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.

A Major Break Part 1, Matthew 15:1-9

This section of Matthew gives us a glimpse of the sharp theological conflicts that Jesus will later face in Jerusalem. Jerusalem cast its shadow over Galilee by sending a group of religious leaders to create problems for Jesus. The resulting clash was extremely sharp, though our Gentile outlook and lack of exposure to regulations invented by the Pharisees make us blind to the gravity of the disagreement.

Sometimes it is hard to grasp the first signs of a major conflict. On the morning of December 7, 1941, an Army radar operator on the north shore the Hawaiian island of Oahu showed his superior officer a radar echo that stretched from one side of the radar screen to the other. But they decided not to report the echo to headquarters because they thought that the radar set must need adjustment. That echo was the first wave of the inbound Japanese strike force sent to attack Pearl Harbor!

To our eyes this disagreement between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders seems like just-one-more. But it proved to be a point of no return between those leaders and Jesus.

Matthew 15:1-9

1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They dont wash their hands before they eat!

3 Jesus replied, And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, Honor your father and mother and Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is devoted to God, 6 they are not to honor their father or mother with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

8 These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.

Commentary

Remember that Matthew alternates between narrative sequences (with action) and discourses (with speeches or parables for crowds). Matthew 15 stands within one of the narrative sections. In a previous one, Jesus had a major conflict with the Jewish religious leaders, who accused him of performing his miracles by the power of Satan (Matthew 12:22-32). With opposition against Jesus hardening, he will soon strike a blow against one of the pillars of Jewish religion — its purity rules. We might also express this conflict with the term defilement. The key question is this: what does it take to defile someone in the eyes of God?

The main problem you will have in understanding the issues between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders is that they involve ancient laws and customs that are not part of our common experience. I will help you bridge that gap.

Hired Guns Shooting Blanks

Perhaps Jesus had so overwhelmed the Pharisees and scribes of Galilee that they had summoned help. But, whatever the reason, a new team came to Galilee from Jerusalem, and they promptly tried to undermine Jesus in the eyes of the people (verses 1-2). First, they tried exaggeration by saying that Jesus disciples were breaking the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating (verse 2).

The Law of Moses required only that priests wash before doing their duties (Exodus 30:18-21) or eating their share of the food offered in sacrifice (Leviticus 22:4-7). In other words, ordinary Jews had no legal requirement to wash. The scribes had tried to broaden such requirements to all Jews and all eating, and the Pharisees had adopted this tradition.[1] Now they are acting like this tradition is an ancient requirement from God through Moses!

Without missing a beat, Jesus counters with a higher level charge that the scribes and Pharisees are breaking the command of God for the sake of your tradition (verse 3). Here, command is being contrasted to tradition, and the Jewish religious leaders are being contrasted with God in terms of primacy! Having made the general charge, Jesus follows with the specifics.

The commands Jesus cites in verses 3-4 are taken from Exodus 20:12 (for verse 3) and Exodus 21:17 (for verse 4). These commands are what God said on Mount Sinai. So, as part of the Ten Commandments, God commanded that every Jew honor their father and mother, and a subsequent command from God made violation of the commandment a capital offense. Jesus says that the Jewish religious leaders have committed and encouraged capital offenses. In verses 5-6, he provides the details.

An Unusual Custom

Jesus is showing that a certain Pharisaic tradition called korban (Greek) could be used to circumvent obeying the Fifth Commandment to honor your parents. Korban (also spelled corban) consisted of pledging money or other material resources to the temple to be paid when you died. You had full use of these funds or resources during your lifetime, with the one exception that you could not give them to anyone else — such as your needy parents — because they were pledged to God.[1] Jesus accuses the religious leaders of using their tradition of korban to nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition (verse 6).

The korban tradition allows a person to cover their lack of love and obedience with a cloak of spirituality. Jesus calls those who teach such ideas hypocrites, a term which means that they are not so much deceivers as disastrously self-deceived, failing to see things as God sees them.[2] But, he goes farther by applying to them the prophecy of Isaiah 29:13, where God says: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.

We too are capable of hiding behind ritual by doing certain carefully selected church activities but avoiding those designed to meet the material or spiritual needs of those living in poverty and darkness.

Copyright 2017 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Material 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: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 577.

[2] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 238.

[3] France, Matthew, 237.

 

Compassion flows freely, Matthew 14:33-36

When Jesus arrives, grab anyone in need and go to him!

Matthew 14:33-36

34 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. 35 And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him 36 and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

Commentary

After dealing with the dangerous winds and waves, the boat makes landfall at Gennesaret, a small fertile plain several miles south of Capernaum (verse 34).[1] The moment the people recognize Jesus, messengers disperse throughout the region advising that sick people come to Jesus now (verse 35)!

People in that region do not have to hear twice before going to help their loved ones be healed by Jesus. The verb translated healed means, in as more general context, bring safely through danger, so it is a good choice in the same setting where Jesus just got the disciples through a deadly storm.

