Polarization – Growing Rejection, Growing Acceptance (Matthew 13:53 – 16:20)

Polarization – Growing Rejection, Growing Acceptance (Matthew 13:53 – 16:20)

The question of Jesus’ identity emerges as the primary issue in this section of Matthew’s narrative. Jesus called for a decisive response to his message in the Sermon on the Mount (5-7). His miracles in chapters 8-9 demonstrated his authority and the nature of the Kingdom reality he announced. Chapters 10-13 outlined the growing controversy around him, with some accepting him, others uncertain, and some absolutely rejecting him. Jesus has explored the theological reasons for these diverse responses in chapter 13.

In this section of his narrative Matthew recounts the explicit rejection of Jesus and John by various groups (the town of Nazareth, Herod, Pharisees and Sadducees), his ministry among various Gentile groups, and then the affirmation by his own followers that he is the Messiah, the Son of God. In this section Matthew follows the Markan sequence with considerable precision.

It is possible to analyze this segment in various ways. I think Blomberg (227ff) offers a reasonable hypothesis:

  1. 13:53 – 14:12 Rejection of Jesus by the town of Nazareth; Rejection of John by Herod Antipas
  2. 14:13-36 The Son of God reveals himself to Israel
  3. 15:1 – 16:12 Conflict with Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, followed by Jesus’ withdrawal into Gentile regions (feeding of the 4,000) and further demand for signs from the Jewish religious leaders. 16:5-12 forms an inclusion with the feeding miracles.
  4. 16:13-20 Peter’s confession – the result of divine revelation.

Following this sequence, Jesus reveals that his ultimate destination is Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die.

Villagers of Nazareth and Herod’s Birthday Party – 13:53-14:12

Matthew does not mention Nazareth explicitly in 13:54, but does refer to his “ancestral home” (cf. 12:46-50), which presumably Matthew would identify as Nazareth given what he has reported in chapter 2. The response is mixed as he teaches in their synagogue. While his wisdom and the reports of his “miraculous powers…astonishes” them, they know his family well. Carpenters who have no formal rabbinic training probably will not qualify to be Messiahs! The term tektōn (τέκτων) refers to someone who was a woodworking craftsman, making utensils, household furniture, and perhaps beams for construction. Could the “son of the carpenter” also be “the son of God”?  Given that normally people of importance emerge from the upper social strata and that Jesus’ family obviously lacks any distinction, his rise to prominence suggests the use of unusual, perhaps forbidden power.[1] In what sense? They know his brothers[2] (four are mentioned) and even his sisters (plural), as well as Mary his mother. Large families were not rare in first century Palestine. Note the series of questions that imply positive answers in vv. 55-56a, surrounded by the same question “from whence is this wisdom and these powers (supernatural powers or miracles?) to this person?”

Matthew records their conclusion – they took offence at him (imperfect tense, v. 57). They become contemptuous, just as the Pharisees do (15:12). At 11:6 Jesus had pronounced a blessing on those who were not contemptuous of him, i.e., who did not regard him as one who would entice them to apostasy. In the Parable of the Sower and Soils, pressure and persecution led some to be “offended” and not produce fruit (13:21). Their reaction places them in a category of extreme spiritual danger. While Jesus seems to use a common proverb to describe this reaction (“a prophet is not without honour except in his hometown”), his announcement has deeper significance (cf. criticism of Jewish religious leaders in chapter 23). If his hometown (including his family members?) will not accept Jesus as Messiah, who else in Israel will do so? “Their faithlessness” leads him to refrain from doing “many miraculous wonders” there. Their lack of faith leads him to respond by withholding Kingdom blessing, just as he counseled his disciples to do. Their faithlessness contrasts with the faith of the Gentile Centurion (chapter 8), but is consistent with Jesus’ critique of Capernaum, Korazin and Bethsaida at 11:20-24. Note that Matthew in v. 58 clarifies Mark’s statement in 6:5 that Jesus “could not do many miracles” in Nazareth by wording it as “Jesus did not do many miracles.” He is deliberate and in charge. Jesus’ statement about “a prophet without honour” applies not only to himself, but also to John, whose story now follows.

Herod will treat another prophet with contempt, to the point of executing John the Baptist to carry out an oath made because a young lady danced in a pleasurable way at his birthday party! How could he act with greater contempt? Matthew tells us that Herod knew John was a prophet, but nevertheless went ahead with the execution. It was John’s public criticism of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife that led to his arrest.[3] We are not told what the people in Nazareth named as the source of Jesus’ wisdom and power. Herod is not so reticent. When he hears about Jesus, his conclusion is swift – “He is John the Baptist raised from the dead and for this reason the powers are at work in him” (14:2). The word ‘powers’ is the same as that found in the question put by the people of Nazareth in 13:54. So what exactly did Herod think was happening within Jesus? What powers was he embracing that enabled him to cast out demons and perform miracles? Were they demonic, as the Pharisees expressed?[4] We should also note how this iteration of possible explanations for Jesus is repeated in 16:13-16.

14:3-12 provide a flashback, explaining why Herod thinks Jesus could be John resurrected – Herod had beheaded John. Perhaps in some sense Herod thinks that John is planning to execute vengeance against him by working through Jesus. As Nolland comments, “There are no reported instances in Jewish or Hellenistic sources of a belief that being raised from the dead can confer supernatural powers.”[5] However, this may have been a commonly held superstition. Josephus’ account of John’s death at the hands of Herod Antipas stresses the political agitations created by John’s criticism of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. (Josephus, Antiquities 18.116-119, 136. Josephus claims that the defeat suffered by Herod’s army immediately after John’s execution was divine retribution.)

