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Jesus Prepares His Disciples
to Build His Church
(chapter 13, verse 53 through chapter 18, verse 35)
People in Jesus’ hometown take offense at him
Matthew chapter 13, verses 53-58
When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.
“When Jesus had finished . . .” marks another major dividing point in Matthew’s gospel. From here through chapter 18, we find Jesus preparing his disciples to build his church. He prepares them by telling them what to say and do and by demonstrating these things for them in the conduct of his own ministry.
Coming to Nazareth, the village where he had been brought up, Jesus went to the local synagogue to teach the people. It was his custom, not only to attend the services in the synagogue regularly but also to teach the people on these occasions. The ruler of the synagogue was in charge of the services, but other men would normally be given an opportunity to read and expound the Scriptures in the services. All they had to do was to stand up and ask for the floor. The gospel of Luke reports this incident in greater detail. Luke tells us that Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 61, verses 1 and 2) and that Jesus applied those words to himself. That helps to explain why the people were amazed at his teaching.
Their amazement was tempered by skepticism and even hostility. They could not deny that Jesus spoke words of profound wisdom, nor could they explain away his mighty works. Yet they stubbornly refused to accept Jesus’ claims. That’s the way unbelief often is. It is unreasonable and illogical, so it cannot be overcome simply by using reason or logic to demonstrate that God’s Word is true. Reason and logic may be entirely convincing in other matters, but spiritual truths require spiritual discernment, and that comes only from the Holy Spirit. Those who stubbornly resist the Spirit and reject God’s truth imagine that they are displaying a superior kind of wisdom. But the Bible says that an atheist is a fool, and that can be demonstrated on the basis of human reason, for the evidence of God’s existence is overwhelming both in the heavens and on the earth. So many of the wise and learned of our generation have not progressed beyond the level of the uneducated, stubborn unbelievers in Nazareth.
Those people of Nazareth refused to believe what they saw with their own eyes or heard with their own ears. They insisted that their senses must be deceiving them because, after all, they had known Jesus for most of his life. They knew Mary, his mother, and they regarded Joseph the carpenter as his father. They knew that Jesus had also worked at the carpenter’s trade in Nazareth. They knew four brothers of Jesus by name, and they indicated that they also knew at least three sisters who lived in that community, although they did not mention their names (see Mark chapter 6, verse 3). (Concerning the question whether these brothers and sisters of Jesus were younger sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph or perhaps cousins or other relatives, see the commentary on chapter 12, verses 46-50.)
Jesus responded by quoting a familiar saying: “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” That is a general observation, not an absolute truth without exception, but in this case it describes the situation very well.
When those people “took offense” at Jesus, they regarded him as a dangerous false prophet. Luke reports that the people became violent. They attempted to hurl Jesus down the steep eastern slope of the hill on which the village was situated. This was a drop of about 50 feet, and such a fall would have resulted in serious injury or even death. But Jesus calmly walked away right through the middle of the mob, and nobody was able to lay a hand on him. This was clearly a demonstration of superhuman, divine power and convincing evidence that he was who he claimed to be. This incident calls to mind a similar happening in the Garden of Gethsemane when those who came to arrest Jesus were helpless to touch him until he voluntarily gave himself into their hands. Throughout his public ministry of about three years, Jesus demonstrated with his mighty works that he had divine authority, which also gave credibility to his words.
Because of the inexcusable unbelief of the people in Nazareth, Jesus refrained from doing many miracles there. The miracles that Jesus performed throughout his ministry identified him as the promised Messiah because they were precisely the works that the prophets had foretold of the Savior. But those who rejected his message refused to be convinced by his works. They were more inclined to be furious with Jesus for doing miracles because they were afraid that others might be convinced by these mighty works that Jesus was indeed the Son of God. So they were determined to stop Jesus’ works and silence his words even if that meant taking his life. That was the attitude of the citizens of Nazareth on that day, and we find the same attitude among the spiritual leaders of the Jews who plotted Jesus’ death and intimidated Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus to death on the cross. Is it any wonder that Jesus did not do many miracles in Nazareth?
John the Baptist beheaded by Herod
Matthew chapter 14, verses 1-12
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet. On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.
