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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 20

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Verses 3-34

A. Jesus’ instruction of His disciples around Judea 19:3-20:34

The primary emphasis in this section of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ instruction of His disciples to prepare them for the future. Specifically, He emphasized the importance of the first becoming last and the last first: humble servanthood (cf. Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16).

Verse 16

3. Instruction about wealth 19:16-20:16

Again someone approached Jesus with a question that provided an opportunity for Jesus to give His disciples important teaching (cf. v.3). This man’s social standing was far from that of a child, and he provides a negative example of childlikeness. Previously the disciples did not welcome children (Matthew 19:13), but here they can hardly believe that Jesus would not welcome this man of wealth (Matthew 19:25).

Verses 1-2

Jesus introduced this parable as He did the other kingdom parables in chapter 13 (cf. Matthew 13:24; Matthew 13:31; Matthew 13:33, et al.). This is how conditions will be in the messianic kingdom. One denarius was the normal day’s wage for a day laborer in Jesus’ day (cf. Matthew 18:28). [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:417.] The vineyard is a common figure for Israel in the Old Testament (Isaiah 3:14; Isaiah 5:1-2; Jeremiah 12:10; et al.).

Verses 1-16

The parable of the workers in the vineyard 20:1-16

This parable explains why the last will become first. It begins with a well-known scene but then introduces surprising elements to make a powerful point.

"Jesus deliberately and cleverly led the listeners along by degrees until they understood that if God’s generosity was to be represented by a man, such a man would be different from any man ever encountered." [Note: Norman A. Huffman, "Atypical Features in the Parables of Jesus," Journal of Biblical Literature 97 (1978):209.]

"Any union leader worth their salt would protest at such employment practices. Anyone who took this parable as a practical basis for employment would soon be out of business." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 748.]

Verses 3-7

The third hour would be about 9:00 a.m., the sixth hour about noon, and the eleventh hour about 5:00 p.m. The market place would have been the central square of the town where day laborers obtained work and pay. The landowner did not promise a particular wage, only that He would deal justly with the laborers. Jesus did not explain why the landowner kept hiring more workers throughout the day. That was an irrelevant detail in His story. All the workers trusted the landowner to give them what was fair at the end of the day.

"The day laborer did not have even the minimal security which a slave had in belonging to one master. There was no social welfare program on which an unemployed man could fall back, and no trade unions to protect a worker’s rights. An employer could literally ’do what he chose with what belonged to him’ (Matthew 20:15)." [Note: France., The Gospel . . ., p. 749.]

Verses 8-12

The evening was the time of reckoning for the workers (cf. Leviticus 19:13). The order in which the landowner’s foreman paid the workers created a problem. In view of what he paid those hired late in the day, those who began working earlier expected to receive more than they had hoped for. They grumbled against him because he had been generous to the latecomers and only just with them. They cited their hard working conditions as justification for their grievance.

Verses 13-15

"Friend" is only a mild term of rebuke in this context. The landowner pointed out that he had not cheated those whom he hired earlier in the day. He had paid the wage they agreed to. It was his business if he wanted to pay the latecomers more than they deserved. The evil or envious eye (Matthew 20:15) was an idiom depicting jealousy (cf. Matthew 6:23; Deuteronomy 15:9; 1 Samuel 18:9).

The landowner’s rhetorical questions explained that he had distributed the wages as he had because he was gracious and generous as well as just (cf. Luke 15:11-32; Romans 4:4-6; Romans 11:6).

Verse 16

The point of the parable was that God will graciously do more for some of those who work for Him than His justice demands.

In view of the context, the 12 disciples correspond to the workers hired at the beginning of the day, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Those hired later correspond to other people who became Jesus’ disciples later in His ministry. One of these people might have been the rich young man if he had become a disciple (Matthew 20:16-22). Peter’s question about what the Twelve would receive (Matthew 20:27) had implied that they should receive a greater reward since their sacrifice had been greater. This parable taught him that God would give him a just reward for his sacrificial labor for Jesus. Nonetheless God had the right to give just as great reward to those whose service was not as long. This parable taught the disciples not to think of heavenly rewards in terms of justice, getting in proportion to what they deserved. They should think of them in terms of grace, any reward being an act of God’s grace. Even those hired early in the day received a reward, and the landowner had been gracious and generous in hiring them and not others.

Modern disciples of Jesus should view heavenly rewards the same way. The only reason we will receive any reward is that God has called us to be His workers. We can count on God dealing with us justly, graciously, and generously whether we serve God all our lives or only a short time having become His disciples later in life.

"The parable is emphasizing a right attitude in service." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:73.]

This parable does not teach that God will reward all His disciples equally. Other parables also teach that He will not (e.g., Matthew 25:14-30). The point of this one is that God will reward all His disciples justly, graciously, and generously. In some cases the last called will be among the first in rank of blessing. Conversely in some cases those whom God called early in their lives may not receive as much reward as those called later in life.

Jesus was probably hinting at more in this parable. At least we can draw the following applications from it. Disciples in Jesus’ day would not necessarily receive more reward than disciples whom God calls to serve Him just before the day of laboring ends, before His second coming. Neither would Jewish disciples necessarily receive more than Gentile disciples whom God calls later in His program of preparation for the kingdom (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:2; Revelation 2:26).

Verse 17

Matthew’s reference to Jesus going up to Jerusalem reminds the reader of the climax toward which the conflict between the religious leaders and Jesus was heading. Of course, Jerusalem was up topographically from most places in Israel, but the idea of going up there was metaphorical as well since Jerusalem was the center of national life. The rejection of Messiah is, of course, one of the main themes in Matthew’s Gospel. The writer did not say that Jesus had begun moving toward Jerusalem, only that He prepared His disciples further for that next important step.

Verses 17-19

4. Instruction about Jesus’ passion 20:17-19 (cf. Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34)

There is a theological connection between this section and the former one. The death of Jesus provided the basis for God’s gracious dealings with believers in His Son. This connection is clear to Matthew’s readers because Matthew selected his material as he did, but the disciples probably did not see it when Jesus revealed it.

Verses 18-19

Jesus was taking His disciples up to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration there. While there, the Son of Man would somehow be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, His antagonistic opponents. This implied a betrayal (cf. Matthew 17:22). They would condemn Him to death. This implied legal proceedings. He would fall under the control of the Gentiles who would ridicule, torture, and crucify Him. The Romans were the only Gentiles with authority to crucify; the Jews did not have this power under Roman rule. Three days later Jesus would be raised up to life.

This was Jesus’ third and most specific prediction of His death (Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22-23; cf. Matthew 12:40; Matthew 16:4; Matthew 17:9). He mentioned for the first time the mode of His death, crucifixion, and the Gentiles’ part in it. Jesus’ ability to predict His own death was another indication of His messiahship. His willingness to proceed toward Jerusalem in view of what lay before Him shows that He was the Suffering Servant obedient even to death on a cross.

"These three passion-predictions are the counterpart to the major summary-passages found in the second part of Matthew’s story (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35; Matthew 11:1). The function they serve is at least twofold. On the one hand, they invite the reader to view the whole of Jesus’ life story following Matthew 16:21 from the single, overriding perspective of his passion and resurrection. On the other hand, they also invite the reader to construe the interaction of Jesus with the disciples throughout Matthew 16:21 to Matthew 28:20 as controlled by Jesus’ concern to inculcate in them his understanding of discipleship as servanthood (Matthew 16:24-25; Matthew 20:25-28)." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p. 78.]

Verse 20

Evidently James and John approached Jesus with their mother who voiced the request for them (cf. Mark 10:35). The reason they took this approach was not significant to the Gospel writers, though it suggests some reticence on the part of James and John. Evidently they believed Jesus would be more favorable to their mother’s request than to theirs perhaps because Jesus had been teaching them to be humble. Their kneeling implied respect but not necessarily worship.

