The Messiah at Work, Part 1
1. Introduction to This Series
It is a joy to be coming back to the book of Matthew again. I loved the months that we spent in Matthew 1-7 two years ago. Then this past May I got to take a grad-level class on Matthew, taught by a godly professor whose been teaching on this book regularly for the past 33 years. It was an incredibly rich week of learning that made me go that much deeper in my appreciation for Matthew.
And so I’m thrilled we get to spend the next nine weeks in these three chapters together.
Now, you might wonder, why only nine weeks? How and why are you breaking up the book this way?
Broadly speaking, the book of Matthew has a beginning, and ending, and in between there are five major sections. Each of these sections has two parts: first, a record of Jesus’ activities, and second, an extended record of His teaching. And each of those teaching sections ends with a key phrase that signals the section is complete. The sermon on the mount concludes with “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,” (Matthew 7:28). Similarly, the teaching section in chapter 10 ends with “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities” (Matthew 11:1). And some form of “When Jesus had finished” wraps up the other three teaching portions at the end chapter 13 and the beginning of 19 and 26.
You know our plan is to preach on all six major sections of the Bible in a two-year cycle, and we do that by breaking the big books up in to smaller sections. This section of Matthew is only three chapters, but it balances out with the much longer section we took up last time, and over the years it all balances out quite well.
One of the things you might notice here is that Matthew is quite a structured book. And the structure goes beyond merely those five major sections. There are overlapping structures that weave in and out of these bigger sections.
Back in Matthew 4:23, we read, “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23).
We read almost the same words again at the end of chapter 9: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (Matthew 9:35). This is what’s called an inclusio. Two almost identical statements forming a bookend around a unit of material.
And what’s the material in between these two bookends? First, from chapter 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. That’s Jesus teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. Then, from chapters 8-9, you have nine different accounts of him healing diseases and afflictions.
So those two bookends basically introduce and then sum up a section of material on teaching and healing that spans the first and the second of Matthew’s five sections. And what we need to understand about this material is the connection between Jesus’ teaching and healing ministries of Jesus. Both, according to Matthew, are functions and displays of His authority.
Do you remember how the crowds reacted at the end of the Sermon on the Mount? “The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29).
Jesus wasn’t just teaching with an authoritative-sounding voice. He was teaching as someone who Himself had authority. And in chapters 8-10, Jesus demonstrates His authority, not just in HIs teaching, but over sickness and demons and nature itself.
So Jesus’ miracles are very tightly connected to His person and His mission. And we’re going to see that even further as we consider three of them today.
I mentioned that Matthew is a very structured book. Matthew groups these nine miracles into three groups of three, and in between each group of three is a short section showing how the message of the kingdom was being received by various groups of people.
And then, when we get to chapter 10, we’ll see Jesus giving authority to his twelve disciples, and teaching them before sending them out to do the kinds of things that He himself had been doing.
And that’s why we’re calling this whole series “The Spread of the Kingdom.” In the healing ministry of Jesus, and in the sending out of the twelve, we see the good news of the kingdom of God spreading to more and more people.
And today we start this section by considering this first set of three miracles which have much to tell us about the person and the mission of Jesus.
2. The Leper
The first miracle is the healing of the leper. Chapter 8 verse 1 tells us that “When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him” (Matthew 8:1). To a Jewish reader of Matthew, this language of “coming down from the mountain,” just like the language of “went up on the mountain” in 5:1, would have been meaningful, because it echoes Moses going up and down the mountain in Exodus 19 & 34. It’s one more subtle way that Matthew portrays Jesus as the new Moses, come to deliver God’s words to God’s people.
And verse 2 says, “And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him.” Pay attention to the word “behold.” That’s not a throw-away word. It’s saying, “look!” Look at this!
We might be so used to this story, or stories like it, that we don’t realize how alarming this moment would have been for the people in the crowd.
Lepers were people with a contagious skin disease, and according to the law of Moses they were unclean. And anybody who touched them was unclean. Lepers lived off by themselves, totally isolated from everybody else, and totally cut off from worshipping God in the temple (Leviticus 13-14).
And so it’s not hard to imagine the crowds parting like the Red Sea as they pulled back form this unclean leper who had showed up in their midst. It’s not hard to imagine a hush coming over the crowd as they all wait to hear what Jesus will say to this man who, according to the rules of the day, shouldn’t even be there.
So, behold indeed. And what does this leper do? He comes to Jesus and kneels before him. This is important, because in Matthew’s gospel, the word for “kneel” has the overtones of worship.
We should remember that, at this point in Matthew’s gospel, nobody really knows who Jesus is. This is long before Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). But here is this leper, in a posture of worship before Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t stop him. And so we’ve got here a big pointer to the real identity of Jesus.
