There are a lot of verses in the Bible that get taken out of context. Or, maybe more accurately, verses that aren’t properly or fully understood because we pull them out as standalone memory verses or wall art illustrations.
We do this with good intentions, but we often forget the true meaning of these verses, so it’s important to seek to understand the context and learn a little more about them.
This week, I took a look at six popular verses in the Book of Matthew, and did some digging in the three volumes on Matthew in the Concordia Commentary series to get some greater context and understanding of them!
What is your true treasure?
“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (6:21)
The logic of this statement is similar to that of a conditional sentence in which the “if” clause gives the evidence that shows the truth of the “then” clause, such as 12:28: “If I am, in the Spirit of God, casting out demons, then [that is evidence that] the reign of God has come upon you.” Thus the place “where your treasure is” is the evidence that shows where “your heart” is. The fact that someone chooses to store up earthly treasures as his priority is the evidence that his heart is set upon mere earthly things.
This verse explains and removes all excuses, all pretenses or delusions that “paying too much attention to possessions really will not hurt me.” Jesus explains, “For where your treasure is, there your heart also will be.” The external choices reveal the internal spiritual condition. It is to no avail for me to insist that my heart is oriented rightly, even though it may look as though I am investing my life and energy in treasure that will rot and fail.
When the heart is thus focused on Christ and his promises and his word, then priorities change and our freedom to choose what really matters, rather than mere earthly possessions, is evidence of faith in Jesus.
(From Matthew 1:1–11:1, pp. 351, 353–55)
Seeking God, not the next hottest restaurant
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (6:31–33)
Jesus’ gently inexorable logic reaches its conclusion in 6:31–33. Because of the wonderfully inescapable logic of all that has preceded, “Therefore, do not worry.” The second reason why Jesus’ disciples should not worry about clothing and food is because “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (6:32b).
In this context, the adverb translated as “first” has a kind of superlative degree: “above all” or “first to the exclusion of all others.” Just as Jesus’ disciples can have only one master (6:24), so too they are to seek only one thing: the reign of God.
To seek the reign of God is to seek the Gospel, which comes to us in the Scriptures and the Sacraments. In seeking that Gospel, we will also experience the sustaining community of fellow disciples, who are our brothers and sisters. With them we are joined to Christ in Holy Baptism, and with them we gather to hear God’s Word and receive our Lord’s Supper. In those places God’s saving righteousness is found; there God is at work forgiving and making things right. That is what life is for; here is the purpose and goal of the body. Jesus is drawing, wooing, and inviting his disciples thus to orient their lives and so to be free from worry over life’s other needs. The Father will supply those needs as well (6:33b).
(From Matthew 1:1–11:1, pp. 361, 366)
No, you won’t be given everything you ask for
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (7:7–8)
This verse has three pairs of verbs. Each pair consists of an imperative linked with a future indicative. These pairs of verbs are tantamount to conditional sentences; thus the first pair could be translated, “If you ask, it will be given to you.” In a conditional sentence, the main clause is, of course, the apodosis. Thus in 7:7, greatest prominence belongs to the three future indicatives: “It will be given,” “You will find,” and “It will be opened.” The most important actions in 7:7 are these actions, which the Father will perform. The entire thrust of Jesus’ speech depends on the willingness of the Father to give to Jesus’ disciples.
(From Matthew 1:1–11:1, p. 376)
True rest doesn’t mean not working anymore
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (11:28–30)
The imperative “come” is derived from a word that originally was an adverb, “hither.” The adverb naturally came to function as a second person singular imperative, “come here,” and the form in this verse has simply supplied the active imperative second person plural ending. This clause strongly echoes Jesus’ call to the fishermen in 4:19: “come (follow) after me.” The clause here invites hearers to discipleship.
The way to find rest is to trade the heavy burden of sin and failure for Jesus’ own “yoke” (11:29–30). At first glance, it hardly seems like an offer of rest to take a yoke upon oneself. As Jesus continues to speak, however, he reveals that the essence of taking his yoke upon oneself consists in learning what he is like. For this “yoke” is nothing other than to become a disciple of Jesus, as his own words declare: “learn from me.” The noun “disciple” and the verb “learn” share a common root and a common meaning; to be Jesus’ disciple is to learn from him.
