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encouragement theology

Caring for the Outsiders

Thoughts from Matthew 15…

It was a long, hot summer, and Jesus had been traveling for weeks. His enemies had mobilized against Him and He responded by leaving, taking only His disciples. He travelled north, to the pagan regions of Tyre and Sidon, only to be approached by a foreign woman with big need (see here). He healed her daughter, but then left town as the crowds began to gather. 

Jesus Christ was less than a year from the cross, and He needed to prepare His disciples. They still did not understand and time was running out! After the crowds followed Him to Tyre, He then travelled further north to Sidon, then back around south and east to the Decapolis, the independent cities east of the Jordan River (now modern-day Jordan). 

But even in this remote area, Jesus could not be alone. Great crowds found Him, begging for His healing touch for their loved ones. He stayed with them for three days, teaching them and healing them. 

Jesus’ own people had rejected Him (see here), yet here in these foreign territories, the outsiders crowded to Him! But even through all of these interruptions, Jesus responded with healing and compassion, even to the point of feeding them when their supplies ran out!

Matthew 15:29-39
Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. 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, 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.

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.” And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 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. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

He Came to Decapolis, Drawing Large Crowds

Matthew 15:29-31
Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there. 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, 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.

Mark 7:31
Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

The previous scene in Matthew (see here) was in the district of Tyre and Sidon, to the north of Galilee, where Jesus had healed the Syrophonecian woman’s daughter. We see next, from Mark’s account, that He continued further north (“through Sidon”), and then came back to the Sea of Galilee, on the eastern, Gentile side.a b Jesus had completed a large circle of traveling outside of Jewish territory with His disciples. He was now close to home when the great crowds found Him.

Mark 7:32-37 tells of the first encounter when Jesus returned to the Decapolis. The people brought to Him a deaf man for a private healing. As much as He wanted them to keep this healing quiet, it only served to increase His fame and popularity in that region.

These crowds of Gentiles may have also been influenced by His earlier miracle with “Legion” (see here). Jesus had come to Gadara months earlier and healed the “town lunatics” of several demons. He had cast the demons into a herd of pigs which promptly drowned themselves, causing the town to ask Him to leave. But Jesus had sent out one of the healed men to tell his neighbors what God had done for him. 

These crowds of Gentiles that were coming to Jesus were likely the results of this man’s ministry. They had heard about this great miracle worker, but now they could see Him in person!

Once again, we see that the need of the crowds interrupted Jesus’ original plans. He had come to the desolate area and climbed the mountain to be alone with His disciples. But despite the interruption, He reacted with compassion to the needs of the crowds.

The people glorified the God of Israel. They responded with glory to God over what Jesus had done. It is not the popular fascination of the Jews, nor is it the rejection from the Jewish leaders, but genuine worship to God because of His works.

The Supplies Ran Out in the Remote Place

Matthew 15:32-34
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.” And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.”

Mark 8:1-5
In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.”

This wasn’t a brief, one-time meeting with the needy people in the Decapolis. They had been staying with Him for three days! Jesus realized that their supplies were running low and they did not have enough supplies to make it home! (They were in a remote location, so the people had traveled a great distance from their homes.)

It is important to remember that Jesus’ first motivation for this miracle is for care and compassion. Although all of His miracles demonstrated that He had come from God, His primary motivation was often to meet the physical needs of the people He was ministering to.

He was meeting their spiritual needs, but He did not neglect their physical needs.

“The first motive for this miracle was simply the meeting of human needs. The people had already seen His miracles and glorified God, so the miracle was not for the purpose of preaching a sermon or authenticating His ministry.” – Warren Wiersbe3

Once again, Jesus challenged His disciples. Unlike before, He never gave the command for His disciples to feed them (see here). But they responded to the need with a practical assessment — they were not equipped to meet those needs! There was nowhere that they would be able to accumulate enough bread to feed this great crowd!c

Jesus simply asked what they had. They had seven loaves and a few small fish. 

