Matthew 8:2-17, Dispensations of Salvation

[May 6, 2012] Jesus comes down from the mountain—which in Matthew’s gospel has associations with Sinai (and spiritual revelation)—and returns to the people of Israel, and they follow Him. Here begins the next “discipleship manual” in the gospel, in each of which Matthew presents a narrative followed by a teaching. This section, Matthew 8:2—11:1, concerns the mission of the Kingdom of the Heavens, meaning, the mission of Jesus as the Kingdom of the Heavens in the midst of Israel and the mission of the Kingdom of the Heavens within the church. By “mission” I mean the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation, the Gospel being the good news of the coming of Jesus, the Son of God, as the Messiah of Israel (“the Kingdom of the Heavens has drawn near”). By adherence to Him all people can have salvation.

In 1:1—4:17 we have the story of the emergence of the Kingdom of the Heavens onto the stage of Israel (the adoption, recognition, baptism and temptation of Jesus), the teaching “subsection” consisting of the single concluding verse. In 4:18—8:1 we have a description of the sphere of the Kingdom of the Heavens (the calling of disciples and the Sermon on the Mount), the teaching subsection consisting of 4:25—8:1. In 8:2—11:1 we have a demonstration of the Kingdom of the Heavens in the mission of Jesus and the church (illustrative stories and the Missionary Discourse), the teaching subsection consisting of 10:5—11:1. Thus:

  1. The Emergence of the Kingdom of the Heavens
    1. Narrative, 1:1—4:16
    2. Teaching, 4:17
  2. The Sphere of the Kingdom of the Heavens
    1. Narrative, 4:18-24
    2. Teaching, 4:25—8:1
  3. The Mission of the Kingdom of the Heavens
    1. Narrative, 8:2—10:4
    2. Teaching, 10:5—11:1

Dispensations of Salvation

The first four miracle stories of chapter 8 (8:2-17) form a self-enclosed unit. Not only do they demonstrate Jesus’ power—for despite the attention this gets from commentators, this is not the point—but they are illustrative of the dispensations of salvation after the coming of Jesus. Literally they are dispensations of Jesus’ healing, but typologically they set forth the theology of salvation history.

The Jews at the Time of the Lord’s Coming (Matthew 8:2-4)

The leper, who is the first person in the Gospel according to Matthew to call Jesus “Lord” represents believing Israel at the time of the coming of Jesus, the time of His visitation (and probably thereafter). The great literary prophets depict Israel as unclean, by reason of their idolatry, at the time of the captivities of Assyria and Babylonia. Their uncleanness would be lifted by the redemption of Israel at the time of the coming of the Messiah, who would purify Israel by His self-immolation. The leper represents those who own Jesus as the Messiah in the time of His humility and self-emptying “hiddenness” (in which His manifestation was constrained and limited). “If you are willing, You can cleanse me.” He came to judge Israel and to bear the judgment of Israel, but also to present Himself as an object of faith for present reconciliation. But “Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time to those who eagerly await Him, apart from sin, unto salvation” (Hebrews 9:28). His coming to Israel in flesh and cleansing and reconciling—saving—those who own Him as Lord, is represented by His touching the leper.

Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4 at the end of this unit (8:17): “Surely He has borne our sicknesses, and carried our sorrows; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. But He was wounded because of our transgressions; He was crushed because of our iniquities; the chastening for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we have been healed.” You were to avoid lepers lest their uncleanness contaminated you. Touching a leper made one unclean, yet Jesus touched him. He did not become unclean but He was “willing” to take that uncleanness upon Himself in the deepest sympathy and intercessory identification, and, typologically, by His sacrifice on the cross, to purify the uncleanness (Leviticus 14).

Notice that Jesus does not condemn the practice of Judaism but in fact tells the leper to keep the Halakah requirements of the Torah. The New Testament does not share the attitude of Marcion that most Biblical commentators have followed in their interpretations. God’s covenant with Israel does not end by the coming of the Messiah, just as the Mosaic covenant does not abrogate the Abrahamic or Noahide covenants). They are fulfilled, yes, but it not annulled. For believing Jews who own Jesus as the Messiah, Abraham “is the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had in uncircumcision” (Romans 4:12, see also verse 16). In other words, circumcision—and the whole Halakah—becomes a sign of faith, not a means of justification (which it never was nor should have been). Gentiles, of course, are not bound by God’s covenant with Israel (though they are still bound by God’s covenant with Noah), even when they come to Israel’s Messiah. The continuance of Israel (without owning their Messiah) is a sign to the church of God’s election and grace while the presence of believing Gentiles in the church (who do own Israel’s Messiah) is a sign to Israel of the same. They are inseparable.

