Lessons from the Canaanite Woman
“Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. 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.” (Matthew 15:21-28)
Every word in this passage is rich in instruction, and deserves to be thoroughly studied, mediated upon, and laid up in our hearts. In these verses we see a woman with a great need, who shows great faith in our great Savior, and obtained great mercy from him. The circumstances attending this miracle are both interesting and instructive. We will look at them in order and see what they are intended to teach us. This Canaanite woman is here held before us as an example of faith in Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, will seek and find his lost sheep wherever they may be. That is the first lesson set before us in this passage (vv. 21-23; Luke 15:3-7). The natural man, reading our text with spiritually blind eyes, might think, “This is not a story about Christ seeking the woman, but about a woman seeking Christ.” Granted, this Canaanite woman came to Christ, earnestly seeking him. But she would never have come to him in verse 22 if he had not come to where she was in verse 21. Our Lord Jesus came into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon because, as Mark says, there was “a certain woman” there to whom he must come. God, in his eternal decree, had marked out the spot where and the time when this needy soul would meet her all-sufficient Savior. When “the time of love” arrived, he came to the spot to perform for her and in her his great purpose of grace (Ezek. 16:8; John 4:1). In all his movements while upon the earth, and in all his movements now in providence and by his Spirit, the Son of God is on an errand of mercy. He is seeking and saving his people (Matt. 1:21; Luke 19:10). Wherever you find a seeking sinner you will also find a seeking Savior (John 6:44-45).
Here we read that she was “a woman of Canaan.” She was a Gentile. Mark tells us (Mark 7:26) that she was a Syrophenician. She was from that part of Phoenicia near Syria. She came seeking the Lord Jesus and his mercy, believing him to be the Christ, the Son of David. How did she know Christ? How did she come to trust him? No answer can be given except God revealed his Son in her and gave her faith in him by his omnipotent grace (Psa. 65:4; Isa. 54:13; Matt. 16:16-17; John 6:37-40; Rom. 9:16). The Lord Jesus came “into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon” on an errand of mercy to meet this woman, as she was coming out of those coasts to meet Christ. It is written, “It shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, l will hear” (Isa. 65:24).
We have before us in this Canaanite woman a marvelous display of the sovereignty of God’s free grace in Christ. Here is a chosen vessel of God’s mercy taken from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. She shows us that the church and kingdom of Christ is made up of God’s elect gathered by him from all nations into which he has scattered them. They shall come from “the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south.” And their coming is a matter of absolute certainty. “Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power” (Ps. 110:3). He scattered them that he might gather them (Ezek. 11:16-17).
Second, we see here, as we do throughout the Scriptures, that God’s elect are usually those we think are the most unlikely to be saved. Lay it to heart. It is a lesson that must never be forgotten. God’s elect are often found where we least expect them. It is grace, not place, that determines who shall be saved. It is grace, not race, that determines who shall obtain faith. Remember, this was a Canaanite woman, a Syrophenician, from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. She was a woman of a cursed race of idolaters (Gen. 9:22, 25; Deut. 7:1-2). But she was a chosen vessel of mercy (1 Cor. 1:26-29; 4:7).
Many, like Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, live in the homes of God’s prophets, and yet live and die without Christ, without grace, without life, and without faith. Others, like this Canaanite woman, rise from the darkness and debauchery of idolatry, sin, and utter paganism to faith in Christ, righteousness, peace, joy, and eternal life. God’s saving grace is not a family inheritance. It does not run in bloodlines (John 1:12-13). No one has any claim upon God’s grace by nature. And none are beyond the reach of God’s grace.
Grace and Providence
A third lesson should be obvious to all who read this passage. That is the fact that God’s providence is ordered according to his great purpose of grace toward his elect. This entire story is a commentary upon and illustration of Romans 8:28-30. What prompted this woman to come to Christ? Her daughter was grievously vexed with a devil. No one else could help her? The Son of God was manifested “that he might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3: 8).
Love for her daughter, who was grievously vexed with a devil, compelled this broken-hearted mother to come to the Savior, bringing her daughter’s need to him. She asked the Lord Jesus to pity her daughter as an act of mercy to herself. “Have mercy on me,” was her cry, bowing to Christ as her Lord. Her desperate need brought her to the Savior and taught her how to pray. Let every believing mother and father follow her example.
The ground upon which she sued for mercy was her need. The ground upon which she hoped for and expected it was that the man Christ Jesus is the Son of David, God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us, God and man in one person. The multitudes who saw him had no idea who he is and did not trust him. This woman, being taught of God (John 6:46), knew him and trusted him. And, when she was in great need, she came to him for mercy.
Affliction is often a means of grace to God’s elect, and proves a great blessing to a person’s soul. Adversity will never produce faith. But God often uses adversity to bring chosen sinners to the Savior. Carefully read Psalm 107:1-43.
