Is Healing Normative or Exceptional?
In the previous post we noted the significant examples within the New Testament of Christians not being healed, as well as the overwhelming evidence of unhealed chronic illnesses among God’s saints throughout subsequent history. What, then, are we to make of the strong statement, in James 5, that “The prayer of faith will make the sick person well”? Is James claiming that God will heal every Christian on every occasion? Does this verse teach normative, universal healing? If so, how does this align with the many clear instances of Christians going unhealed in the New Testament?
Propositional Statements Regarding Healing
Before we settle upon an interpretation of this passage in James 5, we need to take note of a second category of scriptural references that provide a broader context. These are the propositional passages of the New Testament that make clear, prescriptive statements about healing and sickness. Has Christ’s redemption on the cross made healing normative? Does the New Testament promise that Christians no longer have to suffer sickness? The answer is a resounding “No”! In fact, quite the contrary. Revelation 21 indicates that it is only after the final resurrection and the creation of a new heaven and earth that there will be no more sickness for God’s people:
“God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4).
In the meantime, Christians are not exempt from the common experience of humanity. We continue to live in a fallen world, with imperfect bodies that are subject to frailty, infirmity and disease:
“We groan inwardly as we eagerly await our full adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Rom 8:23-25).
Christ does not place a protective bubble around His followers. We continue to live with the universal consequences of the Fall (Genesis 2-3). Work is hard. Weeds grow in our gardens. Childbirth is painful. We stub our toes. We fall and break bones. We catch colds. We get headaches. We ingest bacteria and suffer diarrhea. We inhale viruses and catch influenza. Cellular DNA is sometimes damaged in replication and cancerous cells are created and multiply. This will be our experience, along with the rest of humanity, until Christ returns. Until then, we “groan inwardly as we eagerly await our full adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23). This passage indicates that the redemption of our bodies from sickness and infirmity is ours as an inheritance, but we do not have it yet. We must wait for it. “For in this hope we were saved. But who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Rom 8:25).
Healing And The Cross Of Christ
It is this future inheritance that is referred to in the commonly cited passage in Matthew’s Gospel: “This was to fulfil what was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah; “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases”.” (Matt 8:17). This is a verse that is often misunderstood. Interestingly, Matthew is quoting Isaiah 53:4, but his quote differs from the original; ““Surely he took up our pain and bore oursuffering” (Isaiah 53:4). This probably indicates that Matthew was quoting from the first century Septuagint version of the Old Testament (a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures). Matthew, however, is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and under the Spirit’s guidance he uses this translation to broaden our understanding of our future inheritance. When we combine these two passages, Matthew 8:17 and Isaiah 53:4, we find that the work of Christ on the cross has purchased our future deliverance from infirmities, diseases and pain/suffering.
The key question, however, is, “Do we get this inheritance now, or must we wait for it?”. Some Christians claim that this is our inheritance now; that the cross of Christ has purchased our complete redemption from sickness in this life. But this view fails to interpret these verses consistently. If we are to claim complete deliverance from “diseases”, based upon these verses, we must also claim complete deliverance from “infirmities”. What are infirmities? The Greek word “infirmities” (ἀσθενείας; astheneias) is a much broader term than mere sickness. It refers to the normal deterioration of the body due to ageing; grey hair, loss of hair, wrinkles, fading eyesight, hearing loss, arthritis, brittle bones, loss of strength and agility, calcification of cartilage, diminishing of height etc. If you are going to claim complete deliverance from disease in this life, you must also claim complete deliverance from growing old! This of course, would be nonsensical! Similarly, you would also have to claim complete deliverance from pain, because Isaiah lists that as part of our inheritance package. To be consistent, you would have to claim that, in this life, you will never again stub your toe or fall and hurt yourself or jam your finger in a door or burn your hand on a hot utensil.
Clearly, the only sensible, logical interpretation of Matthew 8:17 and Isaiah 53:4, is that these refer to our future inheritance: the complete deliverance from pain, infirmity and sickness that will only be received after the final establishment of God’s perfect Kingdom at the end of the age. Until then, we must “wait for it patiently” (Rom 8:25).
Interpreting James Chapter 5
Now, at last, we can return to James chapter 5. We have all the necessary contextual background to guide us in our interpretation. Given the significant Biblical examples of Christians who were not healed, together with the prescriptive passages that indicate that we will not be completely delivered from sickness in this life, we must interpret James 5 in a way that is not contradictory. How, then, are we to view this passage that strongly advocates prayer for healing? Let us remind ourselves of the precise wording:
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” (James 5:14-15a)
At first glance this appears to be a universal, unequivocal promise. “The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well”. But we have already seen that this cannot be a universal promise, otherwise scripture would be contradicting itself. Is there anything else in the immediate context of this passage which might suggest an alternate interpretation? Yes, there is. The verses that immediately follow introduce another element to the scenario:
“If they have sinned they will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” (verses 15b and 16).
This changes everything! James is apparently not referring to general sickness here, but to sickness that has been inflicted upon church members by God as a disciplinary measure for their sinful behaviour. That God sometimes disciplines Christians in this way is corroborated by Paul’s denunciation of the Corinthian church’s abuse of the Lord’s Supper, when he says,
“Those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ, eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” (1 Cor 11:29-32).
There is a lot more to be said about the role of sickness as a means of God’s judgment, and it must be stressed that not all sickness is God’s judgment. But this passage in 1 Corinthians establishes the fact that God sometimes uses sickness to discipline wayward Christians, in order to restore them to Himself when they repent.
It is this kind of sickness that James is referring to in chapter 5 of his letter. Apparently, there were some in the church who had sinned and had fallen sick as a result of God’s loving discipline. To these people, James issues the unequivocal promise of forgiveness, restoration and healing if they “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (vers 16). It is only in this context that James promises that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” (verse 15). The phrase, “the Lord will raise them up”, describes not just being raised up physically from their sick beds, but being restored in their relationship with God and in their fellowship with their fellow believers.
This passage in James 5:14-16 is a classic example of the vital need to always interpret scripture with scripture. It also further illustrates the importance of taking careful note of the immediate context of a verse or passage. Often the interpretive key to a verse is already in plain sight in the surrounding verses, and only requires that we read a little wider. Failure to follow these important hermeneutic principles can, and often does, lead to interpretations that are misleading and even harmful.
God Sometimes Heals, But It Is Not Normative
What can we conclude about healing? The New Testament clearly records instances where God healed people of their illnesses, and just as clearly records instances when He didn’t. Furthermore, there are no prescriptive passages within the Bible that promise universal healing as a normative element of the Christian life. Passages which are commonly cited as prescriptive promises of healing have been misinterpreted, as a result of ignoring some of the basic principles of hermeneutics.
If we take the New Testament as our guide for faith, and if we believe that God continues to work today in the same way that He did in the first century, then only one conclusion is left to us: God sometimes heals and sometimes doesn’t! Both of those outcomes are clearly in evidence within the lives of the first century Christians, and continue to be evident in the lives of Christians today.