The Gentiles Who Believe (8:5-13)

The Gentile centurion also addresses Jesus as “Lord.” He recognizes that Jesus has the authority to heal his servant and he comes to Jesus and places himself under that authority. Like the leper he believes that Jesus has the power to heal, and just like the leper he appeals to Jesus’ mercy. Here however, the emphasis is on the power of Jesus to heal by His word alone; His spoken word has the power to heal on the basis of Jesus’ authority alone (see Matthew 7:29). Jesus heals the man’s servant without touching him; in fact He heals him from a distance. The centurion then is a picture of the Gentiles who are “far off” (Ephesians 3:13) who own the Lordship of Israel’s Messiah—Jesus—and receive the healing of salvation by the authority of His word alone. They believe without seeing Him (John 20:29; 1 Peter 1:8). He is a picture of the time of the church in which many Gentiles (in addition to Jews, of course)—indeed, Gentiles of every nation—come to believe in Jesus, as Isaiah and the Psalms foretold. As the leper was unclean in correspondence to Israel’s condition, the servant of the centurion is paralyzed in correspondence to the condition of Gentiles, signifying that in the darkness of their ignorance and confusion they are incapable of doing anything to save themselves.

The Gospel according to Matthew places particular emphasis by way of anticipation, from the perspective of the Jewish church, on the church’s mission to the Gentiles. We saw this with the story of the magi in chapter 2; Jesus tells Peter and Andrew, “I will make you fishers of men”; and He also speaks in the Sermon on the Mount of the disciples being the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world.” A similar story to the present one is in Matthew 15:21-28 where Jesus heals the daughter of a Canaanite woman who also calls Him “Lord” and expresses “great” faith in Him and whose daughter He heals from a distance by His word alone. This is followed by the feeding of the four thousand, on the Gentile shore of the Lake of Galilee. Of course in Matthew 28:19 Jesus sends His disciples out to disciple all nations (Gentiles). The importance of the present story has much to do with the fact that the centurion is a Gentile.

That the Gentile is a soldier is not insignificant either. We read in Isaiah how the believing Gentiles will give up their warlike ways when they come to “Zion,” for “the nations will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning knives; nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4). Since the descendants of Cain invented the first weapons and built the first walled cities, the Gentiles have been characterized by their warlike ways. (This is one of the most significant differences between Paleolithic societies and the societies that followed them—in the West they were overwhelmed by the incursion of hierarchic male-dominated warrior societies; in the East the societies themselves transformed.)

It is true that after the great influx of believers out of Israel in the first two centuries of the church, the Jews as a whole have rejected the messianic claims of Jesus. So many Jews believed in the beginning that the church truly rivaled Rabbinic Judaism. But it was already apparent that many Jews would not believe (Romans 9), and this became increasingly the case as Gentiles enthusiastically embraced Jesus everywhere and overwhelmed the church. In the first century the “zealous” Judaizers persecuted Jesus and the believing Jews over the matter of the church’s mingling with Gentiles. They were less a force after the first and second Jewish wars with the Romans. In the second century the opposition came from the Rabbis who began to expel believers from their midst. This was reciprocated by an anti-Jewish sentiment on the part of Christian leaders, though it took centuries for this to take hold among the Christian rank-and-file. It was not long, however, before Jewish believers—especially in Roman lands—could no longer keep the Halakah without condemnation. In the East, the attitude was less dichotomous. In any case, already in the early church the enthusiasm of Gentile converts made it seem as though Jesus’ words were—hyperbolically—true: “With no one in Israel have I found such great faith,” though Jesus spoke His words about His own ministry up to that point with respect to this particular man.

The sons of the Kingdom are of course Jews who are faithful to God. However, if they reject the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah they may find themselves nonetheless redeemed by Him (if they trust in God’s mercy and not their own righteousness) but—at the time when the Kingdom of the Heavens is manifested in the age to come—cast out into the outer darkness where they will weep and gnash their teeth with regret, for they will miss the blessing of the Kingdom that could have been theirs if they had only recognized the time of His visitation.

I do not mean to judge the Jews, for as a Gentile I am in no position to do so, but I offer this interpretation of Jesus’ words. God knows what they have suffered on account of Christians who have (and continue to) perversely misrepresent Jesus. The matter of the judgment of the Jews is in the hands of their Messiah to whom the Father has given judgment (John 5:27; Acts 10:42; 17:31; see Romans 14:4). When He comes in glory, the Jews will welcome Him even though—in the Christian’s view—they will be surprised to find out that He is in fact Jesus, however badly He has been represented by Gentile Christians through the ages. When they welcome Him and say, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39), He will not reject them.

