The Messiah at Work, Part 2
In the past number of years I’ve had to see quite a few doctors. And one of the things I’ve learned is how important specialists are. A general practitioner is a good first step, but if you really want some specific issues looked at, you need to go see a specialist. And I’m grateful to live in a country where we have so many specialists who can give you expert advice about the very specific issues and problems with the different systems in your body.
In the ancient world, many cultures, including the Greeks and the Romans, had a similar idea about their gods. There may have been a chief god, but beneath him were all kinds of “specialist” gods. A god of war, a god or goddess of love, a goddess of fertility, a god of the corn harvest, and so on. And which god you prayed to or sacrificed to depended on what you wanted done for you.
What set Israel apart was its belief in one God who had power over every area of life. There was one God who had power over war and fertility and the harvest and every other possible experience they could have. And so Israel didn’t need to call up specialist gods. They just needed to talk to the One True God.
When Jesus came to earth, one of the ways He revealed His identity as the Son of God was by showing His authority. And so far in Matthew’s gospel we’ve seen Jesus’ authority in His teaching and we’ve seen Jesus’ authority to heal sickness.
But if that’s where it stayed, maybe people could get the idea that Jesus is a specialist. He’s good at teaching and healing, and that’s it.
Today’s passage, which brings us to the second trilogy of miracles in this part of Matthew, blows up the idea that Jesus is a specialist. It expands our horizons of the authority of Jesus by showing us His power in ways that we haven’t seen before in these chapters. We see Jesus’ authority not just over sickness, but over nature and the forces of evil and even over sin itself.
1. Christ’s Authority over Nature
a. Panicking in a great storm (v. 23-25)
Let’s start in verse 23, which picks up right where we left off last week—“And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him” (Matthew 8:23). This helps us see that what follows is not only an account of the authority of Jesus—it’s also a discipleship story. It helps us see that discipleship can be hard. Following Jesus might land us in the middle of a storm. But it’s better to be with Jesus in a storm than to be apart from Jesus on dry land.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s look at verse 24, where we read those words again—“And behold.” Remember that this means “Look!” Look at this! Look at what happened! And what happened was that “there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep” (Matthew 8:24).
The Sea of Galilee has some very interesting geography that makes it very prone to storms that can whip up out of nowhere. But this wasn’t just a normal storm—it’s a great storm. The boat that they are in was built for this sea, but it’s being swamped. The disciples, several of whom are professional fishermen, know that they are close to death.
And Jesus sleeps. This is a wonderful picture into his humanity. He’s tired. We don’t know how long he’s been up, or how many people he’s served that day, but we know he’s tired—so tired that He’s out cold in the middle of a wild storm that’s threatening to sink their boat.
And so the disciples, whom we can easily imagine are panicking right now—wake Jesus up. They probably had to work pretty hard if the storm hadn’t woken him up. And they say to him, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing” (v. 25).
There’s some really interesting Old Testament background to this scene. Numbers of times in the Psalms, the Psalmist is in trouble, and it seems like God is sleeping, and he asks God to wake up and save him. Psalm 35:22-23 says, “You have seen, O Lord; be not silent! O Lord, be not far from me! Awake and rouse yourself for my vindication, for my cause, my God and my Lord!” (Psalm 35:22–23). And similar language is used several more times in the Old Testament (Psalm 44:23-26, Isaiah 51:9).
Many times God’s people find themselves in a spot where they are in trouble, and it seems like God has forgotten about them. It even feels like He’s sleeping. And for the disciples, that was true in a very real way, as Jesus was literally sleeping.
And so the disciples join the many throughout history who, in the middle of their crisis, have cried out to the only one who can save them.
Do you notice here that the disciples don’t stop and pray to God in heaven? They rouse Jesus. And they call him “Lord.” Even though they are still figuring out who He is, they know enough to know that He is in some sense the Lord, and He is the one they need to save them.
b. Marvelling in a great calm (v. 26-27)
And beginning in verse 26, we see how Jesus changes everything in this story. In fact, Matthew deliberately tellis the story backwards, showing how Jesus undoes all of the chaos and the panic that they had experienced up until that point.
