Matthew 14:22—15:20, The Controversy with the Zealous

[August 12, 2012] Last time we considered the introductory narrative cycle that leads up to Jesus’ teaching on the church in the light of the kingdom. Who is Jesus’ mother and siblings, His home? It is not those whose familiarity with Him does not include spiritual insight into His Person. It is the community of His disciples who gather around Him. They are not only His true relations, but He is to them the blessing of the Promised Land, the Land flowing with milk and honey. He is the source of healing and satisfaction to all who come to Him. In contrast stands the world and the hideous “feast” of oppression that it has to offer.

The Tempest at Sea (Matthew 14:22-33)

Having established that the Lord Jesus is the Host and Lord of YHWH’s banquet, who makes His disciples those who offer that banquet to others, Jesus immediately compels the disciples to board their boat and go on before Him to the other side of the sea while He dismisses the crowds. When the boat had set out and the crowds had parted, Jesus left the coastal plain and went up into the mountain by Himself to pray. Many have seen this as a picture of the Lord’s ascension and His session at the Father’s right hand. If His not being taken seriously in Nazareth was a picture of Israel’s reaction to Him, and Herod’s execution of the Baptist was a foreshadowing of the cross, and the Feeding of More than Five Thousand was a picture of the church enjoying the bounty of Jesus’ resurrection, then it makes sense that Jesus’ ascent up the mountain is a picture of His ascension to heaven. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus does not ascend into heaven; He ascends up a mountain and commissions His disciples. Yet Matthew was not under the delusion that there was no sense in which a time would come “when the bridegroom will have been taken away from them” (9:15).

Jesus ascends into heaven to pray. Paul tells us that Jesus intercedes for us at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34) where John tells us He is our patron with the Father (1 John 2:1). There, the prophet John says He is a high priest who walks in the midst of the local churches tending their “golden lamp stands” (Revelation 1:13-16; 2:1).

When evening came and darkness fell, “the ship was already in the middle of the sea tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary.” The Lake of Galilee is described as a sea in order to associate it with the Mediterranean and the familiar symbol of the sea of gentile nations (when one looked out on the Sea from the shore of the Land of Israel; one looked at a basin surrounded on all sides by the nations of the gentiles). The sea typically represents chaos and the powers of chaos, making it a ready symbol of the nations under the power of idolatry. Within a short time, the ship of the Messiah’s qahal (His church) set out on that sea with the message of the Gospel; and immediately the waves became contrary. Not only do their fellow Jews give the Messiah’s believers a hard time; on account of them the church often met with opposition, opposition that threatened to swamp it; but the gentiles too conspired against the church. Violence had erupted in Antioch of Syria—where Matthew was residing—within the Jewish community (those “zealous” for the Torah) in the form of opposition to the church’s mission to the gentiles. The apostles Paul and Barnabas also brought back to Matthew stories of persecution by both zealous Jews and suspicious gentiles.

The controversy of which Matthew was a witness was between the zealous party of the Pharisees and their supporters, i.e., the party of the “circumcision,” the Judaizers, the Shammaite Pharisees, the nascent Zealots, on the one hand, and the Messianists (the Jews who believed in Jesus) who indiscriminately fellowshipped with gentile believers in Jesus who had not been circumcised (the “Christians”), that is, who had not first converted to Judaism. According to the zealous, since these gentiles did not keep the Halakah requirements of the Torah, they were unclean and Jews should not sit at the same table with them. Heck, they should not even be under the same roof with them or come into physical contact with them. Keep this in mind when we come to the next two stories in the gospel.

The Gospel, however, could not be restrained. Stephen preached that the Temple and even the Land itself were not necessary for the presence of the “God of glory,” and indeed the present Temple and the Jews’ stay in the Land were provisional and not entitlements. As soon as he was martyred, Philip and others brought the Gospel to the Samaritans. Luke tells us how Philip also brought the Gospel to a court official on his way to the Candace, queen of Ethiopia. That man was probably a gentile proselyte to Judaism and therefore was probably circumcised, but we see the Gospel pushing at the boundaries. We are told in Acts 11:20-21 that others (from Cyprus and Cyrene) entered Antioch and also spoke to Greeks, probably uncircumcised God-fearers (pagans who attended synagogue), and “a great number believed and turned to the Lord.” Probably this started to happen around 36 CE, even before Cornelius was converted (Stephen was martyred in 31 CE; Cornelius was converted around 40 CE; see Rainer Riesner for chronology).