When Herod the tetrarch heard about Jesus’ miraculous works, he did not deny that they were indeed miracles. He rather drew the conclusion that Jesus must be John the Baptist risen from the dead. At this point Matthew reports how the tragic death of John the Baptist had taken place, and we can understand how Herod’s guilty conscience might draw such a conclusion.
This was Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, who ruled at Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod the Great was the one who directed the wise men to Bethlehem to find the infant Jesus and who soon thereafter sent his soldiers to murder all the male infants up to two years old in Bethlehem. In this way he vainly hoped to destroy Jesus, “the newborn King of the Jews,” who might grow up to threaten Herod’s authority and position. His son, Herod Antipas, was as unscrupulous and wicked and violent as his father. John the Baptist had not hesitated publicly to call Herod to repentance, especially because of his adulterous marriage, which was an offense to God and to all godly people. Herod’s response was not to repent but to arrest John and put him into prison.
A brief explanation of Herod’s marital situation (not to call it a real marriage!) will be helpful at this point. This was the sordid situation: Herod had been married to the daughter of Aretas, King of Nabataea in Arabia. During a visit to Rome, Herod fell for Herodias, who was the wife of his brother Philip. She was a granddaughter of Herod the Great, so Philip, her husband, was also her uncle. They had a daughter named Salome. Herod Antipas was a half-uncle of Herodias. In spite of all these entanglements, Herod Antipas ran off with Herodias. Herod’s wife then returned to her father, King Aretas, and he waged war against Herod. That was the situation that John the Baptist rightfully criticized, and Herod’s response was to imprison John. He would have preferred to put John to death, but he did not have the courage to do that because he knew that many of the people regarded John as a great prophet.
Even if you cannot keep all the details straight, you can have some idea of the character of Herod Antipas, and it will soon become clear that his illicit wife and his half-niece/stepdaughter Salome were like peas in a pod with Herod. We might say that they deserved one another.
Under these circumstances, the tragic death of John does not come as a great surprise. It happened on Herod’s birthday. At his birthday party Salome performed a dance that Herod found very entertaining. To show his appreciation, he promised to give Salome anything she might desire—up to half of his kingdom! After consulting with her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And Herod immediately granted her request because he did not want to lose face before his guests.
Herod felt obligated to grant her request because he had promised with an oath. Everything about this oath and promise was wrong from beginning to end. He was prompted by an indecent performance; he took an oath in an uncertain matter; and he promised something he had no right to give, for he wasn’t even a real king. An oath that binds a person to commit a terrible crime must not be regarded as binding, but Herod was not much concerned about right and wrong. He was willing to let one sinful act lead to even greater wickedness, imagining that somehow he would be able to escape the consequences of his sins, but in God’s good time the day of reckoning came.
John’s disciples were allowed to claim his body and to grant it a decent burial. They told Jesus about his death, and then most of John’s disciples followed Jesus. After all, that was what John had directed them to do all along. He had clearly pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the promised Savior, and he had stated that Jesus must increase while he must decrease. So John died not long after his 33rd birthday, but his example and his message live on.
Jesus feeds the five thousand
Matthew chapter 14, verses 13-21
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered. “Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
“When Jesus heard what had happened . . .” may at first appear to be a reference to John’s death, but it seems more likely that John’s tragic death was no longer news at this time, and the reference is rather to the first two verses of the chapter. There we were told how Herod reacted to reports about Jesus and concluded that Jesus must be the resurrected John. Verses 3 to 12 of this chapter are in the nature of a parenthetical remark.
Even though Jesus had the divine power to protect himself from any adversary, including Herod, Jesus never unnecessarily exposed himself to danger. His primary purpose in sailing across the Sea of Galilee to the eastern shore was to have a little time for rest and relaxation. He also wanted to confer with his disciples, who had returned from their mission (chapter 10, verse 5). But he had precious little time to rest. The crowds found out where he was going, and they followed him on foot, walking around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. This was a walk of eight miles or so, so it would have been possible for people to walk there and back the same day. It is amazing to note, however, that they were able to bring along a number of sick people for Jesus to heal.
