The Mission of Jesus (Matthew 8-9)

The Mission of Jesus (Matthew 8 – 9)

The structure of Matthew’s Gospel contains alternating sequences of teaching and miraculous activity. Following the SM, he has included a sequence of miracle stories. Although there are stories in chapters 8-9 similar to those we find in the early sections of Mark’s Gospel, Matthew has a unique sequence and selection, including the healing of the centurion’s servant (paralleled in Luke 7:1-10) and conversations with would-be disciples (Luke 9:57-60). Where he does overlap with Mark’s Gospel, Matthew’s accounts are very condensed.

The variety of encounters is quite large:

Healing of the Leper                 8:1-4                [Mark 1:40-45] [Luke 5:12-16]

The Centurion’s Servant           8:5-13                                      [Luke 7:1-10]

Healing of Peter’s Wife            8:14-15            [Mark 1:29-31]  [Luke 4:38-39]

Sick healed at evening              8:16-17            [Mark 1:32-34]  [Luke 4:40-41]

Two Claimants to Discipleship  8:18-22                                    [Luke 9:57-60]

Stilling the tempest                   8:23-27            [Mark 4:35-41] [Luke 8:22-25]

The Gadarene Demoniacs         8:28-34            [Mark 5:1-20]   [Luke 8:26-39]

Healing of a Paralyzed Man      9:1-8                [Mark 2:1-12]  [Luke 5:17-26]

The Call of Levi                       9:9-13              [Mark 2:13-17] [Luke 5:27-32]

Question about Fasting             9:14-17            [Mark 2:18-22] [Luke 5:33-39]

Jairus’ daughter & Woman

With issue of Blood               9:18-26            [Mark 5:21-43] [Luke 8:40-56]

Two Blind Men Healed             9:27-31            [Mark 10:46-52] [Luke 18:35-43]

Healing of speechless Demoniac 9:32-34

Transition to Second Discourse   9:35-38                                   [Luke 10:1ff]


Jesus heals eleven specific individuals. He calms a storm. He engages in controversy with other religious groups about fasting and associating with tax-collectors. And there are several significant conversations about discipleship, including the specific call of Levi. It is the location of the stories about the Healing of the Paralyzed Man, the Call of Levi and the Question about Fasting (Matthew 9:1-17 = Mark 2:1-22; Luke 5-39) after the stories of the Stilling of the Tempest and the Gadarene Demoniacs (8:23-34 = Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-39) that seems most unusual. If Mark’s order is the original, why Matthew changed it remains a mystery.

Matthew notes the presence of the crowd (8:18) and their presence stirs Jesus to go across the lake (8:18). At the conclusion to the healing of the two Gadarene Demoniacs the whole town asks Jesus to leave (8:34). The crowd is “filled with awe” when Jesus heals the paralytic (9:8). He dismisses the noisy crowd gathered at Jairus’ house, before he heals his daughter (9:23). Matthew concludes this section by summarizing the itinerant ministry of Jesus (9:35) in words reminiscent of 4:23-25 – teaching, proclaiming, and healing. His response to the crowds is one of compassion, because they are “harassed and abandoned to danger” or  “distressed and dejected” (9:36) because they lack a shepherd. Perhaps Jesus’ various actions that Matthew narrates in chapters 8-9 are designed to demonstrate how Jesus is their designated shepherd. We should also note the variable reactions from the crowds.

The disciples are rather in the background in this section. They are included among “those following” in 8:10 as Jesus comments on the faith of the Centurion. Peter is mentioned in connection with his mother-in-law, but this is incidental (8:14). We meet two people who desire to be Jesus’ disciples (8:18-22), but Jesus’ response is not particularly encouraging. His disciples are with him in the boat during the storm. He criticizes their “little faith” (8:23-26). Because Jesus used the boat, his disciples presumably are with him for the healing of the Two Gadarene Demoniacs and the healing of the Paralytic (8:28-9:8). His disciples are with him during the meal with Levi/Matthew. Jesus is criticized by John’s disciples for not requiring his disciples to fast (9:14). His disciples accompany him to Jairus’ home (9:19). Finally, in 9:37 he urges his disciples to pray that God will send workers into the ripe harvest. So the disciples are present in almost every context, but they have very little involvement in the action. Only in the miracle of the calming of the storm are they directly engaged, interacting with Jesus, but in this context they display “little faith,” hardly an encouraging sign.

