The ninth chapter of Matthew is largely an account of the miracle-working ministry of Jesus. Five miracles are recorded, four of them physical healings, and the fifth, a restoring to life of a dead girl. But these are only representative of the many miracles Jesus performed. In fact, toward the end of the chapter Matthew seems to sum it all up by writing: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and affliction” (v. 35).
Several years later when Peter was preaching to the household of Cornelius, he said that “[Jesus] went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Of all Peter could have said about Jesus’ ministry he focused on His doing good and healing people. The ultimate purpose of Jesus’ incarnation of course was to give His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28), but His three years of public ministry were characterized by doing good and healing people.
What was the purpose of Jesus’ healing miracles? John in his gospel calls the miracles “signs,” (2:11; 2:23; 4:54; 20:30–31). That is, they displayed the divine power of Jesus and attested that He was indeed the Son of God. In fact, John specifically states that the miracles he included in his gospel were for the purpose that his reader “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name” (20:31). Jesus Himself used His miraculous healing of the paralytic man as a proof that He had authority to forgive sins — an obvious reference to His divine Sonship (Matt. 9:2–6).
There was another motive, however, in Jesus’ healing ministry. He was moved by compassion for those in need. Matthew records that as He went throughout the cities and villages, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). On another occasion when Jesus saw the only son of a widow being carried out for burial, He had compassion on the woman and raised her son to life (Luke 7:11–14).
Jesus’ acts of healing, then, had a two-fold purpose. Clearly, they were needed as an authentication of His divine Sonship. But in the process Jesus wanted to respond to true human needs. We should not overlook the application to us. While the spiritual needs of people are paramount, we must not ignore their physical needs. After all, according to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31–46, the final judgment will certainly take into account our ministries to the physical needs of people.
On an institutional level we evangelicals are doing a fairly good job of ministering to the physical needs of people. But as individuals, do we have compassion for the poor, the homeless, the elderly, and the disabled? We cannot perform miracles, but we can minister in many ordinary ways. Each of us needs to prayerfully consider how we might follow the example of Jesus’ compassion in meeting the physical needs of needy people.
Returning to the miracles recorded in Matthew 9, it is instructive to note the part faith plays in them. In the healing of the paralytic man, Matthew says that Jesus saw his faith (v. 2). To the woman who was healed, Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well” (v. 22). And to the two blind men whom He healed, He said, “According to your faith be it done to you” (v. 29). And as for the ruler whose daughter Jesus restored to life, his faith is certainly implied in his request to Jesus: “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live” (v. 18). Only of the demon-oppressed man who was mute is there no mention of faith on his part.
In all four of the instances where faith is mentioned, the object of faith was in Jesus’ ability to heal, not His will to heal. Today as we pray for the healing of friends or loved ones who suffer severe illness or disease, we too should believe that God is able to heal, either directly or through conventional means. To say I have faith that God will heal is presumptuous since we do not know the mind of God, but to say God is able to heal is to exercise faith.
Is God limited to our faith? No, for there are several instances in the Gospels where faith is not mentioned. Today we sometimes struggle with the faith to believe that Jesus is able to heal because we see so little healing accomplished. When we struggle this way, we should follow the example of the father who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). There is a vast difference between a struggling faith such as the father had, and the stubborn unbelief of the people in Jesus’ hometown, which did prevent Him from doing any mighty works there (Mark 6:3–6). Let’s be sure we have a struggling faith and not a stubborn unbelief.