With characteristic realism the Bible accepts the prevalence in God's world of ill-health and affliction, although originally it had no place in God's plan, and declares that God who made us is our only healer. The fact the Lord is our healer echoes through patriarchs, law history, psalms, and prophecy. Psalm 103:1-5 traces among God's "benefits" the separate stages of convalescence.
That God alone heals remains true even though human and traditional means are used. "Physicians" embalmed Isaac ( Gen 50:2 ), and apparently practiced in early Israel ( Exod 21:19 ); later both doctors and healing balm were associated with Gilead ( Jer 8:22 ; cf. Luke 4:23, ; and probably Mark 2:17, ; for familiar proverbs ). Sirach 38:1-15 praises highly, if defensively, the physician's skill and prayerfulness when making diagnosis (contrast 2 Chron 16:12 ). Priests, too, as God's representatives bore medical responsibilities ( Lev 13:2-45 ), while prophets were consulted for medical advice and action ( 1 Kings 14:1-3 ; 17:17-24 ; 2 Kings 4:18-37 ; note 2 Kings 5:1-3 ; note 2 Kings 20:1-11 ). Naaman the Syrian vividly describes how a prophet was popularly expected to proceed ( 2 Kings 5:11 ). In New Testament times, Jewish exorcists practiced, evidently with some success ( Luke 11:19 ; Acts 19:13 ), and Luke became Paul's "beloved physician" ( Col 4:14 ).
Ordinary means of healing were of most diverse kinds. Balm ( Gen 37:25 ) is thought to have been an aromatic resin (or juice) with healing properties; oil was the universal emollient ( Isa 1:6 ), and was sometimes used for wounds with cleansing wine ( Luke 10:34 ). Isaiah recommended a fig poultice for a boil ( 38:21 ); healing springs and saliva were thought effectual ( Mark 8:23 ; John 5 ; 9:6-7 ). Medicine is mentioned ( Prov 17:22 ) and defended as "sensible" ( Sirach 38:4). Wine mixed with myrrh was considered sedative ( Mark 15:23 ); mint, dill, and cummin assisted digestion ( Matt 23:23 ); other herbs were recommended for particular disorders. Most food rules had both ritual and dietary purposes, while raisins, pomegranates, milk, and honey were believed to assist restoration.
One extraordinary means of healing is recorded in 2 Kings 4:25-37: Elisha first ordered that his staff be laid on the inert body of a child, and when that failed, he lay face to face upon the child until warmth and life returned. Nevertheless, ordinary or exceptional, agent and method were but channels of divine healing, which could operate efficiently without either ( 2 Kings 5:10-14 ).
The Healing Messiah. With this background, the prevalence of sickness in the ancient world, it was natural that hearts should hope for a better future, when sorrow and sighing would flee away ( Isa 29:17-19 ; 35:10 ). There is rabbinic evidence that some were looking for a Messiah who would heal the world's sickness. The Talmud later preserves among "signs of the Messiah" the portrait of "one in the midst of the suffering poor tending their wounds." This may look back for scriptural warrant to Isaiah's picture of the Servant of the Lord who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. That such a hope was current much earlier is shown by Matthew's quoting these words (in a variant version, 8:17 ) to "explain" the healing mission of Jesus. For Matthew understands "he took up our infirmities and carried our diseases" to mean, not that Jesus was sick, but that he was concerned about the sick.
Luke shows Jesus announcing in similar terms the arrival of God's kingdom" freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed" (the healing of society, Luke 4:18 ). And when the Baptist, hearing in prison of Jesus' ministry, sent someone to ask Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah, Jesus sent back the message, "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me" ( Matt 11:4-6 ). Christ's healing ministry was sufficient evidence that the king had come, and that the kingdom of God was gracious and kind, not as John had foretold, a realm of axe and flail, of fire and judgment, but of healing and liberation.
So concern for suffering and the impulse to heal became vital elements in Christianity. On the disciples' first mission they were charged to "heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons" ( Matt 10:8 ); visitation of the sick (always an obligation in Jewish piety, Sirach 7:35) was made an issue in the last judgment in Christ's last parable ( Matthew 25:36 Matthew 25:44 ).
Luke, especially, emphasizes that Christ's healing ministry was far wider than the few miracles described ( 4:40 ; 5:15 ; 6:17-19 ; 9:11 ; cf. Matt 15:30-31 ; Mark 1:38 ). Among Jesus' motives, simple compassion is mentioned nine times an attitude rare when most sickness was ascribed to sin. Jesus never recoiled from disease or mental illness, but touched lepers, allowed the "unclean" to touch him, conversed with the deranged, spoke gently to those in distress who challenged him, and sprang to the defense of the maimed or diseased who intruded into synagogues or wealthy houses. He took great pains with a deaf-mute to establish communication; for a blind man, whose wild excitement at cure could cause ridicule, he provided privacy; a young girl was raised from death without knowing it ( Mark 7:32-35 ; 8:22-26 ; 5:35-43 ). To Jesus' mind, the cure of suffering took precedence, repeatedly, over the Sabbath rules ( Luke 13:14-17 ; 14:1-6 ).
Besides demonstrating the nature of God's kingdom as health-giving, down-to-earth, and relevant to the daily problems of the whole person, and the compassion of Jesus toward ordinary, undervalued individuals, the healing miracles left no doubt that a new power was at work in the world, and available through Christ ( Luke 4:36 ; 5:17 ; 6:19 ). To those who watched, the miracles declared that "God was with him" ( Luke 7:16 ; Acts 2:22 ; 10:38 ). Jesus' presence proclaimed and achieved victory already over all demonic forces that degraded and tormented humankind; the frontiers of God's kingdom were being advanced, and God's will was being done.
