Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

2 Oct 2023

Why Would We Give Up Our Hands and Feet?

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It is refreshing to read a new commentary that not only says something new (i.e., it is not merely repeating what others have said) but also supports that new statement with good arguments, ideally arguments that build upon what other believers have seen in the text. The recent commentary by Charles Quarles on the Gospel of Matthew checks both boxes. This post is not meant to be a full review. Lord willing, a full review of this new commentary will appear in next year’s volume of the DBSJ. However, I would like to quickly draw your attention to one example of the kind of argument described above.

In Matthew 18:6–7, Jesus describes the horrific consequences for those who would cause any of his followers (the “little ones” are all of us who are in his family) to abandon their faith in him (“to stumble”). As Quarles puts it, “The spiritual fate related to this downfall is a horribly tragic one since the one who encouraged it would prefer death by drowning in the depths of the sea to the punishment that they will face” (p. 455). In verses 8 and 9, still speaking of the pressures from the world that cause people to no longer follow Christ, which will involve persecution (cf. Matt 13:21; 26:31), Jesus urges his followers to be willing to lose hands, feet, and eyes in order to enter life rather than eternal fire. As part of his argument that Jesus is still speaking of anti-Christian persecution in verses 8 and 9, Quarles notes that while using this language as a means of encouraging faithfulness in the midst of persecution “may sound strange to modern ears” (p. 458), it is remarkably similar to a story with which Matthew’s original Jewish-Christian readers would have been familiar. In order to rightly understand any portion of Scripture, we must try to put ourselves in the shoes of the original author and his readers.

What is this significant story? In the non-canonical book of 2 Maccabees, written before the birth of Christ, a story is told of a young Jewish man in the second century BC who was being compelled by his Syrian tormentors to eat unlawful pork. He watched two of his brothers die a horrible death rather than violate the Law. I will spare the reader the gruesome details here. The second of these brothers was asked, “Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?” (7.7; translations from the NRSV). He had replied, “No,” and while dying, reportedly said, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (7.9). When the captors then came to this third brother, he voluntarily stuck out his tongue for torture and stretched out his hands saying, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again” (7.9).

Although I do not believe Quarles makes this connection (I may have missed it), the fact that the author of Hebrews also likely alludes to these same Maccabean martyrs (11:35b—“There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection,” NIV)[1] is supporting evidence that this account was well-known in the first century and that is was based on some historic facts. Therefore, as Quarles cautiously concludes, “Perhaps Jesus was calling his disciples to the same bold faith that characterized these Jewish martyrs since he foresaw that similar tortures awaited some of his followers. If fear of being dismembered by persecutors prompted a disciple to renounce his faith, he would be wiser to cut off his own limbs” (p. 458).

Quarles acknowledges that his conclusion, while arrived at independently, is similar to suggestions made by Keener,[2] who in turn acknowledges the influence of Lane.[3] So, this is a good example of a somewhat unique conclusion but one that builds on and advances the observations made by other Christians reading Scripture. It also agrees with an earlier passage in Matthew that clearly teaches that we must not fear those who can only kill our bodies but cannot throw us into hell (10:28).

It would be easy to conflate Jesus’ teaching here in Matthew 18 with his similar words concerning adultery in the Sermon on Mount (Matt 5:29–30), but we must fight this tendency and examine each saying within its own context. Jesus often uses similar language in different settings to teach different things. Matthew 18 has another example of this where the image of the lost sheep is used for the wandering believer (vv. 12–14), while similar language is used for the initial pursuit of the unbeliever in Luke 15. It is the context of Matthew 18 that indicates that its language about limbs and eyes has to do with our right response to persecution.

When writing within the comfort of 21st-century America, speaking of this type of sacrifice is awkward when it is only a possibility instead of a reality, as it is for many Christian brothers and sisters in other times and places. However, an argument from the greater to the lesser can be made—if our Lord calls us to be willing to lose our very bodies rather than abandon him, we should be willing to give up any lesser things to persevere in our devotion to our King. Left to ourselves, we can exchange our Lord for things less valuable and more fleeting than hands, feet, and eyes.

Ultimately, you, the reader, may not find Quarles’ argument for this possible background to Matthew 18:8–9 convincing, even though I did. When a modern writer seeks to show that an ancient writer was alluding to an even earlier text or story, the conclusions can never be too dogmatic. However, wrestling through a good argument is still beneficial in helping us see more clearly those things that we know the Scriptures plainly teach.

[1] This at least seems to be a conclusion reached by most evangelical commentators.

[2] “Because Judaism so abhorred self-mutilation (Dalman 1929: 227), that injury provided a stark image of the cost one must be willing to pay to avoid spiritual death…. The language of losing limbs was the language of the price martyrs paid for their devotion to God (2 Macc 7:11; 4 Macc 10:20; Lane 1974a: 348).” Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 450.

[3] “[C]oncern for the preservation of a hand, a leg or a foot must not lead a man to denial of the sovereignty of God or his allegiance to Jesus. This thought found heroic exemplification in the history of Jewish martyrdom (e.g. II Macc. 7:2–41, where the sacrifice of limbs and life is accepted in order to be true to God and to receive life from his hand) and was to play a crucial role in the martyr Church as well.” William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 348.