Biblical Commentary on Mark 1:29-39

by Richard Niell Donovan

It is only the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, but already Jesus is performing miracles—and dealing with crowds who are clamoring for more miracles—and dealing with disciples who do not understand his ministry. Already he is withdrawing to a deserted place for prayer. Already he finds himself having to re-set the focus where it belongs—the proclamation of the message (v. 38). This is the shortest of the four Gospels, the fastest paced, and the one characterized by the word immediately! We find ourselves needing to replay the story in slow motion to appreciate its significance.

Just a few verses ago, Simon and Andrew left their nets to follow Jesus—and James and John left their father (vv. 16-20). However, either they have yet to leave Capernaum or they have returned home after a short absence—in other words, they are still at home—this story takes place at the home of Simon and Andrew.

We will find, in the first eight chapters of this Gospel, numerous references to boats (3:9; 4:1, 36-37; 5:2, 18, 21; 6:32, 45, 47, 51-54; 8:10, 13-14), some of which most likely refer to the boats that these four new disciples used for fishing. It sounds as if they continue to engage in the fishing business at least part-time. Jesus hadn’t told them not to fish. He said, “Come after me, and I will make you into fishers for men” (v. 17). There is nothing wrong with their continuing to fish, as long as they make the kingdom of God their priority (Geddert, 48).

The story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law follows the story of the exorcism in the synagogue of the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus’ first act of ministry (other than calling the first four disciples). This exorcism takes place on the sabbath, but the opposition to Jesus has not yet developed, and there is no reaction to his performing an exorcism on the sabbath.

29 Immediately (Greek: euthus—immediately), when they had come out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. 31He came and took her by the hand, and raised (Greek: eieiren) her up. The fever left her, and she served (Greek: diekonei—from diakoneo—from which we get the word deacon) them.

“Immediately (euthus), when they had come out of the synagogue” (v. 29a). This verse opens with the Greek word, euthus, which means “as soon as” or “immediately” or “at once.” Mark uses this word frequently in his Gospel, and it fits his hurried, quick-moving style.

“they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John” (v. 29b). These four are the only disciples that Mark has identified so far. Jesus will soon recruit Levi, the tax collector (2:14) and the twelve, which include these four (3:13-19).

There is today in Capernaum a house that scholars believe to be the house of Simon and Andrew. It sits adjacent to the site of the synagogue, so it may have been a matter of only a few steps for Jesus and the disciples to move from the synagogue to the house. Matthew 4:13 tells us that Jesus makes his adult home in Capernaum, but nobody has been able to identify his house. Perhaps he lives in the house near the synagogue with Peter’s family.

The wording of verse 29 is awkward. When it says, “they came into,” who is “they”? There is nothing in the earlier story of the man with an unclean spirit to give us a clue, and it seems logical to assume that “they” includes Jesus and the four disciples. Mark, however, adds “with James and John”—awkward wording. Scholars think that Peter was one of Mark’s sources for this Gospel and that Peter originally said to Mark, “We entered our house with James and John”—very natural wording—and Mark kept that basic wording in verse 29. This verse, therefore, provides subtle evidence that Peter was, indeed, one of Mark’s sources for the stories in this Gospel.

“Now Simon’s wife’s mother (penthera) lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him about her” (v. 30). Matthew 8:14-15 and Luke 4:38-39 also report this story. Penthera is the Greek word for mother-in-law.

Simon’s mother-in-law is sick, and Jesus heals her. A fever might not sound serious to us, but it was different in that pre-penicillin world. People died of fevers (or the infections that caused the fevers). This woman’s illness is no trifling matter.

Mark does not mention Simon’s wife. His mother-in-law assumes the role of hostess, suggesting that she is either the only woman or the chief woman in this household. We might imagine that Peter is a widower—except that 1 Corinthians 9:5 indicates that Peter’s wife accompanies him.

Jesus “came and took her by the hand, and raised her up” (egeiren) (v. 31a). Earlier, in the synagogue, Jesus exorcised a demon. Nothing was mentioned there about the faith of the man whose demon was exorcised, and nothing is said here of this woman’s faith.

