v.23 Short summaries of the Lord’s activities are a feature of the Gospel of Matthew. For example, in 9:35 you have another such summary almost identical to v. 23. You have similar statements in 8:16, 12:15, and 19:1-2. The impression here is that most of the Lord’s ministry was conducted among the Jews which we would assumed to have been the case on other evidence. Two accounts of the healing of Gentiles later on in the Gospel indicate that they were the exception rather than the rule.
v.24 In this usage, Syria would probably refer to the Roman province that included Judea and Galilee but was considerably larger than those territories. We are given, of course, in the Gospels actual accounts of many different kinds of healings: lepers are cured, the blind given sight, people with fever, or paralysis, or who were crippled were healed. The NIV’s “those having seizures” is possibly a reference to the mentally ill. The word Matthew used is the exact Greek equivalent to our “lunatic.”
v.25 Clearly the healings made a great impression. The stir Jesus created was such that people came from all over, even from a significant distance to hear him and to bring their sick to be healed by him.
This short section, from 4:17 to 25, is a summary introduction to the Lord’s public ministry. What follows in the next chapters will be an elaboration of this summary. We have first the announcement of his message in v. 17, then in 18-22 an account of the calling of his inner circle of disciples, and now, in 23-25 a summary of his activity: teaching, preaching, and healing. His disciples, his teaching, and his miracles, especially of healing, will make up the account of the Lord’s ministry that Matthew provides for us. That we are really to distinguish “teaching” and “preaching” is doubtful. We probably ought to see the terms as complementary. In any case, he taught and preached in their synagogues, a way of speaking that puts some distance between the Lord and the Jewish religious leadership who opposed him to some degree from the very outset. As a Jew the synagogues were his as much as they were theirs, but here the divide that separated Jesus from his own religious community is being exposed. He also healed the sick.
What is clear in Matthew’s organization of his material is that chapters 5-7, which immediately follow, will be a specimen of his teaching and chapters 8-9 will provide specimens of his healing miracles. Healing miracles predominate in Matthew; he uses the verb “to heal” more often than any other NT writer. Then in 9:35 we have a statement almost identical to that in 4:23. Together it seems that they serve as an inclusio, so that 4:23-9:35 is a section, begun and ended with summary statements and including material that illustrates and confirms the summaries.
Last week we took up the summary statement about the Lord gathering disciples to himself. Obviously the Lord’s work with his disciples is going to be a major theme of the Gospel story. Today I want to look in a general way at this next summary, that of the Lord’s ministry of miraculous healing. While we have certainly encountered the supernatural and the numinous in the Gospel so far, here, for the first time, we have a reference to a miracle and to Jesus working miracles. In this case they are miracles of healing which, according to all the Gospels, were, by type, far and away the largest portion of the Lord’s miracles.
As you know, the miracles of Jesus are a flash-point in the controversy about Christianity and its claims. From early days, when the Christian story was being told to the Greco-Roman world, the Christians’ claim that Jesus had performed these astonishing works of power – healing the sick, controlling the weather, changing water into wine, multiplying bread and fish, raising the dead – either helped persuade people that he was indeed the Son of God or provoked skepticism and ridicule. And it has been so ever since.
While there were many eye-witnesses of the Lord’s ministry, the generations since have only had the report that we are given in the Bible. Many have been skeptical, many have accepted the reports as true. One’s viewpoint regarding Jesus’ miracles is determined by the view one comes to regarding Jesus Christ himself, usually for other reasons than the accounts of his miracles given in the Gospels.
On the other hand, it is fair to say that the accounts we are given of the Lord’s miracles are entirely consistent with the Bible’s portrait of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is fair to argue that such miracles as Jesus performed were virtually inevitable given the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. If, in fact, Jesus was the incarnate second person of the Triune, Almighty God; if, in fact, his coming into the world was the greatest and most significant moment in human history; if, in fact, the Savior of the world was also its maker who called all things into being by the mere utterance of a word; if, in fact, Jesus brought with him the final revelation of God’s will and the way of salvation to be published abroad to the world; if, in fact, Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through him, then it was inevitable that his life and his work would be distinguished in various ways, that he would be marked out as the extraordinarily important person that he is, that the attention of mankind would be drawn to him in special ways, that mankind would be forced to reckon with the claims made by him and about him.
