Matthew 19 Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Matthew 19
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan;
XIX.

(1) He departed from Galilee.—The verse covers a considerable interval of time which the materials supplied by St. Luke and St. John enable us to fill up. From the former we get the outlines of what has been called, as being “beyond Jordan,” our Lord’s Peræan ministry, from Luke 9:51 to Luke 18:30; from the latter, according to the arrangement of the best harmonists, His visit to Jerusalem at the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:2), and again at that of the Dedication (John 10:22). To keep these facts in mind will throw some light on the narrative that follows here. The journey from Galilee to Peræa appears from Luke 17:11 to have led our Lord through Samaria.

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
(3) Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?—See Note on Matthew 5:32. So far as the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount had become known, it gave a sufficiently clear answer to the inquiry of the Pharisees. It is, however, quite conceivable that it had not reached the ears of those who now put the question, or, that if it had, they wished to test His consistency, and to see whether on this point He still held with the stricter rule of Shammai, and not with the laxer rule of Hillel. If the narrative of the woman taken in adultery in John 8:1-11 be rightly placed (see Note on that passage). that might have given rise to doubts and rumours. Would He who dealt so pitifully with the adulteress have sanctioned divorce even in that case, or pronounced the marriage bond absolutely indissoluble? Or was His apparent tolerance of that offender indicative of a lower standard as to the obligations of marriage? In any case, they might hope to bring Him into conflict either with the stricter or the more popular school of casuists. An illustration of what has been stated in Matthew 5:32 may be found in the fact that the Jewish historian Josephus records how he had divorced two wives on grounds comparatively trivial (Life, c. 75, 76), and speaks incidentally in his history of “many causes of all kinds” as justifying separation (Ant. iv. 8, § 23). We do not know on what grounds Herod Antipas had divorced the daughter of Aretas, but it is probable enough that here, as afterwards, the Herodian party were working with the Pharisees. Here, in Peræa, they might count, either on the Teacher shrinking from expressing His convictions, or so uttering them as to provoke the tetrarch’s wrath, as the Baptist had done. In either case, a point would have been gained against Him.

And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
(4) Have ye not read . . .?—The answer to the question is found not in the words of a code of laws, but in the original facts of creation. That represented the idea of man and woman as created for a permanent relationship to each other, not as left to unite and separate as appetite or caprice might prompt.

And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
(5) And said, For this cause.—In Genesis 2:24 the words appear as spoken by Adam; but words so uttered, prompted by the Holy Spirit, and stamped with the divine sanction, might well be looked on as an oracle from God, the expression of a law of His appointment.

Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
(6) What therefore God hath joined.—Strictly interpreted, the words go further than those of Matthew 5:32, and appear to forbid divorce under all circumstances. They are, however, rather the expression of the principle that should underlie laws, than the formulated law itself, and, as such, they assert the true ideal of marriage without making provision (such as was made before) for that which violates and annuls the ideal. It is remarkable that the essence of the marriage is made to depend, not on laws, or contracts, or religious ceremonies, but on the natural fact of union. Strictly speaking, that constitutes, or should constitute, marriage. The sin of all illicit intercourse, whether in adultery, or concubinage, or prostitution, is that it separates that union from the relations and duties which the divine order has attached to and makes. if Simply minister to the lusts of man’s lower nature. The evil of every system that multiplies facilities for divorce is that it treats as temporary what was designed to be permanent, and reduces marriage, so far as it goes, to concubinage durante bene placito. This may, in some stages of social progress, as the next verses indicate, be the least of two evils; but it does not cease to be an evil, and the efforts of all teachers and legislators should be directed to raise the standard of duty rather than to acquiesce in its debasement.

They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?
(7) They say unto him.—The question comes apparently from the advocates of the laxer school. They fell back from what would seem to them a vague abstract principle upon the letter of the Law. Was Moses, the great lawgiver, sanctioning what God had forbidden? Would the Prophet of Nazareth commit Himself to anything so bold as that?

