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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 14

Contending for the FaithContending for the Faith

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Verse 1

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,

At that time: The account of John the Baptist’s death demonstrates once again the opposition Jesus faces in His ministry. He has already been accused by the Pharisees of being in league with the devil (12:24). He has found the citizens of Nazareth inattentive to his message (13:53-58). Now a wicked king begins to question His ministry. Matthew includes the account of John’s death to show the effect Jesus’ miracles are beginning to have on Herod.

Herod the tetrarch: Herod the tetrarch is one of many Herod’s. Herod is a family name. This Herod is also called "Antipas" and is second son of Herod the Great under whose reign Jesus is born. (see notes on Matthew 2:1). His mother is Malthace, Samaritan wife of Herod the Great.

After Herod the Great dies, his kingdom is divided unequally among his sons, principally Archaelaus, Antipas, and Philip. The reign of Archelaus (2:22) is short lived. The other sons, however, reign much longer. By this time, Antipas, who is the younger brother of Archaelaus, has ruled some thirty-two years. "Tetrarch" is his title, but his name (Antipas) is an abbreviated form of Antipater, his Edomite grandfather who had been a counselor to the Hasmonean king Hyrcanus II.

The term "tetrarch" originally denoted a ruler of a fourth part of a region. As time goes on, however, the term comes to be applied to any ruler, especially to tributary kings, immediately dependent on the Roman emperor (Alexander 387); thus, Antipas, while generally referred to as "tetrarch" (14:1; Luke 3:1; Luke 3:19; Luke 9:7; Acts 13; Acts 1), is repeatedly and rightly called a "king" in Mark’s account. Antipas is ruler over Galilee and Perea, the region east of the Jordan extending from the Sea of Galilee to the northern part of the Dead Sea.

As a ruler, Antipas is hated and his subjects are constantly on the brink of rebellion. He is known to be sly and wily, and even Jesus refers to him as a "fox" in Luke 13:32. Unger notes that Herod’s administration is characterized by cunning, crime, intense selfishness, and lack of principle (472). Broadus says that, while Antipas is not naturally a cruel man, he is self indulgent and unscrupulous (314).

heard of the fame of Jesus: Herod has a royal palace at Tiberias a city on the Sea of Galilee near Capernaum; thus, it is strange that he has not previously heard of Jesus’ fame. There are several facts, however, that might shed light on this mystery. First, the royal palace has been built for only a year or two. Thus, Herod probably has little previous exposure to local religious movements. Also, given his preoccupation with lavish living and his disdain for the Jews, the message of Jesus is probably of little interest to him and has not previously penetrated his castle walls. Second, there is no indication that Jesus ever visits Tiberias. It is possible that Jesus avoids the city so as not to arouse Herod’s attention prematurely. Third, given Herod’s two palaces in Perea, one at Livias and the other at Machaerus near the Dead Sea, it is likely he spent little time in Galilee during the nine or ten months of Jesus’ ministry there (Edersheim, Book III 657). This set of circumstances may also account for the fact that Herod knows of John but does not know Jesus. John’s wilderness work might easily have brought him in contact with the king while they both were in southern Judea. Josephus says it is at Machaerus that John is imprisoned and subsequently martyred.

Verse 2

And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.

It is obvious Herod Antipas feels certain paranoia about his brutal murder of John the Baptist. Now as word about Jesus filters to his ears, he is visibly shaken. Who is this miracle worker? Some of the people say it might be Elijah. Others say it is John the Baptist come back to life (Luke 9:7-9). As his guilty conscience begins to eat at him, Herod becomes convinced that John is back from the dead to seek revenge (MacArthur 417).

Deeply troubled, Herod calls his "servants." The word is "paisin" (literally—boys) and refers to Herod’s courtiers. These are not "slaves" (douloi), for it is not proper to discuss such matters with menial slaves.

Verse 3

For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife.

For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison: The initial imprisonment of John takes place about a year earlier. Now Matthew fills in the details of an event only briefly mentioned before (Matthew 4:12).

for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: The account of the marriage between Antipas and Herodias and the events surrounding John’s death reads like a modern day soap opera. Note the Holy Spirit does not identify Herodias as the wife of Herod Antipas. Rather she is still called the wife of "Philip," even though she is legally married to Antipas. The point is that God does not necessarily sanction marriages that human law allows. Also note that this Philip is not the same as mentioned in Luke 3:1. This one is a non-ruling son of Herod the Great by Mariamne.

