IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 26, August 23 to August 29, 1999

Matthew 14:1-36

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



    Having "heard the reports about Jesus" (v. 1), Herod (Antipas) shows lack of understanding (1) by offering a faulty explanation for Jesus' miraculous powers (cf. again the charge of 12:24), and (2) by showing not the slightest interest in learning more about Jesus. Herod's response thus parallels that of the crowds according to ch. 13. (This helps to explain why Matthew has placed this story here, rather than with the account of 11:2-3.) Is light on the truth (about Jesus) withheld from Herod because he has not responded rightly to the truth he has already received (from John)?


    Matthew's account is much shorter than Mark's (6:14-29). By abbreviating the story, Matthew focuses attention more vividly upon the confrontation between Herod and John (see Gundry, 286-87), and upon the stark differences in their respective characters.

    1. The Strength of John the Baptist.

      John declared that Herod's liaison with Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, was "not lawful" (14:3-4). It is safe to assume that John spoke in full knowledge of the risks involved.

    2. The Weakness of Herod the King.

      Despite his kingship, Herod is shown to be a most insecure individual. Wanting to kill John because of his preaching, he nonetheless refrains because "he was afraid of the people" (v. 5)! And in the end he reverses himself and has John killed under pressure from Herodias and in fear of what his dinner guests will otherwise think (v. 9)! Cf. the comments on 11:7-8.


    1. Their Common Rejection.

      Herod's rejection of John's preaching corresponds to the Nazarenes' rejection of Jesus' teaching (13:54-58); apud Gundry, 284.

    2. Their Common Enemy.

      As "King Herod" attacked and sought to destroy the infant Jesus (2:1-18), so "Herod the tetrarch" arrests, imprisons and eventually kills John. (The choice of the latter title in 14:1 serves to distinguish this Herod from his father, 2:1.) Moreover, that Herod Antipas poses a threat to Jesus is shown by Jesus' withdrawal into a solitary place once he learns about John's death (14:12-13). (Likewise Jesus had withdrawn into Galilee upon hearing of John's imprisonment, 4:12.) Given Herod's identification of Jesus as John redivivus, would he not surely want Jesus dead as well?

    3. Their Common Fate.

      At Herodias' prompting, Herod has John beheaded. "Execution by beheading went against Jewish law, but agreed with Greek and Roman custom" (Gundry 289). While Jesus escapes the enemy for the moment (the hour appointed by the Father has not yet arrived), already we are being prepared for the climax of the Gospel, when Jesus himself will suffer death at the hands of the enemies of the kingdom (cf. comments on 11:12b; 16:21; 17:12).



    The focus throughout this passage is upon the crowds (ochloi, vv. 13, 15, 19 bis, cf. vv. 22, 23; the lone singular still stresses hugeness, polun ochlon, v. 14).

    1. His Provision of Healing. 14:14.

      Given the size of the crowd, a large number of healings is implied. This provision prepares for the other.

    2. His Provision of Food. 14:19-21.

      The provision comes through a stupendous demonstration of God's re-creative power. For those who believe that God could and did create matter ex nihilo, it is not in the least difficult to believe that he could rearrange and multiply matter as in this miracle. (Cf. Jn 1:3; 2:9.) "Bread and fish made up the basic diet of poor people in Galilee" (Gundry, 293); cf. 7:9-10.

      The focus here, as in 14:14, is upon the feeding of the crowds. "The disciples gave them to the people," v. 19b, which suggests that "all" in v. 20a refers to the entirety of the crowd rather than to crowd + disciples. We should note, moreover, that Jesus, in multiplying the food, is not heralding a Messianic ministry fundamentally concerned with the relief of Israel's material needs. For one thing, this would represent a change from the path Jesus chose during his temptation in the wilderness (see the comments on 4:3-4). For another, 14:15-16 makes it clear that the present situation is extraordinary, and that the people could buy food if given the opportunity. (See II. C. on Jesus' present intention.)


    The twofold provision is quite remarkable, given the accent in the preceding chapter upon the obtuseness of the crowds, and upon the consequent judgment. Note in particular:

    1. Jesus' Compassion for the Crowds.

      Jesus' healings express his compassion (v. 14). Significantly, Mt's use of this verb, splagchnizomai, is restricted to Jesus' responses to people outside the circle of disciples. In three of the five instances, the object of the verb is ochlos (9:36; 14:14; 15:32); the other two are 18:27 (the king's compassion for the man with an unpayable debt) and 20:34 (Jesus' healing two blind men). The present usage confirms us in the earlier conclusion that Jesus - despite his stern words of judgment upon the crowds, or precisely because they stand under judgment - longs for them to respond in repentance and faith, to find direction and protection (9:36) and rest in him (11:28), and to enter the circle of disciples.

    2. Jesus' Involvement of the Disciples.

      Jesus ministers to the crowd by the agency of the disciples. "They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat" (v. 16). "Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people" (v. 19). As Jesus had given the disciples authority in face of the crowd's need (9:36-10:1), so now he grants the power they lack. He instructs them to bring their small and seemingly inadequate resources ("We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish," v. 17) to him ("Bring them here to me," v. 18) for the unleashing of his power in the miracle of multiplication. (The number "12" in v. 20, suggests that the baskets belonged to the twelve apostles, 10:2.)

      Contrast Herod's lack of control as he reacts to his guests and capitulates to the pressure they exert (14:9), to Jesus' maintaining of control as he resists pressure from the disciples and directs them to achieve his will for the crowd.

    3. The Lessons of the Loaves.

      1. Jesus' risk. Given the crowds' preoccupation with the stupendous, and the conclusions that they might easily draw from this particular miracle (cf. Jn 6:15; and Hugh Montefiore, "Revolt in the Desert?" NTS 8, 135-41), and assuming the crowds' awareness (made explicit in Jn 6:14-15) that Jesus has provided the food miraculously, we have to conclude that Jesus accomplishes this miracle at considerable risk. Why then does he do it?

      2. Jesus' dependence on God. The working of the miracle begins with Jesus' blessing God (v. 19) - a blessing that may well include thanksgiving for the miraculous power about to be granted.

      3. The presence of Yahweh. While Matthew does not make this point expressly, it seems likely that the location of the miracle ("a remote place," eramos, v. 15) together with this Gospel's identification of Jesus as Yahweh (or "God with us"), is meant to recall Yahweh's miraculous provision of manna for Israel in the wilderness. If one asks why Matthew does not then focus on provision for the disciples as distinct from the crowd, it may be noted that the Israelites' rebelliousness against Yahweh during those years, and their blindness to and forgetfulness of his saving deeds, is similar to the crowds' present response to Messiah.

      4. The sacrifice of Jesus. The miracle directs witnesses' attention beyond itself, not only to God, but also to the Last Supper and to Jesus' words of interpretation over the bread and the cup (Mt 26:17-30). No disciple (much less a member of the crowd) would presently be capable of making this connection. But (I suggest) Jesus accomplished this miracle with that later event already in view, and in the knowledge (or with the hope) that those with eyes to perceive and minds to understand would in time come to perceive this deeper intention. (This purpose is more clearly in view in Jn 6.) I also believe Matthew means for his readers to interpret the present story in light of his Gospel as a whole, including his account of the Last Supper. (But that the present story is a Christian creation inspired by the Eucharist, is excluded in part by the presence of fish in the one and wine in the other.) For (to my mind overdrawn) parallels between this passage and the Eucharist, see Gundry, 291-95.



    This story is a companion to the preceding; both miracles demonstrate essentially the same truth about Jesus. (In Mk and Jn also, these two miracle-stories are joined together. The second is lacking in Lk.) In the first story Jesus demonstrated his sovereignty over nature by multiplying food; here he does so by walking on the water (14:25-26).


    A further respect in which this story is a companion to the other, is that Jesus' action here, like his multiplication of the food, signals Yahweh's presence. Cf. the comments on 8:23-27.

    1. Jesus' Action.

      Jesus is sovereign over the raging elements: 14:24, "the boat, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it," and 32, "when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down." Yahweh alone controls and subdues the sea: "The sea is his, for he made it" (Ps 95:5). "The seas have lifted up, O LORD, the seas have lifted up their voice; the seas have lifted up their pounding waves. Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea - the LORD on high is mighty" (Ps 93:3-4). Cf. Ps 89:9; Ex 15:8. By walking on the waters and causing them to subside, Jesus reveals himself as Yahweh.

    2. Jesus' Utterance.

      In face of the disciples' cry of fear, Jesus says: "Take courage! It is I [ego eimi]. Don't be afraid" (v. 27). He thus informs them that he is Jesus (to correct their idea that he is a ghost, v. 26). Yet given the action amidst which these words are spoken, we must understand them on a deeper level as well: in saying ego eimi, Jesus declares himself to be Yahweh. Cf. Yahweh's words in Isa 43:10 (concluding, "so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he," ani hu, LXX ego eimi); also Ex 3:11-15 (in v. 14, LXX has ego eimi ho on ... ho on apestalken me).

    3. The Disciples' Response.

      Once Jesus and Peter have climbed into the boat, "those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, 'Truly you are the Son of God'" (v. 33); their worship is expressed in their words. In response to the twofold evidence (A.-B.), the disciples ascribe deity to Jesus - as shown by the combination of the verb proskyneo and the title huios theou (underscored by the adverb alathas). Cf. 27:54.

  3. JESUS AND PETER. This account (14:28-31) is peculiar to Mt.

    1. Peter's Faith.

      Peter twice calls Jesus "Lord" (kyrios), 14:28, 30. We may not know precisely what Peter means by this ascription (cf. comments on 8:25); but that he is among those who speak the words of v. 33, may suggest the deepest sense of "Lord" in 28 and (especially) 30. In any case Peter's address contributes to Matthew's present portrayal of Jesus as Yahweh. Peter's walking on the water - thus both obeying Jesus and following his example - provides a model of faith for Christians. This anticipates 16:16-18.

    2. Peter's Unbelief.

      Overcome by fear and doubt, he begins to sink, showing "little faith" (v. 31). Here too he models for Christians the danger of succumbing to fear amidst opposition (cf. Gundry, 299-300), and the necessity of depending (like Peter, v. 30) upon Jesus.

      Verses 34-36 (an inclusio with vv 13-14?) further show Jesus' divine authority: sick are healed merely by touching him.

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