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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Matthew 19

 

 

Verses 1-30

Chapter 15

Last Days in Peraea - Matthew 19:1-30 - Matthew 20:1-16

THERE were two main roads from Galilee to Jerusalem. One passed through Samaria, on the west of the Jordan, the other through Peraea, east of it. It was by the former that our Lord went northward from Judea to begin His work in Galilee; it is by the other that He now goes southward to complete His sacrifice in Jerusalem. As "He must needs go through Samaria" then, so He must needs go through Peraea now. The main thought in His mind is the journey; but He cannot pass through the large and important district beyond the Jordan without bringing the kingdom of heaven near to the people, and accordingly we read that "great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there." We learn from St. Luke’s Gospel that "He went through the cities and villages teaching, and journeying towards Jerusalem"; and from the details there recorded, especially the mission of the seventy which belongs to that period, it is evident that these circuits in Peraea must have occupied several months. Concerning the work of these months our Evangelist is silent, just as he was silent concerning the earlier work in Judea and Samaria, as recorded by St. John. We are reminded by this of the fragmentariness of these memorials of our Lord; and when we consider how much is omitted in all the narratives {see John 21:25} we can understand how difficult it is to form a closely connected history without any gaps between, and with accurately fitted joinings at the intersections of the different accounts.

There is, however, no difficulty here; for by comparison with the third Gospel we find that our Evangelist omits all the circuits in Peraea, and takes up the story again when our Lord is just about to leave that region for Jerusalem. When we take his point of view we can see how natural this was. It was his special calling to give a full account of the work in Galilee. Hence the haste with which he passes from what it was necessary for him to tell of the early years in the south till the work in Galilee began; and in the same way, now that the work in Galilee is done, he hastens to the great crisis in Jerusalem. In following the journey southward, he lingers only in two places, each of them associated with special memories. The one is Capernaum, where Jesus, as we have seen, tarried for a few days before taking final leave of Galilee; the other is the place beyond Jordan, in the region where in baptism He had solemnly entered on His work, {cf. John 10:40} where again He remains for a brief period before going up to Jerusalem for the last time.

MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE. [Matthew 19:3-12]

There it was, and then, that the Pharisees came to Him with their entangling question concerning divorce. To know how entangling it was it is necessary to remember that there was a dispute at the time between two rival schools of Jewish theology-the school of Hillel and that of Shammai-in regard to the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1. The one school held that divorce could be had on the most trivial grounds; the other restricted it to cases of grievous sin. Hence the question: "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" The answer Jesus gives is remarkable, not only for the wisdom and courage with which He met their attack, but for the manner in which He availed Himself of the opportunity to set the institution of marriage on its true foundation, and give perpetual security to His followers for the sanctity of home, by laying down in the clearest and strongest manner the position that marriage is indissoluble from its very nature and from its divine appointment (Matthew 19:4-6). As we read these clear and strong utterances let us bear in mind, not only that the laxity which unhappily prevailed in Rome had extended to Palestine, but that the monarch of the country through which our Lord was passing was himself one of the most flagrant offenders. How inspiring it is to think that then and there should have been erected that grand bulwark of a virtuous home: "What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder."

The Pharisees must have felt that He spoke with authority; but they are anxious not to lose their opportunity of getting Him into a difficulty, so they press Him with the disputed passage in Deuteronomy: "Why did Moses, then, command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? "Our Lord’s answer exposes the double fallacy lurking in the question. "Why did Moses command?" He did not command; he only suffered it-it was not to further divorce, but to check it, that he made the regulation about the "writing of divorcement." And then, not only was it a mere matter of sufferance, -it was a sufferance granted "because of the hardness of your hearts." Since things were so bad among your fathers in the matter of marriage, it was better that there should be a legal process than that the poor wives should be dismissed without it; but from the beginning it was not so-it was not intended that wives should be dismissed at all. Marriage is in itself indissoluble, except by death or by that which in its very nature is the rupture of marriage (Matthew 19:9).