He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.
(8) Moses because of the hardness of your hearts.—The force of the answer lies (1) in emphasized substitution of “suffered” for “commanded.” The scribes of the school of Hillel had almost turned divorce into a duty, even when there was no ground for it but incompatibility of temper or other lesser fault, as if Deuteronomy 24:1 had enjoined the writing of divorcement in such cases. (2) In the grounds assigned for the permission. Our Lord’s position in the controversy between the two schools was analogous to that in which those who are true at once to principles and facts not seldom find themselves. He agreed, as we have seen, with the ideal of marriage maintained by the followers of Shammai. He accepted as a legitimate interpretation of the Law that of the followers of Hillel. But He proclaimed, with an authority greater than that of Moses, that his legislation on this point was a step backwards when compared with the primary law of nature, which had been “from the beginning,” and only so far a step forward because the people had fallen into a yet lower state, in which the observance of the higher law was practically impossible. But for the possibility of divorce the wife would have been the victim of the husband’s tyranny; and law, which has to deal with facts, was compelled to choose the least of two evils. Two important consequences, it will be obvious, flow from the reasoning thus enforced: (1) that the “hardness of heart” which made this concession necessary may be admitted as at least a partial explanation of whatever else in the Law of Moses strikes us as deviating from the standard of eternal righteousness embodied in the law of Christ—as, e.g., the tolerance of polygamy and slavery, and the severity of punishment for seeming trivial faults; (2) that the principle is one of wider application than the particular instance, and that where a nation calling itself Christian has sunk so low as to exhibit the “hardness of heart” of Jews or heathens, there also a concessive legislation may be forced upon the State even while the churches assert their witness of the higher truth.

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.
(9) Whosoever shall put away his wife.—The questions to which the law thus proclaimed gives rise have been discussed in the Note on Matthew 5:32. One serious difference has, however, to be noticed. Where in the earlier form of the precept we read, “cuseth her (the woman put away for any cause but adultery) to commit adultery,” we have here, more emphatically as bearing on the position of the husband in such a case, the statement that he by contracting another marriage “commits adultery.” The utmost that the law of Christ allows in such a case is a divorce, a mensâ et thoro, not a vinculo. The legislation which permits the complete divorce on other grounds, such as cruelty or desertion on either side, is justified, so far as it is justifiable at all, on the ground of the “hardness of heart” which makes such a concession necessary. It is interesting to compare St. Paul’s treatment of cases which the letter of this command did not cover, in 1Corinthians 7:10-15.

His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.
(10) If the case of the man.—The words seem to indicate that the laxer view of the school of Hillel was the more popular one even with those who, like the disciples, had been roused to some efforts after a righteousness higher than that of the scribes or Pharisees. They looked forward to the possible discomforts of marriage under the conditions which their Master had set before them, and drew the conclusion that they outweighed its advantages. Why entangle themselves in a union which they were no longer able to dissolve, when they got tired of it, by the short and easy method of a bill of divorcement? It is instructive to remember that one of the greatest of English writers has taken the same line of thought in dealing with the question. Milton’s Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, and the treatises that followed it, are but an elaborate and eloquent expression of the words of the disciples, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.”

But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.
(11) All men cannot receive this saying.—As the words stand, “this saying” might refer either to the rule which our Lord had laid down on the subject of divorce, or to the comment of the disciples on that rule. What follows, however, determines the reference to the latter. Looking at marriage from a simply selfish point of view, and therefore with an entirely inadequate estimate of its duties on the one hand, and on the other of the temptations incident to the unmarried life when chosen on such grounds, they had come rashly to the conclusion that, if our Lord’s rule held good, it was not good, not expedient, to “marry.” He declares that judgment to be false. There were but few who were capable of acting safely on that conclusion. For those who were not so capable, and the next verse tells us who they were, marriage, with all its risks, was the truer, healthier, safer state. Alike in its brighter or sadder sides, in seeming success or seeming failure, it brought to men the discipline they needed.

