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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 15

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Verses 1-6

Tradition and the Commandment of God

While the Lord shows mercy to many, the leaders break into this lovely scene to complain about outward appearances they have devised for their religion. They are totally blinded by legal forms to everything the Lord does. This Pharisaic attitude is observed in controversies that arise from traditions and general practices, but that are not based on the clear Word of God. They address the Lord because they regard what the disciples do as a transgression of tradition. They do not wonder what God’s Word says, but judge the disciples’ actions according to their own standards, which they find so particularly important.

The Pharisees and scribes have observed a transgression by the disciples of the Lord. That offense is that the disciples eat bread with unwashed hands. This is the hallmark of legalism. Legalism assesses a person solely on the basis of his outward actions. The Lord rejects their criticism by pointing out what they themselves do. What they do is incomparably worse than violating a human tradition. For they violate the commandment of God, and this for the sake of their tradition.

The traditions of the elders were originally intended as an interpretation of the Scriptures. But gradually they are equated with Scripture and have even become traditions that go against Scripture. These ‘tradition of the elders’ have degenerated into an addition to the Scriptures and into obligations that must be observed. In its spirit, tradition goes against the spirit of Scripture. The Lord denounces this principle. He accuses the Pharisees and scribes of breaking the commandment of God themselves.

He cites an example of a commandment that God has given and that they trespass. The commandment He cites is the commandment to honor father and mother (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16). He also points out that the law says that whoever curses a father or mother must surely die (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9). All the earthly blessings of the children of Israel depend on obeying this commandment. It is therefore a special commandment. Whoever honors father and mother will live a long life and therefore enjoy the blessing for a long time (Ephesians 6:2). Whoever does the opposite must be killed and will therefore no longer be able to enjoy the blessing.

After quoting the commandment of God, the Lord shows in a razor-sharp way how they have killed these two commandments of God. The Pharisees had come up with a handy way to put the money, which the members of God’s people should actually use for their needy parents, in their own pockets. They had just added a commandment. The Jews only had to say to their father or mother: ‘I have earmarked this money as a sacrifice for the temple.’ Then, according to the law that the Pharisees had made on top, their obligation to take care of their parents would have lapsed and the money would flow into the treasury of the temple and thus into the pocket of the Pharisees. If a father or mother needed something, they could simply say that it was a gift to God, and so they would be released from the commandment to care for their parents and honor them in that way.

In this way the Pharisees have made the Word of God invalid for the sake of their tradition. Their traditions act as a veil over the true meaning of God’s law. They no longer see what God has said. We must be careful not to fall into the same trap. We can gratefully use what ministers of God have said. If we make proper use of it, they will take us back to the source, which is Scripture itself. But it is not difficult to turn the teaching of the greatest servant into a kind of Talmud – a Jewish book with commentary from rabbis on the Old Testament. Then this teaching becomes a kind of fog, behind which the pure Word of God remains hidden.

Verses 7-9

Judgment on Hypocrisy

The Lord exposes them as hypocrites and brings them under the destructive judgment of Isaiah (Isaiah 29:13). He points out that they worship God only with their lips. They speak fine words, but with their hearts they pursue their own advantage. They may imagine themselves in the presence of God, but in reality they are far from Him. The lips are the outside, the heart is the inside. The heart is the deepest being of man, from which all his thoughts, words and actions originate (Proverbs 4:23). God looks at the heart, man looks at the outward appearance. Their hearts remain completely cold under their religion.

Their whole religion, by which they believe they worship God, is in vain, empty, meaningless to God. A religion formed by the teachings that are commandments of men has nothing that is acceptable to God. On the contrary, God hates such a religion.

Verses 10-11

What Defiles the Man

What the Lord has said to the Pharisees and scribes is so important that He wants to say it to the crowd. He calls them to Himself and addresses them. He calls on them to hear and understand what serving God is really about. He teaches the crowd that defilement is not of a physical, outer nature. Defilement arises inwardly, in the heart, which is the deepest being of man and is spiritual in nature.

Verses 12-14

The Disciples’ Lack in Understanding

The disciples also feel a bit uncomfortable with these words. Even they have difficulty with what their Master says. Is it necessary to ruffle the feathers of the Pharisees in this way? They pay more attention to the reaction that the Lord’s words provoke in the Pharisees than to the fact that they themselves take those words to heart. They too are still sensitive to what these religious leaders think of it.

The Lord knows that the Pharisees are of course offended by this teaching, which affects all their ceremonial rules at the root. In His answer to the disciples He makes it clear that He also knows why: they are not a plant that the Father has planted. Their annoyance is proof of that. The implanted word is not in their hearts (cf. James 1:21). They are weeds that must be uprooted. The disciples should not concern themselves with them, God will do that in His governmental dealings. The Pharisees are blind leaders, and they guide blind people. It is clear that both the leaders and those who are led will end up in the pit of destruction.

