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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 15

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

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Verses 1-2


Then there came to Jesus from Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.

This section (Matthew 13:54—16:20) concerns the RESPONSE of various persons and groups to Christ and his teaching. The rejection at Nazareth, the popular acclaim at Bethsaida-Julius, the vast popularity of the multitudes whose sick he healed, and the powerful conviction growing, and actually stated once, in the hearts of the apostles that he was the Son of God, have already been noted. In this passage is the first raindrop in a gathering storm of opposition from the heads of the Jewish nation.

This opposition by the powerful party of the scribes and Pharisees was launched against Jesus by the raising of what seems to be a very small and petty quibble about washing hands; but this opposition, so mildly stated here, was vicious and unrelenting and would never cease for an instant until these men would shout in a frenzy of hatred, "His blood be on us and our children!"

There is more to the quibble than meets the eye. The tradition of the elders was considered the most sacred and binding of Jewish obligations, even ranking higher in their eyes than the word of God itself. Dummelow gave as their opinion that

The words of the Law are weighty and light, but the words of the scribes are all weighty; the words of the elders are weightier than the words of the prophets; and he that shall say, There are no phylacteries, transgressing the words of the Law, is not guilty; but he that shall say, There are five divisions of a phylactery, adding to the words of the scribes, is guilty!(F1)

There were numerous other traditions which are not worth repeating; but that punctilious platoon of mote-hunting Pharisees laid an outlandish burden of importance upon such minuscule spiritual doodlings!

It must not be thought that there is any reference here to eating with dirty hands; it is not that, but neglect of a ceremonial procedure, which was resented by them.

Verse 3

And he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?

The genius of Christ is that he always referred issues to their highest level. Not their tradition, but the word of God, that was the truly important obligation; and Christ ignored their tradition and challenged them for their own disregard of God’s commandments. Nor did he stop with a theoretical charge; he named cases and gave examples of their lapse.

Verse 4

For God said, Honor thy father and thy mother: and, He that speaketh evil of father or mother, let him die the death.

This and Matthew 15:6, below, prove that Christ considered God to be the author of the Old Testament, and of the Decalogue in particular. Also, in John 10:34-36, Christ referred to the Old Testament as "your law," "the Scriptures," and "the word of God," all in a single statement. Irenaeus wrote that "The true God (Christ) did confess the commandment of the law as the word of God."(F2)

Note too that Christ approved, as God-given, this law that prescribed capital punishment; and some of the ancients justified such a penalty for blasphemy on the basis that cursing the heavenly Father is a greater crime than cursing father or mother. Cyprian spoke of those who "still heap up evil words on the person of the Father, and sin with the unceasing wickedness of a blaspheming tongue."(F3)

In this verse, Christ focused attention upon the word of God rather than upon the traditions of the Pharisees, indicating this his primary concern was the former.

Verses 5-6

But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, That wherewith thou mightest have been profited by me is given to God; he shall not honor his father. And ye have made void the word of God because of your tradition.

The Pharisees were making a secondary duty the excuse for denying a primary one, a device observed continually in all ages. By dedicating his properties to the temple, the selfish man, by reserving a life estate in his possessions, could legally deny any aid or support of needy parents, thus thwarting completely God’s will relative to honoring father and mother. The Pharisees had a name for this device. They called it Corban! It had no origin or permission of God’s true word but was one of their sinful traditions.

What’s wrong with tradition? Only one thing; it vitiates God’s word. Any harm in it? Take the case presented here, relative to washing hands ceremonially, which was the basis of the Pharisees’ assault on Christ. That ceremony was harmless in a sense, perhaps even helpful as cleanliness or hygiene; but it had been forced into the worship of God, solely by human authority, and eventually blinded the eyes of men so completely that they could not even see the Son of Righteousness!

The tradition of washing hands was fortified by the unanimous consent and approval of religious leaders; it was supported by all the established institutions; it was honored by the most widespread and extensive observance of it by all the people; and it had been in vogue for many centuries; yet all this did not and could not make it right to inject even so innocent a thing as washing hands into the worship of God. Why? God accepts only those things as worship which he himself has authorized and commanded. Furthermore, given a choice between the word of God and the human tradition, the universal experience of the human race is to the effect that the tradition wins acceptance and the word of God is violated.

