We have completed the Sermon on the Mount, the first of five discourses or sections of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Now we return to the narrative of his ministry. Discourse and narrative alternate in the Gospel of Matthew. This first major section of narrative begins with a representative account of the Lord’s healing miracles. In 4:23-25, in an initial summary, Matthew said that the Lord went through Galilee teaching and healing the sick. We have had a specimen of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and now we are given some specimens of his healing ministry. More healing miracles will be scattered through the narrative up to the end of chapter 9, before the next discourse begins in chapter 10. In fact there are ten miracles reported in chapters 8 and 9, all but one of which are healings. If people were impressed by the authority of the Lord’s teaching, they were even more impressed by the authority he displayed in the healing of the sick.
v.2 Leprosy was, in those days, incurable. The rabbis of the time had a saying to the effect that it was as difficult to cure leprosy as to raise the dead. Leprosy was a major fear and concern in that time and place. It was so important to the rabbis that there is an entire tractate of the Mishnah devoted to it. That being so, the man who came to Jesus believing that he could heal him must have been already greatly impressed by his authority and the power he wielded. What is more, the leper was an outcast, excluded from the fellowship of the people because of his disease. As there was no cure, quarantine was the only treatment. But it was not only a disease, it brought with it ceremonial defilement that also caused those poor people to be cut off still further from others. Jesus always had a special sympathy for such people. Indeed, we will discover that each of the three healings in this first section concerned someone who was in some way an outcast.
v.3 Jesus often touched those he healed. But to touch a leper was to contract ceremonial defilement. It had probably been years since any “clean” person had touched this man. Here is an instance, of which there are many in the Lord’s ministry, of the demands of love taking precedence over ceremonial regulations. After all, the leper couldn’t heal himself of his dread disease, but Jesus could remove the ceremonial defilement quite easily.
v.4 The crowds were apparently not present at this healing. Here is the messianic secret, the Lord’s effort to keep his identity as the Messiah as much a secret as possible so as not to provoke the crowds or the religious leadership into precipitate action before it was time. The crowds would be understandably wildly enthusiastic about a man who had such supernatural powers, but would be enthusiastic for all the wrong reasons. They would imagine him an earthly deliverer and not a savior who would die for their sins. The man was sent to the priests because the Law of Moses required a priest to pronounce the man healed of any infectious skin disease before he could be restored to the society of others. The phrase “for a testimony to them” probably means as a witness to Christ’s identity as the Servant of the Lord. This is what Jesus says the healing of lepers demonstrates in 11:5. So he is keeping his identity as the Messiah under wraps but not hiding it altogether.
v.5 Now we have another “outcast,” this time a man excluded not because of a disease but because of his race: he was a Gentile. In his account of this miracle, Luke gives the interesting detail that the centurion approached the Lord through his Jewish friends.
v.7 It is more likely that v. 7 should be read as a question; the grammar allows it and there is no explicit question in vv. 5-6. So Jesus asks, “Am I to go and heal him?” The emphasis would fall on the I and would indicate how unusual it would be for a Gentile officer to approach a Jewish rabbi for help. In this way the Lord elicits a statement of the Gentile’s faith.
v.9 The Centurion had as sturdy a faith as the leper. There was no need for Jesus to be present. The Centurion had seen enough to know that Jesus could order the result even at a distance.
v.10 The Lord’s astonishment is a mark of his real humanity. Jesus here is not the omniscient God but a man, learning as he goes. This statement is the key to the entire incident. Israel’s faith in the power of God at work in Jesus is not as great as this Gentile centurion’s. And the Lord now draws the application. This generation of Israel will be rejected for its unbelief but the Gentiles will enter the kingdom of God in great numbers. The kingdom of God is bestowed on those who believe, it is not the exclusive province of the Jews because of their racial connection to Abraham.
v.12 To say that the “sons of the kingdom” will be thrown into outer darkness for their unbelief is as powerful a way as can be conceived of saying that it is not membership in the community of Israel or the church that saves, but living faith in Christ. This was a radical thing to say and, as the rest of the NT proves, a very unwelcome perspective to the Jews. It is, however, nothing more than the often-repeated message of the OT prophets.
v.13 Faith in Christ is the one thing needful and trumps all other more visible and earthly considerations.
v.14 The third excluded person is a woman. Peter’s house may well have been where Jesus himself lived during much of his time in Galilee.
v.16 The section concludes with a summary. The reason that they brought the sick in the evening is that, as Mark tells us, it was the Sabbath. They would have waited until evening, when the Sabbath was over, to do the “work” of carrying the sick to Jesus.
