NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 9: “If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. It is better for you to have only one eye and have eternal life than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of Hades.”
At this point, let us remind ourselves that the term being used by Jesus for the fiery place of torment was called in Aramaic “Gehenna,”1 and translated into Greek as “géenna.” This was a reference to a valley SE of Jerusalem owned by the son of Hinnom. Here, an idol to the god Moloch was built in the form of a bull. Sacrifices were made there to Moloch, including little children. Later, it became such an abhorred place that King Josiah abolished it and ordered that it become a trash dump and place for the dead bodies of animals, as well as, the dead bodies of unburied criminals who had been executed.2 In Jewish teachings, this name Gehenna was then transferred to a special place in Hades where the wicked would go after they died to suffer punishment for their godless and unrighteous life.3 Remember, Jesus is talking to Jews and understood their perception of what Gehenna in Hades stood for.4
Now, not only did Chrysostom see these physical attributes mentioned by Jesus as being part of God’s family as a body, but so did another early church father. Theologian Origen had this to say about the function of these members being part of the church body. He writes: “If somebody, in the whole body of the congregations of the church, is industrious and handy for practical action and he changes and his hand causes him to sin, the eye should say to this hand, ‘I have no need of you.’ And after it has said it, let him cut it off and throw it from him. All will still be well if his head is still blessed and his feet worthy of his blessed head, so that the head, doing its duty, may not be able to say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ But if some foot is found which is a temptation to sin for the whole body, the head should say to this foot, ‘I have no need of you,’ and should cut it off and throw it away from him.”5
Origen then continues: “It is far better for the rest of the body to go on into life lacking the foot or hand that offers temptation to sin than for the whole body to be exposed to temptation and to be sent into eternal fire with two whole feet or hands. Likewise it is good if what could be the eye of the whole body shows itself worthy of Christ and of the whole body. But if at some time it happens that this eye so changes that it becomes a temptation to sin for the whole body, it will be better for it to be ripped out and thrown from the whole body … than for the whole body together with the soul to be condemned.”6
Over one hundred years later, another church scholar echoes these same thoughts: “This sentence of the Lord can faithfully be understood about any one of us. Yet in cutting off a hand or foot or in plucking out an eye, it is clear that family relations or unbelieving ministers and leaders of the church are signified. And so by ‘hand’ we understand that priests are signified; like a hand their work in every area is necessary to the body of the church, about whom we find it written in the Song of Solomon: ‘his arms’—that is, the body of the church—’are rounded gold set with jewels.’1 By ‘foot’ we recognize that deacons are signified. In busying themselves with the sacred mysteries of the church they serve the body like feet, about which it is written in the same Song of Solomon: ‘His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold.’2 And so, if hands or feet of this sort, that is, any priest or deacon, either through heretical faith or through depraved living, has become a stumbling block to the church, the Lord orders that such a man be plucked from the body of the church and thrown out. The example of his life and heretical doctrine endangers all the body of the church, that is, the whole people when it follows or imitates such doctrine.”3
But let us put this teaching in context for a better understanding. It all started out in verse one with the question from His disciples as to who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus used a little child to illustrate that no matter how young or vulnerable a believer may be, they are just as important as anyone else in God’s kingdom. Furthermore, in verse six Jesus says that anyone who contributes to a young believer falling into temptation will be treated with the greatest of punishment. For such people, it would be better if they were carried out into the sea and dropped overboard with a stone around their necks. Then in verse seven, He warns that everyone will suffer because of the actions of such people. Therefore, it will be very bad for these people in the end. Then Jesus begins talking about how anything that leads a person into temptation and sin should be gotten rid of. First the hands and feet, now the eyes. As Chromatius applies this to the body of Christ, he believes that these hands, feet, and eyes are metaphors for errant members of the church that are the cause for such temptation. Now our Lord gets back to the importance of young believers.
Verse 10: “Be careful. Don’t think these little children are not important. I tell you that these children have angels in heaven. And those angels are always with my Father in heaven.”
This certainly would not sound strange to the Jesus’ Jewish audience, especially if they read what David had to say about angels.10 In other places, Rabbis talked about “Ministering angels;”11 “rescuing angels;”12 “blessing angels;”13 angels that “level the way for them;”14 “punishing angels;”15 Also, in their own apocalyptic writings we read: “And the third voice I heard pray and intercede for those who dwell on the earth and supplicate in the name of the Lord of Spirits.”16 It goes on to say that the one, “who is set over all the diseases and all the wounds of the children of men, is Raphael.”17 Later on, Enoch wrote: “I swear unto you, that in heaven the angels remember you for good before the glory of the Great One.”18
And in an apocryphal scripture, written either during or shortly after our Lord’s ascension, we read: “Next to this are the angels that serve in God’s presence, and seek His favor for the lack of knowledge among the righteous; by offering to the Lord the sweet savor of a reasonable service, a sacrifice without blood.”19 But, say the Rabbis, “One angel does not perform two missions, nor do two angels together perform one mission.”20 As much as we use the phrase “guardian angel” today, no one knows how close we are to the reality of such beings assigned by God to His children. I know from personal experience there have been several times when my survival could only be accounted for by such a heavenly servant.
