NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 1: The Pharisees and Sadducees approached Jesus. They wanted to test Him. So they asked Him to show them a miracle as a sign from God.
Here we have the Pharisees trying once again to do what they failed to accomplish before,1 and that was trick Jesus into performing a miracle at their command to prove He was the Messiah sent from God. This was not unusual since Jews were known to argue even among themselves over matters of divine authority and lawful activities. We find an interesting example of this in a story about how they accused a Galilean heretic, whom some Jewish scholars identify as a Sadducee, of the way he filled out a Bill of Divorce.2 To say that they were picky, is being mild.
Their questioning of Jesus may have been motivated by the fact that since God gave Noah the rainbow as a sign to back up His assurances, it was not uncommon to ask for a similar sign of anyone claiming to have divine authority. We see in Jewish literature that such a sign would accompany the Messiah. It reads: “’Listen,’ said the merchant, ‘to the words of my father, addressed to me just before his death,’ “Never expect to behold the banner of Messiah until the bow appears in the heavens, flashing forth rays and colors of light so supernaturally glorious and splendid, that the sheen of it will light up the whole world. When this happens then look for the Messiah.” We learn this from the mysterious meaning of the saying, ‘I will look upon the bow and remember the everlasting covenant.’”3
Early church preacher Chrysostom gives us his thoughts on what happened here: “Their inquiry was rightly deserving of anger and great displeasure. Yet the goodhearted and foresighted One is not angry. He pities them even as they tempt Him. He is sad for their being so incurably infected after watching Him demonstrate His awesome power. They did not seek Him out in order to believe but to lay hold of Him. Had they come with any readiness to believe, He would have given such a sign. For He who said to the woman, ‘It is not fair,’4 and afterward gave, much more would He have shown His bounty to these officials. But since they did not seek to believe, He, therefore, calls them hypocrites, because in another place they said one thing and meant another. If they had believed, they would not even have asked. It is evident that they did not believe, since when reproved and exposed, they did not remain with Him, nor did they admit ‘We are ignorant and seek to learn.’ But for what sign from heaven were, they asking? Either that He should stop the sun, or curb the moon, or bring down thunderbolts, or work a change in the air, or some other such thing.”5
This is another way of saying, if they didn’t believe on Jesus after He performed so many miracles, even one more would not have brought them faith in Him as the Messiah. Jesus already rebuked their surreptitious effort by referring to the prophet Jonah. So now He will point to their weather predictions based on the redness of the sun in the evening and in the morning.6
Verses 2-3: Jesus answered, “When you people see the sunset, you know what the weather will be. If the sky is red, you say we will have good weather. And in the morning, if the sky is dark and red, you say that it will be a rainy day. These are signs of the weather. You see these signs in the sky and know what they mean. In the same way, you see the things that are happening now. These are also signs, but you don’t know their meaning.”
Church theologian Jerome tells us: “The meaning is clear from the order and harmony of the elements. Both fair and rainy days can be forecast. But the scribes and Pharisees, who were viewed as doctors of the law, could not discern the coming of the Savior from what the prophets had predicted.”7 In other words, although they were seen as religious scholars, and while they were knowledgeable of the physical world, they were blind to the spiritual world.
I remember as a child while living in my hometown which was a fishing port on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, hearing the ship captains say, “A red sky at night is a sailor’s delight. A red sky in the morning is a sailor’s warning.” Jesus knew full well that for the Jews the day of the coming of the Messiah was the biggest kept secret. This is captured in their discussion of the verse in Scripture that says: “That which exists is far away and deep, so deep, that it can’t be discovered.”8 In their commentary on Ecclesiastes, we read where it says: “The secret of the day of death, and the secret of the day when the king Messiah comes, who by his wisdom can find out?”9 So, on the surface, what the Pharisees were asking for here was only to prove for themselves that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, the Messiah they had been waiting for. But Jesus sees past this feigned intellectual approach. He knew it was a trick being played on Him so they would have a good reason to have Him arrested and put out of business for pretending to be the Anointed One.
