Power in Weakness


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Matthew 9:18-38

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We are taking a larger section of the Gospel this morning than has been our custom.  We could take each of the three paragraphs in our text separately.  Each has much to say in its own right.  But this is our 35th sermon on the gospel already and we have completed only slightly more than a third of the book.  The miracles reported in the gospel, while each has its own unique significance, primarily contribute their weight to the collective demonstration of the messianic identity of Jesus and his power to save.  Remember, chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew are accounts of representative miracles, just as chapters 5-7 were an account of representative teaching.  We have considered a number of these miracles already and will consider a number more before we are through.  I thought for that reason we could combine two miracle accounts and, all the more, because the small paragraph that ends the 9th chapter provides a very interesting counterpoise to the accounts of the Lord’s miracles that precede it.

v.19     Characteristically, Matthew’s account of this double miracle is shorter than those given in Mark and Luke.  The details are pared away and only the bare event remains.  To request help for a daughter who is already dead shows greater faith even than that of those who have come to Jesus for help for those who are very sick.  “Ruler” refers to a leader of the local synagogue.

v.20     Remember, her bleeding would have rendered her ceremonially unclean and an outcast in Jewish society.  A pious Jew would have recoiled from her touch.

v.21     However superstitious may have been her understanding of Jesus’ healing power, her statement is a demonstration of the impact of the Lord’s healing miracles on the people of Galilee.

v.22     “Your faith has healed you.”  The word translated “healed” is the word “saved.”  No doubt there are overtones of spiritual salvation as well as physical healing as so often in the Lord’s miracles.  Both are obtained through faith, by trusting Jesus to do what one could not do oneself.  It was not by touching him but by believing in him that she was healed.  That is what Jesus wants to be sure she understands.  [Hagner, i, 250-251]

v.24     Even the poorest families hired professional mourners.  The Mishnah specifies “Even the poorest in Israel should hire not  less than two flutes and one wailing woman” for a funeral. [Ketuboth, 4:4] The daughter of a ruler would have more than that and relatives and friends would join in. “Sleep” is often in the Bible a euphemism for death, but here the Lord means that she will soon be awake.  The other Gospel writers make it emphatically clear that she was already dead, a point Matthew allows her father to make in v. 18.  But death for those whom Christ is Lord is only a sleep from which they will soon awake.

v.27     This is the first instance of the use of “Son of David” in direct address to Jesus.  It reveals some dawning of understanding about Jesus as the Messiah.   The blind would not have seen anything Jesus had done, but they would have heard what people were saying about his miracles.

v.28     Perhaps the house is Peter’s house in Capernaum, his temporary “home.”  Apparently Jesus did not respond to the blind men’s first request.  He often tested the faith of those who called out to him for help.

The result of his testing is that he elicits a confession of faith from the men.  Faith is practical confidence in the Lord’s power to help and the Lord makes a point of saying in the next verse that it was their faith in him that secured their healing.

There are no miracles of giving sight to the blind either in the OT or in the ministry of the apostles after the Gospels.  But in Jesus’ ministry there are more miracles of giving sight to the blind than of any other type.  It is something we are told in the OT that the Messiah would do and, of course, the blind receiving sight is a grand picture of salvation.  [Morris, 232-233]

v.31     Jesus warned the men not to speak about what had happened as he was very concerned not to provoke misguided enthusiasm among the people and so precipitate a crisis with the religious leadership before it was time.  But his warning was ignored, understandably we might well suppose.

v.32     Elsewhere in the Gospels Jesus heals deafness and dumbness as diseases.  Only in this case are these conditions attributed to demon-possession.

v.33     Matthew, no doubt, intends that statement to be a summary of all the miracles he has reported in chapters 8 and 9.  The Lord’s authority could not be missed.  The scribes taught and nothing happened.  Jesus spoke and demons fled, storms were stilled, the dead were raised, the sick were healed, the blind began to see and sins were forgiven.  The power of God had been unleashed among the people of God. [Cf. Ladd in France, 173]

v.34     There is none so blind as he who will not see.  They ignore the good Jesus had done, the compassion he had showed, as if the Devil would have gone around doing good, or the Devil would have cast his own demons out of those who were possessed by them.  Wherever the demons were there was madness and misery.  Wherever Christ was there was light and love.  It was an absurd position but it was the only one left to them apart from the one they would not embrace:  to confess Jesus as Lord!  They were envious of his power, his effect on the crowds, and their envy poisoned their analysis.  This is the first mention of hostility to Jesus on the part of the Pharisees that is expressed openly.  This will escalate as the Gospel proceeds.

