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Commentary on Matthew (8)

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Jesus Is Confirmed As The Son of God, Begins To Establish His New Congregation, Reaches Out To Gentiles, Is Acknowledged As Messiah By His Disciples, and Reveals His Inherent Glory (13.53-17.27).

The advance of the Kingly Rule of Heaven leading up to the final consummation having been made clear by His parables Jesus will now be confirmed as the Son of God (14.33; 16.16; 18.26) and will begin to establish a new open community (14.13-21; 15.32-39; 16.18; 18.15-20; 21.43), the seeds of which have already been laid in 11.25; 12.50; 5-7; 9.15-17). This idea of commencing a new open community was not in itself a novelty among the Jews. The Pharisees had formed their own open community, the Essenes had formed an open community, Qumran had formed a closed community, the disciples of John the Baptist had formed their own open community. The difference was that all of those communities were preparatory, each in its own way awaiting the coming of God’s future Kingly Rule. But as we have seen, Jesus was now establishing God’s Kingly Rule among men (6.10, 33; 11.12; 13.38, 41), and the community was that of the sons of the Kingly Rule (13.38). Those who came to Him therefore entered under God’s Kingly Rule.

And as He forms His new community a new vision opens before Him, and His outreach goes out to the Gentiles as well as the Jews (15.21-28, 31; 16.13). His acceptance of this fact comes out in His feeding of both Jews and Gentiles with the bread of heaven (15.32-39), while it is also on mixed Jewish and Gentile territory that He will be revealed to be the Messiah (16.13-20). The section will then close with a clear demonstration of His Sonship and authority over the Temple (17.24-27).

On the other hand the triumphant and positive message of the parables is immediately followed by His rejection, by His own home town (13.53-58) and by the civil authorities, the ‘powers that be’, in Galilee (14.1-13), which is accompanied by the continuing hostility of the most religious and respected men of the day, in combination with the teachers from Jerusalem (15.1-14; 16.1-4). It is thus made clear that the triumph of His word will take place in the face of the opposition of both family and authorities. For those who claim to ‘hear’ do not really hear, those who claim to ‘see’ do not really see, because their hearts are hardened. On the other hand those who follow Him will both hear and see (16.17; compare 11.25; 13.7), even though their faith is small (14.31 (compare 6.30; 17.20). We can thus understand why He found it necessary to move north. The way ahead was not to be easy.

One interesting theme of this section is feeding. It is a warning that we must be careful with what and by whom we are fed. The food of the godless authorities is the head of John the Baptist on a platter (14.11). The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees is false teaching (16.5-12). In direct contrast, however, those who seek Him will feed on the bread of Heaven (14.13-21), and the Gentiles who seek Him may ‘eat of the children’s food’ (15.27-28). They too thus eat of the bread of Heaven (15.32-39).

Note how, following the ministry of chapter 10, mention was made of the imprisonment of John (11.2), followed by the approach of the Scribes and Pharisees to ‘attack’ Jesus (12.1-14). Now those ideas are repeated and intensified. Following the parables of the spread of the Kingly Rule of Heaven the imprisoned John is martyred (14.1-12) and the aggressive Pharisees and Scribes now include those ‘from Jerusalem’ (15.1).

Analysis of the Section 13.53-17.27

  • a Jesus comes to His home country. A prophet is without honour in His own country (13.53-57).
  • b He did not many mighty works in His home town because of their unbelief, but because of His mighty works Herod thinks that Jesus is John raised from the dead (13.58-14.2).
  • c Herod arranges for the execution of John and does to him whatever he will (14.3-12).
  • d Jesus reveals His glory, and that He has brought food from Heaven, by feeding five thousand at one time. Then He is alone in the Mountain (14.13-21).
  • e Jesus walks on the water in a stiff and contrary wind and Peter is called on to walk the way of faith in the face of the tempest (14.22-31).
  • f They proclaim Him as the Son of God (14.32-36).
  • g The Scribes and Pharisees challenge Jesus about ritual washing (15.1-9).
  • h Jesus shows that the Pharisees are rejected because they have not been planted by the Father and are blind guides (15.10-20).
  • i The Canaanite woman may, as a Gentile ‘puppy’, eat of the children’s food (15.21-28).
  • j The crowds throng to Jesus, and the dumb, the maimed, the lame, and the blind are healed and ‘they glorified the God of Israel’ (15.29-31).
  • i The feeding of four thousand on Gentile territory. They eat of the children’s food (15.32-39).
  • h The Pharisees and Sadducees seek a sign and are refused one, apart from that of Jonah, and are described as evil and adulterous for doing so (16.1-4)
  • g The disciples are to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16.5-12).
  • f Jesus is confessed as the Son of the living God (16.13-20).
  • e The Son of Man must suffer, and His disciples are called on to walk the way of suffering (16.21-28).
  • d Jesus’ glory is revealed to His three chosen disciples in the high mountain. Then they see no man but Jesus only (17.1-8).
  • c Elijah has come but ‘they have done to him whatever they would’ and they realise that He means John the Baptist and is referring to what happened to him (17.9-13).
  • b The disciples fail to heal the paralytic boy because of their unbelief, but faith will move mountains, thus although Jesus will be tried and executed He will be raised from the dead (17.14-23).
  • a Jesus is not recognised in His own country as the Son and therefore pays the Tribute, but He does it from His Father’s treasury (17.24-27).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus is unrecognised for what He is because He is known too well as the son of the carpenter, and in the parallel He is unrecognised even though He is the Son of God. In ‘b’ Jesus is unable to heal in His own country because in their unbelief they do not bring their sick, although His mighty works connect Him with the resurrection, and in the parallel the disciples fail to heal because their faith is insufficient, and Jesus reveals His faith by assuring His disciples of His resurrection. In ‘c’ Herod does to John the Baptist whatever He wills, and in the parallel John the Baptist is declared by Jesus to be the coming Elijah, to whom men did what they willed. In ‘d’ Jesus displays His glory by feeding five thousand and more from five loaves and two fishes, and in the parallel He displays His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. In ‘e’ Jesus walks on water in a stiff and contrary wind, and Peter stumbles, and in the parallel Jesus reveals He must walk the way of suffering, as must His disciples, and Peter again stumbles. In ‘f’ He is proclaimed to be the Son of God, and in the parallel He is proclaimed by Peter as the Son of the Living God. In ‘g’ the Scribes and Pharisees dispute about ritual washing, and in the parallel Jesus warns against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. In ‘h’ the Pharisees are declared not to have been planted by His Father, and to be blind guides, and in the parallel the Pharisees and Sadducees are refused the kind of sign that they want and are declared to be evil and spiritually adulterous. In ‘i’ the Canaanite woman is allowed to eat of the children’s food (that of Israel), and in the parallel the four thousand ‘eat of the children’s food’. Centrally in ‘j’ the crowds in Gentile areas throng to Jesus; the dumb, the maimed, the lame, and the blind are healed (His Messianic work is done among them) and ‘they glorify the God of Israel’.

Jesus Is Rejected In His Own Country (13.54-57). In this passage the word used for ‘His own country’ is ambiguous. It could mean His own home town, or it could signify His native land. The ambiguity is probably deliberate. For His rejection ‘at home’ is to be seen as symbolic of His future rejection by the Jews as a whole, apart, that is, from those who become disciples. However at the end of this section He will return ‘home’ (17.24), at which point He will make clear to Peter that He and His community have a special relationship with their Father (17.24-27).

We have already noted the link with chapter 12. The previous narrative section closed in chapter 12 with Jesus declaring that those who were His true relatives were those who did the will of His Father (12.50), in other words they were the ones who have received the Kingly Rule of Heaven (7.21). This new narrative section commences with His rejection by His natural countrymen. They have rejected the Kingly Rule of Heaven. The divisions caused by the Kingly Rule of Heaven in chapter 13 are being made clear. On the one hand is the new ‘congregation of Israel’ formed of believers, on the other is unbelieving Israel, who are no longer Israel. They are ‘cut off’ from the new Israel (John 15.6; Romans 11.17 onwards) in accordance with Old Testament principles (e.g. Genesis 17.14; Exodus 12.15, 19; 30.33; 31.14; etc.). Their dust has been shaken off the disciples’ feet (10.14). They have become ‘not My people’ (Hosea 1.9).

Mark describes this incident in 6.1-6, but it must be seen as doubtful that it is the same as the one in Luke 4.16.30. The differences are too great. This one took place later when things had settled down there. Nevertheless that visit no doubt coloured this one. Tempers had seemingly improved and they may have been feeling a little ashamed of themselves, and were now perhaps prepared to give Him a hearing. But they were still not convinced of His validity. He was too familiar to them. Matthew’s positioning of it here, however, is in order to bring out the point mentioned above, that at the root of old Israel is unbelief. It was in order to demonstrate from how small a mustard seed the mustard bush must grow (13.31-32). Even Jesus’ own home country is against Him. It may be intended to be significant that this is the last mention in Matthew of Jesus preaching in a synagogue. In this rejection by His ‘home country’ is symbolised His rejection by both Israel and its elite.

His home town here is probably Nazareth rather than Capernaum (4.13). This is suggested by the familiarity of the people with his family and background which point to their having known Him for years.

Analysis.

  • a And coming into his own country he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, “From where has this man this wisdom, and these mighty works?” (54).
  • b “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” (55-56a).
  • c From where then has this man all these things?” (56b).
  • b And they were offended in him (57a).
  • a But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country, and in his own house” (57b). .

Note that in ‘a’ they were astonished at His wisdom and mighty works (which they knew of by hearsay) and in the parallel He points out that a prophet has no honour in His own country. In ‘b’ they indicate their over familiarity with Him, and are clearly offended, and in the parallel they are offended at Him. Centrally in ‘c’ is the question that this whole section will answer, ‘from where has this man these things?’

13.54 ‘And coming into his own country he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, “From where has this man this wisdom, and these mighty works?”

Jesus arrives back in the place where He was brought up and teaches in their local synagogue where He had once learned so much, and to which He had often gone in order to study the Scriptures. Who better than they should have known how unique He was? They had watched Him grow up, but they had failed to pierce the veil, and saw only the town carpenter. So when they heard Him teach they were astonished. News of His mighty works and preaching success had filtered through from Capernaum (Luke 4.23), but they did not really believe it. For where could such skill and such mighty works have come from? They just could not believe that God would so anoint a local boy with whom they were so familiar, and an artisan at that. He was simply getting above Himself and would no doubt bring disgrace on the town.

The synagogue was the centre of a town or village’s life, where weekly worship was conducted, male children were taught to read the Scriptures, justice could be sought, religious discipline would be exerted, sometimes by beatings, Scripture teaching would be given, and on the Sabbath any prominent visitor would be invited to speak. The reading and teaching of Scripture was a central part of its worship.

We are not actually told that this is in Nazareth, and that may be deliberate. Matthew does not want it to be seen as simply a local town rejection, but as one by His ‘home country’. But the description below points to Nazareth.

13.55-56a “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?”

There was no doubt about the strength of the evidence against His claimed status. He was the son of the local carpenter, and therefore Himself a carpenter. They knew His mother and that she was called Mary, and that there was nothing special about her. They knew the names of each of His brothers, and had seen them playing in the streets, and generally getting up to mischief. They even knew His sisters, who now still lived among them, probably now married, although it was not worth mentioning their names, possibly because being married they were no longer seen as ‘close family’. Thus they knew His place in society. How then could He be special? And how could He possibly have a genuine religious understanding of any outstanding nature? He had simply been an artisan. (There is absolutely no reason for doubting here that Mary was the mother of them all, Jesus, the brothers, and the sisters, which is the impression given here).

‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ Matthew is here contrasting unbelief with belief. Unbelievers see Him as ‘the son of the carpenter’. Pharisees see Him as in league with the Devil (9.34; 12.24). Some who are possessed or blind and seek healing see Him as ‘the son of David’ (9.27; 12.23; 15.22; 20.30). But His believing disciples see Him as ‘the Son of God’ (14.33; 16.16).

13.56 “From where then has this man all these things?”

So if what was said about Him was true, from where had He obtained all these things that people were speaking about? It just could not be true. Note how in the next incident with Herod, Herod also learns of rumours about Jesus and comments erroneously on them (14.2). Thus Matthew is indicating a general misinterpretation of the evidence by all. Compare also the crowds and the Pharisees in 9.33-34; 12.23-24. There too there was a general air of misunderstanding, which was drawn attention to in 13.10-15. The only ones who really know the truth (and even they still somewhat dimly) were His wider group of disciples. If the truth about Him was to be known it must therefore come from God (13.16-17; 11.27).

13.57 ‘And they were offended in him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country, and in his own house.”

And the result was that they ‘were offended in Him’. That is they were ‘caused to stumble’ by Him. They were put off by the very fact of His familiarity, which had bred contempt, and they were upset by His attitude. The point being made here is that they are not of the ‘blessed’ (11.6, 25). They were so short sighted that they could not see what was before their eyes. Here was a mirror image of what John says in the introduction to his Gospel, ‘He came to His own home, and His own people did not receive Him’ (John 1.11).

Jesus’ reply was to cite a well known proverb. His view was that this was to be expected. “A prophet is not without honour, except in his own country, and in his own house.” The point was that no one was seen as special by his familiars when it came to questions about God. The older ones would think that they must know more than he did, while the younger ones would fail to see where he could possibly have obtained the information from in view of the sources available, and they would ask themselves why He should claim to be better than them when He had grown up with them. Note the clear implication from His words that He is a prophet. Matthew in fact lays great emphasis on prophets, both true and false, and it has already been made clear by Jesus that He is greater than previous prophets (12.41). This is a time of prophetic expectations (compare 14.5) as Jesus is making clear.

Jesus Is Unable To Do Many Mighty Works In His Home Town, But His Mighty Works Impress Herod Who Thinks That He May Be John The Baptist Raised From The Dead (13.58-14.2).

The mighty works of Jesus, which they have heard of through the tales spreading from elsewhere (Luke 4.23), have not impressed His own home town. They refuse to believe that He can do them and so do not bring their sick to be healed. But Herod is impressed and sees Him as John the Baptist raised from the dead.

Analysis.

  • a And he did not perform many mighty works there because of their unbelief (13.58).
  • b At that time (season) Herod the tetrarch heard the report concerning Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He is risen from the dead” (14.1-2a).
  • a “Therefore do these powers work in him (14.2). p

Note that while His home town do not believe in His mighty works, in the parallel Herod does so. Centrally we have the conclusion that, with his overwrought conscience, he comes to. ‘This must be John the Baptist who is risen from the dead.’

13.58 ‘And he did not perform many mighty works there because of their unbelief.’

Jesus was able to accomplish very little in His own home area, simply because, in their unbelief, they did not come to Him or seek His help, apart that is from a few. (Mark states it slightly differently but says the same thing - Mark 6.5-6). Had He performed some unusual feat appropriate to an artisan they would have willingly shared with Him in His honour, but as far as they were concerned, for Him as a carpenter to claim special inspiration from God was seen as disreputable and unacceptable, and they were therefore quite confident that all this talk about healings was a hoax. In view of that they did not bring their sick for healing, although the few who did were satisfied.

Note that Jesus will not deliberately perform wonders in order to gain attention. In the main His ‘mighty works’ are a compassionate response to the needs of the people, not an attempt to win people. That is why they are Messianic signs. They reveal the compassion of the Messiah, not a desire to win people by signs. He is quite willing to concentrate on the preaching. He does not want men to follow Him just in order to see wonders (John 2.23-25).

14.1 ‘At that time (season) Herod the tetrarch heard the report concerning Jesus.’

John had previously stirred the people in Peraea, another part of Herod’s territory east of Jordan. But his ministry had been restricted to preaching. He had performed no miracles. Now, however, came news to Herod of great crowds gathering to hear a prophet who was performing amazing miracles, and was right here in Galilee. To a man like Herod, who bore a heavy burden of guilt for what he had done, this news was disturbing. As far as he was concerned there could only be one explanation for it (it was after all unusual that two such prophets should arise one after the other). This must be John the Baptist returned with heavenly power.

14.2 ‘And he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He is risen from the dead, and therefore do these powers work in him.”

So he suggested to his servants that surely the only explanation for this new figure with these amazing powers was that it was John, come back from the dead. That alone could explain the source of His unusual powers. And that fact could only bode ill for Herod because of his previous treatment of John. And when a Herod was disturbed, no one knew quite what he would do.

There is a deliberate irony in that Herod is here seen as believing in the resurrection of the dead, but only as a kind of tool that God can use against him to punish him. Later Israel would have the same kind of experience about the resurrection of Jesus. Because of their unbelief His resurrection could only bring them harm as God reached out to judge them, for He was raised up not only as Saviour but as Judge. However there is in this belief of Herod a hint of what will actually later happen to Jesus, and this is expanded on in the parallel incident in the chiasmus of the section, where we will learn that Jesus will be killed and will rise from the dead (17.23).

The Forerunner Is Rejected By The Civil Authorities And Put To Death (14.3-12).

A warning of what lies ahead for Jesus in the future is now introduced. For John, His forerunner, had been put to death by Herod the Tetrarch in a most shameful way, and suspicion is now falling on Jesus because, as a result of His ‘mighty works’, He is being seen as John risen from the dead and thus manifesting heavenly powers. Herod’s view was probably that he had come back to haunt him. For he was superstitiously afraid. There is an irony here in that Herod believes in ‘the resurrection’ but from a totally false viewpoint. Instead of it being man’s friend it is seen as his enemy, as God’s way of getting back at man. Such is the blindness of man.

So what Jesus stands for is now being opposed by the powers that be. These words of Herod are an indication of how far he was from really knowing what was going on in the country that he ruled. His ruling was all done by hearsay and speculation and ‘report’, as so often with such monarchs. But the sense of his opposition is such that Jesus will withdraw from the vicinity (14.13), recognising the dangers inherent in the situation, for His hour had not yet come. (Among Jesus’ disciples were those from Herod’s household (Luke 8.2) who probably received news of what was happening at court). That Jesus did not always outface opposition is clearly stated in John 7.1.

While the prime purpose of the narrative here is to explain why Jesus is wary of Herod, the detailed account that follows indicates that Matthew has also another further message to get over, which is why he describes it in some detail. When Matthew goes into detail we can be sure that he always has a purpose for it, and here he is bringing out that this is an ‘evil and adulterous generation’ (12.39; 16.4). For he brings out here that at all levels of Palestinian society there was disobedience, spiritual blindness, adultery, lasciviousness, rebellion against God’s known will and a hatred of the prophets, and that Israel’s society was controlled, not by men who read and loved God’s word (Deuteronomy 17.19-20), but by those who were swayed only by a love of the world and its pleasures. If the Scribes and Pharisees revealed the spiritual destitution of Israel, Herod and his court revealed its total physical corruption The story sums up Israel. Easy divorce (contrast 5.27-32; 19.3-12), murder (contrast 5.21-26), ‘lawlessness’ (John had said ‘it is not lawful’) and retribution on the godly (contrast 5.10-12; and see 22.33-41; 23.34-36), casual oaths (contrast 5.33-37), the demanding of an eye for an eye (see 5.38-42); and pure heartlessness (contrast 5.43-48). Here was an example of ‘the kingly rule of earth’ set over against what we have seen of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

Josephus tells us that Herod’s fear of John had partly arisen from his fear that John would start an insurrection against men whom he saw as evil, (Herod’s views of John may well have been influenced by what he knew from his spies about the teachings of the community at Qumran with its expectations of one day rising up and crushing the ungodly). And he may have seen as central to this purpose John’s continual public accusation of him as doing ‘what was not lawful’. Such a charge of ‘lawlessness’ was usually a preliminary to retributive action. Thus the picture of John’s attitude against Herod here ties in with Josephus’ view of him that Herod (who would tend to think politically) saw him, with his huge following, as a possible reactionary and revolutionary.

Note On Herod The Tetrarch.

Herod the Tetrarch was a son of Herod the Great, and after his father’s death was made tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, and was popularly, though inaccurately, termed ‘king’. Herod was previously married and his first wife was the daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabateans, and he divorced her in order to marry Herodias who was his half-brother Philip’s wife. This in itself was politically explosive causing a deep rift and warfare with the Nabateans, which resulted in his defeat, from which he was only saved by the intervention of Rome. Philip (whose wife he stole, not the tetrarch) was a son of Herod the Great and Mariamne II and thus his half-brother. Thus to marry his divorced wife was to break Jewish Law (Leviticus 18.16; 20.21). But Herodias was an adventuress, and happily divorced her husband in order to gain the great prize of being married to a tetrarch. She was in fact the daughter of Herod’s half brother Aristobulus, and was totally unscrupulous. It was in the end her ever increasing desire for status that led to Herod losing his tetrarchy and being banished to Gaul. But it was then that she revealed that even she was not all bad. When the emperor was prepared to exempt her from the banishment, she chose rather to endure it with her husband.

End of note.

Analysis.

  • a For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him (3a).
  • b And put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (3b-4).
  • c And when he would have put him to death, he feared the populace, because they counted him as a prophet (5).
  • d But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced among the people gathered (‘in the midst’), and pleased Herod (6).
  • e Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatever she should ask (14.7).
  • d And she, being put forward by her mother, says, “Give me here on a large dish the head of John the Baptist” (8).
  • c And the king was grieved, but for the sake of his oaths, and of those who sat at meat with him, (he was afraid of them) he commanded it to be given, and he sent and beheaded John in the prison (9-10).
  • b And his head was brought on a large dish, and given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother,
  • a And his disciples came, and took up the corpse, and buried him, and they went and told Jesus (11b-12).

Note that in ‘a’ Herod lays hold of John and binds him, and in the parallel John’s disciples lay hold of his body and bury him. In ‘b’ Herod puts John in prison for Herodias’ sake, and in the parallel John’s head, cut off for her sake, is given to Herodias. In ‘c’ Herod wanted to put John to death but feared the people, and in the parallel he puts him to death because he fears his contemporaries. In ‘d’ Herod is seduced by Salome’s dancing, and in the parallel she asks for the head of John on a dish (continuing the party atmosphere) in response. In ‘e’ is the foolish oath made by a drunken Herod, a proof of his unworthiness.

14.3 ‘For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife.’

We are now told why Herod was upset at the idea of John coming back from the grave. It was because of the way that he himself had treated him. Herod had gone on a visit to see his brother Philip (not the tetrarch Herod Philip) and had fallen in love with Philip’s wife, Herodias, who, aware of the opportunity of greater prestige and influence had yielded to Herod’s entreaties and had divorced her husband and married him. But such behaviour was forbidden by Jewish Law. A man could not marry the wife of his brother while his brother was still alive.

14.4 ‘For John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” ’

Thus John had boldly approached Herod and told him that what he was doing was against the Law of God. Herod’s immediate response had been to imprison him. Note that ‘John said to him continually’ (imperfect tense) that what he was doing was ‘unlawful’ (against the Law of God). The continual charge of doing what ‘was not lawful’ would have aroused fears in Herod that John was planning an insurrection against him, especially in view of John’s increasing popularity and his fierce declarations of judgment. Like his father before him, Herod was no doubt somewhat paranoid.

14.5 ‘And when he would have put him to death, he feared the populace, because they counted him as a prophet.’

But although he would have liked to have John put to death, he dared not do so, for he was afraid of the disturbance that it would cause among the people. He knew that they believed that John was a prophet, so that to execute him would be looked on by them as sacrilege. And disturbances among the people would not be smiled on by his Roman masters. It put him in a difficult position.

Herod both feared and hated John. He wanted him alive, and he wanted him dead. But had he not superstitiously feared him, John would no doubt have been dead already. Herod was clearly a weak man filled with conflicting emotions.

‘As a prophet.’ Jesus has just referred to Himself indirectly as a prophet (13.57). Perhaps there is an intended hint here of what happens to popular prophets in Israel.

14.6 ‘But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced among the people gathered (‘in the midst’), and pleased Herod.’

And then there had been an unfortunate occurrence for a man whose life was ruled by pleasure, drink and lust, and who ignored the Law of God. It had been his birthday. And at the gathering of those who came together to do him honour (a Hellenistic, not a Jewish custom) there was public dancing. And there Salome, the daughter of Herodias, (and probably about fourteen years of age), who was seemingly a slut at heart, had danced, no doubt suggestively (most such dancing was suggestive. That was a main purpose of it) and certainly effectively, in front of the gathering, and had stirred the drunken king’s desires. Such behaviour was not what would be expected of a Tetrarch’s daughter in Jewry, and the fact that he allowed it shows the depths to which he had sunk. But he had little regard for Jewish Law or Jewish feelings. Her dance had stirred him up emotionally, to such an extent that he wanted to please her. She was after all his daughter-in-law. He would not therefore feel that any request, made by someone with whom he probably had much familiarity, was likely to be a threat to his position.

14.7 ‘Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatever she should ask.’

So he swore on oath that he would give her anything that she asked. To be fair to him he little dreamed what the consequences would be. Even he did not realise the insane jealousy and fury of his wife, and her cruel determination to gain revenge against the fearless prophet who had dared to rebuke her publicly, making her appear to be what she was.

14.8 ‘And she, being put forward by her mother, says, “Give me here on a large dish the head of John the Baptist.” ’

So Herodias stepped in and impressed on her daughter that she should ask for the head of John the Baptist. It tells us all that we need to know about Salome, whose anger and bitterness must have been stirred up by her mother, that instead of protesting at such a thought, she fell in line with it. Both must have known what even the worst of their ‘friends’ would think about such a move, but they were filled with such intense bitterness against John that it overcame everything else. Salome, therefore, made her request to Herod, “Give me here on a large dish the head of John the Baptist.” This was to be her birthday dish. The idea was probably that it suited birthday celebrations, and the hope may have been that it would be seen as a grotesque joke, deserving a laugh at such an assembly as her ‘meal’ was served up. The very grotesque nature of the request demonstrates to what depths of depravity Salome had sunk, helped on by her mother. She was worthy of the house of Herod. What a huge contrast there is between this and the ‘family’ of 12.50.

14.9 ‘And the king was grieved, but for the sake of his oaths, and of those who sat at meat with him, he commanded it to be given.’

The king was ‘grieved’. He might have hated John’s accusations but he respected him and was even afraid of him. This was the last request that he had expected Salome to make. But because of the strength of his oath, which he no doubt now regretted, and in order to maintain face in front of all the great and prominent men who had heard his oath, he commanded that it should be done as she said. Legally he could have withdrawn from his oath under Jewish Law, but his guests were not Jewish, and to them a prophet would not have been worth bothering about, so that Herod presumably recognised that they might well despise someone who counted an odd prophet as being worth more than a man’s oath.

‘The king.’ An honorary title (see above). Matthew may well have intended it to be sardonic. This man wanted to be king, and yet he behaved like this.

14.10 ‘And he sent and beheaded John in the prison.’

Thus he sent and arranged for John, lying in prison at Machaerus, to be beheaded. This was strictly illegal without a trial, but he would do it on the basis that John was an insurrectionist. Perhaps Pilate was present and gave him the nod. His soldiers entered the dark and dreary dungeon where John was still waiting in hope of Messianic deliverance (11.3-4), made him kneel, and smote off his head. It was another reminder to all of the destiny of prophets, and that the way of Jesus was to be the way of the cross.

14.11 ‘And his head was brought on a large dish, and given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother.’

Then John’s head was placed on a large serving dish, and ceremoniously handed over to the waiting teenage slut, who took it in to her mother. So hardened were they both that this grisly behaviour seems not to have worried them a jot. There appears to have been no hesitation on Salome’s part.

The presenting of John’s head on a meat dish, coming as it does before the feeding of the five thousand, may well have been meant by Matthew to be seen as in direct and grim contrast. The ungodly partake of the blood of the prophets (compare 23.30). The righteous partake of the food of God, (and spiritually of the body and blood of Christ - John 6.53-57).

14.12 ‘And his disciples came, and took up the corpse, and buried him, and they went and told Jesus.’

Then the faithful disciples of John came, no doubt devastated by the news, and took up John’s corpse, and gave it a decent burial. We are probably to see in this an indication that God had not forgotten him even after death (compare 27.57-60). It was a brave act, and probably prevented the body being publicly humiliated, for the public exposure of the body of an executed criminal was common practise. (It may, however, have been publicly humiliated before they obtained it). Then they went and informed Jesus of what had happened. This may suggest that they would now offer their allegiance to Him. That it came as a warning to Him is suggested by what follows.

Jesus Provides A Messianic Fellowship Meal In The Wilderness For His Symbolic New Community (14.13-21).

Jesus, having been rejected by His home country and by the powers that be, and recognising how tense things had become, moved into the wilderness in the north in order to be alone with His disciples. But many genuine ‘disciples’ followed Him. They were hungry to hear more of His message. And there He had compassion on those who did follow Him into ‘a wilderness place’ and fed them with bread from Heaven. There may here be a deliberate connection with the Exodus. (Note that Psalm 77.19 LXX (78.19 MT), with the Exodus in mind also has no definite article on ‘wilderness’). In the words of Psalm 78 (already in mind in 13.35), ‘They said, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? -- Can He give bread also?” -- He commanded the skies above and opened the doors of Heaven, and He rained down manna on them to eat, and gave them of the corn of Heaven. Man did eat the bread of the mighty. He sent them food to the full’ (Psalm 78.19-25). Note the parallel connections, firstly with the wilderness (14.15; Psalm 78.19), secondly with the provision from Heaven (14.19; Psalm 78.24), and thirdly the fact that they received food to the full (14.20; Psalm 78.25). So the One Who had enlightened them with parables in ‘fulfilment’ of Psalm 78.2 (see 13.35), would now feed them with a full sufficiency of bread in the terms of that Psalm.

We are reminded again of 2.15 where God ‘brought His Son out of Egypt’, and here He now was, in a wilderness place, feeding His people, just as He had done originally. Here was the new congregation of Israel in embryo, fleeing in the face of the cruel king (Herod), and being fed with the bread of Heaven in the wilderness. Here was the greater than Elisha feeding the crowds by a miracle (2 Kings 4.42-44). That feeding by Elisha had followed the re-entry into the land via the crossing of the Jordan, Jericho and Bethel (2 Kings 2.13-23), thus repeating the Exodus. There then was the prelude to the coming Messianic feast (Isaiah 25.6; 55.2 ff) fulfilling the expectation that when the Messiah came He would feed His people with the manna (see Revelation 2.17, and compare 2 Baruch 29.8 for the Jewish tradition). Here was the One Who was providing ‘bread for the eater’ (as He had also provided seed for the sower) in terms of His word going forth to do His will (Isaiah 55.10). Here was One Who was Himself the Bread of Life symbolically feeding His people on Himself through their coming and believing (John 6.32-35, 47-51). Note that in fact John 6.31 quotes from Psalm 78.24 demonstrating that Jesus had that Psalm in mind. But in a sense this idea of the bread of life was not new. Isaiah 55.2 very much brings out the significance of bread as symbolising what is good and life-giving in the spiritual sphere.

