Healing and Atonement: Matthew 8:14-17
Jesus and his disciples are at Capernaum. In the parallel passage in the gospel of Mark (1:21-34), Jesus and his disciples had been at the synagogue there on the Sabbath, and during the service Jesus had taught and healed a demon-possessed man. After the service, our Lord and his followers then entered the house of Peter and Andrew, which is where the narrative in Matthew picks up.
Interestingly, according to R. C. Sproul, archaeological excavations have uncovered a synagogue in Capernaum built out of limestone in the first century which itself was built upon the foundations of an earlier synagogue. It was probably this earlier structure in which our Lord taught and healed. However, it has also been discovered that next to the synagogue was another building, a home, “built with the unusual feature of doors opening into a large area where people could gather.” Sproul goes on to note, “Historians and archaeologists believe, based on their excavations, that this home served as a church in early Christian times. The conclusion of the historians, with almost complete certainty, is that this excavated building was the home of Peter.” This would certainly agree with the words of Mark, who says that “forthwith, when they were come out of the synagogue, they entered into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John” (Mark 1:29). Peter’s house, wherever it was, had to be very near the synagogue.
In Peter and Andrew’s house, they encounter Peter’s mother-in-law. It has often been supposed by Christians, even early on, that the apostles were all celibate. However, clearly Peter was married because our text mentions his mother-in-law. I suppose some might argue that since Peter’s wife is not mentioned here, she must have died at an earlier time, so that Peter was not married when he entered the ministry, although he had previously been married. However, this cannot be so. For the apostle Paul implies in his first letter to the Corinthian church that Peter even then, many years later, was married: “Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas [Peter]?” (1 Cor. 9:5). In my opinion, the belief that all ministers should be celibate has led to incalculable evils in the church, and I happily join the apostle Peter as a married minister of the gospel.
But there was sadness in Peter’s house, for his mother-in-law lay “sick of a fever.” Luke adds the detail that not only was this a fever but that it was a “great fever” (Luke 4:38). However, the Son of God is present, and so they “besought him for her” (Luke 4:38). As it was with the leper and with the centurion’s servant, Jesus immediately heals her. He rebukes the fever (Luke) as he touches her, “and the fever left her, and she arose, and ministered unto them” (Mt. 8:15). Both Mark and Luke say that the fever immediately left her, and that she immediately rose to begin serving Jesus and the guests. I think the evangelists add this detail to point out that the healing was complete. Sometimes when we get sick, it takes a while to recuperate, even after it seems that we're well again. But not so this woman. The fever was not only gone, but also any weakness it might have brought on, because she was immediately able to get up and start working.
Remember that this was a Sabbath day, and the Jews had very strict ideas on how to keep the Sabbath holy. Our Lord got into trouble several times because he would heal someone on a Sabbath day. Evidently a lot of Jews interpreted the Sabbath law in such a way as to make it unlawful to seek healing on the Sabbath day. Perhaps that is why we are told in verse 16 of our text that “when the even was come, they brought unto him many that were oppressed with devils . . . and he healed all that were sick.” Since the days were measured from sunset to sunset, the evening would indicate the end of the Sabbath and so the people would then feel free to bring their sick relatives to Jesus for them to be healed. Of course our Lord did not himself feel hampered by such a perverse reading of Sabbath law, for he healed Peter’s mother-in-law (and others) on the Sabbath. In any case, everyone who came were healed, and this was a lot, because Mark comments that “the whole city was assembled at the door” (Mark 1:33).
In verse 17, Matthew then adds some commentary that is absent in the other Synoptic Gospels. We’ve already noticed before that one of the themes of Matthew is that Jesus came to fulfill the Scriptures. Matthew sees in Jesus’ healing ministry the fulfillment of Scripture, in particular Isaiah 53:4: “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.”
Now there is a lot of disagreement on Matthew’s use of this text to point to Jesus’ healing ministry. Isaiah 53:4 reads, “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” Read by itself, it seems that “griefs” could include “infirmities,” and “sorrows” could include “sicknesses,” as Matthew interprets them. However, many have pointed out that the overall context in Isaiah 53 deals with substitutionary atonement, and the effect of atonement in that passage is not physical healing but the forgiveness of sins. Isaiah 53:5-6 go on to say: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” The healing received is a healing from the guilt of transgression and iniquity – sin.
In fact, this is exactly the way the apostle Peter interprets Isaiah 53:4-5. He writes, “Who [Jesus] his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). According to Peter, our Lord bore our sins, and healed us from a death in sin by his death for sin on the cross.
What was Isaiah referring to, then – sickness or sin? Did Jesus bear our sin or our sickness? Matthew 8:17 interprets Isaiah 53:4 in terms of sickness; 1 Peter 2:24 interprets Isaiah 53:4 in terms of sin.
