Message: Radical Righteousness on Display | Scripture: Matthew 8:1-17 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
Worship Songs: His Mercy Is More | How Deep The Father’s Love For Us | It Was Finished
If able, please stand as I read to you from Matthew 8:1-17. TWoL: 1 When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. 2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” 5 When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, 6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” 7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” 10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. 14 And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. 15 He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. 16 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. 17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
We’ve just spent the last couple of months walking through the Sermon on the Mount—a sermon that reveals to us the true reason for Christ’s coming and that separates those who are true disciples of the kingdom of heaven from those who are not. That’s the emphasis—that true disciples see the character of Christ as the righteous Saviour and Messiah of the world, as foretold in Scripture, and are so changed in their hearts by such an act of love and selflessness that they respond, go out, and live their lives in reflection of him.
The desire to do what is good and right is no longer motivated by how it benefits you but by the fact that you’ve already been benefited—you’ve received the answer to the problem of your sin. Therefore, the performance is no longer needed. Rather, the heart is freed and the knowledge that such love and selflessness can change and save lives becomes your joyful, unwavering preoccupation—that you might show others Christ as he’s shown himself to you.
This is the Sermon on the Mount in a nutshell, and perhaps, you thought you were done with hearing about it. Perhaps, you thought Jesus moves on, but he doesn’t—at least not in Matthew’s record of the Sermon because he creates one chunk of text where both the teaching from the Sermon is merged with Christ’s life and actions. He does this using what we call an inclusio—bookends—the first of which is provided for us in Matthew 4:23: 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, and then it’s restated in Matthew 9:35: Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.
In other words, what Matthew is doing is telling us that all of the text from Matthew 4:23-9:35 is one big block. They’re to be treated together, and what’s even more incredible is that these verses don’t just act as bookends, but they actually act as a table of contents. The first half of the block, which is the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, is the teaching/the proclaiming of the gospel, whereas the second half, Matthew 8-9, is the application of the teaching—what it means for Jesus to be the fulfillment of all Scripture in his acts of healing, and what it looks like to possess the greater righteousness that he requires of all those who follow him. See, Matthew is trying to show us that Jesus did not only come to say he is the fulfillment—the one to resolve the tension of sin and our need for a Saviour. No, Jesus also comes to actually be that fulfillment—to display a heart of mercy—a heart for the kingdom of God. He wants to show us what we ought to look like as his disciples.
And this morning, what he desires to tell us in our passage is that as his disciples, we are, first, to find our worth in him. We are to be a people defined by our Christ-centered faith and not by anything else. Why? Because he has found us, and he has healed us from our human predicament. He does for us what we expected no one would or could do for us—in our lostness, in our brokenness, in our wickedness, and because of that, we’re to believe in him, follow him—find our treasure in him. This is where he’s leading us today, and I’d like to show you how he does that. So, look with me now at our first point: as disciples of Jesus, find your worth in him by evaluating what we need.
1) By Evaluating What We Need
Matthew begins Jesus’ personal application of his Sermon on the Mount with a story of three different people—these aren’t three different stories. They’re three different events, but they’re put together here to make one story that’s leading us to a specific point—a point that we’ll consider indepthly next week. But this week, we’re looking at the story, and in this story, we find three individuals who are in the middle of a crisis.
In the first instance, you have a leper who comes to Jesus asking to be cleansed. Now, this is interesting because notice, the leper—someone with a particular affliction in their skin—he doesn’t ask to be healed. He asks to be cleansed. Why? Well, some of us may know, but for those of us who don’t, the situation of a leper is meant to be understood from the Old Testament—in the third book of the Bible, Leviticus 13:35-36, we read that a leprous person “shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip [so that the disease does not spread] and cry out, ‘unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease… He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
In other words, someone who has leprosy was forced to live outside the covenant community—disallowed from communicating in any normal way. Notice, this leper’s not yelling, ‘unclean’ before Jesus. He does what is uncharacteristic for a leper to do because he’s desperate. He wants what has been stripped from him because of this disease—not only the opportunity to communicate with others normally, but also the opportunity to partake in important covenantal festivals, in fellowshipping with family and friends, and, most importantly, in offering sacrifices for the forgiveness of his sins with a priest.