He Fed Four Thousand Families

Matthew 15:35-38
And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 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. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children.

Mark 8:6-9
And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.

It was now summer in Palestine and the sun had burned away the lush spring grass, turning the hills to barren ground.5 There was no longer green grass like before (Matthew 14:19), so Jesus directed them to sit on the ground (Matthew 15:35). Like before, He took the loaves and the fish, broke them and gave them out to the people. Once again, He multiplied the food until everyone had eaten their fill, leaving seven baskets of leftovers!d e

Jesus first gave thanks, then broke the food, then gave it out.

Matthew’s account clarifies that the crowd consisted of about four thousand men, plus their families. He fed about ten to fifteen thousand!f

He returned to Galilee 

Matthew 15:39
And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.

Mark 8:10
And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.

There is no lingering time after feeding the four thousand Gentiles.g He had cared for the people and met their needs, but He needed to move on! He then got into the boat and returned back to Jewish territories, landing in the obscure port of Dalmanutha.h 

Conclusion

It is easy to get caught up in the narrative during a scene like this. I would love to have been there to personally witness this miracle! Once again, I am humbled by Jesus’ response when He was interrupted. How many times have I responded with aggravation and impatience when my plans are thwarted, yet I am often blind to the needs which are right in front of me! But Jesus showed the example of setting aside His personal plans to meet the needs of the people.

Jesus did not retreat from performing miracles, but His primary motivation throughout this passage is His compassion for the people. He healed them and fed them because He cared for them! And the end result is that they gave God the glory!

It’s not where you are, it’s not who you are ministering to. Always be ready!

And finally, we would be remiss if we did not note that these people were outsiders. They were not the faithful Jews who had grown up with the heritage of God’s word. These were the pig farmers and idol worshippers who were so despised by the devout Jews! And yet these heathen Gentiles responded to the message of Jesus Christ with greater glory than anything from their Jewish neighbors! A heritage of God’s word is great, but only if you respond with belief in Him!

Previous post: Dogs Under the Table


References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 15:29-39, pages 196-197

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 15, The King Denounces Hypocrisy

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 15:29-39, pages 45-46

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 7:31-8:9, page 111

[5] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book III, CHAPTER XXXVI: THE FEEDING OF THE FOUR THOUSAND, TO DALMANUTHA, ‘THE SIGN FROM HEAVEN’, JOURNEY TO CAESAREA PHILIPPI, WHAT IS THE LEAVEN OF THE PHARISEES AND SADDUCEES? (St. Matthew 15:32-vi. 12; St. Mark 8:1-21.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.viii.xxxvi.html

[6] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 9, https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/19-jesus-finds-solitude-with-his-apostles-far-north-in-galilee.html

[7] John MacArthur, Compassion for the Outsiders, Matthew 15:29-39, Aug 22, 1982

[8] D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 15:29-39


Notes

[a] It is apparent that Jesus was ministering to Gentiles throughout this entire passage. Although the scriptures never explicitly state it, we can infer the nationality of the people (i.e. they were Gentiles) in these scenes based on the following:

  • They glorified the “God of Israel” (Matthew 6:31). This shows that they were not part of the nation of Israel themselves, but were in awe of Israel’s God.
  • They were near the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 15:29), but in a “desolate place” (Matthew 15:33). The (Jewish) western side of the lake was heavily populated while the eastern shore is more mountainous with much less settlement.8 Moreover, Mark 7:31 explicitly states that Jesus was in the “region of the Decapolis”. The Decapolis was a Gentile region southeast of the Sea of Galilee (see also here).
  • The Greek word for “baskets” here (Matthew 15:37) is different than in the previous occasion (Matthew 14:20). He fed a Jewish audience in Matthew 14 and collected the leftovers in the small, Jewish, gathering baskets. However, the baskets in Matthew 15 are the large carrying baskets which were commonly used by Gentiles in that region.