But learn what? Here the translation of the little word in 11:29 translated as “that” rather than “because” becomes important. In order to take the yoke of Jesus and find rest from one’s burdens, what one needs to learn is what Jesus is like: “learn from me that I am gentle and humble in heart.” In learning that Jesus gently receives and forgives all who come to him in need, disciples find rest for their lives. All who come to his unparalleled authority and power with only their need in their hands find a Savior. He saves, indeed, because of his own humility of heart that leads him to the cross and the empty tomb for all (cf. 1:21). Paradoxically, then, taking on the yoke of Jesus lightens the burdens of life and of eternity; because of who Jesus is, the burden of discipleship becomes light indeed.
(From Matthew 11:2–20:34, pp. 583, 590–91)
No, you won’t be given everything you ask for (x2)
“And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (21:22)
The chance that Jesus’ words to his disciples in 21:20–22 constitute some sort of noncontextual, timeless teaching about the power of believing prayer seems a bit remote; in fact, it is extremely remote. Such an understanding would fight mightily against the context, and when an interpretation fights so hard in that way, perhaps we should search for an alternative understanding.
Jesus’ words in 21:21–22 contain a challenge to the apostles, in a sense, to believe the empowering promise that their Lord has given to them. At the foot of the mount of transfiguration, Jesus chastised them for their little faith; though he had given them authority to cast out demons, they were not able to do it in that situation because their faith had not grown large as a mustard seed does (17:14–20). In a similar fashion, here in 21:20–22 Jesus invites and challenges the apostles to believe that they will be able to carry out their ministry of outreach and warning to Israel and her leaders in the decades leading up to the judgment against the temple: “if you have faith and do not doubt … and all things which you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
Nevertheless, Jesus’ words here invite believers to long for a stronger faith that would cling more firmly to Jesus’ promises. when we believe unwaveringly in the promises of Christ, then we find ourselves more willing to step out on the basis of those promises and to make choices in light of those promises. So when Christ promises that he will provide for our basic earthly needs if we seek first the way in which God is putting the world right through Jesus (6:33), then that frees us up to live more simply and to release more of our current resources for the blessing of the people around us who are in genuine situations of need. Again, when we deeply believe both the positive side and the negative side of Jesus’ teaching about forgiving others (6:12–15; 18:21–35), then in the face of our own reluctance or even anger, we can find ourselves choosing to forgive long in advance of the complete spiritual and emotional healing that God may eventually bring after deep hurt has been inflicted on us by the ones we are to forgive.
(From Matthew 21:1–28:20, pp. 1067, 1069–1070)
The Great Commission doesn’t always mean “go”
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (28:19–20)
[Therefore,] go and make disciples of all the Gentiles/nations, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, by teaching them to guard all things which I commanded you [to guard]. And behold, I am with you for all the days, until the consummation of the age. (Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs’ translation of the text from the original Greek)
If I may slip in a reference to a common churchly misuse of the grammar here, there is no real “go” in the Great Commission—at least not grammatically. Were this participle (the first in the verse) absent, the clause would have essentially the same force. Common sense (always important) notices that since “all the Gentiles/nations” are not located on or beside the mountain in Galilee, the Eleven (and the church after them) will be eager to go wherever people actually are in order to make disciples. The mission command to “make disciples” is just that, a command.
“Make disciples” (28:19) is not to be thought of only in terms of initial conversion to faith in Jesus. Baptism is, indeed, the crucial entry point and establishes the ongoing connection with the Son’s death and resurrection, as well as with the Father and the Spirit. The making of disciples continues as the teaching shapes, carves, heals, and transforms God’s children.
The Great Commission is not just to get converts, although it certainly is about that. The Great Commission is also to nurture and educate believers as they mature and grow in faith and love for all, even for their enemies. So yes, evangelism—but then also training in righteousness, in compassion, in Law and Gospel. Bible classes and sermons, as well as the mutual encouragement of fellow Christians in groups both large and small, are all part of the making of disciples. And it is to go on for all the days, until the consummation of the age (28:20). This means that the American “gold standard” of coming to worship for one hour every Sunday is simply not enough.
(From Matthew 21:1–28:20, pp. 1623, 1640, 1643–44)
All of the super smart quotes here are adapted from the three volumes on Matthew in the Concordia Commentary series. While these books might seem like something that only pastors or professors read, but they provide an in-depth look at the original Hebrew or Greek text, as well as a commentary on the verses.
Did you learn anything new about some of you favorite verses from Matthew? Download two free colorable bookmarks from The Enduring Word Bible featuring two of the verses talked about here—write some notes and reminders about the real meaning on the back!