“I am the Lord your Healer” – the Healing Ministry of Jesus Christ
The woman slipped through the crowds with desperate purpose… “if I could just touch Jesus’s cloak I will be healed…” This is just one of 26 accounts of healing in the Gospels (told in varying ways by different authors). In addition, there are also summary statements of Jesus “curing every disease…among the people” (Mt 4:23). But what is healing? Who, how and why did Jesus heal? And what does it mean for physicians today?
Before we tackle these questions, some comments on context
are important. Medicine in the ancient world was conceived of differently from today: the boundaries between mental, spiritual and physical illness were blurred. Spiritual suffering as a result of sin was described in physical terms (e.g., Ps 38), illness was associated with the realm of death, and healing incorporated the ideas of recovery, restoration, forgiveness and deliverance. In the context of Israel’s ritual system, many illnesses were considered “unclean,” necessitating the sufferer’s exclusion from society and requiring complex reparations. The Old Testament often depicted sickness as a result of divine judgment (e.g., Dt 28:22) but not always (e.g., Job). By contrast, later Judaism (e.g., T. Solomon) and Greek culture (e.g., Greek Magical Papyri) viewed most illness as having demonic origin “treatment” involved exorcism rituals and appeasement of deities. However, there were also physicians in the ancient world and the beginnings of empirical medicine; illness was considered both naturalistic (due to injury, germs or the weather) and personalistic (due to sin or demons). Gospel authors would have been influenced by both Judaic and Greco-Roman culture.
Today, miracles, of which healing is one category (the others being exorcism and “nature” miracles, although the division is debated), are sometimes described as violating the laws of nature. However, even if they were privy to knowledge gained through contemporary science, biblical authors were more concerned with the existential experience of sickness than the science of it, and with agency than with mechanism. Ultimately healing is an act of God, not a breach of nature. The healing stories typically follow a five-stage pattern: an introduction to the problem, a plea for help, Jesus’ command and/or healing action (with an emphasis on His identification as Christ, one authorized by God), the effect of the command or confirmation of the healing, and the reaction of the disciples and/or the crowd. Jesus is never interested in diagnosing disease – only in healing it. However, as physicians, it is tempting to try and “diagnose” the conditions healed by Jesus, so we will discuss this next.
WHAT IS ILLNESS?
The question may seem strange, but the answer is complex. Generally the Bible views illness holistically (hence the preferential use of “illness” rather than “disease” which implies an organic cause). There is little distinction made between spiritual and physical illness, and little discussion regarding etiology and diagnosis. Nevertheless, different types of illness can be discerned. In the healing stories
there are cases of blindness, deafness, paralysis (the general term used included lameness and neurological disorders), hemorrhage (menorrhagia?), fever, seizure disorders, edema (heart failure?), death, skin disease and unknown illnesses. Frequently misunderstood diseases include leprosy (the Hebrew term, tsara, refers not to
the disease known as leprosy today but to scaly skin diseases like psoriasis) and epilepsy (better translated as “seizure disorder”,
or “having seizures,” descriptive of a symptom complex without etiological assumptions; e.g., demonization would be one possible cause of seizures). It is interesting to note conditions that are not included in the healing stories, such as broken bones. This perhaps reflects the holistic conception of illness in the Bible.
Although the Bible is ambiguous regarding the cause of illness, there are some interesting and complex connections between sickness, sin and demonization. Jesus tells the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven before telling him to stand up, thus indirectly implying some association (although the main point of this is to identify Jesus with God in His ability to forgive sin). In a similar story at Bethesda, Jesus instructs the man to stand up first; later He tells him to sin no more (perhaps suggesting that he may suffer in the future if he sins). However, in most stories there is no apparent association between sin and sickness. In fact, when the disciples ask if a man’s blindness was a result of sin (his own or his parents), Jesus specifically denies any attribution of sin to sickness and emphasizes the consequences of the healing, not the cause of the illness. Therefore, we can conclude that there is sometimes an association between sin and sickness, but not a direct, consistent causation. More helpful is to consider illness as a result of a world in rebellion against its Creator, and influenced by evil.