This poor woman had been put through the wringer. Her heart was crushed. Her darling daughter, probably her only child, was grievously vexed with a devil. She was utterly helpless. There was nothing she could do to help her daughter. Yet, it was the very thing that caused her great pain, heartache, and sorrow that brought her to Christ and taught her to pray. If she could speak to us now from heaven, she would say, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Ps. 119:71).
Every trial, every providential adversity, every difficulty of life is a message from God. Our troubles in this world are sent by our heavenly Father and are intended to draw us to Christ, to wean us from the world, to send us to the Scriptures, and to teach us to pray. As trials are used of God to bring us to Christ and cause us to trust him, so our trials are designed to keep us clinging to Christ, and to strengthen our faith in him (Heb. 12:5-14). Commenting on this passage, J. C. Ryle wrote…
“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 to be afflicted, like the Canaanite mother, and like her to flee to Christ, than live in ease, like the rich ‘fool’, and die at last without Christ and without hope.”
Here is a fourth lesson. It is a sad lesson, but one we need to learn. God’s saints in this world are all sinners still, justified and sanctified in Christ, but sinners still. Sometimes we act as if we did not know the Lord at all. Here is a woman, a poor, broken-hearted woman, crying out for mercy. And here is a band of blood-washed sinners, who had themselves obtained mercy, looking down their noses upon this Canaanite, Syrophenician woman of Tyre and Sidon, as though she was not worthy of being identified with them! What a pity! They cried, “Send her away; for she crieth after us!”
She was not crying after them. She was crying after Him! Our Master is far more gracious than we are. How thankful we ought to be! Let us ever beware of and guard against our natural prejudices, pride, and hardness of heart toward those who are around us. Do not try to determine who is and who is not sincere and true, who is and who is not a believer. We have no way of knowing. We cannot look upon the heart. You and I should never be doubtful of those who profess faith in Christ (Acts 9:26; Rom. 14:1).
When we read that our Lord said to this woman, “O woman, great is thy faith,” we learn that there are varying degrees of faith. Our Lord calls this woman’s faith “great faith.” He called the centurion’s faith great faith, too. But he spoke of his disciples’ faith and even of Peter’s faith as “little faith.” He would have us to understand that even little faith, if it is fixed upon him, is saving faith. Yet, he holds this woman who is newly converted before us as an example of great faith, so that we might seek to imitate her.
When I read these words, “O woman, great is thy faith,” I want to know what this great faith is. I cannot say much about the matter, but of these six things I am certain.
2. Great faith is based upon the naked Word of God. She believed Christ Jesus to be the Christ, because he met the prophecy of the Old Testament and fulfilled it (Matt. 11:3-6).
3. Great faith involves great repentance. Repentance and faith always go hand in hand. This woman turned from her sin, her religion, and her gods to Christ.
4. Great faith bows to the Word of God. When Christ spoke of election (v. 24), she worshipped him. When he called her a dog (v. 26), she acknowledged it and used it as an argument for mercy. (v. 27).
5. Great faith cannot be driven from Christ. It never gives up. It never quits. Look how this poor soul hangs on to Christ. She had nowhere else to go (John 6:66; Heb. 11:13).
Nowhere else in the Book of God do we find a sinner coming to the Savior discouraged by him; but this woman met with great discouragement. At first the Master did not even answer her. Then, he who calls every poor, weary, heavy-laden, broken-hearted soul to come to him, assuring all who come that they shall find rest, said to one coming to him, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs.”
Does it sometimes appear that the Savior refuses to hear your heart’s cries? When that is the case, lie still before the throne of grace and wait for him. He sees you. He hears your cries. He knows all your sorrows. It is he who measures out your portion day by day. And, being touched with the feeling of your infirmities, he is infinitely more disposed to give you mercy than you are to ask for mercy. But he waits to be gracious at the best time, at the time that is best to fulfill his purpose and best to for you.
Still the trial of her faith is not finished. When the Lord finally spoke to her, his words must have cut her to her heart. He said, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs.” Who can imagine how she must have felt when she heard those words? Yet, those are the first words the Savior spoke to her. He who loved her infinitely and everlastingly, who was determined to do more for her than she asked or thought, made the trial of her faith even greater, because he desired to make her an everlasting monument and example of faith among his people, teaching us by her example to hope against hope, trusting him.
By all this, he sweetly and graciously forced her to publicly take her proper place before him, saying, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table!” Just in proportion as we see Christ’s glory, we will see and acknowledge our unworthiness of his grace.
“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” (v. 28). — Robert Hawker wrote, “It is as if Jesus threw the reins of government into her hand, saying, as by the Prophet, ‘Concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me’ (Isaiah 45:11). And was there ever a more finished instance of grace and mercy, not only in following up this daughter of Abraham’s petition; but planting such faith in her heart, as might sustain so long, and painful a trial.”
Let us remember this woman when we try to witness to sinners. God’s elect may be found anywhere. Let us remember this woman when we pray. “The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” because our great God and Savior waits to be gracious. Let us remember this woman when our faith is tried. The more greatly our God intends to bless us, the more greatly he tries our faith.