Before Antipas takes Herodias, he is married to the daughter of Aretas, the Nabatan king whose territory joins Perea. Broadus says Machaerus is on the boarder between the two rulers (314). The marriage is political in nature and is doomed for failure. While Antipas is in Rome visiting his half brother Philip, he seduces Philip’s wife, Herodias, and they elope. The first wife of Antipas, the daughter of Aretas,, subsequently escapes to her father. Later when disputes arise over territorial boundaries, Aretas makes war on his former son-in-law, no doubt with revenge in mind. Aretas might have prevailed had the Romans not intervened.

One can hardly imagine a more wicked woman than Herodias. Along with Jezebel of the Old Testament, this woman’s lust for power and revenge is unsurpassed. It is her cold, calculated, and calloused actions that lead her to murder John the Baptist. Whereas what Antipas and Salome do might be attributed to weakness, what Herodias does can only be attributed to a soul devoid of moral restraint.

Verse 4

For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her.

As noted above, God does not sanction all "marriages." John the Baptist’s preaching makes this fact clear, for he says, "It is not lawful for you to have her."

The marriage of Herodias to Antipas is unlawful on two accounts. First it is "incestuous." Legally she is his niece, but more importantly she is his "brother’s wife." Thus, the marriage violates Mosaic law (Leviticus 18:16; Leviticus 20:21). "Levirate law" allowed a man to marry his brother’s wife but only if he dies leaving no son (Deuteronomy 25:5). Philip is still alive and one daughter, Salome, is already born.

The second reason the union was unlawful is because it is "adulterous." Herodias’ husband (Philip) and Herod’s wife (daughter of Aretas) are still alive. On this issue, the Law is clear (Exodus 20:14; Exodus 20:17). Ellicott says, "The marriage, at once adulterous and by the Mosaic law doubly incestuous (Leviticus 20:20-21), shocked the conscience of all the stricter Jews" (199).

The details of this encounter between John and Herod are not revealed; but from the imperfect tense of the verse (that is, had been saying to him), there is some indication that John and Herod have had several encounters. Broadus suggests Herod repeatedly calls John in hopes of persuading him to sanction the marriage that he knows his subjects disallowed and over which they might easily revolt (314).

In any case the words of John are not healthy. John’s allegiance, however, is to a higher king than Herod. McGarvey says, "No man is worthy to stand before the people and call them to repentance, who can wink at sin in high places and show a truckling respect of persons" (128).

Verse 5

And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.

And when he would have put him to death: Herod’s feelings for John reveal his inner character. On one hand, it is clear Herod hears John gladly and recognizes him as a prophet from God (Mark 6:20). On the other hand, he hates John because he is convicted by his message. This ambivalence portrays Herod’s weakness and unwillingness to take a stand for the truth.

he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet: Josephus says Herod "feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise)" (Antiquities XVIII, 5, 2). Furthermore, Herod fears John’s death might incite Zealots or some of his other political enemies. If this happens, the region might be caught up in political turmoil that in turn will anger Rome at whose pleasure Herod serves. Fowler says, "In fact, but for the refusal of Jesus to head such an insurrection after John’s murder, Herod would have quite probably faced the violence of civil war, precisely BECAUSE he murdered John! (John 6:15; Matthew 14:12-13) (230). In addition we must remember that Herod is Idumean and is hated by the Jews. Killing John will not be a wise political move.

Verse 6

But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.

But when Herod’s birthday was kept: There is some disagreement as to the exact nature of the festivities here described. Some see this not as the "birthday" of Herod as we might think of it today but rather the "anniversary" of his accession to the throne (Edersheim Book III p 672). The discussion primarily revolves around the proper translation of the word "genesia," a term that, depending on usage, might refer to the anniversary of one’s death, anniversary of a king’s accession, or to a common birthday.

Broadus, Lenski, Ellicott, Robertson and others see the word as "birthday." Thus the Authorized Version is probably correct in its translation. Lenski further notes that the "Jews abhorred the keeping of birthdays as a pagan custom, but the Herods even outdid the Romans in these celebrations, so that ’Herod’s birthday’ (Herodis dies) came to be a proverbial expression for excessive festival display" (558). In any event it is clear from Mark 6:21 that the celebration is quite a party with the guest list being composed of nobles, high officers and chief men in power.