The connection with Elisha is strengthened by Jesus words, ‘YOU give them to eat’ for in 2 Kings 4.42 we read that Elisha said, ‘Give to the people that they may eat’, and the final conclusion is also significant, ‘thus says the LORD, they will eat and will leave thereof’ (2 Kings 4.43). And ‘they did eat and left thereof according to the word of the LORD’ (2 Kings 4.44). The connection with Elisha is significant, for Elisha followed Elijah, and now Jesus, revealing Himself as a greater than Elisha, is following John, the new Elijah. It is not accidental that this incident follows immediately on the description of the death of John. Were it not for Elisha the death of Elijah would have been a huge body blow to the righteous in Israel, especially the ‘sons of the prophets’ (2 Kings 2.3), but Elisha had successfully replaced Elijah and triumphantly entered Israel in his place (Crossing the Jordan, and entering via Jericho, then Bethel (2 Kings 2.13-23)). Now in the same way on the death of John, the new Deliverer, as One on Whom John’s followers can fix their hopes, is revealed in the wilderness, just as John had appeared in the wilderness before Him (3.1), and the crowds will flock to Him as they had flocked to John (3.5).

We should note also the emphasis that there is in verse 19 on the fact that this is a family meal with the master of the feast dispensing the bread and fishes. This clearly stresses the oneness of the community. They are His family (12.46-50).

We should note further that the initial feeding with manna in the wilderness was closely connected with the glory of God. ‘As Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, and they looked towards the wilderness, and behold the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud, and the Lord said to Moses, -- say to them -- in the morning you will be filled with bread, then you will know that I am YHWH your God’ (Exodus 16.10-12). So by feeding the people Jesus was calling on them to recognise that the glory of God was there.

That Jesus intended this feeding of the people to be highly significant comes out in that, along with His walking on the water, it is the only miracle that Jesus performed without it having been ‘forced on Him’, either as a result of having compassion on someone who needed something extraordinary doing, responding to an appeal, or being forced by circumstances. In those days people were used to fending for themselves and going without, so that His feeding of them was a ‘voluntary’ act. Here it was totally and deliberately a self-revelation which no one had expected from Him. As we see above, it demonstrated that a new Deliverance had begun, and that these were His new Messianic people. Indeed it went so close to the mark that some of the people, catching the point, even if interpreting it wrongly, began to plan to make him king (John 6.15), so that He had to withdraw quickly from the scene, but the Synoptics are not interested in that. They want the account to have a positive message about His Messiahship, and ignore the adverse happenings. Incidentally this is strong evidence of how miraculous it was. Men do not get so stirred up by sharing a picnic, or partaking of a symbolic meal.

Analysis.

  • a Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a wilderness place apart, and when the crowds heard of it, they followed Him on foot from the cities, and he came forth, and saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick (13-14)
  • b And when even was come, the disciples came to him, saying, “The place is wilderness, and the time is already past. Send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food” (15).
  • c But Jesus said to them, “They have no need to go away. You give them to eat” (16).
  • d And they say to him, “We have here but five loaves, and two fishes” (17).
  • e And he said, “Bring them here to me”, and he commanded the crowds to sit down on the grass
  • d And he took the five loaves, and the two fishes (19a)
  • c And looking up to heaven, he blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowds (19b).
  • b And they all ate, and were filled, and they took up what remained over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full (20).
  • a And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children (21).

Note that in ‘a’ the crowds gathered to Jesus and He had compassion on them, and in the parallel all the crowds who are fed by Him are five thousand plus women and children. In ‘b’ the disciples want the crowd sent away because they are in the wilderness, so that they may find something to eat, and in the parallel they all ate and were filled in the wilderness without departing, with plenty to spare. In ‘c’ Jesus says that they have no need to go away and that the disciples are to feed them, and in the parallel he commits the bread that He has to God and the disciples are thus able to feed them. In ‘d’ they declare that they have only five loaves and two fishes, and in the parallel Jesus commandeers the five loaves and the two fishes. Centrally in ‘e’ what is available is to be brought to Jesus, and He commands the crowds to sit down.

14.13 ‘Now when Jesus heard, he withdrew from there in a boat, to a wilderness place apart, and when the crowds heard of it, they followed him on foot from the cities.’

‘When Jesus heard.’ What did Jesus hear? Was it the news of the death of John as in verse 12. Or was it the news of what Herod was saying about Him in verse 2? Matthew quite possibly intends us to understand by it the whole scenario. He learned of the death of John and He heard the rumours that were flying around about the way that Herod was thinking. But whichever way it was He noted the danger that it involved. Herod in this mood was not to be trusted. So He ‘withdrew’ across the water into a wilderness place, in the same way as Israel had done from Pharaoh. Compare, ‘Out of Egypt have I called My Son’ (2.15). This was why He had come, to deliver His people from the ties of the world. For withdrawal as a result of hearing of danger see also 2.22; 4.12, and compare John 7.1.

And ‘when the crowds heard of it they followed Him on foot from the cities’. There is probably significance to be read into the fact that ‘they followed Jesus’. Here were those who would not desert Him as others had but would follow Him wherever He went (compare 8.19). They are the beginnings of the new community, which is why the disciples have a duty to feed them. ‘On foot.’ It was ‘on foot’ that the people originally set off on the Exodus (Exodus 12.37), to ‘a wilderness’ place. (The wilderness in Psalm 78.19 is also anarthrous). They have left the cities (as they left the cities of Egypt) and sought Him in the wilderness, leaving the cities behind. Cities are regularly the sign of rebellion against God in the Scriptures (e.g. Genesis 4.17; 11.1-9; and often). So, in a few brief words, every one of which counts, Matthew has skilfully depicted a new Exodus.

14.14 ‘And he came forth, and saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick.’

And when Jesus left the boat, He saw the great crowd and had compassion on them. Compare here 9.36, ‘Because they were as sheep without a shepherd’. This has therefore to be read in, as it is expressly in Mark 6.34. He knew that He was their Shepherd, and ‘He healed their sick’. Compare ‘those who are whole have no need of a physician, but those who are sick’ (9.12), and ‘Himself bore our afflictions and carried our diseases’ (8.17). He was thus as the Servant bearing the burdens of these crowds, and as a physician was making them whole. Mark says that ‘He taught them many things’, and Luke has it that ‘He welcomed them and spoke to them of the Kingly Rule of God’ and healed (Luke 9.11). Matthew intends his description therefore to be all encompassing. Here are the new people of God being tended by the Shepherd.

We should note here the supreme patience and compassion of Jesus. He had headed off across the water in order to seek solitude and safety. Yet here the crowds had come together, disturbing His solitude, and drawing attention to His presence. But there is not even the hint of impatient concern in His behaviour. He accepts them for what they are, and welcomes them, patiently teaching and healing. The tenacity of the crowds comes out in that they had clearly watched the progress of the boat on the small Lake as it bore Him off, and had recognised that by going round the northern end of the Lake they could head Him off, which was what they had done.

14.15 ‘And when even was come, the disciples came to him, saying, “The place is a wilderness, and the time is already past. Send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food.’

The crowds spent the day listening to Jesus, and as evening approached, the disciples became concerned. The crowds had come a long way and would be hungry. And they were a long way from home. The usual mealtime had already passed. So they were going to need provision, and here they were in ‘a wilderness’. The only hope for them therefore was to scatter among the surrounding villages in order to buy some food, however little. So they called on Jesus to dismiss the crowds for this purpose. It was an act of compassion towards the crowds, being carried out by men who could see no other option.

Note the reference to villages. They were well away from the larger cities and towns. It was to avoid them that Jesus had come here.

14.16 ‘But Jesus said to them, “They have no need to go away. You give them to eat.”

Then Jesus quietly turned to the disciples and said, ‘There is no need for them to go away. You give them to eat.’ (The ‘you’ is emphatic). It is difficult to avoid the impression that Jesus has 2 Kings 4.42 in mind, where Elisha says to his followers, ‘Give to the people that they may eat’, at a time when there was patently too little food for everyone. There it was followed by the insufficient becoming sufficient and to spare. Was Jesus then testing out His disciples to see what they would do, and how they would respond, as He will shortly test out Peter (14.29)? After all they had claimed that they had ‘understood’ about the coming of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (13.51). Did they have sufficient understanding and faith for this moment? There may have been a slight hope at the back of His mind that it would be so, but the more probable significance in what He is doing is that He wants His disciples to recognise that in following Him and being His Apostles they must take responsibility for believers, not leave them to themselves.

( In LXX Elisha says, ‘dote tow laow’ - ‘give to the people’. Here Jesus says ‘dote autois’ - ‘give to them’. LXX then uses esthio while Jesus uses phagein, but it should be noted that LXX then has phagomai in verse 43 where ‘the Lord’ says they shall eat. Matthew’s source may well have been distinguishing Jesus from Elisha by deliberately using the verb ‘the Lord’ used).

14.17 ‘And they say to him, “We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.” ’

Their reply was simple. ‘All we have available are five loaves and two fishes’. We learn from elsewhere (John 6.8-9) that these were contributed by a young boy who had probably preserved them by having the foresight to keep his own packed lunch untouched, ready for his homeward journey, meanwhile no doubt benefiting from the generosity of others (he would think that being grown ups they probably had plenty).

In the light of the mention later of ‘five thousand men’, and the later ‘seven loaves’ of the parallel story, the numbers are probably seen by Matthew as significant. The ‘five’ would represent the covenant, as five regularly does, and this was therefore covenant food. The two fishes would then make up the seven to indicate a divinely complete and perfect meal. It was thus ideal provision for a divine covenant meal. But it did not seem so to the disciples. To them it was just not enough.

14.18 ‘And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Then the command was given which made all the difference. Jesus commanded that they be brought to Him. In His hands they would prove totally sufficient. No one present could have even imagined what was about to happen. It had been one thing for Elisha to feed a hundred men, but here were well over five thousand people, and Jesus had far less than Elisha had to start with.

14.19 ‘And he commanded the crowds to recline on the grass, and he took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowds.” ’

‘He commanded the crowds to recline on the grass.’ Reclining was the attitude taken up for a banquet. This was to be no symbolic meal, but genuine provision. This day they were to be fed to the full.

Then Jesus took the five loaves and two fishes and looking up to Heaven blessed them and broke them, and gave them to His disciples. And the disciples gave them to the crowds. No explanation is given. It is written as though this was just another ordinary meal. The miraculous is simply assumed as though, with Jesus there, what else could people expect?

The description ‘looking up to Heaven He blessed and broke the loaves and the fishes’ is a typical statement of what would actually happen at a Jewish meal table. It would certainly remind Matthew’s readers of their own later covenant meal, which followed the same pattern, but it would only do so as a reminder of God as the great Provider. For the inclusion of the fishes, when they could so easily have been quietly dropped, demonstrates that ‘the Lord’s Table’ is not in mind. The point of the full repetition of the detail, by a Matthew who usually abbreviates, indicates rather the source of what followed. It indicates that the answer is coming from Heaven, as the manna once did. ‘He gave them bread from Heaven to eat’ (John 6.31 citing Psalm 78.24) as they were beginning the new Exodus. It was bread that was without money and without price’ which gave life to the soul (Isaiah 55.2). It was ‘bread for the eater’ which was symbolic of the fruitfulness of His powerful word (Isaiah 55.10). And all these as pictures of the good things that God has for those who love Him, the bread of life received by coming to Him and believing on Him (John 6.35), life-giving bread for the soul received freely from God (Isaiah 55.2-3), bread for the eater because it accomplishes what He pleases (Isaiah 55.11). A further emphasis is on the fact that this is a ‘family’ meal. They are come together with Jesus as the head of the family. They are His mother, His brothers and His sisters (12.50). They are now one community looking to Jesus as their head.

‘He blessed.’ This is the normal word for the giving of thanks at a meal. The ‘blessing’ is of God, (‘Blessed are You’), not of the food. The breaking of the food was for distribution.

14.20 ‘And they all ate, and were filled, and they took up what remained over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.’

We may compare here Psalm 78.25, ‘He sent them food to the full’; and 2 Kings 4.44, ‘they ate and left thereof, according to the word of the Lord’. For these people ate to the full of the Lord’s provision, so much so that of what remained the disciples were able to gather twelve wicker basketfuls, that is, sufficient for ‘the twelve tribes of Israel’. This last was the guarantee of the future provision of the true people of God at His hands. He was not only feeding them now, He would continue to feed them in the future.

‘And were filled.’ Compare ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled’ (5.6). It is not only their physical hunger that is to be satisfied. They are also to be satiated with righteousness and salvation. See also Isaiah 55.2

So that day the needs of His people were met, and both their spirits and their bodies had been satisfied. His own countrymen might turn against Him (13.53-58), the authorities and Herod could do their worst (14.1-12), but nothing could hinder the forward movement of God’s purposes through His Deliverer as He led them forward in a new Exodus, feeding them upon Himself as the bread of life received by coming to Him and believing on Him (John 6.35).

14.21 ‘And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.’

Finally we are supplied with an enumeration of the crowds, or rather, of those ‘who ate’. There were five thousand men, besides women and children. The idea is probably that ten men were required in order to establish a synagogue. Thus five thousand represented a covenant community, for five is ever the number of covenant (five fingers to the hand that seals the covenant, the commandments in sets of five, the measurements of the Tabernacle and Temple in multiples of five, the covenant altar was five by five, five shekels was the price of deliverance from Tabernacle service, and so on).

However reference to Exodus 12.37 may also serve to confirm that a new Exodus is in mind for there we read of ‘men on foot besides children’. The only difference is that under the new covenant, women also are now to be seen as important.

We must not multiply up too much from the number of men, as though they all had their families with them. The trek round the Lake would probably have resulted in many women and children being left to make their way home. And furthermore they would have been needed at home to milk the animals. The fact that only the men are numbered probably indicates their predominance in the crowd.

To sum up there are a number of lessons to be learned from this incident.

  • 1). That His disciples were to see their own future in terms of meeting the needs of men and women. They must ‘give them to eat’. Having initially opened their ministry in their recent mission, it would continue to be the responsibility of the disciples to provide both physical and spiritual sustenance to the people, in the same way as He Himself provided it to them (compare John 21.15-17). With regard to the physical side they would in fact seek to carry this out literally in Acts (see Acts 2.44-47; 4.32-37). And the church has rightly continued to see one of its functions as providing for the physical needs of the needy. But the equal importance of their ministering to the spiritual side also soon came home to them. They later knew that they were not to allow ‘serving tables’ to prevent their preaching of the word (Acts 6.1-3).
  • That He wanted them to see that He was now here as the Messiah to spread a table before those who looked to Him (compare Isaiah 25.6; 55.1-3; and extra-testamental literature). He wanted them to see Him as the source of true provision for all men’s needs, the Bread of Life to their souls (John 6.35). And this would in the end be ministered through His Apostles and those whom they appointed.
  • He wanted them to appreciate that He was here among them as the Representative of Israel (2.15), leading them in a second Exodus, (in a way as a second Moses, although this latter is never emphasised). Like Moses He was the one who gave them bread from Heaven to eat. Moses had been with the multitude in the wilderness, and had fed them ‘from Heaven’. Jesus was now here among them in the wilderness to give better bread than Moses gave them, the true Bread which has come down from Heaven to give life to the world (John 6.33). A greater than Moses was here, and a greater Exodus was taking place (2.15), establishing a new Israel. (In Matthew the emphasis is on the new Exodus rather than a new Moses).
  • He wanted them to recognise that He was here among men in order to establish a new covenant and a new covenant community, something symbolised by this covenant meal. A new covenant community was thus in process of formation, and this is what this meal symbolised (compare Exodus 24.9-11). Such a community has already been indicated by His description of believers as His mother, His sisters and His brothers (12.50), and assumed in the Sermon on the Mount (5.13-16, 45-48; 6.9-13), and He will emphasise this again shortly (16.18). It would be composed of all those who came in faith to Him for provision, expressing their need, including this crowd who had been willing to go so far out of their way to be here, which in itself expressed their faith. In 26.26 the breaking of the bread would expand to symbolise His body. Here He was symbolising the fact that He could feed their souls as they responded to Him (John 6.35). From this meal therefore all were to learn that if they would be spiritually fed it must be through Jesus Christ, and that He had sufficient and to spare in order to do this.
  • He wanted them to know that He was among men in order to feed their inner beings (see John 6.32-40, and compare Isaiah 55.1-3), something which in the end only He could do, and He would shortly make clear that this would be through His death (John 6.51-58). But His main aim was that this physical provision might be seen by them as an acted out parable similar to those of the prophets whereby they would recognise that He was offering to feed their souls. It was a display of quiet power that evidenced His limitless resources.
  • He wanted them to learn their lesson from this incident that never again should they, the Apostles, or the other disciples, see any situation as impossible for Him to deal with.

Note on Other Explanations.

Necessarily Atheists and Agnostics and those who deny the possibility of miracles cannot accept that it happened like this, and yet often have to admit that it must have some basis in truth. So they have to think of a way round it. But we should note that by doing so they go against the evidence. Rather than accept the truth they weave ‘fairy stories’. For in order to give an explanation that is what they have to do, ignore the evidence and what is written, and spin their own threads of gold. For the sake of completeness and to assist those who are troubled by such things we will consider one or two of these explanations.

1). The first is that what happened was that a young boy brought his dinner and gave it to Jesus who then told the disciples to share it with the crowds, and that all those in the crowds were so moved by His action and the action of the little boy that they all shared their food that they had brought with them with others (or something similar). It is a nice idea. But it clearly goes contrary to what the four accounts say. It is not likely that the disciples would have said what they did about dispersing and buying food without having first checked that the people were without food. Furthermore it destroys the symbolism and at the same time ignores how long the crowds had already been away from home. They were not out on a picnic, and had not anticipated this extra journey. Nor can we understand why if this was what happened a hint of the fact is not supplied by at least one of the eyewitnesses, as a wonderful picture of the influence of Jesus. And certainly it would be strange that such a trivial happening as it would then have become should be treated as so important by all four Gospel writers. Nor would it have stirred the crowds to make Him a king (John 6.15). The idea trivialises all that the story points to, and every detail is against it.

2). That what happened was that Jesus divided up the loaves into minute amounts which were then given to the crowds as a ‘token Messianic meal’ and that this gave them such an uplift that their hearts were satisfied and they were ‘filled’ and therefore did not for a while notice their hunger. It is a beautiful picture, but it would not have served them well during the night, or next morning when they awoke hungry. And it still requires us to drastically reduce the numbers involved, or alternately increase the food available. It is also to assume that the ‘meal’ had a significance not made apparent in the first three Gospels. If this was what happened it is strange that the lesson to be drawn from it was totally ignored and that it was interpreted as just physical, without further explanation. It would also leave everyone still hungry and as much in danger of fainting as before. Thus Jesus would have failed to fulfil what He promised to the Apostles, that they would be able to feed the crowds.

3). That the story is simply an invention based on what Elisha did in 2 Kings 4.42-44. But if this were the case its importance as revealed by its presence in all four Gospels, in different presentations, is inexplicable. There is no avoiding the fact that all four considered the event extremely important and on the whole gave basically the same picture. Nor does the incident in the time of Elisha have the significance that this one clearly had. Elisha’s was not a covenant meal.

End of note.

Jesus Demonstrates His Mastery Of The Sea And Is Recognised As ‘The Son of God’ (14.22-33).

This is the second consecutive miracle in which Jesus take the initiative in order to demonstrate to the disciples Who He is and What He has come to do, and it results in their recognition that He is ‘the Son of God’. In context this concept goes well beyond Messiahship. He is Lord of wind and waves, a particularly awesome thing to Israelites who feared and respected the sea.

Jesus has just demonstrated that He can feed men and women and meet their most basic needs, now He demonstrates that He can protect His disciples in all the contrary winds of life. If the disciples are finally to feed the people both lessons are essential. But the lessons go farther than that, for both demonstrate that He is the Lord of creation, and thus truly the Son of God. Both are therefore a necessary build up towards Peter’s confession in 16.16 and to His declaration of the founding of the new ‘congregation’ of Israel in 16.18.

Analysis.

  • a And immediately He constrained the disciples to enter into the boat, and to go before Him to the other side, until He should send the crowds away (22).
  • b And after He had sent the crowds away, He went up into the mountain apart to pray, and when evening was come, He was there alone (23).
  • c But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, distressed by the waves, for the wind was contrary (24).
  • d And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea (25).
  • e And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost,” and they cried out for fear (26).
  • f But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer; it is I; don’t be afraid” (27).
  • g And Peter answered him and said, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the waters” (28).
  • f And he said, “Come.” And Peter went down from the boat, and walked on the waters to come to Jesus (29).
  • e But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me” (30).
  • d And immediately Jesus stretched out his hand, and took hold of him, and says to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (31).
  • c And when they were gone up into the boat, the wind ceased (32).
  • b And those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Of a truth you are the Son of God” (33).
  • a And when they had crossed over, they came to the land, to Gennesaret (34).

Note that in ‘a’ He sends the disciples before Him to the other side, and in the parallel they arrive in Gennesaret. In ‘b’ He spends much time alone praying in the mountain and in the parallel recognition comes to the disciples that He is the Son of God. In ‘c’ the wind was contrary, and in the parallel the wind ceased. In ‘d’ Jesus comes to them walking on the sea in total confidence, and in the parallel is the contrast of the one who has little faith and fails. In ‘e’ the disciples are afraid thinking that they are seeing a ghost, and in the parallel Peter is afraid, seeing the wind. In ‘f’ Jesus encourages the disciples, and in the parallel He encourages Peter. Centrally in ‘g’ comes Peter’s request that Jesus bid him come to Him on the waters.

14.22 ‘And immediately he constrained the disciples to enter into the boat, and to go before him to the other side, until he should send the crowds away.’

‘Immediately He constrained.’ The urgency behind these words would be difficult to understand had we not had the explanation in John’s Gospel. Some of the crowds were beginning to get ideas about proclaiming Him king (John 6.15). This was the last thing that He wanted, and He did not want His disciples involved in such ideas. It would bring down the Romans on Him which would interfere with the purposes that He had in mind. He had not come to be a belligerent Messiah. So He packed them off hurriedly in their boat while He Himself despatched the crowds. His disciples were to go before Him to the other side, probably across the top North West corner of the Lake. Thus they might expect that, like the crowds had done previously, He Himself would make His way round on the shore.

14.23 ‘And after he had sent the crowds away, he went up into the mountain apart to pray, and when evening was come, he was there alone.’

Then once He had been able to disperse the crowds He ‘went up into the mountain apart to pray.’ He had much to pray about and spent the remainder of the evening and most of the night in prayer ‘alone’. This aloneness is in contrast to His disciples who are struggling at sea. Without Him they too are alone. Note how in the major chiasmus of the section this ‘aloneness’ parallels His final ‘aloneness’ with the three disciples on the mount of Transfiguration.

We may possibly see that He had gone alone to pray for three major reasons:

  • 1). The disturbing development of the intentions of the crowds towards Him, especially in the light of Herod’s unease, and what it might mean for the future.
  • 2). His clear intention to walk across the Sea in order to meet His disciples in the middle, which could only possibly be seen as a deliberate self-manifestation.
  • 3). His purpose in 2) that, following on the miracle of the loaves and fishes, it might bring home to His disciples Who He is, ‘the Son of God’.

Jesus going into the Mountain always has great significance, and in all other case it has to do with imparting important information to the disciples. While His disciples are not with Him here, note the clear interconnection between His being in the mountain praying, with the intention of coming to them (verse 25), and their being at sea in difficulties (verses 23-24).

Note On ‘The Mountain’.

In each of the other three times that Matthew indicates that Jesus went up into ‘the mountain’ he is drawing attention to a significant happening that deeply affects His disciples.

  • 1). In 5.1 Jesus went up into the mountain in order to get away from the crowds, and there He taught the Sermon on the Mount to His disciples.
  • 2). Here in 14.23 Jesus goes into the mountain to pray alone, prior to His great self-manifestation in walking on the Sea. The result will be that they worship and say, ‘Truly You are the Son of God’ (14.33).
  • 3). In 15.29 Jesus makes a ‘Messianic’ appearance on the mountain as evidenced by His mighty works, and feeds four thousand by a miracle and ‘they glorified the God of Israel’ (15.31).
  • 4). In 28.16 Jesus appeared to them on the mountain as the Risen Lord and gave them their commission to make disciples of all nations, promising His continuing presence with them.

It will be noted that in the first two cases the mountain is seen as a haven from the crowds. In the third case it does not at first appear to be a haven from the crowds, but we should note that this is a special crowd. They are all included in the partaking of the covenant meal and have been with Him in that isolated place listening to His words for three days. They are therefore almost, if not completely disciples, and not just the normal ‘crowds’. It is thus a haven from the world and from Herod. The fourth case fits into the pattern of the other three. It is where He meets with His disciples to give them their commission for the future.

Furthermore the first and the last examples are places where Jesus specifically charges the disciples with their responsibilities, while the two middle ones are connected with the revelation of His power over creation, and end with the glorifying, in the one case of ‘the Son of God’, and in the other of ‘the God of Israel’. We are probably therefore justified in seeing mention of ‘the mountain’ as pointing to what we might call ‘mountain top’ experiences, times of special closeness with God.

End of Note.

14.24 ‘But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, distressed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.’

Note the close interconnection between Jesus being in the mountain praying alone, and the boat being now in the middle of the Sea distressed (literally ‘tormented’) by the waves, with a contrary wind. Without Jesus they were making little headway. Indeed we are probably to see that they had been driven off course towards the middle of the Lake, which would help to explain the length of time the voyage was taking. (Without an engine voyage lengths can vary hugely depending on the weather, especially against prevailing winds).

14.25 ‘And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.’

The fourth watch of the night was 3.00 am to 6.00 am (The Roman night watch was divided into four). It was daybreak, after a night of toil. And it was at this stage that He came to them, walking on the Sea.

His people had good cause to remember God’s power over the sea (Exodus 15.8, 10, 19), for in the Exodus they had escaped through the Sea which had swallowed up their antagonists (just as it would have swallowed up Peter without Jesus’ help). Then they could say of Him ‘Your way was in the sea and Your paths in the great waters’ at the time when He ‘led His people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron’ (Psalm 77.19-20 compare Isaiah 43.16). The sea was always an unknown force, the control of which by God was looked on with awe (Psalm 74.13; 89.9). Thus Jesus may well here have expected them to remember the Exodus experience, especially when Peter was almost overwhelmed by the Sea, and indeed would have been without His assistance.

14.26 ‘And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost,” and they cried out for fear.’

Quite naturally when the disciples saw this eerie figure (in the first light of day) walking on the Sea some distance away, they cried out in fear, ‘Its a ghost’. This is no doubt intended to be contrasted with their later words, ‘You are the Son of God’. What a difference it made once He was with them in the boat.

14.27 ‘But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer; it is I; don’t be afraid.” ’

Jesus immediately sought to remove their fears saying, ‘Take courage, it is I, don’t be afraid’. ‘It is I’ is ego eimi. In LXX this was also the Name of God revealed to Moses (Exodus 3.14). While this idea was not Jesus’ intention (He was merely indicating His presence), Matthew does, in a context like this, probably intend his readers to take the hint. Compare ‘the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ (28.19).

14.28 ‘And Peter answered him and said, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the waters.” ’

On hearing Jesus’ words, and no doubt recognising His voice, Peter, with his usual mixture of impetuosity and faith, called out to Him and said, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the waters.” His confidence in Jesus was such that He had no doubt that the One Who had given him the power to heal the sick and cast out devils could also enable him to walk on the waters that lay between Him and Jesus (in Hebrew ‘waters’ is always plural). But he would only do it once he had the Lord’s assurance that the ability would be given to him. Here was a remarkable indication of both understanding and faith, even if it did not last for long because his faith was insufficient.

‘The waters.’ Peter was probably indicating by this the short stretch of water between the boat and Jesus.

14.29 ‘And he said, “Come.” And Peter went down from the boat, and walked on the waters to come to Jesus.’

Jesus’ response was to invite him to ‘Come’. So Peter let himself down from the side of the boat and walked on the waters to come to Jesus. And while he kept his eyes on Jesus all went well.

14.30 ‘But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me.” ’

However, having bold faith while standing in the boat was one thing, maintaining it in the face of a strong wind stirring up the waves was another. And he was suddenly seized with fear and began to sink. As usual he had taken on more than he could cope with. We are left to surmise that if there had been no wind, there would have been no problem. The description ‘saw the wind’ (i.e. the effect that it was having) indicates that he took his eyes of Jesus, and that that was when his problems began. Up to that point he had only seen Jesus.

Then Peter called out, “Lord, save me.” Note that there was still faith there. He might not be able to trust himself, but He still knew that the Lord could save him. He knew that the Lord had no fear of the wind.

14.31 ‘And immediately Jesus stretched out his hand, and took hold of him, and says to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” ’

The impression we are given is that Peter had almost reached Jesus before he had taken his eyes off Him, for Jesus is able to reach out and take hold of him. And then He gently rebuked him. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” It was a reminder that growing though the faith of the disciples was, it was still small compared with what it should be (compare 17.20).

We must remember, of course, that this description is comparative. The comparison is with the Master Himself. But when we can give evidence in ourselves of the huge faith that Peter had to begin with, we will have a right to point to his little faith. However, then we will be too humble to do so. But until then we can only recognise how much less our faith is than his. Nevertheless the point is made. Believing though the disciples were, they still had a long way to go. On the one hand was Jesus with total faith in His Father. On the other the wavering and doubting disciples. Peter had shown a spurt of faith, but it had soon been lost in doubt.

14.32 ‘And when they were gone up into the boat, the wind ceased.”

Then together Jesus and Peter went up to the boat and clambered in, at which point ‘the wind ceased’. Once Jesus was with them in the boat all the problems of the disciples ceased.

14.33 ‘And those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Of a truth you are the Son of God.” ’

Filled with awe at what they had witnessed those in the boat (seemingly more than just the twelve) ‘worshipped’ Him. And they declared, ‘truly You are the Son of God’. They now had a deeper recognition of His status than ever before. They had broken through from His being a prophet, to His being something more. Truth was beginning to dawn. Yet it arose from the awe of the moment, it was not the more fully fledged faith that Peter would shortly declare in comparison with other great figures of salvation history (16.16).

In Matthew such Sonship is more than Messiahship. Only the demons have previously called Jesus ‘the Son of God’ and they were thinking of One superior to themselves in the spiritual world. But God has called Him ‘My beloved Son’ (3.17) and Jesus has related Himself as ‘the Son’ to ‘the Father’ (11.27), as well as regularly distinguishing God as ‘My Father’ when having in mind His own authority (7.21-22; 10.32-33).