Not only did they bring all their sick to Jesus (verse 35b), but they steadily begged him to let the sick simply touch his cloak, without the formality of a personal touch from him. He demonstrated kindness and compassion in granting healing to all who did so (verse 36).

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

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 581.

A work in progress, Matthew 14:28-33

Before these events, if someone told you that one of the twelve disciples got out of the boat in the midst of a storm and tried to walk on the water, you might not have been able to guess a name. After these events, one name will always spring onto your tongue: Peter. He was a work in progress, and that’s why we love him.

Matthew 14:28-33

28 Lord, if its you, Peter replied, tell me to come to you on the water.

29 Come, he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, Lord, save me!

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. You of little faith, he said, why did you doubt?

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, Truly you are the Son of God.

Commentary

Verse 28 contains one of those if-statements signaling that the starting assumption is assumed true; Peter knows that Jesus is speaking, so he solicits a direct order. A shrewd move.

At first, Peter enjoyed complete success in walking to Jesus (verse 29). When the wind became more fierce and came to Peter’s awareness, fear overmatched faith and a gradual sinking process began. Whatever we may say about Peter’s loss of confidence, he knew who to call on to save him: Jesus (verse 30). Jesus solved the immediate problem, including Peter’s lapse (verse 31). Perhaps we see in this that helping disciples of Jesus become mature is not a sink or swim process. It involves both fast assistance and coaching.

Verse 32 has not received much attention. Most commentators indirectly credit Jesus with the fact that the wind stopped after he and Peter got into the boat. Under my theory that demonic action caused these problems, it seems more likely that, absent agitation by these spirits, the wind and water returned to their normal calm state in the pre-dawn hours. The biblical text does not say why the wind stopped, but most of us will realize that going from high wind speed to still is not normal. And Jesus is not the only person capable of acting in the context, even though his decision will be final.

Basking in their rescue by Jesus, the disciples affirm him as the Son of God (verse 33), and they are not wrong, but it is apparent that their grasp of who Jesus is needs to deepen even further.

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

Rescue on the Lake, Matthew 14:22-27

It will gradually become apparent that everyone is trying to push Jesus in one direction or another. But his focus remains on showing compassion and building his disciples.

Fishermen or not, the disciples have about the worst luck I have ever seen for encountering night storms. I wonder if there is a reason for that. Actually, I know the reason.

Matthew 14:22-27

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. Its a ghost, they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: Take courage! It is I. Dont be afraid.

Commentary

Remind me to check the manifest the next time I start to go out on a body of water. If Peter or the other disciples are aboard, then Im staying ashore! (smile)

Keep in mind the context and situation. After spending the day healing the sick, Jesus has just finished feeding a crowd of well over 5,000 people, though he had only a few loaves and fish to do it (verses 14-20). Night is falling because that is the whole reason the disciples wanted to send the people away to find food for themselves (verse 15).

Immediately, Jesus compels the disciples to enter the boat without him and cross the lake, presumably back to Capernaum (verse 22). This forcing action is unusually strong: Greek anagkazo, meaning compel or force. Matthew does not explain, and I am reluctant to introduce information from elsewhere, but perhaps it is appropriate on this occasion. Johns account says that the crowd meant to take Jesus by force and make him king (John 6:15)! Knowing this, Jesus dismissed the crowd — another strong word — and slipped away to a nearby mountain to pray (Matthew 14:23). That this was a strategic moment is seen by the fact that this occasion is the only one when either Matthew or Mark refer to Jesus at prayer other than the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before the cross.[1] Jesus prayed on that mountain most of the night.

Meanwhile, our mariners in the boat have encountered another storm on the lake with the result that they have been rowing for many hours in darkness — more than enough to cross the lake — but are stuck far from shore. Worse, the wind is high and the waves are punishing the boat with severe force, communicated by the Greek verb (basanizo) used for torment (verse 24). NIV’s refined translation buffeted can only be used by scholars sitting around a table with the AC running!

To get a sense of wind speeds on the Sea of Galilee, use the methods mentioned in the footnote.[2] Also keep in mind that the names Lake Tiberias and Lake Kinneret are alternative names for this body of water. You will find that the wind on the Sea of Galilee is typically much stronger in the mid-afternoon than at night. Storms and high winds are far more likely to form during the day due to solar heating.

Once again, I join those scholars who see demonic forces trying to attack Jesus and his disciples. The offer of the kingship is a replay of the temptations described in Matthew 4:8-10, where Satan made a similar offer. Blomberg notes that the sudden storm resembles the one in Matthew 8:23-27, and that the verb for torment is sometimes used elsewhere for demonic hostility against people (Matthew 8:6 and Revelation 9:5), and concludes that demonic activity may be present here.[3] I did not come to either of these lake crossings (Matthew 8 and 14) with demonic activity in mind, but the improbability of the events happening by normal means left me no other choice. Jesus has to rescue his disciples in both cases.