Demonic influence is clearly associated with illness in many cases. Evil spirits appear to cause seizures, musculoskeletal problems (the “bent” woman), muteness, madness (the Gerasene demoniac), and even fevers. The language of healing and exorcism are often intertwined, especially in Luke’s Gospel: a Canaanite woman’s daughter is “healed” of her demon, a fever is “rebuked” by Jesus and the woman healed, and the woman crippled by a spirit is healed by Jesus. In summary statements, Jesus is described as healing demoniacs and curing those with evil spirits.
In the New Testament, unlike the Old, illness almost never has a divine origin. A possible exception is Zechariah who is made mute
by the angel Gabriel because of his unbelief (Lk 1:20). When Jesus explains the reason for a man’s congenital blindness (to reveal God’s works), this does not mean that God caused the problem – it remains unexplained. Most commonly, Jesus treats illness as an enemy. In fact the demonic origin of some conditions implies that illness is evil, a foreign intrusion into divine reality. Illness is part of a bigger picture of a world under the influence of evil.
WHAT IS HEALING?
Healing, therefore, is always life affirming. The Hebrew term for healing, rapha, means, “make whole,” and the German term for “holy” also relates to healing and wholeness. Words for healing in the Gospels include therapeuō and sózo which is best translated as “to save,” either from disease or from eternal death. (This is not such a foreign concept if one considers that if CPR is used on drowning victims, they are both saved and healed.) The term healing in contemporary society is often associated with New Age type religions, but perhaps the broad biblical conception needs to be recovered. Healing includes the ideas of physical healing, exorcism, resurrection, prayer, salvation, social-justice, and creation care. Indeed healing could be said to represent the entire message of the Gospel. Jesus is concerned with healing individuals but is more concerned with healing the world, bringing light into the darkness, reconciling humanity with its Creator, and overcoming evil.
WHOO DID JESUS HEAL?
Jesus healed Jews, Gentiles, women, men, and children. Specifically, He healed a Samaritan leper (both unclean and non-Jewish), a hemorrhaging woman (who dared to touch Him, but instead of becoming impure Himself, Jesus healed her), and a Canaanite woman’s child. He also radically healed on the Sabbath. In sum, He overturned and reinterpreted ethnic and purity laws, and elevated the marginalized to a respectful place in society.
An important question is whether faith in Jesus is necessary for healing. The hemorrhaging woman, blind Bartimaeus, and one of the ten lepers are told that their faith has made them well, suggesting that the individual’s faith is helpful. The centurion is commended for his faith and his servant is healed as a result, Jairus is told not to fear but believe, and the father of the boy with seizures is told that all things are possible if one believes; these stories associate healing with the faith of others. Faith may be implied in people’s obedience to Jesus’ commands. Sometimes faith is actually a result of healing, not a prerequisite (e.g., the official). However, in many stories, faith is not mentioned and would not have been a factor in the healing of Gentiles. Faith is important but not a prerequisite for healing.
WHY DID JESUS HEAL?
Although Jesus clearly had compassion for the suffering and responded to
cries for mercy, this was not the primary reason for His healing acts. The fact that He did not heal “everyone” and initiated the healing in only four of the 26 cases confirms this. Rather, healings serve to establish Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and to announce the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jesus forgives sin, which only God could do, and publicly announces that He was sent by His Father (prior to resurrecting Lazarus). Demons recognize Jesus as the Holy One of God, and Bartimaeus calls Him “Son of David”. Jesus’ actions also fill messianic prophecies: when the sick, the blind, the deaf, and the lame are healed, this reveals the redemption of God’s people (Isa 29:18, 35:5, 6; Jer 31:8; Lk 7:22); Jesus is described as bearing infirmities and disease (Isa 53:4, Mt 8:17). Healings are almost always accompanied by teaching, and often people are brought to Jesus while He is preaching. Words and actions are intertwined. Jesus always points away from Himself and toward His father; specifically He teaches that God be glorified when He heals the man born blind. The response to healings is that people recognize the greatness of God, and praise Him.
Given that demonic forces were considered a cause of illness, Jesus heals
to counteract evil and release the world from bondage. It is not something
to be tolerated or explained, but something to be resisted and counteracted. Jesus never counsels the sick that there is a particular meaning behind their suffering. Instead illness contradicts the salvific will of God and belongs to the realm of death. Jesus, however, works to eliminate sickness and powers behind it; He desires humans to have abundant life and restores such life by removing everything that stands in its way.
HOW DID JESUS HEAL?