If Jesus Christ is the God-Man, the Maker of Heaven and Earth now come in the flesh to save sinners and open the way to everlasting life, then it is far more amazing that he died than that he rose again; and it is far more amazing that he had no place to lay his head than that he stilled the storm, or changed water to wine, or healed lepers, or gave sight to the blind, or raised the dead.
The Christian church has always been ready and willing to acknowledge the stupendous character of the Lord’s miracles and, therefore, the difficulty that many would have believing that they actually occurred. The miraculous was miraculous to people in the first century, just as it is to people today. But the church has also pointed out from the beginning that the problem is not the miracles themselves, but the identity of Jesus Christ. Admit him to be the incarnate Son of God and his miracles pose no problem to belief. They are, in fact, what we might well expect when God enters the world. Admit a real Creator and a real creation of heaven and earth and believing that the Creator would exercise creative power when he came into the world does not surprise us. Shall the one who made the eye not restore sight? Shall the one who made bread not demonstrate his power over it? Shall the one who gives life and comes into the world to grant eternal life not raise the dead? Or, put it this way, if man can so effect the system of nature, as he does today – with medicine, with the increase in the efficiency of agriculture, with the speed of travel and transportation and communication – why in the world should we think it unscientific to believe that God himself, who made this system of nature and controls it, should not be able to influence it directly if he wills? [Harrison, A Short Life of Christ, 111]
It is perhaps for this reason that the miracle accounts in the Gospels are so artless. The Gospel writers themselves were eyewitnesses, of course, and so knew what had transpired. They wrote as men who had no doubt whatsoever about what had happened and as men who were sure no one could possibly deny the truth of what they wrote. They had seen it with their own eyes, time and time again, marvelous and startling as it was. There was no need to embellish; no need to prove! But they also knew what it all meant and where this power came from and why it had been unleashed in the world. The truly amazing thing was not that Christ walked on water. The truly amazing thing was that the creator of water had come into the world as a man!
Christians are no more gullible than anyone else and should be much less so. They knew that others claimed to have worked miracles and they didn’t believe it. Near that time there were other messianic pretenders – one promised to part the Jordan River; another to cause the walls of Jerusalem to fall – the river kept flowing and the walls stood unmoved and everyone forgot about them. And Christians today hear about miracles being performed by this man or that the sick are being healed at the crusades of this evangelist or that and in general they don’t believe it. I don’t believe it. But I do believe that Jesus healed the sick – completely healed the sick and left no doubt in anyone’s mind that the power of God had been unleashed in the world to the blessing and benefit of some poor man or woman or child.
Now this point is very important and I want to elaborate it this morning. The miracles take their place in the Gospel record and gain their importance because of their having been done by Jesus Christ. This is true even of the miracles wrought later by his disciples, for they too were done in Jesus’ name. Indeed great pains were taken to ensure that everyone understood that a miracle wrought by John or later by Paul was, in fact, a continuation of the miracle working of Jesus Christ himself. So the miracles gain their significance as part of the work of Jesus Christ. And they do so in two ways in particular.
- First, they are part of his accreditation, his credentials as the Messiah and the Son of God.
You are perhaps aware that miracles do not very often occur in the biblical history. In fact, if we think of miracles as works of supernatural power performed by men, they are almost exclusively limited to three short periods of time, all of which together perhaps don’t add up to a hundred years. And, even during that time, miracles were not commonplace. Most believers who lived in biblical times never saw a miracle and even most who lived among the people of God during those few years of miracle- working never saw a miracle. There is a great group of miracles at the time of the exodus, the wilderness, and the opening of the conquest of the Promised Land. There is another great explosion of miracles during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, at the headwaters of the prophetic movement in the OT, and, finally there is the greatest concentration of miracles beginning with Jesus’ ministry and lasting apparently through the middle of the ministry of the apostles. By the end of the apostolic age it seems clear that miracles had disappeared. At one time just touching Paul’s handkerchief was enough to bring healing. Near the end of his life the great apostle himself writes plaintively of his friend and co-worker, “Trophimus, I left ill at Miletus.” The day of miraculous healing was over. Other than these three groups there is but one other miracle reported in the Bible, when, for the prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah, the shadow moved back on the steps. During the days of Samuel and then the Kings, in the long centuries between Malachi and John the Baptist, there were no miracles at all. By the explicit testimony of the Bible John the Baptist was a preacher only; he worked no miracles. Suddenly, in the opening days of Christ’s ministry, supernatural power burst over the world once again.
