What is “the one needful thing” in Luke 10:42?


by Shawn Brasseaux

We begin reading in the King James Bible in chapter 10 of Luke: “[38] Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. [39] And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. [40] But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. [41] And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: [42] But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Exactly what is this “one thing [that] is needful” in verse 42? Friend, would you be surprised to learn sinful flesh has confounded even this?!


Unfortunately, “scholars” under the influence of natural-man thinking have utterly confused the passage. Popular Bible teachers and commentators frequently explain the scenario as follows. Martha, so busy with preparing and serving food, finds fault with her sister Mary. Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to Him teach, so Martha complains to the Lord that Mary should be assisting her. Therefore, Jesus allegedly responded thusly in verses 41-42 (paraphrased): “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distressed because of all that food you are cooking. Only one dish for a meal is needful!” We must voice our fervent disagreement here, for that is to put in the mouth of the Lord Jesus words most carnal, fleshly, common, worldly. Could Christ have really been referring to a single dish of food as the “one needful thing?” NO! This is an explanation childish and most absurd—but we expect this from people whose textual theories and variant readings ignore the ministry of the Holy Spirit.


We do not deny Martha is fretting about silly matters. The Lord of glory has come to visit her home and teach her and her sister, but she is too preoccupied with hospitality to realize her priorities are confused. Martha is serving food, going through much anguish to feed her Guest, but Mary would rather sit and learn from the Lord than help her sister feed the Lord. Expecting the Lord to rebuke Mary, Martha grumbles about her behavior. Yet, Christ replies as follows in verses 41-42 (paraphrased): “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distressed because of all that food you are cooking. Only one thing is needful, and Mary has the spiritual discernment to see what it is! The world and all its goods are temporary, so you need to let go of the affairs of this life and come sit with your sister and hear My words!” The Lord Jesus was referring to His doctrine, Divine revelation, as the “one needful thing!” Physical food does not compare to spiritual food!


By having the Lord Jesus refer to one meal of physical food, we are forcing Him to be like Martha—fixated on the affairs and things of this world. “Martha, you just fix one meal while I teach Mary My words.” No, this is why the wrong answer is wrong. Jesus would have not been foolish like sinful man and denominationally-minded souls. How strange it would be for Him to say, “One thing is needful,” pointing to worldly food, and then switch to praising Mary who chose something “good.” If Mary has chosen what is good, it must be something other than physical food, right, for He commends Mary but condemns Martha concerning physical food? This is why the right answer is right. Whatever Mary has decided to have, it is “good,” thereby demonstrating Martha silly for rejecting it.

To go the wrong way is to have Jesus directing Martha to choose to serve a worldly meal, but to go the right way is to have Him stirring Martha to decide to join her sister at His feet to learn sound Bible doctrine! Is the “one needful thing” a dish of food or the Word of God? Friends, if we have spiritual eyes, we can see which one it is—and which one it is not!


Someone is bound to ask, “Brother Shawn, it is such a straightforward issue, so how can ‘scholars’ make a most embarrassing blunder here?” The reason is complex, but it will be given.

Two particular corrupt Greek Bible manuscripts have captivated the hearts and minds of textual critics. Instead of following the King James Bible and its underlying Textus Receptus (the preserved Greek New Testament of the Protestant Reformation), they often favor the Roman Catholic witnesses known as Codices Vaticanus (B) and Sinaiticus (Aleph). Whereas the proper Greek reads, “enos de estin chreia” (King James, “but one thing is needful”), in Luke 10:42; the corrupt Greek has, “oligon de estin chreia e enos” (“few things are needed, or only one”). That is, the “two oldest and best manuscripts” (commonly called)—Vaticanus (B) and Sinaiticus (Aleph)—have a wrong reading (one of many). Here, the current Greek texts underlying the New Testaments of the modern English versions—the United Bible Societies (UBS) Greek, and the Nestle-Aland (N-A) Greek—departed from B and Aleph to side with the Textus Receptus (majority of Greek witnesses) and the King James Bible.

Textual critics are in desperate straits. Their “favorite” manuscripts B and Aleph are obviously faulty, so the B/Aleph variant reading of Luke 10:42 has been relegated to the critical apparati (footnotes) of UBS and N-A (Aleph and B: “few things are needed, or only one”). Furthermore, the main text of UBS and N-A reads just like the proper Greek (Textus Receptus, King James, “but one thing is needful”). The modern “scholars,” when translating the Greek of Luke 10:42 into English, often use “only one thing is necessary” (or something similar) because that is the reading of most Greek manuscripts of Luke (as found in American Standard Version, Amplified, Contemporary English Version, English Standard Version, Holman Christian Standard Bible, Message, New American Standard Version [1995 and 2020 revisions], New King James Version, New Revised Standard Version, Revised Standard Version). A few modern versions—Phillips, NIV, and original NASB—read, “Only a few things are needed, perhaps only one.”

If they use and translate the correct Greek, mirroring N-A and UBS, their resultant English translation will have the proper wording in the main text but may have the absurd alternate reading in a footnote (“Other ancient authorities read, ‘few things are necessary, or only one.’” “Some witnesses read, ‘only few things are necessary, or rather, one alone.’”). This is nothing but confusion, for, now, instead of retaining one English translation that has existed for over 400 years (the King James Bible), the reader can pick and choose what reading he wants. Imagine such folly! “Only few things are necessary, or rather, one alone.” Well, which is it? One thing? A few things? Is that not a difference? According to B and Aleph, the “two oldest and best manuscripts” (HA!), poor Jesus cannot seem to make up His mind!! Lastly, if the Lord is confused, He has not only diminished the superiority of the Bible (“one thing is needful”), but now He has also caused befuddled Martha to become further deceived and continue focusing on physical food!

Dear friends, let this be a lesson to us. It does matter what Greek manuscripts we use for our New Testament—and we would have to be blind or willfully ignorant to believe the lie “all Greek manuscripts and English versions basically say the same thing.” We can either be people of faith, or people of doubt. It does matter who we have as our Bible teacher—the scholars or the Lord. Keep your King James Bible—read, study, believe it, and anything and everything that disagrees with it must be thrown out!

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Also see:
» Do 1 Kings 9:28 and 2 Chronicles 8:18 contradict?
» Did Moses write about his own death?
» Did Jesus ride two animals on Palm Sunday?
» Does Mark 16:9-20 belong in the Bible?