Hilary of Poitiers, Incarnation, & Partitive Exegesis

Hilary of Poitiers, Incarnation, & Partitive Exegesis

God and man are, well… different.

This fundamental assumption is called the Creator/creature distinction and is the bedrock of doctrines such as creation, man, man’s fall, and Christ the Redeemer. This all-important distinction is what sets Christian theology apart from false theological constructs like Pantheism, where it’s thought God and creation are essentially the same thing.

This Creator/creature distinction ought to be assumed in our interpretation of the biblical text. Not only does it become clear in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created…,” but it’s explicitly stated in places like Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man…”

Especially important is the consistent application of the Creator/creature distinction as we think about the incarnation of the Son of God. The doctrine of the incarnation is Scripturally expressed in places like Philippians 2:6-7, “being in the form of God… taking the form of a bondservant…” This scriptural truth is enshrined in orthodox creeds like the Nicene Creed, which reads, “For us and for our salvation [the Son] came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary…” The Creator, God the Son, became a creature. The task of theologians, therefore, is to read and exegete Scripture in such a way that does justice to the meaning of the text — which principally teaches this Creator/creature distinction. We should avoid reading Christological texts as if this Creator/creature distinction isn’t taught elsewhere in the text. It must be allowed to guide our reading.

In light of the incarnation — where Creator and creature are united in a single Person — how do we read the text in such a way that we do justice to its other claims, i.e. that there most certainly is a Creator/creature distinction, that God is not man nor man God? We do not want to read Scripture in such a way that violates the very foundations upon which Christianity stands.

Thankfully, there is a 4th-century French theologian here to help — Hilary of Poitiers.

Hilary & Partitive Exegesis

Partitive exegesis is the act of biblical interpretation that seeks to read Christological passages in light of the Creator/creature distinction.

Hilary begins with two fundamental assumptions:

  1. In the Person of Christ, there are united two natures — divine and human


  2. This union is without conversion, confusion, or composition (an assumption that functions to preserve both divine and human natures united in His one Person)

He writes:

So the Dispensation of the great and godly mystery makes Him, Who was already Father of the divine Son, also His Lord in the created form which He assumed, for He, Who was in the form of God, was found also in the form of a servant. Yet He was not a servant, for according to the Spirit He was God the Son of God.[1]

He furthermore adds:

Being, then, in the form of a servant, Jesus Christ, Who before was in the form of God, said as a man, I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God. He was speaking as a servant to servants: how can we then dissociate the words from Christ the servant, and transfer them to that nature, which had nothing of the servant in it? For He Who abode in the form of God took upon Him the form of a servant, this form being the indispensable condition of His fellowship as a servant with servants. It is in this sense that God is His Father and the Father of men, His God and the God of servants. Jesus Christ was speaking as a man in the form of a servant to men and servants; what difficulty is there then in the idea, that in His human aspect the Father is His Father as ours, in His servant’s nature God is His God as all men’s?[2]

The “Dispensation” is a reference to the “fullness of times” (Eph. 1:10) in which the Son of God was made “a little lower than the angels.” (Ps. 8:5; Heb. 2:7, 9) It is this “Dispensation” wherein the Son assumes flesh that He is regarded as less than the Father. The Father is Lord of the Son only as the Son is considered according to His human nature. However, according to the divine nature, Father and Son — while distinct Persons in the Godhead — are but one Lord. (Cf. Athanaisan Creed)

This two-natured union in the Person of the Son occurs simultaneously (so to speak). Both divine and human natures are united in the Person of Christ without “conversion, composition, or confusion…” (2LCF 8.2) Hence, Hilary says, “For He, who was in the form of God, was found also in the form of a servant. Yet He was not a servant, for according to the Spirit He was God the Son of God.” Both deity and humanity are true of the Person of the Son, but according to two distinct senses or natures.

The influence of this doctrine cannot be missed in Hilary’s exegesis. In the second paragraph presented above, Hilary pulls from John 20:17 to show how it and similar passages must be understood in light of the hypostatic union. To set up his commentary, he says, “Being, then, in the form of a servant, Jesus Christ, Who before was in the form of God, said as a man…” In other words, John 20:17 are words spoken by Christ, not according to His divine nature but according to His human nature. Hilary approaches the text with this in mind. 

