If we want to know any book, we have to grasp its subject and central thought. In addition, we need a proper analysis of its structure and a clear understanding of its sections. –Witness Lee
I just restarted my NT reading schedule and have been enjoying digging into the structure of Matthew. This post will focus on the structure of Matthew 8–9 and what it means.
Word and Deed
After presenting Jesus’ teaching in ch. 5-7, Matthew presents Jesus’ deeds in ch. 8-9.
Jesus’ authoritative words are backed up by his authoritative deeds. He teaches about the kingdom and then works to bring it in. Teachings are followed by tactics. His words and deeds belong together. Without the word, his deeds are mute and hard to interpret; without the deed, his words are empty and hard to believe. Without the one, all is riddles; without the other, all is riddled. As Hans Küng memorably put it: “Jesus’ deeds elucidate his words and his words interpret his deeds.”
Although Jesus comes down from the mountain at the start of chapter 8, we shouldn’t think of these two chapters of action as a downgrade from the lofty teaching chapters right before it. Jesus is not “all talk.” And to anyone who has been a leper before, a single touch means more than all the teaching in the world.
But these deeds have a significance beyond the personal benefit of the individuals involved. They are signs that point to an extraordinary presence irrupting into the normal course of history. Jesus’ deeds are royal deeds, divine doings within humanity that effect God’s kingdom. They are not simply the kindly acts of a good man; they are the kingly acts of a God-man. They are the vanguard of a cosmic revolution.
And as such, his deeds speak—they speak in a way and with a volume that only startling events can. They shout “something is happening!” What Jesus does speaks volumes about who he is and why he’s here. So there is a wonderful communication of properties between his words and deeds: his deeds speak and his words do.
After teaching with authority, and acting with authority, Jesus then extends that authority in chapter 10 to his disciples to enlarge his words and deeds. And then, at the beginning of chapter 11, Jesus reassures an imprisoned and doubting John the Baptist that he truly is the Christ by saying, “Go report to John the things you hear and see” (Matt. 11:4). “Hear” = ch. 5–7 and “see” = ch. 8–9.
So then, for the grand sweep of these chapters you have:
- Matt 5–7 = Jesus teaching with authority (7:29)
- Matt 8–9 = Jesus acting with authority (8:9; 9:8)
- Matt 10 = Jesus delegating his authority (10:1)
Structure of Matthew 8–9
These two chapters are structured around ten miracles and are perfectly balanced in four sections of 17 verses each. The first and last rows in the diagram portray the trajectory of God’s move through different dispensations in time. The central two rows show us the heart of that move (the experience of Christ) and what disciples will encounter as they follow Jesus in that move. Both chapters end with a story of casting out demons and Jesus’ rejection.
The middle two rows are loaded! Row two portrays the physical environment (nowhere to rest, natural and supernatural trouble), while row three portrays the religious / intellectual environment (questioning Jesus) that following Jesus entails. If we go one level deeper, this middle section answers the question just who is this man calling people to follow him for this kingdom?
The All-inclusive Christ and His Full Salvation
Who are we following? What will we experience if we take up this journey, if we step into this shaky little boat with Jesus and set out from familiar shores?
The question arises in the tempest. The disciples ask, “What kind of man is this?” (8:27). Matthew embeds the answer in the next few stories—Son of God, Son of Man, physician, bridegroom, new garment, new wine. Lee says, that the “bird’s-eye view of this portion of the Word affords us a vivid portrait of who the heavenly King is.” Matthew uses these stories to point us to the riches of Christ for our full experience of salvation. Jesus is the God-man, who deals with Satan’s demonic kingdom and man’s debilitating sin; who mercifully heals us and is joyfully united to us in love; who covers us as our righteousness for our outward qualification to be in his presence and fills us as our life for our inward satisfaction.
Who is Jesus? He is everything we could every want.
Physician, bridegroom, garment, wine—such simple pictures at the center of these stories, but their implications are profound for our knowledge, experience, and enjoyment of Christ. He heals us, marries us, clothes us, and fills us. These images point to the most intimate and subjective experiences possible. The more I’ve thought about these four things, the more I agree with Witness Lee, “Eternity is required to comprehend them.”
Reproduction, Enlargement, Continuation
Chapter 9 transitions to chapter 10 by showing the need for the enlargement of Jesus’ ministry. More workers must be thrust out into the harvest. Then, chapter 10 portrays the disciples as the reproduction and extension of Jesus, invested with his authority and replicating his deeds (10:7-8). They have become like their teacher (10:25), they are in Him (10:32), and they are fully identified with him to the point that receiving them is receiving Jesus (10:40). Their work is not just the benevolent deeds of a few pious men, but Jesus living again through them. This is the issue of knowing and experiencing Christ in chapter 9 in those four aspects.
Read these chapters closely and you will see that all that Jesus does, the disciples also do:
Matt 8-9—Jesus cleanses lepers, heals, casts out demons, teaches, preaches, raises the dead
Matt 10—Disciples are authorized to cleanse lepers, heal, cast out demons, preach, raise the dead
In a general way, we could call these sections 1) the history of the kingdom, 2) the context of the kingdom, 3) the content of the kingdom, and 4) the spreading of the kingdom.
Or we could say they present 1) the authority and mercy of Christ in His dispensational move throughout salvation history, 2) the all-inclusive Christ as the center and content of that salvation, and 3) the living out of Christ as the issue of salvation.
We may be tempted to think the stories in Matthew chapters 8–9 are not as high as the teaching in chapters 5–7, but this is wrong. Chapters 8–9 show how Jesus creates a kingdom people who can rise to the standard of his mountaintop teaching. We should be astounded at Jesus’ words (7:28), but we should also marvel at his deeds (8:27). The verse references maybe capture it best— 728 and then 827; Jesus’ deeds are simply a mirror image of his words. They are his words “not returning to him void” but redounding back to him for his glory.
Jesus’ miracles are marvels, wonders, not just in their physical dimension in regard to the laws of nature, but in the spiritual realities they signify. Anyone who launches out into that little boat with Jesus in the Christian life, no matter how spiritually dirty, doubting, or dead will find himself again and again face-to-face with the occurrence of the impossible, and will learn again like a little child what it means to marvel. And the marvel will not remain around him like a multitude of fireflies in a field at dusk, for he will become a marvel to himself.
Karl Barth one time gave a striking definition of theology: “theology is necessarily the logic of wonders” because:
Christ is that infinitely wondrous event which compels a person, so far as he experiences and comprehends this event, to be necessarily, profoundly, wholly, and irrevocably astonished.
1. Witness Lee, “On Knowing the Bible,” CWWL 1959, 3:379
2. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 266
3. Watchman Nee, “Study on Matthew,” CWWN, 15:85; Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, 1:371. Others have divided the chapter into 9 miracle stories in groups of 3, with instructions on discipleship interspersed. See this chart.
4. Lee, Life-Study of Matthew, 326
5. Lee, “Christ Versus Religion,” CWWL 1970, 2:14
6. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 66, 71