This, then, is the setting for Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand—the only miracle, by the way, that is recorded in all four gospels. We’ll confine our remarks to the information about this miracle recorded by Matthew. Here we are told that, as the afternoon drew on, the disciples became concerned about the crowds, for the people had come without much preparation. They had not brought food along, and there was no convenient place to secure any. The disciples’ suggestion that the people be sent to nearby villages to buy food really was not feasible. Jesus had other plans, but he did not immediately reveal them to the disciples. He just told them, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples had already determined that the only food available was five loaves of barley bread and a couple of small fish, and that hardly seemed worth mentioning. But for Jesus that was more than enough, and he proceeded accordingly. He directed the people to sit down on the grass in orderly groups, leaving passageways for the disciples to get to everybody. (Just imagine what a dangerous situation there would have been if Jesus had simply announced that he had food and told the people to come and get it. There easily could have been a riot, and many older or weaker people might have been trampled to death.)
Jesus then simply spoke a prayer of thanks and proceeded to distribute the food. As he broke the loaves with his hands and the disciples carried the pieces to the people, the bread was multiplied so that there was more than enough for everybody. The same thing happened with the two small fish. We must always depend upon our gracious Lord to provide us with food, but usually he does that through the normal processes of nature that he has established: the sun shines and the rain falls and seeds sprout and multiply, and fish and other animals reproduce and grow. We can manage these processes to some extent, but it all depends on the Lord’s blessing. Occasionally he reminds us of that fact as we experience drought or failure of harvest for other reasons. On this occasion Jesus did not just speed up the natural processes for multiplying food; he multiplied the food by his divine power as the almighty Son of God.
After all had eaten and were satisfied, Jesus sent his disciples around to gather the leftovers, and each of them filled a basket. Jesus didn’t want the people to be wasteful just because they had received plenty of food with no effort on their part. He surely is not pleased when we are careless or wasteful with any of his gifts.
We can only guess how many women and children were there in addition to the five thousand men. It makes no difference, of course. This would not have been a greater miracle if there were ten or fifteen thousand people there. Jesus would have been more than equal to the task. This is not the only time the Lord fed his people miraculously. Think of the way he fed the Israelites with manna in the wilderness for 40 years. Their number may have been considerably more than two million! Even today, when the world’s population exceeds five billion and millions go to bed hungry every night, the problem is not with God’s providence. Hunger and starvation are rather due to our own poor management of the resources our gracious God provides. Does it not seem strange that hunger and starvation exist side by side with surpluses and waste? In some places governments pay farmers to produce less, while in other locations the people’s most strenuous efforts cannot provide for their needs. Should we not be able to figure out how our problem of overproduction might be the solution to other people’s problem of inadequate production? It seems simple, but sinful and selfish people have ways of making it complicated.
The gospel of John informs us that the people whom Jesus miraculously fed decided to take Jesus by force and make him their bread king. What an easy life they could have had! And why, they reasoned, should Jesus not continue to provide for them? It was not at all difficult for him, and it would give them a very comfortable life. When they got hungry, Jesus could feed them. When they got sick, Jesus could heal them. But Jesus refused to go along with their ideas, not because he was unconcerned about their needs but because he had more important work to do and more precious blessings to bestow.
At this point Jesus’ disciples did not have a clear understanding of the nature of his work and of the kingdom he had come to establish. They may have been inclined to go along with the ideas of the crowd. That helps us understand why Jesus “made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd,” as the following verses tell us.
Jesus walks on the water
Matthew chapter 14, verses 22-36
Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.
The multitude wanting to make Jesus an earthly king was another of Satan’s temptations, but Jesus overcame the temptation and went to a solitary place in the hills where he could pray to his heavenly Father. As he prayed, the disciples in the boat were having a difficult time coping with a contrary wind. Sudden, violent storms were common on the Sea of Galilee, but the disciples were well qualified to deal with such a storm. Some of them were fishermen who had previously made their living on that same lake. But this storm was more violent than most, and the weary disciples were not making much progress on their way back to the western shore.