The issue of divorce (14:4) which leads to John’s arrest is also used by the Pharisees in 19:3ff to try and get Jesus into trouble with Herod Antipas. Presumably they hope to stir things up and compel Herod to arrest and execute Jesus, just had he had dealt with John the Baptist.


The Two Nature Miracles and Healing the Sick in Genneserat 14:13-36

Matthew does not press any comparison between Jesus and Herod as the shepherd of the people such as Mark does in his narrative (6:35). We should probably see the entire sequence of vv. 13-36 as one continuous story, with the conclusion in v.33 “Truly you are son of God” reflecting the right conclusion to draw from these actions of Jesus. However, we should also note the strong linkage with what preceded in 14:1-12. What did Jesus hear in v.13? Is Matthew referring explicitly to the report of John’s death brought to him by John’s disciples? Or is Matthew referring to the understanding of Herod about Jesus’ activities – “the powers are at work in him”? (v. 2) I think the sense of the narrative would be that Jesus withdraws because of Herod’s interest, misguided as it is, in his work and the way Herod had treated John. If Herod thought Jesus was “John Resurrected,” then he might be tempted to arrest Jesus as well because of this assumed connection with John the Baptist.

There do seem to be verbal similarities between the miraculous feedings that occurred during Elijah’s time and Jesus’ activity here (cf. 2 Kings 4:42-4). Note also how Ahab and Jezebel were hostile to Elijah, seeking his death.

Matthew has already noted Jesus’ compassion for the crowds of Israel at 9:6. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ compassion for them motivates him to heal them and then feed them. Matthew does not mention any teaching of the crowds at this point. It is the disciples who point out to Jesus the need of the crowd for food and the lateness of the hour. However, Jesus orders them to provide for the crowd. As we would ourselves, the disciples are astonished at the magnitude of the demand – they think they have no sources from which to procure such food. No mention is made about money as in the parallel Markan account. “Five loaves and two fishes” are not enough by any normal human measure to satisfy a crowd of 5,000 men. Yet, as Jesus continues to give commands, the disciples obey.

Many commentators note that the sequence of verbs in v. 19 – taking, he blessed and breaking, he gave – matches the sequence in the Last Supper (26:26). This leads many to see echoes of Communion in this account. However, this is also the normal sequence of any Jewish meal. Further Matthew does indicate that Jesus “looked up into the heavens” as he prayed, something not found in the Last Supper material. Finally, we might ask what would such a parallelism, if deliberate, signify? Is it related to “knowing Jesus through the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35)? According to 14:33 there is a revelatory component, but it does not emerge until the end of the entire sequence. I think we need to link this more to the discussion that Jesus will have later with his disciples after the second feeding miracle, where he warns them about the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (16:5-12). It is the multiplying of the loaves and the fishes to the point that they had more left over (twelve basketsful) than they had when they began that has revelatory significance in Jesus’ mind. Jesus sends his disciples “to the opposite side,” dismisses the crowds and retreats into the hills to pray alone. Matthew emphasizes the solitary situation of Jesus, but does not explain further Jesus’ need to pray.

After Jesus has prayed, in the fourth watch (i.e., 3-6am) “he went to them, walking on the sea” (v. 25). Matthew emphasizes that “the boat had proceeded already many stades (1 stade = 600 feet),”[6] even though they were opposed by the waves and the wind. The terrified reaction of the disciples to this apparition (phantasma (φαντασμά)) is quite understandable as they probably connected this supernatural phenomenon with the destructive potential of the storm and considered it all very threatening. Jesus takes action immediately to dispel their fear and identifies himself as egō eimi (I am ἐγώ εἰμί; cf. John 13:19). In the Greek OT this expression identifies Yahweh numerous times (e.g., Isa. 43:10-11). There is ambiguity here because as Greek idiom it can mean “it’s me.” God is the One Who walks on the waves and Jesus demonstrates his divinity by doing the same.

Matthew’s note about Peter’s action is the first of several stories where Peter will assume greater prominence. His response (v. 28) to Jesus parallels Jesus’ own way of identifying himself – “Lord, if you are (su ei σὺ εἶ) (Lord),…” It is unclear in the textual tradition whether Matthew wrote (v. 29) the aorist verb form “and he went to Jesus” or the infinitive “in order to go to Jesus.” How does this request by Peter differ from the demands by the Pharisees that Jesus perform a sign? Why does Jesus respond positively? Perhaps it is similar in essence to the request of the leper – if you are willing, you can make me clean. Here Peter is saying to Jesus, if you are in fact Jesus, you can make me walk on the water. So command me to do this. He is not questioning Jesus’ ability, but rather is seeking to discern whether the apparition is truly Jesus, as it claims. Ιn effect Peter’s statement is a form of confession, one that foreshadows what he will admit in 16:16 – you are the Messiah, the son of God. This in fact is the conclusion that the disciples in the boat come to in v. 33 “truly you are son of God (cf. 27:54).” Matthew used the word “worship” in v. 33 to characterize this response. Since Jews are only to worship God, this act on their part speaks volumes in terms of their discernment.  Jesus characterizes Peter’s response to him as an act of faith, even if “little faith.” In the midst of faith uncertainty or doubt may also exist.