The variety of “methods” Jesus used to heal in His earthly ministry is consistent with His portrayal of healing as holistic. Jesus’ miracles were characterized by simplicity and love; forgiveness of sin and healing of the body were intertwined. There were no refusals, no failures and no use of medical professionals. Jesus most often used a simple command, like “arise”. This echoes God’s commands in the Genesis 1 creation passage: further evidence that Jesus is authorized by His Father. On two occasions Jesus used an Aramaic word. He also often touched people (transferring healing power) and sometimes used spittle. Sometimes healing was more passive, occurring when people touched His clothes. Once healing occurred in two stages, and on two occasions healing occurred from a distance. Often the method of healing is not specified. This plus the variety of methods speaks against any formulaic-type healing.
Some scholars have suggested that all the conditions Jesus healed were psychosomatic (e.g., conversion disorders) and that His method of healing was only psychological. However, imposing modern psychological categories on an ancient text is problematic. It ignores the theological significance of the stories, and it is a stretch to think that a first-century healer would select only psychosomatic illnesses. Furthermore, psychological attributions may explain some healings but are difficult to
apply to the cases of fever, edema, hemorrhage, deformity, skin disease, laceration, healings at a distance, or death. There are also scientific theories about the manner in which Jesus healed (e.g., accelerating natural healing processes), beyond the scope of this study. (Discussion regarding the historical legitimacy of Jesus’ miracles is also outside the scope of this study.)
Interestingly, Jesus’ methods were not that different from contemporaneous healers (the Greek Magical Papyri include spittle, touch and magical words), but He was the only one who taught with authority, forgave sins and claimed to be the Son of God. The fact that Jesus never prayed for healing confirms His divine authority. The largest difference between Jesus and other healers, however, was His humble submission to crucifixion: the ultimate healing of all creation. He is simultaneously all-powerful and the wounded healer. Focusing on individual healing stories sometimes obscures the greater significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection: “by His bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:4,5).
WHAT IS THE THEOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF JESUS’ HEALING?
Multiple theological themes are present in the healing miracles, some of which have been mentioned. There is always a deeper meaning to the stories. Jesus proclaimed liberty for the captives and then set them free. Exorcism delivered individuals but more importantly demonstrated Jesus overcoming evil forces. There is fluidity of word and deed; miracles are the message. When Jesus heals physical blindness, He also heals spiritual blindness, especially evident in the two-stage healing of a blind man: first his eyes are opened physically, then metaphorically, to see Jesus for who He is. John’s Gospel contains few healing stories but is rich in symbolism. Jesus describes Himself as the Light of the World and also gives light by healing the blind. The Word gives life in terms of healing, true life in terms of a restored relationship with God, and eternal life for those who believe.
The healing stories reveal the breaking in of a new order. The sick are no longer social outcasts but are cleansed and restored to community. Sabbath rules are overturned. Demonic powers are defeated. Faith is important but not required for healing; most often healing reveals the kingdom of God and evokes faith. Illness is no longer construed as divine punishment; Jesus heals all and forgives their sins. Although there is some relationship between sin and sickness, the loftier teaching is that all are sinners in need of the Great Physician.
WHAT IS THE RELEVANCE OF JESUS’ HEALING FOR CONTEMPORARY PHYSICIANS?
Jesus commissions His disciples to heal disease (Mt 10:1). We have authority in Christ and are responsible for continuing His healing ministry: a humbling concept. Because the primary purpose of Jesus’ healings was theological, we need caution when interpreting the healing stories. (The question of contemporary supernatural healing is fascinating but a topic for another time!) However, medical practitioners can learn from this study of Jesus the Healer. We can consider that perhaps the cause of illness is not as important as its’ healing (even contemporary medicine admits that precise diagnosis is possible about half the time, and evidence-based medicine has its limitations). We can recognize that illness does not have a divine purpose but is contrary to God’s will. We can consider health and healing broadly, in terms of making whole, incorporating physical, mental, spiritual and social (an idea which, interestingly, is being increasingly recognized in contemporary medicine). We can perhaps more intentionally incorporate healing into our medical practices,touching and speaking to those we serve, encouraging them towards holiness and wholeness, leading them towards the Great Physician. We can work as wounded healers in the world to overcome evil, bringing light into the darkness. And we can appropriate our own healing and deepen our trust in the triune God who heals.