Matthew 4:23-25

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Matthew 4

23 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. 24 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. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Matthew 4:23-25 is an interesting summary of the public ministry of Jesus Christ. I would like to approach it using 1 Corinthians 12:27 as our key for interpretation and application: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” I am doing this because I believe that 1 Corinthians 12:27 is the bridge connecting the history of the end of Matthew 4 with the present day living out of that history in the life of the modern church. Put another way, if the church is the body of Christ then the church should be modeling in its modern expression what Jesus modeled in His earthly ministry.

What kind of ministry, then, did Jesus model? When we look at the last three verses of Matthew 4, three pictures emerge.

Jesus the Herald

The first picture that Matthew gives us is of Jesus the herald.

23a-c And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom…

Jesus did two things: (1) He taught and (2) He proclaimed (or preached). Frederick Bruner has differentiated those two terms like this:

  • teaching: “instruction in the will of God—what we call ethics or discipleship…”
  • proclaiming: “focuses on God’s activity and the announcement of it.”

Bruner concludes that “[w]hile teaching gives us our ethical responsibility—“turn your lives around!”— preaching gives us reasons and motivation for turning—“because here comes the kingdom of the heavens!”[1]

This is really quite helpful. It is common in modern ministry to hear church members say of their pastors, “He is a preacher but not a teacher!” or “He is a teacher but not a preacher!” Granted that one’s gifts might tilt a pastor one way or the other, it is still important that both aspects of the heralding ministry of Jesus be present: teaching and preaching. And, of course, we are speaking of the body of Christ as a whole and not merely of her ministers. This means we can say that the church must make sure that she is a heralding, preaching, and teaching body, a speaking and proclaiming expression of the body of Christ.

Woe to us if we do not herald the gospel of Jesus Christ and teach the ways of the kingdom!

The late James Earl Massey, truly one of the great modern preachers, wrote:

This Story about which we are sent to speak is not elementary, it is elemental:  elemental for affirmation, for witness, for evidence, for argument, for impact, for ethos, and for engagement. This Story is the basis for the faith that saves.[2]

I love the way he put that! What we proclaim is not elementary, it is elemental. It is indeed! It is the foundation for all of life: the gospel of the Kingdom, the good news of Jesus.

If we feed the poor and clothe the naked and house the homeless but fail to speak the name of Jesus, we have failed.

Jesus the Healer

On the other hand, if we speak the name of Jesus but fail to feed the poor and clothe the naked and house the homeless, we have failed, because Jesus cared for the bodies of people as well. We can see this in Matthew’s second snapshot: Jesus the healer.

23 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.

The issue of healing sits uneasily in the minds and hearts of many Baptists. Not wanting to validate the ungodly chicanery of the TV faith healers who always seem to ask for your credit card number after conducting their “healings,” we sometimes go too far the other way and forget that God is still a God who heals. I am skeptical of the idea of a healing office, of a person who has the supposed gift of healing. But I am not skeptical of this: God is able to heal and the people of God in the name of the risen Christ should beseech the Lord to heal illness! I will go a step further: God may indeed choose to heal supernaturally through human instrumentation (i.e., a Christian laying hands on another and calling out for healing), but any healing ministry so-called that seems to elevate physical health over the Lord Jesus has truly lost its way. The point of healing is not the glory of the earthly instrument (if God chooses to employ such), but the glory of the Christ in whose name truly healing happens.

Jesus healed “every disease and affliction among the people.” In other words, there is no infirmity He cannot and will not heal, though He often does choose, for His own purposes, not to do so.

The church of Christ, as the body of Christ, should be praying boldly and specifically for healing in the name of Christ.

Craig Keener is correct when he writes:

Many conservative Christians rightly stress personal conversion but wrongly ignore the desperate physical needs around them (both for miracles and for social intervention). Many other churches rightly address societal injustices but neglect spiritual needs and personal human pain. Jesus cared about people in their totality and was concerned for their pressing needs. His example summons us to a more well-rounded ministry that preaches the gospel through evangelism and demonstrates the gospel through ministries of compassion, justice and Spirit-empowered healing.[3]

Have you allowed your skepticism concerning charlatan “healers” to keep you from fully leaning into the power of God to heal? Has your desire not to appear to be one of these spiritual abusers led you to neglect a truly important ministry that could be a great blessing to others?