By and large Jesus invests himself in the lives of many different people, both men and women, both Jews and Gentiles, whom he encounters in the towns and villages of Galilee and adjacent regions. There is even a Roman centurion involved with Jesus, as well as a person only defined as a ruler – ἄρχων (9:18, 23). The people of Gadara may well be Gentiles, given their occupation and location in the Decapolis. While Jesus may be surprised at the vitality of their faith, he considers it a fulfillment of God’s purpose “that many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (8:11). The great variety of people who come to Jesus demonstrates how plenteous the harvest is and ready for reaping (9:38).

The things that Jesus deals with – disease, death, life-threatening dangers, demons – are the great factors that generated fear and anxiety in Jesus’ contemporaries, both Jews and non-Jews. Jesus shows that he has the power and authority to deal with all of them.

The responses of these individuals, the disciples and the crowds to Jesus’ work and words should be noted.

  • Centurion – his implicit confidence in the authority of Jesus to heal his servant
  • Disciples – “what kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him.”
  • People of Gadara – plead for Jesus to leave because of the destruction of the pigs.
  • Crowds at the healing of the paralytic – “they praised God who had given such authority to men.”
  • Two blind men – believe that Jesus can heal them.
  • Crowds at the healing of the speechless man – “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.”

However, the Pharisees conclude that “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons” (9:34). Jesus has demonstrated his authority, not just in his teaching (SM), but now in his handling of illness and demons. The question is the source of his authority. Opposition is arising and beginning to find its voice.

Matthew does not reference the Old Testament very much in this section.  He quotes once from Isaiah 53:4 (8:17) as he indicates why Jesus engages in so much healing ministry. This is a fulfillment citation, rendering the Hebrew text in a fashion that is different from the Septuagint (“this one bears ours sins and suffers pain for us” οὗτος τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἡμῶν φέρει καὶ περὶ ἡμῶν ὀδυνᾶται). Matthew in contrast does not mention sin specifically here. He translates it as “He himself has taken our weaknesses and has carried diseases.”  Isaiah 53 in the New Testament, particularly 1 Peter 2:21-25 defines the significance of Jesus’ death in terms of atonement and the ethical implications of the righteous sufferer. Matthew does not focus on the atonement implications at this point. Rather he uses this text as evidence that Jesus’ healing activity is part of the suffering servant’s mandate (Isaiah 42:6-7), demonstrating how God’s approval rests upon those who put their confidence in Jesus. They illustrate the reality of the Kingdom’s presence. Compare this to Jesus’ response to John the Baptist in 11:5-6.

The second citation is from Hosea 6:6 (Matthew’s citation (9:13) is the same as the Septuagint). This is quoted not by the writer of Matthew in an editorial section, but by Jesus in conversation as he disputes with the Pharisees because they criticize him for eating with tax-collectors (9:11-13). Hosea criticizes the Israelites for their failure to pursue personal righteousness, yet they continue to sacrifice, thinking that this would satisfy God. Mercy in this context renders the Hebrew term hesed, with its connotations of a selfless covenant love. Hosea lampoons their naivete – while sacrifice is good, what God really demands is a pure heart. This of course was Jesus’ theme in the SM. This is why the Pharisees, i.e., the righteous, do not respond to Jesus’ invitation to the Kingdom. They do not see their inherent falseness and the inadequacy of their righteousness. As Blomberg notes, there is a double rebuke in Jesus’ response, because he treats the Pharisees as learners, i.e., “go and learn” and sends them back to their books to discover what God’s word truly means.

Linked with the citation is another assertion by Jesus about the intentionality of his ministry. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  I wonder how they heard the repeated first person – I desire, I have come. In Hosea’s text, it is God who speaks. Jesus ties himself with God’s values and indicates that these are the values he has come to incarnate. Where has Jesus “come from” and who has sent him?