Mark has here, ‘they were greatly amazed in themselves, for they did not understand concerning the loaves, but their heart was hardened.’ The point is that because their hearts were not receptive they had not realised the significance of the miracle of the loaves and were thus astonished by just such another proof of Jesus’ power over nature. Here we learn what that astonishment resulted in, a recognition of His uniqueness.

14.34 ‘And when they had crossed over, they came to the land, to Gennesaret.’

We can only imagine the awe of the remainder of that voyage. They would never see Jesus in quite the same way again, for they now had a deeper awareness that He was, in some way that they did not understand, ‘on the divine side of reality’. But eventually they reached land, at Gennesaret, a plain on the north west shores of the Sea of Galilee, although there may have been a village which also bore the name. Up to this point, apart from Capernaum which had become Jesus’ home base, landing places after storms appear to be the only places that Matthew has identified during Jesus’ ministry (compare 8.28, see also 15.39). It is as though he remembered these places because he had felt grateful to be ashore again on firm ground. He had after all been a tax-gatherer, not a sailor. For the whole see Mark 6.53-56.

Previously when He had ‘crossed over’ He had gone to ‘His own city’ (9.1). Perhaps the implication is intended that Capernaum is now also no longer His home. He now has no home (12.46-50; 13.53-58). People must come to Him where He is.

Note on Peter.

The picture given of Peter fits in with all that we know about him, Peter the impetuous, Peter the determined, Peter the expectant, Peter the bold, Peter the failing, Peter who never lets go. He stands out in the Gospel as a leading light among the Apostles, but as one who through his impetuosity often did or said the wrong thing, which is regularly why he is mentioned. Always he leads the way, and regularly he finishes up with egg on his face. (In most groups there is someone like that). Here he ventures to walk on the sea at his own suggestion and ends up half drowning. Elsewhere He boldly asserts that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, and then tries to tell the Son of the Living God what to do, with the result that he ends up by being likened in his behaviour to Satan (16.16, 22-23). He is privileged to be on the Mount of Transfiguration, but, feeling that he has to do something, makes an inane suggestion (17.4), and is left speechless and flat on his face (17.6), with his suggestion simply ignored. He boldly declares that he will never fail Jesus (26.33), and fails Him three times (26.69-75). Yet no one else would have even thought of venturing on the sea, no one else at the time had the courage to react to what Jesus was saying at all, no one else (apart from the one known to the High Priestly family) ventured to follow Jesus into the High Priest’s courtyard. Once his faith was made stronger his impetuosity and boldness would serve the church well. In any group there is usually a character, and Peter was that character.

Along with James and John he is selected out for the purpose of beholding special incidents (the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane), and he alone, as representative of all God’s true people, is conjoined with Jesus in being declared to be ‘sons of God’ and therefore not due to be treated only as subjects liable to the Temple tax (17.24-27).

Nevertheless he is never appointed their leader. Nor does he ever make such a claim. And while he is prominent in Acts, the Apostles are on the whole all seen to act together, while when Paul speaks of those ‘reputed to be pillars’ he lists them as ‘James (the Lord’s brother), Cephas (Peter) and John’ (Galatians 2.9) in that order. It was just that his character constantly brought him to the front, and resulted in him being chosen to make the first moves towards both Jews and Gentiles.

End of note.

The Messianic Signs Continue (14.35-36).

Having fed the new community with ‘bread from Heaven, and having revealed Himself as Lord of sea and storm, thus presenting Himself as their Provider and Protector, Jesus expands His ministry as the Servant Who ‘bore our afflictions and carried our diseases’ (8.17), as our Healer. He makes whole all who seek Him. By it He indicates the final perfection available in the Kingly Rule of Heaven. For each healing is a physical indication of the spiritual wholeness that will finally be enjoyed by all who are His, and is available to all who reach out to Him. They will be presented holy, unblameable and unreproveable in His sight (Colossians 1.22).

Note how this summary connects back to those in 4.23-24; 8.16; 9.35-36; 14.14. Underlying all that is happening His basic Messianic ministry continues. While on the one hand He faces rejection by the leadership and by various town authorities, His spiritual outreach goes on apace. There are thus many who seek Him and believe on Him.

Analysis.

  • a When the men of that place knew him, they sent into all that region round about, and brought to him all who were sick (35).
  • b And they asked him that they might only touch the border of his robe (36a).
  • a And as many as touched were made whole (36b).

Note that in ‘a’ they brought all who were sick, and in the parallel all were made whole by touching Him. Centrally in ‘b’ we find the Source of all their healing, which was theirs by ‘coming and believing’ to the bread of life (John 6.35).

14.35 ‘And when the men of that place knew him, they sent into all that region round about, and brought to him all who were sick,’

On landing at Gennesaret Jesus was recognised by those who lived there, (it was not far from Capernaum) and immediate word was sent out to all the neighbourhood, to tell them that the prophet was here. And the result was that large numbers of people from the whole area flocked to Him. And all brought their sick to Jesus. This is Matthew’s way of indicating that while Israel as a whole might be rejecting Him or turning from Him, and especially the larger towns, those who were sick and needed a physician, whether for body or soul, came to Him. For that was why He had come, to make men whole.

14.36 ‘And they asked him that they might only touch the border of his robe, and as many as touched were made whole.’

And just to touch the hem or tassel on His robe now proved sufficient. It was not that the robe had power, it was that to touch it brought them in touch with the wearer. Such was His power that He reached out through their act of faith and in all cases they were healed. Power went out of Him (Mark 5.30). It should be noted that permission was sought from Jesus. It was not impersonal. The Pharisees would have shrunk from the touch of common people lest they be rendered unclean. But such things mattered not to Jesus. Anyone who touched Him in faith was made clean. The message is that all who come to Him and believe in Him, however faint their touch, will find healing and restoration. This caps off the threefold picture of Him, He feeds, He protects, He makes whole.

The Challenge From Jerusalem (15.1-9).

In chapters 11-12, after the discourse in chapter 10, Matthew had begun by drawing attention to the imprisonment of John (11.2), spoke of the opposition of he Pharisees (12.1-14), and led on to the approach of the Scribes and Pharisees (12.38). Now after the discourse in chapter 13 he is repeating the pattern, but with an increase in intensity. He first describes the imprisonment and death of John in 14.1-12, and he now describes the arrival of Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem. (Note the change in order of Scribes and Pharisees following Matthew’s regular chiastic method). Their opposition is seen to be hotting up. Now they are no longer just seeking a sign, but are here to challenge His whole approach at what they see as one of the central points in their disagreement, the requirement for ritual washing. Along with the Sabbath, ritual washing was a central feature in their whole system. They had taken up the Scriptural teaching on washing with water and had expanded it into a daily process. It was their way of daily maintaining their ‘purity’ in the face of an ‘unclean’ world, because they saw themselves as God’s own people and separated off from both the riffraff among the Jews who ‘did not keep the Law’, and from the Gentiles who had no Law, and as therefore needing to maintain their separateness. But it was a ritually obtained separation, not a genuine separation in holiness of life. And as far as Jewish Christian readers were involved it was necessary to demonstrate how Jesus had dealt with this question before progressing to His ministry to the Gentiles in 15.21 following. For otherwise they would have asked themselves how He could so easily accept Gentiles.

The importance of the passage is enormous because it emphasises that all tradition must be judged against the Scriptures. Jesus was counteracting what He saw as the latest ‘heresies’ by appeal to the Scriptures as the sole determining authority of what could be required of a man in God’s Name. He wanted to break through the surface ritual to the heart, and to bring out that what should be of most concern was right moral living springing from a true faith in God.

The passages that follow can also be seen as an illustration of the difference between ‘the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees’ and the righteousness required by Jesus (compare 5.20, and see also chapter 23), the former mainly ritualistic, the latter requiring obedience to God’s moral requirements.

Analysis.

  • a Then there come to Jesus from Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes, saying, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (1-2).
  • b And He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?” (3).
  • c “For God said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’ (4a).
  • d And, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him die the death’.” (4b).
  • d “But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or his mother, That by which you might have benefited from me is given to God’ (5).
  • c “He need not honour his father” (6a).
  • b “And you have made void the word of God because of your tradition” (6b).
  • a “You hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men’ ” (7-9).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus is accused of transgressing the traditions of men, and in the parallel Jesus retaliates that their traditions of men are precisely that, and therefore their worship is in vain. In ‘b’ He accuses them of transgressing the commandment of God by their tradition, and in the parallel of voiding the word of God by their tradition. In ‘c’ He declares that God’s command is that they honour father and mother, and in the parallel their behaviour says that they need not honour their father. In ‘d’ to speak evil of father and mother is to incur the judgment, and in the parallel he describes how they speak evil towards their father and mother.

15.1 ‘Then there come to Jesus from Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes, saying,’

Pharisees and Scribes (learned Teachers of the Law) now come down from Jerusalem to check on Jesus’ activities. It was in fact the responsibility of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin to check up on all who claimed to teach. Now it was Jesus’ turn. Their opposition would bring out the difference between what He had brought and what they could offer.

The adding of the words ‘from Jerusalem’ here heightens the sense of the opposition. He is now being opposed not only by his own country and by Herod, but by Jerusalem itself. Jerusalem was seen by all Jews as the centre of their religion, and as the source of truth. To Jerusalem they sent their Temple tax. To Jerusalem they made their pilgrimages. From Jerusalem they received their religious guidance. It was the centre of the Jewish world. So now Jesus was being opposed by the Teachers at the very centre of Judaism. (Mark mentions previous approaches from Jerusalem (Mark 3.22) which Matthew plays down (12.24), but we are probably to see that this is a more official deputation, not just an investigative foray, compare Mark 7.1).

15.2 “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”

The challenge of the deputation was immediately concerning what they saw as His most important failure, that of maintaining ritual purity among His disciples in accordance with the rules laid down by the Elders (leading men of old) of the past. Their charge was not against Him as such, which suggests that He usually (although not always - Luke 11.38) scrupulously sought to follow the principles that they saw as necessary. He did not want to cause offence unnecessarily. The charge here was that He was lax in not ensuring that His disciples did the same, and must therefore take responsibility for it.

This was not describing a hygienic washing of hands to remove dirt, but a formal ceremony of pouring water over the hands in a certain way which was thought to remove ritual defilement resulting from contact with defiled people or things, and was repeated throughout the meal. The belief was apparently that ritual ‘uncleanness’ obtained through contact with an ‘unclean’ world (a world which did not ritually purify itself) could be passed on to the food, which when eaten then made the inside of a man ‘unclean’. This was not Scriptural teaching. It took Scriptural teaching to extremes. The closest the Scriptures came to this was that eating an animal that ‘died of itself’ rather than being properly slaughtered resulted in uncleanness. But there it was temporary uncleanness. The Pharisees saw the world as permanently unclean and feared partaking of that uncleanness when they ate. They overlooked the fact that Scripture had been concerned by its laws of uncleanness to inculcate wholesomeness of living to a fairly unsophisticated people, and to indicate that all that was in one way or another connected with death was unwholesome. They had instead turned the world into a permanently ritually unclean place.

Note on the Washing of Hands.

‘They do not wash their hands.’ This lay at the centre of the argument. It was not, of course, a question of whether to wash the hands before meals for hygienic purposes (although it undoubtedly aided hygiene), but was rather a question of ritual washing to remove ‘religious defilement’, that is, what resulted from contact with what was ritually doubtful and ceremonially unclean. Indeed they laid great stress on these requirements. But in fact this particular ritual washing described here was an addition to the Law, for it was nowhere commanded in the Old Testament.

So rather than being excited about this new interest in God which was being aroused by Jesus, and the new sense of sin which was bringing men to repentance and morally and spiritually changing their lives, they had come to drag Jesus down into the pool of detailed ritualism.

Of what then did such defilement consist? To the Pharisees all Gentiles were unclean for a start, for they did not observe any of the rules of ‘cleanness’ and ‘uncleanness’ (Leviticus 11-15) and were not careful about contact with dead things. Furthermore anything touched by them also became unclean (hollow vessels only if touched on the inside). And similar defilement was seen, although not to the same extent, as being connected with ‘sinners’. A ‘sinner’ was someone who did not tithe rightly or who did not follow the strict purification requirements of the Pharisees, or someone whose occupation resulted in regular uncleanness (e.g. a tanner). Thus while such people may mainly have observed the requirements of the Books of Moses, they did not do so in the terms laid down by the Pharisees. To come in contact with either of these two groups, Gentiles and ‘sinners’, was thus to be defiled. So their views necessarily excluded them from close contact with the majority of people.

According to them if a man went to the marketplace he may well accidentally be ‘contaminated’ by contact with such people (although he would make every effort to avoid them) and would therefore need afterwards to make himself clean in accordance with the teachings of the Pharisees. But the idea had been added that that uncleanness could then be passed on to the food that they ate and thus become internal. In order to avoid this therefore they needed to follow out the procedures for ritual washing before they ate each part of their meals. It was a world of religious isolation.

It should be carefully observed that this argument is not about the strict Levitical requirements with respect to cleanness. The Levitical requirements were mainly involved in a rather complicated way with the avoidance of anything tainted by death (or blood). God was the living God, and the wholesome way was the way of life. So anyone who touched a dead body became unclean, as did anyone who touched a woman after child birth or a skin-diseased person, or a woman during her period, or a leper, or an unclean animal. And anyone who touched anyone who had touched any of these was unclean, and so on. If such an unclean person had touched cups, or pots (measures) or brass vessels these utensils too might have become unclean depending on where they were touched. These too had to be specially cleansed. And indeed, they had to be cleansed if there was any doubt at all. In some cases, such as contact specifically with death, the cleansing took seven days, for others it only lasted until the evening, but these ideas were not primarily what the argument was about. Both sets of people, disciples and Pharisees, conformed with these requirements. There was no dispute about that. It was the question of daily ritual washings of the hands that was in question here, and whether a man could become ‘unclean’ as a result of the food that he ate, and of whether such things should be central to the teaching concerning the Kingly Rule of God.

The Pharisees believed that because of the possibility of unknown contamination by persons who were ritually unclean, and the way that that could be passed on, it was necessary to wash both before every meal and in between courses. And this involved a very complicated process. The water for washing had to be taken from large stone jars which had been kept ‘clean’ so that the water itself was kept clean. Such water could be used for no other purpose. First all dirt had to be removed (a good principle). Then the hands might be held with the fingers pointed upwards and water was poured over them and had to run down to at least the wrist. Then while the hands were wet each had to be cleansed, seemingly with ‘the fist’ of the other. Probably by the joint action of rubbing the palm over the fist. But the water was now unclean so the hands were then held downwards and water poured over them again so that it began at the wrists and ran off the end of the fingers. That was one way of doing it. Alternately this might all be done by dipping the hands up to the wrist in a vessel containing clean water, again apparently rubbing on ‘the fist’. Then the hands were clean.

And if you went on a journey you had to ensure that you had the means to do this. This was what the Pharisees required, and this was what these accused disciples had failed to do (the phrase ‘your disciples’ may not necessarily mean that the twelve were included. ‘Disciples’ can mean the twelve, but it can also include the wider group. It is not a strictly defined number).

‘The traditions of the elders.’ These included past decisions of scribes, some made long before the time of Christ, on the teaching in the first five books of the Bible (‘The Torah or Law’). These formed the oral law and were remembered by rote and passed on, and would subsequently be recorded (as considerably expanded later) in the Mishnah in the second century AD. They covered many aspects of life in great detail and had to be assiduously learned by the pious Jew to ensure he always did the ‘right’ thing. The question was not necessarily of being morally right as we shall see, but of being religiously right. There were over six hundred of these ‘instructions’. Some were very helpful, but others were at the best pedantic and at the worst ridiculous. (So by citing some of these instructions we can make the Rabbis appear very wise, for they said some very sensible things, or totally foolish because they had often allowed themselves to stray into saying things that seemed right at the time but were in fact rather inane, as can so easily happen to regulations when pressed too far).

What began as a helpful interpretation of Scripture had slowly developed into a hotchpotch of regulations which so interpreted the Law as to make it seemingly attainable, although only with great effort, and crowded out consideration of more important matters. And sadly it was often a manipulation of the Law in order to enable them to ‘keep the covenant’ faithfully, and establish their own righteousness to their own satisfaction.

Paul had been like this. He pointed out that he had striven to attain ‘the righteousness of the Law’ and had seen himself as almost there, as blameless (Philippians 3.6). And then he had come across the commandment, “You shall not covet” and had looked in his heart and had discovered that he was still guilty (Romans 7.7), and that all his carefully built up righteousness had come crashing down. He had recognised that all his careful observances of ritual law had not made his heart and will pure, and that all his efforts had therefore been in vain.

End of note.

15.3 ‘And he answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?”

The Scribes had asked Him why He transgressed the traditions of the great elders of the past, the revered Teachers of old. As mentioned above, these were, among other things, Rabbinic interpretations of the Law (that is, pronouncements by Teachers as to what the Law required), and in the case in point had in mind ritual washings. His counter-reply was powerful. ‘Why did they transgress the commandments of God by following those traditions?’. His point is that it was far more important to follow God’s clearly stated commandment than to follow doubtful traditions of men, and especially so when that tradition actually contradicts the Law. And He then proceeds to give an example

15.4 “For God said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’, and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him die the death’.”

He points out that God had declared that a man must honour his father and mother and must not say anything that might result in their harm. Indeed were they to do so they should be subject to capital punishment. Theoretically all his listeners would have agreed with those injunctions. Had He stopped there they would all have solemnly agreed that they believed that as well. But He then points out that in fact they were failing to keep these injunctions because of certain rulings that they had passed, thus invalidating God’s word.

15.5-6a “But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or his mother, ‘That by which you might have benefited from me is given to God’, he need not honour his father.”

He points to one ruling whereby a man could withhold his wealth from helping his father and mother. By dedicating his wealth to the Temple in terms of an oath (without actually having to give anything, and at the same time ensuring that the oath would at some time terminate) he could point out that he could no longer give it away to them because it was the Temple’s. For the rule was that while he could use for himself what was kept under oath, he could not give it away. However, Jesus said, the use of the Temple in this way was to make a mockery of God’s commandment. They were using faithfulness to the very God Who had commanded them to honour father and mother as a reason why they should not do so, and that not honestly, but as a result of deviousness. This is, of course, a simplification of the situation, but as there was no comeback it would seem that they could not deny the truth of what He was saying. Thus clearly some such behaviour was well known. The Rabbis would indeed later legislate so that this excuse could no longer be used, possibly recognising the truth in what Jesus had said.

15.6 “And you have made void the word of God because of your tradition.”

Thus, He declares, they have made God’s clear word void by their own tradition. They have avoided a clear command of God, by making use of their tradition.

15.7-9 “You hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, “This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.”

He then brings His verdict on them from the Scriptures. Once again it is Isaiah that is in mind and specifically cited. For Isaiah had spoken of men who honoured God with their lips, while being far from Him and His will in their hearts, just like these men were. They talked as though God meant a great deal to them, and then behaved as if He meant nothing at all. And Isaiah had then declared that because of it their worship was in vain, because the teaching that they taught was that of men, not of God.

‘Of you.’ That is, of you who claim to be God’s people Israel. He is conjoining His hearers with those of old, for the Scriptures speak to all. They were no different in this way than their forefathers.

The quotation is probably based on a Hebrew text available to Matthew which was fairly close to that on which LXX was based, examples of which are found at Qumran.

‘You hypocrites (play-actors).’ They pretended one thing, while the truth was quite different. They put on a show of godliness without it being true godliness.

Jesus Stresses That It Is What Is Within A Man That Defiles Him, And Not What Enters Him From Outside.

Jesus now goes to the root of the question of religious defilement. The Pharisees saw it in terms of the laws of cleanness and uncleanness, and by applying those to their utmost limit. Jesus in contrast stresses that such things affect men little. What is most important to God is what is within a man, the things which fashion his attitudes and behaviour.

The fact must not be overlooked that the laws of cleanness and uncleanness (e.g. Leviticus 11-15) had been very important to Israel. They had not only undoubtedly prevented a good deal of disease, but they had inculcated the ideas of positive uprightness and wholesomeness of life. At one end of the spectrum was the living God, at the other was death and unwholesomeness. The One was to be approached, and they must seek to be like Him, and the other was to be avoided. In days when hygienic cleanliness had been very much a secondary consideration, especially under the conditions in which men in those days lived, this had made Israel unique among the nations as a nation that sought after wholesomeness. But by the time of Jesus this had become no longer quite so relevant. What was now more important was what was in men’s hearts. And that is what Jesus now proceeds to deal with.

But nothing brings out more the sensible nature of the laws of uncleanness than working in a hospital. Let the standards of ‘cleanliness’ drop and the hospital becomes a place of death, just as could so easily have happened to the camp of Israel. The difference is that we recognise better the reasons that in this case lie behind it.

  • a And he called to him the crowd, and said to them, “Hear, and understand” (10).
  • b “It is not what enters into the mouth which defiles the man” (11a).
  • c “But what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man” (11b).
  • d Then the disciples came, and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended, when they heard this saying?” (12).
  • e But he answered and said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father did not plant, will be rooted up” (13).
  • f “Let them alone. They are blind guides” (14a).
  • e “And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit” (14b).
  • d And Peter answered and said to him, “Declare to us the parable.” And he said, “Are you also even yet without understanding?” (15-16).
  • c “Do you not perceive that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the digestive system, and is cast out into the draught? But the things which proceed out of the mouth come forth out of the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings. These are the things which defile the man” (17-20a).
  • b “But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man” (20b).
  • a And Jesus went out from there, and withdrew into the parts of Tyre and Sidon (21).

Note that in ‘a’ He called to Him the crowds, and in the parallel He went from there and withdrew. In ‘b’ He declares that what enters the mouth does not defile a man, while in the parallel eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man. In ‘c’ it is what proceeds from the mouth that defiles a man, and in the parallel a full explanation of why that is so is given. In ‘d’ the Pharisees are said to have stumbled at this saying, and in the parallel the disciples also want an explanation. In ‘e’ the Pharisees have not been planted by His heavenly Father and will be rooted up, and in the parallel they are blind guides and will fall into the pit. Centrally the Pharisees are to be left alone because they are blind guides.

15.10 ‘And he called to him the crowd, and said to them, “Hear, and understand.” ’

Jesus first calls the crowd, who have been aware of His spat with the Pharisees and Scribes, but who had probably been standing back out of respect for them. After all these were the great Teachers of the Law. And He calls them to come and listen to what He now has to say. He stresses to them the necessity for deep thought. They are to listen, and make sure that they understand. It is as important as that. For if they do not they will continue with their old superstitions.

15.11 “It is not what enters into the mouth which defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.”

Genuine religious defilement in the eyes of God is not caused by what men eat, but by what is inside a man and comes out in what he says. As He has previously warned, ‘For every idle word that a man shall speak, he will give account of it in the Day of Judgment’ (12.36). It is such words that reveal what is truly in a man’s heart. If the question is, ‘How are we to tell what a man is really like?’, the reply is, ‘Listen, not to his prepared words, but to his idle words’, his words spoken when he is off guard. Then we will know what is truly in his heart.

So Jesus is bringing out the lesson that the most defiling thing about a man is his sinfulness. It is found in what he thinks, and reasons and wills. It is not found in what has been made unclean by touch. By this Jesus was seeking to turn people from an obsession with religious ritual, to genuine godliness of living. His point is that God was most pleased when His people lived righteously and compassionately, as the prophets had constantly said. (See e.g. Isaiah 1.11-20; Micah 6.8).

15.12 Then the disciples came, and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended, when they heard this saying?” ’

The disciples then approached Jesus and explained to Him that He had ‘offended’ the Pharisees. The Pharisees had clearly not dared to face Him with it, for they could not confute what He said, and they were afraid that He might say more. But they spoke loudly enough behind His back. His words had, as it were, ‘tripped them up’ and ‘made them stumble’ (skandalizo), with the result that they were furiously angry. The disciples were concerned because they had still not fully lost their awe of the Pharisees and the Scribes, for from earliest days they had been brought up to respect and admire them as the epitome of godly men. Thus they possibly felt that Jesus was offending them unnecessarily. But Jesus knew that what was now in the balance was the whole of what He had come to do. There was no question of compromise here.

The Pharisees and Scribes were at this stage taking Judaism up a side road of ritualistic practise that could only lead to a dead end of total sterility, something that they were partly saved from by the destruction of Jerusalem which brought about a total rethink of their position, and probably, although they would have hated to admit it, partly by the influence of Jesus, for some would certainly have taken note of His strictures and recognised the truth in them sufficiently to partly revise their views, even if not wholly. Thus while ritual still retained great importance, they did not in the end lose sight of the importance of moral behaviour towards non-Jews.

15.13 ‘But he answered and said, “Every plant which my heavenly Father did not plant, will be rooted up.” ’

Jesus reply here may well have had the parable of the tares (darnel) in mind (13.38-40). Every plant which has not been planted by His heavenly Father must be rooted up, (for those planted by the Lord see Psalm 1.3; Isaiah 60.21; 61.3; For rooting up see Ezekiel 17.9). When it came to God’s truth there was no place for the Pharisees unless they changed their whole attitude. Men must now turn from the ritual which had been built up to a full response to the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Thus unless the Pharisees came under the Kingly Rule of Heaven by responding to Him, they would have to be removed from their place. God’s solution, however, is simple (if difficult) and is described here. Look at what comes out of the inner man in behaviour. If that is right, other things will begin to fall into place. But if that is wrong, all the rest is a waste of time. There can be no true religion without true morality.

Here then was a clear indication that Pharisaic belief as a whole was not of God’s planting. What was required therefore was a turning back to the Scriptures. It was those who responded to God’s true Servant, and who obeyed Him and His words, who would become ‘trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord’ (Isaiah 61.3). For they would reveal the true righteousness. They would be the ‘sons of the Kingly Rule’ who were planted by God (13.38), who would ‘seek first the Kingly Rule of God and His righteousness’ (6.33). It was they, who served God from the heart, who were really doing what God wanted.

15.14 “Let them alone. They are blind guides. And if the blind guide the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

In contrast the Pharisees must be left to themselves, for they are blind guides, and anyone who follows them will, with them, fall into a ditch. It would seem that the Pharisees did actually claim to be ‘guides to the blind’. But Jesus’ picture is vivid. There was a great deal of physical blindness in the ancient world, and very little help for the blind. The blind very often did lead the blind, for no one else would. And the consequence would often be disastrous for there were many unseen pits around. In the same way, says Jesus, these men who claimed that they could see, and who offered to lead those who were religiously blind, were in fact also blind and would only lead men into a spiritual ditch. And that is why He was revealing their blindness. ‘For judgment I came into this world, that those who see not might see, and that those who see may become (be revealed as) blind’ (see John 9.39-41). This idea of spiritual blindness is a constant theme of Jesus (13.15; 23.16, 24; John 9.39-41), as it was of the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 56.10; 59.10; Lamentations 4.14).

15.15 ‘And Peter answered and said to him, “Declare to us the parable.” ’

That the disciples were wrestling with this problem was understandable. For years they had grown up believing that in general the Pharisees’ way was the right way, even if they had nor fully followed it. They had grown up recognising the importance of ritual for their lives as being of prime importance. It was therefore difficult for them to thrust all that aside and see everything from a new perspective. And if they were to do so they must ensure that they had got it right. So Peter, on their behalf, bravely speaks up again, asks for an explanation of Jesus’ words, and has to take the gentle rebuke addressed to them all. Here ‘parable’ simply means ‘a saying’, although a saying with an inner meaning. The problem was, what did Jesus really mean?

15.16 ‘And he said, “Are you also even yet without understanding?” ’

Jesus words are a gentle rebuke to them all. Do they still not understand after all this time. Are they still so bound to ritualistic ideas? The cloak of ritualism is hard to throw off, for it gives comfort to men even when they do not deserve comfort. But ritual is intended to turn men’s hearts and minds away from itself to the lessons that lie behind it. Once it becomes an end in itself it is dead, and ministers death. And that was what had happened with many of the Pharisees. The doctrine of the need for the washing of hands so as to prevent uncleanness passing through the mouth into a person was totally false and based on false conceptions.

15.17 “Do you not perceive that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the digestive system, and is cast out into the draught?”

So His disciples need to recognise that when something is eaten it goes through the digestive system, and that what then remains, leaves their bodies as waste and goes into the latrine. It takes no religious uncleanness in and it leaves no religious uncleanness behind. Thus it cannot cause religious defilement. (This has nothing to do with whether it can cause physical problems). So the idea that food can pass on religious contamination is to be seen as a fallacy.

15.18 “But the things which proceed out of the mouth come forth out of the heart; and they defile the man.”

On the other hand the things which can really defile a man religiously and morally (parallel ideas in those days) are the things that are revealed by what comes from the mouth in the words that a man speaks (compare 12.36-37). For it is they which come from the heart, and demonstrate what is in the heart. They, as it were, reproduce what is in the inner man.

‘Out of the mouth.’ This is in contrast with what goes in at the mouth earlier. What comes out of the mouth reveals the evil thoughts of men. The list that follows does not specifically keep the mouth in mind, but Jesus was well aware that in the end all these sins would in one way or another result in words which would reveal an evil heart.

15.19 “For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings.”

Here ‘evil thoughts’ is probably a summary of what is then given in detail. Thus the idea here is that evil thoughts come from the ‘heart’ (that is, from the mind and will and inner being of a man). And that these evil thoughts then reveal themselves in such behaviour as murder, adultery, all sexually irresponsible behaviour, theft, and false witness. Note that here in Matthew these follow the order of the second section of the ten commandments, and much of what is in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5. They are then followed by ‘railings’ (‘blasphemia’ - injurious speech whether of God or men) which replaces ‘covetousness’, but this may contain within it the idea that men do in fact rail against God and man because they do not get what they want. Thus their covetousness is revealed by what comes from their mouths. All this includes the idea in James that the tongue can be ‘a little member --- set on fire by Hell’ (James 3.5-6) because of the harm that it can do. Notice also that adultery has been expanded to include all irresponsible sexual behaviour. Men murder, and hate, and destroy each other, and as they do so their tongues will reveal it in various ways. And they behave sexually irresponsibly, and steal, and cheat, and cannot be trusted, and belabour others and thereby again reveal themselves for what they are. And all of them will in one way or another result in words that come from the mouth. So it is not the world that contaminates them. It is they who contaminate the world.

Thus it is the evil thoughts within a person, which result in evil actions and in evil words, which are the true measure of uncleanness.

