For two thousand years Christians have been praying that sick people will be healed. Sometimes God works a miracle and people receive physical healing. Blind people receive their sight. Deaf people can hear. Paralysed people can walk again. There are even reports of dead people being brought back to life. Sometimes people are miraculously healed. Sometimes they aren’t. Why is this? Does God promise complete physical healing to every Christian – as some preachers would tell you? Or does He not?
Healing the sick was a central part of the Ministry of Jesus Christ. Healing miracles make up a QUARTER of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. In commissioning both the Twelve Apostles and the 72, Jesus commanded and empowered them to continue His healing ministry (Matthew 9:35, 10:1, 7-8 and John 20:21). The Risen Christ declared that healing and miracles were to be signs of the growing church (Mark 16: 15-20). And so it was throughout Acts (so many places e.g. Acts 3:1-10; Acts 5:12-16; Acts 19:11-12).
In order to understand the New Testament teaching on miracles, healings and deliverance, we must understand the part these phenomena played in the ministry of Jesus Himself, and then in the Early Church.
One common misunderstanding is that Jesus performed miracles to prove who He was (the Messiah and the Son of God) or else to prove that His gospel was true. But Jesus did NOT work miracles to prove anything to anyone. He explicitly refused to give any “sign” to prove His identity, except “the sign of Jonah”, the resurrection (Matt 12:38-41, Mk 8:11-12). In His day, every village had its own “miracle worker”. Most of Jesus’s miracles wouldn’t (and obviously didn’t!) convince very many people about His Messiah-ship or His teaching.
The real reason Jesus healed is this. He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God (Mk 1:15). His manifesto in Luke 4:16-21 declared that the time had come when God would begin His Kingly Reign in the world (which is the meaning of the Jewish word we translate as “Kingdom”). This would include putting right all the wrongs in the world caused by sin. Whenever God speaks, things happen! Jesus’s miracles are the outworkings of that Kingly Reign of God, concrete expressions of the truths which Jesus was proclaiming, demonstrating God’s power, love and grace towards fallen mankind (Matt 12:28, 10:6-8) – the gospel in action!
Similarly the Early Church continued Jesus work, proclaiming the Kingdom of God in both word and deed. The miracles in Acts don’t merely authenticate the Apostles’ message or persons. Miracles continued in the name of Jesus by the Spirit’s power as part of God’s ongoing Kingly rule, and there is no Biblical reason to suppose that such activities of the Spirit would not continue in the life of the Kingdom, even today!
And God DOES still heal today! History tells us that miraculous healings did not cease when the Apostles died. They continued widespread in the church until at least the fifth century.
Early Church history eg: Irenaeus (140-203) Origen (c. 185-c .254) Augustine (354-430)
“Those who are in truth his disciples, receiving grace from him, do in his name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them and they are made whole. Yea, more¬over, as I have said, the dead have been raised up, and remain among us for many years.” Irenaeus (c. 130—c. 200) Bishop of Lyons.
“They expel evil spirits, and perform many cures, and foresee certain events … The name of Jesus …. can take away diseases.” Origen (c. 185—c. 254) another theologian.
(QUOTES from Questions of Life Nicky Gumbel p 207-208)
Nor were such miracles restricted to the hierarchy of the church, the bishops. Throughout the history of the church there have been many well-attested incidents of healings. Around the world today there are many parts of the church where frequent healing in a normal part of their Christian experience.
However the expectation of such miracles occurring was greatly reduced when the Reformation rejected Roman errors such as the association of the miraculous with “relics” (the bones of the saints) or with “shrines”. Evangelical faith in the growing towns condemned the magical or superstitious elements of the “folk religion” of rural churches. Liberal Theology too has worked hard to deny the supernatural, and distorted the true Christian faith. Many Christians have restricted the channels of God’s healing and deliverance to modern medicine and psychiatry.
It is generally true that the extent of incidence of the miraculous has been, and still is, related to the level of expectation of Christians. “Ask and you will receive!”
We have the promises of Jesus to encourage us.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
“If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”
“I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. …. Ask and you will receive.” (John 14:12-14; 15:7; 16:23-24)
I have seen miracles of healing and deliverance. Geoff Pike sent home from hospital with liver cancer and given 48 hours to live, miraculously returning to complete health. I myself received miraculous healing from a sports injury in answer to prayer.
It is now more widely recognised that physical healings are aspects of the salvation and wholeness which God’s Kingly Reign brings. Healings are not merely signs attesting the ministries of Christ or of the Apostles. Ordinary Christians in all kinds of churches have prayed with boldness, faith and perseverance, and God has worked very many remarkable healing miracles. The increased expectation of miraculous healing has produced many great blessings, but also some difficulties.
(i) In some circles the miraculous is seen as the spiritual alternative to medical treatment, and medicine is rejected. This “super-spirituality” is most unhelpful. We must always recognise the hand of God in healing, whether through surgery, drugs or miracle. It is no less spiritual to pray for healing for someone in hospital than in church. And God’s healing is always a process – sometimes quick, sometimes slower. But we must beware of falling into the opposite trap and saying that God only heals through medicine nowadays. The God of the Bible is a God of miracles, and “His touch has still its ancient power!”
