corner graphic

Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable

Matthew 15

 

 

Verse 1

These Pharisees and scribes came from Jerusalem to question Jesus. They appear to have had more official authority than the local Galilean religious leaders who opposed Jesus earlier. Jesus" great popularity makes such a delegation understandable to the reader.


Verses 1-9

The charge and Jesus" response15:1-9


Verses 1-20

4. The opposition of the Pharisees and scribes15:1-20 (cf. Mark 7:1-23; John 7:1)

Matthew recorded another round of opposition, withdrawal and disciple training, and public ministry (ch15). This is his last substantial group of events in Jesus" Galilean ministry. The writer"s repetition of this pattern highlights the chief features of this stage of Jesus" ministry. This second round also reveals growth in each area of ministry. There is greater opposition, greater faith, and greater help for the multitudes than Matthew recorded previously.

This controversy with the Pharisees and scribes is sharper and more theological than Jesus" earlier confrontations with these critics. Note that these Pharisees and scribes had come from Jerusalem ( Matthew 15:1). Jesus also explained His view of the law more clearly than before.


Verse 2

The critics again raised a question about the behavior of Jesus" disciples, not His own behavior (cf. Matthew 9:14). They did not do so because Jesus" behaved differently than His disciples. They followed His example and teaching. They did so because they could attack Him less directly than if they had questioned His personal conduct. In view of Jesus" popularity they may have chosen this approach because it was safer, not because it was more respectful.

The critics objected to the disciples" disregard for the traditions of the elders. These were the rabbinic interpretations of Old Testament law that had accumulated over the centuries, the Halakah. In Jesus" day most of these traditions were not yet in written form, but later the rabbis compiled them into the Mishnah (A.D135-200). For the Pharisees they carried almost as much authority, if not more authority, than the law itself. [Note: Moore, 1:251-62.]

The disciples" hand-washing was only a specific example of the larger charge. One entire tractate in the Mishnah dealt with proper hand-washing procedures for ceremonial purposes. [Note: Mishnah, Yadaim.] There were even requirements for proper hand-washing before meals since the ritual cleanliness of food was such an important matter to the Jews.


Verses 3-6

Jesus responded with a counterattack. He made a basic distinction between God"s commandments and the Jews" traditions. He charged His critics with breaking the former to keep the latter.

". . . the ordinances of the Scribes were declared more precious, and of more binding importance than those of Holy scripture itself." [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:15.]

In Matthew 15:4 Jesus quoted Exodus 20:12; Exodus 21:17. "Curses" (NIV) is too strong. "Speaks evil of" (NASB) is better since the Greek verb kakologeo means "to insult."

The Pharisees and scribes, however, had evaded the spirit of the command, namely, that children should take responsibility for their needy parents. The "you" is emphatic in the Greek text. Halakic (rabbinic) tradition said that if someone vowed to give something to God he should not break his vow. Jesus said the law taught a more fundamental duty. To withhold from one"s parents what one could give to help them because of what the rabbis taught was greedy hypocrisy. The error was not so much using the money for oneself as failing to give it to the needy parent.

Jesus had taught His disciples to put commitment to Him before family responsibilities ( Matthew 8:21-22; Matthew 10:38). He was the Messiah, and as such He had a right to demand such a strong commitment. The traditions of the Jews did not carry that much authority. Moreover the situation Jesus had addressed previously involved family members opposing His disciples, not His disciples opposing their family members (cf. Matthew 10:37-39).


Verses 7-9

Chronologically this is the first time Jesus called the Pharisees and teachers of the law hypocrites. Their hypocrisy consisted of making a show of commitment to God while at the same time giving human tradition precedence over God"s Word.

Isaiah addressed the words that Jesus quoted to Jerusalem Jews who sometimes allowed external acts of worship to vitiate principle. Rather than continuing God"s will, the Jews" traditions perpetuated the spirit of the hypocrites in Isaiah"s day. The context of the Isaiah quotation is a criticism of the Jews for displacing heartfelt worship with mere ritual. Isaiah branded this type of religion vain. The hypocrites in his day had substituted their own teachings for God"s. Jesus" application of this quotation to the Pharisees and law teachers of His day, therefore, condemned their entire worship of God, not just their carefully observed traditions.


Verse 10-11

Jesus had been responding to the question of His critics so far. Now He taught the assembled crowds the same lesson and at the same time gave a direct answer to the Pharisees and scribes. He responded with a parable ( Matthew 15:15). He did not utter this one to veil truth from the crowds, however. He urged them to hear and understand what he said ( Matthew 15:10). This parable (proverb, epigram) was a comparison for the sake of clarification. Yet some did not understand what Jesus said ( Matthew 15:15-16).

Jesus was speaking of ceremonial (ritual) defilement when He said that eating certain foods does not make one unclean. [Note: Carson, " Matthew ," p350.] This was a radical statement that went beyond even the Mosaic Law. Mark noted that when He said this Jesus declared all food clean ( Mark 7:19). As Messiah, Jesus was terminating the dietary distinction between clean and unclean foods that was such a large part of the Mosaic system of worship (cf. Acts 10:15; Romans 14:14-18; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 Timothy 4:4; Titus 1:15). Matthew"s concern, however, was not to highlight this termination but to stress the point of Jesus" teaching. The point was that to God what proceeds from the heart is more important than what enters the mouth. Motives and attitudes are more significant than food and drink.


Verses 10-20

Jesus" preaching and teaching about man"s heart15:10-20


Verses 12-14

Mark recorded that this interchange between the disciples and Jesus happened in a house after they had retired there from the public confrontation that preceded ( Mark 7:17). Jesus" disciples, as all the Jews, held the Pharisees and teachers of the law in high regard. Since Jesus" words had offended His critics, the disciples wanted to know why He had said them. Jesus proceeded to disillusion His disciples regarding the reliability of His critics" spiritual leadership. If there was any doubt in the reader"s mind that the religious leaders had turned against Jesus, the disciples" statement in Matthew 15:12 should end it.

First, Jesus compared the non-elect, including the unbelieving Pharisees and scribes, to plants that God had not planted (cf. Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-43). There are several passages in the Old Testament that compare Israel to a plant that God had planted (e.g, Psalm 1:3; Isaiah 60:21). Isaiah also described God uprooting rebellious Israel as a farmer pulls up a worthless plant ( Isaiah 5:1-7). Jesus meant God would uproot the Pharisees and scribes and other unbelievers because they were not people that He had planted. Furthermore, they were worthless as leaders. This would have been a shocking revelation to the disciples. Jesus had previously hinted at this ( Matthew 3:9; Matthew 8:11-12), but now since they had definitely rejected Him He made the point clear.

Jesus told the disciples to leave the critics alone even as He said God would leave the weeds the enemy had planted in the field alone ( Matthew 13:28-29). Some of the Jews considered themselves guides of the spiritually blind (cf. Romans 2:19). These Pharisees and scribes apparently did since they knew the law and understood its traditional interpretations. However, Jesus disputed their claim. To Him they were blind guides of the blind. They failed to comprehend the real meaning of the Scriptures they took so much pride in understanding. A tragic end awaits the blind guides as well as those whom they guide. The critics" rejection of Jesus was only one indication of their spiritual blindness.


Verse 15-16

Peter again took the leadership among the disciples (cf. Matthew 14:28). Jesus" answer to Peter"s request for an explanation of the parable ( Matthew 15:17-20) identifies the parable as what Jesus had said about defilement in Matthew 15:11. Jesus again rebuked the disciples for failing to understand what he meant (cf. Matthew 14:31). The unbelieving multitudes were understandably ignorant, but Jesus" believing disciples should have known better. Jesus had taught them the priority of reality over ritual before ( Matthew 3:9; Matthew 12:1-21). Jesus" rebuke was probably also a pedagogical device. It would have made the disciples try their best to understand what He was teaching in the future so they would avoid further rebukes.


Verses 17-20

Jesus contrasted tangible food with intangible thoughts. Matthew"s list of the heart"s products follows the order of the Ten Commandments essentially. Jesus" point was this: what a person is determines what he or she does and says (cf. Matthew 12:34-35; Romans 14:14; Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 8:8; Hebrews 9:10). Note that Jesus presupposed the biblical revelation that the heart (the seat of thought and will) is evil (cf. Matthew 7:11). True religion must deal with people"s basic nature and not just with externals. The Pharisees and scribes had become so preoccupied with the externals that they failed to deal with what is more basic and important, namely, a real relationship with God. Jesus had more concern for human nature than for the form of worship. He came to seek and to save the lost ( Matthew 1:21; cf. Matthew 6:1-33; Matthew 12:34-35).

