Matthew 9:2-17, The Gospel Call to Sinners

[July 20, 2008] Everything in Matthew chapters 8–9 is in view of the teaching in chapter 10. Chapter 10 is about our mission to bring the Gospel to others. Matthew is concerned about justifying the church’s mission to the Gentiles. The acts of Jesus in chapters 8–9 are testimonies to His actual deeds but they are arranged to serve also as signs.

This section describes the character of the church’s mission. Notice it takes place in homes and over meals, and in the places where people work. People are always questioning it—the scribes, the Pharisees, even the disciples of John the Baptist.

In this section, moreover, we are dealing with the promise of forgiveness that the Gospel offers in its proclamation. When we believe the Gospel, we receive the forgiveness of sins.

The Healing of the Paralytic (Matthew 9:2-8)

In the first case, Jesus’ gift of the forgiveness of sins—in response to people’s faith in Him—heals someone who is paralyzed. The “they” who bring the paralytic to Jesus are anonymous, yet it is their faith that Jesus sees. This shows that we can bring our family members, friends, neighbors and coworkers to Jesus, and we can do so with faith—for Jesus sees our faith on their behalf. First Jesus tells the paralytic that he can have courage (remember the disciples’ lack of courage in 8:26) because his sins are forgiven. He can have courage because, if his sins are forgiven, there is nothing God cannot or is unwilling to do for him. Then Jesus tells him to “rise and walk.”

The paralysis may signify how our sins paralyze us so that we are incapable of “rising and walking” with respect to God. Sins take away our freedom of action, binding the will so that we become slaves of sin, unable to serve God, except superficially. Religion that is based on fear or guilt leaves the person still paralyzed. What frees a person is the announcement that his or her sins are forgiven.

But this is not one person forgiving another. The scribes (of the Pharisees) are quite right that only God can forgive sins. We can forgive someone when they sin against us. I am not in a position to forgive someone who sins against you. Nor are we in a position to forgive someone who sins against God. We all are sinners against God. Who can absolve someone of their sin against God? Only God can! Yet Jesus does not blaspheme. Either He speaks as God or as authorized to act on God’s behalf. Of course, we know He is both. As divine He does have such authority. And as human He is authorized as the Son of Man to judge (and forgive) on God’s behalf, in God’s name. Here (in verse 6), He speaks of Himself as Son of Man (the coming Judge—of the church, of Israel, and of the nations).

When the people glorify God for “giving such authority to men,” Matthew does not mean to imply that all men have such authority. Rather, he means that God has found Someone who can fulfill the role of Son of Man. Who? The One of whom He said, “This is My Son, the Beloved, in whom I have found My delight” (3:17). Be careful, however, how you consider this. Though Jesus, as a human being, was the Son of God conceived in human nature (He did not acquire sinlessness, as in the heresy known as “Adoptionism”), He nevertheless had to prove His human nature by obedience (as He was tested in the wilderness and throughout His passion. This reminds me of the Lamb who was found worthy in Revelation 5.

This story powerfully prepares us for the call of Matthew.

The Calling of Matthew (9:9)

Matthew, if he is nothing else, is a sinner. A “sinner” is a nonobservant Jews, though not necessarily an idolater. Matthew could not keep himself kosher because his profession involved not only mingling with Gentiles but subordinating himself to them. Also, the nature of his profession involved him in subordinating his fellow Jew to Gentiles. And furthermore, he had the right to determine his own compensation—the surplus amount of tax in addition to what the Romans required for themselves. Like all tax-collectors, he made himself rich by “robbing” his fellow Jews, and thus he was an outcast of questionable character, to say the least. We can only imagine what depths of alienation against God and his fellow Jew Matthew must have felt to choose to become a tax collector.

Whatever alienation he felt that drove him to be in that predicament, he must have seen something different in Jesus, whether it was His authority or His compassion (or both). I do not know. Jesus called Matthew where he was. Jesus did not wait until Matthew changed. Nor did Jesus wait for a time when Matthew was not engaged in his disdainful work. Jesus called him when he was at the tax office. And Matthew acted like the model disciple. He dropped whatever he was doing and followed Jesus. He responded wholeheartedly. This is what the Gospel does.

Jesus has the authority to forgive sinners, and now we see Him forgiving notorious sinners. This gives us a picture of the community that Jesus is forming. Any sinner forgiven is as good as any other. And this forgiveness is a free gift given to those who will hear the call, “Follow Me.”

The call of Matthew has the same pattern as the call of Peter and Andrew, and John and James in chapter 4. But in chapter 4 our focus was on Jesus, when by thus following Him, Peter, Andrew, James and John entered the “place” where Jesus was, the sphere of “beatitude,” where God is also the Father. Here, however, the focus is on forgiveness of sin and Jesus’ authority to forgive sins as the Son of Man, and on Matthew’s sinfulness.

God actually predestines (or selects), then forgives those whom the He selects. Then Jesus calls the person, and then the person responds to the call. The call itself empowers (that is, it gives sufficient grace to) the person to respond, because it conveys—through the Holy Spirit, who makes the Word living—the Gospel message: “Your sins are forgiven” (verse 2). Thus, those who respond are those who hear the call, and those who hear the call are those who have been forgiven, and those who have been forgiven are those who have been selected.

