One of the things I enjoy about summertime is the opportunity to speak in churches that do special series during the summer. It gives me the chance to step outside of the regular schedule of classes and sermons I’m working on for my own church and study something a little different. Earlier this summer I spoke for the Temple Terrace congregation, which asked me to do a lesson on Jesus as the Great Physician. Here are my sermon notes (which don’t read quite as smoothly as a typical blog post).
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.” (Matthew 8:14-17)
Jesus is the Great Physician because he can heal all physical sickness.
14 And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever.
Greek term (βάλλω) means to move from one location to another through a forceful motion, to throw, thrown on bed. “Knocked me out” “Wiped me out.”
“He saw” – Jesus noticed her. He took the initiative this time (unlike leper in 8:2, centurion in 8:5).
15a He touched her hand,
Under the Law of Moses, there were various purification laws that had to do with physical illness. Depending on her condition, she could cause anyone who came in contact to become unclean. But Jesus doesn’t hesitate to make contact with her. And he didn’t have to – in previous miracle, Jesus healed the centurion’s servant and wasn’t even in the same location. Can’t help but think this was the same sort of display of kindness when we visit someone and hold their hand.
15b and the fever left her,
Fever may have thrown her down, but Jesus threw it out! The Greek word (ἀφίημι) means to “dismiss” something. Get out!
Immediate and complete recovery –
15c and she rose and began to serve him.
I know what some of you ladies are thinking. Isn’t this typical – no sooner does she get off her sickbed than she has to start housework! Let’s face it guys, our ladies will keep plowing ahead to do what they have to even when they are sick, but if we get the same cold, we are on our deathbed!
But don’t let the wimpiness of your husband distract you from the real point here. With just a word from Jesus, this dear lady who was bedridden with an illness instantly recovered, so much so that she could get right back to work clicking on all cylinders. That’s the power of Jesus to heal.
And it wasn’t limited to her.
16a That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word
We know from ancient literature that there were many alleged healers and exorcists in the ancient world. But these descriptions also include elaborate rituals and verbals formulas they had to use – indicative of showmanship. But Jesus cast out demons “with a word.”
16b and healed all who were sick.
Do you see that Matthew sharply distinguishes those with unclean spirits from those who were sick. It is easy for modern readers to dismiss talk of demons as misdiagnosed disease, but the gospel writers understood the difference. There were indeed malevolent spiritual forces, but there were also physical ailments, and Jesus could heal ALL of them – leprosy (8:3); paralysis (8:6); fever.
The words every patient dreads hearing from a doctor is, “We can’t do anything more for you.” Jesus NEVER said that to anyone. He is the Great Physician!
But what I especially want to focus on is the commentary Matthew adds. Mark and Luke also record this story, but only Matthew, the evangelist of the Jewish people, the gospel writer that frequently points out the many OT passages Jesus fulfilled, who offers this reflection –
17 This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”
Your Bible probably has a cross-reference to Isaiah 53, verse 4. And you have probably read that passage, the song of the suffering servant, many times, and don’t recall anything about illness and disease.
And indeed, if you turn back to read Isa. 53:4, in most of our translations it doesn’t say anything about sickness. It talks about grief and sorrow, which we sing about, “Man of Sorrows.”
So why is Matthew applying it like this?
Well, the answer is because Matthew is reading the Hebrew text and not the paraphrase that most of us are.
The Hebrew words used here in Isaiah 53:3-4 don’t merely mean sorrow and grief. They mean “pain” and sickness.” If you read the ESV, NASB, or NKJV and look very closely, you probably have a footnote to that effect. The rendition we are more familiar with comes through the Greek translation of this passage.
But the Hebrew text is very clear – the Complete Jewish Bible renders Isa. 53:3-4 like this:
People despised and avoided him,
a man of pains, well acquainted with illness.
Like someone from whom people turn their faces,
he was despised; we did not value him.
In fact, it was our diseases he bore,
our pains from which he suffered;
yet we regarded him as punished,
stricken and afflicted by God.
I’ve read this passage countless times during the Lord’s Supper, meditating on the offering Jesus gave to save me from sins. Now I learn that this is about physical healing. Matthew says so! Am I misusing this passage?
We need to think more deeply about the connection between sickness and sin.
There are two extremes we must avoid.
One extreme is the notion that sickness is always caused by sin.
Two stories in the Bible repudiate this suggestion. In the OT, Job’s illness was not due to some sin on his part, even though his friends were convinced it was. And at the end of the book, God rebukes them. Similarly, in the NT, the story of the blind man in John 9. Who sinned? Neither.
But the other extreme is that sin is never connected with sickness. A multitude of passages show this is not the case:
-The Egyptians were plagued by God because of their treatment of Israel and defiance of God’s sovereignty, including cattle disease and the death of the firstborn.
-Miriam’s criticism of Moses = leprosy (Num. 12).
-God warned Israel in Deut. 28 that if the nation book the covenant he would impose curses including “wasting disease and fever” (28:22).
-David’s child by Bathsheba became sick and died because David’s sin gave cause for the heathen to blaspheme (in 2 Sam. 12).
-King Uzziah and his leprous forehead in (2 Chron. 26).
-Not limited to the OT. What happened to the evil King Herod in Acts 12 after he executed James and accepted for himself divine honors? Luke the physician diagnoses his grisly cause of death – eaten by worms.
-At the end of 1 Cor. 11 Paul says that the fractious abuses of worship and the Lord’s Supper left some of the Corinthians weak and ill and some had even died (11:30).
And really, we all understand that this connection exists. We are embodied creatures, and the choices we make have an impact on our physical condition. Undoubtedly in this audience there are those who have seen the horrific physical toll that substance abuse takes on an addict; or STD’s take on the promiscuous.
So in view of all of this data from Scripture, we shouldn’t be so surprised to see right smack dab in the middle of Isa. 53 a reference to the servant of God taking our disease and sickness on him.
But there is a deeper point that Isaiah was making, and it is the reason Matthew makes the connection that he does.
Sin itself is a disease.
This is how the book of Isaiah begins:
Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and raw wounds;
they are not pressed out or bound up
or softened with oil. (Isaiah 1:5-6)
We don’t intuitively think of sin in terms of disease. The primary metaphor we connect with sin is the legal imagery, transgressing the law. Scripture certainly speaks in this language, along with the remedy for the legal problem, justification.
And we know that Scripture also used a commercial metaphor, indebtedness, owing, maybe even to the point of becoming a slave to sin. And we know the remedy for this aspect of sin – redemption.
But a significant way – maybe even the primary way – the OT looks at sin is as a disease. And the remedy is healing.
Here’s one more example –
“For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
and your wound is grievous.
There is none to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
Why do you cry out over your hurt?
Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great,
because your sins are flagrant,
I have done these things to you…
For I will restore health to you,
and your wounds I will heal,
declares the Lord,
because they have called you an outcast:
‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’ (Jeremiah 30:12-13, 15, 17)
Yes, sin is lawbreaking. Yes sin is enslaving. But sin is also a disease.
Why? One obvious point of comparison is that sin is contagious. Paul warned in 2 Tim. 2:17 about the babbling of the ungodly that spreads like gangrene. And all you have to do is read the first six chapters of Genesis to bear this point out.
But I think there is a deeper reason that sin is pictured as a disease in Scripture. Sin is corrupting to the person or nation who has it.
When you defy God, it isn’t just that you trespassed beyond a boundary that you set – though you did. It isn’t just that you incurred a debt that must be paid – though you have.
You have also wounded your very soul, introduced a spiritual pathogen that can metastasize and overwhelm you, become spiritually terminal.
I can set up an automatic withdrawal for my debts. Every month house note comes due; every month money is withdrawn from checking.
But disease is not the same way. What happens if I got pneumonia every month? Eventually, my biology would change, antibiotics no longer work, cause my system to shut down.
And in the same way, recurrent and defiant sin does more than place us in legal jeopardy with God or indebtedness to God. It corrupts us, and if don’t get the cure, it will consume us.
And what we need is the holistic treatment we sing about in Rock of Ages –
“Let the water and the blood, from thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure – save from wrath and make me pure.”
So we need a Savior – we need a healer, someone who can heal our soul’s diseases. We need a Great Physician.
Jesus is the Great Physician because he can heal all spiritual sickness.
And that’s why Matthew quotes this passage from Isaiah, about the suffering servant’s work. Isaiah was speaking of the spiritual wound that sin creates, and promised that God would send a servant to take that sickness away from us by bearing it.
And Jesus’ miracles of physical healing were designed to demonstrate that just as he could heal physically he can also heal spiritually.
Consider the opening story in Matthew 9:
And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men. (Matthew 9:1-8)
With this connection in mind, think about the message that Jesus’ many miracles of healing was intended to convey on the spiritual level.
At the start Matt 8, he healed a leper, someone considered an outcast ritually. Then he healed the servant of the centurion, almost certainly a Gentile since Jews did not serve in the Roman army. An outcast ethnically. Then, he healed a woman, someone who – given the chauvinism of first century society – was an outcast socially.
And guess what that means? It means that he can heal anyone of spiritual sickness. Maybe you’ve never been to church in your life until now, and you think that because you stack up poorly in terms of ritualistic religion Jesus can’t deal with your sin-sickness. He came to take away your sins.
No matter your social standing, no matter the branch of the family tree, Jesus can heal you, and he specializes in the hard cases. And the same word used in Matt. 8:15 – when it says the fever left or was “dimissed” is used in the NT to describe the forgiveness of sins, as in Matt. 9:2.
And you know how he heals? By taking our sickness on him.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite cartoon movies was Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the story of a mongoose who saves a family from cobras. Mongoose are natural predators of venomous snakes like cobra. On the surface, you’d think it would have no chance – little furry animal, versus the deadly strike of the fearsome cobra.
But mongoose have adapted a certain protein that doesn’t permit snake venom to bind onto their bloodstream. They are immune. So it turns out, it wasn’t such a deadly battle at all. It turns out that the cobra is no match for the mongoose, all the venom it could produce, if it hits the mongoose’s system, just evaporates.
You know what Jesus has done. He has taken all the venomous sin of the Serpent that has been injected into all humanity, absorbed it, and destroyed it. On the cross, it may have seemed like Jesus was absurdly outmatched, but Scripture says that he was in fact disarming the evil powers and putting them to shame!
But that isn’t all he’s done. He also broke the power of death itself. Through death he destroyed the one who wielded the power of death, and in his resurrection provided the promise that some day all of us will be raised to glorious new life.
With bodies that are imperishable, imperious to disease and sickness, dwelling in the new Jerusalem, where the Tree of Life stands by the river of life, with leaves that are for the healing of the nations.
And in that day, there will be no more sickness of any kind, but we will be kept blames spirit and soul and body because the one who calls us is faithful, because the one who calls us is The Great Physician.
And so let us praise him –
Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.