We’re back in Mark, and as we’ve already seen Jesus has established a home base in Capernaum, has started his church by choosing leaders and beginning his first house church and has displayed his authority in his teaching, healing and exorcism ministries. In our passage today, 1:35-45, he struggles with the crush of the crowds. Word is getting out about his power to heal and the press of people is overwhelming. We see in our verses how he hopes to counter this, but in the end fails.
Let’s begin with the first few verses that talk about –
Jesus’ purpose in coming: Mark 1:35-39
35And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.
Remember, Jesus has just spent a very long day preaching in the Synagogue, casting out a demon there, and then healing Peter’s mother in law. And then that evening, which in the Jewish reckoning is the next day, many of those in need in Capernaum came to Jesus to be healed and helped; a crowd gathered at the door of Peter and Andrew’s house.
So Jesus likely hasn’t gotten much sleep. And yet he’s up very early in the morning. He does this so that he can find time to pray.
He gets away from the weight of the needs around him to get alone with God. “A desolate place” here doesn’t mean a desert. It means somewhere where people are not. (See also Mark 6:46; 14:32-39 for Jesus at prayer.)
This leads us to the first of three lessons I want to highlight for you today: #1. The importance of prayer. Jesus depended on it as his source of strength and guidance. He needed his power replenished by the Spirit and wisdom as he is about to make a big decision. And if he depended on it, how much more do we need it! And he models for us that when things get hectic and stressful, this is not the time to cut prayer out of our lives to make things more simple for us. This is precisely when we need prayer the most.
36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.”
You can just imagine that early in the morning the crowds came back to Peter’s house looking for Jesus with the sick and needy. And so Peter and Andrew and then the other disciples wake up and are like, ‘Hey where’s Jesus?’ And they begin frantically searching for him.
38And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” 39And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Instead of staying in Capernaum and healing everyone who had a need there, after prayer, he decides to expand his ministry throughout Galilee.
And notice the focus, Jesus didn’t come to heal every person. Jesus came to preach the word of the kingdom. As chapter 1:15 says, he proclaimed “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news.” Healing and miracles are intended to draw attention to the message; to verify that it is true. But they aren’t the end all and be all. They aren’t the point in themselves.
But now in Capernaum the crowds are focused on these signs and not necessarily on responding to the message of the kingdom with belief and repentance.
This brings us to the second lesson from our passage: #2. The Word is more important than healing and miracles. In terms of Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t come to fix people’s earthly needs, even though compassion for needs is important. He came to call people to faith and repentance. And remember all the people he healed, eventually still died. But those that came to faith and repentance experience new life into eternity.
It’s the same with us. We can pray to God for healing, but it’s not God’s purpose to heal everyone now. It’s his purpose to call all to faith and repentance. On the final day we will all be healed. Yes, God heals now and we should pray for it. And God answers, I believe, especially as a sign that the message is true. But he doesn’t always heal now.
And as a church we need to remember this lesson on priorities. Some churches practically abandon preaching the word and seeking a response to show compassion to those in need. Yes, we must show compassion. But our purpose in everything is to call people to faith and repentance.
So along these lines, Jesus goes to other towns and synagogues to minister there, hoping people will respond to his message – not yet being focused on his healing power. But then something happens that messes up his plan.
Jesus heals a leper: Mark 1:40-45
40And a leper came to him, imploring him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”
Leprosy here refers to several skin diseases, not just what we call leprosy, which is Hansen’s disease. It could even include things like psoriasis and eczema. To have leprosy was to have a serious skin disease, but it was also to be a social outcast, since you would be classified as perpetually ritually unclean (and probably contagious as well).
Leviticus 13:45-46 says this about a leper: he “shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ . . . His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
According to Numbers 12:12 the leper was seen as similar to a corpse. They were the walking dead. And it was held that only a miracle from God could cure a leper. It was like raising someone from the dead (2 Kings 5:7).