There is a short interlude or summary passage (vv. 34-36) in which Matthew describes the healing ministry of Jesus in Gennesaret. It takes us back to 4:23-25.


Excursus on “doubting” (14:31)

Worshipping, but Uncertain (Matthew 14:31; 28:17)

The relationship between faith and doubt has exercised the best of Christian minds. We can trace this tension back to the very origins of Christianity. Jesus faces the strange admixture of worship and uncertainty several times in the response of his disciples to his actions. It is possible — might we even say normal – to worship the Lord Jesus with an obedience mixed with uncertainty and hesitation.

Although there are several words used in the New Testament to express the concept of doubt (diakrinō and dialogismos), we will focus on the verb distazō, which occurs in the New Testament only at Matthew 14:31 and 28:17.[1]

The verb distazō has the basic sense of uncertainty that arises from trying to choose between two options. It carries connotations of hesitation about a course of action or can mean to doubt or waver. Plato and Aristotle both use it to express the idea of doubt. Several centuries later the Hellenistic-Jewish author of the Letter of Aristeas to Philocrates (c. 130 BC) describes how in response to the provision of seventy-two scholars to translate the Hebrew Pentateuch into Greek, Ptolemy Philadelphus produces several gifts for the Temple in Jerusalem. One of these gifts is a new table for the showbread. The king wanted “to increase the proportions fivefold, but…doubted (distazein) whether such a table might be useless for priestly ministrations.”[2] In this context we discern the sense of the verb as hesitation about acting in a certain way because the implications of that act were unknown or perceived to be unfortunate.

Towards the end of the first century CE. Josephus wrote his Jewish War. In Book II he recounts the life of Herod the Tetrarch, who ruled Galilee during Jesus’ ministry. The Roman emperor Gaius appointed Agrippa king over the former tetrarchy of the deceased Philip. When Herod the Tetrarch heard this, he became envious. Herodias, Herod’s wife, spurred him on, according to Josephus, by saying “Now that he [Gaius] has made a king of Agrippa, a mere commoner,…surely he could not hesitate (distaseien) to confer the same title on a tetrarch.”[3] Unfortunately, Gaius responded quite differently and banished Herod to Spain, where he died. Here again the sense of hesitation is clear, but applied to a different set of circumstances.

This verb also conveys a sense of doubt, hesitation and uncertainty in writings by Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus.  Plutarch in one of his essays[4] gives advice to a person who feels a headache coming on. Such a person “hesitates [distazonta] about bathing and taking food, [but] a friend will try to hold him back.” Diodorus Siculus, an historian living in the first century B.C., described the war between the cities of Syracuse and Carthage. When Hamilcar, the Carthaginian general sought to deceive the magistrates of Syracuse into surrendering the city, “the magistrates,…being in doubt [distazontes], watched closely that there might be no disorder, but they sent the envoys [from Carthage] away at once.”[5]

In Matthew 14:22-33 Jesus, after the feeding of the five thousand, sends his disciples in a boat across the Sea of Galilee, during the night, while he went into the mountain to pray. Early in the morning Jesus came walking across the water. When Peter and the other apostles saw him, they think, “It’s a ghost!” (v.26). But Jesus speaks and encourages them. Peter, to prove it is Jesus, asked the figure to let Peter come to him on the water. Peter climbed out of the boat and began to walk across the water, until the disturbance of the wind and water made him afraid and he started to sink. He cried out to Jesus for rescue. Jesus did and said, “You of little faith, why did you doubt (edistasas)?” (v.31)

In response to this mysterious appearance of Jesus and his command to get out of the boat, Peter obeyed. However, the thrashing wind and sea produced fear. He discovered himself doing what humanly was impossible – walking on water – until fear began to dissolve his faith. According to Jesus’ analysis it is Peter’s lack of faith, arising from his doubtful uncertainty, that causes him to sink. That is the only variable in this picture that has altered. While Jesus is critical of Peter, he does not abandon him, but saves him, grasping him. They both climb back into the boat. This must imply that Peter kept walking on the water, held secure by Jesus, until he was safely in the boat.  Peter’s faith in Jesus led him into a bold, obedient response to Jesus’ command. The turbulence of the storm, however, shakes his confidence and he wavers. Yet, Peter does reach Jesus. Peter has faith, but it is ‘small’, and without Jesus’ intervention could be overwhelmed by the circumstances of the moment.

The second occurrence of distazō is found in Matthew 28:17. Jesus again came in mysterious circumstances to meet his disciples. It was after the resurrection and the Eleven had returned to Galilee. As they assembled on the mountain according to Jesus’ directions, “they saw him”(v.17). Matthew described their response with two verbs – “they worshipped him, but some/they doubted/were uncertain/hesitated (edistasan).” Plainly the Eleven are the subject. Whether all or some of the Eleven ‘doubted’ is unclear. What is more intriguing is the relationship between worship and doubt/uncertainty/hesitation.[6] Apart from 4:9 where the devil is tempting Jesus to worship him, either Jesus or Yahweh is the object of worship in Matthew’s Gospel. Homage and worship are linked together. Plainly the Eleven, seeing Jesus resurrected, could not help themselves. They had to worship. Such a response is normal when human beings encounter a theophany, even though they might be uncertain of the implications of such an encounter.