There is probably one other intentional allusion to the Old Testament encased in Jesus’ parable about the bridegroom (9:15). It is Hosea (whom Jesus has just quoted in 9:13) who personified Yahweh as the husband of Israel through his marriage with Gomer. Jesus assumes this role now vis-à-vis Israel. The bridegroom has come, the wedding is about to occur, and there can be no fasting on such a happy occasion. However, the presence of the bridegroom is limited in time. Soon he will leave. This short parable gives further insight into Jesus’ use of the expression “I have come.” But is the “bride” ready?

Let us consider now a little more systematically the flow of Matthew’s narrative and the more significant elements that this collection of stories contributes to our understanding of Jesus and the Kingdom.

  1. Healing the leper (8:1-4): Three elements emerge. First, that Jesus can touch a leper and remain ceremonially clean is quite unexpected. Rather his touch makes the leper clean by healing him. Second, Jesus requires the healed leper to seek the priest’s verification of cleanness, and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. Presumably this would happen in Jerusalem where the appropriate sacrifice could be offered. This becomes a witness – to the priest and to others who observe – about Jesus and his ministry. What response did Jesus expect to his witness? This phrase occurs again at 10:18 and 24:14, where it describes a witness of the gospel to the nations. Is there any sense of hostility – i.e., a witness against them (cf. Mark 6:11)?  Thirdly, the confidence of the leper in Jesus’ power or ability to make him clean defines his faith. What leads the leper to make this declaration is not stated. Matthew does not record the response of this leper to Jesus’ instruction (cf. Mark 1:44-45), nor does he note Jesus’ compassion (cf. Mark 1:41). In Israel priests pronounce a person clean, but cannot make a person clean. Such healing is a divine act.
  2. Healing the Centurion’s servant[1] (8:5-13):  A Gentile commanding a segment of the occupying Roman army approaches Jesus respectfully and acknowledges his ability to heal the paralyzed.[2] Luke 7:3-6 reports the good reputation of this Centurion among the Jewish populace. The confidence of the Centurion in Jesus’ ability is quite astonishing,  because he believed that Jesus could speak the word and the healing would occur some distance away. Did the Centurion see Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, as a military leader who has authority to command troops? What is the intimation of his repeated use of the title ‘Lord’? The issue of authority is key.  Regardless Jesus is amazed at his faith, such that he declares, with strong affirmation, that he has yet to see comparable faith in Israel. I wonder what Peter, Andrew, James and John thought when they heard this? What kind of faith did their following require?[3]

We should note that this is the first time Jesus speaks about faith in Matthew’s

Gospel, but over half of the occurrences in Matthew will come in chapters 8-9 (8:10; 9:2, 22, 29). Matthew uses the example of this Centurion to illustrate the quality of faith, which is Christological in its focus.  This faith recognizes in Jesus that God’s power is at work. That Jesus discerns and accepts faith offered by a Gentile needs to be kept in mind when in Chapter 10 we read of his instructions for his disciples to go only to the lost sheep of Israel.

But Jesus is not content to stop here. He goes further and makes a declaration about the population of the Kingdom of Heaven that must have shocked everyone in his audience. Of course, Matthew does not clarify who is in Jesus’ audience at this point (the plural you in vv.10-11), other than to define them as “those following.” The Lukan parallel does not have vv. 11-12.[4]  Jesus here speaks about the “kingdom of heaven” and also about “the sons of the kingdom” who in fact do not belong in the kingdom. Jesus uses the phrase again in 13:38. Those who think themselves to be part of the kingdom in fact by their lack of faith will find themselves outside of the kingdom, with dire consequences. The reference to gathering from the east and the west is a common motif in Jewish eschatology, signifying a comprehensive, global gathering.

How does this statement work in Matthew’s narrative? Is it the anticipation of the rejection of Jesus by Israel that will come to fruition later in his Gospel? Does it anticipate in some sense the final Great Commission?

