The seventy sevens — Daniel 9:22-27

The seventy sevens

Daniel 9:22-27

22 He instructed me and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. 23 As soon as you began to pray, a word went out, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the word and understand the vision:

24 “Seventy sevens are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.

25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven sevens, and sixty-two sevens. It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one seven. In the middle of the seven he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”

COMMENTARY — Daniel 9:22-24

22 He instructed me and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. 23 As soon as you began to pray, a word went out, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the word and understand the vision:

24 “Seventy sevens are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.”

Seventy sets of seven — contours of the enhanced punishment

In the moment that Daniel’s prayer reaches a passionate crescendo,[1] the angel Gabriel swiftly approaches to reveal to Daniel the vast span of God’s plans. When Gabriel returns to explain more fully what Daniel has found in Jeremiah’s writings, he reveals a much bigger context of Yahweh’s discipline for the Jews and looks far into the future to the end of all such judgment. In doing so, Gabriel not only answers Daniel’s short-term concern but also unveils the much larger picture of how God’s ultimate judgments will unfold and when they will end.

This chapter concerns not only the end of God’s punishment for his people but the end of his tolerance for human rebellion. In effect, Gabriel reveals that God’s people are nearing the end of the original 70-year punishment, but the seven-fold enhancement of their penalty still lies in Daniel’s future (as well as our own).

Miller calls verses 24-27 “four of the most controversial verses in the Bible.”[2] A detailed discussion of the four major views is beyond the scope of this study guide but may be found in Miller’s commentary.[3] We will begin by clarifying terms.

All four views depend upon the interpretation of the very first word in verse 24, the Hebrew noun shabu’, which means “period of seven (days, years), heptad, week.”[4] Because translators prefer the simple, self-explanatory nature of the word “week” to the more accurate phrase “period of seven,” quite a few English versions (ESV, NET, CEB, NASB, HCSB) start verse 24 with the words “Seventy weeks”. But “weeks” is a poor choice since multiples of 7 years are what the interpretation of the passage requires. We must congratulate NIV for saying, “Seventy sevens,” but the grand prize goes to NLT for saying, “A period of seventy sets of seven”.

Commentators generally agree that Daniel was speaking in terms of sets-of-seven-years. Recall that Hoehner said, “Each year of captivity represented one seven-year cycle in which the seventh or Sabbath year had not been observed.”[5] Daniel has already shown his understanding from Jeremiah (25:11-12; 29:10) that the Babylonian captivity would last 70 years. And we have established from the Law of Moses both the requirement of giving the land rest in the seventh year (Lev. 25:4) and the seven-fold enhancement factor for disobedience (Lev. 26:18, 21, 28).

So, if commentators generally agree Daniel is dealing with multiple periods of seven years, what is the reason for their splitting into four different views of the passage? The answer is that differences of opinion exist about (1) whether the years are literal or figurative, and (2) when the periods of time begin and end.

Since the meaning of years related to this passage is literal, we agree with Miller[6] and Wood[7] that the interpretation must also deal with literal years and that the last of those years will end with the second coming of Christ. We will briefly show that this interpretation gives a coherent understanding of what God has revealed to Daniel and to us.

Daniel 9:24 “Seventy sevens are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the Most Holy Place.”

We have already explained that the sevens refer to multiple periods of seven years. So, seventy sevens is a period of 490 years (70 x 7 = 490). Hoehner[8] rightly points out that, by looking toward the past from Daniels day, we see a scattered series of seven-year-periods for which the Sabbath-year rest commanded by God was not observed. Since this happened 70 times, we are talking about 490 years in all. Gabriel looks forward from Daniel’s day and sees a scattered series of seven-year-periods also totaling 490 years. At various points within the seventy sets of seven-year-periods, the events listed in verse 24 will all take place, most of them positioned at the end.

It is vital to realize that the seventy sevens have been imposed upon “your [i.e., Daniel’s] people and your holy city” (verse 24a). Wood explains, “It should be noted that Gabriel said the 490 years will be in reference to the Jewish people and the Jewish capital city, which would seem to exclude any direct concern with Gentiles.”[9] In other words, the terms of the prophecy should be interpreted in relation to the Jews and Jerusalem; how they relate to the church or to people who live in the 21st century is a separate issue. We cannot hijack the prophecy!

