As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
Immediately after Jesus has amazed the crowds in the Capernaum synagogue with his authoritative preaching and exorcism, he and his fledging group of disciples go and find Simon’s mother-in-law, who is ill. Jesus takes hold of her hand, helps her up, and the fever leaves her. Such things are hard to keep quiet of course, and by evening huge crowds have gathered to see Jesus, and he heals more sick people and casts out demons.
Before I say what is happening here, it will be easier to begin by saying what is not happening in the story. Jesus’ healing stories (and there are many of them still to come) form a hugely significant part of the overall story of the Kingdom of God, the defeat of the satan and the coming judgment on Israel. Modern apologists have often used and taught these stories in a whole other way that has torn Jesus out of historical setting and turned him into a walking proof-text.
Since the Enlightenment, sceptic rationalism has cast doubt on the existence of God, or the possibility of any divine power intervening in history, much less God becoming incarnate and healing someone. The only thing that counts is the ‘natural’, i.e. that which is rational, and there is certainly nothing ‘supernatural’. Christianity has then often shoehorned these healing narratives into an apologetic straitjacket to ‘prove’ the existence of a supernatural realm, or to ‘prove’ that Jesus is God and that the Bible is ‘true’.
To divide reality into ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ categories is a very modern idea, and Jesus is not saying that “actually there is a supernatural realm where God lives and that what is more, I am God, and I’m going to prove it by healing some people and casting out a few demons. See – look at that dead guy I raised to life, if that doesn’t prove that I’m the Word become flesh then I don’t know what does!” This is fundamentally not what the miracle stories are about; as such a reading of the texts is a decidedly anachronistic one.
Jesus’ miracles are part of his Kingdom announcement, and this is the place where they make the most historical sense. In fact strictly speaking, to refer to them as simply ‘miracles’ reflects more on the natural v supernatural debate of over 1500 years later. The words that the Gospel writers use to describe these actions are paradoxa – unexpected things, dunameis – displays of power or authority, terata or semeia – signs or portents, and thaumasia – marvels. The signs are exactly that- pointers towards the Kingdom that Jesus is inaugurating. They are the evidence that the rule of sin, Satan and evil is finally being replaced by the rule of God. Sins will be forgiven, Satan will be defeated and sickness will be cured. God is finally redeeming the world through Israel, as he had always intended to. Crucially however, this Kingdom is coming not through the Temple, or the religious authorities, it is coming through Jesus himself.
There is also something rather subversive happening here. In popular Jewish theology of the time, those who were rich, healthy and prosperous were held (by themselves at least) to be blessed by God, whilst those who were sick, poor and lame were viewed as being under God’s curse, or being punished for their sin, based on a rather naive reading of texts like Deuteronomy 28 (there are of course still some in the church who think like this and have thus made the same mistakes.) Jesus does not endorse this view, but rather he refutes it. He is establishing the Kingdom of God – but the rich and the powerful will not find it easy to enter, and God is not shutting out the sick and the poor; he is going to them first. Wealth, health, and status count for nothing in God’s Kingdom.
At the end of this passage, Mark again notes that Jesus forbids the demons to say who he was. In the last study we saw that they recognised him as the Holy One of God, yet Jesus commands them to be quiet over the issue of his identity. This is the beginning of what has been called the ‘Messianic Secret’, why does Jesus repeatedly urge people and demons to keep quiet about who he is and what they have experienced? This is an important question, although I will discuss it in a later post.
It’s time I introduced an important concept into this study in its early stages, and it’s an idea that theologians call ‘eschatology’. It comes from the Greek word eschatos, meaning ‘future’. Eschatology is to do with the future, and what God will do in the future. Regrettably, eschatology has been monopolized by the lunatic fringe of Christianity and is concerned only with a series of events that are supposed to occur at the end of time, like the rapture, the antichrist, Armageddon, and so on. In the time of the New Testament however, eschatology still spoke of the future, but not one that would come at the end of time, but rather one that would happen within history. Jewish eschatological hope was for the Kingdom of God to come and replace the rule of Satan and evil, and it offered a new future now, not one to be experienced after death, or at the end of time.
Thus Jesus’ healings are eschatological, they make part of the Future present now. God’s promise for the fulfillment of history is a Kingdom where there is no more death, mourning, crying, pain, where evil has been defeated forever and God dwells with humanity (Rev 22:3-4). When Jesus heals someone, it is an act of restoration, it is a foretaste of the Kingdom that is still to come, and it is bringing the Future into the Present.
Christians are also called to this task as part of our mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Indeed the healing of the sick is not as a ‘proof’ of the existence of a supernatural realm, or a replacement for conventional medicine, but as a ‘sign of the Kingdom’. Healings are always to point beyond themselves to the coming age which they anticipate. It is the same with combating evil (see previous study), as this too is a conflict not just between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but between the present evil age and the age to come. To experience a healing is to experience a down-payment of something that we still hope for.
Do ‘miracles’ still happen? Yes, I believe they do. I have experienced them first hand, and have myself been miraculously healed on one occasion. Too often though, healings are simply sought as an end in themselves, and devoid of any connection to the Kingdom of God and to the future they lose much of their impact and meaning. Right at the end of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus declares that those who follow him will lay their hands on sick people and they will get well – but this is as a part of the whole Kingdom proclamation, not as some latter-day alternative medicine.
There is also the health and prosperity v poverty and suffering element in the passage as well. In popular ‘health and wealth’ preaching, many Christians have made the same incorrect assumptions that sickness means you’re sinful and that being healthy and rich means God is blessing you. As the rich young man will find out in Mark 10, this is simply not the case. As for the sick, Jesus affirms their worth first of all by associating with them and then by healing them. By healing the sick, the ‘us v them’ division in which the ‘favoured’ exist over and against the ‘unfavoured’ is abolished and the whole community is restored, not just the individual. What is more, the healed community is re-formed around the person of Jesus Christ, not around those who are ‘blessed’ and those who aren’t.
There are of course many other aspects to Jesus’ healings, but I’ll save those for some later posts.
We praise you and thank you for your redemptive purposes, that you embrace sickness and suffering not with condemnation or accusation, but with grace and healing.
We ask that you strengthen us with the grace and hope to look towards the Kingdom of God, and we pray that your Kingdom done and that your will be done. Help us not to judge those who are weak, sick and excluded, but we pray that they may be restored along with us. We pray for the faith and confidence in you to lay our hands on the sick and heal them.
We forgive everyone who has sinned against us, and ask that you also forgive us. We also ask that you fill us afresh with your Holy Spirit, who is the power of the age to come, and we thank you that you give to us generously without finding fault.
We pray this in the name of Jesus,
Previously: Jesus amazes the people with his authority
Next: Jesus encounters a leper.
Follow the whole study here at The Minor Prophet.