The question of whether God heals miraculously today—or, for that matter, ever has—is obviously a difficult and contentious one for the church in a rationalist secular context. A comment by James Mercer, however, in connection with my post on the narratives of mission highlights a different and neglected aspect of the issue. Not: Do miracles happen? But: What do miracles mean?
I have just re-read Re:mission and continue to find your narrative of the task of ‘post-biblical’ mission fascinating and encouraging. You identify Jesus’ healing ministry as being intrinsically linked with the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. What place might prayer for healing have within post-biblical mission? I ask as this is a conversation we are having within and between churches in Harrow.
The two questions cannot be treated in isolation from each other. But the biblical narrative suggests that we may be missing the point if we only address the issue of healing as a matter of apologetics, as part of a competition with modernity over whose view of reality is right.
Healing and the story of Israel
In the narrative of the Gospels Jesus’ healings and exorcisms serve neither as proof of his divinity, as often assumed, nor as general demonstrations of the power and reality of God. They have a specific purpose as signs of, or a concrete anticipation of, the coming healing and restoration of God’s people following judgment. This is why the proclamation of the gospel of kingdom to Israel is accompanied by the healing of “every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matt. 4:23; cf. 10:7).
Not every healing or exorcism is explicitly given this sort of interpretation, but there are enough examples to make it clear that they derive their significance from the particular narrative of Israel’s eschatological crisis.
- The healing of the centurion’s servant as a consequence of his master’s “faith” is interpreted as a sign that “many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matt. 8:11–12).
- The healings and exorcisms are seen as a fulfilment of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17; cf. Is. 53:4). Matthew identifies Jesus as the righteous servant who suffers because of the transgressions of Israel so that Israel might be healed. The connection between healing and the restoration of the people following judgment is also found in Hosea 6:1-2:
Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.
- By healing a paralytic Jesus demonstrates that, as the Son of Man, he has been given authority from God to forgive the sins of those Jews who express “faith” in him (Matt. 9:1-8). The narrative of the Son of Man who suffers at the hands of the enemies of YHWH but is vindicated and given kingdom is central to account given in the Gospels of the renewal of Israel.
- The failure of the disciples to heal an epileptic boy is a mark of the faithlessness not of humanity generally but of the current “twisted generation” of Jews (Matt. 17:14-16; cf. 11:16; 12:39-45; 16:4).
- I have some reservations about this line of argument, but the expulsion of a demon named Legion followed by the destruction of a herd of pigs in the sea, analogous to the destruction of Pharaoh’s armies, may signify the liberation of restored Israel from pagan oppression (Mk. 5:1-13).
- The healing of a man with a withered arm on the Sabbath is a sign that the Son of Man, who has received authority from YHWH, is “lord of the Sabbath”—in implicit condemnation of the Pharisees who put observance of the Law above compassion for God’s people (Lk. 6:1-11).
- A disabled woman is healed because she is “a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years” (Lk. 13:16).
- The raising of Lazarus from the dead is a sign that although Jesus will face lethal opposition in Jerusalem, he will be resurrected in anticipation of the resurrection of Israel (Jn. 11:8, 24-25). The disciples likewise, if they must die with him, will be raised with him (Jn. 11:16, 25-26).
Healing in the church today
This line of thought could be taken as leading to a cessationist conclusion—that healing and exorcisms only have relevance in the New Testament period, because they are prophetic signs of the eschatological transformation of God’s people and the victory over Satan that culminates in the confinement of Satan to the abyss (Rev. 20:1-3).
But my argument has been that although we are not now part of the New Testament story, although we are in a post-biblical situation, as James notes, we have our own eschatological horizon—or perhaps better, horizons.
We have the ultimate eschatological horizon of the renewal of all recreation and the final destruction of evil. So if God heals people now or miraculously delivers them from evil, this may be interpreted as a sign or anticipation of the final victory and vindication of the one true living creator God. The same could be said in principle about Jesus’ healings and exorcisms except that in the Gospels the immediate historical horizon of the renewal of Israel looms much larger theologically.
But arguably, we also have our own proximate, near term eschatological horizons—on the one hand, the crisis of relevance and credibility facing the church in the secular west; on the other, the broadly ecological—including our social ecology—crisis facing global humanity.
I have to say, I am not a person of great faith in this regard, but it seems to me right nevertheless to pray for divine healing—or for similar miraculous interventions—out of compassion and out of concern for the glory of God. But if God does heal, the task then is to interpret the healing in relation to our own eschatological narratives.
As such, miraculous healing should not be considered as normative or routine—it is much more like a salient prophetic action that stands out all the more because it is exceptional.
So in the broadest sense we should affirm that a healing, or some other wonderful event, is a sign not only that the creator God is but that he will have the final say with respect to everything that negates his existence and vitiates his creation. He will make all things new.
But the prophetic Spirit of God may equally teach us to see the miraculous as a sign that, despite its increasing social and intellectual marginalization, the church has a viable and meaningful future, not least because the world faces immense challenges as a consequent of runaway global consumption.
Or perhaps, as in the Gospels, the argument needs to be turned around so that proclamation precedes the miraculous. As the church gains the clarity and conviction to proclaim a new future, so we will see the transformative power of the creator God revealed in order to inspire and underpin the audacious vision. Perhaps—and I say this very tentatively—we are getting to the point, in the West at least, where we should not expect to see God intervene miraculously until we have a better sense of why God should intervene miraculously.