The wide prevalence of lax views on this subject is made evident by the perplexity of the disciples. They were not at all prepared for such stringency, so they venture to suggest that if that is to be the law, better not marry at all. The answer our Lord gives, while it does admit that there are circumstances in which celibacy is preferable, plainly intimates that it is only in quite exceptional cases. Only one of the three cases He mentions is voluntary; and while it is certainly granted that circumstances might arise in which for the kingdom of heaven’s sake celibacy might be chosen (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:26), even then it must be only in cases where there is special grace, and such full preoccupation with the things of the kingdom as to render it natural; for such seems to be the import of the cautionary words with which the paragraph closes: "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." How completely at variance with this wise caution have been the Romish decrees in regard to the celibacy of the clergy may go without saying.

THE CHILDREN. [Matthew 19:13-15]

"Then were there brought unto Him little children"-a happy interruption! The Master has just been laying the solid foundations of the Christian home; and now the group of men by whom He is surrounded is joined by a troop of mothers, some carrying infants in their arms (for the passage in St. Luke expressly mentions infants), and some leading their little ones by the hand, to receive His blessing. The timeousness of this arrival does not seem to have struck the disciples. Their hearts had not yet been opened to the lambs of the fold, notwithstanding the great lesson at Capernaum. With as little regard for the feelings of the mothers as for the rights of the children, they "rebuked those that brought them," [Mark 10:13] and motioned them away. That this wounded the heart of the Saviour appears in His answer, which is stronger, as indicating displeasure, than is shown in our translation; while in the second Gospel it is expressly mentioned that Jesus "was much displeased." How can we thank the Lord enough for that sore displeasure? A distinguished opponent of Christianity has lately been asking whether he is expected to accept the kind and peaceful Jesus, Who smiles in one place, or the stern Judge Who frowns in another-with the evident implication that it is impossible to accept both. How any person of intelligence can find difficulty in supposing that Christ could without inconsistency be either gentle or stern, as the occasion required, is very marvellous; but here is a case in which the sternness and gentleness are blended together in one act; and who will say that there is the least incompatibility between them? He was much displeased with the disciples; His heart was overflowing with tenderness to the children: and in that moment of conflicting feeling He utters that immortal sentence, these noblest and now most familiar of household words, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto Me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

The rights of woman had been implicitly taught in the law of marriage carried back to the original creation of male and female; the treatment of woman had been vindicated from the rudeness of the disciples which would have driven the mothers away; and this reception of the children, and these words of welcome into the kingdom for all such little ones, are the charter of the children’s rights and privileges. It is very plain that Christ has opened the kingdom of heaven, not only to all believers, but to their children as well. That "the kingdom of heaven" is here used in its ordinary sense throughout this Gospel, as referring to the heavenly kingdom which Christ had come to establish upon earth, cannot be denied; but it is a very fair inference from the Saviour’s words that, seeing the children are acknowledged as having their place in the kingdom on earth, those of them who pass away from earth in childhood certainly find as sure and cordial a welcome in the kingdom above.

"The holy to the holiest leads, The kingdoms are but one."

The porch is on earth, the palace is in heaven; and we may be very sure that all whom the King acknowledges in the porch shall be welcome in the palace.

What a rebuke in these words of our Lord to those who deal with children indiscriminately as if they were all dead in trespasses and sins. How it must grieve the Saviour’s heart when lambs of his own fold who may have been His from their earliest infancy are taught that they are utterly lost, and must be lost for ever, unless they pass through some extraordinary change, which is to them only a nameless mystery. It is a mistake to think that children as a rule need to be dragged to the Saviour, or frightened into trusting Him: what they need is to be suffered to come. It is so natural for them to come that all they need is very gentle leading, and above all nothing done to hinder or discourage them: "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto Me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."

