Healing in the New Testament Epistles - Part I
A. 1 Corinthians 12:9,28
The significant thing about this text is that both "gift" and "healing" are plural and lack the definite article, hence the translation: "gifts of healings". Evidently Paul did not envision that a person would be endowed with one healing gift operative at all times for all diseases. His language suggests either many different gifts or powers of healing, each appropriate to and effective for its related illness, or each occurrence of healing constituting a distinct gift in its own right.
One of the principal obstacles to a proper understanding of healing is the erroneous assumption that if anyone could ever heal, he could always heal. But in view of the lingering illness of Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30), Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23), Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), and perhaps Paul himself (2 Cor. 12:7-10; Gal. 4:13), it is better to view this gift as subject to the will of God, not the will of humankind. Therefore:
A person may be gifted to heal many people, but not all. Another may be gifted to heal only one person at one particular time of one particular disease. When asked to pray for the sick, people are often heard to respond: "I can't. I don't have the gift of healing." But if my reading of Paul is correct, there is no such thing as the gift of healing, if by that one means the God-given ability to heal everyone of every disease on every occasion. Rather, the Spirit sovereignly distributes a charisma of healing for a particular occasion, even though previous prayers for physical restoration under similar circumstances may not have been answered, and even though subsequent prayers for the same affliction may not be answered. In sum: "gifts of healings" are occasional and subject to the sovereign purposes of God.
What are the practical implications of this for praying for the sick?
B. Philippians 2:25-30 (Epaphroditus)
Epaphroditus was evidently sent by the church at Philippi to the apostle Paul bearing a substantial financial gift (cf. 4:18). Upon fulfilling his commission, he stayed with Paul to minister to him in whatever way proved necessary. While serving at Paul's side, Epaphroditus apparently became ill, almost died, and was later healed by God. He is now being sent back to Philippi as the bearer of this epistle.
* Evidently Epaphroditus was ill for a lengthy period of time. We know this from the fact that the Philippians had heard of his illness and he had heard that they had heard (v.26). If Paul wrote this letter from Rome, as most believe he did, considerable time would have elapsed while word of Epaphroditus's illness was taken back to Philippi, not to mention the time it took for a messenger to return to Rome with news of how the Philippians had responded to their brother's illness. Rome was over 600 miles from Philippi. Several weeks, perhaps months, would have passed from the time Epaphroditus fell sick to the time he received word that the Philippians were grieving over his condition.
Paul's praise of Epaphroditus is effusive. He speaks of him as "my brother and fellow-worker and fellow-soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need" (v. 25). Epaphroditus himself deeply loved the Philippians, for Paul says that "he was longing for you all and was distressed because you [Philippians] had heard that he was sick" (v. 26). Rather than wallow in self-pity, Epaphroditus was worried lest the Philippians worry about him! Indeed, according to v. 26, he was "distressed," a word that implies a strong, deep, and disturbing upheaval in one's spirit. Far from feeling gratified that he was the object of so much concern back home, Epaphroditus was driven to mental torment with the thought that he might be a source of grief to his Christian brethren.
Paul's praise continues. He instructs the Philippians to receive him back with all joy and to "hold men like him in high regard, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was deficient in your service to me" (vv. 29-30). From the word translated "risking" we learn that
"Epaphroditus was no coward, but a courageous person willing to take enormous risks, ready to play with very high stakes in order to come to the aid of a person in need. He did not 'save' his life, but rather hazarded it do to for Paul and the cause of Christ what other Philippian Christians did not or could not do" (Hawthorne).
This is the kind of man, says Paul, whom we should honor. He is the epitome of the selfless, loving, sacrificial servant of Jesus Christ. Conclusions:
1) Epaphroditus was not sick because of some personal sin. If he had sinned so grievously as to become deathly ill, would Paul have held him up as the epitome of the selfless servant? We simply don't know why Epaphroditus was so sick, aside from the statement in v. 30 that "he came close to death for the work of Christ."
2) Illness and death are not to be viewed with indifference or accepted stoically. Paul's response to his friend's illness and near death was "sorrow upon sorrow" (v. 27).
