Jesus tells the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. He foretells his death a third time. James’ and John’s mother requests that her two sons sit on the left and right of the Son of Man. Jesus tells them that this is his Father’s decision, and everyone in the kingdom must become servants.
As I write in the introduction to every chapter:
This translation and commentary is offered for free, gratis, across the worldwide web to Christians in oppressive (persecuting) or developing countries, who cannot afford printed commentaries or Study Bibles, though everyone can use the commentary and entire website, of course.
The commentary has a practical application (GrowApp) at the end of each section, for discipleship.
The Greek terms with brief definitions can be looked up at biblehub.com. However, I hope to bring different nuances to the few words I focus on. And I keep things nontechnical.
The translation is mine. I wrote it to learn what the Greek text really says. The translation tends to be literal, but complete literalism and readability are impossible, so adjustments had to be made. If you would like to see other translations, please go to biblegateway.com.
Links are provided for further study.
Parable of the Workers (Matt. 20:1-16)
1 The kingdom of heaven is like a man, the landowner, who goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 Agreeing with the workers for a denarius for the day, he sent them out into his vineyard. 3 Then at the third hour he went out and saw others standing around in the marketplace unemployed and 4 said to those, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll give you whatever is fair.’ 5 They went. Again, he went out around the sixth and ninth hours and did the same thing. 6 Around the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day, unemployed?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into my vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the workers and give them their wage, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 Those going out at the eleventh hour received a denarius each. 10 And the ones going out first thought they would get more. And even they received a denarius each. 11 Although they took it, they began to grumble against the landowner 12 saying, ‘These last ones worked one hour, and you made them equal to us, although we bore the brunt of the day and the burning heat!’ 13 In reply, he said to one of them, ‘Friend, I have not wronged you. Didn’t you agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go. I want to give to the last ones as also to you. 15 Isn’t it legal for me to do what I want with what is mine? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ 16 And in this way the last will be first and first last.”
This parable carried over from Peter’s question in 19:27: Peter said he and the disciples left everything to follow Jesus. Peter and the apostles were hired first, and yet we have been hired later in the kingdom, but we get the same pay, but only if we preach the gospel of the kingdom.
This parable, boiled down, is about the Father’s generosity, not a lesson on economics, either in worldly kingdoms or his kingdom. It is about his mercy and grace, even for the latecomers to his kingdom. Salvation and grace and eternal life are the same and are equal for the early arrivers and the tardy, who arrive at the last hour.
This time, let’s take the entire parable in one overview.
Recall that the last statement in the previous chapter set up this parable: “Many who are first will be last and the last first” (19:30). That statement and the same one in 20:16 provide two bookends, or, to use a fancy word, an inclusio or an envelope or an enclosure.
“kingdom of heaven”: Matthew substitutes “heaven” (literally heavens or plural) nearly every time (except for 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43, where he uses kingdom of God). Why? Four possible reasons: (1) Maybe some extra-pious Jews preferred the circumlocution or the roundabout way of speaking, but this answer is not always the right one, for Matthew does use the phrase “kingdom of God” four times; (2) the phrase “kingdom of heaven” points to Christ’s post-resurrection authority; God’s sovereignty in heaven and earth (beginning with Jesus’s ministry) is now mediated through Jesus (28:18); (3) “kingdom of God” makes God the king (26:29) and leaves less room to ascribe the kingdom to Jesus (16:28; 25:31, 34, 40; 27:42), but the phrase “the kingdom of heaven” leaves more room to say Jesus is the king Messiah. (4) It may be a stylistic variation that has no deeper reasoning behind it (France). In my view the third option shows the close connection to the doctrine of the Trinity; the Father and Son share authority, after the Father gives it to him during the Son’s incarnation. The kingdom of heaven is both the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom of the Messiah (Carson). And, since I like streamlined interpretations, the fourth one also appeals to me.
Let’s look more broadly into the kingdom. As noted in other verses that mention the kingdom in this commentary, the kingdom is God’s power, authority, rule, reign and sovereignty. He exerts all those things over all the universe but more specifically over the lives of people. It is his invisible realm, and throughout the Gospels Jesus is explaining and demonstrating what it looks like before their very eyes and ears. It is gradually being manifested from the realm of faith to the visible realm, but it is not political in the human sense. It is a secret kingdom because it does not enter humanity with trumpets blaring and full power and glory. This grand display will happen when Jesus comes back. In his first coming, it woos people to surrender to it. We can enter God’s kingdom by being born again (John 3:3, 5), by repenting (Matt. 4:17; Mark 1:5), by having the faith of children (Matt. 18:4; Mark 10:14-15), by being transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son whom God loves (Col. 1:13), and by seeing their own poverty and need for the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; Jas. 2:5). The kingdom has already come in part at his First Coming, but not yet with full manifestation and glory and power until his Second Coming.
1 Introducing the Kingdom of God (begin a ten-part series)
A denarius is what a farm laborer (or soldier) got for one full day of work. Everyone knew this, so the parable is designed to surprise the listener. Before we get to the point, let’s review some of the background details.
