Healing with Authority

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I was reading Matthew’s gospel recently as part of reading through the Bible in a year in 2019.

After the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 to 7, there are two chapters (8 and 9) where Jesus travels around Galilee and the Gentile area of the Gadarenes healing “every disease and every affliction.” (Matthew 9:35 ESV). These chapters include ten specific stories of healing in quick succession. Interspersed among these are some specific incidents where Jesus begins to explain more about his ministry, and also one other miracle of the calming of the storm on Galilee.

We are so familiar with these stories it’s easy to miss what’s going on and the remarkable nature of what Jesus is doing.  What’s perhaps surprising, though, is that the disciples seem to miss some of this too.  Other gospels record the amazement of the crowds and how Jesus’ fame spread “so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” (Mark 1:45), but in Matthew’s gospel the amazement is reserved at first for the calming of the storm: “And the men marvelled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him’ ” (Matthew 8:27)

This got me thinking. Why were the disciples not more amazed by the healings? Surely that was marvellous enough?

Further research reveals that in fact “The retelling of biblical narratives in postbiblical Jewish texts indicates that magic and miracles permeated the world of the Jews in the second temple period” [1].  There were several miracle workers operating at the time of Jesus, for example Honi the “circle drawer” and his grandchildren, who made it rain and healed the sick [1].

Of course I’d forgotten too that Jesus himself refers to other healers. When accused by the pharisees of casting out demons by the “prince of demons” Jesus reminds them that their sons cast out demons too – so how are they doing it? (Matthew 12:24ff). The pharisees could see that something more was going on.

Nevertheless the disciples and the crowds were amazed (and frightened sometimes too) by what Jesus was doing.  Something unique was going on, that was for sure. But it wasn’t simply that Jesus was healing the sick.

It will take more than a short blog post to unpack all of that, but here are few bullet points which I noted across these two chapters:

  1. Jesus heals remotely – he doesn’t even need to be there (Matthew 8:13)
  2. The healings are radically inclusive, the outcast, tax collectors, sinners, even the gentiles – not just those worthy (9:10-13)
  3. Nothing is impossible – the blind, mute, utterly demon possessed, even the dead –  all cured!
  4. Many of the healings introduce an element of faith, in Jesus himself (e.g. 8:13, 8:26, 9:22, 9:28)
  5. The pharisees are scandalised by Jesus linking healing to forgiveness of sin (9:6)

All three of the synoptic gospels include the story of fasting and new wineskins among these healings, which indicates that something completely new is happening. Mark records that the people marvelled at “a new teaching with authority.” (Mark 1:27) Matthew reports that the crowds “marvelled, saying, ‘Never was anything like this seen in Israel.’ ” (Matthew 9:32)

Yes, there had been teachers and healers before. But never like this…


 

[1] Gideon Bohak and Geza Vermes, Jewish Miracles Workers and Magic in the late Second Temple Period in Levine, Amy-Jill. Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2017, p.680ff

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Christmas, Genealogies and Adoption

I have written about the doctrine of adoption before and how in his book, Knowing God, Jim Packer considers adoption the highest privilege of the gospel—higher even than justification—because of the richness of the relationship with God with which it is associated.

In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship—he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge [justification] is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father [adoption] is a greater. [1]

At St Mary-le-Tower in Ipswich (where I count it a great privilege to sing evensong fairly regularly) members are reading Paula Gooder’s book, Journey to the Manger. I am a little late getting started and so only today read the first few chapters. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find the doctrine of adoption in the Christmas story, and especially not in the genealogies from the beginning of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The point has been made plenty of times that the genealogies in the gospels hold such encouragement for us, that fallen men and fallen women can still be part of God’s plan. Paula Gooder puts it like this:

Whoever we are, however ramshackle and dubious we might be, the God who needed Judah and Tamar, Rahab and Salmon, Boaz and Ruth, David and Bathsheba and Mary and Joseph needs us to be part of his plan [2]

I would quibble at the use of the word “need” (see for example Acts 17:25) and prefer to use the much richer and more biblical thought that God actively chooses us to be part of his plan, and of course that’s what the doctrine of adoption talks about too as Ephesians 1 makes clear.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will (Ephesians 1:3-5, ESV)