So the boat of the Messiah’s church (His qahal) was already in rough waters by the time Peter had his vision of the sheet filled with unclean animals (in Acts 10). The church received opposition from the “Jews” (meaning the zealous party of the “circumcision”) almost immediately, opposition that often involved violence. Paul met it wherever he went; the Jews were expelled from Rome for rioting over the Messiah (Latin: one Christus); violence also erupted in the Jewish communities in Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria around the same time (between 39 and 49 CE), always having to do with the same issue.

The believers see Jesus walking on the sea, and are afraid, for the success of the Gospel corresponds to the roughness of the sea. Many believers are afraid and want the church to practice more restraint. They demand that their fellow believers require that the gentile converts to Jesus undergo conversion to Judaism first (that the men be circumcised). That would calm the waves. The Gospel seems wild and out of control. The worse things get and the more persecution there is, the more successful the Gospel is. It is as though Jesus is walking on the waves! “Take courage; it is I: be not afraid!” He says to them. The words, “It is I,” is ego eimi in the Greek, “I AM,” which has great significance in the Gospel according to John; there it refers to God’s self-appellation in the Septuagint translation of the Torah and Isaiah. It may or may not have that significance here in Matthew’s gospel; but it is worth keeping in mind.

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You upon the waters,” and Jesus says, “Come.” Then Matthew tells us, “Peter, having descended from the ship, walked upon the waters to go to Jesus.” We appreciate this story for what it tells us about faith, and about how as long as Peter kept his eyes on Jesus and not on his circumstances (the waves), he was fine and walked on the water with Jesus. But along the line in which we have been considering—the tempest that the church was then experiencing so soon after Jesus’ ascension, at the time in fact when Matthew was writing the scroll of his gospel (he probably published it in 52 CE)—the significance of Peter walking on the water has obvious significance. In Acts 10 Peter, in a vision, looked at a sheet filled with unclean animals and was told by a voice out of heaven, “Rise up, Peter, slay and eat! What God has cleansed, do not make common.” Peter realized what it meant when synchronously three gentiles appeared at his door asking for him. The Spirit told him, “Rise up, go down, and go with them, without doubting.” Peter stepped onto the water and walked. He went into Cornelius’ house and said, “You know how it is unlawful for a Jew to be joined or come to one of a strange race, but to me God has shown to call no one common or unclean.” Within short order Cornelius and his entire gentile household believed and, the holy Spirit having come upon them, were baptized at Peter’s direction. Peter was walking on water!

At first Peter defended his action to the siblings in Jerusalem, and “when they heard these things they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, ‘Then indeed God has to the gentiles also granted repentance to life’” (Acts 11:18). Matthew says, “He walked upon the waters to go to Jesus.”

But then Matthew tells us that Peter, “seeing the wind strong, was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’ And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught hold of him, and says to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” In the winter of 47-48 CE Peter paid a visit to the church in Antioch and apparently lost his nerve. The church there was much different than in Jerusalem. It was teeming with uncircumcised gentiles, many of them having first believed even before Cornelius’ conversion. The Jewish believers treated them as complete equals in every regard. “Before that certain came from James, [Peter] ate with the gentiles; but when they came, he drew back and separated himself, fearing those of the ‘circumcision’ [party]; and the rest of the Jews also played the same dissembling part with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away too by their dissimulation” (Galatians 2:11-13). Peter seeing the wind strong was afraid and began to sink.

