We’ve been working our way through Matthew’s gospel since January with a break over the summer.
In the opening two chapters we had the story of the Saviour’s birth and all the events surrounding it including the flight to Egypt to escape from Herod; and the return from Egypt after Herod’s death. And then, in chapters 3 and 4 we had the account of the Lord’s baptism by John in the Jordan; and his temptation in the wilderness; and then the beginning of his preaching and healing ministry. In chapters 5 to 7 we had the Sermon on the Mount which began with blessings on his people and which ended with a warning about the coming judgment. The focus of chapters 8 and 9 was on his mighty miracles: he healed the sick and he cast out demons and he calmed the storm. He even raised the dead.
The end of chapter 9 and all of chapter 10 contain teaching on mission. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more workers. And sure enough, the Lord sent out his disciples to labour for him in the harvest field. And before he sent them out, he gave them instructions about what to do and what to expect.
Chapters 11 and 12 tell us about the mixed response to his ministry. A few believed; others weren’t quite sure; others opposed him. And chapter 13, which we finished studying last week, contains seven parables about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus Christ is God’s Anointed King who has come to establish God’s heavenly kingdom on the earth. The parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price speak to us of the value of belonging to God’s heavenly kingdom. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast speak to us of how the kingdom might seem small and insignificant, but in the end it will be glorious. The parables of the wheat and the weeds and of the net tell us that the judgment has been postponed to the end of the age. Now is not the time for judgment, but for sowing and catching. And the parable of the sower tells us that the kingdom grows through the preaching of God’s word. Furthermore, despite the opposition of Satan, who snatches away the word, and despite the unbelief of men and women, who are put off by trouble and who are distracted by worries and wealth, nevertheless God’s word will take root in the lives of his people and God’s kingdom will grow throughout the world and the end-time harvest will be very great.
The passage we’re studying this evening can be divided into five parts. Firstly, we have what happened in Nazareth. Secondly, we have the story of John the Baptist’s beheading. Thirdly, we have the feeding of the five thousand. Fourthly, we have the story of the Lord walking on water. And fifthly, we have a brief account of the Lord’s healing ministry in Gennesaret. I’m going to take the first and fifth parts together at the end of this sermon, because they are like polar opposites: the people of Nazareth did not believe, whereas the people of Gennesaret did believe. And so, we’ll begin now with John the Baptist.
John the Baptist
Matthew tells us at the beginning of chapter 14 about Herod the tetrarch. This is not the Herod who was king at the time of the Lord’s birth, but one of his sons, who ruled over part of the land of Israel. And it seems that he believed that the Lord Jesus was actually John the Baptist raised from the dead. In his mind, Jesus must be John brought back to life, otherwise how else could he perform all those mighty miracles? Of course, what he says doesn’t make much sense, especially since John the Baptist and the Lord Jesus were alive at the same time. However, what he said perhaps reveals his guilty conscience over what he had done to John the Baptist. And Matthew goes on to tell us what he had done to John.
First, he had John arrested and jailed because John had denounced Herod for marrying Herodias, who was his half-brother’s wife. Marrying your brother’s wife was forbidden according to Leviticus 18:16 and Leviticus 20:21. And so, when John told Herod that what he had done was unlawful, he was declaring the law of the Lord. Though Herod was a king, he was not above the law, but under it and therefore obligated to keep it. He should have confessed his sin and repented of it. But instead of confessing his sin, he decided instead to silence John by arresting him. According to verse 5, Herod wanted to silence John for good by killing him. The only thing which prevented him from doing so was his concern for how the people would respond, because the people regarded John as a prophet sent by God. They would not tolerate the king killing a prophet.
However, on Herod’s birthday, Herodias’s daughter, Salome, danced for them. Salome was Herodias’s daughter by her first husband, Philip. When it says she danced for them, Matthew presumably means she danced for Herod and his guests at his party. Her dancing pleased him so much that he made a promise to her that he would give her whatever she asked. So, what would she ask for? Lots of money? Diamonds? A big house? No, guided by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist served on a platter.
Matthew tells us that the king was distressed. ‘Striken with grief’ is another possible translation as is ‘aghast’. The girl whose dancing pleased him so much has now left him aghast by what she wanted. However, Herod felt constrained to give her what she asked for because he had made his promise to her with an oath and all his guests were witnesses. And so, he gave the order and John was beheaded and his head was brought on a platter to the girl who gave it to her mother.
Matthew tells us in verse 12 that John’s disciples came and took away his body for burial. They then went and told the Lord Jesus. Back in chapter 11 the Lord Jesus had said that among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John. In other words, up until that time in history, there was no one greater than John, because not only was he a prophet, but he himself was the fulfilment of prophecy, because God has announced through Malachi that John would come to prepare the way for the Lord Jesus. He was the greatest person who had ever lived up to that time. But now he was dead.
