Our reading today begins with another admonition against observing strictly outward laws. The scribes and Pharisees want to know why Jesus’s disciples do not wash their hands before they eat (15:1-2). This is a ceremonial washing they are referring to. Note that this ceremony is required according to tradition, and not the Scriptures. Jesus again points out their hypocrisy (like He did with their Sabbath observance – see 12:9-14) by showing how their traditions violate Scriptural commands (vv. 3-6), indeed, they nullify the Scriptures. Jesus tells them that it is they who Isaiah prophesied of in Isaiah 29:13. In fact, the next verse in Isaiah goes on to speak of the wisdom of the wise (remember that holy sarcasm?) perishing. These scribes and Pharisees would have gotten the connection Jesus was making.
Then Jesus goes a step further. He calls the people to Himself (v. 10) and explains that it isn’t outward defilement that matters (what goes into the mouth), but the defiled heart (what comes out of the mouth) (v. 11, 17-20). It isn’t physical, it’s spiritual. And the disciples know that the religious elite are not happy (v. 12), so Jesus resorts back to the imagery of the wheat and the weeds, calling the Jewish leaders weeds (v. 13 – see 13:24-30).
Jesus then, once again, enters Gentile lands (v. 21). In the exchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman (vv. 22-28), we see Jesus conviction that He has been sent to Israel. This is similar to His sending the 12 only to Israel (10:5-6 – notice the terminology is the same). Until Christ’s death, the dividing wall was still up (see Eph 2:14) because Jesus had to fulfill the promises God gave to Israel (see Rom 15:8). But as we saw, Israel’s rejection would result in blessing for the Gentiles (10:18), which is pictured here in Jesus’s healing of this woman’s daughter through the exorcism of the demon. Again, it is really all about faith (v. 28).
In verses 29-31, we see 5:14-16 in practice in Jesus’s ministry. We then have another feeding miracle (vv. 32-39), but this time in Gentile lands. This is another object lesson to confirm the blessing of the whole world through faith. This is the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3. Jesus’s compassion (v. 32) is again about their spiritual state. The physical bread points to the abundant spiritual provision of Christ.
In chapter 16, the Sadducees get involved. Once again, Jesus is asked for a sign (16:1 – see 12:26), and Jesus gives the same answer as last time (16:4 – see 12:40-41). But this time, instead of speaking of Gentiles being saved instead of these Jewish leaders, Jesus points out that Who He is should be obvious to them (vv. 2-3). Thus, Jesus warns His disciples from listening to their teaching (vv. 5-12). Jesus ties in the feeding miracles here, showing how those two miracles and the “leaven” of the religious leaders are not about the physical.
We then have the record of the Apostle Peter’s famous confession (vv. 13-20). Note that this takes place in Gentile lands, specifically in Caesarea Philippi (v. 13). This is significant for understanding what transpires here. Christ asks His disciples what is being said about Him by the crowds. Notice that He refers to Himself here as “the Son of Man.” Jesus is essentially saying, “who do people think I, God in the flesh, am?” But the real question is: what do the disciples say? And Peter answers that He is the Messiah, and that He is, in fact, God in the flesh (v. 16). And Jesus explains that this is only revealed to man by God (v. 17). What Jesus says next has been the topic of discussion and debate for millennia.
But, as I said, where Jesus says this, is key for understanding what He meant. Caesarea Philippi was named by Herod the Great’s son, Philip, in honor of the Roman Emperor, hence, Caesarea Philippi. It was at the southern base of Mt. Hermon. In the Old Testament, it was in the land of Bashan. Israel defeated Og king of Bashan in Numbers 21:31-35. We find out in Deuteronomy 3:11 that Og was a remnant of the Rephaim who were giants. According to the Jews in the first century (and for centuries before) the giants were the result of procreation by wicked angels and human women (see Gen 6:1-4). And according to their tradition (and second Temple writings from 400 B.C. – 100 A.D), these angels descended from the top of Mt. Hermon. Why? Because it was where God and His angels (His heavenly council) were. It was where heaven met earth. Once these angels committed their atrocious act, God put them in prison in Tartarus (see 2 Pet 2:4 and Jude 6). The entry way to Tartarus was believed to be at the base of Mt. Hermon.
So with this in mind, we see Jesus travel from Tyre and Sidon south back towards Israel, and He stops here with His disciples and asks His question. When Peter answers correctly, Jesus says “you are Peter and on this rock I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18). The rock (which Jesus names Peter after) is Mt. Hermon, where heaven was believed to have met earth. They were sitting where the Jews believed the literal gates of hell were. The imagery would not have been lost on the disciples. The church would become where heaven meets earth, and the church would assail the gates of hell, where the disobedient angels were. In other words, in crass terms, Jesus is telling His disciples who they are as the church, and He is telling the powers of darkness He is coming for them, and so is His church.
And it is now that Jesus reveals to His disciples for the first time that He will suffer and die and be raised (v. 21). They now believe in Him, they now knew what they were to be, and they now knew who their true enemy was. They just needed to learn that the way to glory is through suffering. Note only would they have to understand Jesus suffering (vv. 22-23), but they would be called to suffer themselves. This is why Jesus immediately talks about keeping their eyes on heaven (v. 23 – see 6:19-21), and about the cost of following Him (vv. 24-28 – see 8:18-22, 10:16-39). This is how heaven comes to earth, and how we assail the gates of hell: we deny ourselves, we take up our cross, and we follow Jesus.
