Jesus: Lord & Servant (Matthew 8:1-17)

u15 bannerThis is the first of a four part series of posts in which David Williams shares some historical and theological observations on the Bible passages studied at the Urbana Student Missions Conference 2015. The passages under consideration are Matthew 8:1-17, Matthew 20:1-16, Matthew 25:31-26, Matthew 27:57-28:15. In follow-up David will post stories of how the Gospel is being lived out on campus. We’d also love to hear how these texts speak to your campus context and next steps you’ll take as you share the Good News (in word and action as part of the people of God).

If you’re at Urbana15, let’s be sure to connect today’s . . .

AND this week’s

  • ESN/GFM booth (626/628)
  • ESN/GFM lounge (Drury Inn & Suites, Broadway Room)

Thank-you to David for contributing to the ESN blog at Urbana15. To God be the glory! ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network

Some of the guys at Urbana15 digging into the Word of God.

Some of the guys at Urbana15 digging into the Word of God.

Matthew 8:1-17: Jesus: Lord & Servant

Who was Jesus? Indeed, who is Jesus? Every detail of Matthew’s Gospel, whether subtle or unsubtle, is aimed at answering those two questions. Matthew is a master storyteller, and his Gospel is an intricate literary tapestry into which the evangelist has interwoven multiple overlapping patterns. By tracing out the threads of these various patterns, the attentive reader may follow Matthew into a fuller, richer vision of Jesus’s identity and significance.

Whether one is reading the Gospel of Matthew or the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, either way the story begins with the narrative of Israel’s deliverer being born (Matt 1:18—25/Exod 2:1-2) during the reign of a wicked king (Matt 2:1-15/Exod 1:8-14). The wicked king then, in order to head-off any threat to his throne, orders the slaughter of Israel’s newborn sons (Matt 2:16/Exod 1:15-22), but Israel’s deliverer survives. Eventually he escapes Egypt such that the prophets could say of him, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt 2:14/Exod 12-15/Hosea 11). Moreover, our hero passes through waters (Matt 3:13-17/Exod 14:21-31) before embarking on a long journey in the wilderness (Matt 4:1/15:22ff) where he is tested by hunger and the false promises of idolatry (Matt 4:3-10/Exod 16:2-8; 32), and where he fasts for forty days and nights (Matt 4:2/Deut 9:9). Israel’s deliverer goes up on a mountain (Matt 5:9/Exod 19) and through him God’s people receive God’s commandments (Matt 5-7/Exod 20-23). Matthew has carefully woven into the opening chapters of his retelling of Jesus’s life story the patterns of both Israel’s exodus and Moses’s biography, subtly depicting Jesus as being simultaneously a new Moses and the embodiment of Israel, initiating a new exodus for the people of God.

Thus, when, in the very first verse of this morning’s Bible study passage, Matthew says that Jesus, having delivered God’s commands to God’s people, “came down from the mountain” (Matt 8:1; cf. Exod 34:29), he is continuing a well-established narrative pattern depicting Jesus as being the prophet like Moses that God had promised to his people many long centuries ago:

I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. (Deuteronomy 18:18-19 ESV)

This slender thread, when seen in the light of Matthew’s careful narrative framing, portrays Jesus as the new Moses, as the new lawgiver, as one imbued with a degree of divine authority not seen since Sinai.

A second literary pattern featured in our passage is to be found in the ways the various figures in Matthew’s narrative address Jesus. Note that both the leper and the centurion address Jesus as “Lord” (kurios). The Catholic New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson points out that in Mark’s Gospel practically everyone addresses Jesus as “teacher” (whether as rabbi or didaskalos; Mark 4:38; 9:17, 38; 10:17-31,35; 12:14, 19, 32; 13:1), excepting only the afflicted who regularly address Jesus as “Lord” (kurios). In Matthew’s Gospel, however, the pattern is different: Only Jesus’s opponents and those who fail to follow Him refer to him as “teacher” (e.g., 8:19; 12:38; 22:16, 36; 17:24; 22:24; 19:16). Conversely, Jesus’s disciples and those who are coming to follow Jesus never refer to Jesus as “teacher” in Matthew’s Gospel, but instead exclusively address Him as “Lord” (kurios; 8:2, 6, 8, 25; 9:28; 14:28; 15:22, 25, 27; 16:22; 17:4, 15; 18:21; 20:30). This pattern is seen most clearly in Matthew 26:20-25, when at the Last Supper the Twelve respond to Jesus’s assertion that, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” While the rest of the disciples ask, “Is it I, Lord?,” Judas asks, “Is it I, Rabbi?”

Thus, when the leper and the centurion address Jesus as “Lord” in Matthew chapter 8, they contribute to a larger point that Matthew is making, namely, that Jesus is no mere “teacher.” He is “the Lord,” Emmanuel, “God with us.” To attempt to see Jesus as just another rabbi or teacher alongside other rabbis or teachers is to misunderstand Him entirely.

This point seems to be grasped most clearly (and most surprisingly!) by the centurion, who does not think of Jesus’s ability to heal his suffering servant as mere medical or magical skill, but rather as a sort of supernatural authority. The centurion is confident that the Lord has only to say the word, and it will be done. The point is driven home by a striking echo of the Septuagint’s Greek translation of the creation account in Genesis 1: The Creator God speaks the cosmos into being in the jussive voice, first decreeing “Let there be light” (genetheto phōs), “and” (kai), the narrator tells us, whatever God spoke was so. So, too, Jesus responds to the centurion’s request in the jussive voice, “let it be done” (genetheto), “and” (kai), Matthew tells us, it was so. Jesus, in short, speaks with the authoritative voice that speaks all things into being.

But power and authority are not all that there is to Jesus, a fact brought out by the third and final Matthean pattern featured in this passage.  Characteristic of Matthew’s Gospel are his ten formulaic “fulfillment” quotations of Old Testament texts (1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18, 23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:35; 21:4-5; 27:9).  These quotations link events in Jesus’s life to passages from Israel’s Scriptures, typically taking the form of “This-or-that took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet when he said ‘Such-and-such’.”

Our passage closes with Jesus first relieving Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever and then subsequently healing multitudes of the sick and the bedeviled. Here Matthew interprets Jesus’s healings with one of his “fulfillment” quotations: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.’” (2:17) Whereas the remainder of the passage has served to underscore Jesus’s power and authority, identifying Him with the prophet like Moses and even with the Lord Himself, Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah 53:4 identifies Jesus with a very different figure indeed, one identified with the weak and the powerless, namely, Isaiah’s figure of the Suffering Servant. For Matthew Jesus is not simply the new Moses, the new law-giver sent to initiate a new exodus. Nor is He simply the embodiment of Israel’s Lord—Emmanuel, “God with us”—authoritatively speaking into being things that are not. He is also the one who “was wounded for our transgressions,” “crushed for our iniquities,” and by whose “stripes we are healed.”

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David Williams

David is a campus staff for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries at New York University, where he serves as a university chaplain, and as a pastor and advisor for the school's medical, dental and law student fellowships. A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, David joined InterVarsity in 2011 and spent his first two years on staff serving the Graduate & Faculty Ministries at NC State University, Meredith College and Campbell Law School. David holds masters' degrees in biblical studies and theology from Westminster Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, and is a devoted lifelong learner. David is passionate about helping non-Christians to meet Jesus and about helping Christians — both Christian scholars and laypeople — to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength. David and his lovely wife, Alissa, live in New York City. You can follow David’s ministry at his blog, and you can support his pastoral and writing ministries here.

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