Authority Over Death (Matthew 9:18-26)
The Gospel of Matthew now continues its development of the theme of Jesus’ authority with the report of two incidents that show His authority over death: He healed a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years and then He raised a little girl from the dead. In both cases He was restoring life to them.
Reading the Text
18 While he was saying this, a ruler came and knelt before him and said, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 Jesus got up and went with him, and so did His disciples.
20 Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of His cloak. 21 She said to herself, “If only I touch His cloak, I will be healed.” 22 Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” He said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed from that moment.
23 When Jesus entered the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the noisy crowd, 24 He said, “Go away. The girl is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at Him. 25 After the crowd had been put outside, He went in and took the girl by the hand, and she got up. 26 News of this spread through all that region.
Correlation with the Synoptic Gospels
This material is also found in Mark 5:22-43, where the passage is a good deal longer than Matthew’s report. There are some interesting additions to think about. First, Mark tells us that the ruler was a synagogue ruler, whose name was Jairus. The word that Matthew used for “ruler” in this Jewish town would harmonize with that. Second, Mark reports that Jairus first said that his daughter was dying, but then when they were getting ready to go to his home the messengers came and said that the little girl was dead. Matthew has simply condensed the account and went immediately to the conclusion that the girl had died. Third, Mark adds a good bit of case history to the woman who met Jesus on the way, that she had suffered a good deal under the care of many doctors but had only gotten worse. Mark also includes the little exchange where Jesus asked who touched Him, and where the woman came and fell at His feet. Matthew’s account is abbreviated; he only puts in what is of interest to his point. Then, fourth, Mark says that Jesus took Peter, James and John to Jairus’s house, and with them and the girl’s parents in the room performed the miracle by saying “Little girl, arise” (in Aramaic, Talitha koumi). Matthew simply said that Jesus took her by the hand and she got up. Mark gives final details that she was twelve years old, and that Jesus gave strict orders not to tell anyone about this--and to give her something to eat.
Luke 8:40-56 runs fairly closely to Mark’s account, only varying slightly in the wording or in the inclusion of the details.
You will discover in your study of the Bible that sometimes the English translation can give the impression of a mistake in the text. This section in Matthew seems clearly to begin while Jesus is still in Matthew’s house answering questions. But if you look at Mark 5:21, 22 it is translated and arranged in the NIV to indicate that this took place while He was by the lake. In fact, Mark 5:21 should be the conclusion of the preceding section, telling us that Jesus returned from the other side of the lake. Then, Mark 5:22 simply starts the new section--which harmonizes with Matthew’s indication that He was in Matthew’s house.
Likewise the translation of the NIV in Luke needs clarification. Luke 8:40 should be the completion of the account of the healing of the demon possessed man. The translation “then” that begins Luke 8:41, giving the impression that Jairus came immediately, is a stronger translation than the construction (kai idou) requires. The construction simply suggests a new or surprising thing (see further on this kind of material the commentaries, especially Carson, Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Gaebelein (Zondervan Publishing Company). So there is no reason to conclude that Mark and Luke have this passage begin on the shore of the lake in contrast to Matthew’s placing it in the house.
My point is simply that when there seems to be a discrepancy you need to compare translations to see how the lines have been translated, and do not simply assume that there is a discrepancy until you see if there are other ways to translate it. Here the commentaries may offer some explanation of how the lines could be translated and interpreted. I know this can get a little technical; but it has to be done.
So, what do we have with Matthew, then? Matthew does not tell us that after Jesus healed the demoniac He crossed back to the other side of the lake--the other two gospels do. It begins in 9:9-13 with Jesus’ calling of Matthew as a disciple, and then His having dinner in Matthew’s house, something for which He was criticized. Then, John’s disciples came and asked Him about fasting (9:14-17). He was still in the house. Then, while He was answering John’s disciples, Jairus came and asked Him to come. At that point Matthew offers his abbreviated version of the events.
Observations on the Text
The passage is dealing with life and death issues. In both the case of the woman and the case of the little girl, life had ceased (in different ways). The miracles in both cases show that Jesus has the authority to restore life. This is the main point of the passage.
But now we are dealing with women specifically. A woman has been suffering with bleeding for twelve years. We are not told what kind of bleeding this is. We assume, and it is only an assumption, that it is connected to her womb. If it is then she would be unclean according to Leviticus 15:25-33, meaning that she could not go to the temple to worship, could not participate in normal marital relationships, and should not even touch someone else. But when Jesus healed her He was showing that He could solve such uncleanness--He could meet the demands of the Law and make clean what was unclean. He would not be defiled by her touch, but she would be made whole by His power. So this very special emphasis in the gospel narratives shows that Jesus cared for the suffering of women in this plight. And it was not simply a difficulty she had to live with from time to time. It was hopeless--Jesus was her last hope.
