Jesus the Healer - James 5:13-18
James # 21
In July of last year, when we began this series of studies in the epistle of James, I pointed out in the first message that most scholars agree that the “James” who wrote this letter was in fact the half-brother of Jesus (see Mark 6:3-6). That is to say, he was the natural born son of Joseph and Mary. Like his other siblings, he was initially opposed to the ministry of Jesus, but after the resurrection he became a committed and loyal disciple of his older half-brother (see Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18).
I mention this again in order to make an important connection between the healing ministry of Jesus and what James says to us here in James 5:13-18. James, on several occasions, must have engaged Jesus in conversation about his healing ministry. James would have personally witnessed many of the healing miracles performed by his half-brother, our Lord. We know that James drew heavily for much of what he says in this epistle from what Jesus said in the famous Sermon on the Mount. So it should come as no surprise to us that in all likelihood James’s own theology of divine healing was substantially shaped by what he saw and heard in the ministry of Jesus himself.
That is why we are going to devote our time today to a brief overview of the healing ministry of Jesus. There are 12 principles to be gleaned from what we see in the gospel records, each of which is important for us to understand if we are to be obedient to what James says in his epistle.
A Dozen Insights from the Healing Ministry of Jesus
1. Jesus healed hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Contrary to those who say that Jesus healed only a "few dozen" (Philip Yancey, 182), the gospels indicate that he healed multitudes. Healing was a common feature of his earthly ministry. Healing was not a secondary or subsidiary activity for him. Consider this one description of his healing ministry in Matthew 4:23-24,
“And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them” (Matthew 4:23-24).
2. Aside from the raising of Lazarus from the dead, there is not a single instance in the gospels where Jesus directly prays for the healing of the sick. Whereas prayer certainly occurs before ministering to the sick, the sick themselves are never prayed for. Rather, the dead are commanded to rise (Mark 5:41-42; Luke 7:14-15; John 11:43-44), the lame are commanded to get up (John 5:8-9; Mark 2:11), the man with the shriveled hand is commanded to stretch it out (Matt. 12:9-13), the ears of the deaf mute are commanded to be opened (Mark 7:31-35), the leper is commanded to be cleansed (Matt. 8:1-3), and before healing the crippled woman Jesus announces to her, "woman, you are freed from your disability" (Luke 13:10-16).
None of this is intended to suggest that we shouldn’t pray for the sick to be healed. James 5:13-18 makes it clear that we should. But it is a fascinating feature of the ministry of Jesus that he almost never did.
3. No one Jesus touched was left unhealed. No one who touched Jesus desiring healing was unhealed (Matt. 14:34-36). According to Matthew 8:16, he "healed all who were ill." What does this tell us about God's “heart” for healing? What does this tell us about his “disposition” or “inclination” when it comes to healing his people? Whereas we cannot say it is always God’s will to heal, we can assuredly say that he takes great delight in it. He enjoys it. He overflows in abundant goodness for the sake of his children. See especially Luke 11:9-13.
4. Jesus portrayed healing not simply as a sign that the kingdom was coming but as an essential element in the kingdom. In other words, the kingdom of God, in part, consists of deliverance from demonic spirits and healing from physical disease (Luke 9:2; 10:8-9). Healing was neither a gimmick to gather crowds nor a confirmation that the kingdom was present. Healing IS the presence of the kingdom!
5. Jesus self-consciously healed people by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:14-21; Matt. 12:22-28). Jesus’ dependence on the Holy Spirit for all that he did and taught is confirmed repeatedly in Scripture (see Luke 4:1-2, 14-15, 16-19; 5:17; John 3:34-35; Acts 10:38 ). The reason this is important for us to remember is that the Holy Spirit in Jesus is the Holy Spirit in us! See especially John 20:21-23.
6. Most often his healings were instantaneous, but on at least one occasion it was partial and gradual (Mark 8:22-26). If nothing else this is a reminder that we must persevere in prayer. Simply because healing does not come instantaneously or comprehensively or permanently does not mean we should give up. Pray without ceasing!