Six things will be accomplished in relation to the Jews and Jerusalem:

“to finish transgression” — Miller explains, “It would probably refer to Israel’s rebellion against God.”[10] Chisholm agrees by translating “putting an end to rebellion.”[11]

“to put an end to sin” — Miller notes, “This prophecy cannot be fulfilled in any real sense until Christ personally returns to earth.”[12]

“to atone for wickedness” — This must surely be a reference to the cross of Christ, the Messiah of Israel. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood — to be received by faith (Rom. 3:25). Only at the Messiah’s second coming does Israel turn to him.

“to bring in everlasting righteousness” — Miller says, “As the prophecy pertains to Israel specifically, it indicates that at the end of the seventy sevens the nation as a whole will have received permanently a right relationship with God.”[13] That is not possible until Jesus returns.

“to seal up vision and prophecy” — Perhaps better is NLTs translation “to confirm the prophetic vision” since the verb means either “seal up” or “confirm.” Wood observes: “The words taken together refer to the final fulfillment of revelation and prophecy; i.e., when their functions are shown to be finished. The time in mind can only be the final day when Christ comes in power.”[14]

“to anoint the Most Holy Place” — The exact phrase given as “the Most Holy Place” is one that occurs thirty-nine times in the Old Testament, always in reference to the Tabernacle or Temple or to the holy articles used in them.[15]

COMMENTARY — Daniel 9:25-27

25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven sevens, and sixty-two sevens. It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one seven. In the middle of the seven he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”

Seventy sets of seven — the unfolding timeline

Daniel 9:25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven sevens, and sixty-two sevens. It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble.”

In this verse Gabriel gives a starting point — “the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” — as well as an ending point — “until the Anointed One, the ruler comes.” Gabriel further reveals that the interval between these two events is “seven sevens, and sixty-two sevens.” Opinions differ at this point depending on whether the years are taken figuratively or literally. Those preferring the figurative view of years cannot make good sense of the numbers, but they question the assumptions of those who attempt exact calculations. Both views are possible, but we prefer the literalist or numerical approach.

We follow the traditional view of the church in saying “the Anointed One,” or “Messiah” (HCSB), is Jesus; verse 26 makes this identification even stronger. The specific analysis of dates that makes the most sense is that given by Hoehner.[16] He starts with the words of the Persian king Artaxerxes I to Nehemiah, the man who led the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and biblical data place that conversation in March/April 444 B.C. (Nehemiah 2:1-9).[17] The king specifically authorized rebuilding Jerusalem, but the project later ran into a lot of local opposition from the Samaritans and others.

Hoehner demonstrates that using a 360-day year, having 12 months of 30 days each, is a model that has biblical support. With a starting point defined and a year composed of fixed elements, Hoehner is well able to do the math and arrive at an ending date for the seven sevens, and sixty-two sevens of March 30, A.D. 33, the time of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Not all agree, but his analysis holds its own. By this reckoning, 69 sevens-of-years end when Jesus enters Jerusalem to die.

Daniel 9:26 “After the sixty-two sevens, the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.”

Note that the death of the Messiah comes after the 62 sevens-of-years; the vital word after arises from a particular word in the Hebrew text and not from the sense of the passage. In the view of the world, Jesus died as a capital criminal, the ultimate shame. Since honor was paramount in the Mediterranean world of Jesus day, he died with nothing.

Note carefully that it is “the people of the prince who will come” who destroy the city and the sanctuary, not the prince.[18] We have already said that the Roman general Titus totally destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70. The Roman Empire in some renewed form is the one repeatedly presented by Daniel as the one to emerge in the last days with the Antichrist (called “the prince who will come”) at its head. As Miller says, “[Verse] 27 makes clear that this ruler will be the future persecutor of Israel in the seventieth seven.”[19]

A covenant with a treacherous man

Daniel 9:27 “He will confirm a covenant with many for one seven. In the middle of the seven he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.”

