JESUS THE OPPOSITE
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 23, 2014
Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
— Matthew 8:18-22, ESV
One of the interesting things to do in Bible study is to put yourself back in Jesus’ day. Imagine that you are a Galilean in close proximity to the doings and sayings of the Lord. Would you be an impetuous leader like Simon Peter, or a devoted follower like John, or a selfish traitor like Judas Iscariot, or one of the many mostly disinterested spectators? I’m sure there is a character for everyone if we all were to put ourselves in their first century shoes.
Now, let’s do the opposite. Instead of putting ourselves back in Jesus’ day, let’s bring Him into our time. Imagine Christ as a teacher and preacher in today’s world, a perfect peg in a most imperfect hole. I am convinced, by Scripture, that our Lord would be almost the opposite of the caricature of today’s minister of the gospel.
Jesus was typically turned off by crowds.
Modern ministers measure themselves by the crowds, and most of them will sell their souls to get them. Some manufacture miracles in order to draw large crowds, and I’ll bet they can tell you how much money comes in per capita. The so-called seeker sensitive movement gained popularity by growing attendance through offering services that were long on comfort and entertainment but short on word and sacrament. Preachers with egos the size of an ocean now beam themselves onto big screens so that their church can claim the biggest congregation through multiple locations, totally defying Christ’s model of the incarnational ministry of the word. The first question they ask on Sunday is, “What is our attendance,” and the first question they ask on Monday is, “How can we get more people in the seats.” This turns ministry into marketing and measures success by worldly means.
Jesus never saw a good crowd He could not disperse. He had a curious way of thinning the crowd, usually with tough teaching that few wanted to follow. Other times, Jesus would turn the crowd away by simply turning away. In the case at hand, “Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side” (ref. vs. 18). Jesus could draw a crowd without even trying, then He would try to make it go away, save for the few sincere souls who truly understood what it means to be a true follower of Jesus Christ. Maybe that should be our model for ministry in the modern world, too.
By no means is it wrong for a church to grow, it should. By no means is it wrong to strive to reach more people and engage them in biblical worship and teaching, if biblical worship and teaching is what you are offering. By no means is it wrong to count people, for people certainly count with God. It is just plain wrong to measure a person’s ministry by the number of people that it draws.
Jesus left this earth after a three-year ministry that gained Him a net following of about 120 people. Simon Peter took over leadership and gained thousands with his first sermon. Is Simon Peter superior to Jesus Christ because of the numbers? William Carey, the father of the modern missions movement, had virtually no converts to Christianity after his first seven years in India. Was he a failure? Joel O’Steen draws the biggest crowd of any church in North America. Need I say more?
Let us never worry about the quantity of people in our ministry, but rather let us concern ourselves with the quality of our ministry to people. Make sure the measure of quality is the word of God, not the latest book on church growth. And if it draws a crowd, make sure it is one in which Jesus would not want to turn away and go to the other side.
Jesus was not impressed with professions of faith.
Right before Jesus made His getaway, a young man, a scribe at that, came forward to make a profession of faith. “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go,” he said. Even though Jesus did not have the Apostles singing in the background, and even though our Lord was not standing at the front begging people to “take that first step for God and God will take the rest,” and even though counselors were not standing by to help people fill out membership cards, this man still came forward to profess his faith to Jesus. And Jesus could not have been more unimpressed.
Most evangelical churches pride themselves on being evangelistic because they offer a five-minute-or-less way to become a Christian. It comes packaged in neat witnessing programs that offer a few steps, a couple of verses, and a single prayer. Or, it comes tacked on to the end of a worship service were people are manipulated to get up out of their seat and come forward for an instant resurrection into eternal life. Then, the ministries or churches can promote the many professions of faith they have received, even though the vast majority of such professions show no enduring evidence of discipleship. But, in our day, such statistics are impressive.
But, not to Jesus. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus call for or call us to collect professions of faith. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus ask for or ask us to ask for decisions for Christ. Imagine the professions of faith Jesus could have counted after performing a string of miracles like the ones mentioned which immediately preceded this passage. Imagine the number of decisions Jesus could have counted if He was in to counting decisions. But Jesus is the opposite of most evangelical ministers and churches.
Jesus did not tell us to go and make decisions. He told us to go and make disciples. It is a process that requires persistence. It requires no manipulation but leaves room for the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. It focuses less on crowds and numbers than it does on the individual and the soul. Soul work is patient, hard work, the kind Jesus did, and the opposite of the cheap grace offered today by Christianity Lite.
Jesus preached a costly gospel rather than cheap grace.
