corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Matthew 8



Other Authors
Verse 1


(1) We enter here on a series of events, following, in St. Matthew’s arrangement, on the great discourse. They are common to St. Mark and St. Luke, but are not narrated, as the following table will show, in the same order:—




(1.) The leper (Matthew 8:1-4).

(1.) Peter’s wife’s mother (Mark 1:29-31).

(1.) Peter’s wife’s mother (Luke 4:38-39).

(2.) The servant of the centurion (Matthew 8:5-13).

(2.) The leper (Mark 1:40-45).

(2.) The leper (Luke 5:12-15).

(3.) Peter’s wife’s mother (Matthew 8:14-15).

(3.) The stilling of the storm Mark ().

(3.) The servant of the centurion (Luke 7:1-10).

(4.) The excuses of two disciples (Matthew 8:18-22).

(4.) The Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20).

(4.) The stilling of the storm (Luke 8:22-25).

(5.) The stilling of the storm (Matthew 8:23-27).

(5.) The Gadarene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39).

(6.) The Gadarene demoniacs (Matthew 8:28-33).

(6.) The excuses of two disciples (Luke 9:57-62).

A comparison such as this, especially if we take into account the narratives which in St. Mark and St. Luke come between those which St. Matthew makes to follow close one upon another, and the apparent notes of succession in each case, is enough to show, once for all the difficulty of harmonising the Gospel narratives with any certainty. Three conclusions may fairly be received as all but certain. (1.) The independence of each record. It is scarcely conceivable that St. Mark or St. Luke would have departed so widely from St. Matthew’s order had they had his Gospel before them. (2.) The derivation of all three from earlier records, written or oral, each embracing some few acts or discourses of our Lord. (3.) The absence of any direct evidence as to the order of these events, so that each writer was often left to his own discretion, or to some internal principle of grouping.

In dealing with such cases, therefore, while the parallel narratives in the other Gospels will be noticed, so far as they make the record here more vivid and complete, there will seldom be any attempt to discuss elaborately the order in which they stand.

Verse 2

(2) A leper.—The discussion of leprosy, as to its nature, symptoms, and causes, would be at once long and difficult. The word, which is Greek and not Hebrew in its origin, has probably been used with varying extent of meaning, sometimes including elephantiasis, or even cancer. Even in its narrower meaning, as used by Hippocrates, leprosy was subdivided into three kinds: (1) the mealy, (2) the white, (3) the black, according to the appearance presented by the portions of diseased flesh. Confining ourselves to the Biblical form of the disease, we note (1) its probable origin in the squalor and wretchedness of the Egyptian bondage. It was the “botch,” or plague “of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 28:27). In the Egyptian legends of the Exodus, indeed, the Israelites were said to have been expelled because they were lepers. (2) Its main features were the appearance of a bright spot on the flesh, whiter than the rest, spreading, in flaming, cracking; an ichorous humour oozing from the cracks, the skin becoming hard, scaly, “as white as snow” (Exodus 4:6; 2 Kings 5:27). One so affected was regarded as unclean; his touch brought defilement (Leviticus 13:3; Leviticus 13:11; Leviticus 13:15). He was looked upon as smitten with a divine plague, and cases like those of Miriam and Gehazi gave strength to the belief. He had to live apart from his fellows, to wear on his brow the outward sign of separation, to cry out the words of warning, “Unclean, unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). The idea which lay at the bottom of this separation seems to have been one of abhorrence rather than precaution. The disease was loathsome, but there is no evidence that it was contagious, or even believed to be contagious. At the stage in which it reached its height, and the whole body was covered with the botch and scabs, the man was, by a strange contrast, declared to be ceremonially clean (Leviticus 13:13), and in this state, therefore, the leper might return to his kindred, and take his place among the worshippers of the synagogue. In the case now before us, the man would appear to have been as yet in the intermediate stage. St. Luke describes him, however, as “full of leprosy.”

Worshipped him—i.e., as in St. Mark, “falling on his knees,” or in St. Luke, “falling on his face,” in the highest form of Eastern homage. The act gave to the word “Lord” the emphasis of one, at least, of its higher meanings.

If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.—The words imply either that he had seen or heard of our Lord’s works of healing, or that His words had impressed him with the belief that the Teacher must have a power extending to acts also. There does not appear to have been any previous case of leprosy miraculously cleansed. The words of the man involve a singular mingling of faith and distrust. He believes in the power, he does not as yet believe in the will. Can it stoop to one so foul as he? If he shared the common feeling that leprosy was the punishment of sin, he might ask: himself, Will He pity and relieve one so sinful?

Verse 2-3

The Leper

And behold, there came to him a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou made clean. And straightway his leprosy was cleansed.—Matthew 8:2-3.

1. The disease of leprosy is scarcely known, except in a mild form, among ourselves; only those who have seen it in Eastern lands can realize its full horror and loathsomeness. And not even then unless they place themselves in intelligent sympathy with the ancient Hebrew point of view, and understand the mysterious dread and utter abhorrence which surrounded the person so afflicted. He was an accursed thing, under the ban of God, the pariah, the unapproachable. Writhing under the dread disease, he was lost to the world. His home was the caves among the rocks, his food the scanty pittance which he could gather in the fields or by the roadsides. Leprosy was held to be the mark of awful sin, the manifestation of God’s special displeasure. Even if he recovered, he could not be restored without an elaborate ritual, which was supposed to cleanse him from the taint of disease, and to reconcile him to God. How horrible this all seems as we read and think about it. Yet we must realize it if we desire to appreciate fully all that the Saviour’s touch and healing implied.

2. To approach the leper, to look upon him, to bend over him, to reach out the hand and touch him, required no common courage. There was such pollution in the act that the one doing it became ritually unclean. For a man to step across the awful chasm which yawned between the leper and society, to minister to his wants, to show him the way back to health and home, was braver than to face death on the battlefield. To the beholder it would be an evidence of utter recklessness, an open defiance of all tradition and all law. Yet Christ, the Son of Man, did not hesitate for a moment. He did not come to set at naught the law, made sacred by Moses’ decree and by long ages of use. It was not that. It was only a declaration, of which His wonderful life was so full, of the higher law which was from henceforth to govern the world; that higher law of the sympathy of the great Father with all manner of suffering and sorrow, that higher law which was to take the place of the narrow rule of Hebrew ritual, of the possibility of the restoration of every outcast by the acceptance of the help of the Saviour.

Christ did not disregard the prohibition to touch the leper because He wanted to show His contempt for the statute. For Him the wealth of His own life repealed the statute. He was like a vessel riding the deep sea; all underlaid with rocks the sea may be, but for that vessel there are no rocks; the vastness of the deep waters on whose surface its course is swung practically obliterates the rocks, and bears the vessel forward in the confidence of infinite security.1 [Note: C. H. Parkhurst, A Little Lower than the Angels, 43.]


The Cry for Cleansing

“Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.”

1. This is a confession of faith rather than a direct prayer. It expresses faith in the power of Christ. It is a grand thing when a leper can believe in anything besides his own misery. Probably this man had heard only at a distance (owing to the disabilities of his loathsome disease) of Christ’s deeds of power, and had never been near enough to Him to hear the tender tones of that voice which had melting pity in it, or to trace the lines of gentleness and grace in His loving countenance. Besides, men learn sooner to trace power than to trace tenderness. The Red Sea and Sinai revealed God’s power, but it took a millennium and a half longer for Calvary to reveal His love. The plea of the leper therefore is, “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst.” Did he accept the general belief that only God could heal the leper? Then there was the more faith in this admission of Christ’s power.

What a consciousness of might there was in Jesus! Others, prophets and apostles, have healed the sick, but their power was delegated. It came as in waves of Divine impulse, intermittent and temporary. The power that Jesus wielded was inherent and absolute, deeps which knew neither cessation nor diminution. Christ’s will was supreme over all forces. Nature’s potencies are diffused and isolated, slumbering in herb or metal, flower or leaf, in mountain or sea. But all are inert and useless until man distils them with his subtle alchemies, and then applies them by his slow processes, dissolving the tinctures in the blood, sending on its warm currents the healing virtue, if haply it may reach its goal and accomplish its mission. But all these potencies lay in the hand or in the will of Christ. The forces of life all were marshalled under His bidding. He had but to say to one “Go,” and it went, here or there, or anywhither; nor does it go for nought; it accomplishes its high behest, the great Master’s will.1 [Note: H. Burton, The Gospel of St. Luke, 267.]