v.17 Matthew’s great interest in the healing miracles is as a revelation of Jesus Christ. Here he cites Isa. 53, the great prophecy of the coming Servant of the Lord, as being fulfilled in these miracles. Now in Isa. 53:4, the “infirmities and diseases” are primarily a reference to spiritual infirmity, or sin and guilt which the Lord carries away by his suffering in our place. But Matthew has no hesitation to appeal to the literal terms in Isa. 53 to make the point that the Lord’s healing literal diseases was a demonstration of his power to heal spiritual ones and that, in that way, there is a very close connection between the two. After all, sickness and death is part of the curse visited upon human sin. And so healing is a grand picture of salvation, as Jesus makes a point of saying here, especially in vv 12-13.
There is, of course, no question whatsoever that the Four Gospels present Jesus as a worker of miracles. Many of those miracles, as here, were supernatural healings. A leper was cured by a mere touch and the spoken word; a servant, paralyzed and in pain, was healed immediately at a distance, Jesus never even seeing the man; and a woman, perhaps less seriously ill, became instantly well by the Lord’s touch. And these are but a sampling. More spectacular healings are still to come: the blind are given sight, the lame leap and run, the deaf hear, the demon-possessed are delivered, and the dead are raised.
This is a power, an authority over the physical body of human beings, that is, by the universal experience of mankind, then as now, so utterly beyond the norm that there is no possible explanation apart from supernatural power. Even the enemies of Jesus did not deny this; they could not. It was the Devil they said. This is power like the power of the creator himself. Now, to be sure, there have been those – and there have been some from the beginning – who have imagined that all of this could somehow be removed from the Gospel account of Jesus Christ. We would then have a Jesus who was a great teacher and a great example of human life, but not a miracle-worker. To believe in miracles, particularly the spectacular wonders reported in the Gospels, is more than many will do. Would it not be better, would Jesus not be accessible to more people, if we removed the stumbling block of these miracle accounts?
But C.S. Lewis was surely right.
“Do not attempt to water Christianity down. There must be no pretense that you can have it with the supernatural left out. So far as I can see Christianity is precisely the one religion from which the miraculous cannot be separated. You must frankly argue for supernaturalism from the very outset.” [God in the Dock, 99]
“All the essentials of Hinduism would, I think, remain unimpaired if you subtracted the miraculous, and the same is almost true of [Islam]. But you cannot do that with Christianity. It is precisely the story of a great miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian.” [Miracles, 68]
And that is precisely the universal impression of the Gospel accounts themselves. The miracles were an essential element of the Lord’s mission and of the revelation of himself as the Savior of the world. They are essential to our understanding of who Jesus is and what he did when he was in the world. They explain, along with other things, of course, why every human being must look to Jesus Christ and to no one else and nothing else for his or her hope of salvation and eternal life. Without them, we are left with someone far less than a Savior. This was the point that J. Gresham Machen made in his great work Christianity and Liberalism, his attack on the so-called Christianity of his day that sought to preserve something useful from the Bible and the Christian faith without requiring people to believe that Jesus actually worked the miracles that are attributed to him in the New Testament.
“The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy man…. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked his failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin…. [103-104]
No, the miracles are part and parcel of the revelation of Jesus Christ. There is nothing left of the Jesus described in the Gospels if the miracles are removed. They reveal the man and his mission and they are an important part of the proof that he was and is the Son of God as the Bible teaches. Such miracles as we have related in our text this morning are, in fact, precisely what we would expect to happen if the Creator of the world should enter his world, if the King of Kings should come among his creatures, and if the God of infinite love should visit his suffering people. Admit that Jesus is God the Son, and the miracles, far from being hard to believe, are virtually inevitable. Admit the incarnation and far from miracles being an alien or superfluous element in the Gospel narrative, they are part and parcel of what did and must have happened when the Son of God became a man and came among men. If, in a previous age, a few great men who spoke and acted for God had been given such power to work miracles – Moses, Elijah, and Elisha – how much more the man who was himself the Son of God.