Mark’s account of this place has the words, "Full well do you reject the commandment of God that you may keep your tradition" (Mark 7:8-9). In the case at hand, the scribes and Pharisees rejected Christ in order to keep their tradition. Behold the life cycle of tradition:

(1) First appears the innovation, something new, clothed with specious plausibility, riding the crest of some unusual occasion, some exceptional circumstance, or emergency.

(2) It is repeated and moves into a place of acceptance as something allowed, occasionally at first, invariably afterwards.

(3) It becomes appreciated as an "aid" to the worship, something helpful.

(4) Eventually, it is stressed and emphasized to the detriment of what it is supposed to "aid."

(5) It achieves, through long usage, a status of equality with God’s word.

(6) It is finally performed, occasionally, but later, always, instead of God’s commandment.

(7) Finally, it blooms as a presumptuous, rebellious contradiction of God’s word, and is constantly honored in place of it.

In the light of Christ’s word, "In vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men," one is compelled to view innovations in Christian worship as extremely sinful and hurtful.

Verses 7-9

Ye hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, This people honoreth me with their lips; But their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.Isaiah 29:13.

This prophecy from Isaiah 29:13 contains in its last four words the key to failure in religion, "the precepts of men." If worship of God is to be undertaken on any basis that assures acceptance and ultimate reward, it must be on the basis of revelation. The precepts of men are without any value at all in this whole area. "Is it from heaven or from men?" (Matthew 21:25). That is the most important and relevant question that can be confronted with regard to any doctrine or practice connected with religion. There are literally hundreds of things widely observed in Christian worship throughout Christendom which should be challenged and rejected in the light of this teaching.

Verses 10-11

And he called to him the multitude, and said unto them, Hear and understand. Not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man; but that which proceedeth out of the mouth, this defileth the man.

"This he said, making all meats clean" (Mark 7:19). Strangely, people are still trying to get to heaven on some kind of diet! Some won’t eat pork; some eat only fish on certain days; and some are actually vegetarians! Novation said, "God is not worshipped by the belly nor by meats. … He who worships the Lord by meats, is merely as one who has his belly for his Lord."(F4) Paul declared every creature of God is to be "good, and not to be rejected, for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer" (1 Timothy 4:4 ff).

Here is also a bold emphasis on the defilement that comes out of a man. These are identified as murders, fornications, thefts, and all crimes conceived in the heart and effected through the use of speech. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria, in admonitions to the heathen, said:

From filthy speaking, we ourselves must entirely abstain, and stop the mouths of those who practice it by stern looks and averting the face … "For what proceedeth out of the mouth," he says, "defileth a man." — shows him to be unclean, and heathenish, and untrained, and licentious.(F5)

Verses 12-13

Then came the disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, when they heard this saying? But he answered and said, Every, plant which my heavenly Father planted not, shall be rooted up.

There is a suspicion that the disciples themselves may have had some sympathy for the Jewish teaching on meats. Long afterward, Peter was able to say, "I have never eaten anything common or unclean" (Acts 10:14). They had not learned the lesson in this place yet, but they would learn eventually. They seem to be taking the Pharisees’ part, ever so mildly, in this gentle remonstrance. Christ’s magnificent reply showed that the Pharisees were not merely wrong, but totally so, that they would be plucked up, and that they were blind leaders of the blind, destined for the ditch.

Jesus’ reply concerning the plant which the heavenly Father had not planted has an immense amount of application. It is true of all evil, of every rebellious thought, and of every institution that rises in time and by time is destroyed. In its context, the "rooting up" applies to: (1) evil men, the Pharisees in this case. Cyprian spoke of excommunicating "the crafty impostor" that he may seek again the church, "from which by divine authority he deserved to be expelled,"(F6) attributing the basis of excommunication upon the words of Christ in this Matthew 15:13. (2) It applies to doctrines, teachings, and practices founded in human precepts, rather than in the word of God.

Verse 14

Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind guide the blind, both shall fall into a pit.

Let them alone — that is the admonition of Christ with reference to the worldly wise, socially prominent, sophisticated, unscrupulous, hypocritical religious leaders. The apostles would have been able to do the Pharisees no good, and there was a grave possibility the Pharisees would do the apostles harm by damaging their faith. The child of God today should heed the same admonition with reference to the same kind of persons. Spiritual darkness and sin are set forth in this place under the figure of blindness, a symbol often so used in the Bible (2 Peter 1:9, etc.).

Verse 15

And Peter answered and said unto him, Declare unto us the parable.

The illustration of the blind leading the blind is here called by Peter a parable, but it would probably be as well named a proverb, short indeed, but full of meaning. The overwhelmingly significant fact about the blind leading the blind is that BOTH the leader and the led are blind, the success of blind leaders in every generation depending entirely upon the degree of blindness in their followers. Only the blind will follow the blind; every soul must bear its own responsibility to know the truth. The same proverb is in Luke 6:30.

Verses 16-20

And he said, Are ye also even yet without understanding? Perceive ye not, that whatsoever goeth into the mouth passeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But the things which proceed out of the mouth come forth out of the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, railings: these are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not the man.

Behold in this a ray of light on transubstantiation. It being true, as Jesus said, that nothing entering the mouth defiles the man, it is equally true that nothing entering his mouth can sanctify and bless him. "Whatsoever," said Jesus, that enters the mouth proceeds to the belly and thence to the draught; therefore, it cannot be anything literal in the bread or the wine of the Lord’s Supper that can either defile or bless him. Thus it is clear that the bread and the wine are emblems or symbols of the Lord’s blood and body. It cannot be the physical and material substance of those sacred tokens which either blesses or procures condemnation; but, on the other hand, it is the act of obedience, the answer of a good conscience toward God, the spiritual perception of the saving truth certified and memorialized by those tokens — it is these that bless the man. Origen stated it thus: "If this were not so, it would sanctify him who eats unworthily of the bread of the Lord."(F7)

A slight problem occurs in that Peter inquired about one thing, the blind leading the blind; and Jesus answered with emphasis on another thing, the things that defile a man. This was often done by Christ as for example in Luke 13:23. In that case, the disciples asked, "Are there few that be saved?" But the following dissertation never touched that question but focused on the need for every man to "strive to enter the narrow door." In this case, Christ replied by giving Peter the information he needed, rather than by replying in the same vein as the question.

Verse 21

And Jesus went out thence, and withdrew into the parts of Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus made a long, circuitous route, passing up the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the vicinity of Tyre and Sidon, thence eastward through Decapolis, and cross-country to the sources of the Jordan river. Ancient opponents of the faith were sometimes critical of Christ for avoiding an open confrontation with Herod at this time. Celsus in 170 A.D. charged the Lord with cowardice. The unfairness of this is seen in the later actions of Christ during his Passion, although he might have avoided it by calling for the legions of angels. Two reasons for the Lord’s conduct attest its honorable nature. These are: (1) It was not yet time for him to die. Too much work remained undone. The disciples were not fully grounded. (2) He was teaching the disciples by this action the necessity for prudence in avoiding always, if possible, unnecessary conflict with the state. It was in line with this policy that Jesus had instructed the Twelve to flee to another city when persecuted (see under Matthew 10:23).

Verse 22

And behold, a Canaanitish woman came out from the borders, and cried, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a demon.

Even the remotest parts of ancient Palestine knew of the wondrous power of Jesus, as witnessed by the prayer of this woman of a strange and distant city. Also, the proper designation of Jesus as the Messiah in the term "thou Son of David" was also known to her; and her use of the expression shows how widely the conviction prevailed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah.

Verse 23

But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.