For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.
(12) There are some eunuchs.—The words are singularly startling in their form, and bear upon them an unmistakable stamp of being a true report of teaching which, in its depth and originality, went beyond the grasp of those who heard and reported it. What they teach is, that only those who are in some sense “eunuchs,” who are, i.e., without the impulses that lead men to marriage, either naturally, or by the mutilation which then, as now, was common in the East, or who have conquered those impulses by the power of self-consecration to a higher life, can safely abstain from marriage. The celibacy of self-indulgence, or even of selfish prudence, tends but too fatally to impurity of heart or life. The man who thus makes himself as the eunuch, must do it “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” not, as too many have understood the words to mean, in order to win heaven for himself (that aim is not excluded, but it must not be the only or chief motive), but for the sake of all that the kingdom of heaven implies, in order to enlarge its range, and more effectually to bring the souls of men to receive it. Those who heard the words could hardly fail, as they thought over them, to look on their Master’s life as having been the great perfect example of what He thus taught as to the higher form of holiness. The motives which St. Paul states as determining his own choice of the celibate life (1Corinthians 7:7), or the counsel which he gave to others (1Corinthians 7:32-34), are identical with this teaching in their principle. They have influenced men in all ages of the Church, leading them to sacrifice the life of home, with all its blessings, for their work as pastors or evangelists. The Church of Rome and the founders of monastic orders were not wrong in their ideal of the highest form of life. Their mistake lay in enforcing that ideal as a rule on those who had not the power to realise it. The boldness (as it seems to us) of our Lord’s language seems intended to teach men that the work must be done as effectively as if, like Origen, they had obeyed the implied commandment in its letter. If the impulses still remain; if life is made miserable by the struggle with them; if they taint the soul by not being allowed to flow in their legitimate channel, the man is, ipso facto, disqualified for the loftier ideal. He has not made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven’s sake, and he is therefore among those who “cannot receive the saying” that it “is not good to marry.” On such grounds the conduct of those who have married after pledging themselves, as priests of the Church of Rome, to vows of celibacy is amply justified. The vows were such as ought never to have been imposed, and men ought never to have taken, and therefore, like the tetrarch’s oath (Matthew 14:7-9), when they were distinctly found to clash with the higher law of Nature, and to narrow what God had left free, their obligatory power ceased. The case of the monk who enters deliberately into an order of which celibacy is a condition, may seem at first to stand on a different footing; but here, also, though celibacy may legitimately be made a condition of continuing to belong to an order, the vow of a lifelong celibacy must be held to have been such as men had no right either to impose or take, and therefore as binding only so long as a man chooses to continue a member of the society which requires it.

Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them.
(13) Then were there brought unto him little children.—St. Luke (Luke 18:15) uses a word which implies infancy. The fact that they were brought (we may assume by their mothers) indicates that there was something in our Lord’s look and manner that attracted children, and impressed their parents with the feeling that He loved them. That feeling, we may well believe, was deepened by His acts and words when He had taken in His arms the child whom He set before His disciples as a pattern of the true greatness of humility, and taught them that the angels of those little ones beheld the face of His Father (Matthew 18:10). The motives of the disciples in rebuking those that brought them, may, in like manner, be connected with what they had just heard from their Master’s lips. What interest, they might have thought, could He have in these infants, when He had in those words appeared to claim for the “eunuch” life a special dignity and honour? What could the pressing claims of mothers and their children be to Him but a trouble and vexation, interfering with the higher life of meditation and of prayer?

But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
(14) Suffer little children, and forbid them not . . .—St. Mark adds that Jesus “was much displeased,” and represents Him as reproducing almost verbally the teaching of Matthew 18:3. The tenderness of His sympathy was kindled into indignation at the rough indifference of the disciples. As in thousands of those whose lives have been modelled after His pattern, the love of children was not weaker, but stronger, precisely because it depended on no human relationship, but sprang from His seeing in them the children of His Father.

