I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.
Jesus, upon finishing the Sermon on the Mount, came down from the mountain and immediately continued setting the world on its head. “Do not think that I came to abolish [the Law or the Prophets],” he said; “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The statement seems a bit mysterious at the time, but suddenly it becomes a bit clearer, because the things Jesus does when he comes down from the mountain are, well… surprising, and not always in line with the Law and the Prophets as the people understood them.
Right off the bat, he not only heals a leper, but does so by touching said leper. Jesus immediately became ceremonially unclean.1 He then instructs the leper to fulfill the rest of the Mosaic Law—after having forfeited his own cleanness for that man’s sake in a way that ran directly contrary to the understanding of his peers about the intent of that Law.
The next narrative section is just as surprising—or it should be, if we were not so inured to it by familiarity. A centurion in the Roman army—the occupiers and oppressors of Israel—comes to him and asks him to heal his servant. Jesus makes the first surprising move simply by acquiescing to the request: “I will come and heal him,” he says (v. 7). And then things become truly surprising. First, the centurion rejects Jesus’ offer to come, arguing that Jesus need only speak and whatever he says will be done—to which Jesus replies that he has not seen any such measure of faith among Israel, and promptly heals the man’s servant. Then he tells everyone that people from all over the world will come sit at God’s table while the “sons of the kingdom” (the biological heirs of the promise to Abraham) will be kicked out.
So now in the span of a few verses, Jesus has touched a leper, proclaimed a Gentile superior in his faith to anyone he had encountered in all Israel, and then announced that the fulfillment of the Messianic promises of the nations coming into Israel would coincide not with Israel’s exaltation but her disgrace. Coming to Matthew after reading the Old Testament, these announcements prompt mingled affirmation and confusion—affirmation, because yes, these are the things God promised; but confusion, because the way they are coming is not exactly what one would expect.
Jesus heals more people of sickness and demons. Then he calms a storm (to which his disciples, traveling with him, can say only, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”—immediately after pleading for him to save them; see Matthew 8:25–27). That one took me aback a little bit, in at least two ways: (1) These men who had been following Jesus around watching him perform miracles, even to the point that they thought he might be able to do something while they were threatened by the weather, were astounded by what he actually did.2 (2) He calmed a storm. Jesus spoke, and the storm calmed and the waves went away. He was God. Not just a powerful prophet, not just a man used of God, but God himself, and it showed. The point comes home again when he casts out yet more demons and sends them into a herd of pigs—he has the authority to do that!
Sometimes slowing down and thinking about the books, especially in their settings in the Bible as a whole, helps me see things more clearly. In this case, it makes it much more obvious why the people found Jesus so confusing: he doesn’t do anything the “right” way, and he was always doing things that took people’s breath away, because he was God and man. More—much more—than they expected in their Messiah. Someone not only to follow to the worship of God in the new age, but God himself, to be worshipped.
- It strikes me that this is a major part of what Jesus does for us: he comes to us, and touches us, and becomes unclean that we might be healed of our infirmities. ↩
- It is also striking that he rebukes his closest followers for their little faith immediately after commending a Gentile for his great faith. So often we think, “If I could just walk with Jesus, it would be so much easier to believe.” The Bible bears witness in so many ways that this way of thinking is simply wrong—profoundly wrong. ↩