At last we find the seventieth seven-of-years, and it lies in our future. The unpredictable nature of the onset of the seventieth seven fits Jesus words: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). Often, the seventieth seven is called the tribulation and the last half of it is called the great tribulation. Although there is a sharp theological debate about whether Christians will be on the earth at this time, Gabriel says nothing about that. His focus is on the Jews and Jerusalem.

Some have been critical of the gap between the first sixty-nine sevens and the seventieth seven, a period of almost two thousand years. This criticism overlooks the spotty occurrence of the missed sabbath years as well as the gap between the seventy years of captivity and the authorization to begin rebuilding Jerusalem. These sevens-of-years are part of the seven-fold enhancement of the original punishment, and God may place them as he chooses.

The “he” who will confirm a covenant (verse 27a) is “the ruler who will come” in verse 26; we know him as the Antichrist. We agree with Miller that, in this context, “‘the many’ is best taken as a description of the Jewish people as a group.”[20] The Jews will likely agree to a seven-year treaty with the powerful renewed Roman Empire to have security from their enemies.

After half the period is over — three and a half years — the Antichrist will end any worship activities (verse 27a) presumably being conducted on Temple Mount (whether or not a temple is actually standing). What happens next is not clear, but it will involve the most profane possible activity in defiance of Yahweh. The NIV follows the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, in saying “at the temple,” but the Hebrew text says nothing of the temple. CEB offers: “… he will stop both sacrifices and offerings. In their place will be the desolating monstrosities until the decreed destruction sweeps over the devastator” (verse 27bc). So, for three and a half years that part of Jerusalem most associated with Yahweh will be dreadfully desecrated until the time appointed for the Antichrist to be destroyed.

It is easy for us to underestimate the effect of this astounding revelation on the elderly Daniel. We know that he understood, based on Jeremiah’s prophecies, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years (Dan. 9:2). Is it possible that he did not understand the seven-fold enhancement of the seventy years — 70 x 7 = 490 years, seventy units-of-seven years for further desolation, as declared in Leviticus 26? In verses Dan. 9:17 and 9:18 he asks Yahweh to look on the desolation of Jerusalem and the temple. But Gabriel repeats that word in Dan. 9:26 and 9:27 (twice) to refer to further desolations of Jerusalem to come. This news must have been appalling to the elderly Daniel.

[1] Miller, Daniel, 249.
[2] Miller, Daniel, 252.
[3] Miller, Daniel, 2537.
[4] BDB, shabu, period of seven, q.v.
[5] Hoehner, Daniels Seventy Weeks and New Testament Chronology, 49.
[6] Miller, Daniel, 257.
[7] Wood, Daniel, 244.
[8] Hoehner, Daniels Seventy Weeks and New Testament Chronology, 49
[9] Miller, Daniel, 259.
[10] Miller, Daniel, 260.
[11] Chisholm, Handbook on the Prophets, 313.
[12] Miller, Daniel, 260.
[13] Miller, Daniel, 260.
[14] Wood, Daniel, 250.
[15] Wood, Daniel, 250.
[16] Harold Hoehner, Daniels Seventy Weeks and New Testament Chronology, Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (JanuaryMarch 1975) 4765. This material also appears as chapter 6 of Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978).
[17] Hoehner, Daniels Seventy Weeks and New Testament Chronology, 59.
[18] Wood, Daniel, 255.
[19] Miller, Daniel, 268.
[20] Miller, Daniel, 271.

Matthew 16:1-4, The face of evil

Some have passed the point of no return. What they fail to understand is where their journey will end.

Matthew 16:1-4

1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

2 He replied, When evening comes, you say, It will be fair weather, for the sky is red, 3 and in the morning, Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast. You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. Jesus then left them and went away.

Commentary

You may think at first that the fresh appearance of the Sadducees in Galilee means that some new faces are in town (verse 1). The NIVs wording conceals the fact that the whole purpose for the Pharisees and Sadducees approaching Jesus was to test him.[1] We have examined this verbal form before: Greek peirazo can mean either tempt or test, and the hostile context here tells you what is going on. Indeed, this verb occurs only six times in Matthews Gospel, and the first two involve Satan tempting Jesus, while the last four involve emissaries of Satan, as seen here.