Of such is the kingdom of heaven.—That is, the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these, is theirs as by inheritance.

And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.
(15) He laid his hands on them.—St. Mark records, as before, the act of caressing tenderness: “He folded them in His arms, and laid His hands upon them.” The words and the act have rightly been regarded, as in the Baptismal Office of the Church of England, as the true warrant for infant baptism. More than doubtful passages in the Acts and Epistles; more than the authority, real or supposed, of primitive antiquity; more than the legal fiction that they fulfil the condition of baptism by their sponsors—they justify the Church of Christ at large in commending infants, as such, to the blessing of their Father. The blessing and the prayer of Christ cannot be regarded as a mere sympathising compliance with the fond wishes of the parents, and if infants were capable of spiritual blessings then, why, it may well be asked, should they be thought incapable now?

And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?
(16) Behold, one came and said . . .—The vagueness with which a man who must have been conspicuous is thus introduced, without a name, is every way significant. He was, like Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” (Luke 18:18), i.e., probably, a member of the Sanhedrin or great Council, like Joseph of Arimathæa. He was, beside this, conspicuously rich, and of high and ardent character. There is one other case in the first two Gospels which presents similar phenomena. In the narrative of the supper at Bethany, St. Matthew and St. Mark record the passionate affection which expressed itself in pouring the precious ointment of spikenard upon our Lord’s head as the act of “a woman” (Matthew 26:7; Mark 14:3), leaving her unnamed. In St. John 12:3 we find that the woman was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. The train of thought thus suggested points to the supposition that here also there may have been reasons for suppressing in the records a name which was familiar to the narrator. What if the young ruler were Lazarus himself? The points of agreement are sufficiently numerous to warrant the conjecture. The household of Lazarus, as the spikenard ointment shows, were of the wealthier class. The friends who came to comfort the bereaved sisters, were themselves, in St. John’s language, “of the Jews”—i.e., of the chief rulers (John 11:19). The young ruler was obviously a Pharisee, and the language of Martha (John 11:24) shows that she too believed in eternal life and the resurrection of the dead. The answer to the young ruler, as “One thing thou lackest” (as given by St. Mark and St. Luke), is almost identical with that to Martha, “One thing is needful” (Luke 10:42). In such a case, of course, nothing can be attained beyond conjectural inference, but the present writer must avow his belief that the coincidences in this case are such as to carry the evidence to a very high point of probability. It is obvious that the hypothesis, if true, adds immensely to the interest both of the narrative now before us, and to that of the death and resurrection of Lazarus in John 11

Good Master.—The better MSS. omit the adjective, and it has probably been added here by later copyists to bring the passage into a verbal agreement with the narrative of St. Mark and St. Luke. From the prominence given to it in the form of our Lord’s answer, as reported by them, we may reasonably believe that it was actually uttered by the questioner. The words show reverence and, at least, half-belief. They are such as might well come from the brother of one who had sat at Jesus’ feet, drinking in His words (Luke 10:39)—from one who, like Nicodemus, looked on Him as a Rabbi, “a Teacher” sent from God.

That I may have eternal life.—In St. Mark (Mark 10:17) and St. Luke (Luke 18:18), and in some of the oldest MSS. of St. Matthew, “that I may inherit eternal life.” The question exhibits the highest and noblest phase of Pharisaism. The seeker has a firm belief in something that he knows as “eternal life.” He thirsts for it eagerly. He believes that it is to be won, as a perpetual inheritance, by some one good deed of exceptional and heroic goodness. The Teacher has left on him the impression of a goodness such as he had seldom, if ever, seen before, and as being therefore able to guide him to the Supreme Good.