“early in the morning”: probably 6:00 a.m. (6:00h)
“third hour”: 9:00 a.m. (9:00h)
“sixth and ninth hour”: noon (12:00h) and three o’clock (15:00h).
“eleventh hour”: five o’clock p.m. (17:00h)
Though the word parable is not used here, it obviously is. So what is a parable?
Literally, the word parable (parabolē in Greek) combines para– (pronounced pah-rah and means “alongside”) and bolē (pronounced boh-lay and means “put” or even “throw”). Therefore, a parable puts two or more images or ideas alongside each other to produce a clear truth. It is a story or narrative or short comparison that reveals the kingdom of God and the right way to live in it and the Father’s ways of dealing with humanity and his divine plan expressed in his kingdom and life generally. The Shorter Lexicon says that the Greek word parabolē can sometimes be translated as “symbol,” “type,” “figure,” and “illustration,” the latter term being virtually synonymous with parable. Here you must see yourself in the parable.
“evil eye”: it is a Middle Eastern idiom for jealousy or resentment or miserliness, in this context (Osborne, comment on 20:15). But I prefer a more literal translation.
Let me write out who the landowner is: God the Father.
Who is the foreman? He could be just a character in the story, or he could be the Son of God, or he could be another messenger carrying out the Father’s will.
It would be an overreach to say the vineyard is Israel (see Matt. 22:1-14; 23:12; Luke 14:11), because something deeper is going on. Matthew will cover the Israel theme later. However, the pericope may have circulated as a story about Jews v. Gentiles or pagans. When pagans get saved, they have as much salvation and grace and eternal life as Jews do—God is extra-generous and extra-generous and extra-merciful with people who had gone astray.
The workers are characters in the story who are there to prove a bigger point. They do not show that we have to work to earn God’s favor. Just the opposite. We do not have to work to earn it.
One millennial pastor said that on the next work day, he would show up at the eleventh hour to get a denarius! Clever and humorous, but not quite getting the point because the reason that some workers came at the eleventh hour is that they may have been working in their own small fields (the cultural and economic context teaches us this). Now they needed more employment. These late workers were not necessarily lazy. Just the opposite. They worked hard. Alternatively, they may have been undesirable types who are victims of bodily deficiencies or other uncleanness. They may not have been “last” in a temporal sense only, but last in a social sense.
It was biblical law that the landowners had to pay the workers at the end of the day (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14-15), because the landlords paid in cash, and the workers had to buy food on that day, since there was no refrigeration.
With those introductory background elements done, let’s now get to the meaning of the parable.
Jesus begins the parable with a typical scene that everyone could relate to. It is harvest time, and the harvest has to be brought in. That’s the reason he went to the marketplace throughout the day. He needed workers. The landowner agrees on the wage for those hired early, and the workers early in the morning trusted in the integrity of the landowner, and he did show them integrity. They got the standard wage at the end. But then as the story progresses, Jesus introduces, by degrees, features that shock the listeners. “Did he just say that the guys who where hired at five o’clock also get one denarius, each? That’s good for those guys but bad for business to pay one denarius for one hour of work! He lost money!”
The point of the story is that in the worldly system, the people who work the longest indeed get the most pay. That is fair and just. But this parable is not a guide to discuss labor law in a civil society today. Bad idea.
Instead, in Matt. 19:27 Peter pointed out that he and the other eleven had forsaken all. What will happen for them? It is true that Jesus promised them thrones of judgment in the Next Age, but this should not discourage the rest of us to think we won’t have any salvation or grace or eternal life or ministry opportunities.
The landowner gently shamed them for objecting to generosity. They were focused on economic fairness and justice, but the landowner was focused on mercy and generosity. For those who worked long hours, justice or fairness was served, but for those who worked one hour, mercy was added.
The point, however, to this parable is that in God’s kingdom, he extends equal grace and salvation and eternal life to those who need it at the eleventh hour as to those who needed grace and salvation and eternal life early on. God’s grace and salvation is for everyone in equal measure, from the longstanding kingdom citizen, as well to those who entered the kingdom only an hour ago.
So now we have the announcement in a pithy statement: the last will be first and the first last. This statement is a correction to the belief that the ones who received grace and salvation early on somehow have more of it than those who received it recently. The long-timers expected—perhaps demanded—they get more. Not so. With that attitude, they go to the back of the line. And the ones who did not complain go to the front of the line.
This parable is like the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The elder son, who was responsible, did not get a celebration when he did all the right things. His dad may have celebrated his obedience many times, for all we know. In contrast, the younger son, who was disobedient, returned home and received a Welcome Home Party. The older son resented it and said so, just as the early-morning workers did.
I like to apply this final statement (the first will be last, and the last first) to the famous TV pastors who believe they are working harder and longer hours than the Sunday School teacher. The TV pastor should be paid like a CEO in a big corporation. Maybe that’s true in a worldly system, but they have no more grace or salvation than the humble teacher.