2. Now the exercise of faith must always precede healing. A certain moral temper there must be in the recipient, a certain spiritual outlook, a movement of trust, a personal desire of living interest that will go out from the soul towards the presence of Him who draws it into His mastery. These there must be if any virtue is to go out from Him. He moves along in silence, but His silence has power in it that can be felt, and it acts as a spiritual test of those on whom it falls. If they are in a moral condition to be helped, they become aware of the succour that is at hand. They feel about for what it means, they detect His personal supremacy. They have an impulse that goes out to Him; they put up a cry; they thrust out a hand to touch, if it may be, the hem of His garment. That act of theirs releases His force. Instantaneously and inevitably His life has passed into theirs. They are invaded by His strength; they are permeated by His vitality; they are quickened by His energy; they find themselves, by sheer and natural necessity, rising, walking, seeing, hearing. They could not do anything else. Surprise vanishes and wonder is slain. It is as simple as any other natural effect. They perfectly understand Him as He tells them that they had but to be in that condition and the thing is bound to happen—“Thy faith hath made thee whole.”

Oft had the Master to pass inactive and helpless as poor maimed men sat in moody silence by the roadside, and never asked who He was, and never hoped for a hand to save. He saw many a leper go by engulfed in his own shame, never lifting his eyes to beg of Him a boon. He had to watch the stupid indifference of those whom misery had dulled and hardened into despair, and still He might not speak. He might not shake them out of their torpor; His mouth was closed; His hope must hold itself back. Why will not they understand? Why cannot they cry out? Just one whisper, “Jesus of Nazareth, have mercy upon us,” and in a moment He would be free. He would be there at their side; His hand would have leaped out; His touch would have been upon them. The words would have rushed out willingly from his tongue, “I will; go in peace, for thy faith hath made thee whole.”

Just as the amazing resources of electricity lie all about us, quivering and inactive until we call out their capacities, so the vast pardon of God waits, and through its obedience to natural law must wait until the Master’s touch has on it a human pressure. The leper must discover it, must draw upon it, must open himself to it, and then the power long repressed leaps out in an instant, rushes forward in free haste, in liberated gladness. It pours itself out upon him, it bathes him round, it seizes upon him, it possesses him. Not a moment is lost. Before his own appeal has died off his lips, “Lord, if thou wilt,” the answer is upon him—it has already done its full work—“I will; be thou clean.”1 [Note: Canon Scott Holland.]

“Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean” is a prayer lovely in the simplicity of its human pleading—an appeal to the power which lay in the man to whom he spoke: His power was the man’s claim; the relation between them was of the strongest—that between plenty and need, between strength and weakness, between health and disease—poor bonds comparatively between man and man, for man’s plenty, strength, and health can only supplement, not satisfy, the need; support the weakness, not change it into strength; mitigate the disease of His fellow, not slay it with invading life; but in regard to God, all whose power is creative, any necessity of His creatures is a perfect bond between them and Him; His magnificence must flow into the channels of the indigence He has created.2 [Note: George MacDonald, The Miracles of Our Lord, 86.]

3. Why does the leper question the Saviour’s will? It does not appear as if our Lord had as yet healed any leper; this man is at any rate the first leper mentioned as coming to Him for healing. Then the poor man no doubt regarded his leprosy as a just judgment for the sins of which his conscience was afraid, and went about so humbled and ashamed that he hardly dared pray for deliverance. Besides, he might think (for so the Jews commonly thought) that there was no healing of leprosy except by miracle, by the immediate act of God Almighty Himself; and this again would make his request seem bolder. And so the wonder is, not that he questioned Jesus’ will, but that he believed in His power. By believing in His power he threw himself upon the innermost tenderness of Christ’s nature; and the whole being of our Lord answered to the call. There was no question of power to be solved or proved; the method of the appeal left no room for argument; the leper’s words, as they passed into the depths of Christ’s loving nature, which alone was invoked, cut a passage for themselves, through which the healing waters could flow. The response was instant—“if thou wilt”—“I will.”

Jesus did not treat slight ailments, only the most profound, obstinate, ghastly maladies. He did not concern Himself with simple aches and pains, but proved His Divine authority and efficacy in distinguishing leprosy, palsy, fever, blindness, and terrible psychic derangements. Numbers of reformers are prepared to deal with the superficial ailments of humanity—with its toothaches, sores, and scratches; but only One dares attack the deep, stubborn, chronic diseases of our nature, the fundamental evils of the race. He alone is the grand physician of the world-lazaretto, the healer of the incurable, despairing of no man. Let me, then, seek in Him for the grace that shall root out the most malign morbid humours of the soul. The darkest and deadliest elements of evil He can rebuke and expel. “Lord, that I might be clean!”1 [Note: W. L. Watkinson.]


The Healing Touch

“And he stretched forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou made clean.”

1. “Touch is the sense which love employs.” It means the annihilation of distance between one who loves and that which he loves, so that mere nearness is replaced by contact. Our sense of the significance of touch finds expression in such phrases as “getting into touch,” or “living in touch,” with people. They stand for sympathetic contact, the sympathy which seeks contact, and does not keep others “at arm’s length.” Children learn it in their mothers’ laps, and are never content to be merely near those they love without actually touching them.

A very little thing was this touch, even as an indication of kindly purpose, but it was just the little thing that a sensitive sick man needed. It is, after all, little things that indicate either sympathy or antipathy. “I will buy with you,” says Shylock, “sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.” Had Jesus held aloof from the afflicted they never would have trusted Him. Nothing so pains a sick person as the sign of shrinking from him. Wear your gloves in any room you like, but not in the sick-room. Bend your ear to the trembling dying lips, and shun not to lay your hands on the diseased, if you are to do them any good, either as nurse or as spiritual adviser and Christian friend.

We may be allowed to insert here a few words from an account sent to us of Dolling’s influence with the rough youths of Landport by a lady (then Miss Nance, now Mrs. Cator) who managed a club for those fellows, under his sanction, when he was at S. Agatha’s: “Mr. Dolling and S. Agatha’s Mission was the only kind of religion that ever appealed to them, and I feel sure I could never have persuaded them to go and talk about their lives to anyone else. They said, ‘Oh, he’s different; we don’t mind him.’ I could tell of miracles of healing under Mr. Dolling’s touch. One young soldier said to me, ‘He laid his hand on my head, and, I don’t know why, I told him all I had ever done.’”1 [Note: O. E. Osborne, The Life of Father Dolling, 269.]

2. It would have been quite possible for our Lord to heal this leper by a word alone. It would be quite possible for God Almighty to say to all the moral lepers of the world, “Be thou clean!” and the cure would be Divinely perfect. Why, then, does He not? Just because the cure would be Divinely perfect. God wants it to be humanly perfect, and this can be effected only by a touch. Elijah in the desert may be fed by ravens or he may be fed by man’s philanthropy. The physical effect will be the same, but not the moral effect. Elijah fed by the ravens is not a whit nearer to his kind than Elijah faint and hungry; but Elijah fed by human hands becomes himself more human. The greatest calamity of a leper was not his leprosy; it was his divorce from his fellow-men. It was not his physical disease that divorced him; it was the belief in his moral contagion. His greatest cry was for some one to touch him—to bridge the river of separation. It was easy to get the touch after he was healed. But the hard thing was to get contact before healing—to receive the touch before receiving the mandate, “Be thou clean!” His fellow-men would not grant him that boon. Doubtless they prayed for his recovery, but they would not touch him un-recovered. God could have healed him in answer to their prayers, but He wanted to heal him in answer to their contact.

Social reformers are discovering that they can do little good for people of any sort while they hold them at arm’s length. “I have learned,” says a worker in one of the University settlements, “that you can get access to the people who need you only by living with them. They will not come to you; but Jew and Gentile will make you welcome if you come to them. Our meetings for their benefit are a failure. Our personal intercourse with them, man to man, has been promising great good. It is of no use to come once or twice to see them; you must live with them if you are to do anything for them.”1 [Note: R. E. Thompson, Nature, the Mirror of Grace, 81.]

