Most people Jesus meets in the Gospels are unnamed, so it’s no surprise that many of the women Jesus healed are unnamed too. In fact, among the healing stories told of men in the Gospels, the only ones with names are the blind man Bartimaeus, who is only named by Mark (Mark 10:46); the high priest’s servant Malchus, who is only named in John (John 18:10); and Lazarus. In all the stories told of Jesus healing women, the women are anonymous as well—except for one. And she’s identified not by her name but by her relationship to one of Jesus’s disciples.
The healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is the first story of physical healing in Mark’s Gospel, and it comes hot on the heels of the first story of spiritual healing.
Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum when a man possessed by an unclean spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). Jesus commands the spirit, “Be silent, and come out of him!” and the unclean spirit convulses the man. Crying out in a loud voice, the spirit comes out (vv. 25–26). This incident caused Jesus’s fame to spread throughout the region of Galilee. Then Mark writes,
And immediately [Jesus] left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them. (vv. 29–31)
Most people Jesus heals in the Gospels are strangers. In this story, Jesus heals someone who was likely well known to him. The details are sparse. But the woman’s reaction is significant: as soon as Jesus heals her, she serves.
Model for All of Us
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story, but we might wonder why. Of all the hundreds or thousands of people Jesus healed, why highlight this one? Did they simply want to reinforce a woman’s role of serving? I don’t think so. If we read this story within the web of the Gospels as a whole, we’ll find it doesn’t simply reinforce a woman’s place.
If we read this story within the web of the Gospels as a whole, we’ll find it doesn’t simply reinforce a woman’s place.
The verb for serving (diakoneo) that’s applied to Peter’s mother-in-law also describes the angels who ministered to Jesus after he was tempted in the wilderness (Mark 1:13; Matt. 4:11). It describes Jesus’s female disciples (Luke 8:1–3). It describes Martha of Bethany when she serves while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’s feet and learns, before Jesus specifically affirms Mary’s choice (Luke 10:38–42).
Most significantly, it describes Jesus himself, when he explains to his disciples that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45). Peter’s mother-in-law’s response to Jesus healing her is a model not just for women but for all of us. In Jesus’s kingdom, serving isn’t women’s work. It’s everybody’s work.
How do we see Jesus through this self-giving woman’s eyes? We see him as the One who takes us by the hand and lifts us up. We see him as the One whose touch can instantly relieve our pain, and as the One who serves us first before we even have the power to serve him.
We see Jesus as the One whose touch can instantly relieve our pain, and as the One who serves us first before we even have the power to serve him.
In 1662, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer described God as the one “whose service is perfect freedom,” and we see this modeled by Peter’s mother-in-law. So often in our modern life, we see service and freedom as opposites. But Peter’s mother-in-law, 2,000 years ago, knew what modern psychologists have only recently discovered. We humans thrive when serving with a grateful heart, while endlessly self-realizing “freedom” makes us miserable.
Physical Healing and Spiritual Healing
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and the demon-possessed man triggers a wave of sick and possessed people being brought to Jesus. Matthew interprets what was going on:
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.” (Matt. 8:16–17)
Here we see spiritual and physical healing going hand in hand and, ever keen to show us how his Lord fulfills the Hebrew Scriptures, Matthew ties Jesus’s actions back to Old Testament prophecy. In context, the quotation reads,
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (Isa. 53:4–5)
The Hebrew word translated “griefs” here also means “sicknesses,” and the word translated “sorrows” can also mean “pain.” Here, in Isaiah, we see the mysterious figure of God’s servant (Isa. 52:13) taking the sickness, sin, and suffering of God’s people on himself. When Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and goes on to heal many more from both physical and spiritual illnesses, he is taking on the role of the suffering servant.
Just as Jesus is sometimes painted as a great teacher of universal truths but not as the great God of all the universe, so people sometimes seek to separate Jesus’s work of healing our sicknesses from his work of taking the punishment for our sin. But Matthew doesn’t let us drive this wedge. When Jesus died on the cross, he took the punishment for all our sin. But he also burst open the door to God’s coming new creation, where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Rev. 21:4).
We still live with sin and sickness here and now. But if we’re followers of Jesus, we’re peeking through a keyhole into a whole new, different world, where sin and suffering will be banished everlastingly by Jesus and his resurrection life. Jesus didn’t come only to give his life for us. He also came to share his life with us. When Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, she gets a tiny foretaste of his resurrection life, and she immediately uses it to serve.