NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 18: He said to them, “Listen, we are going to Jerusalem. The Son of man will be handed over to the leading priests and the teachers of the law, and they will say He must die.”
As the disciples stood huddled with Jesus, I’m sure that what He wanted to tell them did not cause them to rejoice and yell, “I can’t wait!” First of all, it is clear that Jesus knew exactly what would happen to Him, and He knew it in sequence. Secondly, the fact that He was willing to share it in detail with His followers shows that He wanted them to know the whole story. But none of what He was saying should have been a surprise. Had the disciples heard or read the Scriptures they would have seen what the Messiah would encounter.1 No doubt hearing this was tough for His disciples to swallow. They had just spoken about the cost of forsaking all to follow Him.
One anonymous early church writer goes on to say that when Jesus said, “Listen, – it is the language of being called to account so that they may store the memory of this foreknowledge in their hearts. It is even more dramatic than if He should say a third time, I predict to you the mystery of My future suffering. Having been repeated more often, it was intended to occupy their thoughts more deeply . . . All the glory of God and all the salvation of humanity have been placed in Christ’s death. For there is nothing which pertains more to humanity’s salvation than Christ’s death. Nor is there anything else for which we should thank God more than for His death.”2 I’m sure the writer here did not discount our Lord’s resurrection. But it is obvious, that without His death there would have been no resurrection. It was His sacrifice that saved us, and His resurrection that preserved us.
Obviously, we can now look back and be grateful that our Lord did not hesitate nor deviate from His assigned mission of being the Son of God who became a Prophet of God so He could become the Lamb of God in order to be our Redeemer and Savior. But the disciples did not have this perspective, so we can certainly understand if they were perplexed because the One they thought to be the Messiah and would deliver them from Roman rule, was now telling them He would die by Roman hands.
Verse 19: “They will hand Him over to the non-Jews, who will laugh at Him and beat Him with whips, and then they will kill Him on a cross. But on the third day after His death, He will be raised to life again.”
Our Lord’s reference to “non-Jews” was perhaps overlooked by His listeners. They knew He was hated by the Jewish religious establishment, and up to that point had no confrontation with the occupying Romans. They were looking for an earthly kingdom to be set up, but all He talked about was a heavenly kingdom. By now, they may have all began to wonder if it was worth giving up everything to follow Him.
Something, however, should have dawned on the disciples when Jesus mentioned crucifixion because it was not one of their permitted forms of capital punishment. According to their verbal traditions it says: “Four methods of execution were entrusted to the court listed in order of their severity: Stoning, burning, slaying by the sword and hanging and thus, if one committed two capital offenses which carried different death penalties, he would be liable to the more severe of the two.”3 Crucifixion by non-Jews was also not new. Josephus reminds us that Pharaoh crucified the chief baker once he was freed from prison where Joseph was incarcerated in Egypt.4 He also describes the horrible and vicious acts of King Antiochus who came over from Antioch and ransacked Jerusalem.
Jewish historian Josephus says: “But the best men, and those of the noblest souls, did not honor him (Antiochus), but did pay a greater respect to the customs of their country than concern as to the punishment which he threatened to the disobedient; on which account they underwent great miseries and bitter torments every day; for they were whipped with rods, and their bodies were torn to pieces, and were crucified, while they were still alive, and breathed. They also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as they were upon the crosses. And if there were any sacred book of the law found, it was destroyed, and those with whom they were found miserably perished also.”5 So they had more to fear from those Jews who were willing to consort with the Romans for political reasons than they did those who had religious differences with our Lord.
The anonymous writer we mentioned before now adds this: “Why does Jesus predict to them the mystery of His suffering? Because every adversity that arises suddenly for people seems beyond hope and is very serious. But when we prepare ourselves against it, when it overtakes us expecting it, it is found to be lighter than it would have been if it had come unexpectedly. Therefore Jesus announces to them His future death so that when that day of suffering arrives, it might not disturb them since they were aware that these things were about to happen. Recall that the apostles, who had been so often forewarned about His future death, nevertheless, when He was arrested, were all scandalized and left Him. How much more would they have been scandalized if they had not been forewarned?”6
Verse 20: Then Zebedee’s wife came to Jesus and brought her sons along with her. She bowed before Jesus and asked Him to do something for her.