“This reverses the order of 19:30 and so frames the parable with the principle of the greatest eschatological reversal. Those who make the world’s values primary and place them above God will be ‘last’ at the eschaton but those who put Christ first and find themselves in this world will receive the kingdom rewards of 19:28-29” (Osborne, comment on 20:16).
Blomberg summarizes and applies the parable:
The reason we object to equal treatment for all is precisely the objection of the workers in this parable—it doesn’t seem fair. But we are fools if we appeal to God for justice rather than grace, for in that case we’d all be damned. Nor will it do to speak of salvation begun by grace but ever after preserved by works. True salvation will of necessity produce good works and submission to Christ’s lordship in every area of life, or else it never was salvation to begin with. But all who are truly saved are equally precious in God’s sight and equally rewarded with eternal happiness in the company of Christ and all the redeemed. (comment on 20:13-16)
I won’t push it too far, but I would just point out that famous TV pastors who accumulate money and fame down here on earth may be sent to the back of the innumerable crowds for all eternity because they got their reward down here, right now. At the same time, a little-known worker in the kingdom will go to the front of the line.
Just a passing thought.
GrowApp for Matt. 20:1-16
A.. Has God done something unexpected in your life, like give you as much grace and salvation as the ones who were Christians a long time? Tell your story of God’s undeserved grace and salvation.
B.. If you are a longtime Christian, what did you think when you saw an “extra-lost” sinner get as much salvation and grace as you have right now?
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection (Matt. 20:17-19)
17 Then while Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside privately, and on the road he said to them, 18 “See! We are going up to Jerusalem, and then the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and teachers of the law, and they will condemn him to death. 19 Then he will be handed over to the Gentiles, to mock and flog and crucify him. On the third day he will be raised.”
Let’s again take this pericope (pronounced puh-RIH-koh-pea) or section verse by verse.
“going up to Jerusalem”: from the hill country in Judea to Jerusalem was a long climb up a main road from the east. See v. 29.
Jesus had already predicted his death in Matt. 16:21 and 17:22-23. In the first passage Peter took him aside and said it would never happen. But Jesus rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan!” The second time, they were grieved when they heard his prediction. They didn’t focus on the promised resurrection, but on his death. Here they remain silent. That’s usually best if you don’t speak words of support. They were not quite catching on.
Jesus was predicted in the entire Bible. He fulfilled many of them about his first coming—even right now—and he will fulfill the rest at his Second Coming. Please see my post with a long table of the OT verses next to NT verses:
He also fulfills the OT by patterns and theologies and types. For example, he is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), fulfilling the lamb sacrifice at Passover (Exod. 12:21-23).
“disciples”: the noun is mathētēs (pronounced mah-they-tayss). and it is used 261 times in the NT, though many of them are duplicates in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative Greek lexicon of the NT, and it says of the noun (1) “one who engages in learning through instruction from another, pupil, apprentice”; (2) “one who is rather constantly associated with someone who has a pedagogical reputation or a particular set of views, disciple, adherent.”
He took the twelve aside privately because he did not want the crowd to misunderstand. If he had announced to them his suffering and death, they would have misunderstood worse than the twelve did and maybe raised some sort of militia to attack the city.
“Son of Man”: it both means the powerful, divine Son of Man (Dan. 7:13-14) and the human son of man—Ezekiel himself—in the book of Ezekiel (numerous references). Jesus was and still is in heaven both divine and human.
“teachers of the law”: Some translations have “scribes.”
You may learn more about both groups at this link:
Both groups were the Watchdogs of Theology and Behavior (David E. Garland, Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Zondervan, 2011], p. 243). The problem which Jesus had with them can be summed up in Eccl. 7:16: “Be not overly righteous.” He did not quote that verse, but to him they were much too enamored with the finer points of the law, while neglecting its spirit (Luke 11:37-52; Matt. 23:1-36). Instead, he quoted this verse from Hos. 6:6: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7). Overdoing righteousness damages one’s relationship with God and others.
This verse (plus the elders) will be literally fulfilled in Matt. 26:64-65, when the chief priests, the elders and the teachers of the law bring him into the council room and interrogate him and conclude that he committed blasphemy (Luke 22:66 // Mark 14:62-64), which deserves death (Lev. 24:10-16, 23).
“Gentiles”: Jesus will be placed in the hands of Pontius Pilate and his guard. He and his guard are the Gentiles (non-Jews).
This is the first mention of crucifixion in the Gospel.
“flog”: it means to lash with a whip. It may allude to Is. 50:6, which says that the Suffering Servant gave his back to those who strike. After the flogging, they will kill him. They did this by executing him on the cross.
“mocked”: it can also be translated as “ridiculed, make fun of.”
