NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 18: “If they are in the field, they must not go back to get a coat.”
Again, early church scholars had their perspectives on what this meant, from which we can learn so as to form our own opinion. Origen weighs in with this commentary: “Whoever is in Judea, that is, ‘in the letter of the old law,’ should flee to the mountains of the new things of the Spirit. And whoever is found to have gone up onto the roof, which is the Word, and stands high above his home should not descend to retrieve anything from within his house. For he who remains on the roof and denies himself will never need to come down.”1 As we can see, this is a doctrinal interpretation of what was certainly going to be a practical event.
Origen then continues: “Whoever is in the field must not turn back. If he is in the field in which the treasure is hidden, as the Lord taught in His parable,2 he must not turn back. If he is in the field to which Jacob was compared when his father blessed him, saying, ‘Behold, the smell of my son is like the smell of a bountiful field which the Lord has blessed,’3 in which everyone who lives according to the law will be blessed with the spiritual blessings of the law, he still must not turn back. As the Scripture says, ‘You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the field.’4 Whoever, therefore, is in the field of ‘every plant which the heavenly Father has planted,’5 he too must not turn back. Just as he who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is unfit for the kingdom of God,6 so also the one in the field who turns back on account of those things which he ought to have forsaken will undoubtedly incur the abomination of desolation which is deception. This is especially true of those who had previously stripped off their old tunic (that is, ‘the old nature with its practices’)7 and return again to retrieve it.”8
We also have the thoughts of Epiphanius who shares this with his readers: “This field represents the church, as was demonstrated by the blessing our blessed patriarch Isaac gave to his son Jacob: ‘Behold, the smell of my son is like the smell of a bountiful field which the Lord has blessed.’9 The field was replete with a multitude of flowers and was fragrant with the sweetest aroma. Clearly, this signifies the church where the Lord’s flowers—that is, virginity, chastity, continence, confession, faith, mercy, justice, truth, and martyrdom—are perfected. These are the flowers of the field, which is the church; the flowers in which the Son of God rejoices, which have merited God’s blessing. Therefore He said, ‘Let him in the field not turn back.’ Likewise, the same Lord once said, ‘Remember Lot’s wife.’10 While fleeing the conflagration of Sodom, she looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt, leaving an example of foolishness behind her. Therefore, the Lord admonishes us that clinging more fully to His love and faith, we would not turn back, yet rather would save our souls for eternal life.”11
All of this helps us see that from the earliest times in church history it was difficult for scholars to decipher these prophecies and predict when they would literally take place. This same uncertainty continues to this day. For me, it’s a little bit like a farmer telling his laborers to go out into the harvest field and work as hard as they can until the sun sets. Then he gives them clues to look for when dusk appears and the shadows grow long and they began to see the evening star as a faint glimmer in the sky. This way, they will know that the call will soon go out for them to come back with what they were able to gather. But instead of working, they spend all of their time standing around watching the shadows and looking for their first glimpse of the evening star. As believers, we should let God take care of the day and the hour while we work as hard as we can until the trumpet sounds.
Verses 19-20a: “During that time it will be hard for women who are pregnant or mothers nursing babies! Pray that it will not be winter or a Sabbath day when these things happen and you have to run away because it will be a time of great trouble.”
By letting His followers know that even if this takes place on a Sabbath, not to let this deter them from finding safe shelter, no matter how far away. In so doing, Jesus was not violating Jewish verbal or written law on keeping the Sabbath holy. Jesus used the illustration of a woman’s birth pangs beginning suddenly, and according to Jewish teachings if a woman goes into labor, a midwife may be summoned from wherever she lives, because: “we must desecrate the Sabbath on her account.”12 Therefore, emergencies did permit going a further distance than normally allotted on the Sabbath.
