Muslims abuse these two passages – Matthew 15:24 and 10:5-6 to try and somehow show that Jesus was only sent for Israel and, then, they try to make an argument that somehow Muhammad was a message for all the nations of the world, but Jesus’ message was only for the Jews. Those that make these arguments don’t seem to read the verses around them, nor the context, nor the chapter, nor the entire book of Matthew to get the clear understanding of the author’s intentions.
Jesus’ Mission – when Jesus said, ” I was sent ONLY to the lost Sheep of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) Did Jesus mean that absolutely or was He testing the disciples and the Canaanite woman? The context shows that there is a lot more going on to this story than a surface reading of the one verse taken out of context.
First, here is the paragraph with which the historical account is found:
21 Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.” 23 But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” 24 But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” 26 And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed at once.
In verse 21, we notice that Jesus deliberately went into an area outside of Israel proper at that time. Tyre and Sidon were two famous cities of Phoenicia, today called Lebanon. Why did Jesus deliberately go to a Gentile area, an unclean area, right after He gave teaching on what true cleanliness is; that it has to start from within the heart and thoughts first, rather than the outward external things? One has to ask, what is the relationship between this paragraph and the paragraph before this, namely, Matthew 15:1-20? How does Mark 7:1-23 also help in understanding this passage?
In order to understand Matthew 15:21-28, one has to study Matthew 15:1-20 and the parallel in Mark 7:1-23 and Mark 7:24-30 also.
The first time someone reads this passage, the first thought is, “wow, Jesus calling her a dog is rude, and seems contradictory to His character in the rest of the gospel of Matthew and the other 3 gospels also. So, immediately, there is something going on here that is deeper.
Matthew calls her a “Canaanite woman” and Mark calls her a “Greek”/”Gentile” from Syro-Phoenicia.
24 Jesus got up and went away from there to the region of Tyre. And when He had entered a house, He wanted no one to know of it; yet He could not escape notice. 25 But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile [literally: Greek], of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And He was saying to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered and *said to Him, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” 29 And He said to her, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” 30 And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.
Mark 7:17-23 (you can go all the way back to verse 1 to get larger context, for the sake of this argument, we focus on verses 17-23)
17 When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20 And He was saying, “That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22 deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23 All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.”
Notice some key things in the pericope before this story:
Mark 7:19 – by saying this, Jesus “declared all foods clean”. (notice the parallel of unclean foods and unclean cultures/people/Gentiles (non-Jews) in Acts chapter 10-11. (one should read those 2 chapters also to understand what Mark 7 and Matthew 15 really mean). The Lord had to encourage Peter “to rise, kill and eat” (previously unclean foods) and said about people from other cultures and ethnicities: “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (see Acts 10:14-15)
Mark 7:20-23 – for from within, out of the heart, come evil thoughts
notice “pride” is one of the sins that defiles and makes a person “unclean” (guilty of sin before God)
So, Jesus is actually testing the disciples to see if they learned the lesson of racial hatred and prejudice in their hearts, that it comes from pride from within them.
The Jews needed to learn the lesson about a clean heart and that racial hatred was wrong, even about the Phoenicians/Canaanites. The Phoenicians were the people living in Lebanon and the promised land in the OT times. In the promised land, they were called “Canaanites” because it was known as the land of Canaan. The Phoenicians living outside of the borders of Israel were not to be attacked by Israel in the OT, but they still carried prideful and hateful attitudes towards these people. The roots of pride and hatred and racial prejudice must be rooted out of the heart.
“First clean the inside of the cup” – Matthew 23:26
25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also.” Matthew 23:25-26
Islam, generally, as a religion, seems to focus on outward external rituals, works, and rituals of cleanliness (like wudu وضو – ritual washings before prayer) just like the Pharisees, which exposes the self-righteous attitude of a lot of Muslims. There Wudu can never cleanse their hearts of anger, greed, lusts, bitterness, pride, hatred, seflishness, jealousies, etc. They emphasize things backward! Christianity says one must repent of their evil heart first, then they can change their external behaviors. Cleaning the outside with rituals leads to Phariseeism, hatred, pride, looking down on others, deeper levels of blindness.
Back to Matthew 15:21-28
“But He did not answer her a word.” – Matthew 15:23
At first, Jesus didn’t answer her a word, which gives us indication that He was waiting for the disciples to make the first move and expose their pride and racial hatred and prejudices.
The disciples proved their pride and racial hatred in their hearts: “And His disciples came and implored Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.” They did not learn the lesson of their own unclean hearts of pride and racial hatred, that Jesus explained that was in the heart in Mark 7:20-23/Matthew 15:15-20.
The faith of the Canaanite/Phoenician woman. Her faith was great because she called Jesus “Lord” (Kurios) and “Son of David” ( she realized he was the Messiah from David’s line). (Matthew 15:22, 27) She did not wallow in self-pity, nor play a victim-mentality. And she fell at Jesus’ feet, giving Him honor, respect, possibly worship. (Mark 7:25) She did not even object to being called a “dog”. She had true saving faith because she admitted she was an unclean sinner who needed forgiveness. Calling someone a “dog” was an insult, as a dog was a wild unclean animal that roamed the streets. The Greek word here for “dog” is the diminutive (pet dog, house dog – “dependent; little, helpless dogs” (see D. A. Carson, Commentary on Matthew, page 356. Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 8. Zondervan, 1984) was usually reserved for a household dog that got scaps from the owner’s table. She agreed with Jesus’ assessment. “yes” – like “ok, I agree that I am unclean and a sinner and need help.” That is very important to true faith. Biblical faith has a realization that one is a sinner and without hope and is helpless to save oneself, and exercises repentance from sin- repentance is within true faith. (Mark 1:15; Luke 5:32; Luke 13:1-5)
The passage – Matthew 15:24 – “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” communicates and “preserves Israel’s historical privilege” (Carson, ibid, page 356) – i.e. – the Abrahamic covenant – “I will make you a great nation and bless you” (Genesis 12:1-3); and the promise of the land of Canaan; and yet even after that promise is fulfilled, the ultimate purpose of the Abrahamic covenant is to bless all the other Gentile nations – “so, in you and in your seed, all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3, 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; 49:10)
Matthew 15:24 – “The thought echoes [Matthew] 10:6, where the same language is used (lit., “the lost sheep of the house of Israel”). But even chapter 10 recognizes that one day the mission of the disciples will take them to Gentiles (Matthew 10:18). But that time was not yet.” (Carson, ibid, page 355)
5 These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; 6 but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
This is a short-term mission! The disciples have to first learn to evangelize and witness and minister the Kingdom of God among their own people and culture, then they can later go and evangelize a new foreign culture. This command was only temporary. Jesus was saying, “learn among the Jews first”; “start with your own culture first”.
Matthew 10:18 – “and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. (nations / ethna / εθνη )
Muslims need to learn to keep the reading the context. All of their polemics and arguments in trying to use Matthew 15:24 and 10:5-6 have failed.
Carson again on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 15:24 to the Canaanite woman:
“The thought is like John 4:22: “Salvation is from the Jews”. The Samaritan woman, like this Canaanite woman, had to recognize this – even if a time was coming when true worship would transcend such categories (John 4:23-26). ” (D. A. Carson, commentary on Matthew, ibid, p. 355)
Matthew is widely known as the most Jewish of the four gospels, and was obviously written partly with the purpose of proving that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah and His Kingdom. The constant repitition of “this was to fulfill what the prophet wrote” and “thus it is written” shows this clearly.
But there is also another very clear theme in Matthew – to show the Jews that they were to be a blessing to the Gentiles/nations/ non-Jews.
see Matthew 1:1 – Jesus as Son of David and Son of Abraham prove Him as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants of the OT. Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of the OT prophesies, the light of the nations, the purpose of the Abrahamic covenant.
Matthew 2:1-12 – the coming of the Persian Magi from the east. The Persian Empire was the great territory east of Israel, and the other super-power of those days against the Roman Empire. There were probably more than three men, and there was probably some Magi from different people groups / ethnicities living within the Persian Empire. (Besides ethnic Persians as the leaders, there were probably Arabs, Kurds (from the Medes), Babylonians, Assyrians)
Matthew 4:12-17 – “Galilee of the Gentiles”
Matthew 8:5-13 – Jesus heals a Roman centurion’s servant. “I have not seen such great faith in all of Israel”
Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. 11 I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; 12 but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And Jesus said to the centurion, “Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed that very moment. Matthew 8:10-13
Matthew 10:18 – they will eventually go the Gentiles
Matthew 12:17-21 (Quoting Isaiah 42) – Jesus is the light for the Gentiles
Matthew 13:36- 43 – “the field is the world” – to sow the seed of the word of God into the world – preach and spead the kingdom to all nations.
Matthew 15:21-28 – healing of the Canaanite woman.
Matthew 21:1-11, 42-45 – “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the Pharisees, the Jews], and given to a nation producing the fruit of it.” [the church, being made up of all nations – 1 Peter 1:9-10]
Matthew 24:14 – “this gospel of the kingdom must be preached as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end shall come.”
Matthew 28:18-20 – Go and make disciples of all the nations.
So, not only the context of Matthew 15 and 10 defeat the Muslim’s weak arguments about Jesus’ mission as being only to the Jews, but the whole book of Matthew refutes these Islamic polemical arguments.