15.20 “These are the things which defile the man. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”

It is such things that really defile a person. But eating with unwashed hands (while not a good idea hygienically) cannot defile the inner man. Thus Jesus is saying that the Pharisees are concentrating attention in the wrong place. They think of themselves as pure, and as all the problems being outside in the ‘world’. Thus they think that by ritual they will be able to keep themselves acceptable to God. But the truth is the opposite. The real problem with ‘uncleanness’ is that it is within our hearts because we are ‘evil’ (7.11, 17-18; 9.4; 12.34), that is, are ungodlike, and ruled by passion and prejudice and false belief. It is true that we are to keep ourselves free from the taint of the world (1 John 2.15-17) but in the end our main problem is with ourselves. Thus while we do need cleansing, it will not be accomplished with water. For in fact in the Old Testament water never ‘cleanses’. Unless conjoined with sacrifices water is only ever preparatory to cleansing and ‘bathing’ is regularly accompanied by the phrase ‘and will not be clean until the evening’. Thus the Pharisees had actually to twist a basic premise of Scripture in order to suit their purpose.

‘But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.’ As Matthew often does he sums up by referring back to what started the incident (see verse 2). Compare 12.45 with 12.39; 16.12 with 16.6. He is not suggesting that the whole incident has been limited to this question, but that the initial question has been answered.

Note On Cleanness and Uncleanness.

It will be noted that Jesus is not here commenting on the Levitical laws of cleanness and uncleanness which are not in question. Nor is He oversetting them. He is concerned with a ritual which has grown up in the tradition, which is actually misrepresenting the significance of the genuine ritual. He considers therefore that the attitude of the Pharisees towards ritual is basically at fault. Thus He does not discuss which ritual is valid and which is not. Rather His answer gets to the root of the question as to what should be of prime importance in a person’s life with God. Given that a person wants to please God, and be pleasing to Him, His whole point is that the Pharisees’ concentration on the wrong things has led them totally astray. They have made ritual the arbiter of everything else, and in order to bolster their position have introduced false ritual. In their view it is right ritual that determines people’s standing with God. He on the other hand makes the attitude of the heart central. His point is that God looks not at the externals but at the heart (1 Samuel 16.7). The purpose of any ritual was, in fact, to make people have the right attitude of heart. While it accomplishes that, therefore, it may be retained. But the logic of that is that once the ritual failed in bringing about the right attitude of heart it should be dispensed with, which is why later that is what happened. Once people had in Jesus the Great Example (Hebrews 12.1-2), the lesser examples could fall away, and that would then include the wider ritual also.

The Scribes and Pharisees had introduced the new ritual of the washing of hands because they had the wrong idea about the ritual. Nowhere had the old ritual suggested that men were constantly being defiled day by day, as a result of general contacts. It had dealt with uncleanness arising from specific known cases. Nor had it suggested that that uncleanness could be removed by bathing in water. Bathing in water was in fact preparatory to other methods of dealing with uncleanness. It removed external dirt from the flesh (compare 1 Peter 3.21) so that men could then wait on God. There was in fact no instant way of removing ritual uncleanness. Such removal always required the passage of time.

The purpose of the laws of cleanness and uncleanness was in order to bring out the wholesomeness and perfection of the living God. At the other end of the spectrum was the sphere of death and unwholesomeness. Within the spectrum were different levels of uncleanness which related to death and blood, and different levels of unwholesomeness. Its purpose was in order to encourage people to live wholesome lives, and to avoid what was unwholesome. Thus clean creatures lived in the right sphere and avoided the dust of death. Unclean creatures lived in unwholesome spheres and were connected with the dust of death. Skin disease was a living death and must not come within the camp. Sexual excretions were a giving out of life, thus rendering a person closer to death, or in the case of blood were a direct giving out of life. Eating animals whose blood had not been offered to God was to partake of death. To touch what was dead resulted in being contaminated by death. And so on. But in most cases, once an unclean situation had been remedied, being restored simply mainly required the passage of a certain length of time in isolation after washing in water, sometimes connected with other ritual.

Jesus did not criticise these ideas. To Him wholesome living was important. It was a very different matter when He considered the ideas of the Scribes and Pharisees. They contributed not to wholesomeness but to superstition and prejudice, and suggested that water could wash away uncleanness. However, there is no doubt that His treatment of their misrepresentation brought out the non-necessity for the laws of uncleanness (as Mark 7.19b discerns) once His own death and resurrection had produced a better example for men to look to. People who could look to the crucified and risen Christ no longer needed examples of wholesomeness and unwholesomeness. In that they had all the lessons that they needed. Thus in Acts 10 God revealed to Peter that the laws of uncleanness need no longer apply.

End of note.

15.21 ‘And Jesus went out from there, and withdrew into the parts of Tyre and Sidon.’

Aware of opposition growing all around Jesus now withdrew again and moved into the areas around Tyre and Sidon. These were in non-Jewish territory to the north of Palestine, and outside the jurisdiction of Herod and the influence of the Jerusalem Scribes. Tyre and Sidon were two seaports on the Mediterranean coast in Phoenicia. Jesus had earlier spoken of them as cities which would have believed had they seen the Messianic works performed that were performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida (11.21-22). This may in fact be partly why Matthew mentions their names, for now one of their residents will be given that opportunity, but the main reason is in order to signal the new turn that Jesus’ ministry is taking. From now on He will spend much less time in Galilee.

It will have been noticed that (except in the mouth of Jesus - 11.21-24; 12.41) Matthew names no towns apart from Capernaum. He seems rather to favour districts, and even then it is seemingly in order to indicate movement between Jewish and Gentile territory. That is the case with this reference to the parts of Tyre and Sidon. Other similar references are as follows:

  • ‘Coming to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes’ (8.28). Here He was coming to Gentile territory, and from there they ‘crossed over and came to His own city’ (9.1), which explains how He returned to Galilee.
  • ‘Crossing over they came to the land, to Gennesaret’ in Galilee (14.34). This indicates that they had come from Gentile territory, which they had reached earlier by boat (14.13), and which was on ‘the other side’ (14.22).
  • ‘Entering into the boat they came into the borders of Magadan’ (15.39). This again indicates that they had come from Gentile territory, territory which had been reached after leaving Tyre and Sidon, by going via ‘the Sea of Galilee’ (15.29) and the regions of Decapolis (Mark 7.31).
  • ‘The disciples came to the other side -- Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi’ (16.5, 13). This again indicates a venture into Gentile territory, after which they returned to Galilee (17.22).

This suggests that the reason for mentioning the names is so as to indicate when He is in Gentile territory. This being the case it points to four visits to Gentile territory, 8.28-9.1; 14.13-34; 15.21-39; 16.13-17.22. Thus this one that now follows is the third, and longest such visit. It will be noted that in Matthew (but not in Mark) ‘the other side’ is always in Gentile territory.

Jesus Begins To Move Towards The Gentiles (15.22-28).

Jesus now moves for safety and quiet towards Tyre and Sidon. There were many Jews in the area who had shown an interest in hearing Him (see Mark 3.8; Luke 6.17) and it may be that it was His intention to minister to them. But it may simply be that He was only wanting rest and quiet (Mark 7.24). Then, however, if we take His own words as genuinely representing His thinking, He had a ‘life-changing’ experience. For He was approached by a Canaanite woman, and her words brought home to Him that He must now expand His ministry. It appears that He realised from this experience that His Father was now showing Him that He must go among the Gentiles, (in fulfilment of 12.18, 21; Isaiah 42.1-4, 6; 49.6). It was not a question of having come to a decision and then changing His mind, but of a willingness to wait for an indication from the Father as to what He should do, something that we should all constantly do when facing difficult decisions, especially spiritual ones.

Analysis.

  • a And behold, a Canaanitish woman came out from those borders, and cried, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, you son of David. My daughter is grievously vexed with a demon” (22).
  • b But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she continually calls after us” (23).
  • c And he answered and said, “I was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (24).
  • d But she came and worshipped him, saying, “Lord, help me” (25).
  • c And he answered and said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (26).
  • b But she said, “Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (27).
  • a Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done to you even as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (28).

Note that in ‘a’ the woman pleads for the healing of her daughter, and in the parallel Jesus grants her healing in response to her faith. In ‘b’ Jesus does not answer her and the disciples call for her to be sent away, and in the parallel her plea is the right to be heard and to come near because she is like a pet dog coming to its master’s table. In ‘c’ Jesus points out that He has come only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and in the parallel He points out that He has brought the children’s bread which is for the children and not for others. Centrally in ‘d’ she worships Him and cries, ‘Lord, help me’.

15.22 ‘And behold, a Canaanitish woman came out from those borders, and cried, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, you son of David. My daughter is grievously vexed with a demon.” ’

While Jesus was in the region of Tyre and Sidon a woman came from her home and approached the area where He was. The fact that she ‘cried out’ and that later the disciples said that she ‘cries after us’ (verse 23) suggests that she did not come too close. Perhaps as a Canaanite and a woman she was afraid to approach a Jewish prophet. But she was nevertheless not to be denied, and she cried, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, you son of David. My daughter is grievously vexed with a demon.”

Matthew alone calls her a Canaanite, and to Jewish readers that would speak volumes. For the Canaanites were the hereditary enemies of Israel, and were forbidden any part in the congregation of Israel. They were either to be driven out or cut off. Thus this woman had less right even than the Gentiles to expect help from a Jewish prophet.

Her cry to Him as ‘the Son of David’ in connection with a case of demon possession suggests that she connected Him with Solomon, who had had close ties with Tyre and Sidon, and who had had a reputation for remedies which aided those possessed by evil spirits (see Titles of Jesus in the Introduction). He too was regularly called a ‘son of David’. This is in fact more likely than that she was specifically using a Messianic title, although to many Jews it may well have been a Messianic title, for it is found as such in the Psalms of Solomon. Thus this may be seen as one of a number of examples in Scripture of ‘unconscious prophecy’. For the title with ‘Lord’ added compare 20.30, 31, and contrast 9.27. On her lips ‘Lord’ used in this way must be given a high significance. It was the Gentile way of addressing supreme rulers and deities. She is thus paying Jesus due honour, and acknowledging His high status and connections.

15.23 ‘But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she continually calls after us.” ’

Jesus did not answer her. We should note in this regard that she was not addressing Him face to face but calling from a distance, so that there was nothing impolite about it. No doubt in fact Jesus often heard people calling things out from a distance, and could not respond to all who did so. But there was another time when Jesus ‘did not answer’, and that was in the case of the woman taken in adultery (John 8.6). It may suggest therefore deep thought in the face of a dilemma. He was not quite sure what to do, for the reason shortly to be given, and was no doubt praying to His Father for guidance. Meanwhile she continued to call after them, and the disciples seemingly saw no reason why He should not do as she asked and send her away. Indeed they were clearly getting very embarrassed. They were in foreign parts and she was drawing too much attention to them.

15.24 ‘And he answered and said, “I was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” ’

Jesus then turned in response to His disciples’ requests and gave the reason for His lack of response. He declared, “I was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” At this point we must remember who ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ were. They were not the whole of Israel without exception. Jesus was quite clear on the fact that many Jews would deliberately refuse to listen to them and would turn them away. In such cases the disciples were to shake the dust off their feet and go elsewhere. They were not to go to them. They were not to cast their pearls before swine (7.6). But others would welcome them with open hearts, because of their sense of need, and their desire to know God. It was to them that they must go. They were ‘the lost sheep of the house of Israel’.

Indeed who the lost sheep of the house of Israel were has already been explained in 9.36. They were the large crowds who were tending to follow Him because their hearts were unsatisfied and the Jewish leadership had failed them. There were many like them waiting in the towns and cities longing for a way of salvation. In 9.36 Jesus had seen them as ‘distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd.’

The great crowds that gathered around Jesus had touched His heart. He was ‘moved with compassion’ towards them. The word for compassion used there was a word solely used of Jesus in the Gospels apart from when He uses it in His own parables. It is at the heart of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. For He saw these people as distressed and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd. This description of sheep without a shepherd is firmly based on the Old Testament (Numbers 27.17; 1 Kings 22.17; 1 Chronicles 18.16; Ezekiel 34.6, 12 compare Jeremiah 50.17). And the description of Israel as sheep is even more common (2 Samuel 24.17; 1 Chronicles 21.17; Psalm 23; 44.11, 22; 74.1; 78.52; 79.13; 95.7; 100.3; 119.176; Isaiah 53.6; Jeremiah 23.1; 50.6; Micah 2.12). Without a shepherd sheep are in a hopeless condition.

The scattering of sheep was a picture of the exile (Psalm 44.11; Jeremiah 50.17; Ezekiel 34.6, 12) and of persecution (Zechariah 13.7). Thus Jesus looked on these people as in their own kind of exile, an exile from which He had Himself come in order to deliver them (2.15). A group of scattered sheep without a shepherd would soon have found themselves in great distress in Palestine, especially in the dry summers. Unlike goats they were not good at looking after themselves. And what with thorn bushes, and predators, and scavenging dogs, and a disinclination to forage, and shortage of water, their situation if left to themselves would be desperate. In a similar way that was how Jesus saw these people, as scattered and distressed sheep, because their shepherds had failed them. It was because of their spiritual hunger and thirst that they had flocked to John and were now flocking to Him. They were the ordinary people left bewildered by the arguments of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. They were seen as ‘distressed and scattered.’ Various alternative translations have been suggested for the Greek words used here, ‘worried and helpless’, ‘harassed and helpless’, ‘distressed and downcast’, ‘harassed and dejected’, ‘bullied and unable to escape’, ‘mishandled and lying helpless’, partly depending on whether we are thinking primarily of the sheep, or of the people that they represent. But in the end they were all saying the same thing. They were a ‘lost’ people.

But there were also many Israelites in some of those towns and cities who were not ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (10.14-15). It is true that theologically they were lost, and that they were Israelites, (although now to be rejected Israelites), but their hearts were closed towards Him. They were quite happy with their shepherds, and did not know that they were lost. They did not think of themselves as lost. And when His messengers arrived they refused to give them a hearing. Thus in chapter 10 the disciples had been told not to go to them but rather to shake their dust off their feet, a sign that in God’s eyes they were not true members of Israel. These Israelites were not the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’. In contrast the lost sheep of the house of Israel were those whose hearts were open to receiving the disciples and hearing their message. Jesus could have said with Paul, ‘They are not all Israel who are Israel’ (Romans 9.6).

But what did He mean by His words here, and why did He say it at this moment? It in fact points to His dilemma.

  • If He does what this woman asks He will be opening the way to many Gentiles who will then feel that they too can bring their sick ones to be healed by the Jewish prophet. Thus He will begin to be seen as a healer, and not as a Jewish Prophet. And credit for the healings will then be given to their own gods, a complete contradiction to His mission.
  • The consequences could then be that the ministry to those who were aware of their ‘lostness’ in Israel, the healing of whom was the purpose for which He was sent, would be hindered. In their eyes His ministry would be tarnished.

Thus He feels that what this woman is asking is outside His mission, and it was something that required deep thought. It had been one thing to heal Gentiles who were in deep sympathy with Judaism while He was among the Jews in Galilee, where the full credit would go to the God of Israel, it would be quite another to do it in a Gentile environment when the credit could go anywhere, and false ideas and beliefs could be fostered. And to Him truth was central. At present His ministry was to those of the house of Israel who were like sheep without a shepherd, and He knew that that ministry was not yet complete, and must not be hindered. He had to walk step by step with His Father. He was not here as a Wisdom teacher. He was here as a Prophet, yes, and more than a Prophet. This is a salutary reminder to us that Jesus did not in His earthly life have precognition of everything and instantly know what to do (compare the temptations). As He lived out His life He was rather dependent on what His Father revealed to Him and on the Scriptures. Furthermore He was conscious that He had come to this place for peace and quiet, not in order to arouse the neighbourhood. He did not want the floodgates to open. It was not yet time.

There may also be the thought here that He cannot grant her request when by doing so He may be allowing her to go back to give thanks to her pagan gods. What part has she in the son of David and in the God of Israel?

‘I was -- sent.’ Notice the indication of His consciousness of His mission. He is One Who has been sent on a particular mission. It was a phrase intended to raise questions in the mind of those who heard it.

15.25 ‘But she came and worshipped him, saying, “Lord, help me” ’

But then He is put on the spot, for with great boldness, and no doubt a sense of despair at His not replying, she ceased to be at a distance. She came close and fell before Him, worshipping Him, and crying, ‘Lord, help me.’ This put her appeal in a different light. A personal appeal like this was one that He found difficult to resist. And yet even now He knew that He could not respond to her unless she recognised exactly on what terms. She had to be made to recognise what she was asking, and Whom she was asking it from. But from what follows it seems that His thoughts were now clarified, and that His Father had shown Him what He is to do.

15.26 ‘And he answered and said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” ’

So He turns to the woman and says, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The picture is vivid. The family is sitting at their meal with the family dogs lying underneath. Would it be right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs? We cannot doubt that He Himself has in mind here the bread with which He had fed the five thousand and more at their ‘family’ meal, and its deeper significance as offering life to Israel. But the woman will recognise more that He is talking of the spiritual food which He offers to the Jews (compare Isaiah 55.2). It is the equivalent of ‘salvation is of the Jews’ (John 4.22). Nor, however, can we doubt that His demeanour encouraged her to reply. She would see hope from the smile on His face and the compassion in His eyes.

We must not see ‘dogs’ as demeaning, except in so far as they indicated the difference between those who thought rightly, in contrast with the heedless (compare the idea of the ‘son of man’ and the wild beasts in Daniel 7). The point Jesus is making is of non-relationship. The dogs are not part of the family. And the woman recognises it for what it is. He is telling her that they have no relationship to the master of the house, and therefore have no right to food from the table. (It is in fact questionable as to how far Gentiles were generally seen as ‘dogs’ at this time, and how far the idea grew up later, but compare 7.6).

15.27 ‘But she said, “Yes, Lord, for even the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” ’

She knew precisely what He meant. He is a Jewish prophet, and His ministry is to the Jews. They are the ‘children’ of His God, and she acknowledges both this, and their right. What agrees that what He says is true. But then she points out that the dogs under the table are allowed crumbs from the table. This would also include bread on which the family had wiped their fingers. Thus the master considers it right to give such crumbs to dogs. Will not the God of Israel then give His crumbs to her?

15.28 ‘Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done to you even as you wish.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.’

Impressed by her faith, and aware that she has now acknowledged where any benefit will come from, Jesus replies with commendation. “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done to you even as you wish.” This is the second time that Jesus has been impressed by the faith of a Gentile (see 8.19). And her daughter was healed from that hour (compare 8.13b).

There are parallel echoes here to 8.5-13 where the Gentile centurion also demonstrated great faith, and His servant was healed at a distance ‘in that hour’. They are thus both seen to be on a parallel. Does this then mean that her faith, and that of the centurion, were greater than that of the disciples who were of ‘little faith’? The comparison is not fair. The disciples are seen as ‘of little faith’ in the face of great obstacles (14.31; 17.20). His point there was that their faith was small compared with what it should have been, but it was nevertheless a faith that kept them following Him faithfully, and was great enough to have enabled them to perform wonders in His Name. Thus their faith and hers must be seen as measured on a different basis.

But there seems little doubt from what follows that this incident has opened Jesus’ eyes to the further outreach that His Father has now shown Him that He must engage in. And He is thus not described as returning to Jewish territory until 15.39. It would seem therefore that the ministry that follows is intended by Matthew to be seen as on Gentile territory, fulfilling the words of 12.18, 21. That the crowds which will be mentioned included many Jews we need not doubt, for all the areas around Galilee were well inhabited with Jews. But nor can we doubt that they would have included many Gentiles, who would be in the majority in these areas. It would not be true to human nature not to recognise that a wonder-worker of such magnitude would not be an object of interest to all. And as we shall see there are in fact hints of the fact in the stories that follow.

Ministry in Gentile Territory (15.29-31).

There is every reason to think that this is in Gentile territory, for Matthew usually makes a return to Jewish territory clear, and that does not occur until 15.39. Mark 7.31 also confirms that this return to the Sea of Galilee was via the environs of Sidon and ‘through the midst of the borders of Decapolis’. This suggests a detour, first going northwards towards Sidon, then eastwards, going past the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, through Gaulanitis, and into Decapolis, a semi-independent group of ten Greek cities. Furthermore it must be seen as significant that the crowds ‘glorify the God of Israel’, a phrase found only here. In the light of what has happened previously and the general context this gives the impression of Gentile response. Like the Canaanite woman they too acknowledge the God of Israel as their healer.

This may also be seen as confirmed in the account that follows of the feeding of four thousand. Whereas five thousand spoke of the covenant people, four thousand speaks of the nations of the world, for ‘four’ is the number that depicts the world. Four rivers covered and watered the earth (Genesis 2.10-14). It was four ‘world’ kings who came against the five who were in covenant with Abraham in the land (Genesis 14.9). Four wild beasts signified world empires (Daniel 2; 7). There are four directions, north, south, east and west (Genesis 28.14; Deuteronomy 3.27; Psalm 107.3; Isaiah 43.5-6); four winds of Heaven (Daniel 8.8; 11.4, and compare Matthew 24.31); four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11.12; Revelation 7.1).

It is further confirmed by the seven loaves and the seven baskets. These contrast with the five loaves and the twelve baskets. Seven was a sacred number in all nations, while five and twelve had special significance for Israel.

So we have good reason for seeing that Matthew is indicating that all this activity is taking place in Gentile territory, including the feeding of the four thousand. We do not know how many disciples had been with Jesus prior to this time, perhaps a good number, but this period of travel would clearly have given the opportunity for much solid teaching, and also the opportunity for these disciples to experience a deeper personal relationship with Jesus. They had seen and experienced much. Jesus now wanted them to enter more deeply into Who He is.

Analysis.

  • a Jesus departed from there, and came alongside the sea of Galilee, and He went up into the mountain, and sat there (29).
  • b And there came to Him great crowds, having with them the lame, blind (30a).
  • c Dumb, maimed, and many others (30b).
  • d And they cast them down at His feet, and He healed them (30b).
  • c Insomuch that the crowd wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole (31a)
  • b And lame walking, and the blind seeing (31b).
  • a And they glorified the God of Israel (31c).

Note how in ‘a’ Jesus went up into the mountain and sat there, and in the parallel they glorified the God of Israel. In ‘b’ the lame and blind were healed, and in the parallel they were seen to be healed. In ‘c’ the dumb and maimed were healed, and in the parallel the dumb and maimed were seen to be healed. Centrally in ‘d’ is the fact that they cast them down at His feet and He healed them.

15.29 ‘And Jesus departed from there, and came alongside the sea of Galilee, and he went up into the mountain, and sat there.’

Having gone northwards through the regions of Sidon, Jesus then moved eastwards and made for the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, where He again ‘went up into the mountain’. Possibly His aim had been to circumvent Galilee. Going up into ‘the mountain’ always signifies in Matthew a deeply spiritual time, compare 5.1; 14.23; 28.16; and see also 17.1. And there He ‘sat down’, to teach.

15.30 ‘And there came to him great crowds, having with them the lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and they cast them down at his feet, and he healed them,’

That much has happened during the period that had past since the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter becomes clear here, for there are now great crowds gathered to hear Him in Gentile territory, and the fact that they come up into the mountain to hear Him, as the disciples had done in 5.1, suggests a certain level of commitment. And there they brought to Him all their disabled. As we have already seen previously, Matthew tends to depict Jesus’ work as the Servant in terms of healing and making whole (8.17; compare 14.35-36; 10.1). To him Jesus’ work is that of healing both body and soul. And the healings mentioned here echo the Messianic signs that Jesus had drawn John’s attention to in 11.5. There may also be a reference to Zechariah 11.16 where the faithless shepherd does not heal ‘the maimed’. That is done by the true shepherd. The healing of the maimed is thus there connected with the work of a faithful shepherd. So His Messianic ministry and His ‘making whole’ is now reaching out among the Gentiles (12.18, 21). But along with it is undoubtedly the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (4.23; 9.35; 13.1-52; Isaiah 61.1-3).

15.31 ‘Insomuch that the crowd wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, and lame walking, and the blind seeing, and they glorified the God of Israel.’

And once these crowds saw the wonderful things that He was doing, the dumb speaking, the maimed made whole, the lame walking and the blind seeing (Isaiah 35.5-6), ‘they glorified the God of Israel’. The uniqueness of this title in Matthew (although it is found in Psalm 72.18, but there it is accompanied by God’s Name) suggests a special reason for its use. Had it been intended to be seen on the lips of Jews we would have expected, ‘the LORD, the God of Israel’. (See Luke 1.68). Thus the bald expression here, which is unique as far as the Gospels is concerned, suggests, in context, the response of Gentiles. Like the Canaanite woman they had come to feed at His table. Thus Matthew, having in mind Jesus’ words that He has come to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, emphasises that these people acknowledged the ‘God of Israel’ as their Benefactor. The crowds must therefore probably be seen as a combination of both Jews from areas outside Galilee, and of Gentiles. In view of this it must therefore be seen as quite significant that for those who have come and have been with Him there for ‘three days’ He now provides ‘bread from Heaven’. He is ready and willing to feed this mixed crowd who have proved so responsive to His teaching, just as He fed the Jewish gathering earlier (14.13-21), and the initiative comes from Him. (It was not likely to come from the disciples who probably at first saw the number of Gentiles gathered there with disapproval).

The Feeding of Four Thousand In Gentile Territory By A Miracle (15.32-39).

It was one thing for Jesus to preach and heal in Gentile territory where there were many Jews, while allowing Gentiles to share the fringe benefits, for the synagogues did the same (at least the preaching aspect). Gentiles were welcomed in reasonable numbers into Jewish synagogues so as to learn about the God of Israel. It was, however, quite another to do what He did now. For here they do not just have the opportunity to learn, but are called on to partake in a ‘family’ meal, as a community together. They are being treated, at least to a certain extent, as on a level with His Jewish disciples. To the disciples this was probably totally unexpected, which explains why, although they had seen the feeding of the five thousand, they did not expect that to be reproduced here (verse 33). That had been for Jewish believers, but here there were many Gentiles. From this we learn therefore that the new ‘congregation’ of Israel is to include Gentiles, just as the old congregation of Israel had done in the days of the Exodus, when ‘the mixed multitude’ (Exodus 12.38) were united with them in the covenant at Sinai.

No doubt the Apostles accepted Jesus’ preaching to Gentiles because they looked on these people as similar to ‘God-fearers’, those who because they had come to believe in the God of Israel attended worship at synagogues, even though they did not become full proselytes. This explains why they still did not catch on to the fact Gentiles were to be welcomed wholesale into Jesus’ new congregation of Israel, and would have to be convinced of it later in Acts 10-11. It also explains why they did not expect that they would be provided with bread from Heaven as Jewish believers had been. After all even to the Canaanite woman He had only offered ‘crumbs’.

Comparing this incident with the parallel picture in 14.13-21 there are a number of clear distinctions which demonstrate the difference between them, and even in some cases hint at the presence of Gentiles here. The scene in 14.13-21 took place in the spring (they sat on green grass - Mark 6.39), here it is later in the year, for He sat them on ‘the ground (land, earth)’. In 14.13-21 the crowd had come a long way, which was why they had no food, here they have run short of food because of the length of time that they have stayed with Jesus, listening to His words. In 14.13-21 it was the disciples who approached Jesus, and drew attention to the problem (of their fellow-Jews?), here Jesus calls His disciples to Him and Himself draws attention to the problem. In 14.13-21 the idea was that the crowds went to the surrounding villages for food. The idea here seems to be that they would return to their homes. In 14.13-21 there were five loaves and two fishes. Here there are seven loaves and a few fish. In 14.13-21 Jesus ‘blesses’, that is uses a typically Jewish form of grace, here He ‘gives thanks’. In 14.13-21 there were twelve wicker baskets (typical of what Jews used for carrying kosher food with them) which were filled with remnants, here it is seven larger baskets, probably made of hemp, of a kind regularly used by Gentiles as well as Jews, and probably brought from the boat.

Thus in 14.13-21 the ‘family’ partook of the bread from God’s table, here the family still participated, but Gentiles were also allowed to receive ‘the crumbs’ (15.27). Once having received illumination from His Father Jesus had no hesitation in carrying it into practise. He recognised that His wider ministry had begun.

Analysis.

  • a And Jesus called to Him His disciples, and said (32a).
  • b “I have compassion on the crowd, because they continue with me now three days and have nothing to eat, and I would not send them away fasting, lest it happen that they faint on the way” (32b).
  • c And the disciples say to Him, “From where should we have so many loaves in a desert place as to fill so great a crowd?” (33).
  • d And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven, and a few small fishes” (34).
  • e And He commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground (35).
  • d And He took the seven loaves and the fishes, and He gave thanks and broke, and gave to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowds (36).
  • c And they all ate, and were filled, and they took up what remained over of the broken pieces, seven baskets full (37).
  • b And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children (38).
  • a And He sent away the crowds, and entered into the boat, and came into the borders of Magadan (39).

Note that in ‘a’ He calls to Him His disciples, and in the parallel He sends away the crowds. In ‘b’ He has compassion on the hungry crowd, and in the parallel they are all miraculously fed. In ‘c’ the disciples wonder how they will be fed, and in the parallel they are not only fed but there is a large surplus over. In ‘d’ there are seven loaves and a few fish, and in the parallel He uses these to feed the crowd. Centrally in ‘e’ Jesus tells them all to sit on the ground preparatory to the miracle.

15.32 ‘And Jesus called to him his disciples, and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they continue with me now three days and have nothing to eat, and I would not send them away fasting, lest it happen that they faint on the way.” ’

Jesus expresses His compassion for the crowd who have been listening him for a couple of days or so (‘three days’ is a general expression indicating anything from one and a half to five days, see its use in Joshua 2-3) and so have run out of any food that they had brought with them some time before.

In the previous incident of feeding the crowds, the disciples had sought that Jesus would send the crowds, who were far from home, to the neighbouring villages for food so that they could eat, only to discover that He expected them to be able to feed them. But in this case it is Jesus Who draws attention to the situation. And He declares that He is filled with compassion for the crowds because they have been with Him in the mountain for three days, and have run out of food to such an extent that they have not eaten for some time. Thus if He sent them home they might not make it through faintness. This was a clear expression of the deep interest of the crowds. It may well also have been a test to see what kind of response His disciples would make.

The question was, had their faith increased sufficiently since the last time for them to be able to do something now, and had they also learned the lesson of the Canaanite woman, so that they would recognise that God would feed the Gentile believers too? The disciples had, however, probably seen the former feeding as a one-off, and even more they would not consider that this mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles could expect similar treatment. For while it was expected that the Messiah would provide manna from Heaven for Jews, it was certainly not expected for Gentiles. Thus the situation would be seen by them as very different. They had forgotten that Jesus had already demonstrated that He would take of the children’s bread and give it to the ‘dogs’.