A light in a dark place

The timing of events in verse 25 is subject to interpretation. The Greek text simply says, In the fourth watch of the night, referring to a Roman division of time starting at 3 am and ending at 6 am. So, while NIV places events shortly before dawn, HCSB offers, around three in the morning. The latter is more likely. Osborne points out that the disciples have been rowing for their lives for several hours and are about at the end of their strength and resolve.[1] They need help!

When Jesus, predictably, comes to rescue his disciples, they experience terror in seeing a human shape striding toward them on the lake surface (verses 25-26). In daylight, under calmer conditions, they might have remembered verses in the Old Testament about God walking on or through the waters (Job 9:8 and 38:16; Psalm 77:19). But deep waters had long represented chaos and evil to the Jews. It is hard to criticize the disciples fear that they were seeing a ghost; a similar experience in the twenty-first century could easily receive the same reaction.

Note that Jesus immediately acts to reassure them, urging them to embrace courage, not fear (verse 27). His identification, Greek ego eimi, means It is I, but its older meaning I AM is never far away.

Those causing this trouble had best get lost!

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

[1] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 574.

[1] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 234.

[2] Use Google search phrase wind speed on Lake Tiberias to get graphic results. The search phrase wind forecast for Lake Kinneret will help you find a site used by windsurfers.

[3] Blomberg, Matthew, 234.

A different banquet, Matthew 14:13-21

Matthew seems to contrast two feasts that occur in remote places. Herod Antipas invited his powerful friends to a drunken banquet marked by seduction and the death of a prophet in the wilderness fortress of Machaerus. Jesus and his disciples withdrew to a desolate place where they fed a hungry crowd after healing their many sick. The worldly rule of Herod and the merciful rule of God could hardly be more different.

Matthew 14:13-21

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, This is a remote place, and its already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.

16 Jesus replied, They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.

17 We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish, they answered.

18 Bring them here to me, he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Commentary

What may not be apparent to you is that Johns death represented a threat to Jesus, especially when Herod believed Jesus to be John resurrected from the dead (Matthew 13:2). We have to go back to Matthew 4:12 to see that, upon hearing that John had been imprisoned, Jesus withdrew from Perea to Galilee. The very same action, described by the very same Greek verb, occurs when Jesus gets the sad news about Johns death. Herod Antipas will indeed eventually get his hands on Jesus, but Jesus will remain silent, and Herod will eventually return him to the custody of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea (Luke 23:6-12), for final disposition.

France suggests that Jesus may have retreated by boat just a few miles to the east of Capernaum, just past the inflowing Jordan River, to the empty shore in the tetrarchy of Phillip.[1] In any event, Jesus plan for isolation was thwarted when a crowd met him at the scene (verses 13-14). Moved by compassion, he healed their sick, a frequent theme in Matthew.

When evening neared, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the people away to deal with their hunger, but Jesus told his disciples to feed the people (verses 15-16)! No doubt that came as a shock, since the available food was totally inadequate (verse 17). In spite of the limited food, Jesus had it brought to him while he had the people sit down. Then he blessed the food and had the disciples distribute it (verse 19). And distribute it, and distribute it.

Verse 20 makes the shocking statement that all ate their fill, and considerable food was left over. The miracle is never described, but the completeness of it is obvious.[2] Matthew states that about 5,000 men ate, as well the women and children with them, a Jewish way of framing the number (verse 21). Matthew never calls this event a miracle, continuing the routine of simply telling what happened.

An Old Testament pattern fulfilled

Along with Osborne, I see in this miracle a distinct echo of the feeding miracle performed by Elisha the prophet in 2 Kings 4:42-44.[3] However, I think Osborne does not go far enough in light of Matthews proven tendency to use midrash in his writing. Recall that midrash was a Jewish technique that compared one Scripture with another. The situation in the Old Testament was one in which one prophet (Elisha) took over for another (Elijah), when Elijah was taken into heaven. Events demonstrated that Elisha worked even greater miracles than Elijah had done.

Matthew has presented both John the Baptist and Jesus as prophets, though in Jesus case that was only one of his roles. Jesus has named John as the Elijah who was to come (Matthew 11:14). John has, like Elijah, been taken from the scene, but Jesus, like Elisha, remains to do even greater things than John.

In 2 Kings 4, Elisha feeds a hundred men with twenty loaves of bread, and he had had some left over just as God had promised (2 Kings 4:44). Matthew presents an occasion when Jesus did a far greater work than Elisha the prophet, including the food left over. Not only does this demonstrate the complete supremacy of Jesus, but it also shows that Gods work in the world moves forward no matter what setbacks, such as the death of John, may occur. Matthews midrash helps reveal the hidden depth of Scripture.

How does an account such as this encourage you to entrust your needs to the compassion of Jesus?

 

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 560.

[2] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) 567.

[3] Osborne, Matthew, 566.