In this pericope Jesus rejected the Pharisees and scribes as Israel"s authentic interpreters of the Old Testament. He claimed that role instead for Himself. This was a theological issue that ultimately led to Jesus" arrest and crucifixion.

"The occupation with the outward religious ceremony, instead of inner transformation of the heart, has all too often attended all forms of religion and has plagued the church as well as it has Judaism. How many Christians in church history have been executed for difference of opinion on the meaning of the Lord"s Supper elements or the mode of baptism or for failure to bow to church authority? The heart of Prayer of Manasseh , which is so incurably religious, is also incurably evil, apart from the grace of God." [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., pp117-18.]


Verse 21

Matthew used the key word "withdrew" many times (cf. Matthew 2:12; Matthew 2:22; Matthew 4:12; Matthew 12:15; Matthew 14:13). Tyre and Sidon stood on the Mediterranean coast about30,50 miles north of Galilee respectively. This was pagan Gentile territory. This was not a mission to preach the kingdom in this Gentile region. Jesus was simply getting away with His disciples for a rest.


Verses 21-28

5. The withdrawal to Tyre and Sidon15:21-28 (cf. Mark 7:24-30)

As previously, opposition led Jesus to withdraw to train His disciples (cf. Matthew 14:13-33). However, this time He did not just withdraw from Galilee but from Jewish territory altogether. The response of the Canaanite woman in this story to Jesus contrasts with that of the Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes in the preceding pericope. She was a Gentile with no pretensions about knowing the law, but she came to Jesus in humble belief trusting only in His grace. She received Jesus" commendation whereas the critics had received His censure. This incident helped the disciples know how to deal with people who believed in Jesus, even Gentiles.

"This section at the close of the Galilean phase of Matthew"s story thus marks a decisive break from the previous pattern of Jesus" ministry, a deliberate extension of the mission of the Messiah of Israel to the surrounding non-Jewish peoples. The whole new approach is a practical enactment of Jesus" radical attitude toward Jewish purity laws which has just been declared in Matthew 15:11-20; he and his good news will recognize no such restriction of the grace of God." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p588.]


Verse 22

Matthew introduced this extraordinary story with an extraordinary word, "Behold," which the NIV version omits. By describing this woman as a Canaanite the writer drew attention to the fact that she was a descendant of Israel"s ancient enemies. She came out from that region in the sense that she left her home to meet Jesus. Her use of "Lord" may have been only respectful. [Note: See my note on8:2.] However by calling Him the Son of David she clearly expressed belief that He was Israel"s promised Messiah who would heal His people (cf. Matthew 9:27; Matthew 12:23).

"She plainly reveals that she has knowledge of the Messianic hopes of Israel and had heard that they were being connected with Jesus as the promised great descendant of King David." [Note: Lenski, p594.]


Verse 23-24

The disciples probably wanted Jesus to heal the woman"s daughter so she would stop bothering them. Jesus had previously healed many demon-possessed people ( Matthew 4:24; Matthew 8:16; Matthew 8:28; Matthew 8:33; Matthew 9:32; Matthew 12:22). However, He declined to do so here because His mission was to the Jews. "The lost sheep of the house of Israel" probably means the lost sheep, namely, the house of Israel rather than the lost sheep who are a part of the house of Israel (cf. Matthew 10:6).

"He still claims the place of the King who shall shepherd Israel ( Matthew 2:6; 2 Samuel 5:2)." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p195.]

"A good teacher may sometimes aim to draw out a pupil"s best insight by a deliberate challenge which does not necessarily represent the teacher"s own view-even if the phrase "devil"s advocate" may not be quite appropriate to this context!" [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p591.]


Verse 25

This woman"s desperate feeling of helplessness and her confidence in Jesus" ability to meet her need are obvious in her posture and her words. Matthew used the imperfect tense to describe her kneeling to make her action even more vivid. She did not just kneel, but she was kneeling. This was the attitude of a humble suppliant.