It is possible that the last part of v. 17 (“they doubted”) should be linked with v. 18 rather than v. 17. This would lead to the following translation of vs. 17-18:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go and when they saw him, they worshipped. Now they doubted and when Jesus approached, he spoke to them saying,…

But what nuance should we give to the verb distazw here? Can they be doubting that it is really Jesus? Possibly. We discover the same struggle among the Eleven in Luke 24:38. As they were receiving the report from the two people who met the resurrected Jesus on the Emmaeus road, Luke tells us that Jesus “stood in their midst” and begins to converse. They are agitated and “doubts (dialogismoi) rise” in their minds. In the following verse Luke says that Jesus urged them to take various steps to assure themselves that he truly was the crucified Jesus. So considerable uncertainty seems to be present among the Eleven as they come to terms with the reality of the Jesus resurrected. In the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel Jesus also scolds the Eleven for failing to believe the witnesses of his resurrection.

In the course of Matthew’s Gospel, 28:17 records the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to the Eleven. So perhaps Matthew is summarizing a variety of responses to the risen Jesus that the Eleven expressed during several resurrection appearances. Regardless of how we might reconstruct these events, Matthew affirms that when Jesus appeared in his resurrection glory to the Eleven, it created agitated uncertainty. Apparently the Eleven knew God was doing something, but some or all of them were quite uncertain as to the meaning or implications of Jesus’ resurrection. While they had seen Jesus raise people from the dead several times, they knew this event was of a different order. They had followed Jesus during his ministry, but what would it mean to follow the resurrected Jesus?

It may well be that Jesus speaks “The Great Commission” in order to deal with their uncertainty and unpack the significance of his resurrection. He emphasizes his universal, complete and unsurpassed authority; he tells them what their mission will be – making disciples of all nations – and how to do this; finally he assures them that he goes with them on this mission – for as long as it takes and wherever it may lead them.


  1. We get a sense of how Greek speakers understood this word when we discern that a common name for the subjunctive mood, the mood of uncertainty, was distaktikē. A.T. Robertson calls the subjunctive the “mood of doubtful statement” (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1934): 927.
  2. Aristeas to Philocrates, edited and translated by Moses Hadas (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1973):123. When Josephus (Antiquities 12:61) repeats this story, paraphrasing the original account, he says that the Ptolemy wanted “to construct one as much as five times as large as the one there, but was afraid [phobeisthai] that it might be of no use in the temple ministrations….”
  3. Josephus, Jewish War, II, 182.
  4. Moralia 62a.
  5. Diodorus Siculus 20.15.3.
  6. Diodorus Siculus 20.15.3.




The Pharisees and Tradition – the Problem of Defilement (15:1-20)

The primary critics of Jesus in Matthew’s narrative are the Pharisees. In particular they criticize his unwillingness to follow their religious regulations and his rejection of their authority. John criticized Herod Antipas and was executed. Jesus criticized the Pharisees and scribes and he will be executed. In this extended segment, largely paralleled in Mark 7:1-20, Matthew contrasts the Pharisees’ understanding of religious defilement with that defined by Jesus. This time it is Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem who question Jesus.

We are not sure about the standards of ritual purity within Second Temple Judaism. That eating food with unwashed hands would make that food unclean and also transfer uncleanness to the person eating is not found in the OT generally. However, it seems clear from this interchange that the Pharisees at that time did believe that unwashed hands carried their own defilement and that this defilement could be transferred to food. If you ate this subsequently defiled food, you too would be defiled. A pious person would take care, i.e., by washing hands, to prevent himself from being defiled by such things. We see some of this kind of development in the rules for the Qumran community which required daily bathing as necessary for maintaining ritual purity. Perhaps the point of John’s baptism was that this purification unto repentance removed all defilement and dismissed any further need for the rituals required by the Pharisees.

Jesus mimics the question of the Pharisees in his response (v.3) – “why do you also break God’s command through your tradition?” The “tradition of the elders” would be the kind of oral interpretation that Jesus perhaps had addressed in the SM – “you have heard it said, but I say.” Jesus accuses them of contravening God’s command through their regulations, using one part of God’s law to rationalize disobeying another part of God’s law. Such a response must have sounded outrageous. The very things that they regarded as adding to piety Jesus claims only multiply sin (cf. Paul’s concern in Galatians 2:17-18). Their concern probably reflects their program to extend the standard of priestly purity to encompass a normal Jew’s entire existence (in order to create a “priestly kingdom” according to Ex. 19:5-6?).

Matthew has a different order than Mark who quotes Isaiah first and then speaks to the issue of Korban – gift (v.5). Jesus quotes from Exodus 20:12 and 21:17, both dealing with the command to honour one’s parents. Jesus claims that some Pharisees used the notion of vows to God to sidestep their responsibility to care for their parents. By a notional gifting of a resource to God, they could keep use of it personally and not be obliged to use it for the care of others. They used one part of the law to justify disobeying another segment of the law. In v. 6 Jesus claims they “annul the word of God through your tradition.” He accuses them of hypocrisy, exactly as Isaiah had prophesied in 29:13. Failure to commend what God commends results in a person being unable to offer worship that is acceptable to God (cf. 6:1-8).

