MORE MINISTRY Matthew 14–15
“Great crowds came to Him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the dumb and many others, and laid them at His feet; and He healed them” (Matt. 15:30).In His healings and in feeding the 5,000 and then the 4,000, Jesus met the physical needs of His people. But would they let Him meet their spiritual needs?
The Herod mentioned here is not Herod the Great, who died shortly after Christ was born. This is Herod Antipas, his son, who was only tetrarch of Galilee, though addressed by the courtesy title “king.” This Herod had married his half brother’s ex-wife, who was also his cousin, and was denounced by John the Baptist for incest. Herod imprisoned John the Baptist, but then vacillated. He wanted to kill John, but worried about the reaction of the people, and was himself in awe of the austere prophet. Herod and his wife Herodias remind us of Ahab and Jezebel. He, wicked but weak. His wife, wicked and brutally tough. In the end she saw to it that John, whom she hated, was killed. Later Herod’s guilty conscience and superstition combined to convince him that the Miracle-worker, Jesus, was John the Baptist come back from the dead.
Events moved rapidly. John the Bapist was beheaded (14:1–11). Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 (vv. 12–21) and walked on water (vv. 22–36). But official hostility grew. Jesus openly condemned a delegation from Jerusalem (15:1–20). In contrast to the doubt in His homeland, a Canaanite woman believed (vv. 21–29). Back in Galilee Jesus fed another great crowd (vv. 29–39).
Understanding the Text
“Because of his oaths and his dinner guests” Matt. 14:1–12.Herod had political as well as personal reasons for wanting John dead. Yet he held back from executing the prophet—until he made a drunken promise in front of dinner guests. The situation reminds us of an inner tug we all feel at times. We want to do something we know is wrong, but hold back. Until something pushes us over the edge. What provoked Herod to act against his better judgment? A foolish remark. And fear of what others might think. Herod wasn’t thinking clearly when he gave in to what clearly was peer pressure. He had other options. He might have rebuked his stepdaughter. He might have announced that the life of one of God’s prophets was not his to give. But under the pressure of the moment he did what he knew was wrong. That’s the danger in peer pressure. Our concern for what others might think or say so clouds our thinking we can’t come up with other options. We give in, and do what we know is wrong. The story of Herod and John the Baptist reminds us that there is always one option open when others pressure us to do what we feel is wrong. We can say no and choose to act on our convictions. Only if we make this choice can we avoid the sense of guilt—and the judgment—that Herod later faced. “When Jesus heard . . . He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” Matt. 14:13. The text tells us that after John the Baptist was beheaded, his followers came and told Jesus. It was then Jesus went privately to a “solitary place.” We’re not told why. But usually when the Gospels report that Jesus went to a “solitary place” it was to pray and commune with the Father. What a comfort talking with God is when tragedy strikes. If Jesus needed to withdraw and spend time with His Father just then, we surely need such a retreat when we experience hurt. “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, He had compassion on them and healed their sick” Matt. 14:14. Jesus tried to be alone, to meet His own need. But the crowds followed Him and were at hand when He landed! This time, as many others, Jesus set aside His own needs because He “had compassion” on the crowds. The word “compassion” is a significant one. It indicates not only a deep emotional concern for others, but also an effort to meet others’ needs. When the hurt others feel forces you or me to set aside our own concerns to meet their needs, we need not feel imposed on. We can rejoice. We are walking in the footsteps of our Lord. “You give them something to eat” Matt. 14:15–21. The disciples showed a concern similar to that of Jesus when they encouraged Jesus to send the crowd off to buy food. But there was a great difference, one underlined by Jesus’ suggestion that the disciples give the crowd food. The disciples felt for the crowd, but they could not meet their needs! You and I often find ourselves in a similar situation. We feel deeply for others who suffer in destructive relationships, who struggle financially, who are in the grip of illnesses, or who are experiencing the consequences of their own unwise choices. Yet again and again it’s driven home to us that there is really nothing, or so little, that we can do. That’s undoubtedly how the disciples felt when they objected, “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish” (v. 17). What happened next is a great encouragement to us. Jesus took the little His disciples had, and miraculously multiplied it. Those five biscuit-sized loaves and two fish fed 5,000 men. Adding women and children, perhaps 20,000! Jesus still performs miracles. If we have the compassion and the willingness to offer what we do have to others, Jesus can miraculously multiply our little to meet the needs of many. “You of little faith . . . why did you doubt?” Matt. 14:22–35 This is undoubtedly one of the most familiar stories in the Gospels. The disciples saw Jesus walking on the waters of a stormy sea. Peter cried out, “Lord, if it’s You . . . tell me to come to You on the water.” Peter jumped out of the boat, and walked on the water toward Jesus. Then he took his eyes off the Lord and gazed at the frightening seas—and began to sink. The story is the basis of hundreds of sermons, most reminding us to keep our eyes on Jesus not our circumstances. But it’s important to note something else. Peter here is an example both of faith and unbelief. He alone trusted Jesus enough to step over the side and venture out on the waves. If later he flinched at the fearful waves, it was only because he had faith enough to dare. Faith isn’t a static thing in any of our lives. It is constantly tested by our circumstances as we journey through life. We should not be surprised if those with great faith sometimes falter. And we should not be too hard on ourselves if, at times, fright leaves us sinking and in doubt. When times like this come, we need to remember Jesus’ words to Peter: “Why did you doubt?” These words aren’t a rebuke, but a reminder. When we, like Peter, retreat for a moment to “little faith,” all we need do is ask, “Why doubt?” Jesus is here, with us, as He was there on the sea with Peter. The waves may crash all around us. But we will walk on them, not sink under them, if we keep our eyes fixed on our Lord. “Some Pharisees and teachers of the Law . . . from Jerusalem” Matt. 