Elliot and I have felt led by God to preach sermons in this season of Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, that focus on major emphases in the ministry of Jesus. Elliot preached last Sunday about prayer and the practice of Jesus to go away to a quiet place to pray, particularly when there were difficult decisions to be made or when the pressures of his ministry became overwhelming.
Do you want to be more like Jesus? Then you too need to take time to get away from the hectic pace of your daily life and have a chance to breathe, pray, reflect, and hear what God has to say to you.
Another major emphasis of Jesus was praying for healing. Wherever Jesus went he taught, healed the sick, and cast out demons. This came as a shock to me when I read through the gospel of Mark in December 2003.
I was on vacation in the US, my only winter experience in the past sixteen years. I would get up early, before the rest of the family was awake, read some chapters of Mark, and then go out to cross-country ski for an hour or so. Then I would come in, sit by the fire sipping some hot chocolate, and read and reflect until everyone else woke up. This was a great vacation.
I had read the gospel according to Mark many times over the years, but this time it came as a shock to me to see how often Jesus healed people and how often Jesus cast out demons. As an evangelical I had read Mark and the other gospels through evangelical eyes. My focus was on his teaching and I glossed over the miraculous healings and deliverances. But because of my positive experience with followers of Jesus from a Pentecostal background over three years as pastor of RIC, I now read this familiar gospel with new eyes. This time as I read through the gospel of Mark I saw the ministry of Jesus more clearly.
My experience points out the difficulty we have in an international church when we preach or teach about healing or authority over demonic powers. We read the same words but we filter what we read to conform with our theological background. So when we talk about healing, there are strong opinions on all sides of this part of the ministry of Jesus.
My experience also points out the blessing that is ours by being part of an international church. We are exposed to different denominational backgrounds and we begin to see the truth of Scripture more clearly as our denominational views are challenged. The result is that we arrive at a more clear view of the core of our Christian faith.
One thing that is clear is that healing was a normal event in the ministry of Jesus. If you were able to go back in time and follow Jesus for just one day, chances are excellent that you would see Jesus heal someone. Even a bad day in ministry had people who were healed. When Jesus taught in the synagogue in his home town, he was not well received. People who knew Jesus as he was growing up, who had attended the funeral of his father Joseph, who knew his mother Mary and her other sons and daughters, were offended at the claim of Jesus that he was the Messiah. (Mark 6:4–6)
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.
I’ve always found this verse amusing. If we had a service and were “only” able to lay hands on a few sick people and heal them, we would be amazed. But this was a “slow” day for Jesus.
Let me give you some examples of more normal days for Jesus. I will skip the accounts of individuals being healed and just read you about large numbers who were healed.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.
When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. 15 He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.
16 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.
Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.
The Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus because he healed a man with a shriveled arm on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:15)
Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill.
Jesus received news that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been killed and went away to be by himself. (Matthew 14:14)
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. 31 The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Jesus entered Jerusalem for his final week on earth, cleansed the temple of the money changers, and then.. (Matthew 21:14)
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.
Healing was a normal part of the daily ministry of Jesus.
John Wimber was the founder of the Vineyard Church movement that now numbers over 1,500 churches around the world. He was a pianist with what became the Righteous Brothers when he came to faith in Jesus. He became active in church planting and then in May 1977 he started a new church which became the first of the Vineyard churches. He began preaching from Luke and then felt prompted to preach on healing. He continued preaching on healing every Sunday for over six months. There are times when he wanted to stop but he continued hearing God tell him to preach again on healing.
I began preparing the sermon for today and quickly became frustrated because there is too much to say in one sermon. I have no idea what I would say if I had to preach on healing for thirty Sundays, but certainly just one was not going to do. I did not want to just brush the surface so decided to preach this week and next about healing.
Let me return to a sermon I preached two years ago as part of a series of sermons from the book of James. This will set the foundation for next week’s sermon.
What we think and how we feel about healing depends on our theological tradition. If you go to an evangelical prayer meeting, you might hear prayers like this: “Dear Lord, guide the surgeon’s hands during Pete’s operation. And bring your comfort to Jean and her family following their car accident.”
On the other hand, at a Pentecostal prayer meeting you might hear these prayers: “By your stripes we are healed! And so in Jesus’ name, we claim your healing for Pete. As the surgeon checks him before the operation, he will see there is no longer a need for surgery. In Jesus’ name! We claim your healing power for Jean and her family. In Jesus’ name they are healed!”
In an international church, with a wide range of church backgrounds, we become aware of how differently we approach elements of our Christian life. Of all the New Testament writers, it is James who quotes Jesus more than anyone else and when we talk about healing, our minds go to what he writes at the end of his letter.
13 Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.
In any and every situation, James tells us, the appropriate action is to pray. It might be prayers for relief, prayers of joy and praise, or prayers for the sick. But prayer is what is always needed. At the end of his letter, James is sharing his life experience. He was known as a man of prayer and was nicknamed “Camel Knees” because his knees were calloused from spending so much time on his knees in prayer. James clearly practiced what he preached here at the end of his letter.