Now listen to what this leper says: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Matthew 8:2). This is such a good example of prayer for us to learn from He doesn’t demand. In fact, technically he doesn’t even ask. He just confesses that Jesus is Lord—another pointer to his real identity—that that Jesus can make Him clean if He wants to.
Back in chapter 4, we heard about the many miracles that Jesus had already performed. And this leper must have heard about this, and decided that Jesus was His only hope.
And here comes this big moment. How will Jesus respond? Is he going to say, “What are you doing out here? You shouldn’t be so close to all these people”? Is He going to pull back in disgust? No, before even saying anything, in verse 3, “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” This was something you didn’t do for two reasons. First, it would be just gross. Leprosy was nasty. Second, you weren’t allowed to touch lepers because you could get their disease. And even if you didn’t, you yourself would be unclean for a time.
But Jesus touches him. How many years had it been since this man had been touched by another person? And what are the crowds thinking? But then Jesus speaks these words: “I will; be clean.” In Greek this is just two words. No elaborate ritual, just a simple acknowledgement that Jesus is willing, and a command to make this man be clean.
“And immediately his leprosy was cleansed” (Matthew 8:3). Instead of this man’s leprosy transferring to Jesus, the opposite happens. Jesus’ touch makes this man clean from his leprosy.
And then Jesus gives him some instructions. First, verse 4, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” This might seem strange to us, but we should remember that Jesus had already attracted significant crowds (4:23-25). We see at various points in the gospels that these crowds often misunderstood Jesus’ ministry, and their very size challenged Jesus’ ability to do ministry.
So Jesus often told people to keep these miracles quiet (Mark 1:44-45) because of the way that these large crowds actually made it hard for Him to fulfill HIs mission.
But then Jesus tells the former leper to go show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifice that the law of Moses commanded. That will be a proof that Jesus really did heal him. And so this man’s obedience to the law of Moses becomes a testimony to the power of Jesus to heal and make clean.
3. The Centurion and His Servant
Verse 5 brings us to our second miracle of healing and restoration in this passage. Jesus enters Capernaum, a major centre in Galilee and the site of a Roman outpost. And a centurion, an officer in charge of 100 or so soldiers, comes to Jesus with a request.
Except that it’s not exactly worded like a request. Like the leper, this man just makes a statement. Verse 6: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly” (Matthew 8:6).
It seems that He knows enough about Jesus to know that Jesus isn’t going to just say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and keep walking. It seems like he thinks that, by simply making his need known to Jesus, Jesus will want to do something about this.
And he’s right. Verse 7 - “And he said to him, ‘I will come and heal him’” (Matthew 8:7). Now the original language is really interesting here, because Jesus may be asking this man a question. There’s no question marks in New Testament Greek, so sometimes it’s uncertain whether something is a question or not. But there’s good reasons here for the NIV’s translation, in which Jesus asks, “Shall I come and heal him?” (Matthew 8:7, NIV).
And this is the point at which the centurion replies with the most remarkable answer. He doesn’t just say “yes, please!” Listen to what he says: “But the centurion replied, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Matthew 8:8).
This Roman officer knows that Jesus is too great to even come into his unworthy house. But still he asks Jesus to heal anyways. Why? Because he knows that Jesus doesn’t need to be in his house to heal his servant. Jesus can heal from anywhere using only his words.
How does he know this? How does he know Jesus can heal with a word? Verse 9: “For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’” (Matthew 8:9).
This centurion was a man under authority—the authority of Rome. And as an agent of Rome, all he needed was to speak a word, and the soldiers under him obeyed—because his words came with the very authority of Rome itself.
And he understands Jesus to be operating in the same way. “I too am a man under authority.” He understands Jesus to be the authorized agent of God’s authority, just like the centurion is an authorized agent of Rome’s authority. In other words, the authority that Jesus has is the very authority of God Himself. And because God can accomplish things just with words, so can Jesus.
Isn’t that amazing? Just from what he knew about Jesus so far, he knew that this was no ordinary man. He knew that the works and the words of Jesus came from someone who was operating with the very power and authority of God Himself (John 10:37-38). And so this Roman Gentile had eyes to see what many in Israel had missed and would continue to miss.
We should marvel at this. Jesus marvels at this in verse 10. Isn’t that something? Often the crowds marvel at Jesus, but here Jesus is marvelling at someone in the crowds. “When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10).
This Roman Gentile, working for the bad guys, had more and better faith than the people of Israel who should have been the first to understand who Jesus was.
This is amazing. And in verse 10, Jesus helps us see that this role reversal is a pointer to a much bigger shake-up that is coming to the people of God: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 8:11–12).
