Matthew 15 – Jesus Corrects the Pharisees and Ministers to Gentiles
A. Jesus denounces religious externalism.
1. (1-2) Leaders from Jerusalem question Jesus.
Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”
a. Scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus: Up to this point, most of Jesus’ ministry had been in the region of Galilee. Galilee was north of Judea, where Jerusalem is. These scribes and Pharisees were an official delegation from Jerusalem, coming to investigate and assess the words and work of this man Jesus.
i. “They are genuinely bewildered; and in a very short time they are going to be genuinely outraged and shocked.” (Barclay)
b. Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? These ceremonial washings were commanded by tradition, not by Scripture. The religious leaders say as much when they refer to the tradition of the elders and not the commandment of God.
i. “The ‘elders’ here are not the living rulers of the people, but the past bearers of religious authority, the more remote the more venerable.” (Bruce)
c. They do not wash their hands when they eat bread: The matter in question had nothing to do with good hygiene. The religious officials were offended that the disciples did not observe the rigid, extensive rituals for washing before meals.
i. Many ancient Jews took this tradition of the elders very seriously. “The Jewish Rabbi Jose saith, He sinneth as much who eateth with unwashen hands, as he that lieth with a harlot.” (Poole)
ii. “In what estimation these are held by the Jews, the following examples will prove: ‘The words of the scribes are lovely beyond the words of the law: for the words of the law are weighty and light, but the words of the scribes are all weighty.’ Hierus. Berac. fol. 3.” (Clarke)
2. (3) Jesus answers with a question setting man’s tradition against God’s will.
He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?”
a. Why do you also transgress the commandment of God: When the disciples were accused of sin, Jesus answered with an accusation. Jesus was strong in His reply because these leaders were far too concerned with these ceremonial trivialities. When they declared people unclean because of their tradition, they denied the people access to God.
i. This was a strong reply from Jesus. Ultimately, these conflicts with the religious leaders became the outward reason why Jesus was delivered to the Romans for death.
b. Because of your tradition: Jesus repeated what the scribes and Pharisees had already mentioned – that this accusation was based on tradition. The religious leaders demanded these ceremonial washings based on tradition, not the Scriptures.
3. (4-6) An example of how their traditions dishonored God: the practice of not helping your parents with resources said to be devoted to God.
“For God commanded, saying, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God”; then he need not honor his father or mother.’ Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.”
a. Honor your father and mother: The clear command of God said that everyone should give honor to their father and mother – even stating a penalty for extreme disobedience to this command. When we are adults and no longer in our parents’ household or under their authority, we no longer have to obey our father and mother. Yet we are still commanded to honor them; that command endures.
b. Whatever profit you might have received from me is a gift to God: Some Jewish people of Jesus’ day had a way to get around the command to honor your father and mother. If they declared that all their possessions or savings were a gift to God that were especially dedicated to Him, they could then say that their resources were unavailable to help their parents.
i. “This convenient declaration apparently left the property actually still at the disposal of the one who made the vow, but deprived his parents of any right to it.” (France)
ii. “Our Saviour here also let us know, that the fifth commandment obligeth children to relieve their parents in their necessity, and this is the sense of the term honour in other texts of Scripture.” (Poole)
c. Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition: Through this trick one could completely disobey the command to honor his father or mother, and do it while being ultra-religious.
4. (7-9) Jesus condemns their hollow tradition as hypocrisy.
“Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying:
‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth,
And honor Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
a. Honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me: This was true of the religious leaders Jesus confronted and quoted the passage from Isaiah to. Yet it may also be true of us. We can appear to draw near to God, all the while having our heart far from Him. It is easy to want and be impressed by the image of being near to God without really doing it with our heart.
i. God is interested in the internal and the real. We are far more interested in the merely external and image. One must take care that their relationship with God is not merely external and image.
b. Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men: The quotation from Isaiah accurately described the real problem with these religious leaders. They elevated man’s tradition to an equal level with God’s revealed Word.
i. Jesus didn’t say, “All traditions are bad.” He didn’t say, “All traditions are good.” He compared traditions to the Word of God, and put them at a much lower priority than what God has said.
