Three aspects of Jesus’ ministry are identified in Matthew 4:23: teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and healing the sick. The first article of this three-part series considered his teaching ministry, while the second explored his proclamation of the good news. In this third and final article, we examine his healing of illnesses, diseases and infirmities. In fact, Matthew devotes more words to the description of this aspect of Jesus’ ministry than he does either his teaching or proclamation of the kingdom of heaven. The list of afflictions that Jesus heals is extensive: diseases, sickness, pains, demon possession, epilepsy and paralysis. By describing Jesus’ activity in this way, Matthew gives the healing ministry of Jesus a prominent place in his overall account of his mission.
For Matthew, the healing ministry of Jesus flows naturally from his proclamation of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. The healings are clear evidence of the presence of the kingdom. We see this later in Matthew at the time when the imprisoned John the Baptist sends messengers to Jesus to ask whether Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah (see Matthew 11:2- 6). Rather than giving a direct affirmative answer to the question, Jesus responds with a description of those events that are taking place. Prominence in the list of signs is given to the healings that are occurring. Apparently, Jesus assumed that John would recognize the significance of these events: truly Jesus is the Messiah and indeed the kingdom of heaven has come near!
In the broad scope of the ministry of Jesus, the healings represent Jesus’ concern for the physical and psychological well-being of the people whom he encountered. That is, Jesus’ ministry encompasses not only the intellectual and character formation of people (teaching) and the spiritual, social and economic health of his audience (proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of heaven), but also their physical and psychological well-being. In other words, the threefold description of Jesus’ ministry expresses the holistic or integrated nature of his ministry. The good news of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven reaches into every recess of the human experience. There is no crevice in human life beyond the reach of the kingdom of heaven and the ministry of Jesus.
A Balanced Ministry
For Matthew, this description of Jesus’ ministry represents more than a simple account of the activity of the earthly Jesus. His reason for including it is not simple historical curiosity or accuracy. Rather, this description of the integrated ministry of Jesus provides the template for the ministry of Matthew’s own Christian community. The importance of this threefold ministry of Jesus is that it provides the model for those who follow him. This point is made later in Matthew when he uses this same description again to summarize the ministry of Jesus (see Matthew 9:35) and then follows it with Jesus’ commissioning of his disciples to carry out this holistic mission on his behalf (see Matthew 10). Further, when Matthew wrote his Gospel account, he was instructing his own Christian community about the life of Jesus and about their own mission.
Matthew gives the healing ministry of Jesus a prominent place in his overall account of his mission.
Since we receive Matthew’s testimony about Jesus as sacred Scripture, we recognize that Matthew also addresses the church today. This summary of Jesus’ ministry is definitive for the church. As the community that stands in succession to that of Matthew, and in succession to Jesus himself, we must embrace the balanced ministry of Jesus that focuses on teaching, the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and healing the physical, psychological and social maladies that afflict our world. The church, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, cannot ignore any of these three components of Jesus’ ministry. To do so impairs our overall mission and distorts our discipleship. Jesus’ invitation to Peter, Andrew, James and John to “Follow me” (see Matthew 4:18-22) involved more than simply trekking behind Jesus on the roadways of Galilee. The summons to these first disciples, and to those who would join them, was to follow Jesus’ example, to embrace his mission. It was a call to shape our lives and our ministry after the pattern modelled for us by Jesus himself. For Matthew, following Jesus without embracing his threefold ministry is fraudulent.
A Missional Tension
The temptation that confronts us forcefully is to narrow the mission of Jesus in the world. One of the classic debates within Christianity has been the missional tension between “preaching the gospel” and “social ministry.” Too often we view these as contrary emphases, as though we can’t do one while we’re trying to do the other. They may even be viewed as mutually exclusive, so we must choose between them.
Yet such a differentiation between these two expressions of the mission of Jesus is false, even demonic, for it tears apart what Jesus demonstrated should be integrated. The life blood of Christian social ministry is the gospel; the natural expression of having received the good news is active concern for those who are marginalized. What God has joined together, let none of us put asunder!
In his own words written in 1889, William Booth articulated this realization that the salvation brought by Jesus was not an either/or: either salvation understood as eternal life with God or salvation understood in more temporal terms as flourishing in this world. Instead, salvation is a both/and: both salvation understood as eternal life with God and salvation understood as flourishing in this world. Reflecting upon his previous 44 years of revivalist ministry, Booth wrote, “… as I came to look more closely into things, and gathered more experience of the ways of God to man, I discovered that the miseries from which I sought to save man in the next world were substantially the same as those from which I everywhere found him suffering in this, and that they proceeded from the same cause—that is, from his alienation from, and his rebellion against, God, and then from his own disordered dispositions and appetites.” Booth went on to say, “… with this discovery there also came another, which has been growing and growing in clearness and intensity from that hour to this; which was that I had two gospels of deliverance to preach—one for each world, or rather, one gospel which applied alike to both. I saw that when the Bible said, ‘He that believeth shall be saved,’ it meant not only saved from the miseries of the future world, but from the miseries of this also. That it came with the promise of salvation here and now; from hell and sin and vice and crime and idleness and extravagance, and consequently very largely from poverty and disease, and the majority of kindred woes.” Take notice of Booth’s almost Freudian slip when he refers to “two gospels,” but quickly corrects himself to say that there is only one gospel that encompasses the wholeness of human life.
Healthy and Faithful
It seems to me inevitable that various branches of the church and individual Christians will have aptitudes and emphases that might privilege one or two of the three components of Jesus’ mission over the others. But even with this recognition, no church or individual— not even an Army—can simply ignore those aspects of the church’s mission that are uncomfortable or less easily fulfilled. The healthy, faithful church will live out the holistic mission of Jesus; the healthy, faithful Christian will do likewise.
The great encouragement we receive is that we do not take up this ministry on our own. It is not our ministry as though we solely are responsible for it. This is the ministry that Jesus lived out during his life on earth; this is the ministry that he mandated his disciples to fulfil (see Matthew 10); and this is the ministry that Jesus commissioned all who would follow him to serve (see Matthew 28:16-20). But perhaps the greatest encouragement we can receive is found in the final words of Jesus in Matthew: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 NRSV). Jesus is with us not just for our comfort, but even more importantly for our empowerment to carry out the ministry he has given us.
Dr. Donald E. Burke is a professor of biblical studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg.
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Dear concerned, I want to commend your thoughtful responses to the article. I would suggest that one reason why Paul's letters are different from the Gospels in their emphases is that they are "occasional" letters, written to address specific "occasions" or issues arising in the churches to which Paul wrote. Presumably stories about Jesus's healing ministry and other acts of concern for others were circulating in other forms and therefore it was not necessary for Paul to repeat them in his letters. Regarding the suggestion that Paul had less concern for the social concerns we see evident in the ministry of Jesus, I would reiterate that there is a growing body of scholarship that argues that in fact Paul was deeply concerned and practically engaged on such matters. A recent work on this topic is Bruce W. Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World. I've been interested in this topic for some time and am currently teaching a course entitled "Christianity and the Marginalized." Time constraints in the course this year has not permitted a section dealing with Paul, but I hope to add it in future iterations of the course.