When Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount, it appeared he was with his disciples, getting away from the crowd. By the end, however, it says that the crowds were amazed at his teaching (7:28). Our reading today begins with him being followed down from the Mount by large crowds.
Chapter 8 introduces us to some specific healings, though many healings were mentioned in general back in chapter 4. Matthew says this fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4 that he took our infirmities and carried away our diseases (NASB).
The Tanakh and the Apostles’ Writings
Can you tell that I try to go out of my way not to refer to the Tanakh and the apostles’ writings as "the Old Testament" and "the New Testament"?
The old covenant is a covenant. It is not a set of writings. There is a real sense in which the Torah, or the Law, the first five books of the Tanakh, is the old covenant written out. The rest of the writings of the Tanakh, however, are simply histories, poetry, and prophecy that came about while the old covenant was in force.
Nothing in the writings of the apostles, however, constitutes the new covenant in written form. The new covenant is not written on paper, it is written on the hearts and spirits of people (2 Cor. 3:6-8).
The apostles writings are inspired; they are important; they set a standard so that we will not waver to the right or left, deceived by our own will. But they are not the new covenant.
So I like to call the "Old Testament" the "Tanakh," like Jews do. It is short for the Jewish words meaning Law, Prophets, and Writings. And I like to the call the "New Testament" the apostles’ writings.
When Apostles Quote the Tanakh
What brought that issue up is the quote of Isaiah 53:4. If you try and follow Matthew’s quotes from the Tanakh, you will find that they are not always very accurate when compared with what you have in your Bible.
There are several reasons for that.
- Matthew didn’t have a Christian bookstore to buy a Bible
- The scrolls of the Tanakh were not compiled into one book
- Without our modern lightweight paper, Matthew’s compiled Tanakh would have weighed at least 30 pounds anyway.
- Thus, Matthew and all the other apostles did a lot of quoting from memory.
Finally, though, there is one more reason. The apostles were writing in Greek, and in many cases, they were quoting the Greek translation of the Tanakh known as the Septuagint (or the LXX).
The Septuagint (Advanced)
Here’s a little story for you. The early Christians believed that Ptolemy, Pharaoh of Egypt, wanted a Greek translation for the libraries at Alexandria. He hired 70 Jewish scholars, put them in separate rooms, and had them translate the entire Tanakh. (Exactly which books were included in that first translation would have been subject to debate.)
According to their legend, all 70 scholars produced the exact same translation, word for word, of every book!
Thus, the early Christians tended to have the same sort of mindset that "King James Version only" Christians have today. There’s one "inspired" version, even though it’s a translation, and none other will do.
Of course, there’s a couple problems. Research makes it clear that the early Christian legend can’t be true. Ptolemy may have hired scholars, but it’s likely that only the Torah was originally translated, and the rest of the Tanakh was translated over a couple centuries following. The whole idea of word for word accuracy from 70 scholars rings of myth, and there’s just no precedent for it in history. God just hasn’t ever gone out of his way to preserve exact wording in the Scriptures. Never.
That’s part of the reason we have such arguments over versions of the Bible today, and it’s the main reason for the King James version controversy.
Our Bible vs. the Septuagint (Advanced)
Okay, here’s the harder part to follow. Modern scholars wisely prefer to translate directly from the Hebrew and Aramaic originals of the Tanakh. However, the originals we use today are only trustworthy back to about A.D. 500 or so. We don’t have Hebrew originals from before about the ninth century.
Because of the early Christian and apostolic use of the Septuagint, we can practically reconstruct the Septuagint back to the second century, and we have entire manuscripts from the 4th century. Thus, while the Septuagint (or LXX) is a translation, it is a translation from an older, more reliable text than our current Hebrew originals.
Anyway, those are the reasons that sometimes you can go back and look at a passage in the Tanakh that an apostle is quoting, and your Tanakh won’t read like the apostle’s quote.