5. (10-11) Jesus speaks to the multitude about religious externalism.
When He had called the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear and understand: Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
a. When He had called the multitude to Himself: Having dealt with the religious leaders, Jesus now instructed the common people about authentic godliness.
b. Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man: Jesus stated a fundamental principle. Washing with “unclean hands” or any other such thing that we put into us is not defiling; rather, what comes out is what defiles and reveals if we have unclean (defiled) hearts.
i. This is not to say that there are not defiling things that we can take into ourselves; one example of this might be pornography. But in this specific context, Jesus spoke about ceremonial cleanliness in regard to food, and He anticipated that under the New Covenant all food would be declared kosher (Acts 10:15).
ii. “The principles set out by Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:11 and 17-20 made the ultimate abandonment of the Old Testament food-laws by the church inevitable.” (France)
6. (12-14) Jesus then warns His disciples that only what is of God and of truth will last and be secure.
Then His disciples came and said to Him, “Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”
a. Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying? This is a humorous scene. The disciples came to Jesus, saying something like this: “Jesus – did you know that you offended those guys?” Of course Jesus knew that He offended them! He intended to offend them and the way they valued man’s tradition too highly.
b. Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted: This applied directly to the religious leaders and all like them. Their commandments of men will not last, because they are not rooted either in God or truth.
i. “There was no need for the disciples to combat the Pharisees, they would be uprooted in the natural order of things by the inevitable consequences of their own course.” (Spurgeon)
ii. Yet this principle should make us examine ourselves to see if we imitate the Pharisees in making traditions commandments. “Here, then, we find the test of all human teaching however well-intentioned. If it be not based upon and rooted in the Word of God, or if it depart in any degree from the true intention of that Word, it is without pity to be rooted up. By this test we need ever to try our traditions, customs, habits, rules, regulations.” (Morgan)
c. Let them alone: Jesus did not organize a focused “Anti-Scribe and Pharisee” committee. He knew that their efforts would fail under the weight of its own legalism.
d. They are blind leaders of the blind… both will fall into a ditch: We sense that Jesus said this with sadness, and perhaps with more sadness for those who are led by the blind than the blind leaders of the blind.
i. “Though the Pharisees and teachers of the law had scrolls and interpreted them in the synagogues, this does not mean that they really understood them…The Pharisees did not follow Jesus; so they did not understand and follow the Scriptures.” (Carson)
ii. “I pity the poor people, for whilst the blind lead the blind they both fall into a ditch. An ignorant and unfaithful ministry is the greatest plague God can send amongst a people.” (Poole)
iii. In these words of Jesus, we see the guilt of those who are blind leaders of the blind. We also see the responsibility of followers to make sure their leaders are not blind.
7. (15-20) The condition of the heart is what really defiles a person.
Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Explain this parable to us.” So Jesus said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not yet understand that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and is eliminated? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.”
a. Explain this parable to us: In Matthew 15:12-14 Jesus didn’t really speak in a parable (except for the brief illustration of the blind leading the blind). Yet because the disciples did not understand Him, they asked for an explanation (Are you also still without understanding?).
b. Those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man: Jesus amplified the point first made in Matthew 15:11. We are defiled from the inside out rather than from the outside in, and this is particularly true of ceremonial things like foods.
i. Jesus boldly said that these evil things come from our innermost nature. They aren’t accidents or mere “mistakes”; they reveal how corrupt we are in our fallen nature. “The heart is the source of man’s true character, and therefore of his purity or impurity…it is not merely the seat of emotion, but the true person as he really is, not just as he appears outwardly.” (France)
ii. “‘Murders’ begin not with the dagger, but with the malice of the soul. ‘Adulteries and fornications’ are first gloated over in the heart before they are enacted by the body. The heart is the cage from whence these unclean birds fly forth.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Said plainly, many people who worry about external habits (what they eat and drink and other such things) should care more about what words come out of their mouth. They do more against God and His people by what they say than by what they eat or drink.
iv. And is eliminated: “A vulgar word and a vulgar subject which Jesus would gladly have avoided, but He forces Himself to speak of it for the sake of His disciples. The idea is: from food no moral defilement comes to the soul; the defilement as there is, purely physically passing through the bowels into the place of discharge. Doubtless Jesus said this, otherwise no one would have put it into His mouth.” (Bruce)
c. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man: Unfortunately, the emphasis of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day – and often in our own – is often only on these external things, not the internal things that make for true righteousness.