“third day”: Some interpreters take this to mean literally seventy-two hours, because Jonah spent three days and three nights in the big fish (Jonah 1:17; Matt. 12:40), so Jesus must also spend seventy-two hours in the grave. But we over-read the intent here. The sign of Jonah was his coming out of the depths of the belly and the sea, which was a type of the resurrection. Let’s not over-analyze it. Jesus was crucified and died on Friday; he spent part of Friday and Saturday and Sunday in the grave—or his body did—and his body was raised from the dead early on Sunday morning: Friday, Saturday, and Sunday—three days. They don’t have to be seventy-two hours. It was a Jewish custom to count a partial day as one day. Go to biblegateway.com and look up “third day.” It is amazing how many times the two words appear and how significant they are in many contexts.
Rising on the third day is the key to early apostolic preaching. All throughout the first five chapters of Acts, Peter and the others refer to it time and again. Paul referenced the resurrection when he spoke to the Athenians in Mars Hill (Acts 17:30-32).
1 Cor. 15:3-8 is all about the resurrection:
Paul omitted the fact that he appeared to women first. (No he did not do this put of malice.) Jesus appeared then to Cephas (Peter) and then the twelve. Next, he appeared to more than 500 at a time. Where did that happen? In Galilee? In or around Jerusalem? Probably the holy city. In any case, Paul recounted what he knew. And the resurrection is the key reality and doctrine. Never give it up as nonessential, people of God. It is the core of our faith.
GrowApp for Matt. 20:17-19
A.. Jesus gave up his entire life for you, even going through the worst kind of abuse. What have you given up for him?
A Mother’s Request and True Servanthood (Matt. 20:20-28)
20 At that time the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached him with her sons, bowing before him and asking something from him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you wish for?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine would sit, one on your right and one on your left, in your kingdom. 22 But in reply, Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are requesting. Can you drink from the cup which I am about to drink from?” They said to him, “We can.” 23 He said to them, “My cup you will drink, but sitting on my right and on my left is not mine to give; instead it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
24 Then the ten heard and were indignant about the two brothers. 25 Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the nations exercise dominion over them, and the great men exercise authority over them. 26 It won’t be like this among you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. 27 And whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave, 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but instead to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The background is Matt. 18:1-6, where Jesus says to become like little children, if they want to be the greatest. Jesus is on his way to die, but James and John want to know who will be the greatest. Oh, the irony!
Apparently, being the greatest was a live issue among the disciples.
In Mark 10:35-45, the parallel version, only John and James request preeminence in the kingdom, but here it is the mother who is the main spokesperson. There is no contradiction. This is one of the few times that Matthew the Trimmer did not trim things. He included their mother. Matthew may have wanted to shield the two sons by adding the mother. In a way, this makes the whole family seem dysfunctional and power hungry, particularly after the pericope about the sacrificial death of Jesus (vv. 17-19). Jesus replied to the sons, however, even though they all three bowed before him.
Blomberg on the differences in the two accounts:
In v. 20 Matthew tells how James and John’s mother comes to Jesus. Mark mentions only the two brothers (Mark 10:35). Matthew would not likely have introduced their mother into the story if she in fact had not approached Jesus with this request, but even Matthew’s account suggests that her sons put her up to it, since Jesus shifts his address from the mother in v. 21 to the sons in v. 22 (“You don’t know what you are asking” uses second-person plural pronouns). (Comment on 20:20-23)
My view of Scripture: It’s very high, but I don’t believe in “total” or ‘hyper-inerrancy”:
Begin a series on the reliability of the Gospels. Start with the Conclusion which has quick summaries and links back to the other parts:
The Gospels have a massive number of agreements in their storylines:
Celebrate them, instead of obsessing over the differences.
See this part in the series that puts differences in perspective (a difference ≠ a contradiction):
But the bigger picture is to not allow your faith to become so brittle that it snaps in two because of these puzzles. It’s time to stop demanding no discrepancies or else you will leave the Christian faith. Slow down and relax. The main message is clear. We must not seek for power and prestige but take the road less traveled: humility. Become servant-leaders.
Now let’s move on to the main point.
Bowing before him shows recognition that he is the King Messiah, and he will guide people towards the Messianic Age. She knew what the whole mission of Jesus was headed, so give her credit for that. It parallels the Canaanite woman’s honor of Jesus (15:21-25).
Osborne speculates that the mother is Salome and is the sister of Mary (the mother of Jesus) because Matt. 27:55 says that an unnamed woman, the mother of James and John, was watching the crucifixion from a distance. Mark 15:40 says that Salome was there. Then John 19:25 says that an unnamed woman was the sister of Mary (Jesus’s mother). If true, this would make James and John Jesus’s cousins. This would explain, in part, why he chose Capernaum as his adopted hometown and ministry base up north in Galilee. Zebedee and his two sons had their fishing company there. However, Matt. 27:55, Mark 15:40 and Luke 23:49 says any number of Galilean women were watching the crucifixion from a distance. So the unnamed woman could be one of them. Therefore, I am skeptical, but who knows? It could be true.
“say”: more loosely it could be translated as “order,” but the word is the standard one for “say.” She believed that with one word Jesus could command the outcome for her two sons. Jesus had to correct her and tell her that his Father decided these matters.
The right and the left indicate positions of prominence. The twelve had just recently been promised thrones to sit and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Now the two sons’ mother wants the thrones to be on the left and right of the Son of Man.
