We need to go back to the miracle stories (Matthew 8) and look at them not as simple stories about Jesus’ ability to make sick people well – people who have viewed the stories in this way have sometimes mistakenly believed that the New Testament teaches all Christians have the right to perfect health – but for what these stories teach us about sin and its cure. When we do this, we find four unmistakable lessons:
First, we are spiritually sick. Even worse, we are dying because of sin. This is why Matthew begins with the leper’s healing; lepers were considered as good as dead. Yet the same point is made in each of the other stories. The centurion’s servant was dying, and as far as Peter’s mother-in-law is concerned, we should remember that in ancient times, before antibiotics and aspirin, more people died from fever than from any other single cause.
The point is that we are all perishing in sin, and there is no human remedy that will save us. True, the problem is worse than being merely sick. Paul told the Ephesians that we are actually dead already as far as being able to do anything to help ourselves is concerned. We need something much like a resurrection. That is why Paul wrote, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. … But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.” But Matthew is not recording a resurrection story at this point. He is telling how Jesus healed the sick early in His ministry. He is presenting our desperate condition as a terminal disease. Without God and the power God alone has to heal us, we will perish eternally.
We need a Savior, and Jesus is that Savior. This is probably a second reason why the author of the Gospel summarizes his account of the first three healings by citing Isaiah 53.4. That verse expresses a link between the healing of disease and the healing of sin’s sickness, but it also comes from a passage that prophesies the coming messianic Savior. Jesus is that Savior, and His authority both to heal and to forgive human sin is proof of it. There is no other Savior, because no other speaks or heals with such power.
Third, Faith is necessary. A moment ago, we referred to Ephesians 2 to show that in God’s sight we are not merely sick with sin but actually dead in sin and need a resurrection. However, that passage also teaches that faith is the channel by which the salvation of God comes to us. Faith is not a good work of ours for which we can take credit; God makes it possible. But faith is still something we do, and it is necessary. We must believe. God does not believe for us. Ephesians 2.8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast.” We see the need for faith in two of these three stories.
Did the leper have faith? He did, and it was of a remarkable sort. As Howard Vos points out in his commentary on Matthew, the leper did not say, “If you can” but “If you will.” That is, he began by believing that Jesus could heal him. The only question was whether Jesus would choose to do so. As for the Roman centurion, we have already seen how exceptional his faith was and how Jesus praised it as exceeding anything to be found in Israel. He understood that Jesus spoke with the authority and power of God. Therefore, it was not even necessary that Jesus enter his house to heal his servant. He could do it by a word and from a distance. This is what you and I need too, if we are to be saved from sin. Our condition is desperate. Jesus is the physician who alone can save us, but we must have faith in Him. Do you? Faith is the one thing we need, the one thing that really matters.
Bishop John Ryle asks pointedly, “What do we each know of this faith? … Our learning may be small: but do we believe? Our opportunities of giving and working for Christ’s cause may be few: but do we believe? We may neither be able to preach, nor write, nor argue for the Gospel: but do we believe? May we never rest till we can answer this inquiry. … Faith in Christ is most precious in God’s sight, and like most precious things is rare. By it true Christians live; by it they stand; by it they overcome the world. Without this faith no one can be saved.”
Finally, the stakes are life or death. This is the most important matter you will ever be asked to consider, for at stake is your life or your death: the life of God to be enjoyed in part now, though more fully later and forever, or the way of death that is bad enough now but will become indescribably tragic and inescapable when you pass from this phase of your existence to eternity. In this very passage, Jesus describes spiritual death as being “thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Those are frightening words. I would not dare to utter them myself, if I did not have Christ’s teaching. But I think Jesus knew what He was talking about. Don’t you?
If you do, why don’t you turn from your sin and believe on Him now as your Savior? The people in these three stories did.