Matthew can be especially difficult. He either quoted a lot from memory, and only so well, or it’s possible that what the early Christians say about Matthew’s Gospel is true, which is that it was originally written in Hebrew. In that case, we may have a Greek translation of Matthew, and that may be part of the reason for the low quality of the citations.
Other than early Christian testimony, which is pretty consistent, there has been no evidence of a Hebrew manuscript of Matthew’s Gospel.
Back to the Text: Matthew 8:5-13
You’ll find a number of stories like this in the Gospels, where Jesus is impressed by a Gentile’s faith. A Gentile is a non-Jew. The word "Gentiles" just means "nations." So a Gentile is a person from another nation.
Jesus came just for the Israelites. Remember, the plan has always been, from the beginning, to make a nation from one man, and then to bless the word through that nation. While Jesus was on earth, that was still the plan.
When the Jews rejected their Messiah, that plan changed. Matthew 21:33-43 is a parable, but it makes it clear that the kingdom of God was taken away from the Jews when they put the Son of God to death.
This wasn’t a bad thing. It was the plan of God, and it is meant to lead Jews and Gentiles alike into one kingdom of God where there are no Jews or Gentiles, no slaves or freemen, but we are all one (Gal. 3:28-29; Eph. 2:14-15; 3:5-6).
This new spiritual kingdom and nation, composed of people from all nations, is still meant to bless the world with the Gospel, with kindness, and with good works (Matt. 5:13-16; Jn. 3:17).
Because Jesus was still sent primarily to Israel, he didn’t make it easy on Gentiles who came to him, as you shall see as you progress through the Gospels. Nonetheless, when they showed great faith, he rewarded and praised them and was always careful to point out that those with faith would enter the kingdom of heaven before those who had the physical inheritance. It is faith that matters, not physical descent.
Matthew 8:18-22: Jesus’ Hard Sayings
Don’t miss Jesus’ hard sayings. They are part of the Gospel. Following Jesus may mean that you won’t know where you’re going to lay your head next, and it may leave your family clamoring after you and accusing you of being hateful and careless.
Unless you love Jesus more than your family, you aren’t worthy of him (Matt. 10:37).
Matthew 8:23-34: Demons in Pigs (Advanced)
The story of the demoniacs in 8:28-34 is one of the odder stories in the Bible.
One of the more common beliefs among the early Christians, which comes from the Book of Enoch, which we mentioned when we discussed the Nephilim in Genesis 6, is that the demons are the spirits of the Nephilim. God put them to death, and he judged their spirits, consigning them to wander the earth.
For that reason, they are looking for bodies in which to dwell, and sometimes they are attached to a particular country.
I’m not sure what to say about that belief. Maybe it’s true. Jude’s letter, and both of Peter’s as well, make use of 1 Enoch’s description of the Nephilim and their angel fathers (1 Pet. 3:19-20; 2 Pet. 2:4-5; Jude 6). Jude actually quotes 1 Enoch directly at one point (Jude 14-15).
It would help explain the demons wanting to go into the pigs. I can only assume, however, that it wasn’t really the demons’ plan to simply run them off the cliff and kill them. Maybe the pigs panicked because they’re not used to being demon-possessed!
Odd story, truly.
Matthew 9:2-8: Healing the Paralytic
I love the story of the paralytic. I love the way Jesus set up the self-righteous by beginning with the forgiveness of sins, then put a divine stamp of approval on his right to forgive by healing the paralytic.
This is the same person that Mark says was let down through the roof because it was impossible to get him to Jesus otherwise (Mark 2:2-12).
Self-righteousness is okay if you’re able to repent of it. I have always believed that any truly committed believer is going to have to fall into self-righteousness at some point, thinking that he is standing up for God. There is nothing wrong with that, and it may be necessary for the deep disciple, as long as you are able to repent when God says to you, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice." Jesus said exactly that to those who wanted to condemn him for eating with "tax collectors and sinners" (9:10-13).
