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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 15



Verse 13


‘But he answered and said, Every plant, which My heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up.’

Matthew 15:13

We need this lesson just as the disciples needed it, that they might not be startled by the fading away of much which had seemed to them fair and vigorous.

I. The opposition of sects.—The disciples learnt gradually from Christ’s lips that they were called and chosen out to preach to their own countrymen to bind together in one publicans and sinners—Jews, Galileans, Samaritans. With this message they were to go forth to Jew and Gentile. As they bore it, they soon discovered that the natural and necessary antagonists of it were the sects, Sadducees, Pharisees, etc. Then, when they found how mighty this sect-principle was, and what numbers were pledged to it, they must have recollected the words which had been spoken to them: ‘Every plant, which My heavenly Father has not planted, shall be rooted out.’

II. Party spirit.—There is a plant in your heart and mine which our heavenly Father has not planted, and which must be rooted out. It is that same plant of self-seeking, of opinionativeness, of party-spirit, which has shed its poison over the Church and over the world. It springs in us from that same root of unbelief in One who is the Head of us all, Whose life is the common life of all, out of which all sects and parties have proceeded. If once by His grace we are delivered from that presumption, we shall not doubt that He has taken care of His own name and His own kingdom in this earth of ours.

The Rev. F. D. Maurice.


‘The plain meaning of our Lord’s words is, that false doctrine, like that of the Pharisees, was a plant to which no mercy should be shown. It was a “plant which His heavenly Father had not planted,” and a plant which it was a duty to “root up,” whatever offence it might cause. To spare it was no charity, because it was injurious to the souls of men.—It mattered nothing that those who planted it were high in office, or learned: if it contradicted the Word of God, it ought to be opposed, refuted, and rejected. His disciples must therefore understand that it was right to resist all teaching that was unscriptural, and to “let alone” and forsake all instructors who persisted in it.—Sooner or later they would find that all false doctrine will be completely overthrown and put to shame, and that nothing shall stand but that which is built on the Word of God.’

Verse 14


‘Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.’

Matthew 15:14

The pathos of the perverted conscience, of the misdirected sincerity, of disastrous loyalty! Here, in a vivid picture, we see and feel the misery of it all. It is the Pharisee who suggested the picture.

I. The blind leader.—Our Lord is thinking, not of some poor, pitiful man shut up in his blindness, and humbly, tentatively feeling his way along with creeping bewildered steps; but of the man who has no notion that he is blind. On the contrary, he believes himself to be the one person who sees. This is the type—some man fitted apparently to show others the way, to direct their course, to point the goal. He is a man born to lead; only he is blind. He cannot take the true measure of things.

II. The Pharisee had so much in him to give him that amazing dominance over the popular imagination and conscience, which is so strikingly portrayed in our Gospels. He was relentlessly sincere in his adherence to the faith and the discipline of the fathers. He had no other object in life but to extend the sphere of the Holy Kingdom, and would compass sea and land to make one proselyte. So strong, so capable, so masterful was his Pharisaism. It carried all along with it.

III. Man must bend himself to this truth if he would live. The text hits an Englishman very hard. It passes criticism on that which he too often takes as his last word. ‘I did what I thought right.’ That is the Englishman’s ultimate position. ‘I obeyed my conscience.’ ‘I acted up to my own standard of duty.’ ‘What more could I do?’ So he triumphantly asserts and retorts. But our Lord has a further question to ask. ‘Why had you a conscience, which gave so false or poor a verdict?’ You followed your conscience. Yes, but your conscience was darkened; it had no hold on the light; it pronounced in ignorance of the realities; it never detected the true issue; it had no eyes for the vision. Why was that?

IV. The one vital question pressed home by our Lord upon each one of us is not: ‘How do you stand to yourself? Do you satisfy your own standard?’ But, ‘How do you stand to the realities of eternal life? Do you satisfy God?’ He drives the urgent question home again and again. That is why He loathes, with such a peculiar hatred, the self-complacency of the righteous. Be quite sure that you are blind! Our Lord never condemns us for being blind, but only for refusing to recognise it. Detect your own blindness, condemn it, confess it, and you are saved! The blindness which is your bane becomes your boon. It is your bane, for it withholds from you the sight of the glory which even now enwraps you. But it becomes your boon, because in discovering and recognising that you are blind, you are, by that very act, proved to be in true relation to the Eternal.

Canon H. Scott Holland.


