Miracles and Might: Matthew 8:1-4
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the great sermons of all history, and it has certainly been a great blessing to me to have gone through it. But thank God that our Lord did not just come with words. We need truth, for it is by the truth that men are set free, but we need more than truth. For the problem is that we are not only lacking in understanding, but that we are also sinful. And sin has made us morally blind and spiritually dead. You can speak to a dead man until you’re blue in the face, but you aren’t going to get anywhere until that dead man is made alive. We need resurrection. We not only need truth brought to us, but we need power exercised for us and upon us.
Evidently Matthew understood this, for he now proceeds from the words of Jesus to the works of Jesus, from the demonstration of the authority of Christ in his teaching (Mt. 7:28-29) to the demonstration of the authority of Christ in his miracles. In the next two chapters (8-9), Matthew gives us a tour of at least 10 distinct miracles of Jesus, along with summary statements that mention his power exercised in the behalf of the multitudes who followed him. Along with the Sermon on the Mount, these two chapters summarize for us the works of our Lord. Between chapters 5 and 9, Matthew is giving us a synopsis of the ministry of Jesus Christ. In 5-7, we see the teaching and preaching aspect, and in 8-9, we see the healing aspect of it. This is not an arbitrary outline of the material, for we know that the Evangelist meant for us to see it in this way. For in 4:23, we have this summary statement of the ministry of Jesus in terms of teaching and preaching and healing, and then in 9:35 you have another summary statement of his ministry in the same terms. In other words, these are bookend statements and in between them we are meant to see this wonderful overview of the ministry of our Lord in terms of preaching, teaching, and healing.
And tucked between these episodes of power, we also have two paragraphs that deal with the issue of discipleship (8:18-22; 9:9-13). In fact, it has been popular to see the overall structure of these two chapters in terms of three miracles – discipleship – three more miracles – discipleship – three more miracles (in this scheme, the two miracles mentioned in 9:18-26 are considered as one). This is probably too simplistic, but it does point to an important truth. Remember that immediately before the Sermon on the Mount, you have the call of the first disciples, Peter and Andrew, and John and James (4:18-22). Jesus had called them to follow him, to become his disciples. This call immediately follows the first mention of the preaching ministry of Jesus and precedes the first exhibition of the preaching ministry of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 9, on the other hand, you have the call of Matthew himself that comes in the context of the miracle-working ministry of Jesus. The truth that all of this points to is this: that the ministry of Jesus Christ, whether considered in its aspect of teaching or considered in its aspect of healing and working wonders, is meant to bring men and women to the obedience of faith. Our Lord’s words are not merely to be admired, they are to be obeyed. Even so, our Lord’s works are not merely meant to be wondered at, they are to bring us to a deep and abiding faith in the one who words can still a storm. Both the words and the works of Jesus are meant to draw us to be his disciples.
It is clear that the miracles of Jesus were meant to authenticate his claims to be the Son of God and Savior of the world, and thus to bring men and women to faith in him as such. This is made explicit in Matthew’s account of the palsied man in 9:1-8. There Jesus tells the scribes that the reason he was going to heal the man with palsy was so “that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins” (9:6). Here, Christ’s power to heal authenticated his claim to forgive sins. And as the scribes themselves put it, “Who can forgive sins but God only?” (Mk. 2:7). So surely one of Matthew’s reasons for exhibiting before us the miracle-working power of Christ is to hold up to faith the authority and the power of Christ.
All this leads to some obvious questions. How can miracles function in this way for modern man? It may have been well and good for a pre-scientific era, but surely we cannot expect miracles to have the same affect upon us. And if that is the case, does this mean that the whole point of Matthew 8-9 has been rendered null and void?
What can we say to these questions? To answer them, we need to understand why people reject miracles today as a vehicle for conveying truth about Jesus. Why do people reject the possibility of miracles? I think the main reason people do so is because they have bought into the philosophy of scientism. Scientism is the belief that knowledge can only be obtained through science. According to its proponents, everything has to be explained by purely natural causes. But this is problematic because such reasoning rests on faulty logic. Now it is true that scientific knowledge rests on an assumption of natural causes. And this is because science can only test for natural causes. But it is faulty logic to then say that because science can only detect natural causes that there can be no other kind of causality. The philosopher Alvin Plantinga rightly says that this “argument . . . is like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better there. In fact, it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light.”
Scientism itself cannot be right because it cannot be tested by the scientific method. Timothy Keller explains, “There would be no experimental model for testing the statement: ‘No supernatural cause for any natural phenomenon is possible.’ It is therefore a philosophical presupposition and not a scientific finding.” The irony is that those who embrace scientism do so out of a desire to promote true knowledge (as opposed to “religious fiction”). But the problem is that end up doing to the opposite because they fail to understand the limitations of science. And by trying to make science into something it is not, I believe that they will end up doing disservice to the scientific program in the long run.
Another reason why people don’t believe in the miracles of the Bible is because they don’t believe they can trust the Bible. For example, some people have rejected any belief in the Biblical miracles because they don’t think they can trust the text of Scripture. They’ve been told that our translations are just translations of translations, and so on. Others think they can’t trust the historicity of the events recounted in Scripture. They are just legends, passed on from generation to generation while acquiring more and more fictional residue that the real accounts have been buried under a mound of mythical accruements.
