NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
In examining an early church commentary on Matthew by an unknown scholar we read: “Scripture doesn’t say ‘that they might deceive even the elect, if possible,’ but that they might ‘lead them into error.’ Commonly, when the saints encounter hidden works of the devil under the appearance of goodness, they cannot understand the enemy’s boundless treachery. They are troubled in their hearts and appalled, asking, ‘What is going on here?’ Yet they are not easily convinced to believe him, for even if their human reason is overcome, they still stand firm in their faith.”1 So, for this scholar, the attempts to deceive the elect by these false prophets and messiahs will not be easy since most of the faithful will recognize right away that something is just not right.
He then continues: “Scripture says ‘if possible’ in order to show the greatness of the signs. How prophetic those signs must have been to deceive even the elect! Yet they were not deceived because those whom God has preordained to life cannot die. The power of God was shown forth when He forewarned the faithful about these signs for the sake of their salvation. Nevertheless, these matters are best understood with regard to the rise of the heresies. False Christs are the false truths of the heresies, and false prophets are preachers of false truths. Their signs consist in doing the same things falsely which the faithful do truthfully. They remain chaste and observe the fasts and practice mercy and fulfill every rule of the church. Do not the devil’s signs appear most deceptive when you see him doing the works of God?”2 A sermon preached today using these same words would be right on point.
Verses 25-26a: “Now I am warning you about this before it happens because someone might tell you, ‘The Messiah is there in the desert!’ But don’t go into the desert to look for him.”
Bible historians tell us that both during the time of the siege of Jerusalem, and shortly thereafter, such false prophets sprang up and pretended to be messiahs, and Jewish deliverers from Roman power. They had their supporters who would go out and spread the word that the Messiah was in such and such a place, so that the people would be encouraged not to run away, nor to deliver up the city; and also, after the city was taken and destroyed, one after another claimed to be the Messiah. So it was important to our Lord that the early apostles not be deceived before the church could begin to spread. Had this happened, then all our Savior’s suffering and sacrifice would have been jeopardized.
For example, one Jonathan, a very wicked man, led many into the Desert of Cyrene,1 promising to show them signs and wonders, and was overthrown by Catullus, the Roman governor. In Jewish history we read this story: “And now did the madness of the Sicarii, like a disease, reach as far as the cities of Cyrene; for one Jonathan, a vile person, and by trade a weaver, came there and persuaded no small number of the poorer sort to give ear to him; he also led them into the desert, upon promising them that he would show them signs and wonders. And as for the other Jews of Cyrene, he concealed his dishonesty from them, and put spells on them; but those of the greatest dignity among them informed Catullus, the governor of the Libyan Pentapolis, of his march into the desert, and of the preparations he had made for it. So he sent out after him both horsemen and footmen, and easily overcame them, because they were unarmed men; of these many were slain in the fight, but some were taken alive and brought to Catullus.”4
Sicarii was a term applied, in the decades immediately preceding the destruction of Jerusalem, in 70 AD, to an extremist splinter group of the Jewish Zealots, who attempted to expel the Romans and their partisans from the Roman province of Judea. The Sicarii carried sicae, or small daggers, concealed in their cloaks, hence their name. At public gatherings, they pulled out these daggers to attack Romans or Roman sympathizers, blending into the crowd after the deed to escape detection. When compared to current acts of terrorism in Israel, this seems to have been the same modus operandi back then.
Then Eusebius tells us about another false messiah, “As the rebellion of the Jews at this time grew much more serious, Rufus, governor of Judea, after an auxiliary force had been sent to him by the emperor, using their madness as a pretext, proceeded against them without mercy, and destroyed indiscriminately thousands of men and women and children, and in accordance with the laws of war reduced their country to a state of complete subjection. The leader of the Jews at this time was a man by the name of Barcocheba (which signifies a star),5 who possessed the character of a robber and a murderer, but nevertheless, relying upon his name, boasted to them, as if they were slaves, that he possessed wonderful powers; and he pretended that he was a star that had come down to them out of heaven to bring them light in the midst of their misfortunes. The war raged most fiercely in the eighteenth year of Adrian (also Hadrian), at the city of Bithara, which was a very secure fortress, situated not far from Jerusalem. When the siege had lasted a long time, and the rebels had been driven to the last extremity by hunger and thirst, and the instigator of the rebellion had suffered his just punishment, the whole nation was prohibited from this time on by a decree, and by the commands of Adrian, from ever going up to the area around Jerusalem. For the emperor gave orders that they should not even see from a distance the land of their fathers. Such is the account of Aristo of Pella. And thus, when the city had been emptied of the Jewish nation and had suffered the total destruction of its ancient inhabitants, it was colonized by a different race, and the Roman city which subsequently arose changed its name and was called Aelia, in honor of the emperor Aelius Adrian. And as the church there was now composed of Gentiles, the first one to assume the government of it after the bishops of the circumcision was Marcus.”6
Verses 26b-27a: “Someone else might say, ‘The Messiah is secluded in the inner chambers of the Temple!’ But don’t believe it. When the Son of Man returns, everyone will see Him.”
