NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 10: “During that time many believers will feel offended. They will turn against each other and despise each other.”
What did Jesus mean when He said believers would feel offended? Most scholars do not interpret this as implying that they would become atheists or agnostics, but that they would return to their wordily lifestyle because it just wasn’t worth suffering for a losing cause. In other words, they would be displeased by the rules for living a Christian life because they saw them as stumbling blocks to defeat, not stepping stones to victory. It would become so bad, Jesus said, that those who turned away from the truth would betray the faithful by either giving their names to persecutors or betray where they were hiding. No wonder Jesus emphasized over and over that they should never stop loving one another with unconditional love.
Early church father Origen gives us his commentary on this text: “If we ought to understand this passage in the moral sense, in accordance with how we treated the passages above, then we will explain its meaning as follows. It is necessary that he who is about to see the glorious coming of the Word of God in his soul should, like a great athlete, suffer the snares of his enemies and be given over to afflictions insofar as they advance the perfection of the Word within him.…The manifestation of the qualities of Christ implanted in him, on account of which he is called a Christian, makes him an object of hatred to everyone who has the spirit of the world. This persecution also only tends more and more toward the perfection of the indwelling of Christ.”1
So for this early church scholar and theologian of the 2nd century, he sees these times of which Jesus speaks as pertaining to both the internal and external struggles that Christians go through on a daily basis. Since it was still so close to the end of the apostolic era, he saw most of what our Lord says here as still being in the future.
He goes on to add: “Few, however, will be left untouched by debates and questions concerning the fullness of truth. Indeed, many will be “scandalized” and will fall on account of it, having been made betrayers and accusers of one another because of their dissensions over the truth of doctrine, which not everyone is able to learn. This is why they ‘hate one another.’ Among the great many who will be engaged in questions of this sort, those ‘false prophets who deceive many’ will report prophecies concerning the future inaccurately and will interpret them incorrectly. Very few will seek the truth. False doctrines in and of themselves cannot overcome the power of truth, but those who have itchy ears will multiply and will take delight in speaking evil contrary to the law. And the tendentious words of many teachers will do such great harm that even those whose charity was once fervent in the simplicity of faith will “grow cold” toward the divine mysteries and toward the truth. But whoever is able to see all these things and yet to remain in communion with the original purpose of the church’s founding and the apostolic tradition will be saved. In this way then the gospel will be preached to every soul and a testimony will be given to every nation, that is, to all the unbelieving thoughts of every single individual.”2
Verse 11: “Many false prophets will come and cause many people to believe things that are untrue.”
It wasn’t that these false prophets would be preaching a counterfeit Gospel, but that they would contextualize the gospel to the point that it no longer offended the world. This would then accelerate the falling away of believers from the truth. We know, that the longer people are intimately acquainted, the greater their love grows. But if by chance their love turns sour, the hate that proceeds from its wounds often supersedes in volume the flow of love produced beforehand.
Some of the church’s greatest antagonists were former believers such as Karl Marx and Joseph Stalin. More good done by Christians has been destroyed by ex-believers than all the hordes of Satan. It’s a little-known fact, but some atheists support their godless stands today with books written by liberal theologians. Thank God the cross remains wide open for even the chiefest of sinners to come and repent, but woe to those who having once tasted of salvation, turn back to denounce it. As far as we know, Judas Iscariot was the first to do so, and we see what happened to him. But Jesus clearly indicates, that those who remained faithful would persevere.
An early church expositor of this text writes in his commentary: “For whom is it said, ‘Whoever perseveres to the end?’ Is this said for the benefit of those who are persecuting Christians or seducing prophets? No, it is not. For just as medicine is administered to the sick rather than to the healthy, so also consolation is given to the endangered, not to the dangerous.”3 Whenever I find statements like this in the commentaries and homilies of early church scholars, it tells me that such things are said in response to some errant teaching or doctrine being spread at that time. So, it appears that there were some who were saying that those who were persecuting true believers of the Word within the church, either from inside or outside, would eventually be converted and saved from destruction. The writer wants his listeners to know, that this applies only to the faithful who remain steadfast and unmovable to the end.4
This writer then goes on to say: “St. Mark clarifies this verse by adding, ‘First the gospel must be preached.’5 When the literal war was brought against Jerusalem, the gospel had just begun to be preached, but it had not yet extended to the whole world. Prior to the rise of the heresies, however, the proclamation of the gospel had already been completed. For the knowledge of Christ reached everyone either through individual preachers or by one nation evangelizing another continually until the time of the Christian king. If you want to know with certainty, however, that the knowledge of Christ had been extended to the whole world by that time, consider that the very purpose for which the heretical wars began was so that there might be a decision for the better doctrine.”6 We must understand that this writer is not making a prophecy, but explaining the spreading of the gospel as he saw the world at that time.
Verses 12-13: “There will be so much more evil in the world that the love of most believers will grow cold. But the one who remains faithful to the end will be saved.”
The question for most scholars is this: was Jesus speaking of the immediate future of the apostles and their followers who would be spared from death through persecution, or was He projecting this to the future for believers who would go in the rapture and thus be saved for eternity? At this point in Jesus’ instructions to His disciples, it would seem out of context for Him to suddenly start speaking of the end times. After all, the propagation of the Gospel and the winning of the lost was at stake here. Church historian Eusebius tells this story:
“The people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, granted to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come there from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and His apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men. But the number of calamities which every where fell upon the nation at that time; the extreme misfortunes to which the inhabitants of Judea were especially subjected, the thousands of men, as well as women and children, that perished by the sword, by famine, and by other forms of death innumerable, – all these things, as well as the many great sieges which were carried on against the cities of Judea, and the excessive. Sufferings endured by those that fled to Jerusalem itself, as to a city of perfect safety, and finally the general course of the whole war, as well as its particular occurrences in detail, and how at last the abomination of desolation, proclaimed by the prophets, stood in the very temple of God, so celebrated of old, the temple which was now awaiting its total and final destruction by fire.”1
The gruesome details of what happened in Jerusalem is available in Wars of the Jews by Flavius Josephus, especially Book 6. It should be read only by those with a strong stomach. How long have we had wars and rumors of wars? Famines and earthquakes have occurred since ancient times. Has not every continent, each country at one time or another received the Gospel since the time of Christ? There have been times on every continent when periods of lawlessness have reigned.
So how then can a believer tell which of these periods of calamities will be the last one before Christ’s return? The only clue we need to have is the one Jesus gave, and that is no matter what period one may live in, simply be faithful until the end. It appears to some scholars, that what happened at the end of the Jewish era when the Temple was destroyed and they were scattered, would happen again at the end of the Gentile era when Christianity would be in similar peril. John, who saw all of these things in the revelation, expressed the thoughts of those living at that time when he pleaded for the Lord to come, and to come quickly.8
1 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 39
3 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 48
4 See I Corinthians 15:58
5 Mark 13:10
6 Incomplete Work on Matthew, ibid.
7 Eusebius, Church History, Bk. 3, Ch. 5
8 Revelation 22:20