[October 5, 2008] As believers in Christ, Christ Himself calls us together to remember Him. We remember Him by hearing the Gospel. When we really give the Gospel our open, trusting and attentive hearing, then the Holy Spirit within us testifies of Christ (John 15:26; 14:26) and becomes the reality of Christ truly with us, among us and within us. Then, when we receive the Lord’s Supper, we receive Christ Himself as our bread and satisfaction, and we drink His shed blood, the blood of our reconciliation and peace with God.
This re-constitutes us as His church. In this place of reconciliation and peace with God, we pray for each other and the world (for the work of God in the church throughout the world and locally, for the peace of the world and the coming of God’s kingdom, and for our family, friends and neighbors). When we leave this gathering, we go forth to be the church. (1) We need to fellowship with the apostles through the Scriptures and with one another; (2) we need to pray; (3) we need to practice hospitality and socialize with others and be with them to share the Gospel with them; (4) and we need to serve God and others through our work and the offering of our time and labor.
As you may recall, the section of Matthew that we are in comes after Jesus withdraws from the people because they refused to repent and believe (Matthew 11:2—13:53). At the end of this present section, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. “Flesh and blood has not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in the heavens,” Jesus says. “And upon this rock I will build My church” (16:16-18). The kingdom of the heavens is the overarching theme of the gospel of Matthew, but here we begin to see that through the faithfulness of the church God will bring His kingdom into the world. So this section is about two things: (1) who Jesus is and (2) what is the church. It is only after this revelation that (beginning in 16:21) Jesus reveals the cross and resurrection as the great means through which both the church and the kingdom will come about.
We are the church, the fruit of Christ’s death and resurrection, built on the foundation of Who we profess Jesus to be. If we take our own lives seriously, if we do not want to waste our short lives by following a false track, then we need to pay attention to the Word and what it teaches us. When you are hiking on a forest trail, you need to follow the markers on the trees and not just the beaten path on the ground. You may look up after a long time and discover that you have been following a false path and are far away from where you are supposed to be. You might even have gotten lost. Worse, you only have so many hours before the sun goes down. This is why you need to pay attention to the markers, and use a compass and map. This is what the Bible is for our journey.
So we want to understand not just what happened in the stories that are recorded in the Bible—that is an important place to start, and there are moral lessons in the examples they give us—but we need to understand what they mean. Then we become part of the story and the story becomes about us. A good place to get at this is to understand the context.
For example, in 14:15-21 we had the story of the feeding of the five thousand, and now in 15:32-38 we have the story of the feeding of the four thousand. Why two stories that are almost the same? Is this just boring repetition or is this a clue to the meaning? One story takes place on the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee and the other story takes place on the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee. These two stories both give us a picture of the church, but the first one is about the Jewish church, say at the beginning of the book of Acts, and the other is about the church among the Gentiles, what we see at the end of the book of Acts. What takes place in between is a perilous journey, a sea crossing that almost swamps the boat (the church) and drowns the disciples. They were never really in danger because Jesus was on high praying for them and also walking in the storm on the water with them.
So last week we saw Jesus argue with some zealous Pharisees about adding to God’s Law in a way that made carrying out the Law impossible. The outward precautions of added traditions prevented inward obedience. In the same way, their fellow Jews tried to prevent the early disciples from reaching out to the Gentiles in the way that Paul advocated—Paul taught that Gentiles could believe in the Messiah and enter into the full fellowship of the church without becoming Jews first. The fellow Jews argued that full fellowship was impossible because the Gentiles were not kosher. They were unclean. Yet Paul’s position was faithful to the Law and the Prophets, theirs was not.
We take it for granted that the church is Gentile, but we do so at our own peril. We are in danger of forgetting who we are. Basically we are the dogs eating the children’s crumbs that have fallen from the table. We forget an old prayer that the church used to say before the faithful took communion:
“We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink His blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.”
Let us try to understand today’s Gospel reading. It is about this. It takes place after the controversy with the zealous Pharisees and the storm at sea.
The Faith of a Gentile Woman (Matthew 15:21-28)
Jesus leaves the Pharisees and goes to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile country, outside of Galilee. Here He is in a house and a Canaanite woman comes to him. Notice how foreign all this is. Tyre and Sidon were cursed and under God’s judgment in Isaiah 23 and Joel 3:4. The Canaanites were cursed in Genesis 9:25-26 and the book of Joshua records the battles to remove the Canaanites from the land. Jesus is in a very Gentile setting.
We wonder about how Jesus treats this poor woman. In fact, as fellow Gentiles, we are somewhat offended. Some people insist that Jesus is acting out of Jewish prejudice and this woman is teaching Jesus a lesson. I hope we understand Jesus well enough to know that this is not His first encounter with a Gentile, nor is this characteristic of how He acted toward them (or toward women) before this. So why does He ignore her request and then say what He says? Jesus is teaching His disciples a lesson as well as the woman. Let us follow it.
The problem is that this Gentile woman, who has no entitlement to the promises of God to Israel, is imploring Him as the “Son of David.” Jesus simply ignores her. She is on the wrong ground. Gentiles are not Jews. When Jesus ignores her, the disciples want to send her away. Jesus, however, does not want her to go away. So He says to the disciples, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When Jesus fed the five thousand people, these were the “lost sheep.” Jesus is the Son of David—He will enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as the Son of David and the King of the Jews. But the Gentiles will not be blessed by Jesus on this ground, on the ground of God’s covenant with Israel.