Bill joined a church when he was a kid. Under intense pressure, he walked that aisle and prayed that prayer. He attended regularly for weeks, worship and youth group. Soon his attendance was sporadic, then occasional, and now as an adult, Bill goes to church some years on Easter. He was part of a record number of baptisms that year, but in the years since he discovered sex, drugs, and rock and roll, public worship became boring and unimportant, his Bible never cracked its way open, but bless the Lord, Bill still has Jesus in his heart and is one of the many millions of Southern Baptists world-wide!
Such cheap grace began to infiltrate the church in the 19th century, then came rolling in like thunder in the 20th century. That’s why stout men like J.C. Ryle said in the 19th century, “Nothing, in fact, has done more harm to Christianity than the practice of filling the ranks of Christ’s army with every volunteer who is willing to make a little profession, and to talk fluently of his experience.” And that’s why courageous scholars like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote books in the 20th century like “The Cost of Discipleship.” Finally, in our 21st century, the charade continues on most evangelical fronts, but there is a serious movement to do the opposite, to be like Jesus, when it comes to preaching the gospel and making disciples.
Note how in this gospel story, when the scribe popped up to make a quick profession, Jesus told him,“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, if you’re serious about becoming a Christian, you may lose you family and friends and wind up homeless. Perhaps hearing this meaning in the message, the next professor cautiously said, then heard Jesus say, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Jewish law required burial of a dead body on the day of death, so this man’s father wasn’t dying that day, or probably any day in the near future. Jesus was simply saying that to become a follower of Christ, family ties, comfortable jobs, luxuries, and even some necessities get lost in the train behind the engine that is total commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Jesus preached a costly gospel of commitment, and committed it to His true disciples to proclaim afterward. It is the true gospel that is not sugar-coated. It is the true gospel that demands true repentance from sin. It is the true gospel that requires evidence of true, active, and persevering faith.
So follow Jesus, the Opposite. The size of the crowd does not matter to the Lord, but faithfulness in the individual Christian and collective church is what counts. Emotions and feelings are not impressive to Him, truth and commitment are what He seeks. A past experience of a profession of faith is virtually irrelevant, but He does want to know if you love Him, worship Him, and will serve Him now and forever. Christ, the Opposite, is quite demanding, and all He demands is your all. Have you given it to Him, or are you holding back and doing the opposite?
THE UNUSUAL JESUS
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 23, 2014
And when Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. 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. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
— Matthew 8:14-17, ESV
There is one thing that followers and foes of the Lord Jesus Christ could agree on. Jesus was not boring. Our Lord did not do things in the usual way. Almost everything He did during His earthly ministry caused a high degree of positive or negative excitement.
The eighth chapter of The Gospel of Matthew rolls out a series of miracles that were performed to mostly positive reviews. A leper lost his leprosy, a paralyzed servant got up and walked, and in this account a mother-in-law and a mother-load of others are healed. It was not business as usual in Israel, and this latest account highlights the unusual ministry of Jesus.
Jesus had an unusual way of dealing with women.
Most homes in Palestine were small, single-family dwellings in which multiple generations lived, along with any houseguests. In Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum, Jesus was a frequent (if not permanent) guest. Given the customs of the day, and given that the event about to transpire happened on a Sabbath day, this house would have been quite crowded, quite still, quite segregated, and quite unusual.
I’ve actually seen an excavated house that some believe to be this house, so I know it was small and crowded when Peter’s family and Jesus were inside. I know that Sabbath customs would have called for little or no activity, and no healing activity, no matter how little the fever. And I know that in those patriarchal and pharisaically legalistic times, men were not supposed to reach out and touch women, not because of moral propriety, but because women were man’s property. But, Jesus was unusual.
Instead of resting on the Sabbath in the way the legalists defined rest, Jesus reached out and touched someone to heal them. The person He touched was, by definition of a mother-in-law, a woman. And instead of looking down his nose at a woman with an attitude of inequality, instead of telling some stale mother-in-law joke, Jesus, the unusual, loved her, valued her, and completely healed her.
It is profoundly worth noting that the mother-in-law did what all people who have been touched by Jesus should do. She served Him. Perhaps she knew that by serving Jesus, she was serving God. Perhaps we should know that when we serve Jesus, we serve God. When we serve the church, which is the body of Christ, we serve God. When we serve the less fortunate, according to Jesus, we serve God. Consequently, when we ignore any of these, we ignore God, which is what people usually do. But Jesus didn’t do what people usually do, and neither should we.
Jesus had an unusual way of dealing with demons.
After the miraculous mother-in-law episode, and after the sun set on the Sabbath, people flocked to Jesus in unusual numbers to present Jesus with their unusual problems. Some of these problems involved demons, devils, fallen angels, or whatever else you want to call them. Contrary to the Christian people who want to point out a devil behind every bush, I think personal brushes with personal demons is a rather unusual event.
Jesus had an unusual way of dealing with demons because He had an unusual number of demons to deal with. I think after Jesus spurned the devil in the wildness, Satan summoned all of the imps in his arsenal to the vicinity around the victorious Son of God in order to try to defeat Him with sheer numbers. The alternative view is to dismiss all the demons and blame them on the fictitious superstitions of the day, which attributed every problem to the devil. And while I think the devil gets too much due, I believe he and the problems he causes are all too real.
Jesus handled this problem in an unusual way, at least as compared to modern day miracle workers. Catholic exorcisms are huge rituals that can take hours if not days. Elmer Gantry-like faith healers make melodrama in addition to merchandise out of so-called victims of the demonic. Jesus just said “a word,” and they were gone. Helping people without trying to cash in or create a name for Himself was one of the many ways that Jesus was unusual.
Jesus had an unusual way of dealing with sickness.
Jesus had a most unusual way of healing sickness, too. He “healed all who were sick.” Jesus healed those who asked, like the leper. Jesus healed those who didn’t ask but were asked for, like the servant. Jesus healed those for whom no one asked, like Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus healed the light cases, Jesus healed the heavy cases, Jesus healed in every case.
This is unusual compared with all the nut cases on the current religious stage. Modern faith healers, and many of you know many of their names, have a usual motif. They perform in front of crowds, collect large sums of money, and verifiable, organically heal absolutely no one. I’m sure some people get a psychological lift, and for some it is so strong that a temporary healing appears to take place. But compare them with Jesus. Jesus healed relatively quietly (and told people to keep quiet about it). Jesus collected no money for His services. And, Jesus absolutely healed all people completely.
It is highly unusual to see people perform real miracles. Moses and Aaron did it. Elijah and Elisha did it. Christ and the Apostles did it. That does it, really. Miracles do happen, every day, but a miracle worker like Jesus in our day would be more than unusual, it would be impossible.
Jesus had an unusual way of dealing with salvation.
Perhaps the best way to explain the unusual methods and miraculous powers of Jesus would be to put it into the context of salvation, which Matthew masterfully does here. Remember that Matthew’s motive in making his Gospel was to make people believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who came to be the Savior of the world. Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant and inaugurated the New Covenant, and God’s covenant with man is not so much about equality, not so much about victory over the demonic, not so much about healing physical sickness, but all about saving souls from sin and giving them eternal life.
Matthew painted this Gospel passage with an Old Testament outline found in Isaiah 53:4. He was fluent in Hebrew and wrote his own Greek translation here. The point of connection between the miracles that took place and the messianic prophecy is Jesus’ conquest over “illnesses” and “diseases.” But the larger context of Isaiah 53 and Matthew’s Gospel is not healing from sickness, but the atoning death of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ.
So the unusual question we have to ask is this: why did Jesus die and what benefit is ours through His atoning sacrifice on the cross? Taking this text into its full context, we can see some of the usual misconceptions and the ultimate unusual nature of the cross.
In a minor miscalculation, some see the cross as paving the way for the absolute equality of women and men. I say this is minor because there are other major texts in Holy Scripture which are more hotly debated between egalitarians and complimentarians, and the particular passage we are dealing with here is not a common battleground. In the context of salvation, however, it is clear that Jesus loves and saves women as much as men, Gentiles as much as Jews, and nobodies as much as somebodies. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I believe women and men are of absolutely equal value and worth to our Lord and Savior, but His holy word does prescribe certain subordinate roles for women in the home and in the church. Thankfully, the efficacy of the gospel is not at stake based upon one’s opinion on this matter!
In another slight of handling the Scriptures, some see the cross as crowning believers with absolute authority over the devil and demons. Subsequently, certain saved persons go forth and attack Hell with a water pistol, claiming victory over devils at every turn. In turn, devils and devil fighters take the front page while Almighty God is relegated to the spectator section. I will just make a brief pass here and say, whether you are a Christian or not, you are no match for Satan and his legion of doom. Reflect for a moment on Job’s many tragedies and Paul’s thorn in the flesh. God’s power over Satan, and over all things, is unlimited. Ours is not. Resist the devil, and he will flee indeed, but this is because he is scared of God, not you.
The big problem with an uneven handling of this passage deals with miracles in general, and the healing of sickness is particular. Many claim that healing is in the atonement, that those who believe in Jesus can claim deliverance from any disease, and this passage helps prove it. Even though this theology did not appear on the historical scene until the past century or two, it is a stronghold in Pentecostal, Charismatic, and many other Christian traditions. And though it is a belief held sincerely by many true believers, it is sincerely and truly wrong.
Jesus’ healings were not normative, they were unusual. Again, biblical and earthly history proves that the presence of a genuine miracle-worker is extremely rare, highly unusual. So, to think that the cross grants us the power to conduct healings as business as usual is wrong. Although, I gladly concede that God still heals people, directly, without the need of any televangelist intermediary.
Jesus’ healings were not conditional, they were unusual. In other words, Jesus did not, as modern faith healers claim, heal people based on their faith. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law did not expect a miracle. The paralyzed servant in the previous text made no claim upon the name of the Lord. Jesus healed people who believed and people who didn’t, and He still does today, which, when you think about it, is quite unusual.
Jesus’ healings were not universal, they were unusual. If healing were the thrust of Jesus’ public ministry and crucifixion, then it seems to me He would have just healed everybody who was sick. But, He did not. Jesus was quite selective and secretive in His healings, as well as temporal. The leper, the servant, and even Peter’s mother-in-law all eventually died of some other sickness or disease. So if Jesus’ death was to eradicated disease, He would have failed.
But Jesus succeeded in an unusual way. He made the most of what mattered most. Our Lord performed certain, select miracles of healing to draw people to the truth that He is the Messiah, He is the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah, He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and His death served the grand purpose of one thing, the forgiveness of sin and salvation for any soul who comes to God by grace through faith in the Christ of the cross!
People today, even church people, focus on today. They want to be healthy, wealthy, and comfortable, and believe Jesus came and God exists to satisfy these wants. If anything gets in their way, they whip out the cross and claim Jesus’ name to restore their health, gain them wealth, and keep them in the comfort zone. This false belief has become downright boring.
But Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And, He is very unusual. Whether you are male or female, tempted or delivered, suffering or recovering, He cares about your body, but even more about your soul. He is concerned about your business as usual, but has an overarching concern about the unusual business of salvation. This salvation requires an unusual cost and an unusual commitment to Christ. This passage, and especially in the next one in Matthew, takes unusual steps to the unusual feet of our unusual Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
THE HELPER AND THE HEALER
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 16, 2014
When he had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” 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. 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.” 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. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 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.
— Matthew 8:5-13, ESV
The miraculous makes its way to us through direct and indirect means, usually the latter. Sometimes we are prompted to ask God directly for a blessing, a provision, or a miracle for ourselves. This was the case with the leper in the first miracle recorded by Matthew. Other times, like the lowly servant in this passage, we are just sitting there and suffering when someone else asks on our behalf.
These someones are very important people in the kingdom of God. They are servants themselves, ministers, helpers. They bring the healing or saving power of God into other people’s lives through their unselfish service and faithful prayers. Matthew’s second miracle is a story of such a helper and the ultimate healer, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The helper here is actually a distinguished gentleman. He is a high ranking officer in the Roman Legion, a centurion, one of many who ironically appear always favorably in the New Testament. He is stationed in Capernaum, Jesus’ home base, and given charge of the garrison of Roman soldiers in this important commercial town. He is a Gentile, but one who has converted to Judaism. According to Luke’s parallel account, his faith and generosity is so great that he largely if not single-handedly saw to the building of the synagogue in Capernaum. He may well have been the most powerful man in town, yet his concern here is for one of the least powerful, a simple servant or household slave. A few things are noteworthy about this helper.
Helpers have the authority and ability to help. The centurion had a commission to act with the authority of the Roman Emperor. His words had iron, and he could make or break you. He had the means to provide the best medical care for his servant, but there was no cure for his paralysis. The centurion’s faith in Jehovah of the Old Covenant led him to faith in Jesus of the New Covenant, one in substance but separate in their trinitarian roles. The centurion believed Jesus carried the weight and authority of Almighty God, and his faith was well placed.
Helpers have the courage to cross boundaries to help. Faith is a small step, but acting on faith is a giant leap. Gentiles, even proselytes to Judaism, did not approach Jewish rabbis, let alone one who was hailed as the Messiah. Gentiles and Jews did not share their homes with one another, nor enjoy food and fellowship around the table. Subtle racial customs and not-so-subtle, overt racism are barriers broken down by the cross, but Jesus has yet to go to the cross when this event transpired. So, it took courage and courtesy for the centurion to ask Jesus to help without asking Jesus into his home.
Helpers serve as the means of grace which provides the help. Jesus had already taught that sometimes we have not because we ask not. By implication, sometimes others have not because we ask not on their behalf. The centurion’s request was not for himself, but his servant, and the petition of the centurion became a means of grace and healing for the servant. God is the source and supply of every good and perfect gift, but such gifts are often poured out of willing vessels who pray, preach, witness, and show love for others.
Helpers have compassion and care enough to help. In the midst of this miracle and at the end of the day, this centurion’s servant was healed because the centurion cared enough about his servant to ask Jesus to help him. Love is the greatest gift and the purest motive. Love moves mountains and makes a way. Love points us to point other people to Jesus, from whence their greatest love and help may come.
The helper brought his heartache to the healer. The healer here is not a televangelist wolf in pastoral sheep’s clothing. The healer here is not some huckster selling holy water. The healer here is not even a trained physician with capable but limited healing skills. No, this healer is The Healer, the Great Physician, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Look at the attributes of our Lord on display in this miracle, and see how they parallel and tower over those of the centurion.
Jesus is the ultimate authority with omnipotent ability. The centurion’s word did carry the authority of the Emperor, but Jesus’ word contains the power of God. And, God can do anything that pleases Him. In this chapter alone He cleanses a leper’s skin, makes a paralytic walk, cures a simple fever, calms a raging storm, and exorcised the demons from a diabolically troubled man. When you ask in Jesus’ name for help, for yourself or a family member or friend, you are asking the one who can, the one who has all authority and power, the one from whom all blessings and miracles and providences flow.
Jesus had the courage to cross boundaries, all the way to the cross. Jesus, while accomplishing His mission as the Jewish Messiah, made a point to include Gentiles in the gospel discussion. Once His mission was complete, He commissioned His Jewish followers to go into all the world to reach all races of people. The cross not only conquers condemnation and separation from God, it conquers the pride and prejudices that separates people from one another. Furthermore, Christ’s comments in the commission of this miracle counts more Gentiles in the kingdom of God than Jews, since they were beginning to approach Jesus by faith, while religious Jews were clinging to their works.
Jesus is the grace of God to all who believe. Works are bronze, faith is silver, but grace is gold. The source of grace is God, and the face of grace is our Lord Jesus Christ. Sickness happens in a fallen world because the world has fallen due to man’s sin. And while it was superstitious in ancient times for most people to assume that sick people were somehow getting what they deserved, all sickness and death is the just reward for all we who have sinned against God. But God is gracious. He often heals. He constantly blesses. He definitely saves to the uttermost all who come to Him by grace through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So look to Jesus, and see the face of grace for you and your loved ones.
Nobody, I mean nobody, loves you and cares for you like Jesus. Two things that strike me about this and every other miracle recorded in the Gospels are the power and love of Jesus Christ. Jesus used His power to help and heal people that He loved. Jesus loved a servant in this passage, a person He had never even personally met. Jesus loves a lot of people who have not personally met Him yet, and it is our job to get them to Him.
There is hope for paralyzed slaves, when someone comes to help. The ultimate source of help is the grace, power, and love of God in Christ. Can you help someone today? Or, maybe you need a little help yourself.
The centurion’s servant is the slug in this story. He just lies there, unable to do anything, unwilling to ask God on his own. This is an accurate picture of a person without Christ. Sin paralyzes, depravity disables, and death is certain apart from the divine intervention of the grace of God.
The centurion is the human face of grace in this story. Amazing in his Christ-likeness, he asks in faith for grace to come to the place where his servant cannot work. He is the grandmother who won’t quit praying for that grandson or granddaughter to come to Christ until he or she does. He is that father who provides loving discipline until the son or daughter becomes a disciple of Jesus Christ on their own. He is the friend who invites her friend or neighbor to church, so that the truth, love, and grace of God found in the word and sacraments might fall and heal the paralysis of sin and unbelief. Grace has many human faces, and I pray one of them is yours.
But the hero of the story is not the slug, in spite of modern storytelling which always seem to make the victim the victor. The hero of the story is not the centurion, heroic as his faith may be. The hero of this story and every story in Scripture is God. He is there on every page, as He is in every town, involved somehow with every person. So come to Him, face to face. Ask for grace. If you have enough for yourself, ask for others. Be a helper, bring the Healer into other people’s lives, and spread the hope that is found in the gospel of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.
MATTHEW’S FIRST MIRACLE
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 9, 2014
When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. 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.”
— Matthew 8:1-4, ESV
Matthew makes reference to Jesus’ miraculous powers at the end of the Gospel’s fourth chapter, including it in an overall description of Christ’s public ministry of “teaching, proclaiming, and healing.” The next three chapters give us selections of our Lord’s finest teaching and preaching, commonly known as “The Sermon on the Mount.” Then, the healing begins in chapter eight as Matthew describes some specific incidents in which Jesus performed a medical or otherwise notable miracle.
Matthew’s first miracle is a classic. It demonstrates Christ’s deity and sovereignty. It displays His great compassion for people. It results in the complete, organic, verifiable, healing of an otherwise incurable disease. And, as is almost always the case in the Gospels, the potent miracle is a powerful parable of the gospel itself. Let’s take a look at the miracle and the parable.
The sickness that Jesus encountered on this fateful day was the dreaded disease of leprosy, for which there was no known cause or cure in Jesus’ day. The Gospels record such encounters with the ancient curse only here (paralleled in Mark 1:40ff and Luke 5:12ff) and with the ten lepers mentioned in Luke 17:11ff. Other general references are made to the healing of leprosy, but it never gets any more personal than in this case.
Leprosy was a mysterious, contagious, outrageous condition that deadened nerve endings, particularly in the hands and feet, turning skin unsightly and numb, resulting in frequent injury, infection, and ultimately death. Nothing was really known about leprosy until the late 19th century, when Dr. Hansen discovered the cause that ultimately led to the cure of what is now known as “Hansen’s Disease.” Obviously, the famous physician was not one of Jesus’ first followers, and without an understanding or a cure for the disease, lepers were ostracized from their families and communities, pushed into diseased colonies, dependent upon handouts from passers by, and suffered in misery and isolation until their premature deaths.
One day one of them escaped the confines of the leper colony and came to Jesus. He “knelt,” which could also be translated bowed or worshiped. He came with humility and hope. He came with an acute awareness of his problem and enough information about Jesus to know that He was the man, the only man, who could do anything about it. “You can make me clean,” the leper, no doubt from a safe distance, said to Jesus.
The Lord Jesus Christ then did two things that were stunning. He touched the leper and He healed his leprosy. Lepers were hardly talked to in those days and were never, never touched. Lepers were required by law to loudly proclaim, “Unclean, unclean,” before walking into a populated area. Lepers were obviously unattractive, assumed to be worse sinners than the others, and, in fact, contagious. And Jesus — as a fellow human being, as the great High Priest, and as God incarnate — touched him, and made him physically, emotionally, and perhaps spiritually whole.
In the aftermath, Jesus maintained His “messianic secret,” lest the clamor for His miracles would make them more important than His teaching and preaching, or otherwise interfere with His slow, steady walk to the cross. He told the healed leper to keep a low profile and demonstrate a high obedience to the word of God, pointing him to some passages in the books of Moses (ref. Leviticus 13-14) concerning leprosy, healing, and most importantly, worship.
What a classic miracle story from a day in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ! The kingdom had come and the King was in control. A deathly sick man was made well by a touch from the Master’s hand. Jesus loved, the man believed, and worship and obedience to the word of God was on display. What a miracle! What a parable!
The whole world is a leper colony. Every person on the planet is infected with a contagious disease. It spreads from parent to child, brother to sister, friend to friend, and foe to foe. It is airborne, blood-borne, obtained by being, and spread by doing. We know the cause and we try to cure it with penalties, therapies, isolated societies, and changed names in our dictionaries. But sin is still sin. Sin is still a curse to the human race. Sin still results in loss of life on a temporal and eternal scale. And for sin, there is one and only one cure.
You can pretend you don't have it, but that won’t make it go away. You can claim your case is lighter than most, which is actually means it is worse. You can try to tame it with secular psychology or religious legalism, which while making it more manageable only makes it more malignant. Sin is so much like leprosy.
Sin is invisible at first, you don’t even know you have it. Once it begins to spread, it makes you numb to your mistakes. You tend to do things with your hands and feet, mind and mouth, that hurt you and other people in exponential ways. With your fellow lepers, I mean sinners, your infection spreads to them and theirs to you, so that a downward spiral begins to take effect. Before you know it, and sometimes you never do, you are deeply infected, marred, ruined, dead.
But God so loved this leper colony that He sent Himself in the form of His Son into it, full blown. Jesus teaches, still, through the inspired pages of the word of God. Jesus preaches, still, through the voices of prophets and preachers called to bear His name and bring His gospel. Jesus heals, still. His patience and providence provided a cure for leprosy. His grace — with the faith it brings in the gospel He wrote — is the cure for sin.
How can a leper, I mean a sinner, demonstrate a desire for grace? Perhaps the leper in Matthew’s first miracle can show us sinners the way.
You must come and worship God. The leper fell to his knees. He recognized in Jesus a higher power at least and the presence of God at most. Driven by his need, knowledgable of Jesus’ reputation, sensing Christ was near, he literally threw himself at the feet of God. Saved sinners don’t have to be dragged to worship God, publicly or privately. It is an innate response to the prospects of sins forgiven and fellowship enjoyed. It is a transparency, not hiding from God that which is wrong with us. It is a joyful confidence that if I can just get to God, God was waiting for me all along. Come, now is the time to worship.
You must trust in God’s grace for salvation. Oh how the Great Reformation mantra is true! Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ, alone! In Jesus’ day only Jesus could cure leprosy. In every age Jesus is the only One who can save your soul, grant you forgiveness and cleansing, and give you eternal life.
You must follow in obedience to God’s word. If God is real to you, if Jesus Christ has saved you to the uttermost, then you are possessed of a deep desire to obey, to be faithful, to show your love by devotion and dedication to His word and to His church. Grace without repentance is a myth, faith without works is dead. Paul preached that grace through faith results in good works (ref. Ephesians 2:8-10). Jesus, saying it perhaps simpler and better, said those who love Him will keep His commandments (ref. John 14:15, 14:21, 15:10, etc.).
This not a three-step slide show, but rather one complete picture of grace. It drives us to worship. It completely saves the soul. It flows in a faithfulness immersed in love.
The first miracle that Matthew chose to write out in some detail is a great parable of a changed life. It shows the difference that Jesus can make, when we surrender ourselves and our sin to Him. It is an outstanding miracle that can make a beautiful parable out of your life.
A FULL SUMMARY OF HALF A GOSPEL
Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
March 2, 2014
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. 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, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
— Matthew 4:23-25, ESV
When studying the New Testament it is important to distinguish the subtle difference between “the gospel” (lower case “g”) and “a Gospel” (capital “G”). “The gospel” is the simple and spectacular good news of God’s message of salvation by grace through faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. “A Gospel” is a unique book, originated by the church, which collects select actions and sayings of the Lord Jesus Christ in order to teach and preach the gospel. There are, four Gospels in the New Testament which tell us the gospel: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
In the four New Testament Gospels, each inspired writer uses a little over half of a Gospel to tell of the public ministry of Jesus Christ, most of which took place in Galilee and some in Judea and other outlying areas. Almost all of the second half focuses on Christ’s last days on earth, culminating with His atoning death on the cross and the resurrection. What Matthew has done, in three short verses in this transitional text in his Gospel, is give us a full summary of the first half a Gospel.
What Jesus Did and What We Should Do
Our Lord Jesus Christ repeatedly did three things in His three-year public ministry. He was always teaching, often preaching, and occasionally healing sick (and sometimes dead) people. His most common title was teacher or rabbi, because this was His most common work. He was considered to be a prophet, even by those who doubted or denied He was the Messiah, because His powerful messages seemed to come directly from God. And, Jesus was perhaps most famous for what may have been His least important activity, performing miracles. Let’s look at these activities and also think about how the church today can carry on the Lord’s work.
Jesus was “teaching in their synagogues.” The synagogue was the primary place of worship for devout Jews in Jesus’ day. It was organized and worship there was ordered much like our modern churches. People came who were predisposed to believe in God, or drawn with a curiosity to consider belief in God. They came to engage in a series of godward activities like prayer, praise, the public reading of Scripture, and the teaching of the same. The home rabbis (much like a church’s pastors or elders) would lead in worship and expound upon the selected biblical text. If a visiting rabbi was present, he would often be asked to say a word about the word of God. Imagine your good fortune if you were a synagogue worshiper on a particular Sabbath when Jesus showed up to be the guest speaker! Teaching about entrance into and the ethics within the kingdom of God was King Jesus’ favorite task, and no one could do it as good as Him.
Inside and outside of the synagogues, Jesus was “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom.” He was by far the best teacher and preacher this planet has ever seen. The subtle difference between teaching and preaching is often overstated. Perhaps the best explanation is to say that teaching is for believers but at the same time it invites unbelievers to believe, while preaching is for unbelievers but at the same time it surely inspires believers to believe more deeply. There, I overstated it. When Jesus preached the gospel, He was proclaiming the God-centered message of Himself as God’s Son fulfilling all of God’s word to bring God’s salvation to God’s people by God’s grace in their lives through proper repentance and faith, in God, for God, in order to be with God in His kingdom, eternally. Jesus Christ preached serious gospel messages that required serious thought and serious commitment; therefore, preaching is a most serious business.
Last and least, Jesus had a habit of “healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” I say last, since it is the third of three activities mentioned in the order of this text. I say least, because it is the only one of the three done sporadically and secretly. Furthermore, of the three, this is the only one that cannot be completely carried on after Jesus and His Apostles left the earth. I would never claim that the miracles were not important, for indeed they were in establishing the absolute deity and supreme compassion of Christ. I would never say that miracles have ceased, for I am convinced they happen every day. But I would say that today’s so-called miracle workers are nothing but con-artists, frauds, and manipulating money-changers, without exception.
Speaking of today, how is it that we Christians and Christian churches should carry on the ministry Christ?
It is really quite simple, I think. Our worship and other services should be centered upon the teaching of the word of God. We are not here to entertain, engage in politics, market religion, nor make numbers or names for ourselves. People who are not interested in Holy Scripture should show no interest in our church; and, those who are hungry for the word of God should clamor to come in, knowing they will be fed. Of course, our teaching should find its focus on the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, with its power to save sinners and straighten out the saints. We should never resort to cheap dispensers of grace like so-called altar calls and sinners prayers, but plainly teach and preach so that people will truly repent and believe. Those who do will not have to be manipulated into baptism and meaningful church membership. And certainly, we should offer the healing that we have the power in our hands to provide. We should offer the healing of the gospel for the sin-sick and spiritually dead soul. We should offer the healing of food and clothing to genuinely poor and hungry bodies. We should offer the healing of counseling to the troubled mind and heart. And while no one among us has the power of Jesus and the Apostles to heal sickness, we can offer prayers to connect people to the power of our God, who still heals according to His will and pleasure.
And if we do these things, we, like Jesus, will draw a crowd, of some kind.
How People Responded and How We Should Respond
The response to Jesus’ ministry was “fame” and “great crowds.” However, the fame was fleeting. The crowds were inconsistent throughout His ministry, and almost totally diminished at the end. Jesus peaked at His miraculous “feeding of the 5,000” (which could have been as many as 20,000 people). Jesus’ followers at the foot of His cross were few, and all the believers all together at His resurrection totaled about 120. After such a precipitous drop in attendance, Baptists would not have crucified Christ; instead, they would have fired Him for His lack of church growth acumen.
The crowds that did gather around Jesus’ ministry were essentially three-fold. There was the outer edge of the crowd that consisted mostly of critics. The middle-of-the-road crowd were sincerely interested in Jesus, at least in terms of what He could do to satisfy their self-interest. They showed little interest in what they could do for Jesus. The inner crowd was in the right place for the right reasons, as we shall see very soon.
Though you find little evidence of it in this text, a summary of all of Matthew’s or the other Gospel stories reveal some shady characters in the crowds Jesus attracted. Religious rulers like the Pharisees and Sadducees often attended Jesus’ meetings, but only to criticize and try to catch Him in some fault. I’m sure Rome sent a few spies into the crowd, a crowd-infiltration tactic used through the years by communists and other totalitarian regimes. Hard-hearted critics disguised as professing Christians still attend many church services, today.
The biggest part of the crowds described in this text, and in big events and mega-churches today, are the “what’s in it for me” crowd. Jesus catered to them quite a bit, actually, and offered them love, words of life, and physical benefits. Most of them, however, like the 9 out of 10 lepers, never returned to give thanks or offer love and allegiance in return. Many are the men and women who flock to gatherings to have their ears tickled by weasels like Joel O’Steen, or have their psychosomatic illnesses cured by charlatans like Benny Hinn, who would turn and run at the sound of crystal clear biblical exposition and the cost of discipleship. I fear the many inactive and non-resident members of our evangelical churches found out that coming to Jesus or coming to church did not make them overly healthy, wealthy, and wise, so they dropped out to pursue other paths that could. Still today, this is the biggest part of the crowd who call themselves Christian.
The smallest crowds were the sincerest crowds, if you could call them a crowd at all. As Jesus’ ministry unfolds in this passage, and as so many began to follow Him from round about, I think the only true followers would have numbered only a dozen or so. As previously mentioned, after three years of this type of work, the first and only church which gathered before Pentecost consisted of a roll of 120 souls. But these are they who truly repented. These are they who truly believed. These are they who truly followed the Lord Jesus Christ, heart and mind and will, uphill and downhill, for a few hours on Sundays and 24 hours every day, whose lives were lost in the One who lost His life for them, only to take it up again abundantly and eternally.
You see, the only true Christians in this crowd of the full summary of the first half of a Gospel are the ones who totally embraced the second half of a Gospel. For unless you are a part of the crowd that has accepted by grace through faith the complete work of Christ in the crucifixion and resurrection, then you are a part of the wrong crowd.
So read of Jesus’ ministry and respond in the only saving way possible. Repent of the sin, selfishness, and silliness in your life and believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to live. Hunger for His teaching, and find yourself in a crowd committed to a Bible-believing church. Put the preaching of the gospel at the starting point of your life in Christ and never stop proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to your family, friends, and neighbors. Come and have your soul healed and saved by the Healer and Savior who has come to be your Lord and King. Don't settle for a half a Gospel but have the gospel whole, and be a wholly devoted follower of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org