Is physical healing part of the gospel, the birthright of every believer? Last month we began to examine this common but mistaken claim – and saw that the New Testament miracles were authenticating signs that demonstrated historically that Jesus was the promised Messiah. We continue now by considering the ministry and teaching of the apostle Paul.
Paul clearly had ‘the gift of healing’. He healed the father of Publius from dysentery and fever, and many other sick people on Malta (Acts 28:8-9); he even raised Eutychus from the dead (Acts 20:7-12).
Yet when he himself suffered physical affliction (his ‘thorn in the flesh’) he prayed with faith three times for its removal, but to no effect (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). God denied him healing for his own good, to keep him from becoming conceited.
Thus God may heal or withhold healing – and we must believe that whatever the outcome he loves us and acts for our eternal good and his greater glory. We may still pray for healing, as did Paul. But whether he grants it or not we must trust him completely, for God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.
God in his providence has blessed us with numerous ordinary means of healing. We should use them thankfully, remembering that it is God who ultimately heals, regardless of the means.
Paul speaks of ‘our dear friend Luke, the doctor’, whose medical skills were evidently not redundant, even in New Testament times (Colossians 4:14). In those days oil and wine were medicines as well as nourishment – Paul advises Timothy to take a little wine for his ailing stomach (1 Timothy 5:23).
Note how Paul advocates the use of medicine, even though he had the ‘gift of healing’ in greater measure than anyone could claim today. He also left Trophimus sick at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20). Although Paul loved his fellow worker he could not override the will of God. Even in apostolic days healing was selective, according to the sovereign operation of the Holy Spirit.
Gifts of healing today?
Many believers can testify of recovering from an illness in a way that confounded their doctors. This is not, however, the same as saying that some have a gift of spiritual healing, or that healing meetings are justified.
Healings in Scripture were usually unplanned and spontaneous, and those who performed the healing were not always able to heal on future occasions (as we have just seen in Paul’s case).
Furthermore, Iain Murray points out that since the times of the apostles no group ‘who claim to be in possession of the extraordinary gifts of the New Testament age has deserved credibility’.
Nor were healing gifts possessed by any of the leaders of the great evangelical revivals, from the Reformation to this present century (Pentecost – today?, Banner of Truth, 1998, pp.197-199).
Church history seems to show that overt demonstrations of healing or other miracles are unlikely to be a part of the Holy Spirit’s plan for the post-apostolic church. When they have occurred they have served rather to distract from the clear proclamation of the gospel, as with Edward Irving in the 1830s.
A cautionary tale
About twenty years ago, a missionary lady returned from the Philippines where she had met with great ‘success’ amongst the hill tribes. A Christian publisher agreed to produce a book about her work and asked her to speak at the Baptist church where he was an elder.
She spoke sincerely and convincingly about how she would pray for the tribes-people, many of whom suffered with goitres which rapidly shrank back to normal size.
She then asked for any who needed healing to come forward. Now this was not the theological persuasion of this church, so the minister stood to announce this fact, but allowed her to proceed.
Just one elderly lady in a wheelchair came to the front, where hands were laid on her and prayer made. She departed, having being assured of healing. But there was no improvement, and the poor soul was more downhearted than ever.
It later transpired that the missionary was out of fellowship with her own church, and the book contract had to be cancelled – the whole incident being an embarrassment to the church and a distraction from the glorious gospel of salvation.
Healing in Scripture
‘Healing’ in Scripture has three distinct connotations. Firstly, Christ and his disciples healed people physically as an attestation that Christ was indeed the promised Messiah. These were miracles that authenticated the claims made by Christ himself and by his disciples for him (Matthew 11:3-6; Acts 3:15-16; Hebrews 2:3-4). As historical records they still serve the same purpose and need no repetition.
Secondly, these same physical healings are parables that illustrate the spiritual realities of cleansing, forgiveness and restoration. An obvious example is the restoration of sight to the blind, which pictures the removal of the spiritual blindness that afflicts the natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6).
Thirdly, the term ‘healing’ is often used in the Bible as a metaphor for God’s work of salvation and restoration (e.g. Hosea 14:4; Hebrews 12:13).
In each case, healing is linked to the cleansing of our sins by the blood of Christ, a work that restores spiritualhealth and makes us right with God.
It is proper for Christians to pray for healing as well as seeking professional treatment, but we must trust the outcome to God. The Holy Spirit, who gave the gift of healing to the New Testament church, restricted its use even then.
As the New Testament record developed, reports of physical healing diminished. It is prominent in the Gospels and at the beginning of Acts but finds only occasional mention towards the end of Acts. Miraculous healing is found in the New Testament epistles only in 1 Corinthians and (briefly) in James.
By the end of the New Testament era it appears that the Holy Spirit had largely withdrawn this gift – though he remains sovereign in this respect. Nevertheless, whenever physical healing occurs, God remains the ultimate healer.
One thing is clear – the New Testament teaches that believers will suffer physical infirmity in this fallen world. Indeed, it instructs us to rejoice in our sufferings – because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (Romans 5:3-4).
When Charles Wesley penned his much loved hymn ‘Jesu, Lover of my soul’, and wrote ‘Heal the sick, and lead the blind’, he was talking about the healing of our souls, for he continues,
Let the healing streams abound,
Make and keep me pure within.
This was also in John Marriott’s mind when he composed ‘Thou whose almighty word’:
Thou who didst come to bring
On thy redeeming wing
Healing and sight,
Health to the sick in mind,
Sight to the inly blind,
O now to all mankind
Let there be light.
May God give us a right understanding of these issues, and grace to love and be patient with those who differ. Above all, may Christ be exalted as he heals us from our sins and redeems us to himself. That alone qualifies us for heaven – where we shall be free from all sickness, sorrow and death.