The Redemption of Israel (8:14-15)

Peter is the apostle of the circumcision (Galatians 2:7-9), and as the head of the Twelve (who in the Kingdom will judge the twelve tribes of Israel), in a special way represents believing Israel. His mother-in-law would seem then to represent the house of Israel to whom Peter is wedded who do not yet believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus enters Peter’s house and seeing his mother-in-law lying down and in a fever, He touches her and she “arises” and serves Him. This seems to illustrate beautifully what will happen when Jesus comes again in the flesh, but also in glory, and the whole house of Israel recognizes Him and believes. Like the dry bones in the valley of Ezekiel’s vision they will rise up—the whole house of Israel (not just the Jews) as Ezekiel says. Jesus also says that “at that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the land will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His chosen together from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other end” (Matthew 24:30-31). This gathering does not refer to Gentiles but to all Israel.

Matthew and Paul clearly teach this. Paul says that when “the fullness of the Gentiles comes in” “all Israel will be saved” for “the Deliverer … will turn away ungodliness from Jacob. And this is the covenant from Me with them, when I take away their sins” (Romans 11:25-27). When Jesus visited Israel the first time, He touched the leper and healed him. The second time He will touch the mother-in-law of the believing Jews and heal her. That the mother-in-law now served Him speaks of her having a place in the coming Kingdom. That the health of the household is now restored reflects the reunification of Messianic Jews with the rest of Israel.

The Fullness of the Kingdom (8:16-17)

The next story simply narrates that the people brought to Jesus many who were demon-possessed (literally, “demonized,” daimonizomai), and He cast out the spirits with a word, and all who were ill He healed. It speaks of abundance, and it follows almost immediately the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (the same evening) and in the same place. It is a picture of what will happen following the redemption of Israel as foretold by the prophets. Israel and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by the presence of Jesus in the age to come, the age when the Kingdom of the Heavens is at last manifested. Demons will be driven out and all who come to Jesus will be healed. The spirits are cast out by means of the word (the revelation of reality) and the ill are healed by Jesus’ living presence. That this takes place where Peter lives suggests the Zion to which all the nations will gather to be taught the Lord’s ways, “for out of Zion shall go forth the Teaching (Torah), and the YHWH’s word from Jerusalem” (Isaiah 2:3).

The age of the Kingdom predates the general resurrection of the dead. The Bible teaches that it will still be a period of transition. “Those who are Christ’s” will be resurrected; all the others will not be resurrected until “the end” when the last enemy, death, is abolished. In between these two events, all rule and authority and power will be abolished as Jesus reigns until God puts all His enemies under His feet and all things have been subjected to Him (1 Corinthians 15:23-28). It is during this time that all things are headed up in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things on the earth (Ephesians 1:10). This is all anticipated in the church both spiritually and in physical signs, but now (look at the condition of the world and of Christianity!) is not the time when it is happening.

Summary

These four stories head up the section of Matthew’s gospel that deals with mission. They delineate, as if they were parables, the dispensation (distribution) of the healing grace of salvation. The Gospel goes first to the Jews (the leper) in the time of Jesus’ visitation, then to the Gentiles in the outreach of the church (the centurion), and then, when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, Jesus will manifest Himself in glory and all Israel will be saved, and in the age of the Kingdom all the nations of the earth will be blessed by His personal presence as He frees them from spiritual oppression and heals their diseases. Literally what form that will take is beyond me. His personal presence in the resurrection is universal. My impression is that those who “rule” with Him in the Kingdom of the Heavens will be the means by which He will begin the transfiguration of creation, and that they will do this spiritually and not by coercion or organization. Just as Jesus will slay by the word of His mouth (that is, spiritually by the revelation of reality), such will be the nature of their “force”—it will be non-coercive with respect to people, though not with respect to the powers. (This is not to say that God’s judgment is without great destructive and physical force; it obviously has that aspect; but we—I think—will not wield it.)

The Healing Stories (8:2-17)

Having said all that as to the typological significance of these stories as the header of the section 8:1—11:1, this is not to say that the stories are not without significance at face value. They are all stories of physical healing, obviously, and anticipate the manifestation of the Kingdom of the Heavens in which the physical world, including our bodies, will be healed. God is concerned about our bodily well-being and health, though He may use illness for our spiritual improvement. Christians who emphasize the spiritual healing of the physical body (especially in the global south) are not wrong, though they might be mistaken in their enthusiasm and miss the whole picture, insomuch as they insist that God’s will is always to heal us now. Christians in the global north often make the mistake of thinking that God does not heal our bodies beyond what is natural in the ordinary sense (and what is within the reach of doctors). The miraculous healing of the sick took place in the churches of the New Testament (and not only in the ministry of Jesus!) and such ought to be the case in our churches today.