Verses 15-20

Explanation of the Parable

The disciples do not understand the Lord’s teachings and ask Him through Peter to explain the parable. The cause of their incomprehension is that they still have too much respect for the teachings of the Pharisees. That has influence on their hearts. It is also difficult to be freed from Pharisaism in which outer forms are placed above inner purity. This Pharisaism is hidden inside all of us.

The Lord certainly wants to explain the parable to them, but He first reprimanded them, even though He does so mildly. Understanding His thoughts is a process that is slowed down by legalistic thoughts. He has great patience with us when our insight is lacking. But if we still see certain things in a legal way, when we should already have known better, He should reprimand us for it. For the legalistic minded person, insight comes slowly.

In His explanation He points to the natural process of food, that comes into the belly of man through the mouth. In the belly, substances that are not absorbed by the body are secreted and ejected into the toilet. This process has nothing to do with spiritual defilement. What really defiles a person is what comes out of his heart and leaves the body through his mouth. The ‘mouth’ here stands for what a person shows off and makes heard, as the Lord shows by His enumeration of all that comes from the heart. The mouth points to the whole behavior of man.

The Lord knows all that dwells in the heart of man. It is not all expressed by the mouth, but the mouth is the primary means by which sin comes out (cf. James 3:1-2 Kings :). It all starts with evil, sinful deliberations which then lead to various sinful acts. Christ searches the heart.

He concludes His argument with the clear statement that the things He mentions really defile man. Equally clear is His rejection of the teaching of the Pharisees about eating with unwashed hands by His disciples about which they have addressed Him at the beginning of this chapter.

Verses 21-28

The Canaanite Woman

In the previous verses we see an oh so religious people whose hearts are in reality far from God. The Lord leaves the borders of Israel to visit places far removed from Jewish privileges. He goes to the countryside with the cities He has used as an example of those that are furthest removed from repentance (Matthew 11:21-Song of Solomon :). Here He meets a pagan woman who is outwardly far from God, but who is close to God in her heart. The woman comes from a cursed race because she is “a Canaanite”. The emphatic ‘Canaanite’ underlines once again that she is under the curse as a great contrast with the people where God’s blessing is.

She has a great need. Her daughter is cruelly demon-possessed and therefore she makes a call to the mercy of the “Lord”. But she also speaks to Him as “Son of David” and that is not appropriate for this woman of the Gentiles. He is the Son of David, but not for her. He is that only for His people. She has to learn to approach Him on the right basis. She cannot speak as one of the people of God and on that ground God cannot help her. The Lord could not bless us either as Messiah of Israel.

The Lord does not answer her. It seems strange that He doesn’t answer the cry of help from someone in need and calls Him. As said, the woman calls upon the Lord as the Son of David. As such He has nothing to do with this woman of the Gentiles, so He does not answer her. But He does not send her away and that is what the disciples want.

They want Him to send the woman away, “because”, they say, “she keeps shouting at us”. They would rather not have to deal with this woman and do not share the Lord’s feelings. Therefore, He does address the disciples’ remark. He points to the purpose of His mission. His mission concerns only the lost sheep belonging to Israel. He thus establishes that Israel is as lost as this woman is. There can only be hope for those who acknowledge it.

The woman will have heard what He has said. Therefore she goes on and on, for the Lord hints that everything is now based on grace, and then there can be no borders. The woman shows persevering faith. She only asks if He wants to come to her aid in her distress. The answer the Lord then gives is even more dismissive if possible. First He said in veiled terms that she did not belong to Israel and was therefore not an object of His mission. Now He says in veiled words that she does not belong to the children of Israel, but to the nations whom He compares to despised dogs.

Then the effect of His words becomes clear. He achieves, by His apparent hardness, that the woman feels and pronounces her true place before God. She immediately takes that place, like a Mephibosheth who once assumed the place of a dead dog with David (2 Samuel 9:8). This does not mean that God is less good or merciful to her. That would be a denial of Himself, a denial of His nature, of which Christ is the expression. He cannot say: God has no crumb for such people. Crumbs are not thrown to the dog, but accidentally fall to the ground and remain lying there so that the dog can eat out of grace. No one who has ever appealed to the grace of God has done so in vain.

The Lord answers from the fullness of His heart. For the second time He perceives a great faith and this again with someone from the Gentiles (Matthew 8:10). Both these Gentiles take a place of self-judgment. Both think low of themselves. Then there can be great faith. She receives everything out of grace, while she knows in herself to be totally unworthy. In this way and this way alone a soul can receive the blessing.

It doesn’t just depend on the feeling of need. That has been there from the beginning, and it has brought her to the Lord. It is not enough to recognize that He can fulfil all needs. We must be made to feel in the presence of the only source of blessing that, although we are there, we have no right to enjoy it. Once one is there, everything is grace. Then God can act according to His own goodness and He responds to every desire of the heart to make it happy in fellowship with Him.