Even without such analysis, their request for a sign from heaven rings hollow after Jesus has performed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miraculous healings in Galilee and the nearby regions. Accordingly, Jesus answers them in a metaphorical way. There is irony here as well, because Jesus will play with the various meanings of heaven as either the place where God dwells or the sphere in which weather occurs. The NIV translates the same Greek noun ouranos as heaven in verse 1 (in the demand from the Pharisees and Sadducees) and sky in verses 2-3 (in the pointed answer that Jesus gives using the weather analogy).

Jesus notes that the religious leaders are experts at reading the signs provided in the ouranos by the changing weather, yet they cannot discern the signs of the favorable moment, the moment of opportunity (verse 3). We know why this is the favorable moment, but the willful blindness of the religious leaders leaves them clueless.

In verse 4, Jesus tersely rejects the request for a sign, but not without calling them a wicked and adulterous generation (verse 4), where the adultery is spiritual and consists of failing to honor their covenant with God. The sign of Jonah is not explained here, but can be found in Matthew 12:40-41. Osborne rightly points out that the sign consists of the resurrection of Jesus and the repentance of Ninevah.[2] The Sadducees did not accept any kind of resurrection, and none of the Jewish religious leaders saw any need to repent. But they could not have been more wrong!

When Jesus left the leaders and Galilee behind, he did not return to Galilee until after his resurrection. Constant opposition put an end to their hour of opportunity.

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 636.
[2] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 613.

Matthew 15:32-39, The “dogs” feast on crumbs!

When you think about Jesus, one of the most important questions is this: Does he care only about the few, or does he care about all? Keeping in mind that Matthews intended first audience was Jewish Christians, those who had given their allegiance to the promised Messiah, how might Matthew have decided to answer that question? After all, his first audience grew up thinking that Gods kindness was intended for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The answer is that Matthew decided to let Jesus show them the truth.

Matthew 15:32-39

32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way. 33 His disciples answered, Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd? 34 How many loaves do you have? Jesus asked. Seven, they replied, and a few small fish. 35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 38 The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan.

Commentary

How this account advances Jesus message

Perhaps part of the justification for extending Gods kindness to the Gentiles was the example of the Canaanite woman and her astounding faith in the compassion of Jesus (Matthew 15:21-28). Her insightful response to Jesus showed that she understood Jesus had a primary commitment to the Jews (15:27). Her view was that even the Gentile dogs could feast on the crumbs falling from the Master’s table. The feeding of the four thousand (plus) Gentiles proves her point in concrete terms.

R. T. France does the best job of looking at the wider scale of Matthews Gospel and explaining what Matthew had in mind by this second feeding miracle:

If the purpose of the second story is to invite comparison with the first, it is only to be expected that it should be told in a way that recalls the first except for the points of difference is meant to be noted; and that is just what we find in this [account].[1]

The major points of difference between The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14:14-21) and The Feeding of the Four Thousand (Matthew 15:32-38) are these: (1) the first showed Jesus compassion toward the Jews while the second showed his mercy toward the Gentiles; (2) greater numbers of Jews were fed than Gentiles. If we flash forward to the Apostle Paul, we find the same emphasis: I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile (Romans 1:16).

Now, my brothers and sisters, we must face a correction. For centuries the church of Jesus Christ has ignored the fact that Jesus is a Jew! The very word Christ means the anointed one, the Messiah. Jesus came first to the Jews and only then to the Gentiles like us. Paul calls us wild olive branches and the Jews the natural olive branches (Romans 11:17-24). We must learn from Matthew and Paul to understand our abundantly blessed place as fellow heirs to those who came before us in Christ.

If you have ever expressed prejudice against Jews, how might that be offensive to Christ and how will you behave toward Jews in the future?

The Feeding of the Four Thousand (Gentiles)

The account of the astounding miracle that Jesus performed in feeding this great crowd has both high points and low points. Since we all love good news, we begin where the story begins, with the compassion of Jesus for the people (verse 32). They have been so astonished by his miracles of healing and his caring for them that they do not want to leave, and their supplies for the journey have run out. Jesus cares about the danger they face even though they have ignored it. (Or perhaps they were expecting him to deal with whatever might happen.) The first high point is the compassion of Jesus for the people.

Ah, but the low point comes next. The disciples mistakenly assume that Jesus has summoned them to fix the problem! An overly literal translation of verse 33 might be: Where to us in an uninhabited region is bread enough so as to satisfy such a multitude? Well, duh, sitting right next to them is Jesus, the greatest creator of bread in the history of the world! And they have seen him do it before.

Jesus mercifully overlooks this interruption and determines what resources are available (verse 34). After giving thanks, Jesus took the bread and fish and kept on giving them to the disciples (HCSB)[2] to distribute to the people until everyone had eaten plenty (verses 36-37). More was left over than they started with! Having protected the crowd for their journey, Jesus dismissed them and sailed away (verse 39).

As it happens, we don’t know the location of Magadan (verse 39), Jesus destination, but we do know that the next part of Matthews account finds Jesus and his disciples back among the Jews on the western side of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 16:1). Later in Matthews Gospel, Jesus will return to the theme of his plans for the Gentiles.

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 601.
[2] Greek imperfect tense, implying ongoing action.

Matthew 15:29-31, All welcome in Christ

It never dawns on us as we worship God together at Christ Fellowship that we are part of that special expression of Christs mercy to the Gentiles that began with people like the Canaanite woman. He has blessed us so greatly that it seems as if that was his intention all along. It was! But the widespread expression of Gods mercy to the Gentiles started at a point in history.

Matthew 15:29-31

29 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. 31 The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Commentary

If you did the exercise suggested above, then you know that Jesus could easily have extended his ministry among the Gentiles by avoiding a return to Galilee. He may have elected to do so to avoid that ominous group of religious leaders from Jerusalem mentioned in Matthew 15:1. The idea that Jesus ministered in the area of the Decapolis, scattered in both the tetrarchy of Phillip and the southern portion of the Roman province of Syria also solves another mystery.

Many have wondered why Matthews Gospel contains both the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21) and the feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:32-39). They are quite similar. In fact, one theory championed by theologians who hold the Bible in low esteem is that they are the same event and Matthew has simply included both descriptions. Nah!

France argues persuasively that the feeding of the five thousand took place among the Jews, and the feeding of the four thousand took place among the Gentiles.[1] The strongly parallel nature of the two descriptions is intended to communicate that God intends to show the same kindness to the Gentiles that he previously extended to the Jews.

Jesus heals Gentiles

Jesus fame had spread all over the Decapolis, ten Hellenized cites east of the Sea of Galilee, and all over the tetrarchy of Philip and the Roman province of Syria. So, when he entered the Gentile regions, people began gathering the sick, disabled and the demonized to be healed at the earliest opportunity.

Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down (verse 29), and those in need of his miraculous healing were brought from far and wide (verse 30). Jesus healed them all, and the result was both amazement and praise for the God of Israel (verse 31). Jesus saw fit to fulfill the words of the Canaanite woman that Gentiles would feast on the crumbs dropped from the Jewish Messiahs table.

Sometimes those of us who live in vibrant Christian communities grow accustomed to the high level of Gods blessings in our lives. Curiously, we can become less fervent in our worship than an outright pagan who has just discovered the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 597.

Matthew 15:21-28, A mother’s determined faith

When Jesus departs from a place, he takes his miracle-working power with him. For some, opportunities end, and for others they begin. Keep an eye on winners and losers during this change.
Some people show more faith in ten minutes than the disciples showed all day! Like many of us, the original disciples were very slow to go where Jesus was taking them.

Matthew 15:21-28

21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly. 23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us. 24 He answered, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. 25 The woman came and knelt before him. Lord, help me! she said. 26 He replied, It is not right to take the childrens bread and toss it to the dogs. 27 Yes it is, Lord, she said. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table. 28 Then Jesus said to her, Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted. And her daughter was healed at that moment.