Then, verse 17 begins with the Transfiguration. Jesus takes these three Apostles “up on a high mountain” (17:1). This is Mt. Hermon, where God and His angels sat in the heavenly council – where heaven meets earth.1 And that is exactly what happens next. God the Son’s glory breaks through (v. 2 – this is fulfilling 16:28). God the Father is there (v. 5). Elijah is there (v. 3 – where did Elijah go in 2 Kings 2:11?). Moses is there.2 Jesus took these three men to heaven – to where heaven meets earth!
After coming down the mountain, Jesus finds His other disciples unable to cast a demon out of a boy (vv. 14-16). Jesus rebukes His disciples for their lack of faith (v. 17) and Himself casts out the demon (v. 18). When the disciples ask Jesus why they could not cast the demon out (they had been able to perform exorcisms before), Jesus tells them it is their lack of faith (v. 20). He refers them back to the Parable of the Mustard Seed (see 13:31-32), and tells them that they can tell “this” mountain to “move from here to there” and it will move.
Consider this event in light all we just said about the confession and the transfiguration. First, did the Apostles lose faith since their mission where they were given authority to cast out demons (see 10:1, 8)? No. As we have seen, their faith is growing! What happened was the powers of darkness understood Jesus’s throw-down when He told the Apostles that the gates of hell would not prevail against His church. They were already starting to fight back. Second, is Jesus promising that His people can move physical mountains if we have enough faith? No. Remember what the mountain represents and what the church is. He is talking about the faith we will need to expand the kingdom of heaven on earth. We will “move” heaven from “here to there” as the church fulfills her mission and expands. After this teaching, Jesus again reveals His coming suffering, death. and resurrection. He was speaking of physical realities – physical suffering, physical death, physical resurrection – but it was part of the spiritual warfare that was underway.
In chapter 18, Jesus continues teaching about the kingdom of heaven that the church will expand in the world. And Jesus rests entry into the kingdom on faith. The complete trust children have is what we need (v. 3). The humility children have is what we need (v. 4). And we are to receive all with this faith and humility (v. 5), that is, all who enter into the kingdom. But to take one of Christ’s disciples and lead them to stumble is deserving of punishment (v. 6). And again, the physical is about the spiritual. Christ is saying His true disciples do not lead others to sin.
And Christ expands His teaching on this sin. He already taught His disciples to pray that the Father would not lead us into temptation, but that He would deliver us from the evil one (6:13). This is still talking about spiritual warfare, here. Christ is saying that temptations will come, but the one who causes the temptation (Satan and those in his kingdom he uses) will be judged (v. 7). Then Jesus talks about removing any provision for sin in our lives (vv. 8-9 – see Rom 13:14). This is not talking about literal self-mutilation. It is talking about identifying those influences (like people) or situations in your life that tempt you to sin – that Satan works through – and remove them from your life. Better to suffer loss in this world than suffer judgment in the world to come.
Christ than speaks of despising one of these little ones (v. 10). He is sticking with the metaphor of a child to describe His true disciples. The word “despise” means to “look down upon” or “think little of”. Disciples value other disciples. Believers value believers. We should rejoice over the restoration of a fallen brother or sister (vv. 12-13) because God preserves them (v. 14). We should seek peace and forgiveness and restoration among the brethren, and if there is one who will not seek these things after given ample opportunity, he is to be removed from among us (vv. 15-17).
And note that Jesus is placing all of this in the spiritual realm. He refers to the care of the angels as part of God’s preservation (v. 10). He speaks of binding and loosing in matters of excommunication (v. 18) like He did when speaking of heaven meeting earth and spiritual warfare (16:18-19). Because what Jesus is describing is spiritual warfare! Those who do not reconcile are those sinning because of the deceit of Satan. Removing the sinner from the church is turning him over to Satan (see 1 Cor 5:5) as a final recourse for restoration (see 2 Cor 1:6-11). Doing all of this is engaging Satan in battle.
As is forgiveness. When we forgive, we defeat Satan in battle. When we don’t, he defeats us. The kingdom of heaven (the church who “moves the mountain” and in whom heaven meets earth) is full of those who forgive like God forgave us (see 6:12). This is the point of the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. But it is not unrelated to everything else we just considered. From chapter 16:13 through 18:35, Matthew is pointing out the faith we need to engage in spiritual warfare and how that plays out within the church. We may think these are a choice to forgive, or a choice to treat each other properly, or a choice to remove a brother stuck in sin – but it is about expanding heaven and defeating the powers of darkness. This is how we do it!
1 I’m not going to die on this hill, but I believe this is where Satan brings Jesus in Matthew 4:8-11, where the angels are.
2 God Himself buries Moses, but no one knew where or ever found his body (Deut 34:6) And we know that the angel Michael and Satan disputed about his body in Jude 9. I do not find it unreasonable that Moses was resurrected and translated to heaven by God at some point. But even if it is Moses’s soul or spirit, the symbolism of the Apostles having entered into heaven with Jesus on Mt. Hermon stands.