Healing in Scripture

Healing in Scripture, miracle healing, faith healing. Whole books have been written on this subject, but there is value in summarizing some basic truths, and bringing together relevant Scriptures on this timely topic. It is hoped that even this brief treatment will be enlightening and helpful. An inexpensive little book that deals with healing in the context of all the spiritual gifts is William McRae's The Dynamics of Spiritual Gifts. His balanced and biblical presentation of the subject is extremely helpful. Healing in Scripture. So many leap to conclusions based on someone's reported experience and not on what God has said. Bodily healing, especially through apparent miracles, is a subject about which claims and opinions vary. Supposed healers, and healing services are popular with many in our day. These gatherings can generate a lot of emotion, but actual results are mixed. Some seem to be helped, but many more are not. For those who experience a measure of relief, the effects are often partial or temporary, and many are left disillusioned and discouraged.

This is far from the supernatural touch of God experienced by those in the New Testament Scriptures. The healing ministry of Christ and His disciples involved instantaneous miracles, and a complete restoration of health and wholeness (e.g. Mk. 1:30-31; Jn. 11:43-44). Further, they healed all who came to them (Matt. 8:16-17; Acts 5:16). This ministry had a definite purpose at the time. God used it to demonstrate who Christ is, and to authenticate the truths beings presented by Him and the apostles (Acts 2:22; II Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:3-4).

Since that message now has been accredited by God, and written down, the purpose of these sign miracles has been fulfilled. Things are not the same today. And yet the Lord still has the power to heal, and He does so in a number of ways. First, God has built into our bodies amazing restorative powers. The natural ability of the body to heal itself is a gift for which we thank Him. Second, God in His providence has given human beings the ability to discover and use many wonderful medicines, and medical procedures to help us. Third, God has the power to intervene in a supernatural way, beyond what nature or medicine can accomplish.

Sometimes all three of these factors come into play together. It may even be difficult to discern which method God has used--nor is it really necessary to do so. They are all a blessing from the Lord. Sadly, some feel that to pray for healing and then continue taking medicine shows a lack of faith in God. That is not so. "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above" (Jas. 1:17). We can thank the Lord for what the doctor is doing to help us, while still trusting Him to act above and beyond this, according to His will.

There are some who say miraculous healing is provided for in the atonement, just as forgiveness of sins is. They tell us that by ignoring this we are not preaching the "full gospel." The idea that bodily healing can be claimed by faith because it was provided for in Christ's atoning work on the cross is based on a misapplication of two verses in Isaiah 53. In a description of the coming Messiah's work, the prophet says, "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows....[and] By His stripes we are healed" (Isa. 53:4-5). But the first of these predictions (vs. 4) was fulfilled, before Calvary, through the compassionate healing miracles of Jesus (Matt. 8:16-17). The second (vs. 5) is seen by Peter as a reference to the spiritual deliverance experienced by each one who comes to Christ for salvation (I Pet. 2:24-25). It is not a promise of physical healing on demand.

In addition to the words of Isaiah, a verse from Hebrews is sometimes quoted. The verse that says the Lord Jesus is "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb. 13:8). But this statement deals with Christ's nature and person, not His healing ministry. The writer of Hebrews is concerned about Jews who might turn back from their Christian profession because of persecution (cf. Heb. 10:32, 35). His message to them is that there is no other "Christ" (Messiah) to whom they can turn, nor would there be in the future. The incarnate Son of God would forever be their only hope.

Christ died for our sins, not our sicknesses (I Cor. 15:3; cf. II Cor. 5:21; I Pet. 3:18). Because of Calvary, a lost sinner can be forgiven and saved eternally by calling upon the Lord in faith (Jn. 3:16; Acts 16:30-31; Rom. 10:13). In the words of the old gospel song, "Whosoever will may come." But God does not guarantee that all who call upon Him for bodily healing will recover.

We know that Christ's death paved the way for the restoration of all things, and this will eventually include full and final deliverance from sickness, pain and death (Rev. 21:4; cf. Rom. 8:18-25). But that is not the same as asserting that every sick person who prays for healing now, in this life, will receive it unfailingly (and that if healing does not come, it is because of a lack of faith on his part). This goes far beyond what the Bible teaches.

Whatever God does is for His glory and for our ultimate good. But that may involve giving us grace to sustain us in suffering, and to glorify Him in spite of our infirmities. The Apostle Paul provides an example of this (II Cor. 12:7-10). To demand that God must do as we ask in this matter is presumptuous and wrong. As believers we can be confident that when we pray God will answer. If physical restoration is His will for us, He will bring healing one way or another. But sometimes His answer is "No," or "Not now." Like an infinitely wise parent, He may refuse to give us what we ask for, knowing it would not be for the best--or because He has some greater purpose in our suffering (cf. II Sam. 12:13-23).