And his death anticipates the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus, because John and the Lord Jesus were both sent by God. And just as John was rejected and killed, so the Lord Jesus will be rejected and killed.
Feeding the Five Thousand
But let’s move on to the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Matthew tells us that when the Lord heard what had happened to John, he withdrew by boat to a solitary place. However, if he wanted to get away from the crowds and be alone with his disciples for a time, it was not to be, because the crowds followed him by foot. And so, by the time he and his disciples landed their boat, a crowd was already waiting for them.
And Matthew tells us that he has compassion on them and healed their sick. The other gospels tell us that he also taught the people. Towards the end of the afternoon, the Lord’s disciples came and suggested to him that it was time to send the people away so that they can get something to eat. They’ve been out in that remote place for some time; and presumably everyone is getting hungry. But the Lord replied that there’s no need to send them away for food. You give them something to eat. They replied that all they have is five loaves and two fish.
Incidentally, we can see here one of the features of Matthew’s gospels, which is that he abbreviates these stories. He tells the same stories as the other gospel writers, but he uses less words and leaves out some of the details. So, Matthew doesn’t tell us that the Lord taught the people. And he doesn’t mention the boy who owned the five loaves and two fish. While some preachers and Sunday school teachers like to focus on the boy and his willingness to do his small part, Matthew doesn’t even mention the boy. The point of the story is not what the boy did, but what the Lord did. That should be our focus.
On hearing about the loaves and fish, the Lord asks the disciples to bring them to him. He also told the people to sit down on the grass. He’s about to serve them their dinner. He took the loaves and fish and looked up to heaven and gave thanks for them. And then he broke up the loaves and presumably the fish as well and gave them to the disciples who gave them to the people. And Matthew tells us that they all ate and were satisfied. In other words, it wasn’t as if they only had a little bit: a crumb of bread and a tiny bit of fish. It wasn’t like communion when all we get is a little bit of bread and a small drink and we all still need to eat our lunch when we get home. No, they all ate and were satisfied. Their stomachs were filled. In fact, each disciple went out with a basket and picked up the leftovers. And those twelve baskets of leftovers were filled. And in case anyone thinks there were only a few people that day, Matthew tells us that there were about five thousand men plus women and children. And so, there was a massive amount of people. And the Lord fed them all.
By performing this miracle, the Lord Jesus demonstrated his great power by which he was able to multiple the bread and fish so that there was enough for everyone. And so, we ought to be amazed at his power.
But showing compassion on the people and getting them to sit down on the grass and feeding them recalls what we read in Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
The Lord Jesus is the good shepherd of his people, who makes his people lie down in green pastures and who provides them with all that they need so that they are not in want. And he pursues his people with his goodness and love.
And this miracle also recalls Ezekiel 34 where the prophet complained about Israel’s false shepherds who fed themselves instead of the sheep. He was referring to Israel’s wicked kings who cared for themselves and not for the Lord’s people. Instead of feeding them, they let them go hungry. Instead of healing the sick, they were harsh with them. Instead of gathering them together, they scattered them. And so, the Lord promised that he would search for his sheep and look after them himself. And by having compassion on the people, and by healing the sick, and by feeding them, the Lord Jesus was fulfilling God’s word through Ezekiel. He is not a selfish and wicked shepherd–king, but he’s the good shepherd-king, who loves his people and who has come to rescue them. And so, God has done as he had promised through the prophet Ezekiel and he has come in the person of his Son to be the shepherd-king of his people.
And, of course, the meal itself anticipates the Passover meal which the Lord shared with his disciples in the Upper Room to signify how his body would be broken and his blood would he shed for us and for our salvation. And when we gather on Sunday and sit around the Lord’s Table, we give thanks to God for the Lord Jesus who is the bread of life who came down from heaven to earth to give eternal life in the presence of God to all who believe in his name.
And so, the Lord Jesus is the good shepherd-king, who has compassion on his people and cares for them. Indeed he loved us so much that he gave up his life for us so that we can have eternal life.
Walking on water
Matthew then tells us in verse 22 that the Lord made his disciples go ahead of him in the boat to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He dismissed the crowds and went off on his own to pray. And so, when evening came, he was on his own. By this time his disciples were far away from shore. And it seems they were struggling, because the boat was being buffeted by the waves; and the wind was blowing against it. Matthew tells us that it was now the fourth watch of the night. That is to say, it was between three and six o’clock in the morning. So, they’ve been trying to get ashore all night. And no doubt they were tired and weary and perhaps a little anxious, wondering when this boat trip would ever end. And the Lord went out to them, walking on the water.
Walking on the water like this recalls what Job says about the Lord in Job 9:8:
He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads on the waves of the sea.