And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.
(17) Why callest thou me good?—Here again the older MSS. give a different form to our Lord’s answer: “Why askest thou Me concerning that which is good? There is One that is the Good.” The alteration was probably made, as before, for the sake of agreement with the other Gospels. In either case the answer has the same force. The questioner had lightly applied the word “good” to One whom he as yet regarded only as a human teacher, to an act which, it seemed to him, was in his own power to perform. What he needed, therefore, was to be taught to deepen and widen his thoughts of goodness until they rose to Him in whom alone it was absolute and infinite, through fellowship with whom only could any teacher rightly be called good, and from whom alone could come the power to do any good thing. The method by which our Lord leads him to that conclusion may, without irreverence, be permitted to call up the thought of the method in which Socrates is related to have dealt with like questioners, both in the grave, sad irony of the process, and in the self-knowledge in which it was designed to issue.

Keep the commandments.—The questioner is answered as from his own point of view. If eternal life was to be won by doing, there was no need to come to a new Teacher for a new precept. It was enough to keep the commandments, the great moral laws of God, as distinct from ordinances and traditions (Matthew 15:3), with which every Israelite was familiar.

He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,
(18) He saith unto him, Which?—Literally, of what kind? The questioner has been trained in the language of the schools, has heard debates as to which was the great commandment of the Law (22:36). Which class of commandments is he to keep that he may win eternal life?

Thou shalt do no murder.—Our Lord’s answer was clearly determined by the method of which we have ventured to speak as calling up the thought of that of Socrates. To a questioner of another type of character He would have pointed (as in Matthew 22:37) to the two great commandments, the love of God, and the love of man, on which hung all the Law and the Prophets. Here it was more in harmony with His loving purpose to leave out of sight altogether the commandments of the first table, that tell men of their duty towards God, and to direct attention only to those which, as speaking of our duty to our neighbour, were thought common and familiar things. The change in the order of the commandments, so that the Fifth follows those which in the Decalogue it precedes, seems to imply a design to lead the seeker through the negative to the positive forms of law, through definite prohibitions of single acts to the commandments which were “exceeding broad,” as fulfilled only in the undefined region of the affections.

The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
(20) All these things have I kept.—There is obviously a tone of impatient surprise in the questioner’s reply. He had come seeking some great thing to satisfy his lofty aspirations after eternal life. He finds himself re-taught the lessons of childhood, sent back, as it were, to a lower form in the school of holiness. He had not learnt that to keep any one of those commandments in its completeness is the task of a life, that to keep one perfectly implies keeping all. In marked contrast with this half-contemptuous treatment of the simpler elements of religion we may recall our Lord’s use, in the Temptation, of the three passages connected, directly or indirectly, with those which were written on the phylacteries that men wore, and which would naturally be taught to children as their first lesson in the Law. (See Notes on Matthew 4:1-11.)

What lack I yet?—Ignorant as the young ruler was of his own spiritual state, his condition was not that of the self-satisfied Pharisee. The question implied a dissatisfaction with himself, a sense of incompleteness, as hungering and thirsting after a higher righteousness. And this accounts for the way in which our Lord dealt with him.

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
(21) Jesus said unto him . . .—St. Mark (Mark 10:21) adds the striking and interesting words, “Jesus beholding him” (better, perhaps, gazing on him), “loved him.” There was something in the young seeker after holiness which drew to him, in a measure altogether exceptional, the affection of the Great Teacher. The same word is used in regard to him which is used in relation to the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” and (here the coincidence takes its place in the chain of evidence for the view above suggested) to Lazarus, and Martha, and Mary (John 11:5). There was the fervour, the longing after a higher life, the personal trust, which made him a not unworthy object of the love of Jesus, and therefore He would not spare the discipline which the questioner needed, the test which, being such as he was, was required for the completeness of his life.

If thou wilt be perfect.—Better, if thou wishest. St. Mark and St. Luke report the words, “One thing thou lackest,” reminding us forcibly of the “One thing is needful” of Luke 10:42. (See Note on Matthew 19:16.)