Although lepers were to stay away from others, in this case the man ‘understandably’ breaks the rule, because this is not a normal situation. Here is someone who can make him clean. And so he comes right up to Jesus and kneels before him. He has faith that Jesus can heal him, the only question is if Jesus wants to heal him and make him clean.
41Moved with compassion, he stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” 42And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.
[More people are now accepting the textual variant “Jesus was indignant” (NIV 2011). If this is the correct reading it would mean either that Jesus was angry at the ravages of the disease on this man (Edwards, Judges 10:16) or that he is angry because he knows his plan to focus on preaching and to get away from the crush of the crowds will now be upended by healing him.]
Jesus has compassion on the man. Clearly this was a terrible life he was living. He didn’t turn him away out of revulsion for his condition. He consented and healed the man. He made him clean from his leprosy. Again, Jesus’ amazing healing power is evident. He can heal what others think is impossible to heal and he can do so “immediately.”
Jesus’ compassion is displayed in that while most would run away horrified, he touches him. Now, normally if you touch a leper you become ritually unclean. Becoming ritually unclean wasn’t wrong, it was just a part of life. And as long as you follow the Law to be cleansed you’re fine. But here it’s probably better to say that Jesus transmits his cleanness to the man, rather than saying that the leper transmitted his uncleanness to Jesus. (See also Mark 5:41 ff.).
Our final lesson is: #3. Jesus’ great compassion. Even though the man is an outcast, loathed by all and even though healing the man will make his life harder because he will be mobbed by even more crowds, he does so because he’s moved by concern for the man’s problem.
And we need to remember that Jesus is ever the same. He has the same compassion on us in our times of need and suffering; when we are revolting and filthy. And we can come to him knowing what his heart is towards us.
And in turn we are to have the same compassion on others in need. Even if it makes our lives more difficult. Even if they are people that are considered unclean or outcasts, we are to allow Jesus to touch them through us.
43And Jesus sternly charged him and sent him away at once, 44and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”
Leviticus 14 outlines the process of being declared clean from leprosy by a priest. Remember it was not just about being healed, he had to be certified as clean by a priest in order to reenter society. Jesus wants this to be a witness to the priests and all involved in this process that Jesus and his message are true.
Notice Jesus’ concern for the details of the Law of Moses. Some portray Jesus, especially in Mark, as indifferent to the Law, but this is wrong as we will see.
v. 43 says that Jesus “sternly charged” the man to tell no one. He’s really serious about this. Perhaps he thought that by the time the leper completed the process of being declared clean, a minimum of 8 days, plus travel to Jerusalem and back for sacrifice, he could finish his preaching tour without being mobbed by crowds looking for healing.
45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
Before, the man understandably disobeys the Mosaic rules to get to Jesus. And now he ‘understandably’ disobeys Jesus’ instruction. How can he keep quiet about his healing? He’s not only healed, he has a life again. For sure, it’s not right to disobey Jesus here, but we can understand it.
And what he does is not bad in itself – he becomes a proclaimer of Jesus; he spreads the word. It’s just that it derails Jesus’ plan to be able to preach throughout Galilee without the crush of crowds seeking healing.
Finally, notice how Jesus and the leper trade places. The leper was not able to enter any town. But now that he is healed he can. At least once he’s certified as clean. But since he told everyone about this, now Jesus is not able to enter any town. At least not openly. The problem Jesus had at the beginning of story remains. He has to go out to desolate places to escape being mobbed by crowds.
Let’s remember together our 3 lessons:
1. The importance of prayer, especially when life is crazy.
2. Preaching the Word is more important than healing and miracles or more generally helping meet people’s earthly needs.
3. Jesus’ compassion. Even though the man is an outcast, even though it will make his life more difficult, he helps the man.
Let me end with a question: Who might God bring across your path this week that he wants you to have compassion on, even if the person is repulsive to you and even if helping the person will make your life harder. Keep your eyes open!