3) Few doubt that Paul had a "gift" for healing. But his prayers for Epaphroditus were not answered, at least initially. Paul could not heal at will. This points to the fact that healing "gifts" are occasional and subject to God's sovereign timing and purpose. Some would conclude from Paul's failure to heal his friend that the "gift of healing" was "dying out" at this juncture in the life of the church. It seems better to conclude that healing,whenever and wherever it occurred, was subject, not to the will of man, but to the will of God. No one, not even Paul, could always heal all diseases.
4) God did heal him! The delay in respondingto Paul's prayers was not to be interpreted as ultimate denial.
5) Healing is an expression of divine mercy (v. 27), and thus should never be viewed as a "right". We don't deserve healing.
C. 1 Timothy 5:23 (Timothy)
Evidently Timothy practiced total abstinence, perhaps in deference to those who sought to bring some accusation against him. While Paul tells him to keep himself "free from sin" (v. 22), he did not mean that Timothy was to swear off the use of wine altogether. Several observations are in order:
1) Wine obviously has beneficial medicinal effects. J. N. D. Kelly explains:
"The beneficial effects of wine as a remedy against dyspeptic complaints, as a tonic, and as counteracting the effects of impure water, were widely recognized in antiquity, and modern travelers in Mediterranean countries have confirmed its value for the third at any rate of these purposes. The author of Proverbs (xxxi.6) advises its use for maladies of both body and soul; Hippocrates recommends moderate draughts of wine for a patient for whose stomach water alone is dangerous; and Plutarch states that wine is the most useful of drinks and the pleasantest of medicines."
2) There is no indication that Timothy's stomach problems and "frequent ailments" (v. 23) were the result of personal sin. Indeed, if Timothy was such a repeat offender, so to speak, that he was frequently ailing, why did Paul select him as his apostolic legate and representative? Why didn't Paul rebuke him for his sins and call him to repentance? Paul repeatedly commends Timothy's performance and character in the epistles addressed to him.
3) Clearly, though, Paul did not want Timothy to acquiesce to his physical problems. He believes it is right for Timothy to experience health and wholeness and thus recommends an accepted medical remedy.
D. 2 Timothy 4:20 (Trophimus)
The only other references to Trophimus are in Acts 20:4 where he is listed as being among those who accompanied Paul to Macedonia, and again in Acts 21:29 as being with him in Jerusalem. We know nothing of why he was sick or for how long or whether he was eventually healed, and if so, by whom or in what manner. In light of this, it would be unwise of us to draw any dogmatic theological conclusions.
E. 3 John 2
Hugh Jeter argues on the basis of this verse that "God wants His children to be physically healthy. He wants us to 'prosper and be in health' (3 John 2), as long as our souls also prosper." There is certainly an element of truth in that statement, but it is doubtful if one can prove it from this text.
What we have in this text is a standard form of greeting found in most letters of the ancient world. Gordon Fee reminds us that "just as there is a standard form to our letters (date, salutation, body, close, and signature), so there was for theirs [i.e., the ancients]. Thousands of ancient letters have been found, and most of them have a form exactly like those in the New Testament." One of the standard elements in such letters is the health-wish, such as we find in3 John 2. To argue that this typical salutation should be used to establish a theology of healing is highly suspect.
This does not mean, of course, that praying and hoping for the good health and financial prosperity of our fellow believers is wrong. We do not know if Gaius was suffering from bad health. This was a standard greeting and would be perfectly legitimate in a letter to somebody with good health, that he/she may continue to enjoy it. If Gaius was ill, we would have another case in which a believer who is prospering spiritually was at the same time suffering physically. For John's prayer is that Gaius would prosper physically "just as" his soul is prospering. Gaius was undoubtedly a godly man, as vv. 3-8 make clear. John's desire for his friend is that his body would make as much progress as his soul. And that should be our prayer for our brethren as well.
F. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Paul'sThorn in the Flesh
This controversial text deserves our careful attention.