Apparently, as the word spread, James and John’s mother heard about it and decided to take matters into her own hands. Aside from her forced request, it is quite evident that the mother of James and John sincerely believed that Christ did have a coming kingdom to inherit. This partially mitigates harsh criticism against the foolishness of the petition. Christ’s response to the mother’s request indicates clearly that He knew of her sons’ instigation. His response suggests strongly that the two of them were with their mother when she approached Jesus with the premeditated question.
Chrysostom points toward the cause of the bewilderment in the minds of the disciples that may have led to this request. He says: “It troubled them deeply to hear not only about His death but about Him being mocked and scourged and the like. For when they considered His miracles just done, the possessed persons whom He had delivered, the dead whom He had raised, all the other marvelous works which He was doing, and then heard about His death, they were amazed, if it should be the case that He who did these works would then be destined to suffer. Therefore they fell even deeper into confusion. They were believers, but now disbelieved, and could not understand His sayings. So far at least were they from understanding clearly what He said that the sons of Zebedee simultaneously came to Him and spoke to Him of precedence for their future.”7
Also, the reaction of the other ten disciples substantiates the premise that the mother was being used because they immediately confronted James and John, not their mother. Here once again Christ reveals another prerogative which the Father alone possesses. Such things as exclusive powers, individual knowledge, and sole authority among the members of the Trinity cannot in any sense be equated to an earthly similitude. They exist in the realm of perfect love, perfect unity, and perfect harmony. We would all like to strive for that, but only the divine Godhead can make it function flawlessly.
Chrysostom goes on to comment: “It seems that both the mother and the two sons of Zebedee together came to Jesus, with the purpose of making their supplication stronger and in this way to prevail with Christ. Take note of well how Christ responds to them, and you will see better through their motive since the request was doubtless their own, but they put forward their mother to make it.8”9
Verse 21: Jesus said, “What do you want?” She said, “Promise that one of my sons will sit at your right side in your kingdom and the other at your left.”
Let’s remember, this all goes back to the original question in 18:1, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” and compounded by the question in 19:25, “Who can be saved?” If the future was going to be so bleak, then both the mother and her two sons wanted to know where they would be in the scheme of things. And since they both forsook what they were doing with their father, it would be a shame if it all turned out to be for nothing.
Early church bishop Hilary made this comment: “The literal sense of this is that the mother begged the Lord for the sake of her two sons. But the spiritual sense is deeper and full of symbolic significance: Think of the analogy as that between the disciples of John the Baptist and the apostles. Both [groups] suffered. Both [groups] were to die. They were the two sons of Israel who were struggling against the Pharisees. After John had suffered and died, some of his disciples came to inquire of the Lord. The supplication is that both [groups] of these callings might be equally treated in the kingdom, since both [groups] believed in the gospel of Christ.”10 Scholars question why Hilary of Poitiers here interprets the two sons of Zebedee as analogous to the two dispensations of John the Baptizer and the Lord Jesus is a mystery, but it well illustrates the tendency in early church exegesis to look for some analogy, even if feeble, when numbers of any sort emerge in the sacred text.11
But there is no need to be so eclectic in our examination of why this even occurred and just what these two disciples and their mother had in mind. It was a case of human pride, and not one of spiritual humility. They came to Jesus to tell Him what they wanted to be, instead of coming to ask Him what He wanted them to be. Remember, they gave up their place in their earthly father’s business, now they were wanting to know what position they would hold in their heavenly Father’s business. At this point, our good Lord could have advised them to read what the Psalmist said: “For promotion comes neither from the east nor from the west nor from the south. God is the Judge: He puts down one, and exalts another.”12 And since that’s the way it was in Jesus’ day; and since Jesus is still Lord of the kingdom, then it remains the same today. No believer should be worried where they will stand in relationship to Christ up there, but be most concerned about where they stand with Christ down here.
1 See Psalms 2:1-3; 22:1-31; 69:1-36; Isaiah 53:`-12, Hosea 6:2
2 Incomplete Work on Matthew, ibid.
3 Mishnah, op. cit., Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Sanhedrin, Ch. 7:1
4 Flavius Josephus, op. cit. Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 2, Ch. 5:3
5 Ibid. Bk. 12, Ch. 5:4
6 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 35
7 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 65.2
8 Recounting this same episode, Mark 10:35 has only the two sons speak and the mother remain silent. Chrysostom takes this inconsistency, accentuated by the fact that in Matthew the mother makes the request but Jesus answers the two sons, into account and explains it in the manner that follows.
9 Chrysostom, Ibid.
10 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew 20.11
11 Ibid., footnote
12 Psalm 75:6-7