(1) ‘Religious persecutors, Roman or Puritan, did it always for the best. They obeyed rigidly the law of their highest conscience. Neither the Inquisition, nor Cromwell, doubted for a moment the voice that bade them slay. Rather, they were honest beyond their fellows. They went so far in crime, and cruelty, because they were more resolute in following up their own convictions than others. Yet the verdict against them is given out. Why did they arrive at convictions that were in such flagrant defiance of God’s will? Why had they got so far out of the right way?’

(2) ‘A philosopher at Florence could not be persuaded to look through one of Galileo’s telescopes, lest he should see something in the heavens that would disturb him in his belief of Aristotle’s philosophy. Thus it is with many who are afraid of examining God’s Word, lest they should find themselves condemned.’

Verse 19


‘For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts.’

Matthew 15:19

The depravity of man is a fact attested by history and experience. The source of the depravity is spiritual; the evil is enthroned in the thoughts.

I. Evil thoughts.

(a) Vain thoughts. Not of a directly noxious quality; yet, light, empty, trifling, and insignificant, they form a most fearful waste of the noble faculty of thought.

(b) Thoughts of a directly irreligious tendency. Impious and unworthy conceptions of God; sceptical thoughts; rebellious thoughts, etc.

(c) Intensely selfish and worldly thoughts. When the rules of righteousness are postponed to the vain pursuits of distinction, wealth, or pleasure. When our worldly pursuits involve the sacrifice of principle, etc.

(d) Thoughts of deliberate wickedness. Indulging malevolent dispositions, rancour, and revenge. Planning to give effect to these dispositions, purposes, etc.

II. The sinfulness of evil thoughts.

(a) They have the stamp of guilt affixed to them by the Divine law. ‘They defile the man.’ Natural conscience condemns all such thinking. The laws of men are framed to deal with actions; the laws of God take cognizance of thoughts, which are the ‘seeds of actions.’

(b) They lead to the expression of evil actions. Thoughts tend to outward expression. Sin seldom dwells in the mind when there is fair opportunity for its external perpetration.

(c) They defraud us of the supreme end of thought. Our minds formed to adore, love, and contemplate God, virtue, and truth, etc. To mar that purpose is a sin of no common order.

III. The necessity of resisting evil thoughts.—The right government of the thoughts is a very difficult task. Thoughtlessness upon spiritual questions is prevalent. How necessary is such resistance when we consider the advantages accruing: e.g. the influence—

(a) Upon our personal character.

(b) Upon society.

(c) Upon a review of life in leaving it and during eternity.

Cherish good thoughts. Use every appliance that will suggest such: e.g. good books, wise and good people, etc. Above all, ‘set your affections upon things above,’ etc. Try to live in the realised presence of God.

Verses 22-28


‘Behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto Him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil,’ etc.

Matthew 15:22-28

This poor woman was by birth a heathen, a Phœnician; and the Phœnician religion was one of the very worst, the most cruel and degraded, of all the superstitions of the heathen world. Yet this woman had certainly some knowledge of God’s truth, for she addressed our Lord as the Son of David. The facts of the story are well known to you all: let us consider some of its lessons.

I. Dissimulation of love.—Our Lord’s seeming unkindness, unkindness of manner, was only in appearance. He loved her truly in His heart, and was prepared to shed His blood for her. How often does our Lord seem at first to be unsympathetic with us, and to treat us roughly! When in our distress we call upon Him for succour, He seems so far off from us. We pray to Him, and He makes no sign. He seems not to hear. And if we are faithless we feel disposed to say, ‘I get no help from my prayers. It is of no use praying.’ He seems not to hear. The truth is He would try our faith and obedience.

II. The grace of meekness.—How much we have to learn from the behaviour of this woman of Canaan, and the unstinted praise and blessing which our Lord bestowed upon her! Many persons undoubtedly would have been inflamed with anger. But the woman of Canaan exhibited in a marked degree the essentially Christian virtue of meekness. It is the virtue which enables us to accept injurious treatment or false accusations, or opprobrious or unkind words, in a calm, patient, and gentle spirit. It was an eminent characteristic of our Master and Pattern, the Lord Jesus. It is a supernatural virtue; for mere nature would scorn the idea of meekness. We are all of us naturally inclined to be up in arms when we are ill-treated, or opprobriously or contemptuously spoken to, to resist when we are unfairly treated, and to give back angry words in return for unkind speech.

—Bishop Sheepshanks.


(1) ‘Duff, the missionary, was about to begin service in a Boer farmer’s house, when he noticed that none of the Kaffir servants were present. To his request that they should be brought in, the Boer replied roughly, “What have Kaffirs to do with the Gospel? Kaffirs, sir, are dogs.” Duff made no reply, but opened his Bible and read, “Yes, Lord; yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” “Stop,” cried the farmer, “you’ve broken my head. Let the Kaffirs come in.”’