THE RICH YOUNG MAN. [Matthew 19:16-22]

Another inference from these precious words of Christ is the importance of seeking to win the children for Christ while yet they are children, ere the evil days come, or the years draw nigh, when they will be apt to say they have no pleasure in Him. It is a sad thing to think how soon the susceptibility of the child-nature may harden into the impenetrability which is sometimes found even in youth. Is there not a suggestion of this in the story of the young man which immediately follows?

There was everything that seemed hopeful about him. He was young, so his heart could not be very hard; of good moral character, amiable in disposition, and stirred with noble aspirations; moreover, he did the very best thing in coming to Christ for guidance. Yet nothing came of it, because of one obstacle, which would have been no hindrance in his childhood, but which proved insurmountable now. Young as he was, his affections had had time to get so intertwined with his worldly possessions that he could not disengage them, so that instead of following Christ "he went away sorrowful."

The manner of our Lord’s dealing with this young man is exceedingly instructive. Some have found a difficulty in what seems to them the strange answer to the apparently straightforward and admirable question, "What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" Why did He not give the same answer which St. Paul afterwards gave to the Philippian jailer? Why did He not only fail to bring himself forward as the way, the truth, and the life, but even disclaim the goodness which the young man had imputed to Him? And why did He point him to the law instead of showing him the Gospel? Everything becomes quite clear when we remember that Christ dealt with people not according to the words they spoke, but according to what He saw to be in their hearts. Had this young man been in a state of mind at all like that of the Philippian jailer when he came trembling and fell down before Paul and Silas, he would no doubt have had a similar answer. But he was in the very opposite condition. He was quite satisfied with his own goodness; it was not salvation he was seeking, but some new merit to add to the large stock he already had: "what good thing shall I do" in addition to all the well-known goodness of my character and daily life? what extra claim can I establish upon the favour of God? Manifestly his idea of goodness was only conventional; it was the goodness which passes muster among men, not that which justifies itself before the all-searching eye of God; and having no higher idea of goodness than that, he of course used it in no higher sense when he addressed Christ as "good Master." There could, then, be no more appropriate or more heart-searching question than this, -"Why callest thou Me good?" (it is only in the conventional sense you use the term, and conventional goodness is no goodness at all); "there is none good but One, that is God." Having thus stimulated his easy conscience, He sends him to the law that he may have knowledge of his sin, and so may take the first step towards eternal life. The young man’s reply to this reveals the secret of his heart, and shows that Christ had made no mistake in dealing with him as He did. "Which?" he asks, evidently expecting that, the Ten Commandments being taken for granted, there will be something higher and more exacting, the keeping of which will bring him the extra credit he hopes to gain.

The Lord’s answer to his question was well fitted to take down his spiritual pride, pointing him as it did to the commonplace Decalogue, and to that part of it which seemed the easiest; for the first table of the law is passed over, and only those commandments mentioned which bear upon duty to man. And is there not special skill shown in the way in which they are marshalled, so as to lead up to the one which covered his weak point? The sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the fifth are rapidly passed in review; then the mind is allowed to rest on the tenth, not, however in its mere negative form, "Thou shalt not covet," but as involved in that positive requirement which sums up the whole of the second table of the Law, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." We can imagine how the Saviour would mark the young man’s countenance, as one after another the commandments were pressed upon his conscience, ending with that one which should have pierced him as with a two-edged sword. But he is too strongly encased in his mail of self-righteousness; and he only replies, "All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?" Clearly it is a surgical case; the medicine of the Commandments will not do; there must be the insertion of the knife: "Go, and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor."

Let us not, however, mistake the tone. "Jesus beholding him loved him"; [Mark 10:21] and the love was never warmer than at the moment when He made this stern demand. There was sorrow on His face and in His tone when He told him of the hard necessity; and there was a heart full of love in the gracious invitation which rounded off the sharp saying at the end: "Come, and follow Me." Let us hope that the Saviour’s compassionate love was not finally lost on him; that, though he no doubt did lose the great opportunity of taking a high place in the kingdom, he nevertheless, before all was done, bethought him of the Master’s faithful and loving words, repented of his covetousness, and so found an open door and a forgiving welcome.