Go and sell that thou hast.—It would be altogether a mistake to see in this either an obligation binding on all seekers after eternal life, or even what has been called a “counsel of perfection,” a precept laying down an indispensable condition for all who aim at its higher forms and powers. It was strictly a remedy for the special evil which hindered the young ruler’s progress to perfection, applicable to others so far only as their cases are analogous. It would be idle to deny that there have been and are many such analogous types of character, and so far as any one is conscious of being under the power of wealth and its temptations, so far there is a call to some act asserting his victory over those temptations, in the spirit, if not in the letter, of the command thus given. But it is, we must remember, the spirit, and not the letter, which is binding. Distribution to the poor was then almost the only form of charity. A wider range of action is presented by the organisation of modern Christian societies, and the same sacrifice may be made in ways more productive of true and permanent good; in the foundation, e.g., of schools or hospitals, in the erection of churches, in the maintenance of home or foreign missions.

Treasure in heaven.—The parallelism with the Sermon on the Mount should not be forgotten (5:20). The “treasure” is the “eternal life” which the young ruler was seeking, the memory of good deeds, the character formed and perfected, the vision of the presence of God.

Come and follow me.—Here again St. Mark adds words that are pregnant with meaning, “Take up thy cross, and follow Me.” The seeker could not then understand all their significance. To the Teacher that cross was now coming, day by day, nearer, and He saw that each true disciple must be prepared to follow Him in that path of suffering, which was also the path of glory. “Via cruris, via lucis.

But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
(22) He went away sorrowful.—St. Mark adds “sad,” i.e., frowning, or as with a look that lowered. The word is the same as that used of the sky in Mark 16:3. The discipline so far did its work. It made the man conscious of his weakness. He shrank from the one test which would really have led him to the heights of holiness at which he aimed. Yet the sorrow, though it was a sign of the weakness of one whose heart was not yet whole with God, was not without an element of hope. A mere worldling would have smiled with cynical contempt, as the Pharisees did when they heard words of a like tendency (Luke 16:14). Here there was at least a conflict. On the common view, that we can know nothing more of the questioner, it might seem as if the failure was final. On that which has been suggested here, we may believe that the Lord, who “loved” the seeker after eternal life in spite of this inward weakness, did not leave him to himself. The sickness, the death, the resurrection of Lazarus, may have been the discipline which proved that the things that are impossible with men are possible with God. We are at least not hindered by any chronological difficulty from placing those events after the dialogue with the young ruler.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
(23) Shall hardly enter.—The Greek adverb is somewhat stronger than the colloquial meaning of the English. Literally, shall not easily enter. The words imply not so much the mere difficulty as the painfulness of the process. Here, as elsewhere, the “kingdom of heaven” is not the state of happiness after death, but the spiritual life and the society of those in whom it is realised even upon earth. Into that kingdom those only can enter who become as little children, as in other things, so in their unconsciousness of the cares of wealth.

And 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.
(24) It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.—Two explanations have been given of the apparent hyperbole of the words. (1.) It has been conjectured that the Evangelists wrote not κάμηλος (a camel), but κάμιλος (a cable). Not a single MS., however, gives that reading, and the latter word, which is not found in any classical Greek author, is supposed by the best scholars (e.g., Liddell and Scott) to have been invented for the sake of explaining this passage. (2.) The fact that in some modern Syrian cities the narrow gate for foot-passengers, at the side of the larger gate, by which wagons, camels, and other beasts of burden enter the city, is known as the “needle’s eye,” has been assumed to have come down from a remote antiquity, and our Lord’s words are explained as alluding to it. The fact—to which attention was first called in Lord Nugent’s Lands, Classical and Sacred—is certainly interesting, and could the earlier use of the term in this sense be proved, would give a certain vividness to our Lord’s imagery. It is not, however, necessary. The Talmud gives the parallel phrase of an elephant passing through a needle’s eye. The Koran reproduces the very words of the Gospel. There is no reason to think that the comparison, even if it was not already proverbial, would present the slightest difficulty to the minds of the disciples. Like all such comparisons, it states a general fact, the hindrance which wealth presents to the higher growths of holiness, in the boldest possible form, in order to emphasise its force, and leaves out of sight the limits and modifications with which it has to be received, and which in this instance (according to the text on which the English version is based) were supplied immediately by our Lord Himself (Mark 10:24).