At the end of verse 25, the disciples had said to Jesus, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” At the beginning of verse 26, Jesus says to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?”
I can think of a few reasons! They were in a great storm, about to drown in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, with no life jackets. But, according to Jesus, because He is in the boat with them they have no good reason to be afraid. After all, haven’t they seen the power of Jesus up until this point? Didn’t Jesus say they were going across the lake? Why would they think this storm would be a big deal for Jesus or derail His plans?
Next, Matthew tells us that Jesus rose. This is reversing what we heard at the end of verse 24, that He was asleep. Now, the sleeping Christ rises. And what does He do? He rebukes the wind and the waves.
If you didn’t know who Jesus was, this almost sounds like a joke. Like, if we saw a storm rolling in, and one of held up our hands at the clouds and said “stay,” we’d all laugh. Only crazy people talk to the weather and expect to be heard, right?
Not right. Because Jesus rebukes the winds and the sea.
And far from being a joke, this is such a powerful display of the true identity of Jesus. It’s there in the word “rebuke.” That word is a deliberate echo of an Old Testament pattern that Matthew’s readers would have been familiar with.
Psalm 104:6-7: “You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they fled; at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.” Psalm 106:9: “He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry, and he led them through the deep as through a desert.” The idea of God “rebuking” the waters, and the waters listening to Him, is not a new idea. This is something they’ve seen before.
And what happens when Jesus does this? “Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm” (Matthew 8:26).
From a great storm to a great calm. And once again, as Jesus does this, He is acting out a familiar Old Testament pattern. Psalm 65:7 says that God “stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves.” Psalm 89:9 says, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.”
And in a more extended passage, Psalm 107:23-30 describes God calming the sea in a way that sounds very much like what we’ve read in today’s passage.
So Jesus is doing something that God is known to do, and only God can do. And with that in your mind, can you imagine actually being there when this happened? From a great storm to a great calm, just like that? This is like a parent walking in on their teenager when they’re listening to music way too loud, and they just go up to the stereo and click “off.” And just like that, it’s quiet.
One moment the disciples were being bucked around, hanging on for dear life, and the next moment they’re just standing there, still, quiet, calm, probably trying to catch their breath and figure out what in the world just happened.
Verse 27 says that “the men marvelled.” They were completely astonished. They had asked Jesus to save them, but they weren’t prepared for the display of power and authority that they just witnessed. And in the rest of verse 27 we hear them asking the question: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”
What sort of man indeed? What sort of man scolds a storm like it’s a misbehaving child, and the storm actually listens?
The disciples had seen people obey Jesus. They had seen sickness obey Jesus. And now there are watching nature itself obey Jesus.
What sort of man can do that?
The disciples ask that question. And Matthew wants us to ask this question. He wants us to wonder what sort of man can do this.
2. Christ’s Authority over Demons
Without pausing to say a whole lot more about this, verse 28 tells us about what happened when they landed. “When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes…” (Matthew 8:28). They landed here in a Gentile region. We’re going to find out soon enough that at this point, Jesus’ ministry was almost entirely focused on the people of Israel. It’s likely that Jesus came to this Gentile region not to do ministry but just to get away from the crowds for a time.
a. The terrifying demoniacs (v. 28)
And yet, in a preview of the wider mission coming in the future, we find Jesus engaged in ministry even here. Because, halfway through verse 28, “two demon-posessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way” (Matthew 8:28).
“Demon-possessed” comes from a single word in the original language that we’ve met twice already in Matthew. 4:24 told us that “So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:24).
And just a couple of weeks ago we heard, “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).
“Oppressed by demons” comes from the same word that’s translate here as “demon possessed.” And it’s a word that refers to someone completely under the control of evil spirits or an evil spirit.