The hand, more than any other limb or organ, differentiates man, begotten in the image of his Father, from the whole series of animal creations. No other animal has a hand. The corresponding organ in the anthropoid ape, which is the most like a hand, is not really a hand; it can fashion nothing, it is fit for nothing but to cling to a branch or convey food to the mouth. Only man has a hand, and as with it he stamps his impress upon nature, and founds his sovereignty of civilization, and performs his deeds of heroism, so, when he would caress, or soothe, or comfort, or encourage, or bless, or stimulate, or welcome his fellow human being, in obedience to some secret instinct, he invariably automatically lays his hand upon him.2 [Note: B. Wilberforce, The Power that Worketh in Us, 56.]

Jesus could have cured the leper with a word. There was no need He should touch him. No need, did I say? There was every need. For no one else would touch him. The healthy human hand, always more or less healing, was never laid on him; he was despised and rejected. It was a poor thing for the Lord to cure his body; He must comfort and cure his sore heart. Of all men a leper, I say, needed to be touched with the hand of love. Spenser says, “Entire affection hateth nicer hands.” It was not for our master, our brother, our ideal man, to draw around Him the skirts of His garments and speak a lofty word of healing, that the man might at least be clean before He touched him. The man was His brother, and an evil disease cleaved fast unto him. Out went the loving hand to the ugly skin, and there was His brother as he should be—with the flesh of a child. I thank God that the touch went before the word. Nor do I think it was the touch of a finger, or of the finger-tips. It was a kindly healing touch in its nature as in its power. Oh, blessed leper! thou knowest henceforth what kind of a God there is in the earth—not the God of the priests, but a God such as Himself only can reveal to the hearts of His own.1 [Note: G. MacDonald, The Miracles of Our Lord, 88.]


The Greater Gift

The physical cure is the pledge and promise of a still greater blessing. For leprosy was singled out by God Himself from the vast catalogue of human diseases and sufferings to keep before the eyes of His people of old a perpetual memorial of the vileness and awfulness of moral evil. The outer body was made by Him a mirror of the far deeper and darker taint in the soul. It was a silent preacher in the midst of the theocratic nation and to the end of time, testifying to the virulence of a more inveterate malady—that “from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in us, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores.” Although it by no means invariably followed that the lepers of Israel were afflicted with their dire plague in consequence of personal sin, yet we know that this was the case in some instances, such as those of Miriam, Gehazi, and Uzziah. And at all events the disease was regarded by the Jews as a mark of the Divine displeasure. They spoke of it as “the finger of God.” It was considered an outward and visible sign of inward disorganization, guilt, and impurity.

It is clear that the same principle [of the law of Moses] which made all having to do with death, as mourning, a corpse, the occasions of a ceremonial uncleanness, inasmuch as all these were signs and consequences of sin, might consistently with this have made every sickness an occasion of uncleanness, each of these being also death beginning, partial death—echoes in the body of that terrible reality, sin in the soul. But instead of this, in a gracious sparing of man, and not pushing the principle to the uttermost, God took but one sickness, one of these visible outcomings of a tainted nature, in which to testify that evil was not from Him, could not dwell with Him. He linked this teaching with but one; by His laws concerning it to train men into a sense of a clinging impurity, which needed a Pure and a Purifier to overcome and expel, and which nothing short of His taking of our flesh could drive out. And leprosy, the sickness of sicknesses, was throughout these Levitical ordinances selected of God from the whole host of maladies and diseases which had broken in upon the bodies of men. Bearing His testimony against it, He bore His testimony against that out of which every sickness grows, against sin; as not from Him, as grievous in His sight; and against the sickness also itself as grievous, being as it was a visible manifestation, a direct consequence of sin, a forerunner of that death which by the portal of disobedience and revolt had found entrance into natures created by Him for immortality.1 [Note: R. C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord, 226.]

1. Salvation provides free access to God. When the Lord said, “I will; be thou made clean,” when He had put forth His healing hand, from that moment the man had a right of approach to the place where God’s honour dwelt—he might again tread the courts of the Temple; he might again offer his gifts; he might once more worship with the worshippers. And this is the great fruit of the sacrifice of Christ—of the “I will; be thou made clean,” pronounced concerning each and all of us—that it procures us admission into the holiest, into the presence of God, and so brings us under the mighty healing influences which are ever going forth from Him, that having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, purged from dead works, we are able to draw near in faith, and henceforth to serve the living God.

The Son of God, at once above our life and in our life, morally Divine and circumstantially human, mediates for us between the self so hard to escape, and the Infinite so hopeless to reach; and draws us out of our mournful darkness without losing us in excess of light. He opens to us the moral and spiritual mysteries of our existence, appealing to a consciousness in us that was asleep before. And though He leaves whole worlds of thought approachable only by silent wonder, yet His own walk of heavenly communion, His words of grace and works of power, His strife of Divine sorrow, His cross of self-sacrifice, His reappearance behind the veil of life eternal, fix on Him such holy trust and love, that, where we are denied the assurance of knowledge, we attain the repose of faith.1 [Note: Life and Letters of James Martineau, i. 286.]

2. Salvation links men together in a holy fellowship. As the Lord sent this suppliant, before an outcast, back to the society of his fellows, a cleansed man, no longer obliged to cover his lips in shame, no longer with a miserable sense of something that separated him from all his race, even so He gives unto His redeemed and sanctified a ground of true communion and fellowship one with another—He takes away the middle wall of partition that was between each man and his brethren, having slain the enmity and the selfishness by His cross.

I have endeavoured in my tracts to prove that if Christ be really the head of every man, and if He really have taken human flesh, there is ground for a universal fellowship among men (a fellowship that is itself the foundation of those particular fellowships of the nation and the family, which I also consider sacred). I have maintained that it is the business of a Church to assert this ground of universal fellowship; that it ought to make men understand and feel how possible it is for men as men to fraternize in Christ; how impossible it is to fraternize, except in Him.2 [Note: The Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, i. 258.]

3. It will be said that in any case the days of isolation are gone, and gone for ever. Nation can no longer hold itself aloof from nation, and people from people, as if they did not share a common humanity, hardly as if they lived in the same world. We are daily being forced into closer contacts, welded into closer unities. Well, what is to be the consequence of all this? Without the touch, the healing, cleansing, life-giving touch of Christ and His gospel, without the higher life of a genuinely Christian civilization, it may mean a disaster fearful to contemplate, whose proportions we can scarcely imagine. On the one side it can mean only destruction to the races of heathendom. It is a well-known law of ethnology that, unless there be some assimilating, unifying power such as the gospel alone can furnish, the weaker always perishes rapidly before the stronger. The contacts of trade, commercialism, and militarism bring invariably in their train contagion and infection. The heathen are apt pupils of evil. With a fatal facility they learn the new vices of the soldiers, sailors, and traders of so-called civilized and Christian peoples, and add them to their own native vices and diseases. And the combination means nothing less than destruction.

There are consequences that run in the other direction also. With these ever closer relations of commerce and conquest which are fast knitting all the world into one come new and fearful dangers to ourselves. Up from the uncleansed life of heathendom shall sweep mighty plagues, both physical and moral. That life has diseases to give us whose horror we never dreamed of. It has sins to teach us which even in the depths of our depravity we have not imagined. And soldiers and sailors, traders and merchants, wanderers in far lands, away from the restraints of home, acquaintance, and familiar associations, are apt pupils in such things. That is what contact without Christ is bound to mean. If, through that inevitable touch of people upon people, virtue does not go out from us to them, then contagion and infection are sure to pass from them to us and us to them. If we will not share with them our highest life, our nobler ambitions, our blessings, above all, our gospel, then they will share with us their plagues of soul and body. Therefore alongside the warehouse, the barracks, and the saloon, which always mark the first wave of an advancing Western civilization, must be built the Christian school, the hospital, and the church.