(2) ‘The Talmud contains a story so singularly parallel to this that it is worth reproducing. “There was a famine in the land, and stores of corn were placed under the care of Rabbi Jehudah the Holy, to be distributed to those only who were skilled in the knowledge of the Law. And, behold, a man came, Jonathan, the son of Amram, and clamorously asked for his portion. The Rabbi asked him whether he knew the condition, and had fulfilled it, and then the suppliant changed his tone and said, ‘Nay, but feed me as a dog is fed, who eats of the crumbs of the feast,’ and the Rabbi hearkened to his words, and gave him of the corn.”’



Christ came unto His own, and His own received Him not. Distrust, suspicion, contempt, dislike—in a word, unbelief was His portion. It must have been, then, no ordinary refreshment to His spirit to meet with so strong and unassailable a confidence in His goodness and power, as was displayed by the Syrophœnician woman. Passing away, however, from Christ to our own personal concern with the narrative, let us consider what light it throws upon the subject of prayer.

I. The apparent opposition of Christ.—How her faith survived what it had to encounter is a marvel. First, there was His chilling silence. ‘Perhaps’—the poor mother thinks—‘it is because I am unworthy, that He will not listen to me. It cannot be because my need is not sore. Well, I am unworthy, but still I trust in His goodness.’ Then there is the distinct repulse: ‘I have no mission to you.’ Then there is the classing her among ‘the dogs.’ (She accepts the imputation, but with the wonderful dexterity of faith, turns it to her own account.)

II. Yet the Saviour kept watch over her spirit, and will not suffer her to be tried above that she is able to bear. He is behaving in this apparently unaccountable manner in order to train her. She is to get a blessing, as well as her daughter. And this is the way of obtaining it.

III. The importunity of faith is acceptable to God.—‘Men ought always to pray and not to faint.’ ‘Pray without ceasing.’ And we infer that He Who is willing to bestow temporal benefits in answer to prayer, is not less willing to do for us more than we can ask or think, for the supply of our spiritual necessities.

Prebendary Gordon Calthrop.


‘Our Lord may have desired to test yet further the woman’s faith, both that He might crown it with a more complete and glorious reward, and that she might learn something deeper respecting Him than the mere Jewish title that she may have accidentally picked up. And He may have wished for all time to encourage us in our prayers and hopes, and teach us to persevere even when it might seem that His face is dark to us, or that His ear is turned away.’

Verse 23


‘But He answered her not a word.’

Matthew 15:23

Christ had His moods of sternness. These words of Our Lord suggest a thoughtful consideration of what we may call the Divine silences. History, the Bible, and our own experience, each is full of them. Most of us know them to our cost, many to their blessing. And to observe the varieties of them, to discover their meaning, to recognise their wisdom, and to secure their blessing, is to go a long way in fathoming the counsels of God.

I. Questions which God refuses to answer.—There are questions which God refuses to answer.

(a) God will not answer dishonest questions; questions put in an insincere spirit, with a matured purpose, with no intention of obedience, in insolent frivolousness; on one or all of these grounds, we find our Lord refused to answer certain demands of the Pharisees; of the High Priest, of Pilate, of Herod.

(b) God will not answer presumptuous questions; questions which skirt the mysterious borderland between the visible and the invisible; questions on which neither Scripture, nor conscience, nor nature casts one gleam of light.

(c) God will not answer speculative questions. The origin of evil is one of these questions. The Bible explains little, it only drops hints about it. But it does tell us that evil is to be overcome with good.

(d) God will not answer controversial questions. When the disciples asked, ‘Wilt Thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He distinctly declined to answer: ‘It is not for you to know the time and seasons which the Father hath kept in His own power.’ And that answer is the key to many other questions.

II. Questions which God consents to answer.—There are questions which God consents to answer. Such questions are practical, and we do not always appreciate His answers. They are questions about pain, duty, and truth. Our Lord’s answer to the disciples about the man that was born blind illustrates this. He will answer about truth in a degree we must appreciate, by methods we must accept, and on conditions which we must observe. His promise is not to impart truth to us instantly or entirely, but by His Spirit to show us the way into truth, and to leave us there to find it for ourselves.

III. Never silent to those who seek.—Of this we may be perfectly certain, that, whatever may be Christ’s silences to those who deserve them, He is never silent to those who seek His salvation, and crave His grace, and bear His Cross, and trust His love.

