Long promised and declared in the older Testament is God’s love for the world. The Seed Promise in Genesis 3 is a ringing declaration of God’s promise of victory over sin and death for all humanity through the Seed of the woman. In Genesis 12 God takes the pagan Gentile, Abraham, and assures him that through him will come a nation that will bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). Genesis 35 hints at a “congregation of nations” that will come from Jacob (v. 11). Psalm 22 says all the ends of the earth will turn to God because of the Messiah (v. 27); Psalm 67 that His salvation will be known among all nations and that all the ends of the earth will fear Him (vv. 2, 7); Psalm 86 that all the nations He has made (all of them!) will come and bow down before Him in worship (v. 9); and Psalm 138 that all the kings of the earth will give thanks to Him when they have heard the words of His mouth (!) and will sing of His ways (vv. 4-5).
Then, of course, there is the bright promise in Isaiah 42 that Messiah will bring forth justice to the nations (v. 1; “justice” refers elsewhere in the OT to the right manner and custom of worshiping the Lord and of conduct and thinking in keeping with His holy Law). Isaiah 49 assures us that Messiah will be a light to the nations, that God’s salvation will reach to the ends of the earth (v. 6).
The real privilege and blessing afforded the nation of Israel (a privilege and blessing that will be restored and doubled in that final day of our Lord) often led them to be arrogant and selfish, rather than being the nation of priests to the world God created them to be. Forgetting their own national father. Abraham, was a Gentile; forgetting that all they had was due to the sheer grace of God; forgetting that they were sinners in need of anything and everything God could give out of mercy and grace, they were arrogant and dismissive towards Gentiles.
I share this background because it is profoundly important for understanding our Lord’s words in Mark 7. His words may initially seem harsh or unkind to this dear Gentile woman, but set in the larger context of the OT—into which the wondrous realities of the NT flow, where Gentiles are brought into equal standing with Israel through the church—they reveal wonderful and practical truth.
The narrative breaks open into several headings, which elucidate for us the work of God among the nations in miniature scale.
A. Jesus’ Strategic Departure (v. 24)
Recall our Lord has just had a significant conflict with the Jewish leadership over their rejection of the Word of God. To remove Himself from the froth of popularity coming from the people and the threats on His life and ministry from the leadership, He withdraws to Tyre—a place where no good Jew would ever deliberately (or even unintentionally) go. Tyre was a prominent city in Phonecia (which is in modern-day Lebanon). And Tyre was the pinnacle of pagan worship of the ancient world. It was the center of Baal worship and completely devoid of true religion (even Rome had lots of Jews). But Jesus goes into explicitly pagan, ungodly territory (the only time He is recorded as doing so in Scripture) not merely so He won’t be followed and can be alone (with His disciples, Matthew adds), but to reach a woman who is in desperate need of His help.
But as often happens, Jesus’ desire for rest is short-lived. Earlier in Mark, we read of people from Tyre and Sidon (almost certainly Gentiles) coming to be healed by Him and presumably hear Him preach. I like to think that some of them were saved at this point, and went back into their extremely dark land to whisper about the Jewish Messiah who had power over sickness and death. These people, along with their loved ones, come to see Jesus when He is in their own land…along with a desperate woman who risks everything to beg His help.
B. The Syrophoenician Woman (vv. 25-26)
This is an unworthy outsider—a stranger to true religion, the covenants, the Word of God—precisely how Ephesians 2:11-22 describes all Gentiles before God in His mercy offered to graft them in. She has heard of Jesus’ power from her friends and neighbors who saw Him rebuke demons. Her pagan priests and their strange methods have not freed her daughter, nor eased her mother’s heart that aches for her child. This Jewish rabbi is her only hope.
She is a Syrophoenician (modern Syrians come from her stock), and a descendant of the Canaanites, those ugly-souled bloodthirsty pagans whom God judged through the tip of Jewish swords.
Incidentally, this is precisely how we ought to view our own trials. When human solutions, paganism, false religion, and sheer willpower don’t work, God intends to close off every other means of escape for us other than the power of God. This is just as true in “earthly” trials (financial, health, relational, etc.) as it is with our greatest need for rescue from sin and divine wrath.