Note Jesus’ expression of compassion. It is a word regularly used of Him (9.36; 14.14; 20.34; Mark 1.41; 5.19; Luke 7.13). It reminds us that with all its spiritual lessons we must primarily see in this incident an expression of compassion. Jesus fed them in the first place because they were hungry and in real need. On the other hand when He Himself was tempted in such a situation He had refused to use His divine powers to produce bread. This suggests that something more was to be seen here. Which may be as follows:

  • 1). That Jesus had an important lesson in it for the disciples, not only that it was ever to be their responsibility to feed God’s true people, but also that in this case the Gentiles who genuinely sought Him had a right to receive the same benefits as believing Jews. This again ties in to some extent with the Jewish way of thinking. The proselyte (but not the God-fearer) who converted to Judaism was, at least theoretically to stand on the same level as the ‘trueborn’ Jew (Exodus 12.48). And we should recognise in this regard that any converts through Jesus’ ministry at this stage would certainly make for the synagogues once Jesus was gone from among them, and would there be seen as God-fearers and prospective proselytes. It was one thing, however, to speak of such equality, and quite another to carry it into practise, so as really to place converted Gentiles on the same level as Jews. Jesus here goes one step further and offers Jewish privileges to believing Gentiles also, even though they are not circumcised. But it would be a hard lesson for the disciples to take in.

    2). Another clear lesson from this incident is that Jesus has come to feed both Jew and Gentile with the Bread of Life, so that those who come to Him may never hunger and those who believe in Him may never thirst (John 6.35). In Him their hunger and thirst after righteousness (5.6) will be fulfilled. He has come bringing ‘food’ for all, the sure mercies of David, which are available to all nations (Isaiah 55.1-5). This is emphasised later in 16.9-12 when it is made clear that the ‘bread from Heaven’ represents Jesus’ message of salvation.

15.33 ‘And the disciples say to him, “From where should we have so many loaves in a desert place as to fill so great a crowd?” ’

The disciples clearly did not consider that it was likely that there could be a miracle of bread from Heaven for Gentiles, and began to consider from where they could get sufficient loaves to satisfy this large and hungry crowd. It was not a question of whether Jesus could do it. It was their certain opinion that He would not. This mixed crowd was a totally different matter from a wholly Jewish crowd seeking Jesus.

15.34 ‘And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven, and a few small fishes.” ’

So Jesus asked them how many loaves they had, and learned that they had seven, and a few little fishes. The number is significant. Five had in Jewish eyes indicated the covenant, but seven was a number indicating divine perfection and completeness among all nations. Thus seven indicated divine sufficiency for all. And added to the seven were a few little fishes. Together they made up the staple diet of the ordinary people of the area.

15.35 ‘And he commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground.’

Once again He commands the crowd to sit down, although this time not ‘on the grass’ but ‘on the ground (land, earth)’. They are to recognise that the food comes from Him.

15.36 ‘And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and he gave thanks and broke, and gave to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowds.’

Then taking the seven loaves and the few fishes He gave thanks, broke them and gave them to the disciples. In the previous incident He had ‘offered a blessing’ for them. The latter was very much a Jewish way of looking at the giving of thanks. That used here was more universal. But the principle behind it all is the same. He is providing food to His ‘family’. The inference is clear. Those who respond to Him and do the will of His Father in Heaven are His family, whether they be Jew or Gentile.

15.37 ‘And they all ate, and were filled, and they took up what remained over of the broken pieces, seven baskets full.’

And as before all ate and were filled. There is no lack of sufficiency when Jesus feeds men and women with the bread of life. And even what was left over was a sufficiency of divine supply (seven). The word for baskets here refers to non-wicker baskets, and they were regularly, although not always, of a larger size. These ones were probably usually used to hold catches of fish. We are specifically informed in 16.9-11 that what was eaten and what was left over symbolised the teaching of Jesus, and therefore of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. Thus the leftovers probably also indicate that there is a surplus to be take out to others, that all who will might be filled.

15.38 ‘And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children.’

Those who ate were about four thousand men, as well as women and children. Again the counting of ‘the men’ suggests that it was to be seen as an assembly of ‘the congregation of Israel’, that is, of those met before the Lord. Gentiles were therefore being seen as incorporated within that congregation. And as we have seen, they ‘glorified the God of Israel’. Furthermore, as mentioned above, ‘four’ indicates that they represent the nations. But the mention of the women and children indicates that all were included within His provision. All were participating in the Messianic banquet that Jesus had introduced by His coming.

15.39 ‘And he sent away the crowds, and entered into the boat, and came into the borders of Magadan.’

After the feeding the crowds were sent away and He entered a boat with His disciples and came to the borders of Magadan, the site of which is in fact unknown. But that it is on the west shore is confirmed by the scene that follows. The fact that the crowd was ‘sent away’ indicates how reluctant they were to leave. But Jesus knew when He felt that they had had sufficient teaching for the time being.

The Pharisees and Sadducees Seek Proof of His Authority By Requiring a Sign From Heaven (16.1-4).

Jesus moves from the place of blessing to the place of conflict. It is apparent now that the weight of the opposition is beginning to grow, for to the Pharisees and their Scribes are now added the Sadducees. This suggests that the Pharisees in Galilee, determined to bring Him to account, have swallowed their pride and taken common cause with the Sadducees at Herod’s court so as to call Him to account (compare Mark 8.15). Alternately it may signify that the whole of the religious element in the Sanhedrin have united to come to call on Him, either to prove His credentials by some God-given sign or cease preaching. As Paul tells us later from his own experience, the Jews were famed for ‘asking for signs’ (1 Corinthians 1.22). They remembered Moses. They remembered Elijah and Elisha. They remembered other occasions when God had done wonders. (They conveniently forgot that David and many of the prophets performed no signs). And while they acknowledged that Jesus had performed many miracles of healing and cast out evil spirits they dismissed such things, probably on the grounds that others did similar things. There were many who claimed to be healers.

But had they watched carefully they would have realised that He not only healed in abundance, but also, unlike the others, never failed, and the reason that they did not realise this was because their minds were set. They did not subject Him to a fair examination (as many today also fail to do). Nor, because He had performed such miracles only among responsive and believing crowds, had they seen the miracles of the loaves. They only had that on hearsay. So they wanted Jesus to perform to order. (This was something that neither Moses, nor Elijah and Elisha, had ever done. They only performed to God’s orders, not men’s). It was this casual use of ‘signs’ as wonders to be performed to satisfy men who demanded them, something that had never been done before, that Jesus refused to have anything to do with. It was one thing for God to choose to reveal signs, it was quite another for men to demand them, and decide what suited them and what did not.

Analysis.

  • a And the Pharisees and Sadducees came (1a).
  • b And trying him asked him to show them a sign from heaven (1b).
  • c But he answered and said to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the heaven is red’. And in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the heaven is red and lowering’ ” (2-3a).
  • c You know how to discern the face of the heaven, but you cannot discern the signs of the times” (3b).
  • b An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given to it, but the sign of Jonah (4a).
  • a And he left them, and departed (4b).

Note that in ‘a’ the Pharisees and Sadducees come, and in the parallel Jesus leaves them and departs. In ‘b’ they ask for a sign from Heaven, and in the parallel he gives His view on those who ask for signs. In ‘c’ He illustrates the use of signs, and in the parallel points out that while they know how to use physical signs, they are unable to discern spiritual signs.

16.1 ‘And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and trying him asked him to show them a sign from heaven.’

The coming together of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (linked by one article) may suggest an ungodly alliance between the Galilean Pharisees and the Sadducees at Herod’s court (Mark 3.6; 8.15), or it may even suggest an even stronger deputation from the Sanhedrin. Either way all are now united against Him. And they have come to finally test Him out.

The same verb is used here as that used of the tempting by Satan in 4.1. Satan also had suggested the same kind of sign. Perhaps we are intended to see here that Satan is again tempting Jesus through the Pharisees and Sadducees, and that they are his tools (compare John 8.39-44). They thus demand a sign from Heaven. They do not, of course, expect to receive one. They are out to demonstrate that He is a charlatan.

16.2-3 ‘But he answered and said to them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the heaven is red’. And in the morning, ‘It will be foul weather today, for the heaven is red and lowering.’ You know how to discern the face of the heaven, but you cannot discern the signs of the times.”

Jesus first replies by pointing out that like all Jews they are able to discern weather signs. A clear red heaven in the evening indicates to them fine weather. A sky that is red and lowering in the morning indicates to them foul weather. Thus they are adept at interpreting such signs. There is perhaps some sarcasm here. They can tell whether the sky is cloudy or not, but they cannot spot the cloudiness in their own thinking.

‘But you cannot discern the signs of the times.’ The truth was that those who should have been able to discern from His life and ministry that He was fulfilling what was said in the Old Testament, were failing to do so. They were ignoring the signs which Jesus had drawn John’s attention to (11.1-6). Those who should have been able to recognise the coming of the Messiah in the works that He had done and the words that He had spoken were unable to do so because their minds were clouded.

(We should possibly note that these two verses are omitted in some very important manuscripts (Aleph B f13 etc). They are supported by D W Theta f1 etc. Their omission would not affect the sense in any way, but a possible reason for their omission is that these weather signs were not applicable in such major Christian centres as Alexandria in Egypt where copying often took place. On the other hand there is no really good explanation as to why the words were quite unnecessarily introduced here from an unknown source if they were not genuine. Usually interpolations are explicable in terms of being introduced in order to conform with other passages, or as explanatory comments which were later accidentally incorporated in the text. But that is not the case here).

16.4 “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and there will no sign be given to it, but the sign of Jonah.” And he left them, and departed.’

Then He points out what the nature is of those who seek spectacular signs in spiritual matters. They are ‘an evil and adulterous generation’ (compare 12.39; 11.16). The seeking after signs, when such wonders have been done before them as would have convinced Tyre and Sidon, is simply evidence of the evil of their hearts. ‘Adulterous’ signifies a generation that is not in close touch with God, and is not truly seeking after God. Their minds are on other things, such as their own teaching and cleverness and self-importance. To such people no sign will be given, because they are unable to discern the true signs. Why, for those ready to see them, did not signs already abound? The problem lay not in Jesus’ unwillingness to give signs, but in their inability to receive them. Those who will not respond to the signs that He has given have revealed themselves as not fit to be given any signs.

Thus the only sign that will be given to them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. Jonah came from the innards of a large fish to successfully evangelise Nineveh. In the same way, one day they will see the Son of Man arise from the grave, and successfully evangelise the world (see on 12.38-42).

‘And he left them, and departed.’ The statement indicates their rejection. In Matthew Jesus never ‘departs from’ the crowds. It is only the opposition that He ‘departs from’ in such a way. (He temporarily leaves the disciples when He goes away to pray, but there He does not ‘depart’ from them - 26.44).

So the gradual increase of opposition now includes the Sadducees. He has been rejected by the Pharisees (9.11, 34; 12.1-14, 24-32, 38; 16.1); by Scribes (9.3; 12.38); by many of the common people (11.16-19); by the towns of Galilee (11.20-24;, by His own countrymen (13.53-58); by Herod (14.1-12); by the Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem (15.1); and now by the Sadducees (16.1). All that now awaits is His final rejection at Jerusalem.

The Failure Of The Disciples To Take Kosher Bread with Them When Going To Gentile Territory Raises the Question of ‘The Leaven of the Scribes and Pharisees’ (16.5-12).

Arriving back ‘on the other side’ in Gentile territory, the disciples become aware that they have forgotten to bring ‘kosher’ bread in their provisions baskets. (‘Kosher’ is not strictly the correct word, being anachronistic, but we signify by it here bread baked by a Jewish baker in accordance with Jewish principles of cleanness and uncleanness). They might have difficulty in finding a Jewish baker in that remote area. Their concern about the situation secretly amuses Jesus in view of what He has done in the past and He warns them rather to be worried about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Thinking that He is talking about literal bread they begin to discuss the matter between themselves, only to be interrupted by Him as He points out that He does not really mean literal bread. Rather He is warning them against the evil and sinister influence of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees with whom He has just had to do.

Analysis.

  • The disciples came to the other side and forgot to take bread, and Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (5-6).
  • And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “We took no bread”. And Jesus perceiving it said, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves, because you have no bread?” (7-8).
  • “Do you not yet perceive, nor remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you took up?” (9-10).
  • “How is it that you do not perceive that I did not speak to you about bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (11).
  • Then they understood that he bade them not to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (12).

Note that in ‘a’ they were thinking of bread but Jesus told them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and in the parallel they understand that He is not talking about bread but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. In ‘b’ He questions why they are thinking about bread, and in the parallel asks the same question and goes on to point out that He means the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Centrally in ‘c’ He draws their attention to the miracles of provision and their significance.

16.5 ‘And the disciples came to the other side and forgot to take bread.’

With typical Matthaean abbreviation he sums up the situation in few words. ‘The disciples’ came to the other side and found that they had not taken supplies of ‘kosher’ bread. Jesus is not mentioned simply because He is not involved in the subsequent early discussions. Mark tells us that in fact the discovery was made en route that they had only one loaf, which would not last them long (Mark 8.14). This clearly caused some consternation among them. They had forgotten Jesus’ words about not being anxious about what they should eat (6.25-34), and that He had fed crowds in a far worse situation than this. The idea may well be in fact that ‘the disciples’ were trying to hide from Jesus what they were talking about as He sat or lay in the rear of the boat. But if so they could not keep it hidden.

16.6 ‘And Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” ’

Seeing their concern over mere bread (compare 4.4) Jesus then intervened with a comment which was designed to make them recognise that there was more to worry about than the lack of bread. Let them rather be concerned about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the threat that it posed. It was that that they should really be concerned about, the insidious teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees which was undermining His ministry and bringing them all under threat. And this especially applied to their joint teaching about the requirement for ‘signs’ and the implication that He was not the Messiah.

16.7 ‘And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “We took no bread.” ’

But they misunderstood His words and took them literally. They thought that He also was talking about their having no bread, and so vigorous discussions took place about what they were going to do in order to remedy the situation.

Leaven was the old dough kept back from a previous baking which, when put in with the new flour mix, ‘leavened’ the whole making it light and airy. Its swift and insidious action was well known. This should have warned them that He was speaking pictorially. For why otherwise should he have spoken of the leaven and not the bread itself? It was bread that they were lacking. Alternatively they might have taken His words as a shorthand expression for leavened bread.

16.8 ‘And Jesus perceiving it said, “O you of little faith, why do you reason among yourselves, because you have no bread?”

Jesus is concerned both at their anxiety over shortage of bread and at their inability to discern His meaning, for to Him it reveals their little faith (compared with what it should by now have been). But He is especially concerned about their anxiety about lack of physical bread. It betrayed the fact that they did not yet trust their heavenly Father for their daily bread (6.25, 26, 32).

16.9 “Do you not yet perceive, nor remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many containers you took up?”

So He reminds them how the huge crowds had had no bread, and how the five loaves had become twelve wicker basketfuls, and the seven loaves had become seven hemp containerfuls. (Note again the careful differentiation between the types of basket). In view of those miracles, how could they be worrying about bread, especially when He was present with them? And in view of the significance of that miraculous bread as indicating His teaching, how could they fail to recognise that this too was in His mind?

16.11 “How is it that you do not perceive that I did not speak to you about bread? But beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

So he asked them how they could possibly have failed to recognise that He was not literally taking about bread. Rather He was saying, ‘beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees’, that is of their harmful counter teaching. The Pharisees and Sadducees differed on many things, but certain things they were agreed on. They did not want to disturb the status quo, they did not believe that He was the Messiah, and they were agreed that if the Messiah came He would perform miraculous and spectacular signs. It is not simply accidental that this will be followed by Peter’s direct confession of Jesus as the Messiah. He has taken to heart Jesus’ words and has come to the truth.

16.12 ‘Then they understood that he bade them not to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

So the truth finally dawned on them that He was not warning them against physical bread or bribery, but against what the Pharisees and Sadducees were teaching. Perhaps consideration on that fact helped to prepare them for the questions that were shortly to come.

Peter Openly Confesses That Jesus Is The Messiah (16.13-20).

In 11.25-27 Jesus had spoken of the fact it was His Father who revealed things to ‘babes’, including the truth about the Son Whom He alone fully knows, and that He Himself as the Son, reveals the Father to whom He wills. Now we are provided with the first prominent example of one who has had revealed to him, by the Father, the truth about the Son. The truth is beginning to dawn on the disciples.

Then Jesus challenges His disciples as to how they see Him. Do they yet realise Who He is? Peter replies by declaring that He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The difference between this statement and that in Matthew 14.33 is that this one is more thoughtful and measured. In reply Jesus then accepts Peter’s words and unfolds more information about His planned new congregation of Israel, one in which Peter will play a prominent part, especially in its commencement. The very boldness that causes Peter to blurt out the truth, is the same boldness that will lead the way after Pentecost.

But this passage is only the beginning of the revelation of Who Jesus is, for that revelation continues on until 17.13. Yes, He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (16.16), but He is also the Son of Man Who must suffer (16.21), and Who will one day return in glory to call all men to account (16.27), having prior to that revealed His Kingship by establishing His Kingly Rule on earth (16.28), and He is above all the glorious, beloved Son of the Father (17.5), Whose glory is above that of the sun (17.2), to Whom both Moses and Elijah give testimony (17.1-8).

  • a Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” (13).
  • b And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (14).
  • c He says to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (15).
  • d And Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God” (16).
  • e And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (17).
  • d “And I also say to you, that you are Peter.
  • c “And on this rock I will build my church (congregation/assembly), and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (18).
  • b “I will give to you the keys of the kingly rule of heaven, and whatever you will bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (19).
  • a Then he charged the disciples that they should tell no man that He was the Christ (20).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus asks Who the Son of Man is, and in the parallel tells them not to make known that He is the Messiah. This then is the issue that the passage centres on. In ‘b’ are mentioned the great men of the past who have bound and loosed, and opened the truth to men, and in the parallel Peter is to be the same. The former have pointed forward to Jesus as the Coming One, the latter seek to establish on earth His Kingly Rule. In ‘c’ He asks Whom they think He is, and in the parallel describes that fact as being the foundation stone of His new congregation of Israel. In ‘d’ Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ, and in the parallel Jesus declares that he is ‘petros’, the rock-like man. Centrally in ‘e’ is the fact that this has been revealed to Peter by His Father in Heaven.

16.13 ‘Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” ’

Once again Jesus is found in Gentile territory, at Caesarea Philippi, north of the Sea of Galilee, in the territory of Herod Philip. And there He calls on His disciples to tell Him what men are saying about Him. Whom do they claim that He is.

Caesarea had been built into a large city by Philip in honour of Augustus Caesar, and called Caesarea Philippi, both in order to distinguish it from the Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast where Cornelius the Roman centurion was converted (Acts 10-11), and as a reminder that Philip had built it. It was situated at the foot of Mount Hermon. On that mountain was a sanctuary to Pan and a Temple for the worship of the emperor in an area well supplied with pagan temples. It was against that background that this small group of people had come to the foot of Mount Hermon for a unique purpose.

Note Jesus’ reference to Himself here as the Son of Man, a regular feature in Matthew (compare 8.20; 9.6; 10.23; 12.8). The other Gospels translate it here as ‘I’ so as not to confuse Gentile readers who had little Jewish background.

16.14 ‘And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” ’

Their reply brings out something about Jewish expectations. We already know about the rumour that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead (14.2), and it is clear from this that it was quite widespread. Herod believed it out of fear, many, who had been smitten on hearing of his death, believed it out of hope. There was also a great expectation of the return of Elijah, as promised in Malachi 4.5-6, a promise that Jesus saw as fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist (11.14; 17.10-14, compare Luke 1.17). This made sense to people as in their eyes Elijah had never died (2 Kings 2.11). He had been taken up to Heaven. (Orthodox Jews still await his coming). And clearly there were also various expectations of the return of Jeremiah or other prophets.

The background to these expectations comes out in Jewish literature. There were, for example, many tales about Jeremiah. In 2 Esdras 2.18 it was stated ‘for your help I will send my servants Isaiah and Jeremiah.’ In 2 Maccabees 15.14 Judas Maccabaeus received a vision of Onias, a former High Priest, who spoke with a venerable and glorious old man and learned that he was Jeremiah the prophet of God ‘who prays much for the people and the holy city’ and who gave to Judas a golden sword as a gift from God with which to strike his enemies. So it is not surprising that some saw Jesus as a returning Jeremiah, especially in view of His expectation of suffering and subjection to the hatred of the Jewish leaders which was reminiscent of Jeremiah, and possibly also because He was seen as a prophet of doom (e.g. 11.20-24; 12.41-42). The expectation of ‘one of the prophets’ demonstrates how expectant the people were that God was going to act. Thus many saw Jesus as an ‘end of the age’ figure. But their beliefs fell short of the reality. Nor did it result in the repentance that alone could have brought them through to the truth.

16.15 ‘He says to them, “But who do you say that I am?” ’

Then Jesus directly challenges His disciples as to Whom they think He is. They had had plenty of time to make their minds up, and He had in the past given them much to think about. Now He will discover what they have really learned.

16.16 ‘And Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God.” ’

As we would expect it is Peter who blurts out a response. The disciples appear to have been quite willing to let him take the lead in such matters, probably due to their own lack of confidence. One thing Peter was not lacking in was self-confidence. It does not, however, mean that they saw him as their leader. They looked on Jesus as their leader. Peter was simply their spokesman.

Peter declares, “You are the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the living God.” We need not doubt that this was the opinion of them all, for they would undoubtedly have discussed the matter between them. The statement here reveals Him as the Coming One and as something more. There were many views about the Messiah, from that of a military leader who would drive out the Romans to a more splendid heavenly figure who would have great powers, and who would do the same but with more of a divine flourish. In the case of Jesus His disciples recognised that there was more to Him than they understood, that somehow He was different from all expectations, and that He had a relationship with the Father that was unique, a relationship in which God spoke of Him as His beloved Son (3.17; 11.25-27). They would remember what He had replied to John (11.1-6). They remembered how He had walked on the sea, stilled the storm and fed the crowds. Then they had acknowledged Him instinctively as ‘the Son of God’ (14.33). Now it was a matter of working out what that actually meant. So these words of Peter well expressed something of what they believed.

It is sad that at this moment of great revelation of Who Jesus is, we have to enter into detailed controversy. But it is necessary because of the misuse that has been made of what follows. Sadly some seek to take the emphasis away from Christ and His Messiahship, and put it on Peter, as though the aim of the this passage was to speak about Peter. But both Mark’s account and Luke’s account demonstrate how foolish that is. The stress of the whole account is on the Messiahship and divinity of Jesus. Anything that takes away from that must be discounted. Thus we must see verses 17-18 as still laying the emphasis on Jesus’ Messiahship.

16.17 ‘And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” ’

Jesus then commends Peter for his insight. It is something of an official declaration rather than just a reply, as is demonstrated by His giving him his full name, ‘Simon son of Jonah’. Jonah may have been his father’s name, or alternately it may have been a name that linked him with the prophet Jonah, who was also a ‘confessor of Christ’ by example (12.39-41; 16.4). And He declares that Peter is one to whom His Father has given understanding in accordance with 11.25-27. It is not something that he has been told by ordinary men, but something that has been revealed to him by God. He is thus one of those whom God has blessed.

‘Blessed are you.’ This is Jesus’ favourite way of indicating that men have received special blessing from God, through Whose gracious working they enjoy the benefit spoken of. Compare on 5.3-9; 11.6; 13.16.

‘Simon, son of Jonah.’ Jesus might here be saying that Peter is in the true line of Jonah who has twice been cited as pointing to Jesus’ uniqueness (12.39-41; 16.4). Jonah had unknowingly testified of Christ, and now Peter was following in his footsteps like a true ‘son’. ‘Son of’ can regularly mean ‘like’, ‘following in the footsteps of’. This would suit the context, ‘You are the son of the living God’ (the source of all life) followed by ‘you are the son of Jonah’ (the one who was miraculously delivered from death) makes a good parallel. Alternately Jonah might have been an alternate name for John (see John 1.42).

16.18 “And I also say to you, that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (congregation/assembly), and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

And He then declares that Peter is the Rock-man, and that on ‘this Rock’, the rock of the words that he has spoken (compare 7.24 where building on a rock signifies building on Jesus’ words) will be built the new congregation that He has come to establish. Just as each man was to build his own life on the rock of Jesus’ words so now His new congregation was to be built on the foundation of the words, and the truth that lay behind them, of Peter in his confession. And it will be such that the gates of ‘the world of the dead’ (Hades) will not prevail against it. This may signify either that ‘the world of the dead’ will not be able to bring His congregation down to the grave because He has given them life. Death therefore has no power over them. Or it may mean that, if some die, it will be unable to prevent their resurrection. Compare here Isaiah 26.19, ‘the earth shall cast forth her dead’, which only applied to the righteous dead. Thus the grave-world (Sheol, Hades) could hold on to them no longer.

The latter half of His words are thus a picturesque way of saying that His congregation will be so endued with eternal life that nothing will be able to hold it back from its sure destiny. The powers of death will be broken. For them death will have been swallowed up for ever (Isaiah 25.8). Those who truly belong to that ‘congregation’ will thus be freed from the fear and chains of death. When they have died the gates of the grave-world will be unable to prevent their resurrection (compare the ideas in Isaiah 26.19 and Revelation 1.18). And for others who live until His coming there will be no death (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). Death has no power over them. To them the Gates of Hades, which keep in the dead, are irrelevant. Those gates of the grave-world, which once like mighty bastions held in for ever all who had died, will prevail no longer when it comes to the true people of God.

Note that just as ‘You are the Christ’ parallels ‘you are Peter’, so ‘The gates of Hades will not prevail against it’ parallels ‘the Son of the living God’. It is because He is the Lord of life to all who will become true members of His congregation, His new community, that they will thus be freed from the grip and fear of death (compare Hebrews 2.15). The Messianic feast was from the beginning associated with freedom from the fear of death (see Isaiah 25.6-8; 26.19), and Jesus here makes clear that it is central to the whole concept of the Messiah.

The interpretation of ‘the rock’ as being ‘the words that Peter had spoken’ was by far the majority view among the early fathers long before Rome tried to claim the words for itself. Of the references by the early fathers over forty held this view, in contrast with eighteen who saw the Rock as Peter, and seventeen who saw the Rock as Christ Himself. (Augustine of Hippo initially referred it to Peter, but as he matured in spiritual knowledge he came to acknowledge that ‘this rock’ referred to what Peter had stated concerning his belief). Thus those who in the first five hundred years of the early church saw Peter himself as the Rock were very much in the minority. This makes rather foolish the suggestion made by some that it is basically a Protestant interpretation to suggest that ‘this rock’ refers to Peter’s words of confession.

And this view is confirmed by the Greek text itself, for ‘you are petros’ contrasts with ‘on this petra’, and however the case is argued there can be no doubt that Matthew could have used petros twice had he wished to indicate Peter. This is so regardless of what the Aramaic might have been, which can only anyway be the result of guesswork (although Jesus may have spoken in Greek). This play on words in different genders favours the view that a connection is to be made between the two, but without a specific identification, thus indicating Jesus as meaning, ‘You rocklike man, I will use the rock that you have just provided as the foundation of My new community’. For words being seen as such a foundation see 7.25 and 2 Timothy 2.19.

This is also confirmed by the description ‘this rock’. Along with the change in gender it does not fit well with it referring to ‘Peter’. Nor in fact would the play in words be necessary for that purpose. ‘On youas the rock I will build my congregation’ would have been more than sufficient and would have had more impact. But most importantly making the play of words apply to Peter actually takes all the attention away from the vital statement that he had made and concentrates it on Peter, and that does not tie in with the following words which demand a reference back to ‘the living God’ as a comparison with the gates of Hades. On the other hand, as a reference back to the words that Peter had spoken, with ‘this’ and the slight change of gender indicating it, the words fit admirably, and the word play is perfect. In this regard it should be noted that neither Mark (who accompanied Peter about) nor Luke consider the words important enough to mention. They see the whole incident as centring on the importance of Peter’s statement.

Others, of course, see it differently, and are entitled to do so. As so often it is a matter of how we see it. Thus many have actually argued that referring the word play to Peter is ‘the only possible interpretation’, a very odd and rather arrogant conclusion. And it is, of course, going much too far as the consensus against it among the majority of the early fathers makes clear. Any such dogmatism is therefore unwarranted. The truth is that both interpretations are possible. It is a question of deciding which fits the facts better, and of what Jesus intended.

Furthermore if there is one thing that is clear in Scripture, it is that ‘the church’ was built on Christ (1 Corinthians 3.10-11; Ephesians 2.20) and not on Peter. When the Apostles are mentioned in connection with being the foundation it is specifically all the Apostles as ‘the Apostolate’ who are in mind (Ephesians 2.20; Revelation 21.12, 14), with Jesus Christ Himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2.20). While Peter must be given credit for his ‘leadership’ we do wrong to overrate it. The New Testament is careful not to do so. While describing Peter as the first stone in the erection of the whole construction (as the first to recognise and acknowledge the Messiah, but see John 1.41), would not necessarily conflict with this, doing so does take away the emphasis from what is really being presented as the true foundation, the Messiahship and Sonship of Jesus, which is the emphasis of this passage. It is because He is the Son of the ‘living’ God that the gates of Hades have lost their power. It is because He is ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ that evil will not finally triumph against His people.

We may summarise the position as follows;

  • 1) When Jesus elsewhere speaks of ‘building’ on a ‘rock’ (same Greek words) it indicates building on words that have been spoken (7.24). This is unquestionable in the case of 7.24 and therefore strongly supports such an interpretation in cases of doubt when the same idea is used. And this is supported by 2 Timothy 2.19 where the foundation described is also a twofold saying. This thus supports the idea that Jesus was here talking of building His congregation (His house) on the rock of true teaching, that is, on Peter’s confession and its significance, which provided a foundation that could not fail, with due credit being given to Peter as the rock-producer.

    The idea of ‘building’ the congregation of Israel is perfectly scriptural. See especially Jeremiah 31.2-4, which fits in perfectly with the themes in Matthew, ‘the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness, when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from afar, I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore have I continued my faithfulness to you, again I will build you, and you shall be built O virgin Israel’. Note the wilderness motif (2.15; 3.1; 4.1; 14.13; 15.33), the seeking for rest (5.3-9; 11.28-30), the One Who came from afar (3.17; 11.3, 25-27; 16.16), the compassion (9.36; 14.14), and finally the building of ‘virgin Israel’, the pure Israel. (For ‘building’ used in such a way compare also Jeremiah 33.7; Amos 9.11). This might almost have been a blueprint for Matthew.