Verse 26

Jesus again clarified the difference between Jews and Gentiles to challenge her. Parents normally feed their children first. The house dogs get whatever might remain. God, of course, was the Person providing the spiritual Bread of Life to His chosen people, and the dogs were the Gentiles, as the Jews regarded them popularly.


Verse 27

In her reply the woman said, "for even," not "but even" (Gr. kai gar). This is an important distinction because she did not challenge what Jesus had said. She acknowledged the truthfulness of what He said and then appealed to Him on the basis of its implications. Her words reveal great faith and spiritual wisdom. She did not ask for help because her case made her an exception or because she believed she had a right to Jesus" help. She did not argue about God"s justice in seeking the Jews first. She simply threw herself on Jesus" mercy without pleading any merit.

". . . she is confident that even if she is not entitled to sit down as a guest at the Messiah"s table, Gentile "dog" that she Isaiah , yet at least she may be allowed to receive a crumb of the uncovenanted mercies of God." [Note: Tasker, p152.]

She used the diminutive form of "dogs" (Gr. kynaria) probably because small house dogs are even more dependent than large street dogs. She also used the diminutive form of "crumbs" (Gr. psichion) that expressed her unworthiness to receive a large blessing.

"The metaphor which Christ had used as a reason for rejecting her petition she turns into a reason for granting it." [Note: Plummer, p217.]

She bowed to God"s will regarding Jewish priority, but she also believed that God would extend His grace to believing Gentiles (cf. Romans 9-11).


Verse 28

"O" before "woman," also not translated in the NIV, makes this an emotional address. [Note: F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 146 (1b).] Jesus responded emotionally to her trust; it moved Him deeply. The woman"s faith was great because it revealed humble submission to God"s will, and it expressed confidence in His Messiah to do what only God could do. Jesus healed the girl with His word, and immediately she became well (cf. Matthew 8:13; Matthew 9:22).

Jesus had healed Gentiles before, but this was the first time He healed one in Gentile territory. Both people whom Jesus commended for their great faith in Matthew were Gentiles, this Canaanite woman and the Roman centurion ( Matthew 8:5-13). In each case Jesus initially expressed reluctance to heal because they were Gentiles. In both cases Jesus provided healing for an acquaintance of theirs from a distance, and He said their faith was greater than that of any Jew. In the case of the centurion, Jesus responded fairly quickly to the request, but in this one He played "hard to get." So of the two cases, the woman appears to have had greater faith than even the centurion.

In the spiritual sense Gentiles were "far off" until Calvary, when Jesus reconciled them. Then they enjoyed equal footing with Jews in the church ( Ephesians 2-3).

This miracle was another important lesson for the disciples. The Jews had priority in God"s kingdom program. However, God would deliver Gentiles who also came to Him in humble dependence relying only on His power and mercy for salvation.

"In this miracle of mercy there is a clear foreview of Gentile blessing which fits the pattern established in Matthew 1:1 and Romans 15:8-9. The actions of Christ show that He was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, for confirmation of the promises made unto the fathers and that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p196.]


Verses 29-31

Jesus" healing ministry15:29-31 (cf. Mark 7:31-37)

Jesus departed from the region around Tyre and Sidon ( Matthew 15:21) and returned to the Sea of Galilee. There are several clues in the verses that follow that enable the reader to see that Jesus went to the eastern (Gentile) side of the lake (cf. Mark 7:31). Again great crowds brought their sick to Jesus for healing. He performed these acts of healing freely. The reference to the people glorifying "the God of Israel" is one clue that the people were mainly Gentiles. They saw a connection between Jesus and the God of Israel. The Decapolis region east of the Sea of Galilee was strongly Gentile in population.

Why did Jesus so freely heal Gentiles here when in the previous section He showed such reticence to do so? Undoubtedly He said what He did to the Canaanite woman for the benefit of His disciples and to give her an opportunity to demonstrate her great faith before them.


