READ : Matthew 8:14-17
The gospels are full of stories about Jesus healing people from every sort of disease and affliction. But have you ever wondered why he did that? If so, listen to what Matthew says today.
Here is a brief vignette from Jesus' public ministry recorded in Matthew 8:14-17.
And when Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him. That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
The Gospels give us a vivid sense of the busyness of Jesus' life during his years of public ministry. The stories we read there, with their shifts of scene and action and their multiple accounts of people seeking out Jesus for help or healing, make us realize how full of demands Jesus' days and even his nights were. He's like an ER doctor in the aftermath of a disaster; he's flooded with too many people in need. It seems like Jesus hardly ever has even a chance to rest or pray.
In the Synagogue at Capernaum
In today's story Jesus is in Capernaum, the lakeshore village that was his base for his ministry in Galilee. Matthew has just related the story of a remarkable healing that Jesus performed for the servant of a Roman centurion. We learn from Mark's parallel account of this story (Mark 1:21-34) that Jesus went to the synagogue in Capernaum on the sabbath day and taught the congregation there. Worshiping on the sabbath was Jesus' invariable custom, and preaching was what he did whenever he got the chance.
But though his authority as a preacher was unique, in other respects Jesus behaved like any other preacher. After the service he went home with friends—specifically, Peter and his family—to relax and have dinner. Speaking from my own personal experience of more than 30 years in the ministry, I can tell you that preaching is demanding and exhausting work. You not only work up an appetite, you also have a real desire to rest by the time Sunday afternoon or evening rolls around.
But in Jesus' case the remainder of his sabbath day would hardly be relaxing. Matthew tells us that when they entered Peter's house Jesus saw Peter's mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. As soon as Jesus sees her he touches her, just as earlier he had reached out to touch the leper, and her fever is broken. The woman gets up, and—not surprisingly, given the habits of mothers everywhere—she immediately begins to help out in the kitchen. Actually that's not quite right. It wasn't just that she began to help with the meal; Matthew says that “she rose and began to serve him.” It was Jesus who attracted her devotion, not merely duty.
This is the third person now that Jesus has healed in Matthew 8, and each of them is, in a sense, an “outsider.” First was the leper, whose terrible disease—a metaphor for sin in the Bible—rendered him unclean and an outcast. Then the Roman centurion's servant, a miracle in response to a Gentile's prayer. And now Peter's mother-in-law, who though Jewish, is a woman.
Women were second-class citizens in ancient Israel. They were not allowed to enter the Holy Place of the temple in Jerusalem; only Jewish males were. They were kept behind screens in the back of the synagogue during worship much the way Muslim women are segregated in mosques today. Outside of marriage, men and women were not allowed any physical contact. In other words, women in Jesus' time were treated much the same as they are today in some ultra-conservative religious societies.
But Jesus breaks down all barriers and taboos, and he offers women full inclusion. New Testament scholar Dale Bruner notes that the structure of the temple itself reflected the exclusion of all outsiders from Old Testament worship. The outermost courtyard was the Court of the Gentiles. Next came the Court of the Women, then the Holy Place, and finally the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to enter and offer sacrifices, and then only once a year. But Jesus breaks down all of these walls that keep people apart and keep them distant from God. He breaks down the dividing wall of hostility, says the apostle (Ephesians 2:14). At the climactic moment of his death, he even tears aside the veil that keeps everyone out of the Holy of Holies. Bruner comments,”Jesus is the great Wall breaker. A leper, a centurion, and a woman; one physically excluded, one racially excluded, and one sexually excluded from the innermost worship of the community—these Jesus heals first.” What message do you think this action of Jesus might have for his church today?
A Ministry of Healing
Following the healing of Peter's mother-in-law, Jesus finds himself mobbed by people at the door of Peter's house. What else could he do but work far into the night, healing the sick and delivering the demon-possessed? Notice a couple of things here.
One is the power that Jesus demonstrates in these healing miracles. This is a very different scene from the televangelists' healing services. There were no theatrics here, no showmanship; above all, there was never any doubt as to whether healing actually occurred. Jesus did not ask for someone to be healed, he didn't claim someone had been healed, he simply healed—directly, by his own authority. He rebuked the evil powers, as on a later occasion he would rebuke the wind and the waves on the nearby Sea of Galilee. All the unruly forces of nature, including human nature, whether physical or spiritual or demonic, were subject to his command. “He cast out the spirits with a word,” reports Matthew, “and healed all who were sick.” And it's significant here that there is no mention of belief on the part of those whom Jesus healed. In other words, these aren't “faith healings,” as we call them.
They don't depend on the fact that the sick people believe that Jesus can heal them. In the case of Peter's mother-in-law, no one even asked him to heal. It's true that in the Gospels Jesus often commends the faith of those whom he helps, and even says things like, “Your faith has made you well.” But he wants us to remember that healing always comes from his mercy and by his power, not because we pray the right way or believe hard enough. Jesus is sovereign in the exercise of his healing power.
And notice too his gentle and patient compassion. Whether he is dealing with one elderly woman in Peter's home or a vast crowd outside, the Lord takes time to care for everyone's needs. He is careful in the old sense of the word—full of care. He does not rush, or put anyone off. He doesn't complain about the size of the crowds or tell them he's too tired after a long day. In the account of this scene in Luke's Gospel it says that Jesus laid hands on each person as he healed them (Luke 4:40). Despite the crowds and the lateness of the hour, Jesus didn't run his healing ministry like an assembly line. He took the time to deal personally with each sufferer. The Lord's tender, compassionate mercy is the reason behind everything he does for us.
“He Bore Our Diseases”
But there is also another explanation for Jesus' actions here. And we haven't fully understood his ministry of healing until we take Matthew's closing comment into account. He quotes a verse from Isaiah 53 to explain what this all means: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: 'He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.'” The New Testament teaches the doctrine of what is called Jesus' “vicarious atonement.” That means that Jesus took our sins upon himself and paid their penalty, dying in our place. But it also teaches the doctrine of Jesus' vicarious suffering. He doesn't just take our sins upon himself; he takes all our illnesses and diseases as well, and he takes them up in order to bear them away.
Think about what that means. Jesus takes up our sickness, as well as our sin; every kind of sickness, of body or mind. Jesus takes all our cancers upon himself; Jesus takes our dementia upon himself; Jesus takes our birth defects, our depression, our schizophrenia, our Alzheimer's, our spinal cord injuries, our sexual perversions, our eating disorders, our phobias, our chronic pain—all the bitter fruits of our fallen world. He bears them all, and he bears them all away. He offers us healing, full, free, and complete. We can ask him for that right now, no matter what our problem or condition, and he can give it, at least temporarily. But someday every illness, every injury, every defect, every debilitating condition, everything that causes tears or pain, will finally and forever be borne away.
I was watching a TV show the other evening. It was entertaining, clever, improbable—a science-fiction story. But the story doesn't really matter; what matters is that at the climactic moment, through a twist of the plot, great healing took place and the main character began to run around, shouting for all he was worth, “Everybody lives! Everybody lives! For once, everybody lives!” And as I listened to that, I had a brief flash, an epiphany, as if I heard the Lord himself speaking those words. He's really going to do that. For once, everybody will live.
That's exactly how it will be one day, for all those who are the Lord's—on the last day, the day of Christ's triumphant return, when he heals all our diseases, and forgives all our iniquities, and everybody lives.