Since God has already given many signs to demonstrate the truth of His Word, it is not necessary for Him to prove it all over again. In fact, if there is, in the individual, the will not to believe God, no miracle would be sufficient anyway. Even a resurrection from the dead would not change the mind of one who is determined to reject God's written revelation (Lk. 16:31). What then is a valid reason for seeking healing? Fundamentally, there are two: God's honour and glory, and our compassion and concern for the individual, based on our own perception of the need.

First, our overriding concern must be for the glory of God (Rom. 11:36; I Cor. 10:31). As the Westminster Assembly put it over 300 years ago, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." And we exclaim with the Apostle Jude, "To God our Saviour, who alone is wise, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and forever. Amen" (Jude 1:25; cf. Ps. 104:31; I Tim. 1:17). But we cannot presume we always know what will best glorify God in a given situation. Ultimately, that must be left up to Him (cf. Isa. 55:8-9). With Paul, our desire should be that "Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death" (Phil. 1:20).

Second, as we see a need, we are able to present it to One who sympathizes with our weaknesses and encourages us to pray to "obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:15-16; cf. Phil. 4:6). In interceding for others, we express personal concern for the suffering individual. But again we do so with a sense that we may not always comprehend their deeper or more significant needs. We tend to see the immediate and surface problems, whereas God sees infinitely more (cf. I Sam. 16:7; Rom. 8:26-27).

The primary passage in the epistles about bodily healing is James 5:13-16. Here are the verses involved, followed by a few observations:

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? 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 will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much (Jas. 5:13-16).

Notice the repeated phrase "among you." These are instructions for the local church, and for those who are a part of the fellowship of believers. And those who are ill among them are invited to "call for the elders [pastors, spiritual leaders] of the church" to come and pray for their healing. (This is the complete reverse of what so-called faith healers do today, calling the sick to come to them!) These local church leaders are not the only ones who can pray, of course (cf. Jas. 5:16; Gal. 6:2). But summoning them perhaps indicates the extreme and critical seriousness of the situation.

The elders are told to pray and anoint the ailing person with oil. Since olive oil was applied as a medication and a restorative in those days (e.g. Lk. 10:34), some believe that is what is in view here--that the instruction is to use both prayer and the appropriate medicine. (The two seem to have been combined in the healing of King Hezekiah, Isa. 38:1-5, 21.) Another possibility is that this is a ceremonial anointing, with the oil representing the united concern of God's people, or symbolizing the special touch of God (cf. II Sam. 16:12-13; Ps. 133:1-3).

It is striking that this passage also refers to sin, and the confession of sin. Possibly the specific (though not necessarily exclusive) application of the practice is to those who were sick as a result of sin in their lives. Perhaps God has been using physical illness to discipline them, and turn them from their sinful ways (cf. Heb. 12:6, 11). This is another reason it would be appropriate for the church leaders, who have a knowledge of the case, to come at this time. Not all sickness is a result of personal sin (cf. Jn. 9:1-3), but some is (cf. I Cor. 11:27-30). For this reason, it is wise for the elders to question the individual, to discover if the Holy Spirit is bringing conviction for some specific sin. If so, it needs to be confessed before healing can begin (I Jn. 1:9).

Once this is done, the elders can appeal to the Lord in prayer for the restoration of the individual. And we are assured that God moves in answer to the fervent prayers of the saints (Jas. 5:17-18). God's power is infinite, and His promise is "the prayer of faith will save [meaning deliver, or heal] the sick." However, such a prayer does not involve twisting God's arm, but abandoning one's self to sovereign grace. As in other areas of our lives, there needs to be a humble submission to "Your will be done" (Matt. 26:39; Jas. 4:15; 5:11).

If God in His mercy brings healing, we can rejoice with the one whom He has touched. It is cause for celebration (cf. Acts 3:7-8). However, we must always leave the matter in His hands, and determine to have a "but-if-not" faith like the three Hebrews who faced death in the fiery furnace. They fully believed in God's power to deliver them. But they did not presume to know His will in that specific case. So they affirmed His power to save, but said even if He did not deliver them they would not forsake Him, or bow down to other gods (Dan. 3:13-18). The Lord will act according to His perfect will, giving the faith to believe Him for healing, when that is His choice (I Jn. 5:14). And however He answers, we have cause to praise the One who works in all things for our good (Rom. 8:28).

See also James on Healing.