NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 42: They will throw them into the place of fire. There the people will be crying and grinding their teeth with pain.
The question here is: What did the Jews understand by our Lord’s reference to the place of fire where people are in agony? To most Christians today the first thing that comes to mind is hell. But when we put this in context, Jesus has been talking about imitation wheat that has been planted among genuine wheat, and then likens them to people who do evil things and cause others to sin. When judgment day comes they will be pulled up and burned. This is a metaphor drawn from the common practice of doing the same thing with the look-alike wheat. As a matter of fact, Jewish writings tell us that these were considered worth nothing more than straw and were used to start fires in stoves and furnaces.1
So, like the Jews, Jesus uses this as a metaphor for the wicked being rejected from the Kingdom of God because they may look real, but in fact they are fakes and need to be thrown into the fire like the straw. Thus the punishment of the wicked became synonymous with a fiery end. In fact, one Jewish commentary on Abraham’s vision when he was asked to make a sacrifice to God2 says: “Gehenna, which was prepared for the wicked in the world to come, will be enveloped in burning flames of fire, into which the wicked will fall when in their lives they rebelled against the law, while the just who had kept it were delivered from affliction.”3 So Jesus was not inventing hell, He spoke of it as the Jews understood it.
Could this idea of burning those who disobey have inspired Nebuchadnezzar to create punishment by fire for those who refused to bow down to the gold statue, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, he set up on the plain of Dura?4 Even in a book read by many Jews and quoted by Jude it says: “And Michael, and Gabriel, and Raphael, and Phanuel shall take hold of them on that great day, and cast them on that day into the burning furnace, that the Lord of Spirits may take vengeance on them for their unrighteousness in becoming subject to Satan and leading astray those who dwell on the earth.”5 Could those be the angels Jesus referred to in verse 41? So Jesus was not teaching some new radical theology. He then goes on to say:
Verse 43: Then the godly people will shine like the sun. They will be in the kingdom of their Father. You people, listen to me and listen well!
So for the godly, Daniel’s words are paraphrased here, “The wise people will shine as bright as the sky. Those who teach others to live right will shine like stars forever and ever.”6 Thus we have sinners going to hell to burn in a fire that causes unimaginable suffering and anguish, and saints going to a place of peace and rest to await the resurrection, something that was easy for these Jewish listeners to understand. This concept has continued in Jewish thinking down through the ages.7 But our Lord has more to say about the Kingdom of God.
On this statement by Jesus, Origen offers his thoughts: “When He gathers out of the whole kingdom of Christ all things that make people stumble, and the reasonings that produce lawless acts are cast into the furnace of fire, and the worse elements utterly consumed … then shall the righteous, having become one light of the sun, shine in the kingdom of their Father. For whom will they shine? For those below them who will enjoy their light, just like the sun, which now shines for those upon the earth? Of course, they will not shine for their own sake, but perhaps the saying ‘Let your light shine before men’ can be written ‘upon the table of the heart,’8 according to what is said by Solomon, in a threefold way. So even now the light of the disciples of Jesus shines before the rest of humanity, and after death before the resurrection, and after the resurrection ‘until all shall attain to full maturity,’9 and all become one sun. Then shall they ‘shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.’”10
Again we must caution ourselves not to take what was meant as a metaphor literally. The sun is the one light that shines for all the world to see, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture or gender. Therefore, to liken something to the sun is to say that it will be out in the open for everyone to observe, and it will be brighter than the other lights around it. But godly people will also shine for another reason, and that will be their vindication for being right after suffering many long days of persecution and humiliation. So what Jesus also seems to be saying is that as a product of the real seed, don’t despair. The day is coming when all those who have been faithful will shine like the sun.
Verse 44: God’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field. One day a man found the treasure. He hid it again and was so happy about what he had found that he went and sold everything he owned and bought the field.
Now our Lord offers two parables that are designed to show the value of God’s kingdom. The first is about a treasure that involves finding something hidden. It will be worth everything it takes to acquire and take possession of it. Solomon makes a similar claim for wisdom, “Look for wisdom like silver. Search for it like hidden treasure”.11 Then this wise king says, “Truth, wisdom, learning, and understanding are worth paying money for.”12
This concept is echoed in Jewish Scriptures not found in the normal canon, where it says: “These are they who have acquired for themselves treasures of wisdom, and with them are found stores of understanding, and from mercy have they not withdrawn, and the truth of the law I have they preserved”.13 And the venerable Joshua ben Sirach said: “Hidden wisdom and unseen treasure, of what value is either? Better are those who hide their folly than those who hide their wisdom”.14 Had this man simply bought the land and left his treasure hidden, his acquisition would have been a worthless effort for him and everybody else.
