NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 21: Jesus answered, “The truth is, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will be able to do the same as I did to this tree. In fact, you will be able to do more. You will be able to say to a mountain, ‘Go, mountain, fall into the sea.’ And if you have faith, it will happen.”
So here our Lord gives a clear reason for doing what He did to this fig tree. It was all about faith! But what brought on this need to explain the power of faith to His followers? He had just been greeted in Jerusalem as the Son of David, the Anointed One, with shouts of Hosanna and the waving of palm fronds. And although priests and scribes objected, they were drowned out by the cheers of the crowd and by the rejoicing of those who then came to the Temple to be healed by His power.
Chrysostom puts it this way: “That you might learn that it was for the disciples’ sake that this was done, that He might train them in confidence, listen to what He said afterward: ‘You also shall do greater things, if you are willing to believe and to be confident in prayer.’1 All this was done for their sake, that they might not be afraid and tremble at plots against them. He repeated this to enable them to cling to prayer and faith. For you will not only do this, but you will also remove mountains; and many more things you will do, being confident in faith and prayer.”2
Let’s look at His statement concerning the moving of mountains by faith. We have no record that any of the apostles ever attempted or achieved this phenomenon. That’s why many Bible scholars take this as Jesus’ use of hyperbole to speak figuratively in explaining a potential result rather than a probable one. But it also had its ties to Jewish traditional teachings. In fact, one Jewish leader, named Rabba bar Nachmani, was referred to as the “rooter up of mountains,” because of his faith.3 So it was not a shocking statement to those who heard it.
Verse 22: “And if you believe when you pray, you will get whatever you ask for.”
This one verse is loaded with so much potential when we look at it grammatically. The first thing we notice is the qualifier: “If you believe.” And secondly, is the contingency: “when you pray.” Then thirdly, the potential: “you will get.” The apostle John no doubt was standing very close to our Lord when He spoke these words because we find a similar statement in his own letter where he writes: “When we can come to God with no doubts… we know that He gives us whatever we ask of Him.”4
But there is another factor to consider, and that is the purpose for which we ask God to give us the things are praying for. Jesus was not teaching and training His disciples to go live successful, productive lives for themselves once He was gone. He came to do His father’s will, and He was motivating and equipping them to continue doing God’s will once He went away. Jesus was not handing them a magic wand so they could have whatever they wanted for their own comfort and pleasure. It is all tied to doing God’s will for His honor, glory, and the promotion on God’s kingdom.
Verse 23: Jesus then continued on to the Temple area. While He was teaching there, the leading priests and the older leaders of the people came to Him. They demanded, “Tell us! By what authority are you doing these things you are doing? Who gave you this authority?”
When our Lord walked out of Bethany on His way back over to Jerusalem,5 after showing His disappointment with the fruitless fig tree, and then headed straight for the Temple again, little did His disciples know that Jesus knew He had another appointment with the chief priests and elders who were going to challenge His authority for coming into Jerusalem, wrecking havoc in the Temple courts, and then commencing with His teaching and healing ministry. His opponents may have thought it was going to be a surprise, but what they failed to reckon was that the man they intended to confront was no ordinary man.
Jesus knew He was dealing with the same dilemma that Solomon once described: “There is no good way to answer fools when they say something stupid. If you try to answer them, then you, too, will look like a fool. But if you don’t answer them, then they will think they are smart.”6 So Jesus decided to do what God told Isaiah to do, “Confuse them. Make them unable to figure out what they hear and see.”7 In fact, the situation got so bad that God expressed His frustration to Jeremiah: “Even the birds in the sky know the right time to do things. The storks, doves, swifts, and thrushes know when it is time to fly to a new home. But my people don’t know what the Lord wants them to do.”8 Jesus certainly would have found the same to be true in this situation as well,
Yet, our Master was not discourteous, He felt a burden in helping them see the truth in spite of their closed-mindedness. But on this occasion, by the elders accompanying the leading priests to confront Jesus, it sets a different tone. According to the rules and regulations of Mosaic law, Elders were the “leaders and judges” of the community.9 So they differed from the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their purpose was to maintain the correct interpretation of the written law, not the philosophy of the verbal law. So Jesus was on the mark by putting the pressure on them to answer why they had taken their position on what God was trying to tell them.
We find out who these leaders were when Joshua copied the law of Moses and put it inside the Ark of the Covenant. We read: “The elders, officers, judges, and all the Israelites were standing around the Box of the LORD’S Agreement. They were standing in front of the priests, the Levites who carried the Holy Box.”10 One revered Rabbi stated: “’Your elders’ – this refers to the high court. ‘And your judges’ – this refers to the king and high priest.”11 In fact, another respected Rabbi said that this did not include all elders. Rather: “the distinguished ones of your elders, [namely] the Great Sanhedrin.”12 This helps us understand the purpose of their question, and also the reply by our Lord. We must realize, they thought they were only carrying out their duty by ensuring that what this rogue prophet from Nazareth was teaching did not conflict with what they had approved for other teachers. Yet, there is little question that their motivation was also self-centered and not people-centered.