The early church Bishop of Mopsuestia gives us his impression of what occurred here: “Jesus exposes the rashness of their question, saying, ‘You regard the air as moving according to a certain order, so that by means of signs you are able to predict when the weather will be fair and when stormy. But in the case of miracles you recognize no order at all. You do not recognize any occasions on which doing or not doing wonders is appropriate. You assume that such a thing happens completely without order and without any reason.’”10 Here we see that early on in the church, scholars believed that nothing Jesus did was on the spur of the moment, it was all planned from the beginning.
When Chrysostom preached on this text, he had the following to say: “What then does Jesus say to all this? ‘You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.’ Observe Christ’s meekness and moderation. Even earlier He did not just refuse and say ‘no sign will be given.’ And so now He goes further and states the reason why He gives them no sign, even though they were not asking for information. What then was the cause? It is much like the sky, He says, where one thing is a sign of a storm and another of fair weather. No one when seeing the sign of foul weather would expect a calm, nor in calm and fair weather would one expect a storm. So you would do well to think the same with regard to Me. My coming in this present time is different from the way in which I will come in the future. Now there is need of these signs here on the earth. But those in heaven are stored up in preparation for that time. Now as a physician I have come to heal. Then I will come as a judge. Now I am seeking those who have gone astray. Then I will demand an account. Now I have come in a hidden manner. Then I will come much more publicly, folding up the heaven, hiding the sun, not permitting the moon to give its light. Then ‘the very powers of the heavens will be shaken,’11 and the manifestation of My coming will imitate lightning that appears suddenly.”12
Chrysostom leaves no doubt that since these doubters were asking for a sign that Jesus was truly the awaited Messiah, that our Lord anticipated the sign they would need at a future date that would prove Him to be the Anointed One. As Jesus continues His discourse, we can see what point in time He was talking about.
Verse 4: “It is the distrusting and immoral people who want to see a miracle as a sign from God. But no miracle will be done to prove anything to them. The only sign will be the miracle that happened to Jonah.” Then Jesus turned and walked away.
Jesus used the Pharisee’s general knowledge of this fact to point out how uninformed there were about even more important signs that were occurring in the spiritual sky of their day. Then Jesus repeats His suggestion that they look for something that will remind them of what happened to the prophet Jonah. We know that when He first mentioned this, it involved Jonah’s three days and nights in the belly of the big fish God created for that purpose.13 Although Matthew does not point this out, the language he uses to describe what Jesus did next suggests that our Lord turned and walked away in disgust because the light-headed, hard-hearted religious experts were unwilling to accept the truth right before their eyes.
Early Church fathers had various opinions on what our Lord was communicating here. For instance, Origen says: “Now Jesus called them evil because their wicked deeds had made them evil people (evil because of deliberate wickedness) and adulterous because when the Pharisees and Sadducees left their figurative spouse, the True Word, they committed adultery, with falsehood and the law of sin. Assume there are two laws: the law of our bodies, which is in conflict with the law of our mind. We might say then that the law of the mind (that is, the law of the Spirit) is the husband to whom the soul was betrothed by God as wife according to the Scripture; a wife is married to a man by God.14 But the other law is a seducer of the soul and as such is called ‘adulterous.’”15 This is another way of saying that when we look for evidence in spiritual things the same way we look for evidence in material or physical things, we betray our trust in God by allowing our carnal nature dominate our spiritual nature in the decisions we make and the actions we take.