“in your kingdom”: Normally, this term would refer to the Parousia or Appearing or Coming of the Lord. Normally, this is a time when everything is wrapped up and the New Messianic Age breaks forth. However, we must consider James and John’s mother’s limited perspective. Here they are heading for Jerusalem, and they may believe that Jesus will win the Great and Miraculous Military Showdown against the Romans. When that happens, James and John’s mother want to shove everyone else aside and see her two sons sit next to Jesus on his right and left.
See v. 1 for more information about the kingdom.
And click back to Matthew 19:28-29 for a discussion of Jesus’s clear teaching on This Age (now) and That Age / Kingdom Age (future). His eschatology was streamlined, much more so than the standard American, end-time, Bible prophecy teachers tell us with their bloated charts.
I prefer to follow Jesus and the apostolic community in their Epistles. They were united in their streamlined eschatology. Don’t believe it? Click on the Matt. 19 link and scroll down to vv. 28-29.
Or click here:
It explores the Gospels and also the Epistles (main passages).
Ignorance pursues power and glory, without the going through suffering first. One day an older student in my class said to me as I was teaching: “I’m going to be where you are!” She meant my leading the class and teaching. To her it seemed so glorious and privileged. I replied, “Great! I hope so too! But are you willing to go through what I had to go through to get here?” The meaning was clear. I worked hard and sometimes suffered. Don’t expect leadership unless you are prepared to work for it and sometimes suffer for it. The head that wears the “crown,” even a tiny one, is uneasy.
The cup refers to the OT imagery of judgment and retribution (Ps. 75:8; Is. 51:17-18; Jer. 25:15-28). Jesus was about to rise from the dead in power and glory and exact judgment on the Jerusalem religious establishment (Matt. 24:2; cf. Luke 21:22). But first he had to be crucified by the same establishment. James and John overlooked the suffering part, before the glory.
Their confident response that they can—“we are able”—to drink the cup was about to be tested. James suffered martyrdom (Acts 12:2), and John suffered exile (Rev. 1:9).
Jesus’s authority came only from the Father. Soon, all authority in heaven and on earth will be given to him (Matt. 28:18). Even in that case, it was derivative for the Son of God.
“For Jesus, kingship is intimately ties up with suffering; it is through the cross that the throne will be achieved” (France, p. 758).
The ten’s indignation shows they were concerned more about their missing a throne of prominence next to the Messiah than they were about the two brothers’ horning in. Maybe they were upset that they did not get there first.
Jesus uses two power words; they signify dominating and exercising authority over others. This is what the pagans or Gentiles do. Of course, what would spring instantly to mind in their minds is the Romans. Over all, with some flareups, the Romans let the Jews follow their religious customs, provided they pay taxes. They also let the Jews have some authority, as long as they submitted to Roman law. If those two things happened, peace would break out everywhere, but it chaffed the nation of Israel to be ruled by pagans. The extra-pious saw the infiltration of pagan Roman religion, here and there.
“it won’t be like this”: could be translated as “it must not be like this for you.” The future tense “(won’t be”) has an imperative force to it. “The citizens of the kingdom must never be like the Gentiles in a lust for power” (Osborne, comment on 20:26).
In the kingdom community, the opposite was supposed to happen. Those who want preeminence and be a leader must be a servant. The Greek noun diakonos (pronounced dee-ah-koh-noss) does not means a formal title, like deacon or minister, but it means a servant. The deacon and minister come later, and even then caution is needed. It is ironic that those two titles came to mean bosses in the church, at least for the more hierarchical denominations. Further, Jesus uses the synonym in this context: slave doulos (pronounced doo-loss). So clearly he did not means an official position of power.
The bottom line is not to wipe away structure and authority in the later church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3; and Heb. 13:17), but to show what attitude leaders should have. Humble yourself first, and then let God raise you up and give you his authority (1 Pet. 5:6).
Let’s briefly explore slave / servant:
The noun is doulos (pronounced doo-loss) and could be translated as slave, (the Greek is plural douloi, pronounced doo-loi) because in Jewish culture a Hebrew man who sold himself into servitude to his fellow Jew was like an indentured servant whose term of service had a limit; he was freed in the seventh year. But then the indentured servant could stay with his family, if he liked his owner (Exod. 21:2-6; Lev. 25:38-46; Deut. 15:12-18). So there was a lot of liberty even in servitude, in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).
It is a sure thing, however, that Matthew’s Greek-speaking audience, knowledgeable about Greek culture, would have heard “slave” in the word doulos. So if you wish to interpret it like that, then that’s your decision. But culturally at that time slavery had nothing to do with colonial or modern slavery.
In this context, the two words are synonyms.