7. Jesus' healings were subject to two factors: (1) the presence or absence of faith (Matt. 13:53-58; Mark 6:5-6; Matt. 13:53-58; 8:1-3), and (2) the purpose of his heavenly Father (John 5:19). As for faith, if you struggle to believe, let others exercise faith on your behalf (see Mark 2). This does not necessarily mean that the presence of faith will guarantee healing or that the absence of healing proves the absence of faith.
8. Jesus interpreted many physical afflictions as the work of Satan (Luke 13:10-17; Acts 10:38; Matt. 4:24 [he "heals" a demoniac]; 8:16-17; 17:18; Mark 9:14-29 [esp. v. 25]; Luke 9:42). Deliverance is thus often a prelude to and necessary part of physical healing.
9. Jesus identified some sickness as unrelated to personal sin (John 9:1ff.) and at other times as directly caused by sin (Mark 2:1-12; John 5:14). This is entirely consistent with what we saw in James 5:16.
10. Jesus regularly healed the sick by the laying on of hands. “Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:40; see also Matt. 8:15; 9:25; 9:29; 19:13-15).
The “hand of God” in Scripture points to several truths: 1) God's sovereign purpose, plan, will. 2) God's sovereign power and strength in carrying out that purpose. 3) God's sovereign protection in delivering and blessing and saving his people (see Exodus 7:4; Joshua 4:23-24; Neh. 1:10; Isa. 48:12-13; Acts 4:28,30).
With Jesus, because of the incarnation (John 1:14), what was only a figure of speech became literal fact. With Jesus, what was only a theological metaphor became material reality. God, who is spirit, now really does have a hand: two in fact!
Modern cessationists often say that when Jesus healed it was always to confirm his deity/messiahship. Other, more skeptical scholars, contend that the laying on of hands is weird and occultic. They contend that healing is only psychosomatic and that nobody ever comes to faith in Jesus because of a miracle. But consider Matthew 20:29-34,
And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him (Matthew 20:29-34).
Observe the sequence in v. 34 – 1) Jesus felt compassion or pity for the men; 2) Jesus touched their eyes; 3) they instantly regained their sight; as a result of which, 4) they followed him!
The laying on of hands was also standard practice in the early church, as we see in Acts 3:7; 5:12; 6:6; 8:17-19; 9:10-17; 9:41; 13:1-3; 14:3; 19:11; 28:7-8; James 5:13-18.
What significance is there in the laying on of hands? You may recall that in the OT the priest would lay his hands on the scapegoat as a way of visibly portraying the transfer of guilt from the people to the sacrifice. In the NT it would appear to signify, among other things, (1) identification of one with another; (2) authorization, in the sense that one’s hands point to the authority of Christ on whose behalf we minister; (3) impartation or transference, as God often chooses to bestow the power of his Spirit through human contact (see Mark 5:25-34); (4) and love (physical touch communicates caring in a way words can’t).
So why do some object to this practice? (1) Some are simply ignorant of what the Bible says about it. (2) For some it violates "personal space" (consider how people behave in an elevator!). (3) Some people come from families that didn't hug, kiss, touch, or show affection. This aversion to physical intimacy then carries over into church life. (4) For others there is the fear of the sexual implications; this is especially the case for those who’ve been the object of someone’s exploitation of this practice to satisfy perverse desires. (5) Finally, there is the fear of "magic" or "occultic" associations, as if the mere physical act itself transmits power.
11. Virtually all of Jesus' healings were motivated by compassion. See Matt. 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 9:22; Luke 7:13-15. That compassion and not fame was his motivation is evident from his instructions in Mark 5:43 that no one be told what had happened. In other words, he didn't do it to draw attention to himself, but because he cared deeply for the grief of the family.
12. Finally, I must now address something that I don’t fully understand and that often proves to be incredibly controversial in the evangelical world. Jesus never inflicted anyone with a disease or ever suggested that sickness was a blessing from God for obedient people. Healing and health are always portrayed in Scripture as the blessing of God, not disease and decay. In fact, Jesus "rebuked" illness (Luke 4:39). Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Jesus nowhere told his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life and ministry. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He promised persecution, slander, and eventual martyrdom for his followers, but never disease and sickness.