Paul was furious. “I withstood him to the face, because he was to be condemned,” he says. “When I saw that [Peter and those who imitated him] did not walk straightforwardly, according to the truth of the Gospel, I said to Peter before all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live as the gentiles and not as the Jews, how do you compel the gentiles to Judaize?’ … For if the things I have thrown down, these I build again, I constitute myself a transgressor,” referring to the barriers Peter had thrown down when Cornelius was received into the church (Galatians 2:11-18). Peter was publicly humiliated; yet was it not the hand of Jesus stretching out to catch hold of him? The Lord had told Peter to go with the three men from Cornelius’ house “doubting nothing.” Back in the boat Jesus said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Did Peter stumble that he might fall? (Romans 11:11) Far be the thought. The following spring Paul came to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to settle the matter that the Judaizers had raised. Not only did Peter privately give Paul the “right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:1-9), but publicly he defended Paul’s position, saying, “Siblings, you know that from the earliest days God amongst you chose that the gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the Gospel and believe. And the heart-knowing God bore them witness, giving them the holy Spirit as to us also, and put no difference between us and them, having purified their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt God, by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” He was referring to the Halakah requirements of the Torah. “But we believe that we shall be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same manner as they also” (Acts 15:7-11), as Paul also said in Galatians 2:15-16: “We, Jews by nature, and not sinners of the gentiles, but knowing that a human is not justified by works of Halakah nor but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, we also have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ, and not by works of Halakah; because by works of Halakah no flesh shall be justified.” Though it was by the hand of an angry Paul, Jesus had caught hold of Peter and lifted him up.

“But those in the ship came and did homage to Jesus, saying, “Truly You art God’s Son.” I do not get the impression that this “confession” was equal to the confession of Peter in 16:16. I doubt it had the same insight that Jesus praises in 16:17. Nevertheless, it foreshadows that confession. “Upon this rock I will build My church,” Jesus says in 16:18. The church was being built up. When Peter got back into the boat, the mission of the church continued to grow and the word of God spread.

Indeed, the success was so great that it drove a wedge within Judaism. In the following centuries Judaism split between the Messianists (the Christians) and Rabbinic Judaism, a rift that has never healed. That rift became so great in fact that the “Christians” practically forgot their Jewishness and began to think of it as something foreign. Without a doubt, for Christians to turn against their own Jewishness is to turn against God. “Be not highminded, but fear,” Paul warns us. “If God indeed has not spared the natural branches; He might not spare you either … If you [do not] abide in goodness, you also will be cut away” (Romans 11:20-22).

The Healings of Gennesaret (14:34-36)

The success of the mission to the gentiles is depicted in verses 34-36. The boat crossed over the “gentile sea” and came to the land of Gennesaret, and when the (responsible) men of that place recognized Him, “they sent to that whole country around, and they brought to Him all that were ill, and besought Him that they might only touch the tassels of His garment; and as many as touched were made thoroughly well.” As if Matthew had read Paul, who spoke of being justified by the faithfulness of Jesus, the people who sought healing touched the tassels of Jesus’ garment, the tassels of which represented His faithfulness to the Torah of God. It is a picture of the gentiles (in addition to the Jews) coming to Jesus and seeking His healing, as foretold by Isaiah. All who come to Him are “made thoroughly well.”

While there were other faith-healers at the time, Jesus must have been one of the most remarkable.

Either this is a picture of the age to come, the age of the kingdom when the gentiles will come to the Messiah and put their faith in the God of Israel (after Israel is recovered), or it is a picture of the church in the present age, when the hopeless and lost gentiles from everywhere in the world find hope and healing in Christ.

The Controversy with the Zealous (15:1-20)

What was the controversy with the party of the “circumcision” all about? From the commentators one often gets the impression that the controversy was over ritual and rules and ceremonies. From the beginning, however, the issue was over the matter of cleanliness and purity. When Peter had his vision of the sheet with “all the quadrupeds and creeping things of the earth and the fowls of the heavens” in Acts 10 and was told to “slay and eat,” his response was to say, “In no wise, Lord; for I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” The voice retorted, “What God has cleansed, do not make common.” When Peter entered Cornelius’ home, he said, “To me God has shown to call no man common or unclean.” In Acts 15 Peter said that “the heart-knowing God bore them witness, giving them the holy Spirit as to us also, and put no difference between us and them, having purified their hearts by faith.” The Gospel cleanses the hearts of the gentiles by their faith, or rather, by the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah.

If this is not the issue, we are left wondering why Matthew has inserted this particular and rather lengthy episode here. It is followed, moreover, by an episode in which a very pagan Canaanite woman comes to Jesus and pleads for help on the grounds that she is a dog—an unclean animal—underneath the table of her Master. The issue in the story under consideration is literally the cleanliness of one’s hands, but the real issue is the cleanliness of people, and in particular, the cleanliness of gentiles.