DANGER OF RICHES. [Matthew 19:23-26]

So striking an incident must not be allowed to pass without seizing and pressing the great lesson it teaches. No lesson was more needful at the time. Covetousness was in the air; it was already setting its mark on the Hebrew people, who, as they ceased to serve God in spirit and in truth, were giving themselves over more and more to the worship of mammon; and, as the Master well knew, there was one of the twelve in whom the fatal poison was even then at work. We can understand, therefore, the deep feeling which Christ throws into His warning against this danger, and His special anxiety to guard all His disciples against an over-estimate of this world’s riches.

We shall not, however, fully enter into the mind of our Lord, if we fail to notice the tone of compassion and charity which marks His first utterance. He is still thinking kindly of the poor rich young man, and is anxious to make all allowance for him. It is as if He said, "See that you do not judge him too harshly; think how hard it is for such as he to enter the kingdom." This will explain how it is that in repeating the statement He found it desirable, as recorded by St. Mark, to introduce a qualification in order to render it applicable to all cases: "How hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom!" But while softening it in one direction, He puts it still more strongly in another: "Again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." We shall not enter into the trivial discussion as to the needle’s eye; it is enough to know that it was a proverbial phrase, probably in common use, expressing in the strongest way the insurmountable obstacle which the possession of riches, when these are trusted in and so put in place of God, must prove to their unfortunate owner.

The disciples’ alarm expressed in the question "Who, then, can be saved?" does them much credit. It shows that they had penetration enough to see that the danger against which their Master was guarding them did not beset the rich alone; that they had sufficient knowledge of themselves to perceive that even such as they, who had always been poor, and who had given up what little they had for their Master’s sake, might nevertheless not be free enough from the well-nigh universal sin to be themselves quite safe. One cannot help thinking that the searching look, which St. Mark tells us their Lord bent on them as He spoke, had something to do with this unusual quickness of conscience. It reminds us of that later scene, when each one asked, "Lord, is it I?" Is there any one of us, who, when that all-seeing Eye is fixed upon us, with its pure and holy gaze into the depths of our being, can fail to ask, with the conscience-stricken disciples, "Who, then, can be saved?"

The answer He gives does not at all lighten the pressure on the conscience. There is no recalling of the strong words which suggest the idea of utter impossibility. He does not say, "You are judging yourselves too strictly"; on the contrary, He confirms their judgment, and tells them that there they are right: "With men this is impossible"; but is there not another alternative? "Who art thou, O great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain; With God all things are possible." A most significant utterance this for those to ponder who, instead of following our Lord’s dealing with this case to its close, treat it as if the final word had been "If thou will enter into life, keep the commandments." This favourite passage of the legalists is the one of all others which most completely overthrows his hopes, and shows that so deep are the roots of sin in the heart of man, even of the most amiable and most exemplary, that none can be saved except by the power of divine grace overcoming that which is to men an impossibility. "Behold, GOD is my salvation."

It is worthy of note that it is as a hindrance to entering the kingdom that riches are here stigmatized, which suggests the thought that the danger is not nearly so great when riches increase to those who have already entered. Not that there is even for them no serious danger, nor need of watching and of prayer that as they increase, the heart be not set upon them; but where there is true consecration of heart the consecration of wealth follows as a natural and easy consequence. Riches are a responsibility to those that are in the kingdom; they are a misfortune only to those who have not entered it.

As on the question of marriage or celibacy, so on that of property or poverty, the Romanist has pushed our Lord’s words to an extreme which is evidently not intended. It was plain even to the disciples that it was not the mere possession of riches, but the setting the heart on them, which He condemned. If our Lord had intended to set forth the absolute renunciation of property as a counsel of perfection to His disciples, this would have been the time to do it; but we look in vain for any such counsel. He saw it to be necessary for that young man; but when He applies the case to disciples in general, He does not say "If any man will come after Me, let him sell all that he has, and give to the poor," but contents Himself with giving a very strong warning against the danger of riches coming between man and the kingdom of God. But while the ascetic interpretation of our Lord’s words is manifestly wrong, the other extreme of reducing them to nothing is far worse, which is the danger now.