When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?
(25) Who then can be saved?—There is an almost child-like naïveté in the question thus asked by the disciples. They, whether among their own people or among strangers, had found the desire of wealth to be the universal passion. Even they themselves, when they had forsaken their earthly goods, had done so (as Peter’s question showed but too plainly, Matthew 19:27) as with a far-sighted calculation. They were counting on outward riches in that kingdom as well as outward glory. And now they heard what seemed to them a sweeping condemnation, excluding all who possessed, and, by implication, all who sought after, riches from the kingdom. The feeling which thus showed itself in the disciples has, curiously enough, affected the text of the narrative in St. Mark. What seems an explanatory and softened statement, “How hardly shall they that trust in riches enter into the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24), is not found in the best MSS. The omission may have been an accidental error of the copyists, but it is scarcely probable; and its absence from St. Matthew and St. Luke, not less than that it is not our Lord’s usual method to soften or explain His teaching, leads to the conclusion that a marginal note, added by some one who felt as the disciples felt, has here found its way into the text.

But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.
(26) Jesus beheld them.—We can surely conceive something of the expression of that look. He had gazed thus on the young ruler, and read his inner weakness. Now, in like manner, he reads that of the disciples; and the look, we may believe, tells of wonder, sorrow, tenderness, anxiety. Those feelings utter themselves in the words that follow, partly in direct teaching, partly in symbolic promises, partly in a parable.

With men this is impossible.—General as the words are in their form, we cannot help feeling that they must have seemed to the disciples to have rebuked their hasty judgment, not only as to the conditions of salvation generally, but as to the individual case before them. He, the Teacher, would still hope, as against hope, for one in whom He had seen so much to love and to admire. Their wider teaching is, of course, that wealth, though bringing with it many temptations, may be so used, through God’s grace, as to be a help, not a hindrance, in that deliverance from evil which is implied in the word “salvation.”

Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?
(27) Behold, we have forsaken.—The question betrayed the thoughts that had been working in the minds of the disciples, and of which, as was his wont, St. Peter made himself the spokesman. They had complied with their Master’s commands. What were they to have as the special reward to which they were thus entitled? It is obvious that in asking for that reward they showed that they had complied with the letter only, not with the spirit, of the command. They had not in the true sense of the word, denied themselves, though they had forsaken the earthly calling and the comforts of their home; and they were dwelling on what they had done, as in itself giving them a right to compensation.

And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
(28) In the regeneration.—In the only other passage in the New Testament in which the word occurs, it is applied to baptism (Titus 3:5), as the instrument of the regeneration or new birth of the individual believer. Here, however, it clearly has a wider range. There is to be a “new birth” for mankind as well as for the individual. The sorrows through which the world was to pass were to be as the travail-pangs of that passage into a higher life. (See Note on Matthew 24:8.) Beyond them there lay, in the thoughts of the disciples, and, though after another pattern, in the mind of Christ, the times of the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21), the coming of the victorious Christ in the glory of His kingdom. In that triumph the Twelve were to be sharers. Interpreted as they in their then stage of progress would necessarily interpret them, the words suggested the idea of a kingdom restored to Israel, in which they should be assessors of the divine King, not only or chiefly in the great work of judging every man according to his works, but as “judging,” in the old sense of the word, the “twelve tribes of Israel,” redressing wrongs, guiding, governing. As the words that the Son of Man should “sit on the throne of His glory” recalled the vision of Daniel 7:14, so these assured them that they should be foremost among those of “the saints of the Most High,” to whom, as in the same vision, had been given glory and dominion (Daniel 7:27). The apocalyptic imagery in which the promise was clothed reappears in the vision of the four-and-twenty elders seated on their thrones in Revelation 4:4, in the sealing of the hundred and forty-four thousand of all the tribes of Israel in Revelation 7:4, and the interpretation of the words here is subject to the same conditions as that of those later visions. What approximations to a literal fulfilment there may be in the far-off future lies behind the veil. They receive at least an adequate fulfilment if we see in them the promise that, in the last triumphant stage of the redeeming work, the Apostles should still be recognised and had in honour, as guiding the faith and conduct of their countrymen; their names should be on the twelve foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21:14); they should be sharers in the throne and glory of its King. The thought on which St. Paul dwells, that the “saints shall judge the world” (1Corinthians 6:2), in like manner refers not only or chiefly to any share which the disciples of Christ shall have in the actual work of the final judgment, but to the assured triumph of the faith, the laws, the principles of action of which they were then the persecuted witnesses. We must not ignore the fact that, in at least one instance, the words, absolute as they were in their form, failed of their fulfilment. The guilt of Judas left one of the thrones vacant. The promise was given subject to the implied conditions of faithfulness and endurance lasting even to the end.

