The Spirit of God has given Matthew’s gospel an ongoing theme of transition between the Jewish and Christian dispensations. In previous chapters we discussed many of the major passages which reveal this divine purpose. Here we will analyze a few more passages from Matthew that are characteristic in showing these dispensational truths and transition. And as we so often saw in our previous considerations, we will find a certain uniqueness in these passages which is special to Matthew’s gospel.
We mentioned before that when considering the detail of passages, it is important to be able to see the bigger picture (the divine purpose in the counsels of God) to which the Spirit of God is pointing. And passages may be more or less direct in their overall impressions. Previously, we considered the teachings of our Lord in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. These were of the “more direct” category, making straightforward contrasts between the principles and practice of Judaism and Christianity. But in chapter thirteen, we saw the use of parables in the prophetic rendering of the soon coming Christian dispensation (the kingdom of heaven “at hand”). It was given by God to the Lord’s disciples (Christians) to know the “mysteries” of faith (Matt. 13:11). This was “less direct” teaching and more obscure, the use of types and symbolic language.
The following passages we are about to discuss from Matthew are all actual events and experiences involving real people. However, the Christian possessing the eye of faith should be able to comprehend the dispensational truths in the counsels of God that are being implied by the Spirit’s placement of these events in Matthew. This also places them in the “less direct” category – the events themselves are symbolic representations obscurely inferencing dispensational transition. Most of the passages are either unique to this gospel or changed in their rendering to make them unique in Matthew – all for the divine purpose of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 8:1–13 (NKJV)
When He had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed Him. 2 And behold, a leper came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”
3 Then Jesus put out His hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing; be cleansed.” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you tell no one; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
5 Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, 6 saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented.”
7 And Jesus said to him, “I will come and heal him.”
8 The centurion answered and said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
10 When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, “Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! 11 And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” And his servant was healed that same hour.
This passage has two events – the healing of the leper and the healing of the Centurion’s servant. When we consider what they might represent involving the divine purpose of this gospel, we should see the two in contrast with each other.
The leper represents the nation of Israel in their sins. The healing of a leper could be done only by Jehovah, it is His work alone. This suits the first purpose of Matthew’s gospel – Jesus was the presentation of Jehovah/Messiah come in grace in the midst of Israel. The healing of the leper is a figure of cleansing from sins. In the big picture, as the God of Israel, Jehovah is willing to cleanse the leprosy of His people. Also note that Jesus acknowledges the law of Moses. This first part of the passage can only be associated with the Jewish dispensation.
Where we see the impression of dispensational transition is in the second event in the passage. The Centurion was not a Jew, but a Gentile. He acted in faith in God and in Jesus as Lord. He confessed his unworthiness before the Lord and knew he would have to depend on sheer mercy to receive what he needed. And his faith would not require the Lord to be physically present to accomplish the request – just the Lord’s word was all that was necessary.
Symbolically, this story represents quite a bit. In the divine purpose of transition, we see God’s intention and willingness to deal with the Gentiles in the coming Christian dispensation. And the key element of faith is well documented. It is not only belief in God and His power and authority, but the fact that faith can be active without seeing a physically present Lord. This is mentioned by the Lord as a contrast with the nation of Israel, the place where faith in God should have easily been found – He had not found such faith, even in Israel. The Christian dispensation would have Christendom formed by the profession of faith in an absent Lord – Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29). Jehovah was present in the midst of Israel for the blessing of His chosen people, but they resisted Him and eventually would reject Him. Beyond the present Jewish dispensation and current Jewish promises and privilege, this Gentile, receiving mercy and grace, is the harbinger of God turning to the Gentiles and forming the church in the Christian dispensation (Acts 28:28). When we compare the first story to the second in the passage above, it is easy to see the divine purpose of dispensational transition.
Matthew 11:7–19 (NKJV)
7 As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. 10 For this is he of whom it is written:
‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.’
11 “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
16 “But to what shall I liken this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their companions, 17 and saying:
‘We played the flute for you,
And you did not dance;
We mourned to you,
And you did not lament.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children.”