In this setting, Herodias now hatches her evil plot. Mark’s gospel indicates she has been watching and planning to kill John for quite some time but only now finds occasion to do so (Mark 6:21).

the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod: Salome’s dance has but one design—to incite the lust of Herod and his men. No decent Jewish girl will so shamelessly expose herself in public, especially a girl from a kingly house. Lenski suggests this kind of dancing is pagan, reserved for harlots, and was probably learned while Salome lived in Rome (558). Broadus notes the whole affair is a calculated risk on the part of the evil Herodias. Will Herod and his guests be shocked by the immodest exposure of the princess or will they be fascinated by such a novel spectacle? (318). The experiment works; and, with Herodias’ daughter as bait, Herod stumbles into the trap. MacArthur says the term "pleased Herod" is probably a euphemistic phrase denoting sexual arousal (421).

Edersheim captures the spirit of what probably takes place in his vivid description:

"It is evening, and the castle-palace is brilliantly lit up. The noise of music and the shouts of revelry come across the slope into the citadel, and fall into the deep dungeon where waits the prisoner of Christ. And now the merriment in the great banqueting-hall has reached its utmost height. The king has nothing further to offer his satiated guests, no fresh excitement. So let it be the sensuous stimulus of dubious dances, and, to complete it, let the dancer be the fair young daughter of the kings’ wife, the very descendant of the Asmonaean priest-princes! To viler depth of coarse familiarity even a Herod could not have descended" (Book III , 672).

Note: Fowler suggests another possibility for the setting at hand that should at least be considered. He says it is neither possible to ascertain the age of Salome or to say what kind of dance she dances. The word for "girl" (verse 11) may mean a "girl, maiden, virgin, or even a married daughter or bride." Likewise the word "dance" means "to leap with some kind of rapid motion." Fowler says it is not possible to know what "pleasure" Herod receives from the event. Thus, he suggests that Salome may have been a small child who makes some innocent presentation for her step-father, thus, pleasing him. Fowler says, "Then, after taking her bows, did she wiggle into her new daddy’s arms for a kiss of approval and the promise of some future bauble?" (236).

Fowler’s suggestion is interesting but not probable. It seems unlikely that a child will be the slated entertainment for a "men’s only party" as this one seems to be. Mark 6:24 says Salome "went out" to confer with her mother, suggesting she is the only "lady" present. Apparently not even the "king’s wife" is allowed. And while such a childish display might sufficiently impress a dotting step-father, it is doubtful that it would have entertained Herod’s dignitaries to the extent that Mark suggests (6:22). Will such a benign performance illicit repeated oaths from Herod and the hyperbole of his offer for half his kingdom? If Salome is a small child, then Herodias is even more wicked than first imagined, for she uses her own innocent, tender, darling daughter to fetch her the "gory, bloody head." But this assumes, of course, that Salome is big enough to carry the "charger."

Verse 7

Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.

Many a man falls prey to the snare of sex and alcohol. Herod is no exception. Pleased with the dance and no doubt seeing the lustful pleasure in the eyes of his nobles, he publicly rewards the damsel. Rashly an oath is spoken. "Ask me whatever you want and I will give it you…even to the half of my kingdom" (Mark 6:22-23). Such rash swearing is forbidden by Moses and requires retraction and repentance (Leviticus 5:4). Herod will later repent but not with "godly sorrow" and not before John has been murdered in cold blood.

Verse 8

And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.

And she, being before instructed of her mother: "Before instructed" is more accurately translated, "being prompted or instigated." The idea is not that Salome is given instructions before she dances because Herod’s response will be yet unknown. The thought here is that Salome goes immediately to her mother waiting in the wings, and she prompts the request. Mark indicates Herodias’ answer to her daughter is swift. No doubt it is premeditated. Immediately, and before Herod has time to sober or change his mind, Salome returns with the request (Mark 6:25). The girl does not quiver, thus indicating that she is as evil as her mother.

Said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger: No greater price has ever been paid to one so evil. Perhaps Herod thinks his step-daughter will ask for gold, jewels, or maybe even a city whose name might be changed in her honor. He does not expect such an unspeakable request. Yet John’s death is not enough for the depraved Herodias. His head must be severed from his body and the gory mess presented on a "charger" (ie: dinner platter—epi pinaki), perhaps one taken right then from the banquet table. Barnes says it is customary for the heads of the executed to be brought for all to see—first to prove the offender is dead and second so the victor might gratify their resentment (152).

Verse 9

And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.