In the great banqueting feast in the Age to Come, gentiles like this centurion are going to eat with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, while some of the natural-born sons of Israel will be cast out of the kingdom into punishment and death.
In other words, I doesn’t matter whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile. What matters is whether or not you have faith in God and His Messiah.
Jesus Here is picking up on the same truth that John the Baptist taught back in chapter 3, when he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:9–10).
Same idea: just because you’re of the people of Israel doesn’t mean you’re going to receive eternal life. What matters is faith in the Messiah. And this is an idea that’s unpacked in detail in other parts of the New Testament, like John 3 and Galatians 3 and Ephesians 2.
Those chapters explain that we become a part of God’s family not by being born once into an Israelite family, but by being born again. Jesus is the true son of Abraham, who has knocked down the walls and has brought believing Jews and believing Gentiles into one people of God, gathered around the Messiah.
That’s a huge idea, isn’t it? If that makes your head spin, think of how that would have made Jesus’ first listeners’ heads spin! And He just drops it into the middle of this conversation. Jesus was not afraid to just rock people’s worlds.
But He hasn’t forgotten about the paralyzed servant. He hasn’t forgotten about the request that got this whole conversation going. So, in verse 13, “To the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment” (Matthew 8:13).
The centurion was right. Jesus operates with the very power of God, and so He can heal with mere words, even at a great distance. The servant is healed, and Jesus is glorified.
4. Peter's Mother-in-Law and the Crowds
The third and final healing account in this passage has to do with Peter’s mother-in-law. We know that Peter lived in Capernaum, so this miracle may have happened that same day. Verse 14 tells us that He entered Peter’s house and saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. The fact that she lived with him shows that she was probably a widow, and Peter was taking care of her.
Back before Tylenol and antibiotics, a fever could be a big deal. And so imagine their joy when, in verse 15, “He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him.” We now know that Jesus didn’t need to touch anybody to heal them, but the touch communicates such a personal element to the healing, showing clearly Jesus’ concern and that the healing power is coming from Him.
And so healed, she rises and gets right back to work. And so does Jesus, whose work for the day is not over either. Verse 16: “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick” (Matthew 8:16).
Jesus has authority not just over leprosy and paralysis and fevers, but over demons themselves. And He doesn’t need to use the elaborate rituals of the Jewish exorcists. He has so much authority that with a word he casts them out, and they just listen to Him and leave! And so he healed all who were brought to him.
And then Matthew closes off this section with an explanation of what exactly Jesus was doing here in verse 17: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” (Matthew 8:17).
Matthew here is quoting from Isaiah 53:4, which is part of one of the most profound passages in the Old Testament that anticipates and explains the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It’s a passage that Matthew will echo several more times in this book.
But here’s what’s interesting in this particular passage. Most of the time, Jesus “taking our illnesses” and “bearing our diseases” is understood to refer to Jesus taking our sin onto Himself.
The ESV translates Isaiah 53:4 like this: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). 1 Peter 2:24 quotes from the Greek translation of Isaiah 53:4 when it says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).
In other words, we’ve been healed—from sin—because Jesus died for our sin. And that’s surely the thrust of Isaiah 53. Jesus was crushed for our iniquities, dying in our place to make us righteous. The healing that we most fundamentally needed was a healing from the awful disease of sin, and a healing in our relationship with God.
But, there’s always more going on here. We know that from the Garden of Eden onwards, there has been a connection between our sin and physical sickness. Sickness is a result of our sin. Sickness is a display of the ugliness and destructiveness of sin. Sickness is a signpost to the existence of sin. The things that go wrong with our bodies are a God-ordained picture of what’s gone wrong with our hearts.
Now this doesn’t mean that if someone is sick, it’s because that one person committed a specific sin. The book of Job puts that idea to rest.
Bur rather, all of the sickness and affliction in the world, which affects us in different ways, all comes back to God’s curse on the sin that we’re all guilty of to one degree or another.
This is true for all of us since the Garden of Eden, and it was especially true for Israel in the Mosaic Covenant, where they’d been promised health and long life if they obeyed God, and sickness if they didn’t (Deuteronomy 7:12-15, 28:22, 27, 28, 58-61).
And this is why the prophets spoke about a day when all sickness and death would be taken away once and for all. Sickness will be no more because the real problem, sin, will be taken away once and for all.
And so that’s why Isaiah 53:4 can speak about sin and sickness in these overlapping ways. See, Matthew isn’t misinterpreting this verse when he translates it as “took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” The Hebrew words in Isaiah can be translated that way. And it makes sense when we remember just how connected sin and sickness are in the big story of the Bible.