In vv. 10-11 Jesus offers a parable to the crowd, whom he summons, urging them “to hear and understand.” He uses food digestion to illustrate that food regardless of its origins cannot defile a person; rather it is the immoral intents of a person’s mind and will that contaminate his life. The term “make common” (κοινοῖ) was used in cultic contexts to distinguish what possesses purity appropriate to the ritual and what does not. Matthew does not tell us whether the crowds understood the parable. Does the omission of the word “nothing” (cf. Mark 7:15) in v. 11, in contrast to Mark’s account, suggest that Matthew is being sensitive to conservative Jewish Christian dietary practices?

Jesus then engages in dialogue with his disciples (vv. 12-20) when they tell him that the “Pharisees, hearing the word, were offended.” Such a response indicates that they had some inkling of the nature of Jesus’ parable and its message – but they rejected it. Their reported response links back to the rejection motif introduced in chapter 9:34; 12:14, 24; 13:54-58. Jesus responds with another parable that is unique to Matthew in this context, but includes motifs iterated in other places (cf. 3:10 where John speaks against the Pharisees and Sadducees). It becomes in fact another oracle of judgment with the sense that God will destroy what does not originate with him, even though some might claim otherwise. He warns his disciples to stay clear of these religious leaders; they are blind and cannot be good guides for other blind people. This presages Jesus’ warning to his disciples in 16:5ff about the ‘yeast’ of the Pharisees and Sadducees.[7]

Peter asks Jesus to “explain to us this parable” (v. 15). Which parable is he referring to – the one about digesting food or the one about uprooting plants, or both? Jesus seems surprised that they “still are without understanding.”[8] His answer indicates that Peter was referring to the parable Jesus told the crowds. Jesus distinguishes between stomach (ἡ κοιλία) and heart (ἡ καρδία). It is the heart that is the source of human intents/decisions/actions. The products of the heart defile a person, not what she chooses to eat.

Matthew reorders and shortens the list of evils that are found in Mark’s account. Murder, adultery and sexual immorality are the first three, reflecting perhaps the order of the first three antitheses in the SM. They all relate to the Ten Commandments. Jesus concludes in v. 20 by going back to the Pharisees’ original question and confirming his conclusion – unclean hands do not defile a person; unclean thoughts, however, will create defilement before God.

This segment of the narrative shows us that Jesus was quite capable of quoting materials from the OT in his teaching. So when we consider 13:14ff and the allusion to Isaiah 6:9-10, we should not make a hasty conclusion that this statement is not part of Jesus’ teaching.[9]


Jesus withdraws to Gentile Territory and then Returns to Galilee 15:21-39

Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman is similar to that which he had with the Gentile Centurion in chapter 8 and the Gadarene demoniacs in 8:28ff. Here also the expression of faith by a Gentile overcomes Jesus’ sense of exclusive mission to Israel. He demonstrates that he can assist a Gentile in need without diminishing his mission to Israel. Matthew says nothing about Jesus’ unachieved desire to remain out of the public eye during this retreat to Tyre and Sidon. Further, we have no hint about the way in which this woman came to know about Jesus and his presence in this area.

She appeals to Jesus as “son of David,” using the faith claim that a Jewish person would use. Her concern is for her daughter who is “badly or severely demonized” (v. 22). But Jesus ignores her persistent cries. Here is a Gentile woman addressing a Jewish man. For Jesus to respond could be construed quite negatively. His disciples are bothered by her and ask Jesus, “send her away,” the same advice they had given to him about the crowds in 14:15. In his response Jesus seems to address the woman, not the disciples. His narrow definition of his mission to “the lost (ruined?) sheep of the house of Israel” (note previous reference to this expression in 10:6) is not questioned by the woman, but she does insist that other nations might benefit from Israel’s blessing. She has sufficient faith to be able to interpret Jesus’ parable about the dogs. Her response demonstrates an understanding generated by faith and Jesus affirms that she has “great faith (megalē…hē pistis (μεγάλη…ἡ πίστις) – contrast this with the “little faith” demonstrated by Peter in 14:21),” just as the Gentile Centurion demonstrated. Jesus heals her daughter at that point, even though he has not gone to the house, just as he did in the case of the Gentile Centurion’s servant. Again, how is Jesus defining ‘faith’ here? This is the second time a woman, apart from his family, addresses Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel and it is Gentile woman (cf. 9:22).

Jesus returns to the “sea of Galilee” and the hill country surrounding it, where he continues his ministry of healing (15:29-31). His continued success leads the crowds to “give glory to the God of Israel” (v. 31; cf. 9:33). In Zechariah 11:16 the disastrous shepherd “does not care for the perishing or seek the wandering, or heal the maimed, or nourish the healthy.” The desperation of the people is indicated by the language – “they cast them at his feet” (v. 30).[10] The amazement of the crowd matches wording in 9:8 and 9:33. They note the same miraculous activities of Jesus that he draws to the attention of John and his disciples in chapter 11.

The second feeding of a multitude in Matthew’s context does not seem to occur in a Gentile context (as in Mark’s Gospel – the Decapolis). It may have, but Matthew gives no data to require this. The crowd Jesus has concern for (v. 32) is presumably the same crowd that he has been healing in v. 30.