The "king," which title Matthew uses only by courtesy (Lenski 559), is sorry at the sad turn of events; however, this sorrow, which perhaps demonstrates at least some vestige of conscience, is not that which leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). This sorrow is only that of a man whose pride swallows conviction. With irony the "king" is outsmarted by his "wife" who rules him. To save face before the nobles who recline with him at the table, the dastardly act must be executed. John is beheaded.

Verse 10

And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.

By now the hour is late, and the party no doubt nears its end. The king can do nothing more to top this murderous turn in the festivities. The guard is called, and off he scurries to the dungeon below the banquet room to awaken the prophet and hurriedly behead him.

Now, after more than a year of dark, cold, imprisonment, the life of this great man of God comes swiftly to an end. John’s ministry has been short, but his message sure, "Prepare the way for Messiah!" Christ has come, and now John’s splendid work is over. The certain response by Jesus to his perplexities (11:2-3) no doubt convinces him that his work has not been in vain. He dies at peace with himself and with God.

Verse 11

And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.

Herodias waits in anticipation as the bloody head is presented to her daughter. Broadus writes:

"There stood the maiden, her cheek still flushed with her recent exertion, while the guests sought to drown their painful emotions in wine, and the executioner hastened on his cruel errand. When the dish was brought, with the bleeding head upon it, no doubt she took it daintily in her hands, lest a drop of blood should stain her gala dress, and tripped away to her mother, as if bearing her some choice dish of food from the king’s table" (320).

One wonders how Herodias must have felt now that her long awaited dream has been fulfilled and the head is now in her lap. McGarvey believes that "instead of the pleasure which she anticipated, there must have been kindled within her heart the flames of a remorse, which like the fires of hell, never shall be quenched" (130).

Jerome, however, paints another picture. According to Jerome Herodias’ reaction is like that of Fulvia, wife of Antony, when the head of Cicero is been presented to her. She spits upon it, draws the tongue out, and "pierced it with her hair-pin with bitter gibes" (Broadus 320).

While the authority of the above account is uncertain, it seems to be in keeping with what we know about the evil Herodias. It is unlikely that one so wicked will soon, if ever, feel remorse for such a cold, calculated, first degree murder.

Verse 12

And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.

And his disciples came: We are not told how John’s disciples receive the information about their slain leader. Fowler suggests that Chuza (Luke 8:3) might have been present at the fatal banquet and subsequently relays the events to them (240). We remember that Chuza is Herod’s steward and that his wife follows Jesus.

and took up the body, and buried it: The disciples of John come and retrieve the headless body from Herod in order to provide a decent burial. There is no indication that Herod attempts to refuse their request.

and went and told Jesus: Jesus is the natural person to learn the news first. Jesus is John’s kinsman and the Messiah of whom John preached. Although the text does not specifically say, it seems clear that many of John’s disciples now switch their allegiance to Jesus. Ellicott says that from this time on John’s disciples "probably ceased in Judea to be a distinct community, though as the instances of Apollo (Acts xviii. 25) and the disciples at Ephesus (Acts xix. 3) show, they still maintained a separate existence in the more distant regions to which the influence of the Baptist had indirectly penetrated" (p 203).

Verse 13

When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.

When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: Grief over John’s death no doubt plays a significant role in the retreat Jesus makes. Jesus loves John and fully sanctions his ministry. John’s death brings His own crucifixion much closer and more clearly into focus. In fact the same ruler who murders John will eventually play a part in Jesus’ death (Luke 23:7).

There are, however, other reasons for Jesus’ retreat. The twelve have recently returned from their preaching circuit (10:5), and Jesus knows that after their intensive labors in the Galilee they need rest and relaxation (Mark 6:30-31). Also, now that John is dead, the multitudes look to Jesus to lead them to some sort of political victory (John 6:15). The Baptist’s death is unpopular, and some perhaps hope that Jesus will head an insurrection. Jesus wants no part of this kind of behavior. Because Passover is near (John 6:4), Ellicott suggests Jesus may also have retreated to avoid the roads of Galilee, which by now are thronged with pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem (204).

What ever the reasons, Jesus now resorts to the sparsely inhabited northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Few, if any, towns exist here, but there are a few fishing villages. The one to which Jesus arrives is Bethsaida (Luke 9:10).

and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities: After the bad news of John’s death, Jesus probably sets out by boat across the Sea of Galilee. When the crowds discover He is gone, they too set out. It is likely they can see his boat on the water and follow it on the shore.

