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Matthew 15:21-39

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Introduction

The Faith of a Canaanite Woman

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

At this point in Jesus’ earthly ministry we witness a significant shift. That shift takes places both geographically and in Jesus’ relationship to the Gentiles. Up until now, Jesus’ ministry has been focused solely on the Jewish people, within historically Jewish lands, and in large part, it will remain that way. Jesus’ ministry will be almost exclusively to Israel, God’s covenant people. However, starting in chapter 15, in verse 21, Matthew records that Jesus withdraws from Galilee to the district of Tyre and Sidon, which are Gentile lands, and he’ll remain in Gentile lands throughout the next few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, before finally spending the rest of his ministry in the district of Judea, in and around Jerusalem.

Tyre & Sidon

Now, Tyre and Sidon are cities that are still in existence today, they’re a part of the country of Lebanon. We first see them mentioned in the OT as part of the land of Canaan, of which the Israelites were originally intended to posses, however, we read in the book of Joshua that they never did.
These cities were located just north of Israel and were coastal cities of the people known as the Phoenicians. You may remember this people group from grade school as they were previously believed to be the first to have a written phonetic alphabet, from which, in part, many of the world’s modern alphabets find their origin.
The Phoenicians were a great seafaring people who were known for their maritime exploits, in other words, they were what we might call pirates. They were particularly wealthy and were most known for their exportation of purple dye, which at one point was highly coveted in the ancient world.
And after the book of Joshua we find Tyre mentioned in relation to King David in the book of 1 Kings. We’re told that the king of Tyre at that time had an abiding love for David, who ruled over Israel in Jerusalem. In 2 Samuel the king of Tyre even sent cedar trees (from Lebanon), carpenters and masons to build David a house. And because of Hiram’s love for David, Israel would remain in Tyre’s favor even throughout King Solomon’s rule. Hiram would also supply Solomon with cedar trees, cypress timber and gold, as much as Solomon wanted, to build the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. And as a token of appreciation Solomon would later give the King of Tyre 20 cities in the land of Galilee.
However, that relationship between Israel and the Phoenician people wouldn’t last long. For most of Israel’s history the people of Tyre and Sidon were mortal enemies. The Phoenicians were pagans who either fought against Israel or polluted its religious system with various forms of pagan worship. The most notable example is probably Israel’s king, Ahab, who married a Sidonian princess by the name of Jezebel. If you’re at all familiar with OT history you’ll know that Jezebel, was the epitome of wickedness, introducing Baal worship, and attempting to kill all of the biblical prophets and replace them with her prophets of Baal. Most of us are probably familiar with the story of the prophet Elijah, contending against these prophets of Baal by calling fire down from heaven.
The Phoenicians were associated with some of Israel’s darkest days. And more than that, the prophet Ezekiel would later use the king of Tyre as the ultimate example of pride in his book. Some scholars argue that Ezekiel, in some way, was even using the king of Tyre to describe the Devil himself.
Now, by the time of the Rome, the Phoenicians, like the Jews, were under Roman rule, so Matthew describes Jesus as withdrawing to district of Tyre and Sidon, they were no longer a nation of their own. And you might recall Jesus’ previous mention of these cities back in when he denounces the cities in Galilee for their unbelief. His public condemnation of Chorazin and Bethsaida was so great that he compared them to Tyre and Sidon, and his condemnation of Capernaum was such that he compared it to Sodom. In fact, he said that if his mighty works (his miracles) had been done in Tyre and Sidon that the people there would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. The rejection Jesus was experiencing in Israel was so bad at times that he told the people that they were worse off than Tyre and Sidon, that had he performed his miracles there they would have repented a long time ago.
The rejection Jesus was experiencing in Israel was so bad at times that he told the people that they were worse off than Tyre and Sidon, that had he performed his miracles there they would have repented a long time ago.

Contrasting Jew & Gentile

And it’s this contrast between these places (and these people groups), the Jews and the Gentiles, which we saw back in chapter 11 that Matthew intends for us to see again here at the end of chapter 15. Jesus has had yet another confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, who are are so defective in their understanding and application of the Scriptures that he says they show themselves to be plants not planted by his heavenly Father. So Matthew tells us that Jesus withdraws to the district of Tyre and Sidon, encountering a very different response from the people there, particularly a Canaanite woman.

