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Sermon on the Mount
9. Healing the Sick at Capernaum
by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Other online lessons from Luke | Lessons in book format
Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her.  So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them.
 When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.  Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.
 At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place. The people were looking for him and when they came to where he was, they tried to keep him from leaving them.  But he said, "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent."  And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea.
It's Sabbath morning (Saturday morning for us Gentiles) after an eventful service at the synagogue. Peter invites Jesus over for dinner, but cautions him, "Master, it'll take a little longer to put the meal on the table. My mother-in-law is sick, you know, and Miriam has to do everything herself. (Miriam is my best guess at Peter's wife's name -- we're not told what it is.). Could you take a look at Miriam's mother when you come?
Jesus glances over at Peter with just the trace of a smile, and follows him in the bright Saturday sun through the narrow streets to Peter's house. Inside the room Jesus takes a moment for his eyes to get adjusted to the dark. In the corner on a mat is the old woman, her body one moment wracked with chills, then burning up with fever. She is moaning softly.
Miriam draws Peter aside. "Peter, mother is worse. I'm afraid for her."
But Jesus has already moved to where the suffering woman lies and bends over her. Speaking a word of rebuke to the fever, he touches her hand, and then helps her up.
Peter is saying, "Master, mother isn't at all well...." but Jesus stops him.
"Peter, she'll be fine. She's well now."
"Miriam," crackles the old woman, wonderfully spry considering her bout with influenza. "Let me help you...."
Healing Peter's Mother-in-Law (4:38-39)
Peter is called Simon at this point of the story, a very common name, a variation of Simeon. To this day the name is a common one among Jews; Israel's eighth Prime Minister, Shimon Peres (b. 1923) bears the name. Jesus doesn't give him the nickname "Peter" ("Rock") until later, though we'll refer to him that way.
A number of people in Peter's extended family live in the house: his brother Andrew, his mother-in-law, his wife, and presumably his children (though we're told nothing about them). Jesus, too, seemed to use this house as a sort of base-of-operations for his Galilee missions.
Artist's rendering of Peter's First Century home. Click for larger 56K picture.
We know little of Peter's wife, not even a name, except that she traveled with him later in his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:5). Fourth Century church historian Eusebius cites Clement of Alexandria in recording Peter's wife's martyrdom: "They say, accordingly, that when the blessed Peter saw his own wife led out to die, he rejoiced because of her summons and her return home, and called to her very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, and saying, 'Oh thou, remember the Lord.' "
The account of the healing of Peter's mother-in-law is recorded in all the Synoptic Gospels, each with tiny variations that fill out the picture:
- "He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him." (Matthew 8:14-15)
- "He went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them." (Mark 1:31)
- "He bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them." (Luke 4:38-39)
Which account is correct? I expect that each of them supplies some details. Jesus often healed through touch as we will see in a moment, but he also spoke the Word and healed by means of command. The latter is emphasized in Luke's Gospel. The command is expressed by the Greek epitimao, " 'rebuke, reprove, censure' also 'speak seriously, warn' in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end." Luke doesn't say that a demon caused the fever; Jesus seems to be addressing the disease itself and commanding it directly, just as he addressed the raging storm on the Sea of Galilee with the command, "Peace, be still!" (Mark 4:39), and the storm ceased.
Can disciples today expect to do this? Those with enough faith and awareness of their spiritual authority can. Jesus later instructed his disciples, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you." (Luke 17:6; Matthew 17:20 extends the saying to moving mountains.)
In the mid-Twentieth Century a crusty English Pentecostal evangelist, Smith Wigglesworth, conducted a healing ministry. As the story goes, at one meeting a crippled person comes to him seeking healing. Instead of some "normal" prayer, Wigglesworth knocks the crutches out from under the man's arms and shouts, "Be healed!" The man was healed instantly -- and didn't fall. Don't try this at home -- unless God has given you the gift of faith he had given Wigglesworth. I could recount many stories from St. Patrick confronting the druid priests in Ireland to those of modern-day missionaries. A word of rebuke or command to a disease is one way Jesus healed.
I can hear a few feminists muttering, "Why did the mother-in-law have to do all the work? Why didn't Peter pitch in and help?" Let's not impose Twenty-First Century values upon the First Century. The mother-in-law's identity was tied up in serving, just as yours may be in your career or in being a mother or a preacher. She WANTED to serve this honored guest. She didn't look at it as a burden.
Spontaneous Healing Service at Peter's Doorstep (4:40-41)
But the before-dinner healing of the mother-in-law was just an appetizer for the main course served after dinner at Peter's door.