It’s probably worth knowing that tax collectors were looked down upon by Jews because they were helping the Romans keep the Jews in subjection. In a sense, they were traitors. Worse, they made their living by collecting something more than what the Romans required in taxes. How much more varied depending on the skill of the tax collectors. This made them thieves as well as traitors in Jewish eyes.
It doesn’t get much worse than that.
Matthew 9:14-17: Unshrunk Garments and New Wineskins
This is one of the most important parables. It covers the very point of the new covenant.
The old covenant was dismissed because man couldn’t keep it. God promised a new covenant instead, in which his laws would be written on our hearts, in which we would all know God, and which would thus be kept (Jer. 31:31-34).
Jesus is speaking of this in the parable of the garment and the wineskin. The new covenant is new wine. It is new cloth. You can’t just patch up an old garment with new cloth. You can’t put new wine in old wineskins. You must have a new wineskin, or an old one made new with oil. You must have a new garment.
In other words, the new covenant is not for a natural man. It is for a spiritual man. This is another way of saying what Jesus says in John 3:3, "You must be born again."
Jesus sends the twelve out. In Luke 10, it says he chose 70 others as well. Perhaps he sent them twice, or perhaps Matthew just doesn’t mention the others. We don’t know.
Either way, the point is that Jesus didn’t leave discipleship to just teaching. He included doing.
Notice, too, that the disciples’ ministry is supernatural. They begin with a requirement to trust God for their needs. Their ministry includes praying for people and getting results.
Some of that may be special to the apostles and to the beginning of the new covenant. It cannot all be, though. Let us never forget that our faith is a real and supernatural faith. That can be hard in the western world, where we love what we can see, touch, taste, and hear. It requires faith to please God.
Our faith is not a blind faith. God calls us and gives us plenty of reasons to believe, but once we are believers, we must believe everything God tells us. Hopefully, we have learned that lesson from our reading of the lives of Abraham and Joseph! Their great hallmark was that the both of them took God at his Word!
Once again, pay attention to the hard things. These sayings of discipleship are what God is asking of you! Jesus told the apostles to teach us the very same things that they were taught (Matt. 28:19-20).
Matthew 10:40-42 (Advanced)
Today we tend to divorce the message from the messenger. We want to receive the Gospel, but we don’t always want to be in fellowship with those who have given us the Gospel.
According to Jesus, you can’t reject the messenger but accept his message. If you reject the messenger, at least in the case of the apostles, you have rejected Jesus, just as if you reject Jesus, you have rejected God.
The very idea of the message of Jesus Christ is to bring us into fellowship with one another (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:20-23). We preach not just Christ, but what Christ has done in us, "so that you may have fellowship with us because our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn. 1:1-4).
This passage ought to encourage us a bit. Even John the Baptist, with all his revelation from God and with all he had seen, doubted. Jesus, his cousin (Luke 1-2, esp. 1:36), just wasn’t exactly what he expected.
Jesus answered him with a Scripture from Isaiah.
A quick lesson here. Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t always bother with complete explanations and justifications. In fact, he rarely did. He always left room for his Father to either reveal or not reveal the truth to those who heard him.
God doesn’t want everyone to know! He hides things from the proud and wise on purpose (11:25).
We’ll talk more about that in tomorrow’s reading.
Jesus gives a tribute to John. It’s awesome that he did that for a truly great man.
What I want us to catch, however, is his statement that the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. This is not because of ourselves! This is because we are part of a greater covenant! (2 Cor. 3:6-18; Heb. 8:6).
That verse is not talking about when we die and go off to the by and by. Jesus follows his statement by telling us that from the time of John the Baptist, the one who was preparing the way for Jesus, the kingdom of God has suffered violence, and violent men are taking it by force.
That’s another odd statement, difficult for us to comprehend, but every early Christian writer I’ve ever read has taken it positively. You don’t enter the kingdom of God casually. You must go after it. You must plan, think about it, and know that you want to pay the price (Luke 14:26-35). That is taking the kingdom of heaven by force, and it is a good thing.
When you enter that kingdom, though, you enter a kingdom that can put you ahead of John the Baptist, greatest of all men born until Jesus’ time.
The new covenant is truly a great covenant. Never underestimate it, or what you miss out on can be unimaginable.
You should memorize these verses. If you are a disciple, there will be many times in your life where you will wonder if these verses are true.
Our wondering is a sign that we are seeking the wrong things. We miss the mark when we seek obedience itself. Apart from Christ, we can do nothing (Jn. 15:5). Our job is to seek Christ, to fellowship with him, and to be filled with the Spirit (Col. 3:1-4; Gal. 5:16-18; Rom. 8:5-13; Heb. 12:1-2; etc.). Much work can be done in the direction of pursuing God himself, and you will always rest and never tire (Is. 40:27-31).
All other work must proceed from the overflow of the Spirit that results.
Miss that, and you will no longer believe Matthew 11:28-29. Do that, and you will enter into the blessedness of the true Sabbath of God (Heb. 4).
Matthew 12:1-7 (Advanced)
Don’t miss the fact that the Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
If you are beginning in the Scriptures, you’re not going to have any problems with these issues. As we read through the Scriptures together, you will find the the old covenant flowing smoothly into the new, and you will have an easy time seeing the new covenant as the fullness of the old. With that, the role of the Law falls simply and obviously into the covenants of God.
If you are not beginning, but have been a Christian, then you are surely terribly infected with the disconnect between the covenants. It is very likely you have probably never heard anything like the formerly well-known truth that the new covenant is the old brought to life for spiritual men. Reading the pages I just linked will help you a lot.
The Maccabees, Pharisees, and Zealots (Advanced)
Have you ever heard of the Maccabees?
You will find 1 and 2 Maccabees in a Catholic Bible or a copy of The Apocrypha. Some Orthodox Bibles will have 1, 2, 3, and 4 Maccabees.
The Maccabees were a family that led Israel in an overthrow of Greek generals around the 3rd century B.C. The story is heartbreaking. There was one battle after another battle after another with long periods of no rest.
A lot of those battles are prophesied in Daniel chapter 11, so accurately that a lot of secular scholars believe that Daniel wasn’t written until after the events in Maccabbees.
Anyway, the Maccabees brought the Israelites out of idolatry so that God would bless them and drive out the foreign invaders. God was with the Maccabees, and they are a great family of heroes.
From the Maccabees and their zeal for God came two groups of Jews we encounter in the Gospels: the Pharisees and the zealots.
The Pharisees (Advanced)
The Pharisees simply took the Maccabees radical stance against idolatry and law-breaking to an extreme. In the process, they passed more and more laws—"traditions of the elders" they called them—that ended up carrying more weight than the commands of God. Jesus was constantly opposing their traditions and their attitudes because they had become self-righteous and greedy (for power and money both).
The Zealots (Advanced)
I mentioned that the zealots came from the Maccabees, too. The zeal of the Maccabees was proven with violence against the foreign invaders. The zealots had the same attitude. Where possible, they advocated violent overthrow of the Romans.
We have a different zeal as Christians, but we shouldn’t miss Paul’s use of the word zeal concerning himself prior to being a Christian. When he mentions his former credentials as a Pharisee—which, of course, he was repenting of—he says, "Concerning zeal, persecuting the church." The word "zeal" carried a connotation of violence in 1st century Judaism.
The Unpardonable Sin
Much has been said about the unpardonable sin. What seems clear to me is that the Pharisees were rejecting Jesus, accusing him of using a demon’s power rather than the Holy Spirit’s power, and they were doing so to keep their political power, not out of any real belief that he was evil.
Does this mean that those Pharisees can’t repent any more? Possibly, I’ll let you decide.
What I do want you to catch is that Jesus’ method of speaking publicly changes immediately after this event, which you will see in chapter 13 tomorrow.