Matthew Week 4
A Messiah of Words and Deeds: Matthew 8:1–11:1
Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 8:1–11:1
In our reading for this week, Matthew has gathered together three groups of three miracle stories (8:1–17; 8:23–9:8; 9:18–34) with transitional scenes between each group (8:18–22; 9:9–17) — all of which sets up the second of Jesus’ sermons in Matthew, the sermon on mission (Chapter 10). Throughout, we are afforded clarification on the identity of Jesus and the task of those who choose to follow him.
Structure: Teaching and Doing
You will recall from last week that this portion of the gospel is part of a larger “teaching and doing” section “framed” by the twin statements of 4:23 and 9:35. So after last week’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount comes this collection of stories describing Jesus’ miraculous doings [see Author’s Note 1]. Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is Messiah in both word (5–7) and deed (8–9). He is “God with us” not simply to proclaim the Kingdom but to make it a reality in the world.
But in Matthew’s gospel, what is said about Jesus leads inevitably to interest in what it means for us to “follow” him, and the repeated use of that term throughout this section is Matthew’s way of communicating this interest (8:1, 10, 19, 22, 23; 9:9, 19, 27; 10:38). At the conclusion of Jesus’ teaching and doing, Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (9:36–38).
Chapter 10 then begins with Jesus empowering his disciples with the authority to proclaim and perform in imitation of him, and continues with the second of Matthew’s five sermons, the sermon on mission (10:5–42). Again we see Jesus’ intent to train a community to continue his work in the world. When we identify Jesus, we’re simultaneously identifying what it means to be his disciple. When we hear the word “disciple,” then, we should not imagine a student sitting at a desk (or in a pew!) listening to a lecturer. We should think instead of an apprentice learning a craft, or an athlete training for an event.
Identifying Jesus: Nine Stories, but 10 Miracles
Scholars have debated whether we should think in terms of nine or 10 miracles here, since one story actually includes two healings (9:18–26). In fact we have 10 miracles across nine stories, and Matthew may have brought the two numbers together on purpose. His obvious preference for the number three accounts for the nine stories.
But when we recall that Jews of Jesus’ day spoke of Moses’ 10 miraculous deeds of power in calling down plagues against the Egyptians (Exodus 7–12), we see yet another point of connection and disconnection between Jesus and the story of Israel: Moses once acted in power to deliver God’s people from oppression, and so also now Jesus, the “new Moses,” does the same. While Moses’ deeds were plagues of vengeance against human oppressors, though, Jesus’ deeds are works of mercy for everyone, including even the oppressor of his day, the Roman centurion.
Indeed, almost all the individuals encountered here are either powerless (paralytic, disciples in storm, blind men) or marginalized by the Jewish religion of the day (leper, Roman centurion, woman, demoniacs, tax collector, small girl, hemorrhaging woman). Though God once had reason to enact violence against people for the temporal purpose of establishing the nation of Israel, readers of the whole Scripture come to know God’s ultimate saving intention most clearly in Jesus, “God with us,” to bring merciful deliverance to the whole world.
Identifying Jesus: Titles
When we compare Matthew’s version of these miracles with those of Mark and Luke, we note that Matthew has often trimmed the story down to focus specifically on the interaction between Jesus and the person(s) encountered (e.g., compare, Matthew 8:14–15 with Mark 1:29–31 and Luke 4:38–39; Matthew 8:28–34 with Mark 5:1–20 and Luke 8:26–39). As far as Matthew is concerned, the miracle itself is less important than what it tells us about Jesus. This is why he has peppered this section with a variety of titles that expand our developing understanding of Jesus’ identity.
The most common title in these healing stories is “Lord” (Matthew 8:2, 6, 8, 21, 25; 9:28, 38). It’s a tricky one, actually: Matthew uses it sometimes in reference to God (e.g., 1:20, 22; 11:25; 22:37) and other times in the purely secular sense of “sir” (e.g., 13:27; 21:30). So when people come to Jesus and call him “Lord,” do they mean “sir” or “God with us”? “Lord” is used in contexts where Jesus’ immense authority is being affirmed.