James exhorts us to pray if someone is in trouble, pray if we are happy, and pray if someone is sick. And then James goes into detail about how to pray for the sick. First of all, he tells us the elders of the church are to pray for the sick person. Who are the elders of the church? These are the spiritually mature leaders of the church. They include the pastors of the church but also others who lead the church with their spiritual gifts.
James tells us the elders are to anoint the sick with oil as they pray. Why does James mention anointing with oil? Can you think of any precedence for this in the Bible? In fact, this practice is mentioned only one other time in the New Testament. When Mark writes about the twelve disciples being sent out by Jesus, he says: (Mark 6:12–13)
12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
There is no other reference to this practice. Jesus used his saliva to heal the blind but it is not recorded he used oil when he healed. So why does James tell us to anoint with oil when we pray for the sick? (And aren’t you glad James didn’t write that we should spit on the people we pray for?)
Did James say to anoint with oil because of its medical and conditioning qualities? In the dry climate of the Middle East, oil was used to moisten the skin and it was also used for healing of wounds. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, oil and wine were poured on the wounds of the man who was robbed and beaten. But this does not seem to be why James mentions anointing with oil when praying for healing of the sick.
There is also a sacramental purpose for anointing with oil. Anointing with oil was used to consecrate priests, prophets, and kings. Aaron was consecrated with oil to be Israel’s high priest. Saul and David were anointed with oil to be God’s chosen king for Israel. Elijah anointed Elisha with oil to succeed him as prophet.
Anointing with oil makes the declaration that a person belongs to God. The person is set aside for God’s purposes. So when we anoint someone with oil for healing, we are making the declaration that this person belongs to God and will serve God’s purposes. When we anoint someone for healing, we are making a statement that this person is God’s child and heading toward his eternal kingdom.
Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
When we anoint someone for healing, there is more that takes place than just physical healing. When Jesus healed the paralyzed man lowered from the roof by his four friends, Jesus forgave him his sins and then he healed him.
When we are anointed by oil, we are set apart as belonging to God and it is for this reason that confession of sin, forgiveness of others, and repentance is often part of the healing that takes place.
Think about this from God’s perspective. Why would God heal someone whose heart continues to be full of anger and bitterness? God is not a pharmaceutical company, dispensing medicine to make people better. A pharmaceutical company heals anyone who can pay for their medicine. But God is building his kingdom and wants healing not only of the body but also of the heart. Healing of the body is not separate and distinct from healing of the soul.
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
James tells us that prayer, offered in faith by a righteous person, is powerful and effective. And he uses the example of Elijah who prayed it would not rain and for three and a half years it did not rain. Then he prayed again and it did rain. We should pray with this faith when we pray for the sick.
Now we get to the tricky part. In our experience, when we pray for someone to be healed, most times it does not happen. And when we pray for healing and someone is healed, most times it is something minor that is healed. There are occasions when there is a major, significant healing and a cancerous tumor disappears, but this is not a common experience.
Because we pray for healing and many times it does not happen, we seek understanding and explanations for why we did not get the results we wanted. So there are theologies of healing that tell us we have to have enough faith and if healing does not take place, it indicates our faith was insufficient. Sometimes the group of people who are praying for someone to be healed is challenged by the leader who says that if anyone lacks faith they should leave so their lack of faith will not prevent the healing from taking place.
How much faith is required for healing? The disciples came to Jesus and asked him to increase their faith. What did Jesus say? (Luke 17:6)
If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
Miracles of healing are not dependent on how much faith we have, only that we have even a small amount of faith and put our trust in Jesus to act.
When we ignore this teaching of Jesus the burden for healing is put on those who are praying to have sufficient faith to make the miracle of healing happen. But much worse is the theology that says a healing does not take place because the person seeking healing did not have enough faith. I think this is a terribly cruel theology. The person who is sick is already suffering and then is made to feel worse because of the accusation they did not have enough faith to be healed. Healing is supernatural. It does not come from us. We cannot make it happen. We cannot manipulate God to heal someone. Healing comes only and always from God.
There is a tremendous amount of dysfunction, sin, associated with prayers for healing.
So let me take another look at this passage from James and lead us into what I think is a Biblical way to approach prayers for healing.
First, our struggles with illness and deformities are used by God in positive ways to help us grow in faith.
James begins his letter with this: (James 1:2–5)
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
This is a major theme of James’ letter and this exhortation to pray at the end of his letter is not disconnected to this theme. Among the many trials we face in life, illness is one of them. The trials we face in life are not without redemptive purpose. As we persevere through trials of many kinds, we develop perseverance which leads to being made mature and complete. We grow in faith as we endure the trials of life.
A few verses later James encourages us as we persevere: (James 1:12)
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
The reward of the crown of life is far greater than any trial we endure.
Second, this means that the development of our faith is far more important than being healed from any physical problem.
Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. This was an incredible miracle and there was a lot of celebration. But some time later there was another funeral for Lazarus and this time his body stayed in the tomb. As incredible as his miracle was, it was not enough to keep him alive forever.