Verses 29-39

6. The public ministry to Gentiles15:29-39

Matthew again recorded a summary of Jesus" general healing ministry (cf. Matthew 4:23-25; Matthew 9:35-38; Matthew 12:15-21; Matthew 14:34-36) following opposition ( Matthew 13:54 to Matthew 14:12; Matthew 15:1-20) and discipleship training ( Matthew 14:13-33; Matthew 15:21-28). Opposition and discipleship training did not occupy His attention so exclusively that He had no time to heal the multitudes compassionately.


Verse 32-33

Matthew again called attention to Jesus" compassion ( Matthew 15:32; cf. Matthew 9:36). Evidently the crowds had not gone home at nightfall but had slept on the hillsides to be close to Jesus. This presents a picture of huge crowds standing in line for days at a time to obtain Jesus" help. Some of them were becoming physically weak from lack of food.

The disciples" question amazes the reader since Jesus had recently fed5 ,000 men plus women and children. Probably the fact that the crowd was predominantly Gentile led the disciples to conclude that Jesus would not do the same for them that He had done for the Jews. This may have been especially true in view of what He had said to the Canaanite woman about Jewish priority in God"s kingdom program. If they thought of the feeding of the5 ,000 as a foretaste of the kingdom banquet, they probably would have thought that it was a uniquely Jewish experience. Perhaps since Jesus rebuked the crowd for just wanting food after the feeding of the5 ,000 , the disciples did not think He would duplicate the miracle (cf. John 6:26). Undoubtedly the disciples" limited faith was also a factor (cf. Matthew 16:5-12).


Verses 32-39

Jesus" feeding of the4 ,00015:32-39 (cf. Mark 8:1-10)

Jesus had previously fed5 ,000 men, but that was near the northeast coast of Lake Galilee, where the people were mainly Jews ( Matthew 14:13-21). Now He fed4 ,000 men on the east coast of Lake Galilee, where the people were mainly Gentiles.

Feeding the5 ,000

Feeding the4 ,000

Primarily Jews

Primarily Gentiles

In Galilee near Bethsaida

In the Decapolis

Five loaves and two fish

Seven loaves and a few fish

12baskets of scraps

7 baskets of scraps

People with Jesus one day

People with Jesus three days

Spring season

Summer season

Jews tried to make Jesus king

No popular response


Verses 34-39

Matthew wrote that this time the disciples gathered the remaining scraps in a different type of basket. The Greek word spyridas describes baskets made of rushes that the Gentiles used to carry fish and other food (cf. Acts 9:25). In Matthew 14:20 the disciples used kophinous, baskets the Jews used to carry kosher food, at least in Rome. [Note: A. E. J. Rawlinson, The Gospel According to St. Mark , p87.] This is another clue that the audience here was mainly Gentile.

Possibly there is some significance in the number of baskets of fragments the disciples collected. If12in Matthew 14:20 represents the12tribes of Israel, these seven baskets may stand for the mark of a creative act of God, as in the seven days of creation. However this symbolism is highly tenuous.

As before, everyone got enough to eat. Matthew again only recorded the number of the males present, in keeping with Jewish thinking. Perhaps the total crowd numbered between8 ,000,16 ,000 people.

The site of Magadan is unknown ( Matthew 15:39). Probably it was on the west side of the lake, the Jewish side, since conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees followed. Some commentators believe Magadan is the same as Magdala, an area just north of Tiberias on Galilee"s western shore. [Note: E.g, Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p120.] Some conjecture that this was the hometown of Mary Magdalene.

This incident would have impressed the disciples with God"s graciousness in dealing with the Gentiles. His kingdom plan definitely included them albeit in a secondary role. Their role as disciples would include ministry to the Gentiles as well as to Jews. They had the same ministry responsibilities to both ethnic groups.

"If Jesus" aphorism about the children and the dogs merely reveals priority in feeding, then it is hard to resist the conclusion that in the feeding of the four thousand Jesus is showing that blessing for the Gentiles is beginning to dawn." [Note: Carson, " Matthew ," p357.]

The fact that Moses and Elisha each performed two feeding miracles should have elevated Jesus to a status at least equal with them in the people"s minds (cf. Exodus 16; Numbers 11; 2 Kings 4:1-7; 2 Kings 4:38-44). Unfortunately most of the people, Jews and Gentiles, continued to come to Jesus only to obtain physical help.

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 15:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/matthew-15.html. 2012.

Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology