How Matthew Reports the Teachings of Christ that Include Animal Illustrations

by James J. S. Johnson      August 18th AD2014*

In the Old Testament God’s teachings are often enhanced by illustrations that refer to animals, such as: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard”.[1]   The New Testament does likewise.[2]

Being the Creator of all animals, God is perfectly qualified to know which animals illustrations would best accentuate what He is teaching humans, whenever he informs them about a variety of important topics.  The largest “nature sermon” in Scripture is God’s message to the patriarch Job, recorded in Job chapters 38-41, most of which (i.e., Job 38:39-41:34) focuses on God’s role as Creator and Sustainer of various animals.  If Job was confronted by God the Son (in Job 38:1 and following), that lengthy “nature sermon” could be included in a study of how Christ taught using animal illustrations.

But that sermon will not be analyzed here, because this study is limited to the teachings of Christ as the incarnate God, as reported in the First Gospel by the apostle Matthew.[3]  (God willing, similar studies of the other three Gospels will follow in time.)

Christ’s first (albeit informal) teaching allusion to an animal, as reported by Matthew, is Christ’s historic call to two fishermen-brothers, Andrew and Peter, which call necessarily painted a word-picture of fish being harvested: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19).  The importance of fish, in Matthew’s Gospel, is re-visited below.

The Sermon on the Mount[4] is the first major discourse of Christ, reported in Matthew’s Gospel.  It is “freighted with dispensational theology” about Christ’s kingdom, according to the theologian from Hinckley, Dr. Stanley D. Toussaint (see Footnote #3 above).

Neither the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) nor the Similitudes (Matthew 5:13-16) allude to any animals.  Christ’s “ye-have-heard-it-said” critique of the then-popular Jewish legal traditions (Matthew 5:17-6:18) likewise omits mentioning any animals.  Christ’s first reference to an animal, in His Sermon on the Mount (as reported by Matthew), is His warning that earthly goods are routinely corrupted by “moths” [sês], in Matthew 6:19-20.  (A similar passage appears in Luke 12:33, and specific reference to moth-eaten clothing appears in James 5:2.)

While still teaching axiological contrasts between earthly and heavenly treasures, Christ refers to “the fowls [peteinon] of the air” in Matthew 6:26.  This is a general allusion to passerines, i.e., perching birds, without specifying a particular variety.

Later, after Christ critiqued judgmental hypocrisies (Matthew 7:1-5), He warned against—actually prohibited—giving “that which is holy unto the dogs” [kûôn] and casting pearls before “swine” [choiros], another command that requires axiological judgment in application.

Then, Christ taught about God’s dependable care for those who belong to Him. Providing memorable word-pictures, Christ contrasted a “fish” [ichthûs] with a “serpent” [ophis], emphasizing that even sinful human fathers routinely provide edible food to their own children, Christ compared that to God’s perfect and providential care of His (redemptively adopted) children.  (The more general term herpeton, i.e., “reptile”, used in James 3:7, is not used here.)

Soon following was one of the Lord’s most memorable metaphors: false prophets deceptively coming “in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15).  The word “sheep” here is probaton (this word is used 40 times for “sheep” in the New Testament), and the word “wolves” translates the plural of lûkos (the same word used for “wolf” in Matthew 10:16; Luke 10:3; John 10:12; Acts 20:29).

What kind of teaching did the Lord Jesus provide?  “… the people were astonished at His doctrine, for He taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). When Immanuel teaches, His doctrine is authoritative—absolutely.  And, when teaching, the Lord Jesus sometimes chose to enhance the communication process by referring to animals that His audience knew about.

After the Sermon of the Mount the Lord Jesus healed a Jewish leper (Matthew 8:1-4) and a Gentile servant (Matthew 8:5-13); then Christ healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-17).  Then Christ was approached by “a certain scribe” who professed a desire to follow Christ (Matthew 8:18-19).  The Lord’s reply alluded to the home-building and home-abiding habits of two animals, foxes and birds—as a contrast to Christ’s transient ministry career:   “The foxes [alôpex] have holes, and the birds [peteinon] nest, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head” (quoting from Matthew 8:20; see also Luke 9:58).  This contrast clashed with the scribe’s family ties (Matthew 8:21) which he prioritized over following Christ, an axiological flaw that Christ disagreed with (Matthew 8:21).

Matthew then reports the miraculous calming of the storm (Matthew 8:23-27) as a demonstration of Christ’s power over creation, as Immanuel, the Creator on earth—His own creation (see John 1:3). Even though He was in the world that He Himself made, His own people failed to appreciate that fact (see John 1:10-11), and Matthew’s next miracle report—regarding demons cast into swine—demonstrated this failure of the Jewish people.  This occasion is not usually regarded as Christ “teaching”, yet Christ taught by both words and deeds, and Christ’s miracles in “the country of the Gergesenes” (Matthew 8:28-34) qualify as a lesson taught by deeds, and this teaching-by-conduct involved the destruction of a herd of many “swine” [choiros] as a by-product of Christ rescuing the souls of two demon-possessed men there.

Matthew reports a series of miracles (and parenthetically records his own calling as a disciple of Jesus – see Matthew 9:9), after the Gergesene swine miracles, then He commanded His disciples to pray for God to “send forth laborers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:38).  What prompted this compassion-motivated exhortation by Christ?  Matthew informs us, by the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, how Jesus was “moved with compassion on them [i.e., the multitudes], because they fainted, and were scattered aboard, as sheep [probaton] having no shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).[5]  Although this “sheep” simile was not a spoken teaching of Christ, it does reflect the truth about how Christ valued and cared for His “sheep” (see also Psalm 23 and John chapter 10).

Christians are often familiar with the Bible’s teachings about sheep. On the negative side, our predisposition to stray is compared to that imprudent behavior of sheep (Isaiah 53:6). On the positive side, sheep are known to recognize the voice of their shepherd (John 10:3-16). Although they generally prefer lighted places to dark ones, sheep are known to move in the dark toward the voice of their shepherd, and often they vocally respond to his or her voice. Sheep usually (although not always) tend to stay together, whether they are where they should be or where they should not be (Luke 15:4-7). Such gregarious behavior can be either good or bad. Sheep are trusting animals (Isaiah 53:7).[6]

In fact, we see the “sheep” metaphor in Matthew’s next chapter, when Christ commissions His disciples—now “apostles” (Matthew 10:1-2, documenting how the apprenticed learners are now special missionaries)—to avoid preaching to Gentiles and Samaritans, as they “go rather to the lost sheep [probaton] of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6).

This special commissioning, which Dr. Stan Toussaint would say is “freighted with dispensational significance”, included more allusions to animals:  “Behold, I send you forth as sheep [probaton] in the midst of wolves [lûkos]; be ye therefore wise as serpents [ophis], and harmless as doves [peristera, corresponding to the Hebrew noun yônah]” (Matthew 10:16).

“Sheep”, in this context, refers to redeemed humans who belong to God’s flock (i.e., God’s “forever family”, thanks to Jesus!). “Wolves”, in this context, reefers to Satan’s human servants who prey on God’s flock.  “Serpents”, in this context, are noted as an animal “wise” [phronimos – same word as appears in Matthew 7:24], i.e., prudent in taking decisive action that produces useful consequences.  “Doves”, in this context, illustrate harmlessness – no one fears an attack by a dove!  (Perhaps the most ubiquitous member of the “dove” family, in America, is the “pigeon”, a/k/a “rock dove”; surely no one is truly harmed by pigeons or those close cousins, the mourning doves that moaningly coo from their nesting-places, sounding almost like owls.)   Furthermore, this commissioning included mention of another animal, “sparrows” [strouthion], in Matthew 10:29-31 (and in Luke 12:4-7).  Sparrows are such supposedly “ordinary” birds that most of them flit and fly about, near us, unnoticed and unappreciated.  But God values them more than we can truly imagine.  The lesson in these lyrics is quite Biblical, actually:

 I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,

His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me![7]

 After the timeframe that implemented this special commissioning, Jesus—the Master Teacher—“departed thence to teach and to preach in their cities” (Matthew 11:1).

Matthew reports how John the Baptist was rejected by the Israelite leadership, and was persecuted (to the point of political imprisonment that eventually ended in John being murdered).  The holy calling and work of John the Baptist is positively evaluated by Christ (Matthew 11:1-19), followed by Christ’s negative evaluations of the Israelite cities that refused to accept His Messiahship and Messianic message (Matthew 11:20-24).  Christ then added, in a thankful prayer to God the Father, that the acceptance of spiritual truth is indispensably God’s work (Matthew 11:25-26), and He emphasized this wonderful truth to His disciples (Matthew 11:27-30).  Within this informal teaching (Matthew 10:29-30), Christ made metaphoric reference to believers accepting Christ’s “yoke” [zûgos], which is perfectly designed for each believer to fit—and to yoke us to Christ.  This is a zoömorphic metaphor, actually, because the disciples would have imagined the kinds of yokes harnessed to oxen (or other domestic beasts) in agricultural settings.

Matthew’s Gospel continues with its documentation of Christ’s teachings, with the next theme being Sabbath-keeping, in order to demonstrate the true role of the Sabbath, including the theological truth that Jesus was then (and is now) “Lord of the Sabbath” (just as He is “Lord of sabaoth” – see James 5:4).  In Matthew 12:11-12, by teaching truth in conjunction with a miraculous healing, Christ used “sheep” [probaton] as an illustration of how the Sabbath is a time for doing good, not being enslaved to Pharisaic traditions (as well as for reminding us that we are more valuable than sheep – see Matthew 12:12).  But the Pharisees rejected Christ’s teachings, unforgivably choosing then to blaspheme God’s Spirit.

The Pharisees’ outrageous blasphemy (against the Holy Spirit, as well as against Christ) was blasted by Christ (Matthew 12:24-36) by Christ.  In the process of condemning these Pharisaic blasphemies, which represented the majority of Jews then living, the Lord Jesus called these hard-hearted unbelievers a “generation of vipers” [echidna], a class of snakes famous for their deadly venom.  Zoölogist George Cansdale suggests that the echidna of the New Testament likely means the ovoviviparous (i.e., live-bearing, due to eggs hatching inside the maternal viper) Palestinian viper, Vipera palestina, which routinely lives near humans and is famous for dumping out its abundant hatchlings (1 to 4 dozen per batch), all of which emerge from their mother, ready for kill their prey![8]  The destructive venom in the Pharisees’ teachings matches the description of the ungodly tongue, “full of deadly poison” (James 3:7), which is “a fire, a world of iniquity … defiling the whole body, … setting on fir the course of nature, and it is set on fire of Hell” (James 3:6).  False teachings should be abhorred just like venomous vipers!

The next reference (in Matthew’s Gospel) to an animal, by the Lord Jesus, is truly amazing:

39 But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonah.  40 For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  41 The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.

(Quoting Matthew 12:39-41.)   Dr. Ryrie insightfully points out that Christ’s reference to the deadly-yet-miraculous experience of Jonah[9] is itself a didactic demonstration, in the life of Christ, of Him glorifying God, by Christ’s own personal knowledge and usage of the holy Scriptures, when He compared His own soon-coming death and resurrection to the historic experience of Jonah with the great fish (Matthew 12:40) which the Authorized Version translates as “whale” [kêtos].[10]

Matthew next reports a major discourse of Christ’s teachings, the parables.  This discourse begins with the Parable of the Soils (Matthew 13:1-23), which included a negative reference to “fowls” [peteinon] that devoured the seeds fallen “by the way side” (Matthew 13:4).  This parable is later explained (Matthew 13:18-19), with the seed-snatching “fowls” representing the wicked one (i.e., the devil and/or any demon working therefor) who “catches away that (Word) which was sown in his heart”.

After the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30 & 13:36-43), Christ taught the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32), alluding to “the birds [peteinon] of the air” as passerines that lodge in a full-grown (i.e., tree-tall, meaning man-high) mustard plant.

Matthew then reports the Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33), the Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matthew 13:44), the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46), the Parable of the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50), and the Parable of the Householder (Matthew 13:51-52).  Of these only the Parable of the Dragnet involves animals, and no specific fish or shellfish are identified in this parable.  However, the net’s catch is qualitatively described as a mix of “the good” and “the bad”.

The Lord Jesus afterward employed two “fish” [ichthûs], with five loaves, and taught (by miraculous demonstration) His own deity to an outdoor crowd of 5000 men plus women and children (Matthew 14:13-21 – see especially 14:17).  More miracles are chronicled by Matthew, including Christ walking on the stormy sea (Matthew 14:22-33) and various healings (Matthew 14:34-36).[11]

Matthew reports another discourse condemning Pharisaic traditions is reported by Matthew (Matthew 15:1-20), once again documenting Matthew’s theme that the Jewish people are unwilling to accept Jesus for Who He really is.  This leads to another preview of God’s outreach to non-Jewish people (as a result of what Paul calls the “blindness” of Israel’s unbelief – see Romans 11:25).  Christ’s next audience is quite surprising, because Jesus amazingly visits the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15:21).  Here the Lord encounters a Gentile woman, to whom He gives miraculous mercy, but only after He clarifies some dispensational truth about the distinction between Israel and the Gentiles (Matthew 15:21-28). In the process of this informal teaching, Christ uses a canine wordplay—a vocabulary distinction, actually—to contrast wild dogs (kûôn) with tame dogs, i.e., small pet dogs (kûnarion).  Wild dogs (kûôn) are deemed vile in Scripture (Matthew 7:6; Philippians 3:2; 2nd Peter 2:22; Revelation 22:15 – see also Luke 16:21), whereas the small pet dogs (kûnarion) are treated like part of the family (Matthew 15:26-27; Mark 7:27-28).   As world history has repeatedly shown, members of the canine “family” can often be effectively used to serve Biblical priorities, sometimes saving human lives.[12]

Having blessed the Gentile lady, Jesus continued performing miracles (Matthew 15:29-31).

Then Christ again employs fish (Matthew 15:34), this time “a few little fishes” [ichthûdion], with seven loaves, to feed thousands of people, miraculously (Matthew 15:32-39).  This crowd is constituted of 4000 men, plus woman and children.  (Interestingly, the leftovers were gathered in large hamper-like “baskets” [spûris][13] that differed from the smaller “baskets” [kophinos] that were used for leftovers when the 5000 men were miraculously fed.)  These miracles were later discussed by Christ, as He taught His disciples to trust God’s providence for daily food (Matthew 16:7-10).  Unsurprisingly, fish are one of the most nutritious and practical forms of food eaten all around the world.[14]

First, consider how fish have provided waterborne testimony of God’s providence ever since they were created on Day Five. Also, according to God’s kind design, fish have provided a providential service, for 6,000 years, as one of the most nutritious foods for humans.  Fish are often mentioned in the Bible. Christ demonstrated His divine authority over His physical creation—and over the laws of physics that He Himself had instituted—by working miracles with little fish (feeding crowds of thousands on a least two different occasions; see Matthew 14:15-21; 15:32-38; 16:8-10). Christ was known to perform fish-catching miracles (Luke 5:4-9), so much so that He was recognized after His resurrection by that kind of miracle (John 21:4-8), and He even used a coin-carrying fish to pay taxes for Himself and Peter (Matthew 17:24-27)! And after Christ’s resurrection, more than once He shared fish with His disciples (Luke 24:42, broiled fish with honeycomb; John 21:12-13, fish and bread).[15]

Miracles authenticated God’s ultimate Messenger  — the Lord Jesus Christ  — and His message of saving redemption (Hebrews 2:3-4; John 20:30-31).  Many distractedly misunderstood or otherwise rejected that theänthropic Messenger and His message, but not Peter!  By God’s grace Peter, on behalf of the disciples, testifies that he knows that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (compare Matthew 16:16 with 16:17-18).

The next animal-related teaching by Christ (as reported in Matthew’s Gospel) is taught in conjunction with another miracle, the tribute money found inside a fish (Matthew 17:24-27). It is “the fish [ichthûs] that first comes up” after Peter casts a fishhook into the sea, another demonstration of both Christ’s divine power over creation and His providence for His disciples’ immediate (and not-so-immediate) needs.

The Lord Jesus provides some teachings about humility and trust, using children as role models (Matthew 18:1-10).  Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Lost Sheep is the next animal-related lesson in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 18:11-14).  The “sheep” [probaton] in this parable signify individual humans, some from Israel and some from another fold (John 10:16)  who will one day be recognized as God’s redeemed elect (see Revelation 5:9).   The relationship of Christ to His chosen people is often compared to that of a good shepherd and his sheep (see John chapter 10, especially John 10:14, & Psalm 23).

One of the easy-to-remember forms of this theological truth is found within Handel’s MESSIAH, where the composer’s musical score (especially the many syllables musically imputed to the word “astray”) resembles the erratic wandering of an errant sheep, as Isaiah 53:6 prophetically depicts our sinful meanderings.[16]

In fact, besides the Psalms themselves, it would be hard to find more Christ-glorifying music than Handel’s MESSIAH, that summarizes the Person and redemptive work of Christ Jesus, including His future work as the reigning Messiah-King, than that of the orchestral composition of George Frideric Handel’s unrivaled oratorio (which textually features the Scripture-backboned “libretto” lyrics authored by theologian-librettist Charles Jennens), THE MESSIAH.[17]  In Jennens’ theologically logical presentation of the life of Christ, which Handel set to his unforgettable music scores, we see JESUS fulfilling one Messianic prophecy after another (some of which prophecies are from the Old Testament, while other prophecies are from the New Testament):

  • Messiah’s coming heralded (Isaiah 40:1-5);
  • Messiah’s birth predicted (Haggai 2:6-7; Malachi 3:1-3; Isaiah 7:14);
  • Messiah’s glory foretold (Isaiah 40:9; Isaiah 60:1-3; Isaiah 9:2; Isaiah 9:6);
  • Messiah’s birth announced (Luke 2:8-14);
  • Messiah’s mission revealed (Zech. 9:9-10; Isaiah 35:5-6 & 40:11; Matthew 11:28-30);
  • Messiah bearing our sin (John 1:29; Isaiah 53:3 & 50:6 & 53:4-6);
  • Messiah enduring our death (Psalm 22:7-8 & 69:20; Lamentations 1:12; Isaiah 53:8);
  • Messiah arose from the dead (Psalm 16:10 & 24:7-10; Hebrews 1:5-6; Psalm 68:18);
  • Messiah proclaimed [to the world] (Psalm 68:11; Romans 10:15 & 10:18);
  • Messiah repulsed [by many, and Christ judicially punishes them] (Psalm 2:1-4 & 2:9);
  • the Hallelujah of the redeemed (Revelation 19:6 & 11:15 & 19:16);
  • the expectation of the redeemed (Job 19:25-26; 1st Corinthians 15:20-22);
  • the transformation of the redeemed (1st Corinthians 15:51-52 & 54-57);
  • the security of the redeemed (Romans 8:31 & 8:33-34); and
  • the new song of the redeemed (Revelation 5:9 & 5:12-13).

Though we do err like straying sheep, and we all-too-often do (1st John 1:6-9, especially 1:8), we have been graciously selected to hear our divine Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27), so we eventually follow Him (John 10:27) in saving faith, so that we cannot be perish (John 10:28-29).

The Lord next teaches truths regarding human relationship principles (Matthew 18:15 & 19:1-15).

A “rich young ruler” visits Christ, and a “kingdom of heaven” discussion follows (19:16-30), reminding the disciples that heavenly treasures are routinely at odds with earthly treasures.  This discussion includes the word-picture of a “camel” [kamêlos] going through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24).  Camels were well-known animals of Israel, then, yet the disciples did not know microbiology, nor did they know how a camel embryo can be fitted through the eye of a needle.  As the camel’s Creator, however, Christ knew quite well how to fit a camel through the eye of a needle, because every camel ever conceived (since Day #6 when Christ invented the camel kind) could do just that, at the embryonic stage.  With mankind many things are impossible, regardless of our technological advances.  However, all such things are possible for the Lord Jesus Christ, as the Creator-God (John 1:3), Who made and controls all of creation.

Matthew continues to record the teachings of the Lord Jesus.  Next Matthew reports  the Parable of the Laborers (Matthew 20:1-16), followed by a prediction of Christ’s Messianic death (by crucifixion) and subsequent resurrection (Matthew 20:17-19).  The prediction of Christ’s ultimate exaltation – at His resurrection – is contrastingly followed by teachings about selfish ambition (Matthew 20:20-28).

Next Christ’s demonstrates His unique power to heal the eyesight of blind men (Matthew 20:29-34).  Much more than a mere teacher, Christ has (and used) divine powers to properly connect eyeballs to the informational processes of the brain, to produce eyes that function properly.  No human ever did that before Christ (see John 9:32), and no one since has done a similar miracle, with the exception that God enables Ananias to participate in God’s healing of the temporary blindness[18] of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:20, especially 9:17-18).  What miraculous teachings Christ gave, opening both blind eyes and hearts!

After opening the eyesight of the two blind men, en route from Jericho to Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus approached a much more serious form of blindness – the spiritual blindness of the Jewish people, especially the Jewish leaders, as Christ officially presented and offered Himself as the Messiah, fulfilling a prophecy of Zechariah that involved the usage of two animals, an adult donkey [onos] and its colt [pôlos], plus a lot of palm branches (see Matthew 21:1-11 with Zechariah 9:9).  The “ass” (Matthew 21:2,5,7) was a well-known animal in Israel, then, and its famously stubborn disposition (the rationale for our English adjective “asinine”) indicates that Christ’s Triumphal Entry, into Jerusalem, was a providential miracle[19], because He rode upon a donkey that had never before been ridden (Luke 19:30) and thus “should” have stubbornly refused to coöperate.  The donkey, biogenetically speaking, is a member of the “horse family” kind – i.e., the Equid “family” (that includes all varieties of horses, ponies, donkeys, burros, mules, zebras, and all cross-breeds thereof), so both of Christ’s comings to Earth involve Him riding equids:  meekly upon a donkey when He first offers Himself as Messiah to Israel, and later returning to Israel upon a war horse (Revelation 19:11-21).[20]

The Lord Jesus Christ seized a “teachable moment”, using a whip, as He fulfilled Messianic prophecy by cleansing the Temple of religious fraudfeasors (compare Matthew 21:12-17 & Luke 19:45-48 with Isaiah 56:7 & Jeremiah 7:11).  The money-changers and dove vendors (ecclesiastical parasites masquerading as religious ministry professionals — a professional tradition that continues today) were taught relevant truth “the hard way”, as bystanders learned that the Jerusalem Temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer”, not a “den of thieves”.  Of course, escaping “doves” [peristera] were part of this didactic drama (Matthew 21:12), to the disappointment of the greedy dove vendors.  This violent judgment of the Temple fraudfeasors is a very small preview of the coming punishment of Jerusalem, in AD70, for the Jews’ unbelief, when the entire city’s population (minus those who obey Christ’s warning to flee[21] when Jerusalem is encompassed about by her military enemies – see Luke 21:20-24).  That Jewish unbelief is further taught, in picture form, when Christ curses the unproductive fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22), a miracle of judgment that is followed by the unbelief-spawned interview of Christ by the Jewish presbyters and chief priests (Matthew 21:23-46), which interview includes the Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32) and the Parable of the Vineyard-Planting Householder (Matthew 21:33-44).

Afterwards, the Lord Jesus continued parable-based teaching, further condemning the Jewish leaders’ unbelief, with the Parable of the Marriage Feast (Matthew 22:1-14).  This parable included mention of animals (Matthew 22:14), served as feast-food, “oxen” [tauros] and “fatlings” [sitistos].  Beefsteak, even today in America, is often used as a feast-food on special occasions, such as outdoor cook-outs when something or someone is being celebrated.

Next Matthew reports Christ’s teachings about the absolute obligations that humans owe God, compared to the inferior obligations that human owe to God-ordained authorities (see Matthew 22:15-22).  A denarius bears Cæsar’s image, so denarii are directly pertinent to human duties owed to governmental authorities; however, the total human being bears God’s image, so the total human being is absolutely and ultimately obligated to render unto God what is His.

Next the Lord Jesus argued theologically, and quite successfully, against the resurrection-denying Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-34, especially 22:34).  Because Christ silenced the Sadducees (Matthew 22:34), the Pharisees returned to challenge Christ’s authority (Matthew 22:35-46), again proving how much the Pharisees hated truth – and God Himself.  The evil rottenness of the Pharisees clashed with their popular reputation for “holiness”, so the ugly truth was hard for the people to recognize – it was even difficult for the disciples to digest.  Accordingly, Christ taught both the multitude and His disciples, about how truly bad such  religious leaders are.  In this ongoing teaching the Lord used several animal illustrations (see Matthew 23:24,33,37), involving a “gnat” [kônôps], “camel” [kamêlos], “vipers” [echidna], a “hen” [ornis] and her “chickens”, i.e., young chicks [nossion].  This unbelief of Israel’s leadership, which genuinely reflected the dominant unbelief of the Jewish nation (see, e.g., Matthew 27:25, a truly horrible verse to read and ponder), is the reason for the well-deserved destruction of Jerusalem which soon occurs, in AD70, by the punitive sword of Rome (Matthew 24:1-2).  Unforgiven sin must be punished.