The Son of Man could have demanded, justly, that others serve him, but instead he came to serve others. How so? He came to give his life as a ransom for many. The Greek noun is lutron (pronounced loo-tron), and in Greek writings at the time, it most often referred to the purchase price for freeing slaves. It is their emancipation from slavery and into freedom. Jesus was the price that was paid to free his people and many others from their enslavement. Yes, it is true that there is never any mention in the NT of the person who was paid, but maybe we can say that it refers to our sin nature. He paid the price by becoming vicariously a sin offering and thereby paying the penalty for our sin, which was death. So the price and penalty merged, and it was death, and he paid that price by becoming a ransom. Remember: Jesus had just spoken of his death (vv. 17-19).
The christological aspect is the best-known issue in this verse. “Ransom” [lutron] has its background in the OT idea of the kinsman redeemer (Boaz and Ruth) but mainly in the idea of the payment made to redeem the firstborn (Num. 3:46-47; 18:15) as well as the Hellenistic idea of freeing a slave or buying freedom of a prisoner of war. It denotes a “ransom” payment and has two connotations here and in the parallel apolutrōsis passages (“redemption” –e.g. Gal 4:5; Eph 1:7, 14; cf. Rom 3:24; Heb 9:12), the payment (the “blood” of Jesus) and the freedom from sin that it purchases for people. (Osborne, comment on 20:28)
The background to this verse is Is. 53. There the Suffering Servant would suffer for his people. Is. 53:10, 12 talks about paying and suffering for the nation. He was the offering for guilt.
… Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt, (Is. 53:10, ESV)
For more discussion about the Suffering Servant being a guilt offering, see this post about Leviticus:
And Is. 53:12 says that he bore the sins of many:
… he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Is. 53:12, ESV)
See my posts:
“for” is the preposition “anti” (pronounced ahn-tee), and it typically means “in place of” or “instead of.” It means a substitution. So here we have a basic verse about the substitutionary theory of the atonement.
As for the word many, France is spot on when he interprets v. 28:
That Jesus’s death is “in the place of many” should not be taken as a deliberate contrast to “a ransom for all” in 1 Tim. 2:6 (cf., e.g., 2 Cor 5:14-15). The use of “many” derives from the Isa. 53 background and sets up a contrast between the one who dies and the many who benefit. A theology of “limited atonement” is far from the intention of the passage and would be anachronistic in this context (p. 763)
In note 27, France says that Rom 5:12-19 has the play of “many” v. “all.” In vv. 12 and 18, “all” is used, yet in vv. 15 and 19 “many” appears. In other words, the two terms “many” and “all” mean the same thing both in Rom. 5:12-19 and here in Matt. 20:28. In simpler terms: “Many” and “all” in contexts like these are synonyms, as the verses in Romans and Isaiah demonstrate.
Blomberg is right: it refers to all who accept Jesus’s call of forgiveness: “‘Many’ refers to all who accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, made possible by his death, and who commit their lives to him in discipleship” (comment on 20:28).
Grammarian Olmstead is right, as he quotes two earlier commentators (Davies and Allison): “Because, however, the variant of our saying in 1 Tim 2:6 has [all], because [many] elsewhere in the NT sometimes seem to mean ‘all’ (e.g. Rom 5:15, 19), and because one can identify the ‘many’ as all except the Son of man, one should probably give [many] comprehensive meaning” (p. 143).
Here is the parallel in 1 Tim. 2:5-6:
5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (NIV, emphasis added)
Making too much of the term “many,” literally, overworks the text and is a clunky interpretation. It is best to take the word as comprehensive or “all.”
It is never a good idea to “limit” his atonement by indirect reasoning.
Example: (a) people can never resist his grace for salvation; (b) not all people are saved; (c) therefore his grace for salvation is not offered to everyone; and (d) therefore his salvation done on the cross (atonement) is limited to the elect or those who were called by grace; (e) and therefore, finally, the atonement is limited to the elect. Convoluted and indirect.
It is better to look directly at verses covering Christ’s atoning death on the cross—and he died for all. “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2, NIV, emphasis added). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding off his blood—to be received by faith (Rom. 3:23-25, NIV, emphasis added). This redemption and atonement is received by faith. Therefore, the door is open to anyone and everyone—all—who have faith to receive his grace, which leads to redemption and the atonement being applied to anyone and everyone—all—who have faith! The initiative begins with God, and our faith responds to his freely offered grace—offered to anyone and everyone—all. His grace is efficacious or effective to the everyone who believes or has faith, and Christ’s sacrifice of atonement is received by faith.
As I read things, the call of the gospel potentially goes to all, but some won’t respond in saving faith, but many will. Grace is resistible. God gave each person a significant measure of free will, enough to resist the gospel call, but not enough to save himself. For salvation, he needs the Spirit-energized gospel to awaken his saving faith.
The cross changes everything.
I believe that healing is in the atonement, just like all sorts of other kingdom benefits are in it. Now the question is: Is healing guaranteed in every case? I have attempted to answer the question, though no ultimate answer is available to us on the earthly side of eternity. For a fuller discussion, see this post:
GrowApp for Matt. 20:20-28
A.. Study 1 Pet. 5:6 and combine it with this pericope. How do you humble yourself? What happens when you do?