  • 2) The contrast of petros with petra suggests a play on words but not an identification. Had Jesus wanted to make an identification He could so easily have said ‘on you’ or have used petros (which is found in other literature). Furthermore ‘this rock’ is a strange and indirect way of identifying with a name, especially with a change of gender, whereas it is a very sensible way of identifying with a saying just recently spoken by that person.
  • 3) Peter is never elsewhere seen as the foundation. When applied to the Apostles the idea is always of all the Apostles (Ephesians 2.20; Revelation 21.14). But Scripture just as often identifies Christ as the foundation (1 Corinthians 3.10-11; Ephesians 2.20), and His words (7.25), and in fact states that there can be no other foundation (1 Corinthians 3.11). Thus the church could hardly be built on Peter as the foundation (as opposed to his being one stone among a number).
  • 4) The large majority of the early fathers saw the ‘petra’ as the statement of Peter, and they at least were unaffected by later controversies.
  • 5) The reason that ‘the gates of Hades (the grave-world)’ could not prevail against the new ‘ekklesia’ is precisely because it is founded on ‘the Christ, the son of the living God’. Death was defeated by the living One. There is absolutely no way in which such a statement could be said to directly connect to the idea of a church founded ‘on Peter’. There is no parallelism in the ideas. For the reason that the gates of Hades will in fact not prevail is precisely because the Son of the living God is present and at work, thus the emphasis is clearly being kept on the saying.
  • We should note in passing that there is no hint of anything here other than a personal reference to Peter. As the one who laid the first stone of Jesus’ Messiahship he may be remembered. But there is no hint of him having special authority which could be passed on.

So in our view everything points to the words as signifying that the church will be built on the truth that Peter has proclaimed. It should also be noted that this is not a question of arguing whether the Roman church is correct or not. That should not come into the question. The Roman interpretation is a fantasy whichever way we take it, building up huge dogma out of nothing. For even if Jesus was somewhat misleading in the way He spoke and did mean Peter, it would still justify nothing more than seeing it as a happy play on words. There would be no grounds at all for reading from it any more than a commendation for being the first to say what he did, and an indication that he was, as it were, the first stone laid of the new congregation. For whatever way we interpret it the truth is that the whole of the rest of the New Testament is against seeing Peter as other than one of a number of leading Apostles, for Paul puts James the Lord’s brother first in Galatians 2.9, and significantly it is James the brother of John whom in Acts 12 the king selects as his first target, not Peter. Furthermore, Peter is called to account by the church in Acts 11 and has to explain himself there, and the same thing happens in Galatians 2 when he is called to account by Paul. Nor does he ever cite himself as having any special authority other than that of an Apostle, even in his letters. So his prominence is well balanced by counter-factors, revealing that his prominence rather arises as a result of his being an outstanding character among equals. Note especially the continual stress in Acts 1-5 on ‘the Apostles’ as working together (often underestimated). Furthermore it is quite clear from history that the church in Rome did not have a monarchical bishop until long after Peter’s death. And there is no evidence whatsoever among genuine writings that Peter spent a long period in Rome.

‘I will build my church/congregation/assembly (ekklesia).’ The word ekklesia is regularly used in LXX to translate qahal where it refers to ‘the congregation’ of Israel. The use here of ekklesia is therefore firmly based on the Greek Old Testament. Whatever the Aramaic behind it (if Jesus was speaking in Aramaic) we have here the continuation of the idea that Jesus is forming a new community, a new ‘congregation’ of Israel, an idea which, as we have seen, comes often in Matthew’s Gospel and is the common idea lying behind both of the miraculous feedings of the crowds. They are the new Israel in the wilderness, feeding of the bread of Heaven. In fact a Jewish Messiah without such a Messianic community would have been an enigma. The whole idea of Israel in the past had been that it was ‘the congregation of Israel’ who gathered around the earthly Dwellingplace of God and the Law. The New Testament ‘congregation of Israel’ would therefore gather around Christ and His teaching, as epitomised in Peter’s confession. This is another ground for seeing ‘the rock’ as Peter’s confession.

This connection of ‘the congregation’ with the Kingly Rule of Heaven is confirmed in the Psalms. The Kingly Rule over all who are His, is clearly declared in Psalm 103.19, where it says, ‘YHWH has established His Name in the Heavens, and His Kingly Rule (Psalm 102.19 LXX he basileia autou) reigns over all’. Here God is seen as King in the Heavens, with His Kingly Rule established as He reigns over all in Heaven and earth. The ‘all’ here could signify ‘all people’ or ‘all things’, but the principle is the same, He is Lord over all.

The same is true in the parallel passage in Psalm 22.28 which similarly declares ‘of YHWH is the Kingly Rule (Psalm 21.29 LXX tou kuriou he basileia), and He reigns over the nations’. Here the Kingly Rule is specifically seen as ‘over the people’. Thus in the Psalms that the Kingly Rule of YHWH is over all things and especially ‘over the nations’, that is, over all people, is made clear. Neither Psalmist has any doubts about Who is sovereign over the Universe. That is indeed why He is the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18.25).

The only problem is that that Kingly Rule is not accepted by the people. The nations are seen as in rebellion against that Kingly Rule (e.g. Psalm 2.1-2; 5.10; 110.2), and as have taken the Rule out of His hands. But this is not a problem to the Psalmist, for he knows that in the end God will firmly establish His Kingly Rule. Nothing can prevent Him, for man is but as grass and when the wind blows he is gone (Psalm 103.15-16). And in contrast those who are oppressed will receive justice and be vindicated, and those who fear Him and keep His covenant and obey His commands will experience His covenant love (Psalm 103.6, 17-18), and they will do it ‘in the midst of the ekklesia’ (LXX of Psalm 22.22 MT) as the ‘great congregation’ (Psalm 22.25 MT - LXX ‘en ekklesia megale’). So the Psalmists clearly see that YHWH will re-exert His Kingly Rule, destroying those who continue in rebellion, while delivering those who respond to Him, submit to His covenant and walk in obedience to Him, who are seen as ‘the congregation’ (ekklesia).

This whole idea is again emphasised in Psalm 22, and here as we have seen it is closely connected with ‘the congregation’. Here also the triumph of God’s Kingly Rule is assured, and it is especially the poor and the meek who will benefit. He has ‘not despised the affliction of the poor’ (Psalm 22.24 MT; Psalm 22.25 LXX ptowchou), where ‘the poor’ is a description of the Psalmist, (and it is a Psalm of David, and it is thus not speaking of abject poverty). Thus it is to the poor (ptowchoi) in spirit that the Kingly Rule of Heaven belongs (5.3). Moreover it also tells us that ‘the meek will eat and be satisfied’ (5.5-6; Psalm 22.26; 37.11). And the poor and the meek will praise Him in the ekklesia (‘the congregation’ - Psalm 22.22, 25)). And the result will be that ‘all the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord’ (Psalm 22.27). Here then is a description of what Jesus has come to bring about, blessing on the poor and the meek (5.3, 5) through His Kingly Rule, so that they praise Him in ‘the congregation’, with the ends of the earth recognising that Kingly Rule, and it is noteworthy that in the Psalm it follows hard on the description of the sufferings of the son of David in Psalm 22.12-21.

As a result His Name is to be declared to ‘my brethren’ and in the midst of ‘the congregation’ (LXX ekklesia ‘church’) He is to be praised. Thus those who will finally submit to the Kingly Rule of YHWH are here clearly described as ‘the church’ or ‘the congregation’, and Jesus may well have had this Psalm in mind here. We see therefore in these Psalms the basis of theses two central themes in Matthew, the ‘Kingly Rule’ of Heaven which will benefit the poor and meek, and the ‘congregation’ who will praise YHWH (16.18; 18.17).

16.19 “I will give to you the keys of the kingly rule of heaven, and whatever you will bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” ’

Peter then continues to be honoured for what he has said, but we must remember that the privilege he receives is that of a servant, not of a master. He is to be given the keys of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (but not necessarily the only keys). He will be, as it were, ‘a doorkeeper to the house of the Lord’ (Psalm 84.10). It is the servant or steward who bears the keys, not the master of the household. And he will open up the door for others. This was primarily fulfilled in that Peter was the first preacher to the Jews after the resurrection, in Acts 2, and the first official opener of the doors to Gentiles, in Acts 10-11.

But like all pictures, in interpreting this we must look for examples which explain the point in Scripture. We cannot just interpret it to suit our own viewpoints. That is to make revelation subject to what we think, and that is clearly foolish. Revelation is intended to shape what we think. A clear example of what these words mean is found in chapter 23, where the Scribes are said not to open the truth either to themselves or others. ‘You shut the Kingly Rule of Heaven against men. For you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who are entering in to enter’ (23.13). They are using the keys of the Kingly Rule of Heaven wrongly (each Scribe was given a key representing the key of knowledge when he graduated - Luke 11.52), because they resist the truth as it is found in Jesus. And they seek to prevent others responding to His words. Thus the keys of the Kingly Rule of Heaven are related to the proclamation of the truth, and to the encouraging of men and women to enter under the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

To Peter then, and to the remainder of the Apostles, to the Scribes of the early church (13.52), and to the later appointees of the early church, and to us, are granted the keys of the Kingly Rule of Heaven. When we proclaim His truth we open the door, when we withhold the truth we close the door. Peter was especially given the keys at this point because he had demonstrated by his words that he had a message to preach. He was the first to receive them because he was the first to declare the truth about Jesus. From now on he could proclaim this new truth, that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, opening the Kingly Rule of Heaven to all who would hear. But essentially the keys are still in the hands of Jesus (Revelation 3.7).

Thus there is no suggestion that these are the only keys, and that they are given to Peter exclusively. He received them first because he was the first to testify of Jesus that He was the son of the living God. And as others began to be aware of the same they too would receive the keys of the Kingly Rule of Heaven.

In the light of the words that follow, it is almost certain that we are to see in these keys a reference to ‘the key of knowledge’ which was solemnly presented to each Rabbi on his successful completion of his probation, whereby he was to open the meaning of the Law to God’s people (compare Luke 11.52). It is true that that was only a single key (although if it was at a kind of graduation ceremony the one who handed them out would have had a number of keys). However if Jesus was combining this idea with that of proclamation to both Jew and Gentile then He might well have had in mind two keys, one for opening the truth to the Jews and the other for opening it to the Gentiles, just as He was doing Himself. It should be noted that the use of the key by the Rabbis was to unlock the truth to people in order that they might enter the Kingly Rule of Heaven (23.13), and that Jesus’ charge is that they failed even to use if for themselves. There was no thought of them actually controlling who could enter (except by failing to reveal the truth to them). They were servants and stewards, not Masters.

‘And whatever you will bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.’ Here is an example of the use of the keys. They are to be used in accordance with heavenly instruction through the Spirit (shall have been bound/loosed in Heaven), as the Spirit reveals to them the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2.9-16). The Rabbis were spoken of as binding the Law when they forbade something, or gave a strict interpretation, and as loosing the Law when they ameliorated it in some way. In the same way then, Peter was to be able to make decisions, along with all the other Apostles (18.18), which would determine the meaning of Scriptural injunctions for God’s people. They were given the authority to expand and explain. We find this being carried out in the letters of Peter, John and Paul. But we should note that when there was disagreement expounded truth must prevail (e.g. Galatians 2.11-17). For this ministry they would be given special and unique enlightenment as they applied the Master’s words (John 16.13-14). This power and authority was especially required in the days of the infant church, before there was a New Testament which contained within it that expounded truth.

But we should note here the future perfect tense which whenever it is used is significant. The verb ‘to loose’ is freely used in all its tenses so that when the future perfect is chosen it must be seen as to be given its full force, otherwise it would not have been used. And that force is ‘shall have been’. Thus it is saying here that each decision that the disciples make is to have first been established in Heaven. They are thus to respond to what Heaven says, not make their decisions so that Heaven may concur. Theirs is a great responsibility. It is to receive the mind of Christ on behalf of the infant church (1 Corinthians 2.16, compare John 16.13). They were to be humble servants of the Master, and responsive to His revelation to them.

Note On The Attempted Application To This Passage Of Isaiah 22.15-25.

In the pursuit of Papal claims the Roman Catholic church (in contrast with other Catholic churches, Orthodox churches and Protestants) has sought to apply Isaiah 22.15-25 to this passage. But the comparison does not stand up to examination. There is no suggestion here that Peter is being appointed as Christ’s sole steward. And indeed, in Revelation 3.7 the passage in Isaiah is applied to the risen Jesus Himself. It is Jesus Christ Himself Who still has the key of David, and uses the key and opens and shuts doors.

Furthermore Isaiah is speaking in a context of the replacement of one steward by another. That fits well with Jesus replacing the High Priest (or the Rabbis) but poorly with the idea of it representing Peter who is replacing no one. And on top of this there was only one key of David, whereas in the case of Peter he was to receive two or more. In symbolism such a contrast is deeply important. Peter is not being given ‘the key of David’. The attempt to connect Peter’s reception of ‘keys’ (which were received by all trained teachers) with the key of David (representing total authority under the king) must be pronounced a failure. It was unknown to the earliest church.

End of note.

16.20 ‘Then he charged the disciples that they should tell no man that he was the Christ.’

Having declared His Messianic purpose Jesus now urged on His disciples the need to not, as yet, proclaim Him as the Messiah to the public. The reason for this was almost certainly because the way in which they would have presented it would have been inaccurate, as we will soon learn, and because Israel’s view of the Messiah was such that the people might gain the wrong idea and seek to raise men to arms in support of His cause. Furthermore the Roman authorities would gather from the claim that He was an insurgent. So it would not only bring down on Him the wrath of Rome, but would also misrepresent the purpose for which He had come. He had come to save and to bless, not to destroy.

It was not that Jesus was not ‘the Anointed One’ (Messiah/Christos), for He constantly made clear in one way or another that He was. It was because the expression ‘Messiah’ gave to the people the wrong impression of Him because of men’s misconceptions. It had become a misrepresentation of the truth that it was intended to proclaim, and we must always be ready to drop terms that have begun to give misconceptions. However, once it had been reinterpreted after the resurrection, it would become a central plank in the Gospel. Jesus could then openly be proclaimed as ‘the Christ’.

Jesus Reveals That As The Messiah and Son of Man He Must Suffer (16.21-27).

Jesus now declares that the way of suffering lies ahead for Him as the Messiah, and when Peter tries to show Him His ‘error’, He rebukes Peter and points out that all those who follow Him must choose the way of suffering. That is the way forward in order to establish His Kingly Rule over men’s lives. Contrary winds must be faced by those who would reach ‘the other side’. And then, when He returns in the glory of His Father as the Son of Man all will be judged according to their deeds. They will be examined to see whether they are truly under the Kingly Rule of Heaven, whether they have truly done the will of His Father (7.21). For He is not dealing now with personal preferences but with the Kingly Rule of Heaven, and what it requires of men and women in a world which is in opposition to God.

  • a From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples, that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up (21).
  • b And Peter took Him, and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Be it far from you, Lord, this will never happen to you” (22).
  • c But He turned, and said to Peter, “Get you behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling-block to me, for you do not mind the things of God, but the things of men” (23).
  • d Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (24).
  • c “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it” (25).
  • b “For what will a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?” (26).
  • a “For the Son of man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then will He render to every man according to his deeds” (27).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus will be judged by men according to what He has done, and in the parallel He will judge men according to what they have done. In ‘b’ Peter seeks to dissuade Him from suffering, and in the parallel those who avoid suffering will lose their very life. In ‘c’ Jesus rebukes Peter because he has sought to persuade Him to go against the will of God and avoid losing His life, and in the parallel He points out that the one who seeks to save his life will lose it. Centrally in ‘d’ is the central theme of discipleship.

16.21 ‘From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples, that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up.’

Now He feels it important to make clear to His disciples the deeper truths concerning His coming, and ‘from that time’ He begins to emphasise His coming suffering. Going to Jerusalem for these purposes was something that ‘it was necessary’ for Him to do. For it was in the will and purposes of God. So they must recognise once and for all that He was not here to lead them to victory against the Romans. Rather He was here to ‘suffer many things’, as the Son of man had suffered in Daniel 7 (as one with ‘the saints of the Most High’) under the depredations of the wild beasts, which represented empires like Rome, and as the Servant had suffered for the redemption of His people (Isaiah 53), and as the Psalmist king had suffered in readiness for the new dawn (Psalm 22). And this must be so because the world is such that godly people must always suffer if good is to triumph (Acts 14.22). Let them consider the Psalms which consistently refer to suffering. Let them consider what had happened to the prophets. Let them consider the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 50 & 53. It was the nature of the world that those who followed God would suffer (compare Hebrews 11). And thus He, Who as the Son of Man and Servant was representative man, must also ‘suffer many things’ including scorn, rejection, tears, scourgings and death. (Compare 17.22-23; 20.17-19, 28; 21.39; 26.2, 12, 24, 28, 31; Mark 9.12; 10.45; Luke 17.25; 22.15; 24.7, 26, 46; John 3.14; 10.15, 17; Acts 1.3; 3.18; Hebrews 2.18; 5.8; 9.26; 13.12; 1 Peter 2.21, 23; 3.18; 4.1)

‘At the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes.’ The elders were the prominent lay people on the Council (21.23; 26.3, 47, 57, 59; Mark 11.27; 14.43, 53; 15.1; Luke 7.3; 20.1; 22.52, 66), the chief priests were the hierarchy who regulated Temple affairs (21.15, 23, 45; 26.3, 14, 47, 59 etc.) and the scribes were the Teachers of the Law (9.3; 12.28; 15.1; 21.15; 23; 26.3, 57; 27.41; Luke 5.21, 30; 6.7). He was already rejected by many of them and He recognised that it was to be expected that almost all of them would turn against Him (Psalm 118 (LXX 117).22), for He knew what was in man (John 2.25), and He was hardly ensuring His popularity by tearing down their structures and their hypocrisy. He was no different in this respect than the previous prophets. He was here to be rejected by the great Jewish religious leaders of the day, as the great prophets had always been, and necessarily must be (compare 21.35-36; 23.35, 37; Mark 12.5; Luke 6.23; 13.33-34; 20.10-12). In His view this was inevitable. Had He not Himself declared, ‘Woe to you when all men speak well of you’? (Luke 6.26). It was of false prophets that men spoke well (Luke 6.26). They had rejected Jeremiah. Would they not do the same to Him?

We can consider here God’s complaint against the Jewish leaders in Jeremiah 2.8, of whom He says, “the priests did not say ‘where is the Lord’ and they that handle the Law knew Me not.” They had long ago turned against God. Compare in this regard Jeremiah 18.18 where Jeremiah too was rejected by those who handled the Law and Jeremiah 20.1-2 where he was smitten by ‘the priest who was the chief officer in the house of the Lord’. See also Jeremiah 26.7-8, 11 where ‘the priests and the prophets’ sought his death. Jeremiah would be especially significant to Jesus as he too prophesied the destruction of the Temple (Jeremiah 7.14), calling it a ‘den of robbers’ (Jeremiah 7.11). And now a greater than Jeremiah was here saying the same things (21.13; 23.38; 24.2). So it would be nothing new for the religious leaders of Israel to condemn such a prophet ‘for the sake of the nation’ (John 18.14). This idea of the rejection by the Jewish leaders is further based on the pattern of such Scriptures as Zechariah 11 where the true shepherd who had fed the flock was rejected by the false shepherds of Judah and Israel, and was dismissed for thirty pieces of silver, the value of a slave, which he cast to the potter in the house of the Lord as a sign that the amount was rejected by him and was insufficient. Thus rejection by the elders, and chief priests and scribes must not be seen as anything unusual. It was what had always been.

‘And be killed.’ He had no doubts about what lay ahead. It is not really surprising that Jesus saw His future in terms of ‘suffering unto death’. He had witnessed what had happened to John the Baptist (14.3-12; Luke 9.7, 9), He knew of the growing antagonism against Him (9.11, 34; 12.1-14, 24; 15.1-2; 16.1; Mark 3.6, 22; Luke 6.11), He knew of the career of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 51.4-11; 52.13-53.12, and of the Smitten Shepherd in Zechariah 13.7 (consider John 10.11). He knew of the references to the suffering of the godly in the Psalms (e.g. 22; 118.10 on) and He knew that the Son of Man in Daniel as the representative of God’s people would come out of suffering into the presence of God, even while ‘the wild beasts’ were attacking the true people of God (Daniel 7.13-14 with verse 22 and verses 25-27). He had no Messianic delusions. Unlike the disciples He knew precisely what was in store for Him. And He knew that His death was necessary so that He could be a ‘ransom for many’ (20.28; Mark 10.45)

Strictly speaking the disciples should also have been prepared for this, but like us, and like the Jews, they had the ability to make words mean what they wanted them to mean. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptiser, and they had been shocked when he had met a violent end. And they had also been told that the Bridegroom was to be ‘snatched away’ from them (9.15; Mark 2.20; Luke 5.35), and then they would fast. It had further been inferred that the temple of His body would be destroyed, and in three days raised again (John 2.19). And Jesus had clearly stated that He was giving His flesh for the life of the world (John 6.51) and that men would ‘eat and drink’ of Him (John 6.56), a clear reference to His being put to death according to Old Testament passages such as Psalm 14.4; 53.4; Micah 3.3; Isaiah 49.26; Zechariah 9.15 LXX; compare Matthew 23.30. But in the way men have they had refused to accept the unpalatable truth and had ignored it. Now they were being faced up with it in a way that could not be ignored.

Interestingly we have here an evidence of how carefully the actual words of Jesus were preserved. It would have been so easy to alter it to read ‘crucified’, especially in the light of verse 24 (and see Luke 24.7) and the fact that crucifixion was the normal death under the Romans for high treason, but they did not. Contrast 20.19 where, by then aware that He was to be handed over to the Gentiles, He recognised the inevitability of crucifixion.

‘And the third day be raised up.’ But on the third day He would rise again. He may not have intended ‘the third day’ literally. ‘Three days’ indicated a relatively short period of time and could mean the same as when we say ‘within days’ (compare the ‘three days journey’, a standard phrase in the Pentateuch indicating a shortish journey compared with the longer ‘seven days journey’ - Genesis 30.36; Exodus 3.18; 5.3; 8.27; Numbers 10.33; 33.8; Jonah 3.3).

This idea of a third day resurrection is found in Hosea 6.1-2, and as Jesus has previously mentioned (12.39-40), in Jonah 1.29. (Matthew, like Luke, interprets the ‘three days’ of Mark as ‘the third day’ in accord with Jewish practise). And this interpreted in the light of the suffering Servant of Isaiah. Hosea 6.1-2 was initially spoken of Israel, (God’s vine). But Jesus was here as in Himself representing the true Israel, the true Vine (John 15.1), as God’s Son called out of Egypt (2.15). As the Servant He was Israel (Isaiah 49.3). Thus he could apply Hosea 6.1-2 to Himself.

Note the context in Hosea. God will wait ‘in His place’ until Israel acknowledge their guilt and seek His face, and in their distress seek Him and say, ‘come let us return to the Lord’. But this will not be until ‘He has torn that He may heal them, He has stricken and will bind them up’. These last words could well have been spoken looking at the Servant. For as Isaiah has made clear (Isaiah 53.3-5) this was what first had to be played out on the One Who was to come as the representative of Israel. We have here a clear picture of the Servant as described in Isaiah 53. It is in Him finally that He has torn them, it is in Him that He has stricken them, for He has borne in their place all that they should have faced (Isaiah 53.3-6). And the result will be a reviving and a raising up on the third day, first for Him (Isaiah 53.10, 12) and then for them. For He will have gone before them in order to be a guilt offering and make it possible for all (Isaiah 53.10). Indeed it could all only be because their Representative had first gone through it for them that they could enjoy it.

So as the One Who saw Himself as suffering for Israel in their place, and as their representative, Jesus also saw Himself as being raised again like them, on the third day as in Hosea.

Indeed a moments thought reveals that the Servant’s task could only be fulfilled by resurrection. How else, after having been made an offering for sin, could He ‘see His offspring’, ‘prolong His days’ and receive the spoils of victory (Isaiah 53.10, 12)? (Compare also Isaiah 52.13-15). And how else could the Son of Man come triumphantly out of the suffering and death of the true people of God (the holy ones of the Most High) into the presence of the Ancient of Days to receive the everlasting kingdom (Daniel 7.13-14)? And unless He was raised how could the Holy One ‘not see corruption’ (Psalm 16.10)? Resurrection was required as God’s vindication in a suffering world (Isaiah 26.19), and especially so for the suffering Servant. And it is also constantly implied by such statements as Luke 9.24-26. All this was clear from the Scriptures (Luke 18.31).

16.22 ‘And Peter took him aside, and began to rebuke him, saying, “Be it far from you, Lord, this will never happen to you.” ’

At Jesus’ words about rejection by the Jewish leaders resulting in His death Peter felt a need to intervene. He was probably still glowing at Jesus’ previous commendation of him. Now he felt that Jesus was becoming too pessimistic, and that that could only put disciples off. And he might also have found the idea too much to bear. So he ‘took Him aside’ and began to rebuke Him, telling Him that that could never happen to Him, and that He was distorting the position. How much of this was due to self-opinionation and how much to an excess of sensitivity we do not know, (it had certainly not been revealed to him by the Father), but it produced an instant reaction from Jesus. The words He was hearing from a beloved disciple were not helping Him. And Peter had to learn to seek the mind of Heaven before he spoke. Jesus’ words were not just a rebuke to Peter. They were intended to pull him up short and make him think of the consequences of what he was saying before he spoke.

The rebuke, and the public nature of it, were very necessary. Peter had been held up as an example of one to whom God revealed things. It was therefore necessary that he and the disciples recognise that there was someone else who could reveal things to him as well, someone not so trustworthy (Satan).

16.23 ‘But he turned, and said to Peter, “Get you behind me, Satan, You are a snare to me, for you do not mind the things of God, but the things of men.” ’

So He turned to Peter, and naming Him as Satan ‘the adversary’ (satanas), bade him get behind Him, pointing out that he was becoming a snare or stumblingblock to Him (literally the trigger (skandalon) that makes the trap work) in seeking to turn Him aside from His destiny as the Servant of the Lord. He pointed out that what he was saying was not minding what God wanted, it was simply thinking like men did who had no part in the things of God.

Note here how quickly Peter the rock-like man had rather become a rock of stumbling through failing to mind the things of God, and how the one blessed of the Father with enlightenment was now listening to Satan in the darkness. It was a reminder that he could not effectively use his keys, nor his power to bind and loose, until he had learned to discover the mind of God. And at present that was not so. He was behaving like Satan who had also tempted Jesus to take the easy way (4.1-11). Jesus was ever aware that Satan still sought to divert Him from God’s chosen path, and He saw him as at work through Peter.

16.24 ‘Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” ’

Jesus then responded to Peter’s foolish words with a warning of what it would mean to follow Him. And His first challenge here was this, and it was a vivid one. Rather than avoiding danger, were they willing from now on to deny themselves and take up their crosses and go on following Him? For if they wanted to come after Him, that was what would be required of them. We might translate ‘sets his will to come after me’, for that is the idea. It is a matter of choice, decision and determination. Jesus here chose the most vivid picture that He could think of, a picture that was constantly displayed before Jews because it was constantly a penalty carried out on insurrectionists in and around Galilee.

There was not a town in Galilee which had not seen the soldiers arrive, arrest one or more of their sons, lay across their backs the crosspiece on which they would be suspended, and then drag them off to die horribly. It was the ultimate in self-sacrifice. And once a man ‘took up his cross’ by becoming an insurrectionist all knew that he was saying goodbye to his past life for ever. He was saying goodbye to everything. He was walking the hard way which demanded everything of him (compare Matthew 7.13-14). And he had committed himself to that from the moment that he became an insurrectionist. There is indeed a sense in which it was at that first moment of choice that he had ‘taken up the cross’. It is in fact tempting to think that when those brave, if rather foolhardy, men secretly joined up with the insurrectionists they jested to each other that they were ‘taking up their crosses’, for they would know that that was what lay in store for them if and when they were caught.

Jesus had seen an especially vivid example of this in his younger days when Judas the Galilean had aroused the people of Galilee against the Roman census in 6 AD, raiding the local arsenal at Sepphoris, not far from Nazareth, and leading a band of brave men to their deaths. The result had been a multiplicity of crucifixions along the roadsides, the razing of Sepphoris to the ground and the sale of its inhabitants into slavery, something which Jesus and His contemporaries would never have forgotten.

And that is what the man who followed the Christ had to recognise. He was called on to face up to the same ultimate choice as those men, and that was to follow Him to the utmost, without any regard for himself. He must even be prepared to follow Him to death. (In the light of what they had just been told would happen to Him this would have had a special significance to the Apostles).

The emphasis here was on daily commitment of the most extreme kind. The point was that each one who would come after Him must be prepared to turn his back on himself, and his own ways and his own desires, and his own chosen road, and to daily walk the way of the cross, picking up his cross anew each day so as to walk in His way in total self-sacrifice. He must choose daily to walk in the way of Christ, rather than his own way (see Isaiah 53.6), however painful it might be. He wanted them to recognise that this was what was involved in following Him. The mention of the cross was to speak of the most dreadful suffering known to men of that day. All had seen the Roman crosses set up by the roadside as a warning to criminals and rebels. All had seen the men who hung there in agony and the suffering involved. Jesus’ point was that they must therefore even be prepared for that. It was a demand for total self-surrender and commitment, and a warning that it might include death.

Later this statement would be given a slightly different emphasis by being interpreted in terms of a spiritual dying to the self, and a living only for Christ through His resurrection life (compare Romans 6.3, 11; Galatians 2.20), but here in its initial form it is stark in its reality, and refers to actually being ready to go out into life each day with the intention of turning their back on all the old ways and living wholly for Christ, recognising that any day death might be a possibility because of their choice. In view of the growing antagonism Jesus did not want them to be unaware of what might await them. And thus He tells them that they must live their lives in the light of impending death. They were to take seriously the words, ‘in the midst of life we are in death’.

16.25 “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.”

On the other hand, He pointed out, in spite of that, there was really only one choice to make, for the alternative was not really a choice at all. Not to respond would be equally fatal. For the one who shunned this dying to self and such a possibility of martyrdom, and thereby sought to save His life for himself, would unquestionably finally lose true life altogether. He would lose his soul. This was the challenge of the last days.

But the one who did, for Christ’s sake, actually lose his life by giving it up to Christ to be solely lived for His purposes, and indeed to die for Him if necessary, would in fact then save it. For he could then be sure that he would have life that was life indeed and that in the final day he would be raised with Him (see John 6.39, 40, 44). We may rightly spiritualise it in applying it to ourselves, but in the violent world of those days it was a genuine option and the mention of the cross had an ominous significance.

The choice He offered was certainly not an easy one for anyone, and especially not for the well-to-do and the influential. By openly following Jesus they might easily cut themselves off from the spheres of influence and power and be degraded and set aside by those in authority. No one knew where his choice would lead him. He might be committing political suicide. He might be ostracised by his friends. And it might even lead to death. It was a choice with which those who thought to follow Christ then would constantly be faced, and in some places still are. But, as Jesus wanted each to recognise, the alternative was in the end to lose everything. So while to opt for Christ carried with it the possibility of suffering, persecution, and death, although then with the guarantee of eternal life, to opt against Him was to opt for final destruction.