During Sunday afternoons in June 1888, Professor Drummond delivered a series of religious addresses at Grosvenor House, London. After distinguishing between religion and theology, he said that the truth of Christianity is manifest in the fact that there is no real civilization without it, and that the purer the form of Christianity the greater the development of civilization. “Show me,” he said, with Matthew Arnold, “ten square miles outside of Christianity where the life of man or the virtue of woman is safe, and I’ll throw over Christianity at once.”1 [Note: G. A. Smith, The Life of Henry Drummond, 279.]

Chalmers’ address at the Exeter Hall meeting of the London Missionary Society in 1886 was the climax of his public work during this visit home. Exeter Hall was crowded, and the main interest of the meeting centred in Tamate’s unpolished but thrilling eloquence. To recall a few of the most striking passages: “I have had twenty-one years’ experience amongst natives. I have seen the semi-civilized and the uncivilized; I have lived with the Christian native, and I have lived, dined, and slept with the cannibal. I have visited the islands of the New Hebrides; I have visited the Loyalty Group, I have seen the work of missions in the Samoan Group, I know all the islands of the Society Group, I have lived for ten years in the Hervey Group, I know a few of the groups close on the line, and for at least nine years of my life I have lived with the savages of New Guinea; but I have never yet met with a single man or woman, or a single people, that your civilization without Christianity has civilized. For God’s sake let it be done at once! Gospel and commerce, but remember this, it must be the Gospel first. Wherever there has been the slightest spark of civilization in the Southern Seas it has been because the Gospel has been preached there, and wherever you find in the Island of New Guinea a friendly people or a people that will welcome you, there the missionaries of the Cross have been preaching Christ. Civilization! The Rampart can only be stormed by those who carry the Cross.”2 [Note: R. Lovett, James Chalmers, 276.]

The Leper


Burrell (D. J.), Christ and Men, 168.

Calthrop (G.), The Future Life, 256.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, i. 21.

Gilbert (M. N.), in Sermons on the Gospels: Advent to Trinity, 119.

Howatt (J. R.), Jesus the Poet, 57.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Christmas and Epiphany, 463.

Macduff (J. R.), Memories of Gennesaret, 51.

Mackennal (A.), Christ’s Healing Touch, 1.

McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, iii. 313.

Magee (W. C.), Growth in Grace, 271.

Matheson (G.), Thoughts for Life’s Journey, 16.

Parkhurst (C. H.), A Little Lower than the Angels, 39.

Power (P. B.), The “I Wills” of Christ, 67.

Raymond (G. L.), The Spiritual Life, 33.

Thompson (R. E.), Nature, the Mirror of Grace, 69.

Trench (R. C.), Westminster and Other Sermons, 15.

Wilberforce (B.), The Power that Worketh in Us, 54.

Williams (C. D.), A Valid Christianity for To-Day, 20.

Wilmot-Buxton (H. J.), By Word and Deed, 21.

Christian World Pulpit, liii. 48 (H. S. Holland); lxxx. 56 (H. E. Selwyn).

Churchman’s Pulpit: Third Sunday after the Epiphany, iv. 52 (E. Palmer).

Verse 3

(3) Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him.—The act was itself a proof at once of the will and the power to heal. He did not fear becoming unclean by that contact, and was therefore not subject to the law that forbade the touch. And He met the one element of doubt in the sufferer’s mind by the words—yet more, perhaps, the tone or look that told of pity—“I will; be thou clean.” St. Mark adds, “Had compassion on him.”

Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.—We may venture to picture the process to our minds: the skin cleansed, the sores closed, the diseased whiteness giving way to the tints and tones of health.

Verse 4

(4) See thou tell no man.—St. Mark adds, with his usual vividness, “straitly charged,” or vehemently urged him, and “forthwith sent him away.” The reasons of the command are not given, but are not far to seek. (1.) The offering of the gift was an act of obedience to the Law (Leviticus 14:10; Leviticus 14:21-22), and was therefore the right thing for the man to do. In this way also our Lord showed that He had not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfil. (2.) It was the appointed test of the reality and completeness of the cleansing work. (3.) It was better for the man’s own spiritual life to cherish his gratitude than to waste it in many words.

So much lies on the surface. But as the treatment of leprosy in the Mosaic code was clearly symbolical rather than sanitary, and dealt with the disease as the special type of sin in its most malignant form, so in the healing of the leper we may fairly see the symbol of our Lord’s power to purify and save from sin, and in His touching the leper, the close fellowship into which He entered with our unclean nature, that through His touch it might be made clean. The miracle, like most other miracles, was also a parable in act.

Verse 5

(5) In St. Luke the narrative follows immediately upon the Sermon on the Plain; in St. Matthew (the healing of the leper intervening), upon the Sermon on the Mount. The juxtaposition in both cases seems to imply a connection between the teaching and the act that had fixed itself on men’s minds. The act was, indeed, chiefly memorable for the teaching to which it led. A comparison of the two narratives suggests the thought that St. Matthew records the miracle more with reference to the associated teaching, St. Luke after more close inquiry into the details and circumstances. Here, e.g., the centurion is said to have come to our Lord himself; but from St. Luke’s report we learn that he never came at all in person, but sent first the elders of the Jews, and then his friends.

A centurion.—The presence of a centurion (a word originally meaning the commander of a hundred soldiers, out, like most words of the kind, afterwards used with a greater latitude of meaning) implied that of a garrison stationed at Capernaum to preserve order. So we find a centurion with his soldiers at Cæsarea (Acts 10:1). At Jerusalem, it would appear, it was thought necessary to station a Chiliarch, or “chief captain” of a thousand soldiers (Acts 21:31); and the same word meets us as connected with the birthday feast of the Tetrarch Antipas (Mark 6:21).

Here, as in the case of Cornelius, the faith and the life of Judaism (seen, we may well believe, to more advantage in the villages of Galilee than amid the factions of Jerusalem) had made a deep impression on the soldier’s mind. He found a purity, reverence, simplicity, and nobleness of life which he had not found elsewhere; and so he “loved the nation” (Luke 7:5), and built anew the synagogue of the town. It is probable, as has been already said, that among the ruins of Tell-Hûm, identified as Capernaum, we have the remains of the very fabric thus erected. And he, in like manner, had made a favourable impression upon the Jews of that city. They felt his love for them, were ready to go on his errand, to support his prayer with all earnestness, to attest his worth. To one whose work had been, like that of St. Luke, to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, all these incidents would be precious, as early tokens of that breaking-down of barriers, that brotherhood of mankind in Christ, of which the Apostle who was his companion was the great preacher.

Verse 6

(6) My servant.—The Greek word might mean either “servant” or “boy.” The former meaning is the more common, and is fixed as the meaning here by St. Luke’s use of the word which means strictly “slave.” He is described as paralysed, but the words “grievously tormented” point to more acute suffering than is common in that form of disease, and imply either something like rheumatic fever, or tetanus, or the special kind of paralysis which benumbs the muscles only, and affects the nerves of sensation with sharp pain. A like case of paralysis with agonising pain is found in 1 Maccabees 9:55-56. The fact that this suffering touched his master’s heart with pity was itself a sign of something exceptionally good in the centurion’s character. It was not thus, for the most part, that the wealthy Romans dealt with their slaves when they were sick. St. Luke does not state the nature of the disease, perhaps as not having been able to satisfy himself as to its precise nature, but simply describes the slave as “ill, and at the point to die,” and adds that he was “dear” (literally, precious) to his master. His narrative states further that the centurion sent the elders, “having heard of Jesus.” The report had obviously been such as to lead him to look on the Teacher as endowed with a supernatural power. It may have come from the elders of the synagogue themselves; but the facts of the case make it probable that he had heard specifically of the healing of the “nobleman’s son” at Capernaum recorded by St. John (John 4:46-54). There he had found a precedent which now determined his own line of action, showing that a word from those lips might be enough to heal without touch or even presence.

Verse 7

(7) I will come and heal him.—In St. Luke’s report the words are omitted, but they are implied in our Lord’s act in going with the elders of the synagogue. While He went, some one, it would seem, ran on in front to tell the centurion that his prayer was heard. Then, in his humility, he sends off some of his friends with the message, which St. Matthew records as if it had come from his own lips.

