He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. – Isaiah 53:3-5
I quoted this portion of Scripture when I concluded my previous post on the topic of acceptance and rejection. They are worth repeating as they apply so well to this topic. They are wonderful and challenging verses.
Upon hearing or reading these verses without a reference given, many people, both Gentile and Jew, guess that they are from the New Testament. Indeed, most Christians see this passage as an accurate description of the ministry of Jesus Christ, relating both to his purpose and the reaction to him while He walked the earth.
I have chosen Matthew 8 for the primary text discussed in this post. There are many passages that describe both acceptance and rejection of Jesus and eventually his disciples as well. I found the ones in this chapter especially interesting.
In the first four verses of this chapter, it is Jesus who does the accepting. In fact, it is the acceptance of a person who, under Jewish law, was despised and rejected.
A leper approaches Jesus, worships Him and declares his faith in Jesus’s ability to heal him, saying, “if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” (v. 2) Jesus’s response in verse three blesses the man and rewards his faith: “And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will, be thou clean.” The leprosy departed immediately. Jesus then tells him to show himself to the priest and as a testimony offer the gift commanded in the Mosaic Law.
This story is uplifting to read today. But unless we are familiar with Mosaic Law and how it was applied at the time of Jesus’s ministry, we do not realize how radical this passage is. Jesus not only accepts this man because of his faith, He touches him to heal him.
First of all, the leper is not even supposed to approach Jesus and his disciples. He is required to keep his distance and shout “unclean” to any who might approach him. (Leviticus 13:45) But Jesus goes a step further by touching him. Under the Law, that made Jesus unclean. But Jesus, showing His power even over that which previously made a person unclean, instead heals the leper and makes him clean.
In the next chapter of Matthew, Jesus continues to show His ability to overcome uncleanness. First, the daughter of a Jewish ruler has died. In Luke’s account, he is identified as Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue. Jesus goes to the man’s house, lifts the young girl by the hand and she returns to life. Under the Law, anyone touching a dead person was unclean for seven days. (Numbers 19:11)
Yet on His way to the ruler’s house, Jesus performs another healing. A crowd has gathered around Jesus, pressing in on Him closely. A woman who has no business being near Him under the Law believes by faith that she can be healed by just touching only the hem of His robe. Her uncleanness under the Law is due to the fact that she has suffered an unabated flow of blood for many years. She is hoping that she can go unnoticed in such a thick crowd and that even Jesus will not be able to tell that she touched His garment. Not only does Jesus feel power going out of Him when she touches His robe, He commends her faith. She is healed immediately, something none of the doctors were able to able to accomplish.
Not only are the accounts of these healings intermingled, there is an interesting fact related to time. The woman who was healed suffered from the flow of blood for twelve years. The young girl raised from the dead was twelve years old. Much more could be written about these matters, but it would take us away from the topic of acceptance and rejection. For now, it is important to simply show that a part of Jesus’s ministry was to take those who had previously been rejected, heal them and bring them back into fellowship with the rest of the community.
Returning to Matthew 8, beginning with verse 5, we see someone else approach Jesus, also someone we would not expect. It is a Roman centurion. A centurion was the equivalent of a sergeant. With the same root word as century, it tells us that he commanded 100 men.
Jews stayed away from their Roman occupiers as much as possible, and the Romans had little regard for the Jews. So why does the centurion approach? He has a Jewish servant who is painfully afflicted with some sort of infirmity that affects his muscles. This Roman has had little reason to know about Jesus, and even less reason to put stock in any of the stories he heard about Jesus’s miracles. And yet here he is.
Then an even more amazing thing happens. To perform the healing, Jesus offers to go where no Jew of His day would willingly go: to this Roman’s house. The centurion, calling Jesus “Lord”, responds by telling Jesus that he is unworthy for Jesus to even be in his house. I can picture jaws dropping on the faces of those standing by. Romans simply don’t show anywhere near this sort of respect to their Jewish subjects.
But before they can recover, the officer takes it a step further. He states that he knows Jesus can heal his servant by merely proclaiming that he has been healed. He explains that as a soldier, he is well acquainted with authority, and that his men comply with his verbal commands. He is acknowledging that Jesus has authority over disease.
This Gentile’s humility and faith are so astounding that even Jesus marvels at it. Accepting this man’s faith, Jesus tells him to return to his home, for his request has been granted. And the servant was healed that very hour.
After healing many others, Jesus and his disciples take a ship across the Sea of Galilee (verse 23). This is the voyage during which Jesus is asleep in the ship, and after He is awakened He calms the storm.
Upon arrival, Jesus and His disciples encounter two men living among tombs. Possessed by many demons, they exhibited abundant strength and hostility, along with a wild insanity. Confronted by Jesus, the demons protest that He, the Son of God, has come for them before their time of torment. (An amazing aside: the demons know about their eventual eternal punishment, yet persist in their evil ways nonetheless.)
Expecting to be cast out of the men and thinking they can make a compromise with Jesus, they beg Him to put them into a herd of swine that are grazing on a hill nearby. Jesus sends them there. In frenzied reaction, the swine run down the hill into the sea and drown. Matthew gives a condensed version of this event. In other gospel accounts, we find out that those who were possessed are now in their right minds.
The herdsmen run into the city and tell the whole story to its citizens. There is considerable debate about whether the herdsmen were Jewish. For our purposes, it matters little because the “whole city came out to meet Jesus” (verse 34). We know from historical accounts that this was an area settled heavily by Greeks before the Romans arrived. But when the Jews rebelled against the Romans about 30-40 years after the time of Jesus on earth, the Romans heavily attacked this area in response. The evidence is that this is an area of mixed population, both Jew and Gentile.
The point is that when this mixed population hears about this miracle, as soon as they see Jesus, they beg Him to leave. Within a few hours, we have a Roman who accepts Jesus even before He performs a miracle for him, but an entire city of Jews and Gentiles who reject Him after He performs such a wonderful work in their midst.
Indeed, like the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, Jesus is well acquainted with being despised and rejected. We see many instances in the New Testament where Jesus is accepted by the Jewish common people. But He is generally reviled by the leaders. The few who do accept Him do so in secret, fearful of losing their reputation and position. Of course, the ultimate rejection of Jesus brings Him to the cross.
Once it is clear that Christ’s disciples are going to proclaim His name after His ascension, the Jewish leaders reject them as well, in part because of the very acceptance of the Gospel by many of the Jewish common people. And when Christians begin witnessing to Roman citizens, converting many away from worshipping the Roman gods and (more importantly) the Emperor, they reject Christians even more violently.
Among the apostles whose ministry continues after the ascension (i.e., not including Judas, who rejected Jesus with betrayal), only John died by natural causes. The rest were executed. In 2nd Corinthians 11, Paul recounts all the things he had suffered, whether it was from Jews, Romans or even other Christians who were jealous of him: scourging, imprisonment, beatings and stoning.
In Jesus, we have one we can turn to who knows how we suffer when we are rejected by others.
Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known … – 2nd Timothy 4:17 (portion)