To give full answers to these objections would take me too far afield, but these objections have been answered again and again with good and sound arguments. For example, F. F. Bruce’s little book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? deals with the trustworthiness of the text of the NT documents. He shows that they are authentic documents that were not written hundreds of years after the fact, but either by eye-witnesses or by people who got their information from eye-witnesses. On the other hand, the historicity of the events of the Bible have been dealt with in numerous books as well. One recent book that deals with both objections in a succinct and winsome fashion is Timothy Keller’s book The Reason for God. As regards the historicity of the events of the NT, one argument that has been convincing for me is the fact that the apostles and early Christians were willing to die for the faith of Christ. Now, some would say that this is not a good argument because people from other religions are willing to die for their faith as well. However, there is a difference. A Muslim may die for Mohammed because he really believes Islam to be truth. But the apostles and the early Christians knew that what they were preaching was either a lie or the truth. If it were a lie, you would have an example of multitudes of people dying for a lie with their eyes wide open. It’s hard for me to believe that so many would be willing to die for what they knew was a lie.
However, even if we establish that the text of the Bible is trustworthy, and even if we establish that the events of the Bible, including the miracles, are historical events, in some sense this still doesn’t make faith any easier. In fact, the Bible itself recognizes this. At the end of Matthew, after Jesus has risen from the dead (one of the greatest of all miracles), and after he had revealed himself to many in Galilee, we have this sentence: “And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted” (Mt. 28:17). This is amazing. Here you have people who are looking at the resurrected Christ – and they doubt. If this text tells us anything, it proves that miracles can’t create faith. One thinks of the Rich Man from Luke 16 who went to hell, who begged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Do you remember Abraham’s response? He told him, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” To which the Rich Man responded, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.” And then we have this damning indictment: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:29-31).
At the end of the day, the problem of the human heart is so desperate that even a man raised from the dead will not suffice to turn us from our self-centeredness and orientation away from God. There is something more fundamentally wrong with us than merely a failure to believe in the miracles of the Bible. Now it is good and right to try to answer objections that are often raised against the Bible – and we need people to see that we are not theological ostriches who stick their heads in the sand whenever anyone raises an objection. We need to be willing to consider their objections and to answer them with honesty and humility. But we also need to realize that the main problem with unbelief is not a lack of miracles. It is a problem of a deep hostility to God. It is the problem of sin. Seeing miracles isn’t going to convert anyone. We don’t need to see a miracle, we need to experience a miracle. That is the problem.
So why did Matthew write these chapters? If seeing a miracle by itself won’t do anything, what’s the point? Well, there are several reasons why the content of these chapters are still important.
First, they are important because, although seeing miracles doesn’t (by itself) create faith in the unbelieving, it does build up the faith of those who do believe. An example of this is John the Baptist. In chapter 11 of Matthew we find John the Baptist in prison because of his bold witness to the truth. However, as he languished in prison doubts began to creep in. Perhaps he thought, along with many of his contemporaries, that the Christ was supposed to be a conquering hero. But here he was in prison while Jesus just went around and preached. So we read this: “Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, ‘Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?’” (11:2-3). Do you remember the response of Jesus? He replied, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached unto them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (11:4-6). It’s obvious that the miracles of Jesus were meant to strengthen the faith of this great man of God. Even so, as the Holy Spirit inspired these words to be written and preserved for the church of today, we should remind ourselves of the power of Christ and let that be an encouragement to our faith. We do not serve a weak Lord but the Son of God who has all power in heaven and earth.
This leads to the second use of the record of our Lord’s works of power. They not only build up our faith, they lead us to worship. We see this in Matthew 28:17. Those who saw Christ fell into two categories: those who worshipped and those who doubted. The miracles of Jesus beg us to consider who Jesus is. He is not only the one who made all things (Jn. 1:3), and who upholds all things by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3), but he is also the one who puts things right. He brings healing and life to a sick and dead world. He did not come to do a magic act, and his miracles were not just performed to dazzle and wow. They each had a purpose. He came to heal the sick, to put back to rights what sin and evil and disease had made wrong. He came to give a preview of what he will do when he comes again, when we will hear the words: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). And if we really believe these things, how can we not worship him?
All of this is illustrated in the first miracle recorded in Matthew 8. Evidently, Matthew did not record his miracles in chronological order. This becomes especially apparent when you compare the various miracles recorded in these two chapters with the parallel texts in Mark and Luke. Really, verse 1 goes with the previous verses in chapter 7, and notes the great crowds that followed him throughout his ministry. The miracle in verses 2-4 doesn’t necessarily happen right after this. The fact that Jesus wants to keep it a secret (v. 4) indicates that he didn’t do it in the presence of the great multitudes mentioned in verse 1. But as we’ve already noted, the structure of Matthew’s text is not governed by chronological as by thematic concerns. The point is not to tell us in what order things happened, as to display the power of our Lord through several examples of miracles in this chapter and the next.