The statement by Mark that many "ran" and arrived before Jesus (6:33) seems to pose some difficulty with John 6:3. John clearly states that Jesus crosses the sea and goes up on a mountain with His disciples after which the multitudes arrive.

The difficulty, however, is solved when we consider that Matthew telescopes the event. Obviously only a few outrun the boat. The crowd follows much later, bringing their sick and infirmed. Thus, the quick arrival of a few either does not prevent Jesus and His disciples from retiring to the mountain (John 6:3). It is possible that the first who arrive actually join the Master in semi-private prayer.

Verse 14

And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.

What starts out as an escape for Jesus gradually evolves into a noisy multitude. Upon seeing the crowd, Jesus "receives" them, heals their sick (literally—those without strength), and speaks to them about the kingdom of God (Luke 9:11). He is "moved with compassion," for they are as sheep not having a shepherd (Mark 6:34). "Esplagchnisthe" (moved with compassion) means literally to be moved in one’s bowels, or viscera, which the ancients considered the seat of emotions (MacArthur 427; Robertson 116; see also Matthew 9:36).

Verse 15

And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.

And when it was evening: This scene is not "sunset" but probably somewhere between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. as the Jews recognize two "evenings." The first is a precursor to the second, the latter beginning about 6 p.m.. It is the second evening mentioned in verse 23 (see also 8:16). It is late in the day and approaching time for an evening meal.

At this point in the text, John 6:5-7 should be inserted. Upon seeing the multitudes approaching, Jesus poses a question to Philip. "Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?" The question is not for information as Jesus knows what he will do. The inquiry is posed to test Philip—a test he miserably fails. Rather than remembering that he is in the presence of one who can turn stones to bread, he sees only the great expense of buying food for the people. His response is, "Eight months wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!" (John 6:7 NIV).

his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals: The disciples, obviously aware of Philip’s response, suggest that Jesus send the crowd away to fend for themselves. Luke includes "lodging" (Luke 9:12), and Mark adds into the "country round about" (Mark 6:36). The urgency and lateness of the hour is demonstrated by the phrase, "the time is now passed." If the crowds are going to have time to enter the villages and find food, they must be sent away now!

Verse 16

But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.

No doubt, the apostles find Jesus’ response astounding. They are poor men, the day is nearly over, and now he tells "them" to feed the multitude. In the Greek, the emphasis is on "ye." "Give YE them to eat." But how might they help this vast multitude? What resources do they have to carry out this request?

John notes that to supply enough bread for such a host will require well more than 200 denarii (6:7; one denairus was the common laborers daily wage). Some conjecture that 200 denarii is the amount the apostles have in their common treasury (John 12:6; Luke 8:3). Such an amount, when divided among the 12, amounts to only a little more than two weeks wages per man (Fowler 267). But even if they do have this amount, it is not enough to feed such a crowd. From where would they draw the resources?

Verse 17

And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.

At this point Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, points out that there is a boy in the crowd with five barley loaves and two small fish (John 6:9). This is a lad’s "sack lunch" and a common one at that. John is careful to point out that the bread is "barley" (the cheap, coarse bread of peasants and fish are common to the Sea of Galilee). Broadus says, "Jesus made no sumptuous feast with delicacies, but gave them homely and wholesome food" (324).

Andrew does not point out their supplies. He just adds, "But what are they among so many?" (John 6:9).

Verse 18

He said, Bring them hither to me.

The command is simple yet direct. Jesus will use what was available. It is not much in the eyes of the apostles and pales in comparison to what naturally is needed to feed the group; however, Jesus is the Lord of nature and what they have is sufficient.

Verse 19

And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.

And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass: The loaves are brought, and Jesus commands the multitude to "recline" on the grass (not "sit down" as the KJV has it). Reclining is the normal Oriental posture for eating and especially here as the soft grassy slopes serves as both cushion and table. Mark says they recline group by group (6:40). Literally in the Greek the idea is that they recline "garden-beds, garden-beds" (prasiai prasiai). This arrangement allows the apostles to count the people and move freely among them. It also prevents selfish crowding (Broadus 325). John says there is "much" grass in the place (6:10), and Mark adds it is "green" (6:39). John further adds that this is near Passover (6:4); thus, the weather is pleasant and the hillsides covered with abundant foliage.

The picture before us is one of picturesque tranquility. Broadus says, "Five thousand men, reclining in this orderly arrangement along the green slope of the mountain, must have spread over an extensive space, probably several acres, and as the afternoon sun shone on their bright-hued Oriental garments, they looked like beds in a flower garden" (324).