—Bishop Thorold.


‘We are sometimes tempted to think that, had we been told but a little more, much hot controversy, and much perilous division, and much weakening of strength in the face of the enemy might have been spared to the Church of God. If, for instance, but one clear direction had been given about the baptism of infants, there would have been no opportunity, or, as others would put it, no excuse for a separate body of Christians to whom the ordinance that we Churchmen love is felt to be an unreal and even a superstitious thing. If in the very important matter of Church government we had been enabled to gather, not only from logical inference, and not only from historical continuity, the rule or order most pleasing to God, and edifying for man, but from a distinct sentence of Christ’s, the three last centuries of Church history might have been spared many a rent and tear in the robe of outward unity; many a blow and wound aimed by hot and even venomous tongues from brother at brother, and by saint at saint, might also have been spared us. The Head of the Church has thought differently.’



I. Silence in the Word of God.—This to the spiritual mind is deeply significant and instructive. Are there not doctrines and revelations and statements in the Bible around which a solemn silence reigns—a silence which eternity alone will break? Leave the mode of the Divine existence to the explanation—if, indeed, it ever will be explained—of a higher and more perfect state of knowledge. Cease to speculate respecting the origin of sin—the permission of evil—the apparent discrepancies of revealed truth—the mysteries of the Divine government in the world—the un-revealed details of the future world; leave these questions where God has left them—in solemn, awful, unbroken silence.

II. The silence of Christ’s love.—The sense or enjoyment of the Lord’s love in the soul may for a season be suspended; the voice of love be still. Jesus answers not a word. There was love in His heart towards the mother suing at His feet on behalf of her daughter, but it was silent love. Wait in faith and patience; Jesus will break the silence—Christ will speak; the tempest shall subside, the clouds shall vanish, and sweet the peace your Father will give.

III. The silence of Jesus in prayer.—You approach the throne of grace, you draw near the mercy-seat, but—He answers you not a word! Jesus is silent. The silence of God in prayer is to be interpreted but as a test of our sincerity, and as a trial of our faith.

IV. The silence of God in His dark and afflictive providences.—How often have these dispensations gathered around you in gloom and mystery, the deep, the awful stillness of which not a divine syllable has broken. You know not; but He knows. Rest in Him.

—The Rev. Dr. Octavius Winslow.

Verse 28


‘O woman, great is thy faith.’

Matthew 15:28

There are many beautiful and striking features in the character and conduct of this Syrophœnician woman. Her motherly care; her energy; her perseverance; her indomitable determination; her humility; her talent; her eloquence; her pleading; but Christ was moved by, and selected, and made honourable selection of only one—her ‘faith.’

I. The value of faith.—The foundation of every religious grace is ‘faith.’ To believe in God, to really trust God, is the sum and substance of a Christian life.

II. The elements of faith.—Note the elements which went to make up this ‘great faith’ of the Syrophœnician woman.

(a) Sorrow. Sorrow seems to have been, if not the cradle, yet certainly the school of this woman’s ‘faith.’

(b) Prayer. She comes and makes her petition—as ‘faith’ always ought to come and make its petition—leaving details with God. She simply tells her sorrow, and pleads nothing else.

(c) Perseverance. The test to which this woman was put was exceedingly severe.

III. The triumph of faith.—Turning the very repulsion into argument, she makes her irresistible plea. The probation is finished; the lesson is learned; and ‘faith’ has triumphed.

Was ever thus set forth such a beautiful ‘faith’ for us to follow, to study, to imitate?

—The Rev. James Vaughan.


‘There must be many persons you are interested in, friends or children, members of your own families or persons depending upon you, who you know need some spiritual help which you cannot give them—which none but Christ can give them. How many of us feel bitterly anxious in these evil days for children who have to go out into the world with little knowledge of how to avoid the temptations of the devil. What are we to do for them? There is much which we cannot do for them. We cannot ourselves resist their temptations for them. We cannot put our own experience into them. Perhaps we cannot even persuade them to come to Church, or to pray to God, or seek Christ. This poor woman did not bring her daughter to Christ. But this one thing we can do. We can do what this poor woman did. When Christ comes among us we can speak to Him for them as she did for her daughter. There at Christ’s altar, when He comes among us in His especial Presence—when, so to speak, He comes among us straight out of His holy heaven into the Tyre and Sidon of this evil world—there and then we can meet Him, and make our continual and repeated prayer for those who are under the power, and giving way in the temptations, of the Devil.’


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 15:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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