Having recognized that aspect of these stories, however, we should not let that blind-side us to the fact that the miracle of healing is not the central aspect of these stories. The healing that takes place is related as a matter of fact as the outcome of something else that is pivotal. Matthew, for instance, does not dwell on the healing as such, offering little details about the miracle itself.

On the face of it, we notice that the leper is an outcast and the centurion is an outsider. On the one hand this suggests that we—in the role that Jesus occupies as participants in His mission—should not shun either social (or medical) outcasts or outsiders. We are, after all, the same.

On the other hand, what is emphasized is the nature of their faith. Even though the leper and centurion have no obvious “entitlement” they do not hesitate to seek Jesus out, even when—in the case of the leper—it is forbidden. Theirs, in other words, is not a passive faith—“I am unworthy”—that sits back and waits, taking hold of nothing to which the grace of God does entitle them. They both recognize and call upon Him as Lord. They do not only see Jesus as Savior but submit to His rule over them. There is no faith when this is not the case. A person cannot “accept Jesus as Savior” by some sort of mental assent or agreement to a teaching without committing themselves to abide by the rule of the Savior. The leper had to do as Jesus commanded him. They also both recognized that His lordship means that He can command the powers of health. In the case of the leper, he believes Jesus has the power to heal him; in the case of the centurion, he believes Jesus has the authority to heal; the Lord’s power and authority extends to the physical realm and energetic dimensions of the human body. The leper was unsure of Jesus’ willingness (not of His ability) and Jesus with utmost sympathy assured Him with His word “I am willing” and by His touch, followed by His command, “Be cleansed.” The centurion knew he was unfit for Jesus to come under his roof—whether because he was a Gentile or a man of blood (as a soldier), we do not know—but he expressed no hesitation or doubt: “Speak a word and my servant will be healed.” For this, Jesus marveled at the man’s great faith. In his case, Jesus said, “As you have believed, be it done to you.”

The centurion also expressed an understanding of authority and the relation between authority and the word, something that those who live in an age when the word is superfluous (and trivialized) might not easily grasp.

The stories about Peter’s mother-in-law and the crowd of suppliants at the door do not record an exchange. Nevertheless they also emphasize the personal nature of the healing, for example, Jesus touched the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law. Though she did not seek out Jesus, or call Him “Lord” (as far as we know), after she was healed, she arose and “served” Him. This word may imply merely her role as a hostess, but it also suggests the service of a disciple. Though the fourth of these stories demonstrates the abundance of His grace to everyone who comes to Him, the other stories all show the personal presence of Jesus. The leper sought Him out and obtained His personal concern, sympathy and healing touch. The centurion sought Jesus out and spoke to Him as one man of authority to another, and Jesus was personally affected by his address.

When we believe, it is because Jesus calls us by His word and initiates that personal relationship; but that personal relationship is not established until we respond to His lordship and authority and yield to the relationship that He initiates, calling on Him and entering that into which He invites us, which He gives us, laying hold of Him by faith. This is deeply relational and personal, though unequal. Indeed, we “face” Him in response to His “facing” us, “mouth to mouth” as in a kiss, embracing as “person to person”: yet presenting ourselves in surrender to His absolute priority and lordship in everything in response to the strength of His unwarranted condescension and grace and love.

Jesus went into Peter’s house—neither Jesus nor His disciples were wandering itinerants who abandoned their homes as some scholars imagine—and healed Peter’s mother-in-law. She arose and served Him. When she was in her fever, the whole household was affected. Their peace was disturbed as they worried about her; their activities were disrupted as they waited on her. When Jesus healed her, He healed the household, and she was able once again to resume her role as host. This story illustrates the proper affect of Jesus’ salvation on our households. His grace restores their natural order. That order is restored, notice, when Jesus has His proper place. The disciples and Peter’s mother-in-law serve Him, or at least wait on Him. Their affections naturally settle on Him. As a result, the house becomes a center for His ministry as the whole town comes to Him there. Jesus ought to have a place in the affections of our homes. This shapes our hospitality, for if we can extend household hospitality to Him in the shared affections of our hearts, then our homes naturally become places for others to meet Him and to find in Him the solace they seek and the peace that they need. The household exists for the church, in this way (not as being at its command, but rather as being at His disposal), as it exists for the sake of the community around it, for His sake, as a place for our neighbors to meet Him.

Hospitality ought to be the chief characteristic of the Christian home. The Head ministers to the body primarily by our hospitality to one another in the life of the church, and the Savior ministers to the world by our hospitality to our neighbors.

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