Matthew now reports a huge teaching by the Master Teacher, the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:3-26:2), a series of eschatological prophecies and parables given in response to questions asked by the disciples.[22]

In this lengthy series of teachings Christ alludes (in Matthew 24:28) to carrion-consuming “eagles” [aetos], a force of after-battle corpse eaters – proving that the glorious Return of Christ is not a happy day for God’s Christ-rejecting enemies, it is a day of much bloodshed – and God wins (see also Luke 17:37; Revelation 19:17-21).

Having returned to Earth, as the rightful King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:11-16), Christ will judge between people (Matthew 24:32-33), like one who separates “sheep” [probaton] from “goats” [eriphos, eriphion].  Sheep have already been considered above, but this is the first mention of “goats” in Matthew’s Gospel.  (The word “goat in Matthew 25:32 is eriphos, whereas the word “goat” in Matthew 25:33 is eriphion; both nouns refers to young goats, i.e., “kid” goats.)

The Olivet Discourse concludes with Christ prophetically announcing His own crucifixion at the upcoming Passover festival (Matthew 26:2).  Obviously the Passover feast (which the ritualistic Jews had culturally transformed into a religious festival) is a Messianic type that foreshadowed Jesus the Christ (1st Corinthians 5:7), the unique Lamb of God[23] Who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  The Passover continues to be mentioned by Matthew, from its celebration by Christ, in the “upper room” (Matthew 26:20-29), through the events of Christ’s crucifixion, which was the ultimate Passover, teleologically speaking.

Again, Christ is the great Shepherd of the “sheep” (i.e., believers, called “the flock of God” in 1st Peter 5:2), and He refers to His disciples as His “sheep” (Matthew 26:31) which He protects, redemptively, as He satisfies the prophecy of Zechariah 13:7.

The Matthew reports a disappointing incident in the life of the usually bold apostle Peter:  Peter’s betrayal of Christ, as predicted by Christ.  This display of Peter’s imperfect courage and loyalty (even though his inward belief never failed) is linked to the thrice-crowing of a “cock” [alektôr], i.e., a rooster (Matthew 26:34), the last allusion to an animal in Matthew’s Gospel.  What a sad note to end with!  Yet, dispensationally speaking (i.e., in light of Romans chapters 9-11), the temporary failure of Peter, then, illustrates how the Jewish nation temporally failed to courageously and loyally endorse its Messiah, when He first came to them (John 1:10-11).  But God’s rejection of unbelieving Israel is only temporary, as Romans chapter 11 indicates.  Matthew’s Gospel documents who the Jewish nation failed her Messiah, so the newly promised “Church”-building (Matthew 16:17-18) program was established by God, as He put His workings through Israel on “hold”.  But the predicted thrice-crowing of the rooster[24] is not the last animal lesson in Christ’s cosmic curriculum.  While we serve our Lord, daily (by His grace), we know and await that glorious day when He shall return to His own creation, not meekly riding a donkey with its colt, but triumphantly and powerfully galloping—on a white “horse” [hippos]—to Earth as Kings of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:11-16)!

After the rooster crowed thrice (Matthew 26:69-75)—showing Peter’s moral weakness and Christ’s prophetic foreknowledge,–Christ  offered Himself up, for our sins, as the true Lamb of God (Matthew chapter 27). After He fulfilled the “sign of Jonah”—rising from the dead (!) triumphing over death itself (Matthew chapter 28),—Christ visited His disciples and charged them (and us in their wake) with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).

Meanwhile, as we await the eschatological consummation of God’s foreordained plan for Earth history (which always fits His divine foreknowledge and decision-making – 1st Peter 1:2-4 & Romans 8:18-30), we are equipped by His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:9-1), and by His holy Scriptures (2nd Peter 2:16-21), which provide us with revealed truth even more sure than the miraculous experience that Peter had, seeing Christ’s glory, when Peter was an eye-witness on the Mount of Transfiguration (2nd Peter 1:16-19).

May we appreciate Christ’s glory and truth as we treasure that “more sure word of prophecy”, the written Word of God which reveals to us the living Word of God!


*A later version of this article appears as “Animal Allusions within Matthew’s Gospel”, Journal of Dispensational Theology, vol. 20, #60 (summer-fall 2016), pages 159-172.


Berry, George Ricker, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998)

Cansdale, George S., All the Animals of the Bible Lands (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976)

Fruchtenbaum, Arnold, The Footsteps of Messiah (Tustin California: Ariel Ministries, 2003)

Ferguson, Paul, “Nineveh’s ‘Impossible’ Repentance”, Bible and Spade, 27(2):32-35 (spring 2014)

Hartman, Bob, “All the King’s Horses”, on Petra’s This Means War! (Starsong, 1989), track 10

 Johnson, James J. S., “A Christmas Carol in Four-Part Harmony”, Acts & Facts, 40(12):8-10 (December 2011), posted at .