The fact is that they are both right, and here’s why. It is obvious that the overall context of Isaiah 53 is one of substitutionary atonement and that what is being atoned for is sin. Jesus bore our sin on the cross. The wages of sin is death – but Jesus never sinned. He died because he was bearing the sins of others: “For he [God the Father] hath made him [God the Son] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
However, guilt is not the only effect of sin. Spiritual death is not the only effect of sin. Physical death is also the effect of sin: “The body is dead because of sin” (Rom. 8:10). Sin affects everything, the physical as well as the spiritual. We know from Genesis 3 that some of the effects of sin that God warned Adam and Eve about were hard labor in childbirth for Eve, and hard labor in tilling the soil for Adam. Sin has a very physical dimension to it. It is true that the ultimate problem that sin has brought into the world is spiritual death and condemnation. But it is stupid to suppose that God’s crowning creation could break fellowship with him and see none of the effects of that broken relationship in the world around him.
And that is exactly what we see. When we look around us, we not only see evil people killing and hurting people, but we also see tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes and volcanoes killing and hurting people. Before Adam and Eve sinned, they lived in a perfect garden, in perfect harmony with creation. After they sinned, they were driven from the garden into an inhospitable world that was now in some sense fighting against them. It is not just that man is broken. Creation is broken because man is broken. As the apostle Paul put it, “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:22). Creation is waiting for the full and final redemption of man because then it too will be delivered from “the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (ver. 21; cf. Rom. 8:19-23).
All this points to the fact that sickness and disease are also the effects of sin. It’s why Jesus rebuked the fever in Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:39). Sickness is something to be rebuked because it is the effect of sin. It’s why in Revelation 21, when John is describing the New Jerusalem, he writes, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4). No more pain means no more sickness. Sickness and disease belong to the “former things” that will one day pass away.
However, it is important to see for whom these things pass away. The New Jerusalem is a metaphor for “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” (Rev. 21:9-10). Those who dwell in it are those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 21:27). In other words, only those whose sins have been taken away by the sacrificial Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, will enter the New Jerusalem and dwell there. Only the redeemed will enter into that place in which there is no more crying or pain or sorrow. Only those who have responded to the call to come and drink from the fountain of the water of life freely will live forever (Rev. 21:6-7). Only those who have received spiritual healing through Jesus Christ will experience the physical healing promised in the end.
In other words, the atonement of Jesus not only includes the forgiveness of sins but also deliverance from all the effects of sin in this world, including its physical manifestations in disease. How else could we read Paul’s triumphant words in Romans 8:32? “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” Clearly “all things” here means “all good things,” including deliverance from spiritual death and physical death, spiritual sickness and physical sickness.
So when Matthew, who knows that the context of Isaiah 53 is redemption from sin, quotes Isaiah 53:4 in terms of sickness and disease, he is not misquoting or misinterpreting Isaiah. As Jesus put it, his coming into the world meant that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17). He carried with him the promise of all that he would accomplish in his sacrificial and substitutionary life and death. That includes deliverance from sickness because he brings deliverance from sin. On the other hand, if Jesus had never dealt with the sin problem, there would be no hope for deliverance from sin.
In fact, if Jesus had not come to heal our sin, his ministry of physical healing would have been cruel and meaningless. He would have been healing people who would go on in their sins and to just accrue more and more guilt and therefore more and greater punishment in the end. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the Welsh pastor-theologian who began as a Harley Street physician in London, said that the reason he gave up medicine for the pastorate is that he got tired of fixing people up so that they could go back to their sins. He wanted to deal with the more fundamental problem, and so he gave his life up to the preaching of the gospel, something he never regretted. For the same reason, Jesus did not just come to heal us physically, he came to heal us spiritually so that he could bring true and lasting and complete physical healing as well.
That brings us to a second question. It is this: if Isaiah 53:4 carries with it the promise of both spiritual and physical healing, does that mean that everyone who believes in Jesus can expect physical healing now just as they can expect spiritual healing now? The answer is an unequivocal NO.
And it is very important that we get this straight, because there are people out there – for example, in the Word of Faith movement – who will quote Matthew 8:17 as teaching that “believers should accept the reality of a healing that is already theirs.” They teach that all you have to do is to speak God’s word with faith and you will be healed.
