It is the year 29 AD. By this stage in the Savior’s ministry, more than half of his Israeli mission was over. He had worked some marvelous miracles in Judea and in the Galilee, including healing the sick, and the lame, and casting out devils. He had fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes, walked on the sea, and raised the widow’s son from the dead. He had delivered the glorious Sermon on the Mount, and taught some wonderful parables, like the parable of the sower, the candle under the bushel, the wheat and the tares, the mustard seed, the leaven, the hidden treasure, the net, and the pearl. He had called and ordained the Twelve Apostles and sent them out on a mini missions. And he had just lost his great cousin, the anointed Aaronic priesthood forerunner, John the Baptist.
By this time, tens of thousands had heard the master’s voice and had heard of his great teachings and great works, and had heard that he declared himself to be the long-awaited Messiah. But far too few chose to follow him.
Furthermore, storm clouds were growing on the horizon. Satan was doing everything he could to stir up trouble. Plots were beginning to take shape to trap and kill our Savior. But his time was not yet. He still had much to tell us. And we’re going to read about some of those things today.
Miracles in Tyre and Sidon
In Matthew chapter 15 and in John chapter 7, we see that Jesus decided to leave the Galilee region for a while and ventured northwest to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Here were the cities of Tyre and, 20 miles further north, Sidon. Today, these cities are in Lebanon, back then, they would have been in Phoenicia, where most of the people spoke Greek and followed the idolatrous Canaanite religion.
In fact, this was enemy territory. Throughout the Old Testament the Phoenicians were almost always at war with Israel. Still are, in fact. So why did the Lord take his disciples there?
There are probably a couple of reasons that we can infer from the text, which we don’t have time to talk about today, but one clear reason is that there were pockets of faithful Jews up there, and the Savior wanted to visit them.
Let’s read a little about this now. Let’s turn to Matthew 15, verses 22 through 28.
22 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.
23 But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us.
24 But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
25 Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
26 But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.
To my ears, this sounds a little harsh, doesn’t it? I mean this seems completely unlike the loving, compassionate Savior. But remember, the Savior is the Master Teacher, and I believe he is taking advantage of this opportunity to teach us an important lesson.
27 And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.
28 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.
- What personality trait—what virtue—do we learn about the Savior?
He has compassion for all—not just the house of Israel. So if you demonstrate faith in him, even if you are a non-member, he will take mercy on you and heal you. No matter what your background—no matter what your history.
We also learn that those who have not received the fulness of the gospel may still be persons of great faith. I’m sure each of you are familiar with people who aren’t of our faith who have immense amounts of faith. In my work travels, I’ve met lots and lots of good people out there who are trying to do good things because they are following the Savior. That takes faith.
We also learn a lesson about pride. If we think we are better than someone either economically or ethnically or physically or intellectually or religiously—all of it can result in prejudice and partiality which separates us from our brothers and sisters. Not a good thing. Not a Christian thing.
Another lesson we can learn from this incident is that we should never lose faith when blessing don’t come as quickly or as frequently as we desire. One thing is abundantly clear as we read the scriptures, the Savior will always do everything he possibly can to bless us and to heal us and to rescue us from whatever pits that entrap us. He always has and he always will. That is his job. And he’s better at it than anyone.
- Why do you think the Lord seemed reluctant to administer to this non-Israelite?
A scriptural phrase that came to my mind as I asked myself that question is, the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” (Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16; Ether 13:12). On this idea, here’s what Elder Bruce R. McConkie said in his book, the Mortal Messiah:
The house of Israel is composed of the spirits from preexistence who there developed a talent for spirituality, and who are therefore entitled to the blessings of heaven in this life on a preferential basis. All men, in due course, either in his life or in the spirit world, will be offered the blessings of salvation. But there is an eternal system of priorities; there is a law of election, a doctrine of foreordination; and Israel is entitled to the blessing of the holy word ahead of their Gentile fellows. During his lifetime Jesus took the gospel and its blessings, with isolated exceptions, to his kinsmen in Israel; after his resurrection he will send his apostolic witnesses to all men, irrespective of creed or race or ancestry. The Lord Jehovah—Jesus in the flesh—is simply conforming to the eternal law of gospel priorities that he and his Father ordained from before the foundations of the world. (Mortal Messiah, 3:11-12)
Miracles in Decapolis
According to Matthew, after his visit to the Tyre district, Jesus and his disciples traveled about 50 miles southeast to the Decapolis district. It was called the Decapolis district because there were 10 autonomous cities in the area: Canatha, Damascus, Dion, Gadara, Gerasa, Hippos, Pella, Philadelphia, Raphana, and Scythopolis.
This too was a region where there were just a few pockets of Israelites about. But they needed home teachers as well. So Jesus went to visit them. Let’s turn to verse 30 and 31.
30 And great multitudes came unto him, having with them those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus’ feet; and he healed them:
31 Insomuch that the multitude wondered, when they saw the dumb to speak, the maimed to be whole, the lame to walk, and the blind to see: and they glorified the God of Israel.
“And they glorified the God of Israel.” Isn’t that marvelous. In his own district of Galilee he was largely rejected. But here we find great multitudes—probably many of whom were pagans—who recognized that Jesus was a representative of the God of Israel. And as a result of their faith, healings were performed and miracles happened. In fact, here next we find a second feeding of a multitude, this time there were about 4000.
32 ¶Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way.
33 And his disciples say unto him, Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude?
That’s interesting, isn’t it. Remember these are the same disciples who just a few chapters earlier witnessed a miracle we called the “Feeding of the 5,000.” Perhaps they still had a lack of perception about the true identity of Jesus. Or perhaps they still had something to learn about faith. Or perhaps they didn’t believe that Jesus would perform a similar miracle for the Gentiles.
34 And Jesus saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven, and a few little fishes.
35 And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground.
36 And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.
37 And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets full.
38 And they that did eat were four thousand men, beside women and children.
By the way, in an Institute manual for the New Testament, it says that the miracle of feeding the 4,000 was symbolically different from the earlier feeding of the 5,000. At the first feeding, the Savior was talking to his fellow Israelites and was laying the foundation for his sermon on the Bread of Life. But at this second feeding, he was talking to Gentiles, which was a foreshadowing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ eventually going forth to the gentile nations of the world. It is interesting to note that the Gentiles were in many ways more receptive and faithful than were the native-born Israelites.
After this miraculous event, the Lord returns north to the Galilee, where the Pharisees and the Sadducees are waiting for him.
The Pharisees and Sadducees Seek Signs
At the time of the Savior’s ministry, there were a number of different political interest groups in Judaism, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots. Each one thought they had the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They each had a different viewpoint on the proper role of government, sort of like we do in our modern political parties.
For example, the Pharisees were mostly middle-class, common businessmen who believed that scholarly oral traditions were just as important as scriptures, if not more so. In fact, they thought that everyone should live like a priest, so they had lots and lots of extra rules and laws to help keep people out of trouble.
On the other hand, the Sadducees were wealthy or priestly aristocrats who were very conservative and self-sufficient. They interpreted the scriptures literally and rejected new revelations. They didn’t believe in life after death or the resurrection which is probably why they were more concerned with politics than religion.
Now these specific two groups had a problem with the teachings of Jesus because it threatened their way of life and their hold over the people. So they baited traps for the Savior over and over again, in hopes that he would say or do something that would violate their laws so they could get rid of him.
We read about one of them in Matthew, chapter 16.
1 The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven.
2 He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red.
3 And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times?
4 A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed.
These men were basically employing the old plurium interrogationum complex question technique. They reasoned that that if Jesus did not give them a sign, then the miracles must have been from Satan. But if Jesus did give them a sign, then it also could be attributed to Satan since then godly people like themselves just didn’t do miracles any more.
This was an extremely loaded question because any answer would prove your guilt. Like the question, “have you stopped beating your wife?” You can’t answer yes or no without admitting guilt. The only way out is to either dodge the question or say something like “I neither did nor do I now beat my wife.”
The Lord saw the trap and offered a simple response. He said, “It is a wicked and adulterous generation that seeketh after a sign.” And he meant that literally. Here’s what Joseph Smith had to say about this idea:
When I was preaching in Philadelphia, a Quaker called out for a sign. I told him to be still. After the sermon, he again asked for a sign. I told the congregation the man was an adulterer; that a wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and that the Lord had said to me in a revelation, that any man who wanted a sign was an adulterous person. “It is true,” cried one, “for I caught him in the very act.” Which the man afterwards confessed when he was baptized. (TPJS, p278.)
The pure in heart don’t need public signs. They don’t need spectacular displays of power. They don’t need manna from heaven. All they need are the teachings of the Lord. Because following the teachings of the Lord—the Bread of Life—will work many miracles in their own lives. It allows them to personally experience the miracle of forgiveness. It allows them to be miraculously raised from the dead. It even gives them the opportunity to return to Father’s presence if they so choose. These are more than enough miracles—far more than any of us deserve.
Now we’re going to skip over the rest of this chapter which is a shame because it expands on the Bread of Life motif by talking about the bad leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees and how we should avoid it. If we seek-signs like they did, it won’t let us rise to our full potential. Instead, we should shun the false doctrines and philosophies of the world because they give rise to all sorts of evil and keep us from accepting the truths of the restored gospel. But we’re going to skip all that today.
Instead, we’re going to talk about a testimony meeting that the Lord conducts with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, a town close to the base of Mount Hermon, the highest mountain in ancient Israel. It is now in the Golan Heights region on the border between Syria and Lebanon. It is 9,232 feet above sea level. Let’s turn to chapter 16, starting with verse 13.
The Keys of the Kingdom
13 ¶When Jesus came into the coasts of Cæsarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?
14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.
15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
- From what source did Peter’s testimony come?
The revelation came from Heavenly Father through the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is a Revelator and one of his biggest missions is to bear testimony to receptive people that Jesus is the Christ. Even though the Apostles and early members of the Church didn’t enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost until after the Pentecost, 50 days after the Savior’s resurrection, they did receive revelation from time-to-time, as evidenced by this scripture.
Just a few minutes ago we read how the Pharisees and Sadducees were seeking signs to establish the identity of Jesus. But the true sign—the only sign that really matters—came to the soul of Peter via a still, small voice. It was a personal experience. A one-on-one revelatory experience.
I testify that I’ve experienced this witness. I have felt the Holy Ghost testify to my heart and mind that Jesus is the Son of God. It is the most wonderful experience in the world, and I’m so thankful that as members of the Church we can invite the Spirit into our lives just by keeping our covenants. And that Spirit, send directly from the presence of Father, can reveal everything we need to know and do to return to Father’s presence. What an opportunity! What a sacred obligation!
Let’s continue with verse 18:
18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
- What is the rock upon which the Lord builds his church?
I still remember sitting in my seminary class back in 1980 listening to Brother Shelley, our instructor, telling us about the layered meanings of the word “rock.” The name the Lord gave Simon was Peter or “petros,” which also meant “stone.” However, Joseph Smith said the word “rock” in this context meant “revelation,” meaning that the church was to be built upon revelation.
Furthermore, Joseph associated the name “Cephas,” which is Aramaic for “Peter,” with the word “seer”, as found in the phrase “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” or “seer stone” which is a rock used for revelation.
On the other hand, the word “rock” is also used in other symbolic ways throughout the scriptures to refer to the Savior. Like the rock from which we build alters and make sacrifices. Or the “rock of salvation”. Or the rock upon which you build a house. Or the rock that was rolled in front of the Savior’s tomb. And on and on. So all of these meanings point to Christ or revelation about Christ.
- So why must the Lord’s church be built upon revelation?
Because the Church of Jesus Christ is not built on the the doctrine of a man, or a council of men, or a king, or a pope—the church is built upon revelations from God through his servants, the prophets.
19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
- What is the significance of this verse?
In this verse the Savior is telling Peter that he and the Twelve will one day carry forth the Lord’s work. Furthermore, he promises that one day he will give Peter the sealing power, which as we know is exercised in temples and other holy places.
Today, as in the past, each of the Twelve Apostles hold those keys. Of course, only the senior apostle, which in those days was Peter, and in today’s day in President Monson, can use those keys or turn those keys on behalf of the members of the church and direct the work of Exaltation.
President Joseph F. Smith explained it this way:
The Priesthood in general is the authority given to man to act for God…. The power of directing these labors constitutes the keys of the Priesthood. In their fulness, the keys are held by only one person at a time, the prophet and president of the Church. He may delegate any portion of this power to another, in which case that person holds the keys of that particular labor. (Gospel Doctrine, p136)
Speaking of temples and holy places, with its attendant ordinances and sealings, let us now turn our attention to one of the greatest events of the Savior’s ministry. An event we call the Transfiguration.
By the way, the word, transfiguration, means:
A temporary change in a person’s appearance and nature, from a lower to a higher state, brought about by the power of God. A mortal must be transfigured to behold God’s power. (1995 Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual)
It is found in Matthew, chapter 17.
1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,
Where is this mountain? Scholars aren’t sure. In the third century, the Christian scholar Origen identified it as Mount Tabor, which is about 1886 feet high and southwest of the Sea of Galilee. Others believe it was the same mountain we just talked about, Mount Hermon, the biggest mountain in the country. But we just don’t know for sure.
2 And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.
Who was transfigured? If Peter, James and John witnessed these things, it sounds like they were transfigured too.
3 And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.
In this case, Elias is Elijah, who was a translated being, just like Moses. Someone who had been taken from the earth without tasting death. Which means these two had bodies of flesh and bone—a necessary element for what was to happen next. Because what did Moses and Elijah do? According to the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“The Priesthood is everlasting. The Savior, Moses, and Elias, gave the keys to Peter, James and John, on the mount when they were transfigured before him.” (TPJS, p158)
Only beings who had flesh and bones, only those who had held the Melchizedek priesthood keys of the gathering of Israel and the sealing power, Moses and Elijah, could assist the Savior as he laid his hands on the heads of Peter, James, and John and bestowed the keys to exercise that priesthood.
In fact, President Joseph Fielding Smith suggests that Peter, James, and John received their endowments from Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. (Doctrines of Salvation, 2:165.)
4 Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.
5 While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.
7 And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.
8 And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.
9 And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.
There is so much we don’t know about this event. These scriptures reveal very little—but what they do reveal is very tantalizing. But what we do know that this was one of the most sacred and pivotal events in the lives of these great men—so sacred that even the voice of the Father was heard bearing witness of the divinity of the Savior.
Elder David B. Haight said this about this experience:
Perhaps Jesus felt not only a sense of the heavenly calm which that solitary opportunity for communion with His Father would bring, but even more, a sense that He would be supported in the coming hour by ministrations not of this earth…. He went up to prepare for His coming death. He took His three apostles with Him in the belief that they, after having seen his glory,…might be fortified.” (Ensign, May 1977)
It was also an experience that moved the Lord a step closer to the fulfillment of his mortal mission, which would culminate in just six months with his Atonement, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.