The true understanding of this entire difficult incident depends upon understanding the antecedent attitude of the apostles. THEY, not Jesus, were the ones who had no feeling for this woman of another race. They detested this foreigner and sharply requested Jesus to get rid of her. They knew of Jesus’ great power and of the thousands he had healed, yet they did not want her to be healed. In view of her cries, and her obvious willingness to hail Jesus as the Messiah, which in fact she did, it does seem that such should have more favorably disposed the disciples to her plea; but no! they requested the Lord not to heal her daughter but to get rid of her. "Send her away," they said in effect, "she is a nuisance to us!" It is in the light of this attitude of the Twelve that this place must be understood. Christ answered not a word, perhaps hoping that the disciples might, through human love and kindness, say a word on her behalf. It was a vain hope. Christ’s first reply only confirmed the Twelve in their attitude but served the double purpose of giving the woman a chance to demonstrate her faith and prompting the disciples to express their feelings openly.

Verse 24

But he answered and said, I was not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

This reply doubtless pleased the Twelve. The rabbis often called the Gentiles dogs; and Christ’s word at that moment seemed to them to be grounded in the traditional attitude of the Jews of that era. The interview, however, was destined to take an unexpected turn.

Verse 25

But she came and worshipped him, saying, Lord help me.

One cannot contemplate the thought of this poor, distraught woman, pleading for the life of her child, without a catch in the throat, even yet. How could the disciples have been so heartless as not to intercede in her behalf at that instant? Jesus had not refused; he had only said he was sent to Israel; could not Israel have allowed one gracious act to one of another race, especially one who at that moment was kneeling or prostrated before him, worshipping him, and crying for his assistance? Not at all; the Twelve were unfeeling witnesses as they stood by, watching Jesus get rid of the woman, or at least so they thought. But he was NOT getting rid of her but was about to get rid of an ugly attitude in THEM!

Verse 26

And he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.

Still keeping attention upon the Twelve, note what they must have thought of such a reply as this. Yes, Jesus really told her, in the bluntest manner possible, that she was a Gentile dog, unworthy of a crumb from the children’s (Israel’s) table. That surely will do it, must have been the thought of the Twelve; "but then the earthquake happened!"

Verse 27

But she said, Yea, Lord: for even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.

Christ, at that very moment, was a fugitive from his own race and nation; and the wondrous faith and humility of that foreign woman of Canaan thus brought into sharpest focus the contrast with the bigots in Jerusalem who, even then, were planning to murder the Lord. There is a play on words in the woman’s reply. Christ used the word "dogs"; but the woman came back with another word (also translated "dogs" but with a slightly different meaning). The word she used means "little dogs" or "puppies." It is as though she said, "Yes, Lord, I am indeed a dog, but not a very big one, only a tiny one; and since the little dogs stay under the master’s table and eat the crumbs the children drop, surely you must be able to help me. It is only a crumb that I ask." It may be that the apostles, even that late, did not see the full truth of what Jesus was doing; certainly, it took a miracle later on to convince Peter that the Gentiles should be admitted; but, when at last he knew, how his heart must have burned when he thought of this incident.

There is another remarkable discernment in the woman’s reply, in that she held the table to be not the children’s, but the Master’s, showing that she was aware of the hostile attitude of the Twelve and was bypassing them in a direct appeal to the Lord, placing Christ above them!

Verse 28

Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it done unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was healed from that hour.

This woman’s faith was a pledge of an ultimate ingathering of Gentiles. The time would come when the great mission of the church would be to them that were held as dogs by the Pharisees. This impressive deed must have had a profound effect upon the apostles.

As for the woman, what must have been her joy when returning home, she inquired of her daughter and learned she had been healed in the very hour of Jesus’ promise. Faith had triumphed over every difficulty, even the seeming indifference of the Master, and had claimed the prize.

Note that this woman presented herself to the Lord and clung to him for hope in spite of the intolerable attitude of his disciples, even in spite of his seeming indifference. When her attitude is contrasted with some in later generations who become offended, puffed up, and repelled by the slightest suspicion of indifference in God’s ministers, it is perfectly clear that many nominal seekers simply do not have the faith ever to be saved, or having it, are so full of egotism and pride that it can never do them any good.

Verse 29

And Jesus departed thence, and came nigh unto the sea of Galilee; and he went up into the mountain and sat there.

Again, Jesus, in danger, repaired to the mountains. From Mark it is learned that the place was near the northeastern corner of Galilee lake.

And sat there indicates an attitude of teaching, as in the sermon on the mount.