Most of what Jesus says in the above passage can also be found in Luke’s gospel (Luke 7:24–35). But if we look closely at Matthew’s version, we see some additional statements which serve the dispensational purpose (Matt. 11:12–15). Overall, the passage is impressive because of its dispensational content throughout – it makes some type of reference to all three dispensations:
- “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” (Matt. 11:13) This defines the Jewish dispensation. John the Baptist is the last in the line of Old Testament prophets. Actually, Jesus says he is more than a prophet and the greatest person born of women. The Lord’s reference to Jewish prophets and law, along with natural birth are identifying features of the Jewish dispensation. John’s importance comes from his position and ministry. He was the last of the prophets of the Jewish dispensation and he was responsible for preparing the way for Jehovah’s coming.
- “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence…” (Matt. 11:12) The kingdom of heaven is the soon coming Christian dispensation and John was the first to declare its approach (Matt. 3:2). The transition period between the Jewish and Christian dispensations begins with this announcement that the kingdom of heaven is “at hand.”
- “…he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matt. 11:14) This comment refers to a prophecy found in Malachi (Mal. 4:5). It directly references the future tribulation time known as Jacob’s trouble, which will precede the millennium and the worldly kingdom of Messiah. In Jerusalem during the tribulation there will be two witnesses, one of which comes in the power of Elijah (Rev. 11:3–6). It is at the end that we find the complete fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. But for those who have ears to hear and the eye of faith, the Lord verifies a partial fulfillment of the prophecy in John.
It is also interesting that Jesus makes a definitive contrast between the first two dispensations. John may be the greatest born of women (Jewish dispensation), but the least one in the kingdom of heaven (Christian dispensation) is greater than him. Those truly in the kingdom of heaven are born of God (John 1:13). This is the difference. And John died before the Christian dispensation was established by Jesus going away, back to heaven. These three verses (Matt. 11:11–13) form one of the most obvious references to dispensational transition that can be found in Scripture.
The Malachi prophecy says that Elijah would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord. Before God brings in judgment, He will always have a testimony for the benefit (separation) of His faithful remnant (those who have ears to hear, Matt. 11:15). The great and terrible day of the Lord refers to the return of Christ and the future millennium. God will judge everything by and through the glorified Son of Man, destroying all the world’s evil and putting all His enemies under His feet. The two witnesses of Revelation eleven serve this purpose. But that doesn’t inhibit a partial fulfillment of the prophecy in the person of John the Baptist (Matt. 17:10–12). He also came in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:16). He prepared the way of Jehovah by his testimony. He helped separate a faithful remnant by his baptisms in the wilderness. While the two witnesses of the Revelation will precede the earthly Messianic kingdom, John preceded and testified in the spirit of Elijah of the soon coming kingdom of heaven.
The last part of the passage we’re looking at above gives us a clear reason why Israel would be set aside and the Jewish dispensation brought to an end. “But to what shall I liken this generation…” is the Lord’s estimate of the Jews. They would neither mourn or dance.
- “Mourning” refers to John and his testimony to Israel of the need for repentance for the remission of their sins. His ministry was in the wilderness of Judea. He clothed himself in camel’s hair and a leather belt, and he ate locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:2–6).
- “Dancing” refers to Jesus and His testimony to Israel in power and sovereign grace, healing and feeding the masses as the solution for their misery. Rejoicing and dancing would be the result if they would have accepted Him.
But Israel rejected both the Baptist and the Son of Man (Matt. 11:18–19, 17:11–12). The passage clearly shows the success of the Jewish dispensation was based solely on Israel’s own responsibility – not only with Moses’ law given to them, but even so at its end with the final two testimonies God would send them. They had the responsibility to mourn as a result of John’s coming and to dance in response to Jesus coming. They should have justified God in condemning themselves (mourning), so that they could most thankfully justify God in sending His Son to save them (dancing). But their failure, distinctly highlighted in this passage, eventually brings God’s judgment on them which would end their dispensation.
Matthew 15:21-28 (NKJV)
21 “Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”
23 But He answered her not a word.
And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.”
24 But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”
26 But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”
27 And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
This passage is comparable to the one we discussed earlier involving the Centurion (Matt. 8). It impresses the theme common to this gospel of an approaching change in dispensations by using an event in the life of Christ involving a Gentile. The privileges and blessings of God’s chosen people rightfully belonged to the Jews during the time of their dispensation – the children’s bread to which the Lord is referring to in the passage. Also, the Messianic mission, which exclusively belonged to the Jewish dispensation, is well defined in the passage – I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But here, a Gentile woman comes to beg Jesus for His intervention on behalf of her daughter, who was possessed of a demon. The experience implies the following dispensational principles.
- As long as Israel was still acknowledged by God as His people, the Jewish dispensation was still ongoing, and the Jews alone had the rightful privilege of the blessings of God.
- Messiah is a Jewish promise. Strictly speaking, as the Messiah of Israel, Jesus was sent to His own to bless and save them. He was always the minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to fulfill His promises made to the fathers (Rom. 15:8). If they would have received Him, Israel would have been physically saved. His Messianic mission was confined to both Israel and the Jewish dispensation. This was the truth and what He was as coming to the Jews, regardless of what may have been the counsels of God as the result of their rejection of Him. This passage directly implies that it was not proper for the Messiah to deal with the Gentiles, giving them what rightfully belonged only to the Jews (the children). She addressed Him as the “Son of David.” But as Messiah, Son of David, He has nothing to do with a Canaanite. He doesn’t bother to answer her.
Regardless of this dispensational wall standing in the way of this Gentile, by faith and determination she is able to bridge over it and receive what she knows the Lord was able to provide. But there should be no doubt it is sheer mercy being shown to this woman by the Lord. She had no promises or privileges like the Jewish people. The Gentiles were considered dogs with no place of standing before God. Canaanites were an accursed race. By natural birth, the Jews were God’s chosen people and the designated children. The bread belonged to them.
However, this would soon change. As a consequence of crucifying Jesus Christ, Israel was set aside and the Jewish dispensation ended. By the gospel in the new Christian dispensation, all men, Jew and Gentile alike, are put on equal footing (Rom. 3:19–30). This emphasizes a characteristic difference between these two dispensations:
- In the Jewish dispensation there was a “difference” between Jew and Gentile which God maintained. During this time the Jews held a privileged position before God as “His people.” This position was according to promises God had made to Israel’s forefathers. We see this privileged position of Israel being referred to by Jesus in the above passage (Matt. 15:24, 26).
- In the Christian dispensation there is “no difference” between Jew and Gentile.247 The redemption of anyone is now based on the grace of God through faith, a redemption freely given by God. This is God’s mercy alone in sovereign grace. The Christian believer is God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10).
247 [For the Jewish dispensation God had erected a wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. He did this by the practice of the law and Judaism, and by bringing Israel into the promised land. His main purpose was to use the Jews as a test-case representing all mankind, so to prove man’s depravity. He privileged the Jews, blessing them above any Gentiles. When Israel was set aside by God and their dispensation ended, He stopped the practice of the law and Judaism – this was the bringing down of the wall of separation that He had maintained while He still acknowledged Israel as His people. The wall doesn’t exist in the Christian dispensation (Eph. 2:11–16). Now anyone comes in by the mercy of God shown in sovereign grace through faith, redemption freely given based on the shed blood of Christ]
There are other dispensational truths to be understood from this passage. It was not enough to be in need of something. This woman had a desperate need for help for some time. It was not enough that she knew the Lord had the means and power to help her. She sought Him out after hearing about Him. The seeming harshness of the Lord towards her brings her to an important spiritual understanding. She had to learn of her true place and position before God, and that she had no right, in herself, to this blessing. She had to learn the truth about herself.
This translates over to an important general truth in the Christian gospel and dispensation. All who come to God by faith for salvation and redemption must first be brought by the Spirit to comprehend the reality of their place and position in the presence of a holy and just God. The Gentile woman receives all in mercy and grace from God, while in herself she fully realizes she is unworthy of anything. She comes trusting in God alone being able to help her. It is the same in the Christian dispensation for any unbeliever who becomes a Christian. True redemption will never take place unless the guilty sinner is brought by God to know the reality of his position. They must first learn the truth about themselves and be convicted of their state before God. They must not trust in themselves ever, but in God alone through Jesus Christ as their source of help. This spiritual realization can only be learned in the presence of God. Such conviction of the unbeliever by the Holy Spirit is, to them, eye-opening and disturbing. But when it comes to this, all is grace.
Was God less than the good she had believed Him to be, less than merciful to the destitute, whose only hope and trust was in that mercy? It would have been to deny the character and nature of God for her to go away empty handed. Jesus was the bodily expression, the truth, the witness of the living true God on the earth. He could not deny Himself. He says to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” God comes out from the narrow limits of His dispensation with the Jews to act in sovereign goodness according to His own nature – not merely Jehovah in Israel and according to Jewish covenants, but a God of goodness and mercy available for Gentiles as well. This was this woman’s experience. It shouldn’t be hard for us to see the dispensational foreshadowing involved throughout her story. This incident is used by the Spirit in Matthew to show the confinements and limitations of the Jewish dispensation, but also as a prelude of God turning to the Gentiles in the approaching Christian dispensation.
Thus, we see Jesus here as a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to fulfill the promises made to the fathers (Jewish), and that the Gentiles might also glorify God for His mercy, as it is written… (Rom. 15:8–12). At the same time, His dealing with the Canaanite woman makes manifest the real condition of mankind, and the full and perfect grace of God.248 On this last part He acts for this Gentile, while remaining faithful to God’s promises to the Jews for as long as they are still acknowledged by God in their dispensation. This story displays the wisdom of God for our admiration, perfectly fitting the divine purpose of this gospel.
248 [The grace of God, which is the display of His own character and heart, rises above all dispensations. No dispensation can be characterized by the grace of God, because whenever God acts or works to save an individual, it always is in sovereign grace. Every dispensation has seen or will see the work of God manifested in the world, and therefore the display of God’s grace. Jesus said (John 5:17), “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” This has taken place from the time Adam was chased out of paradise. Whenever God saves, regardless of dispensation, it is always His choice and work in grace.
Israel’s survival as a nation for the length of the Jewish dispensation was predicated on God’s willingness to show the Jews compassion and mercy, instead of judgment by His law (Ex. 33:1–19, Rom. 9:15–18). The Jewish dispensation could have seen the promises of God made to the forefathers fulfilled for Israel. At its beginning these promises were based on Israel’s ability to keep His law and covenant. When they failed in this, the promises were then founded on the prophetic promise of Messiah and whether they would receive Him when He was sent to them. They failed in this second point as well. The Jewish dispensation proved the Jews were fallen sinners in Adam. It proved, without exception, the entire world was lost and guilty before God (Rom. 3:19). This testing of man was God’s real purpose for the Jewish dispensation. When we consider these truths, which were revealed mainly through the apostle Paul, we can now feel better in saying that the Jewish dispensation was not really for the purpose of God fulfilling His promises to Israel’s forefathers. We can more fully understand the impossibility of this, given Israel’s Adamic state. Instead, God’s purpose for the Jewish dispensation was to prove man’s depravity in Adam, the first man (appendix B).
The simplicity of the dispensational system is seen in considering the purpose of God in His counsels associated with the three dispensations. His purpose for the Jewish dispensation was to prove the depravity of man (regardless of unconditional promises previously made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob concerning Israel, which went unfulfilled during the Jewish dispensation). The purpose of the Christian dispensation is for Christ to build His church, His bride and body. This is a heavenly people being gathered on the earth, who will be taken to heaven near the end of the dispensation, fulfilling the calling and purpose of God for them. The purpose of the millennium, the last dispensation, is for God to be faithful in fulfilling His unconditional promises made to the forefathers on Israel’s behalf – the Jews, or a remnant of Israel, will be restored in the land and become great in the earth. However, regardless of dispensation, individuals are always saved by the grace of God – He has done this work from the beginning, and it will continue on into the millennium. Therefore, the work of God in saving Old Testament saints, New Testament Christians, and millennial saints cannot properly be included in the descriptive characteristics of any dispensation]
It is also significant to consider the general impressions given us in chapter fifteen. The beginning of the chapter represents the failure of the Jews under the law and God’s rejection of them morally. Their religious leaders were hypocrites, teaching their own traditions which allowed them, under the guise of piety, to transgress the commands of God (15:1–9). Jesus rebukes these pretentious guides of the nation, who took upon themselves the responsibility of forming the hearts of the people to morality and the worship of Jehovah. But Isaiah’s prophecy had already condemned them.
Matthew 15:7–9 (NKJV)
7 “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying:
8 ‘These people draw near to Me with their mouth,
And honor Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
9 And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Through Jesus, God rejects the Jews and their religious system 249 by the same words and judgment. The law, and properly keeping it, was the special responsibility of Israel. On this point depended all Israel’s earthly blessings from God. Their failure to do so is one of the two main reasons why the Jewish dispensation ends. Yet this dispensational truth specific to Israel is not all there is to be found here. A larger truth is to be understood from this chapter. We find God’s testimony of the depravity of man’s heart (15:8, 11, 18–20). The law given to the Jews was the testing of this; Israel served as the test-case and their failure was the result. By this, all mankind was condemned by God (Rom. 3:19).250 For only evil proceeds out of the heart of man (15:19). There is no exception.
249 [If we speak of the Jewish religious system, we speak of their whole moral condition which was systematized by their hypocrisy that sought to conceal iniquity while presenting themselves before God. This only served to increase their sin in His sight. They made use of God’s name in order to sink lower than the natural convictions of their consciences (a form of antinomianism). This is how a religious system becomes the great instrument of the power of Satan, especially one originally instituted by God. And what happened with Judaism in the Jewish dispensation is similar to what has happened to Christianity in the Christian dispensation (Rev. 2:6, 15). Isaiah’s prophecy well describes the practice of both religions in their respective dispensations (Matt. 15:7–9). Romanism is the great example of the corruption of Christianity (Rev. 2:18–23), although the Protestant forms haven’t fared much better. The Christian dispensation will end in the judgment of God, just as the Jewish dispensation. We are warned to not be blind to such realities (Matt. 15:14)]
250 [The result of the Jewish dispensation was that all men in Adam are depraved, God proving to the understanding of man what his real condition was in Adam. Man’s “universal condition” was first revealed by the Spirit of God in the apostle Paul’s epistles, after the Jewish dispensation ended. But God knew what Adam came to be when he first disobeyed – this was never a revelation to Him. Innocence was lost and God chased him out of paradise. Adam was a fallen sinner, and all his descendants sold under sin. Although God placed man on probation in order to prove his depravity, it didn’t mean man was anything different from what Adam became by his original disobedience (see appendix B). Jesus, being God, knew what man in Adam was, and that only evil was in his heart. But still being in the time of the Jewish dispensation, the Lord’s teaching on the truth of man’s state is more obscure and less direct than that of the apostle]
Jesus shows the multitude it is a question of what man was, of what proceeded from his heart, from within him (15:10–11). God knows that this is only evil and rebellion. Jesus points out the miserable streams which flow from this corrupt spring in man (15:16–19). Yet it is a simple but terrible truth concerning the heart of man that God knows and reveals here. Nothing so simple as the truth when it is known by man; nothing more difficult when an appropriate judgment is to be formed regarding it. For men judge from their own thoughts, and the truth of God is not in them.
In summary, by way of the Jews, mankind is placed in contrast with true morality. His responsibility is implied in this passage, but his true state and condition before God is exposed. It is noteworthy that traditional religion can so blind a person from seeing God’s revealed truth. The self-righteous always lack proper moral judgment.
Matthew 15:13-14 (NKJV)
13 But He answered and said, “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14 Let them alone. They are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind leads the blind, both will fall into a ditch.”
God may act according to the covenant He had previously made with the Jews, but being a divine Person, He cannot be confined to it. The unfaithfulness of His people provided the opportunity for the revelation of God transitioning out beyond that agreement and the Jewish dispensation. This is what the Canaanite women discovered when she was brought by the Lord to acknowledge her true state before God. Without any privilege, she was shown compassion and mercy by God. These two truths – man’s miserable state and the grace of God as the solution – are the emphasis of her story.
Chapter fifteen of Matthew is a wonderful reading as to what is the everlasting truth concerning the revelation of the heart of God. Although He fully acknowledges the Jewish dispensation, He must rise above it to show full grace through Christ to the Gentile. And we have revealed to us by Christ the truth of God as to what man is in Adam – he is a plant not planted by God the Father. He must be uprooted and set aside. Not only had Israel made God’s law of no effect by their human teachings and traditions, not only was this nation now destined to be set aside and their dispensation end, but all mankind is judged by God as depraved right along with the Jews. Mankind’s probation under the testing of God has come to an end (Matt. 21:19, appendix B).