v.35     The following short section both summarizes the material in chapters 5-9, the teaching of the Lord and his miracles of healing, that is, looks back on what has so far been reported, and provides an introduction to the next section which is concerned with the ministry of the Lord’s disciples.  Scholars call this “Janus” material, after the Roman god Janus who is represented as having two faces, and looked both backward and forward at the same time.  In a day before tables of contents and paragraph headings, such transitional material was helpful in organizing the material and keeping that organization clear to the reader.

v.36     The Lord was grieved at the people’s lack of spiritual leadership and their suffering for that lack.  In 10:6, a few verses later, he will described the population of Israel as “lost sheep.”  And a large part of the reason for that was the spiritual infidelity and incompetence of their leadership.  Their shepherds were wolves! “Harassed and helpless” or “troubled and confused” is a suggestive way of summarizing the life of man in sin: aimlessness, futility, the weight of life’s problems, the fear of death, and much more is suggested by these adjectives.

v.37     Here “harvest is plentiful” means that there are many ready to respond to the gospel.  So harvesters are needed.

v.38     All may not go but all should pray!

Remember that Matthew has strung together accounts of the Lord’s miracles – mostly miracles of healing – in chapters 8 and 9, ten miracles altogether.  They are the demonstration of the authority of his ministry, of his divine calling, and, as he often made a point of saying, of his power not only to heal the sick but to save men and women from sin and death.  The one healing was a picture of the other, more important, healing.  The Lord’s healing miracles were enacted parables of salvation.

And as Matthew and the other Gospels attest, the effect of his miracle-working was electric.  “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel,” was said by many in astonished tones and, as a result, a great many people from all over Galilee were bringing the sick and the demon-possessed to him.  Soon Jesus could not move in public without being accosted by folk who begged supernatural help from him.

People nowadays, I think, have difficulty appreciating the stir that Jesus caused, the hope that sprung up in human hearts, or even the violence of the antagonism on the part of the Pharisees.  In part this is because we have never seen a miracle.  In part this is because the notion of miracle has been so debased in our spiritual culture.  This has happened in several ways.

First, even thoughtful evangelicals often tend to blur the distinction between miracles and other happy providences that occur in life.  We speak about the circumstances of someone becoming a Christian as “a miracle.”  We use the word to describe some striking and wonderful answer to prayer.  We use the word to describe some marvelous outcome: a sky-diver’s parachute fails to open yet he survives a fall from several thousand feet with only relatively minor injuries.  Or an army formation, misunderstanding its orders and getting lost, finds itself positioned at the exact place and at the exact time to deliver a fatal blow to the enemy.  Human beings speak of such things as miracles and they happen all the time.  Christians often use the word in the same general way to describe an amazing happenstance or wonderful but utterly unexpected outcome.  Perhaps there is nothing so wrong with this use of the term “miracle” with a lower case “m.”  But, the fact is, the conversion of a sinner is not a miracle in the biblically approved sense of the term, nor is a striking answer to prayer, nor is a wonderful, surprising, and utterly unlikely happenstance.  And the problem with using the term in a more general way is that it can, over time, tend to suggest to the mind that what Jesus did were miracles only in this more general and lesser sense.  For years there have been biblical scholars who have sought to understand the miracles in this way:  as the results of the Lord’s mesmerizing, hypnotic personality, as a kind of psychosomatic healing that resulted from the strongly hopeful and positive impressions the Lord left on the mind and heart of people.  Nothing more than that.

But the Lord’s miracles were precisely not that.  They were precisely what would be the case today if someone were to lay his hand on John Rug’s eyes – our blind missionary in Chile, who has been blind from birth – and command him to see and John immediately find that he had 20/20 vision.  They were precisely what would be the case today if someone came up to our brother, James Gronewold, and told him to rise and walk and we all – who have known James all these years – watched him stand up, run, and jump so high he could dunk a basketball.  They were what would be the case if today someone laid his hands on our own Isaac Aown and gave him in a moment an entirely sound mind in an entirely sound body.  They were what would be the case today if someone laid his hands on Sharon Allen or Dr. Bond or David Allison and, in that moment, made them perfectly well, all vestiges of their disease and its treatment having utterly disappeared.  They were what would be the case today if someone interrupted the funeral of one of our loved ones who had died, whose death we had witnessed ourselves, who was pronounced dead at the hospital, gone stiff and cold, been sent to the funeral home and prepared for burial – but now touched the dead man and immediately life surged back into that dead body and he got up sound and healthy again. They were precisely such events and, what is more, they were happening one after another, day after day.  That is a miracle:  an objective, observable, undeniable exercise of supernatural power that no one could explain in any other way and that, in fact, was so obviously a work of supernatural power that no one even attempted to explain it in some natural way.  This is the witness of the Gospels at every turn.

As believers in the historicity of the Word of God and in the supernatural character of the Lord’s ministry, we should be careful not to use the word “miracle” in a way that undermines the utterly unique and utterly spellbinding character of the miracles that the Lord actually performed.  We should not describe things as miracles that are not, lest people come to think that the Lord’s miracles were nothing more than surprising and happy events that only true believers would necessarily think could only be explained as works of divine power.  Biblical miracles were events that everyone knew were demonstrations of supernatural power.  Even Jesus’ enemies did not doubt that.  In desperation they attributed that power to the Devil rather than to God, but no one ever said that they amounted to nothing more than a striking coincidence!  Let us reserve the word “miracle” for those things that happened when Jesus performed his astonishing works of power on behalf of those who were beyond all cure.

But the nature of miracles has been debased in the public mind in another way, a still more sinister way.  We are treated all the time to claims that miracles still happen today and, supposedly, are shown miracles actually occurring on Christian television.  What this does, of course, is to convince most people that only gullible people, only the kind of people who frequent the meetings of faith healers, would believe the stories that are found in the Gospels.

Some of you may remember James Randi, also known as the Amazing Randi.  He was, perhaps still is, a popular debunker of claims to the miraculous.  If Uri Geller, the so-called mentalist, claimed to be able to bend a spoon with the power of his mind, the Amazing Randi would go on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and do the same thing and then show the audience how it was done – not by the power of the mind but by a magician’s trick.

Well James Randi once turned his attention to the faith healers who were then and are still today filling arenas all over the country and were and are broadcasting their healing services on television.  One of these faith healers was a man named Peter Popoff.  I remember listening to Peter Popoff on Christian radio from time to time years ago.  He preached the gospel of salvation in Christ in a Pentecostal style.  He was an evangelical, we would say.  He was also a so-called faith healer.  At his crusades, Peter Popoff, as people came forward, would identify these people whom he had never met by name.  These were the people who were sick in some way and came to the crusade in hopes of being healed.  He would sometimes even give out their street address.  He also identified their ailment.  According to Popoff, the Holy Spirit communicated this knowledge about these individuals directly to him while he strode across the stage.  And then he would, or so he claimed, heal the people of whatever it was that ailed them.  He was, in effect, claiming to do what Jesus did, the very things that Jesus did that so amazed the crowds who witnessed his miracles.

Well James Randi didn’t buy it.  And he set out to figure out how Peter Popoff was doing this.  He had an assistant get closer to the stage and he noticed that Popoff was wearing an hearing aid – a strange device to be used by someone who claimed to have the power of miraculous healing.  Then they borrowed some expensive and sophisticated radio tracking equipment and set it up near the hall where Popoff was holding his crusade.  With this equipment they were able, quite easily, to locate the frequency that Popoff’s equipment was using and listen in on the communication that he was receiving from a sound booth in the back of the hall.  His wife was feeding him the information.  She would tell him to look for the fellow to his left, the one in the yellow shirt, he was so and so and lived at such and such an address.  He had a herniated disk.  And Popoff would greet the man, astonish him by seeming to know all about him though they had never met.  What is more, his wife was very deliberate in picking the candidate for healing.  All of them had been interviewed beforehand.  Only those in wheelchairs who admitted to the crusade staff that they could walk and often did walk were chosen for healing.  In fact some of them walked into the crusade and were put into wheelchairs by the staff.  It was made to seem that they were rising out of their wheelchairs after being unable to do so, but, of course, they were not unable to walk.  They had said as much when they came to the arena that night.

That was not enough for James Randi.  He was after a full exposé.  So he enlisted an assistant to pose as a sick person at several Popoff crusades.  At several crusades this man, wearing various disguises, was identified by Peter Popoff by his false names and his false addresses and supposedly healed of various illnesses that he did not have.  Finally, he posed as a woman and was identified once again by the false name he had supplied and healed of uterine cancer.

The Amazing Randi disclosed all of this to the entertainment of Johnny Carson’s late night audience and then, later, for one of the television network newsmagazines.  Popoff wasn’t a miracle worker; he was a fraud, pure and simple.  No one got healed, no communications were coming from heaven, but he was raking in the money by the hundreds of thousands and millions.

There are a great many people in our day and time who think that this is something like what happened in Jesus’ time.  Gullible people who desperately wanted to believe that they could be healed, believed that they were.  Usually Jesus isn’t thought to have been a fraud – it is very difficult to believe that the Jesus of the Gospels was a fraud – just a man of his time who didn’t have a very scientific view of illness or healing.

But that is not the Gospel’s testimony.  Over and over again we read of the amazement of the crowds at what Jesus had done.  How utterly unexpected it all was.  Over and over again we read of his enemies being silenced, unable to deny that they too had witnessed the exercise of supernatural power.  The entire impression of the Gospels is that it was as hard for those people to believe in Jesus’ miracles as it would be for us today, but they did nonetheless because they had witnessed them with their own eyes.  Their confidence that miracles had occurred was not based on an inference, it was not based on wishful thinking, still less on believing in defiance of the evidence of one’s eyes – such as the poor man today who leaves a healing service sure that his foot has been healed even though he still limps as badly as he did before, or such as the late and far too honest John Wimber, founder of a movement of churches that proclaim the power to heal the sick, who claimed that the demon of gluttony had been cast out of him, but admitted, months later, that he still hadn’t lost any weight.  No, these people saw the blind receive their sight; they saw the paralyzed get up and walk; they heard the dumb speak; they saw the dead alive again!

Such works of power were not what they expected to happen; such things were not what they had ever seen happen.  “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”  These, in other words, were miracles such as would leave James Randi convinced, amazed, and perplexed.

And, of course, no wonder.  The Son of God had come into the world.  What would we expect!  And he had come to save the world from sin and death.  Surely it would be more amazing if the visitation of this world by its creator and for the purpose of redeeming his people was not accompanied by extraordinary signs.  These miracles, wonderful as they were, were not the most extraordinary thing that was happening in the world at that moment!

The miracles happen within a redemptive context.  [Bernard Ramm, Protestant Christian Evidences, 126]  They are nothing like the tricks of a magician.  They are part and parcel of the work of salvation that was Jesus’ mission.  They are only a relatively minor manifestation of the power by which God created the world and by which he recreates the lives of those who trust in him.

But, then, there is this paragraph at the end.  This statement about a harvest and need for workers in the harvest.  What is this?  Surely the man who can do what Jesus did does not need us to accomplish his mission.  Surely one who has such power at his disposal can bring his will to pass without us.  Oh, yes, he can.  There is no question about that.  But it is not his will to heal the world by himself.  He is not so jealous for his own glory that he is not willing, even determined to share the credit for the salvation of sinners with his followers who contribute to his cause.

To be treated to one astonishing miracle after another and then to be told that we must work if the work is to be finished – this is more astonishing still!  The miracles, you see, are only demonstration.  They are not the work itself!  They are not the cross on which Christ suffered and died for sin.  They are not the resurrection by which he brought eternal life to the world.  They are not the gospel, the good news, published abroad by which men and women, boys and girls, believing find forgiveness and life in Christ.  They are not the recreation of human lives that were dead in sin and unbelief.  They are only a picture of these things, a demonstration, a proof.  That is why they have not happened in the world since the time of Christ’s apostles.

The real work, the salvation of men, the granting of eternal life to the dead, that is the great work Christ came to do and still does through his Holy Spirit and that work is ours as well.  We cannot perform miracles, we do not even see them, much as we would like to.

But we can publish the good news and we can pray for those who are publishing it here and to the four corners of the world.  It is a more amazing thing that you know or I appreciate, that God has given us a share in this work, when nothing is more obvious than that he does not need us at all to perform it.

He is like the loving father who gives the fishing rod to his little son, wrapping his arms around him, helping him to hold the rod and wind the reel.  He could do it himself much more easily, but then he isn’t only interested in catching fish.  He is also interested in teaching his son, in giving him a sense of his great worth, in sharing with him the joy of something that he loves and knows his son will come to love as well.

The miracle worker is summoning us to work with him.  Surely no sane person is going to decline!