Again, Chromatius gives us his thoughts on this verse. He writes: “For just as the Lord commands that unbelieving and treacherous persons who are a stumbling block to the body of the church should be cut off or plucked out, so He also warns us not to despise any of the little children, that is, humble people in the laity who simply and faithfully believe in the Son of God. For it is not right to despise anyone who believes in Christ. A believer is called not only a servant of God but also a son through the grace of adoption, to whom the kingdom of heaven and the company of the angels is promised. How much grace the Lord has toward each one believing in Him He himself declares when He shows their angels always beholding the face of the Father who is in heaven. Great is the grace of the angels toward all who believe in Christ. Finally, the angels carry their prayers to heaven. Around them there is also the strong guard of the angels; they help each of us to be free from the traps of the enemy. For a human in his weakness could not be safe amid so many forceful attacks of that enemy if he were not strengthened by the help of the angels.”21
Here we have a very enlightening teaching by Jesus on the role of angels in the life of the believer. Luke records where Jesus remarks how there is great rejoicing by angels in heaven over such a lost one being found.22 This echoes what the Psalmist said: “He will command His angels to protect you wherever you go.”23 So, not only do believers have their heavenly Father watching over them; their heavenly intercessor, God’s Son, looking out for them; God’s Holy Spirit comforting them as their guide; but also angels assigned to watch out for any stumbling blocks in their path. So why do so many get lost? It’s because, while God is watching out for them they are not watching out for God. Thus, Jesus continues His teaching on how important every believer is to the Father.
Verse 11: (The Son of Man came to save what was lost.)
This verse is missing in many of the newer English translations since the KJV was published in 1611. The reason given by translators is that it is missing in many of the best Greek manuscripts. Several reasons for this is given. One of them involves the flow of the narrative. In verse 10, Jesus is the speaker and He is talking about how even the youngest of believers are guarded by the angels in heaven. In verse 12, Jesus is the speaker and He begins to tell the parable of the lost sheep. But in verse 11, the speaker is talking about Jesus as the one who came to seek the lost. Many commentators and translators see this as either a comment made by Matthew, or by the one who was putting his Hebrew manuscript into Greek, or by a person who was copying this manuscript that may have written it in the margin that later found its way into the text.
We find these same words in Luke 19:10 that were spoken by Jesus, while He was visiting in the house of Zacchaeus the chief tax collector after this Publican pledged to give up to half of his possessions should it be proven that he had cheated anyone. This has led some commentators to argue for the inclusion of this verse in the text here in Matthew. The main point in this issue is that by leaving it out or including it in the narrative should not be seen by anyone as manipulative on the part of the translators. They looked for the oldest and most dependable ancient manuscripts to translate and made their decision on that basis. The fact that it is found elsewhere in Scripture certainly helps to emphasize the point Jesus was making here.
Verse 12: “Let me ask you this. If a man has 100 sheep, but one of the sheep is missing, will he not leave the other 99 sheep on the hill and go out looking for the missing sheep?”
This form of questioning was common among Jewish teachers.24 They often sought the opinion of others for two reasons. First, to see if they concur with what they are teaching. And second, if they do not agree, then correct them. But in this case, I believe our Lord was only asking if what He was saying did not meet the criteria of common sense. Also, our Lord’s choice of one hundred sheep was not an arbitrary number.
This was a designation for a flock in Jewish writings, as we can see from the story of the man from Meron in Galilee, who decided to give away his property near Jerusalem as a gift. In his instructions he specified: “Its northern side [shall be given] to X, and [together] with it a hundred sheep and a hundred barrels; and its southern side [shall be given] to Y, and together with it a hundred sheep and a hundred barrels.”25
Jerome had this to say about God’s care for even the smallest of His sheep: “This, some say, is the shepherd ‘who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.’26 For that reason, He descended to earth: to save the one sheep that had perished, that is, the human race. Others think that by the ninety-nine sheep should be understood the number of the righteous and by the one sheep the number of the sinners, according to what He said in another place: ‘I have come not to call the righteous but the sinners; for it is not the healthy who have need of the physician but those who are ill.’27”28
It is clear that Jesus was using an illustration right out of everyday life for people in Israel. At that time, the hills were dotted with sheep being herded together for grazing and watched over by shepherds, most of whom were hired hands or the children of the owner. The point is, no matter how small or large the flock each sheep is counted worthy of being rescued at all cost. In other words, when one sheep gets lost or goes astray, the shepherd doesn’t console himself by saying, “Oh well, I still have 99 sheep left, so I guess I can afford to lose one.” In God’s eyes, not even one is worth losing.
So putting all this into context, Jesus was talking about how important believers are to their Father in heaven, especially those who are just beginning their lives as a new creation. They should be protected and cared for as they mature. And God help anyone who either through recklessness or purposefully causes even one of them to backslide into their previous sinful lifestyle. He was so insistent, that what He said can be applied to the whole body of Christ, if any member of your body, be they an eye, arm, hand, etc., in their service to the congregation, are found out to be the cause of any other member falling away into doubt and unbelief, get rid of them. Furthermore, even if it is only one out of a hundred, do not wait to go looking for them because each one counts.
1Peshitta Aramaic/English Interlinear New Testament
2See 2 Kings 23
3See Luke 16:23
4See Thayer’s Lexicon, loc. cit.
5Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 13.24
7Song of Solomon 5:14
8Song of Solomon 5:15
9Chromatius: Tractate on Matthew 56.2-4
11Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 96a
12Midrash Rabbah Genesis, Genesis 17:11 (Lech Lecha), Ch. 46:10, p. 396
13Ibid., Genesis17:19, Ch. 47:5, p. 401
14Ibid., Genesis 19:15 (Vayera), Ch. 50:10, p. 440
15Ibid., Genesis 29:28, Ch. 52:13, p. 460
161 Enoch 40:6
19The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Sons of Jacob, Testament of Levi, Ch. 3:5, Trans., by Robert Grotshead, London: 1837
20Ibid., Genesis 23:13, Ch. 50:2, p. 434
21Chromatius: Tractate on Matthew 57.1
22See Luke 15:10
24Cf., Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 88b
25Ibid., Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 156b
28Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol. 3, 18:12