And 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 an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
(29) Every one that hath forsaken.—While the loyalty and faith of the Apostles were rewarded with a promise which satisfied their hopes then, and would bring with it, as they entered more deeply into its meaning, an ever-increasing satisfaction, their claim to a special privilege and reward was at least indirectly rebuked. Not for them only, but for all who had done or should hereafter do as they did, should there be a manifold reward, even within the limits of their earthly life, culminating hereafter in the full fruition of the “eternal life” of which they had heard so recently in the question of the young ruler.

For my name’s sake.—The variations in the other Gospels, “for my sake and the gospel’s” (Mark 10:29), “for the kingdom of God’s sake” (Luke 18:29), are significant, (1) as explanatory, (2) as showing that the substantial meaning of all three is the same. The act of forsaking home and wealth must not originate in a far-sighted calculation of reward; it must proceed from devotion to a Person and a cause, must tend to the furtherance of the gospel and the establishment of the divine Kingdom.

Shall receive an hundredfold.—The better MSS. have “manifold more,” as in St. Luke. The received reading agrees with St. Mark. Here it is manifestly impossible to take the words literally, and this may well make us hesitate in expecting a literal fulfilment of the promise that precedes. We cannot look for the hundredfold of houses, or wives, or children. What is meant is, that the spirit of insight and self-sacrifice for the sake of God’s kingdom multiplies and intensifies even the common joys of life. Relationships multiply on the ground of spiritual sympathies. New homes are opened to us. We find new friends. The common things of life—sky, and sea, and earth—are clothed with a new beauty to the cleansed eyes of those who have conquered self. St. Mark (Mark 10:30) adds words which, if one may so speak, are so strange that they must have been actually spoken,—“with persecutions.” We seem to hear the words spoken as a parenthesis, and in a tone of tender sadness, not, perhaps, altogether unmingled with a touch of the method which teaches new truths, by first meeting men’s expectations, and then suddenly presenting that which is at variance with them. The thoughts of the disciples were travelling on to that “hundredfold,” as though it meant that all things should be smooth and prosperous with them. They are reminded that persecution in some shape, the trials that test and strengthen, is inseparable from the higher life of the kingdom. (Comp. Acts 14:22.) Men need that discipline in order that they may feel that the new things are better than the old.

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
(30) Many that are first shall be last.—The words point obviously not only to the general fact of the ultimate reversal of human judgments, but to the individual case of which the disciples had made themselves the judges. They had seen one who stood high in his own estimate brought low by the test of the divine Teacher. They were flattering themselves that they, who had left all, and so could stand that test, were among the first in the hierarchy of the kingdom. For them too, unless their spirit should become other than it was in its self-seeking and its self-complacence, there might be an unexpected change of position, and the first might become the last. The parable that follows was designed to bring that truth more vividly before them.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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Matthew 18
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