After a month away, we return to the Gospel of Mark and take up our reading at 1:29. Remember, the Lord has just driven an evil spirit out of a man in the synagogue in Capernaum, amazing the people with his authority. We are now to be given several accounts of miraculous healing and will be told that Jesus performed many such exorcisms and healings.
It is quite likely that this house, the home of Peter and Andrew, was the Lord’s own home in Capernaum and so the place where he regularly met with his disciples and the headquarters of his ministry. Interestingly, within a stone’s throw of what is now known to have been the location of the Capernaum synagogue, the scene of the previous episode, lies the structure that is now called and can be reasonably identified as the house of Peter. Archaeologists have found Christian graffiti in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Aramaic indicating that it was a sacred gathering place for Christians and perhaps a church as far back as the end of the first or beginning of the second century. For obvious reasons, it was apparently a spot venerated by Christians. [Edwards, 59]
As always, the Lord’s healing of the sick is immediate and complete. There are no spells or incantations, no rituals, such as were typical of so-called healers then and now. No one fell backward into the arms of waiting assistants. There is nothing of the “symptomatic abatement” that one sometimes hears from modern so-called faith healers; that is, the declaration of healing without any obvious change in the sick person’s condition. There was authority exercised by Jesus and there were always immediate and definitive and unmistakable results.
Mark notes the fact that, as soon as she was healed, Peter’s mother-in-law began to “serve” those in her home. It is an historical recollection, to be sure, but it beautifully suggests what will be an emphatic article of the teaching of Jesus: those who have been touched and saved by him are to serve others.
The people waited until after sunset because it was still the same Sabbath day first mentioned in v. 21. Mark presents the events reported in 1:22-38 as occurring on a single Sabbath day. The adverb “immediately” – translated variously in the NIV – occurs five times in these verses, suggesting that these things happened one right after the other. To carry the sick to Jesus, even to travel to see him, would be work such as was forbidden on the Sabbath, or at least that was the prevailing theory in the Judaism of that day. Jesus, as you know, did not scruple to heal on the Sabbath day and that will become a cause of contention between him and the religious leadership.
You will notice, by the way, that Mark carefully distinguishes between those who were sick and those who were demon-possessed.
It is interesting and important that it does not appear that Jesus ever went out looking for the sick. They came to him. As we will see, healing and exorcism were not part of his ministry in the same way that preaching was.
The Lord’s silencing of the demons is the first instance of what is famously referred to in the study of the Gospels as “the messianic secret.” We will have cause to consider this again, but, in short, it appears that the Lord knew it was necessary to keep the wraps on his identity as the Messiah as long as he could and as best he could so as not to provoke a confrontation with either the political or the religious leadership before it was time. The demons who knew who he was therefore were silenced. The current understanding of the Messiah among the Jews was that he would be a military and political figure. To have Jesus identified as such would have prompted swift intervention from the Roman government. But it would also have excited the Jews for precisely the wrong reasons, for Jesus was manifestly not the Messiah they were expecting and he had no intention of doing what they expected the Messiah to do.
The redundant “very early, while it was still dark” suggests an eyewitness touch. Peter is remembering that long ago morning, the look and feel of the early morning, the chill in the air. So much is suggested in this single sentence. The Lord’s life was a life of faith; he was a man of prayer who relied on the help and blessing of his heavenly Father. He placed such a value on his communion with God that, exhausted as he must have been by the perpetual demands of the crowds upon his time, he stole from his sleep to find time for it and sought solitude in which to devote himself to it without distraction. Our salvation, yours and mine, depended not only on what Jesus did in public, but what power and help he received when he was alone in prayer. There are so many lessons here for us. We are to do as Jesus did and go into our room and shut the door in order to be alone with God. And we are to place a similar premium on prayer. Though the Lord Jesus had no sins to confess and few earthly interests to pray for – the things that make up the bulk of our praying – he prayed as no man has ever prayed before. A perfect man is not the man who doesn’t need to pray but the man who always wants to pray!
For none so lone on earth as he
Whose way of thought is high and free
Beyond the mist, beyond the cloud,
Beyond the clamor of the crowd,
Moving where Jesus trod,
In the lone walk with God.
The word the NIV translates “is looking for” is used 10x in the Gospel of Mark and always in a negative sense. Men, in other words, were seeking to control Jesus, not to submit to him or to follow him. This kind of “seeking” is not a good thing. [Edwards, 66-67]
Here we are introduced, for the first time, to what will also become a familiar theme in the Gospel: the difference between the Lord’s program and his disciples’ expectation. The Lord had suddenly become the talk of the town. Crowds had gathered the night before and were gathering again as the morning broke. His disciples assumed that surely the Lord would exploit this glorious opportunity, capitalize on his sudden popularity and there would be more of the signs and wonders that had produced such crowds in the first place. But the Lord replied that the Gospel, the message of salvation, the coming of the kingdom of God, this is what is all-important. He could heal the sick and they would still go to hell. He came, he says – and we naturally think of his coming into the world – a preacher first and foremost, a healer only secondarily.
A leper – or a person infected with any malignant skin disease – was not only made miserable by the disease but made an outcast by the ceremonial impurity that it caused and the fear of contagion. People feared lepers and so they were required to advertise their coming and to remain at least 50 paces away from others. Josephus speaks of the banishment of lepers as those “in no way differing from a corpse.” [Edwards, 69] The uncleanness of the leper is reflected in the language here. This man is not healed, he is cleansed. We know the disease was widespread in Palestine during this time. The Mishnah is full of instructions for the handling of people with this disease. But Jesus’ reputation had reached this man, cut off from society, and in hope of deliverance he found the Lord and, expressing his faith sought a cure. He offended against convention immediately by coming right up to Jesus. As is typical of his healing miracles, and as we saw with Peter’s mother-in-law in v. 31, the Lord touched the man, more significant than we might think because the man was an outcast, unused to being touched, and because he was unclean. Mark’s addition of “reached out his hand” places emphasis on Jesus’ touching the leper. Was he violating the law of Moses by touching someone who was unclean? Not if the touch made the man immediately clean!
The rabbis said in Jesus’ day that to cure a leper was as difficult as raising the dead. The sudden cure of the man’s skin, the most obvious feature of his body, must have been phenomenally impressive.
There would have been priests in Galilee, not only 90 miles south in Jerusalem, but the formal cleansing of a person whose skin disease proved to be temporary, a purification ritual required in the Mosaic law, required sacrifices and so a trip to the temple. But this was necessary if the man were to be allowed back into society. The Lord is honoring the law of Moses in any case.
It begins to be clear that his reputation as a miracle-worker, spreading like wild-fire as it would certainly have done, Jesus found himself riding a whirlwind: despite his best efforts he was unable to control the popular excitement. He did his best to keep people quiet, but folk usually talk about what amazes them. A wonderfully human touch.
It is clear from this narrative and the parallel sections of the other Gospels that Jesus did not slowly and gradually acquire a reputation and a following among the people of Galilee. Quite the contrary. Our Savior burst upon bucolic Galilee with an explosion of divine power, power that he seemed to have at his fingertips. In a moment his name was on everyone’s lips and his works were being reported breathlessly in one excited conversation after another. People, as they will, aware that Jesus could do extraordinary things, began to swarm round him. Mark’s description of the Lord’s early miracles in Capernaum and other nearby towns is restrained, matter-of-fact, but it is not hard to picture the roads and streets filling up with people eager to get a look at the wonder-worker or to find healing for themselves or their loved ones. It is not hard for us to imagine how we would have dropped everything to see for ourselves the one who was supposed to have done such extraordinary things.
A man demon-possessed had been exorcised and this was done in public, in the synagogue no less. The conversation between Jesus and the demon was like nothing anyone had ever heard before and the result was breathtaking: the man once again sound in mind and spirit, the demon having been sent packing. Then the mother-in-law of Peter, perhaps not so terribly ill, but certainly sick, became well, hale and hearty, in an instant when Jesus touched her and spoke to her. No one had ever seen anything like this either. News spread throughout the town in moments and then the crowds began to gather and it mattered not what the ailment, how serious the disease, all were cured, immediately and completely. And then a few days later Jesus was accosted by a leper begging for help and he too was cured.
Now what is the meaning of all of this? Some say that such power is intrinsic to the gospel and the great meaning of these miracles is that such healings are always available to those who have faith in Jesus. In other words, Mark has given us a picture of what should always be happening in Christian circles. There are Christians today who pity Christians like us because nothing miraculous, no such healing is occurring among us, such as they claim is happening among them.
But with the best will in the world, and with the honest admission that we too would love to witness a miracle like these miracles that Mark has reported, we point out certain facts.
First, miracles are not found everywhere in the Bible. They were never the ordinary experience of believers in biblical times. Indeed, the ordinary person of biblical times never saw a miracle. Miracles are, in fact, concentrated into three historical periods only. The first is that of the exodus, the wilderness, and the early conquest of the Promised Land; the second is during the ministry of Elijah and Elisha; and the third is the ministry of Jesus and his apostles, especially the early ministry of the apostles. By the end of the New Testament there do not seem to be miracles occurring. The later writings of Paul, for example, make no mention of them. At one time simply to touch a handkerchief that Paul had touched would heal the sick. [Acts 19:11] But at the end of his life, in 2 Tim. 4, we hear the plaintive sigh of a man who was missing a treasured friend: “Trophimus I left ill at Miletus.” The time of miracles was past, even for Paul.
Second, miracles in the Bible are always associated with the ministry of prophets and apostles. We know of no miracle that is not associated with these unique offices. The Bible certainly never teaches us to expect that we would witness miracles, much less be able to perform them, without the presence of a prophet like Moses or Elijah or an apostle like Peter or Paul.
Third, when Jesus’ ministry was complete and he had returned to heaven, Peter tells us what his miracles were for. In his Pentecost sermon he says to the Jews that “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” In other words, the purpose of Jesus’ miracles was not in the first instance to get sick people well. It was to reveal Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. Miracles and revelation always go together in the Bible! Jesus makes the same point. He pointed out that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s day, in that time of severe famine, but he miraculously provided for only one widow and she was not an Israelite woman. And there were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s day and he cleansed only one and he was not an Israelite either. The role of miracles in the history of salvation is to accredit those who speak and act for God in the world in that once for all way in which Moses did and Elijah did and Jesus did and Paul did. There is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest that the miraculous was ever intended to be the ordinary experience of the church. Indeed, miracles would cease to be miracles if they occurred all the time.
Fourth, Jesus’ miracles, as we have said, were real miracles. They astonished everyone; they left everyone baffled, they convinced everyone of their miraculous nature. Even Jesus’ enemies did not, could not deny that he had healed the sick, even raised the dead. The so-called miracles of today are not of this type as has been proved, alas, too many times. I have told you before, biblical miracles being what they were – self-authenticating demonstrations of divine power – if such miracles begin occurring again today, you will read about it on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post. They may not believe in Christ – Jesus himself said that such is the intractability of man’s rebellion against God and his blindness in sin that many folk would not believe in him even if a man were to rise from the dead – but even unbelievers will not be able to deny that supernatural power had been unleashed in the world. The world, alas, chuckles or rolls its eyes at the miraculous claims often made by Christians today. Nobody chuckled and nobody rolled his eyes who saw the miracles of Jesus of Nazareth! As someone bluntly put it: “A man in the jungle at night may suppose a hyena’s growl to be a lion’s; but when he hears the lion’s roar, he knows damn well it’s a lion.” [A Severe Mercy, 21]
There are far too many sad stories that I could tell you of Christian folk – through the Christian ages and still today – folk who expected that there would be just such miraculous working in the world as we read of in Mark 1 and of the disappointment, the confusion, and the dishonesty that resulted when the miracles they expected did not occur. This is a mistake that even very good men have made, supposing that what Jesus did in his ministry, all or at least many Christians could do in theirs. Many of you have read the books of Andrew Murray, the devout son of Scottish Presbyterian parents who went to South Africa in the 19th century to serve as a missionary with the Dutch Reformed Church. He believed that Christians, with supernatural means of healing at their disposal, should never resort to doctors. Once, while preparing for a preaching tour, his nephew, though ill with TB, expressed a desire to go with him. Murray encouraged him to go trusting that God would heal him. They read together some verses of the Bible, prayed for healing, thanked God for the healing that they knew would come, and set off on their trip. In three weeks the nephew was dead. Murray was a man of faith, but he misunderstood the miracles of the Bible. They were never primarily about getting people well – though they did make the sick well and wonderfully so –; they were to authenticate the divine authority of the one who wielded this almighty power. And that, unmistakably, is what Jesus’ miracles did: they made people realize the unique and divine authority of Jesus.
We are going to see next Lord’s Day morning that his miracles served another purpose: they were the embodiment of his message in a spectacularly impressive form. They were, in other words, magnificent pictures of the salvation Jesus came to bring. Such is the case here with the leper. He was cleansed. His physical malady and the resulting uncleanness that kept him from the temple, the house of God and the community of faith, were illustrations of everyone’s spiritual condition. We all are outcasts because we are spiritually unclean and Jesus alone is able to make us clean.
But there is something still more in what miracles reveal to us about Jesus. What his healings and his other miraculous works and his exorcisms did was to demonstrate that the Son of God has power over all the troubles and afflictions of our lives, over all the powers that threaten us, over every person or thing, including things within ourselves. That, of course, is why the crowds gathered so quickly. Jesus wasn’t performing amazing parlor tricks; he was delivering people from the scourges that were making them miserable. He was doing for them the most important and wonderful thing they could imagine being done for them. What is more, these miracles reveal Jesus to be full of sympathy, compassion, and love and touched by our weakness, our bondage, and our need.
You see this, of course, in the fact that he touched these people. We can see him reaching out his hand, we can almost feel the gentle touch of some who cares for us, really cares. He touched even the leper, the one who wasn’t to be touched! He might have simply spoken the leprosy away, but that touch, that physical contact meant so much and was obviously an indication of his compassion for this poor man, isolated, hopeless, and desperate. You husbands and wives know, you parents know how love in the heart produces the touch of the hand. So it was with Jesus.
But, brothers and sisters, think: this same Jesus is with us now. He has the same power, his heart is full of the same love, the same tender sympathy, the same compassion. It is not his will – as it has not ordinarily been his will – to heal our sicknesses miraculously, but it is not for want of power or for lack of sympathy. What we see in Jesus here, is what we have in him now. Paul says that he prayed for the Christians in Ephesus that they might know “[the Lord’s] incomparably great power for us who believe…the working of God’s mighty strength.” The miracles of Mark 1 and the rest of the Lord’s public ministry are a demonstration of the power that the Lord always has at his disposal to exercise on behalf of those he loves and for those for whom he feels compassion and sympathy. The Lord’s heart is touched by the feeling of our infirmities, the Bible says; he is not someone who is unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. Far from it, no one ever found a more sympathetic friend than Jesus Christ or one better able to help in time of need.
Joseph Damien, a Roman Catholic priest, born in 1840, sailed to Hawaii as a missionary in 1863 and, when he arrived, was horrified to discover the plight of the lepers there who were banished to a colony on the island of Molokai. Here they eked out a miserable existence in disease, filth, and want, with neither family nor church to help them. Father Damien volunteered to go and live among them. He buried their dead; he taught them hygiene; cleaned their water supply; he built a church for them; improved their homes; built a hospital; constructed an orphanage; and trained a choir. He was for them a teacher, a carpenter, a stone mason, a sanitation engineer, a friend, and a priest. This selfless ministry continued for sixteen years until one Sunday morning in 1885 he stunned his congregation by beginning his sermon with the words “We lepers…” He had contracted the disease himself and died on Molokai in 1889. [Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 144] He became a leper because he gave himself and his life for lepers.
But did you notice how our text ends. Jesus stayed outside in lonely places. That’s where the leper had lived, in lonely places. In love and by his saving power Jesus exchanged places with that leper. The leper came home, was restored to his family, and to a happy life. Jesus took his place away from people. He had to be there because the work he came to do for us required it. He had to exchange a comfortable life for a difficult one; he had to keep himself out of the way of people as much as he could because he still had more than two years of ministry yet to perform before going to the cross for us and our salvation. He couldn’t allow his work to be short-circuited by the misunderstanding of the people and by false responses to him that would then be reported to the authorities. He could not go to his death before the appointed time. And so he took the leper’s place in the lonely places as he would eventually take the leper’s place on the cross.
Well, we are all lepers, all just as needy, just as desperate, just as helpless and hopeless in ourselves as was that poor man who came to Jesus begging for a cure. We are unclean before God and unable to make ourselves clean. But what the leper found in Jesus was the purest sympathy and compassion matched with limitless power. And that is what people find and will find in Jesus today. Jesus can and certainly does still deliver people from disease (though not miraculously), but his far greater work is to cleanse our lives for time and eternity, a greater gift, a greater deliverance, a greater wonder requiring far greater power than even the sudden, immediate and complete cure of a leper by a mere touch and a mere word. That miracle hasn’t happened but a few times in the history of the world because its purpose was to accredit once for all Jesus the Christ.
But that greater cure, the cure that lasts forever, that has happened times without number by the same power and the same love that touched Peter’s mother-in-law, the crowds of sick and troubles folk who gathered at Jesus’ door, and the leper who so boldly came to Jesus for help only he could provide.
You see, we do not lack a thing because our Savior cannot provide it for us or because he lacks the love to care enough for our welfare. If we go without it is because, it must be because he considers it best that we do and, supremely, because the message that he brought and preached and the salvation that he came to accomplish for us is much, much more important than even a leper’s cure.
On his deathbed the Scottish saint Thomas Halyburton – the theologian and minister who, by his own request, was buried right next to Samuel Rutherford in the cathedral cemetery at St. Andrews – lay immobilized by painfully swollen limbs. “Lame hands,” he said to those gathered round his bed, “and lame legs, but see a lame man leaping and rejoicing.” In other words, Christ the miracle-worker, is as much with me as he was with the lame he made to leap and run long ago and I have been more completely cured than they!
I would love to see a miracle. But I would rather walk with Jesus and have his almighty power at work in my life securing for me not so much a healthy body for this world as a clean soul and perfect body for the world to come.