Verse 30

And there came unto him great multitudes, having with them the lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and they cast them down at his feet; and he healed them.

"Dumb" is better understood as "mute," and the words "many others" refer to many other types of illness. The mention of the maimed in this place shows that Jesus healed people who had suffered atrocities or accidents.

Verse 31

Insomuch that the multitude wondered, when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing: and they glorified the God of Israel.

Reference to "the God of Israel" indicates that those multitudes were largely heathen, or Gentile, corresponding to the population of the area. Significantly, Christ related his mighty works to the Father, gave him the glory, the credit, and the honor, and in fact did them in the Father’s name. He said, "I am come in my Father’s name, and ye receive me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive" (John 5:43). Christ always emphasized the origin of his work as being with God. In this perfect trait, he was "the messenger of the covenant" (Malachi 3:1). He was God’s plenary representative on earth; indeed, he WAS God in flesh, reconciling the world unto himself.

Verse 32

And Jesus called unto him his disciples, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days and have nothing to eat: and I would not send them away fasting, lest haply they faint on the way.

The unusual circumstance was that for a period of three whole days and nights Jesus had engaged in one continuous healing service. The throngs would not leave as long as there was a chance of others being healed. Food could wait, and it did. This was a powerful testimony to the ability and extent of Jesus’ work among the Gentiles on the fringes of Israel. Compassion and pity in the heart of Jesus were evident in all his works.

Verse 33

And the disciples say unto him, Whence should we have so many loaves in a desert place as to fill so great a multitude?

This remark has occasioned some commentators to view this as the same as the other similar miracle in which the five thousand were fed; but Matthew and Mark both record Jesus’ reference to both these wonders as separate events (Matthew 16:9-10; Mark 8:19-20). The unbelief, or apparent unbelief, of the Twelve showed how little they truly understood the power of the Saviour, although they were witnesses to it every day. They not only missed the lesson in the first case, but subsequent events showed that they missed it here also!

Verses 34-38

And Jesus said unto them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven, and a few small fishes. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves and the fishes; and he gave thanks and brake, and gave to the disciples, and the disciples to the multitudes. And they all ate and were filled: and they took up of that which remained over of the broken pieces, seven baskets full. And they that did eat were four thousand men, besides women and children.

There are so many similarities between this and the feeding of the five thousand, that much of what is said there (Matthew 14:13-21) is pertinent here. Both strongly suggested Christ as "that Prophet" like unto Moses, and as "the bread of life."

Verse 39

And he sent away the multitudes, and entered into the boat, and came into the borders of Magadan.

Madagan, or Dalmanutha, as Mark has it (Mark 8:10), is an unknown site. Eusebius, in the fourth century, placed Magadan on the east side of Galilee near Gerasa; but this does not appear correct for two reasons: (1) Christ was already on the east side of lake Galilee,(F8)

and a crossing to the western shore seems indicated by the text; although it is allowed that he COULD have gone by boat to a location farther south on the eastern shore; and (2) the immediate confrontation with the Pharisees and Sadducees, as soon as they came to land, showed he was then back in their territory, which was the western side.

As for the skeptic’s contention that Mark and Matthew accounts are contradictory, the explanation is simple: (1) Christ might easily have gone to both places. The only possibility of finding a contradiction would have to lie in the discovery that one of the gospels had said he did NOT go to one or the other of the two places; and, of course, no such statement exists. (2) It is far more likely that the village, so small as to have been lost to history, actually had two names, Dalmanutha and Magadan! If this appears unreasonable to anyone, the author would like to register the following example of such a case. In the state of Texas, near the city of Eastland, is a small town, widely known under THREE names. The post office is Desdemona; the railroad station bears the name of Jake Hammond; and the roughnecks in the oil fields for a hundred miles in all directions refer to the place as Hogtown! Nor is the habit of multi-naming confined to villages. These words are being written in Lenox Hill, Yorkville, Manhattan, New York City, also known as Gotham! It surely must be a malicious and spiteful heart that has the evil impulse to allege a contradiction in Matthew and Mark on the basis of separate names assigned to an ancient village.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Matthew 15". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/matthew-15.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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