IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 14, May 31 to June 6, 1999

Matthew 8:1-34

by Dr. Knox Chamblin



    1. This Section and the Preceding Context.

      1. Jesus' authority. The closing v. of ch. 7 speaks of Jesus' authority (exousia). Chs. 5-7 demonstrated his authority in teaching. Chs. 8-9 will testify to the same authority as Jesus summons disciples and — especially — as he works miracles.

      2. Jesus' mission. Matthew summarizes Jesus' Galilean ministry in 4:23, "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people." As chs. 5-7 expound the teaching and preaching (the first two aspects of the summary), so chs. 8-9 will concentrate on healing (the third aspect).

    2. This Section and the Following Context.

      1. Ch. 10. Having recorded much of Jesus' own teaching, preaching and healing (chs. 5-9) — and having closed this section with a summary (9:35) identical to that which prefaces the section (4:23) — Matthew now presents Jesus' commissioning of the Twelve to extend his ministry by preaching (10:7) and healing (10:1, 8). 10:1 refers only to their authority "to drive out unclean spirits and to cure every kind of disease and sickness" (not to their authority to preach); perhaps the reason is that the preceding two chapters have been occupied principally with Jesus' miracles.

      2. Ch. 11. The entirety of ch. 10 is occupied with Jesus' commissioning of the Twelve. Ch. 11:1 commences with Jesus' renewal and the disciples' commencement of missionary activity, and then turns to John's question from prison.

        1. Jesus' response to John, 11:4-5. "At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits ...," says the Lukan parallel, 7:21. Mt, instead, provides his evidence in the preceding chapters, both in the projected activity of the disciples and (especially) in the recorded activity of Jesus. Thus (11:5) "the blind receive sight" in 9:27-31; "the lame walk" in 9:1-8 (though here, also in 8:6, the Greek is paralytikos, not cholos as in 11:5); "those who have leprosy are cured" in 8:2-4; "the deaf hear" in 9:33 by implication (kophos, used in both vv., "includes deafness": Gundry, 179-80); "the dead are raised" in 9:18-26; and "the good news is preached to the poor" in 4:23 (cf. 4:17); 5:3-10; 9:35; 10:7.

        2. Jesus' woes upon the cities, 11:20-24. The opening of this section (v. 20) shows how vitally important are Jesus' miracles (as represented in the accounts of chs. 8-9) as signs of who he is and of what he has come to accomplish.


    1. The Leper's Request. 8:2.

      1. The affliction. He is identified as lepros, whence our word "leper." Yet Biblical "leprosy" is not to be strictly identified with Hansen's disease (modern leprosy). We are to think in terms of "various diseases affecting the skin" (NIV mg.; note the several "infectious skin diseases" discussed in Lev 13), perhaps including leprosy (cf. Carson, 198) or more likely excluding it (G. J. Wenham, Leviticus, 194-97). Given the Levitical prescription that such a person is to remain isolated (Lev 13:45-46, concluding "He must live alone; he must live outside the camp"), the presence of the "leper" amid the "large crowds" (8:1) is remarkable.

      2. The faith. "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean" (v. 2b). This confidence that Jesus can heal him if he wills to heal him, doubtless rests in part upon what the man knows of Jesus' healing ministry: cf. 4:23-25 ("healing every disease and sickness"). The request is especially noteworthy in light of the OT: "The Levitical law provided no means of curing 'skin diseases.' The sufferer had to wait in hope of a cure from God, without human aid" (Wenham, 213). The man appeals to Jesus as an instrument of God, the One in whom (the leper is confident) the divine power is at work. (However, the proskyneo of v. 2 is hardly a recognition of deity. Here it suggests urgency and dependence, but not worship; NIV translates simply "knelt down.")

    2. Jesus' Response. 8:3-4.

      1. The healing. The means of healing is twofold.

        1. The touch. Under Levitical law, Jesus would have rendered himself unclean by touching the man (v. 3). "But at Jesus' touch nothing remains defiled. Far from becoming unclean, Jesus makes the unclean clean" (Carson, 198). The touch is not merely a preliminary to the healing, or merely a sign that the Mosaic Law is being superseded (cf. 2. below), but is integral to the healing: cf. 9:29 for the uniting of touch and word in the healing of the blind men; and 8:15 for the touch alone (though in the parallels of Mk and Lk, Jesus addresses the fever).

        2. The word. Upon Jesus' pronouncement, "I am willing, be clean!" the man was cured immediately (eutheos). The utterance itself effects the healing. The uncleanness flees at Jesus' command. The exercise of Jesus' authority is central to the passage.

      2. The instructions. As 8:3 points to the newness of the Age of Grace, 8:4 shows that the prescription of Lev 14:1-32 is still valid; the sacrificial death of Jesus which would make that ceremony obsolete, is yet to occur. The "testimony" of v. 4 is positive in its intent: Jesus has come not to destroy but to fulfill and to uphold the Law (5:17-20) and to usher in the Day of Grace. That Jesus commands silence, v. 4a, in the presence of the crowds (!), v. 1, shows that he rejects and discourages false notions of messiahship: cf. Carson, 199; and the comments on Mt 4:1-11, especially vv. 3-7.)


    1. The Introduction. 8:5-7.

      1. Capernaum. Jesus earlier "went and lived in Capernaum" (4:13). The Sermon on the Mount was delivered from a slope above the town (see comments on 5:1-2). Jesus has now come down from the mountainside (8:1) and re-entered the town.

      2. The centurion. This term readily identifies the man as a Gentile, which is very important for what follows. "A centurion might naturally live in Capernaum, a garrison city and post for customs. In the Roman army a centurion commanded one hundred soldiers. But we may have here a loose usage for a military official in the service of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of the region" (Gundry, 141).

      3. The servant. He is "paralyzed [paralytikos, the same term used in 9:2] and in terrible suffering" (v. 6). Demonic oppression may be implied (note the verb ballo; the Gospels never expressly use basanizo of demonic activity, only of Jesus' threatened torture of the demons, Mt 8:29; Mk 5:7, par. Lk 8:28); but in any case the paralysis is depicted as "a malevolent force" (Gundry, 142).

      4. Jesus. It is uncertain whether Jesus' response, v. 7, is a statement, "I will go and heal him" (NIV; Gundry), or a question, "Am I to come and cure him?" (NEB mg.; Carson). In the former case, Jesus expresses his willingness to disregard or to surmount the barrier separating Jews from Gentiles. However, the latter is more in keeping with the present focus of Jesus' mission: see 15:21-28, especially vv. 23 ("Jesus did not answer a word"), 24 ("I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel," cf. 10:5-6), and 26 ("It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs"). It seems likely that 8:7 is a test of the centurion, as 15:23-26 is a test for the Canaanite woman (note the close resemblance between 8:13 and 15:28).

    2. The Centurion's Faith. 8:8-10.

      1. His illustration. We begin with 8:9 (the centurion's description of his military rank), to prepare for 8:8 (the crucial part of his reply). The importance of v. 9 is that the centurion is a mediator of imperial authority: he stands under the authority (hypo exousian) of the emperor, and (as one in whom the emperor has vested authority) he has others under himself (hyp' emauton).

      2. His recognition of Jesus. V. 9 begins, "For I too [for kai]..." (thus Gundry, 144, which translation brings out the purpose of the analogy more forcefully than does NIV). The centurion recognizes Jesus to be one who both stands under and administers authority — the authority of God himself. Given the nature and thus the potency of that authority, a word laden with it will be sufficient for the healing of the servant (v. 8b). V. 13 confirms the correctness of the centurion's perception: that the servant was "healed at that very hour," demonstrates that the words of 8:13a were the very means by which the healing was accomplished (as in 8:3); compare Jn 4:52-53.

      3. His self-awareness. One reason for the centurion's expression of unworthiness (8:8a) may be Gentile sensitivity to Jewish scruples (cf. 15:27). But the main reason is his recognition of the divine authority vested in Jesus (cf. Carson, 201). "Not according to the OT but according to rabbinic legislation, a Jew contracted ceremonial defilement by entering the house of a Gentile (m. 'Ohol. 18:7; cf. Acts 10:1-11:18). The centurion's feeling unworthy may go beyond ceremonial defilement in his house, however, and extend to recognition of his moral guilt and Jesus' holiness" (Gundry, 143). As one who recognizes his lack of desert, the centurion exemplifies the qualities celebrated in the Beatitudes (especially 5:3-5; cf. Carson, 201, quoting Edersheim).

      4. Jesus' commendation. Jesus' astonished and forceful response (8:10) is especially striking, as this incident comes immediately after the story of the leper's healing — where the leper, presumably a Jew, exercises remarkable faith (v. 2). What explains Jesus' response?

        1. The centurion's insight. Cf. 2. He recognizes that Jesus exercises God's own authority, and he applies that insight to the problem at hand ("But just say the word...," v. 8b). He has the right intellectual understanding, and he acts accordingly.

        2. The centurion's background. His extraordinary insight is particularly remarkable, given the fact that he is a Gentile. "That faith was the more surprising since the centurion was a Gentile and lacked the heritage of OT revelation to help him understand Jesus" (Carson, 202). However, Luke's account (7:1-10) suggests that the centurion had been affected by the Jewish religion prior to his meeting with Jesus: he "sent some elders of the Jews to" Jesus (7:3), who testified, "This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue" (7:4-5). (Did Jesus' earlier healing of the son of the royal official of Capernaum, Jn 4:46-54, contribute to the centurion's faith in Jesus? Cf. Carson, 201.)

    3. The Salvation of the Gentiles. 8:11-13.

      1. The gathering of Gentiles. V. 11 is reminiscent of OT promises of final restoration. But there the regathering of Jewish exiles was envisaged, whereas Jesus has in view the ingathering of Gentiles (as the contrasting "subjects of the kingdom," v. 12, makes clear): NB Gundry, 145. This will come about through the fulfillment of the commission of 28:19. The Gentiles' intimate fellowship with the patriarchs anticipates Paul's teaching in Gal 3:6-9, 26-29.

      2. The judgment upon Jews. Not only are Gentiles gathered; they take the place of Jews! V. 12 prophesies, already at this stage of Jesus' ministry, the Jewish nation's rejection of him as Messiah. The judgment is not absolute (the patriarchs were Jews, as were the twelve apostles; cf. Rom 9-11), but it is nonetheless terribly shocking. Cf. the parables of Mt 21:33-45; 22:1-14.

      3. The healing of the servant. This act (8:13) presages the coming salvation of Gentiles. Jesus' healing the servant at a distance, accords with his present focus on Israel (15:24).


    1. The Authority.

      The record of 8:14-15, together with the summary of 8:16, testifies to Jesus' authority as a healer. "Fever itself was considered a disease, not a symptom, at that time" (Carson, 204); it abandons (aphiami) the woman at Jesus' touch (cf. the parallel in Lk 4:39, where Jesus is first said to rebuke the fever). The immediacy of the cure is demonstrated by the fact that the woman "got up and began to wait on him." Likewise in v. 16, Jesus "drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick."

    2. The Servant.

      1. The present meaning. Isa 53:4 is fulfilled (plarao) in the healing of the sick and the casting out of demons (8:17); the prophecy is not restricted to spiritual maladies. NB that it is precisely as the Servant of Yahweh that Jesus exercises Yahweh's authority (cf. 3:17).

      2. The larger meaning. Jesus' healing ministry must be related to his total work — a work climaxed in his death, the event wherein he saves his people from their sins (1:21). The quotation of Isa 53:4 points to the context from which it comes (cf. C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures). The present acts of healing anticipate, bear witness to, and illustrate the saving act of the Cross. The act of healing, and the forgiveness of sins, are inextricably bound together, as is forcefully demonstrated in 9:1-8; that forgiveness is provided by virtue of Jesus' death (26:28). It is principally in his death that Jesus fulfills the task of the Servant of Yahweh. Foretelling his death, Jesus interprets that event in the light of Isa 53 (see below on 20:28), which usage provides the basis for Matthew's own reference. On the relation between 8:17 and the Cross, see also Carson, 205-6.


    1. The First Man. 8:18-20.

      1. The man's identity. He is a "teacher of the law," i.e. a "scribe" (grammateus), v. 19. It is also correct to call him a "disciple"; the Greek of v. 21 is best rendered "another of the disciples" (thus Gundry, 151). Within the context of Jesus' ministry, it is preferable to think of him as a Jewish, not a Christian, scribe (against Gundry). This episode, together with the following, indicates that there were gathered around Jesus persons with varying levels of commitment, some of them disciples only in the sense that they were following him about and attending to his teaching, and others of them - in obedience to that teaching - fully committed to him as Lord. On the mixed nature of the Christian community, cf. 13:24-30, 36-43. Jesus repeatedly challenges disciples in name to become disciples in fact. Cf. e.g. the warnings and exhortations of 7:13-27. The scribe is presently contemplating the kind of commitment for which Jesus calls.

      2. Jesus' response, v. 20. These words witness to the deprivations experienced by the Servant of Yahweh. "Homelessness stands for rejection by people rather than lack of lodging as such" (Gundry, 152). Cf. 8:34, where the Gadarenes "pleaded with him to leave their region." Jesus here, for the first time in Mt, speaks of himself as "the Son of Man," his favorite self-designation in the Gospels. Given the subject of 8:14-17 and indeed of the whole chapter (kingly, divine authority exercised by the Servant of Yahweh), we may note that the "Son of Man" in Dan 7 (the most important OT passage for understanding Jesus' usage of the term) is both a regal, heavenly figure identified in the closest way with God, and a figure associated in the closest way with the suffering, humiliated people of God. (On "Son of Man" in the Gospels, see George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 145-58; Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 270-90.) The scribe's response to the statement of v. 20 is not recorded; but at least Jesus has made clear to him that being a true disciple means a willingness to share in the deprivations of the One whom he follows.

    2. The Second Man. 8:21-22.

      1. The man's request. In a Jewish context, the request seems quite legitimate. "Palestinian piety, basing itself on the fifth commandment (Exod 20:12; cf. Deut 27:16), expected sons to attend to the burial of their parents (cf. Tobit 4:3; 14:10-11; M Berakoth 3:1; cf. Gen 25:9; 35:29; 50:13)" (Carson, 208). Probably death is not just expected but has already occurred.

      2. Jesus' response. Jesus' words are sometimes taken to mean, "Let the [spiritually] dead bury the [physically] dead." He more likely means, "Let that matter [tous nekrous] look after itself [tous heauton nekrous] — you have more important things to do" (so Gundry, 153). The unqualified, unyielding language expresses the absoluteness of Jesus' claims upon would-be followers — or, as in this case, disciples loosely attached to him and considering a deeper commitment. That Jesus is more demanding than Elijah (who allowed Elisha to say goodbye to his parents, 1 Kings 19:19-21) is not surprising, given Jesus' inauguration of the Kingdom and the consequent call to radical obedience (Mt 5-7).


    1. Jesus the Servant-King.

      Jesus has just described himself as one deprived of the provisions of the natural world, even those enjoyed by the animals (8:20). Now, paradoxically, he is revealed as Master of the natural world. He has demonstrated his powers over human afflictions; now he exerts his authority over the raging Sea of Galilee. Unlike the disciples, he is not in the least threatened by the fury of the storm: why should he fear what he controls? (The explicit reference to his sleeping contributes to the picture of his calmness in contrast to the disciples' anxiety.) The disciples show "little faith," not because they doubted Jesus' ability to save them (cf. 8:25), but because they conclude from his being asleep that the situation is presently beyond his control. But how could the Lord ever lack control (see B.)? Carson (216) relates Jesus' rebuke to the disciples' imperception concerning Jesus' mission: how could Messiah perish with his work undone?

    2. Jesus the Lord.

      Awakening Jesus, the disciples shout, "Lord, save us!" (v. 25). If the disciples' meaning (in shouting "Lord") is unclear, Matthew's is not. Here, as elsewhere, he identifies Jesus as Yahweh, who according to the OT was master of the raging sea (Job 38:8-11; Pss 29:3-4, 10-11; 65:5-7; 89:9; 107:23-32). Exercising Yahweh's own authority, Jesus rebukes the waves (the verb is epitimao, used elsewhere of assaults on demons, e.g. Mt 17:18). Regrettably, the question of v. 27 is often (e.g. RSV, NIV) translated, "What kind of man is this?" There is no basis in the Greek for the word "man." The whole point of v. 27 is to contrast the disciples - expressly identified here as "men" (anthropoi) - with the One who has just calmed the waves. Matthew wants the question of v. 27 to prompt readers to ponder that Jesus is more than a mere man.


    1. A Geographical Note.

      "Matthew identifies the region by the city of Gadara just six miles southeast of the Sea of Galilee, whereas Mark and Luke identify it by the capital city Gerasa some thirty miles southeast of the sea" (Gundry, 157). Jesus thus enters Gentile territory — as the pigs' presence confirms!

    2. Matthew's Two Demoniacs.

      Matthew speaks of two demoniacs, whereas Mk (5:1ff.) and Lk (8:26ff.) speak of one. We shall again meet such a difference (cf. Mt 9:27-31; 20:29-34, with Mk 8:22ff. & 10:46ff.). We must choose between two interpretations. (1) There were two demoniacs. Mk/Lk focus on one and Mt upon two (thus Carson, 217). (2) There was only one demoniac. Matthew adds the second figure to compensate for his omission of Mk 1:21-28 (the unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue); thus Gundry, 158. Literary considerations favor the latter, but historical considerations favor the former (my choice).

    3. The Demons' Initiative.

      They recognize Jesus as the One appointed to destroy them (8:29b). Still, they seek to exert their power against him by using his name, "Son of God" (cf. 3:17). "To know the name of someone — i.e., to know his character as revealed in the name — was to gain influence over or through him" (Gundry, 159). Cf. the Third Commandment; and the comments on Mt 6:7-8.

    4. Jesus' Response.

      Jesus commands the demons to leave the men and (in accord with their request) to enter the herd of pigs. I take v. 32 to refer not to the perishing of the demons (Gundry, 160) but to the drowning of the pigs. (Does their fate show what the demons sought to do to the men?) The demons' destruction awaits the end of history; the present action provides a visible foreshadowing of that final apocalyptic event. Mt does not focus on the possessed men themselves nearly so much as Mk (5:3-5, 15). Nor is he (or any Evangelist) concerned with the socio-economic question raised by the loss of the large herd of pigs (which Mk 5:13 numbers at about 2000). Instead he highlights the cosmic struggle between Jesus and the demons, Jesus' supremacy over them, and the effect of this conflict and victory on the witnesses (8:33-34). Having seen this confrontation, and the One with authority to master demons whose own power was tremendous (v. 28), no wonder the people ask Jesus to leave (v. 34).

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