We must hold to a rightly theology of healing, it is true. But this is also true: neglecting bold prayer for healing is not the right theology. Why? Because (a) Jesus healed and (b) Jesus is still alive and (c) we are His body.

Beyond healing, this also includes all acts of caring for people’s physical well-being: benevolence, philanthropy, acts of compassion and mercy. Truly we should minister to the whole person in the name of Christ! Again, this is what He did and we are His body!

Jesus the Famous

Matthew also gives us a picture of Jesus the famous! He lays out the geographical expansion of Jesus’ great fame in the wake of His startling ministry.

24a So his fame spread throughout all Syria

25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

Warren Wiersbe explains what these terms encompass:

“Syria” refers to an area in northern Galilee. “Decapolis” means “ten cities” and was a district made up of ten cities originally built by followers of Alexander the Great. The Decapolis was in the northeastern part of Galilee. “Beyond Jordan” means Perea, the area east of the Jordan.[4]

If Jesus’ fame spread and if the church is the body of Christ that means that the fame of Jesus should spread today in and through His church! The church should be about the fame of Jesus’ name. Of course, it is impossible to be about the fame of Jesus’ name if churches are concerned about the fame of their own names or the fame of their preachers’ names!

Many a pastor has claimed to want to advance Jesus when, in reality, he appears to want to advance himself! Beware the fame-seeking church or the fame-seeking preacher!

It is amazing how fame looks beautiful in the hands of Jesus but ugly in the hands of His followers. We were truly meant to live for His name, not our own, and our contentment should be found in that great goal: the fame of Jesus.

One of the most chilling expressions of the human lust for fame and of what it can do to the soul that I have ever heard comes from Edgar Allen Poe. In Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allen Poe, Harvey Allen writes of Mrs. Gove Nichols who reported that Edgar Allen Poe made the following comments to her in private concerning his love of fame:

At my next visit, Poe said, as we walked along the brow of the hill, “I can’t look out on this loveliness till I have made a confession to you.  I said to you when you were here last, that I despised fame.”

 “I remember,” said I.

 “It is false,” said he.  “I love fame – I dote on it – I idolize it – I would drink to the very dregs the glorious intoxication.  I would have incense ascend in my honour from every hill and hamlet, from every town and city on this earth.  Fame!  Glory! – they are life-giving breath, and living blood.  No man lives, unless he is famous!  How bitterly I belied my nature, and my aspirations, when I said I did not desire fame, and that I despised it.”[5]

Truly fame is a great danger to human beings! But the fame of Jesus Christ should be our occupation. He is given fame in our day when we herald His name among the nations and when we model His life and character in and through our own lives, both individually and corporately as the church.

Jesus the Exorcist

Finally, Matthew gives us the fascinating picture of Jesus the exorcist.

24 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.

It is often smugly asserted in our day that ancient people knew no distinction between demonic possession and certain types of physical (i.e., seizures) and/or mental illnesses. While there can be no doubt that many, both inside and outside the church, have recklessly and carelessly misdiagnosed certain illnesses as possession, we should strongly reject the notion that ancient people did not know the difference. Our text distinguishes “various diseases and pains…those having seizures, and paralytics” from “those oppressed by demons.” They knew the difference, even if their medical knowledge was limited. Craig Blomberg argues this point well:

Contrary to what many today believe, the ancient world regularly and carefully distinguished between afflictions ascribed to demons and other forms of illness. Demon possession was viewed as a unique situation in which an evil spirit actually took control of an individual, acting and speaking through that person in at least partial independence of his or her own volition and consciousness. Almost everyone in ancient societies believed in the reality of demon possession, and striking examples of it remain common enough today so as to be deniable only through severe naturalistic prejudice.[6]

I have personally encountered this kind of “severe naturalistic prejudice” against the possibility of demonic possession even among those within the church. It is unfortunate.

