Suffering, Healing, and the Prayer of Faith - Part Eight1
Many who are skeptical of divine healing today and tell us we have little reason to expect that God will do miraculous things in response to our prayers, appeal to what I have called the “cluster” argument. Continue reading . . .
Many who are skeptical of divine healing today and tell us we have little reason to expect that God will do miraculous things in response to our prayers, appeal to what I have called the “cluster” argument. Here is what I mean.
They argue that signs, wonders and miracles were not customary phenomena even in biblical times. Rather, they were clustered or concentrated at critical moments of revelatory activity in redemptive history. John MacArthur is today an outspoken advocate of this argument:
“Most biblical miracles happened in three relatively brief periods of Bible history: in the days of Moses and Joshua, during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and in the time of Christ and the apostles. None of those periods lasted much more than a hundred years. Each of them saw a proliferation of miracles unheard of in other eras. . . . Aside from those three intervals, the only supernatural events recorded in Scripture were isolated incidents.”
That is simply false. I have responded in great detail to this argument elsewhere, but for our purposes today I’ll be brief and say only one thing.
When I read the OT I discover a consistent pattern of supernatural manifestations in the affairs of humanity. In addition to the multitude of miracles during the lifetime of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha, we see numerous instances of angelic activity (just read Genesis!), supernatural visitations and revelatory activity, healings, dreams, visions and the like. One example would be that period when Daniel was taken captive into Babylon along with the rest of the Jewish people. If you read the book of Daniel you see multiple miracles and instances of deliverance and dreams and visions and other supernatural phenomena.
Consider the assertion of Jeremiah 32:20. There we read: “You [God] have shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day.”
This text alerts us to the danger of arguing from silence. The fact that from the time of the Exodus to the Babylonian Captivity fewer instances of signs and wonders are recorded does not mean they did not occur. Jeremiah insists they did. One might compare this with the danger of asserting that Jesus did not perform a particular miracle or do so with any degree of frequency simply because the gospels fail to record it. The Apostle John tells us explicitly that Jesus performed “many other signs in the presence of the disciples” which he did not include in his gospel account (John 20:30), as well as “many other things that Jesus did” that were impossible to record in detail (John 21:25).
So, the first thing we see is that Elijah should not be viewed as having lived and ministered at a special and unrepeatable time when God was performing great miracles, such that we should not expect the same in our day.
But even more important than that is the mere fact that James cites the example of Elijah in a context where he is encouraging us to pray for healing.
The point of verses 17-18 is to counter the argument that Elijah was somehow unique or that because of the period in which he lived he could pray with miraculous success but we cannot. James wanted his readers to know that Elijah was just like you and me. He was a human being with weaknesses, fears, doubts, and failures, no less than we. In other words, James said: “Don’t let anyone tell you Elijah was in a class by himself. He wasn’t. He’s just like you. You are just like him. Therefore, pray like he did!”
Don’t forget the context: James appealed to the example of Elijah to encourage us when we pray for the sick! The point is that we should pray for miraculous healing with the same faith and expectation with which Elijah prayed for both the beginning and the end of a 3½ year drought.
Thus, as John Piper has said, “this text does not limit powerful praying for divine healing to the elders, and it encourages us rather than discouraging us to think of our praying in the same category with a great miracle worker of the Bible.”
James refers to two occasions on which Elijah prayed. First, he prayed and there ensued 3½ years of drought and famine (see 1 Kings 17:1). Again he prayed and it rained cats and dogs (see 1 Kings 18:41-46)! You might wonder: “Why in the world would anyone pray that it not rain for such a long period of time?” The reason is that the drought that ensued was an expression of God’s judgment against King Ahab, his wicked wife Jezebel, and the people of Israel for their rampant idolatry, immorality, and evil deeds.
But it is also of significance that Baal, the Canaanite deity, the ‘god’ of Ahab and Jezebel, was believed to be the god of rain and of fertility. When it rained people conceived of it as Baal “impregnating” the earth which in due course bore its fruit in the form of crops. Elijah’s prayer and the resultant drought, therefore, were a direct confrontation with and defeat of Baal.
Some have asked the question of why James says it was 3½ years (as we also see in Luke 4:25) when, according to 1 Kings 18:1ff., it was three years. Most likely there were six months of drought that preceded Elijah’s declaration. This would have made Elijah’s declaration of drought even more substantial and meaningful since it would have come at the end of the dry season and at the beginning of the rainy season when everyone typically expected the rain to fall.
Why was Elijah’s prayer used mightily of God on these occasions? The answer is found in two statements made by James. First, he was “righteous” (5:16b). Second, he prayed “fervently” (5:17a). Literally, “he prayed with prayer” or he really prayed; no half-hearted, half-baked verbal dart aimed at heaven. His prayer was sustained and energetic and sincere and relentless.
If the prayers of this man, of like passions with us, can be used of God to control the forces of nature, surely God is well-pleased to use our petitions to heal our bodies and to fulfill our daily needs.