Matthew Chapters 8 & 9 – Keep the main thing the main thing!

Matthew Chapters 8 & 9 – Keep the main thing the main thing!

In our EPW training conferences, one of the hardest tasks is to work out the primary application of a passage as opposed to any number of secondary applications. So, for example, when we look at a Pauline epistle, the key question for us to ask is what did Paul want the Philippians to do as a result of writing what he did? What was his primary purpose in putting that paragraph where he did in the flow of his argument? There will always be secondary truths that can be touched on, but we will want to spend most of our time on the primary application and make that the main aim of our sermons.  

The danger with only stressing secondary applications is that we not only become boring and predictable, but we also model an unhelpful view of the Bible to our congregations. Instead of being narrative and letters written for a primary purpose, the Bible is presented as primarily about topics that we look up in an index, as if it were a school textbook.  

Matthew 8-9 is a good example where it is tempting to highlight many wonderful truths from a procession of people meeting Jesus. However, we will try to focus on the primary purpose behind this carefully arranged collection of encounters with Christ. As we do, we see that these people are in different situations and have different attitudes to Christ. But, more than that, we see that they have been positioned by Matthew to invite us and equip us to respond to Jesus in a few significant ways. The first of these, and the primary truth that Matthew wants us to rejoice in, is that we should rely on Jesus’ great power. 

1. Rely on our King’s unlimited power

Matthew records Jesus’ miracles in rapid succession. We see Jesus cleansing a leper, healing paralysed people, healing those unable to see and those unable to speak, healing people with a touch, with a word, and even bringing a dead girl back to life. Matthew wants us to see that depending on Jesus’ power and authority is the only right response. Unlike Luke and Mark, Matthew arranges the healing of the leper (8:1-4) at the outset with two other miracles for outsiders.  

The leper would have been barred from taking part in Israel’s religious and social life and could not enter Jerusalem or the temple at all. The Gentile centurion (8:5-13), could enter Jerusalem but could go no further into the temple than the outer Court of the Gentiles. Only a leper was more unclean than Gentiles. The third outsider is Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-15). Jewish women could go further than Gentiles into the temple but only as far as the Court of Women. The Holy Place (for Jewish men) and the Most Holy Place (for the High Priest on the Day of Atonement) were out of bounds to Jewish women. But Matthew wants us to marvel at Jesus’ ability to heal all three outsiders.  

Matthew records the unclean leper falling at Jesus’ feet without any explanation to inspire the same confidence in us that Jesus can do anything. Likewise, the centurion is sure that all Christ has to do is say the word and his son will be healed. This gentile’s faith in Christ contrasts with the faithlessness of many Israelites, but it is nonetheless well-placed. And although it is tempting to dwell on the confidence modelled in these encounters and bully our congregations to do likewise, note that Matthew fixes our eyes on Jesus not on us. Indeed, nobody says anything when Jesus meets Peter’s mother-in-law. Do you see? Matthew’s aim is less to highlight the strength of people’s faith in Christ and more to show that it is well-placed.  

It is Jesus’ ability and not our trust that is his key concern. As FD Bruner comments, ‘we mustn’t load the scales of faith with too much freight as though God will not work unless we or someone else believes enough or prays enough.’ Matthew is inviting us to wonder at Jesus’ power and to rely on the one with ability to do anything.  

Therefore, although it may be wise in some places to caution that Matthew 8 doesn’t suggest that Jesus will heal on demand today, many churches struggle more to imagine that God will act in power. We are often more like Matthew’s first readers 30-40 years after Jesus’ death, where hopes of divine intervention were on the wane. If our congregations are like that, then we need to press on and see what happens in the two chaos miracles (8:18-34).  

With the disciples in the storm (8:18-27), there is no context, no conversation and no explanation. There is simply a storm, three words of panic in the Greek – save, Lord, drowning – and a one word diagnosis from Jesus – they are ‘little faiths’. They need to rely on Jesus’ power. As they exit the boat and encounter the two demon-possessed men (8:28-34), we see more of the same as Jesus stills both storms and souls. The Lord not only silences the demons but also ends any false worship at the tombs by killing their supply of sacrificial pigs. And although Jesus’s word and power are awesome, the people reject him and he departs. But chapter 8 makes it clear that, whether people love him or loathe him, Jesus can save from anything. Friends, we need to rely on our glorious King’s unlimited power.  

