NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
I have often told young believers, especially new Christians, when you are made fun of, ridiculed, laughed at, degraded, assaulted, and even persecuted for the sake of Christ, He is the one they are venting their anger at, not you. So let Him defend Himself, and thereby defend you. And what can you give to Him for all He’s done for you? Time, effort, expense, emotions, words, or deeds? Yes, all of these. But most of all, be willing to give your all to the One who gave His all for you.
How could these people who expected nothing but the fullest respect from others, now treat a prophet who was admired and revered by thousands of their fellow Jews with such dishonor? Even their own traditions spoke against such behavior. The Rabbis taught: “He that spits before, or in the presence of his master, is guilty of death.”1 In other words, spitting in the presence of those who are admired was considered a nauseous and filthy act. But how much more must it be so, to spit in the face of a prophet, a healer, a Savior, a Lord, and a soon to be King? How could they ignore the very laws they required and enforce on others?
The Rabbis also taught: “If one makes a fist and boxes another man’s ear, he has to pay him on account of degradation a set fee of a sela2 for degradation. If he slapped him the Rabbis set a higher fee for greater shame and he has to pay him two hundred zuz;3 if he did it with the back of his hand, he has to pay him four hundred zuz. If he pulled his ear, plucked his hair, spat so that the spittle reached him, removed his garment from upon him… he must pay four hundred zuz.”4 We read nowhere that those who tried to humiliate and mock the Son of God this way were ever given such punishment. Not because they weren’t liable, but because no penalty or fine could be set high enough for doing such to the Messiah.
But our Lord took it without murmur. According to Mark,5 and Luke,6 they blindfolded Him. And being defenseless with His hands tied, it gave His attackers one more opportunity to insult Him by asking Him to guess who had just hit Him. It was so rude and uncivil that these religious leaders would play a children’s game we know today as “Blindman’s Bluff.” Not only was it disgraceful and childish, but approved by the high priest. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus tells this story about how high priest Caiaphas were regarded by the Romans at this point in Jesus’ journey to the cross.
NOTE: Caesar Vitellius, the 8th Emperor of Rome, made a fateful decision for the high priest Caiaphas just a few years after this in 36 AD: Vitellius came into Judea, and went up to Jerusalem; it was at the time of that festival which is called the Passover. Vitellius was there magnificently received, and released the inhabitants of Jerusalem from all the taxes upon the fruits that were bought and sold, and gave them permission to take care of the high priest’s vestments, with all their ornaments, and to have them under the custody of the priests in the temple, which power they used to have formerly, although at this time they were laid up in the tower of Antonia, the citadel so called, and that on the following occasion: There was one of the [high] priests, named Hyrcanus; and as there were many of that name, he was the first of them; this man built a tower near the temple, and after he had so done, he lived there, and had these vestments with him, because it was lawful for him alone to put them on, and he had them stored there when he went down into the closet and took his ordinary garments; the same things were continued to be done by his sons, and by their sons after them. But when Herod came to be king, he rebuilt this tower, which was very conveniently situated, in a magnificent manner; and because he was a friend to Antonius, he called it by the name of Antonia. And as he found these vestments lying around there, he kept them in the same place, believing, that while he had them in his custody, the people would initiate no opposition against him. The things credited to Herod was done by his son Archelaus, who was made king after him; after whom the Romans, when they entered on the government, took possession of these vestments of the high priest, and had them stored in a stone-chamber, under the seal of the priests, and of the keepers of the temple, the captain of the guard lighting a lamp there every day; and seven days before a festival they were delivered to them by the captain of the guard, when the high priest having purified them, and made use of them, stored them again in the same chamber where they had been stored before, and this the very next day after the feast was over. This was the practice at the three yearly festivals, and on the fast day; but Vitellius put those garments under control of the Jews, as in the days of their forefathers, and ordered the captain of the guard not to trouble himself to inquire where they were laid, or when they were to be used; and this he did as an act of kindness, to obligate the nation to him. Besides which, he also deprived Joseph, who was also called Caiaphas, of the high priesthood, and appointed Jonathan the son of Ananus, the former high priest, to succeed him. After which, he took his journey back to Antioch.7
Verses 69-70: While Peter was sitting outside in the yard, a servant girl came up to him. She said, “You were with Jesus, that man from Galilee.” But Peter told everyone there that this was not true. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.
It’s interesting to note that these girls must have seen Peter with Christ on some previous occasion in another location. It could have been almost anyplace, but what happened here after Jesus was arrested caused them to believe and identify him not only as being “in” Jesus’ company at one time but here they were able to identify Peter as being “of” Jesus’ company. How true that is with Christians. One may see someone at a religious concert, or convention, or church, but there is something that makes them look different when you know they are not just present but in His presence. If Jesus had an opportunity to look over at Peter from inside the palace, perhaps these words from the prophet Isaiah came to His mind, “You did not remember me. You did not even notice me! So who were you worrying about? Who were you afraid of? Why did you lie? Look, I have been quiet for a long time. Is that why you didn’t honor me?”8
Verses 71-72: Then he left the yard. At the gate, another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again, Peter said he was never with Jesus. He said, “I swear to God I don’t know the man!”
You would think, that dismissing any association with Jesus just to throw off those who were suspicious would be the most Peter would have done. But it got worse. The next girl to point him out as a disciple, not only got a denial, but it was done in God’s name! Didn’t he know how God felt about this, “When you take an oath, I, the LORD, the God of Israel, am the one whose name you use, but you are not honest and sincere.”9
Early church leader Jerome had something to say about Peter’s swearing by God’s name that he didn’t know who Jesus was. He writes: “I know that some people with a soft spot in their hearts for the apostle Peter have interpreted this passage to the effect that Peter did not deny God but man, and what he meant was ‘I do not know the man because I know God.’ The wise reader realizes how frivolous this interpretation is, for those who thus defend the apostle make the Lord guilty of a lie. If Peter did not deny Him, then the Lord lied in saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ Notice what He says: ‘You will deny me’—not ‘the man.’”10
It is obvious that Jerome had little patience with those in the early church who elevated Peter to such a high status of reverence that they did not want to hear any criticism of him. But Peter’s sobbing and weeping under conviction after his denial, tells us all we need to know about how guilty he felt. Yet this same double standard is practiced by some individuals today when someone reacts to their bad words or conduct by saying, “I thought you were a Christian,” only to have them respond, “I am, but not like those holiness people.”
1 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Erubin, folio 99a
2 Sela as money, according to the Mishnah, is equal to 100 pennies, or a dollar (See Mishnah Appendix II, A)
3 Zuz was a matter of weight, approximately 3½ grams, which equaled one silver shekel
4 Jewish Mishnah, Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Bava Kamma, Ch. 8:6
5 Mark 14:65
6 Luke 22:64
7 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 18, Ch. 4:3
8 Isaiah 57:11
9 Ibid., 48:1
10 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 4, Ch. 26:72-75