When exorcising the demon, Jesus used words. Now he uses touch. This was Jesus’ usual pattern when dealing with physical healings (1:41; 5:41; 6:5; 7:32-33; 8:23-25)—but he used a commanding voice when performing exorcisms (5:8, 13; 9:25).

Jesus’ touch is gentle and helpful, but unorthodox. In that culture, men do not touch women (except family members). Jesus, however, often touches people who need healing—even a leper (1:41), whom he cannot touch without becoming unclean himself.

We are reluctant to touch people who are ill, in part because we don’t want to hurt them, but also because we are afraid of catching their disease. In modern times our understanding of viruses and bacteria has reinforced that notion, but fails to explain our reluctance to touch a person who has cancer or other non-communicable diseases.

There is something healing about the human touch. Jesus was not afraid to touch. Touch was part of his ministry. However, we should add a caveat regarding touch as a part of our ministry. It behooves us to be very careful to avoid touch that could be construed to have sexual overtones. Improper touching can lead to disastrous consequences for pastors, churches, and the recipients of the improper touch.

Jesus compounds his touching offense by healing on the sabbath. It is also possible that the service that Peter’s mother-in-law will render (v. 31) also constitutes a violation of the sabbath (Witherington, 98).

Jesus raises her up. The Greek verb is egeiren. Mark uses this same verb when he tells of Jesus raising the little girl from the dead (5:41-42), and Jesus’ resurrection (14:28; 16:6). In each case, it is God’s power that makes resurrection possible (Marcus, 199).

“The fever left her, and she served them” (v. 31b). While Jesus has just performed an exorcism, this is his first miracle. The mother-in-law, once healed, begins to serve the men. Some women today find this story offensive because of the woman’s servant role. However, it is possible to see this story in a very different light:

  • Jesus honors women by making a woman the subject of this Gospel’s first miracle. He will also raise Jairus’ daughter from the dead (5:21-24, 35-43) and will heal a woman with a hemorrhage (5:25-34). Presumably women are also among those healed when the whole city encamps around Jesus’ door (vv. 33-34), but we have these three stories where Mark highlights the healing of women.
  • Peter’s mother-in-law was probably embarrassed at her inability to serve as a proper hostess. Jesus relieves her anxiety by healing her and enabling her to carry on normal activities.
  • The typical miracle includes some sort of confirmation that the healing took place. In his case, the woman’s service provides that confirmation. She is well enough to resume normal activities.
  • Most significantly, Jesus comes in a servant role—”not to be served but to serve” (10:45), and calls his disciples to do the same.

The male disciples consistently fail to understand that, but Mark portrays the female disciples in a better light:

  • At the temple, a poor widow will give more than anyone (12:43).
  • A woman who pours costly nard on Jesus will be anointing his body for burial (14:8).
  • When Jesus is crucified, Peter will deny him (14:72) and the other disciples will be nowhere to be found, but a number of women will be present with him (15:40-41).
  • Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome will bring spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body (16:1) (Williamson, 55).

32 At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to him all who were sick (Greek: kakos echontas—illness having), and those who were possessed by demons (Greek: daimonizomenous—being demon-possessed). 33 All the city was gathered together at the door. 34He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. He didn’t allow the demons to speak, because they knew him.

“At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to him all who were sick, and those who were possessed by demons. All the city was gathered together at the door” (vv. 32-33). Throughout his Gospel, Mark maintains the distinction between illness, which requires healing, and demon-possession, which requires exorcism (France, 109).

The people wait until evening, when the sabbath is officially over, to bring those who are sick and possessed to Jesus for healing. Their response to Jesus is total. They bring ALL their sick to him, and ALL the city gathers at the door.

Just imagine the desperation of these people. Some have children or spouses who are sick unto death. Others have loved ones who cannot engage in normal activity because of a handicap—husbands who cannot work—wives who cannot perform their household duties—children who cannot play with friends. They live in a world that affords little in the way of remedies. They hear rumors that there is a great healer at the synagogue and quickly carry their infirmed loved ones to Jesus’ doorstep—hoping against hope.