16.26 “For what will a man be profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his life?” ’

So He puts to those who were following Him (and to us) the ultimate challenge. Of what advantage is there for anyone to gain the whole world and as a result forfeit eternal life? And if he failed to follow Christ what could a man possibly offer to God in exchange for his life? Jesus knew the temptation. He had been offered the whole world by Satan (4.8-9). But He had turned it down. In a lesser way men have stood astride their world many times in history, and have received much glory and wealth, but in the end all have died, and perished. Not one is alive today. And thus ultimately, if their living had not been for Christ, they had lost all. They may be famous names in the history books, but if their names were not written in Heaven, they have nothing. Are they, asks Jesus, the gainers or the losers? But to the one who comes to Him, yielding himself to Him, He gives eternal life. By giving up what they cannot finally keep, they gain what they cannot lose. In return, however, they must be ready to lay their lives on the line for Him, and to follow Him utterly. This is a constant theme in the New Testament (John 3.17, 19; 1 Corinthians 1.18-31; 2 Corinthians 4.18; Galatians 2.20; 2 Peter 1.4; 1 John 2.15-16). It is not that by this they buy themselves life. It is because they cannot find life apart from following the One Who will give His life a ransom for many (20.28).

Some have seen this verse as partly based on Psalm 49. ‘Those who trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the huge amount of their riches, none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him -- that he should still live always, that he should not see corruption -- but God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me. Do not be afraid when one is made rich, when the glory of his house is increased, for when he dies he will carry nothing away’ (Psalm 49.6-9, 15-17). In that Psalm it was clearly indicated that there was no way by which men could redeem themselves, however rich they were. There was nothing that they could give in exchange for true life. Only God could redeem them from the power of the grave.

16.27 “For the Son of man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then will he render to every man according to his deeds.”

The last part of this verse is cited from Psalm 62.12 where it is God Who does this. For in the end all must be judged in the light of the final day. One day Jesus will come as the Son of Man, coming in the full glory of His Father, the glory that He had with Him before the world was (John 17.5), accompanied by His angels, those angels who had remained faithful to God from the beginning, and they will then render to every man in accordance with what he has done. None will escape the searching eye of God. For all things are open to Him with Whom we have to do. The only thing that will not have to be accounted for is forgiven sin.

‘The glory of the Father’ does not just indicate glorious light. It indicates all the resources of the Father. For in the Old Testament a king’s or nation’s ‘glory’ was often its armies and its wealth (e.g. Isaiah 8.7; 10.3; 16.14; 17.3; etc.).

For those who are truly His this will be a glorious day. The dead in Christ will rise first, and then those who are alive and remain will be taken up to be for ever with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). The elect will be gathered in (24.31). The wheat will be gathered into the barn (3.12; 13.30, 43). And then in that day they will receive according to what they have done, as the Lord rewards His own (Romans 14.10; 1 Corinthians 3.13; 4.5; 2 Corinthians 5.10). But for those who are not His, who have not heard His words and done them, there will only be ‘outer darkness’ and the weeping and gnashing of teeth as they see that they have lost everything by their folly (8.11-12; 13.42, 50; 22.13; 24.51; 25.30). For them there will be no glory and no light, only everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power (2 Thessalonians 1.9).

The fact that the Son of Man comes in the glory of the Father is an indication that He has previously come to God in the clouds to receive His Kingship and glory (Daniel 7.14), for that is why He can return in that glory to deliver His people and judge the world. So when the next verse speaks of Him ‘coming in His Kingly Rule’ (but not in His glory) it may be seen as suggesting a distinction between the coming in Kingly Rule and the coming in glory (compare His distinction in Luke 4.19 between ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’ and ‘the day of vengeance of our God’, the latter of which He omits because it was not coming at the same time. In the same way in 16.28 he omits the glory).

The Heavenly Glory Of Jesus Is Revealed (16.28-17.8).

His disciples having acknowledged Him as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God,’ and He Himself having spoken of His future appearing in glory, He now determines to reveal something of His glory to His three chosen disciples, so that after His resurrection they will be able to tell all His disciples what they experienced. By this Peter, James and John are to some extent set off from the remainder, and seen as especially fit to be trusted with the secret. And on a high mountain He is then transfigured in front of them, and is seen to be talking with Moses and Elijah. This last fact would appear to indicate very vividly (among other things) that the Law and the Prophets both point to Him. But central to all is the Voice that speaks, and what it says, ‘This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased, listen to Him’, and the intrinsic glory that shines from Him. He is revealed as the true and only Son of God and the Lord of glory.

His feeding of the crowds had twice manifested His divine creative power, now He would reveal His divine glory. In the Old Testament both had occurred together. Thus the Transfiguration caps off the picture that has already been given. It reveals that He is the Son of the living God indeed.

Analysis.

  • a “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who stand here, who will in no way taste of death, until they see the Son of man coming in His kingly rule” (16.28).
  • b And after six days Jesus takes with Him Peter, and James, and John his brother, and brings them up into a high mountain apart’ (17.1).
  • c And He was transfigured before them, and His face shone as the sun, and His garments became white as the light (17.2).
  • d And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah talking with him (17.3).
  • e And Peter answered, and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here (17.4a).
  • d If it is your will I will make here three dwellingplaces, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (17.4b).
  • c While he was yet speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear you him” (17.5).
  • b And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were very much afraid (17.6).
  • a And Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, save Jesus only (17.7-8).

Note that in ‘a’ they will see the Son of Man coming in His Kingly Rule and in the parallel they see no one but Jesus only. In ‘b’ the three are taken ‘into a high mountain’ apart, and in the parallel they fall on their faces very much afraid. In ‘c’ He is transfigured and His glory shines out, and in the parallel a bright cloud overshadows them and they hear a voice from Heaven. In ‘d’ Moses and Elijah appear, and in the parallel Peter offers to erect tents for them. Centrally in ‘e’ Peter says it is good for him and his fellow disciples to be there. Nothing could have been truer.

Note on 16.28.

Before we consider this whole passage we should perhaps consider the meaning of 16.28 which has been the subject of much controversy. And in order to consider it we need to see the three versions of it, as found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, side by side.

16. 28 “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who stand here, who will in no way taste of death, until they see the Son of man coming in His kingly rule.”

Mark 9.1 has, ‘And he said to them, “Truly I say to you, there are some here of those who stand by who will in no way taste of death until they see the Kingly Rule of God come with power.” ’

Luke 9.27 has “But I tell you of a truth, There are some of them who stand here, who will in no wise taste of death, until they see the Kingly Rule of God.”

Note that all the versions emphasise the certainty of the truth of the statement (‘truly I say to you’), all speak of those who stand there (‘some who stand here’), all refer to their not all tasting death until what follows occurs, the difference therefore lies in the final words. ‘Until they see’ what? 1) the Son of Man coming in His Kingly Rule (Matthew), 2) the Kingly Rule of God come with power (Mark), 3) the Kingly Rule of God (Luke). The emphasis in each case is on God’s Kingly Rule, and in Matthew’s case as exercised through the Son of Man.

It is noteworthy also that all the statements follow the idea of the Son of Man coming in glory, either His own or His Father’s, something which is emphasised. Yet one striking consideration here is that, although all differ, none of the three versions of this verse refer to that glory. Their emphasis is on their ‘seeing the Kingly Rule of God’, in Mark’s case ‘with power’, and the glory appears to be avoided. Contrast how in 24.27, 30; 25.31 we find the repetition of the idea of glory. And this is especially interesting in the light of the fact that His coming in glory is never spoken of as introducing His Kingly Rule. Its emphasis is on His being the Judge as a result of possessing that Kingly Rule.

This suggests strongly that this verse is intended to refer to the fact that He is seen first as coming in His Kingly Rule (with power), in order to establish it, but not in glory. Luke’s phrase especially is quite basic. In view of Jesus’ words concerning the presence of the Kingly Rule of God as already being on earth (17.21) and as something that is spreading (16.16) this would suggest that Luke at least is talking about the Kingly Rule of God as being ‘seen’ in its establishment on a wide basis on earth (Acts 1.3, 8; 28.23, 31). Mark’s addition of ‘with power’ tends to confirm this, rather than otherwise. The idea is of the invasion first, and then the taking up of His throne in glory as following. What then does Matthew’s ‘the Son of Man coming in His Kingly Rule’ refer to? One reply to that question could be that he answers the question himself in 28.18-20. For there Matthew is indicating that he sees Jesus as returning after receiving all authority in Heaven and on earth, in order to go forward personally with His disciples to establish His Kingly Rule among the nations. He is to be seen as ‘coming in His Kingly Rule’ as with them He goes forward to establish that Kingly Rule. The doubt that may be raised is that in those verses there is no mention of the Son of Man. But countering that is the fact that calling Jesus the Son of Man after His resurrection, in a context where He is called the Son, might not be seen as fitting. He is no longer the Son of Man, He is the Son. Another alternative possibility is that ‘coming in His Kingly Rule’ refers to His approach to the throne of God ‘in royal power’ so as to establish His dominion and glory with God’s help (Daniel 7.13; compare 26.64 where that idea is also probably in mind). That being so the most reasonable interpretation of these words in all three versions is that they refer to Jesus’ coming work of establishing the Kingly Rule of God on earth in its expanded manifestation as it reaches out to ‘all nations’, in Matthew’s case by the fact of His very presence with them, having received His Kingly Rule, and in the case of Mark and Luke by the Holy Spirit revealing God’s Kingly Rule and bringing it about and extending it in Acts.

Other suggestions include that it refers to the Transfiguration (see below); to the Kingly Rule as having already come and needing to be appreciated; to Pentecost; to the Destruction of Jerusalem; and to the Parousia. All are, of course, undoubtedly manifestations of His Kingly Rule, but in our view none of these quite fit comfortably in with Jesus’ way of expressing it

End of note.

16. 28 “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who stand here, who will in no way taste of death, until they see the Son of man coming in His kingly rule.”

Following what we have seen in the note this is Jesus’ firmly declared confirmation to His disciples that within the possible lifetimes of the youngest present (the some who will not taste of death) they will see the Son of Man coming in His Kingly Rule, that is, they will see His Kingly authority being established.

Looking at the chiasmus there may well be the indication that this verse is partly fulfilled in the Transfiguration, for ‘seeing the Son of Man coming in His Kingly Rule’ is there paralleled with ‘seeing no one but Jesus only’, and the Son of Man certainly appears in the Transfiguration in glory. They could thus be said to have seen in His transfiguration His manifestation as the King in His glory (Daniel 7.14), and as the manifestation of the One Who has come in His Kingly Rule, a preview of the greater manifestation in 25.31. And this ties in with the fact that in each Gospel the Transfiguration scene is firmly attached to these words. Taking the words strictly literally the Transfiguration fulfils all the requirements of the verse. And this suggestion is further backed up in that 2 Peter 1.16 can be interpreted as describing the Transfiguration in terms of revealing ‘the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’, where the revelation of His power and His coming are seen as synonymous and as being revealed at that time.

But it is argued that the Transfiguration probably cannot be seen as the full fulfilment of these words, because that would appear to make nonsense of the words ‘some standing here’, which seem to indicate that a good number will taste of death before this ‘coming of the Son of Man in His Kingly Rule’. On the other hand that is not what He said. He did not say that many would taste of death, only that some would not until they had seen what He is speaking about. We can thus argue that Jesus deliberately did not want to be too specific about what He was planning, and knew that only some would see the Transfiguration. It is all thus very much a matter of interpretation. It could be argued that all that Jesus was wanting to get over was that only some would see it and that it would happen ‘shortly’, certainly within their lifetime. On the other hand, as we have seen, the total lack in this verse of the thought of ‘glory’ which has so prominent a part in descriptions of His second coming (16.27; 24.27, 30; 25.31 twice), and of the Transfiguration, militates against 16.28 signifying either the Transfiguration or the return in glory. If that is so it therefore rather appears to point to the establishment of His Kingly Rule on earth in powerful fashion (as in mind in, for example, 11.12; 13.38, 52), prior to His glorious appearing, and as something that will take a good number of years to achieve (enough time to see the deaths of a good many present). It is by this process therefore that the Son of Man’s coming in His Kingly Rule is to be manifested (see 28.18-20 and compare 26.64). So all in all we may see this as Jesus’ assurance to His disciples that even though He is to suffer in the future, they are to recognise that this will not prevent the coming in of God’s Kingly Rule in the power of God, which is the purpose of His coming.

‘Until they see the Son of man coming in His kingly rule.’ The natural reading of ‘until’ would be that in the end all would taste of death. This would then confirm that it does not refer to the Parousia (for no believers could die after the Parousia when all had been gathered in) and would suggest therefore that the Parousia would not take place within the lifetime of any of them. It suggests that they will see the Kingly Rule beginning to be established by Him but will in the end die leaving that establishment of His Kingly Rule to be carried on, until the Parousia finally arrives.

17.1 ‘And after six days Jesus takes with Him Peter, and James, and John his brother, and brings them up into a high mountain apart.’

‘After six days.’ Here we must ask the question, six days from when? The answer could possibly be ‘after the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi’, or it could signify six days ‘after saying these words’. The fact that Luke has it as ‘about eight days after’, however, possibly warns against our trying to read too much into the ‘six days’. (Luke’s ‘about eight days’ includes a part day at the beginning and a part day at the end, and is therefore the equivalent of these six days). It would thus appear simply to literally indicate the passing of time an unusual situation in Matthew, although of course taken from his source. Nevertheless as he could easily have abbreviated it out, as he so often does with extraneous material, this suggests that at the very minimum it is because he wants to maintain the link between the Transfiguration and what has gone before. This would seem to confirm the fact that he sees the Transfiguration as at least a partial fulfilment of the promise in 16.28, if not the whole.

Some have seen the six days as connected with the six days in Exodus 24.16, but surely if Matthew had intended us to identify with those he would have introduced ‘and on the seventh day’ as it does in Exodus. Nor are the circumstances anything like identical. In Exodus 24.16 Moses was already higher up the mountain prior to waiting for the six days, and the waiting was in order to enter the cloud. Furthermore Moses did not initially take up only three people, he took up seventy four, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, the seventy elders and Joshua. The differences are thus significant. If Jesus (or Matthew) had wanted us to identify the two scenarios surely more effort would have been put into some kind of nearer parallelism. The emphasis in Matthew, as in the other Gospels, is not just on Moses but on Moses AND Elijah, even if Moses does come first, in other words on the Law and the Prophets.

‘Peter and James and John.’ It is clear that these three are selected out as special and especially trustworthy witnesses from among the disciples (compare 26.37; Mark 5.37). Three is a number indicating completeness which is why we so often find threes in Scripture.

‘Into a high mountain apart.’ The suggestion of ‘a high mountain’ indicates an ‘other worldly’ experience for Him. Compare the only other reference to a high mountain in 4.8. This in the same way as going up into ‘the mountain’ always seems to indicate a specially blessed experience for His disciples, although at a lower level.

The mountain where the Transfiguration happened is traditionally said to have been Mount Tabor, a 600 metre (1,900 foot) hill that rises conspicuously at the east end of the Jezreel Valley. However as Josephus wrote that in those days there was a walled fortress on its summit it would not really have been the place to go for peace and solitude, and it is not really describable as ‘a high mountain’. Others have suggested Mount Hermon. This was close to Caesarea Philippi, and was 3000 metres (9,232 feet) high. But that would be an unlikely place to find Scribes and a crowd waiting at the bottom (although crowds did go long distances seeking Jesus). Another suggestion is Mount Miron, the highest mountain in Israel between Caesarea Philippi and Capernaum at 1,000 metre (3,926 feet) high. A fourth possibility is Mount Arbel on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. This is a high mountain from which the whole of the Sea of Galilee is visible. Mount Miron would appear a likely candidate, but clearly no one thought the question important, which tends to confirm that we are to learn a lesson from the fact that it was a ‘high mountain’.

17.2 ‘And He was transfigured before them, and his face shone as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.’

And there in that high mountain the disciples saw an amazing transformation take place. They saw Jesus ‘transfigured’ before them. Before their eyes His face ‘shone like the sun’, and His clothing became ‘white as light’, glistening and other worldly, and glorious. And they must have been shaken to the core, for this was not what they had been expecting when they went up with Him into the mount. It was true that Peter had declared Jesus to be ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’. But those had been words which manifested a conviction that had taken hold of his heart. This was something different. They were seeing something of what He was. They were being made to recognise as never before the uniqueness of Jesus.

And well they might for there is no other occasion in Scripture where this kind of appearance is seen as being true of a human being. It is seen to be true to some extent of heavenly figures (see 28.3; Daniel 10.5-6; Revelation 1.13-15), but never of an earthly One. For here there is no thought that it is the presence of God in glory that has caused it. This is no reflected glory, as it was with Moses when his face, and only his face, shone in Exodus 34.29, when he had been face to face with God in the cloud. (We should note also that that was semi-permanent and that Moses brought it down from the mountain with him. It was not a once for all revelation. It was borrowed glory intended to impress the people below. So its source was different, its aim was different, and the detail of the description is very different). The idea here is rather that the inward glory of Jesus is being revealed to His disciples. In that ‘high mountain’, having come closer, as it were, to Heaven, what He was in Himself could not remain hidden. The sun was the brightest light then known to man, and beyond man’s reach, and spoke of heavenly glory, while garments as white as light indicated total purity and unearthliness. He was thus here being revealed as of absolute glory and purity, and as basically One Who was from Heaven.

The description is, of course, making clear what was seen, not defining it. Glory shone out from Him. The parallels in the other Gospels mainly concentrate on the clothing. Mark says it was unearthly. It was ‘as no scourer on earth could whiten it’. Luke says it was ‘glistening’ (exastraptown), a word used in Daniel 10.9 of the glistening feet of a rather spectacular angel. But ‘white as light’ here in Matthew goes further. It brings to mind Psalm 104.2, ‘You are clothed with honour and majesty, Who cover yourself with light as with a garment’. This confirms that the aim here is to bring out Jesus’ ‘unearthliness’, and here in Matthew even His divinity.

Daniel 7.9 speaks of the Ancient of Days (God) as having ‘raiment as white as snow’ (compare 28.3), and this is in fact picked up by copyists who later incorporated it in the Transfiguration text of both Matthew (D and versions) and Mark (A D and versions). But even if we reject those readings on the basis of the evidence the comparison does confirm the heavenly nature of the ‘whiteness’. So Jesus is being revealed as a heavenly figure, and more.

This is backed up by the fact that the word for ‘white’ (leukos), when used elsewhere in the New Testament, either refers to the clothing of angels, or else to the clothing of glorified saints who have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. It symbolises what is pure and is not of earth.

However Luke also confirms that ‘the appearance of His countenance was altered’, and Matthew here describes it as ‘shining like the sun’. This connects Him with the righteous who will in the future shine forth as the sun in the Kingly Rule of their Father (13.43), but here it is seen as His already, not something that He has to receive in the future. He is already the Righteous One (compare Acts 3.14) shining like the sun. One day all the righteous ones, made righteous by His coming and the divine activity upon them (see on 5.6), will be like Him for they will see Him as He is (1 John 3.2). Matthew may well also have had in mind the Sun of righteousness Who would arise with healing in His wings (Malachi 4.3).

This growing in righteousness and glory of His people so that they become ‘the righteous’ is in fact revealed in similar terms to the Transfiguration in 2 Corinthians 3.18. There it comes about through beholding/reflecting the glory of the Lord. But there it is we and not the Lord whose shining is likened to the shining of Moses’ skin.

Comparison can be made with the faces which were ‘as lightning’, again of the angels in 28.3; Daniel 10.9. But as the sun is brighter and more permanent than the lightning, so was His glory seen to be more glorious as compared with theirs. If the ideas are being borrowed and to some extent improved on in order to bring out what is unique, the outshining of the glory of Jesus (compare Hebrews 1.3), they are not just being duplicated. In contrast with them He is the outshining of the glory of God and the ‘stamped out image’ of His substance (Hebrews 1.3). As Peter puts it, ‘we were eyewitnesses of His majesty’ and ‘He received honour and glory from God the Father’ (2 Peter 1.16-17).

However, the main immediate comparison that would probably have been made by the Apostles as they saw Him in His glory on the Mount, would be with the glory of the Lord as He came down on the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). There He met with the children of Israel, and there His holiness was manifested. See Exodus 29.43; 40.34-35; 1 Kings 8.11. But here the glory is seen rather to have emanated from Jesus, revealing that Jesus Himself was, in His humanity, God’s Dwellingplace, and it is important in this regard to note that the glory is seen as being that of Jesus Himself, for the voice of the Father ‘came out of Heaven’ (2 Peter 1.18), from the cloud, not from Jesus Himself.

This ‘vision’ might well also have reminded the disciples of another vivid scene in Isaiah 6.1-8. That too was a glorious vision of a King in His glory, for although His glory is not mentioned there, it is implied in the fact that the seraphim covered their faces before Him and in the moving of the foundations, and there can be little doubt that the disciples would have seen that appearance in Isaiah in the light of the Shekinah, the revelation of the glory of God in His Dwellingplace. And there too He was accompanied by heavenly attendants who spoke to Him. There too the cloud came down (the house was filled with a smoke cloud), and there too a voice spoke from Heaven, referring to the need to listen (which would not be heeded in the case of Isaiah’s listeners). So there are a number of similarities. Of course here on the Mount Jesus could not yet be on a throne because He had not yet been glorified, but that is how He will be depicted in 25.31 when He is on the throne of His glory. Here He is being depicted rather as the beloved Son, prior to His coronation (28.18), but it is probably still in terms of that vision of Isaiah (compare also Isaiah 60.19). This ties in again with Matthew’s emphasis on Isaiah and his prophecies in 3.2-20.28.

Later in Revelation 1.13-16 similar descriptions will be used of Jesus, in a similar manifestation of glory, there described in terms of His face shining as the sun and as walking in the midst of His ‘congregation’, (seen in terms of seven ‘congregations’ which represent the universal congregation), and having the keys of Death and of Hades. Those are concepts which tie in with this whole passage from 16.13 to 17.8, which reveals as it does the increasing manifestation of Christ, first as the Son of the living God (16.16) revealed in power in establishing His congregation and bringing the keys which release from Hades (16.18), and then as the glorious Son making known His glory (17.2, 5; Revelation 1.17). And all this in terms of tribulation and kingship (16.24-25, 28; Revelation 1.9). It is no coincidence that the Apostle John was present at both visions. Revelation 1 was an even greater (because totally heavenly) manifestation of what happened here.

17.3 ‘And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah talking with him.’

And then to cap His glory Moses and Elijah appeared before the amazed eyes of the disciples and talked with Him. Men of Heaven had come down to earth. ‘Behold’ indicates something new that is happening of which note should be taken. His glorious Transfiguration had undoubtedly revealed His heavenly nature and status (compare John 17.5), but now the question is, what did the presence of Moses and Elijah reveal, and what did it mean? Note that they were ‘talking with Him’. It was not just to be seen as a series of strange visions, but as something that actually took place in which Moses and Elijah had a part to play.

It is quite possible that the disciples did not know who the visitors were at first, although it is equally possible that both Moses and Elijah wore things that identified them. Elijah’s prophetic dress would certainly have been very distinctive. But their conversations would probably be the sealing factor.

Unquestionably the first significance of their presence is that it indicated that both the great Lawgiver of Israel, and the great representative of the Prophets who, as the greatest of all the prophets, was to return again to turn many to God (Malachi 4.5), were there to witness to Jesus. And they were both there in their heavenly state, supporting Jesus, and seeing Him as the central figure, and as the One to Whom they looked, and to Whom they offered their support. It confirms that both of them supported what Jesus was doing, and that in Him a greater than Moses, and a greater than Elijah (compare 12.41-42), had come, in order to ‘fulfil the Law or the Prophets’ (5.17). And that is no doubt what they were talking to Him about. In this regard it should be noted that the book of the Prophets had closed with the words ‘Remember you the law of Moses My servant --- behold I will send you Elijah the prophet’ (Malachi 4.4-5). Now they were both there testifying to Jesus.

A further point that might be significant was that both of these men had previously gone into mountains for the very purpose of experiencing the mighty presence of God in person (Exodus 24.15; 1 Kings 19.8-18). And now here they were again in the mountain, but this time sharing in the glory of Jesus.

Matthew, like Luke, has reversed the order from ‘Elijah and Moses’ as found in Mark. Part of the reason for this might have been in order to fit in with the order in 5.17. But it may also signify that as a Jew he is putting a greater emphasis on Moses. To the Jews Moses had an unparalleled pre-eminence.

However, the grounds for seeing a ‘second Moses’ motif, rather than a second exodus motif, are not solid, unless we simply see by that that Jesus ‘fulfilled’ both Moses and Elijah, and more. While there are superficial similarities to the book of Exodus they are not exact enough to indicate that. Jesus is not here to be seen as a second Moses nor as a second Elijah. He is greater than both and fulfils both, and both point to Him. In Him the true ‘Israel’ are finally ‘coming out of Egypt’ for good (2.15). And we should note in this regard that Matthew deliberately omits the fact that they were speaking of His coming ‘exodus’ (Luke 9.31) which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem, which would be strange if he particularly wanted to emphasise Jesus as a second, or even superior, Moses. Furthermore the reversal of the order actually makes it more difficult to see a pointer forward to a new Elijah (John), followed by a new Moses (Jesus) as lying behind the two names.

So what the presence of Moses and Elijah is accomplishing is the confirmation of Jesus’ unique status as the One to whom they had pointed as representatives of the Law and the Prophets. They had pointed forward. He is the fulfilment of it all. And what Matthew’s order may be intended to suggest is that he saw them as representing salvation history from its commencement to that time, with Moses as the great initial Deliverer, and Elijah as the final preparer of the way. And now the One has come for whom both have prepared, and they must point to Him and then withdraw. Their task is done. For Elijah’s work has been completed by John the Baptist. But none of the three disciples would ever forget that they had seen these great men bear witness to their Master. It threw new light onto many things.

But there is possibly a further significance in the mentioning of these two, for Moses was the one who originally formed ‘the congregation of Israel’ into a cohesive unit, and miraculously fed them with bread in the wilderness, and Elijah had been responsible in the northern kingdom of Israel for establishing ‘the sons of the prophets’ and for taking care of the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal whom God had reserved to Himself (1 Kings 19.18), who represented what was left of the congregation of Israel that was still acceptable to God, thereby establishing a new ‘congregation’ from the remnant. And he also miraculously fed a woman and her son with bread (1 Kings 17.12-16), while his successor too, who shared his spirit (2 Kings 2.9, 15), miraculously fed a hundred of his followers with bread (2 Kings 4.42-44, compare 4.1-7). Thus these two may be seen as pointing ahead to the One who will fashion and miraculously feed in a far greater way the final new ‘congregation of Israel’, preserved out of the old.

17.4 ‘And Peter answered, and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If it is your will I will make here three booths, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” ’

Peter appears to have considered that this wonderful scene was something that was intended to be permanent, or at least strove to make it so, although Mark tells us that he also spoke out of fear, not knowing what to say. So we must not judge him too harshly. But what he says does demonstrate that to him at least what he was seeing was actually happening and not just a vision. For he suggested that he and his fellow disciples should build three booths, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah (for such great leaders could hardly be expected to build their own). His probable idea was that these booths would shield their glory from the people (see Luke 9.31) and act as sanctuaries to which people could come to consult with them. It may also have included the idea that as they had apparently come to assist Jesus in His work, they must therefore be given accommodation suited to their status (as tents of generals might be around that of the king). They would have been seen by Peter as useful men to have around. For both Moses and Elijah had been highly experienced in dealing with aggressors in their day, and Peter might have seen in their presence a hope of the fulfilment of his confession about the Messiah, without any suffering, which would lead to these mighty three acting to bring in the Kingly Rule of God. His view would be that such heavenly visitants could hardly fail to achieve their aims. And in his ignorance the last thing that he wanted was for them to leave. The mighty Peter who had been blessed by God with the revelation about Jesus’ Messiahship, is now seen to be the foolish Peter whose ideas are ridiculous in the extreme. He is being taught that he has much to learn.

Possibly also there was the thought that the people would be able to come up the mountain and seek the wisdom of these three great teachers, and see in their presence the sign that up to this point Jesus had refused to give. Perhaps, Peter might have thought, this was what Jesus had been leading up to? His idea was probably that this would indeed then cause a stirring among the people and an establishing of the truth in their hearts, after which, led by these three ‘greats’, the people would go forward to conquer the world. Their prayer of, ‘Your Kingly Rule come’ would be dramatically answered (at this stage the Apostles were still looking for an earthly physical ‘kingdom’ - Acts 1.6).

Compare how both James and John are thinking of Jesus in similar physical terms when they try to pre-empt Peter later for the positions at His right and left hand sides (20.21), and how John will describe the two witnesses in Revelation 11.5-6 in terms which appear to have Moses and Elijah in mind, although by then his ideas had been straightened out and he recognises their secondary position and that Jesus’ throne and kingship is in Heaven, so that their presence simply leads up to the Rapture and the final judgment, pictured in vivid terms.

There was, of course, in this idea of Peter’s a diminishing of the status of Jesus which Peter apparently did not appreciate, but he was soon to be made aware of it in the voice that followed, which would single out Jesus as unique, and greater than Moses and Elijah, as the One Who alone was to be listened to. Moses and Elijah were of the past. The future lay with Jesus and His words. He would not share His glory with another. (Nor indeed could they share it).

17.5 ‘While he was yet speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed (or ‘enveloped’) them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear you him.” ’

For even while he was speaking a voice from Heaven spoke out and corrected him. This was also accompanied by a bright cloud which overshadowed ‘them’. This might refer to overshadowing Jesus, Moses and Elijah, or it might include the disciples as well. In the Old Testament this kind of manifestation regularly indicated the presence of God in the past, especially at the time of the Exodus, and would do so in last days (Psalm 97.2; Isaiah 4.5; Ezekiel 30.3; Daniel 7.13; Zephaniah 1.15). So here the Father had come down to testify to His Son ‘from Heaven’ in the fulfilment of His ongoing purposes.

Then a voice spoke from the cloud. This was not the faint ‘bath qol’ (daughter of a voice) spoken of by the Pharisees. It was a firm, strong and powerful voice that brought dread into the hearts of the disciples, like the voice that spoke from Sinai (Exodus 20.1; Deuteronomy 5.24-25). And it repeated the words spoken after Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (3.17), adding “Hear you him.” ’ Once again we have echoes of the Exodus (Exodus 20).