Doctrines undergirding such an approach are those such as immutability and omnipresence. According to His divine nature, the Son cannot move from one place to another since He does not change (immutability), nor can He travel to a place in which He’s already present (omnipresence). John 20:17, therefore, must be spoken according to a nature other than the divine — a nature capable of ascending from earth to heaven.

Hilary further presses when he asks a rhetorical question, “How can we then dissociate the words from Christ the servant, and transfer them to that nature, which has nothing of the servant in it?” Not only would it be heterodox to transfer that which is proper only to the creature to the Creator, but it would also be utterly nonsensical. If there is “nothing of the servant” in God, how could texts like John 20:17 apply to the divine nature? If there were something of the servant in the divine nature, to what avail is the incarnation? Why would God assume humanity if humanity was already in God?


Concluding the matter, Hilary writes, “Jesus Christ was speaking as a man in the form of a servant to men and servants; what difficulty is there then in the idea, that in His human aspect the Father is His Father as ours, in His servant’s nature God is His God as all men’s?” Partitive exegesis allows Hilary (and us) to locate the proper place of subordination. Is the Son eternally subordinate? Or is He only subordinate according to His human nature? The latter must be the case upon a theological reading of the issue. Additionally, a partitive reading of Christological texts preserves both divine and human natures in their substantial integrity — avoiding the ever-present danger of blurring the Creator/creature distinction.


[1] Hilary of Poitiers. On the Trinity. Kindle Edition. Loc. 5582.

[2] Hilary. On the Trinity. Loc. 5589.

Shall We Worship Love? The Dilemma of Denying Divine Simplicity

Shall We Worship Love? The Dilemma of Denying Divine Simplicity

“For since ‘God is love,’ he who loves love certainly loves God; but he must needs love love, who loves his brother.” ~ Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, Bk. 8, Ch. 8

Contrary perhaps to a first glance, Augustine isn’t waxing redundant. If God is love, it certainly follows that this love must be loved more than anything or anyone else. It is a love that must be adored, pursued, and even worshiped.

In 1 John 4:8, the apostle writes, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” And again in v. 16, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” These two substantive clauses identify the perfection of love with God Himself. To put it more technically, the divine essence just is love, according to the apostle. Hence, as Augustine observes, this love must be loved. This love must be loved and adored above all else — for God is love.

But this causes a dilemma for those who would deny the identity of divine love with the divine itself. If love in God is God, this love must be worshiped. If love in God is not God, it must not be worshiped.

Let me try to explain…

The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

The doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS) states that God is not composed of parts. Any parts. No really… there are no parts in God. Zip. Zero.

To put the doctrine of divine simplicity in the words of Herman Bavinck, “But in God everything is one. God is everything He possesses. He is his own wisdom, his own life; being and living coincide in him.”[1] To use the title language of James Dolezal’s helpful book, All That is in God Is God. The Second London Confession (1677) expresses the doctrine as follows, “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto…” (2LCF 2.1; emphasis added)

According to DDS, any kind of partition or parthood in the divine essence must be denied. If mereology is the “study of parthood,” God does not have a mereology. Dolezal defines a “part” as “anything that is less than the whole and without which the whole would be really different than it is.”[2] Stephen Charnock expresses the same point, “the compounding parts are in order of nature before that which is compounded by them… If God had parts and bodily members as we have, or any composition, the essence of God would result from those parts, and those parts be supposed to be before God.”[3] In other words, if God had parts those parts would make Him who He is. He would be, in a sense, caused. To put it another way, God would depend on that which is more basic than Himself to be Himself. In sum, God would not be God if He were not simple.

Love in God, therefore, must not be thought to be anything other than God Himself. Hence, 1 John 4:8, 16, “God is love.” Love is not something God “has.” Love isn’t something God participates in with other beings. It’s not something more basic than Himself making Him to be what He is and without which He would be different.

The Dilemma of Denying the DDS

If God is love, we must love love, as Augustine observes above. But this means that the divine essence (God Himself) and love as it is in God must be the same. If this love were not God, it would be a gross error to love love as the highest good. It would be unthinkable to love, adore, and worship that which is not God Himself. To worship what is not God is to commit idolatry according to the first and second commandments. (Cf. Ex. 20) Thus, either love in God just is God, or it is not God. But if it is not God, it cannot be loved as the highest good, adored, and worshiped.

A denial of DDS (as stated above) would seem to imply a real distinction between God’s essence and the love that exists in God. But if this is the case, to worship and adore the love that is in God would be idolatry. Furthermore, the twin substantives in 1 John 4, i.e. “God is love,” would be nothing but poetic, if not hyperbolic, expressions. But this doesn’t seem likely given the identification of love with knowledge of God in v. 8. Nor would v. 16 easily permit flexibility in the language since it identifies the act of abiding in love with the act of abiding in God Himself, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” Abiding in love just is to abide in God, but this would not necessarily be the case if love and God were really different “things.”

The denial of classical DDS seems to encounter a dilemma — worship love or not. If love is not God, it would be a sin to worship it. If love is God, it would be a sin not to.


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 174.

[2] James Dolezal, “Still Impassible: Confessing God Without Passions,” in Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, 132.

[3] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1979), 186.

The Cosmic Meaning of the Church

The Cosmic Meaning of the Church

To say churches are in a crisis of meaning is an understatement. Some attend church because of a moralistic impulse. They have been conditioned to believe it’s the right thing to do, though they may not know why it’s the right thing to do. Others go to church because they feel like the church has something to offer, usually emotional support. 

A troubled person can find uplifting sayings in the sermon, instructions for living a more fulfilling life, and comfort in a sea of smiling parishioners. Others attend church but have no idea why. They just haven’t faced the uncomfortable reality that they, perhaps, believe nothing the church says and that they’ve been driving to church from Sunday to Sunday out of sheer habit. Still, a small minority are secure in their church attendance. They want to be there and they know precisely why.

This crisis of meaning stems from a drought of theological understanding, a fault I might attribute to pulpits nationwide. But I’m not looking to blame anyone in this article. Far from it. I want to offer something more constructive. That is, I want to paint a portrait of the church that will help us understand why the church is cosmically and practically significant. But first, we need to begin with the identity of the church.

A Biblical Portrait of the Church

The church is an organism with a divinely bestowed identity and a heaven-entranced trajectory. 

Let me explain…

In Colossians 1:17, Paul is reveling in the mystery of Christ as he writes, “He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” Christ is the Creator and sustainer of all things. But then in v. 18, he writes, “And He is the head of the body, the church…” When we attempt to understand what the church is, we must start here. The church is “the body,” of which Christ is the head. The “body language” refers to the church’s union with Christ, denoting the marital union of Genesis 2. Illustrating this point further, Paul writes, “For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (Eph. 5:30-32)

The church, therefore, is in vital union with the Son of God through the gospel of the Son of God. It is an organism that has been brought into a life-giving relation to the triune God through the Mediatorial office of the incarnate Christ. All people who are united to Christ comprise His church. Hence, the historical designation of “universal church.” This church knows no geographical or architectural bounds. It consists of all who have been effectually called and united to the Savior. Apart from this union, a person cannot possess spiritual life, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” (Jn. 15:5)

Those who are grafted into the true vine and thus members of the new covenant are termed “the church.” But since this macrocosmic church is made up of those who have been made alive in Christ through His Holy Spirit, (cf. Tit. 3:5) there is a real communal life that takes place among them. And since these members are scattered all over the globe at any given time, the ordinary way in which this communal life takes place is in localized, microcosmic versions of the universal church.

The local church is a sacred assembly of God’s people in a given area where there are some Christians banded together by a common confession of faith. The presupposition of their local assembly is their membership in the broader body and bride of Jesus Christ, from whom they derive their life. The local church, therefore, is but a visible manifestation of the universal church. (Cf. 2LCF 26.1, 5) People who have been endowed with the virtue of faith because of the gospel are those who receive the gospel. And those who receive the gospel do so precisely because they’ve been freely given a life that receives it. This life, expressive of one’s union with Christ, necessarily manifests in the vibrant religious life of local churches.

For those in Christ, going to church is but an inaugural manifestation of Christ’s own vibrant, resurrectional life in the lives of His people. This alone ought to cast due aspersions upon the crisis of meaning commonly experienced in many churches today.

Cosmic Renewal & the Place of the Church

The divine operation of the gospel is described in 2 Corinthians 5:19, where we learn that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself…” This cosmic redemption occurs through means of and within the church. In Christ, the church constitutes an inaugurated new creation and new nation into which people from all tribes and tongues are gathered. Speaking to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Cor. 5:17) And Peter describes the church as a holy nation, “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light…” (1 Pet. 2:9)

This nation is, in essence, the new covenant kingdom and world established in the blood of the Lamb. For it is in the death of Christ that He secures the church and rescues her from the dominion of sin, death, and Satan — “Now is the judgment of this world,” He says, “now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” (Jn. 12:31-32) That the church is the initiatory new world into which the redeemed are transferred upon their Spirit-wrought renewal means that the church plays a transitional role between this world and the next. (Col. 1:13)

If the already/not yet distinction was an institution, it would be the church of the living God. This is why the structure of Colossians 1:15-23 is [creation → church → new creation]. I want to suggest that the church is the inter-creational vehicle in which the redeemed begin to exit one world and enter another. The church has one foot in the old world and one foot in the new. This transitional status of the militant church needs to inform how we understand the church’s place between two cosmic realities. 

We might mistakenly conclude, therefore, that once a person is united to Christ and is made a part of His body, the old world no longer matters. This would be a gross error. The church may be between two worlds, but it’s not between two separate and unrelated locations. The new world could accurately be described as the old world remade, renewed, and redeemed. In Romans 8:21, Paul contemplates a renewal of the old world in connection to the resurrection, “the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.” The church must continue to take the first creation seriously even as she enjoys and looks forward to the second.

The creation and sustainment of the old world is through Christ according to Colossians 1:15-17, “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” And in v. 18, “He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence.” Though Christ is the Creator and sustainer of the old world, only the church is said to be His own body. Upon His entering into new, resurrectional life and taking His seat at the right hand of God, Christ begins to bestow that same life upon elect sinners. The project of new creation starts with Christ, and the church is caught up with Christ to participate in His new resurrectional life. There is no place or institution other than the church in which this occurs. The bodily resurrection of the church means the old world will be consummately delivered from the Genesis 3 curse only to participate in the new creational reality commenced by King Jesus 2,000 years ago.

The preeminence of Christ over “all things” follows from His headship over the church which suggests that the church takes priority in the spiritual hierarchy over the first creation. It further indicates God’s purpose of creational renewal in and through an ever-expanding new and holy nation full of restored images of God. The renewal of the divine image of those within the church can be explained only by their union with the exact imprint of the Father’s nature, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Heb. 1:1-4; Rom. 8:29) Thus, the church at present is a seminal new world populated with renewed image bearers of God pilgrimaging toward the consummation of the new heavens and new earth. Hence, in Colossians 1:19-20, there is a reconciliation and renewal of all things through the blood of Jesus.

This [creation → church → new creation] order in Colossians 1 insinuates the present trans-creational position of Christ’s church. The church is the only entity that simultaneously straddles old and new creations. The church touches, sees, smells, hears, and tastes the old world daily. And as she does, she must shine brightly. (Matt. 5:14) But she also participates in new-world realities that are both already and not yet, e.g. justification, adoption, sanctification, and the several benefits that flow from them.


The church is that in which redeemed image bearers participate in new creational life. While this no doubt indirectly implies some practical solutions to present woes, the emphatic reason why Christians ought to find meaning in the church is that the church is united and is being united with God through Jesus Christ. It is the gathering of God’s people called by Christ and formed by His Spirit through means of churchly ordinances. As such, the ritual life of the church consisting of ordinances administered on the Lord’s Day ought to be seen as cosmically significant. If life in the church is participation in the new world, then the ordinances and practices occurring within the church are slivers of heaven intended by God to make us more heaven-like.

Therefore, the worship of the church — particularly on the Lord’s Day — takes on heavenly overtones. The crisis of meaning in contemporary Western church culture is a crisis of identity. What the church is and what the church does is disconnected from the God to whom the Savior reconciles us. And when this happens, “church life” becomes nothing more than an extracurricular activity among many other possible extracurricular activities. But when the church is seen as an organism peculiarly favored by God through Christ intended to result in our consummate delight in God Himself, the meaning of the church is at once understood to be essential to the lives of Christians.


For more relevant material & bibliography see my article, “A Most Meaningful Church,” https://www.academia.edu/111267547/A_Most_Meaningful_Church.

Divine Self-Existence & Holy Jealousy

Divine Self-Existence & Holy Jealousy

The doctrine of divine aseity (self-existence) teaches us that God does not depend upon that which is not God in order to be God. God’s “God-ness” isn’t something that He has, it is something that He is. As such, His divinity, perfections, attributes, etc. are not things that He shares with other beings — as one man may share strength in common with another man. A shared property is something that is possessed in part but not in whole. For example, strength can never entirely belong to a single man, since that would mean no other man could have strength.

This is not the case when it comes to God. What God “has” He has entirely. To put it another way: What God is only God is. This is why God, in Scripture, is said to be “jealous.” He doesn’t share what only He is — that which belongs to Him and Him alone.

Scripture fleshes this out brilliantly. One shining example comes within the context of the second commandment, “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” (Ex. 20:5) Consider that text along with the following, “For My own sake, for My own sake, I will do it; For how should My name be profaned? And I will not give My glory to another.” (Is. 48:11)

Divine Self-Existence from Isaiah 42:8

The introduction of Isaiah 42:8 reads, “I am the LORD, that is My name…” This is an important point because it invokes the covenant name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush, “The LORD God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is My name forever, and this is My memorial to all generations.” (Ex. 3:15) This name derives from v. 14, the famous, “I AM WHO I AM” designation, which many scholars agree denotes self-existence, i.e. God just is.

The invocation of this covenant name revealing God’s self-existence naturally proceeds to a further implication, “And My glory I will not give to another…” The same point is made in Exodus 20:5, but in different terms, “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” God’s holy jealousy in Scripture is an expression of His self-existent, independent nature — which does not have glory but is glory exclusively. It is not shared with another. God wouldn’t have all the glory if it were shared with other beings. But if God does have all the glory, it follows that it will not be given to anyone or anything else.

Hence, we should not worship anything or anyone other than this God, because to do so is to ascribe divine glory to something or someone other than Him. So, all praise must be directed to Him, “And My glory I will not give to another, Nor My praise to carved images.” This phrase echoes the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image… you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Ex. 20:4-5) 

The ground of the second commandment is the aseity of God — He is His glory, and He is all the glory. To share it with another would be to subtract from who He is (an impossibility, to be sure). The sinfulness of idolatry, therefore, consists in the impossibility of God’s glory belonging to anything or anyone else. Thus, when we ascribe the glory of God to something other than God, we also violate the 9th commandment in bearing false witness about who God is, i.e. that He shares His glory when in fact He does not.

Holy Jealousy, Self-Existence, & the Divine Identity of Christ

This divine glory, and therefore holy jealousy, is said to belong to Christ, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:14) Does this mean that God has violated His rights to exclusive divine glory? Has He begun to share His glory with someone who is not God? Has God rescinded His rule, “My glory I will not give to another”? The short answer is a resounding, no! In light of Isaiah 42:8, the Son’s glory in John 1:14 is an attestation to His divine nature which He has in common with His Father. John does not want us to conclude that God shares His glory with another, but that the Son of God is God Himself.

An appeal to the begottenness of the Son in John 1:14b is an insurance policy to secure his readers from heresy. Far from God sharing His glory with another, the Son is none other than what the Nicene Creed calls “God from God, Light from Light.” The Father, through eternal generation, communicates the fullness of deity in eternally begetting the only begotten Son.

Isaiah 42:8 and the exclusive glory of God — God is glory, and only God is this glory — when paired with John 1:14 presses us to conclude that Christ is indeed YHWH, the same God who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush, (Ex. 3:14-15) the same God who issued the second commandment, (Ex. 20:4-6), and the same God who became us to redeem us. (Jn. 1:1-14)

When we think of divine jealousy and the exclusivity of the divine glory, we should be drawn to consider the divine majesty of Christ, the wonder of His incarnation, and the great privilege we have in redemption

Descent & Ascent in Matthew 8

Descent & Ascent in Matthew 8

The macrocosmic portrait of redemption entails our Lord’s humiliation and exaltation. Touching His humiliation, He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin, and so was endowed with every essential property of humanity, along with the common infirmities or frailties of our nature — excepting only sin. (see 2LCF 8) Concomitant with His humiliation is His exaltation, because even in His humiliation our Lord was reconciling the world to God and defeating the throws of sin, death, and the devil. (2 Cor. 5:19; Col. 2:15) Jesus did this, perhaps paradoxically, in His cruciform sacrifice, when He offered Himself up once for all. It was there when He declared, “It is finished.” (Jn. 19:30)