The leper in the first story says, “If you will it, you are able to make me clean” (8:2). It sounds more like a statement of faith than a request for healing! Not “If you are able” but “if you will it”; the only contingency he acknowledges is Jesus’ will. The story of the centurion makes the point plain, for this soldier understands how authority works: “Only speak the word,” he says, “and my servant will be healed” (8:8). Indeed, it appears that faith in Jesus’ absolute authority over all things is the one thing required for a miracle to take place (8:10, 13, 26; 9:2, 22, 28–29). This faith can be held by anyone, Jew or Gentile, male or female, sinner or saint.
Later, when Jesus and the disciples are sailing in a storm, the disciples cry out, “Lord, save us!” (8:25). When Jesus calms the sea, they ask, “What sort of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” but readers familiar with the Old Testament know the answer, for Israel frequently celebrated God’s power in terms of having power over the sea (e.g., Psalm 29:3; 65:7; 89:8–9; 93:3–4; 106:8–9; and especially 107:23–32). Regardless of what the characters in the gospel think when they call Jesus “Lord,” readers already know he is “God with us.”
But note the twist that comes at the end of this first set of three healings: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’” (Matthew 8:17, quoting Isaiah 53:4). Matthew is explicitly identifying Jesus the Messiah with the Servant of God described in Isaiah 40–55, the one who was “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon [whom] was the punishment that made us whole, and by [whose] bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
A connection is drawn between God’s power and Jesus’ obedience. In the wilderness, Jesus refused Satan’s temptation to associate his status as “Son of God” with a self-glorifying use of supernatural power. So also here, Jesus’ appropriation of divine power is that of a servant working in submission to God’s will, which is to bring healing and liberation to the world. This restoration will come, ironically, by means of Servant Jesus’ suffering and death.
We saw earlier that “Son of God” may be the central identifying title for Jesus in this gospel. Note that the designation is used again in this section (8:29). In Old Testament perspective, a “Son of God” is someone who plays a role in the outworking of God’s salvation: so Israel is called God’s son (Exodus 4:22–23; Hosea 11:1), as are the king of Israel (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7), and angelic beings (Genesis 6:2–4; Job 1:6).
The true “Son of God,” then, is the servant of God’s will — which is why Jesus himself can call peacemaking disciples “sons of God” (5:9). As the gospel proceeds, it will come to function as one of the most important confessions of Jesus’ identity: he isn’t just one among many “sons of God”; he is the Son of God [see Author’s Note 2].
Like “Son of God,” “Son of David” (Matthew 9:27) could function as a straightforward title for Israel’s king. But in contrast with many of Israel’s past royal figures, this faithful “Son of David” comes as a servant of God’s love. This is why Matthew frequently connects the title with calls for “mercy” pouring forth from people receiving or witnessing healings (9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30–31).
Remember Joseph, this gospel’s first exemplar of righteousness, who treated Mary with mercy instead of “letter of the law” judgment (1:19)? Remember the beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (5:7)? When God’s faithful king exercises the power of God, it is mercy that is revealed.
Apparently the Pharisees do not understand this, for when they call into question Jesus’ association with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus has to direct them back to Scripture: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (9:10–13). The text quoted is Hosea 6:6, and Jesus will quote it to them again at 12:7 when they condemn the disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath. Mercy, apparently, is the foundational attitude that makes all other religious action truly godly. This is why Jesus says that those who love their enemies are “children of [their] Father in heaven” (5:45), for when we offer grace to those who do not deserve it, we are acting in imitation of God.
Out of all these titles, Jesus preferred to identify himself as the “Son of Man,” which occurs for the first time at 8:20. Scholars continue to debate what is being communicated in this title. Hebrew poetry used it as a synonym for “human” (e.g., Numbers 23:19; Psalm 8:4), and in the Aramaic of Jesus’ day the phrase could be used to simply say “someone like me.” In Ezekiel it is used repeatedly as God’s address to the prophet as a lowly, subservient human.
But in Daniel’s vision of God’s final judgment, “one like a son of man” appears in the heavenly court and is “given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14). Some argue that by Jesus’ day the designation was a Messianic title, but others refute this.
Jesus’ own use falls into three categories: he uses it in reference to his authority as God’s servant (e.g., Matthew 9:6; 12:8); he uses it when he speaks of his own suffering and death (e.g., 8:20; 17:22); and he uses it as Daniel did to describe his future coming in glory at the final judgment (e.g., 13:41; 16:27; 19:28; 26:64). Clearly this is a multivalent, evocative title that exceeds our ability to fully explain, and for this reason it forms an appropriate conclusion to our exploration of Jesus’ many titles. Jesus is knowable and made known through the gospel, but he cannot and must not be reduced to any single identity statement. He is the king who serves, the healer who suffers, the human who is God with us.
