"Physician, heal thyself."
The first parable in time sequence which Scripture records Christ speaking is the parable in our text. That it is a parable is plainly stated in Scripture. But in spite of this fact, it is all but completely ignored in the lists and books on Christ's parables.
The plain indication that our text contains a parable is found in the word "proverb" in our text. Christ said, "Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself." The word "proverb" is a translation of the Greek word parabole which is translated "parable" 46 of the 50 times it appears in the New Testament (see Preface). This is the only place in the New Testament where it is translated "proverb."
The "physician" parable of our text was a common saying among the Jews in Christ's day. It also appeared "in Euripides and Aeschylus among the Greeks, and in Cicero's Letters... and the Chinese used to demand it of their physicians"—(Robertson). This "physician" parable is recorded only in the Gospel of Luke. But that is fitting, for Luke was a physician.
To further examine this first parable in time sequence of Christ, we will consider the meeting for the parable, the message of the parable, and the misuse of the parable.
Christ spoke this parable at a meeting in the synagogue in Nazareth, the town which had been His home town for twenty-eight or so years until He left it to go into His public ministry. At the time of this meeting, it was early in the public ministry of Christ. But in spite of the short time of His public ministry, His fame in Galilee (where Nazareth was located) had already "went out... through all the region round about"—(Luke 4:14).
The crowd in the synagogue meeting was hostile to Christ, and that fact is why the parable was spoken by Christ. The hostility was so great that after Christ taught in the meeting, the crowd took Him to a cliff and tried to push Him off it to kill Him (Luke 4:29). But Christ disappeared miraculously to foil their murderous efforts (Luke 4:30).
To examine the parable's message, we note the condemnation in the message and the clarification about the message.
The condemnation in the message. The parable's primary message is a condemnation of hypocrisy. This parable compares a physician who heals others but not himself to those who do not act themselves as they advise others to act. Barnes said about this parable, "The meaning is this: Suppose that a man should attempt to heal another when he was himself diseased in the same manner; it would be natural to ask him first to cure himself... [to] manifest that he was worthy of confidence."
Thus the message of the parable tells us to fulfill our own responsibilities before we tell others to fulfill their responsibilities. "In one of his familiar epistles to Rome's greatest orator [Cicero], then dejected at the loss of Tullia, Sulpicius made this appeal: 'Do not forget that you are Cicero; one who has been used always to prescribe for and give advice to others; do not imitate those paltry physicians who pretend to cure other people's diseases, yet are not able to cure their own'" (Bevan). Paul gave the same message in his epistle to the Romans when He wrote, "Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal? Thou that sayest a man should not commit adultery, dost thou commit adultery? thou that abhorrest idols, dost thou commit sacrilege?" (Romans 2:21,22). The parable's principle is in our saying, "Clean your own doorstep before you clean other's."
This parable saying is good support for high qualifications for church officers and teachers. It is a forceful reminder that those who would proclaim the Gospel to a lost world must also embrace the Gospel in their own hearts.—We need the application of this parable in our government, too; for, as an example, congressmen are notorious for making laws for the citizenry which they exempt themselves from obeying.
The clarification about the message. It needs to be made clear that the focus on self in this parable is not an encouragement to be selfish; it is instead an encouragement to be a good example. Taking care of your own needs before helping others may appear on the surface to encourage selfishness. But that is not the case at all here in this parable. Rather, this parable says we should evidence in our own life what we are trying to improve in the lives of others. A doctor who tells overweight people to diet to avoid the peril of being overweight is not selfish because he first dieted to remedy an overweight problem. Rather, he is simply being a good example of his advice.
The main reason for the mention of this parable by Christ was to tell folk that it would be misused against Him. The parable would be twisted, distorted, and perverted to make it apply to Christ. Evil people are ever perverting truth in order to oppose truth. They can misuse the best of parables and the most holy of doctrines to accuse the innocent or to sanction evil. "The legs of the lame are not equal, so is a parable in the mouth of fools"—(Proverbs 26:7).
We note two times in which the parable was misused against Christ. First, it was misused by the countrymen of Christ; and second, it was misused at the cross of Christ.
By the countrymen of Christ. Our text for this parable tells us two things about the misuse of this parable against Christ by His countrymen. They are the prediction of the misuse and the prompting of the misuse.
First, the prediction of the misuse. Christ predicted ("Ye will surely say") that His countrymen at Nazareth would misuse this parable against Him. This prediction revealed the omniscience of Christ. His prediction evidenced that He knew what was in the hearts of His listeners in the synagogue in Nazareth. He knew what they were thinking and what they would eventually say to Him. He likewise knows the same about all of us; a truth that should sober and purify us.
Second, the prompting of the misuse. That which prompted Christ's countrymen to misuse this parable was their unbelief in Christ as Israel's Messiah. In His teaching in the synagogue service, Christ had just spoken of Himself as a healer (Luke 4:18); and He had already worked some miracles of healing in nearby Capernaum (Luke 4:23) which supported His claim as being Israel's Messiah. But because He did not work similar miracles in Nazareth, the Nazareth people would not believe Him. And if He did not work miracles in Nazareth, He was, in their opinion, like a physician who could not heal himself. This was accusing Christ of hypocrisy which was a ludicrous charge indeed! Unbelief, however, can be very ludicrous in its criticism.
The unbelief of the people was totally unjustified. They had ample evidence in the miracles done elsewhere to believe. Furthermore, "He had lived among them for the most of thirty years a sinless life, the greatest of all miracles in a sinful world"—(Edgar). This failure to believe Christ though He had lived sinlessly among them for many years was reason enough for His doing miracles elsewhere. Nazareth had not used the blessing of His presence well, and so they lost future blessing. If you do not use your blessings well, it will hinder you from receiving more blessing in the future. Poor stewardship of privilege will shut the door to more privilege. So "he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief"—(Matthew 13:58).
At the cross of Christ. The most evil misuse of this parable saying occurred at Calvary (the actual words of the parable were not used, but the principle of the parable was embodied in the words that were used at Calvary). All three Synoptic Gospels record this sneering attack on Christ at Calvary which said, "Save thyself, and come down from the cross... He saved others; himself he cannot save"—(Mark 15:30,31; cp. Matthew 27:40-42; Luke 23:35,37). When on the cross, Christ was accused of being one who said He would save people but was not able to save Himself from the cross. So the accusers so much as said Christ was a physician Who could not heal Himself. And until He did save Himself, they said they would not believe Him. "If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him"—(Matthew 27:42).
How dense were the minds of these unbelieving critics of Christ. They did not understand the work of Christ. What the critics called hypocrisy was instead great sacrifice, for the reason Christ did not save Himself from the cross was so He could save others from condemnation! Saving Himself from the cross would have ruined the Gospel. Christ became poor so we could become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). Likewise Christ died so others could live (1 Thessalonians 5:10). But unbelief perverts this action of Christ to that of a physician who cannot heal himself.
Unbelief addles the brains of unbelievers. Hence, when we preach the Gospel it is "unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness"—(1 Corinthians 1:23). The unbelieving mind sees the Gospel as foolish and unworkable. So they see Calvary as Christ's failure. Also they see capital punishment as murder but murderous abortion as the "right" of women. They see pornography as freedom of speech, but prayer and Bible reading in school as something else. The unholy, unbelieving mind is as confused as it is corrupt. "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools"—(Romans 1:22) is the fitting epitaph for these unbelievers.
— Studies of the Savior