Everywhere Jesus went, people misunderstood His messianic mission. In this sermon, as he continues his exposition of Mark’s gospel, R.C. Sproul beckons us not only to come to Christ for healing from our pain, but ultimately to hear and receive His life-giving message.
This morning, we will return to our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. Last Sunday morning, I was not able to cover the last few verses of what we read, so I will read it again, beginning at Mark 1:29 and reading through the end of the chapter. I would ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Now as soon as they had come out of the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and they told Him about her at once. So He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and immediately the fever left her. And she served them.
At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him.
Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.”
But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.”
And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.
Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.”
Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed. And He strictly warned him and sent him away at once, and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
However, he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the matter, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.
He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let them hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Speak to us now, o God, through this inspired text of sacred Scripture. May we come to an accurate understanding of it, that our lives may be informed and our souls strengthened as we feed upon Your Word. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Peter’s Home and Family
Mark tells us that immediately after Jesus left the synagogue in Capernaum, He went with Andrew, Peter, James, and John to the home of Peter, which was clearly near the synagogue. Last week, I mentioned the excavations of the synagogue in Capernaum and how, in the fourth century, this magnificent limestone edifice was built upon the foundation of the first-century synagogue in which Jesus preached and exorcized the demon-possessed man.
Later excavations have discovered a building very close to that same synagogue, dating back to the later part of the first century and into the second century. There were all kinds of sacred and religious graffiti written on the walls of the structure. It was a home but had doors that opened into a large area where people could gather, which was unusual. Historians and archeologists are certain from their excavations that this home served as a church in early Christian times. The almost certain verdict of historians is that this excavated building was the very home of Peter.
The account of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law is not that dramatic, as Jesus performs much more dramatic acts of healing in the biblical record, but there are two interesting points in this text. First, this particular event was supplied to Mark by his mentor, Peter himself, and Peter gave his own recollections of how Jesus touched his mother-in-law and instantly made her well—to the point that she was able to rise from her bed and begin to serve Christ and His disciples.
The other thing I find somewhat fascinating is that, though there is no mention in the text of the presence of Peter’s wife—she may or may not have been dead at this time—in the Roman Catholic communion, the view is that Peter became the first pope of the Christian church and that the papacy is established on Peter. It is called the Chair of Saint Peter, and so on. The irony is that the first pope was married, and this raises some embarrassing questions for those who hold a view of imposed celibacy for clergy. I am happy that I can stand in the tradition of Saint Peter by being married as well.
Jesus Seeks Solitude
After the record of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, we are told: “At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door.” This is hyperbole of course, but it means a huge throng of people came to the door of Peter and Andrew’s home. Jesus healed many who were sick with various diseases, cast out many demons, and did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him.
Mark mentions in passing that after the event of healing in Saint Peter’s home, after the sun had set and darkness came upon Capernaum, a huge multitude of people were brought to Jesus, those who were sick and who were possessed by demons. Clearly, He spent some time ministering to them into the late hours of the evening.
Then Mark tells us that in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, Jesus went out, departed to a solitary place, and there He prayed. Our Lord labored long the previous day, but nevertheless awakened quite early in the morning, well before sunrise, so that He could distance Himself from the pressing mob of people and go to a place of solitude to refresh Himself by prayer.
Three times Mark tells us of the prayers of Jesus. Obviously, Jesus prayed more often than three times during His earthly ministry, but Mark gives specific reference to three occasions. All three occasions take place at night and in a place of solitude, where Jesus got to be alone with His Father.
Then we are told that after Jesus departed to pray, when Simon and those who were with him woke up and found that Jesus was absent, they set out to find Him, and the force of the verb here is that they were on a hunt. They were searching high and low. It was not easy for them to find out where Jesus had isolated Himself for prayer, but when they found Him, they said to Him, “Everybody is looking for You.”
It was a thinly veiled rebuke: “Where have you been, Jesus? You don’t have time to seclude Yourself here in prayer. You have ministry to perform. Your fame is spreading everywhere, and the place is filled with seekers. Everybody is trying to find You. Everybody wants to come to You.”
Pursuing Power Instead of Truth
How did Jesus respond to the disciples? Did He say: “Oh, that’s fantastic. Why don’t we plant a church here? We have a wonderful multitude of people, and they are so excited that I’m healing their diseases”? No, in fact, Jesus was saddened by the news, and He said, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.”