Then Bible scholar Chromatius adds: “Just as that whale was not able to digest Jonah nor was able to keep him alive inside himself for long, so too voracious Death assuredly swallowed the Lord. But since he was not able to keep Him alive and in custody inside himself, Death regurgitated Him on the third day, just as the whale regurgitated Jonah. For Death, though accustomed always to eat and digest the dead, was nauseated and vomited out the Lord alive. Truly he was not able to digest Him, for He was a rock—as the apostle says: ‘Moreover, Christ was a rock.’16 And indeed, the whale gulped and expelled only Jonah. But Death in ingesting the Lord cast out not Him alone but many with Him. For we read that many corpses of the holy had risen up with the Lord.’17”18
Also, Bishop Hilary offers this commentary: “The Lord compares Himself by means of like appearance with one whom He had dispatched to Nineveh to accomplish the coming suffering for the proclamation of repentance. Indeed, Jonah was thrown from the ship by furiously raging winds and was devoured by the whale. After the space of three days, he was cast out alive, not retained by the monster. He was not digested as food, but contrary to the nature of the human body, he escaped whole and unharmed into the open air. He prefigured the Lord. Therefore, Jesus demonstrated that this sign of His own power had been divinely constituted, thus proclaiming in Himself the forgiveness of sins through repentance. For He was soon to be cast out of Jerusalem and the synagogue by the blast of unclean spirits and by the power of Pontius Pilate.”19
Verse 5: Jesus and His followers then sailed across the lake. But His followers forgot to bring along any bread.
It is very generous for Matthew to say that the disciples “forgot” to bring any bread along. By all accounts, we could say they were irresponsible and careless for not remembering to bring bread with them. But again, without a doubt, Jesus knew of their failure to think ahead, so instead of chastising them before the boat left shore, He chose this occasion to offer them deeper spiritual insight.
Origen in his remarks on this faux pas by the disciples offers this comment: “The bread that they had before they crossed the lake was no longer of any use to them when they reached the other side. They needed one kind of bread before they crossed and a different kind afterward. They forgot to take any loaves with them because they were careless about carrying bread. The disciples of Jesus had also crossed to another side. They had passed from the material to the spiritual, from the sensory to the intellectual. This is why Jesus said to them after the crossing, be careful and be on your guard.”20 In other words, they had not yet made the connection between the bread from the earth and the bread from heaven.
Origen continues: “The Pharisees and Sadducees offered a different dough of teaching, a truly ancient yeast-restricted to the bare letter of the law and therefore not free from evil. Jesus does not want His disciples to eat of it any longer. Instead, He mixed a new spiritual dough when He Himself offered to any who would abandon the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees and come to Him, the living bread which came down from heaven and gives life to the world.21 Anyone intending no longer to use the yeast and dough of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ teaching must first ‘be careful.’ He must ‘be on guard’ that he will not use the old yeast either accidentally or due to shortages. So Jesus tells His disciples first, ‘be careful,’ and second, ‘be on your guard.’”22 How true today when we use men’s thinking to understand the things of God instead of using God’s thinking to understand the things of men.
But preacher Chrysostom has a different perspective on what’s involved here. He writes: “Why did Jesus not say plainly, ‘Beware of their teaching?’ His purpose is rather to remind them of what had just been done—the feeding of the multitude—for He knew they had already forgotten its significance. But Christ did not immediately admonish them. Rather, He took their own thoughtlessness as the occasion for reproof. Remember that He had not reproved them when they had earlier said, ‘Where are we to get bread enough in the desert to feed so great a crowd?’ It seemed better now to say to them what He says here. He did not want to rush hastily on to another miracle. He did not admonish them before the multitude, nor did He seek to elevate Himself in their eyes. He might have been much harsher with them after their forgetfulness following the miracle of the loaves. All of these considerations gave His reproof a greater meaning.”23
2Jewish Mishnah, op. cit. Sixth Division: Tohoroth, Tractate Yadaim, Ch. 4:8
3The Zohar: Bereshith to Lekh Lekha by Nurho de Manhar, Chapter 59, The Symbolism of the Foundation Stone, folio 72b
5Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 53.3
7Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, Vol. 2, loc. cit.
9Targum on Coheleth by Christian D. Ginsburg, Halle Sax, 1868, Appendix I, p. 503
10Theodore of Mopsuestia: Commentary fragment 89
12Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 53.3
14See Proverbs 19:14
15Origen, Commentary on Matthew, loc. cit.
161 Corinthians 10:4
17See Matthew 27:51-54
18Chromatius: Tractate on Matthew, 54.3
19Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew, loc. cit.
20Origen: Commentary on Matthew, loc. cit.
23Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 53.4