Below is the concluding chapter of my master’s thesis entitled An Examination of Faith in the Gospel of Matthew. My entire thesis is linked at the end of the post.
If you are Charismatic you should read the following because it will deepen your understanding of faith, doubt, and healing.
If you are not, you should read the following because Christians need to wrestle with what Jesus taught on faith.
Faith in Matthew’s Gospel
In Matthew, faith is relatively simple–in most of the miracle accounts it is no more than coming to Jesus for help. Held defines the activity of faith well as “an activity of the believer, an energetic, importunate grasping after the help of God.”[i] There are different aspects of faith presented in the miracle accounts of Matthew, but one constant is that it is active, not passive belief. Even ones with great faith did not receive what they desired until they came to Jesus. The method of healing varied. Jesus usually healed by touching, but sometimes without. Sometimes he proclaimed their healing, and sometimes he said nothing. Most of the time the person healed was present, but sometimes they were not. In a few instances it is not even clear that the person healed had faith, as in the cases of Peter’s mother-in-law (Mt. 8:14-15) and the few who were healed in his hometown (Mt. 13:58). This shows that Jesus was in control of the healing process, in control and willing to help.
Although several called him Lord and even the Son of David, it is doubtful that they would have connected Jesus with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:4 as Matthew does in verse 8:17. In fact, Matthew portrays those close to Jesus, the Twelve, as struggling with their faith, while outsiders such as the centurion and the Canaanite woman are portrayed as ones with great faith. The simplicity of faith becomes complicated when the disciples are expected to live and minister without Jesus’ immediate physical help. Before healing the first two blind men, Jesus asks them if they believe he is able to heal them, and heals them according to their positive affirmation (Mt. 9:27-31). There is no mention of certainty. As we saw in the passages where Jesus chastises the disciples for having little faith and in the teaching near the fig tree, the disciples are expected to be certain. This assurance was based on their commission in chapter 10.
Insights on faith in Matthew’s Gospel by commentators vary in quality. Sometimes the comments are based on careful study of Matthew’s use of faith, but other times the comments seem to be the personal opinions of the scholar without reference to scholarship. For example, concerning the disciples’ failure to cast the demon out of the boy in Matthew 17, Doriani asserts, “The disciples’ surprise at their failure suggests that they assumed they could solve this problem. Why, because they began to trust in themselves, in their gifts, their skills, rather than trusting the Lord. They apparently thought they had the gifts, the training, and the experience to make this work.”[ii] Similarly, Osborne posits, concerning the same passage, “They likely believed their newfound power over illness and the demonic realm gave them status, and they may have been showing off rather than centering on the God who alone has true power.”[iii] Hauerwas asserts, “Their faith is small because they have not understood that faithfulness to Jesus is not the faith that gives them power to impress with a sign.”[iv] Recalling our study of “little faith” in Matthew’s Gospel, what would lead one to make these suggestions? Personally, I can think of no relationship between these assertions and how “little faith” is used in Matthew. In all cases, “little faith” is a failure to trust in God for care or provision, often because fear became stronger than faith. That is very different from arrogant trust in one’s own abilities or a failed attempt at showing off. This demonstrates the need for both further study on faith and its application, and the need for scholars to reference existing studies related to petitionary faith when commenting on the Synoptic Gospels.
Areas for Further Study on Faith and Its Application
In chapter 1, I reviewed several works related to faith and miracles in the Synoptic Gospels. Having produced a more modest study myself, I want to suggest areas for further study on faith, specifically petitionary faith. The works of Marshall, Twelftree, and Held are excellent, but deal with petitionary faith in individual letters. The next step would be to look across the Synoptic Gospels, the rest of the NT canon, and then early Christian letters to get a broader understanding of petitionary faith in the early church. This understanding would then need to be combined with other studies related to the application of faith in the early church and beyond. Then scholarship would be in a better position to understand how Matthew expected his audience to apply the faith material in his Gospel.
This study has suggested that, in Matthew’s Gospel, during the earthly ministry of Jesus, active, undoubting faith received the answers it sought. Jesus’ disciples, commissioned in Matthew 10, were expected to carry this ministry on. People who came to the apostles were to receive what they requested as if they were coming to Jesus in the flesh. Things become more difficult when we seek to generalize past these specific statements. In Matthew’s Gospel, one has to come to a physical, authorized individual to receive answers. There is nothing in Matthew about someone praying privately for healing and receiving an answer. What if no authorized individual is physically available? What if those authorized in Matthew 10 are all dead? Do the examples and teachings on faith in Matthew apply any longer?
Therefore, the question of authority and succession of authority becomes critical. Ulrich Luz, speaking of the commissioning of the Twelve in Matthew 10, says:
His [Matthew’s] concern here is not with its historical constitution, but with the authorization by Jesus that determines the church’s entire activity. The disciples share in his own authority; that is made clear by the references back to 4:23, 9:35, and 8:16. As 28:18-20 will underscore, this power is an expression of the power of the Lord who remains with his church…Matthew thus presents the mission of the Twelve as the prototype of the continuing mission of the church.[v]
Similarly, Graham Twelftree says “the miracles are models for the ministry of his followers.”[vi] As we saw in chapter two, it appears that Matthew has arranged the miracle accounts in order to provide a template for Jesus’ disciples to follow. The question is “what disciples was Matthew thinking of when he did this?” Luz and Twelftree contend that the church is in view. In this reading, it is not the apostles alone who can perform miracles, but other disciples as well. If Luz is correct, one would expect the experience of immediate answered prayer and miraculous activity to continue in the church. If the promises were only for apostles, then why did Matthew present his material in this way? Possibly, he imagined apostles who were struggling with doubt would read this Gospel, and be encouraged to let go of their doubt, but this seems unlikely.
If Matthew was primarily thinking of the original apostles we have an explanation for the disparity between the miraculous accounts in the Gospels and that of the church subsequent to the time of the apostles. John Broadus, commenting on Jesus’ teaching that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, said, “This faith that could remove mountains…was proper only in those to whom it was granted to work miracles. For us to attempt such a thing is folly.”[vii] Broadus believed that Jesus’ teaching on faith applied only to those in the early church granted the authority to see the miraculous results promised.
Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, told his disciples that if they had faith nothing would be impossible for them.[viii] One could, like Broadus, say that these teachings only applied to the authorized apostles. In Mark’s account, however, the application appears to be much broader. Jesus tells the father of the epileptic boy that nothing is impossible for “one who believes” (Mk. 9:23). Likewise, Jesus tells his disciples that “whoever” believes and does not doubt will be able to command mountains to move (Mk. 11:23). Our understanding on petitionary faith, and its application, would increase significantly if these different ways of presenting Jesus’ teaching could be explained.
Download the entire work: An Examination of Faith in the Gospel of Matthew by James Abney
[i] Held, 280.
[ii] Daniel M. Doriani, Matthew (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 2008), 1:117.
[iii] Osborne, 657.
[iv] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 158.
[v] Luz, 2:66. Similarly, Hagner, 1:196, says, “The stories of these chapters [Mt. 8-9] thus have a transparency (Luz) or a paradigmatic function (Kingsbury) that makes them directly applicable to the life and discipleship of Matthew’s community.”
[vi] Twelftree, 102.
[vii] John A. Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886), 376.
[viii] This is my summary of Matthew 17:20 and 21:22.