There is no beatitude which says, “Blessed are the sick.” They may be blessed, but not because they’re sick. See Acts 10:38 and note the connection between “doing good” and “healing”. Therefore, disease is an evil to resist.
Don’t resign yourself to sickness. Don’t acquiesce to it. Don’t yield to it, unless God makes it clear, as he did to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12, that this is his will for you at this time. As Jack Taylor once said to me: “Never cease to pray for healing unless shown otherwise by divine revelation or death!”
Note: This does not mean that God cannot or will not use our physical afflictions as an instrument of our sanctification. There is redemptive value in suffering. We learn lessons of humility and dependence and the sufficiency of God in all things when by his grace we persevere through pain and disease. Remember: sickness or disease in and of itself does not glorify God. What glorifies God is our unwavering faith and loyalty and love for God in spite of sickness and disease.
[In this regard see the end of this lesson where I’ve addressed the reasons why God doesn’t always heal.]
What Matthew 21:12-17 tells us about the Character of Christ
Here we see the anger and righteous indignation of Jesus vented at full throttle. His rage at the self-serving hypocrisy of those who should have been helping the people finds expression in a physical outburst comparable to a bouncer in a bar! He grabs them by the scruff of the neck, kicks them in the seat of their pants (I'm taking some literary license here!) and runs them out of the temple. In a few days Jesus will permit men to lay hands on him and bind him and take him captive and eventually nail him to a cross. But on this occasion they are powerless against him, stunned with fear, frozen in awe and wonder.
This is hardly the context or atmosphere in which one would expect to see compassion or mercy. Indeed, it is difficult for us to understand how anyone can consistently be both enraged and compassionate at the same time. But note what happens next: "And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them" (v. 14). Joni Eareckson Tada responds:
"Does that hit you the way it hit me? The Lord's angry shouts were still echoing from the temple walls. The dove salesmen were still scuttling away down the alleys like frightened rats. Coins were still rolling around on the pavement. But our Lord doesn't miss a beat. He immediately turns his attention to the blind and lame – releasing them from their physical bondage" (139).
William Hendricksen is also helpful:
"What a scene! While some people are expelled others are welcomed. Jesus has not changed any. He is still the Good Shepherd. So when the blind and the lame come to him right here, in the temple, his eyes, a moment ago flashing with the fire of holy indignation, fill with tender compassion. He did not say, 'Come back some other time. I am not now in the mood for healing you.' On the contrary, the Great Physician is standing there in the midst of overturned tables, scattered coins, and knocked down benches, manifesting his healing power and marvelous compassion to those in need. None of those who came to him went away disappointed" (Matthew, 771).
Was there a transformation in Christ’s character? Did he experience regret and thus repent for getting so angry and suddenly say to himself, “Oh, my, that was out of character. I’ve got to do something nice after having been so mean”? No.
Jesus cares compassionately for those who are no more than a meddling inconvenience to others. These broken, crippled, handicapped folk must have been hanging around the temple for years, perhaps begging as did the man born lame in Acts 3. Nobody paid them any attention. They were, at best, an eyesore, an embarrassment to the religious establishment. Yet, as Joni points out,
"Jesus, the Son of God, stops right in the middle of bringing down divine judgment on that place, sets aside His anger, and shows tender compassion to that little band of forgotten 'nobodies.' In the midst of revealing His power and judgment, Jesus paused to display His compassion. That, to me, is a stunning sketch of our Lord and Savior. And it's one of many in Scripture.”
Thus we see his greatness complemented by his goodness. We see his holiness combined with his mercy. We see his tremendous power turned to serve the expression of his tenderness and gentleness. Here we see the multi-faceted personality of Jesus. He points an angry, righteous finger at the hypocrites, yet reaches down with that same hand to gently touch the needs of the lowly. He turns a face as hard as steel to the religious phonies yet smiles encouragement at those who reach out to him in simple faith.