Thus, to be a leper was a grave thing because it meant exile with no promise of return or redemption. The only way to be brought back wasn’t merely by being healed, but by being declared clean—something that only a priest of God could do and something that could only be declared after the unclean person was first healed, after he had offered a number of costly sacrifices, and after he had gone through a number of intense, life-threatening purifying rituals. This leper wanted Jesus to do all of this for him—on his behalf—on the spot. He was asking Jesus to do the impossible. He was asking Jesus what no other person would or could do for him. He was an unclean outcast who desperately desired and needed to be brought back in, and there was no where and no one else to whom he could turn.
Yet, consider the second character of our story—a centurion from Capernaum—a Roman officer who was in charge of at least a hundred men—that’s what centurion means. A man of great power and who held great influence in Capernaum because of that power. He comes to Jesus hat-in-hand not wielding his sword over him like some commander of a large force but as someone who is at the mercy of Jesus, again, desperate to be heard.
But the situation here is a little different from the leper in that this man is a gentile, which makes him not only unclean under the law by virtue of the fact that he has likely never been purified or atoned for, but he was despised among the Jews. He was the cause of their affliction. They would have thought him arrogant and oppressive—a usurper of power that did not belong to him, which means that for him to come this way to Jesus would have made him a joke in the eyes of the Jews and the shame of his own people.
And yet, what makes this event so extraordinary is that this Gentile comes not for the sake of another gentile but for a Jew, and not some important, high value Jew, but his lowly, worthless servant. This centurion risks his rank and reputation for one he could have had replaced in an instant since all the Jews were subject to Roman force. In fact, this Jew’s death would have been an encouragement to this offer’s gentile people because Jews were seen as rats—an infestation and nuisance on the city clogging up their resources and space. If he just let this servant die, none of his peers would be concerned. I’d even go so far to say that other Jews wouldn’t have noticed because for this Jew to serve in a centurion’s house (whether forced or voluntary) would have made him a reject to his people.
Stated differently, this gentile and this Jew had no where else to go. No gentile physician would have wasted his time caring for a dying Jew, and no Jewish physician would have willingly, cooperatively, or urgently helped a desperate gentile officer. No authority would pay them any mind. They were two people who belonged to two different nations that had no centralizing King to unite them—no authority under which their claim might be heard and where care might be provided regardless of what shame or humiliation it brought upon them. And so, this Roman centurion goes to Jesus asking him to do the impossible—to do what no one else would or could for his Jewish friend.
Still, consider our last suffering character. Jesus’s disciple, Peter—his wife’s mother is lying sick in bed with a fever, and very few details are given to us about this circumstance, but I imagine they wouldn’t be hard for us to grasp. It’s likely that Peter, someone who has just sat through all of Jesus’ teaching—reinterpreting for him what the Old Testament was really pointing them towards—he sees this teacher as a prophet—one who comes in a manner like Moses. A man who is to be greatly revered. A man who is appointed with knowledge and power from on high.
And what Peter needs in this moment is a prophet—a man who is willing to show him what Scripture is all about because it’s likely that his view of his mother-in-law is polluted, and he’s wondering what to do. Think for a moment, what is a woman in Christ’s day under the law? If she is beyond the age of being able to produce children, and if those children no longer need their mother’s instruction, which was likely the case here, then they quickly become a burden to the family. Women couldn’t provide—they might be loved as mothers, but economically speaking, they were a drain. In fact, it’s likely that her household wanted her to die because everyday she was sick meant more work for everyone else in the house not only to do their regular chores but to perseveringly care for her.
But if Jesus has just taught about a greater righteousness—if he speaks of a heart for others that is fit for the kingdom of God—a heart transformed to care for others even at great cost to yourself, then it’s possible that Peter is thinking, perhaps, this is one such person to whom Christ’s teaching ought to apply. Perhaps, I’m to care for this woman who will likely cause me more difficulty than benefit.
Perhaps, the law does not serve to show me what I should do in this moment, but rather because of my own sinful heart, I’m leaning on the law to justify getting what I want. So, Peter goes to Jesus, as one who has listened, and says, “my mother-in-law is sick, and my household isn’t willing to pay for a doctor to come and tend to her. Would you come and heal her? Would you do for her what no one else would or could do—would you help me see the Law fulfilled in you?”
