Matthew 15:21-39 Part 4

After pausing for a week from our exposition of the Gospel of Matthew in order to preach a resurrection message from Romans chapter eight, we now return to one of the exalted events in the Gospel.  The heart of a believer can’t help but be stirred upon hearing that God has sent His Son to find His people; that after being left in darkness by a brutal political system and by vicious pseudoshepherds, the sheep come to Him and are cast down before Him for healing and restoration.

For three days – a fact which, in itself, can’t be overlooked as significant – for three days the power which held them in darkness is defeated and dispelled; and on the mountain of Israel the people marveled as thousands received life from the dead.  In three days the Messiah of God had overcome, in Himself, the ravages of decades and centuries of contaminated leaven – what the Gospel writer Mark called “the leaven of Herod and the leaven of the Pharisees.”

And in this three-day event, not only had the people been compassionately restored to life and health, but the “Day of the Lord” had come upon Israel in judgment.  The very fact that restoration was required and accomplished was condemnatory to the nation that had reeked such havoc among its people.

In the person of Jesus Christ Himself is the power to defeat the product of death and evil, and to restore that which has been ruined.  And in this event is a manifestation, or premonstration, of a three-day occurrence to come in which God’s Own Son was cast down and took upon Himself – in His Own body – a ruined people.  He was ravaged and held in darkness for three days as a substitute for those people, and He arose in powerful restoration and life!

So these thousands of the ruined and scattered sheep of Israel had reason to glorify the God of Israel, for they were witnesses of and participants in a premonstration of the salvation of the world!

Now.  Having spent that three days pouring Himself out in restoration of the lost and ruined, the Lord Jesus now turns to their feeding.  And might I say that we are just not privileged to see and comprehend all that is here.  It’s just too much for us.  We’ve even been given that Lord’s table to help us.  But God’s grace toward us is incomprehensible as to its depth.  But we will try.  And by His Spirit we will be taught as much as we can hold.

Verse thirty-two:


“Now Jesus, having summoned His disciples, said, ‘Pity on the crowd.  Three days now they remain with Me and not having anything they might eat; and I do not want to send them away fasting, lest they be exhausted in the way.’”


Let me say something, first, about the kind of interpretation that has gone on in theological circles with respect to this passage.  There is a rather large number of people in the Church today who would interpret the Gospel in such a way as to eliminate the progressive unfolding of the Revelation of God’s Son!  At every possible opportunity they will do what we call a “demythologizing” of the text.  And what that does is take out all which they might see as irrelevant material (since it’s only “filler” anyway), and leave only a “story”.  And that story is to leave a relevant message – a central moral theme – for the Church!

Now, the relevant message, or story, for the Church in this passage is the necessity for compassion.  The compassion of Jesus is the central theme; so God’s moral “message” to the Church is that it, too, must be compassionate, for compassion, or pity, is a high human virtue!

I don’t want to go too far with the issue of compassion, here, because that’s not the point I want to make.  The point is that this kind of exegesis (or lack of exegesis) has led these interpreters to see these two feeding incidents as one event!

All of these stories have emerged, they say, from the Christian community anyway, and only “the message” has revelational relevance to people; so these two stories are redundant recordings of the same incident!  Two different versions of the story have evolved and emerged from the Christian community, and so whoever wrote everything down put both versions in there!  Even the issue of the inspiration of Scripture doesn’t matter to these interpreters, because they say the central point of the two stories is inspired!

I like to bring this kind of thing up to you occasionally, because this is what we have to do battle with as we defend the faith and extend the Kingdom.  And the facts are that Matthew has recorded two different incidents where Jesus broke bread for thousands.  He was an eye-witness at both!  And although both were on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, they were at different locations.  And the first one, recorded in chapter fourteen, involved five thousand men plus women and children; and the one here in chapter fifteen involved four thousand men plus women and children.

In the first incident there were five loaves of bread at the beginning, and twelve baskets of pieces were left over.  And in the second, there were seven loaves of bread available and seven baskets of pieces were left over!  And in chapter sixteen Jesus even mentions the two separate events when He brings up the significance of the numbers of baskets left over!

In addition to that, the first occasion of feeding lasted only one day, where this one is at the end of three days of healing and fasting!  And in the former event the apostles are worried about the hungry crowd at the end of the day; but here they show no signs of worry after three days of fasting!

All of these things are proof positive that there are two occasions of Jesus feeding large crowds of people.  And this one before us now is a further revelation of the fact that the bread of life has come into the wilderness to heal and restore the lost and scattered sheep of the house of Israel!