Verse 8

(8) Lord, I am not worthy.—In St. Luke’s report, the friends deliver the message as beginning with “Trouble not thyself,” the word being a colloquial one, which starting from the idea of flaying, or mangling, passed into that of “worrying,” “vexing,” and the like. The sense of unworthiness implied at once the consciousness of his own sins, and the recognition of the surpassing holiness and majesty of the Teacher he addressed.

Speak the word only.—This was the special proof of the speaker’s faith. He had risen above the thought of a magic influence, operating by touch or charm, to that of a delegated power depending only on the will of Him who possessed it.

Verse 9

(9) For I am a man under authority.—He gives, not without a certain naïveté, the process of reasoning by which he had been led to this conviction. His own experience had taught that in every well organised system a delegated authority could, in its turn, be delegated to others. The personal presence of the centurion was not wanted where he could send his soldier or his slave to act on his orders. Might he not reason on this analogy, and infer from it that in God’s kingdom also One whom He endued with power would have His ministers at hand, the unknown forces (personal or otherwise, he did not care to ask) that govern life and death, to execute His will?

Verse 10

(10) He marvelled.—The fact is stated in both records, and is not without significance in its bearing on the reality of our Lord’s human consciousness. Facts came to Him, in that true humanity, as to other men, unlooked-for, and as with a novelty that caused surprise.

I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.—The nature of the faith we have already seen. Israelites who sought our Lord’s healing work, craved for presence, or touch, even if it were only the hem of the garment; sometimes, as in the case of the blind, and dumb, and deaf, for yet more material signs. Here was one who believed in the power of the word of the Christ, and asked for nothing more.

Verse 11

(11) St. Luke does not give the words that follow, and the omission is significant. Either he did not know of them, and then we must infer the entire independence of his record, or knowing them, he, writing for Gentiles, thought it best to omit words here which our Lord had afterwards repeated, and which he had therefore another opportunity of recording (Luke 13:28). Such verbal reproduction of what had been said before was, it will be remembered, entirely after our Lord’s manner.

Many shall come from the east and west.—It is clear that our Lord saw in the centurion the first-fruits of the wide harvest of the future. Like the words of the Baptist in Matthew 3:9, what He now said contained, by implication, the whole gospel which St. Paul preached to the Gentiles. “East and west,” even without the formal addition of “north and south,” which we find in the parallel passage of Luke 13:29, were used as limits that included all the nations of the earth.

Shall sit down.—Literally, shall recline, as at the table of a feast; that being, as in the phrase of Abraham’s bosom, the received parable of the blessedness of the kingdom.

Verse 12

(12) The children of the kingdom.—The form of the phrase is a Hebraism, indicating, as in “the children of the bride-chamber,” those who belonged to the kingdom, i.e., in this case, the Israelites, to whom the kingdom of heaven had, in the first instance, been promised, the natural heirs who had forfeited their inheritance.

Into outer darkness.—Strictly, the outer darkness. The words continue the imagery of the previous clause, the darkness outside the king’s palace being contrasted with the interior, blazing with lamps and torches.

There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.—Both words in the Greek have the emphasis of the article, “the weeping” par excellence. The two words are found in combination six times in St. Matthew, and once in St. Luke (Luke 13:28). In their literal meaning they express that intensest form of human anguish in which it ceases to be articulate. The latter word, or rather the cognate verb, is used also to express rage (Acts 7:54). Their spiritual meaning we naturally connect with the misery of those who are excluded from the joy and blessedness of the completed kingdom, and that is, doubtless, what they ultimately point to. We must remember, however, that the “kingdom of heaven” was a term of very varying significance, and that our Lord had proclaimed that that kingdom was at hand, and taught men, by parable and otherwise, that it included more than the life after death. We may accordingly rightly look for like “springing and germinant accomplishments” of the words now before us. Men came “from the east and west,” when the Gentiles were admitted into the Church of Christ. The children of the kingdom were left in the “outer darkness” when they were self-excluded from fellowship with that Church and its work among the nations. The outbursts of envy and rage recorded in the Acts (Acts 5:33; Acts 13:45) illustrate this aspect of “the weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Verse 13

(13) As thou hast believed.—The words were, of course, sent as a message. Better, As thou didst believe—referring to his one great act of faith.

Verse 14

(14) And when Jesus was come into Peter’s house.—St. Mark (Mark 1:29) and St. Luke (Luke 4:38) relate more specifically that it was on the Sabbath, and that our Lord had previously taught in the synagogue and healed a demoniac. The sons of Zebedee and of Jona had all been present, and when the service was over they came to the house in which Peter apparently (though born in Bethsaida, John 1:44) had settled on his marriage.

His wife’s mother.—The fact of St. Peter’s marriage has not unnaturally been almost unduly prominent in the Protestant argument against the enforced celibacy of the clergy. “Here,” it has been said, “is the Apostle from whom the Bishop of Rome claims succession, married when called to his office, and never separated from his wife, and yet Rome declares the marriage of priests to be unlawful, and stigmatises it as worse than concubinage.” Telling as it may sound, however, it is after all only an argumentum ad hominem. Had the case been otherwise, we should not have admitted that the celibacy of the chief of the Apostles was a ground for compelling all bishops, elders, and deacons of the Church to follow his example. And all that can be urged, as the case stands, is that there is an inconsistency in accepting these facts, and yet treating marriage as incompatible with the sacred office of the ministry. The Church of Rome might answer, that experience, or the teaching of the Spirit, or the moral authority of the saints and Fathers of the Church, outweighed the inference from St. Peter’s example, and the question must be discussed on wider ethical and social, as well as Scriptural, grounds. In that argument, it is believed, those who advocate Christian liberty (1 Corinthians 9:5) as most in harmony with the mind of Christ are not likely to get the worst of it.

Sick of a fever.—St. Luke, with a kind of medical precision, adds, “with a great fever,” and that they (Peter, John, and the others) asked Him about her, as if consulting about a case of which they almost despaired.

Verse 15

(15) She arose, and ministered unto them.—The fact is stated as showing the completeness of the work of healing. The “great fever” had not left behind it its usual sequel of weakness and exhaustion.

Verse 16

(16) When the even was come.—Or, as St. Luke has it, “While the sun was setting.” There were two reasons why the time should be thus specified. (1) It was natural that the sick should be brought in the cool of the evening, rather than in the scorching heat of the afternoon; and (2) it was the Sabbath, and the feeling which made the Pharisees question the lawfulness of a man’s carrying the bed on which he had been lying (John 5:10), would probably have deterred the friends of the sick from bringing them as long as it lasted. But with sunset the Sabbath came to a close, and then they would feel themselves free to act. The prominence given to “those that were possessed with devils,” both by St. Matthew and St. Mark, shows that it was the work of the Sabbath morning that had most impressed itself on their minds.

Verse 17

(17) Himself took our infirmities.—The citation is interesting as showing St. Matthew’s way of dealing with Messianic prophecies. We see in Isaiah 53 throughout a picture of our Lord’s spiritual work of redemption, and the words quoted are almost the cardinal text for the special view of the atonement, which sees in the sufferings of Christ the freely accepted penalty that was due for the transgressions of mankind. The Evangelist, with the memory of that evening present to his mind, saw them fulfilled in this removal of the “infirmities” and “sicknesses” that oppressed the bodies of men. It was not merely that He came, as one of boundless wealth, who might scatter alms broadcast, but that He Himself “took” and “bore” the sufferings which He removed. He suffered with those He saw suffer. The power to heal was intimately connected with the intensity of His sympathy, and so was followed (as analogous works of love are followed in those who are most Christ-like in their lives) by weariness and physical exhaustion. What is related by St. Mark and St. Luke of our Lord’s seeking out the refuge of solitude at the earliest dawn of the day that followed, is entirely in harmony with the view thus suggested.

Verse 18

(18) To depart unto the other side—i.e., the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Here, too, though less conspicuously than in the other Gospels, there is indicated the yearning for a time of rest and retirement.

Verse 19

(19) A certain scribe came.—The facts that follow are placed by St. Luke, as we have seen, in quite another stage of our Lord’s ministry. The fact that it was a scribe that came is striking, as showing that the impression made by our Lord’s teaching was not confined to the “common people” that “heard him gladly.” As Nicodemus had already come confessing that He was a “Teacher come from God,” so in Galilee there was one whom the Sermon on the Mount, or some like discourse, had led to volunteer at least the show of discipleship.

Verse 20

(20) The foxes have holes.—Our Lord’s answer seems to indicate that it was hardly more than the show. The scribe had not counted the cost, and, like the young ruler that had great possessions, needed to be taught. To follow the Son of Man was not to be the adherent of a new sect or party, or the servant of a king marching onward to an earthly throne, but to share in poverty, privation, homelessness.

Nests.—The word is sufficient for popular use, but, strictly speaking, the “nest” belongs only to the brooding season of a bird’s life, and the Greek word has the wider meaning of “shelter.”

The Son of man.—The passage is remarkable as the first in this Gospel in which the name occurs which was afterwards so prominent in our Lord’s teaching, and this is accordingly the right place for tracing the history and significance of that title.

As found in the Old Testament, the term is the literal translation of the Hebrew ben-adam, the latter word expressing the generic weakness and frailty of man’s nature, as the Hebrew ish expresses its greatness and its strength. It stands therefore as representing man idealised under that one aspect of his being. “What is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou visitest him?” (Psalms 8:4); “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man in whom is no help” (Psalms 146:3), are instances of its use in this meaning. In some passages our version expresses the same thought by rendering the “sons of Adam” and the “sons of Ish “as” low and high” (Psalms 49:2), or the former word alone as “men of low degree” (Psalms 62:9). The title received a new prominence about the time of the Captivity from its use in Ezekiel’s prophecies. There it appears frequently (not fewer than eighty-seven times in all) as the title with which the prophet is addressed by the voice of Jehovah. We can scarcely doubt that it was used there in all the fulness of its earlier meaning, and was designed to teach the prophet that, amid all the greatness of his work, he was still subject to all the weakness and temptations of man’s nature, and ought therefore to have compassion on their infirmities. Yet a fresh aspect of the name was presented in the mysterious vision of Daniel 7:13, in which “One like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and was brought to the Ancient of Days, . . . and there was given unto Him dominion and glory and a kingdom.” The word used is not, it is true, benadam, but bar-enosh, but there is no traceable distinction of meaning between the two. Here, then, the thought manifestly was this, that One who shared man’s weakness, should also be a sharer of God’s glory, and be the Head of the divine kingdom. The prominence which the Maccabean struggles gave to the predictions of Daniel drew attention to the name as it had thus been used. The “Son of Man” became one of the titles of the expected Christ. The Targum or Paraphrase of the Psalms (probably earlier than our Lord’s ministry) explains even such a passage as Psalms 80:17 (“the son of man whom thou madest so strong for thine own self”) as referring to the Christ. So when the crowd at Jerusalem are questioning in their hearts whether Jesus was the Christ, they are not startled at this application of the name, and their question, “Who is this Son of Man?” is the utterance of their wonder that things so unlike what they expected of the Christ should be predicted of One who claimed the title (John 12:34). It was accordingly, with these ideas attached to it—involving at once fellowship with the lowest of the heirs of our humanity, and yet also participation in the eternal glory of the Highest—that our Lord claimed the title, and used it with such marvellous frequency. We might almost say that it serves as the chief connecting-link between the teaching of the first three Gospels and the fourth. It appears thirty-two times in St. Matthew, fourteen in St. Mark, twenty-six in St. Luke, and twelve times in St. John. It is remarkable that it never passed into the current language of the Apostolic Church, nor into the theological or liturgical phraseology of Christendom. It is not used in any one of the Epistles. Outside the Gospels it is found only in the exclamation of Stephen (Acts 7:56), with a manifest reference to Daniel 7:13, and possibly in the visions of the Apocalypse (Revelation 1:13; Revelation 14:14). The minds of believers loved to dwell on the glory of the risen Christ, and apparently looked on this as belonging rather to the time of His humiliation. Its absence from the other books of the New Testament, and its presence in the Gospels is, at all events, an indication that the latter were not the after-growth of a later age.

Verse 21

(21) Suffer me first to go and bury my father.—A curious tradition, preserved by Clement of Alexandria, says that the disciple who came with this request was Philip. Nothing in the Gospel history, however, suggests this. Philip had been called before, and had obeyed the call (John 1:43). All that we can say is that it may have been so, and that he may at this stage of his spiritual growth have shrunk from the fresh activity of actual service in the work of evangelising. The form of the petition may mean either (1) that his father was then actually dead, and that the disciple asked leave to remain and pay the last honours to his remains, or (2) that he asked to remain with his father till his death. The latter seems by far the most probable. In the East burial followed so immediately on death that the former would hardly have involved more than the delay of a few hours. In the latter case the request was, in fact, a plea for indefinite postponement. This at least fits in best with the apparent severity of our Lord’s answer.

Verse 22

(22) Let the dead bury their dead.—The point of the half-epigrammatic, half-proverbial saying, lies in the contrast between the two meanings of the word “dead.” “Let those who have no spiritual life linger in the circle of outward routine duties, and sacrifice the highest spiritual possibilities of their nature to their fulfilment. Those who are really living will do the work to which their Master calls them, and leave the lower conventional duties to be done or left undone as the events of their life shall order.” Something there was, we may be sure, in the inward state of the disciple which called for the sternness of the rebuke. He had been called to a living work: he was resting in a dead one.

Verse 23

(23) The two narratives that follow are brought together in all three Gospels; but St. Mark and St. Luke place them, as we have seen, after the parables which St. Matthew gives in chapter 13

Entered into a ship.—The better MSS. give, as often elsewhere, “the ship,” or boat—i.e., one which, belonging possibly to Peter or the sons of Zebedee, was always ready at their Master’s service. St. Mark adds that “they took Him, even as He was, in the boat,” the words indicating apparently extreme exhaustion from the fatigue of teaching. This, we learn, was followed by immediate sleep as He lay in the stern on the boat’s cushion as a pillow.

Verse 24

(24) There arose a great tempest.—Storms such as that here described are of common occurrence in all inland seas. The wind sweeps through the narrow mountain valleys, and the sea, which a few minutes before was smooth as glass, is at once rough with the white crests of the foaming waves. The ship was on the point of sinking, as the waves dashed over it while it was in the trough between them. It was beginning to be filled with water, and still He slept.

Verse 25

(25) Lord, save us: we perish.—As given by St. Mark the words indicate even more of the impatience of panic: “Master, carest Thou not that we perish?” They began to think that He was indifferent to their safety, and believing, it may be, that He Himself had a charmed life, they were half angry at that indifference.

Verse 26

(26) Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?—St. Luke puts the question more strongly: “Where is your faith?” as though it had all drifted away under the pressure of their fears. Yet the word “of little faith” was singularly appropriate. They had not altogether lost their trust in Him, but they had not learnt the lesson of the centurion’s faith, and were only at ease when they heard His voice, and saw that He was watching over them.

Rebuked the winds and the sea.—This seems to have been almost, so to say, our Lord’s formula in working miracles. The fever (Luke 4:39), the frenzy of the demoniac (Mark 9:25), the tempest, are all treated as if they were hostile and rebel forces that needed to be restrained. St. Mark, with his usual vividness, gives the very words of the rebuke: “Peace, be still”—literally, be dumb, be muzzled, as though the howling wind was a maniac to be gagged and bound.

There was a great calm.—As with the fever in Matthew 8:15, so here, the work was at once instantaneous and complete. There was no after-swell such as is commonly seen for hours after a storm.

Verse 27

(27) The men marvelled.—This use of so vague a term as “men,” as applied to the disciples, is so exceptional as to suggest the thought that there were others in the boat with them. The marvel was not without a “great fear” (Mark 4:41). The Presence among them was mightier even than they had thought, and the elements, which seemed far more removed from human control than leprosy or fever, were yet subject to His sovereignty.

