Chris and I have been obsessing over Scripture the last few months with some friends. We’ve been rushing through the Bible every month since December with something called The Thirty Day Bible Shred. And when I mention this to people, knowing it’s pretty intense, they usually ask the same thing: What are you getting out of it?
I guess if I had to sum up the whole Bible in one idea, it’s this—God wants us to worship Him so that we can be like Him. And the whole story of Israel is about His people trying to find their strength everywhere else but God, and trying to worship all these false gods and becoming like them. So it begins with Adam being placed in the garden as a High Priest, but failing to care for the garden and to protect his bride, Eve. And the serpent’s first lie is the lie we keep being told: God does not want you to have your eyes opened or to become like Him. And the rest of Scripture is this lie playing itself out in the lives of the people of Israel, and God’s never failing love and mercy, meaning to bring His people back to right worship, and so to draw the whole world together to worship Him in justice and peace.
So we can read every single Bible story with this broad stroke in mind—God wants us to worship Him, so that we can become like Him. And when we run away from Him, He will pursue us to bring us back to Himself.
And this story is told over and over again, even in the very brief story of Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Simon Peter (Mark 1:29-31). We laugh about this moment—what a saint Peter must have been, to want Jesus to heal his mother-in-law! Or we wonder what kind of culture it must have been to require someone who had literally been on their death bed, and has been healed, to get up and start making dinner. But none of that is what the story is really about, when we realize what Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has received, and then what she offers to Jesus and His disciples.
The Greek word that’s used to describe what she does after she is healed is διηκόνει (diēchonei), which has as its root the word from which we get the title deacon. At the heart of the ministry of the deacon is to serve as Jesus has served. So she doesn’t just make food for Jesus and His disciples, she is at their service; she ministers to them. But even more, the next time the word is used in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is reminding His Apostles that if they want to be great, they must be of service; and that He himself has not come to be served (διακονηθῆναι/diachonēthēnai), but to serve (διακονῆσαι/diachonēsai) and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). In other words (or the same word), Jesus has healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law so that she could do what He does—not just serve in the home, but to become a sacrificial gift to others. This is every day theosis!
Jesus heals so that those who are healed may become like Him. And that part of the story does not end with this healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. It is actually barely the beginning. It’s our story as well. Jesus is only going to heal us if we let ourselves be made into His image, to become more like Him—sent to serve, not to be served. So the image of Jesus reaching out and taking her by the hand, when she is on her deathbed, is almost as much our story as it is hers. We cannot make ourselves well. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot make ourselves holy.
It is always a response to Jesus taking our hand. It’s never our initiative. Sin has placed us on our deathbed with a fever. We need Jesus to do the work of healing, so that we may respond with the work of service and ministry. So I love the bold reminder by the great spiritual writer Fr. Jacques Philippe, that we cannot make ourselves holy—it’s God’s work in us:
“It is impossible for us to attain holiness by our own power. The whole of Scripture teaches us that it can only be the fruit of God’s grace...However great our efforts, we cannot change ourselves. Only God can get to the bottom of our defects, and our limitations in the field of love; only He has the sufficient mastery over our hearts for that. If we realize that, we will save ourselves a great deal of discouragement and fruitless struggle. We do not have to become saints by our own power; we have to learn how to let God make us into saints. That does not mean, of course, that we don’t have to make any effort; but if our efforts are not to remain fruitless, they must be directed to the right end. We should fight, not to attain holiness as a result of our own efforts, but to let God act in us without our putting up any resistance against Him; we should fight to open ourselves as fully as possible to His grace, which sanctifies us.” // Fr. Jacques Philippe, “In the School of the Holy Spirit,” 13, 14-15