Johnson, James J. S., “Siberian Huskies and the Dominion Mandate”, Acts & Facts, 42(6):18-19 (June 2013), posted at .

Johnson, James J. S., “Fulfilling the Genesis Mandate While Helping the Poor”, Acts & Facts, 42(12):19 (December 2013), posted at .

Johnson, James J. S., “Only Biblical Creation Proves God Loves You Personally”, in Creation Basics & Beyond: An In-depth Look at Science, Origins, and Evolution (Dallas: Institute for Creation, 2013, multi-authored by Henry M. Morris III, et al.), adapted from James J. S. Johnson, “Of Grackles and Gratitude”, Acts & Fact, 41(7):9-10 (July 2012), posted at .

Martin, Civilla, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” (song lyrics written during AD1905)

Martin, Jobe, The Evolutionist of a Creationist (Rockwall, TX: Biblical Discipleship Publishers, 2004)

Morris, Henry M. Morris, editor and author of notes & appendices, The New Defender’s Study Bible (Nashville: World Publishing, 2006)

Ryrie, Charles C., Transformed by His Glory (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990)

Schaeffer, Francis, How Should We Then Live?  (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1976)

Toussaint, Stanley D., Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005)

Whitcomb, John C., Christ our Savior:  The Greatest Prophecy—Isaiah 53 (Indianapolis, IN: Whitcomb Ministries, 2014)

Wigram, George V., The Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament, 9th ed.  (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, being a revision of Wigram’s 1839 orig. edition)

Woychuck, N. A., Messiah! A New Look at the Composer, the Music, and the Message!  (St. Louis: Scripture Memory Fellowship, 1995)

Young, Robert, Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011).


[1] Proverbs 6:6.

[2] Not only did the Lord Jesus Christ teach with animal illustrations, so did others in the New Testament (e.g., John the Baptist mentions “vipers” in Matthew 3:7; James 3:7 refers to the taming of all kinds of animals; Luke 13:15 & 14:5 refer to bovines; etc.).

[3] Matthew’s Gospel is dominated by Christ’s teachings:  “While the didactic character of the book [of Matthew] is displayed primarily by the groupings of material, it is also shown by its emphasis on the discourses.”  Quoting Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold the King: A Study of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980), page 22.

[4] The Sermon on the Mount is recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7.

[5] Sheep without a shepherd are famous for self-destruction.  Obviously the metaphor fits humanistic humanity well.  See, accord, Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?  (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1976), page 226.

[6] James J. S. Johnson, “A Christmas Carol in Four-Part Harmony”, Acts & Facts, 40(12):8-10 (December 2011), posted at .

[7] Civilla Martin, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” (song lyrics written in AD1905).

[8] George S. Cansdale, All the Animals of the Bible Lands (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pages 208-209.

[9] Actually the repentance of the Ninevites, at the preaching of Jonah, is a greater miracle than Jonah’s life-from-death experience in the great fish.  See Paul Ferguson, “Nineveh’s ‘Impossible’ Repentance”, Bible and Spade, 27(2):32-35 (spring 2014).

[10] Charles C. Ryrie, Transformed by His Glory (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1990), page 68-69, especially page 69, citing Matthew 12:40.

[11] Christ’s miracles often proved His authority over creation, validating His claim of being the Creator incarnate (Hebrews 2:3-4). Christ’s Creatorship is not just a historic fact, it is personal!  “In fact, your very existence is proof of how personally God loves you.  It doesn’t get any more personal than God making you as the unique person that you are!”  Quoting James J. S. Johnson, “Only Biblical Creation Proves God Love You Personally”, in Creation Basics & Beyond: An In-depth Look at Science, Origins, and Evolution (Dallas: Institute for Creation, 2013, multi-authored by Henry M. Morris III, et al.), page 98.

[12] James J. S. Johnson, “Siberian Huskies and the Dominion Mandate”, Acts & Facts, 42(6):18-19 (June 2013), posted at .

[13] A large hamper-like basket was used to enable Paul to escape Damascus (see Acts 9:25).

[14] James J. S. Johnson, “Fulfilling the Genesis Mandate While Helping the Poor”, Acts & Facts, 42(12):19 (December 2013), posted at .

[15] James J. S. Johnson, “A Christmas Carol in Four-Part Harmony”, Acts & Facts, 40(12):8-10 (December 2011), posted at .

[16] See John C. Whitcomb, Christ our Savior:  The Greatest Prophecy—Isaiah 53 (Indianapolis, IN: Whitcomb Ministries, 2014), page 46-48.  The sheep depicted in Isaiah 53:6 are an entire “flock” that has gone astray, signifying the waywardness of Adam’s entire race.  This fits the universality of sin that Paul analyzes in Romans 5:12-21.

[17] Probably the best book on Handel’s MESSIAH is the one by N. A. Woychuck, Messiah! A New Look at the Composer, the Music, and the Message!  (St. Louis: Scripture Memory Fellowship, 1995), 235 pages.

