Matthew 15(21–39)


Last week’s passage was about the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who were careful to separate themselves from everything and everyone which might defile their ceremonial purity. And that meant the Pharisees and teachers of the law stayed away from Gentiles, who they considered to be unclean. However, in the first part of today’s passage, a Gentile woman came to the Lord Jesus to seek his help for her daughter who was demon-possessed. And although the Lord appeared at first to be unwilling to help her, in the end he did. And it’s likely that the second and third parts of today’s passage took place in Gentile territory. So, while the Pharisees and teachers of the law avoided the Gentiles, the Lord Jesus helped the Gentiles who came to him.

Verses 21 to 28

Matthew tells us that the Lord withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This was Gentile territory, which lay to the north of Galilee. And Matthew tells us that a Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him. In other words, she was descended from the Canaanites, who were living in the Promised Land in the days of Joshua. They were pagans who worshipped false gods and the Lord commanded Joshua and the Israelites to drive the Canaanites from the land. Drive them from the land, because God was giving the land to his people, Israel. And don’t make peace with them, because they will only lead the people astray from worshipping the true God.

Those were God’s instructions to his people in the days of Joshua. And now, hundreds of years later, this Canaanite woman came to the Lord Jesus. And she came to ask him for mercy. She wants the Lord to save her daughter who was suffering terribly because of demon-possession.

And look what Matthew says about her. She came to him, crying out. That is, she came to him, shouting, because she wants to get the Lord’s attention; and she’s very anxious for him to help. And she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and as ‘Son of David’. The title ‘Son of David’ was a title for the Messiah, God’s Anointed King who was coming into the world to save God’s people. And so, although this was a Canaanite woman, she somehow knew that the Lord Jesus was no ordinary man, but he was the king who had been sent by God. And we wonder did she know what she was saying when she addressed Jesus as ‘Lord’? The Greek word can mean nothing more than ‘Sir’. But, of course, Jesus is the Lord. He is the Lord God in human flesh and he has come to bring salvation to the world.

But look now at verse 23. The woman has come, shouting, asking for mercy, asking for help. But the Lord did not answer her even one word. He said nothing to her. It seems he is ignoring her. This strikes us as odd, because the Lord has always been willing to help those who come to him, humbly, confessing their need. He may have turned away the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who were proud and who were sure of their own righteousness and who did not believe in him. But when anyone else came to him for help, he always responded to their need. But, on this occasion, he appeared to ignore the woman.

His disciples therefore came to him and asked him to send her away because she was making such a noise. It’s possible they meant: ‘Do what she wants so that she’ll leave us alone.’ And so, he replies to them in the next verse by telling them that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. The verb ‘sent’ reminds us that the Lord Jesus was sent by God the Father. He had come to earth to do his Father’s will and to carry out his Father’s instructions. And the Father had sent him, not to the Gentiles, but to the people of Israel.

By referring to the Israelites as lost sheep, the Lord is recalling Ezekiel 34 which I quoted a couple of weeks ago. In Ezekiel 34 the Lord complained about Israel’s false shepherds who fed themselves instead of the sheep. He was referring to Israel’s leaders who were selfish and self-seeking and who failed to lead God’s people in the right way. And God promised that he himself would search for his scattered sheep. We find something similar in Jeremiah 50 where God refers to his people as ‘lost sheep’ because their shepherds have led them astray. That’s what God said about them in the past. But now, God, in the person of his Son, has come to find his lost sheep.

And so, the Lord Jesus has been sent to the people of Israel and not to the Gentile nations. But the woman will not give up and we read in verse 25 that she now came and knelt before the Lord in supplication. ‘Lord, help me’, she said. And this time he spoke to her and he said that it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs. When he refers to bread, he’s referring to the blessings of the kingdom. When he refers to the children, he’s referring to the people of Israel. When he refers to the dogs, he’s referring to the Gentiles. He’s not saying they are dogs: he’s only using the image of dogs and children to make the point that the blessings of the kingdom are for the people of Israel and not for the Gentiles.

But still the woman will not give up; and she replied that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. She accepts that the blessings are for the people of Israel first and foremost. But she’s still hoping that she may receive something from the Lord, even though she’s a Gentile.

And the Lord responded by praising her for her great faith. And he agreed to do for her what she had asked. And Matthew tells us that her daughter was healed from that very hour.

Was the Lord being mean to the woman? Was he being unkind? When I preached on Mark’s version of this story, I said that the Lord was testing her. She had called him ‘Son of David’. But did she really believe that he was God’s Anointed King, sent by God to save his people? Did she really believe? If she really believed, she would not give up, but would persist, because he’s the only one who can help. If there’s only one person who can save your child, you will not give up easily. And since she didn’t give up, then it’s clear that she really did believe.

And faith is all that we need, isn’t it? Faith is all that we need. Whoever comes to the Lord with faith will find that he’s always ready to respond. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law may have been Jews, but they did not believe. This woman may have been a Gentile, but she believed. And she’s the one who received mercy.