Demon possession has captured the imagination of the Western world in recent decades. Every few years another horror movie about someone possessed by demons hits the theatres. It’s a terrifying thought to us—that someone’s personality could be completely suppressed, their body just a shell being used by evil personalities.
We don’t see a lot of demon possession here in the West, particularly in white European cultures. And I think that’s on purpose. It’s far more to Satan’s advantage to work behind the scenes and make people think that he doesn’t exist. If we saw more obvious cases of demon possession more regularly I think more people would believe in God and that’s not what Satan wants. [See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/demon-possession-west/]
But we know that Satan works in our world in all kinds of ways, and possessing people is one of them, and that’s what Jesus faced this day as two men oppressed and controlled by Jesus came out of the tombs to meet Jesus.
These men would have been terrifying. First of all, anybody who lives among the tombs is just scary. And then we read, in the rest of verse 28, that these men were “so fierce that no one could pass that way.” These men were violent and dangerous and had effectively shut down the road because nobody was strong enough to overpower them.
Imagine if two wild men lived in the Mabel Hill cemetery, and they caused such a problem that nobody could use the Carrot River highway. That’s how intense this was. And yet, that’s right where Jesus goes. He’s not afraid. And we’re about to see why as the terrifying demoniacs become the terrified demoniacs.
b. The terrified demoniacs (v. 29-31)
Have you ever seen a scene like this on a movie where there’s like a dog or some other animal who looks big and scary, and he’s threatening the main characters and it looks really bad, and all of a sudden you hear footsteps, or a noise, and that scary animal tucks its tail and slinks off into the bushes? And the fear of that first animal is telling you that whatever is coming must be really big and really scary?
That’s not unlike what’s happening here in this text. These two terrifying guys come out of the tombs, but this time, they are terrified. They are shouting “What do you have to do with us, O Son of God?” (v. 29). That phrase, “What have you to do with us?” is a figure of speech that has the sense of “we’ve got nothing in common, so stay away, leave me alone.”
Just put yourself in the disciple’s shoes as these two wild men come out of the tombs yelling. You’ve never met them before, they’ve never met you before, but they lock eyes with Jesus and yell at him to leave them alone. And then they ask the question: “Have you come here to torment us before the time?”
They’re afraid of Jesus because they know who He is. They know He’s the Son of God. The last and only other time we heard that title in Matthew, it was on Satan’s lips in chapter 4. “If you are the Son of God…”
And here, Satan’s legions instantly recognize Jesus and know who He is. And don’t miss how, in Matthew’s narrative, these two demon-possessed men answer the question of verse 27. The disciples wondered “What sort of man is this?” And the demons answer, “He’s the Son of God, our tormenter.”
The demons recognize Jesus as the one who is going to punish them at the end of time. And they know that the end of time hasn’t quite come yet. But they’re still afraid. Maybe the Son of God has come to torment them before the time. He could. And there is nothing they could do to stop him.
And it goes on. Look at verse 30: “Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, ‘If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.’” (Matthew 8:30–31).
These invisible monsters, speaking through these possessed men, are begging Jesus. “If you cast us out.” They know that He probably will, and if he does there is nothing they can do to resist him. They are powerless to resist His command. And so they beg to be sent into the pigs.
This is a puzzling request. Is it just that these demons didn’t want to be homeless, like chapter 12:43-45 seems to suggest? Did they want to create some mischief? We don’t really know. It’s not explained for us.
But the point of their request, and the point of the pigs in this story, is just to demonstrate that these demons are entirely at Jesus’ mercy.
Again, I really want to make sure we don’t miss this. Demons and demon possession are some of the scariest things we can imagine. This was no less true for the people in the 1st century. And here’s Jesus, and He hasn’t even said anything yet, and the demons are terrified of Him, begging him for mercy, begging him for permission.
c. The powerful Christ (v. 32)
And don’t miss the view of the powerful Christ in verse 32: “And he said to them, ‘Go.’”
