How many people have you healed?” The tone of the question suggested a challenge, implying that if I am a true minister of the gospel, then I should be able to offer healing from sickness. Or so the person thought. In my 51 years as a believer, while I have seen the hand of God countless times intervening in my life and ministry, I have not participated in healing with just a word or a slight touch.
An emphasis on physical healing is becoming pervasive in our society, across the religious landscape. Any promise of healing is sure to attract large numbers, especially if it seems to involve supernatural elements. As is evident in all four Gospels, the desire for healing and supernatural manifestations also was strong during the time of Jesus. Our study will focus on the Gospel of Mark. His outlook has much to say to the contemporary minister of the gospel.
A story sets the tone
One Sabbath morning, at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus was in Capernaum and went to the synagogue to worship God as was His weekly practice.1 There He began to teach. As He did, a man with an unclean spirit challenged Him. Jesus promptly cast out the demon (Mark 1:26).2
Both the quality of Jesus’ teaching (ekplēssomai, amazed, astounded)3 and the casting out of the demon (thamveomai, amazed, astonished) gripped the attention of people in the synagogue.4 The news spread quickly and that evening the whole city gathered around Peter’s house where Jesus was staying. People brought their sick, and Jesus compassionately healed them (Mark 1:32–34).
Peter and the disciples versus Jesus
Before sunrise the next morning, however, Jesus departed to a deserted place to pray (verse 35). Crowds began to gather outside Peter’s house. When the disciples awakened, they did not find Jesus.5 “And Simon and those who were with him searched for him” (verse 36).6 Unfortunately, modern translations miss the force of the statement. The Greek word translated “searched” is katadiōkō. It only appears here in the New Testament but is used extensively in the Septuagint (LXX). It means “to search for (eagerly), to hunt,”7 with the latter more reflective of its inherent connotation.8 The LXX uses it, for example, in the story of Abraham and his armed servants searching for Chedorlaomer and his army (Gen. 14:14) or in the story of the Egyptians pursuing the Israelites before drowning in the Red Sea (Exod. 14:9).
Clearly the disciples were not just casually looking for Jesus. His absence greatly frustrated them.9 They probably had seen Him leave for pre-dawn prayer, as He often did, yet had expected Him to be back in time to meet the crowd. But as people began to gather and Jesus had not yet returned, they set out to find Him, feeling rather irate. We sense their frustration in their abrupt words when they do find Him: “Everyone is looking for you” (Mark 1:37).10 No “Good morning,” no “How did you sleep?” Just a statement that highlights their conviction that Jesus should have been at the house, ministering to the gathering crowd. It was their first rebuke to Him—but not their last.11
Who can blame the disciples? A minister of the gospel loves to see people coming to church programs. The disciples had heard the message of Jesus. They had seen Him cast out the demon. They had witnessed many healings the night before, watched crowds collect around the house, and they were excited! That is what gospel ministry is all about, right? The air smells of success. Now they feel right to be unhappy with Jesus’ absence.
The mission statement of Jesus
To their rebuke, Jesus responds with a profound mission statement: “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (verse 38). This was His mission—to preach. His reply alludes to verses 14 and 15,12 which similarly describe the focus of Jesus’ ministry: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ ”
But Jesus declares that He “came out” in order to “preach”—“came out” from where? What place did Jesus emerge from in order to accomplish His mission to preach? I see three possible answers. First, the “came out” could refer to His incarnation. Jesus came out from heaven to the earth. He left His exalted position, His glory and splendor, so that He could minister to us on the earth. Second, the “came out” could point back to Joseph’s carpentry shop in Nazareth. Jesus spent His first 30 years content to work as a carpenter. But the time arrived when God called Him to public ministry and Jesus “came out” from the carpentry workshop and began to preach and teach publicly.
But there exists a third possibility. The “came out” might refer to Peter’s house in Capernaum. If this third possibility is correct, then what Jesus is saying is that He would not be able to preach the gospel effectively when surrounded by people interested primarily in physical healing or, worse still, just curious to see a supernatural manifestation. And in order to accomplish His mission, He would need to leave such crowds behind and focus His attention elsewhere, on those interested in His message.
All three possibilities are not mutually exclusive. But the fact that Jesus makes His statement shortly after He has left Peter’s house, and after His refusal to return there and greet the crowds, renders the third possibility contextually valid.
Wrong type of excitement
Can excitement be a hindrance to the proclamation of the gospel? It appears so. Such a crowd was not to be found in the synagogue that morning. The foundations for the synagogue in Capernaum dating to Jesus’ times indicate that it could not contain large crowds, certainly not “the whole city” (verse 33). They apparently had little interest in the Word of God. But they gathered en masse when they realized that Jesus could do miraculous things.13 Such wrong motivation and excitement Jesus considered a hindrance rather than a blessing.
It is, perhaps, for this reason that even when He did heal individuals, He often admonished them not to tell anyone (Mark 1:44; 7:24, 25; 8:26; 9:9, 30, 31). He wanted to help their condition of need but knew that the wrong publicity could be detrimental to His mission.
Teaching and preaching in Mark
The incident outlined in Mark 1 sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel, in which Jesus’ focus is teaching and preaching.14 Robert Meye has noted that while the emphasis in chapter 1 is on preaching, in subsequent chapters, it shifts to teaching.15 Though not identical, preaching and teaching are parallel ministries that focus on spiritual edification and transformation through the Word of God.
In the 15 instances that the verb “to teach,” didaskō,appears in Mark in relation to Jesus, Jesus is always the one who purposefully takes the initiative. A few examples demonstrate the point.
“Again he began to teach beside the sea”
“And he was teaching them many things in parables” (verse 2).
“And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished” (Mark 6:2).
“And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching” (verse 6).
“When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things” (verse 34).
“And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David?’ ” (Mark 12:35).
“Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (Mark 14:49).
Similarly, the verb kērussō, “to preach” appears 14 times, always either with Jesus preaching or His followers doing so. A few examples are,
“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God”
“And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (verse 39).
“And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach”
“So they [disciples] went out and proclaimed that people should repent” (Mark 6:12).
“And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation’ ” (Mark 16:15).
Interestingly, the one instance in which preaching appears in a somewhat negative hue is in Mark 1:45. Jesus healed a leper (verses 40–43) and specifically told him not to tell anyone (verse 44). Instead, the cleansed leper begins “to talk freely [kērussō, “to preach”] about it, and to spread the news” (verse 45), with the result that crowds throng around Jesus, making His ministry more difficult.
Healing in Mark
In contrast to teaching and preaching—the activities that Jesus takes the initiative to carry out and does so consistently, persistently, and with a missional focus—healings, in Mark, always come as a response to human entreaty. In other words, others take the initiative, never Jesus. He simply responds to human need.
“And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, ‘If you will, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, ‘I will; be clean’ ” (verses 40, 41).
“And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men” (Mark 2:3).
“Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live’ ” (Mark 5:23).
“And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was” (Mark 6:55).
“And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him” (Mark 7:32).
“And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him” (Mark 8:22).
Living in a world racked with suffering, we long for better health and an improved quality of life. Jesus outlined how His disciples were to minister to the town and city: “Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’ ” (Luke 10:9). The ministry of healing is biblically sound when it offers training in disease prevention and emphasizes Scripture’s manifold directives to help maintain health. The ministry of healing is also biblically sound when it is consistent with peer-reviewed, evidence-based health science and the best practices in medicine, including medication, surgery and rehabilitation, as needed. Beyond that, we should beware of practices that create undue publicity and excite the human desire for spectacle and the supernatural, understanding that supernatural manifestations will be a tool used by the enemy in the last days to deceive if possible even the elect (Matt. 24:24).
How did the followers of Jesus interpret their Master’s words and actions? For Paul, the gifts of the Spirit, including teaching, preaching, and healing, engender reciprocity (1 Cor. 12:25-30). For James, both healing the sick and admonishing the sinner lead to forgiveness and salvation (James 5:14-16;19, 20). For John, he desired nothing more than for the enhancement of physical health to parallel the blessing of spiritual health (3 John 2).
Ministers of the gospel need to remember that the primary mission of any ministry of the church is to preach the gospel and teach sinners the path of salvation. Any ministry that focuses on the body will, by definition, have limited effect, because the bodies we presently have will come to an end. Only at the second coming of Jesus will we be wholly changed.
Perhaps in the final analysis, it is not one ministry versus another, but one ministry alongside another. The healing ministry of Jesus went hand in hand with His teaching and preaching ministry.Thus Matthew could declare, “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction” (Matt. 9:35). The gospel’s unique contribution lies embracing cooperation over competition, complementarity over disparity, and diversity over hierarchy.
- John T. Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 111.
- The book of Mark distinguishes between physical healing and the casting out of demons. Whereas the former affects primarily the body, the latter has a strong soteriological dimension. William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974), 79: “Twice in this passage (Ch. 1:32, 34) and in Ch. 6:13 a clear distinction is observed between general sickness and demonic possession.”
- Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), s.v. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 76: “The people were utterly astonished and alarmed at Jesus’ word.”
- Friberg, s.v.
- The disciples in question are probably Peter, Andrew, James, and John. See Mark 1:16, 19, and John G. Butler, Analytical Bible Expositor: Mark (Clinton, IA: LBC Publications, 2008), 17.
- Scripture is from the English Standard Version.
- Friberg, s.v. Michael H. Burer and Jeffrey E. Miller, A New Reader’s Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2008), s.v. Cf. M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 68, who opts for the softer but still forceful “pursue.”
- E.g. Gen. 31:36; 35:5; Deut. 1:44; 11:4; 28:22; Joshua 2:5; 8:16; 10:10; 1 Sam. 7:11; 24:15; Ps. 7:6; 34:6; Jer. 15:15; Hosea 8:3; Micah 2:11; Joel 2:4.
- R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 112: “The compound form… is not common, and often has a hostile sense. Here it presumably expresses the eager (and concerned, even disgruntled?) search of the disciples; they ‘tracked him down.’ ”
- Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 82: “There is a note of reproach in the statement, ‘All are seeking for you,’ which means, What are you doing here when you should be in the midst of the multitude who are clamoring for you?”
- E.g. Matt. 15:23; Mark 5:31; 8:32; Luke 8:24.
- France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 113: “The good news needs to be heard, and people summoned to respond, as widely as possible. This is the specific purpose of Jesus’ mission.”
- Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 82: “The crowds that gathered in Capernaum had made their decision, but it could not be the appropriate one because it involved not repentance but attraction to Jesus as a performer of miracles.”
- Lane, The Gospel of Mark, 82: “Verse 38 exalts the ministry of the word; this emphasis is substantial throughout Mark’s Gospel.”
- Robert P. Meye, “Messianic Secret and Messianic Didache in Mark’s Gospel” in F. Christ, ed. Oikonomia (Hamburg: Herbert Reich, 1967), 52-60.