The community around Jesus, who have faith in Him and give Him their allegiance, are people who are freed from their paralysis in sin, people like Matthew. It is a community of forgiven sinners—but forgiven by the authority of Jesus, not because they earned it!

Dining with Tax Collectors and Sinners (9:10-13)

Now we are given a picture of “gospel-outreach.” How do we share the Gospel? How do we bring people to Jesus? In chapter 10 the disciples are sent out to eat with people in their homes. Here we see Jesus dining in Matthew’s house (Luke 5:29). Jesus is the “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19). It is this kind of indiscriminate “fellowship” with sinners that becomes the church’s means of evangelizing the Gentiles (as Galatians makes clear—why the issue is over whether Jews can have table fellowship with Gentiles). As in Matthew 11:19, it is as “the Son of Man”—with authority to forgive sins—that He “came eating and drinking; and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard.’”

Apparently, after Matthew left everything to follow Jesus, he invited his friends to meet Jesus and that is why Jesus is dining with them. This is what we all should do. When we first become Christians is the easiest time to invite our friends to Jesus, because most of them will not know Jesus personally. Later on, more of our friends will probably already be Christians, so it becomes more difficult. We will have to take more initiative to befriend the non-Christian.

This is our example of how to reach people for Christ, by inviting them to dinner or accepting invitations from them, or even by inviting ourselves to dinner. Or, if we take dinner as a metaphor, by befriending people (enough to invite them into our lives) and thus giving them an opportunity to meet the Christ whom we depend on and follow.

New Wineskins for the New Wine (9:14-17)

Jesus and the disciples eat and drink. Is verse 15 merely about the different between before and after the crucifixion or ascension? Maybe. It might also allude to not fasting when we introduce unbelievers to Jesus (when the Bridegroom is with us), but fasting within the life of the church—when we are conscious of His absence and are waiting in patience for His coming again. In that case, we are like the widow who pleads for justice (Luke 18). Right now I’m inclined to this view (it is my own view; I’ve never heard anyone else suggest something like this). His absence is outward (we are a widow). In our inner life, both individually and corporately, He is very present through the Word and Spirit (we are the bride). In our mission, however, we are the sons of the bride-chamber accompanying the Bridegroom.

When we introduce people to Jesus, He is the Bridegroom who is with us and we are the sons of the bride-chamber; in our inner life He is the Bridegroom and we are the bride and wife; in our outer life we are the widow and He the parted husband; in our corporate life we are the bride waiting for the Bridegroom to come and make us His bride.

Though Jesus follows the correct interpretation of the Torah and the prophets, and He condemns many of the Jews who distorted the Scriptures (for example, the Pharisees belonging to the school of Shammai), many of the Jews also followed the Torah and the prophets as Jesus did, waiting patiently for the kingdom of God. However, the presence of Jesus also introduced something utterly new in Israel. Not only was the kingdom of God coming, and we were not to force it (like the zealots wanted to do), but in Himself the kingdom of God was already present, “drawn near” to Israel. The Messiah was present (not yet in the glory of His kingdom, but in humility) and as such was calling people to Himself. This was something completely new in Israel. In a “hidden” way, it was the fulfillment of all that the Torah and the prophets foretold and typified (in figures, types, signs and analogies). The Jews who responded to Jesus’ call are the remnant of Israel before the gathering of the whole nation.

This community around the Messiah, the nascent church (not yet the church until Jesus goes to the cross—He said, “I will build my church”), is the unfulled cloth and the new wine. Its inner vitality—saving sinners, et cetera—will tear the old garment and break the old wineskins. It needs its own form, and thus the community around Jesus needs to be distinct from old Israel until old Israel can embrace the Messiah for herself. Perhaps what we are talking about is the “tabernacle of David.” David set up a tabernacle to house the ark of the covenant until it could be reunited with the Mosaic tabernacle in the temple that Solomon built. Until that day, the Mosaic tabernacle continued to function in Shiloh (as the synagogue continues to function today) while the ark rested in a separate tabernacle (by comparison, this would be the church of Jews and Gentiles; see Acts 15:16-17).

Notice that in each of these three stories (verses 2-8; 9-13; 14-17), unlike the ones in chapter 8, others are questioning and criticizing Jesus (scribes in verse 3, Pharisees in 11, and the disciples of John in verse 14). It is not outright opposition yet, but it highlights how the movement around Jesus does not fit in. It is like unfulled cloth on an old garment or new wine in old wineskins. This emphasizes that this new movement is going to need a new form. Whether anybody wants it or not, it will be needed. Verse 17 hints at the revelation of the church in chapter 16.

If our Christianity is not vital, it needs to be rigidly organized with old forms. But a vital Christianity no one can control except God and it needs freedom to grow as it will. Nevertheless, the new wine will need a wineskin. It will spill and be wasted without any form. This is why we need to search the Scriptures and find the form proper to it, a form that can contain it without constricting the freedom of the Spirit.

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