Gratefully, this woman is desperate enough to be shameless. We read that she “kept asking Him” to rebuke the demon—this accurately reflects the sense of the Greek, which describes her asking repeatedly, doubtless with more intensity and desperation each time. Matthew tells us she prefaced her plea by calling Jesus both “Lord” (perhaps simply a polite address like “sir”) and “Son of David” (clearly she knew who people thought He was). We will see how Jesus handles her cry in the next section.
C. Jesus’ Strange Response (v. 27)
Mark does not record Jesus’ initial refusal to answer; Matthew explicitly tells us the Lord did not say anything to her at first (15:23a). Indeed, the first to acknowledge her are the Twelve, who are actually annoyed by her incessant pleading and ask Jesus to dismiss her (v. 23b). His first recorded words are to them, not her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (v. 24), underscoring how salvation was first offered to the initial covenant people, who would then take it (in the person of the apostles and the Jewish Christians) to the Gentile world to include them. Matthew adds that the woman was undeterred, even bowing before Jesus and begging Him to help her (v. 25; cf. Mark 7:24b). Finally, Jesus addresses her, saying that the children must be fed first, and that it isn’t right for their bread to go to dogs (v. 27). Initially, this strikes us as rude, even cruel and unfeeling. But here is where the verbal inspiration of Scripture becomes very practical and precious!
The Lord is drawing an analogy from Jewish dinner tables. The children had rights and privileges afforded to them as children, including bread at dinner (likely a stand-in for the whole meal). Obviously, who should be fed first? The children borne from love and nursed at the breast, or the little puppy desperate for scraps?
Note that Jesus calls the privileges and blessing afforded to the covenant people “the children’s bread.” This denotes everything that is theirs as children of God by covenant. Noticed also He does not say that the little dogs will not be fed, but only denotes who should be fed first. Third, the word He uses for “dog” is not an insult but was used to refer to the kind of loveable puppy (the Greek is diminutive) kept as a family pet. (I am picturing a Terrier in my head even though I am sure that breed did not exist then!)
Jesus is not dismissing the woman, but reaffirming His priority to reach the people who had fallen far from the covenant and truths given to them by God (a fitting analogy, perhaps, for our own nation, far fallen from its godly roots and history). When the remnant in that nation has been secured, it will be sued of God to reach the entire world for the sake of His Name—and then, Gentiles will not be limited to scraps, but will be full-fledged children seated at the table, enjoying their Father’s bread with the Jews who invited them in.
D. Great Faith Affirmed and Grace Received (vv. 28-30)
The first thing the woman does is agree with the Lord. “Yes, Lord,” she says. She is not a Jew. She is a pagan woman, raised among a pagan people. Baal, that most notorious manifestation of Satan in the OT, is her god, not Yahweh (who, of course, is standing right before her in flesh). She is not wrong to ask, but she also has no claim on the blessings and privileges of the children. She is outside, not having hope nor God in the world (Eph. 2:12). But she ponders what the Lord has said, and it encourages her faith, not stifles it—which is precisely why the Lord spoke to her in this way.
“If I am a little puppy in the house of the Lord, and if the puppies do get scraps and crumbs, then Lord, give me that. I won’t ask for more than my due. But if I am already in the housed as a little pup, then at least give me what a pup is due.”
Here is her reasoning: I can still have something if I am a little dog. I’m not asking to be treated as a child, just as a beloved pet. So please heal my daughter—that is but a crumb to You, powerful Lord.
Of course, the Lord knew this would happen. He wanted to test, refine, and draw out the full expression of her faith. He loves her humility, her willingness to accept her place in the program of God (one that, in a few months, will be gloriously upgraded). “O woman,” He says, exulting in her persistent trust, “great is your faith!” And He does for her exactly as she asks!
The delays of God, wrote James Montgomery Boice, are the delays of love. The woman latched onto truth spoken by the Lord and renewed her persistence. That faith, because it did not harden into bitter rejection or cave into unbelief, thrilled the heart of the Lord. He is that way with us, too. His seeming “No” to our most desperate pleas is often telling us to press in, bear long, keep seeking Him. We are children now, after all.
The woman rushes home, every step a prayer of “let it be so!” And she finds her daughter lying in bed, free. The word of Jesus, spoken from miles away, did what no pagan could do. I believe the kingdom of God had a new sheep that day—a woman who by God’s grace persisted in trusting Him in the face of His seeming silence, and found that a little puppy could powerfully become a beloved daughter with every right to bread—and much more.