Darkness was used by Matthew in 4:16 and 6:23 to define exclusion from the Kingdom, where light dwells. As well, we have the sense of violent exclusion – thrown out. Who is the bouncer? Finally, the motif of wailing and gnashing of teeth comes five more times in Matthew (13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). We find the same collection of motifs at 22:13 and 25:30. What does “gnashing teeth” represent? Anger? Hostility? Vexation?

Finally, Jesus intimates the Messianic banquet that all people of God, whether Gentile or Jewish, will enjoy with the Patriarchs. What vision of the people of God does Matthew promote by including this teaching of Jesus? The idea of displacement of some natural kingdom residents with Gentiles would not sit well with many in his Jewish audience.

  1. Healing Peter’s mother-in-law (8:14-17): This is the first interaction Jesus has with a woman outside of his own family that Matthew reports. The initiative is entirely with Jesus. He saw her in her sickness and reaches out to heal her. How she assisted Jesus is not spelled out, but it was constant. The summary note that follows stresses that Jesus healed “with word,” i.e., simply, using no incantations or herbal remedies. His authority again becomes clear.
  2. Discipleship: Two accounts of discipleship (8:18-22 and 9:9-13) bracket three dramatic miracles. Presumably Matthew is making some statements about the nature of discipleship through these arrangements. First we have several inadequate responses from current disciples, including those on the boat in the midst of the storm. In vv. 18-19, 21 note the repetition of the verb aperchomai (ἀπέρχομαι) – cross over, go. The urgency of the command to cross the lake leads the scribe to confess that he is willing to follow “wherever you cross over,” although not knowing exactly where that will take him. Jesus responds by saying he will be joining a group that is outcast (v.20). Not even the smaller animals have to experience such deprivation. What makes this man’s response inadequate?

We have in v. 20 the first of twenty-eight occurrences of the phrase “the son of man” in Matthew’s Gospel. Debate continues about the significance of this phrase. It is Aramaic or Hebrew in its formation. It makes no sense as a Greek idiom. Some claim that it means “a somebody,” others that it is just a self-designation, i.e., this man, while others see consistent reference to passages such as Daniel 7 as the background and explanation for Jesus’ usage. I tend to think, given later linkages in Jesus’ teaching of this phrase with Daniel 7 that this is the preferred background. It is an oblique way, albeit ambiguous, for Jesus to make a claim about his heavenly origin, his divine authority, and his collective representation of the people of God. While Daniel 7 speaks of “a son of man,” Jesus uses the definite article, i.e., “the son of man.” In Greek the article here may signal that he is referring to a previous usage of this phrase as in Daniel 7.

Vv. 21-22 presents another inadequate response. It is hard to imagine a more serious filial duty among Jews (cf. Tobit) than the duty to see to the proper burial of one’s father. Yet Jesus declares that following him is more important, indeed it is more urgent. Jesus supports family obligations by and large. However, if one is forced to choose between family obligation and following Jesus, then Jesus has to be the choice. Other arrangements can be made to deal with the dead, if necessary.

When Jesus stills the storm (vv. 23-27), his disciples are with him in the boat. Jesus criticizes their fear of the elements and assesses this as due to a lack of faith (ὀλιγόπιστοι). The response of the disciples is amazement, and they wonder “what kind of person is this” because he has authority to quell the wind and the waves. Discipleship again is brought into connection with Jesus’ authority. Why does Matthew call this event a “violent shaking, shock” seismos (σεισμός v. 24)?[5] Normally this means an earthquake. Mark’s parallel speaks of a storm. But is this Matthew’s perspective? The shaking of the sea is an eschatological sign in Haggai 2:6,21. In the OT it is God who stills the storm. That Jesus sleeps through such commotion might be interpreted in a variety of ways. His followers see it as indifference to what is happening. However, more likely it demonstrates Jesus confidence in his Father’s protection. Nolland indicates he finds no example of any Greco-Roman ruler using human powers to calm a storm. Some see a connection, verbal and otherwise, between Matthew’s account and Jonah’s experience. Perhaps Matthew is preparing the ground for Jesus’ statement that “one greater than Jonah is here” (12:41).