Jesus cast out demons. The church is the body of Christ. The devil and demons still exist. So does Jesus! This means that the church should still be praying for the deliverance of human beings from Satanic attack, possession, and oppression. Those words are important. I am personally skeptical of the idea that a true child of God can experience full-scale demonic possession the likes of which a lost person who has given himself or herself to Satan in some key area of life can experience. Even so, I certainly believe that Satan and his demons viciously attack followers of Jesus and oppress God’s people. There is also a third category: the Christian who slips and falls into some sin and opens himself or herself up to demon oppression and attack. I do not know if this should be called “possession,” but it might practically be a distinction without a difference in that both this person and the unbelieving possessed person need radical supernatural deliverance from a demonic stronghold. The key difference would be that the fallen believer knows Christ and the possessed lost person does not.

Regardless of these distinctions, I want to argue that, just as with healing, many conservative Christians neglect these ministries in their desire to distance themselves from some of the undeniable weirdness that is exhibited in ministries claiming to be devoted to them. The “professional exorcist” can be just as dangerous as the “professional faith healer,” and in my own lifetime I have seen some prominent names claiming to be exorcists who have been exposed as frauds or who have been exposed to be living double lives.

So we must be careful, to be sure. One answer is to return again to what we do know from scripture: the devil is real but Jesus is stronger and the church still needs to speak the name of Christ over all strongholds of darkness!

Yes, this sounds strangely baptistic, but I daresay the problem is with us. Why should we not pray for spiritual liberation from forces of evil over those caught in the clutches of Satan?

A couple of years ago we were out in the bush of Mozambique. We were taken to see a Christian lady who said she had been cursed by the witch doctor. She said that the devil was tormenting her and harassing her ever since the witch doctor did this. This lady was visibly troubled and distraught. So we prayed over her and her house. We told her to call on the name of Jesus when these attacks came. We prayed that Satan would be driven away from her and her home by Jesus. We prayed for freedom and for peace…and I would do so again!

Jesus was an exorcist. This ministry continues today in the life of the church.

Henrich Arnold, one of the leaders of the Bruderhof, wrote:

In a world where everything is explained away by psychology and psychiatry, it seems tempting to dismiss the idea of possession. We have a medical label for every ill and, it seems, a cure. Yet there are so many people for whom psychiatry is ultimately of no help! I have often wondered what would happen if Jesus were to visit our overflowing mental hospitals. How many people would he recognize as possessed? How many men and women would he find beyond human help, desperately in need of his freeing touch?

In the end, whether a person is possessed by evil spirits or merely pursued by them, the same truth applies: only Christ, by means of his Holy Spirit, can drive away their darkness, sadness, and fear. For those of us who are free from the torments of fascination, this recognition should help us to treat those who are bound by them with special patience and compassion. For the person trapped in struggle, it means turning to Christ so that he can take the steering wheel of our inner life in his hands.

We are not concerned here with categorizing sin but with acknowledging the fact that the artifices of the devil—the sovereignties of darkness the New Testament writers speak of—are indeed real forces. When we recognize this we can turn to Christ’s wonderful words about his promised victory: “When I drive out demons through the Holy Spirit, the kingdom of God has already come to you.”[7]

To this I say, Amen!

Let us take seriously our call to be Christ’s body. The way we do that is to ask what Jesus did in His incarnation. But more than that, to step out in faith and do the same in His name! Let us be bold and have faith that God can do more through us if we will but dare to believe and act and pray!

 

[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. Vol.1. Revised & Expanded Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p.146.

[2] James Earl Massey, Stewards of the Story: The Task of Preaching. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p.14.

[3] Craig S. Keener, Matthew. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ser. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol. 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p.100-101.

[4] Wiersbe, Warren W. Be Loyal (Matthew): Following the King of Kings (The BE Series Commentary) (p. 42). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.

[5] Hervey Allen.  Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allen Poe.  (Murray Hill, New York:  Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1934), p.571.

[6] Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary) (p. 92). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[7] Arnold, J. Heinrich (2014-01-02). Freedom from Sinful Thoughts (pp. 26-27). Plough Publishing House. Kindle Edition.

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