"When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, 'You are the Son of God!' But he rebuked (epitimao) them and would not allow (eao) them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ." (Luke 4:40-41)
Mark adds, "The whole town gathered at the door" (Mark 1:33). Try to imagine it. After sundown when Sabbath is over, Jews are once again allowed to carry burdens (Jeremiah 17:21). And soon after sundown, they begin to appear at Peter's door. First, in small groups, then more and more, crowding the courtyard and overflowing into the narrow street.
There were no hospitals or psych wards in those days. The sick were kept at home, and the family coped the best they could. But when word spread of what Jesus had done in the synagogue that morning -- and news of Peter's mother-in-law's healing that afternoon -- nearly every household in Capernaum makes a stretcher or helps their loved one hobble to Peter's house.
The streets are jammed. Inside the house, Peter can hear the hullabaloo and opens the door. Outside is a sea of neighbors waiting for Jesus to heal them. It is nearly dark by now. Jesus comes to the door, and as he sees them, family after family, his heart goes out to them.
Someone lights a torch so Jesus can see, and far into the night he goes from one group to another. He pauses to hear a family member tell him the problem. Then he lays his hands on the afflicted person, and time after time, the sick woman is instantly healed, the ill man rises up. Cries of joy go up from those close enough to see what has happened, and enthusiasm spreads to the rest of the crowd.
Once in a while a demon, stirred up by the power and faith rising in this place, begins to shout out, but Jesus rebukes (Greek epitimao, see above) it, and it is silent. He doesn't permit (eao) the demon to speak. The Greek word means "let, permit" and with the negative, "permit, prevent."
Laying on of Hands to Heal (4:40b)
Luke, alone among the Gospel writers, records that on this occasion, "laying his hands on each one, he healed them." Laying on of hands is so personal, so intimate in a way. Hands are often used in the Bible to confer a blessing: lifted for Aaron's and Jesus' blessings, laid on the head of a child or grandchild to confer a blessing. (See my article "Lifting Hands in Worship," Paraclete, Winter 1986, pp. 4-8. http://www.joyfulheart.com/scholar/hands.htm). Here Jesus imparts a specific blessing to each of the sick in Capernaum.
Of course, laying on of hands isn't necessary to healing. In Jesus' ministry he commanded healing, anointed blind eyes with mud, offered healing to lepers if they would show themselves to the priests, spoke wholeness to the paralytic who would pick up his mat and walk. In the Twentieth Century, T.L. Osborne preached to tens of thousands at a time, asked people to put their own hand on the diseased part of their body, spoke a command of healing, and saw hundreds healed simultaneously.
Jesus didn't need to lay hands on each sick person crowded into the dark Capernaum streets that night, but he desires to. No doubt the Father directs him to (John 5:19). He desires to make individual contact with each person, unafraid to place his hands the chronically ill and injured. No doubt he speaks individual words of encouragement and faith as he does so, moving from group to group pressed into the courtyard and into the street until he has touched and healed them all. Doubtless he spends far into the night bringing wholeness to the sick, part of his commission (Luke 4:18-19). Very late, the last family returns home, and Jesus, exhausted, returns to Peter's home. He doesn't shower before retiring.
A Solitary Place (4:42a)
Early the next morning people begin knocking at Peter's door. "Jesus, where is Jesus?" says one. "My grandmother couldn't come last night, but she's here now. Can Jesus come and heal her?"
And Peter's mother-in-law turns them away. "Jesus left at daybreak," she tells them. "He isn't here."
Luke says, "At daybreak Jesus went out to a solitary place" (4:42a). Mark adds, "and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35). Jesus doesn't sleep in after an exhausting night of ministry. Instead, he rises early so he can find real strength for the day -- in communion with his Father. He finds a deserted spot. The Greek word is eremos, "abandoned, empty, desolate." The same word is also used of "desert, grassland, wilderness." It's necessary to get away from other distractions for a while so you can focus your mind on the Father.
The key to understanding this practice in Jesus' life is to realize that communion with the Father must precede ministry. So often we put church work (and secular work, for that matter) ahead of prayer. We end up dry and burned out and blame God for it. But the key for us disciples is to put personal time with the Father ahead of everything else that clamors for our attention.
If you haven't already, why don't you set aside a firm time that you will spend with God. You have to schedule this -- time doesn't magically appear. You need to prioritize this deliberately or this time will be usurped by other important things. Begin with five minutes a day, and gradually increase it as it becomes an established habit in your life. Spend time in prayer, read the Bible, talk to God about what's going on in your life and ask him to guide you. Meditate on what God seems to be saying to your heart and mind. Some people call this a Quiet Time. (See my article, "Apply Fertilizer Liberally," http://www.joyfulheart.com/maturity/fertil.htm) As a pastor for more than 25 years, I can attest that setting aside regular time for this Quiet Time is the single most important element I see that moves casual, stagnant believer into becoming motivated, serious, growing disciples. This is it! Here's the clue.