Verse 20

And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.

And they did all eat, and were filled: In contrast to Philip’s response that there will not be "enough bread for each one to have a bite" (John 6:7 NIV), the multitudes are fully fed. "This means they have second and third helpings. Fowler says this is not a scene of miserliness (273). The verb "filled" (echortasthesan—were filled) carries the idea of "fattening cattle." Here it means the multitudes are "stuffed." Jesus uses the same term in Matthew 5:6 as He promises that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will "be filled."

and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full: The only sufficient explanation for twelve baskets of leftovers is that this truly is a miracle. This is not an illusion. It was a supernatural event that all four gospel writers verify.

As this scene begins, there is doubt among the apostles. Now they take up twelve baskets full—one basket for each apostle. How the apostles must have stood in awe as now in their own hands they hold proof that Jesus is the Son of God!

The word for "basket" is kophinos. By way of the Latin cophinus, we get the English word "coffin." Here it refers to an oblong hand basket. Such is common among the Jews for carrying supplies or food. Fowler says they are of the "picnic variety used by Jews on a journey to carry kosher food to avoid purchasing ritually unclean food from pagans" ( 274). John 6:12 specifically states why the fragments (ton klasmaton—not crumbs but extra pieces broken by Jesus) are gathered: "that nothing be wasted." Thus, in this great miracle, Jesus teaches His apostles not only to trust in God but to be frugal with what He provides.

Verse 21

And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.

The size of the crowd is astounding. Here Matthew says that the men alone number 5000. All four gospels mention this fact, but Matthew is the only one who says, "besides women and children." Alexander notes that because of Oriental custom, the men will recline together to eat while the women and children eat apart in an ordinary sitting posture (398). If this be the case, it accounts for the precise count of men who are arranged in groups.

The total size of the crowd is impossible to determine. Some expositors believe that because of the isolation of the place and the rigors of walking, few women and children are present (Broadus 325; Ellicott 207). Mark’s, Luke’s, and John’s silence about women being present is seen as an indication that they are few. Others, however, disagree. Barnes (155) sees the group size as at least double the 5000, and MacArthur imagines a multitude as large as 25,000 (431).

Verse 22

And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away.

John (6:15) gives the details behind Jesus’ action in this verse. After seeing the miracle, the crowd is so affected that they want to take the Master and force a "crown" upon His head. Passover is near (John 6:4), and no doubt the multitudes, including the twelve, would like nothing better than to present Jesus as king at the feast in Jerusalem. Robertson says the disciples are "swept off their feet by the mob psychology for they still share the Pharisaic hope of a political kingdom" (118). Jesus will eventually wear a crown in Jerusalem, but it will be a crown of thorns. For now, however, He "constrains" the disciples to return to the other side while He dismisses the crowd. The word constrain (enagkasen) literally means "compel or force." Robertson says it shows the great reluctance of the twelve to leave (118). Mark 6:45 says their boat heads toward Bethsaida, a village on the western shore near Capernaum.

Verse 23

And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.

And when he had sent the multitudes away: We are not told how Jesus manages to dismiss this enormous crowd. Perhaps He walks among them telling them that nothing more will be done this day. Or perhaps He publicly addresses them and asks them to return to their homes. By this time evening shadows are beginning to creep across the landscape, and the day is quickly drawing to a close. Even though the crowd scatters, it is clear that at least some linger in the vicinity overnight hoping to see Him as He returns from His mountain vigil (Fowler 277). When He does not appear the next morning, they board boats from Tiberias and set sail for Capernaum in search of Him (John 6:22-25).

he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone: The feeding of the 5000 occurs on the grassy slopes leading toward the eastern hills. In comparison to the sea, these hills are "mountains." Fowler notes that the Bashan hills rise some 3000 feet above the surface of the lake (278). From these hills Jesus has seen the multitudes gather as He sat with His disciples (John 6:3-5). Now the people are gone, and He returns to the seclusion of these lofty peaks for prayer.

Even though the day has been difficult and wearisome Jesus takes time to pray. Conversation with the Father cannot wait until Jesus’ body is refreshed with sleep. Solitude and communication, not sleep, is what Jesus needs.

Verse 24

But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.