REWARDS. [Matthew 19:27-30 - Matthew 20:1-16]

The thought of sacrifice very naturally suggests as its correlative that of compensation; so it is not at all to be wondered at that, before this conversation ended, the impulsive disciple, so much given to think aloud, should blurt out the honest question: "Behold, we have forsaken all and followed Thee; what shall we have therefore?" He could not but remember that while the Master had insisted on His disciples denying self to follow Him, He had spoken no less clearly of their finding life through losing it, and of their being rewarded according to their deeds. {see Matthew 16:24-27} A more cautious man would have hesitated before he spoke; but it was no worse to speak it than to think it: and then, it was an honest and fair question; accordingly our Lord gives it a frank and generous answer, taking care, however, before leaving the subject, to add a supplementary caution, fitted to correct what was doubtful or wrong in the spirit it showed.

Here, again, we see how thoroughly natural is our Saviour’s teaching. "Not to destroy, but to fulfil," was His motto. This is as true of His relation to man’s nature as of His relation to the law and the prophets. "What shall we have?" is a question not to be set aside as wholly unworthy. The desire for property is an original element in human nature. It was of God at the first; and though it has swelled out into most unseemly proportions, and has usurped a place which does by no means belong to it, that is no reason why it should be dealt with as if it had no right to exist. It is vain to attempt to root it out; what it needs is moderating, regulating, subordinating. The tendency of perverted human nature is to make "What shall we have?" the first question. The way to meet that is not to abolish the question altogether, but to put it last, where it ought to be. To be, to do, to suffer, to enjoy-that is the order our Lord marks out for His disciples. If only they have it as their first anxiety to be what they ought to be, and to do what they are called to do, and are willing, in order to this, to take up the cross, to suffer whatever may be theirs to suffer, then they may allow as large scope as they please to the desire for possession and enjoyment.

Observe the difference between the young man and the disciples. He was coming to Christ for the first time; and if our Lord had set before him what he would gain by following Him, He would have directly encouraged a mercenary spirit. He therefore says not a word to him about prospects of reward either here or hereafter. Those who choose Christ must choose Him for His own sake. Our Saviour dealt in no other way with Peter, James, and John. When first He called them to follow Him, He said not a word about thrones or rewards; He spoke of work: "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men"; and it was not till they had fully committed themselves to Him that He went so far as to suggest even in the most general way the thought of compensation. It would have spoiled them to have put such motives prominently before them at an earlier stage. But it is different now. They have followed Him for months, even years. They have been tested in innumerable ways. They are not certainly out of danger from the old selfishness; but with the exception of one of them, who is fast developing into a hypocrite, all they need is a solemn word of caution now and then. The time had come when their Master might safely give them some idea of the prospects which lay before them, when their cross-bearing days should be over.

The promise looks forward to an entirely altered state of things spoken of as "the regeneration"-a remarkable term, reminding us of the vast scope of our Saviour’s mission as ever present to His consciousness even in these days of smallest things. The word recalls what is said in the book of Genesis as to "the generation of the heaven and of the earth," and suggests by anticipation the words of the Apocalypse concerning the regeneration, "Behold, I make all things new," and "I saw a new heaven and a new earth." That the reference is to that final restitution of all things, and not merely to the new dispensation, seems evident from the words which immediately follow: "When the Son of man shall sit on the throne of His glory." Why, then, was the promise given in words so suggestive of those crude notions of an earthly kingdom, above which it was so difficult and so important for the disciples to rise? The answer is to be found in the limitation of human language: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him"; accordingly, if the promise was to be of any use to them in the way of comfort and encouragement, it must be expressed in terms which were familiar to them then. To their minds the kingdom was as yet bound up with Israel; "the twelve tribes of Israel" was as large a conception of it as their thoughts could then grasp; and it would certainly be no disappointment to them when they afterwards discovered that their relation as apostles of the Lord was to a much larger "Israel," embracing every kindred and nation and people and tribe; and though their idea of the thrones on which they would sit was then and for some time afterwards quite inadequate, it was only by starting with what ideas of regal power they had, that they could rise to those spiritual conceptions which, as they matured in spiritual understanding, took full possession of their minds.

The Lord is speaking, however, not for the apostles alone, but for all His disciples to the end of time: so He must give a word of cheer, in which even the weakest and most obscure shall have a part (Matthew 19:29). Observe that here also the promise is only for those who have left what they had for the sake of Christ. We are not authorised to go with a message after this form: "If you leave, you will get." The reward is of such a nature that it cannot be seen until the sacrifice is made. "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God"; until a man loses his life for Christ’s sake, he cannot find it. But when the sacrifice has been’ made, then appears the compensation, and it is seen that even these strong words are not too strong: "Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundred-fold, and shall inherit everlasting life." The full consideration of this promise belongs rather to St. Mark’s Gospel, in which it is presented without abridgment.

The supplementary caution-"But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first"-is administered in apparent reference to the spirit of the apostle’s question, which exhibits still some trace of mercenary motive, with something also of a disposition to self-congratulation. This general statement is illustrated by the parable immediately following it, a connection which the unfortunate division into chapters here obscures; and not only is an important saying of our Lord deprived in this way of its illustration, but the parable is deprived of its key, the result of which has been that many have been led astray in its interpretation. We cannot attempt to enter fully into the parable, but shall only make such reference to it as is necessary to bring out its appropriateness for the purpose our Lord had in view. Its main purport may be stated thus: many that are first in amount of work shall be last in point of reward; and many that are last in amount of work shall be first in point of reward. The principle on which this is based is plain enough: that in estimating the reward it is not the quantity of work done or the amount of sacrifice made that is the measure of value, but the spirit in which the work is done or the sacrifice made. The labourers who made no bargain at all, but went to work on the faith of their Master’s honour and liberality, were the best off in the end.

Those who made a bargain received, indeed, all they bargained for; but the others were rewarded on a far more liberal scale, they obtaining much more than they had any reason to expect. Thus we are taught that those will be first who think least of wages as wages, and are the least disposed to put such a question as, "What shall we then have?" This was the main lesson for the apostles, as it is for all who occupy places of prominence in the kingdom. It is thus put in later years by one of those who now for the first time learned it: "Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward". [2 John 1:8] "Look to yourselves," see that your spirit be right, that there be nothing selfish, nothing mercenary, nothing vainglorious; else much good labour and real self-denial may miss its compensation.

Besides the lesson of caution to the great ones, there is a lesson of encouragement to the little ones in the kingdom-those who can do little and seem to themselves to sacrifice little for Christ. Let such remember that their labour and self-denial are measured not by quantity but by quality, by the spirit in which the service, however small it be, is rendered, and the sacrifice, trifling as it seems, is made. Not only is it true that many that are first shall be last; but also that many of the last shall be first. "If there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not."

Neither in the general statement of our Lord, nor in the parable which illustrates it, is there the slightest encouragement to idlers in the vine-yard-to those who do nothing and sacrifice nothing for Christ, but who think that, when the eleventh hour comes, they will turn in with the rest, and perhaps come off best after all. When the Master of the vineyard asks of those who are standing-in the market-place at the eleventh hour, "Why stand ye here all the day idle?" their answer is ready, "Because no man hath hired us." The invitation came to them, then, for the first time, and they accepted it as soon as it was given them. Suppose the Master of the vineyard had asked them in the morning, and at the first hour and the second and the third, and so on all the day, and only at the eleventh hour did they deign to notice His invitation, how would they have fared?

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Matthew 19:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/matthew-19.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020
the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
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