The forms of Christ's healing, moreover, illustrated his redemptive mission, as bringing light to the blind soul, a kindling word to the deaf mind, sanity to the deranged personality, a lighter step to the lame spirit, a song to the dumb heart, calmness to the fevered life, and use again to the paralyzed will.
There is no doubt that the healings were miraculous. The resurrection of Jesus makes all lesser miracles credible but not every Christian credulous: quality, motive, evidence, still demand consideration. The Gospel writers would assume that the God who made the world is not fettered by it, but free to act in any way consistent with his character and purpose.
Yet Jesus continually "played down" his spectacular deeds. No theatrical flourish, no fixed pattern of action or words added drama to the healing (except, for special reasons, in John 9). A simple touch, a quiet word, a command (to an evil spirit), a "morning call" to a "sleeping" girl, a touch from behind himself, even an assurance from a distance was enough. All is done naturally, informally, simply.
And Jesus set limits to his miracle-ministry. He did not allow it to distract him from the preaching of the kingdom. Sometimes he withdrew to other places ( Luke 4:42-43 ; 5:16 ), or checked enthusiasm with warning of approaching death ( Luke 9:43-45 ). Power over spirits is no true basis of Christian joy ( Luke 10:20 ). God's kingdom cannot be built on signs and wonders ( Luke 4:3-4 Luke 4:9-12 ); a generation that demanded "signs" was "evil" incapable of discerning God wherever and however he spoke and acted. The need was not for visual evidence to gape at, but for inward light ( Luke 11:29-30 Luke 11:32-36 ; 20:1-8 ). Nothing resembling a campaign inviting all comers to attend and be healed is recorded of Jesus. Even with Jesus himself visibly present, no healing was possible except "according to your faith" ( Matt 9:29 ); without faith, even Jesus "could not do any miracles" ( Mark 6:5-6 ). To discourage the wonder-seeking excitement in Galilee, he often warned the cured to be silent, and to maintain reserve. Yet, in spite of all Jesus' avoidance of display, "the healing Messiah" left everywhere a deep and lasting impression, still plainly visible in the Gospel records, kindling new hope for the afflicted and a strong motive of active compassion in the church.
The Healing Church. For, as the disciples shared the healing work in the earlier years, so the church continued to do so through the apostolic age. Although our information is confined to Acts and a few allusions in the Epistles, we know of the healing of a lame man at the temple, of the sick in the streets ( Acts 5:12-16 ), of the spirit-possessed in Samaria ( 8:7 ), of Aneas' paralysis ( 9:33-35 ); of the raising of Dorcas, the healing of a cripple at Lystra, and the slave girl at Philippi. We read of "extraordinary miracles" at Ephesus ( 19:11 ), the restoration of Eutychus at Troas ( 20:9-12 ), and the healing of Publius's father on Malta.
Indirectly we learn of signs and wonders during Paul's missions ( Rom 15:18-19 ; cf. 2 Col 12:12 ; Gal 3:5 ). It is evident that the gift of healing was by no means limited to apostles, but bestowed "as the Spirit wills" ( 1 Corinthians 12:9 1 Corinthians 12:11 ). Although the picture so presented is incomplete and unsystematic, it is clear that the power to heal was neither universal nor constant, but spasmodic and occasional. An impression of surprise and wonder, of something "extraordinary" indeed, shows that healing never became common- place or automatic.
Dorcas died. Epaphroditus was close to death for some time. Timothy, for years Paul's constant attendant, was troubled with "frequent illnesses" ( 1 Tim 5:23 ). Trophimus had to be left at Miletus, sick ( 2 Tim 4:20 ). There was repeated and serious illness in the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica ( 1 Cor 11:30 ; 1 Thess 4:13-18 ). Paul himself prayed, repeatedly and "unsuccessfully, " for release from his physical affliction ( 2 Col 12:7-9 ; Gal 4:13-15 ). The apostolic church had its invalids, gifts of healing notwithstanding.
Luke's constant care of Paul reminds us that nonmiraculous means of healing were not neglected in that apostolic circle. Wine is recommended for Timothy's weak stomach, eye-salve for the Thyatiran church's blindness (metaphorical, but significant). James offers pastoral counsel for the sick: Send for elders of the church, who will encourage, advise, and intercede for the patient; if sin truly underlies the sickness, let the sick confess and receive forgiveness; let soothing oil, the universal panacea for all discomforts, be applied. (No brother gifted with healing is here mentioned: James 5:14-16. )
Paul offers his own example. Of course he prayed concerning his affliction, but like all truly Christian prayer, that petition was subject to God's will. When the trouble was not removed, he sought instead the meaning of his "thorn" and discovered it. In his case it was to keep him, despite his great privileges, humble and usable in God's hands. Thereafter he accepted the experience, although "a messenger of Satan" in some respects, as permitted for a purpose. And he accepted with it the grace God promised to be "sufficient" for endurance without resentment or self-pity, and the divine strength most plainly manifest through human weakness ( 2 Cor 12:1-10 ).
Behind that courageous attitude lay the profound conviction that God makes all things work together to make us Christ-like; and therefore nothing, nothing at all, neither tribulation, nor distress, nor peril, nor things present or to come, will separate us from God's love ( Romans 8:28-29 Romans 8:35-39 ).
Between them James and Paul describe what has become (for whatever reason) the "normal" Christian attitude toward sickness, and it obviously finds justification in the New Testament. But so does the expectation that, when God so wills, miracles will sometimes occur.
R. E. O. White
See also Disease
Bibliography. V. Edmunds and C. G. Scorer, Some Thoughts on Faith Healing; A. G. Ikin, The Background of Spiritual Healing; E. H. Robertson, Biblical Bases of Healing; C. G. Scorer, Healing Biblical, Medical, and Pastoral.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Heal, Health'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".