The first example of healing is given in verse 2-4. It is noteworthy that Matthew begins here; it is the healing of a leper. R. C. Sproul explains that, “In the ancient world, there were seventy-two diseases of the skin under the broad heading of leprosy.” Today, when people refer to leprosy they usually mean Hansen’s disease, which in Jesus’ day the Greeks called elephantiasis. We don’t know what particular version of leprosy this man had. But whatever he had, it was a terrible thing in Jesus’ day to be a leper.
To be officially categorized as a leper, you had to have been diagnosed by the priest. Once you were diagnosed, you were ostracized from society, unable to enter Jerusalem, and unable to participate in the religious life of the Jews. You had to cover your face and warn people of your uncleanness. You were not allowed to come within fifty paces of another person. Leprosy in that time was also incurable, and was considered a death sentence. For example, when Naaman came to the King of Israel to be cured of his leprosy, the king cried out, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy?” (2 Kings 5:7).
This man had seen the priest. The sore had turned white (cf. Lev. 13:3), and so he had been declared a leper. From that point on, he had lived the painful and tragic and lonely and hopeless life of a leper.
But then he heard of Jesus. Mark says that he came “beseeching him, and kneeling down to him” (Mk. 1:40); Matthew says that he came “and worshipped him” (v.2). The word for “worship” can mean nothing more than to show respect, as in kneeling. We don’t know how much this leper understood about the person of Jesus, but he did at least know one thing: this man Jesus, whoever he was, could heal lepers. And so he came to Jesus with the request: “Lord [Sir], if thou wilt, that canst make me clean.”
I think the manner of his request is instructive to all of us. He came with faith for he said, “thou canst make me clean.” There was no doubt in his mind that he could be healed. He did not doubt for a second. But coupled with faith was real humility, for he prefaced his request with, “if thou wilt.” This is the way we need to bring our needs before God. It is not faith to demand anything of God just as it is not doubt to submit our wishes to God’s wise and loving providence. “If thou wilt” ought to preface all our requests.
To this Jesus responded in two ways, both full of meaning. First of all, he touched him. Now it was unlawful to touch a leper, for to do so was to make yourself ceremonially unclean. But Jesus “put forth his hand, and touched him.” Can you imagine how this made the leper feel? He had never been touched by anyone since he had been diagnosed as a leper. Jesus did not have to touch him, as the next miracle makes abundantly clear (8:5-13), so he did this for a reason: to not only to show compassion by bringing physical healing to the man but also to show compassion by letting him know that he was accepted and befriended by none other than Jesus himself. Mark brings this out more clearly by saying, “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him” (Mk. 1:41).
Second, Jesus said, “I will; be thou clean.” He healed the man with a word and a touch: “And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” This disease which was deemed incurable was completely healed. This disease which was looked upon as a death sentence was revoked by the Great Physician. He was not just made a little better, he didn’t just reduce the symptoms. He fully healed the man.
Jesus then told the man to go to Jerusalem and perform the rites necessary to be officially cleansed (v.4). According to the Law of Moses, to be cleansed you had to go to the priest and offer a sacrifice, so our Lord tells him to do this. His presenting himself to the priests would be “a testimony unto them” that he had in fact been cleansed. After a period of time, when it was clear that the symptoms were gone, the priest would pronounce him clean. But many have been baffled as to why Jesus also told the man to tell no one else about the healing. I think the reason is quite simple: to spread the fame of Jesus far and wide, especially when many people had misconceptions about the ministry of the Messiah, would only hamper his ministry with the curious thrill seekers who would get in the way of ministering to those who had real needs. Mark’s comment makes this clear: “But he went out, and began to publish it much, insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places: and they came to him from every quarter” (Mk. 1:45). Zeal for the Lord that is contrary to his word is disobedience nonetheless.
Now all this has a great lesson for us. For we, too, are lepers. We are infected with a disease that no one can cure and which cuts us off from fellowship with God and his people. It’s not a physical disease, although sometimes it has physical manifestations. It’s called sin. The ugly selfishness that is inherent in sin separates us from others, from family and friends and co-workers. But ultimately it separates us from God.
How can we be cured? We cannot cure ourselves. Others can only declare us clean or unclean, but they cannot cure us, either. Nor can we be cured by merely seeing a cure take place in someone else. We need to experience a miracle. The only one who can produce that miracle in us is Jesus Christ. And he came to do precisely that. He could have stayed in heaven, but he did not. Instead, He came down, became flesh, and touched us with his hand. He took our uncleanness upon himself and by doing so heals our spiritual leprosy. Is this not a mighty miracle? As Calvin rightly put it, in his comment on this text, “What we indolently read, and coldly pass by, cannot be duly weighed without great astonishment. The Son of God was so far from disdaining to talk to a leper, that he even stretched out his hand to touch that uncleanness.”
What then should we do? My friend, the Son of God passes by. He is able to cure you of your leprosy. He can take away your sin. He can purge your guilt and unloosen the shackles that it has placed upon your heart. Call out to him, ask him to heal you. And don’t be surprised if you hear him say, “I will, be thou clean!”