There are a lot of wonderful miracles in the Bible. Lepers cleansed, the widow of Nain’s son being raised from the dead, a withered arm being healed, demons being cast out, the feeding of the 5,000. But these miracles pale in comparison to the miracle of a woman who surrenders to Jesus and perseveres her whole life, growing in faith, being transformed bit by bit into the image of Jesus, and who dies in faith, heading toward eternal life. I have prayed with people who have given their life to Jesus and some persevere and others fade away. This is a mystery to me and when I see someone that perseveres, I stand back in amazement. This is a great miracle.
This is the concern for James, that followers of Jesus will persevere, not give up when trials and temptations come, not be pulled away by the distractions of wealth, power, prestige, and fame.
It is more important to God that we be with him for eternity than for us to be healthy in this life. If this sounds harsh, remember that Paul prayed for his “thorn in the flesh”, probably a problem with his eyes, to be removed. Three times he asked and the healing he asked for was not given. Why was Paul not healed? Did God not love him? Did Paul not have enough faith? Listen to how Paul understood this. (2 Corinthians 12:7–9)
7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.
Jesus loved Paul but knew that it was better for Paul not to be healed. The development of Paul’s faith was more important than being delivered from his “thorn in the flesh.”
Third, healing in the kingdom of God began almost 2,000 years ago.
Starting with the ministry of Jesus, the kingdom of God began to intrude into this world. After John the Baptist was imprisoned, Jesus began his ministry and he preached: (Matthew 4:17–25)
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
Jesus called his disciples to follow him and then Matthew writes:
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24 News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them.
Every time someone decides to become a follower of Jesus, the kingdom of God advances. Every time someone is healed, the kingdom of God advances. The history of the church is not the story of denominations and buildings and organizations, it is a story of people who turn around and set out on pilgrimage to the celestial city. It is a story of people who are made whole.
Fourth, every follower of Jesus will be healed from any and every illness or deformity.
Revelation 21:3–4 gives us a picture of what our condition will be like in heaven.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
There will be no blind people in heaven, no one who is lame, no one who has a withered arm, no one with cancer, no one suffering from depression. We will be remade, given new bodies, and we will be like the people God intended us to be before the sin of the world deformed us.
Our problem is that we evaluate our lives from our limited perspective of this world. We see this world and measure good and bad by what happens in this world. And so we look at the life of someone who cannot walk and see failure. Our problem is that we do not see far enough into the future nor do we see deeply enough into the present. In the spirit of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Blessed are the sick for they will be healed.
Fifth, this means then that the question for healing is not if I will be healed, but when will I be healed.
When I ask the elders of the church to anoint me with oil and pray for my healing, those prayers are always effective. God’s answer to the prayer is always, “Yes!” But the healing does not always take place right away. The healing may be seen in this life or when we come into God’s kingdom, but it will take place.
A few years ago I prayed for a little girl with leukemia. I loved this little girl and wanted so much for her to be healed. I went to the Ibn Sina hospital when I heard she had died and I laid my hands on her still warm body and prayed she would be raised to life. I looked expectantly at the sheet over her body but she did not move and she was buried.
I did not see it happen but she was raised to life. My prayer was answered. It might have had to be interpreted a bit, but it was answered and she lives, cancer free, in the kingdom of God.
In just a few minutes we will have an opportunity for anyone who wants to come forward for prayers of healing. Because you know the answer to prayer for your healing will be yes, you can come forward with confidence. And we who are praying will also pray with confidence. It is not up to us to use the right words, to have the proper amount of fervor, or to find the right amount of faith. God wants to heal you and he will heal you, in his time.
Here is what you need to do if you come forward for prayer. Examine your heart. Ask God to speak to you about any unforgiveness or any sin in your life. Confess your sin. Cleanse yourself. Expect God to heal you. God loves you and wants what is best for you. So trust him. Submit to him. Pray in submission to God in the way Jesus prayed when he said, (Matthew 26:39)
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Pray for healing, but allow God to decide if it is best for the development of your faith to be healed today or sometime in the future.
There is no obstacle course in front of you that keeps you from receiving the healing you want. You don’t need faith the size of a coconut, only faith the size of a mustard seed. If you are healed today, it is because God sees that your healing will help your faith and the faith of others to grow. If your healing will come in the future, that is because God sees that your faith will most benefit by having to struggle longer with your illness or deformity.
Don’t turn your desire for healing into a test of God’s love for you. If you want to know you are loved, look to see what Jesus did for you on the cross. That is how you know you are loved.
In the Gospels Jesus looked at people, he saw their need, had compassion on them, and then he healed them. This morning, God looks at you, he sees your need, he has compassion on you, and he will heal you. But allow him to work in your life what he knows is best for you. Let God be lord of your life.
If you ask for healing and are healed, give praise to God. If you ask for healing and you are not healed today, submit to God and give praise for the healing that will one day take place. In either case, God loves you and is being responsive to you.