Between 3 and 6 A.M., when they were about halfway (about 3.5 miles from shore), Jesus went out to meet them, walking on the surface of the water. Some Bible commentators have gone to great lengths in an effort to explain how Jesus managed to do this. They suppose that he made the water beneath his feet denser than ordinary water, so that it would support the whole weight of his body. (It is said that it is impossible for a person to sink in the Great Salt Lake or in the Dead Sea because the water is so much heavier than a human body on account of the minerals dissolved in the water, but that would still not support a person standing on the surface.) So this is an arbitrary and highly imaginative explanation of Jesus’ walking on the water. Others speak of Jesus as transforming his body into some kind of supernatural mode, something like the glorified body he had after his resurrection from the dead. But there is no basis in Scripture for such explanations. We don’t have to understand or explain it. It’s enough to say that this was another miracle Jesus performed, another instance where he showed that he was not bound by the natural scientific laws that we can never set aside.
It is no surprise that the disciples did not immediately recognize Jesus. After all, it was dark and stormy, and they were not expecting to see him there. So their immediate reaction was to be terrified and to imagine they were seeing a ghost. But Jesus immediately reassured them.
Impetuous Peter then asked Jesus to enable him to walk on the water too. When Peter said, “Lord, if it’s you . . .” he wasn’t expressing doubt. He wasn’t asking Jesus to prove himself. He was rather saying, “Since I know it is you, I ask you to enable me to come to you on the water.” Jesus told him to come, so Peter got out of the boat and began to walk to Jesus on the water. But when he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the high waves nearby, he became afraid and began to sink. Then he called on Jesus to save him, and Jesus reached out and caught him, admonishing him for doubting.
It was Jesus’ power, not Peter’s faith, that had kept Peter from sinking, but his doubts momentarily separated him from Jesus’ power. We too often miss out on blessings that our Lord would be happy to give us because we don’t quite believe he will really keep all of his promises. We too need to ask our Lord to increase our faith. But then we must not sit idly back and wait for something wonderful to happen to our faith. The Scriptures clearly tell us that the Holy Spirit increases our faith through the power of the gospel of Christ in Word and sacrament, the means of grace. So any sincere prayer for a stronger faith will surely be followed by faithful use of the means our Lord has provided for that purpose.
What would you think of a physically sick person who called upon his doctor to make him well but then refused to follow the doctor’s instructions or to take the medicine the doctor prescribed? Our faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and we are completely powerless to bring faith into our hearts. Once we have that gift, however, we have a responsibility to nurture and strengthen it according to the means and the instructions God provides. Anyone who neglects the means of grace and loses his faith as a result has no one to blame but himself. Peter is an example of a man who learned the hard way to rely less on himself and more on the words and promises and power of the Lord.
When Peter and Jesus approached the boat to get into it, the wind died down. Those who were in the boat realized that they had just observed and experienced a great miracle that proved Jesus to be the Son of God, and they worshiped him.
If we read only Matthew’s account of this miracle, we may overlook another miracle that Jesus performed in this connection. John chapter 6, verse 21 tells us that immediately the boat arrived at its destination on the western shore. This miracle did not rescue the disciples from any present danger, but just imagine how weary the disciples must have been by this time! They had been on the lake for about 12 hours, struggling against a fierce, contrary wind after a long and strenuous day. Under those circumstances it would not have been easy for them to row their boat another three or four miles even in very calm water. We cannot say whether that boat sailed through the air or skimmed along the water at a very high rate of speed. It seems better simply to state, as John does, that they were at their destination immediately and to leave it at that. They landed at Gennesaret, a triangular plain a short distance south of Capernaum.
The word quickly got around that Jesus was there. People came from all directions bringing their sick to Jesus for healing. Many people were healed of all sorts of diseases simply by touching the edge of Jesus’ cloak. That garment surely had no power to heal any kind of illness, but Jesus chose to heal people in this way on this particular occasion. Sometimes Jesus healed the sick by touching them or simply by saying a word or in other unusual ways. Whatever the method may have been, all miracles of healing were performed by the conscious, deliberate use of his divine power. In one way or another, Jesus healed all the sick and demon-possessed people that were brought to him for healing. He never turned anyone away.