In this light, then, let us consider this story. Verses 1-9: The Pharisees are concerned about the disciples of Jesus violating the traditions of the ancients. Jesus dismisses their concern over something apparently trivial when they used such traditions as an excuse to allow them to violate the commands of God. It is the commands of God that matter to Jesus, not the secondary (derivative) commandments (teachings) of men, which often obscure the very thing that matters. What Jesus says matters is where the heart is. “This people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me.”

Verses 10-20: Jesus says to the crowd, those for whose hearts He is contending, that not what enters the mouth defiles a human being but what comes out of it. Perhaps Jesus is saying that all foods are kosher, but I suspect that His words are hyperbole. He is not saying that all the Halakah with regard to food do not matter at all, but that their purpose does not affect the heart (they do not have a moral aim but serve another function; therefore gentiles are not bound by them). What proceeds from the mouth comes from the heart. This is what matters to God.

The things that defile are evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, prostituting, thefts, false witnessing, and blasphemies, and these all proceed from the heart. So what matters to God is whether the heart turns, whether the heart makes God its object of love.

The disciples are worried about what the Pharisees might think with Jesus’ provocative way of wording things, but Jesus says, “Leave them alone” (as in 13:30); “they are blind leaders of blind.” The Pharisees who care only about the outer things are blind. They see but do not perceive, nor do they understand—they are without spiritual intelligence and lead those without spiritual intelligence.

Now let us bring it back to the issue that matters. Peter said to Cornelius, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of masks, but in every nation the one who fears [God] and works righteousness is acceptable to [God].” Paul says that God “shall render to each according to his or her works: to them who, in patient continuance of the good work, seek for glory and honor and incorruptibility, eternal life. There shall be glory and honor and peace to everyone who works the good, both to Jew first and to Greek: for there is no acceptance of masks with God” (Romans 2:6-11; see all of 2:1-16). The circumcision that matters to God is of the heart, in spirit, not in letter (2:29). This is not to say that the Halakah serves no purpose but rather that when it concerns only outer matters it cannot justify a person before God or make a person pleasing to God. What matters to God is the hidden inner person, their heart and spirit (1 Peter 3:4).

The fellowship of Jews and gentiles within the Christian communities should not have offended them because it was based on their relationship to God through the faithfulness of the Messiah, which is the result of their response to His call and their allegiance to Him. In the sphere of the Messiah, the rules of Halakah cannot be allowed to divide those who are now siblings from one another. What matters, the only thing that matters, is obedience to the command of God, which through the Messiah is that they now love one another, for they all belong to Him. As Paul says, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Torah. For … if there be any commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love works no ill to its neighbor; love therefore is the whole Torah” (Romans 13:8-10).

The concern of the zealots—and the school of Shammai—to keep Israel pure of the gentiles by use of the traditions of the ancients was about ethnic entitlement and not about God or the kind of purity that matters to God. “I bear them witness,” says Paul, “that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” (Romans 10:2-3). Their zeal for God is about themselves.

The teaching that Matthew is building here concerns the church and the kind of community it must be in the light of the kingdom of the heavens. It must be an inclusive community, one that includes the pagans who believe as much as it includes the Jews. For us, this might well be a reminder that the church must include all people, that is, whomever Christ has called and who come to Him. We cannot exclude them if they come to Him, in whatever condition He receives them. They are not your slaves. “Who are you to judge the slave of Another? To their own Master they stand or fall. And that one shall be made to stand; for the Lord is able to make that one stand” (Romans 14:4; see 14:1—15:7). This is not a matter for our own discretion. Every believer must receive every other believer, regardless of what “Halakah” they disregard. To God—to Christ—what matters is their heart.

This passage is about the believers’ reception of the gentiles, and whether Halakah can or should be an impediment. The next story is about the ground on which gentiles can come to Christ, without Halakah or any of the entitlement that it was thought to give. The story that follows it is the feeding of the four thousand, the number four emphasizing universality, that is, the inclusion of gentiles. We will continue with this “cycle” next week.

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