While Jesus labors in prayer on the mountain top, His disciples labor on the sea. It is almost as if providence ordains they will be alone in the storm so that Jesus might reveal His divinity once again. Mark says Jesus sees them straining at rowing because the wind is against them (6:48 NKJV). Matthew says the boat is "tossed" (basanizomenon), literally "tortured" or "tormented" as in Matthew 8:6; Matthew 8:29. John adds they have rowed about twenty-five or thirty stadia, approximately three and a half miles, when Jesus finally comes to them walking on the water (John 6:19).

In the previous storm (8:23-27) Jesus had been with his disciples. All they needed to do is to awake him. Now they are alone, and their faith is tried more severely. The One who had saved them before, however, will be the same who saves them now.

Verse 25

And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea.

After being conquered by Pompeius in 63 B.C., the Jews adopt the Roman method of keeping time (Ellicott 207; Alexander 409). Thus, the night is divided into four watches. The first watch is from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., the second is from 9 p.m. to midnight, the third from midnight to 3 a.m., and the fourth from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. In this last predawn watch, Jesus comes to His disciples. They have toiled throughout the night, perhaps by this time six or seven hours, and are exhausted. The adage, "It’s always darkest just before the dawn" seems correct. Here, at the point of despair, with hearts heavy and hope almost gone, Jesus, the Eternal Light, comes to them. Their trial is His footpath to their troubled souls.

Lenski notes that the "present participle" (walking on the water) depicts Jesus’ progress in the violent wind. He says:

"The wind howled, the waves dashed but affected him not at all. He was not pitched about or tossed up and down; he was not soaked with waves or spray striking him. Before him as he moved his feet a smooth, apparently solid path lay on which he walked as on ordinary ground" (p 571).

At this point Mark adds to his narrative a phrase of curious interest. He says Jesus would "have passed them by" (6:48). Various explanations have been given regarding this phrase, but Plummer believes Jesus does acts in this way to give the disciples a chance to realize fully their own need. "He is ready to give help but it must be asked for" (Plummer 208). Whatever the reason for Mark’s phrase, the truth is Jesus does not pass them by. They need help and He provides it.

Verse 26

And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear.

Mark says they "all" saw Jesus (6:50). Theoreo (from which "saw" is derived) means to look intently, indicating their gaze is transfixed on Him (MacArthur 440). This is not a mass hallucination by a group of overly exhausted men.

Even though they see Jesus, they do not recognize Him. Never before having encountered someone walking on water, they are terrified. They imagine this image to be an apparition (phantasma), an unearthly form, a ghost. Lenski says, "The darkness, the hour of night, the storm and the danger still in full force, the physical exhaustion, all combine to make the disciples give way to the superstitions still lurking in their minds" (572). In anguish they "cry out" (literally: shriek; compare 8:29) in terror.

Verse 27

But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.

Jesus does not chide the apostles for their faithlessness: now is not the time for rebuke but rather a time for encouragement. Their immediate concerns and fears must be addressed. Jesus knows this need well and says, "Be of good cheer! Do not be afraid." Even with Peter (verse 31) Jesus’ gentle rebuke will come only after His loving hand has been extended.

Verse 28

And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.

Lenski says, "From superstitious terror Peter leaps to the opposite extreme, the daring of faith" (573). He is so excited that Jesus has come that he temporarily forgets the wind, his exhaustion, and the danger. Seeing Jesus on the water, he wants to be with the Lord. "Bid me come" is his ardent request. He knows he can be successful only if Jesus authorizes (commands) it. Peter’s words, "if it be thou, etc." do not indicate he doubts the reality of Jesus’ presence. Peter seems convinced it is Jesus. The apostle’s impulse, while characteristic of Peter’s nature and highly admirable, is only an impulse. Within a few moments, he will be looking toward Jesus not to walk with Him but to be saved by Him. In any event, Jesus allows Peter to put his own faith to the test through experience.

Verse 29

And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.

And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship: Jesus’ invitation is simple yet filled with promise.. Peter steps out of the boat onto the storm tossed sea. Lenski suggests the boat is in a quiet "path," which he believes extends before Jesus as He walks (574) (see comments on verse 25). There is no scriptural evidence, however, to support Lenski’s assertion. Furthermore, if the boat is in a placid "path," it makes Peter’s fear of the boisterous waves unwarranted. Not until Peter and Jesus arrive back in the boat do the winds cease (verse 32).

he walked on the water, to go to Jesus: Matthew’s account is clear that Peter walks on the water to go to Jesus. Like his Master, he, too, at least for a time, defies the laws of nature. The scene is one of magnificence. Jesus stands amid the storm tossed sea as His frail disciple victoriously makes his way toward Him. Both men’s gaze is fixed upon the other. Herein is a lesson for each believer. When Jesus beacons us to "come," faith must motivate us to move in His direction with our eyes fixed on Him.

