• 8 April 2024

Matthew Chapters 14-16 – Jesus, the Physician of our soul 

EPW Blog Chapter 14-16

Whenever we spend time in hospital, we are keen that whoever is treating us is not only competent enough to make an accurate diagnosis of what afflicts us but is also able to suggest effective treatment for our condition. However, we may all know doctors who could have ticked those boxes and yet lacked a sympathetic bedside manner. Wonderfully, when we turn to the gospel and observe Jesus interacting with people, we see a master physician at work, someone who is both profoundly compassionate and skilfully able to expose our issues and to address them. Before we witness Jesus’ perfectly appropriate treatment of people, notice, first, the many inappropriate reactions to Jesus in chapter 14.  

1. God’s King faces many inappropriate responses from people (Matthew 14) 

Matthew 14 follows on from what we saw in Matthew 13 as Jesus takes us on a rapid rollercoaster ride to illustrate what he taught in those parables. It is like the parable of the sower and soils is being played out for us again as we witness all the varying reactions of the world to Jesus’ word as he brings in his unbeatable kingdom.  

Notice how God’s King faces personal rejection from his own home town (13:53-58). Like the sceptics in Matthew 11-12, we see people take offence at Jesus. And yet, we also marvel that not only does Christ know what they are thinking but he also determines not to do any miracles there as they have already made up their minds about him (cf.13:11-17). Then, in 14:1-12, we see Herod line up against Jesus. Herod was a petty people-pleasing ruler who had clashed with John the Baptist when he told him it was immoral to marry his brother’s wife. Herod was afraid to kill John because the people knew he was a prophet and yet Herod ends up being manipulated by Herodias to behead him at a grisly birthday gathering.  

Not only did Jesus face personal rejection and powerful opposition, he also encountered the confusion of those closest to him (14:13-33). The disciples tell Jesus what to do in v15 in language that is abrupt and arrogant. Unlike in Mark’s account, the focus in the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew is less on the miracle itself and more on the misunderstanding of the disciples as they remind us of the non-fruit-bearing soils in Matthew 13.  

Jesus says that the crowds don’t need to leave as the disciples should feed them but, once again, the disciples doubt Jesus’ divine ability to provide for his people (14:16-21). Their confusion is underlined in v22f. Peter’s inconsistency resembles Matthew 13’s second and third soils and the Lord once again labels them ‘little faiths’ (14:31, cf. 8:26). Although v33 may appear to be a good result, as they call Jesus the Son of God, it is by no means clear at this stage that even this fruit will last.  Do you see? The ground on which Jesus sows the seed of his word produces a very mixed bag of results, even among his disciples. And when Jesus crosses over to Gennesaret in 14:34-36, it is hard to know if the response that meets him is real faith or fickle superstition as people long to touch the edge of his cloak.  

Pastors across the world will know that this is the reality of gospel ministry. As we preach the word, it leads to personal rejection, powerful opposition, confusion, misunderstanding and inconsistency. All the more reason then for us to pay close attention to Jesus as he responds to such people in chapters 15-16. 

2. God’s King responds to people in perfectly appropriate ways (Matthew 15-16) 

As we watch Jesus at work, we see him comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Notice how Jesus, like the most skilled surgeon, exposes the heart of the issue among religious hypocrites in 15:1-20. A delegation of Pharisees and teachers of the law arrives from Jerusalem. In light of all that Jesus has said and done so far, they ask a pedantic question in v2. Despite there being only a brief mention of washing in the Torah (cf. Leviticus 15), the Pharisees had turned washing into something akin to an Olympic sport!  

Jesus however sees straight through their religious posturing. So, v3-6, he turns the tables on them: Jesus replied, ‘And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your traditions? For God said, “Honour your father and mother” and “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.”  In the 1st century, in the worst tradition of tax evasion, a Jewish person could call his property ‘Corban’ (dedicated to God), which meant that it couldn’t be sold to help his parents, but he could continue living in it until he died. Seeing such behaviour as inconsistent with Exodus 20:12 and 21:17, Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in v6-9, but thankfully he doesn’t stop there. 

He gets right to the heart of the issue in v10-20 and reveals the change that we all need. So, in v10, Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’  In a sentence, Christ recalibrates vast swathes of the Old Testament and reveals the whole purpose of religious rituals. Isn’t it encouraging that Jesus is not a people-pleaser? But because he loves people, v12-14, he discounts the religious leaders not as people but as authorities who should be followed. Unsurprisingly, the disciples still don’t understand and so Jesus walks them through the logic in v16-20. As Johann Bengel, an 18th-century biblical scholar, wrote, ‘The filth of the [toilet] is not so great as that of a human heart not yet cleansed.’ God’s King was not afraid to expose hypocrisy and to make us stop and see ourselves as we should. And he also knew how to handle hubris and pride. 

At the start of Matthew 16, Jesus is confronted by an alliance of low church Pharisees and liberal high church Sadducees. They demand a sign from him as if his healing of the blind and deaf and mute and lame and the feeding of thousands of men plus women and children were somehow insufficient. They wanted a sign to satisfy their deep-seated scepticism. But God’s King won’t jump through hoops for them. And so, v2-3, Jesus gives them a weather forecast! UK farmers say: red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight but red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning. You may have a similar saying in your own country. Why does Jesus give them a weather forecast? Well, again he gets to the heart of the issue as he exposes them, v4, as a wicked and spiritually adulterous generation. Jesus is always a step ahead of even his cleverest critics. He will not be manipulated by them when the loving thing to do is to challenge them and expose their arrogance and pride.  

But not only does Jesus know how to handle hypocrisy and hubris, he is also gentle and patient with people, however desperate or dim they may appear to be. When the Lord travels into pagan territory in 15:21-23, he meets a woman with an unfortunate ethnic background and a socially awkward attitude that makes the disciples want her to be sent away. However, Jesus will not refuse the desperate and wants the disciples to learn from this woman’s model faith, v24-28. As Matthew Henry writes, ‘If she is a dog, she is definitely his dog.’ The desperate always find grace with God’s King, as is also clear from v29-32.  

Jesus looks to his disciples, v32, to demonstrate his compassion for the 4,000 by providing for them. But they panic, v33 and quickly forget Christ’s divine ability. Aware that they are quick to forget and slow to learn, notice how Jesus patiently walks them through things in v34-38. We may have read each verse wondering why they were unable to understand but Jesus does not rebuke them. Instead, he bears with these slow learners. And, notice, Jesus persists with them when they are confused in 16:5-12. As he warns them against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the disciples are thoroughly confused, v7, as they assume it is because they didn’t bring any bread! No, v8, it really isn’t to do with bread as Jesus again calls them ‘little faiths’ and affectionately longs for them to grasp who he is and what he is doing, v9-10. It was never about bread but always about God’s powerful provision for his people. And so, in v11-12, we can almost hear Jesus’ sigh of relief as they get it at last. 

Friends, isn’t it wonderful that the Lord Jesus, the centre of our affections is so remarkably kind to desperate and dim people? Like the disciples, we can quickly forget what God is like and the commanding and captivating nature of God’s King. We are sometimes such slow learners and yet Jesus is so gentle and patient as he persists with people like us. We are not saved through comprehension but by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Do you see? The gospel is not complicated. Jesus offers grace to the desperate. Of course, that helps to explain why more people, especially in the comfortable West, are not coming to know Christ. Despite the cost-of-living crisis and great international instability, there is a profound lack of desperation among many people.  

Friends, how desperate are you feeling today? When did we, like the woman in Matthew 15, last throw ourselves at Jesus’ feet and cry: ‘Lord, help me!’? Instead of our misplaced self-confidence, especially when we consider our own confusion, perhaps we should pray for God to grant us desperate dependence on Jesus? And as we watch Jesus impressively and attractively engaging so tenderly and patiently and insightfully and bravely in Matthew 14-16, then perhaps we will long to know him better so that when we are with people, our aim will be for them to experience Christ’s kindness rather than our own competence. 

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