See, what we have here is one story—one story that shows us that what we need in our lives—in our uncleanliness, in our refugee status, and in the pride of our own hearts is a priest who will bear our filth, a King who will unite us, and a prophet who can call us out of our sinful hearts and show us a better way—a merciful way. The Pharisee or Sadducee who falls into leprosy would think that he deserves to be unclean and would fall into self-pity and self-righteousness until the leprosy went away. The Pharisee or Sadducee who had a servant fall ill—either gentile or Jew—would ignore him if nobody was looking or if nobody cared. The Pharisee or Sadducee would outwardly mourn the passing of his mother-in-law so that others could see, but, ultimately, in his heart, he’d be relieved.
And the thing is, under the law, there’s nothing wrong with these kinds of responses because the law cannot save. What faith in the law does is teach us merely to think of ourselves—that we are our own lords and our own saviours. But what Jesus comes to tell us is that no matter how much we observe or disobey the law, it won’t help us. The problem isn’t merely our actions, but, at the core, it’s our hearts. Mere observance to the law doesn’t deal with the heart. In fact, it makes it more diseased. And until you see your need for someone outside of yourself to come and help mend that heart—to restore you back to covenant fellowship, to lovingly place you under his sovereign and secure reign, and to provide you with his righteousness, compassion, and tender mercy—until you see that need, you will never be fit for the kingdom—you will never be considered a true disciple.
That is what Jesus came to show them. And as they saw their need—their great desperation and despair, which no amount of penance or sorrow, no amount of power or command, and no amount of self-justification could answer, this is also what Jesus came to solve. The healing in these events—the miraculous works—are not the point. No, although these acts of Jesus are incredible, and although they help to identify him as the prophesied Messiah, the point of this story is that someone from without must be the solution to the problem within. We are not and cannot be the solution to our own predicament. We need mercy. We need grace. We need a Saviour, and that’s who Jesus is.
(And this is our second point: As disciples of Jesus, find your worth in him…)
2) By Receiving Who He Is
Look at the words of the leper, centurion, and Peter. The Leper says to Jesus as he approaches Christ, “Lord if you are willing, you can make me clean.” This is the first time in Matthew where Jesus is referred to by others as Lord, which has covenantal and divine implications, but without wading into that too much, because some of it is speculation, just look at the leper’s next words, “if you are willing, you can make me clean.” What does he mean by them?
He means that Jesus has to be willing to risk everything. He has to take the first step. He has to be willing to potentially take the place of this man—to declare him, in that moment to be clean, and in so doing, risk subjecting himself to disease and infection, to his own cleanliness, to the integrity of his entire ministry. He is asking, “Jesus, are you willing to do the unthinkable for me—to bear on my behalf your word and your reputation?”
And Jesus responds, “I am willing” (that’s how it’s translated literally—not just, “I will.” He’s not merely giving his consent. No, he says, “I am willing to bear for you what others cannot and will not bear for you. Be clean.”). Then, immediately, we’re told—no timely healing process, no burdensome cleansing rituals—he is both healed and cleansed. And the question that we must ask is, “how?”
How could such a thing be borne—not only the healing, but the actual cleansing of a leper—take place at the very moment of his command? How can he be the one to issue such a dictate? The law requires sacrifice. The law requires multiple purification baths, shaving of the head, laying outside one’s tent for seven days—so many things must be done, and yet, all of them accomplished with one breath. “Be clean.” How?
The same takes place with the centurion. Not only does the gentile man call Jesus Lord, showing that he knows the scriptures, but he acknowledges him as its fulfillment. He acknowledges Jesus as the divine King: “For I too am a man under authority, [he says,] with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” And what is implied in the text is the continued thought, “but with your word, O Lord, you can command the wind to cease, and it will cease, you can command the angels to sing, and they will declare the glories of heaven, and you can command the sick to be well, and they shall be healed.”
In other words, while the centurion sees his own lesser power to direct the course of small things on earth, he sees that Jesus has the greater power to direct the course of all the cosmos. His is the dominion over everything. His is the dominion even over death, which makes Jesus’s response almost unsurprising, “No one in Israel has such faith. BUT men like you shall dine and be counted among the faithful—yours is the seat with the likes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob—because you see as they saw.
“My own people, they do not see what you see, and they shall not dine with you or them—their prepared place shall be poor and desperate. But yours is the kingdom of heaven, and so too, shall you receive what you ask on earth because what you seek by willing, humble faith is me.” And, again, we’re told, at the very instance of Christ’s command, the servant is healed. And, again, we must ask, “how?” Not only how is the servant healed, but how is it that he’s healed at the request of one who is outside the covenant of Israel? How is Jesus able to accept this gentile when tradition, precedent, and codified law has declared him to be unacceptable?
And then there’s this woman. Useless. Pitiful. A burden to her family. It would be better for her, in their eyes, to die. Yet, Peter seeks out Jesus’s help, and who, in Peter’s mind, has he sought out help from? Who does he think and say Jesus is? Though we do not have his words here, Peter will confess to Jesus, in Matthew 16:16, “[that he is] the Christ—the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus will answer him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” Does that phrase sound familiar to you at all (for those who have been here through the Sermon on the Mount)? God the Father through the words of Jesus is working in the heart of Peter—stupid, selfish, blind Peter—and making him a prophet—the revealer of the truths of God.
And in his faith—as God is working in his heart—Christ doesn’t speak this time. Instead, he does what the Law actually forbids. He touches the woman—the sick woman—just like he touches the Leper. What this signifies under the Law is that Jesus is now unclean. Under the Law, he is one who puts himself outside the Israelite covenant community because to touch one who is unclean is to become unclean yourself. Even if you did not contract the infection, you would have been required to go through the sacrifices, purification rituals, and other burdensome tasks in order to be made clean.
Yet, instead of the leper and the fevered, dying mother-in-law making Christ unclean, what is it that actually happens? They are healed. They are cleansed. How does he accomplish this? The answer comes to us in verse 17, as Matthew is tying the wondrous works of Christ to what was said in Old Testament, “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
This passage, as most of our Bibles will tell us, comes from Isaiah 53:4, which for those of you who aren’t familiar with that passage is about the prophesied suffering servant, and Matthew picks this particular prophesy from Isaiah because this prophesy is about the suffering servant who must live in rejection—as one who is an outsider. He is the one who will be rejected and despised. He shall be the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Men shall hide their faces from him in shame. He is esteemed as nothing. He bears grief. He carries sorrow, and when we look upon him in his coming, we will believe him to be the cursed of God, the one struck down by God, the one afflicted by God.
Yet, verse 5 of Isaiah 53 follows verse 4, and it tells us that despite our thinking of Christ as one who falls outside the blessing of God, the reason for his suffering and his rejection is so that he might bring outsiders like us in—that he might be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. We were headed for the slaughter, but God lays not only our slaughter but the reason for our slaughter—our sin—our desire to be saviours and lords unto ourselves—God lays all of that on Jesus.
How is it that Christ can cleanse and heal us at the sound of his word or at the touch of his hand? It is because he is everything that the Old Testament was waiting for—he is the clean priest who trades his cleanliness for our uncleanliness to bring us into a new covenant community with himself. He is the King who comes to sacrifice himself for his subjects in the war against our own sin. And he is the prophet who not only calls us to repentance but brings us into true, lasting repentance so that we might know, personally, God’s will for us. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He suffered our curse and our affliction so that we might have peace, everlasting happiness, and hearts set free to love him.
The signs and wonders are not the point. The point is that they show us the value and worth of our priest, prophet, and King Jesus displayed in his doing the impossible—the unthinkable for us when he came in righteousness, died in wrath, and rose victorious from the grave. These signs and wonders are merely to point us to the great sign and the infinite wonder of himself—the one who was made an outsider so that we—lepers, gentile oppressors, useless dependants—so that we, sinners who deserve only hell, might be brought in and graciously counted as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
This is what it means for Jesus to be the fulfillment. This is what it means when he calls us to a greater righteousness—that we might go out and display the love of Christ for those whose hearts remain dead in their sin because that same love was shown inexplicably and undeservedly, first, to us. If we are to follow him—if we are to be his disciples, then, before all that we do, we must treasure him above all things, above all others, and, especially, above ourselves. May we seek, with our lives, to honour him this way—the one who says, “I am willing,” when no one else was.