Episode 77 - Confrontation with the Pharisees - Opening Up the Gospels

In Episode 76 we looked at the dramatic scene of Jesus walking on the water. It’s such a mind-boggling scene, something that surely must have stuck with the disciples for a long time. You know those moments in our lives of things that utterly shock or amaze us, and how we remember those things so well? The walking on the water scene would have been one of those for me if I was one of the disciples, especially after everything that had happened during the 24 hours leading up to it. Well today I want to continue with Jesus’ Late Galilean ministry and look at the next several events that take place in the land of Gennesaret. Let’s pick up today in Matthew 14: “And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. And when the men of that place recognized him, they sent around to all that region and brought to him all who were sick and implored him that they might only touch the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.” (Matthew 14:34–36 ESV) We’re now on the other side of the sea of Galilee, on the plain of Gennesaret. Let’s take a look at our map for a second. As you can see, Gennesaret is on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee. Bethsaida and the plains near Bethsaida is where he fed the 5,000. Jesus then crossed over with the Twelve and is now here in the plain of Gennesaret. Likely He and the disciples arrived here before dawn, possibly resting in the boat prior to making their way up the shore as the day began. So Jesus disciples get out of the boat and after all of the drama of the last 24 hours, the people recognize Him and immediately they send for people all around the region to come and be healed by Jesus. And once again, there is no rest to be had for Jesus or the Twelve. There’s a similar scene Mark tells us about in Mark 3. That specific scene took place earlier on in Jesus’ ministry. I didn’t cover it in any specific episode, but I do want to mention it here just to draw some comparisons between the two and talk about Jesus for a bit. Let’s read Mark 3: “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.” (Mark 3:7–12 ESV) I think these two scenes together – the scene in Mark 3 and the one we’re looking at chronologically in Matthew 14 – they both show us how accessible and how close God really came. We know that when God took on flesh, He opened Himself up and availed Himself so radically and so unreservedly to the people of Israel. It was just so breathtaking. And as we’ve looked at so many times, everywhere Jesus goes, the multitudes are crowding about Him. But have you noticed that there’s a sense in which He wants to be hidden, but He can’t be? He always seems to be telling people to not say anything about His miracles, but of course they say something and other people find out. What’s even more unique about the incarnation, about God taking on flesh, is that He did not use His power and His sovereignty to shield Himself from the human condition. He got hungry and had to eat, He got tired and had to sleep. He did not use His power to make Himself not hungry or not tired. But He did use His power for many other things – like we just saw in the last several episodes, he used His power to feed crowds of people or to heal others. But He never used it to shield Himself from discomfort or weariness or from the multitudes pressing about Him. He even says in Mark 3, “guys, get a boat ready for me, otherwise this crowd is going to crush me.” Now what does it say about the heart of God that He opened Himself without reservation like that? Very specifically in these two scenes, we see that the people who had afflictions pressed about Jesus to touch Him. Think about that. All of the afflicted people, the sick, the diseased, the oppressed, they are pressing about you to try to touch you. And in the first century, there’s no medicines, no hand sanitizer, no bandages, no antibiotics, no vaccines. And Jesus, the very God of all creation, made Himself accessible to these people. We can’t minimize this – though today He is accessible to us by the Spirit through prayer, in that day He was accessible in a very geographic, temporal way. You could touch the living God if you could press through enough to find Him. He didn’t draw back and stay in a palace on a mountain or something. He threw Himself in the midst of the broken so much so that they almost crushed Him and took so much of His time that He couldn’t even stop for a meal. Oh, Jesus is so different than we are! Well, let’s move on to the next scene in Matthew 15. “Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “ ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ ”” (Matthew 15:1–9 ESV) Chronologically, this is happening the morning after the feeding of the 5,000, and just probably a matter of hours after Jesus has walked on the water. Remember, Jesus landed in Gennesaret, and from here to Capernaum is several miles. Mark’s Gospel gives the detail that Jesus is journeying through towns and villages, and I think it’s a safe assumption that He’s probably going back to Capernaum. So when He arrives back home, I think that’s where He has this encounter with the Pharisees, where His disciples are having a mid-day or evening meal. It’s so important to see that these are Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. Once again, as we’ll see, Jesus is entering into a radical controversy with them here. They question Jesus and ask Him why His disciples are breaking the tradition of the elders. Now that phrase, “the traditions of the elders”, is an important phrase to understand. I’ve talked about it a little bit before, but essentially what the extremely religious Jews like the Pharisees and scribes would do would be to construct a “fence” around the Law so that there was no chance of breaking the Law itself. They accumulated so many traditions that were not the teachings of God but were the traditions of men. In other words, their traditions were not based on the Law itself, but rather the “fence” around the law. The accusation of the Pharisees is that Jesus’ disciples are breaking these traditions. Even though the Law says nothing about hand washing before eating, the Pharisees looked at any violation of their traditions, any breach of that fence around the Law, as a violation of God’s commandments. In other words, the traditions and the “fence” became authoritative. So Jesus stands up against them and says “guys, you’ve made God’s commands of absolutely no effect by your tradition. You’ve made all these rules for people to follow under the auspices of obedience to the Law, but you have completely obliterated the true meaning of the Law and you insist on allegiance to your tradition. In doing so, you are not entering at all into the heart of the original commandment that God made.” This is exactly what Jesus was coming against in the Sermon on the Mount – I talked about that back in Episode 63. When we consider the larger mission for which Jesus came, it’s pretty striking that it’s in this particular scene that we find Jesus’ most graphic statement on the depravity of man in the Gospels. Remember, Jesus is at the height of his popularity in Galilee. But as we’ll see, He is setting Himself up to really slim down His following. As we’ll see in the next scene, Jesus is going to preach a sermon that makes a large percentage of His followers leave. He sees something that the disciples didn’t see – the wickedness and the depravity of the human heart. Apart from the work of the cross and the grace of the Holy Spirit, no one would be worthy to inherit the kingdom promised to Abraham’s seed. Well, here’s a couple of points for your meditation this week: 1) Imagine yourself as one of the disciples who had been in the boat with Jesus. He had just fed the 5000, snuck away from the crowd who had tried to make Him ruler, sent the disciples away, walked on the water, healed a bunch of people again, and now made the Pharisees really really mad. How would you have been feeling? 2) Ponder how the Pharisees from Jerusalem had plotted to trap and disqualify Jesus before the people. What was their conversation like on the journey from Jerusalem to Capernaum? How was their hardness of heart coming out as they schemed against Jesus? In the next episode I’ll break down Jesus’ famous “bread of life” sermon in John chapter 6. With all of the background in view, I hope you will feel how significant the sermon is and how divisive it would have been.