15:1–9. The note “from Jerusalem” suggests that this may have been an official delegation of members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, come to interrogate Christ. They challenged Christ directly, charging Him with not teaching His disciples to “wash their hands” before they ate. This washing was not hygienic, but a matter of ritual “cleanness.” By the first century many detailed rules for washing before eating had been developed. One entire tractate of the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish practices organized by Rabbi Judah the Prince in the last half of the second century, discusses “hands.” It tells just how they must be held when washing, the amount of water that must be used, etc., for a Jew to be ritually “clean” for eating. Christ sharply attacked the delegation, not on this one issue, but on the approach to biblical religion that they represented. He pointed to one area where such rabbinic hair-splitting served to avoid a clear Old Testament command given by God, and said, “You nullify the Word of God for the sake of your tradition” (v. 6). Jesus condemned these men who came to judge Him as hypocrites: They followed a pattern that Isaiah condemned long ago of honoring God with their lips, while their “hearts are far from Me.” If there is anything we learn from this incident, it is not to stand in judgment on others for their practices. Faith in Christ isn’t a matter of externals. It is a matter of the heart. Convictions may differ in Christian traditions and communities. But what counts is this: Do we love God, and does what we do express that love? If our hearts are right, our practices are irrelevant. “These are what make a man unclean” Matt. 15:10–20. In Old Testament religion to be “clean” meant to be in a state of ritual purity that permitted a person to approach and worship God. Such things as touching a dead body, having sex, or a body rash, made a person temporarily “unclean.” This disqualified him or her from attending worship at the temple until a state of ritual purity had been restored. The Pharisees and teachers of the Law (rabbis, or sages) had multiplied the rules governing ritual purity, and treated them as though their rules had the force of Scripture. Jesus directly attacked this whole way of thinking when He taught that “what goes into a man’s mouth” (externals) cannot make him unclean. What really disqualifies a person for worship are those things which “come out of the heart.” The list Matthew gave makes it clear that right living, not right ritual, is the key to a believer’s close relationship with the Lord. We need to make sure our own approach to faith mirrors the principle Jesus laid down here. Let’s keep our lives free of those sins that flow from the heart, and not be concerned about the “do’s” and “don’ts” that to some people are criteria of spirituality. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Matt. 15:21–28 This story puzzles many. But the clues to help us understand are right there in the text. Jesus had temporarily withdrawn from Jewish territory. A Canaanite woman came and begged for mercy and healing for her daughter, addressing Jesus as “Son of David,” His Jewish, messianic title. At first Christ ignored her pleading. Then He seemed to reject her appeal, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. . . . It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” In saying this Jesus reflected an important reality: no Gentile had a claim to Israel’s blessings, for God’s covenant promises were given to Abraham’s seed. The woman did not argue or plead special need. She simply noted that the children and dogs both eat bread at the table. The difference is that the children eat until they are satisfied, and the dogs receive the crumbs that are left. This display of faith was rewarded. The daughter was healed “from that very hour.” The incident emphasizes the priority Jesus gave to the Jews in His earthly ministry. He was their Messiah: They had first rights to every blessing He offered. Even today many believe that Paul taught Christians should give Jewish evangelism priority when he spoke of the Gospel being “first for the Jew, then for the Gentiles” (Rom. 1:16). Yet Jesus did heal, in response to the woman’s faith. Faith in Christ is the great leveler. Through the one principle of faith both Jew and Gentile are welcomed into the one family of God. Today no one can claim God’s favor exists beyond that claim established by faith. But do note this. Jesus had just been examined by the skeptical and antagonistic men who represented Israel. And, unexpectedly, he found faith in a Canaanite woman—a descendant of those pagan peoples Israel had been charged to drive from the land. That’s the exciting thing about faith. It crops up unexpectedly! Sometimes those who we think should believe hold back, and we become discouraged. And then, suddenly, faith appears in a person we would normally write off, and the revolutionizing power of God transforms his or her life. Then we thank God and, with fresh enthusiasm, continue to do His will.
Eat, but Don’t Be Satisfied(Matt. 15:21–39)
Food plays a part in the two incidents reported here. A Canaanite woman begged for crumbs from the table of God’s covenant people, and her strong faith was rewarded. Her daughter was healed “from that very hour.” Back home in Galilee Jesus was met by great crowds, who were amazed as He freely healed their lame, blind, crippled, and dumb. When they’d been with Him for three days without anything to eat, Jesus performed another miracle. He multiplied seven loaves and a few small fishes, and fed some 4,000 men “besides women and children.” And the text says, “They all ate and were satisfied.” And the crowd went away. What a contrast. The woman’s daughter, healed “from that very hour,” had her life changed forever. The Galilean crowd, satisfied with the meal, all left—and within a few hours would be hungry again. It’s wonderful that Christ in grace met the momentary physical need of the crowd. It’s grand that He satisfied their hunger. But it’s tragic that they then “were satisfied.” Yes. I know. All the text means is that they ate all they wanted; that they were full. Even so, it reminds me that so many people are satisfied if their material needs are met. If they have a place to live. Food to eat. A nice car. Money in the bank. How tragic that so many never feel the urgency that gripped the Canaanite woman and drove her to Jesus. Because in Jesus, and through faith in Him, we experience a spiritual transformation that makes life forever different, “from that very hour.”
Expect more from your relationship with Jesus than meeting your material needs.
“It is as easy for God to supply the greatest as the smallest wants, even as it was within His power to form a system or an atom, to create a blazing sun as the kindle of the firefly’s lamp.”—Thomas Guthrie