1) The purpose of Paul's "Thorn"
In 2 Corinthians Paul is compelled against his will to defend his apostolic authority. He finds it distasteful and foolish to do so (cf. 10:8,17-18; 11:1,16-21,30; 12:5-6), but the well-being of the Christians in Corinth is at stake. They have left him no choice. "Boasting is necessary," says Paul, "though it is not profitable" (12:1). If those who question his authority are demanding apostolic credentials, he will provide them, not least of which are the "visions and revelations of the Lord" granted him (12:1).
In 12:1-6 Paul describes his "translation" into Paradise, an event of such profound spiritual magnitude that it threatened to generate pride into his apostolic, though still sinful, heart. But in order to prevent Paul from falling into pride he was given "a bridle that held him back from haughtiness." Whatever Paul's thorn may have been, there can be no mistake about its purpose: "to keep me from exalting myself" (v. 7).
2) The source of Paul's "Thorn"
Where or from whom did the thorn come? The subject is left unexpressed ("there was given me"). Most commentators recognize this as an example of what is called "the divine passive" in which "God is the hidden agent behind events and experiences in human lives" (Ralph Martin; cf. Mt. 7:2). It is a conventional use of the passive voice to avoid mentioning the divine name. Had Paul wanted to say that Satan was the ultimate source, he probably would not have used the Greek verb didomi. As Martin points out, "this word was usually employed to denote that God's favor had been bestowed (cf. Gal. 3:21; Eph.3:8; 5:19; 1 Tim. 4:14)." If Satan were the ultimate source of the thorn, more appropriate Greek words were available to express that thought (e.g.,epitithemi, "lay upon" [Lk. 10:30; 23:26; Acts 16:23]; ballo, "cast" [Rev. 2:24]; or epiballo, "put on" [1 Cor.7:35]).
But if the thorn was from God, why does Paul it was "a messenger [lit., "angel"] of Satan"? We must remember that God often uses the devil to accomplish his purposes (cf. Job; 1 Cor. 5:5). Although Satan and God work at cross purposes, they can both desire the same event to occur while hoping to accomplish through it antithetical results. Satan wanted to see Jesus crucified, as did God the Father (Isa. 53:10; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28), but for a different reason. The same is true in the case of Job. What Satan had hoped would destroy Job (or at least provoke him to blasphemy), God used to strengthen him.
The same is true here. Most likely by God's secret and sovereign providence a demonic being was dispatched to Paul intent on oppressing and thereby hindering (or even destroying) his ministry. The divine design, however, was to keep Paul from sinful pride and to utilize this affliction to accomplish a higher spiritual good (cf. 12:9-10).
3) The nature of Paul's "Thorn"
Several things are to be noted:
First, the word translated "thorn" is found only here in the NT. In classical Greek it was used with reference to a pointed stake on which the head of an enemy was impaled after decapitation. More commonly, though, it simply referred to a splinter or thorn stuck in the body. Paul apparently envisions himself impaled by this affliction, pinned, as it were, to the ground and thus rendered helpless by it. This must have been an excruciating condition, whatever it was, for the man who willingly endured the sufferings and anguish and deprivations listed in 2 Cor. 11 would not petition the Lord so strenuously for the removal of some minor irritation that could be easily endured.
Second, note also that the purpose of the thorn was "to buffet me, to keep me from exalting myself" (12:7; a verb that means "to beat or strike a blow with a fist"; cf. Mt. 26:67). This may be his way of telling us that the affliction recurred periodically throughout his life and was even at this time bearing down heavily and painfully on him. This is confirmed in v. 8 where Paul says he prayed three times that he might be delivered. Perhaps the affliction had flared up on three distinct occasions when its humiliating effect would have been most evident.
Third, what exactly was the thorn? Three views have been suggested:
1) Many take the view of Chrysostom, a famous preacher of the fourth century. The thorn is simply a reference to all the enemies of the gospel who opposed and persecuted Paul during his evangelistic and theological labors (e.g., 2 Tim. 2:17; 4:14). "Thorn in the flesh," therefore, is a collective and figurative expression for all of Paul's adversaries. R. V. G. Tasker explains:
"As there is nothing which tends to elate a Christian evangelist so much as the enjoyment of spiritual experience, and as there is nothing so calculated to deflate the spiritual pride which may follow them as the opposition he encounters while preaching the word, it is not unlikely that Chrysostom's interpretation is nearer the truth than any other."