(ii) The context of healing in the New Testament is normally the local fellowship (James 5:13-16) rather than in separate “healing meetings”. It is expected that healings will be a part of the on-going life of all true churches. And we must remember that when we read of “healings” in lists of spiritual gifts then the gift is the specific healing miracle which is the work of the Holy Spirit in the body or mind of the individual who is healed The gift of healing is NOT some spiritual gift possessed by the Christian who might have been praying when the God gave the healing. So a Christian can never say “I have the gift of ministering healing”, only that “God gave a gift of healing to a certain sick person on a particular occasion”, and I was blessed to be present at the time.
(iii) Illness and suffering entered into the world as a consequence of sin and the Fall. Because of this, some people quite wrongly try to associate a particular illness with specific sins in the patient’s life. The interplay between body, mind and spirit within the one individual is very complex, and medical science certainly recognises psychosomatic illness. Specific sin can have effects on health, but Biblically this is very rare. Most often we fall sick simply because we share the common lot of fallen mankind in a fallen world. Some make the mistake of saying that a person needs only to discover the particular sin or sins which are the root cause of their illness (which may be physical or mental) and when they repent of their sins they will be cured. This teaching is false and terribly cruel.
(iv) Some folk often look at the gospels and find that healing miracles are usually require a measure of faith from the patient (N.B. so the miracle can’t be seen as a “proof” trying to generate faith). Therefore their explanation when someone is not healed is that, although God wants to heal, the patient or others praying for healing simply do not have sufficient faith. This sounds more convincing than explanation (iii) and it may occasionally be valid, but it is still generally false and equally cruel. And if unconfessed or unrepented sin or lack of faith on the part of the sick person are barriers to healing, then we should not forget that the same problems can equally be present in the lives of the other people who are praying for healing.
We need to be clear that God does not answer prayers as a reward for our faith – we can never earn or deserve God’s grace. Faith is NOT some kind of good work we have to do to earn enough heavenly brownie points so that God will answer our prayer. Rather our faith is merely the channel through which God pours out His blessing as He alone chooses in accordance with His eternal purposes.
The most common mistake made by those who are enthusiastic about God’s healing power is to go to the extreme of saying that it is God’s will for all Christians to be healed all the time. Some people argue that Jesus healed all who came to Him, completely and immediately, and so they believe that everyone who have entered into the life of the Kingdom should enjoy its benefits of complete wholeness too. But to my understanding the Bible does NOT teach this anywhere and the reality is that NO churches or Christians in history have ever experienced physical healing for everyone. Other preachers say that physical healing is an integral part of the atoning work of Christ. “By his stripes we are healed.” I do not believe that is a correct interpretation of the Bible.
So why is it that Christians we are not always healed?
The Biblical picture is more complicated than some like to believe. Yes, God’s Kingly Reign has begun. But it has not yet completely arrived. We are not in heaven yet! We are living “life in the overlap”, between Christ’s First Coming and His Second. We are ALREADY in God’s Kingdom, but we have NOT YET left this world. All the blessings of salvation have been bought for us by Christ’s death and resurrection, and we have begun to experience these blessings, but we will never experience them completely in this life. We still fight the battle against sin and sometimes we lose and give in to temptation. Christians still die, of old age if not from illnesses. Christians are not all miraculously protected from accidents or natural disasters, so there is no reason to believe that God will guarantee us healing from every physical illness. As long as we live in the tension between the ALREADY and the NOT YET we will still share the sufferings of this fallen world. Christians share in Christ’s resurrection life, but they also share in His dying (2 Corinthians 4:10-12).
So complete healing from every illness is not a “right” for every Christian to claim. For reasons of God’s purposes which we will never fully understand in this life, it is not always God’s will to grant healing. Remember the apostle Paul’s experience.
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
It was more important for Paul to learn to trust and depend on the grace of God in his weakness than for him to experience healing from whatever this “thorn in the flesh” actually was.
So Christians will not always be healed. But healing IS sometimes the gift of our loving God for His children, given according to His purposes and for His glory, in His way and in His time. It is within God’s master-plan that we may not always be healed, not least because otherwise some might become Christians for completely wrong and selfish motives. But as for all of God’s gifts which we cannot earn or deserve, we may confidently pray and ask for healing, and leave the answers to the wisdom and love and purpose of God. And if we don’t expect and we never ask …. !
If we want to move on to experience more of God’s healing in our own lives and minister healing more effectively to others, then I am convinced that we need to learn more about prayer and more about other spiritual gifts.
Richard Foster gives four steps in praying for healing: 1. Listen; 2. Ask; 3. Believe; 4. Give thanks.
In particular we fall short at Step 1. We do not listen well enough to the person, to discover whether their greatest need is physical healing, or psychological healing, or emotional healing or assurance of forgiveness. Then we do not know how to listen to God well enough to discover what His will is for that person’s life, so that we can truly pray in Jesus’s name, in accordance what God has revealed to us that He is wanting to do. As we move on in spiritual gifts like prophecy and words of knowledge, so we will know more answers to our prayers for healing. As our relationship with God deepens we will become bolder and more persistent in our requests for healing.
F.B. Meyer wrote, “The greatest tragedy is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” God really does heal the sick! But we have a lot more to learn about praying for healing!