B. Jesus answers a Gentile’s request.
1. (21-22) Jesus is met with a request from a Gentile woman.
Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”
a. To the region of Tyre and Sidon: Tyre and Sidon were Gentile cities, located some 50 miles (80 kilometers) away. Jesus went all this way to meet this one Gentile woman’s need. This shows remarkable and unexpected love from Jesus to this woman of Canaan.
i. “Matthew’s used of the old term ‘Canaanite’ shows that he cannot forget her ancestry: now a descendant of Israel’s ancient enemies comes to the Jewish Messiah for blessing.” (Carson)
ii. It was unlikely for Jesus to go to the region of Tyre and Sidon. “At that time, or not much later, Josephus could write: ‘Of the Phoenicians, the Tyrians have the most ill-feeling towards us.’” (Barclay)
iii. “Let us always plow to the very end of the field, and serve our day and generation to the extreme limits of our sphere.” (Spurgeon)
b. Have mercy on me… My daughter is severely demon-possessed: This woman came to intercede for her daughter, and she provided a picture of an effective intercessor – her great need taught her how to pray. When she came to Jesus, she made her daughter’s needs her own.
c. Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! This Gentile woman also understood who Jesus was. Many of Jesus’ own countrymen didn’t know who Jesus was, but this woman of Canaan knew.
i. Perhaps this woman knew that Jesus had healed Gentiles before (Matthew 4:24-25; 8:5-13). Yet what made this encounter unique is that Jesus did those miracles as Gentiles came to Him in Jewish territory. Here, Jesus came to Gentile territory and met this woman.
2. (23-24) Jesus’ cold response to the request of the Gentile woman.
But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
a. But He answered her not a word: Though the Gentile mother interceded for her daughter, Jesus did not immediately give her an encouraging reply. His reticence drew a more energetic and faith-filled response from the Gentile woman.
i. “As Augustine says, ‘The Word spoke not a word,’ and that was so unlike him. He who was always so ready with responses to the cry of grief had no response for her.” (Spurgeon)
b. Send her away, for she cries out after us: It is likely that the disciples meant, “Send her away by giving her what she wants.” It is entirely possible that they just wanted her to go away, and the easiest way was for Jesus to fix her problem.
i. Send her away: “The same verb in Luke 2:29 applies to a dismissal with desire satisfied.” (France)
c. I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel: Jesus defined the focus of His mission to His irritated disciples and to the Gentile woman. He made it clear that He was not sent to Gentiles like her.
i. It is fair to ask whether Jesus meant the lost sheepamong the house of Israel, or meant to say that Israel as a whole were lost sheep. Jesus’ instructions to His disciples in Matthew 10:6 (“go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”) would seem to imply the latter.
3. (25-27) The Gentile woman’s persistent appeal to Jesus.
Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
a. Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” She responded to the rebuff from Jesus with increased dedication to prevail with her request. In so doing, the Gentile woman continued to show what a dedicated intercessor does.
i. “She could not solve the problems of the destiny of her race, and of the Lord’s commission; but she could pray…If, as a Shepherd, he may not gather her, yet, as Lord, he may help her.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “I urge you who seek the conversion of others to follow her example. Notice, she did not pray, ‘Lord, help my daughter;’ but, ‘Lord, help me.’” (Spurgeon)
iii. “I commend this prayer to you because it is such a handyprayer. You can use it when you are in a hurry, you can use it when you are in a fright, you can use it when you have not time to bow your knee. You can use it in the pulpit if you are going to preach, you can use it when you are opening your shop, you can use it when you are rising in the morning. It is such a handy prayer that I hardly know any position in which you could not pray it: ‘Lord, help me.’” (Spurgeon)
b. It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw itto the little dogs: Jesus continued to say discouraging things to the woman, yet this was not quite as severe as it might first sound. When Jesus called her one of the little dogs, He used little as a way to soften the harshness of calling her a dog. This softened the traditional Jewish slur towards Gentiles, which called them dogs in the most derogatory sense.