What is characteristic of all these miracles in the three periods is that they were connected to men who had an office from God. Moses and Elijah and Elisha were prophets, as was Isaiah. They were organs of divine revelation. Moses is the author of the Pentateuch, the first part and, in a way, the foundation of the Bible. Elijah and Elisha represented the long succession of prophets who would deliver to the world the largest part of what we know today as the OT. Miracles were their accreditation, their credentials as spokesmen for God. After all, it is not a small thing to claim that one’s words are God’s own words and that the world at that moment and forever after must attend to them as the very voice of the living God himself. But, let that man work wonders, let him exhibit supernatural power, and suddenly that claim, stupendous as it is, is reasonable. Men must take it seriously.
Well, this is without question the function of the Lord’s miracles as well. They credentialed him as the Messiah and as the Prophet of God. Jesus said this himself and Peter made a point of saying it in his sermon on the day of Pentecost.
“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” [2:22]
If Moses needed the credentials of miracles to reveal the law and the Elijah and Elisha revelations of the prophets, how much more Jesus Christ who brought to earth the most complete, definitive, and final disclosure of the truth of God. The OT had prophesied that the Messiah would do wonders.
“Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the
Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue
shout for joy.” [Isa. 35:5-6]
Many at that time understood this and, because of the miracles he performed, came to recognize in Jesus one sent from God. Remember Nicodemus, who came to the Lord at night, and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Miracles are the historical demonstration that Christ had divine authority and was speaking and acting for God himself.
But, since faith is required to embrace the Lord Christ, the Gospels make no bones about the fact that the miracles, stupendous as they were, did not overcome the unbelief of many who saw them, even many who were forced to acknowledge the supernatural power on display. They were driven to the lame expedient of attributing Jesus’ power to the Devil instead of to God. Miracles accredit Jesus as a man from God, they leave the unbelievers who witnessed them without excuse, but they do not, by themselves, persuade men that he is who he said he is. God must give the gift of faith and, absent that faith, man is so blind that he cannot see the noon-day sun!
- In the second place, and perhaps even more important, the miracles were part of the message Christ brought, they were, as it were, his claims and his preaching in a dramatized form.
Miracles were not the most important part of Christ’s work. He makes that very clear. If you remember in Mark 1:35-39, having gathered huge crowds by means of his healing power wielded on behalf of the sick, he then utterly befuddled his disciples by proposing to move on to preach in other towns. They were looking at the immense crowd gathering to watch him heal the sick and thinking to themselves: this is the coming of the kingdom of God and if he keeps this up he will soon be recognized and followed by everyone. But Jesus wanted to move on to preach elsewhere. The message was paramount to him, not the miracles, not the wonders themselves. He fully understood how compelling the miracles were, but he also understood and often said that miracles, by themselves, could not work faith in the heart or bring salvation to the lost. “If they will not believe Moses and the prophets, they will not believe even if a man comes back from the dead!” he once said. The message of salvation was more important than the healing of the sick. A sick person might well be healed and remain in his sins. Many were, in fact. They believed in him as a healer but not as their Savior. In fact, it is probably not too far off to say that the Lord used his miracles to gain a hearing for his preaching. Not that they were without importance in their own right, but people believing the message was much more important to him than people being healed of their sickness.
Martin Luther points out that it was not the Lord’s miracles that defeated sin and the Devil. It was not the power Christ wielded over sickness that won salvation for his people, but his weakness and suffering when on the cross. [Cf. Colin Brown, Miracles and the Modern Mind, 13] If you remember, he was invited to perform a miracle by the crowd that watched him die. “He saved others, let him save himself!” And he did not perform a miracle, because a miracle was not the way of salvation. There were other times in which he was challenged to perform a miracle, either to vindicate his claims or to satisfy someone’s curiosity or desire to see the spectacular, and Jesus refused. The miracles were not for themselves, they were for the gospel’s sake.
And that in many ways. They revealed Christ’s compassion for the needy, of course. They were revelations of his sympathy and his kindness. The poor who needed his care received it and without any charge. If you went to a shrine that was thought to have healing powers in the Hellenistic world you would have been expected to pay a fee, but Christ’s healing was free to all comers. What is more he never used his power to harm. He had enemies but he performed no miracles to inflict punishment on those who opposed him. This seemed such an obvious possibility that his disciples once asked him to bring fire down upon his enemies and he refused. So the miracles not only accredit Jesus, they reveal important things about him.