This teaching is dangerous because some of what they say sounds very good. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. For example, Kenneth Hagin, a Word of Faith advocate and teacher, writes: “In His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension and seating on High, Jesus Christ already has purchased everything you’ll ever need. We talk about Jesus’ blood being shed for the redemption of sin. Yes, it was, but that blood also was shed to obtain our healing. Jesus Christ has healed you. It’s now time for you to arise and receive.” That sounds Biblical, doesn’t it? But then he goes on to say this:
We have the anointing or power of God. And with that power, we can take what God says in His Word, believe it, act on it, and receive it for ourselves. That is why it is now up to you to receive whatever you want from God.
Peter said, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ cures you. Arise!” That same Jesus is still walking up and down the face of the earth by His Holy Spirit—and that same Jesus will cure you! Take that verse of Scripture and put your own name on it—for example: “John, Jesus Christ cures you.” “Barbara, Jesus Christ cures you.” “Ruth, Jesus Christ cures you.” Or, “Ken, Jesus Christ cures you.”
Based on God’s Word, I can confidently say to you—whoever you are, wherever you are, and whatever your situation: “Jesus Christ cures you! Arise and receive your healing—right now!”
The problem with this teaching is that it claims that all the benefits of Jesus Christ are available right now. But this is nowhere taught in Scripture. Jesus purchased physical resurrection for all who believe, but it is clear from God’s word that we cannot expect to experience this until our Lord returns. In fact, going back to Romans 8, right after Paul’s words about the creation looking forward to experiencing the “glorious liberty of the children of God,” Paul makes it clear that the glorious liberty is something future. It’s part of what it means to live in hope: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it” (Rom. 8:24-25). We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).
The promises of Christ are sure. Every believer will receive all that Christ has purchased in his death. Some of these things we can have as soon as we believe. Every believer, the moment he or she believes, is fully and finally justified. They can be no more loved and forgiven and accepted by God than they are at the moment they first believe and repent of their sins. But some of what Christ has purchased for us we wait for: “for we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (Gal. 5:5). The sanctification process begins in the here-and-now in virtue of Christ’s death (cf. 2 Pet. 1:3), but we cannot expect to be perfectly holy in this life (cf. 1 Jn. 1:5-10). It is a fight of faith.
In the same way, though it is true that Christ has purchased a body that is free from death and disease, and though it is true that when Christ walked this earth in the flesh that he gave a preview, so to speak, of his power over death and disease, yet it is nevertheless a fact of Scripture and experience that no believer should expect to be free from pain or weakness or trouble or problems in this life. In fact, Paul himself mentions several times the fact that he struggled with physical infirmity (cf. 2 Cor. 11:27). He talked about groaning in this body (2 Cor. 5:2). Yet surely no one will claim that this was because he did not have enough faith!
This teaching is dangerous because it fills people with unbiblical expectations. And because they are unbiblical, sooner or later these false hopes will be dashed on the rocks of hard experience. To believe these things is to set people up to have their faith and their hope shattered. And I cannot think of anything more horrible than that.
But that is not the only reason this teaching is so bad. It is bad because it not only fills people with false hope, but also because it turns our Lord Jesus Christ into a lackey for our lusts. Christ becomes a means to an end. Paul said that for him to live was Christ, and that death was gain. But these people are fixated on having their best life now, not on growing in grace but in growing their portfolio. They want health, wealth, and prosperity now and if they think they can get this through Jesus, so much the better. They fall into that category of false teachers that Paul warned Timothy about: “Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (1 Tim. 6:5).
On the other hand, we have to be careful that we do not go to the other extreme and say that we should never pray for physical healing now. Surely the fact that Jesus healed all who came to him should give us confidence in bringing every physical pain and weakness to our loving Savior. Sometimes he may very well say no to our request to take away the thorn in the flesh. But even in those times, God’s grace comes in and we learn to “glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9), and to discover that in our weakness God is strong (v. 10).
And then sometimes he says yes, and we should thank him for it. In 1990, a pastor named Duane Miller began to lose his voice. Physicians gave him no hope that he would ever be healed. His voice became so bad that it was very difficult to speak and when he did speak it came out in a very raspy, hard to hear voice. He had to step down from preaching. However, his church let him continue to teach a Sunday school class. In 1993, when he was reading Psalm 103:3 in the Sunday school class, God healed his voice. He broke down in tears and the audience (if I remember right) began to sing the Doxology. It was caught on tape and I’ve listened to the “moment” when God began to restore this man’s voice back to him. God does forgive our sins and heal our diseases.
What should we take away from this passage? Just this: that Jesus Christ is sovereign over all things, including disease. He can rebuke a fever and it disappears. He can touch a leper, and he is cleansed. He can speak a word, and a sick man miles away is healed. He is worthy of your trust. There is no other person or thing in the universe that has the power that belongs to our Lord. So trust in him, bring all your concerns to him, and let the peace of God fill your hearts and your minds through Jesus Christ.