The spiritual application of the miracle lies so near the surface that it has almost become one of the common-places of sermons and hymns. And yet there is a profound fitness in it which never ceases to be fresh. The boat is the Church of Christ, and it sails across the ocean of the world’s history to the “other side” of the life beyond the grave. The wind is the blast of persecution, and the Lord of the Church seems as though He were asleep, and heard not the cry of the sufferers, and the disciples are faint-hearted and afraid. And then He hears their prayer, and the storm of the persecution ceases, and there is a great calm, during which the Church goes on its way, and men learn to feel that it carries more than Cæsar and his fortunes.

Verse 28

(28) The country of the Gergesenes.—The exact determination of the locality presents many difficulties. In all the three Gospels we find various readings, of which the best supported are Gadarenes in St. Matthew, and Gerasenes in St. Mark and St. Luke. “Gergesenes” is, however, found in some MSS. of high authority, and the variations are obviously of very early date. The main facts as to the three regions thus indicated are as follows:—

(1.) Gadara was a city east of the Sea of Galilee, about sixteen miles from Tiberias. It is identified with the modern Um Keis, the ruins of which are more than two miles in circumference, and stand at the north-west extremity of the mountains of Gilead, near the south-east corner of the Lake. The tombs of the city, chambers in the limestone rock often more than twenty feet square, are its most conspicuous feature, and are, indeed, the sole abode of its present inhabitants. Under the Roman occupation it was important enough to have two amphitheatres and a long colonnaded street.

(2.) Gerasa was a city in the Gilead district, twenty miles east of the Jordan, described sometimes as belonging to Cœle-Syria, sometimes to Arabia. It also has ruins which indicate the former splendour of the city. Of these two, it is clear that Gadara fits in better with all the circumstances of the narrative; and if “Gerasenes” is more than the mistake of a transcriber, it could only be because the name was used vaguely for the whole Gilead district. The reading “Gadarenes” in that case would probably come from some one better acquainted with the position of the two cities.

(3.) There was no city named Gergesa, but the name Gergesenes was probably connected with the older Girgashites, one of the Canaanite races that occupied the country before the invasion of Israel (Genesis 10:16; Genesis 15:21; Joshua 3:10; Joshua 24:11; et al.). Apparently, however, from the last passage referred to, they were on the western side of the Jordan. It is, on the whole, more likely that the reading was a mistake, than that the old tribe still remained with its old name; but it is possible that the name of Gerasa may represent an altered form of Girgashim.

Two possessed with devils.—St. Mark and St. Luke speak of “one” only. A like difference meets us in St. Matthew’s “two blind men” at Jericho (Matthew 20:30) as compared with the “one” of the two other Gospels. The natural explanation is that, in each case, one was more prominent than the other in speech or act, and so was remembered and specified, while the other was either forgotten or left unnoticed. The difference, as far as it goes, is obviously in favour of the independence of St. Matthew’s narrative. The “tombs” in the neighbourhood of Gadara, hewn out in the rock, have been already mentioned. To dwell in such tombs was, to the ordinary Jew, a thing from which he shrank with abhorrence, as bringing pollution, and to choose such an abode was therefore a sign of insanity.

St. Luke adds that he wore no clothes (i.e., strictly, no outer garment; the word does not imply actual nakedness). St. Mark (whose account is the fullest of the three) notices that he had often been bound with fetters and chains, and that, with the abnormal strength often found in mania, he had set himself free from them. The insanity was so homicidal that “none could pass by that way,” so suicidal that he was ever cutting himself with stones, howling day and night in the wildness of his paroxysms.

For a full discussion of the subject of demoniacal possession, see Excursus at the end of this Gospel.


(1.) As to the word, the Greek δαίμων (the “knowing,” or the “divider”) appears in Homer as interchangeable with θεός (God). In the mythology of Hesiod( Works and Days, i. 108) we have the first downward step, and the δαίμονες are the departed spirits of the men who lived in the first golden age of the world. They are the good genii of Greek religion, averters of evil, guardians of mortal men. The next stage introduced the neuter of the adjective derived from δαίμων as something more impersonal, and τὸ δαιμόνων was used by Plato as something “between God and man, by which the former communicates with the latter” (Symp., p. 202), and in this sense Socrates spoke of the inward oracle whose warning he obeyed, as his δαιμόνον, and was accordingly accused of bringing in the worship of new δαιμόνια, whom the State had not recognised. The fears of men led them, however, to connect these unknown intermediate agents with evil as well as good. The δαίμων of the Greek tragedians is the evil genius of a family, as in the case of that of Agamemnon. A man is said to be under its power when he is swayed by some uncontrollable, frenzied passion that hurries him into guilt and misery.

Such were the meanings that had gathered round the word when the Greek translators of the Old Testament entered on their task. They, as was natural, carefully avoided using it in any connection that would have identified it with the God of Israel. It appears in Psalms 90:3, where the English version gives “destruction;” in Deuteronomy 32:17, and Psalms 106:37, where the English version has “devils,” and in this sense it accordingly passed into the language of the Hellenistic Jews, and so into that of the writers of the Gospels. So St. Paul speaks of the gods whom the heathen worshipped as δαιμόνια (1 Corinthians 10:20).

(2.) As to the phenomena described, the belief of later Judaism ascribed to “demons,” in the sense which the word has thus acquired, many of the more startling forms of bodily and mental suffering which the language of modern thought groups under the general head of “disease.” Thus, in the history of Tobit, the daughter of Raguel is possessed by the evil spirit Asmodeus, and he slays her seven bridegrooms (Tobit 3:8). Or passing on to the Gospel records, we find demoniac agency the cause of dumbness (Matthew 9:32), blindness (Matthew 12:22), epilepsy (Mark 9:17-27), or (as here, and Mark 5:1-5) insanity. To “have a devil” is interchangeable with “being mad” (John 7:20; John 8:48; John 10:20, and probably Matthew 11:18). And this apparently was but part of a more general view, which saw in all forms of disease the work, directly or indirectly, of Satan, as the great adversary of mankind. Our Lord went about “healing all that were oppressed of the devil” (Acts 10:38). “Satan had bound” for eighteen years the woman who was crippled by a spirit of infirmity” (Luke 13:16). And these “demons” are described as “unclean spirits” (Matthew 10:1; Matthew 12:43, et al.) acting under a “ruler” or “prince,” who is popularly known by the name of Beelzebub, the old Philistine deity of Ekron, and whom our Lord identifies with Satan (Matthew 12:24-26). The Talmud swarms with allusions to such demons as lurking in the air, in food, in clothing, and working their evil will on the bodies or the souls of men. St. Paul, though he refers only once to “demons,” in this sense, and then apparently as the authors of false doctrines claiming divine authority, but coming really from “seducing spirits” (1 Timothy 4:1), seems to see in some forms, at least, of bodily disease the permitted agency of Satan, as in the case of the chastisement inflicted on the incestuous Corinthian (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 2:11), his own “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and possibly in other like hindrances to his work (1 Thessalonians 2:18).

(3.) The belief bore its natural fruit among the Jews of our Lord’s time. The work of the exorcist became a profession, as in the case of the sons of Sceva at Ephesus (Acts 19:13). Charms and incantations were used, including the more sacred forms of the divine name. The Pharisees appear to have claimed the power as one of the privileges belonging to their superior holiness (Matthew 12:27). Josephus narrates that a herb grew at Machærus, the root of which had the power of expelling demons (whom he defines as the spirits of wicked men), and that he had himself beheld, in the presence of Vespasian, a man possessed with a demon, cured by a ring containing a root of like properties. As a proof of the reality of the dispossession, a vessel of water was placed at a little distance from the man, which was overthrown by the unseen demon as he passed out from the man’s nostrils (Wars, vii. 6, § 3; Ant. viii. 2, § 5). The belief as to the demons being “the souls of the dead,” lingered in the Christian Church, was accepted by Justin, who, coming from Samaria, probably received it from the Jews (Apol. I., i., p. 65), and was recognised as at least a common belief by Chrysostom (De Lazaro, I., p. 728).

(4.) Our Lord’s treatment of the cases of men thus “possessed with demons” stands out partly as accepting the prevailing belief in its highest aspects, partly as contrasted with it. He uses no spells or charms, but does the work of casting out as by His own divine authority, “with a word.” He delegates to the Twelve the power to “cast out demons,” as well as to cure diseases (Matthew 10:8); and when the Seventy return with the report that the devils (i.e., demons) were subject unto them in His name, He speaks of that result as a victory over Satan (Luke 10:17-18). He makes the action of the demons the vehicle for a parable, in which first one and then eight demons are represented as possessing the same man (Matthew 12:43-45). It may be noted that He nowhere speaks of them, in the language of the later current beliefs of Christendom, as identical with the “fallen angels,” or as the souls of the dead, though they are evil spirits subject to the power of Satan.

(5.) It is obvious that many hard questions rise out of these facts. Does our Lord’s indirect teaching stamp the popular belief with the seal of His authority? or did He, knowing it to be false, accommodate Himself to their belief, and speak in the only way men were able to understand of His own power to heal, teaching them as they were “able to hear it?” (Mark 4:33). If we answer the former question in the affirmative, are we to believe that the fact of possession was peculiar to the time and country, and that the “demons” (either as the souls of the dead, or as evil angels) have since been restrained by the influence of Christendom or the power of Christ? or may we still trace their agency in the more obscure and startling phenomena of mental disease, in the delirium tremens of the drunkard, in the orgiastic frenzy of some Eastern religions, in homicidal or suicidal mania? And if we go as far as this, is it a true theory of disease in general to assign it, in all cases, to the permitted agency of Satan? and how can we reconcile that belief either with the temper which receives sickness as “God’s visitation,” or with that which seeks out its mechanical or chemical causes? Wise and good men have answered these questions very differently, and it may be that we have not the data for an absolutely certain and exhaustive answer. It is well to remember, on the one hand, that to speak of the phenomena of the Gospel possessions as mania, hysteria, or the like, is to give them a name, but not to assign a cause—that science, let it push its researches into mental disease ever so far, has to confess at last that it stands in the presence of unknown forces, more amenable often to spiritual influences than to any medical treatment; and on the other, that our Lord came to rescue men from the thraldom of frenzy and disease, and so to prepare them for the higher work of spiritual renovation, rather than rudely to sweep away the traditional belief of the people as to their source, or to proclaim a new psychological theory.

Verse 29

(29) They cried out, saying . . .—St. Mark adds that the demoniac, seeing Jesus from afar, ran and did homage (“worshipped” in the English version) to Him, and (with St. Luke) gives the fuller form of his cry, “What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the Most High God?” It is remarkable that this is the only instance in which that name is addressed to our Lord, though it is used of Him before His birth in Luke 1:32. A probable explanation is, that the name “the Most High God” was frequently used in the formulae of exorcism, and so had become familiar to the demoniacs. So, the damsel with a spirit of divination, in Acts 16:17, speaks of St. Paul and his companions as servants of the Most High God. The question meets us. Was the discernment that led to the confession altogether preternatural, or had the possessed man heard of the fame of Jesus? But if he had only heard, how came he to recognise the Prophet “a great way off?” Possibly the true explanation lies involved in the mystery of the psychological state into which the sufferer had passed under the frightful influences that were working in him.

To torment us before the time.—So the abode of Dives is “a place of torment” (Luke 16:28), and the ministers of judgment are the “tormentors” (Matthew 18:34). The man identifies himself with the demons; looks forward, when the hour of judgment shall come, to condemnation; and claims, in the meantime, to be let alone. Who that has been called to minister to the souls of men in their demoniac state has not often heard language all but identical? The words added by St. Mark are singularly characteristic: “I adjure thee by God.” It is as if the man had listened so often to the formulæ of exorcists that they had become, as it were, his natural speech, and he too will try their effect as an adjuration. The command given to the “unclean spirit” to “come out of the man” had, we find from St. Mark and St. Luke, been given previously, as the man drew near, and was the occasion of this frenzied cry.

At this stage, too, they add, our Lord asked the question, “What is thy name?” The most terrible phenomenon of possession, as of many forms of insanity, was the divided consciousness which appears in this case. Now the demon speaks, and now the man. The question would recall to the man’s mind that he once had a human name, with all its memories of human fellowship. It was a stage, even in spite of the paroxysm that followed, in the process of recovery, in so far as it helped to disentangle him from the confusion between himself and the demons which caused his misery. But, at first, the question seems only to increase the evil: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” The irresistible might, the full array of the Roman legion, with its six thousand soldiers, seemed to the demoniac the one adequate symbol of the wild, uncontrollable impulses of passion and of dread that were sweeping through his soul. It would hardly have seemed possible that the force of literalism could have led any interpreter to infer the actual presence of six thousand demons, each with a personality of His own, and to calculate accordingly the number that must have entered into each of the two thousand swine: and yet this has been done.

Verse 30

(30) An herd of many swine.—We are surprised at first to find swine kept in a country where their flesh could not be an article of food. But though the Jews did not eat pork, Roman soldiers did, and the swine may have been kept to supply the wants of the legion with which the man was familiar. The pun of Augustus as to Herod’s swine and son (see Note on Matthew 2:16) seems to imply that the king kept them on his estates for some such purpose.

Verse 31

(31) So the devils besought him.—As St. Mark gives the words, “that He should not send them out of the country,” or district, in which they were; as in St. Luke’s report, “that He would not command them to go out into the deep,” i.e., the abyss, the “bottomless pit” of Revelation 9:1-2; Revelation 9:11. The words of the man are as those of the demons with whom he identifies himself. He shrinks from the thought of wandering in dry places, “seeking rest, and finding none” (Matthew 12:43), or being compelled to flee, like Asmodeus, into “the utmost parts of Egypt” (Tobit 8:3), or, worst fate of all, to be sent into the “abyss,” which was the ultimate doom of evil. And so he, as one with them, suggests another alternative: “If Thou cast us out, send us into the herd of swine. If the power to terrify and disturb men is taken from us, let us, at least, retain the power to destroy brutes.”

Verse 32

(32) He said unto them, Go.—Men have asked sometimes, in scorn, why the word was spoken; why permission was given for a destructive work which seemed alike needless and fruitless. The so-called rationalistic explanation, that the demoniacs drove the swine down the cliff in a last paroxysm of frenzy, is no solution of the difficulty, for, even if that hypothesis were on other grounds tenable, it is clear that our Lord’s words sanctioned what they did. We are at least on the right track in suggesting that only in some such way could the man be delivered from the inextricable confusion between himself and the unclean spirits in which he had been involved. Not till he saw the demoniac forces that had oppressed him transferred to the bodies of other creatures, and working on them the effects which they had wrought on him, could he believe in his own deliverance. Those who measure rightly the worth of a human spirit thus restored to itself, to its fellow-men, and to God, will not think that the destruction of brute life was too dear a price to pay for its restoration. Other subordinate ends—such, e.g., as that it was a penalty on those who kept the unclean beasts for their violation of the Law, or that it taught men that it was through their indulgence of the swinish nature in themselves that they became subject to the darker and more demoniac passions—have been suggested with more or less plausibility.

Down a steep place.—Literally, down the cliff.

Verse 34

(34) The whole city—i.e., the population of Gadara or Gerasa (more probably the former), according to the reading which we adopt in Matthew 8:28. St. Mark and St. Luke add, that they found the demoniac “clothed, and in his right mind, sitting at the feet of Jesus,” in the clinging gratitude of faith. The narrative half suggests the thought that the garment which he now wore as the outward sign of a new self-reverence had been supplied by the pity of the disciples.

Besought him that he would depart.—It was characteristic of the wild, half-heathen population that they were led to look on the Prophet who had wrought so great a work as a Destroyer rather than a Saviour, and therefore shrank from His presence among them. Not so with the demoniac himself. He felt, with a faith which was real, though weak, as if he were only safe while close to his Deliverer. He followed Him to the boat, and as He was in the act of embarking (Mark 5:18), prayed that he might be with Him. But this was not the discipline which was needed for his spiritual health. Retirement, renewed fellowship with his kindred in his own house, the quiet witness borne there that the Lord had had compassion on him—this was better for him than the work of a more avowed discipleship. And so he went his way “proclaiming,” or “preaching,” what Jesus had done for him—a true evangelist to a people whose panic terror showed that they were as yet in darkness and the shadow of death.


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 8:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, December 3rd, 2020
the First Week of Advent
Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology