The Lord over Disease and Death

According to Johns Hopkins University, more than 4,990,000 people in the US have been or are ill with COVID-19, and over 162,000 have died. I know that figures are disputed and are used as a political football by more than one side. But, undeniably, many people have become ill, and many have died. While I hope not contract the SARS virus, I do know that, unless the Lord returns first, sickness and death lie in my future, and I expect in your as well. How do we, who belong to Jesus Christ, respond in the face of illness and death? Matthew 9:18–26 shows you Jesus as the Lord over disease and death.

Believe in the Lord who heals. Trust the Lord to meet your needs. Matthew’s account of these nested miracles is briefer than those in Mark 5 or Luke 7. He leaves out Jairus’ name, the jostling crowds, Jesus’s question, “who touched me?” and the arrival of the servants with the news of the girl’s death. Matthew focuses your attention on the Lord who heals and gives life. Matthew calls you to trust this Lord. The ruler’s kneeling, and his words, “come, put your hand on her, and she will live,” display a deep trust, all the more remarkable for the opposition to Jesus which was already rising among the religious leaders (see Matthew 9:3,34). The words of the woman, spoken only to herself, express her trust in the Savior, verse 21. Both the ruler and the woman recognized that they had a deep need which could be met only by Jesus himself. Matthew’s repeated description of the Lord as trustworthy calls you to place your faith in the same Lord. Your needs may not be identical, but Matthew is calling you to One who can meet those needs. “God deals kindly and gently with his people, — accepts their faith, though imperfect and weak, — and does not lay to their charge the faults and imperfections with which it is connected. It was by the guidance of faith, therefore, that the woman approached to Christ.” (John Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels at Matthew 9:20).

Depend on the Savior’s cleansing work. This woman needed physical healing. She had been subject to this problem for 12 years. (Luke, the physician), said that no one could heal it, Luke 8:43. Worse, this particular infirmity made her ceremonially unclean, according to Leviticus 15:25–27. Contact with her, even touching her furniture, made others ceremonially unclean. The unclean person was barred from contact with others, and even from the public gathering for worship, until he or she had been ceremonially purified. That may have been one reason she touched the tassel of Jesus’ cloak, rather than asking for healing. Jesus turns and speaks to her. His words are full of compassion and reassurance: “take heart,” and “daughter.” Although the speaking may seem to put her uncomfortably on the spot, Jesus is making clear that his healing is not some magical activity, some power that can be manipulated out of him. Rather he is the healer. Her faith, a trust in him, healed her. Further, Jesus words make clear not only to her, but to those around her that she is healed. The cause of uncleanness is gone. She can resume normal activities with the rest of society. The word Jesus uses for “healed” is the same word that is translated “saved.” Although the translation is appropriate here, Matthew, writing this after the death and resurrection of Jesus, sees this miracle of healing as an anticipation of the benefits that flow from the cross and the empty tomb.

Trust the Lord of life! Jesus’ lordship extends even over the realm of death. Mark and Luke describe Jairus coming as his daughter was about to die, and then the servants approaching after the interruption with the woman, with the news of her actual death. Matthew compresses the account, and simply has the ruler asking Jesus’ touch for his daughter who has just died. For Jesus, the death of his people is simply sleep, v.24. The noisy mourning contrasts with our customs. Some critics have suggested that Jesus simply roused the girl from a coma, rather than from the dead. But Matthew clearly is describing, not the correction of a misdiagnosis, but the raising of someone from the dead. Note the scornful laughter of the mourners. This language will recur latter in the New Testament: John 11:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13. Your death is not the end. Even it cannot separate you from your Lord. This raising of the dead anticipates the completed work of Christ. Matthew is recording the preaching and miracles of Jesus before his death and resurrection. Mark and Luke also record the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, and John describes the raising of Lazarus. But this is the one miracle of raising the dead that Matthew includes. The good news of eternal life in Christ is proclaimed and anticipated in this raising of the dead. It is a foretaste, a sample, of what would happen because the Savior will give his life for his people. “Jesus is drawing a thought-provoking parallel between death and literal sleep: if death is ‘sleep,’ then it allows the possibility of waking up. Death is not the end, and in the case of this girl it will prove to be only a temporary experience. Her death is real, but it is not final. . . . The Christian reader of Matthew will be aware that in a much deeper sense Jesus’ resurrection has overcome the finality of death itself, and given a new force to the metaphor of ‘sleep’ which can apply to all who die, not just to the very few whom Jesus will resuscitate during his earthly ministry.” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 364).

Believe this good news! This event forms a sub-climax in Matthew’s Gospel. He has presented Jesus’ preaching in the Sermon on the Mount. He has described a series of spectacular miracles, Matthew 8 & 9. Now it is clear that Jesus is not just a great teacher, not just a powerful healer, but is the Lord of life as well. Matthew’s presentation of his Lord is a call for you to trust in that Savior. This is not a “health and wealth” gospel. Matthew is not promising you that you’ll never be ill, or that you won’t face death. But he does call you to the One who is the Lord of life, the One who’s work on the cross eventually defeats death. This miracle is part of establishing that kingdom in which, finally, death will be no more. “In the light of the entire preaching of the kingdom it is clear that it is exactly in the delivery from death that the salvation of the kingdom reaches its climax. . . . For the kingdom of God revealed in miracles signifies the redemption from all evil and the restoration of the whole of life.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 68). This news spreads, v.26! You cannot keep still about the greatness of this Savior and his work. The spreading of the report throughout the region anticipates the note on which Matthew will close his Gospel, with the news going out to all the nations. Let that report be reflected in your words and your life this week, because you have come to trust this Lord.

Yes, Matthew wants you to see the faith of the ruler and of the woman. He wants you to rejoice in the restoration of the girl from the dead. But above all, he wants you to recognize that Jesus is trustworthy, and to depend upon him as your Savior, both in life and in death.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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