Commentary

For the fourth time in Matthews Gospel, Jesus decides to withdraw from danger.[1] In this case the cause was the severe reaction of the Pharisees to his rejection of their ideas about defilement (see Matthew 15:12). Remember that Jesus is not withdrawing out of fear; he has a lot to accomplish before intentionally putting his life on the line in Jerusalem.

Jesus makes his remarks about defilement — externals cannot defile — even more vivid by leaving Galilee for Tyre and Sidon, the long-time enemies of Israel, often condemned by the prophets (verse 21). The Pharisees would certainly break off harassing him there because going there would defile them!

When a desperate mother emerges from nearby to cry out to Jesus for help, Matthew makes certain to call her a Canaanite (verse 22). Further, the verbal form makes it obvious that she kept on crying out, Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! When she describes her situation, she makes it clear that her daughter is continually and cruelly tormented by a demon. This is torture for mother and daughter alike.

While it is impossible to discern the exact situation, Jesus and his disciples seem to have been walking down a road with this desperate mother trailing along behind — as indicated by the Greek adverb opisthen meaning from behind — and screaming for Jesus attention. Since Jesus was not saying a word (verse 23), his disciples grew irritated and kept asking him to send her away.

Jesus answered his disciples, though probably in a way the woman could hear, by saying, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (verse 24).[2] In light of what Jesus will soon do for the woman, the question is: why does he say this to his disciples? The answer is that he is testing them. Do they have any clue that dealing with this woman presents a defilement issue that relates to what Jesus has recently revealed? The answer seems to be yes and no yes because she is a woman and a Canaanite (traditional sources of defilement), and no in that they are oblivious to the fact that these issues are external, not matters of the heart. According to what Jesus has recently revealed, externals do not defile anyone (Matthew 15:12).

Who understands what Jesus has taught?

So, the disciples fail their exam, but the woman does not! Ignoring the disciples, she places herself directly before Jesus, kneels and says, Lord, help me! Jesus answers her in metaphorical terms: It is not right to take the childrens bread and toss it to the dogs (verse 26). In the metaphor, the children are the Jews, the descendants of Abraham, and the dogs are the Gentiles, including the Canaanites.

We have reached a key point in the story. Jesus has said that it is not right to help her, but she answers, Yes, it is Lord, meaning that she is contradicting him.[3] He says no but she says yes! She takes hold of his metaphor and extends it to give her argument: Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters table (verse 27). She concedes that he must rightly see to the needs of the Jews first, but his well-known mercy can easily meet her request as well.[4]

Throughout these events Jesus has maintained the appearance of helping only the Jews and not the Gentiles. I have suggested that his intention was to test his disciples, though his initial silence toward the Canaanite woman tested her too. How will Jesus react to being contradicted by a Canaanite woman?

The answer is unfortunately not easy for the readers of an English version to see. The Greek text reveals that verse 28 is a climactic moment. Jesus has withheld and concealed his overflowing mercy until this moment. When he releases that mercy, he shows great emotion toward the Canaanite woman who has shown such extraordinary faith. Nowhere else in the Matthews Gospel is anyone told that they have great faith.

Jesus grants the womans repeated request; he daughter is healed by her mothers faith in Jesus (verse 28).

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Matthew 4:12, 12:15, 14:13 and 15:21. His parents also withdrew from danger with him in Matthew 2:13 and 2:22.

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 593.

[3] Stephen Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010) 156.

[4] France, Matthew, 595. See also page 589, footnote 6.

A matter of the heart, Matthew 15:15-20

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” So goes the old children’s rhyme that tries to convince children to ignore taunts. Whatever good the rhyme may accomplish is countered by selling it with some big lies. First, every adult knows how much words can hurt. Second, God uses our words as a measure of our hearts. Oh my!

Matthew 15:15-20

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a persons mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Commentary

Peter reminds me of certain Christian adults living in 2015 in that he heard what Jesus said (in verse 11) but made little to no effort to understand it on his own (verse 15).[1] Nor did Jesus let the matter go by unremarked!

