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No less a historian than E. P. Sanders declares it an "almost indisputable" historical fact that "Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed" (1985:11) and that "the sheer volume of evidence makes it extremely likely that Jesus actually had a reputation as an exorcist" (1993:149; see also Meier 1994:646-77).
Technically this paragraph in Matthew serves as part of the narrative introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, although it is included in the "introduction" to Jesus' ministry here (1:1-4:23) because of the title I have chosen for the next section. Before each of the first two discourse sections, Matthew includes a summary of Jesus' kingdom works (4:23-25; 9:35). Jesus was teaching and preaching the good news of the kingdom. Teaching generally involved ethical or apologetic instruction, whereas preaching was proclamation aimed at bringing about conversion (Dodd 1980:7-8; compare Guelich 1982:43). Yet Jesus not only proclaimed and explained the kingdom; he demonstrated God's authority by healing the sick and expelling demons (Ladd 1978a:47). That he healed "all" diseases (4:23; NIV every disease) may mean every kind of sickness rather than every sick person, since the all of verse 24 is necessarily hyperbole; surely suppliants did not bring every sick person in Syria to him (Blomberg 1992:92 n. 5)!
Jesus Begins Where the People Are (4:23)
Where possible, Jesus worked through existing institutions. He taught in the synagogues, the educational and community centers of the day.
Jesus Ministers to His Hearers Both Physically and Spiritually (4:23-24)
Many conservative Christians rightly stress personal conversion but wrongly ignore the desperate physical needs around them (both for miracles and for social intervention). Many other churches rightly address societal injustices but neglect spiritual needs and personal human pain. Jesus cared about people in their totality and was concerned for their pressing needs. His example summons us to a more well-rounded ministry that preaches the gospel through evangelism and demonstrates the gospel through ministries of compassion, justice and Spirit-empowered healing (see Sider 1993).
This renewed vision of Jesus' compassion can encourage us in our prayers. When we care for people's brokenness as Jesus does, we can bring their pain to God in prayer with greater confidence. The Jesus who healed people then can heal people today, both emotionally and physically (see Deere 1993). Too many of us offer prayers while secretly doubting that God can hear us. Although God always has the right to do as he wills, we would pray with greater faith if we recognized his compassion.
Word About Jesus Spreads Widely (4:25) Ancient narratives about popular teachers (as opposed to more aristocratic figures who often disdained the masses) praised them by emphasizing their popularity (for example, Philostr. V.A. 1.40; Robbins 1992:122 n. 74). Matthew is also interested in the geographical distribution of this popularity. Josephus indicates that many Jews lived in Syria in Jesus' day (Jos. War 2.461-68); if Matthew writes to believers in Syria (see Meier 1980:36; see also introduction), he may use the mention of Jewish followers from Syria (Mt 4:24) to encourage his own audience.
In the context of the whole Gospel, however, Jesus' popularity in this passage provides a warning. God's call demands faithfulness with or without popularity. Jesus had awaited God's time for him to minister (4:12); now word about him was spreading quickly. Subsequent narratives in this Gospel, however, warn that momentary popularity is just an opportunity to convey the word to those who really have ears to hear. Popularity does not always translate into deep commitment in the end (27:20). Thus Matthew warns his first audience and us as well not to build our assurance of God's call on others' responses to our message; our knowledge of our God-given mission in life must go unshakably deeper than that (3:16-4:11).