And Matthew is doing something very important here. By pointing back to Isaiah 53, he’s helping us understand the meaning of Jesus’ healing miracles. In these miracles, Jesus removed some of the effects of sin in order to point to His main mission, which was to deal with sin itself. On the cross Jesus would pay for His people’s sin, and in the New Creation He will make us perfectly holy in soul and perfectly well in our bodies.
And in the meantime, He heals some people as a way of saying, “I’m the one. I’m the one who has come to forgive sin and give eternal life and restore creation.”
It’s important for us to see that Jesus didn’t heal everybody, everywhere, all the time. In John 5, where he went to the pool with all the sick people and just healed one person. And we know that there were still sick people for the Apostles to heal in the book of acts. And even they didn’t heal everybody, or else or else Paul wouldn’t have had to tell Timothy to drink some some wine for his frequent ailments.
So the healings that Jesus did, like we read here, were like an appetizer or a preview. As we see the crowds gathered around the door Peter’s house in Capernaum, and Jesus standing there commanding demons and sickness to leave with a word, we get a glimpse of what it will be like in the New Creation, as all of the redeemed people gather around our Messiah and all sickness will be just a memory.
The healings are also an announcement. By removing some of sin’s effects, Jesus announces that He had come to deal with the root cause. He tears down the signpost of sickness to show us that he’s come to remove that which the signpost pointed to itself, which He would do in a few short years when He died in His people’s place on the cross.
5. What Do We Learn?
So, we come to the end of this section, this triad of three miracles. We’ve seen Jesus heal a leper, a centurion’s paralyzed servant, Peter’s febrile mother-in-law, and crowds of sick and oppressed people at his door.
And sprinkled in between, we’ve had some profound theology dumped into our lap—theology about the people of God, the nature of sickness, and the accomplishment of Jesus on the cross.
If we stand back and take this in all at once, what do we see? How can we sum all of this up?
First, let’s ask what this all shows us about Jesus. Obviously, these signs show us His authority. They show us His power. They show us His identity as the Father’s servant, come to deal with sin and the effects of sin.
But they also show us His heart. And here’s what I mean by that. Did you notice that all three of these individuals mentioned here were people on the fringes? Lepers, gentiles and widows were not privileged or powerful in ancient Israel. If Jesus was just trying to get famous, these were not the people He’d be spending time with.
And yet these people on the margins are the people Jesus goes to spend time with. And in so doing, Jesus shows us much about God’s heart. As the Son come to reveal the Father, he does not set up shop in a palace and go to parties with the rich and powerful. He goes out and he touches lepers and wick widows, and He heals Gentile servants, and He restores these people back to life in their community.
This is what Jesus is like, because this is what His Father is like.
And so what about us? What should we learn for ourselves from this passage? It would be easy for us to speak about imitating Jesus, and how important it is ourselves to spend time with those who aren’t important and aren’t okay.
But I wonder if we need to start a step back. I wonder if we need to see ourselves in the leper, and the servant, the sick mother-in-law, and the desperate crowds. Most of us aren’t important and powerful, and apart from Jesus, none of us are okay. Apart from Jesus, our hearts need desperate healing from the disease which so often shows up in our bodies.
We need Jesus. And we can learn what it looks like to need Jesus from the leper, who confessed the power of Jesus and trusted Jesus to do what was best. We can learn from the centurion, who knew he wasn’t worthy of Jesus, but asked Him to help anyways because He knew His power. We can even learn from Peter’s mother-in-law, who couldn’t even do anything but lie there, and yet was not beyond the reach of Jesus.
I was talking with some people a couple of weeks ago about the pressure we so often feel as Christians to pretend we’re all okay. Especially when we come to church on Sunday morning. We’ve all got to pretend everything is fine.
Isn’t it interesting how easy it is for us to act like Pharisees? But what if that’s all wrong? What if we’re just a group of people who need Jesus? What if we’re just the crowd outside of Peter’s door, desperate for the Messiah?
Now I’m not encouraging us to wallow in our misery or stay stuck in our sin. 1 Peter 2:24 tells us that by His wounds we have been healed. If you know Jesus, you’re not the same as you once were.
But you also know that you are not yet who you will be. You know that, in many ways, you live out your days desperate for the Messiah’s grace. Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray, every day, for our daily bread? For forgiveness? For protection from evil?
So it would be good for us this morning to remember how much we need the grace of Jesus. And to be astonished by the fact that He offers is to us, freely, just because He is gracious.
That’s why we’re going to end by singing “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how He could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean.”
Watch what happens when you take this posture with you into the rest of your week. Watch what happens in your heart, in your relationships with others, when you carry with you a humble attitude of someone who knows they need Jesus. And watch what happens in our church community the more we see each other as a group of people needing Jesus together, and amazed over and over that He offers Himself to us so freely.