One word! That’s it! Just one word. And it goes on. “So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.”
Once again, we don’t know everything that’s going on here. Why would the demons drown the pigs? I thought they wanted them as a home? Is there irony here in that the pigs didn’t let themselves be controlled by the demons and chose death instead?
Is there irony in that, just a few verses ago, the disciples were terrified of drowning, and Jesus kept them safe, but here Jesus’ enemies are being drowned?
We may not know everything going on here. But one thing we do know is that the whole herd of pigs rushing down to be drowned is a visual clue to just how many demons were in those two men. Enough to fill a herd of pigs.
Once again, just imagine the scene. Jesus looks at two wild men and says “Go.” And instantly those two men are normal, and an entire herd of animals a short distance away goes berserk. The whole thing is designed to show us the sheer number and power of these demons Jesus was dealing with, and therefore the sheer power of Jesus who commands the demons with a single word.
It’s just like what Jesus just did with the storm. He speaks, and nature obeys. He speaks, and the demons obey.
And we should be amazed at His authority. With a word, the forces of darkness are powerless but to do His bidding.
d. The unwelcoming people (v. 33-34)
Finally, this story ends in a very interesting place.
“The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region” (Matthew 8:33–34).
One of the themes we see in the gospels is that miracles, in and of themselves, don’t ever convince anybody to believe in Jesus. Jesus just did an incredible act of power, and the people there ask Him to leave.
If they were scared of those two demon possessed men, they are even more scared of Jesus. They don’t want him causing any more property damage. So they beg him to leave. And so the Son of Man has no place to lay his head in that place.
3. Christ’s Authority to Forgive Sin
a. The priority of forgiveness (v. 1-2)
And so we move on to the final miracle account this morning. “And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city” (Matthew 9:1). Jesus is back in Capernaum now, the city he had relocated to back in chapter 4:23.
And verse 2 says, “And behold [look!], some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed” (Matthew 9:2a).
Matthew doesn’t tell us about the tiles in the roof and this man being let down into the midst of them. All we read is that some people brought him a paralytic, a man who couldn’t walk. They had heard about Jesus and they believed Jesus could heal him. And verse 2 goes on to tell us,
“And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven’” (Matthew 9:2b).
Jesus understood the priority of forgiveness. And I’m pretty sure He was the only one who did. I’m pretty sure that when those friends picked up their paralyzed friend that morning, they didn’t say, “Let’s bring you to Jesus so that your sins can be forgiven.” I’m pretty sure that this paralyzed man, for all those years he couldn’t move, hadn’t been thinking “If only my sins could be forgiven.”
He couldn’t move, and he wanted to walk!
But Jesus sees the real issue. Jesus knows that this man has a greater problem than just not being able to walk. His biggest problem is his sin.
Remember what we heard two weeks ago—that, ever since the Garden of Eden, sickness has served as a signpost to sin. It doesn’t mean that if you are sick it means that you sinned in a particular way. It just means that sickness and disease and paralysis and all of the brokenness in the world are pointers to the real problem—the invisible brokenness and chaos within our own hearts. Our sin. Sin that will bring us a far worse eternal judgement than just being paralyzed.
And therefore this man’s greatest need is not being able to walk, but to be forgiven.
b. The problem of forgiveness (v. 3)
And so Jesus forgives this man’s sin. “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” Be encouraged—your biggest problem has been dealt with.
And immediately we move from the priority of forgiveness into the problem of forgiveness. Verse 3: “And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming.’” (Matthew 9:3).
Many people in that day knew that they needed to have their sins forgiven. And they knew that God had provided a way for that to happen: through animal sacrifice at the temple.
A priest in the temple could say “Your sins are forgiven” after an appropriate sacrifice had been offered. But other than that, only God Himself could forgive sins.