As Jesus was telling His disciples about what was going to take place, could it be that God’s words in Isaiah came to His mind, “In the beginning, I told you what would happen in the end. A long time ago, I told you things that have not happened yet. When I plan something, it happens. I do whatever I want to do.”7 We’ve already seen examples of those who claimed to be messiahs and leading people out into the desert, but Jesus also mentions another location called in Greek, tameion, which is translated as “inner chambers” or “secret chambers, in the Temple.”
Jewish Rabbis give this explanation: “There were two [charity] chambers in the Temple, one was referred to as the chamber of the discreet [donors] and the other, was referred to as the chamber of vessels. The chamber of the discreet served those God-fearing people who would discreetly place their gifts in it and the poor, descending from good families, would support themselves discreetly. The chamber of vessels served those who wanted to contribute vessels [to the Temple] they would cast it there. And once in thirty days, the treasurers would open them up. Any vessel found which was able to be used directly for the upkeep of the Temple they would leave. The rest would be sold for their value and the funds would go to the chamber of the upkeep of the Temple.”8
So in referencing the inner chambers of the Temple, Jesus goes from open areas to a restricted area in talking about the claims by some on where the Messiah was hiding. Oddly enough, some Jews had the notion concerning the Messiah which was birthed during these times and festered for a long time. They believed that the Messiah was born the day Jerusalem was destroyed, but is hidden, for their sins, in some secret place, and would in time be revealed. It is quite possible that this was the deception Jesus was talking about before it ever occurred.
Concerning the idea of hiding the Messiah until the time was right, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra gave this interpretation of a verse in the Song of Solomon: “You hold your head like the Karmel, and the hair on your head is like purple cloth — the king is held captive in its tresses.”9 Rabbi Abraham said: “Your Head”, King Messiah, who is of the sons of David, “the hair on your head,” Messiah, the son of Joseph. “The king is held captive,” these words indicate that the Messiah, the son of David, is meant, who is bound till the appointed time comes, for he was born on the day when Jerusalem was laid waste.”10
I also found another interesting comment on the Messiah that reads: “Holy Scripture speaks of the Messiah in two different ways, that is, sometimes it speaks of an ordinary, poor, humble man who will eventually die, sometimes of a glorious, powerful, and exalted man. So too, they have two Messiahs. They call one of them Messiah ben Joseph, the son of Joseph. He will be poor and ordinary, but still a powerful warrior. The other they call Messiah ben David, the son of David, who will be the real Messiah and king over Israel, and rule them in their land.”11 This should give everyone a better understanding of how the Jews viewed the coming of the Messiah, especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and why the words of Jesus were so relevant. But Jesus has more to say about what was coming. With all of this, no wonder some early church scholars thought the end was near even in their day.
1 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 49
2 Incomplete Work on Matthew, ibid.
3 An important Greek colonial city in North Africa situated in a beautiful tableland several hundred feet above sea level, and a few miles from the Mediterranean. See Matthew 27:32; Acts 2:10; 11:20; 13:1
4 Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Bk. 7, Ch. 11:1
5 The official name of this pretentious star was Simon bar Kokhba, a Jewish leader, who persuaded his countrymen to rebel against Rome in the time of Hadrian. He declared himself to be the “star” referred to in Numbers 24:17, and adopted the name by which he is known in place of his patronymic Simeon. His followers made him king of Jerusalem, and for a time he gave the Romans trouble, till in 135 AD he was defeated and killed by Julius Severus.
6 Eusebius, Church History, Bk. 4, Ch. 6
7 Isaiah 46:10
8 Mishnah, Second Division: Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 5:6
9 Song of Solomon 7:5; (7:6 in the Complete Jewish Bible)
10 Abraham ibn Ezra’s Commentary on the Canticles 7:5 by H. J. Mathews, B.A., London, Trübner and Co., 1874, p. 26
11 Johannes Buxtorf, Synagoga Judaica (Juden-schül), Trans. Alan D. Corré Ch. 36, About the future Messiah of the Jews