Jesus voices his concern for the crowd (v. 32) to his disciples. Since the crowds have been with him for three days, his compassion for their physical welfare has increased. The need for food has become critical. The option of sending them away is not viable, because some may be too weak and might faint along the road. His disciples respond with a rhetorical question – there are no resources in this deserted area so where can we locate enough bread to satisfy the hunger of such a crowd? Jesus demands that they give him the food they possess, their own resources – seven loaves and a few small fish. He multiplies it and after everyone is fed, “seven baskets of fragments” are gathered – again the surplus far exceeds what Jesus started with.[11]

Some again suggest a deliberate parallel with the Lord’s Table is being emphasized by the use of terms such as eucharisteō (εὐχαριστέω) and klaō (κλάω), breaking. However, these are common words used in the context of Jewish meals and so there is no necessary linkage. Finally, we do not know where Madagan is – the place Jesus takes his disciples after this second feeding miracle.

We might have expected Jesus’ disciples to respond in this second situation with greater reference to the first. However, we get no sense from Matthew’s narrative that Jesus’ disciples made any connection between these two situations. This fact may be the basis for Jesus’ discussion that emerges in 16:5-12.


The Yeast of the Pharisees (16:1-12)

In 12:38-39 the scribes and Pharisees asked for a sign from Jesus and the one he gave was “the sign of the prophet Jonah.” Here the Pharisees and Sadducees ask Jesus for “a sign from heaven” and this is characterized as a “testing.” Their request is little different in motivation from Satan’s in chapter 4. Matthew does not explicitly say what kind of action or event would qualify to convince these religious leaders. Perhaps Jesus’ use of the weather phenomena would suggest something in the natural realm, like the fire descending from heaven in the case of Elijah on Carmel. Or, perhaps the voice from heaven that occurs during the Transfiguration would be such a sign. What has just occurred in the feeding of the four thousand, for some reason, does not suffice. However, perhaps none of them were present.

Jesus chastises them for their ability to discern the coming weather from the changes in the sky, but their inability to discern the coming times in God’s schedule based on the actions which he and John have performed – whether by teaching or miracle. He refuses to give the requested sign because the very nature of their request shows a skepticism and lack of faith. They wish him to fail the test and that is why they have made the request. He repeats his earlier statement – only the sign of Jonah will be given (12:39). Jesus walks away from them. Their skeptical request adds further to the theme of rejection that Matthew has been building since chapter 9.

Matthew moves to the next interchange between Jesus and his disciples (vv. 5-12) by noting a geographical change and the disciples’ failure to bring bread (maybe some of the bread left over from the feeding of the four thousand). Matthew makes it plain that Jesus is warning his followers to beware “of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v. 12). Presumably he is referencing their failure to respond to him and the accusations they are making against him. However, it might go further than that and relate to the “tradition of the elders” that Jesus had criticized in the first part of chapter 15.

The disciples think he is making some joke or riddle about their failure to bring bread for the journey. Clearly the way Matthew describes the discussion among the disciples, they are not sure they have understood him. Jesus perceives their uncertainty and so explains what he meant. The feeding of the five thousand and four thousand should have assured them that failure to bring bread was no problem for Jesus to solve. He could produce it on the spot, if he desired (i.e., as Satan in the temptation story well knew). If the disciples truly had grasped the essence of what these miraculous feedings meant, they would never have thought Jesus was anxious about their food supply. Jesus names this as “a lack of faith” (cf. 6:31; 8:26; 14:31 – cases where people failed to appreciate the power and presence of God).[12] Matthew makes sure his readers understand that the disciples finally perceive (sunēkan (συνῆκαν)) his message and accept his warning (v.12),[13] rather than leaving things open-ended as Mark does in his parallel pericope. Nor is there any use of the hardness of heart language in Matthew related to the disciples.

Jesus employs the analogy of leaven positively in reference to the Kingdom of Heaven (13:33). Here Jesus refers to the sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees who were quite small in number, yet exercised through their teaching and position a great influence on Jewish affairs, both religious and political. Is there a sense that this yeast has to be removed (as in the feast of unleavened and Passover) before the Jewish people will respond to Jesus?

It is often suggested that Jesus only hosted one miraculous feeding and that the account of the four thousand is a duplicate. However, Matthew includes details from each account that suggest they were distinct episodes.


Peter’s Confession 16:13-20

By all accounts this segment of Matthew’s narrative is climactic. The expression in v. 21 “From that time Jesus began…” is thought to mark the final stage of the narrative story. Peter voices for the disciples their evaluation of Jesus to this point – Messiah, Son of God. As well, we discover Jesus speaking more definitively about the mission beyond the cross using the term ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία – ‘assembly’) for the first time and daring to saying it belonged to him. Finally, we get a glimpse of the role that Jesus intends Peter to play in this future. Yet in these various elements we discern many questions which continue to stir strong debate.

  • What concept of Messiah does Peter have in mind when he makes his declaration? How does this relate to their declaration in chapter 14 after the walking on the water?
  • In what sense is Peter the foundation of this future?
  • What is the nature of this authority to bind and loose?
  • What does Jesus mean by ekklesia and could he have used this term as a first century Jewish person to refer to a re-visioned Israel?

The region of Caesarea Philippi would be in the northernmost corner of Galilee, near the source of the Jordan River. While this city did boast a temple to the god Pan, there does not seem to be in Matthew’s account anything that relates to this pagan element. Perhaps he is just continuing to show how Galilee of the Gentiles, sitting in darkness, now is seeing the great light brought by Jesus (cf. Matt. 4). There is however a towering cliff at this city with a large cave at its base. The temple of Pan and other temples were constructed in this setting. Such caves were often viewed as gateways to the underworld.

There is a textual issue related to the question Jesus asked his disciples. Did he ask them “Whom do people say the son of man is?” or “Whom do people say that I, the son of man, am?” Regardless of one’s decision about this textual issue in v. 13, Jesus in v. 15 makes it very clear that he is asking what people and his disciples are saying about him. He certainly identifies himself as the Son of Man here.

The disciples share four opinions held about Jesus: people say he is John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Each of these public evaluations would presume that Jesus is the resurrected John or Elijah or Jeremiah and that this resurrected state explains the source of his power and wisdom. We have seen Herod claim that Jesus is John resurrected. Jesus himself has identified John as the expected Elijah, though not in a resurrected form. However, this is the first time we have had Jesus identified with Jeremiah. However, in 2 Maccabees 15:11-16 Jeremiah appears in a vision as helper and in 2 Esdras 2:18 Jeremiah and Isaiah are sent to help. Of course there are additional parallels between Jesus and Jeremiah, particularly in their respective oracles proclaimed against the Jerusalem and the Temple, pronouncing God’s judgment upon Israel for its disobedience. Perhaps Deuteronomy 18:15-18 would provide support for Jesus’ identification with another prophet figure. It is interesting that none suggest a new Moses or David. Is this significant for modern suggestions about a Jesus-Moses parallelism? Would this language imply Messianic status?

Jesus then requires the disciples to declare themselves (vv.15-16). Weight is given to the mention of Peter by using his double name “Simon Peter” (cf. 4:18). Jesus uses his full Semitic name “Simon Barjonas” (v. 17; Son of John/Jonah – John 1:42; 21:15). He is presumed to answer for all. He declares that “You are the Messiah, the Son of God who lives.” Although Matthew identified Jesus as Messiah in the opening chapter, this is the only place in the Gospel where a person confesses that Jesus is Messiah.

  • The term “Messiah” is not used in the OT to reference a divine figure. Normally it describes the process of anointing that identifies a person called to a particular role in God’s plans – king, priest, prophet.
  • First occurrence of it with reference to a separate and distinct messianic figure is in the Psalms of Solomon 17:21-26 (c. 50 BC), where the promised Davidic king is identified as messiah. As well we find similar uses in the Qumran materials to refer to a priestly figure – the anointed of Aaron and Israel (1QS 9:11). In 4QpGena (4Q252) 2:12 “the anointed one” is identified with “the branch of David.”
  • The concept of “anointing” indicates someone is set apart by the deity for a specific role.

So what is Peter saying when he makes this confession? It would seem through Matthew’s  various descriptions of Jesus as “son of David” that he is defining Jesus as the expected royal, Davidic figure whom God would send to restore the fortunes of Israel as he had promised (cf. usage in the Psalms of Solomon).[14]

The expression “the son of God who lives (or the living God)” links us back to the declaration of the disciples when Jesus walked on the water (14:33). What is Peter affirming through this epithet? Is this a statement of Jesus’ deity? Jesus will agree with this identification in his trial before the High Priest in 26:63.

The material in vv. 17-19 is unique to Matthew. Jesus immediately affirms the truth of Peter’s confession and pronounces a special blessing on him (v. 17). Jesus declares that Peter has not received this insight from some human source (flesh and blood), but God the father “has revealed” this. How this has occurred Jesus does not explain. Perhaps this is an elaboration of what Jesus was saying in 11:25-27 – God reveals his wisdom to “little children”, i.e., those who put their faith in Jesus as son of God. Peter has done this several times – following as a disciple and then climbing out of the boat and walking to Jesus on the water.

Just as Peter has identified Jesus as Messiah, so now Jesus identifies Simon as “Rock/ Petros” and “on this rock (petra (πέτρα))” he declares he will construct “my assembly (mou tēn ekklēsian (μου τἠν ἐκκλησίαν).” Jesus defines Peter’s destiny through this oracle. In Matthew Jesus usually calls him Simon. In Acts he is regularly Peter. [15] We probably should not see a major distinction between the words petros/petra (πέτρος/πέτρα) at this stage.[16] The use of the demonstrative pronoun “This rock” raises one or two questions. Normally “this” would link this noun back to something previously mentioned. So what in vv. 16-17 would Jesus be referring to – Peter’s confession that Jesus is Messiah, the act of Peter confessing this, or Peter himself who would be the future leader of the Jerusalem church? I am not sure how important making a decision on this really is. Surely Jesus is reflecting on the nature of his confession and his imminent role in establishing the messianic assembly in Jerusalem after the resurrection.

Nolland[17] asks whether the stone imagery is related to contexts in the OT where God lays a stone in Zion (Isaiah 28:16). The Qumran community used this Isaiah text to define itself. Perhaps Jesus also has this in mind with reference to Peter. As well, the Qumran community related these stone texts to the community as a symbolic temple, “the foundation of the holy of holies for Aaron.” Whether we should see any temple imagery in Matthew 16:17-18 is debated. Its combination with the building motif may indicate this (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-7). Or, with a different sense, Jesus might be reflecting on Isaiah 51:1-2 where Abraham and Sarah seem to be defined as “the rock from which you were hewn.”