So now, as we come back to the text, verse thirty-two, there is a word here that gives us a key to understanding what’s going on here.  Jesus explains to His apostles that this huge crowd has been with Him for three days (and we’ve already noticed the significance of that number) and they’ve had nothing to eat.  His pity goes out to them for, having been restored to life, they have not the one thing which will keep them from “fainting” along the way.

The word which I’ve translated “exhausted” is a very important term for Jesus to use.  He says, “… lest they be exhausted, or ‘faint’ in the way.”  The word is only used three other times in the Scriptures; and on each occasion it has a peculiar meaning all its own.  And Jesus has carefully chosen it to use here.

The first occasion is in Deuteronomy chapter twenty, verse three, where Moses is instructing the people in the laws of warfare with the pagans. And he says that when the people are gathered in battle array, the priest will come out and say to them,


“Hear O Israel, you approach this day unto battle against your enemies:  let not your hearts faint, fear not, and do not tremble, neither be terrified because of them; for the Lord your God is He that goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you….”


God goes with you to fight against your enemies; do not faint!

Now, in Galatians six, verse nine, in connection with living in Christ and by His Spirit, Paul says this:


“And let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”


And in Hebrews chapter twelve verse three, in a passage which has to do with believers suffering in the suffering of Christ, the writer says,


“For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest you be wearied and faint in your minds.”


Now, as you can see all three of these passages of Scripture have to do with the great difficulties which God’s people encounter as a result of dealing with the pagan world order.  There is warfare, there is suffering in Christ because He suffered, and there is the day to day, hour by hour, bone wearying, sometimes mind-exhausting perseverance as believers stay the course in Christ!

And as I said, the same word that is used in those three passages is that very same word that Jesus uses here in our verse thirty-two:  “…lest they be exhausted, or faint, in the way.”  This huge crowd of people has been with Jesus Christ for three days, signifying their participation in Him and His death; they have been restored unto life from the dead, signifying His resurrection; and now, in their newness of life, they must go “in the way”.  They must do battle with the world order, they must suffer in Christ and with Christ, and they must persevere in doing well!

So, in order that they “faint not”, so that they not be exhausted in the “way”, what is it that they must “feed upon” in order to be nurtured and sustained?  They must feed upon the Bread of Life – the Body of Christ.  For His Person is the substance of Life!  And by union with Him and in Him, that is, by being with Him three days in His death; by being in Him in His resurrection; and by taking sustenance from His resurrected body, we are continually supplied with the Food which sustains our lives!  In His Body is the nurturing which enables us to “faint not” in the face of bloody warfare with the world order; His Flesh strengthens us as we suffer with Him and in Him; and His Body is our nutrition in sustaining us in persevering in obedience!

As we go on in this Gospel we’ll see more and more of this kind of imagery as the reality of His death and resurrection becomes more imminent, for the Substitute for Adam is a life-giving Spirit; and He is a new beginning for humanity!  As man is incorporated into the Person of the resurrected Lord, there is the dunamis – the dynamic – for vitalization; we can run the race and do the work without fear and without fainting and without exhaustion.

And as that great and mighty day in history approaches His death, burial and resurrection, Jesus prefigures its coming as He breaks bread to the thousands in the most exquisite of His miracles.

And now let’s go back to the text and examine its details.

Jesus had just expressed His desire, in verse thirty-two, that since the crowd had been restored by Him, they now needed the sustenance to be going in the way!  So now, in verse thirty-three, the disciples say to Him, “How do we, in a wilderness, have so much bread so as to feed so great a crowd?”  In other words, it is beyond them to furnish, from the desert place, the required quantity of bread!

Now, some have said that, since only a short period of time has elapsed since the former feeding of a large crowd, the disciples are exhibiting an extreme faithlessness and forgetfulness that Jesus has been in this very situation before, and He has already performed a miracle of this magnitude!  And how could they have been so stupid as to be responding like this?!

But if you read the text carefully, with the intensity on the right words, there’s no way that that kind of interpretation can be made!  The disciples show no worry here at all about the fact that this crowd hasn’t eaten in three days.  In fact, read correctly, they are actually anticipating Jesus feeding this crowd!  “How do we have that much bread?”  You see, the implication is that it is Jesus alone Who can do that!