It’s interesting that the woman called the Lord Jesus ‘Son of David’. David was a great king. And he was a great warrior, wasn’t he? He killed Goliath when he was young and he went out with his armies to drive the pagans nations from out of the land of Israel. That was his duty as King. And whenever he fought against the Gentiles who were living in Israel, he was doing the will of the Lord. And yet, along comes King David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And instead of driving this Canaanite woman out of the land of Israel, he showed her mercy. And the mercy he showed to her was a foretaste of the mercy he shows to men and women and boys and girls in every nation around the world when he pardons their sins and adds them to his everlasting kingdom.

Verses 29 to 31

Let’s move on now to the second part of today’s reading which is verses 29 to 31. Matthew tells us that the Lord went along the Sea of Galilee. In Mark’s version of these events, he tells us the Lord went into the region of the Decapolis, which was Gentile territory. And so, when we read that the Lord went up on a mountain and sat down, it’s likely that the mountain was located in that Gentile area; and that the crowds who came to him, were not Jews, but Gentiles. And if you glance forward to verse 31, you’ll see that they praised ‘the God of Israel’. Some of the commentators make the point that if you were an Israelite, you wouldn’t refer to God as ‘the God of Israel’. You would refer to him as ‘God’ or as ‘our God’. However, if you were a foreigner you would refer to him as ‘the God of Israel’. And so, there’s another indication that the crowds who gathered before the Lord on that mountain were Gentiles and not Jews. And therefore this little passage is a partial fulfilment of what God said in Isaiah 2, where he foretold how all nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord where he will teach them. ‘Many peoples will come and say, “Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.”‘ We find the same prophecy in Micah 4. And in partial fulfilment of that prophecy, crowds of Gentiles came to the Lord Jesus, who had gone up on a mountain. This is only a partial fulfilment, because the prophecy is speaking of how the good news of the gospel will be proclaimed throughout the world; and people from every nation will put their faith in Christ and be added to his kingdom. And then, in the new heavens and earth, a multitude from every nation will gather on God’s holy mountain to worship him forever and forever.

Matthew tells us that the Lord Jesus sat down. That is, he sat down to teach the people. In our day, a teacher or preacher normally stands to teach. But in biblical times, a teacher or preacher sat down to teach. And Matthew tells us how they brought him the lame who could not walk, the blind, the crippled who were maimed in some way, and the mute, as well as many others. And the Lord healed them so that the mute spoke and the crippled were made well and the lame walked and the blind were able to see. He healed them all and there was no kind of illness or disability which was too much for him. And so, the people were amazed, Matthew tells us. And they praised the God of Israel. Of course, all of these healings recall the earlier healings which Matthew records for us. However, whereas the previous healings were among the Jews, these healings were among the Gentiles. What Christ did first for the Jews, he is now doing for the Gentiles. And so, we discover that while he was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, and while the blessings of the kingdom are for the people of Israel, he does not ignore the nations and he has not rejected them. While he went first and foremost to the Jews, his love is as wide as the ocean and he was willing to extend his grace and mercy to all who believe.

Verses 32 to 39

Let’s turn briefly to verses 32 to 39 and to the feeding of the 4,000 which is almost a repetition of the feeding of the 5,000 which was recorded for us in the previous chapter. There are differences, of course. Instead of 5000 men plus women and children, there are 4000 men plus women and children. Instead of five loaves and two fish there are seven loaves and a few small fish. Instead of 12 baskets of leftovers, there are seven baskets of leftovers. And so, there are differences between this miracle and the previous one.

And yet they are alike, because both miracles reveal that the Lord Jesus is God. He is God, because who else but God is able to multiply loaves and fish like this? And he is God, because he was doing what God did in the days of Moses. In the days of Moses, God fed his people in the wilderness by giving them manna. And now, in the person of his Son, God is feeding his people in the wilderness by multiplying loaves and fish.

The miracle signifies as well how the Lord Jesus is the Bread of Life who has come down from heaven to give life to the world. And feeding the people foreshadows the Last Supper which the Lord was going to eat with his disciples on the night on which he was betrayed. And it foreshadows the marriage supper of the Lamb which all of God’s people will enjoy in the new heavens and earth when Christ comes again for his bride, the church.

The feeding of the 4,000 and the feeding of the 5,000 signify all of these things. And so, if they signify the same things, why did Matthew record both miracles? After all, he could have made the same point by recording only one of these feeding miracles. So, why record both? And the answer is that he recorded both miracles because there’s one big difference between them which makes both of them necessary. When he fed the 5,000, he was feeding Jews. When he fed the 4,000, he was feeding Gentiles. While he came first and foremost to the Jews, he did not disregard the Gentiles, because it was always God’s plan to extend his kingdom throughout the world and to call Jews and Gentiles into his kingdom.

And remember what the Lord said to the Canaanite woman in verse 26? He spoke to her about the children’s bread. The bread signified the blessings of the kingdom. And by multiplying five loaves of bread on one occasion and seven loaves of bread on another occasion, the Lord was making clear that the blessings of the kingdom are for Jews and Gentiles. They are for everyone who believes.

And so, we should praise the God of Israel, because he is our God too; and he has shown his kindness to us in Christ Jesus by forgiving our sins and promising us eternal life in his presence.