Early church Bishop Hilary gives his view of this confrontation. To him, these priests and elders foresaw that if they did not stop this Jesus of Nazareth before He persuaded all Israelites that He was the Messiah, then their positions of leadership and authority would be destroyed, and with it would go their livelihood and position in society. The control of all Israelites was under their thumb and they did not want to lose that power. But in so doing, they actually revealed another fear, that they too might be convinced of the truth that Jesus was preaching concerning the kingdom of heaven.13
Verses 24-25a: Jesus answered, “First let me ask you a question. If you answer me, then I will tell you what authority I have to do these things. Tell me: When John baptized people, did his authority come from God, or was it only from someone else?”
No doubt these religious leaders were not expecting such a response from this young Rabbi. After all, He was in His early 30’s. He should have been somewhat intimidated by these well-dressed clerics and community leaders. But they had no idea they were dealing with the Son of God who was able to read their thoughts and to know their intentions. It also indicates that they were part of the same group that confronted John the Baptizer and wanted to know by what authority he was preaching the message of repentance.14
At the same time, we must understand how the religious accreditation process worked among the educated Jews. In many synagogues, Rabbis had become well-known because of their interpretations of the Torah,15 as well as the Mishnah16 and Talmuds.17 So those who attended those synagogues became known as being part of that particular school of thought. During Jesus’ time, there was the eminent School of Hillel and the School of Shammai. They differed on their understanding of divorce as well as other teachings. So these priests and Jewish leaders were more or less interested in knowing what seminary Jesus attended and in whose name was He propagating His message because they could find no school with a record of His attendance.
One early church scholar who commented on Matthew had this to say: “Knowing their irreformable intentions, the Lord asked them an entirely rhetorical question, not that they might understand it and respond but that they should be hindered from interrogating Him further, for He had commanded, ‘Do not give what is holy to the dogs,’18 and it was not fitting that what the Lord commanded should be violated. But it would have profited them nothing, even if He had answered directly since a darkened will cannot discern what is of the light.”19 In other words, this anonymous writer feels that Jesus’ hesitation in just coming out and saying directly that His authority came from God the Father was two-fold. First, seeing that they really had no interest in knowing the truth, it would be wasted on them like throwing good food to dogs rather than feeding it to a hungry child. And second, the only way to get them to see their own hypocrisy and spiritual blindness was to have it pointed out to them by exposing their actions concerning a man of God that many had come to respect as being sent from God.
The writer goes on to say: “What good is it to show something beautiful to a blind man? Spiritual blindness consists of an evil heart, and evil people are not able to understand the mystery of devotion any more than the blind can gaze upon the splendor of the light. When a stealthy hunter sees a place to dig a trap, he also raises a net adjacent to it so that wherever the prey he is seeking to capture attempts to flee, it will either be caught in the net or fall into the pit. Likewise, the Lord set a trap for the chief priests and elders by means of His simple question, in such a way that if they professed John to have come from heaven, He would be able to ask them, ‘Why, then, did you not believe him?’ But if they replied that John was of the world, they would thereby have run into the danger of being stoned to death by the people, as though fleeing into a hunter’s trap.”20 And it is clear from what followed that these religious leaders saw that trap and then tried to devise a plan on how to avoid it.
So the writer finishes: “It was proper that the Lord teach His interrogator and weaken His tempter in whatever way He could and confound the cleverness of His reproach with rational arguments, while not making known the truth of His own mystery. The Lord did virtually the same thing elsewhere to the devil, who had cited against Him a scriptural text without understanding it: ‘For it is written, “He will command His angels concerning you, and they will hold you in their hands, lest your foot stumbles on a rock.”’21 The Lord did not respond, “That is not what this Scripture means.” Rather, He left the devil ignorant of the true meaning of the text and instead refuted him with another clearer passage from Scripture in order to confound the devil’s arrogance without revealing the prophetic mystery.”22
Here, Jesus gives us an example on how to deal when confronted by skeptics about our faith, our Christian living, and our message. If we are convinced beyond doubt that we are doing what Jesus said to do, then we need not defend ourselves based on our own logic, but point to the Word of God and say: “This is why I believe what I believe, live the way I live, and preach what I preach.” Let them then argue with the Word. By so doing, we recuse ourselves in favor of the great Judge above who will deal with those who have issues with His teachings.
1 John 14:12
2 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 67.2
3 A Translation of the Treatise Chagigah from the Babylonian Talmud by A. W. Streane, University Press, Cambridge, 1891, p. 13
4 1 John 5:14-15
5 See verses 17-18
6 Proverbs 26:4-5
7 Isaiah 6:10
8 Jeremiah 8:7
9 Deuteronomy 21:2
10 Joshua 8:33
11 Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sotah, Ch. 9:1, [II:1 M]
12 Rashi Commentary on the Complete Jewish Bible, The Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 21:2
13 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew 21:10
14 See Matthew 3:7-10
15 The “Torah” is the first five books of the OT, also known as the Pentateuch.
16 The “Mishnah” are the writing of the scribes over the centuries on their interpretation of the Torah
17 The “Talmud” is the commentary by Rabbis on the Mishnah
18 Matthew 7:6
19 Incomplete Work on Matthew: Homily 39
21 Matthew 4:5-6; Psalm 91:11-12
22 Incomplete Work on Matthew, ibid.