And here, days away from the temple, what they think is an ordinary man is proclaiming forgiveness of sins! The scribes think this is blasphemy. And they are right—if indeed Jesus is just an ordinary man.
c. The proof of forgiveness (v. 4-8)
But He’s not just an ordinary man. And in verses 4-8, Jesus offers the proof of forgiveness. “But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?” (Matthew 9:4–5).
That’s a bit of a trick question, right? Forgiving sins is actually harder to do, but it’s quite a bit easier to say, because nobody can tell if it actually happened or not. But if you tell a paralyzed man to get up and walk, and he doesn’t, then people know for sure that you’re a fake.
So, verse 6: “‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home” (Matthew 9:6–7).
That’s the proof that Jesus can forgive. Because, with just a word, He can heal this man. He can not only heal his paralysis but so restore his brain that he can get up and walk without needing months of rehab and physio.
And once again we see this connection between sin and sickness. If sickness is a signpost to sin, once again Jesus tears down the signpost—he makes people well—in order to show us that He was going to tear down sin itself. He was going to die on the cross and suffer in this man’s place to forgive His sins. That’s why He has the authority to forgive.
Jesus can offer forgiveness in that house in Capernaum because He will soon author forgiveness on a cross outside of Jerusalem.
And as a proof of this, as a sign of this, and as a little preview of the New Creation, Jesus also heals this man’s broken body.
And this passage concludes with the response of the crowds. “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Matthew 9:8).
Does that surprise you—that the crowds didn’t get it? They thought Jesus was just a man, and God had given the authority to heal to a man like them.
And of course, in some sense they were right—Jesus was a man. But He was so much more than a man. Satan knew that. The demons knew that. It won’t be until chapter 16 that we hear a person actually say that Jesus is the Son of God, but even then they won’t really get it until after Jesus died and rose again.
What About Us?
So what about you this morning? Do you know who Jesus is? We should marvel at the displays of Christ’s authority we see here. But we should go beyond marvelling. The people in the story marvelled and they didn’t really get it. On this side of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we have every reason to see in these acts a confirmation of who we know Jesus to be: the all-powerful Son of God, fully God and fully man, with complete and unmatched authority over nature and the powers of darkness, and complete authority to forgive our sin.
Do you know Him? And remember that the answer to this question is not found just in the words that you say. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Your answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” is not seen just in the words you say but in the shape of your life. Because if we believe that Jesus is who He said He is, we’ll respond to Him on that basis.
If we believe that He alone has the authority to forgive our sins, when we sin and our conscience bothers us, we won’t run and hide or try to pay for our sins with some other means. We’ll run to Jesus and believe His words on the cross, that it is finished.
As we walk the path of discipleship with Jesus in this world, we’ll learn not to panic or freak out when run into crisis or opposition from the powers of darkness. We’ll know that He’s with us, and He has all authority in Heaven and on Earth, and that He uses this authority for the good of His people, like we saw in today’s passage.
So we can pray to Him, and trust Him, and rest in His love in the midst of whatever circumstances He choses to bring us through.
It means that as we hear His word and the instructions He gave us for all of life, we’ll actually obey, because we know these are not mere suggestions but divine instructions from Lord who knows so much better than us and loves us enough to reveal His good and perfect will to us in His word.
This morning two people are going to respond to the loving authority of Jesus in a direct and a public way. Right after telling us that He had all authority in Heaven and on Earth, and after telling us to make disciples of all nations, Jesus told us to baptize those disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” and then to go on to teach them to observe all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:20).
Baptism is one of the first and most important ways that we publicly register our allegiance to our authoritative Christ. And this morning, two young people are coming to make that commitment in front of all of us.
These two people are young but they come of their own accord. Nobody’s parents forced them into this or even brought this up.Just from listening to this being talked about in this setting, they each came and said “I want to follow Jesus in baptism.”
And may their example this morning stir up in each of us a love for Jesus and a desire to live each day of our lives under the banner of his good authority.