Jesus Heals Two Blind Men (Matt. 20:29-34)
29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 Then look! Two blind men sitting by the road; hearing that Jesus was going by, they cried out, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, son of David!” 31 But the crowd rebuked them, to be quiet. But they cried out even louder, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us!” 32 And he stood still and called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, that our eyes might be opened!” 34 Moved with compassion, he touched their eyes, and instantly they recovered their sight and followed him.
Why does Matthew mention two blind men instead of one? This is one of the times when he is not Matthew the Trimmer. But the simplest explanation is that there were two and Mark focuses on the one who was known in his original community in Israel: Bartimaeus. Yet Matthew is the Trimmer in other details of this pericope. You can look them up and place them side by side.
Mark identifies the blind beggar as Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Why did Mark know his name, while Luke and Matthew do not mention it? It is likely that (healed) Bartimaeus was known in the early Christian community with whom Mark or Peter (or both) was associated. Neither Luke nor Matthew knew him or anyone who did. And if he got this story from Mark’s Gospel which was based on Peter’s preaching, Matthew fills in another detail; there were two blind beggars. In fact, such “Expendables” often gathered in groups or at least pairs. (I now question how much Matthew really borrowed from Mark, but went his own way, but it would take too much work to assemble the evidence.)
Let me expand this explanation of Matthew’s use of two blind men. The commentators I often refer to give their explanation about the two Gadarene demoniacs (Matt. 8:28-34), and their explanation there works here.
The short answer is that Matthew knew by independent knowledge that there were two, and Mark and Luke knew of one. Or Mark and Luke merely trimmed one, to remove extra details. Example: you say, “I saw John in town today, and I had not seen him in years!” But John and Mary were together, yet you name only John. There is nothing problematic here (Carson). France, after listing the possible reasons for Matthew’s doubling (it takes two or three witnesses for a fact to be established; cf. Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15), says that in the end it is matter of “speculation.” Keener says the doubling is an acceptable literary practice. Osborne says that Matthew doubles up often: two blind men (9:27-31; 20:29-34); two donkeys (21:2); two in the field and at the mill (24:40-41); two servants (24:45-51). Osborne also says Matthew didn’t make things up.
My take: I like Carson’s traditional explanation. France’s may be the safer one (speculation without a firm answer).
However, as I already noted, we must stop the foolishness of a brittle position on Scripture. “If there are disagreements or differences, then the brittle Bible breaks into pieces, and so does my brittle faith! I quit!” No. Don’t allow sneering skeptics to get under your skin (I no longer do). The main point of the passage is clear and has been accomplished in all three versions. Jesus healed two blind men, which proves he is the son of David. See v. 20 for more explanation.
Jesus was leaving the hill country east of the Jordan River and heading toward Jerusalem. Jericho is along that main road, and he was leaving it.
Luke says Jesus was entering Jericho and Matthew here says that he was leaving. This is not clear why, but the best explanation is that there were two Jerichos: one was the old town made up partially of ruins, and the other one was nearby and built up. Matthew, under Jewish influence, refers to the old town Jesus was leaving, while Luke, under Hellenistic influence, refers to the new town Jesus was entering. I like this explanation (Carson).
The more important point is that it just does not matter. We must stop imposing our post-Enlightenment and Postmodern demands on to these ancient texts, written about two thousand years ago. The main point is clear: Jesus healed a blind man or two blind men, whether towards or after Jericho.
Jericho was a busy town on a busy road, so the two blind men chose a good spot.
The two men heard the commotion that was beyond the ordinary. It was a bigger crowd, for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem leading up to Passover. Excitement filled the air. The two men naturally asked what all of the noise meant. Someone in the crowd must have informed the them that Jesus was passing by. They had had heard about him. Healers / teachers who get results get attention.
As I noted in my comments at Matt. 9:27-31, these men were desperate, and they showed it by making a scene. They cried out even more loudly. It’s not accurate to say they were pestering him, but they wanted their healing, and they went for it. They cried out or shouted their need for mercy, which meant their healing. In Greek the word mercy can be a verb, so it could be translated as “Pity us!” Or we could invent a verb: “mercify us!” The Greek implies that they cried out with a loud voice. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The phrase “have mercy” is one verb in Greek. In English we can’t properly say, “Compassion me!” or “Mercy me!” Instead we have to say, “Show me mercy!” or Have mercy on me!” But in Greek you could. Mercy is a verb. It takes action. However, we can say, “Pity me!” And some translations go for it.
Son of David was a popular Messianic title; it reflects the future age when the eyes of the blind would be opened and the ears of the deaf would be unstopped and the lame would leap like a deer (Is. 35:5:5-6). Jesus was ushering it in right now, in part. Later in his ministry he will correct the popular view and say that if the Messiah really was David’s son, then why does David call him Lord (Matt. 22:41-46)?
The crowd rebuked them. The verb is epitimaō (pronounced eh-pea-tee-mah-oh), and it could be translated as “scolded,” “warned,” “censure.” The crowd probably said something like: “Quiet, you! The Lord is in a big hurry! He doesn’t have time for the likes of you two!” They were the self-appointed watchdogs of Jesus’s ministry, telling people to schedule an appointment.
But the two men were having none of it. They cried out even much louder. Their need was greater than their unjust censure. What about you? Is your need greater than social decorum? Are you willing to break down society’s walls to get to Jesus?
Thankfully, Jesus stopped, ignoring the self-appointed watchdogs of his ministry schedule. Then he asked a question that was so obvious that it seems absurd to us today and probably to the crowd back then. “What do you want me to do for you?” So what does this mean? The question is open-ended. Did they want money? Jesus sometimes has to know that people mean business. Recall that in John 5:2-9, Jesus healed only one man by the pool of Bethesda, when it was crowded with people. Jesus asked a similar question: “Do you want to be healed?” The man made an excuse and did not answer him instantly. Believe it or not, people sometimes like their illness. They get attention. But not these men. They instantly answered Jesus. Very moving to me.
“moved with compassion”: The verb is splanchnizomai (pronounced splankh-nee-zoh-my) and is used 12 times, exclusively in the Gospels. “It describes the compassion Jesus had for those he saw in difficulty” (Mounce, New Expository Dictionary, p. 128). BDAG defines the verb simply: “have pity, feel sympathy.”
BDAG further says the noun splanchnon (pronounced splankh-non) is related to the inward part of the body, especially the viscera, inward parts, entrails. But some update their translation with the noun as “heart.” So the verb is also related to the inward parts of a person. It could be translated as “He felt compassion in the depths of his heart.”
As an important side note, in Hebrew the verb raḥam (pronounced rakh-am, and used 47 times) means “to have compassion on, show mercy, take pity on and show love.” The noun raḥamim (39 times) (pronounced rach’meem) means “compassion, mercy, pity.” Both words are related to the word for “womb,” when a woman feels close to and love for the human life growing there. It’s deep in God, too.
“recovered their sight”: it comes from the verb anablepō (pronounced ah-nah-bleh-poh), and blepō is the very frequent verb “I see.” Attach the prefix ana– in front, and it means “up” (as in “look up”) or “re-“ (as in literally “re-see”). Therefore, the verb could be translated, depending on the context, as follows: “Look up” (the main meaning), “regain one’s sight,” “receive sight,” or “become able to see.” Or here I chose “recovered their sight.”
I like Matthew’s streamlined account of their response. They followed him. Perfect.
The members in the crowd who rebuked them must have slinked back into the crowd out of embarrassment.
GrowApp for Matt. 20:29-34
A.. Has anyone tried to stop you from receiving all of God’s blessing? How did you respond? Did you press in or give up?
Summary and Conclusion
This chapter is about grace, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the Messianic Age and our attitude towards it. Jesus is also our ransom.
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard is about God’s mercy that goes beyond our works. It is a parable of not working enough to receive the grace and generosity of God. Instead, those who get saved recently have as much salvation and grace as those who got saved forty years ago. Let’s not build up a privileged hierarchy for the longtime disciples to the exclusion of the newcomers. This parable is not about church leadership, however. In that case it is a bad idea to allow a new believer to lead the church (1 Tim. 3:6). But let me return to the main point. Grace to you, no matter how recently you got saved.
Jesus foretells his death the third time, just before he enters Jerusalem in the next chapter. The time is now coming for suffering and dying. He didn’t want his disciples to be caught off guard. God was in control. His plan was working.
Then John and James’s mother, possibly named Salome (or not) asked Jesus to give her sons two thrones next to him in the Messianic Age. He had already promised the twelve thrones on which they were to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. But mom wanted special locations for her sons’ thrones. The other ten disciples were angry. “How dare they!” But Jesus countered the whole blowup. Everyone must be as servants or even slaves to the others. One must be a servant of all. He came to serve, not to be served, to give his life a ransom for many. A ransom means some pays the price to release someone else from bondage. So to whom did Jesus pay the ransom? To Satan? Not likely, though some theologians argue for this. To God? No, for God did not hold us in enslavement. He paid the ransom to sin and death, because the wages of sin is death, and sin and death held us down. He took our place—a substitute—on the cross and paid the penalty of sin.
Imagine your household. It has rules. When a member of your family—your son—breaks the household rules, he has to pay the price or go through the consequence. But what if dad steps in and stands in the corner or is sent to his bedroom, in place of the son who had broken the household law? The rules of the household are the same as moral law. God gave moral law long before the law of Moses, and then he focused moral law in the law of Moses. Humanity had been breaking it for millennia. Someone needs to pay the consequence for the consistent violations. The Father sent his Son to take the place of our just condemnation and righteous punishment. He stood in our corner or was sent to humanity’s room, so to speak, and we repented and were made right with God. We receive the benefit and redemption that Jesus accomplished on the cross, only on our repentance.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
Garland, David E. Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Smyth and Helways, 2001).
The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).
Olmstead, Wesley G. Matthew 15-28: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2019).
Osborne, Grant R. Matthew: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. (Zondervan, 2010).
Turner, David L. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker Academic, 2008).