i. We are at the great disadvantage of not hearing the tone of Jesus’ voice as He spoke to this woman. We suspect that His tone was not harsh; we rather suspect that it was winsome with the effect of inviting greater faith from the woman. It is possible to speak harsh words in a playful or winsome manner.
ii. “Its harshest word [dogs] contains a loophole. [Dogs] does not compare Gentiles to the dogs without, in the street, but to the household dogs belonging to the family, which have their portion though not the children’s.” (Bruce)
c. Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table: The woman responded with great faith. She admitted her low estate, and did not debate the issue when Jesus called her one of the little dogs. She did not demand to be seen as a child; but only to be blessed as a dog.
i. It was as if she said, “Jesus, I understand that the focus of Your ministry is to the Jews – that they have a special place in God’s redemptive plan. Yet I also understand that Your ministry extends beyond the Jewish people, and I want to be part of that extended blessing.”
ii. Her response is especially meaningful in light of the increasing rejection of Jesus by the Jewish religious leaders. It was as if the woman said, “I’m not asking for the portion that belongs to the children, just the crumbs that they don’t want.” In the flow of Matthew’s gospel, there was more and more that the Jewish religious establishment did not want to receive.
iii. These were two faith-filled words: Yet even. She accepted Jesus’ description and asked for mercy despite it – or perhaps because of it. “She would not give over, though he gave her three repulses. So as she said, like Jacob, I will not thee go, until thou bless me. And as he, like a prince, so she, like a princess, prevailed with God and obtained the thing which she desired.” (Poole)
iv. “Dear friend, possibly someone has whispered in your ear, ‘Suppose you are not one of the elect.’ Well, that was very much what our Lord’s expression meant to her…Notice that this woman does not battle with that truth at all, she does not raise any question about it; she wisely waives it, and she just goes on praying, ‘Lord, help me! Lord, have mercy upon me!’ I invite you, dear friend, to do just the same.” (Spurgeon)
4. (28) Jesus rewards the great faith of the Gentile woman.
Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
a. Then Jesus answered: Finally, the woman will receive an encouraging word from Jesus.
b. O woman, great is your faith! Jesus never said this to another person. He complimented the great faith of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8:10), but He said it to the crowd, not to the centurion directly. This Gentile woman heard it from Jesus directly.
i. Significantly, the only two people to receive this compliment from Jesus were these Gentiles. This shows us that:
· Great faith may be found in unexpected places – not merely Gentiles, but a centurion and a woman!
· Great faith is sometimes measured from its disadvantages. Their faith was great because it did not have the advantage of being nourished by the institutions of Judaism.
· Faith is often greatest when it is expressed on behalf of someone else’s need.
ii. Great is your faith! “No-one else receives from Jesus the accolade.” (France)
c. O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire: Her faith was great enough to receive her request – what she desired from Jesus.
· Her faith was great, even compared to her other virtues. She was humble, she was patient, she was persevering, she cared for her child. Yet Jesus didn’t compliment any of these good things, but only her faith.
· Her faith was great because it was unlikely. No one might have expected a Gentile to trust Jesus so much.
· Her faith was great because she worshipped Jesus even before she had an answer from Him.
· Her faith was great because it had been tested so severely. It’s hard to think of a greater test than a demon-possessed child; but her faith was also tried by the seeming indifference or coldness of Jesus.
· Her faith was great because it was clever. She turned Jesus’ word inside-out and made what might have been taken as an insult as a door open for faith.
· Her faith was great because it concerned a need right in front of her, and a real need at that. Many people have faith for everything except those things that are right in front of them.
· Her faith was great because it would not give up. She did not stop until she got what she needed from Jesus.