Mission to Preach Good News to Others (4:42b-44)
The searchers eventually find Jesus -- he hadn't gone too far away -- and press upon him the importance of coming back into Capernaum to minister to the people who were left out the night before: "They tried to keep him from leaving them" (4:42b).
Listen to Jesus' answer: "I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent" (4:43). Notice how clear his is about his purpose? This came from talking to the Father about the events of last night and clarifying his marching orders for the new day. "I tell you the truth," the Apostle John records him as saying, "the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does" (John 5:19).
For past week he was to minister in Capernaum, but he isn't to remain there and become the Resident Healer. He has work to do. Notice the phrase, "because that is why I was sent" (4:43). The word "sent" is Greek apostello, from which we get our word "apostle," i.e., "sent one." Apostello means, "send away or out", and can carry the idea of sending for a particular purpose or commission.
Sometimes the concept of "duty" is trashed in our culture. People should do things because they WANT to do them, not because they HAVE to do them, we hear. But Jesus was obedient; he was took his calling and duty seriously, and so sets and example for us, as well.
The final verse in our passage indicates that he followed through on his commission: "And he kept on preaching in the synagogues of Judea" (4:44, NIV). The translation "kept on preaching" reflects the imperfect tense which carries the idea of continued action. The word "preaching" is kerusso, "announce, make known, proclaim aloud, preach." Jesus is a herald of good news, and is unwilling to restrict his word of freedom to a single village.
Vs. 44 contains a disputed word. The KJV and some early texts read "Galilee" by assimilation to Mark 1:39 and Matthew 4:23. You'd expect to find "Galilee," since it is the region where he already is. But other early texts read "Judea," and by the rules of textual criticism, this is the "more difficult reading." The NIV and RSV read "Judea." It matters little to our overall understanding of Jesus' ministry, since he preached both in Galilee and Judea throughout his ministry.
Lessons for Disciples
What are the take-away lessons for disciples from the healing in Capernaum and Jesus' call? I see at least three:
- Jesus took time to individually minister to people, even after "normal" working hours.
- Jesus took a Quiet Time away from others to hear from his father.
- Jesus' sense of mission from talking to his Father allowed him to look past the constant requests for ministry from needy people to see the bigger picture. Without perspective, the good can be the enemy of the best.
Before we conclude, let me ask you a personal question: Do you practice a personal Quiet Time at least five days a week? You don't have to tell me how difficult it is -- I already know. :-) But DO you? If you're serious about growing as a disciple, this step is indispensable for you. In encourage you to persist in carving out even a few minutes on a regular basis. The rewards are much greater than the sacrifice.
Lord, what a privilege it is to observe you as you care for people. Yet I see that you care for your Father's will more than even the people. Help me to keep that essential balance in my own life. Help me to spend time with you so the time I spend with people will be more power-filled. Forgive me where I fall short. I love you. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them." (Luke 4:40)
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- What does Jesus' ministry of laying on of hands for healing teach us about him?
- How did Jesus treat the sick people he encountered that afternoon and evening in Capernaum? What kind of example does that set for us to follow?
- Which was the more important motivator for Jesus: compassion or duty? Did they ever conflict?
- Why is it so hard to maintain a Quiet Time? What have you found that enables you to set aside this time? Any tips to share with the rest of us?
Abbreviations at http://www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm
- Stanislao Loffreda, Recovering Capharnaum (Second Edition; Studium Biblicum Fransciscanum Guides I; Jerusalem, Franciscan Printing Press, 1993, reprinted 1997), p. 52-57.
- Eusebius, Church History, III, 30, 2, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Second Series, vol. 1. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds. The Christian Literature Company, 1890), p. 162.
- Louw and Nida, New Testament Greek-English Lexicon, sec. 15.66.
- "Galilee" (A D Theta f13 pm, latt, Textus Receptus), "Judea" (S B C lambda, etc.). W reads "synagogues of the Jews".
In-depth Bible study books
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- Disciple's Guide to the Holy Spirit
- 1, 2, and 3 John
- 1 Peter
- 2 Peter & Jude
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians
- 1 & 2 Timothy
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- Abraham, Faith of
- Christ Powered Life (Romans 5-8)
- Christmas Incarnation
- Colossians and Philemon
- David, Life of
- Glorious Kingdom, The
- Great Prayers of the Bible
- Jacob, Life of
- Jesus and the Kingdom of God
- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
- John's Gospel
- Lamb of God
- Listening for God's Voice
- Lord's Supper
- Luke's Gospel
- Moses the Reluctant Leader
- Names and Titles of God
- Names and Titles of Jesus
- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