By the time we come to the end of the nine miracle stories, it has become clear that Jesus’ teaching and doing draw out a variety of responses. Some apparently want to follow but can’t do so wholeheartedly (8:18–22). The Jewish leadership, by contrast, rejects his words and work as blasphemous (9:2–8), scandalous (9:9–13), and demonic (9:34).
But it seems that most people continue to come forward simply to hear the good news of the Kingdom and receive God’s merciful healing. When Jesus saw these masses, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). The “shepherd” metaphor is used in the Old Testament in relation to Israel’s leadership (e.g., Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17), and Jesus’ words call to mind Ezekiel’s prophecy against the faithless “shepherds” of Israel who feed themselves instead of the sheep (Ezekiel 34:1–10). In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God promises to come down to personally shepherd the people (34:11–31). Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is that divine shepherd (recall 2:6).
Following Jesus: The Sermon on Mission (10:5–42)
Rather than continue the shepherding metaphor in reference to himself, Jesus turns once again to the disciples, sending them out as “workers” in the “harvest” of his ministry (9:37–38; cf. 4:19). And so we come to the second major sermon in Matthew’s gospel, the sermon on mission. There are several things to note here. As we mentioned in the first week, the “sending” is to Israel alone at this point in the gospel narrative (10:5–6). Why does Jesus limit the message to Jews here, knowing that the eventual goal is to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19)?
Again, it is worth remembering that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. He has come to fulfill God’s promises to Israel that through Israel God would bring blessings to the whole world. The people of Israel must meet their Messiah. But will “God’s son” Israel recognize itself in God’s Son Jesus? Will it hear and see in Jesus’ words and deeds an accurate articulation of its own destiny and vocation? Already the Jewish leadership has rejected Jesus, and the confrontations between them will intensify as the chapters proceed. In the sermon that follows, Jesus insists that what is about to happen to him will also happen to his disciples (10:16–25).
As with the sermon on discipleship, so also this teaching on mission presents us with a strenuous, demanding vision of Christian discipleship with which many of us may be unfamiliar. In going out without provision and serving without expectation of payment, disciples are called once again to renounce material possessions (10:8–10), embodying in their actions the kind of trust in God’s providence that is a hallmark of life in God’s Kingdom. God is the ultimate judge, so disciples should not waste time worrying about those who reject the message (10:11–15).
Despite God’s protection, they will still have to deal with fear and worry because of the hostility that arises whenever the gospel of the Kingdom is preached. We heard earlier that the gospel forces a choice between the “wide and easy” way of the world and the “narrow” way of the Kingdom (7:13–14). So now this sermon underscores the division and hostility that the announcement of the Kingdom brings (10:16–25, 34–39). The good news of the Kingdom calls all other allegiances into question; it requires a pledge of allegiance to God above all temporal allegiances to family, culture, politics, and religious tradition. Such allegiance is threatening, especially to individuals and groups concerned to preserve the status quo on their own terms.
Finally, as in the earlier sermon on discipleship, so also this sermon includes a call to not be afraid of what will happen (10:26–33). God’s truth is being revealed regardless of how people respond (10:26–27). The arrival of the Kingdom is inevitable, so a strenuous life now is worth it if it means reception into the Kingdom later (10:28). Besides, God is watching closely (10:29–31), and the reward for the work is great (10:32–33, 40–42).
Of course, the gospel doesn’t go on to describe the work of the disciples. The focus will stay on Jesus, for his work takes precedence over ours. If the disciple is like the teacher, and the slave like the master (10:25), we must read on to discover more precisely what this likeness actually entails for us.
Questions for Further Reflection:
- “What is said about Jesus leads inevitably to interest in what it means for us to follow him.” What do you say about Jesus’ identity and mission, and how does it shape your understanding of what it means to follow him?
- The author suggests that discipleship should be likened to an apprentice learning a craft, or an athlete training for an event. With these images in mind, consider what Christian discipleship could look like.
- Of the titles we explored for Jesus, which is the most familiar to you? Which is less familiar?
- “Mercy is the foundational attitude that makes all other religious action godly.” What is your reaction to this statement? Agree/Disagree? Would you prefer to modify it in some way?
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