The multitudes were pressing to the door looking for healing, not for truth. They did not come to Jesus to hear His announcement of the breakthrough of the kingdom of God. They did not flock to Him so that they could listen to Him preach the gospel or expound the Word of God. They came looking for improvement to their health and their suffering.
There was nothing wrong with people coming to Jesus out of their needs of the flesh, but Jesus makes this point: “That’s not the chief end for which I’ve come. I didn’t come to this earth to heal everybody’s diseases. I didn’t come here to perform miracles for everybody in need. I came to preach the truth that My Father has sent Me to declare.”
Jesus could tell that people were not coming out of faith to receive Him and His kingdom. Rather, they were coming looking for relief from their physical problems. Sometimes we are just like that. We come to God in prayer when we are sick, when our bodies hurt, yet at the same time we do not pursue an understanding of His Word.
So, Jesus said: “The people are so caught up now in My power that they don’t want to hear My Word. So, let’s go to the other cities of Galilee where I can resume My ministry of preaching because that’s why I came.” Is that not interesting? Jesus was not going to be diverted from His mission because everybody was screaming with popular applause for His power. He said, “That’s not what I’m about.” So, Mark tells us that He went preaching in their synagogues throughout all of Galilee and casting out demons.
A Tragic and Disastrous Disease
Now we come to the portion that I find most moving in the section we have read this morning, where Jesus cleansed a leper. Let us look carefully at this text. We read in verse 40, “Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, ‘If You are willing, You can make me clean.’”
In the ancient world, there were seventy-two distinct diseases of the skin that were defined under the broad heading of leprosy. Which variety of leprosy this poor man had is not explained in the text. It may have been Hansen’s disease, the worst form of leprosy, but any form of leprosy was tragic and disastrous for people in the ancient world.
I would like to take a minute to look at an Old Testament passage in Scripture that we simply do not have time to read in its entirety, but when you go home after church, if you will take the time, read chapters 13 and 14 of the book of Leviticus. I will give you just a taste of it this morning.
I do not know how many times I have talked to people and asked them, “How many of you have read the whole Bible?” Not very many have. I say, “How many of you have read Genesis?” Most have. “How many have read Exodus?” Most have. “How many of you have read Leviticus?”
That is when the hands start going down, because Leviticus is so strange to our ears and so foreign to our understanding. In the book of Leviticus, there is a detailed description of all the fine points of the ceremonial laws that defined Jewish worship and behavior. I will just read part of chapter 13:
And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: “When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes on the skin of his body like a leprous sore, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests. The priest shall examine the sore on the skin of the body; and if the hair on the sore has turned white, and the sore appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous sore. Then the priest shall examine him, and pronounce him unclean. But if the bright spot is white on the skin of his body, and does not appear to be deeper than the skin, and its hair has not turned white, then the priest shall isolate the one who has the sore seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day; and indeed if the sore appears to be as it was, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall isolate him another seven days. Then the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day; and indeed if the sore has faded, and the sore has not spread on the skin, then the priest shall pronounce him clean; it is only a scab. (Lev. 13:1–6)
This goes on for two chapters, and that is where people start to go to sleep when they’re reading this because it sounds like a manual of dermatology that we have here in the Bible.
Have you ever gone to the doctor for a biopsy and waited for the lab results? How scary it is when the doctor says, “Yes, it’s malignant, and we’re going to have to deal with that.” How relieved you are when the lab report comes back and says, “It’s benign.” If you have had this experience, you remember the anxiety that you went through waiting for the lab reports to come back.
If you were a Jew in the ancient world and you woke up one morning with a different sensation and appearance on your skin, it would strike terror into your heart. The first thing you would do is go to the priest, because it was the priest’s job, using the guidance of God’s Word, to determine whether this outbreak in your flesh was a harmless skin affliction or leprosy.
If it was leprosy, then that verdict would not only mean a dreadful, physical malady that you would have to deal with for the rest of your life, but it was also the worst possible announcement you could hear with respect to your fellowship in your home, your community, and your church. If you were found to have leprosy, you were determined not only to be unwell, but you were pronounced unclean.
Leprosy was not able to be healed in the ancient world, and it had to be cleansed. The leper was cast out of the covenant community, not allowed near the temple, and could not enter the gates of Jerusalem. He had to live alone without the fellowship of anybody else under normal circumstances. He had to wear tattered clothes, have ghastly hair, and cover the lower portions of his mouth, so that it could be noticed from a distance that he was dressed like a leper.
