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How to Obtain Help from Jesus (Matthew 15:21-28)

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May 9, 2021

One of the most difficult trials for parents is to watch helplessly when any of your children suffer. You would much rather that the Lord put the suffering on you and let your child be free of the pain. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, you may try every conceivable option to help, but nothing has worked. Then you conclude, “All we can do now is to pray!”

But prayer is where we should start when we face overwhelming problems, whether with our children or personally. Prayer connects us with the living God who spoke the universe into existence out of nothing. So with Jeremiah (32:17), we should often pray, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You ….”

In our text, we encounter a desperate mother who obtained help from the Lord Jesus for her daughter. Jesus and the disciples had traveled out of Galilee northwest into the region of Tyre and Sidon. Mark (7:24) says that Jesus didn’t want anyone to know where He was, but He couldn’t escape notice. This unnamed Gentile woman heard that He was there and virtually forced her way in to see Him.

There are some rather strange elements in the story. At first, Jesus seems aloof and even rather rude in His response to this needy mother. But we need to read this story in light of two factors. First, in the context of Matthew 15, there is a contrast between the religious leaders in Israel and this Canaanite woman. Jesus indicts the religious leaders for honoring God with their lips while their hearts were far from Him (Matt. 15:6). They kept their religious rules without the reality of a relationship with the living God. But this Gentile woman, who was “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, [a stranger] to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12), approaches Jesus with her problem and goes away with her daughter healed. Since she found mercy with the Lord, there is hope for you, no matter what your background or problems are!

Second, Jesus knows the hearts of every person. He knew that while the Pharisees and scribes put on a good religious front, their hearts were far from God. In Matthew 9:4, Jesus knew the hearts of the scribes who accused Him of blasphemy because He forgave the sins of the paralytic who was brought to Him. Jesus knows the hearts of all people (John 2:24). So we need to approach this story understanding that Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit was drawing this woman in faith to Him. His initial silence and subsequent seeming rudeness were designed to draw her into deeper faith and to display her faith as an example to the unbelieving religious Jews and to the disciples who had “little faith” (16:8). This is the second time in Matthew that Jesus has commended someone for great faith (8:10). In both cases, they were Gentiles. This story tells you that you can come to Jesus and obtain help through faith.

To obtain help from the Lord Jesus, let your problems drive you to Him with overcoming faith.

First, we need to understand that …

1. God intends for problems to drive us to Jesus.

We all are inclined to rely on ourselves or on different human techniques to resolve our problems. Prayer, as I mentioned, often comes in as our last resort. But our problems should drive us deeper into experiencing “the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). No problem is too big or too small to bring to Jesus.

A. Often our problems are beyond human help.

We can safely guess that this woman had tried everything she knew to solve her daughter’s problem. The girl was possessed by a cruel demon. We don’t know how old she was or how she got into this state. Being a pagan woman, this mother no doubt first tried to placate different idols in the hopes that they could help her daughter. Maybe she had gone to a pagan priest who had given her various potions or performed different rituals to try to exorcise the demon. But nothing had worked.

Of course, not all problems are demonic in origin. Some are, but many have other causes. And there are many remedies in our world that seem to work apart from dependence on the Lord. Psychological counseling and 12 Step Groups sometimes “work,” but if they don’t drive you to deeper dependence on the Lord Jesus as He is revealed in Scripture, they are false help. Whether it’s a problem that you think you can handle by yourself or one that is beyond human help, take it to Jesus!

B. Sometimes our problems are embarrassing.

This mother’s “sweet little girl” was possessed by a cruel demon! What an embarrassing problem! Why couldn’t she just have a normal illness like other kids? Maybe other moms gossiped that the little girl’s problem was the mother’s fault. Maybe she had dabbled in the occult. We don’t know the symptoms that this cruel demon caused. But however the demon afflicted this girl, the woman knew that it wasn’t a normal childhood ailment. It was a spiritual problem that was embarrassing and beyond human help.

Sometimes if a problem is really bad or embarrassing, we want to keep it to ourselves. Maybe we’re in denial. We say, “I have this under control! I can quit any time I choose!” Or we minimize the problem: “I’m just normal! Every guy looks at porn!” Or we know that our problem would make us look bad in the Christian community, so we cover it up. I’ve often heard saints say in a prayer meeting, “Unspoken request.” I always think, “Why don’t you tell us what the problem is?”

C. Our problems should not keep us from coming to Jesus, but rather drive us to Him.

Sometimes we mistakenly think that our problem is so severe or so embarrassing that we can’t bring it to the Lord. What would He think? The truth is, He knows all about your problem before you bring it to Him (Heb. 4:13)! He’s never surprised! But the question is, will you try to cover it up or fix it by some human remedy, or will you flee to Jesus as your only hope?

J. C. Ryle observed (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 1:180-181),

Trials are intended to make us think, to wean us from the world, to send us to the Bible, to drive us to our knees. Health is a good thing; but sickness is far better, if it leads us to God. Prosperity is a great mercy, but adversity is a greater one, if it brings us to Christ. Anything, anything is better than living in carelessness, and dying in sin. Better a thousand times be afflicted, like the Canaanitish mother, and like her flee to Christ, than live at ease, like the rich “fool,” and die at last without Christ and without hope.