I like what one early church leader offers as his reflection on what Jesus said here: “Through the comparison of a treasure in the field to Christ our hope, points to wealth for God discovered in humanity that has been covered up. But we must realize that the treasure was found and kept hidden, for he who found it could have certainly carried it off in secret instead of hiding it; and by carrying it off, there would have been no need for him to buy the field. But an explanation is needed here as to both the subject matter and what was being said. Thus the treasure was hidden there to make it necessary to buy the whole field. The treasure in the field, as we said, signifies Christ in the flesh, who was found by us freely. Indeed, the preaching of the Gospels has no strings attached, but the power to use and own this treasure with the field comes at a price, for heavenly riches are not possessed without a worldly loss.”15
In this parable Jesus says the man saw that the treasure was worth everything he had. But just in case His listeners didn’t get it, our Lord adds another story. This involves finding something that is evaluated above all others like it. To this Solomon says, “Those who find wisdom find a fortune; they will be blessed when they gain understanding.”16 Solomon repeats this with a twist that is similar to Jesus’ parable, so let me paraphrase it: “The pearl of wisdom is better than all other pearls, and nothing you would ever want compares with her.”17 And David sang a song that exemplifies this same principle, “Many people say, ‘I wish I could enjoy the good life. LORD, give us some of those blessings.’ But you have made me happier than they will ever be with all their wine and grain. When I go to bed, I sleep in peace, because, LORD, you keep me safe.”18 But David’s son Solomon had to learn this the hard way. He tells this in his personal story in Ecclesiastes.19
There is a similar narration in Greek literature about a man who sold his land, and the new owner discovered a treasure chest hidden in the field while plowing. When the news got out, the seller went to court to claim the treasure, but was ruled against because the treasure went with the sale.20 The philosopher from whose biography this story comes was born circa 15 AD. As a matter of fact, he was compared to Jesus of Nazareth later on by Christians. It may be that since they were contemporaries, Jesus may have heard this story and decided to use it in His teaching. The whole point of the parable is that this man was willing to put his heart where his treasure was so that he may possess it to assure himself a better life.
Not only that, but we also find that Jesus may have been alluding to another story told by Rabbi Mattenaiah that was already part of Jewish tradition. We read about a small parcel of land with sufficient room for a single stalk of corn to grow, under which a pearl is buried.21 Since pearls come from oysters, the term, as it is used metaphorically here, either refers to the object found was hidden in the field like a pearl is hidden in an oyster until it is opened, or that what was found was as valuable as a pearl, or, that someone had purchased a valuable pearl and buried it there, or, that the original Hebrew word may be a reference to some other precious stone such as a ruby, diamond, etc. In any case, the main point is that things very valuable can be found in some of the most unusual and unsuspected places.
But in both the parable about the treasure found in the ground and the pearl here found in the marketplace, Jesus is pointing out how when we find something that is missing in our lives that can bring us joy and contentment, it is worth the time and effort to obtain such a precious item. I can remember on many occasions when I would see a quote taken from a particular book, and I was so impacted by it that I went out and bought the book it was taken from where I discovered, even more, pearls of wisdom. So it is with Christ, once a sinner hears what He has to say about God’s love for the world and His reason for coming, it should inspire them to get the whole story so they can understand and appreciate the story even more.
1 Jewish Mishnah, op. cit. Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Shabbat, Ch. 3:1
2 Genesis 15:9-17
3 The Jerusalem Targum, Section III, Lech Lecha, Genesis 15:17 (Part of the Targum by Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch)
4 Daniel 3:1-6
5 Book of Enoch, 54:6
6 Daniel 12:3
7 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Madda, Teshuvah, Ch. 9, Halacha 1
8 Proverbs 7:3
9 Ephesians 4:13
10 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 10.3
11 Proverbs 2:2
12 Ibid., 23:23
13 II Baruch 44:14
14 Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 20:30
15 Hilary: On Commentary 13.7
16 Ibid., 3:13
17 Ibid., 8:11
18 Psalm 4:6-8
19 Ecclesiastes 2:2-14
20 The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus, Trans. By F. C. Conybeare, Vol. I, Bk II, Ch. 39, pp. 219-220
21 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. Tractate Baba Batra, Chap. 9:7, [I:1 L]