The Lord is able to tread on the waves of the sea because he made the sea and everything else. And here’s the Lord Jesus, doing what only God can do. And the point is that God has come to them in the person of his Son to save them from the wind and the waves and to save them from perishing.
At first they did not recognise him. In fact, they thought it must be a ghost, because what else could it be, since no ordinary person can walk on water? And so, they cried out in fear. And the Lord spoke to them and what did he say? ‘Take courage.’ That is, ‘Take heart’ or ‘Cheer up!’ And then he said: ‘It is I’. The Greek words can also be translated, ‘I am’. And the words ‘I am’ recall what the Lord said to Moses when he appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Do you remember? God wanted Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. And Moses asked: ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say that God has sent me to rescue them; and they ask me for your name, what shall I say?’ What shall I say is your name? And the Lord told him to say to them that ‘I am’ has sent me to you. The words ‘I am’ are related to the Hebrew word Yahweh which is normally translated as ‘the LORD’ in capital letters in English translations of the Old Testament. And by saying ‘I am’ to his disciples, the Lord was revealing to them that he is Yahweh. He is the Lord. He is the Lord who stretches out the heavens and who treads the waves of the sea. And just as he once appeared to Moses and rescued his people from Egypt, so he has appeared to his disciples in order to rescue them from the wind and waves. And so, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid, because ‘I am’ is with you. The Lord is with you. I have come to save you.
And although Matthew often abbreviates the stories about the Lord Jesus, sometimes he adds more detail. And Matthew tells us about Peter who asked if he could come out to the Lord on the water. And when the Lord said, ‘Come’, Peter climbed out of the boat and made his way towards the Lord Jesus, walking on the water.
How could he walk on the water? It can only have been by the power of God. But at some point, Peter began to look at what the wind was doing around him. And suddenly he became afraid and started to sink. And he did what we must all do when we’re afraid. He called out to the Lord to save him. And immediately, immediately, the Lord reached out his hand and caught Peter and saved him from sinking any further. And the Lord rebuked him gently for his lack of faith. After all, God has come to them in the person of his Son to save them from the wind and waves. And so, there was no need for Peter to be afraid. There was no need for him to worry. God was with them. And God was with them to save them. And sure enough, when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. And look what happened afterwards. After he saved them from the wind and the waves, the disciples worshipped him. That is, they worshipped the Lord Jesus. They worshipped him as God. Back in chapter 8, when the Lord calmed the storm, the disciples asked themselves, ‘What kind of man is this?’ And after he saved them this time, they were able to answer their own question, because they confessed about him that he was truly the Son of God. The God who stretched out the heavens and treads the waves of the sea had come to them in the person of the Son to save them from the wind and the waves.
But it’s much more than this, isn’t it? The God who stretched out the heavens and treads the waves of the sea had come to them in the person of the Son to save them from their sin and misery, by giving up his life on the cross to pay for their sins before rising again to give them eternal life in the presence of God.
Nazareth and Gennesaret
And so, we’ve read what happened to John the Baptist. And we’ve read about the feeding of the five thousand and about the Lord walking on the water. It’s time to turn to the story of what happened in Nazareth and to the story of what happened in Gennesaret. When he went to Nazareth, his hometown, he was teaching in the synagogue. And the people were amazed. They were amazed, because they knew his father and his mother and his brother and his sister. They knew his family and they knew his background. They knew how he was brought up. So where did he get this widom and the miraculous powers which they had heard about? As one of the commentators (Morris) puts it, they thought that he had no business teaching people and doing miracles, because he was only a villager like the rest of them. And so, they took offence at him.
And the Lord said to them that only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honour. That is to say, a prophet is honoured everywhere except in his home town. Instead of honouring him by believing in him, they dishonoured him by doubting him. And Matthew tells us that the Lord did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
However, it was very different in Gennesaret. When the Lord and his disciples landed there, people recognised him and sent word to the surrounding area to let people know that he had arrived. And people brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick touch the edge of his cloak. And all who touched him were healed. You see, they believed he could make them better. They believed he could save them.
And every time the Lord healed the sick, it was a foretaste of what he will do for all his people when he comes again in glory and with power, because when he comes again he will raise the dead and he will renew our bodies and make them perfectly fit for life in the new heavens and earth where we will be with the Lord and where we will see him and where we’ll enjoy perfect peace and rest and fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Those who do not believe, will be sent out of his presence forever to be punished. But all who believe will be raised and renewed and glorified and we’ll be brought into the presence of God and we’ll never have to leave. And he’s able to bring us into the presence of God because he paid for our sins with his life. He has paid for our sins in full and he has made peace for us with God. By his sacrificial death on the cross, he has opened the way for us to come to God. And as a memorial of his sacrifice, we gather around the table of the Lord on Sunday to take the bread which speaks to us of his broken body and to take the drink which speaks to us of his shed blood and we give thanks to God for his glorious grace to us in Christ Jesus.