But there is something more about the Lord’s miracles, about each one and all of them together. They are not only a demonstration of Jesus’ credentials as the Son of God and Savior. They are surely that; but they are more than that. They are also vehicles of the revelation of Jesus Christ and his salvation. The Lord’s miracles are, as Calvin called them [Inst. IV, xiv, 18], “sacramental signs.” That is they reveal in visible form the invisible grace of God. They have also been called “enacted parables.” [John Stott, Basic Christianity, 32] Or, as C.S. Lewis brilliantly observed, “The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” [God in the Dock, 29]
We have already noticed how this is so. The Lord’s miracles are often performed to the benefit of the downtrodden, the outcast, the person who, for one reason or another, is rejected by other human beings. It is no accident that in the narrative of some representative miracles Matthew features the healing of a leper, a Gentile, and a woman. These were all people who had little or no claim on the attention of society. In other words, these miracles were a demonstration of the fact that the help we need we cannot and will not get from other human beings. They cannot give it to us, of course, but, in many cases, they wouldn’t anyway. They wouldn’t care to. And, of course, in the larger sense, we are all outcasts. Every sinful human being has been cast out of God’s presence.
Why, after all, do human beings all find it so natural to look down upon others? Why is human society everywhere and always and in so many ways divided up into the haves and have-nots? Why is there so much hatred and why are so many reasons conceived for it: racial, economic, religious, social, cultural, sexual, political, ideological? There is nothing like this in the animal kingdom? Why are human beings always literally and figuratively at one another’s throats? Why this penchant to look down on, if not positively to despise people we have never met or hardly know? Well, a very large part of the reason for that is that we know ourselves to be outcasts. The hatred of others, the proud disdain of others, the sense we indulge of our superiority over others, this is all our own insecurity expressing itself; it is all a form of self-defense. We look down on others so that we might feel somewhat better about ourselves! Our disdain of others is a form of moral judgment and we make it so easily because it is precisely our failure as moral beings that exposes us to condemnation and to this haunting sense of inferiority and liability to rejection. For, the fact is, we are all unclean and we are all outcasts. And deep within ourselves we know it is so. For we are estranged from God our maker in whose image we were made and who has left a witness to himself in our very nature and being. But our pride does not allow us to acknowledge the truth – our own moral failings and God’s judgment of us for them – and so we compensate. We raise ourselves in our own judgment and estimation in the only way that is open to us, by lowering others. It is whistling in the dark, but what else can we do if we will not admit our sin and guilt before God but, unable to escape the fact of it, still want to feel better about ourselves?
And to such people comes Jesus Christ, to such outcasts, and heals them and proves both to them and to us that the only way for an outcast to find acceptance, true acceptance is to find it in Christ, to receive it as his gift.
But there are other ways in which the miracles reveal Jesus Christ as the Savior and his salvation. They are works of sovereign and divine power. No one still today can do what Jesus did and, for a few years thereafter, what his apostles did in his name. Even in this day of astonishing medical advances, we can no more do what Jesus did than folk could in that day. It mattered not the illness: leprosy, blindness from birth, paralysis, fever, all submitted immediately to his word. The Gospels, with a wonderful understatement, reveal the astonishment, the amazement, the wonder that filled the minds and hearts of those who saw these healings occur. The accounts of miracles in the Gospels are so utterly different from other stories of religious wonders. There is no concentration on the sort of narrative details that are characteristic of legends and there is a simplicity, artlessness, and startled conviction that has all the earmarks of the truth. The miracles took people’s breath away because they were so obviously the exercise of divine and not human power. One of the remarkable features of the Gospel miracles is that, honest, candid, and artless as the Gospel writers are about so many things, willing as they are to admit things that might not be regarded as to their advantage to admit, here too they are just as guileless about both the astonishment and the persistent misunderstanding that greeted the Lord’s demonstration of divine power. In other words, the Gospels bear all the marks of the record of what actually happened, not of stories created after the fact.
And what is absolutely clear is that these miracles are instances of Jesus doing for people not only what they could not do for themselves, but what no one could do for them. The people thus helped were helpless in the most profound sense. They were powerless to deliver themselves from the affliction that brought them to the Lord. He did what neither they nor any one else could have done. And in that also the miracles were a demonstration of the salvation that Jesus brought to the world. He brings what no one else can and does what no one else could and gives what no one else has to give.
And, of course, the miracles also demonstrate the absolute singularity of Jesus Christ. It is to Christ that these people look for their deliverance or Christ who seeks them out to deliver them. It is Christ who has this power and compassion and no one else. It is a matter of the greatest interest that this was so clear to people, so unmistakable – that this divine power was Jesus’ power – that even when later, by his appointment, his disciples worked miracles, no one ever ascribed that power to them. As we read in Mark 6, even King Herod, when he heard of miracles performed by the Lord’s disciples, ascribed the power and the effect to Jesus himself.