Appeal is made to 2 Cor. 11:14-15 where Paul's opponents are described as the "servants" (lit., "ministers") of Satan, who is himself "an angel of light." We are also reminded that in the LXX this word "thorn" is twice used metaphorically of one's enemies (Num. 33:55; Ezek. 28:24). Thus, when Paul speaks of his "thorn" he means something similar to our modern idiom "a pain in the neck".
But there are problems with this view: (1) The singular "a messenger of Satan" is hardly a clear and unmistakable way to refer to an entire group of people. If Paul had his opponents in mind, he chose an especially obscure way to make his point. (2) Paul has already said in 2 Cor. 4:7-15; 6:9-10; and 11:23-28 that opposition and persecution are normal for every person in ministry. No servant of Christ is exempt from such resistance. Yet, Paul describes his thorn as something uniquely his, given to him for a particular reason subsequent to a truly singular event. (3) Paul says he received this thorn "fourteen years ago" (12:2). Since we know that 2 Cor. was written in either late a.d. 55 or early 56, Paul could have received his thorn no earlier than a.d. 41-42, a full eight years after his conversion to Christ (assuming, as most scholars do, that Paul was converted in @ 33 a.d.). Yet we know from Acts 9:23-30 and elsewhere that Paul encountered Satanically inspired opposition to his ministry from the moment of his conversion. (4) As Ralph Martin puts it, "would the apostle pray to be spared persecution? This is doubtful, since persecution was the fuel on which Paul seemed to thrive. The more he was persecuted, the more he seemed determined to press the claims of his apostolate." And Paul knew better than anyone (cf. 2 Cor. 2:12-17) that the success of the gospel was not in his power to control, but rested with the providential oversight of God.
2) Roman Catholic interpreters take it to be a reference to inordinate sexual desire or lust. But would God have told Paul to cease praying for deliverance from sexual lust? No. Would Paul have boasted about sexual weakness (12:9)? No. Would Paul have acquiesced contentedly to its power in his life (12:10)? No. Also, this view conflicts with 1 Cor. 7:1-9 where Paul refers to his having received the gift of celibacy.
3) It appears, then, that the "thorn" is a reference to some form of physical affliction. Suggestions offered down through the centuries include a speech impediment (stutter), epilepsy, malaria, gallstones, kidney stones, gout, deafness, dental infection, rheumatism, earaches, headaches, sciatica, arthritis, and leprosy.
Most likely Paul suffered from a severe case of ophthalmia or conjunctivitis. In Gal. 4:13-15 he said, "But you [Galatian Christians] know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you for the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness, that if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me." Evidently Paul suffered from a painful eye affliction that was especially humiliating, because loathsome and repulsive to others.
4) The lessons Paul learned
First, Paul learned something about divine providence and how to respond to it. His reaction in v. 9, once the Lord had declined his request three times, was not one of stoical resignation to an inexorable fate, but a joyful delight in the privilege of being an instrument for the manifestation of Christ's power.
Second, although Paul willingly embraced his thorn, it was only after he had passionately prayed that it be removed. Clearly, Paul believed that physical affliction was something from which we are to pray to be delivered. In other words, neither Paul nor we should embrace physical affliction as being God's will unless shown otherwise by death or divine revelation. Paul was shown otherwise by divine revelation and happily embraced it at that time.
Third, Paul learned the value of human weakness: it provides a platform for divine strength. This does not mean that we are to seek out suffering on our own. Paul is not encouraging morbid, self-imposed suffering or asceticism. His affliction was God-given, for Christ's sake. Paul's joy was not in pain but in his realization of the complete adequacy of God's grace in Christ to meet his every need and to transform his weakness into an opportunity for the glory of Christ to be displayed.
Fourth, Paul learned that his purity was more important to God than his pleasure. Of greater value to God than Paul's comfort was Paul's holiness. If, in the divine wisdom, it was necessary to give him pain in order to protect him from pride, Paul was willing to yield to the divine purpose. If, as God saw it, the best way to make Paul humble was to make him hurt, so be it.