· You could say that her faith conquered Jesus. He not only healed her daughter but He did so immediately, something that she had not even asked for.
i. We read of nothing else that Jesus did during this time in Tyre and Sidon. It would seem that His only divine appointment was to meet the need of this woman of faith and her afflicted daughter.
C. The feeding of the 4,000.
1. (29-31) Jesus ministers healing to the multitude.
Jesus departed from there, skirted the Sea of Galilee, and went up on the mountain and sat down there. Then great multitudes came to Him, having with them the lame, blind, mute, maimed, and many others; and they laid them down at Jesus’ feet, and He healed them. So the multitude marveled when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.
a. Then great multitudes came to Him: Though Jesus briefly withdrew from the multitudes, He did not do so permanently. He still had work to do among the great multitudes.
i. Most commentators believe this marks a unique period in the ministry of Jesus, when He did His healing and providing work in the predominately Gentile region of Galilee. Especially correlating this with Mark 7:31-37, we see that this happened on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, the region known as the Decapolis. As well, the remoteness of the place (in the wilderness, Mathew 15:33) fits better with the eastern side.
ii. “These people were most probably heathen or semi-heathen, gathered from the region of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31).” (Morgan)
iii. As Jesus healed and provided for this mixed or predominately Gentile multitude, it showed that the Gentiles in fact were getting more than just a few crumbs from the table.
b. They laid them down at Jesus’ feet, and He healed them: In this incident we read nothing about any faith on the part of those who were healed, except for the fact that they came to Jesus for help.
i. “Among those brought were certain classed as kullous [maimed], which is usually interpreted ‘bent,’ as with rheumatism. But in Matthew 18:8 it seems to mean ‘mutilated’…Grotius argues for this sense, and infers that among Christ’s works of healing were the restoration of lost limbs, though we do not read of such anywhere else.” (Bruce)
c. They glorified the God of Israel: Even in something as potentially self-promoting as ministry of healing, Jesus always drew attention to God the Father, the God of Israel. This multitude – most likely predominately Gentile – learned to praise the God of Israel.
i. “The expression suggests a non-Israelite crowd and seems to hint that after all for our evangelist Jesus is on the east side and in heathen territory.” (Bruce)
2. (32-39) The feeding of the 4,000.
Now Jesus called His disciples to Himself and said, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” Then His disciples said to Him, “Where could we get enough bread in the wilderness to fill such a great multitude?” Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” And they said, “Seven, and a few little fish.” So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves and the fish and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitude. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets full of the fragments that were left. Now those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. And He sent away the multitude, got into the boat, and came to the region of Magdala.
a. I do not want to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way: This miracle follows the same basic pattern as the feeding of the 5,000, except that it reveals that the disciples were generally as slow to believe as we are (where could we get enough bread in the wilderness to fill such a great multitude?).
i. Perhaps the disciples had not “expected Jesus to use his Messianic power, when the crowd was a Gentile one.” (France)
ii. It is important to see that this is not just a retelling of the previous feeding of the 5,000.There are many differences distinguishing this from the prior feeding of the 5,000:
· Different numbers of those being fed.
· Different locales (on the western and the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee).
· Different seasons of the year, indicated by no mention of grass in the second account.
· Different supply of food at the beginning.
· Different number of baskets holding the leftovers, and even a different word for “baskets” in the second account.
· Different period of time of waiting for the people (Matthew 15:32).
b. The disciples gave to the multitude: Jesus did what only He could do (the creative miracle), but left to the disciples what they could do (the distribution of the meal).
c. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets full of the fragments that were left: At the end of the meal they gather more, not less. The seven large baskets show that God provided out of His abundance.
i. And were filled: “The Greek word here is, in its proper signification, used of fattening cattle.” (Trapp)
ii. Those who ate were four thousand men: “Here there is no desire to swell the number, to make the wonder greater.” (Spurgeon)
iii. The way that the Messiah miraculously fed both Jews and Gentiles was a preview of the great Messianic banquet. This was greatly anticipated among the Jews of Jesus’ day, but they were offended by the idea that Gentiles would also attend.
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission