Luke 4:38-44

Two Lord’s Day mornings ago we considered the previous paragraph, the account of the Lord driving a demon out of a man in the synagogue in Capernaum. Now that was a church service! We said that this entire section of the Gospel, which began at verse 31, provides something of a summary of the Lord’s early ministry in Galilee. Certain particular events are recorded as examples of his activity but it is made clear that there was much more of the same day after day. The Gospel is long enough. If it contained a full report of everything he did day after day, as John would later say, the world wouldn’t be big enough to contain all the books that would have had to have been written.

Text Comment

v.38     That is, what immediately follows happened on the same day as the Lord’s encounter with the demon in the synagogue. The Simon mentioned here is, of course, Simon Peter. We know from the Gospel of John that Peter, James, and John, along with others who would be numbered among the twelve disciples of the Lord, had already met him and begun to follow him after his baptism, when he was in the south with John the Baptist in Judea. They had first been disciples of John and no doubt with John’s encouragement had transferred their loyalty to Jesus. They are not mentioned here because Luke hasn’t yet introduced them. He will do that in the first paragraph of chapter 5.

            It is quite likely that this house, the home of Peter and Andrew, became the Lord’s own home in Capernaum and so the place where he regularly met with his disciples, what would become 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 site for Christians and perhaps a church as early as the end of the first or beginning of the second century. For obvious reasons, it was a spot venerated by Christians.

            Matthew and Mark mention that Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever but only Luke calls it a high fever. It is thought Luke the physician may be using a more technical medical term. [cf. Bock, i, 436]

v.39     It is going to be characteristic of the Lord’s healings that the healing is complete. Peter’s mother-in-law did not need a day or two to recover her strength. The dear woman got up full of vim and vigor and went back to her work as hostess for what was probably a sizeable group of hungry men and women. It is a picture of salvation, as so many of the Lord’s miracles are: deliverance by the power of God leads to grateful service on the part of the one who has been delivered, something we will see regularly as the Gospel proceeds. [Green, 225-226]

This woman was Peter’s wife’s mother. Early Christian tradition was that Peter and his wife had children and that she was active in ministry to other women. There is certainly nothing here or anywhere else in the Bible to support the contention of the Roman Catholic Church that ministers are supposed to be unmarried!

            By the way, don’t miss the fact – the early readers of the Gospel would not have missed it – that the Lord was as interested in helping women as he was in helping men and gave as much of his time and attention to the one as the to the other. Women were not invisible in the Lord’s ministry as they often were in that day and time.

v.40     The reason why they didn’t come until evening was that the rabbinical interpretation of the fourth commandment forbad carrying even the sick and dying on the Sabbath day. So they had to wait until the Sabbath was over to bring their sick to Jesus.

v.41     Once again, Luke distinguishes between illness and demon possession. They were two very different conditions and easily distinguished from one another.

As we pass through the Gospel it will be clear that the people were struggling to identify the Lord Jesus Christ, to decide just who and what he was. The people may have thought that Jesus was only a man, but the demons knew better. The disciples would struggle to come to the realization of Jesus’ divine life, even that he was the Messiah, but the demons knew it from the outset! Here again we find the so-called “Messianic secret,” the Lord’s attempt to forestall some popular and no doubt nationalistic movement of the people to make Jesus a political figure. [cf. Bock, i, 438-439] Popular enthusiasm for a man who could wield such power as Jesus was proving to possess would have taken on a life of its own, and Jesus, therefore, told the demons to shut up and of course they did because they must obey the Son of God. Telling the whole truth about him at this point would have created the wrong sort of enthusiasm and led to a profound misunderstanding of his true mission. It would also have provoked too soon the crisis with the religious leadership that would eventually lead to his crucifixion.

v.42     It is obvious enough, though unstated here, that Jesus was seeking solitude for prayer, a point Mark makes explicit. But if nowadays paparazzi can find a celebrity who is seeking solitude, needy people in those days could find a worker of genuine miracles.

v.43     This is Luke’s first use of the term “kingdom of God,” an extraordinarily important term in the Gospels. It will appear many more times in the Gospel and the book of Acts. To summarize a vast library of biblical scholarship, “kingdom of God” is a way of speaking of “God’s rule in action.” [Morris, 131] It is a dynamic concept and a multifaceted one, a term that embraces a wide variety of biblical themes: God’s gift of salvation, his rule over the kingdom of evil, his establishment of his church, his judgment of the wicked, and so on. Jesus preached the kingdom of God and, as we will see, his preaching covered all of those themes and more. In one way or another, every one of those subjects concerns God in action. That is the idea of “kingdom of God.” In some cases the kingdom will have already come or have been made manifest in the life and work of Jesus; in other uses of the term the focus will be on the total manifestation of the kingdom, its consummation, at the end of history.

v.44     The last phrase, “synagogues of Judea,” is curious. He was in Galilee at the moment and will be in the narrative that follows. We know that he had a ministry in Judea, largely from the Gospel of John, but v. 44 is an odd way to say that, at this point, he left Galilee and went for a time to Judea. Indeed, it is so unexpected that some manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke change Judea to Galilee to harmonize this statement with the ones in Mark and Matthew who say that at this time Jesus traveled throughout Galilee preaching and healing the sick. Perhaps the simplest solution is to take “Judea” as a reference not to the specific region of Palestine, the environs of Jerusalem and further south, but to the whole land of the Jews. The term is used that way in Luke 23:5 and elsewhere.

Now, just as was the case with the people of Capernaum, we are very likely to find the Lord’s miracle working – his exorcisms and his healings – the main point of this account. After all, they had never seen such things happen, just as we have not. We fully understand the stir created as people learned from the spell-bound reports of others that there was a man who had power to heal the sick and to drive out demons by the mere utterance of a word. Then as now there is much human disease and many physical conditions that are impervious to medical treatment. Believe me, if the same thing happened today, there would be mass confusion as people in great numbers tried to get to the one who could heal them of whatever ailment or disease they were suffering from.

A few years ago Benny Hinn came to the Tacoma Dome and I said to one of the men here, “I’m thinking of going down and taking in one of his services, just so I can see it for myself.” He replied, “You must be joking? You can’t get in; if you haven’t secured a ticket long before this, you’ll never get in. People have been planning for this particular meeting for a year or more and they have come to Tacoma, Washington from literally all over the world.” And that enthusiasm is for a man who only pretends to perform miracles. What would happen if a man appeared who actually could heal the sick – all the sick, all the time – from whatever sickness, in a moment and by the mere sound of his voice? It would create mayhem, I guarantee you! Such is the pent-up desire for help in human life!

We know that the Lord caused a great stir among the Jews and that his works of healing were chief among the reasons for this. Josephus, who was certainly no Christian, mentions them in his Antiquities of the Jews. [xviii, 3.3; cf. F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th edition, 108-112]  We know as well that Herod Antipas, the playboy king of Galilee, became worried about Jesus’ popularity and, at the same time, would later ask the Lord to demonstrate his miraculous power so he could see it for himself. It is clear from this narrative and from 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 around him. Jesus never had to go looking for the sick, they clamored to see him.

These people were no more gullible than anyone else now or then.  They knew that others claimed to have worked miracles, just as they do today. Some of them perhaps had been willing to suspend judgment in the case of one such man or another, but soon enough they learned that these claimants could produce no evidence; they had no such power. Near that time other messianic pretenders appeared and initially attracted some small measure of enthusiasm. One promised to part the Jordan River; another to cause the walls of Jerusalem to fall. But the river kept flowing and the walls stood unmoved and everyone immediately forgot about them. Not so Jesus and his works!

The miracles explain why the Lord’s rise to fame and notoriety was so meteoric and why he was so hated and feared by the religious establishment. They had little to fear from some amateur rabbi from Hicksville, Galilee, particularly one with no political message; but their jealousy and their hostility were provoked by a man to whom the people were flocking in droves and whose teaching the people considered so much superior to their own. The miracles had made the difference. Jesus could perform them, the priests and the scribes and Pharisees could not.

Remember now that the Bible is very chaste in its depiction of the miraculous. I think many people, even Christian people, are taken aback to learn how rarely miracles occurred in biblical history. They are found, as you perhaps know, almost exclusively in three short periods of time: 1) the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the wilderness, and the early days of the conquest of Canaan; 2) the ministries of Elijah and Elisha at the headwaters of the prophetic movement in Israel; and 3) the ministry of Christ himself and the early ministry of his apostles. By the end of the New Testament it is pretty clear no more miracles are being performed. “Trophimus, I left ill at Miletus,” the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 4. Trophimus was a man he would love to have had with him at the end of his life, a man whose help and encouragement would have been valuable to Paul. But Paul had had to leave Trophimus behind because he was sick. This from the man whose handkerchiefs in years past had been powerful to heal the sick. Take those three periods together and they amount to a period of a hundred years at most and it is hardly the case that miracles were being performed on a daily basis throughout those years. They were infrequent even then! The simple fact is that very few people who lived in the history covered in the Bible ever saw a miracle. They lived in a world much like ours. The supernatural dimensions of life remained invisible to the eye.

Now don’t mistake me. I am not saying, as too often I have been taken to say when I make this point, that the Lord has not been wonderfully at work in the world and in the life of his people at all times. I am saying only that miracles are events of a completely different class than even amazing providences or striking and wonderful answers to prayer. I heard the other day of a story of the wife of a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, a woman who had been raised an unbeliever and who had no interest in the Christian faith. But her life had fallen apart, her marriage had failed, she had lost her job, and she sat in a restaurant one evening in despair, wondering what was to become of her. And a complete stranger, a man she had never seen before, a man she did not recognize, walked up to her table and with obvious compassion and interest told her that Jesus loved her. She needed to know that. And as he turned away he addressed her by her name and encouraged her to seek the Lord. How did he know her name? She never knew, but she felt something remarkable had just happened. She drove to the parking lot of the first church she came to, which happened to be the church in St. Louis in which I was raised, and for two hours sitting in her car in the parking lot prayed to God to reveal himself to her. Her Christian life began that night. We hear such stories and rightly rejoice in the Lord’s presence in the world and his works of goodness and power and saving grace. But remarkable as what happened to that woman was, it was not a miracle. Or we hear of the amazing dreams that have led many in the Muslim world to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Such providences are wonderful, but such dreams are not miracles in the biblical sense of the term, what the Gospels call signs or wonders.

To be a miracle in that sense it must be objective, observable to anyone who happened to be present, and self-authenticating in regard to its supernatural character. No one ever doubted the miraculous in biblical history: not the Egyptians, not the Canaanites, not King Ahab, not the Pharisees, not the people who were witnesses of the miracles of Jesus or of the Apostle Paul. They may not all have fallen down to worship Jesus Christ as Lord, but they knew and did not have to be persuaded that a work of supernatural power had occurred. That is the fatal problem with the claims to the miraculous that we find in some Christian circles today, and for that matter, among the devotees of al Qaeda today. Oh yes; al Qaeda claims that many miracles, many works of supernatural power have occurred in advancing their cause in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But the problem is: only those who are already convinced take the claims seriously. Biblical miracles, on the other hand, forced themselves upon the attention of even the most unwilling!

The significant difference between the Lord’s miracles and the miracles of Moses or Elijah or the Apostle Paul – the only difference besides the scope and the number of them – is the fact that Jesus performed them in his own name, whereas Moses and Elijah and the apostles always performed them in Yahweh’s name or in Jesus’ name, never their own. They always made a point of emphasizing that it was not their power but God’s power that was at work through them. They would say some such thing as, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” But Jesus said simply, “Rise and walk!”

And, of course, there was another reason why the Lord’s miracles made such a splash and attracted so much eager attention from the people of Galilee and why the crowds gathered so quickly around him and would give him no rest day or night, so much so that he had to steal time from the precious sleep he so much needed to seek communion with his Father in heaven. Jesus wasn’t performing parlor tricks, however amazing; he wasn’t levitating people or bringing a rabbit out of a hat or making the choice of the right card out of a deck of cards; he was delivering people from the scourges that were making them miserable. He was restoring their lives to peace and good health. He was quieting their fears. He was doing for them the most important and wonderful thing they could imagine being done for them and had never imagined anyone being able to do for them. The Lord’s miracles were works of the most intense and practical sympathy, compassion, and love. He met people’s needs in the most wonderful way. You see this here, in v. 40, in the lovely scene pictured for us there. The Lord touched the men and women and children he healed. Mark tells us that when the Lord Jesus had rebuked the fever of Peter’s mother-in-law, he “took her by the hand.” And so his touch here in v. 40 for all who were healed. In that way the moment was made personal, the connection of persons real. We will soon read that he even touched people no one else would touch, the lepers. Physical contact meant so much to these people who were not only sick but, in many cases because of their sickness were unclean. If people touched them they became unclean themselves. He didn’t need to touch them; as was made perfectly clear, his word was enough to accomplish the healing, but that touch was a communication of his personal feeling for them and his love for them and his concern. You husbands and wives, you parents and children know how much a touch can mean!

I have said all this about the Lord’s miracles, and I could go on much longer on the same theme. Miracles were his accreditation as the Messiah; his miracles were also enacted pictures of the salvation he had brought from heaven. But the narrative does not allow us to think that the miracles were the great interest of the Lord’s ministry, or even his own great interest at this early point in his ministry. They may have been the great interest of others and of his disciples, but not of the Lord himself.

The people wanted him to stay. His had been a triumphant beginning among them and great crowds were gathering. His disciples – the point is made more explicitly in Mark – thought he should continue what he was doing where he was doing it. They noticed the electric effect the miracles were having on the population. If he kept this up he would have all Galilee and soon all Palestine eating out of his hand. But, in what must have seemed to them to be a massive strategic miscalculation, Jesus decided to leave Capernaum and the great crowds there, to go to the next town. Why? He could gather a crowd in Capernaum as easily as anywhere else. There were plenty of sick and needy folk where he was. They were streaming to him from all directions.

But Jesus said, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well.” This, this, is what I have been sent for. Miracles were not his chief interest, wonderful as they were and great as their effect had already been. Much more important than healing the sick was their hearing the good news that salvation could be found through faith in Jesus. The disciples fully expected him to exploit the “signs and wonders” methodology now so popular with Protestant charlatans all over the world. After all, he really could heal the sick!

But for the Lord, the truth, the word, his message, and his preaching of that message: that was what was all important. Getting rid of leprosy or even a demon would not in itself take a man or woman or child to heaven. Everyone is going to die of something eventually. Life is full of trials of one kind or another, very heavy trials very often. Removing them, even removing them all, is not salvation, it is not eternal life, it is not the forgiveness of sins. He could heal the sick, he did heal the sick and some of those people still went to hell astonishing as it is to think of it.

We are mesmerized by the miracles, astonishing as they were, but they were never the reason for the Lord’s ministry, never its purpose. Martin Luther points out that it was not the Lord’s miracles that defeated sin and the Devil. It was not the power Christ wielded that won salvation for his people, but his weakness and suffering when on the cross. [Cf. Colin Brown, Miracles and the Modern Mind, 13]  If you remember, he was invited to perform a miracle by the crowd that watched him die. “He saved others, let him save himself!” But he did not perform a miracle because a miracle was not the way of your salvation and mine. There were other times in which he was challenged to perform a miracle, either to vindicate his claims or to satisfy someone’s wish to see something spectacular, and he always refused.  The miracles were not for themselves, they were for the gospel’s sake. The gospel, the good news, was the main thing; the thing that mattered was this message of salvation in Christ. And all through the rest of the Gospels and the New Testament it is the same. It is by the hearing of the Word that salvation comes to sinners, not by signs and wonders. Paul put it more bluntly than Jesus did here.

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…” [1 Cor. 1:22-23]

The spectacular was not the great interest of the Lord. It had its place in his ministry, it served an important role in accrediting him and his message as sent from heaven, it illustrated the nature and power of his salvation, but healing wasn’t the gospel and neither was exorcism.

I would love to see a miracle, you can’t tell me it wouldn’t be an immense boost to my faith and that I wouldn’t, as no doubt the apostles did, remember what I saw every day for the rest of my life. Now I want the real deal, not the charlatan’s claim that I am supposed to take on faith. 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. The miracles remind me that he has the power to do that far greater thing. What I want is to belong to the kingdom of God. That is a far greater thing than being delivered from an illness!

Thomas Halyburton, the Scottish saint buried in the St. Andrews Cathedral church yard near Samuel Rutherford, lay on his deathbed suffering from painfully swollen limbs. But he said to those gathered around him, “Lame hands and lame legs, but see a lame man leaping and rejoicing!” Or, in other words he was saying, Christ, the miracle worker, is as much my healer as he was the healer of the sick long ago and much more so, because he is about to heal me and fix me and make me what I ought to be forever. It is a great thing to be well. We should never underestimate the scourge of human illness, but it is a far greater thing for mortal men and women to know that they can live in health, holiness, and perfect joy through endless days basking in the glory and the love of God. Now that’s a miracle!