“He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (v. 34a). Jesus heals (physical infirmities) and casts out demons (spiritual infirmities).

Jesus “didn’t allow the demons to speak, because they knew him” (v. 34b). In this Gospel, Jesus silences not only the demons (1:25; 3:12), but also the beneficiaries of his healing (1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26), and even his disciples (8:30; 9:9).

It would seem that Jesus and his ministry would benefit from this display of his power. His ability to heal draws people to him and bears testimony to his great authority (an important word in this Gospel). Why would he command silence? There are several possibilities, any or all of which could be true:

  • People are coming for healing, not salvation. They seek Jesus only as magical healer, not as Son of God. While Jesus’ healing power demonstrates his authority, it also has the potential to distract people from his greater purpose—proclaiming the kingdom of God.
  • Jesus does not seek honor from demons. Later, Jesus’ enemies will say that he gets his power from Beelzebul, the prince of devils (3.22-30). If Jesus allows the demons to identify him now, that will only lend credibility to those charges later.
  • The demons understand who Jesus is because they are spiritual beings. Jesus’ identity will not be clear to others until his death and resurrection. Peter makes a good start at identifying Jesus in chapter 8, but is immediately rebuked for not understanding. The woman who anoints Jesus with ointment seems to get it right (14:1-11), as does the centurion at the cross (15:39), but these are exceptional witnesses. Jesus will not allow himself to be defined by those who do not truly understand him.
  • If people were to identify Jesus as Messiah at this early stage of his ministry, they would expect him to fulfill nationalistic expectations by organizing an army, driving out the Romans, and re-establishing Israel as the great nation that it had been under King David. This is altogether different from Jesus’ vision, and potentially a great distraction.
  • Jesus models his ministry on the Servant motif found in Isaiah 49:1-6, where God acts through concealment and hiddenness.

35 Early in the morning, while it was still dark, he rose up and went out, and departed into a deserted (Greek: eremon—desolate—wilderness) place, and prayed there.

“Early in the morning, while it was still dark, he rose up” (v. 35a). You would think that Jesus would be tired from his long day of preaching, healing, and exorcism, but he gets up while it is still very dark—well before sunrise.

“and went out, and departed into a deserted (eremos) place, and prayed there” (v. 35b). The word eremos is often used to speak of the wilderness—desert wilderness, not forest wilderness—wilderness that has special meaning for Jews. It was in the wilderness that God shaped the Israelites—redeemed them—made them into the People of God. John the Baptist called people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness that Jesus triumphed over Satan’s deadly temptations. God often does his best work in the wilderness. This should give us hope as we experience our wilderness moments—times when things seem bleak and hopeless. It could be that God is using our wilderness experience to reshape our lives—to save us and to make us whole.

The deserted place to which Jesus goes to pray is not desert—there is no desert in the vicinity of Capernaum. Rather, the place where Jesus goes must be spiritually akin to the desert wilderness—a place where he can be free from distractions—a place where he can give himself unreservedly to prayer—a place where he can find strength from the One in whose service he has come.

Mark mentions only two other occasions where Jesus engages in prayer (6:46; 14:32-39). Luke mentions eight occasions where Jesus prayed (Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 11:1; 22:32, 41) (Hurtato, 29). His human need for prayer contrasts with the Godly authority which he used to exorcise the demon. He is both fully human and fully divine.

36 Simon and those who were with him followed (Greek: katedioxen) after him; 37 and they found him, and told him, “Everyone is looking for you.” 38 He said to them, “Let’s go elsewhere into the next towns,(Greek: komopoleis) that I may preach (Greek: keruxo) there also, because I came out for this reason.” 39 He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching (Greek: kerusson) and casting out demons.

“Simon and those who were with him followed (katedioxen) after him” (v. 36). As noted above, Jesus has chosen only four disciples so far—Peter, Andrew, James, and John.

The phrase, “Simon and those who were with him,” is interesting. Why doesn’t Mark call them disciples? Perhaps it is because they are not acting very disciple-like. The word, disciple, means learner, and the disciple’s task is listening—learning—following. Simon and his companions are talking, not listening—telling Jesus what is going on—urging him to follow their lead.

