The gospel of healing: 1
by Nigel T. Faithfull
A young Christian asked me for advice concerning some friends. They believe the Bible teaches that Jesus died not only to provide forgiveness for our sins, but also to heal all our physical diseases – Isaiah 53:5 was quoted to support their viewpoint.
It is a subject on which Evangelicals hold differing opinions. These same arguments for ‘our right to healing’ were current when I was a student nearly 40 years ago. They were wrong then and they are still wrong today. We ought not to antagonise Christian friends by dealing harshly with this issue but we must lovingly present what the Bible as a whole says about this matter.
Don’t jump to conclusions
The first rule for interpreting Scripture is that a text should be examined in its context. The second rule is that the text should be interpreted in the light of other scriptures, since it cannot contradict what the Spirit has said elsewhere.
If this is done, Christ will be seen as fulfilling all the Old Testament types and shadows which are now done away with — notably the animal sacrifices which (under the old covenant) foreshadowed his great and final act of redemption on Calvary.
Applying this to Isaiah 53:5, the context provides the correct interpretation. Why was the ‘suffering servant’ of Isaiah 53 pierced? For our transgressions. Why was he crushed? For our iniquities. How did he give us peace with God? By bearing the punishment our sins deserved.
What kind of ‘healing’ is in view, therefore? It must be ‘healing’ from our sins rather than from our physical ailments. We are healed from the dire effects of sin by the wounds of Christ. Matthew Henry writes:
‘Hereby we have healing; for by his stripes we are healed. Sin is not only a crime, for which we were condemned to die and for which Christ purchased for us the pardon, but it is a disease which tends directly to the death of our souls and for which Christ provided the cure of.
‘By his stripes (that is, the sufferings he underwent) he purchased for us the spirit and grace of God to mortify our corruptions, which are the distempers of our souls, and to put our souls in a good state of health, that they may be fit to serve God and prepared to enjoy him.’
Release from prison?
If, as some claim, Isaiah 53 is saying that believers are to be healed from physical sickness, then by the same reasoning we have to conclude that Isaiah 61:1 predicts the release of all believers who are wrongfully imprisoned.
Jesus claimed to fulfil this particular prophecy, saying he had come to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind (Luke 4:18). Yet shortly afterwards, John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded!
Again, Scripture provides the interpretation in Christ’s own words in John 8:32-36. The Son sets us free from captivity to sin.
Some may argue that miraculous deliverances from prison are recorded, such as the two occasions when Peter was freed by an angel (Acts 5:19; 12:6-10) and when a miraculous earthquake released Paul and Silas from their fetters (Acts 16:24-26).
At the end of Paul’s ministry, however, he had no deliverance from incarceration. Instead he was given grace to rejoice in his bonds, which served to advance the gospel (Philippians 1:12-18).
Clearly, the promise of freedom for the captive, like the promise of healing for the sick, refers to deliverance from spiritual bondage and the sickness of the soul.
What about health and wealth?
Those who advocate the gospel of ‘health, wealth and happiness’ further point to Psalm 103:3: ‘who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases’; and concerning wealth, verse 5: ‘who satisfies your desires for good things’.
Even here, however, the context is still that of the forgiveness of sins and must logically refer to the gifts of spiritual health and heart-prosperity. Of course, if we use God’s good gifts in moderation, work industriously, and seek to obey his commands, our bodily health and material prosperity will no doubt be advanced (Psalm 1:3).
But in God’s providence this is not always the case. Paul had to leave Trophimus sick at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20) and his remedy for Timothy’s own ailment was to take ‘a little wine’ rather than claim some supposed ‘right to good health’ (1 Timothy 5:23).
Many would testify that it has been God’s will that they should suffer loss, and sacrifice themselves on the altar of God’s service. Asaph complained that he, a believer, was suffering while the wicked prospered and were healthy (Psalm 73:3-14).
To understand better what God intends for us, we must turn to the New Testament.
Jesus is Lord
In the Gospels Jesus shows us that he is Lord over his creation and can redeem men from the effects of the curse. During his days on earth he cured illnesses which would have defied the skill of doctors even today. He even raised the dead. But he also forgave sins!
This conjunction is admirably illustrated in his healing the paralytic in Matthew 9:6. Jesus said, ‘so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins … get up, take your mat and go home’.
By this act of healing, Christ demonstrated his power to forgive sin. If he could visibly heal a physical infirmity — as he demonstrably could — it authenticated his claim to invisibly forgive sins as well.
The question is, therefore, whether Christ, who heals from their sins all who sincerely believe, intends also to heal them from their physical ailments. Obviously, he is able to do so. But does he promise and purpose so to do?
Healing and faith
He clearly does not do so in all cases, as we saw briefly above (and will develop further in part 2 next month). Some will argue that this is because those seeking healing lack sufficient faith. They quote such verses as Matthew 13:58: ‘And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief’.
But notice that it does not say ‘he was not able to do many mighty works’ but only that he did not do so, which is quite a different matter.
Another passage cited by so-called healers when people are not healed under their ministry is James 5:14-15: ‘Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him’.
These verses show, they say, that faith is needed if healing is to be received. But the faith exercised in James 5 is not that of the sick person at all, but of the elders (acting in the name of the whole church). And, once again, healing is linked with forgiveness.
There is no reason why ‘James 5 type’ healing should not occur today, subject to the sovereign purposes of God. But healing through the prayer and faith of God’s people is not what most practitioners of ‘spiritual (or faith) healing’ mean when they claim to heal the sick. They usually claim that special healing power has been given to them as individuals, quite outside the domain of the gathered, praying church.
The apostles and others in their day exercised certain miraculous gifts — given to them specifically to confirm the truth of the gospel which they preached. This is clearly stated in Hebrews 2:3-4.
Even more specifically, their miracles of healing — like those of Christ himself — were performed to authenticate Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah (see, for example, Luke 4:16-21; Acts 3:14-16).
Virtually all New Testament miracles of healing served this same purpose, namely, to demonstrate that Jesus is the promised Christ. The remainder serve a related purpose — to authenticate the testimony of the apostles and prophets who, by preaching Christ, laid the foundations of the church (Ephesians 2:20) — and originated the New Testament Scriptures under the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
The miracles recorded for us in the New Testament still serve this authenticating purpose today. Once the foundation had been laid there was no need for further authentication. Indeed, if such miraculous gifts had persisted they would have lost all value as authenticating signs attaching to Christ himself and the foundation-layers who followed him.