But, much more, the miracles are themselves a vehicle of his message. Thy are part of the revelation, not merely the proof of it. Calvin even refers to the Lord’s miracles as sacramental signs, the truth portrayed in a way so as to confirm our faith in it. [Institutes, IV, xiv, 18] Another calls them the Lord’s “enacted parables.” [Stott, Basic Christianity, 32]
We see this even more clearly in the Gospel of John where John refers to the Lord’s miracles as “signs.” They are pictures of the truth of salvation in Christ. The feeding of the 5,000 leads to his great discourse on the bread of life. The granting of sight to the man who had been blind from birth became a picture of spiritual blindness being overcome through faith in Christ.
Well so with the healing miracles that Matthew concentrates on. Sickness is not only literally an effect of the fall, a feature of the cursedness of human life, of the weakness and death that rests upon all mankind because of sin, it is a picture of man’s spiritual condition. He is soul-sick as well as body-sick. And Christ’s healing of the sick is a beautiful picture of salvation from sin and death; his driving demons out of the possessed was an enacted demonstration of his power to deliver human beings from bondage to the devil. It is not for nothing that the Lord so often turned a physical healing into a spiritual point, as when, for example, he told the paralyzed man, whose friends let him down through the roof to get him to Jesus, that his sins were forgiven and only afterward that he could rise and walk. The physical healing is the sign, the forgiveness the reality.
People came to him from everywhere for help. They were sick or their loved ones were and they had heard that he could make them well. And he did. But he had not come to grant people a temporary healing or a healthier life. He had come to give them eternal life.
Now, I have no doubt myself that all of these miracles happened as the Gospels report them. After all the evidence and argument is considered, after all the critics and the skeptics and the Christian philosophers and historians and apologists are read, I think Christians should be all the more confident that the Gospel history will stand up to any scrutiny. How different these accounts are from other accounts of miracle working, either from the ancient world or in more modern times. How like our world that world was in so many ways, including the existence of a healthy skepticism about claims to the miraculous. How unlikely that the NT, or the Christian church, or gospel’s power in the world would have been or could have been founded so securely on a fabrication or a gullibility so massive. It is easy for Christians and ought to be easy for them to believe the miracles of Jesus Christ.
But believing them to have occurred is only the beginning. The greater thing is to understand what they mean. Not only that they serve, as do other things, to demonstrate Christ’s credentials as the Messiah and the Savior, but that they picture for us salvation itself.
Cast your imagination back, brothers and sisters. Imagine those men, Peter, James, John and the others, who were eyewitnesses of these astonishing things. They saw the lame walk in an instant. They saw leprosy cured before their eyes. They saw blind people leaping and dancing for the joy of seeing for the first time. They saw the dead rise again. Imagine these men later in their lives.
How often they would remember and talk about what they saw. Imagine Peter as an older man, as he stood at the bedside of a loved one, perhaps even his mother-in-law, and heard her breathe her last. He could not help but summon up the memory of that time his mother-in-law had been so sick with a fever and Jesus had touched her and in an instant she was well. And then his thoughts, surely they would, would race forward to Bethany shortly before the passion week and the raising of Lazarus and the astonishing conversations he had with his friend after he had been brought back to life. Or imagine Lazarus himself once again, for the second time, on his deathbed. What cause can there be for fear or despair when one knows and trusts one who can vanquish death with nothing more than the spoken word! Jesus raised Lazarus as a demonstration, he said, that he was the resurrection and the life. I’ll bet those men, much as they loved life, could hardly wait to die, having seen the Lord wield his power over death and having seen him risen with his glorified body! The miracles had taught them that Christ’s saving power was a real thing!
And when, as often must have happened, Peter found himself ministering to someone who was sick, suffering pain, he would tell him about what he had seen when Jesus was in the world. With what compassion and what power he delivered the heartsick and the despondent and those in the throes of disease or oppression and sent them home leaping and dancing for joy. And he would urge him to trust in Jesus who proved in that wonderful way the power he had to save and bless those who were in need.
Just to know such power, such compassion, such deliverance, such salvation exists in the world! Just to know that the one who wielded that power may still be known! Just to know that everything of which those miracles were but a foretaste, a sign, a picture, a dramatic enactment, is still to be experienced by those who trust in him! It is enough. And if those favored few men could remember what they saw and heard when they were with the Lord, we can remember what they told us about what they saw and heard. And remember it we shall. Lying in our beds at night, thinking that we can see the Lord laying his hands on that poor man or woman, boy or girl, and, with our own eyes seeing God’s power coursing from the Savior to the sick. And, then, think of that same hand on us!