Verse 16 is a hammer stroke against spiritual timidity and laziness. The first word out of Jesus mouth is the rare Greek adverb akmen meaning “even yet.” The following “you” is plural, showing that Peter is not alone, but the crusher is the adjective meaning uncomprehending. Even after being with Jesus for an extended period, they still lack a keen spiritual sense! How did Jesus find this out? By the words that came out of Peter’s mouth. That fact is ironic in light of what Jesus teaches them next.

The question Jesus asks in verse 17 expects a “yes” answer. Yes, all the disciples know that food simply passes through the body and then leaves it. The same is true of wine, water and other things taken in through the mouth. They have no bearing on the persons defilement status because they tell us nothing about the person.

Jesus next reveals the actual source of personal defilement: the heart as revealed by the things that come out of a persons mouth (verse 18). While NIV has Jesus saying that the heart is the source of evil thoughts (verse 19), the Greek word can include reasoning, intentions and plans as well. Further, Jesus qualifies these thoughts by calling them wicked or vicious. This description plainly fits when we learn that these thoughts include murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander. For example, the religious leaders are already planning to murder Jesus and have slandered him by claiming that his miraculous acts are empowered by Satan rather than the Holy Spirit.

At last, Jesus returns to the original accusation against his disciples (verse 20). They are innocent of defilement because eating with unwashed hands can only affect what goes into the mouth and later emerges. Compared to the religious leaders, their hearts are pure even if their hands are not!

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Material originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] To clarify, I am certainly not talking about fellow members of the Life Group I belong to, who continually show that they are seeking to know God better! They inspire all who visit our group.

A major break — part 2, Matthew 15:10-14

One interesting thing about a Dallas Cowboys football game is that if you don’t have a ticket, you don’t get in. The ticket qualifies you to enter the stadium and sit in a particular seat. In a similar way, avoiding ritual defilement was necessary in the time of Jesus to enter the temple and worship God. Those who were defiled, according to the law, were not qualified to enter and worship.

Because the temple was central to the worship of God, a great deal of rabbinic teaching existed to define defilement and to spell out how to eliminate it. You would think that defilement would be the one thing that all Jewish religious leaders understood. But Jesus refuted that belief.

Matthew 15:10-14

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someones mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.
12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?
13 He replied, Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.

Commentary

When Jesus summons the crowd to listen and understand (verse 10), that sets the stage for an escalation of the conflict between him and the Jewish religious leaders. What Jesus says in verse 11 seems simple enough to us, but it directly contradicted the teaching of the Jewish religious leaders about defilement. They claimed that defilement came from external sources, but Jesus said that what emerges from the mouth, from the inside of a person, is what defiles that person.

When we get to verse 18, Jesus will identify the exact inner source of what defiles a person.
Presumably some time passed after Jesus spoke to the crowd (verse 11), and during that time the Pharisees were seething and deeply offended over what Jesus had said about defilement. The disciples quickly learned of this development and went to Jesus to warn him of it (verse 12). The disciples show the respect many must have felt toward a high-level delegation of religious leaders from Jerusalem.

Jesus answers the news with a surprising metaphor: Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots (verse 13). Since the traditions of the Pharisees contradict the commandment of God, they are the ones who can expect to be pulled up by the roots! This language may well look back to the Parable of the Weeds, where Jesus taught about the separation that will take place at the final judgment.[1] Jesus disciples are the plants established by God, not the Pharisees and their allies.

As to how they might relate to the offended Pharisees, Jesus tells his disciples, Leave them (verse 14a), with the idea of abandoning them and going on to something else. This Greek verb is also used for divorce. In offering his reasons for this action, Jesus returns to metaphors: They are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit (verse 14b). In the arid climate of Palestine, cisterns were dug underground and lined with stone. The surface entry was often a terrible hazard for those unable to see.

Ritual purity, and therefore defilement, held extreme importance to the Pharisees. Jesus has already crossed the boundary of propriety by touching women, lepers and even the dead in order to heal them. Now he moves from deed to word in teaching that defilement comes from within, not from externals. R. T. France explains the significance by saying, After this dialogue the breach between Jesus and the scribal establishment is irreparable.[2]

Copyright 2015 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Materials originally developed for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Passages such as Isaiah 5:1-7 contain similar ideas.

[2] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 575.