We see the same focus in Matthew 9 with five more miracles. They begin with a highly abridged account of the healing of the paralytic (9:1-8). Unlike Mark’s Gospel, there is no mention of any friends, any digging or even a roof. Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter in v6: Jesus even has the divine ability to forgive sins. No wonder the crowds were amazed at his power. Matthew is pushing us relentlessly to depend on Jesus, the King with power to do anything. Likewise, in 9:18-26, unlike in Mark’s Gospel, we don’t learn this religious leader’s name, his daughter’s age or what Jesus said to her. Matthew wants to focus, instead, on this man’s well-placed confidence in Christ to bring his daughter back from the dead.  

Similarly, the woman suffering from years of bleeding believes that Jesus has the power to stop it and so touches the edge of his garment and is healed instantly (9:20-22). Then in 9:27-34, we see Jesus heal two blind men who recognise him as the Son of David and a demon possessed mute man who cannot confess Christ before he is healed. Again, even though some religious leaders respond with blind prejudice, no wonder the crowds are amazed, saying ‘Never was anything like this seen in Israel’. Do you see? The main spine through chapters 8-9 is the unlimited power and authority of Jesus, God’s promised King. Matthew has shaped his narrative to offer us a compelling invitation to rely on Jesus’ unlimited power. That is the primary application of these chapters.  

So, how is your confidence in the power of Christ? Matthew knows there is a real danger in ministry that we lose sight of the life-changing power of Jesus. Our glorious King’s power is unlimited not abstract or vague. So, will we lean on him this week? Will we trust Jesus, the one who died and rose and rules for all time? 

However, even as Matthew focusses in this way, he also invites us to respond to the Lord in two other secondary, but nonetheless striking ways. Second, notice the invitation to rest in Jesus’ breath-taking gentleness. 

2. Rest in our King’s unmatched tenderness

Did you see how Jesus deals with those who come to him, especially 8:2,14; 9:25,29? We see our King up close as he deals with frail and flawed people in such a gentle way. He even touches a leper and nobody would touch him in that culture. The recent pandemic reminded us that touch is a sense which we can take for granted. We only noticed how special it was when it was gone. The medics now tell us that a tender touch is known to boost our immune system, lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones and trigger the release of the same kind of opiates as painkilling drugs. Touch is how we express closeness and compassion. And Jesus understands that. It is why he is so approachable despite his awesome authority. Notice how we’re told about Christ’s compassion for Jerusalem (9:36) – the Greek word used speaks of a gut-wrenching agony in our bowels? And the narrative of these chapters invites us to rest in both Jesus’ unlimited power and his unmatched tenderness. 

Jonathan Edwards captures it beautifully:  

‘Here in Jesus is not only infinite strength and worthiness but infinite condescension and love and mercy, as great as power and dignity. If you are a poor distressed sinner whose heart is ready to sink for fear that God will never have mercy on you, you need not be afraid to go to Christ for fear that he is either unable or unwilling to help you. For here in him is a strong foundation and an inexhaustible treasure to answer the needs of your poor soul. Here is infinite grace and gentleness to invite and embolden a poor unworthy and fearful soul to come. You see, if Christ accepts you, you need not fear that you will be safe for he is a strong lion for your defence. If you come, you need not fear that you won’t be accepted for he is a lamb to all who come to him and receives them with infinite grace and tenderness.’  

Friends, let these words stir our hearts this week so that we will collapse onto our King, the one with unlimited power and unmatched tenderness. And, finally, notice how we are to obey Jesus’ summons. 

3. Respond to our King’s uncompromising call

The two men we meet in 8:18f may look different but the obstacle for both is the same; it is all about them at the end of the day. The first may be sincere or false but Jesus wants him to know that ‘wherever’ may be nowhere. He is the Son of Man who will be given all authority at the end of time to rule the universe but he knows he will be opposed, hunted and ultimately killed. The second man makes a request that looks honouring to his family and plausible if it were not for the ‘first’ that he includes. Jesus wants him to hear that the call to follow Christ is absolute. Matthew himself understands that only too well, 9:9f. He answers Jesus’ call. And his call to all of us is to drop everything and follow Jesus and put him first in everything. Jesus calls us to reorder our lives according to his agenda. He calls us to serve him wherever he takes us and whatever he asks of us. He is our King so where he leads, we must follow. He will go on to unpack this in chapter 10 as he sets out the nature of our mission but that is for the next blog post.  

Friends, Jesus is our King. Even as we hold him out to others this week, we need to pause and remind ourselves that our King can do anything. And even though many of us may be fearful of those in the world today who rule with unlimited power, we can see that Christ’s power was combined with breath-taking grace to restore outcasts, heal the sick and raise the dead. Jesus is a King whose power is absolute and whose love is unconditional. Run to him, pastors. Collapse on Christ. Lean on the Lord this week and throughout your ministry. If you acknowledge your need of Jesus, you will discover the wonderful truth that he can meet your need. Jesus is enough for you and for your congregations. 

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