A leper was not allowed to come within fifty paces of another human being. If he saw anybody approaching, he had to cry out in the distance, “Unclean, unclean,” because if a leper were standing under a tree, and I unknowingly walked past, I would not be allowed in my home or to attend church. I would be expelled from the covenant community because I was contaminated by coming that close to a leper. So, to be a leper was to be the ultimate pariah in the household of Israel.
The Embodiment of the Law
The man who came to Jesus in this text had been to the priest. He had been examined. The sore had turned white, and the verdict was leprosy. So, he left his family, his wife, his children, and his home and lived like a homeless person, isolated from all human contact. He heard the shouts, the acclamations. Somehow the word came to him of a miracle worker named Jesus. It was his last hope. He heard that Jesus was in the neighborhood and he ran up to Jesus.
The leper broke the law of Moses. He broke the law of the ceremony. He approached more than fifty paces. He came right up to Jesus and cried out to Him: “If You are willing, You can make me clean. I know You can do it, I don’t know if You will, but please, Jesus, make me clean.” Verse 41: “Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him.”
In this text, the Lord Jesus Christ, the sinless One, whose meat and drink is to do the will of the Father to fulfill all righteousness, violated the ceremonial law. Not only was the leper not allowed to touch a non-leper, but the non-leper was not allowed to touch a leper. However, Jesus touched him, anticipating the controversies that would come about whether it is lawful to do good. It also indicated Jesus is the Lord of the ceremonial law, and that He has the authority to set it aside for His own redemptive processes.
Let’s say you get into a traffic jam, and maybe there has been a minor accident. Cars are on the side of the road, and the policeman shows up to direct traffic. You come to the street corner, and the traffic light is red, but the policeman is waving you through. What do you do? The officer is telling you to disobey the sign. We have this written into our laws that when the law enforcement officer is present, his presence supersedes the written law. So, we must obey the embodiment of the law found in the traffic officer rather than the red light.
Jesus is the embodiment and enforcer of the law, and in His compassion, He touched a leper. He said: “Yes, I can. And yes, I will. Be clean.” Mark tells us that instantly, as soon as Jesus spoke the word, the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.
Do not miss the significance of the power of the word of Jesus. Just as He would raise Lazarus from the dead, the means by which He raises Him is by His word, by His command: “Lazarus, come forth.” Just as God brought the world into existence by the sound of the voice, by the divine imperative, so Christ exercises that same divine imperative on this disease.
There is a question about the word translated here, “He had compassion upon him.” It could be translated, “He was angry”—not anger because the man violated the ceremonial law and came up to him, but Jesus’ righteous indignation against the ravages of the fallen world, Jesus’ anger against disease. He hated disease, and He cared for the person afflicted by the disease: “I can do it. I will do it. Be clean.”
From Every Direction
Jesus strictly warned the man who had been healed of leprosy. He sent him away at once and gave him several instructions. First, He said, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go your way, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing those things which Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” Jesus was not just throwing away the law of Moses. He said, “You know the law: go back to the priest, make your offering, and have the priest declare you clean.”
Do you realize how rare that was? The rabbinic tradition says that it was harder to heal leprosy than to raise somebody from the dead. Yet Jesus said: “Obey the law, go to the priest, give the offering, and keep your mouth closed. Do not tell anybody about this.” He had told the same thing to the demons: “Be quiet.” Why?
Much has been said about the so-called “Messianic secret” of Jesus, where Jesus frequently said to those to whom He had ministered, “Tell no man.” We can guess why that was, but I think the context of what we have read this morning gives us a good insight. Everywhere Jesus went, people completely misunderstood His mission. They completely misunderstood what the Messiah would do. They were still waiting for the champion that would deliver them from Rome, not for the Suffering Servant of God who would deliver them from their sins.
So, Jesus was loath to make public His true identity, particularly early on in His ministry. Not only that, but if the leper went out and told everybody in the countryside that he was just cleansed by Jesus of Nazareth, every leper within the sound of his voice would rush to Jesus, and Jesus would never have time to do the mission He had been called to do.
So, Jesus said, “I’ll take care of you, but be quiet about this.” The man could not be quiet, and he did not stay quiet: “He went out and began to proclaim it freely, to spread the matter.” He is somebody who was an evangelist in disobedience. Jesus told him not to do it, but he went and did it anyway to such an extent that “Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.” They came to Him from everywhere.
I hope that people today will come to Him from everywhere, not simply to get released from their pain, but to hear His message, the message of Christmas—that God has come into the world, and unto us is born a Savior who is Christ, our Lord.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.