A Bible Lesson on Matthew 14:13-36

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Jesus has begun to be the object of resistance from the religious establishment, and has been teaching and preparing His disciples.  Now news has come that John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod Antipas.  This is an occasion for prayer and quiet.

Matthew 14:13  Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

This “desolate place” is not an arid desert, but rather an uninhabited part of an area that at this time is full of villages of decent size, in all probability even a grassy spot.  Jesus is simply headed out of town to the countryside with His disciples.

14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

This is an interruption of a spiritual retreat for Jesus and His 12.  But Jesus is never without compassion for human beings.  The need for rest and quiet doesn’t trump the presence of those asking for help.  And it goes on to late in the day.

15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

They are out in the country.  There are no taco stands or even village markets nearby.  The disciples really have nothing with which to see that this crowd gets fed.  But the fact that they have no resources that bear on this situation is not the end of the matter.  Hendriksen commenting on this passage correctly makes the point that a disciple’s lack of resources (or the disciple’s fatigue, or …) does not absolve him or her of responsibility to respond.

16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

The “you” is emphatic.  A true rendering might be something like “you, you give them something to eat.”  Now, with humans, this is an impossibility, a command that can’t be executed.  It is testimony to the fact that the disciples don’t yet understand who Jesus is, that they make their response from the point of view of humans alone.  God fed Israel in the wilderness for 40 years: many more people for a much longer time.

17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.”

Hendriksen said, ” … these men are giving an answer not of faith, but of near despair, ‘All we have here is …’; ‘We do not have (anything) here except five bread-cakes and two fishes.'”  They don’t yet see Jesus as even in the class of Moses or an Old Testament prophet like Elijah, let alone as the God and King of the universe.

18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

Jesus could have simply called food into existence out of nothing … and (as Boice suggested tongue in cheek) had it appear in each person’s pocket!  But for His purposes, He uses the disciples and what they have.  What they have is, naturally speaking, completely inadequate, but that’s never the point.  He always uses His people and only as He acts is what they have sufficient for the task He’s set.

19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

He took, He blessed/gave thanks, He broke and He gave.  This was the pattern in the upper room and on the Emmaus road.  This is majestic in its simplicity.  And in this manner, the One who made all and presently sustains all feed those who are hungry this late afternoon.

20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.

This is perfect.  Messiah provides more than enough.  But there is not a ridiculous amount left over considering how many are fed.  There’s a lunch basket for each of the disciples to carry to for the next few days or to give to the poor in the next town they enter.  But there’s no huge waste.  Just as there was manna for the day in the wilderness of the Exodus, there is exactly the right amount here.

21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

He made, He compelled.  Taken together, the four Gospels tell us that at this point Jesus wanted to be alone and pray, that He wanted to rest, and that He wanted to prevent the crowd from moving toward taking Him by force to be their kind of king.  He sends the people home.  He’s responded to their human need, but His fundamental mission is not to simply feed people for a day and it’s not to be the king they expect.  It’s to be about His Father’s business.

23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.

25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.

This is between 3AM and 6AM.  They have been rowing for hours and have to be exhausted at this point.  They are in some amount of danger.

26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear.

In these circumstances, when a figure is spotted walking toward them on the water, they are probably justified in being alarmed. Is this friend or foe?  This is not in our experience with human beings.

27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

“It is I.”  This could be rendered “I AM,” the personal name of the God of the Jews.  Whether the disciples heard it this way or not is perhaps unclear.  But for us looking back on the account, this is surely there.  These guys are doing what they have been told to do by Christ.  Things aren’t going well.  There is even reason to be terrified.  But the I AM comes and says “Take heart.  Don’t be afraid.”

28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

We’re not really told whether this was appropriate on Peter’s part.  It’s surely consistent with his character and nature.  Some think that Peter was out of line here.  Others see him as a model of Christian courage and faith.  The text doesn’t make it clear how to think about the request.  But it does teach us something unambiguous about real Christian faith.

29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.

Peter is here in at least Christ’s permissive will.  He’s quite literally in over his head, but he’s walking toward Christ.  So for the moment all is well.

30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”

As long as the focus is on Christ, Peter is OK.  But as he takes his eyes off Christ and begins to calculate the danger, he begins to go under.  Jesus had told him to come, and was working the miraculous on his behalf.  But ceasing from reliance upon the immediate moment by moment provision of Jesus, he sinks.  He’s no match for the circumstances.  The provision that Christ gives is not somehow a package that operates on its own independent of Him.  Believers don’t carry it around in their pockets to be pulled out and used at their whim.  Peter is sinking.  The “faith heretics” would say he has no faith.  But the truth is that he has some amount of real faith in that he does have sense enough to cry out for mercy!  That’s a declaration of dependence on Christ.

31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Better Peter had not taken his gaze off Christ, had remained fixed on Him and His provision, had not started calculating the danger and impossibility of what he was doing at Christ’s call.  That is “little faith,” literally unbelief/to be divided in two/to be of double mind.  But Jesus is merciful and saves His weak people when they come to their senses and cry out to Him.  That’s surely inferior to relying constantly in the first place, but it’s some faith.

32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

This is the first time Matthew reports the disciples worshiping Jesus.  He’s taught with authority.  He’s healed the sick.  He’s fed the multitude.  Now He’s walked on water and saved Peter from drowning, and they begin to get the picture.  The full-throated confession of Peter is coming in Chapter 16, but this is significant progress.

34 And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

35 And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick

36 and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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