Three Times When the Lord Wouldn’t Answer
by Pastor Cornelius R. Stam
A GENTILE WOMAN IN TROUBLE (Matt. 15:21-28)
Mark’s account of our Lord and the Syrophenician woman describes how Jesus had sought to conceal Himself from the public but “could not be hid” because this woman, whose daughter was being tormented by a demon, had heard of His presence and had sought Him out.
In her distress she cried, “Have mercy on me,” but she did not fail to recognize His royal position, addressing Him, “O Lord, thou son of David.”
“But He answered her not a word” (Matt. 15:23).
He who had gone about the cities of Israel helping the oppressed; He who had always been so quick to respond to the appeals of the needy, did not even answer this poor soul. And He could be silent with emphasis! “Not a word” did she receive in response to her cries of distress.
His conduct was an open rebuff. He evidently did not mean to show kindness or even courtesy to this woman.
His disciples may have understood His action, for the woman was a Gentile. Nevertheless, interceding for her, they “besought Him, saying, Send her away,1 for she crieth after us” (Ver. 23).
“But He answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Ver. 24).
Mark well, this was said to His disciples, for He still declined to speak to the woman. He was driving home a lesson she had to learn—that she had no claim on the Son of God, no right to expect help from Him. God had given up the Gentiles long ago when, at the tower of Babel, they had made it clear that they did not even wish to retain Him in their knowledge.
“And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient”2 (Rom. 1:28).
“Then came she and worshipped Him, saying, Lord, help me” (Ver. 25).
The word “worshipped” here is strong in the original. Literally, the woman came and prostrated herself before Him. Falling down at His feet, she begged for His help.
At this pathetic plea the Lord was constrained to address her, but still by no means consented to help her. She must first learn the lesson He had begun to teach—yes, and we must learn it too; that is why this incident is recorded for us in the Scriptures.
“Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles…were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:11,12).
This is why the Lord seemed so obstinate in His dealings with the Syrophenician woman. Even now, He addresses her only to point out why He should not help her. For the third time we find that negative word “but” used. First she had cried for help, “BUT He answered her not a word.” Then His disciples had interceded for her, “BUT He answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Now she falls at His feet and begs for the help that only He can give.
“But He answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs.”
“And she said, Truth Lord…” (Ver. 26,27).
Ah, she has learned the lesson and has frankly acknowledged her unworthy position. And here her faith shines as she points out that, while indeed she has no claim on Him, He may, if He will, show mercy to her. The story is told of a woman whose son, a soldier in Napoleon’s army, had been condemned to death. As she pleaded with the Emperor to have mercy on her son, the Emperor said: “But he doesn’t deserve mercy. This is his second serious offense.” “But sire,” the woman came back, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it;” at which Napoleon issued her son’s pardon.
Yes, we too must learn this lesson. As we have seen, the Gentiles are strangers from the covenants of promises (Eph. 2:12). These promises pertain to Israel (Rom. 9:4). Even during the kingdom reign of Christ, when the nations are finally brought to Messiah’s feet, it will not be in fulfillment of any promises made to them. It will be in fulfillment of promises made to Israel. This is clearly brought out in Romans 15:8,9:
“Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision3 for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers:
“And that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.”
And so the woman continued pleading:
“Truth Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”
It should be noticed that our Lord had really used the diminutive for dog, as the original brings out; the equivalent of our word “doggie.” This was the first hint of the compassion He had in His heart for her and she was quick to take it up. He had spoken of “casting” the children’s food to the little dogs. She, in turn, had acknowledged her place but had argued: Could not the master let a few crumbs “fall” from his bountiful table for the little dogs to get? Did he not have a right to do this?
What a plea! What faith in both His love and power! Think of calling the casting out of a demon “crumbs from the master’s table!” She had showed a keener appreciation of Christ’s power to bless than could be found anywhere in Israel. How could we expect the story to close in any other way than it does?
“Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.”
A JEWESS IN TROUBLE (John 8:1-11)
We pass now from the story of the Gentile woman to that of a Jewess, also in trouble, but trouble of a very different nature.
Our Lord had spent the night in the Mount of Olives, His customary place of prayer, and had come, early in the morning, to the temple where the people gathered to hear Him teach.
The scribes and Pharisees had come early, too, but from a very different motive. While the Lord had been in the Mount of Olives, they had been about the most disgraceful business.
“And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto Him a woman taken in adultery: and when they had set her in the midst,
“They say unto Him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act” (John 8:3,4).
Had they had an honest zeal to “clean up Jerusalem,” there might have been some excuse for their conduct. But they had no such lofty motive. They had sought and apprehended this woman, not because they had been so shocked at her conduct or were so zealous for God’s holy law. They were out to “get” Him whose holiness had shown up their hypocrisy. And to attain their purpose they had stooped to this. These base characters, really farther from God than the woman they had caught in sin, now “set her in the midst” not mainly to humiliate her, but Him! What despicable iniquity the human heart, yes, the religious heart, is capable of!
Having set the woman “in the midst” they proceed to remind the Lord that Moses commanded that such should be stoned, demanding, “But what sayest thou?” (Ver. 5).
These men were diabolically clever. They reasoned: He is always talking about forgiving sinners. He says that the publicans and harlots will enter the kingdom of God before us (Matt. 21:31). Now we will force Him either to acknowledge that this woman should be stoned or to openly champion immorality by taking the part of a harlot against Moses.
Now this Jewess had a great initial advantage over the Gentile woman of Matthew 15. In Romans 3:1,2 we read,
“What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision?
“Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God.”
It was a great honor to be entrusted with the written Law, the revealed will of God—and it was a great responsibility too; a responsibility which, if violated, would change her position from one of distinct advantage to one of distinct disadvantage. And this is exactly the situation in which this Jewess found herself.
Indeed, this was why the Law had been given to Israel. The Gentile had already been proven hopelessly depraved; now God gave the Law to Israel to prove that the Jew was no better—that the sons of Abraham were, after all, the sons of Adam too! Thus that which had elevated her positionally above the Gentiles had brought her down again to the same level. She had broken the Law and it had condemned her.
“Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19).
The Law is the great leveller of mankind. No one can boast in its presence.
Thus this Jewess now stood condemned before the holy Son of God. The Gentile woman had earnestly sought access to Christ’s presence, but to stand before Him was the very last thing this Jewess would have wished for.
Actually, it was a blessing in disguise for this woman that she had been made so conspicuous. It taught her, in another way, the same lesson which the Syrophenician woman had had to learn: that she too stood without claim before the Son of God, without a right to anything but His condemnation.
But our Lord proposed to teach her accusers this lesson too; these “just persons who needed no repentance” and had boasted again and again that they were the children of Abraham (Luke 15:7).
Ignoring their demands, He stooped to write on the ground, all the while “standing in the midst.” What He wrote we are not told, but the act itself reminds us that the ten commandments, too, were written with “the finger of God” (Exod. 31:18). But they were not to be ignored and went on demanding that He give His verdict in the matter. “So, when they continued asking”—they got what they asked for!
“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (Ver. 7).
It is suggested that the words “without sin” here do not mean without any sin, but without the sin in question, i.e., “Let him that is free from her sin first cast a stone at her.”
Amazing reply! Withering rebuke!
Consider it carefully: He had not ignored the Law or taken a sinner’s part against Moses. He had not denied that the woman deserved death by stoning. He had simply pointed out that they were in a rather poor position to bring the charge, since their own hands were soiled. Yes, the woman should be stoned—and so should they! Thus they themselves were caught in the trap they had set for Him.
Having made His reply the Lord stooped down to write on the ground again and let that simple sentence do its work.
“And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst” (Ver. 9).
What a combination we have now! A great sinner and a great Savior!
“When Jesus had lifted up Himself, and saw none but the woman, He said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee?
“She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (Ver. 10,11).
What other course would one have expected the Lord to take? The scribes and Pharisees had brought this woman to Christ to judge, but now they were not even there to press the charge. They had left the courtroom in the middle of the trial!
“Neither do I condemn thee; go and sin no more!”
This was what really mattered. What the scribes and Pharisees said or thought about her really mattered nothing now; He had freely forgiven her. And thus she had received help from Christ, not because she belonged to the chosen race for, condemned by the Law, she had forfeited all claim to consideration on this ground. He had helped her, just as He had helped the Gentile woman—in His own sovereign grace.
But the question may well be asked at this point whether this free pardon of a convicted criminal was quite in accord with justice. And to bring the question nearer home: Is God’s free forgiveness, yea, justification of sinners who believe on Christ today, quite in accord with justice?
In Deuteronomy 25:1 Moses, in the name of God, strictly charged the judges of Israel:
“If there be a controversy between men, and they come unto judgment, that the judges may judge them; then they shall justify the righteous, and condemn the wicked.”
This is basic justice; the premise upon which the execution of law in any land is founded. It is so fundamental that one wonders why it need be stated.
In Job 8:20 we find Bildad the Shuhite saying to Job,
“Behold, God will not cast away a perfect man, neither will He help the evil doers.”
And to this Job answered,
“I know it is so of a truth” (Job 9:2).
In Proverbs 17:15 God tells us how He feels about those who would break up this very foundation of justice:
“He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord.”
This is why all the sinner’s turning over of new leaves, all his good works and religious performances, all his penance and tears and prayers fail to make him acceptable in the sight of God.
But what is this we find as we examine the rest of the record? Did not God condemn the righteous in the case of Christ? Is it not true that God allowed Him to die in shame and disgrace on Calvary’s Cross for sins He had never committed? Do we not read that “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him” and “He hath put Him to grief” (Isa. 53:10). Is it not written that “[God] hath made Him to be sin?” (II Cor. 5:21).
And what is more, does not God Himself justify the wicked every day and even offer them free forgiveness and justification, no matter how guilty? Do we not read in Romans 4:5,
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.”
How can He do this without violating the basic rules of justice?
This question brings us to still another occasion on which our Lord declined to answer. And here we will find why our Lord could help both the Gentile and the Jew and why, even today, He can justify “him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26) and still maintain perfect justice.
THE SON OF GOD BEFORE HIS ACCUSERS (Matt. 26:62,63; 27:12-14)
This time it is the Lord Himself who is in trouble. He stands on trial for His life before the representatives of Hebrew and Roman Law. Think of it! They sitting in judgment upon Him!
First He stands before Caiaphas, the Jew, charged with all sorts of crimes.
“And the high priest arose, and said unto Him, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee?
“But Jesus held His peace…” (Matt. 26:62,63).
Next He stood before Pilate, the Gentile, while the multitude, including Israel’s rulers, clamored for His death.
“And when He was accused of the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing.
“Then said Pilate unto Him, Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee?
“And He answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly” (Matt. 27:12-14).
But why did He not answer? Why did He stand there speechless, taking the blame for sins He had not committed? Picturing the scene one feels like crying: Lord, answer for thyself! Tell them the truth! Expose the wickedness of these contemptible creatures!
Surely the Lord could have given a thousand answers and have tied His accusers up in a thousand knots. Knowing all about them, as He did, He could have uncovered evidence which would have sent them fleeing from the scene.
Why did He not do so? Because He had come into the world especially to die for man’s sin. As He had taken His place with sinners at His baptism by John (Matt. 3:5,6,13-15) so now He was to take the place of sinners in condemnation and death.
Some have wondered why Isaiah pictures Him as a sheep before His shearers, dumb and opening not His mouth, when as a matter of fact He said many important things at His trials. The answer is that when accused He held His peace and took the blame. Indeed, had the sinners of all ages been there and accused Him of their sins He would not have said one word in self defense. Yes, and had you and I been there, charging Him with our sins, seeking to shift the blame for our sins upon Him, He would still have remained speechless—so infinite was His love for us; so great His determination to bear our judgment for us. See Him standing there! Yes, He is guilty; not in Himself but as our representative, for He stands there, not merely for us, but as us, taking the full responsibility for our sins. Thus God can dispense grace to sinners because He dispensed judgment upon sin at Calvary.
Neither the Syrophenician wom-an nor the fallen Jewess understood all this, of course, for it had not yet taken place. Indeed, God’s great purpose in Calvary was to be “testified in due time” through the Apostle Paul, some years after the crucifixion (I Tim. 2:4-7). Nevertheless it was the basis on which he could justly help both women, and it is the basis on which He has ever justified sinners, whether Jews or Gentiles.
Unsaved friend, will you call on God to save you for Jesus’ sake? He is ready to save you, but you must call. Will you do it now?
“Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets:
“Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe…
“Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past,4 through the forbearance of God;
“To declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
“Where is boasting then? It is excluded” (Rom. 3:20-27).
Hallelujah! The Law brings Jew and Gentile down to the same level and grace accepts them there!
“For there is no difference: for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22,23).
“For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon Him” (Rom. 10:12).
- From His reply it seems evident that they meant He should grant her request and dispose of her case.
- Lit., becoming.
- The Hebrew race.
- Cf. “But now” (Ver. 21) and “at this time” (Ver. 26). We now know how God could justly forgive “the transgressions that were under the first testament” (Heb. 9:15).