Message: Possessing a Radical Testimony | Scripture: Matthew 8:23-9:9 | Speaker: Pastor Stephen Choy
If able, please stand as I read to you from Matthew 8:23-9:9. TWoL: 23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” 28 And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. 29 And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” 30 Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. 31 And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” 32 And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters. 33 The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, especially what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their region. 1 And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. 2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7 And he rose and went home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. 9 As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
Our text this morning is all about deciding—it forces us to make a choice, and the question that faces us is how do we know if the choice we’ve made is a good one? Think of the world we live in. We’re surrounded by a culture that tells you to pursue only that which is a sure thing. Narrow the scope to this area. The overwhelming number of people in the tech industry is unmatched here. So, if you want to stay here, what’s the common wisdom? It’s to go into tech. Why? Because it’s the surest thing. The facts speak for themselves, and if you want to ‘thrive’, as the world calls it, then those facts have to move you to action.
But why, when it comes to our soul, do we not apply the same principle? Why is it that facts about our life here drive us to such extreme action and dedication, but when facts are laid out about our eternity, why is it that we drag our feet and ignore what’s laid out before us?
Well, Matthew gives us an opportunity today to make a choice, and he wants to give you all the facts so that you might make a good one. And I’m going to tell you now that the choice he tells us to make is to believe—have faith—in a great God who accomplishes great, unimaginable things to bring you to himself. But the kind of faith you’re to have is not to be a dawdling, feeble faith. It’s to be a vibrant, great faith—a faith built on facts—facts that are necessary. Facts that are persuasive. Facts that move your heart to believe.
So, far in Matthew 8, we’ve been shown that you should trust in Christ and follow him as a true disciple because he fulfills the entirety of the Old Testament as its great and final prophet, priest and King, but today, in our verses, he wants to lay it on us even thicker—you should trust in Christ because God is great. And I mean to show you why beginning with our first point: build a great faith in a great God …
1) By Marveling at Jesus’s Role in Nature
Just like in Matthew 8:1-17, we’re given three events here in Matthew 8:23-9:8 that really form one story. And our story begins with Jesus getting into a boat to go to the other side. Now, remember, Jesus was in Capernaum where he met the Roman centurion and Peter’s mother-in-law in Peter’s house. Capernaum is a coastal town on the west side of the sea of Galilee—the sea of Galilee is an outlet to the Jordan River, which tells us that, although Capernaum has a large gentile presence, it’s still considered a predominantly Jewish city. It’s part of the promised land.
So, Matthew’s specific reference to Jesus’s leaving Capernaum to go to the other side is to signal us that he’s leaving Jewish lands. He’s going into gentile areas, which is significant. Why? Well, what does a Jewish teacher and his ragtag group of disciples have to do with gentiles? And the start of our answer comes to us before they even make landfall because as they’re sailing across this tumultuous waterway, a great storm comes upon them and threatens to destroy their ship and their lives with it.
So, they yell over at him—the nearest disciple probably reaching out, risking life and limb, to shake him, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” And I want us to notice two things here as the action in this first event is rising. The first is that Matthew is framing this event to look like another that ought to be quite familiar to us—and to those who, at that time, would have known the Old Testament well. It’s meant to look like the prophet Jonah’s situation where, in that story, we find him asleep on a boat that is caught in a storm as he trying to flee from the presence of the Lord and disobeying God’s command for him to go and preach repentance to Israel’s enemies.
In that story, in Jonah 1, the captain of the ship goes to Jonah to wake him up. He tells Jonah to call out to his God to save them, but Jonah knows that he is why God’s wrath has come upon them, and he tells the crew what’s happened and that the only way they can be saved is if they throw him into the sea to appease God’s wrath. So, they do this, and peace comes instantly upon the waters.
And Matthew is intentionally drawing this parallel for us to show us that the one who is greater than Jonah has come—the one who shall truly appease the wrath of God and be the prophet who not only calls us to repentance but who makes it possible because he will atone for our waywardness—for our fleeing and our doubting. With his own blood and his own sacrifice upon that cross, we shall know and possess the peace of God.
But the second thing we’re to notice in the rising action is the words of the disciple. He says, “Lord,” acknowledging Christ as a man sent from God—a covenant sign, and what does he believe his Lord can do? He believes that Jesus can save them. Now, to me this doesn’t sound like a faithless man. In fact, for the disciple to seek out Christ to save them in the midst of the storm seems like quite an incredible act of faith. If you remember the story of Jonah, the captain asks Jonah to pray to his God—and these disciples, knowing that story, don’t cry out and up to God, but they call out to Jesus!