This is confirmed by several Rabbis who were on a journey and were discussing the following question: “How do we know that in the case of danger to human life the laws of the Sabbath are suspended?” Rabbi Ishmael answered: “It is lawful to save oneself at the cost of his life — how much more may one suspend the laws of the Sabbath to save human life!”13 We see this was carried out in the period of persecution before Jesus came, when a man named Mattathi’as and his friends decided not to attack their Gentile enemies in order to maintain a Jewish presence in their area. “So,” it says, “they made this decision that day: ‘Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.’”14
The story of what happened to the Jews when the Romans encircled Jerusalem are many. But while there are dozens to choose from in the account given by Jewish historian Josephus, I’ll share one illustration with you because it seems to sum up the pitiful and desperate situation that occurred during that time, to which Jesus makes reference:
There was a certain woman that dwelt beyond Jordan, her name was Mary; her father was Eleazar, of the village Bethezob, which signifies the house of Hyssop. She was distinguished because of her family and wealth, and had evacuated to Jerusalem with the rest of the multitude, and was with them besieged therein at this time. All effects of this woman she had brought with her out of Perea and moved them to the city were confiscated. Also, what food she had hidden away had also been carried off by the ravenous guards, who came every day running into her house for that purpose. This put the poor woman into dire straits, and by the frequent reproaches and name calling she threw at these ravenous villains, provoked them to anger against her; but none of them, either out of the indignation she had raised against herself, or out of commiseration of her case, would take away her life; and if she found any food, she perceived her labors were for others, and not for herself; and it was now become impossible for her any way to find any more food, while the famine pierced through her very bowels and marrow, when also her passion was fired to a degree beyond the famine itself; nor did she consult with anything but with her passion and the necessity she was in. She then attempted a most unnatural thing; and snatching up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, she said, “O you suffering infant! for whom should I preserve you in this war, this famine, and this sedition? As to the war with the Romans, if they preserve our lives, we must be slaves. This famine also will destroy us, even before that slavery comes upon us. Yet are these seditious villains more terrible than both the other. Come on; you can be my food, and you can be my rage against these seditious villains, and a by-word to the world, which is all that is now lacking to complete the calamities of us Jews.” As soon as she said this, she killed her son, and then roasted him, and ate one half of his body, and concealed the other half. This brought the gangs to her place, and smelling the horrid scent of this food, they threatened her that they would cut her throat immediately if she did not show them what food she had gotten ready. She replied that she had saved a very fine portion of it for them, and then uncovered what was left of her son. Hereupon they were seized with a horror and amazement of mind, and stood astonished at the sight, when she said to them, “This is mine own son, and what has been done was of my own doing! Come, eat of this food; for I have eaten of it myself! Do not you pretend to be either more tender than a woman, or more compassionate than a mother; but if you be so scrupulous, and do abominate this my sacrifice, as I have eaten the one half, let the rest be reserved for me also.” After which, those men went out trembling, being never so much frightened at any thing as they were at this, and with some difficulty they left the rest of that meat to the mother. Upon which the whole city was full of this horrid action immediately; and while every body laid this miserable case before their own eyes, they trembled, as if this unheard of action had been done by themselves. So those that were thus distressed by the famine were very desirous to die, and those already dead were esteemed happy, because they had not lived long enough either to hear or to see such miseries.15
But this cannibalistic horror had already been foreseen in Scripture, which would have given Jesus plenty of backing for His warning: “You will suffer very much. The enemy will surround your cities. They will not let you have any food. You will get very hungry. You will be so hungry that you will eat your own sons and daughters—you will eat the bodies of the children the LORD your God gave you.”16 And Jesus may have also had in mind the dilemma spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah:, “Babies are so thirsty their tongues stick to the roof of their mouths. Young children ask for bread, but no one gives them any.”17
Those were terrible and agonizing days for the Jews. But when we look at what John saw in his revelation of the tribulation period, they seem pale by comparison. That’s why every believer should keep their eyes on the signs of the times. That’s why Jesus said so clearly: “Look at all the trees. The fig tree is a good example. When it turns green, you know that summer is very near. In the same way, when you see all these things happening, you will know that God’s kingdom is very near.”18 But this should not be an excuse for believers to stop working for His kingdom. We should work even harder until He appears to take us away.
1 Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 42
2 Matthew 13:44
3 Deuteronomy 27:27
4 Matthew 28:3
5 Ibid. 15:13
6 Luke 9:62
7 Colossians 3:9
8 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 42
9 Genesis 27:27
10 Luke 17:32
11 Epiphanius the Latin: Interpretation of the Gospels 33
12 Ibid., Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 128b
13 Ibid., Masekhet Yoma, folio 85a
14 2 Maccabees 2:41
15 Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Bk. 6, Ch. 3:4
16 Deuteronomy 28:53; Cf. Lamentations 4:10; 26:29
17 Lamentations 4:4
18 Luke 21:29-31