Verse 30

But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me.

When the heart is stripped of faith, fear fills the void. Peter’s eyes, once fixed on the Lord, now focuses on the danger. His heart wells with fear and beginning to sink (katapontizesthai), he cries out. His words, "Lord save me!," are in the aorist meaning "do it quickly" (Robertson 120).

Verse 31

And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?

And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him: There is no delay in Jesus’ response. He does not let Peter flounder in the water so that he might "learn his lesson"—responses Christians today often have toward their fellows. The Lord does not even at first rebuke him. As with verse 27, first things come first. Immediately Jesus stretches forth His hand and saves him.

O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?: The rebuke is firm but gentle and simple. Jesus does not dwell on Peter’s faithlessness. He simply identifies the root of the difficulty.

Jesus makes only two remarks: the first is a statement, and the second is a question. His statement identifies the problem. His question leaves Peter to ponder his own heart. Herein is a lesson for those whose responsibility it is to lead others to maturity. Parents and church leaders alike need to learn that sometimes "less is more." Rather than brow beat, often a gentle rebuke is all that is necessary.

Verse 32

And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased.

The scene of terror now shifts to one of safety. When they come (lit: gone up) into the boat, the wind ceases. "Ceased" (ekopasen) is from kopos, meaning "toil." Robertson says, "The wind grew weary or tired, exhausted itself in the presence of its Master" (120).

The text leaves us wondering how Peter arrives back into the boat. Having walked on water, he is some distance from the vessel when Jesus saves him. There seems to be only two possibilities for Peter’s happy arrival. Either Jesus grasps Peter’s hand, and they both walk back together or Jesus lifts the sinking apostle and carries him. Either way the beauty is astounding. If the first, then Peter for a second time defies the sea. This time, however, successfully because his hand is in the Master’s. If the second option is true, then the abundant love of our Lord is manifest. Today our success in life’s storms is assured as long as we call to the Master. When we sink, His hand is extended so that we might walk with him above our cares. When our strength is gone, He bears us in His loving arms.

Verse 33

Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.

John adds they "willingly received Him into the boat" (John 6:21 NKJV). After what they have been through, having Jesus on board is a welcome sight. All is calm and safe, the wind and waves have ceased, and Jesus stands with them on deck. John further adds, "Immediately they were at the land" where they were going. Their night of terror is over, and Capernaum is in view.

The apostles’ response is natural. They worship Jesus and confess that He is God’s Son. In the Greek there is no definite article (ie: the Son of God), but we must not infer from this omission that the apostles are only saying "Surely you are a son of God." Quite the contrary is the case, for after seeing what they see, there can be no doubt that this is "the" one and only Messiah.

Verse 34

And when they were gone over, they came into the land of Gennesaret.

The "land of Gennesaret" is a rich plain approximately four miles long and two miles wide on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Josephus describes this region as being abundant and beautiful. Among its crops are olives, walnuts, grapes, and figs. Josephus says, "One may call this place the ambition of nature (and) the happy contention of the seasons." (Wars III, 10:8). Not far from here is Capernaum. Matthew does not tell us exactly why Jesus comes to this beautiful plain, but no doubt part of the reason is to spend time alone with His disciples. As always, this desire will be difficult.

Verse 35

And when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent out into all that country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased;

Matthew says the "men" recognize Jesus. Some may have heard Him teach previously in the synagogue or may have encountered his ministry. Upon recognizing Him, they immediately send for their sick in hopes of gaining cures. Once again Jesus’ reputation precedes Him, and masses arrive.

Verse 36

And besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole.

Rather than desiring Jesus to touch them, they seek to touch Him. Here their faith is demonstrated. We are reminded of the Capernaum woman whose hemorrhage had been cured in a similar fashion (9:20-22). Perhaps they had heard about this case and now seek to replicate it? If so, they are happily rewarded for as many as touch his garments are made whole. Mark indicates this method of healing spreads to the surrounding villages. Wherever Jesus goes, beds of sick are laid in the village marketplace so that as He passes they might touch His clothes.

Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Matthew 14". "Contending for the Faith". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/matthew-14.html. 1993-2022.
 
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