Following His death on the cross, our Lord’s body was buried and in His human soul, He went to the place of the dead. Quoting John Lightfoot, Dr. James Renihan writes, “The Soul of our Saviour therefore… descended into Hell, i.e. he passed into the state of the dead, viz. Into that place in Hades, where the souls of good Men went.”[1] Acts 2:27, a quotation from Psalm 16, reads, “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” Christ’s soul would not be left in Hades, or the place of the dead. Hence, between the day of our Lord’s death and His resurrection, His human body lay entombed and His human soul was in the place of the dead to proclaim the victory of the cross to all those “under the earth.” (Phil. 2:10; Rev. 5:13)

Not unironically, at the low point of the descent the ascent begins. Proclamation of victory under the earth, then proclamation of victory on the earth in the bodily resurrection. Finally, there is a proclamation of victory in glory as our Lord ascends and is seated at the right hand of power. This is the macrocosmic picture — the big narrative. The main event.

But I would like to submit to my readers that there are microcosmic pictures of redemption that occur throughout our Lord’s earthly ministry. It’s as if while He completes the big picture, He’s drawing the big picture on smaller canvases throughout His humble vocation. I’m almost certain that one of these smaller pictures occurs in Matthew 8. And it’s striking…

The Ordering of Details in Matthew 8

The ordering of details in Matthew 8 could not be more telling, but only if we view Matthew 8 as a literary-theological unit rather than a scattershot of disjointed stories. While there are changes in scenery and emphases in ch. 8, these changes occur in a logically progressive way. For example, Jesus descends the mountain in v. 1, in vv. 2-3 He begins healing people. This kingdom theme of healing those in need continues until v. 17. But from v. 17 to v. 18, there is no clear break. “And” is the transitional conjunction moving the reader straight into Jesus’ interaction with would-be disciples. In v. 23, Jesus and His true disciples board a boat, sail through a storm on the Sea of Galilee, and end up amid a bunch of tombs. Jesus scatters a horde of demons out of two possessed men into a multitude of swine only then to return to Capernaum.

The flow of events, therefore, seems to progress from somewhat normative circumstances in Judea, to a storm in the Sea of Galilee (which almost certainly typifies death), to the place of the dead, and then back to Judea.

At this juncture, I want to make a clarification. I am not claiming that the order of events as presented by Matthew is the same thing as the order of events as they historically played out. No doubt the authors of the gospels feel at liberty at times to rearrange the chronology of events for theological effect rather than chronological accounting. This is especially true of Matthew. (Cf. R. T. France, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) My point here is that the order of events as Matthew presents them under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whether they reflect the historical chronology or not, are significant and perhaps arranged to make a typological-theological point.

The Significance of Geography

The geography of Matthew 8 is just as important as the ordering of events. Not only do Jesus and His disciples travel from north to south, which may hint at a descent-like movement, but they also travel from the Promised Land into heathen territory — a place often thought to be inhabited by unclean spirits. And this particular location was no exception — the Gergesene tombs.

Keep in mind that the Jordan runs from Mt. Hermon in Lebanon through the Sea of Galilee and picks up on the southernmost side, running on to the Dead Sea further south. To cross Galilee — as Jesus and His disciples did — is to cross the Jordan. Commonly associated with death and life, crossing the Jordan into Gentile territory is a significant detail with a rich Old Testament background. For this reason, it serves a very important typological purpose throughout the Hebrew Bible right up to our Lord’s baptism in Matthew 3. Perhaps it also says something about our Lord’s intent to conquer the whole world, not just Canaan.

Further, one should not miss the watery environment. Water is typically associated with death (cf. Genesis 6-9; Jonah 2). A stormy deluge where the “boat was concealed by the waves” easily hearkens to a similar image. (Matt. 8:24) This is especially the case if we consider the Galilean excursion as a functional crossing of the Jordan into pagan territory.

While Jews may very well have inhabited what’s now the Kursi region, the presence of countless swine suggests a majority-Gentile population.

The most staggering geographical detail in Matthew 8 is the location to which Jesus very-intentionally brings His disciples — the Gergesene tombs. It’s quite literally a place of the dead. One can’t help but consider whether this dark scene anticipates the crucifixion of our Lord wherein He defeats death and the Satanic counsel at “the place of the skull,” or perhaps even His descent to Hades following His cruciform victory. I want to suggest the possibility of both.

These geographical details may seem interesting. But why should we think these specifics have any narratival significance at all? There are basically two reasons for why I think these details are meaningful. The text gives very specific geographical and circumstantial details, and this isn’t an accident. Matthew 8 begins by including Jesus’ descent from the mountain whereupon He preached the Sermon on the Mount. Not only is “the sea” mentioned, but specifics occur on the sea that shouldn’t be passed over. In v. 28, we are told that Jesus and His disciples arrived precisely at “the country of the Gergesenes.” We are told there were tombs there, a site that exists to this day. At the close of the narrative, we find Jesus returning to “His own city,” which was likely Capernaum proper up north. Matthew 8 is an event-filled, geographic-specific text.

Whereas our Lord’s mission was redemptive in nature, it is reasonable to suggest these people, places, and events in Matthew 8 serve a broader redemptive purpose rather than simply being happenstance resulting in interesting Bible stories. Matthew 8 is redemptively and theologically rich.


In Matthew Henry’s commentary on Matthew 8:23-27, speaking of the storm on Galilee, he says the following:

One would have expected, that having Christ with them, they should have had a very favourable gale, but it is quite otherwise; for Christ would show that they who are passing with him over the ocean of this world to the other side, must expect storms by the way. The church is tossed with tempests (Isa. 54:11); it is only the upper region that enjoys a perpetual calm, this lower one is ever and anon disturbed and disturbing.[2]

Henry clearly sees an allusion to “the upper region” and the “lower one.” Between the two, the upper region is altogether more desirable, being calm and peaceful in contrast to the place of the dead. Commenting on vv. 28-34, he writes:

The scope of this chapter is to show the divine power of Christ, by the instances of his dominion over bodily diseases, which to us are irresistible; over winds and waves, which to us are yet more uncontrollable; and lastly, over devils, which to us are most formidable of all. Christ has not only all power in heaven and earth and all deep places, but has the keys of hell too.[3]

Henry draws a straight line from the tombs to the “deep places” and “hell.” John Chrysostom seems to consider the scene at the Gergesenes as a foretaste of a more weighty teaching on hell in contrast to the kingdom of God:

Consider then all these things (for the words concerning hell and the kingdom ye are not yet able to hear), and bearing in mind the losses which ye have often undergone from your love of money, in loans, and in purchases, and in marriages, and in offices of power, and in all the rest; withdraw yourselves from doating on money. For so shall ye be able to live the present life in security, and after a little advance to hear also the words that treat on self-government, and see through and look upon the very Sun of Righteousness, and to attain unto the good things promised by Him; unto which God grant we may all attain, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might forever and ever. Amen. (Emphasis mine)[4]

Thomas Aquinas sees significance in the descent from the mountain at the outset of ch. 8. He writes:

It says then, and when he had come down from the mountain. That mountain is heaven; a mountain in which God is well pleased to dwell (Ps 67:17). Hence after he descended from heaven, great multitudes followed him; but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man (Phil 2:7). Or, by the mountain is understood high teaching; your justice is as the mountains of God (Ps 35:7). Since he was on the mountain, i.e., since he led a high life, his disciples followed him. And when he had come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And I, brethren, could not speak to you as unto spiritual (1 Cor 3:1).[5]

There is more work to be done in terms of retrieving the historical exegesis of Matthew 8 to see whether history bears witness to the same observations I’ve tried to make throughout this post. But I do think that there is enough historical precedent to responsibly chart a path forward in elaborating upon the imagery of Matthew 8.


To end, we saw the order of events in the text. I qualified that this order of events could either be chronological or theological (it’s probably theological more or less). Either way, the order is arranged — either by time or by Spirit-wrought theological inspiration — for a redemptive reason. Further, the geography and circumstances of Matthew 8 are enormously insightful in my opinion. Jesus goes from a mountaintop in Capernaum to a hellish landscape on the other side of Jordan, back to Capernaum. Lastly, there is at least some historical precedent for the direction I’m moving in my observations. I do think this is a text that could be further explored in both academic and churchly spheres, and I hope this brief post is but a finger pointing to the riches of this particular chapter.


[1] James M. Renihan, Baptist Symbolics, vol. II, (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2022), 231.

[2] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 1651.

[3] Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 1652.

[4] Chrysostom, St. John. The Homilies On The Gospel Of St. Matthew. Jazzybee Verlag. Kindle Edition. Loc. 7089.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Matthew. Aquinas.cc. C8.L1.n681.