Then we have a sick girl who died, and Jesus came and raised her from the dead. She was twelve--the same age as the length of time that the woman had been afflicted with the flow of blood (and prevented from having a child). The woman had missed out on twelve years, perhaps on having a twelve year old daughter; the parents were about to lose their twelve year old daughter to death. The first represents the effect of the curse at the source of life with pain and bleeding; the second represents the effect of the curse on life with actual death. Jesus gave the life of the girl back to Jairus and his wife; and He gave health and the ability to produce life back to the woman. In both cases it was a provision of life for women over the effects of the curse.
In both cases touching was an important part of the narrative. Jairus wanted Jesus to lay His hand on the daughter and she would be healed. The woman wanted to touch the hem of His cloak and be healed. (And in the other gospels Jesus is recorded as questioning who touched Him). But it was the faith behind the woman’s desire to touch the cloak that made her whole. And it was Jairus’ faith that brought him to seek Jesus. (And, according to the parallel gospel’s Jesus told Jairus not to be afraid, only believe).
And one other observation: all of this began to unfold while Jesus was answering the question about fasting. While the bridegroom is with them, Jesus said, why should the guests of the bridegroom mourn. The time would come for mourning later. So here was Jesus enjoying a meal in Matthew’s house because He did not come to spend time with the healthy, but with the sick. Then, while He was explaining this, Jairus came with news of a sick girl. Then, while He was going to the house He met a sick woman. And in both cases He reversed the sickness and made them whole. But at the house of Jairus the people were lamenting and mourning. But why should they be mourning when Jesus was still there. So He put them out of the house and raised the little girl.
The Structure of the Passage
Here again we have a story within a story. In verses 18, 19 we have the request of the ruler for Jesus to come heal his daughter. In verses 20-22 we have the healing of the woman along the way. Then in verses 23-26 we have the raising of the little girl.
In the synoptic gospels the delay to heal the woman is used to show that during that time the girl died. Matthew is not interested in developing that sequence, only in showing that Jesus healed a sick woman on the way to raising a dead girl. The two are connected in Matthew’s presentation of Jesus’ authority over death.
The quotations also are interesting in this structure. The first is the request of the ruler for Jesus to come and lay His hand on the girl. The second is the thinking of the woman that if only she could touch His cloak she would be healed. The third is Jesus’ response to the woman that she was made whole. And the fourth is Jesus’ declaration that the little girl was just asleep. The first two are statements of faith in Jesus’ power. The last two are declarations of His power--to restore life.
Analysis of the Text
I. Jesus responds to the request of the ruler to heal his daughter (18-19). This first part of the narrative does not need much further explanation, other than to explain how Matthew abbreviated the material. In Mark, for example, Jairus came and said his girl was dying, and that if Jesus came and put his hand on her she would live. It is clear that he was expecting her to die when he asked for help. Then, after the delay, messengers came and told Jairus not to bother the teacher any more because the girl had died. But Jesus said to Jairus not to fear, only believe. Jairus did not initially say come and raise her from the dead. But after he heard that she had died, and after his servants told him not to bother the teacher any more, he obviously still wanted Jesus to come and lay His hand on the girl and (now) raise her from the dead. He did believe as Jesus had told him to because they continued to the house. So Jairus ultimately did wanted Jesus to lay His hand on the girl and raise her from the dead--he believed Jesus could do that, and knew Jesus would have to do that because she had died. This is why Matthew has simply abbreviated the story and used the last desire of the ruler to express his request that Jesus restore his daughter’s life.
The faith of this Jewish ruler (of the synagogue) is interesting and should be probed a little bit, because faith is only as great as the object of that faith. He had to know something about Jesus, because he believed that Jesus could raise his daughter by laying His hand on her. If you break it down the way Mark and Luke have done in greater detail, he believed that Jesus could make his daughter well, and then even after he heard that she died he believed that Jesus could raise her to life. No doubt he had seen the miracles of Jesus in and around the city of Capernaum where he lived--in fact the connection with the Centurion in Matthew 8 may be interesting to study, for that man had built the synagogue for the city--and Jesus had healed his servant. The Centurion, being a Gentile, did not want Jesus to come to his house; but Jairus, being a Jew, welcomed Jesus to his house--and yet Jairus had to go into Matthew’s house, the house of a “sinner,” to find Jesus, as if he himself had to humble himself in coming by faith to Jesus. At any rate, there were sufficient witnesses in the region to the power of Jesus so that this ruler came believing that if Jesus touched his little girl she would be well.
And so Jesus got up from the dinner at Matthew’s house and went with this man towards his house where the girl was. He immediately went in response to this man’s faith in Him.
II. Jesus restored life to a woman afflicted with bleeding (20-22). It is interesting how Matthew can summarize blocks of material in his narrating of the events, and then pay such attention to the smallest detail. The woman came and touched the “edge” of His cloak. This is a reference to the fringe, or perhaps the tassel (Matt. 23:5) of His cloak, which was a sign to remind the Jews to pray. Her touching that portion of the garment was an appeal to His spiritual inclinations; but her touching that portion of the garment of Jesus was an act of faith in His power to heal.
Normally under Israelite Law if her bleeding was from the womb--and that would be the most logical assumption here--then anyone she touched would have been made ceremonially unclean. Anyone but the holy one, that is. She believed that He could heal her, so He would not be contaminated by her.
As already mentioned, the other gospels note how crowded it was, and how He knew someone had touched Him because power had gone out of Him. He was able to discern that in her touch faith was at work; other people touched Him in the crowded street, and perhaps even bumped into Him--but no power went out from Him. Her touch was from faith.
Matthew cuts right to the core of the issue: he picks up where Jesus identified the woman and said to her, “Your faith has healed you.” The text uses the perfect tense, “has healed.” This assumes what the other synoptics explain, that He saw her after she had touched Him. There was no superstition or magic in touching the garment; the healing was because she had the faith to do it. The woman was healed from the hour (hora) of that encounter.
It would be enjoyable to think for a few moments what this would have meant for this woman--even though we know nothing more about her. First, her illness was gone, after years with suffering and with doctors who could not help. All of us have been ill in some way, and know the delight of being well again, not having pain, infections, incapacitating illnesses--to be able to move freely and comfortably in life. Second, she was able to live the normal life of a woman. We do not know if she was married or not, but in any case, she would now be able to have a normal relation with a man, to enjoy a marriage, to have children. For a woman in Israel this was a sign of God’s blessing. But third, she could now enter the temple for the first time in twelve years, to be among the ceremonially clean, to hear the Levitical choirs, to offer her praise to God at the altar, and to eat from the holy flesh of the peace offering in the presence of God.
All of this was because Jesus touched her, and reversed the reign of disease and death in her live.
III. Jesus raised the little girl from death’s sleep (23-26). Now the narrative returns to the ruler’s little girl. When they came to the house they encountered the professional mourners. Matthew alone mentions the flute players and the noisy crowd (Jewish custom prescribed two flutes and one mourning woman). Matthew mentions these because he is showing that Jesus put away the mourning, that He reversed the symbolism of the funeral. Recall that Isaiah had said Messiah would turn the mourning into dancing (Isa. 61:1-3); and Jesus had said back in Matthew’s house that while the bridegroom--He Himself--was there, there was no reason for such fasting and mourning. In fact, in Matthew 11 Jesus will say that people criticized Him because He did not mourn when they sang the dirge; rather, He came eating and drinking. Well, here He encountered mourners and ran them off; He then raised the girl and told them to give her something to eat. It was a time for living, because Jesus was there.
Jesus said that she was just asleep. But they laughed at Him. His use of the word “sleep” for death introduced for all who believe a different way of looking at death. It was a comparison of death with sleeping--for with Jesus the awakening from either is possible through His simple command. One of the best examples is in the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11). Jesus said to His disciples that Lazarus was asleep and they had to awaken him. The disciples did not understand; so Jesus had to say plainly that Lazarus was dead. This little girl was dead; everyone knew it. But Jesus said she was asleep, because He could awaken her.
They mocked Him. The point is that a word from Jesus was laughed at. It all sounded too incredible to them (and a good deal of what Jesus said does sound incredible). They laughed because this great healer did not get there in time, and then He seemed to have gone too far to want to try His skills on a corpse. He would surely make a fool of Himself. But in such situations Jesus’ words became even more profound.
When Jesus raised the little girl from the dead, He was not simply bringing a corpse to life--He was demonstrating that He has authority over death. And in doing so He was also showing that faith in Him would change despair into hope. His miracle of raising the little girl did not in and of itself prove that Jesus was more than a prophet, for other prophets had raised the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:17-37; and Acts 9:36-42). But those prophets and apostles never claimed to be more than prophets or apostles. Jesus constantly made much greater claims than they ever thought to make; and so when He did these kinds of miracles He was authenticating His claim to be the giver of life, the Messiah, the one who holds the keys of life and death (see also Rev. 1:18).
The corpse of a person also could make someone unclean by contact. People who had to bury a corpse would be unclean til sundown, then would have to wash in purification water, and then go through the re-entry into the sanctuary. But Jesus took her by the hand--and she was made clean, whole, alive. He was not defiled.
Interestingly, in the other gospels Jesus told them not to tell anyone about this, probably because He knew what He needed to do before the issue of His deity was to be challenged by the religious leaders--it was not the time for that confrontation yet. But Matthew reports that news of this spread throughout all the region--understandably so.
Correlation with Other Scriptures
As far as Old Testament passages are concerned, I have already mentioned the Messianic passages of the kind of things that the Messiah was to do, especially for those who mourn. And there are also the comparisons with the prophets who raised the dead.
But a major area that you might need to study is the issue of the laws of uncleanness in Leviticus. This is a huge topic, and so you will need to do some reading on it. But in my forthcoming commentary on Leviticus, Holiness to the Lord (Baker Book House), I have a fairly substantial discussion of it. To be ceremonially unclean simply meant that the unclean person could not enter into the Temple, the place where God dwelt among His people. This was not a punishment, for to be unclean did not necessarily mean the person was a sinner (it could, because one with unconfessed sin in the life was also called unclean). A person who was sick, defiled by contact with death or disease, menstruating, giving birth, had mildew in his or her house, and so forth, was “unclean.” (The word “unclean” is unfortunate, since it gives the wrong impression; but we do not have much to use instead). Unclean simply meant there was a barrier between clean and unclean, between God and what was unclean in particular. The law was teaching people that all contamination, corruption, disease, and death was earthly and physical, and therefore incompatible with the holy Lord of life. And so while in a state of uncleanness the individual could not go to the sanctuary and could not contact others or it would render them unclean.
In this passage the woman was unclean, and yet she touched Jesus believing that the contact would heal her. Her faith healed her, and He was not defiled by her uncleanness. Then, the death of the little girl would normally render someone unclean who came in contact with the corpse; but Jesus took her by the hand. He was not rendered unclean because she came to life. Jesus is the Holy One. He could not become unclean. And through His death on the cross He solved the problem of the curse. In fact, the Book of Revelation concludes by stating that nothing unclean will enter into heaven. It cannot, for God is there. Everything unclean will be changed, made perfectly whole--as these miracles of Jesus anticipate and preview.
In the New Testament we would correlate other healing passages, of course, to see how Jesus demonstrated again and again His power to make whole, to make alive. The raising from the dead, though, would have to be correlated with John 11 as I already mentioned, for there Lazarus is called forth from the grave and Jesus teaches on His authority to raise the dead. 1 Corinthians 15 is the great passage on the resurrection of Jesus and what it means to our hope of resurrection. But in the chapter some familiar language is used: “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” For the believer to die is but to fall asleep. This is what Jesus said of the little girl.
As an interesting sideline, note that the verb in Greek is koimao, “to sleep.” In the language certain suffixes and prefixes can add meaning to the verbal root. An ending -terion usually means “a place” where the action or state exists. So we derive koimeterion meaning “sleeping place,” or in Christian tradition, “cemetery.” This is the faith that overcomes even the grave.
Conclusion and Application
The passage, then, teaches that Jesus has authority over death. He is able to reverse the effects of the curse to the restored order of creation, to turn dying and death into life, and to turn the affliction of death into the ability to produce life. This power authenticates the claims of Christ to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, as Peter will later put it.
As far as application goes we should see here the same kinds of lessons we have seen in this part of the book. First, the passage calls for a response of faith, praise and thanksgiving for Christ and the promise of life that He brings. The passage should renew our faith in Him; it should remind us how He is the one who will remove the curse and bring about a whole new creation for those who have faith in Him. The promises of Christ are not to be laughed at, but to be heard and believed.
Second, those who deal with illness and afflictions may still approach the Lord in faith, asking Him to heal them, or restore them to the fullness of life. They know that He will do this in the resurrection; but they may seek His grace to do it in this life and bring greater glory to God now.
Third, as a minor application, we may think in terms of our view of death. We are not to mourn as the world mourns (and you can get into mourning customs if you wish). Death and dying is certainly not a time for levity or frivolity because it is a time of sorrow. And yet for the Christian death may simply be seen as a time when the body falls asleep in Jesus, until He returns with a shout, and all the dead in Christ will rise to new and everlasting life.1 This is the Christian hope. And the raising of this little girl was Jesus’ declaration to all of us that death is no obstacle in God’s program.
1 The way that the New Testament puts this all together is that when a Christian dies the body returns to the dust and the spirit goes to be with the Lord, being given a temporary “house” (=body) for the spirit. Then, at the resurrection, the body is raised incorruptible and glorified to be reunited with the spirit, so that the redeemed person may be completely whole (see 2 Cor. 5 and 1 Cor. 15 and 1 Thess. 4).