Verses 20-28

5. Instruction about serving 20:20-28 (cf. Mark 10:35-45)

This pericope shows that the disciples did not understand what Jesus had said (cf. Luke 18:34).

"Despite Jesus’ repeated predictions of his passion, two disciples and their mother are still thinking about privilege, status, and power." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 430.]

"The natural human concern with status and importance is clearly one of the most fundamental instincts which must be unlearned by those who belong to God’s kingdom." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 755.]

Verse 21

The request evidently grew out of what Jesus had said about the Son of Man sitting on His throne of glory and the disciples judging the 12 tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). The right and left hand positions alongside Jesus suggest positions of prestige and power in His kingdom. Note that the disciples viewed the messianic kingdom as still future. The fact that they would make this request shortly after Jesus had again announced His death shows how little they understood about His death preceding the establishment of the kingdom. They did not understand the need for the Cross much less Jesus’ resurrection, ascension, and an inter-advent period.

Verse 22

The disciples and their mother did not realize that the Cross must precede the crown. To share the crown they would have to share the Cross. Since they did not know what that involved for Jesus they could hardly appreciate what it would mean for them (cf. Matthew 5:10-12; Matthew 10:37-39). The "cup" in Old Testament figurative usage sometimes refers to blessing (Psalms 16:5; Psalms 23:5; Psalms 116:13). Sometimes it is a metaphor for judgment or retribution (cf. Psalms 75:8; Isaiah 51:17-18; Jeremiah 25:15-28; Ezekiel 23:31-34). It also pictures suffering (Isaiah 51:17-23; Lamentations 4:21). Jesus used this figure to represent the divine judgment that He would have to undergo to pay for the sins of humanity and its attendant suffering. The disciples evidently thought that all He meant was popular rejection.

Verse 23

Jesus answered the disciples on their own terms. They would experience suffering and rejection. James would become the first apostolic martyr (Acts 12:2) and John would suffer exile (Revelation 1:9), but Jesus would not determine who will sit on His right and left in the kingdom. The Father, under whose authority Jesus served, had already determined that (cf. Mark 10:40).

Verses 24-27

James and John’s request evidently offended the other disciples because they were hoping for those positions. Greatness in the kingdom was still much on their minds despite Jesus’ teaching on humility and childlikeness (cf. Matthew 18:10).

"The fact that the other disciples were angered at James and John shows that they were in heart and spirit no better than the two brothers. . . . They all wanted the first place." [Note: W. A. Criswell, Expository Notes on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 117.]

Jesus proceeded to contrast greatness in the pagan Gentile world with greatness in His kingdom. He did not criticize the abuse of power that is so common in pagan governments. Rather He explained that the structure of power that exists in pagan governments would be absent in His kingdom. In pagan governments people who promote themselves over others often get positions of leadership. However in Jesus’ kingdom those who place themselves under others will get those positions. In pagan governments those are great who have others serving them, but in Jesus’ kingdom those who serve others will be great. To make His point even clearer Jesus used "servant" (Gr. diakonos) in Matthew 20:26 and then "slave" (Gr. doulos) in Matthew 20:27.

Verse 28

Jesus presented Himself, the Son of Man, as the supreme example of a slave of others. He would even lay down His life in the service of others, not just to help them but in their place (cf. Isaiah 53). As Messiah, Jesus had every right to expect service from others, but instead He served others.

"To be great is to be the servant (diakonos) of many; to be first is to be the bond-servant (doulos) of many; to be supreme is to give one’s life for many." [Note: Plummer, p. 280.]