And Matthew means to tell us something quite explicit in this, doesn’t he? He means to tell us something that is either entirely blasphemous or entirely worthy of our faith. By these disciple’s words, Matthew means to reveal to us that this Christ can do what only God can do. In fact, these words tell us that Jesus is God, himself, come to save us, and his crossing to the other side is to signify that he is not only God over Israel but over the gentiles too—that his concern for sinners is not confined to the Jews. All things are under his authority—this is exemplified in the very fact that his authority isn’t only over men but over nature as well. The extent of his Godliness has no bounds, and his coming is good news for Jew and Gentile. He is God over land and sea—over the heavens and the earth.
Perhaps, the disciple’s words aren’t conclusive enough for you to see this. So, Matthew then gives us Jesus’s words as he responds to the disciples. Notice, he doesn’t rebuke them for their words as blasphemy. He also doesn’t say that he can’t do the thing that they’re asking him to do. Instead, he responds rather strangely: why are you afraid, O you of little faith?
Now, we do need to acknowledge that Christ is rebuking the disciples here in the midst of the rain and the waves and the seconds that are left before they drown. If I were on that boat, I’d be yelling, “Jesus, we don’t have time for this! Can you do it or not?!” And here is the problem that Jesus is pointing out to these men, “your words honour me—they are the truth, and, maybe, they sound like you’re filled with faith, but your hearts betray you, because if you really believed your words, you would know you have nothing to fear.” Christ is saying they do not truly believe because if they did, they would know that no storm—no natural disaster—no calamity of life—will ever thwart his purposes for them.
In other words, in the midst of this storm, Jesus is diagnosing the hearts of his followers to tell them that they still do not get it. They’ve spent this time with him. They’ve seen his miracles. They’ve heard his teaching. They can make the logical deduction with their mouths, but their hearts are still distant. This is what he calls them: O you of little faith.
Where have we heard these words before? Were they not used back in Matthew 6, in the Sermon on the Mount, as Christ is teaching his audience how they need not be anxious because the Father in Heaven cares for you far more than he cares for the birds in the sky and for the natural beauty of the fields? Will God not meet your needs in order to fulfill his purposes?
Then, as all of these revelations are being made by Matthew—that Jesus is the greater Jonah come to deliver his people—that Jesus is the means by which God intends to bring hope and peace to the whole world—that Jesus is the Saviour who can keep us from perishing—what does Jesus then do? He turns around and meets their needs! He doesn’t just save them by making sure that they get over safely to the other side, but he actually turns around, rebukes nature, and it instantly obeys!
Who can do this? Who in all of the Old Testament has this kind of power and authority that even the wind and the rain obey him? Who in the Old Testament can look into the hearts of man and know their unbelief? Who in the Old Testament, alone, is mighty to save? There is one name in heaven and earth, and his name is Almighty God. He is our Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father. Yahweh—God over us. And here, Matthew tells us that he is not only God over us, but he is God with us.
And I hope, church, you see the application in this, namely, that when calamity and uncertainty come upon your life, when doubt threatens to overwhelm you, who is Christ to you in those moments? Is he merely the fulfillment of the Old Testament—a prophet, priest, and King, or is he also God, himself, the Author, Creator, and Sustainer of every Word we hold dear to in this book?
How is it that you approach him in times of struggle? And in those moments of darkness and threat, is his deliverance from that terror the only thing that you’re asking for from him, or do you actually desire and find your joy in him as you wade through the trial? Corrie Ten Boom once said these words, “in order to realize the worth of the anchor, we need, sometimes, to feel the stress of the storm.” And here is where we need to ask—in the storm, what is our anchor of worth? Is it the things that Jesus gives us, or is it Jesus himself—that God is there for us to place our trust in throughout life’s uncertainties?
Do you trust him, as you go to him, to work in those difficult situations for your good, even when you do not see your circumstances as good? Because this is what Christ is confronting his unbelieving disciples with—to show them that their trust in him must go deeper than what he gives them when they demand it of him—that he, himself, is sufficient for them.
Jesus does not want us to have a weak faith. He desires us to have a great faith, but we can only have a great faith if we know him as our great God—the God who stands above all of nature—who rebukes it—who commands it, and if he can do those things, then how can we not trust him in all things? These are the facts he gives us—that he is the unmatched God who stands above the heavens and earth come for us, and that is meant to move us to faith.
2) By Accepting Jesus’s Relationship to the Supernatural
In this second event of our story, as Christ lands on gentile ground and proceeds to go into the nearest town, two men who are demon possessed and who have been wreaking havoc upon their city appear before him. They’re described as “so fierce that none could pass their way,” which means not only that they’re sowing chaos, but that they’re powerful—probably outmaneuvering and terrorizing anyone who crosses their path.
And we need to remember that to be a gentile in that day was to be quite fearsome yourself. If Capernaum is any indication of what it’s like for Roman occupation in those lands, then it’s possible that soldiers who, themselves, would have been feared were nearby. Yet, they’re not enough. It’s clear that even soldiers have not been able to remove the demon-possessed men from their midst. Human armies are no match for them.
But then a very average, likely scrawny Jewish man walks up to them, and as soon as he does, listen to how they respond, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” They’re afraid. Why would demons who can stand before armies of men be afraid of Jesus? It’s because they, themselves, know that this man is no ordinary man. They call him the Son of God, and to be the Son of God is to be God—the eternally begotten one of God. Right from the get-go, these demons know who Jesus is, and they cower before him.
I remember a conversation I had with a distant uncle of mine when I was visiting Seattle for another aunt’s wedding. And we were at the rehearsal dinner when we began having a conversation about Christianity, and he said, “you know I’m an adjunct professor at Ohio State University, and I teach my students that Christianity is a descendant religion from Zoroastrianism.” Now, for those of you who don’t know what Zoroastrianism is, it’s the belief that there’s an eternal contest of wills between good and evil—God vs the Devil, and the only way that God will win in the end is if we, humans, think good thoughts and do good deeds.
And knowing this, I looked at him, and said, clearly, you have never read the Bible, and I feel sorry for the lies you’re feeding your students, because whenever Jesus stands in front of a demon—the demon shrinks away in fear. The demons know that Christ is God. The devil is under no illusion that he can escape a time that is coming, as we’re told in this text, when he and his minions will be tormented and punished for their evil, but notice it is not because man is good or able to overcome evil. It is because God not only stands over all of nature and creation, but he stands over all the spiritual beings, demons, devils, idols, and false gods as well. He controls their fate, and he has put into motion their demise.
There is no competition. God is already triumphant, but he is simply waiting to display how that triumph shall be accomplished in the humblest way—by dying upon a cross to save sinners—those trapped in the grasp of the devil and his demons—from their sin. Why? Because he desires out of his infinite grace and love for us to be a part of his triumph. He does not desire to subject us to the torment that awaits the devil and his minions, and the only way we might escape that is if he provides the way for us. If he redeems us and calls us to treasure him above all things. The Jews can’t protect you. The Gentiles can’t protect you. But Jesus can because he is God come for us—all of us.
Yet what we find in this second event is that unless we know the facts—unless we see Jesus as the only protector and satisfier for our lives—unless we know and are moved by the truth that Jesus is the God who is better for us than all the promises and demonic gifts of the world—we will always choose to have the demons than to follow and love Christ for the salvation that he offers.
This is, in fact, what happens here. The demons are cast out of the men into pigs, and we’re told in Mark that there are over two thousand pigs, which means, because this was gentile land, these pigs were being bred for food and for sale. In other words, Jesus has just cost these gentiles a lot of money, and instead of focusing on the news of the herdsmen—that Jesus had restored the humanity of these demon-possessed men and saved them from their savageness—all they can think about is how he’s just lost them their fortune, and they beg him to leave.
Nevermind the fact that Christ placed the demons into pigs instead of other people. Nevermind that to do such a thing demonstrated incredible, divine power that no human could replicate. They ignore the incredible because what they want is the superficial, and this is what happens when we ignore the facts—when we place our faith in our own prosperity, wisdom, and human resource—when we place our faith in pigs, rather than in Jesus. We miss out on God. We give up our right to hope.
And Jesus comes to liberate the hopeless—even those who have no business being liberated—those who deserve to be left in shackles, chained up, and cast out. And here we’re meant to examine our own hearts to see if we really know the facts because if we do, there is no way that our faith or response might be small or dismissive. There is no way that you might think you can dabble in selfish sin and still look upon the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, which means you’ve got to make a choice. Are the facts sufficient? Jesus is not only prophet, priest, and King as spoken of in the Old Testament, but he is the God who created and controls all that is natural, and who stands in authority over all that is supernatural.
Is this enough? Because if it isn’t, Matthew gives us one more event to fill out our story, and this is our third point: build a great faith in a great God …
3) By Rising to Jesus’s Call Out of Weakness
I hope you can see how each of these events have similar elements. All of them are revealing something about Jesus as a divine being—doing things that only God is able to do. Yet, all of these events also possess another quality—a group of people who are undiscerning as to who Jesus is. The disciples in the Sea of Galilee, the gentiles in Gadarenes, and the scribes, here, in Matt 9:1-8, after Christ returns to Capernaum. All of them still lack faith in one way or another.
But in this last event, Matthew wants to show us something a little different. Not only does Jesus heal a paralytic man, displaying his divine authority over our weakness and sickness, but even before Jesus heals, what we are told is that he sees the faith of these men—the friends of the paralytic and the paralytic himself—their collective humility to come before him in the midst of all these onlookers, seeking help. And the hidden context of this passage is what really drives our understanding of their humility because back then, it was always understood that the severity of one’s physical ailments was a result of one’s spiritual depravity. So, for this young man to be sitting in the midst of so many people, including those considered holy men, was a matter of great shame and danger.
It could have subjected him stoning or, at the very least, a beating that might leave him more disfigured—and rightfully so because this was the greatest sin in Israel—to bring your unclean, depraved body directly into the midst of others. Yet, what does Jesus do next? By both his words and deeds, he tells us that he is God not only over natural things in all of creation—the earth and all its creatures, and not only is he God over every supernatural thing, seen and unseen, but he is the God who comes to take away our sin and to make us right with him.
How do we know that? Well, firstly, because as soon as Jesus says to this paralytic that his sins are forgiven, the scribes think to themselves that Jesus is blaspheming. What does it mean to blaspheme? It means to claim something about yourself that can only be ascribed to God. Only God can remove our sins—not even priests can do this.
And secondly, Jesus not only says the leper’s sins are forgiven, but astutely ties the statement of forgiving his sins to his act of healing, remembering that this man is thought to be lame because he is a sinner. To heal this man, then, is to give the sign, in the eyes of the scribes and all Israel, that his sins are, in fact, forgiven—that Jesus, the Son of Man, who has come to suffer the fate of all humanity—he has done that which only God can do.
These, dear brothers and sisters, are the facts. In these three events, we get one story—one story about who Jesus is, and in it, we find out that he is more than the fulfillment of the Old Testament, but that he is God himself. The Holy, Omnipotent God who stands over Creation. He is God over every angel and demon. And he is the God who forgives the guilt and penalty of our sin by dying on our behalf—by his wounds, we have been healed.
Yet what is staggering about this story is that, despite these facts, there are still those within it who continue to choose to respond in unbelief. Jesus is showing and accomplishing for us the impossible, and yet, for some reason, we still drag our feet. We make excuses as to why we can delay our holiness. We say with our mouths that we believe, but our lives display an inordinate lack of faithfulness.
And Matthew writes this story for those of us who might have forgotten. Jesus is the fulfillment of everything foretold in Scripture, but the nature of his fulfillment supersedes that which we could ever fathom because what we tend to miss is that he is God and that God, himself, has come into our unclean, depraved midst and said, “your sins are forgiven. Rise, pick up your bed, and come, for your dwelling place shall be with me.”
And the reason why I think Matthew writes this story the way he does—why he begins in Matthew 8:1-17, showing us the fulfilling nature of Christ as prophet, priest and King, and why I think he continues on in Matthew 8:23-9:8, bringing us face-to-face with a Messiah who is God come in the flesh is to reveal to us what we, ourselves, could not see. The reason why Matthew does this is because this is what saved him—a Jewish tax-collecting, betrayer of friends. Jesus satisfies every office in Scripture, and he, alone, is able to do it because he is God, and these intermingled ideas—truths—facts have altered the course of Matthew’s entire life.
Matthew is recording for us, here, his testimony, in order to help us connect the facts with our hearts. Why is Jesus worthy of our faith? Because this prophet, priest, and King—this God over all gods—over all creation—over even our sin, deigned to call me, a traitorous Jew, friend—for “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew, sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”
What does it mean to us, church, for Christ to save us from sin? What does it mean to us for Christ to call us to himself? Does it mean merely that we pledge our loyalty to some great person, confess our sins in some mystical moment, and move on with our lives? Or is more required of us—something greater?
This is the choice that we have been offered today, and we’ve all—each of us—been given the facts. But, dear brother and sister, I hope you can hear that they’re not just facts. They are the words of life themselves come in the person of God, the Word, himself. And we are to ask if these words—these truths—these facts are sufficient to move our hearts to an endearing, great faith—to know all that Christ is and to respond with all that Christ intends us to be. He does not want us to have a feeble faith, for he is not a feeble God. No, he is great. So, let us respond with faith that accords with his greatness.