6 Common Expressions We Borrowed From the Book of Matthew

Whether a student of the Bible or not, one cannot deny the titanic impact the collection of books has had on the English language (and the entire Western world in general). As one of the earliest forms of literature, these Hebrew and Greek writings set the precedent for all literature that followed.

Patrick Tomasso

We looked previously at six common phrases originating in the Old Testament, but here are six more which come from the book of Matthew alone. Not surprisingly, Jesus said all but one of these.

1. House Divided

And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, "Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. Matthew 12:25 (NASB)

Although often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln, Jesus in fact first uttered these words that were later quoted by the Civil War president in his famous “House Divided” speech. (Lincoln actually gave the oration prior to becoming president.) Jesus used the metaphor in response to the accusation that He was the prince of demons. The Pharisees gave him the title on account of his ability to exorcise demons.

“House divided” is not frequently used in conversation, but it is a prevalent phrase nonetheless. In the once popular television show, Seinfeld, George laments the collision of two of his social circles: one involving his girlfriend (Relationship George), and the other surrounding his friends (Independent George). As he says, "If she is allowed to infiltrate this world, then George Costanza as you know him ceases to exist! … If Relationship George walks through this door, he will kill Independent George! A George divided against itself cannot stand!”[1]

I often see the phrase in the context of two family members rooting for rival football teams. So in only a matter of two millennia we’ve progressed from demons to civil war to football. Pretty much the same thing, right?

2. Go the Extra Mile

Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Matthew 5:41 (NKJV)

The meaning has shifted slightly from its original connotation. The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms defines the phrase as “to be especially assiduous in your attempt to achieve something.” [2]

Presbyterian commentator Albert Barnes tells us the reference here is to the practice, originated by the Persians, of distributing royal commands via public highways. The messengers had the power to command assistance from the public. As Barnes writes:

These heralds were permitted to compel any person, or to press any horse, boat, ship, or other vehicle that they might need for the quick transmission of the king's commandments. It was to this custom that our Saviour refers. [3]

The Romans adopted the Persian practice in their occupation of Palestine. The majority of 1st Century Jews detested their lack of sovereignty in whatever form it presented. Walking a mile (the max allowed by law) was just one of these reminders, as was taxation. So to go an extra mile would have been a radical notion.

Today we primarily use the phrase in the sense of overachieving.

3. Head on a Platter

Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” Matthew 14:8 (ESV)

Used exclusively in a metaphorical sense, desiring someone’s “head on a platter” is an expression of extreme dislike and desire to see someone punished, or a desire for revenge. [4]

The phrase is a derivation of the type of death experienced by John the Baptist. John was a man who pulled no punches when it came to preaching righteousness. His primary message: “Repent and be baptized,” earned him the name, “The Baptist.” Scripture tells us he spoke directly to King Herod, proclaiming his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, unlawful (not to mention scummy). As a result, Herod arrested John but did not execute him for fear of the people who loved him and his messianic message.

When the daughter of Herodias pleased Herod with her dancing, Herod promised to grant her whatever request she wanted. Persuaded by her mother, the girl requested John be decapitated and the head brought to her on a platter.

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4. Blind Leading the Blind

Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit." Matthew 15:14 (NIV)

Jesus used this devastating metaphor to describe how the leaders of the Jews guided the masses. They focused so heavily on outward signs and appearances that they missed the intent of the Law and therefore the heart of God. Specifically Jesus told his disciples that the Pharisees purported to be experts on interpreting the Law as it pertained to ritual purity, but in fact were just as in the dark as those they instructed. The phrase is also recorded by Luke in Jesus's Sermon on the Mount.

The saying refers to someone leading an ignorant group of people in a subject or undertaking in which he or she is equally ignorant. The Pharisees thought they had the Law figured out, but they were focused more on tradition than on the spirit of the Law. If they, the experts of religion, couldn’t understand the scriptures, how would people who relied on them fare?

5. Keys to the Kingdom

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Matthew 16:19 (NASB)

The passage is translated as keys of the kingdom, but we usually say keys to the kingdom. After Peter rightly acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, Jesus said He would give Peter the keys of the kingdom, meaning he would unlock the door of knowledge of the gospel. (See Acts 10 for the fulfillment of this statement.) As Barnes wrote, “When the Saviour says, therefore, he will give to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, he means that he will make him the instrument of opening the door of faith to the world the first to preach the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles.”[5]

Today we use the phrase in the sense of having free reign over an organization, sports team, or a business. Usually this reign is bestowed by someone of higher authority like a coach or CEO. Or, as thefreedictionary.com defines it, "A resource that will give the possessor access to the most complete or profound knowledge or power possible in a given area or pursuit.”[6]

6. The Eleventh Hour

And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Matthew 20:9 (ESV)

The eleventh hour in Hebrew terms was around 5 PM. In the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Jesus used the term eleventh hour to refer to the penultimate working hour of the day.

Again, though the phrase in Matthew is used in the literal sense (eleventh hour of a twelve-hour working day), we use it today figuratively to mean something done at the last possible moment.

The language of the Bible has saturated the culture so fully that many reference it every day without even realizing they do so. What's your favorite biblical expression?

1. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0697758/quotes from episode The Pool Guy
2. Pg. 188.
3. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/matthew/5.htm
4. http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/head+on+a+plate
5. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/barnes/matthew/16.htm
6. http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/the+keys+to+the+kingdom

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