But this story shows that coming to Jesus with our problems is not always easy. This mother had to overcome several obstacles, which we also may encounter.

2. To come to Jesus, there are often obstacles to overcome.

A. Sometimes you need to overcome the obstacle of cultural differences or race.

This mother was an outsider because of her race. Her Canaanite ancestors were those whom God had commanded Israel to exterminate when they conquered the promised land. If this woman had lived today, she would accuse Jesus of racism! “How dare He treat me as inferior to those arrogant Jews! They’re the ones who stole our land! We demand reparations!” She would organize protesters to demand equality for the Canaanites. But she didn’t argue that God’s choice of Israel was unfair or that His command to wipe out her ancestors had been cruel.

Don’t let the modern cries of “systemic racism” or cultural privilege keep you from coming to Jesus. I’m not denying the sad fact that many Christians and many churches have been racist, which is sin. But classing yourself as a victim may keep you from the only one who can give both temporal and eternal help. You would be the loser if you let Christians’ sin keep you from the Savior.

B. Sometimes you need to overcome the obstacle of insensitive or uncaring Christians.

The disciples were annoyed by this woman’s persistent cries for help. The Greek word translated “shouting” (v. 23) was used of a raven’s croak. She was bugging them! Perhaps they were asking Jesus to grant her request so that she would go away. But clearly, their concern wasn’t for this needy mother or her poor daughter. They just wanted some peace and quiet.

Sadly, sometimes needy people come to church desperate for answers to their problems, but insensitive or uncaring Christians treat them as if they are a bother. The disciples complain (v. 23), “She is shouting out after us.” No, she wasn’t. She was shouting out after the Lord! He is the only one who can meet the needs of hurting people. As the Lord’s people, we need to treat every person with kindness and compassion. But if you come to church and feel mistreated, don’t let that keep you from seeking Jesus!

C. Sometimes you need to overcome the obstacle that Jesus seems silent or uncaring.

It would have been easy for this woman to conclude that Jesus didn’t care about her or her problem. She was obviously desperate to bring her need to Him, but (v. 23), “He did not answer her a word.” Have you ever felt that way when you poured out your heart to the Lord? You felt as if you might as well be talking to the wall! It’s like when you call a company because of a problem and the automated voice assures you, “Your call is important to us. Please remain on the line and your call will be answered by the next available agent.” Right! After 30 minutes you hang up in disgust!

This woman isn’t the only one in Scripture who seemingly got put on hold when she tried to come to the Lord. Abraham was promised a son, but it took 25 years before God came through. David cried out (Ps. 13:1), “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” The Bible often talks about waiting on the Lord. Don’t let God’s seeming silence turn you away from seeking Him!

When Jesus finally spoke (probably to the disciples, but in this woman’s hearing), He didn’t offer much encouragement. He said (v. 24), “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That seemed to slam the door shut! She wasn’t one of the elect! For now, He was offering the kingdom to the Jews first (Matt. 10:5-7). When they rejected their Messiah, after His resurrection Jesus told His disciples to take the gospel to all the nations (Matt. 28:19; Matt. 21:43; Acts 13:44-48; Rom. 1:16). But here, Jesus’ exclusive words didn’t stop her (v. 25): “But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’” Surely now Jesus would take pity on her!

But, no, He seems to move from uncaring to exclusivist to rude (v. 26): “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” “Children” refers to the Jews. “Dogs” refers to the Gentiles, specifically to this woman. “Bread” refers to the kingdom blessings offered to the Jews. It would have been easy for this woman to say indignantly, “I have more self-esteem than to be called a dog! I’m not going to listen to this abuse!” But surprisingly, she didn’t stomp off in a huff! Rather, she agreed with Jesus and used His words to build her case for Him to heal her daughter. She demonstrates what Jesus calls “great faith,” or what I’m calling, “overcoming faith.”

3. Overcoming faith obtains Jesus’ help.

This Canaanite mother teaches us five things about overcoming faith:

A. Overcoming faith can operate even when you have a scant knowledge of who Jesus is.

This woman didn’t know much about Jesus. She had not studied the Hebrew Scriptures as the Pharisees did. The news about Jesus had spread into her country (Matt. 4:24), but it probably wasn’t always theologically accurate. She addressed Jesus as “Lord.” Some say that this was just a polite form that we should translate as “Sir.” But I think it was more than this. She was asking Jesus to do a miracle by casting the demon out of her daughter at a distance. So at the very least she recognized Him as a great prophet.

Second Kings 5 tells the story of a little Jewish slave girl who told her master Naaman, who was the captain of the army of Aram, but who was afflicted with an incurable skin disease (called “leprosy,” but not the disease we know by that name), that there was a prophet in Israel (Elisha) who could cure him. So the king of Aram sent a letter to the king of Israel asking him to cure Naaman. The king of Israel tore his clothes and exclaimed (2 Kings 5:7), “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man is sending word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” But, through the prophet Elisha, God did cure Naaman. So at the very least, this woman was addressing Jesus as a great prophet, even if she didn’t understand that He was the eternal God in human flesh.

Also, she had heard that Jesus was “the Son of David,” the promised Jewish Messiah, a descendant of David who would reign on his throne. She didn’t thoroughly understand the Old Testament messianic promises. But she was ahead of the skeptical Jews, who taunted Jesus as being a son of immorality (John 8:41). She had hope that this renowned prophet, the son of David, who worked miracles in Israel would do the same for her demon-possessed daughter.

You need to understand some of the truth about who Jesus is before you can come to Him for salvation from your sins, but you don’t need a theological degree. You need to know that He claimed to come to this world to save sinners. His death on the cross paid the penalty sinners deserve. His bodily resurrection from the dead proved that God the Father accepted His sacrifice. He promises that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life. So begin there: Believe in Jesus as your Savior from your sin. Then flee to Him with all your problems. He is a gracious and merciful Savior for all who come to Him.

B. Overcoming faith is not based on any merit or worthiness in yourself.

This woman had nothing except her faith to commend her to Jesus. She comes crying out for mercy, which is undeserved favor. She didn’t list her good qualities as a reason that Jesus should answer her plea. She didn’t ask Him to just treat her fairly! She just cried, “Have mercy on me! … Lord, help me!” Never appeal to the Lord based on your good deeds or your qualifications. Come asking Him to be merciful to you, the sinner (Luke 18:13).

C. Overcoming faith often must keep believing through what seems like initial rejection.

I’m just repeating the earlier point here. Don’t let the Lord’s initial silence or rejection by the Lord’s people turn you away from seeking Him. The Bible promises that whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Rom. 10:13). Grab hold of that and don’t let go! It promises (Ps. 145:18), “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth.” Don’t let what seems like God’s silence or lack of concern drive you away. Rather, imitate this woman in pursuing the Lord and not giving up!

D. Overcoming faith perseveres through obstacles.

Again, we’ve already seen this woman’s persistence, so I mention it briefly. She went after Jesus until she got her request. She was like the widow in Jesus’ parable about the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). She kept pestering the judge until he finally said (Luke 18:4-5), “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.” Jesus’ point was not that God is like that unjust judge, unwilling to grant our requests. Rather, His point was that we should imitate that persistent widow by praying and not losing heart (Luke 18:1). Finally,

E. Overcoming faith uses God’s own words to build a persuasive argument.

This bold woman wasn’t put off by the seeming obstacles in her way. When Jesus said (Matt. 15:26), “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs,” she didn’t say, “Oh well, I tried!” She didn’t protest, “I am not a dog!” Rather, she agrees with Jesus and then builds her case on what He said! In verse 27, “but even” (or “yet even”) should be translated, “for even.” She agreed with Jesus that she was a dog, but then she added that even the dogs can feed on the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables!

Some people get offended when the Bible (or those preaching the Bible) say, “You are a sinner!” I have often pointed out that modern hymnals change the words of Isaac Watts’ hymn, “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” We don’t want to damage our self-esteem by calling ourselves “worms!” A woman in my church in California was indignant when I said that we are worms, until I explained to her that Watts got his language from Psalm 22:6, where Jesus on the cross calls Himself a worm as He bore our sins. She instantly repented!

C. H. Spurgeon said (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 42:430), “Whatever the Bible calls you, accept it, do not quarrel with it, for it is quite true.” If the Bible calls you a sinner, accept it but then build your argument on it: Christ promises to save sinners (Luke 5:30-32; 15:1-32)! Jesus promises (John 6:37), “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” Come to Jesus for salvation and He will abundantly pardon all your sins (Isa. 55:7).

Conclusion

You would be mistaken to apply this message by thinking that every request you bring to Jesus will get quick or miraculous answers, as this woman got. Sometimes God graciously answers quickly and even miraculously, but often He does not. We can know God’s will of desire by what He has revealed in Scripture. He (1 Tim. 2:4) “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” But we also know that in His will of decree, He will not save everyone. Some will spend eternity in hell (Rev. 20:11-15). So we should pray for the conversion of lost loved ones, but we can’t know with certainty in advance whether God will save them.

The same is true for our temporal problems. It may be God’s will to heal or to deliver us (or those we pray for) from a difficult trial, but He may have other purposes for us to go through the trial. At the culmination of the great chapter on faith, the author recounts (Heb. 11:33-35a) those “who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.” But then he abruptly shifts gears (11:35b-40):

And others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.

Some were delivered by faith; others, because God had a greater purpose, suffered and died by faith. But whatever happened, God was faithful. So the point of the story of the Canaanite mother who sought Jesus on behalf of her daughter is, “Don’t be like the religious Pharisees who practiced their rituals, but lacked reality with God! Be like this humble Canaanite mother, who with great faith brought her problems to Jesus!”

Application Questions

  1. How long should we persist in prayer if the Lord doesn’t seem to be answering?
  2. If faith is the key to getting through to God, then what is wrong with the “name it and claim it” theology?
  3. A person tells you, “I don’t have enough faith to come to Jesus.” What would you say?
  4. How can we grow in faith?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2021, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Faith, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

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