And also, if you remember, back in chapter fourteen the disciples were trying to figure out how they could split up five loaves so that many of the people could have just a taste!  But here there’s no hint of a “minimum amount”, but “so much bread”.  They’re anticipating a maximum amount which would fill so many people!  They’ve already learned that Jesus isn’t requiring that they find a supply; and there’s no perplexity here at all about it.  The word here is “xortasai” – to fill them.  In order to give them all they need, Jesus must do it!  And the disciples have very little concern, if any, that He will do it!  There’s no dismay shown by the disciples about the miniscule provisions here in verse thirty-four, is there?  Jesus says to them “’How many breads do you have?’  And they said, ‘Seven and few small fish.’”  There’s no anxiety expressed here.  Just a matter of fact response – as if they were just waiting for Jesus to look up to the Father and begin the same ceremony with which He fed the crowds the last time.

And that’s exactly what Jesus did.  Verse thirty-five: 


“And having commanded the crowd to recline on the ground, He took the seven breads and the fishes, and when He had given thanks He broke and was giving to the disciples, and the disciples to the crowds.” 


That’s identical to the procedure in chapter fourteen, isn’t it?  After giving thanks, He broke and kept on giving!  Loading up the baskets again and again – always there was more to give out!

Now, just a peripheral issue here, it occurred to me as I was writing this sermon that not only are there here the issues with regard to the Lord’s Table, which we’ve dealt with on so many past occasions; but it also came to mind that those many seasons in which we give God thanks for the abundance we’ve been given – such as at meals and festivals and time of joy – that our prayers of thanksgiving are very shallow and short-sighted!  Our thanks don’t acknowledge that which the abundance signifies!

As we sit down to eat together, or as we show gratefulness on other occasions, we give thanks for the food; we show our gratitude for the fullness of life; we thank Him for our incomes and the riches of this life.  BUT  - what about the greater reality which all these things signify?

Our eyes are so darkened by hunger and personal need we refuse to look into the things of God and see the deeper significance of eating-until-we’re-filled, or having all we need, or being blessed with the riches of this world!

And yet, here, Jesus fills this great crowd of thousands with the maximum amount in an act which signifies so much more!  Although we don’t know the words He said to His Father when He prayed, I’m sure that they had to do with the abundant grace and mercy of God the Father in giving the Body of God the Son so that His people would have the maximum amount needed for their complete justification and sanctification! – so that God’s adopted children would have a fullness of life-giving food for the warfare and the suffering and the perseverance so they would not faint!

We tend to mumble something like “Thank you for this food in the Name of Jesus, Amen,” when we sit down to fill ourselves with the richness of this world.  And it becomes commonplace and meaningless!  But we as Christians must learn to acknowledge, all the time, that in these common pleasures of life – such as eating – we have signs before us of the richness of Life in the body of Christ, as we participate in Him!  That’s why He gave us such a common thing like eating bread and drinking wine together!  That’s why eating together is such an event of celebration, communion and togetherness!  That’s why common fellowship and joy are so important to us!  We’ve been engrafted into Jesus, and we feed on the totality of His glorious Person; and we thrive and are vitalized by that dynamic of the Spirit of Life!  Acknowledge that, and delight in it, as you give thanks for all you’ve been given.


“And all ate and were filled; and over and above the pieces broken off, they took up seven baskets full.”  (verse thirty-seven)  “And the ones eating were four thousand men, apart from children and women.” 


The numbers of people, beyond a description of the large crowd, have no allegorical significance as best I can tell.  The five thousand before and now the four thousand is simply historical data.  Matthew gives us the numbers of the people to indicate the greatness of the events, and also to indicate the inexhaustible power of Christ to the fullness of His people.

But such is not the case with the baskets of pieces left over.  Their numbers are very significant – to the feeding of that other flock, the Gentile nations.  The Syro-Phoenician woman asked for the pieces left over from the household children; and now Christ has graphically demonstrated those pieces!  Those crumbs!  There were twelve baskets full taken up from the breaking of five loaves of bread in chapter fourteen; and here there are seven baskets full taken up from the breaking of seven loaves of bread.  And even the word for baskets is different from the one that Matthew uses in chapter fourteen.

How significant are these things?  We won’t know until we come to the next chapter, which we begin next week, because Jesus doesn’t comment on them until verse nine through eleven of chapter sixteen.

The end of chapter fifteen occurs with Jesus dismissing the crowds and stepping into a boat to cross over the Sea of Galilee into the region of Magadan, which is on the western side of the sea back in Galilee.  And there, another delegation from the Sanhedrin meets Him.  And this encounter is the setting in which Jesus refers back to the pieces left over from the bread.

But for this morning, we – the pagan Gentiles – have the pieces left over from the feeding of the children of Israel.  We feed on His Body and are restored and sanctified as they were.  And we share in the abundance of Him for the warfare and for the suffering in His Body and for the perseverance in obedience.  And it is sufficient for our complete filling.