The Greek word katedioxen has an almost hostile ring to it—”hunted” is a good translation. People would use the word to speak of hunting down quarry or searching for an errant child. “In Mark, ‘searching’ for Jesus usually refers to the efforts of those who would distract him (3:32; 8:11) or oppose him (11:18; 12:12; 14:1, 11, 55)” (Craddock, 98).

“Everyone is looking for you” (v. 37b). Embedded in this statement is a veiled rebuke. We can assume that Simon is the spokesperson here, because (1) he usually assumes that role and (2) he rebuked Jesus on at least one other occasion (Matthew 16:22). Peter implies that Jesus has erred by seeking time alone for prayer. There will be plenty of time for prayer, but right now there are people, lots of them, who are eager to see Jesus. Jesus’ ministry is new, and the disciples are excited about the eager crowd. “Come, Jesus, duty calls! Opportunities like this don’t come around every day! You can pray tomorrow. Come take care of this crowd.”

“Let’s go elsewhere into the next towns, that I may preach (keruxo) there also, because I came out for this reason” (v. 38). Jesus will not let his disciples set his agenda—he is already following the agenda set by his Father. He has come to preach, and that is what he is going to do.

What, we might ask, has he come to preach? Mark has already told us. Jesus came to preach “the good news of God.” He came to preach, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14-15).

Jesus has taught in the Capernaum synagogue and has healed the sick and exorcised the possessed. The crowds responded to his healing ministry, but there is little indication that their interest goes deeper. Jesus has not come primarily to heal, but to call people to repentance. The danger is that people will respond favorably to his miracles, but not at all to his call to spiritual renewal.

That seems to have been the case in Capernaum. Later, Jesus will say, “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day” (Matthew 11:23; see also Luke 10:15). It is interesting to note that Jesus has little success in Nazareth, his boyhood home—or in Capernaum, his home as a man.

There is a message here for churches today. In our success-oriented culture, we are frequently tempted to cater to any ministry-strategy that pleases crowds and fills pews. It is often difficult to discern when that is appropriate and when it is not. The proclamation of the Gospel requires that there be people to hear. If the pews are empty, how can our proclamation be effective? But Jesus approaches the problem from a different direction. He has been God-sent to “proclaim the message” (v. 38), and that is what he intends to do. He pays scant attention to the possibilities offered by the presence of crowds.

Jesus calls the disciples to go on to neighboring towns (Greek: komopoleis—from komo, which means village, and polis, which means city—literally village-cities). These village-cities are medium sized towns that serve as commercial hubs for surrounding villages. Capernaum has had its chance. Now it is time to give others their chance.

“He went into their synagogues throughout all Galilee, preaching (kerusson) and casting out demons.” (v. 39). Note the outward spiral of Jesus’ ministry. He began in Capernaum—and then went to neighboring villages—and now goes throughout Galilee. Throughout this journey, Jesus preaches and exorcises (v. 39). The two go together. We can learn from Jesus at this point. The church today often finds itself polarized regarding its mission. Are we preachers or healers? Should we emphasize evangelism or benevolence? Should we focus on the health of the body or the soul? If we follow Jesus’ example, we will do both.

This is the last instance of Jesus’ preaching that Mark records in this Gospel. Soon he will appoint the twelve to be his apostles, and he will send them to “proclaim the message” (Greek: kerussein—preach) (3:14). From this point forward, we hear a great deal about Jesus teaching (2:13; 4:1; 6:2, 6, 34; 8:31; 9:31; 10:1; 11:17; 12:35, 38; 14:49) but nothing about his preaching. It seems that he has transferred the preaching role to the disciples, who will soon become the church.

There is a lesson for us here. As Christ’s church, we are legitimately involved in a host of activities—running food pantries for the hungry and shelters for the homeless—digging wells in primitive villages—counseling couples who are having marriage difficulties—etc., etc., etc. Our core mission, however, is preaching—proclaiming the message—saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14-15).

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Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan


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