for baking bread, as we see in the meal Sarah prepared for the visiting angels; “Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quickly, three measures of the best flour! Knead it and make cakes.”1 Another Jewish translator prefers to call them “loaves.”2 There is no doubt that from the time Jesus told these stories the yeast of Christianity has impacted this world like no other movement. Solomon had another way of describing the same principle, “The path of those who live right is like the early morning light. It gets brighter and brighter until the full light of day.”3 So unlike the yeast of the Pharisees in which their pride inflated their ego, here the yeast of faith causes the assembly of believers to expand and grow larger and larger. In that case, our Lord’s illustration shows the result that a small bit of God’s kingdom can have wherever it is mixed into even a pagan society.
At one time the entire United States of America, the wealthiest, strongest, and most innovative country in the world was considered a Christian nation, all because a small band of pilgrims from Europe brought their faith and the kingdom of God to its shores where Christianity was unknown. This final parable was meant to show the power and effect God’s kingdom has on the world around it. But over the years, that influence has waned in many quarters of America. That’s because another form of yeast, which started out small, has permeated society and now the country is no longer referred to as a Christian nation by many. Jesus will warn His disciples about this other yeast and tell them to beware.4 It may be difficult to stop such worldly yeast from affecting worldly people, but it should never be allowed to influence the body of Christ.
Verse 34: Jesus used stories to tell all these things to the people. He always used stories to teach them.
Here Matthew shares a personal note with his readers. It may indicate that he did not include all the parables used by Jesus in teaching about the new agreement God was making with those who believe in Him, and the kingdom of God and how it would function in this world, because the document would become too large and cumbersome.5
Chrysostom offers this for our consideration: “Mark says, ‘As they were able to hear it, He spoke the word to them in parables.’6 Then pointing out that He is not making a new thing, He also brings in the prophet, proclaiming beforehand this His manner of teaching. And to teach us the purpose of Christ, how He discoursed in this way so that they might not be ignorant but that He might lead them to inquiry, Mark added, ‘And without a parable He told them nothing.7 Yet surely He did say many things without a parable, but then later nothing. And for all this no one asked Him questions, whereas we know they were often questioning the prophets. They questioned Ezekiel, for instance, and many others; but of these they did no such thing. Yet surely His sayings were enough to cause them to become perplexed and result in their asking for explanations; for indeed a very solemn punishment was threatened by those parables. Even so they were not moved.”8
This is another way of saying that our Lord was able to perfectly adjust His words to the level of understanding in His audience, and attuned the method of His teaching to both inform and to challenge. One thing I learned to do in teaching was to explore every subject on the basis of what is generally known and then introduce what is rarely known. Let me illustrate: Most everyone knows that if you put coffee grounds into a French coffee press, then pour in hot water and wait a little while before you push down on the plunger, the press filters out the coffee grounds, producing a full-bodied brew with rich flavor and aroma. But what you may not know is that the brewing temperature of the water should be exactly 205 degrees Fahrenheit because boiling water at 212 degrees Fahrenheit is too hot and should never be used. This will burn the coffee grounds and not allow the water to extract the flavor and aroma. The temperature of water below 205 degrees Fahrenheit will not extract the flavor properly and give the drink less taste. Also, the water to coffee ratio should be properly measured. In some households this is described as making black coffee, when less water is used, and brown coffee when more water is used.
For instance, the general guideline in making coffee is that for every six ounces of water use one to two tablespoons of ground coffee based on personal taste of how strong you want the coffee to be. Use one tablespoon if you drink it black, if you plan to add sugar and cream add two tablespoons. And if you want the most caffeine out of your coffee, should you go with a dark roast or a light roast? If you answered dark roast, you’re in the majority, but unfortunately you’re incorrect. Don’t celebrate just yet if you answered light roast, because that’s not right either. The truth is, if there’s little difference in caffeine levels between dark and light roast beans. Diehards in both camps have insisted for years that their roast is the real deal, but it turns out that it all comes down to how you measure.
Now the same process of measuring goes when sharing the Word of God. Make sure you take into consideration the size of your audience, the age of your listeners, the reason they have gathered to hear you, and the amount of time you have to address them. Matthew understood this method and was wanting the readers of this Gospel to understand that Jesus was putting in place clear communication methods so that the point He was making became more important than the story He used to tell it.
Verse 35: This was to make clear the full meaning of what the wise man said: “I will speak using stories; I will tell things that have been secrets since the world was made.”9
This is Matthew’s commentary on the Master’s teaching session and saw it as a fulfillment of what the Psalmist Asaph said in his homily. The Korah family also did the same thing.10 Most preachers and teachers today employ the same technique when trying to make the truths of the Bible relevant to everyday life. A great English churchman and historian wrote: “Indeed, reasons are the pillars of the fabric of a sermon; but similitudes [illustrations] are the windows which give the best lights.”11 I’ve often referred to illustrations as a frame to put around a portrait painted by using the Scriptures as colors.
Verse 36: Then Jesus left the people at the shore and went back to His house. His followers came inside and asked Him, “Explain to us the meaning of the story about the weeds in the field.”
Back in verse 1 we saw where it said that Jesus came out of His house and went down by the sea shore to teach. He must have been there all day, but now it was no doubt supper time, so He returns to His house in Capernaum. From other references it appears that this edifice became Jesus’ personal synagogue. On this occasion His disciples want to speak to Him privately because they were curious as to any underlying truth in the parable He told about the weeds that were planted among the wheat in the field by the farmer’s enemy. But they were most curious about what would happen to the weeds.
Some people dream of having a city where only God-believing, holy and righteous people live in harmony and peace. That has already been tried. Zion, Illinois was founded in July 1901 along the western shore of Lake Michigan as a Utopian society by world-renowned evangelist and orator, Dr. John Alexander Dowie, who was originally from Scotland. Zion was one of the first planned cities in the United States and was platted to imitate the layout of the British Union Jack flag. Dowie also started the Zion Tabernacle of the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church, which was the only church in town. The north-south roads in the original plan are all named from the Bible except for two. For instance, there streets named Damascus, Ebenezer, Galilee, Hebron, Jethro, etc. Dowie had a utopian dream of a Christian community where strict regulations regarding social behavior and morals could be enforced. He would ban liquor, taverns, the selling of tobacco and other merchandise he considered being injurious to Christian health. He believed in salvation, healing, and holy living, and Zion City was to exemplify these beliefs.
Dr. Dowie surrounded himself with men of great talent and financial standings. Many experienced healing episodes and felt indebted to Dowie and his dream. With this support the city flourished. All economic, educational, social, political and religious activities were coordinated through church leadership. Besides residential homes, there was a manufacturing district to the east of the North Western Railway tracks containing a Bakery, Brick Kiln, Candy Factory Electric Plant, Lace Mill, Laundry, Lumber Mill, and Printing Publishing House. Dowie’s greatest achievement was to build a city of God, where His people could work and play, immune from the so-called sins of the world. The dream was far-reaching and most ambitious.
But then things took a dangerous turn when Dowie proclaimed that he was indeed Elijah the Prophet. It was about this time that Dowie, after an ill-fated trip to New York, let long standing financial mismanagement take over the church and sweep away the dreams. The planned 16,000-seat temple was never built. The industries began to suffer from lack of funds. The schools, located for the convenience of the children, graduated only two classes (1905 and 1906) before being closed. Today Zion, Illinois is like any other city with all the good and bad things that either bless or plague cities in the world. It may have been a good idea, but it was obviously not God’s idea. God never intended for His children to live on an island away from all evil and sin, but to live in the midst of such unrighteousness and yet survive and grow bigger and bigger.
Verses 37-41: He answered, “The man who planted the good seed in the field is the Son of man.”
The idea of the Word of God being sown was expressed in the work of Ezra the scribe: “For, behold, I sow my law in you, and it shall bring fruit in you, and ye shall be honored in it forever.”12 And in one of the deuterocanonical books of the Bible God says: “But as for you, if you prepare your hearts, so as to sow in them the fruits of the law, it shall protect you in that time in which the Mighty One is to shake the whole creation.”13 As we have seen, the seed is often identified as the Torah (the Law of God), but here Jesus said that in His parable the seed are the people in God’s kingdom. This falls in line with what the Rabbis taught: “A young scholar may be likened to the seed under a hard clod of soil; once he has sprouted he soon grows upward.”14
So Jesus here identifies Himself as the sower in the parable. He also thereby identifies the seed as those who come to believe in Him as Savior and as the Lamb of God who came to take away their sins after they receive Him. This good news was that the old way of salvation through works under the Law based on continual animal sacrifices was now being replaced by salvation through faith by grace based on the one-time for all time sacrifice of the Lamb of God. And the question that we asked before about whether the field was the Church or the world, our Lord gives us a definitive answer.
Verse 38: The field is the world. The good seed is the people in God’s kingdom. The weeds are the people who belong to the Evil One.
Here we have a clear statement that this good news and message of salvation would go out into the whole world, not just Israel. That the Son of God did not come to die for just one people, but for all people as was stated in God’s promise to Abraham. It took Peter and some of the other disciples a while to learn this, but the apostle Paul was told by Jesus at his calling that he was to go to all non-Jewish populations in the world. But it would not be easy because the Evil One holds sway over those civilizations and will not release such dominion without a fight.
Verse 39: And the enemy who planted the bad seed is the devil. The harvest is the end of time. And the workers who gather are God’s angels.
The devil first planted this seed of rebellion and wickedness in the Garden of Eden. But when God’s curse was pronounced upon him, God made it clear: “I will make you and the woman enemies to each other. Your children and her children will be enemies. You will bite her child’s foot, but He will crush your head.”15 Also, from that time onward the devil has known his destiny and has done everything in his power to take as many as God created with him. What a wonderful message our Lord gives to us here. No one is required to suffer the devil’s fate, let him alone suffer for what he did. Jesus came to provide a way out from under that death sentence. That’s why the Gospel is a message of liberty, and Jesus said that whom He the Son sets free, will be completely free!16
Verse 40: The weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire. It will be the same at the end of time.
Now our Lord gives a clear and precise exegesis of His story on the bad seed being planted among the good seed. The day will come when the weeds are removed, and God already has His angels on alert, ready for His orders. Jesus echoes the words found in Joel: “Bring the sickle because the harvest is ripe. Come, trample the grapes, because the winepress is full. The barrels will be full and spilling over because their evil is great”.17 Once the weeds have been plucked from the vineyard, they are good only to be burned.
Here our Lord takes the symbolic and interprets it in its literal sense. It is most significant that these scorching words of a fiery damnation course from the lips of the Son of God to our own hearts, as painful as that may seem. God is love, and Christ His Son is the personification of love, yet Jesus spoke here with little reluctance of the awful end awaiting the ungodly. In equal proportion to His love for that which is righteous and holy, is God’s anger and wrath upon that which is sinful and wicked. A heaven without a hell has no meaning! The Lord identified Himself as the Son of man who was sowing the seed. We see a similarity here with what was said in Hosea: “I will sow many seeds on her land. To the ones who receive little mercy, I will show mercy. To the ones who are not my people , ‘You are my people.’ And they will say to me, ‘You are our God’.”18
Verse 41: The Son of Man will send His angels, and they will find the people who cause sin and all those who do evil. The angels will take those people out of His kingdom.”
As the Psalmist said, “When You appear, You will burn them up like a blazing furnace. In your anger, Lord, you will completely destroy them; they will be swallowed by flames of fire. Their families will be destroyed. They will be removed from the earth. That is because they made evil plans against you. They wanted to do things they could not do.”19
After reading this prophecy by our Lord my mind immediately goes to John’s Revelation where this event is outlined in great detail. But it will take the actual occurrence of this sifting of the harvest and the casting of the weeds into the fire for us to fully understand what it implies. We do know that in Jesus’ day that was the normal way weeds were handled. In many cases they were bundled together and used to start a fire for ovens in which bread was baked and food was made. The vision of a burning hell with the devil and his pitchfork owes a lot its existence to Dante’s Divine Comedy, known better as “The Inferno,” than it does to the Scriptures. But with our Lord’s emphasis on such a tragic end, we must not take it lightly. We will now see what more Jesus has to say on this subject.
1 Genesis 18:6 – Complete Jewish Bible (cf. Judges 6:19; 1 Samuel 1:24)
2 Robert Alter, Genesis Translation and Commentary
3 Proverbs 4:18
4 Cf. Matthew 16:6
5 See John 21:25
6 See Mark 4:33
7 Ibid. 4:34
8 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 47.1
9 Psalm 78:2
10 Ibid. 49:4
11 The Holy State and Profane State, by Thomas Fuller, The Faithful Minister, Chapter 9:11, London, Thomas Tegg, 73 Cheapside, 1841, p. 76
12 II Esdras 9:31
13 2 Baruch 32:1
14 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Ta’anith, folio 4a
15 Genesis 3:15
16 John 8:36
17 Joel 3:13
18 Hosea 2:23
19 Psalm 21:9-11