As we have already seen these words indicate that Jesus is the coming King (Psalm 2.7) and the coming Servant of the Lord of Isaiah (Isaiah 42.1). But the combination indicates more than that. It indicates a unique relationship with the Father (11.25-27; 14.33; 16.16). He is ‘My beloved Son’. The final words ‘hear Him’ (compare Deuteronomy 18.15) then turn them away from Moses and Elijah to Jesus, the greatest Prophet of all. He and He alone is the One to Whom they must now look. To us this is so obvious that it hardly needed to be said. But to those disciples, brought up to revere Moses and the prophets, and to look to them for all truth, it was a salutary lesson. Jesus was now to be all in all to them. They would have a totally new view of Him from now on.

17.6 ‘And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were very much afraid.’

There is really no doubt that these three disciples must have been filled with awe from the beginning (as the other Gospels make clear). What they were seeing and experiencing was truly awesome. They would unquestionably have been shaken by the unbelievable glory emanating from Jesus, they would have been bewildered and astonished by the mysterious appearance and presence of men who had been heroes to them all their lives, and whom they knew had passed on and were no longer of this world, and now the bright cloud which engulfed them and the voice that spoke to them was the final straw. They recognised that ‘God was in this place’. Here it is especially the voice that has made them very much afraid. We can compare this with the fear that Israel of old had known when God spoke to them directly (Exodus 20.19-20; Deuteronomy 5.24-27). Here were the foundations of the new Israel experiencing the same problem. And thus they fell down to the ground and buried their faces. They did not want to see or hear any more. It was all too much for them.

17.7-8 ‘And Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, save Jesus only.’

The three disciples had been so very much afraid at the realisation of the nearness of God, accompanied no doubt by a deep awareness and sense of His presence, that they had fallen on their faces, hiding their eyes in the ground. Thus we are not told what followed, for they knew nothing more until Jesus came to them and touched them, telling them to stand up and not be afraid. And when they then lifted up their eyes the others had gone and they were alone with Jesus. ‘They saw no man but Jesus only.’

Their being touched by Jesus in this way parallels the touching of Daniel by the angel whose description has lent something to this narrative (Daniel 10.10). But it is not just a matter of borrowing ideas, for as we have been told, Jesus constantly touches people (e.g. 8.3, 15; 9.29; 20.34). The point is that the disciples were traumatised, just as Daniel had been, and in need of supernatural help. There the angel had helped Daniel up. Jesus may well have done the same here. It is a reminder that when we are desolated we can be sure that Jesus will always approach us and touch us when we fall before Him. But in this case it was more than that, and perhaps the sequence of hearing a voice, falling on their faces, being afraid, receiving a touch, and being told not to be afraid was intended to indicate that what they had seen was a heavenly visitation as in Daniel.

They must have experienced a feeling of great relief, and at the same time of great disappointment, when they rose to their feet. On the one hand they had failed to see the end of what was being enacted out, and now it was gone, but in another they had now got Jesus back, seemingly just as He was before, although they would never be able to see Him in quite the same way again. The lesson had, however, been learned. Others could go on looking to the past. But they now knew that the past pointed ahead to Jesus, and that He was now the future, for those who were the greatest of the past had themselves said so. So they not only ‘saw Jesus only’, but knew that He was all that they would need for the future. They could still learn from Moses and the prophets, but now only because they pointed to Jesus.

As we close this passage we should stop for a moment and try to consider and experience its deeper significance. We can become so tied up with our explanations of ‘this and that’ that we overlook the whole. The experience would never be forgotten and would forever be spoken of in the future with an awed voice (2 Peter 1.15-18). The manifestation of the eternal glory of Jesus in a light that outshone the sun, and of His purity as revealed by the unearthly and dazzling whiteness of His clothing, the appearance from the past, and from beyond, of the great Moses and the fiery Elijah, the bright cloud that overshadowed them, the sense of the presence of a holy God in a way never known by them before, the terrible voice speaking from the cloud concerning His beloved Son, all were reminders of the purpose for which they had been chosen, even though as yet their conceptions of what it was were so small. They knew now that this was something beyond anything that they could have previously conceived. Jesus was the Son of the living God indeed.

Jesus And The Disciples Descend From The Mountain. The Truth About John the Baptist (17.9-13).

As they were coming down from the mountain Jesus commanded silence about what they had seen until He had risen from the dead. (They would be unaware of how soon that would be). It was not only the idea of His Messiahship that He did not want spreading (by those who did not fully understand it), it was the whole idea of Who He really was, to those who were not ready to receive it.

However they were now totally confident that He was the Coming One, and that the ‘last days’ were here. But in view of this they could not understand why Elijah had come and gone. They were puzzled. It was clear from what they had seen that the work of Moses and Elisha was now completed. Why then did the Scribes teach that Elijah would first come preparatory for God to act? Jesus’ reply was clear and simple. Elijah had come. He had come in the person of John the Baptist (compare Luke 1.15-12). But He incorporated within His reply a further warning of His coming suffering. They must not be deceived by having seen His glory into thinking that He could therefore not suffer.

Analysis.

  • a As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying (9a).
  • b “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen from the dead” (9b).
  • c And his disciples asked him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must first come?” (10).
  • d And he answered and said, “Elijah is indeed coming, and will restore all things” (11).
  • c “But I say to you, that Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but did to him whatever they would” (12a).
  • b “Even so will the Son of man also suffer of them” (12b).
  • a Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them of John the Baptist (13).

Note than in ‘a’ Jesus commanded them, and in the parallel they understood what He meant. In ‘b’ He refers to the resurrection of the Son of Man, and in the parallel to the prior death of the Son of Man. In ‘c’ is the question about the coming of Elijah, and in the parallel is the answer that Elijah has indeed come. Centrally in ‘d’ is the emphasis that the Scripture must be fulfilled.

17.9 ‘And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen from the dead.” ’

Jesus makes clear, as they descend from the mountain, that the vision had been meant for them and them alone, until after His resurrection. The last thing He wanted was for the crowds to be stirred up to do something foolish. He did not want to be the cause of a revolution. And again He reminds them that as the Son of Man He must arise from the dead.

17.10 ‘And his disciples asked him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must first come?” ’

But the disciples were puzzled. They now accepted that He was the greater than Elijah, and that the last days were here, but why then had Elijah not come as the Scribes had declared? Were they wrong in that belief? Furthermore if Elijah was to restore all things as the Scribes taught, why would the Son of Man be treated in such a way that He needed to be raised? Surely the coming of Elijah would mean that the Scribes would be on His side? None of it seemed to make sense. This last would be especially relevant if they had caught on to the fact that it was these very Scribes who would cause Jesus’ death.

17.11-12 ‘And he answered and said, “Elijah is indeed coming, and will restore all things, but I say to you, that Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but did to him whatever they would. Even so will the Son of man also suffer of them.” ’

In His reply Jesus first confirms that the promise that Elijah would come and ‘restore all things’ was true. ‘Restore all things’ is probably quoting the Scribal viewpoint, without necessarily accepting their interpretation of it (it is not found in Scriptures concerning Elijah, but Ecclesiasticus 48.10 paraphrases Malachi 4.6 as ‘to restore the tribes of Jacob’. Compare Isaiah 49.6 where ‘the preserved of Israel’ are in mind). But then He pointed out that that had already happened. Elijah had come (compare 11.14). But the Scribes had failed to recognise him as well (because he had not restored things in their favour and exalted them and their teaching), and thus they had ‘treated him as they would’. This last is a typically Jewish description representing the self-will of evil men (compare Daniel 8.4; 11.3, 16).

So the Scribes had failed to recognise the very one of whom they had spoken, and they had caused him to suffer just as they will also cause the Son of Man to suffer. Indeed their very treatment of Elijah means that such treatment must be anticipated for the Son of Man as well. If they fail to recognise the one, they will not recognise the other (compare here 21.23-27).

17.13 ‘Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them of John the Baptist.’

Then the disciples realised that He was speaking of John the Baptist. He was the Elijah who was coming. They had taken a further small step in understanding. But we may ask, can we really say that John had ‘restored all things’? Clearly a phrase like that can mean a number of things. It could not possibly be taken literally, for then he would have forestalled the Messiah. If ‘Elijah’ literally ‘restores all things’ there would be nothing left for anyone else to do. But what then was prophesied of the coming Elijah? It was that he would ‘turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers’ (Malachi 4.6). He would restore all that was necessary in God’s purposes. He would put right the basics. And this was to be in order to forestall the judgment of God and make His people ready for blessing and not cursing. This was the ‘restoration of all things’ that was promised.

And that was certainly also promised of John the Baptist. He would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God (Luke 1.16). And he would go before God’s face in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people (Luke 1.17). This was the restoration promised, and this John fulfilled. This was why there was such fruitful ground awaiting the coming of Jesus (John 4.38).

The Problem of Unbelief, The Reason For Unbelief, And The One Who Will Triumph Through Faith (17.14-23).

At the commencement of this section we learned of the problem of unbelief (13.58) which was connected with the power of Jesus and the idea of resurrection (14.1-2). Now in this parallel passage we discover an example of unbelief in the disciples (17.14-18), which is followed by describing the kind of faith that is required (17.19-21) and the example of the One Who has that faith and Who as a result will come through suffering and death, to resurrection (17.22-23).

There is a huge contrast here between Jesus’ revelation in triumph, power and glory on the high mountain, and the disciples helplessness at the foot of the mountain. Without His presence at work with them and through them they can do nothing. That is why later He will promise, ‘lo, I am with you always’ (28.20).

The Failure Of The Disciples To Cast Out A Demon (17.14-18).

On arrival at the bottom of the mountain they came across a crowd of people who were with the disciples and there discovered that while Jesus was in the mountain they had been unable to heal a boy who gave the appearance of being epileptic as a result of the presence of a powerful demon active within him. Observing this Jesus expresses His concern at the faithlessness of that generation and heals the boy. This incident is always connected with the Transfiguration and it may well be that there is an indication in this that without the presence of Jesus with them the disciples’ faith had been affected. They were not sure where He had gone or what He was doing. It may also indicate that with Jesus involved in heavenly activity and out of the way the demon world felt more assured.

But we should note that Matthew, unlike Mark, lays little stress on the demonic power at work here, although noting it at the end. He speaks rather of the boy being ‘cured’. There was seemingly a mixture of disease and demon possession. Perhaps indeed the demon possession had taken place as a result of using occult methods to try to cure the boy of epilepsy. Matthew’s main aim here is to bring out the failure and lack of faith of the disciples. And as usual he abbreviates considerably.

A vivid picture is found here of how little the disciples could achieve without the power of Jesus with them. That is why Jesus’ last words in Matthew are, ‘lo I am with you always’ (28.20). Without Him they could do nothing.

Analysis.

  • a And when they were come to the crowd, there came to him a man, kneeling to him (14).
  • b Saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is epileptic, and suffers grievously, for regularly he falls into the fire, and regularly into the water” (15).
  • c “And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him” (16).
  • d ‘And Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (17a).
  • c “Bring him here to me” (17b).
  • b And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon went out of him (18a).
  • a And the boy was cured from that hour (18b).

Note that in ‘a’ the man came to Jesus and knelt before Him, and in the parallel the boy was subsequently cured. In ‘b He learned about the demon’s activity in the boy, and in the parallel He cast it out. In ‘c’ the boy was brought to the disciples but they could not cure him, and in the parallel Jesus said ‘Bring him to Me’. Centrally in ‘d’ Jesus bemoaned the faithlessness and perversity of that generation.

17.14 ‘And when they were come to the crowd, there came to him a man, kneeling to him, saying,’

Coming down from a mountain regularly results in a crowd, for they would be waiting for Him (compare 8.1). We do not know which mountain this was but by now they were probably back in Galilee. This is confirmed in Mark by the presence of Scribes. The man knelt before Him in order to back up his plea. The word suggests humility and entreaty.

17.15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is epileptic, and suffers grievously, for regularly he falls into the fire, and regularly into the water.”

He asked Him to have compassion on his son. Here the son is described as ‘affected by the moon’ (lunatic), sometimes translated as epileptic because of the symptoms, and also, some have suggested, because epileptics were seen as ‘moonstruck’. But in Mark it is made clear that he is possessed by a ‘dumb spirit’, and that this was thus no ordinary epilepsy. It is unlikely that the Apostles would have been thwarted by an ordinary case of epilepsy. The presence of this evil spirit is confirmed here by the fact that it is stressed that it tends to cause the son to be cast into either fire or water. The suggestion appears to be that it happened to an abnormal extent, as though the demon had perverse pleasure in being selective, although it may simply be that the father vividly remembered such incidents and was using them to impress on Jesus the seriousness of the situation.

‘Lord.’ This was probably showing due reverence to a recognised prophet.

17.16 “And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him.”

But then came the body blow. The disciples had been unable to cure the boy. It is noteworthy that we are shortly to learn that they were themselves shocked at their failure. They had expected to be successful, as it would appear up to this point they always had been. They were unable to understand their failure themselves. Thus they had clearly exercised a certain amount of faith, sufficient usually to achieve success. But it had not been enough. Before we are too critical we should note that probably all nine of the remaining Apostles were there and that not one of them had been able to be successful. It would seem that this was a particularly powerful demon.

The failure of the disciples has been a theme of this section. They did not understand about the loaves and the fishes (14.16-21); they were afraid of the ghost at sea (14.26-27); they could not understand why only what came from inside could defile a man (15.16); they had wanted Him to send the Canaanite woman away without meeting her deepest need (15.23); they failed to be aware of how the crowds could be fed (15.33); they became anxious about having no bread in spite of all that they had seen and had been taught (16.5); the disciples had failed to recognise in John the Baptist, the coming Elijah (17.10-11). And now they have failed to cast out this demon. It is being made quite clear why they must have Jesus with them when they go out to disciple all nations (28.19-20). Furthermore Peter had lost his faith as he looked at the ferocity of the tempest (14.28-31); had sought to dissuade Jesus from the path of suffering (16.22); and had wanted to keep Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus (17.4). His moment of insight (16.16) was seen as far outweighed by his failure to see. But what a different picture is revealed after Pentecost once the living Christ has possessed them through His Spirit.

17.17 ‘And Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to me.” ’

Nevertheless Jesus was concerned about their failure, because of what it revealed about them. It meant that they were still only marginally better in themselves than others in their generation. They were lacking in what He desired to see in them. For He saw the whole generation of that time as lacking in faith, as unreliable, and as constantly disobedient and wayward (compare 12.39), and the disciples as being only a little better. They too were lacking in full faith and were perverse (constantly turning from the right path). Note how the two go together. The root cause of unbelief is the disobedient heart. For the ideas compare Deuteronomy 32.5. And because of this their failure was such that it caused Jesus great distress. He had hoped for so much more from them. In His view they should not have failed. Their faith should have been true. But it appeared that as soon as He left them to themselves they began to fail again.

‘How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?’ This brings out something of the trial that it was for Jesus to walk on earth in the midst of unbelief and failure which was so foreign to His own being. Had we been among them we would have been amazed at the greatness of their faith. But to Jesus it was very different. Their very attitude tore at His heart. Why was it that they were unable to understand and believe? He found it very hard to bear when He knew how faithful their Father was, and how He loved them.

‘Generation.’ This was the one generation that had less excuse than any other, for it was the generation that had had Jesus among them, and had proved itself for what it was (compare 12.41-42).

17.18 ‘And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon went out of him, and the boy was cured from that hour.’

Then Jesus rebuked the evil spirit and it came out of him. There was no spirit, whatever its power and importance, that could do anything but obey Jesus. He had bound their master, He had no problem, even as a human being, in controlling his minions. Matthew stresses the instantaneous nature of the healing. This might suggest that as one of the disciples he was very conscious of how long they had tried to do it and had failed.

For ‘from that hour’ compare 8.13; 9.22; 15.28 referring to the centurion’s servant, the woman with constant bleeding, and the Canaanite woman, in each case concerning people with insistent faith, and people who came to Him against the odds. He always responded promptly to determined faith.

The Reason For Their Failure (17.19-21).

The disciples learn that their failure was due to the lack of quality in their faith. What was needed was the kind of faith that can only be built up by depth in prayer (Mark 9.29). It was their failure to spend time in continuing prayer that was at the root of their unbelief (14.16-27, 31; 15.5, 8).

Analysis. .

  • a Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” (19).
  • b And he says to them, “Because of your little faith” (20a).
  • b “For truly I say to you, If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed (20b).
  • a “You will say to this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place’, and it will remove, and nothing will be impossible to you” (20c).

Note that in ‘a’ they ask why they could not cast it out, and in the parallel learn that with proper faith they will be able to cast anything out. In ‘b’ their failure was due to little faith, and in the parallel all that is required is faith the size of a grain of mustard seed.

17.19 ‘Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” ’

The disciples were deeply concerned by their failure. And when they were able to get Jesus alone they came to Him and asked why they had failed to cast the demon out. Their puzzlement brings out that they were not used to failing in this way. They had been taken by surprise.

17.20-21 ‘And he says to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I say to you, If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place’, and it will remove, and nothing will be impossible to you.” ’

Jesus explains that the reason that they had failed was because of the insufficiency of their faith. That it was quality of faith and not the size of it that mattered comes out in the comment that followed. If faith is of the right quality then only the tiniest amount is required, faith the size of a mustard seed, and the mustard seed was, in Palestine, the smallest of all seeds used by Galilean farmers and proverbially small. But with the right quality of faith even mountains can be removed by a word. Indeed, Jesus stresses, with the right quality of faith nothing is impossible. So what needs to be developed is faith, and this can only be developed by regular prayer. The need to build up faith is Matthew’s emphasis.

It is in Mark 9.29 that He makes clear that such faith is developed by much prayer. We are never told how much the disciples prayed, but from this it was clearly not enough. Jesus was not, of course, advocating actually removing mountains. That would hardly be within God’s will, and believing prayer must be within His will (1 John 5.14). He was speaking about every kind of difficulty. Compare especially Zechariah 4.7. ‘Removing mountains’ was a proverbial figure of speech for overcoming great difficulties (compare 21.21-22; Isaiah 40.4; 49.11; 54.10; Mark 11.23; Luke 17.6; 1 Corinthians 13.2).

‘And nothing will be impossible to you.’ Nothing would be impossible for the one who truly believed God. This was because of the greatness of their God (see 19.26). His point is that nothing is too hard for the Lord (see Genesis 18.14; Job 42.2; Jeremiah 32.17, 27), and therefore nothing is impossible for the one whose faith is true.

Jesus Again Warns Of His Coming Arrest, Execution, And Rising Again (17.22-23).

Then Jesus presents the final example of faith. He is not just calling on His disciples to believe. He too will evidence His faith by going forward in the hands of God Who will deliver Him (‘will be delivered’ is a divine passive) into the hands of men. The result will then be that they will kill Him. But on the third day God will then raise Him from the dead. So He is going forward with His faith fully in His Father.

Jesus had given constant indications of the suffering that He must face almost from the beginning (9.15; 10.38; 12.40 and compare John 2.19-22) but from the time of the disciples’ open recognition of Him as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ He has proclaimed with even more force the necessity for His humiliation, death and resurrection in accordance with Isaiah 53.7-12. See 16.21; 17.9, 12. But now it is included so as to demonstrate that He has the faith that He desires of His disciples. Initially He had spoken of it in Caesarea Philippi, but now it is in Galilee. He knows that His hour is near.

Analysis.

  • a And while they gathered (came together) in Galilee, Jesus said to them (22a).
  • b “The Son of man will be delivered up into the hands of men” (22b).
  • c “And they will kill him” (23a).
  • b “And the third day he will be raised up” (23b).
  • a And they were very upset (23c).

Note that in ‘a’ Jesus spoke seriously to them of what was coming, and in the parallel they were very upset. In ‘b’ we have a description of God’s first act in the coming drama and in the parallel God’s last act. Centrally in ‘c’ is the fact of what men will do in the face of God’s activity.

17.22 ‘And while they gathered in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of man will be delivered up into the hands of men,” ’

This is the first specific indication that they are back in Galilee. At the opening of this section Jesus was in His home town (probably Nazareth although Matthew does not say so) and left it because of their unbelief (13.53-58). Now He will return to His home town (Capernaum - verse 24 compare 4.13) where they still do not recognise Him. Matthew centres the salvation history around Galilee. He depicts Jesus’ ministry only from when it commences in Galilee (4.12-16), as continually returning to Galilee, and as finalising in Galilee in the resurrection appearance on the mountain (28.16-20), after the interlude in Jerusalem. This may be seen as confirming that he, Matthew, is a Galilean.

‘While they were gathered.’ Mark has ‘were passing through’. This may suggest that the wider group of disciples were gathering ready for the trip to Jerusalem for Passover, so that prior to travelling to Jerusalem Jesus wants them all to be aware of what lies ahead. As the Son of Man He will be delivered by God into the hands of men. There may here be a wordplay on ‘Man’ and ‘men’. The One Who has come representing man, and as born of woman, will be delivered into men’s hands for them to do their will with Him. Men will show once and for all what they will do with a man who dares to be too much like God.

Others see the verb as meaning ‘gathered around Him, moved around together’, indicating that He was teaching them as they moved around.

As we have seen the chiasmus indicates that this must be taken together with the previous passages. Here therefore Jesus’ words are a demonstration of true faith. He is ready for His Father’s will, and is voluntarily following the path that will lead to it.

It is possible that ‘handed over’ has in mind Judas Iscariot. This might be Jesus’ first attempt to win Judas from the path he has chosen to tread.

17.23 “And they will kill him, and the third day he will be raised up.” And they were very upset.’

And He then makes clear what will follow. ‘They will kill Him.’ He is in no doubt about what His fate will be. The signs are too ominous and man is to be allowed to do His worst. But the last word will be with His Father. On the third day He will be raised up. Jesus has total faith in His Father. For the rising up on the third day see on 16.21. ‘The third day’ might simply signify ‘within a short time of less than a week’, being in contrast with ‘seven days’ (compare the use of ‘three days’ and ‘seven days’ in Genesis).

The concentration of the disciples, in so far as they understand it at all, is on His words about death, and they are therefore very upset at this talk of death. They still cannot really bring themselves to believe it.

Jesus Again Reveals His Sonship (17.24-27).

In contrast with man’s coming treatment of Him Jesus continues to reveal His Sonship preparatory to what is coming. What follows is not just an outlandish display of power and knowledge with little significance, it is a specific indication that He is no longer subject to men. To pay the Temple Tax to His Father from His own earthly resources would have been to indicate that He was still subject to men, and an acknowledgement that He was not truly the Son. But by offering it from the abundance of the seas, His Father’s treasury (the fish have no ruler - Habakkuk 1.14), as a sacrifice of righteousness (Deuteronomy 33.19), He makes clear His independence of men, and that He offers it as His Son.

Note On The Temple Tax.

The Law of Moses directed in Exodus 30.11 ff. that whenever the people of Israel were ‘numbered’, every male over twenty years old, rich and poor alike, should give a half shekel for the support of the Tabernacle as a kind of ransom. It was on this basis that Josiah demanded a special contribution to repair the temple (2 Chronicles 24.6). After the return from the captivity, Nehemiah and his followers "made ordinances" (thus not seeing it as something that was required by the law of Moses, but as something that was by voluntary agreement) that every year men should pay the third part of a shekel in order to provide sacrifices, etc., for the Temple (Nehemiah 10.32).

In Josephus the tax is a didrachma and in the Mishna the tax is a shekel, and according to LXX the didrachma, as spoken of here in Matthew, was the equivalent of one shekel. Thus the tax being required here is one shekel. The leaders had thus retained Nehemiah’s plan of making it annual, but had increased the sum to one shekel. The extra half shekel may have been seen as a voluntary further contribution for particular purposes, or it may be because they actually saw the sacred shekel as worth twice the value of a shekel. (Thus half a sacred shekel is one shekel). The Mishna has a separate treatise on the subject of this tax. Priests, women, children, and slaves, were exempt from the tax, but might give if they wished. The Jews in Palestine were expected to give it well before the time of the Passover; those in foreign countries were allowed until Pentecost or even until Tabernacles, and there was a special chest in the temple for contributions due from the previous year so that people could catch up. Commissioners were sent throughout Palestine to collect the Tax (they were called ‘those who collect the didrachma’). They were distinct from the public servants who collected the government tax. In foreign countries the money was deposited by the leading Jews in some fortified city until it could be escorted to Jerusalem. (Josephus "Antiquities" 18, 9, 1.) Cicero states that gold was exported every year from Italy, and all the provinces, in the name of the Jews, to Jerusalem, and commends Flaccus for prohibiting this exportation from Asia Minor, the region around Ephesus (Cicero, "For Flaccus," 28.) Josephus says ("Antiquities" 3,8,2) that the gift in Exodus 30.11 was from men between twenty and fifty years old, a statement which may suggest that those were the limits in his times. After Titus destroyed Jerusalem, Vespasian decreed that the Jews everywhere "should bring two drachmas every year for the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, as before they were wont to pay for the temple at Jerusalem." (Josephus’ "War," 7,6,6.).

The tax was in fact voluntary, but there was considerable pressure on people to pay it, and most appear to have done so fairly willingly. The Sadducees appear to have objected to it on the grounds that it was a recent imposition and not in the Law. The community at Qumran appears to have objected to it as a yearly tax supporting a Temple they did not agree with. They argued for a once for all redemptive tax. The tax had to be paid in Tyrian coinage, possibly so as to ensure that no human or animal image was on the coin. It was because of this that there were moneychangers in the Temple, doing a roaring trade. The voluntary contributions to the Temple were quite distinct from this yearly shekel, which was specifically required (by custom if not by the law), and those contributions were varied in amount (Mark 12.41 ff). Entirely separate from these was the tax due to the Roman government in the Roman province of Judea and Samaria (22.1).

End of note.

Analysis.

  • a When they were come to Capernaum, those who received the shekel (didrachma) came to Peter, and said, “Does not your teacher pay the shekel?” (24).
  • b He says, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke first to him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive toll or tribute? From their sons, or from strangers?” (25).
  • b And when he said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Therefore the sons are free” (26).
  • a “But, lest we cause them offence, you go to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first comes up, and when you have opened his mouth, you will find a shekel, that take, and give it to them for me and you” (27).

Note that in ‘a’ we have reference to those who collect the tax, and the request concerning payment of the tax, and in the parallel the desire not to cause them offence, and Jesus’ method of paying the tax. In ‘b’ Jesus asks the question concerning sons and strangers and in the parallel gives His conclusion with regard to both.

17.24 ‘And when they were come to Capernaum, those who received the shekel came to Peter, and said, “Does not your teacher pay the didrachma (shekel)?” (24).

The didrachma or shekel tax was probably that payable to the Temple treasury. It was payable yearly by Jews around the world, and contributed greatly to the Temple funds. It was an indication of their submission to God as His servants. Note the stress here on whether Jesus paid it. Peter, of course, had to pay it as well, and they may have approached him as the head of the house in which they were staying (compare 8.14). But the whole point of this narrative is as to whether Jesus should have to pay it (‘does not your teacher pay?’), although it does then lead on to the question as to whether any ‘son of God’ should pay it.

Jesus has, of course, with some of His disciples, been out of range of the collectors. Thus it is only when He arrives home that He is approached through Peter. As Passover was approaching the tax was due to be paid. The indirect question was probably simply a courtesy, but it raised the right background against which Jesus could make His position clear to Peter. The collectors did, of course, expect the answer to be ‘yes’.

17.25 ‘He says, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke first to him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive toll or tribute? From their sons, or from strangers?” ’

As they expected Peter did say ‘Yes’. He knew of no reason why Jesus as a good Jew should be exempt, and probably knew that He had paid it without demur in previous years. But Jesus then challenges his assumption and makes him stop and think. He asks him who should pay tribute to a king. Should it be his sons, or should it be those outside the family?

‘The kings of the earth.’ Compare Psalm 2.2. Even the non-Davidic kings do not expect their own families to pay taxes. How much less then will the Father of the Davidic King expect it of His Son ‘The Anointed One’ (‘You are My Son’).

17.26 ‘And when he said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Therefore the sons are free.” ’

When Peter necessarily replies, ‘of strangers’, Jesus then points out that therefore the sons, (and especially the Son), are free of the burden of the tax, for no King will look to his sons for the tax. This primarily means Himself as the Father’s Son, but it also includes in the end all those who through Him are sons of God.

17.27 “But, lest we cause them offence, you go to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first comes up, and when you have opened his mouth, you will find a shekel, that take, and give it to them for me and you.”

Thus Jesus is presenting Peter with a dilemma, for if what Jesus says is true, He Himself should not pay the Temple tax, and nor should Peter. But He is not desirous of making an issue of it, thereby causing offence, so He arranges to pay it in such a way that it is clear to Peter that it is not strictly He Who is paying it. And He does this by paying it out of His Father’ treasury. The treasures of the sea are God’s for the fish have no ruler over them (Habakkuk 1.14). And it is out of the abundance of the seas that the sacrifice of righteousness is offered (Deuteronomy 33.19). Thus by arranging to pay the Tax out of the fishes mouth Jesus evidences to Peter that He is the Son of God, because He pays the tax with His Father’s own money, while at the same time paying the tax, not as tribute, but as an offering of righteousness. Thus to all who know of this His Sonship is made clear.

Others have suggested that the idea is that money found by Peter belonged to Peter, thus if Peter paid both taxes with the coin he found then Jesus had not been involved in paying the tax. But this seems somewhat devious.

‘Cause offence.’ Or ‘cause to stumble’. The idea may be that it will be putting the collectors in difficulties, so that they would have to appeal to Jerusalem, and then put pressure on Him as the Son of God. Thus as a result of His action they would be caught up in sin, and that was something that He did not want.

This is the only place in the New Testament where fishing takes place by hook in order to catch an individual fish. It confirms that only one fish was to be caught. There were a number of fish in the Sea of Galilee capable of carrying a coin in their mouths, and there are a number of stories about coins being found in fishes mouths. Thus it is not an unusual occurrence. What was unusual was knowing that the very fish that Peter caught would have a coin in its mouth. The only reason for doubting the story as it stands is therefore scepticism. The recourse to ‘legend’ is the approach of those of ‘little faith’.

Some have suggested that Jesus was speaking jocularly and telling Peter to pay the tax by doing some fishing. But there is no real reason for doubting that Jesus meant what He said and that Peter did what He said and discovered that everything happened as He had said. It would be a test of Peter’s faith that might reassure him after his failure to walk on the waters.

This miracle is an outstanding example of ‘the gift of knowledge’ (1 Corinthians 12.8) combined with an act of God’s sovereignty. Jesus knew from His Father that the coin was there, and how to go about catching the right fish. And His Father then arranged for Peter to catch that fish. Note that the coin (a tetradrachma) was for both, for Peter too was an adopted son of God.

But the primary lesson was of Jesus’ Sonship, and we must not allow the detail to hide this from us. This all happened in order to demonstrate that Jesus was the true Son of God and the true King.

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