The Greek word lytron ("ransom") was a term used frequently in non-biblical Greek to describe the purchase price for freeing a slave. [Note: Deissmann, pp. 331-32; A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 1:163.] This word connotes a purchase price whenever it occurs in the New Testament. [Note: Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp. 29-38.] "For" (Gr. anti) indicates the substitute nature of Jesus’ death. [Note: Robertson, A Grammar . . ., p. 573.] The "many" for whom He would die could be the elect or all mankind (cf. Isa_52:13 to Isa_53:12).

"A theology of ’limited atonement’ is far from the intention of the passage and would be anachronistic in this context." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 763.]

Other passages seem to favor the interpretation that by His death Jesus made all people savable. However only the elect experience salvation and enter the kingdom (e.g., John 3:16; Ephesians 1:4-7). Only one would die, but many would profit from His death. This is one of the great Christological and soteriological verses in the Bible. It is also the first time that Jesus explained the reason He would die to His disciples.

"The implication of the cumulative evidence is that Jesus explicitly referred to himself as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant . . . and interpreted his own death in that light . . ." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 434.]

Verse 29

Jesus and His disciples left Jericho at the north end of the Dead Sea and proceeded west up the Judean wilderness road toward Jerusalem for the Passover feast (cf. Matthew 20:17). Jericho was the last town that travelers to Jerusalem would go through after crossing the Jordan River from Perea. Great crowds continued to follow Jesus, undoubtedly to benefit from His healing ministry. The road was probably full of Jews, many from Galilee, making their way to Jerusalem for the feast.

Verses 29-34

6. An illustration of illumination 20:29-34 (cf. Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43)

Even on the way to give His life a ransom for many Jesus continued to serve, as this pericope shows. Rather than delivering Himself from the fate He foresaw, He mercifully and compassionately delivered others from their afflictions.

Verse 30

Probably the blind men were begging (cf. Mark 10:46). Mark mentioned just one beggar, probably the more prominent of the two. Matthew may have mentioned both to provide two witnesses for his original Jewish readers. They cried out to Jesus for help appealing to Him as the Son of David for mercy (cf. Matthew 9:27; Matthew 21:9). This title expressed their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. [Note: Morison, p. 365.] They wanted Jesus to heal them (Matthew 20:33).

Verses 31-34

Matthew’s version of this healing stresses Jesus’ compassion that overcame the opposition of the crowds to provide healing for these men (cf. Matthew 19:13-15). When Jesus previously healed two blind men in Galilee, He commanded them to tell no one about the healing. He did not do that here because it was now unnecessary to conceal His identity. Jesus would soon publicly proclaim His messiahship in the Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1-11). The healed blind men immediately followed Jesus. This was the proper response for people who had come to see who Jesus was. These believers in His messiahship became disciples.

It is significant that these men where physically blind but spiritually perceptive regarding Jesus’ identity. The other disciples had recently demonstrated their own spiritual imperceptibility (Matthew 20:17-23). Jesus had taught them that insight into messianic truth came only from divine revelation (Matthew 16:17).

"The ’sight’ of these blind men discloses the ’blindness’ of Israel’s sight." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p. 80.]

"The giving of sight to the blind is a dramatic miracle that points to the dawning of the era of messianic fulfillment. The Son of David is present among his people. And as he compassionately delivers them from their literal darkness, so he continues on his way to Jerusalem, where in his sacrificial death he will deliver all of humanity from an even greater darkness-that of the bondage to sin and death. . . . This healing pericope thus may be seen as the gospel in a microcosm." [Note: Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p. 588.]

This was the last public miracle that the evangelists recorded Jesus’ doing before His death. Even though the nation as a whole rejected Jesus, individuals continued to believe that He was the Messiah. The postponement of the kingdom did not rule out personal salvation for anyone who believed. They would enter the messianic kingdom by resurrection at the Second Coming (Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2). For this reason Jesus continued to present Himself to Israel as her Messiah in the Triumphal Entry. This miracle is a prelude to that presentation in Matthew’s Gospel.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 20". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/matthew-20.html. 2012.
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