Verses 29-31

The Lord Heals Many

After His grace towards the Canaanite woman, the Lord goes to Galilee. Galilee is the area where He is connected to the despised remnant of the Jews. Here are the poor of the flock, while the nation are in deep darkness (Isaiah 9:1-Exodus :). He climbs up the mountain and sits down there. It radiates majesty and tranquility. God walks on His heights, He walks over the mountains (Micah 1:3). He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Yet He is there as Lamb. He is not frightening, but inspires confidence. His whole attitude of rest invites “large crowds” and gives them the opportunity to come to Him.

The crowds who come to Him bring with them all kinds of problems for which they don’t have a solution themselves. Many come to him with the “lame, crippled, blind, mute, and many others” and laid them at his feet. All their need they place at the Lord’s feet. So we may bring to His feet all those who move forward with difficulty in their walk (lame), are blind to the truth, or parts of it (blind), who have suffered under wrong doctrine (crippled), and do not honor God (mute). He heals them all. These are not fake healings.

The crowd brought all those who were sick to Him in the hope that He would heal them. Now that they have been healed, they still wonder. It must also have been an astonishing sight to see all those sick being so completely healed and that the results are immediately visible. It is a large healthy crowd praising the God of Israel. Yet it does not seem that they have seen the Lord Jesus as the God of Israel. Although He knew this, He still carried out His acts of mercy.

Verses 32-39

Feeding of the Four Thousand

We have here a second feeding, but with a very different character than the previous. In the feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-Ecclesiastes :) the responsibility is emphasized, which is what we see in the number five representing responsibility. We see this also in the twelve baskets that remain there, because that represents government, and that is about the twelve tribes of Israel, as it will be exercised in the blessing of the kingdom of peace.

In this second feeding, four thousand men are fed. This is the Lord’s grace for the whole world, which is present in the number four. We can think of the four points of the compass. It is something that is general, without borders. The seven remaining large baskets also declare it. The number seven represents perfection.

Another difference with the first feeding is that the surplus of the loaves is put in large baskets here, while it is put in baskets there. Large baskets are large, while baskets are small hand-baskets. It underlines that in this second feeding the emphasis lies on the richness of the grace that transcends the borders of the people of Israel and extends without borders to the ends of the earth, to all peoples.

It is also remarkable in the connection with the story of the Canaanite woman because, as in that story, here also it is about bread. The bread represents the Lord Jesus Who is the bread that gives life to the world (John 6:33-Habakkuk :). Here the disciples do not come to Him, as in Matthew 14 (Matthew 14:15), but He acts in grace according to his own perfection and mercy. Therefore seven (the number of perfection) large baskets with broken pieces are collected.

The Lord sees the crowd of healthy people, but He also knows that they need food. He not only heals, but also takes further care of them. He knows how long they have been with Him and also knows that there is a chance that they will faint on the way if they go home without food. Therefore He says that He does not want to send them away hungry. The disciples respond to His remarks. He hasn’t asked them anything, but they feel that He expects something from them with His remarks. In this way we can also read God’s Word and notice that the Lord expects something from us. Our reaction is often like that of the disciples. We observe the situation and notice that the Lord expects something impossible.

There is the same situation as with the previous feeding (Matthew 14:13-Ecclesiastes :), but we do not notice that the disciples expect the Lord to act like this again. They show the lack of faith that we too often have. It is easy to remember how the Lord has acted in days passed, but it is something else to count on His actions today in the certainty that He is always the same.

But the lack of faith on our side is still no obstacle for Him to act. He engages again with the little they have. He tells them to take a look at what they have. They’re done with that quickly. They have seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Without saying anything else, the Lord takes the initiative.

He orders the crowd to sit “on the ground”. With the feeding of the five-thousand, they had to sit “on the grass” (Matthew 14:19). The ‘grass’ indicates ‘green pastures’ where the Lord wants to bring His people and where He blesses them. The ‘ground’ is a general term and refers to the blessing that goes out to the nations. In both cases the “sitting” indicates that there must be rest to receive the blessing He is going to give.

Then He takes into His hands what the disciples have and brings it into connection with heaven by giving thanks for it. Then He begins to break it. It goes via heaven through His hands to the disciples and they give it to the crowd. It is a whole chain of blessings that originates in heaven and comes to the crowd. The Lord Jesus is the Distributor of the blessing of heaven and He involves His disciples. The result is that all eat and are satisfied and even seven baskets of broken pieces remain. That is how rich and abundant the blessing He bestows is.

Also here the number of the men is mentioned. The men are those responsible in their families. They provide leadership, and are expected to live out and present the Word of God, and to bear witness to the Lord’s deeds, like those deeds He has just done.

After having satisfied the crowd in this wonderful way, He sends them away. He has provided them with bread, so that they will not faint on the way. What is more important is whether they have learned the lesson about Him Who has given them bread. It is to be feared that this is not the case. Yet that does not prevent the Lord from travelling on to another area to do His work there too.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Matthew 15". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/matthew-15.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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