Returning to the genealogies, one issue some people may have with the genealogies is that Jesus’ ancestry is traced through Joseph, who, as the gospels make very clear, was NOT Jesus’ biological father.  Paula Gooder explains one way of looking at this, which was a delightful surprise to me, as she talks about the “great cultural clashes that from time to time to time disrupt our ability to understand what is going on in a biblical passage.” [3]

The key here is adoption in the ancient world. Adoption was widespread within both Roman and Jewish society. The difference between Roman and Jewish adoption was that…in Jewish society adoption of babies was more common… For both societies adoption was absolute, and the adoptee was to be treated as though they were the biological child of the new parents. Legally and formally, then, they were treated as part of that new family. [3]

At Christmas Jesus is born for us so we ourselves can be born anew:

Come to be born, to bear us to our new birth [4]

In the same way, perhaps, Jesus is adopted into an earthly family, irrevocably, securely so that we too might receive adoption as sons and daughters.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 4:4–7, ESV)


References:

[1] Packer, J. I. (1975). Knowing God. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

[2] Gooder, P. (2015). Journey to the manger: Exploring the birth of Jesus. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 10-11

[3] Ibid. p.9

[4] Guite, M. (2015). Waiting on the word: A poem a day for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 87

 

A Music Advent Calendar – 4. Of the Father’s Heart Begotten

Of the Father’s Heart Begotten has always been a favourite carol of ours.  I remember hiring the music from OUP for the first Christmas orchestra I ever organised for St Andrew’s Street Baptist Church, Cambridge, while a student.  We later had the hymn at our wedding.

The hymn is based on the Latin poem Corde natus by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius, and there are various translations available, the most popular from J M Neale and Henry Baker and is most common sung to a metrical version of the plainchant Divinum mysterium.

The hymn talks of the Lord Jesus, born of the love of the Father’s heart, Alpha and Omega, the Word by whom all things were created, the promised Saviour foretold by the prophets, born in frailty to die to save us. The final verse, particularly in this arrangement below with a soaring descant by Sir David Willcocks, lifts our hearts to praise with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”

At the Cantus Firmus Trust Advent Service, Coming Soon to a World Near You, as this post is published (Sunday 4th December 2016) we will be singing these words from Jubilate Hymns. If you are reading this on Sunday morning it’s not too late to join is and sing this wonderful hymn with us.

1 God of God, the uncreated,
love before the world began;
he the source and he the ending,
Son of God and son of Man,
Lord of all the things that have been,
master of the eternal plan,
evermore and evermore!

2 He is here, whom generations
sought throughout the ages long;
promised by the ancient prophets
justice for a world of wrong,
God’s salvation for the faithful;
him we praise in endless song
evermore and evermore!

3 Happy is that day for ever
when, by God the Spirit’s grace,
lowly Mary, virgin mother,
bore the saviour of our race.
Man and child, the world’s redeemer
now displays his sacred face
evermore and evermore!

4 Praise him, heaven of the heavens,
praise him, angels in the height;
priests and prophets, bow before him,
saints who longed to see this sight.
Let no human voice be silent,
in his glory hearts unite
evermore and evermore!

Corde natus ex parentis Jubilate Hymns version after Prudentius (348 – c.410), J M Neale (1818 – 1866), and H W Baker (1821-1877)
© Jubilate Hymns Ltd

St Matthew Passion

Each Good Friday I try to listen to one of the Bach Passions.  Last year I was fortunate to hear Mark Padmore as the Evangelist in the St John Passion as part of the 2008 Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall. As I type this I am listening (courtesy of the wonderful BBC Listen Again) to a recording of the St Matthew Passion given on BBC Radio 3 last night.  It’s fairly radical, with only 8 singers to cover all the solos and form the two choirs – all without a conductor but again with Mark Padmore as Evangelist. The advantage of such small forces is you can hear every word (OK, it’s in German so I am listening with a translation in front of me).

It’s hard to know what to say about a work as great as the St Matthew Passion.  Perhaps I’ll single out one thing. And that is the huge sense of a lack of resolution with which Bach intentionally leaves us at the end of the final chorus.  It’s as if he is saying – this is not the end of the story.  Just wait until Sunday.

I wondered what Wordle would make of the words of Matthew chapters 26 and 27 – the text of the St Matthew Passion. This was the first attempt – I think it sums it up pretty well!

Wordle: St Matthew Passion