We also must come to terms with Jesus’ use of the term ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία). This was one of the terms used in the Septuagint to define the covenant assembly of Israel in the Pentateuch.[18] While it has a long history of usage in Greco-Roman contexts to define the assembly of the polis/city, it is more probably the Jewish Septuagint usage that guides Jesus. Given its use primarily in Deuteronomy to refer to the constitutive assembly of Israel as it is about to enter the Promised Land, the emphasis in Jesus’ use is on the gathering of God’s people to inaugurate the next stage of God’s purposes. Stephen in Acts 7 will define Israel in the wilderness as the ekklēsia (ἐκκλησία). In some sense I think Jesus must be claiming that his teaching and ministry is redefining and reconstituting Israel. What will emerge is the messianic assembly, the newly gathered people of God created around the person of the Messiah. He is not referring to an institution or organization per se, but rather the gathered people of God founded on a new covenant. What is the more intriguing question is how this expression as used by Jesus relates to the Kingdom reality he is representing and offering to humanity. Perhaps the mention of the Kingdom in the following verse would suggest that Jesus sees more concentricity between the messianic assembly and the kingdom reality than we are prepared to accept today.

Jesus does not set his assembly in opposition to the Roman empire, but rather Satan’s empire – pulai haidou (πύλαι ᾇδου). “The gates of Hades” in the ancient world defined the sphere of death. The verb katischusousin (κατισχύσουσιν) has been interpreted variously. The Gates of Hades can be considered the aggressor or the messianic assembly could be so construed. I think it is the messianic assembly that is the one prevailing (cf. the Parable of the strong man whose house is plundered in 12:29). This requires a translation such as “the gates of Hades shall not be stronger than it.” The sense would then be that the messianic assembly with the gospel is able to rescue people from the sting of death, placing them in the kingdom of God who lives.

If this is a correct understanding of v. 18, then it leads naturally to v. 19 with its emphasis on entry into the kingdom – binding and losing, using the keys of the kingdom as a means to bring people from death to life.[19] As Blomberg suggests, it refers “to Christians’ making entrance to God’s kingdom available or unavailable to people through their witness, preaching and ministry.”[20] Entrance into the Kingdom is linked with forgiveness of sins. The same kind of language will recur in Matthew 18:18. Consider the role of all the apostles as the foundation of the church in Ephesians 2:20 and Revelation 21:14. Others consider this binding and loosing to define the responsibility of the church leadership to define appropriate behaviours (as for example Paul does in his letters).

Jesus’ restriction upon the disciples sharing this information at this time probably relates to their imperfect understanding of it, as well as the imperfect understanding of his role as Messiah, exactly what the following segment will demonstrate.

[1] The Romans believed that their emperors had the power to do miracles on occasion, because of their supposed relationship with the gods.

[2] Only James and Jude have further mention in the NT. James becomes the leader of the early church and perhaps writes the Epistle of James. Jude also writes an epistle.

[3] Josephus (Ant. 18.136) reports that Herodias “parted from a living husband to marry her husband’s brother and that this was to flout the way of our fathers.”

[4] I would suggest that the NIV translation “miraculous powers” clouds the reference to “powers”, i.e. spiritual beings who exercise supernatural powers. This is more in line with Paul’s reference to “principalities and powers.”

[5] Nolland, p.580.

[6] John provides specific information about the distance (John 6).

[7] Luke has a similar statement in 6:39. Paul also uses this analogy in Romans 2:19.

[8] In vv.15-16 we find two Greek words that only occur once in the NT – phrazō φράζω – explain, show, tell; akmēn ἁκμήν – an adverbial accusative meaning ‘still’ (cf. Blass, DeBrunner, Funk, Greek Syntax, section 160).

[9] 13:14 is the only context in Matthew where the verb anaplēroō (ἀναπληρόω) occurs.

[10] At 9:36 Jesus has compassion on the people because they are harassed and cast down (errimmenoi (ἐρριμμένοι)), the same verb as is used here.

[11] Matthew, as Mark, uses two different words to describe the baskets used for collecting fragments. In 15:37 it is spuris (σπυρίς) and in 14:20 it is kophinos (κόφινος). It is not clear what the distinction between these baskets signifies. Acts 9:25 the spuris is big enough for Paul to sit in.

[12] Note how Jesus commended the Centurion and the Canaanite woman for their faith.

[13] In some of the cultic regulations in the OT yeast was to be removed, i.e., feast of unleavened bread, related to Passover.

[14] The occurrence of messianic references in later, first century Jewish writings (i.e., 2 Baruch, Targums) probably reflects the strong interactions between Christianity and Judaism related to Jesus as Messiah.

[15] Note the way that Paul alternates between Simon and Peter in Galatians 1-2.

[16] Could Peter’s statements in 1 Peter 2:4-6 be a clarification of Jesus’ statement, to make absolutely clear that Jesus is the foundation stone, not Peter, for the new people of God?

[17] Nolland, 671.

[18] Deut. 4:10 (NETS) “about the day when you stood before the Lord your God at Choreb, on the day of the assembly (tēs ekklēsias (τῆς ἐκκλησίας)) when the Lord said me, ‘Assemble the people…’”; 31:33 “And Moyses spoke the words of this song, to the very end, in the ears of the whole assembly (πάσης ἐκκλησίας) of Israel.”

[19] Perhaps there is some relationship between “the gates of Hades” and “the keys of the Kingdom.” Both refer to ways of opening or closing access.

[20] Blomberg, 254.