Presumption

The Jews at this point have a very low view of anyone who isn’t Jewish, and not for righteous reasons. They think of themselves as better than the Gentiles, as if God had chosen them because they were better than all the other nations. There was a level of presumption among the Jews, they felt superior.
John the Baptist pointed this out during his encounter with the Pharisees back in chapter 3 when he said to them,

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

Which is exactly what we will here with this Canaanite woman, a descendent of Israel’s most ancient of enemies, who has no claim to the covenants of God, is not offended by Jesus, but instead throws herself at his feet and cries out that he would have mercy on her. Matthew intends to contrast the faith of this Canaanite woman with that of those in Israel, and to implore us (the reader) to have that same kind of faith.

Jesus withdrew

So, let’s read again starting in verse 21,

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

Now, we don’t know for sure what prompted Jesus to leave Galilee to go to the district of Tyre and Sidon, but Mark tells us in his Gospel that Jesus,

entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden.

So it appears that Jesus left either to avoid further escalating his confrontation with the religious leaders, or simply to get a break from his activities, either way Mark tells us that in some way he intended to hide himself. Therefore, it would have made sense for him to leave Galilee (traveling some 40 miles away) to area Tyre and Sidon, but, even so, he still wasn’t able to hide. We read in verse 22,

22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”

Canaanite woman

Mark calls this woman a Syrophoenician by birth (that is, a Phoenician in the land of Syria), because his audience was likely more Gentile, but Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite because his audience was largely Jewish, and he knew what kind of meaning this description would carry with it. The Canaanites were the enemies of Israel that they failed to drive out of the land God had given them. The Canaanites were like barbs in their eyes, and thorns in their sides that had troubled them for centuries, as God promised they would if they didn’t drive them out of the land. The title Canaanite carried with it hundreds of years of biblical baggage and meaning.
The title Canaanite carried with it hundreds of years of biblical baggage and meaning.
So this Canaanite woman comes out of her house, desperate, crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” And what does Jesus do? In verse 23 we read,

23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”

I suspect this can be a jarring verse for many of us as Christians, at least at the outset. In every other situation like this we see Jesus’ response marked with compassion, but he doesn’t appear to have any here, instead he ignores her. He ignores her to the extent that his disciples eventually beg him to send her away. She’s driving them nuts, crying out and following them wherever they go. So Jesus turns to his disciples and says to them there in verse 24,

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

So Jesus

First the Jews

I think its common for believers to find this statement strange, largely because many of us aren’t acquainted with the Scriptures. It’s typical, I think, for many of us to have this idea that Jesus’ ministry was to everyone everywhere, for as far as he could reach, but that wasn’t the case (at least not initially). The scope of his ministry was actually quite small. Just look at a map and you’ll see just how small Israel is, it’s about 70 miles at its widest point and about 140 miles at it’s longest. The greatness of the scope of Jesus’ ministry was miniscule in comparison to the known world, let alone the entire globe.
And I think this is exactly what Jesus was pointing out in when he said to his disciples that they would do greater works than Him, Jesus’ ministry was small in scope and his works were small in number in comparison to what his disciples in the years to come would see and do. Jesus’ ministry to Israel would be the epicenter of what would ultimately spread throughout the entire world.
But Jesus’ mission was first to Jews, then the Gentiles. He was first Israel’s Messiah, and later he would be the one in whom the Gentiles would hope, he would later become their savior too, but at this point in history, Jesus’ primary mission and role was Messiah to Israel, God’s covenant people.

Hints of redemption

However, it was no secret that God’s plan of redemption was ultimately intended to spread to the Gentiles also. There were hints of it throughout the entirety of the OT. Adam and Eve were not Jewish yet God promised that the woman’s offspring would crush the head of the serpent, God promised Abraham that through him all of the nation of the world would be blessed, and through the prophet Isaiah God said, “I will make [Israel] as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” ()
Yet, these things had not yet come fruition, these things had not happened, and it was not yet known how God would do it, just as it was not yet known how Jesus would save his people from their sins, how would he would cover their sin and justify his people before God, how he would save them. It would only be later that these things would be revealed. The Bible is a book of progressive revelation, and what I mean is that over the course of human history God has revealed more and more of his plan of redemption. Adam and Eve knew very little, but Abraham new more. Moses understood far and away more than Abraham, but it wouldn’t until latter prophets that the details of the Messiah and his ministry would be revealed. And this point in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is the fulfillment of everything previously revealed, yet so much more stands to be revealed. We benefit so greatly from the NT writers who grasped these things like no one ever had before. They could look back in hindsight and see the glory of God’s plan of redemption.