The only ground on which the Gentiles can be received is that of sheer mercy and grace. The glory of the Messiah is that the Gentiles do not have to become Jews to receive His grace. When the woman says, “Lord, help me!” she is on the right track. She simply says “Lord,” not “Son of David.” He does not speak to her until she addresses Him on the right basis; He spoke only to His disciples (but in order to instruct her). Now He says to her, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” The children are the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But according to John 10:16, Jesus has “other sheep” who are Gentiles. The word for dog refers to the household pet. They were fed the leftover scraps from the family meal. It is demeaning, but her response is remarkable. “Yes, Lord, for even the little dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” She says, “their masters,” to indicate that He is her lord. She subjects herself to Jesus as her Lord, accepts that she has no entitlement, and depends on Him for mercy. This is the meaning of faith. We come to Jesus as naked and poor, without any merit of our own. We can never say to Him, “You owe me.”
“O woman,” Jesus says, “great is your faith!” The only other time that Jesus said this was also to another Gentile, the centurion of Capernaum (8:10). Gentiles can only come to Christ on the basis of faith, not works, not merit, not entitlement. This is Paul’s message to us, and this dear mother, pleading on behalf of her daughter, shows us what faith means. Faith means absolute subjection to His Lordship and dependence on His mercy, His grace.
Revelation to the Gentiles (15:29-31)
Mountains are significant in the entire Bible; this is true in Matthew as well. Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) on a mountain in Galilee; the Transfiguration takes place on Mount Hermon; He pronounces the lengthy prophecy of chapters 24-25 on the Mount of Olives; and after the resurrection He commissions His disciples again on a mountain in Galilee. Mountains are a metaphor for heavenly revelation.
Here Jesus is outside the land of Israel on a mountain, giving the light of revelation to the Gentiles, and significantly it is here that the Gentiles are healed. Notice that Matthew says that the sick are laid at His feet. This phrase indicates subjection to Him, and therefore an acknowledgment of His lordship, which is what the Canaanite woman showed. As Gentiles without the Word of God, we are lame, blind, crippled, and dumb—inwardly, in our souls. Jesus physically healing these people shows parabolically how He heals us inwardly.
“And they glorified the God of Israel” (verse 31). As Gentiles we need to know that we are only eating the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. Our Messiah came to fulfill the promises of God to Israel. Paul shows us how God will fulfill the promises to Israel by their disobedience. By their disobedience, they will come to understand—through the mercy shown to Gentiles—that their entitlement is not something they deserve (it is not something to which they are entitled!) but it is the same grace and mercy that God gives to the Gentiles. “God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32). Amazing!
The Church among the Gentiles is a Feasting on Jesus (15:32-38)
The difference between the feeding of the four thousand (now) and the feeding of the five thousand (before) is that the four thousand are Gentiles. (The gospel of Mark makes this clearer.) Throughout the Bible the number four signifies the world or the creation. Four thousand represents the multitude of Gentiles whom Jesus feeds. Again, this story illustrates the grace of God. Gentiles come to Jesus on the basis of grace, of mercy, not because they deserve anything at all. Jesus gives Himself to them on the basis of pure generosity and love.
We learn in John 6 that the bread and fish signify His body and blood. Jesus feeding us with the loaves and fishes is a picture of how He gives Himself to us to eat. The question is, how can You satisfy so great a crowd? (verse 33). When He does feed them, Matthew says, “They all ate and were satisfied.” The Gentiles are hungry. That which the Gentiles long for is completely satisfied. They are full and they have leftovers for others, seven baskets. Seven is symbolic of fullness. So this blessing, based on grace, that in chapter 14 was for the Jews is for the Gentiles as well. It is not diminished because they are Gentiles, but the same Lord is Lord of all (Romans 3:29-30; 10:12).
The disciples do not know how to feed the multitude. The need is so great but we have so little to work with. But the Lord is not limited by our circumstances. Seven loaves and a few small fish are enough. The important thing is that we offer Him what we have. We offer Him ourselves, even though that seems to be so pitifully little. However, He blesses what we offer Him, and then He breaks it (even though it hurts), and when He breaks it, it becomes a blessing to others. He needs to break us before we can be a blessing to others. When He breaks us, when we allow the Lord to break our soul, then the spiritual needs of those around us can be met. Paul teaches this in Philippians and 2 Corinthians.
Not only does Jesus meet our spiritual needs. He also meets our material needs. He meets our needs providentially and miraculously; but He also meets our needs in the church by our willingness to help one another.
Notice that Jesus feeds the people on the third day. In the Bible, the “third day” points to the resurrection of Christ. The church is the fruit of His resurrection. Christians call Sunday “the Lord’s Day” because it is the day of His resurrection, and on this day we remember Him in the breaking of the bread. This practice goes back to the apostles (Acts 20:7) and was the practice of the early church. When we gather to remember the Lord on the Lord’s Day, we are feasting on Him and He satisfies us. If we think of this story in this way, then the seven baskets of leftovers shows that there is enough for every day of the week. In chapter 14, the twelve baskets of leftovers were hand-baskets. These seven baskets in 15 are large bread-baskets. He is enough for whatever the week may hold.