[18] This experience somewhat prefigures the judicial blindness of the nation Israel, which nation now experiences a temporary blindness due to its corporate unbelief (Romans 11:25).  A clearer typological microcosm of Israel’s temporary blindness is “seen” in the sorcerer/false prophet Bar-jesus Elymas of Paphos (in Cyprus), the Christ-rejecting trouble-maker who was rebuked by Paul (Acts 13:6-12).

[19] Although peacefully riding a never-before-ridden donkey is itself a providential miracle, the attending crowd were more cognizant, then, of the uniquely supernatural miracle Christ had recently performed in Bethany when He raised Lazarus from the dead (see John 12:12-22, especially 12:17-18).

[20] Most of the old hymn-writers had defective (i.e., non-dispensational) eschatologies, but the glorious Return of the Lord Jesus Christ, riding on a white war-horse, is musically portrayed by the group PETRA, in the lyrics of this energetic song that anticipates Christ’s arrival at the close of the 7-year Tribulation:

It’s an age old score that’s got to be settled

It’s an age old debt that’s got to be paid
When the King breaks through in all of His glory
To claim His throne and the world that He made
The nations wait with their armies gathered
With Jerusalem firmly under their thumbs
There will be no peace in Armageddon valley
Till the trumpet sounds and the cavalry comes
When He arrives He will conquer them all
Take back the ground given after the fall

All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Gonna ride down from heaven from where they’ve been
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Gonna put this world back together again
Gonna put this world back together

On a great white horse the King will come riding

He’s the One they call Faithful and True
With His eyes of fire and blood dipped clothing
He had a name nobody else knew
And by his side rode the armies of heaven
Dressed in linen clean and white as the snow
Riding down to earth with a vengeance so holy
For a one-day battle that will trample their foe
And when the dust and the smoke disappears
The King will reign for a thousand years
When the lion lays down with the lamb
There’ll be peace in the land of Abraham
They will beat their swords into plows
When every tongue declares and every knee bows
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Gonna ride down from heaven from where they’ve been
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Gonna put this world back together again
Gonna put this world back together . . .

Quoting Bob Hartman, “All the King’s Horses”, on Petra’s This Means War! (music album produced by Starsong, 1989), track 10 [emphasis added].

[21] This specific prophecy has been analyzed very carefully, with the buttressing evidence of Biblical archaeology, in the DVD titled “The Fulfillment of Jesus’ Final Prophecy”, featuring Dr. Scott Stripling (Akron, Pennsylvania: Associates for Biblical Research, 2014; 60 minutes).

[22] For an enlightening overview of the Olivet Discourse, from a Messianic Jewish perspective, see Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of Messiah (Tustin California: Ariel Ministries, 2003), pages 629-658.

[23] John ben-Zebedee (in John 1:29) reports that John the Baptist was quick to introduce Jesus as “the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sin of the world” (ιδε ο αμνος του θεου ο αιρων την αμαρτιαν του κοσμου), obviously denoting that Jesus was the sacrificial fulfillment of the Passover lamb (compare John 1:29 & 1:36 with Revelation 5:8-9 & 5:12-14), as well as the fulfillment of all other lambs sacrificed in foreshadowed identification with Christ’s Messianic mission as the Servant Who gave His life as a ransom for the sins of Adam’s fallen race (compare Acts 8:32-35, which quotes Isaiah 53:7-8, with 1st Peter 1:19).  All sacrificial animals of the Old Testament were foreshadowing “types” of Christ. But unlike the blood of ceremonial bulls and goats (which, like promissory notes, documented sin-debts without paying them off, although the deadline for payment was postponed thereby – see Hebrews chapters 9 & 10), Christ’s sacrificial blood did not merely “cover” sin or postpone its punishment, it paid the sin-debt in full (see John 19:30, using the verb tetelestai), satisfying the requirements of God’s holy justice for time and eternity (and thus fulfilling John the Baptist’s prophecy, in John 1:29, that Christ would actually “take away” sin).   The word “lamb” in Isaiah 53:7 (which Philip applies to Jesus in Acts 8:32-35) translates the Hebrew noun seh, which also appears in Isaiah 66:3, another verse about sacrificing a lamb.  It should be noticed that the word “lamb” used to denote Christ translates either the Greek noun amnos (John 1:29 & 1:36; Acts 8:32; 1st Peter 1:19) or the Greek noun arnion (28 instances in Revelation, including 5:6 & 22:3).  Only once is the Greek noun used to denote someone other than Christ, in John 21:25 where the plural form is used by Christ to denote Christ’s “lambs” whom Peter is commanded to feed.

[24] Chicken behaviors are predictable in more ways than just periodic crowing by roosters.  Even the hatching of a chicken egg has amazing predictability.  See Jobe Martin, The Evolutionist of a Creationist (Rockwall, TX: Biblical Discipleship Publishers, 2004), page 210., quoted in James J. S. Johnson’s “Survival of the Fitted:  God’s Providential Programming”, Acts & Facts, 39(10):17-18 (October 2010), posted at .


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