All the miracles performed by the Lord’s disciples were really performed by Jesus himself and they knew it and so did everyone else. Their only function in healing the sick and in casting out demons was to make a believing use of Jesus’ name. And the proof of that is that the miracles performed by the Lord’s disciples caused no one to wonder who they were but only who and what He was. [A.B. Bruce, The Training of the Twelve, 99]
So what do we find when we look at the miracles of Jesus, such miracles as are presented in our text this morning, a representative sampling, though these three are by no means the most notable, or remarkable, or dramatic of his miracles. Well, we do not find a man who is concerned about his own reputation or eager to see his fame increase. He told the leper he healed to tell no one about what had happened to him. He had not come into the world to make a name for himself. He had, in his temptation in the wilderness, renounced any and all efforts to obtain the throne of this world by performing miracles. When offered by the Devil the whole world if only he would throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple he had refused. There is nothing selfish in Christ’s miracles whatsoever. There is no working of the crowds, no effort to fan the flame of his popularity. There is nothing of the spectacle in Jesus’ miracles.
What there is is a ready compassion for those who are in great need. There is a love for others that transcends all the barriers that usually, that ordinarily keep human beings apart from one another. He suffered with those in need, he felt their sorrow and their despair and was moved to help them. That is the burden of the citation from Isa. 53: “He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” He identified with those he helped.
And how he helped them! He did for them what they desperately need to be done and what no other could do for them. And over and over again he would draw some connection between the temporal healing and the eternal life and salvation from sin and death that he had also to give them, as he did in the case of the leper when he effected his healing by telling him “Be clean!” and when, in the case of the centurion, he said to those around, that salvation would come to many Gentiles but that many sons of the kingdom would fail to obtain it. The matter of far greater importance was, of course, not the leprosy, not the paralysis, not the fever, but the salvation of souls, the forgiveness of sins, the granting of eternal life. What good would it do if God healed a sick man, a leper or a paralyzed man, but in a few years time that man fell under the wrath of God forever? The great fact was that the leper not only was rid of his disease, he was rid of his sins and his guilt before God. The great thing was not that the centurion found relief for his servant but that he himself found entrance into eternal life! That is why miracles have not continued, did not outlive the apostles of the Lord, but the proclamation of the gospel and the power of God unto salvation have continued in the world ever since and have been healing and transforming lives everywhere and all the time.
Now, what I want you to do, all of you, is to give wing to your imagination: take another hard look at the Lord Jesus as he sends that benighted, suffering leper back to the fellowship of human beings, his heart brim full of joy; see that happy man walking down the road scarcely able to contain himself; see him once more speaking a word and a very, very sick man in bed at home, feels at once wonderfully well and gets up a whole and healthy man. Listen in to that first conversation between the centurion and his now healthy servant. See him touch Peter’s mother-in-law and see how immediately she is the healthiest woman in that house, full of energy, ready to serve the one who had helped her.
That same helper, that same power, that same compassion, that same interest in your welfare, that same Jesus is alive today and as ready to respond to those who trust in him, who come to him, to appeal to him, as he was in that long ago day when he performed those mighty miracles. That is the last and greatest lesson of the Lord’s miracles. They are a picture of what is now and what can be now when men and women trust in the Lord. The blessing of God is still being given by supernatural power to those who trust in Jesus Christ. See the confidence of the leper and the centurion. See how they come to Jesus to gain help in their time of need. We should be doing the very same every day and we will have the same happy story to tell as did those men and that woman. Not perhaps the healing of leprosy – that was a picture, remember – but the greater blessings of which that healing was a sign and an enacted parable. Concerning what do you wish the Lord to say to you: “Be clean!”? About what do you wish him to say, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would”?
Well do what those men did and go to Jesus – the same Jesus with the same compassion and the same almighty power – and say to him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean!” And say to him, “Lord, I have this problem. Help me, for only you can.”
Never once in all the Gospels when such people came to him and made such requests, never once did he turn them away, never once was he unable to meet their need. Never once! And if he can heal a leper, he can heal you.
“The story of Jesus, who went about continually doing good to men, is the story of immeasurable energy in contact with measurable need. Here the eternal love of heaven was meeting the transient tragedies of earth. Nothing else could have happened on that battlefield but what did happen: need and tragedy had to [acknowledge] themselves defeated, and love and life were victors. For the work of Jesus was the work of the everlasting God.” [J.S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 96]
It was the work of the everlasting God. And it is his work still today!