[b] Some commentators dispute the location and the nationality of the 4,000 which were healed and fed. Instead of being from Gentile Decapolis, they believe the miracle to have occurred in the Jewish lands under the Tetrarchy of Philip (near where the 5,000 were fed in Matthew 14). The Tetrarchy of Phillip was north-northeast of the Sea of Galilee; The Decapolis was east and south of the Sea of Galilee (Galilee was north and west of the lake).

However, my conclusion based on the notes above is for the simplest rendering, that this was a Gentile crowd in the Decapolis. This makes the most sense from the text, and is a ready companion to the feeding of the 5,000 Jews in Matthew 14. Most commentators who object to this conclusion have attempted to stretch the text for their own theological purposes, mostly to avoid an extensive outreach to the Gentiles at this point in the Lord’s ministry. However, the fact that He reacted with compassion and care to a Gentile crowd is completely consistent with all of His interactions with Gentiles through the Gospel accounts.

[c] Some commentators have used the disciples’ question in Matthew 15:33 to illustrate their unbelief because they asked where they could get enough bread. But this was a reasonable question and does not reflect any assessment of their belief. Jesus had not commanded them to feed the people (unlike Matthew 14), and they were concerned about the supplies needed to feed these people.

[d] As mentioned above, the baskets in Matthew 15:37 are a different type of basket than what was used earlier, when Jesus fed the five thousand Jews (in Matthew 14:20). The analogy today would be the Jewish baskets (Matthew 14) were akin to the modern collection baskets (like offering plates at church), while the Gentile baskets (Matthew 15) were akin to the modern laundry baskets! This is the same type of  larger basket that the disciples used to lower Paul outside the city walls in Acts 9:25.3

“At the first feeding, there were, as the Greek word shows, the small wicker-baskets which each of the Twelve would carry in his hand. At the second feeding they were the large baskets, in which provisions, chiefly bread, were stored or carried for longer voyages.” – Edersheim5

[e] Some scholars find a special numerology in the number of baskets left over — twelve (12) left over from the 5,000 in Matthew 14; seven (7) left over from the 4,000 in Matthew 15. Usually, these commentators point out that the twelve baskets represent the tribes of Israel, and the seven baskets represent some other spiritual point (i.e. the days of creation, the 7 deacons, a “perfect seven”, etc.). There are problems with this view:

  • This is based on conjecture and not Biblical fact. It requires an almost mystical reading of Scripture in order to find the numerology.
  • This implies a figurative and not a literal reading of scripture, expecting that the number of baskets returned were not really the numbers recorded in Scripture.
  • There is no consistency in the interpretation of these numbers. 

[f] Contrast the feeding of the 5,000 with the Feeding of the 4,000

Feeding the 5,000 (Matthew 14)Feeding the 4,000 (Matthew 15)
NationalityPrimarily JewsPrimarily Gentiles
LocationNear BethsaidaThe Decapolis
Food5 loaves, 2 fish7 loaves, “a few fish”
Leftovers12 baskets7 baskets
The crowdHad been there 1 dayHad been there 3 days
Time of yearSpring (green grass)Summer (no grass)
Popular responseTried to make Him kingNo popular response

Source: Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 15:29-39, pages 45-46

[g] We don’t know the exact location where Jesus taught the people and fed the four thousand. However, the best estimate was that this was in a remote area near Gadara in the Decapolis. This would be near the E-SE shore of the Sea of Galilee. 

[h] We don’t have the exact location of Magadan or Dalmanutha, but many Bible scholars equate Dalmanutha with a small harbor south of Capernaum, on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee. The name Dalmanutha may indicate the town while Magadan was the name for the greater region. (The KJV rendered Magadan as “Magdala”, giving rise to the belief that this was connected with Mary Magdalene. However, the best understanding is that Magadan and Magdala were separate towns and should not be confused here.) See here for a map and more information: https://bibleatlas.org/magadan.htm

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