Why kneel?

Christians in evangelical traditions kneel much less than we used to. Have we lost something?

Open Matthew 8:2.

As Jesus stepped down from this inaugural address on the kingdom, an outcast with a disease that prevented him being part of the community came and knelt before Jesus with a request. Why did he kneel? Should we kneel? What does it mean? Why do we rarely kneel anymore?

The word translated kneel (προσκυνέω) means to pay homage, to offer worship, typically by bowing or kneeling before someone of authority. In the Septuagint (Old Testament in Greek), people knelt before God (e.g. Psalm 22:27, 29) and kings (e.g. 1 Kings 1:16, 23, 31, 47, 53).

Matthew’s entire message has been about Jesus’ authority as our divinely appointed ruler. The magi travelled far to give homage (προσκυνέω) to Jesus — the king of the Jews (2:2, 11). Herod claimed that title, so he pretended he wanted to bow (προσκυνέω) before King Jesus too (2:8).

John the Baptist announced the restoration of God’s kingdom through Jesus (3:1). Heaven confirmed his message, proclaiming Jesus to be the anointed Son who pleased the heavenly sovereign (3:16-17). Israel’s king was then led by the Spirit to battle their enemy, and refused to bow (προσκυνέω) to Satan (4:9-10). Jesus announced the restoration of heaven’s reign (4:17), giving the Sermon on the Mount as his kingdom manifesto.

The manifesto began with the proclamation that his kingdom would include those who’d missed out — people crushed by poverty, mourning, powerlessness, and injustice (5:3-6). It concluded with the king insisting his subjects not merely call him “Lord” but follow his way of life (7:21-27). They were astounded at his authority, for he claimed that the whole house stood or fell depending on whether they followed his instruction (7:24-29).

Don’t let the chapter break interrupt Matthew’s message. As the king stepped down, great crowds followed his leadership (8:1). And look! A leper approached the king, and knelt to make his request (8:2). He knelt, calling him, “Lord.” If Jesus is restoring to the kingdom for the poor, the mourning, the powerless, and those yearning for justice, this man wants to be cleansed so he can participate in the community (kingdom) under the Messiah’s reign.

In Matthew’s “good news of the kingdom,” the leper kneels before Jesus in recognition of his authority. He’s the first in the on-going story of those who recognized Jesus’ authority; the next is a surprising centurion (8:5-13). So, why did the leper kneel to pay homage to Jesus? Matthew’s point is that he recognized Jesus’ authority and wanted to live in the community under his kingship.

Have you noticed that contemporary churches don’t kneel much anymore, in worship or in prayer? I wonder if we’ve lost the sense of Jesus’ regal authority. If we see him as our king, it’s appropriate to kneel before him.

You may still hear prayer described as “approaching the throne” but I’m not sure we understand prayer as approaching the king to raise an issue that requires attention within his kingdom. Kneeling means little to us, for we’ve lost awareness of God’s kingly authority.

In a culture that honours autonomy, it’s hard to ask people to bow or kneel before their king. When the individual is king, it’s difficult to proclaim Jesus’ kingship, his authority over his kingdom. It’s easier to sing worship songs about how good he is to me than to call people to submit to his kingship. We stopped kneeling when we lost awareness of his kingly authority.

Lepers find it easier than kings to bow before him. Perhaps we should kneel before our heavenly sovereign to ask that even the proud will bow to the one he has appointed to rule the earth, the son of David, the messianic king:

Psalm 72:1, 11 (ESV)
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! …
11 May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!


What others are saying

Barclay Moon Newman and Philip C. Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), 221:

That the man knelt before Jesus is an acknowledgment of the power and authority of Jesus, since one normally knelt before gods and kings. … The word knelt before is the same as in 2:11. It may be translated here as “knelt down in front of him to show honor” or “knelt down in great respect in front of him.”

Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 198:

When the leper prostrates (προσεκύνει, “knelt down before”) himself before Jesus, this is obviously a great act of respect and homage, but the translation “worship” seems too strong for that particular moment. …
“Lord,” … is a confession of faith in Jesus as God’s messianic agent. … The leper’s statement indicates that he had come to the conclusion, probably from having seen or heard of Jesus’ other miracles, that Jesus could cure him of his leprosy (according to 11:5, the curing of leprosy could be expected from the Messiah).

[previous: Asking good questions]

[next: The leper and the king]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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