Great faith

So when Jesus says there in verse 24 to his disciples that he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel he isn’t wrong. However, it certainly isn’t the whole story, but this is I think Jesus says what he says, because he intends to draw out this woman’s faith. So in verse 25 he addresses her directly,

she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

In the ancient world dogs were not thought well of like they are today. They were usually scavengers and despised, so to the Jews dogs were unclean, just like unwashed hands. And Jesus was calling the Canaanite woman a dog, a person unclean and separated from the commonwealth of Israel. And what’s astonishing is that she doesn’t deny it, she’s not even offended by it! There is no presumption in her! She doesn’t accuse him of slander or even claim that her position unfair. She says,

“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

I love what NT scholar D.A. Carson says at this point,
“She does not phrase her answer as a counter-stroke but as a profound acquiescence with the further implications of “dogs.” She does not argue that her needs make her an exception, or that she has a right to Israel’s covenanted mercies, or that the mysterious ways of divine election and justice are unfair. She abandons mention of Jesus as “Son of David” and simply asks for help; “and she is confident that even if she is not entitled to sit down as a guest at Messiah’s table, Gentile ‘dog’ that she is, yet at least she may be allowed to receive a crumb of the uncovenanted mercies of God” (Carson, D. A. (1984). Matthew Commentary)
Incredible isn’t it? Her response is otherworldly, so Jesus answers her,

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

This is the only time in Matthew’s Gospel that anyone’s faith is ever described as great. The humility of this woman is simply remarkable, and her faith stands in contrast to Israel’s unbelief. Only once before has Matthew recorded such faith, back in Matthew chapter 8 with the Gentile Centurion Jesus commends his faith and says, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from the east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown in the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” ()

Do not harden your hearts

The beautiful consolation of Israel’s rejection of their Messiah is that God saw fit to offer salvation to the Gentiles. There will be countless Gentiles who come from the east and west to recline at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while many unbelieving Israelites will be cast out. However, the implied warning, is that we would not harden our hearts toward God or neglect such a great salvation, that rather we would, like this Canaanite woman cast ourselves upon the mercies of Christ, knowing full well that we are wholly undeserving, that we are not entitled to his grace. That both Jews and Gentiles are under sin. That none are righteous, no, not one; that no one understands, that no one seeks after God, that all have turned aside, that no one does good, not even one. That both Jew and Gentile alike are in desperate need of God’s mercy. And this woman knew this, she new that the only hope for her daughter was for Jesus to have mercy upon her.

The Bread of Life

Matthew goes on there in verse 29 and tells us that,

29 Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee.

29 Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. 30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, 31 so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.
Now, at first glance you might assume Jesus is back in Galilee, but that’s not the case. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us that Jesus went to the region of Decapolis, so Jesus is still in Gentile lands. Remember, the east side of the lake was not a part of Israel.

29 Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. 30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, 31 so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 15:29–31). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.
Matthew goes on,
\We’re told that Jesus goes up on a mountain to sit down while crowds come to him bringing the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them.
Jesus departed from there to the Sea of Galilee, yet he remained in Gentile lands. Remember, the eastern side of the lake was not a part of Israel. Mark tells us specifically that Jesus went to the region of Decapolis (a Gentile region). We’re told that Jesus goes up on a mountain to sit down while crowds come to him bringing the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them.

And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. 30 And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them, 31 so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.

These are Gentile crowds (which is why Matthew specifies that they glorified the God of Israel), and they’re coming to Jesus to be healed, and he isn’t ignoring them or turning them away. Instead he’s healing their sick. Then what follows is like a repeat of what we saw back in chapter 14,

32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” 33 And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” 34 And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 38 Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand

32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” 33 And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” 34 And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 38 Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children.

Now, if you’ll recall, Jesus fed 5,000 Israelite men, plus women and children back in chapter 14, just like he does here, except this time these are Gentiles! So it at this point in the story that we can see the significance of this repeat miracle. Jesus is the bread of life, not only to the Jews, but ultimately to the Gentiles also. This is “a hint of the future expansion of the kingdom of God beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles.” (R.C. Sproul, Matthew, p. 483)
Now, if you’ll recall, Jesus fed 5,000 Israelite men, plus women and children back in chapter 14, just like he does here, except this time these are Gentiles! So it’s at this point, because of what we have seen already, we can see the significance of this repeat miracle. Jesus intended to dramatize and teach that he was the bread of life, not only to the Jews, but ultimately to the Gentiles also. This was “a hint of the future expansion of the kingdom of God beyond the borders of Israel to the Gentiles.” (R.C. Sproul, Matthew, p. 483)

Conclusion

And as we close I want to leave you with this from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2, starting in verse 11,

One in Christ

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Prayer

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