In the first extended account of an exorcism (vv. 28-34) the disciples play little role. In chapter 10 Jesus will give them authority to cast out demons. Demonization according to Blomberg is “the indwelling of unseen evil spirits in a way that prevents an individual from fully controlling his or her own actions.”[6] Josephus, a contemporary of this writer, describes demons as “the spirits of wicked men which enter the living and kill them unless aid is forthcoming.”[7] Matthew and other Gospel writers distinguish between Jesus’ exorcisms and his healings, although sometimes they are related. Jesus was an exorcist, but did his exorcizing in ways that were quite different from contemporary Jewish practices.[8] Matthew’s term hoi daimones (οἱ δαίμονες – the demons) only occurs here in the NT.

The demons repudiate Jesus’ right to interfere with them (v.29). They recognize who he is, just as Satan does in the temptation narrative – the son of God. They appeal that it is not time for their punishment. Jesus is ahead of the eschatological schedule (v. 29). They acknowledge that Jesus has the authority and power to torment them – as he will be sending them into the herd of swine. This he does, by uttering a single word (v. 32)! The result of these actions is that the city folk beg Jesus to leave, just like the demons beg Jesus to send them into the swine (v. 31, 34). There is no amazement at his activity, like that expressed by crowds on other occasions. Why this change?

Jesus’ power over these very violent demoniacs demonstrates another side of his authority. As well, we should recognize another “I have come” statement, only this time Matthew has it in the mouths of the demoniacs (v. 29).

The incident of the stilling of the storm and the exorcism of the demoniacs are connected in terms of Jesus’ power. Also, they are connected in terms of water. Jesus preserves his disciples from perishing in the water, but he gives permission for the demons to enter the swine, who then rush into the sea and drown, but the demonized humans are preserved.

The healing of the paralytic broaches the subject of Jesus’ power to forgive sins (9:1-8). Even though Jesus heals the man and forgives his sins, instead of acceptance, we discover Jesus charged with blasphemy by the religious leaders. He attributes this to “entertaining evil thoughts (ἐνθυμεῖσθε) in your hearts” (v. 4) The crowd, conversely, gives reverence and glory to God  “because he has given such authority for the benefit of human beings” (v. 8). Matthew does not explain the charge of blasphemy, as Mark does, with the religious leaders asserting that only God can forgive sins. But Matthew like Mark plainly says that Jesus claims to have the authority to forgive sins and this is probably the basis for this accusation. How would a Jewish person in the first century receive forgiveness of sins?

Jesus forgives the sins of another person in the Synoptic tradition in Luke 7:48. Matthew, however, has been emphasizing forgiveness as a major element in Jesus’ kingdom program. In fact, he links God’s forgiveness with the willingness of human beings to forgive one another (note the discussion about the statement in the Lord’s prayer 6:12, 14-15; 5:21-26; 18:15-35). In the OT forgiveness of sins and healing from sickness are linked (as in Psalm 103:3). Jesus does not seem to discourage this idea within this miracle. However, what is unusual is the association of forgiveness of sins with the Messianic agenda (elsewhere Luke links it to the year of Jubilee material). Jesus himself declares that his death on the cross is precisely “for the forgiveness of sins” (20:28). As Allison and Davies note, although “the Messianic age was naturally expected to bring forgiveness (CD 14:19; 11QMelch. 4-9), there is very little evidence that the Messiah himself was expected to intercede or atone for sins.”[9] How all of this relates to the Son of Man usage is a debated question.

This cycle of stories about discipleship ends with the calling of Matthew/Levi. He collects customs duties as a civil servant of Herod Antipas. This writer uses the name ‘Matthew’ of this disciple, but Mark and Luke use the name ‘Levi’. Jews in antiquity often had several names. Presumably the banquet Jesus enjoys in v. 10 is held at Matthew’s house, but the text is quite ambiguous – it could equally be Jesus’ house. Other tax-collectors and ‘serious sinners’ join with him and his disciples. Again controversy erupts because Jesus acts in this unprecedented fashion. Jesus sets his own rules, based upon his Kingdom mission – why he has come.

The fasting question (vv. 14-17) leads to two parabolic sayings of Jesus – the bridegroom and the wineskins. Both in different ways present Jesus’ rationale for not fasting – the time in salvation history with the Messiah present precludes fasting; the Kingdom reality that Jesus is announcing comes with new rules and values. This is what Jesus was teaching in the content of the SM.

Matthew condenses twenty verses that Mark takes to tell the intertwined stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman with a hemorrhage, into eight (vv. 18-26). Both miracles, however, have their unique elements. Jairus’ daughter is dead and yet he believes Jesus has the authority to restore her; the woman, despite twelve years of suffering, is healed instantly by merely touching Jesus’ garments. Jesus does not become unclean despite touching a dead body and a woman with this physical problem. Rather he makes them both clean by miraculously healing them.

In the story of healing the two blind men, their faith becomes the key issue (v. 28). Those sitting in darkness do see a great light! Although he commands them to be silent about this, their joy compels them to tell their good news.

This series of miracles ends as Jesus restores the ability of a demonized man to speak. The response of the crowds and the Pharisees to this action presages the growing controversy that Jesus’ ministry is generating. The crowds are awestruck – such things have never been done in Israel – so does this mean God is finally acting to restore Israel? Is that what these miracles portend? The Pharisees have a different interpretation – he is the agent of ‘the prince of demons’ – Belial. Miracles do not always produce faith.

The last verses of chapter 9 (36-38) bring forward the urgency of Jesus’ mission and set it in the eschatological ‘last days.’ As many observe, the theme of harvest in Jewish literature is associated with God’s final judgment (note the metaphor’s in John’s discourse in Matthew 3:12) and his ‘workers’ usually are his angels. However, Jesus changes the terms and indicates that the Kingdom reality means that his followers are already involved in the “last days” and become God’s helpers in the harvesting process. It is already harvest time, i.e., the time when God will distinguish between those who are his people and those who are not. Whereas the Jewish leaders might think that they were God’s helpers and the “sons of the Kingdom,” i.e., the righteous, Jesus has consistently disabused them of this expectation. So a new set of workers for God’s harvest is being prepared, including Gentiles, women, tax-collectors, great sinners, and the unclean. Those who should have cared for the Israel of God have shown themselves to be useless shepherds and the people of God are now exposed to all kinds of evil – as the stories in chapters 8-9 illustrate. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that the demonic activity loosed in Israel is the direct result of the failure of its leadership to exercise proper spiritual care.

[1] Although pais (παῖς) can mean either son/child or servant, it probably means servant here. Note the parallel story in Luke 7:1-10 where the sick person is identified specifically as doulos (δοῦλος). Παῖς in Matthew can mean ‘child’ (2:16; 17:18; 21:15) or ‘servant’ (12:18 (Isa.42:1); 14:2). The occurrences in 8:6, 8, 13 probably belong in the ‘servant’ category.

[2] Matthew’s use of the perfect form beblētai (βέβληται 8:6) to describe the situation of the paralyzed person is rather unusual. It occurs again in this usage at 8:14 and 9:2. We discover a similar occurrence in Mark 7:30, Luke 16:20. There is also the unusual use of the perfect at John 13:2 to describe the activity of Satan in Judas’ heart.

[3] Some see Jesus’ emphatic statement in v.7 as an exclamatory question.

[4] There is a similar kind of statement in Luke 13:28-30, but it is given in a very different context.

[5] BDAG suggests the sense “storm” (918.b), but only lists Matthew 8:24 as an example of this usage. All other cases in the NT refer to earthquakes (cf. Matthew 24:7; 27:54; 28:2).

[6] Blomberg, p. 151.

[7] Josephus, Bellum 7.185.

[8] Graham Twelftree, “εἰ δὲ…ἐγὼ ἐκβάλλω τὰ δαιμονία”, in Gospel Perspectives 6, p. 361-400.

[9] Allison and Davies, Matthew II, 90. Consider the LXX text of 2 Chronicles 30:18-19 and the prayer of Hezekiah.