The miracles and messages of Matthew 14-16 are framed on the one side by the beheading of John the Baptist and on the other by Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah. Herod’s execution of John the Baptist (Matt 14:1-13) demonstrated the dangers that might come upon those identified with the kingdom of God. While the threat of Herod was no small matter, Jesus gave most of His attention to His more religious opponents. Jesus employed the Old Testament to confront the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. They understood their historical situation in Israel to be the fulcrum of Scripture’s storyline. Jesus countered that His entrance into the world provided the only valid grid for understanding God’s work of redemption, and how the redeemed should live in God’s kingdom.
(1) In Matt 15:4, Jesus confronted the Pharisees and scribes for circumventing God’s commands that His people honor their parents. When a delegation of Pharisees came from Jerusalem to observe Jesus while He was ministering in Galilee, they became concerned that Jesus’ disciples had set aside the tradition to perform ceremonial washing before a meal. Jesus countered that the Jewish leadership had committed the greater error. While adhering to a tradition about washing, the Pharisees and scribes set aside the fifth commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) and the commands against cursing a parent (Exod 21:17; Lev 20:9) by promising to give to the temple resources that should have gone to care for needy parents.
(2) In Matt 15:8-9, Jesus cited Isa 29:13 to confront the Jewish leadership’s hypocrisy. Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes that by elevating their tradition over God’s commands they had revoked God’s word altogether (Matt 15:6). Jesus saw in Isa 29:13, “These people approach Me with their mouths to honor Me with lip-service—yet their hearts are far from Me,” a description of His opponents. Jesus went on to teach His followers that since murder, greed, lust, selfishness, and pride defile a person, disciples should be concerned more for the state of their hearts than with washing their hands (Matt 15:17-20//Mark 7:18-23).
(3) In Matt 16:4, Jesus cited Jonah’s experience in the whale as a sign of His forthcoming death and resurrection. In Matt 16:1, Matthew noted that the Pharisees and Sadducees tested Jesus, asking Him to show them a sign from heaven. Jesus confronted His opponents saying that an evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but they would only receive the sign of Jonah (Matt 16:4). Jonah ran from God and the sailors on the ship headed for Tarshish threw Jonah into the sea in hopes of sparing their lives (Jon 1:14-16). The Lord sent a fish to rescue Jonah. That great fish spit Jonah onto the shore alive. Alive was what Jesus would be when He came from the tomb. The very sign Jesus’ opponents did not want was the only sign He would give them. Jesus’ opponents were dull to the reality that the Messiah was staring them in the face. Redemptive history had shifted. Faith in Jesus, not lineage in national Israel, was the only means of salvation—as Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God (Matt 16:16//Mark 8:29//Luke 9:20//John 6:69).