“But Sam, if I pray for the sick, will they be healed?” That is quite beside the point! The point is this: will you obey God and his Word, will you love those who are hurting, will you extend compassion to the broken? Your responsibility is to pray. Whether or not they are healed is God’s business. God says: “If you won’t take the credit when they are healed, I’ll take responsibility when they aren’t.”
Addendum: So, Why Doesn’t God Always Heal the Sick?
The reason why many are not healed may be answered in any one of eight ways.
(1) Although we must be careful in giving more weight to the role of faith than does the NT itself, we also must be willing to acknowledge that occasionally healing does not occur because of the absence of that sort of faith that God delights to honor. This does not mean that every time a person isn’t healed it is because of a defective faith or that if only a more robust and doubt-free faith were in exercise that healing would inevitably follow. But it does mean that faith is very important.
(2) As we’ve seen in James 5, sometimes healing does not occur because of the presence of sin for which there has been no confession or repentance. Again, please do not conclude from this that each time a person isn’t healed it is because he/she has committed some specific sin of which they have refused to repent. But in some cases (not necessarily all) this is undoubtedly true.
(3) Although it sounds odd to many at first hearing, healing may not happen because the sick don’t want it to happen. Jesus asked the paralyzed man in John 5:6, “Do you want to be healed?” What on the surface may appear to be a ridiculous question is seen, on further examination, to be profoundly insightful.
Some people who suffer from a chronic affliction become accustomed to their illness and to the pattern of life it requires. Their identity is to a large extent wrapped up in their physical disability. There are some people who in a very real sense enjoy their dependence on others and the special attention it brings them. They are convinced that the only reason people take note of them and show them kindness and compassion is because of their affliction. If they were healed they fear losing the love on which they’ve come to depend. Remaining sick is to their way of thinking a small price to pay to retain the kindness and involvement of those who otherwise would simply ignore them. Then, of course, in some instances people don’t want the responsibilities that would come with being healthy. To their way of thinking, it’s easier (and perhaps even more profitable) to remain the object of other’s generosity and good will than it would be to be healthy and thus expected to get a job and show up 9-5 on a daily basis.
(4) We must also consider the principle articulated in James 4:2, where we are told that “you do not have, because you do not ask.” The simple fact is that some are not healed because they do not pray. Perhaps they pray once or twice, and then allow discouragement to paralyze their petitions. Prayer for healing should be prolonged, sustained, persevering, and on occasion combined with fasting.
(5) Some are not healed because the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed. I’m not suggesting that all physical disease is demonically induced. But consider the case of the woman in Luke 13 “who had a disabling spirit [or, a spirit of infirmity] for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself” (Luke 13:11). According to Jesus, “Satan” had “bound” her (Luke 13:16; cf. Acts 10:38). It takes considerable discernment, time, and patience to determine if an illness has a demonic cause, together with even greater commitment to praying for that individual and leading them to address the reasons for their spiritual oppression. When these factors are ignored, healing may not be forthcoming.
(6) We must also consider the mystery of divine providence. There are undoubtedly times and seasons in the purposes of God during which his healing power is withdrawn or at least largely diminished. God may have any number of reasons for this to which we are not privy, whether to discipline a wayward and rebellious church or to create a greater desperation for his power or to wean us off excessive dependence on physical comfort and convenience or any number of other possibilities.
(7) Then there is 1 Peter 3:7, where the apostle says to men: “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
If you want your prayers to be helped and not hindered you have to live with your wife in gentleness and kindness and with concerted effort to understand what makes her tick and what she needs most from you. You must speak of her and treat her as someone who has experienced God’s saving grace no less than you have. You must honor her! All belittling and criticism and sarcasm and devaluation of her must stop! Now!
[But what must we say when the problem isn’t the absence of faith or the presence of a demon or the refusal to repent or the failure to pray or a lack of desire or the failure to honor our wives? How then do we account for on-going physical affliction?]
(8) Often times there are dimensions of spiritual growth and moral development and increase in the knowledge of God in us that he desires more than our physical health, experiences that in his wisdom God has determined can only be attained by means of or in the midst of or in response to less than perfect physical health. In other words, healing the sick is a good thing (and we should never cease to pray for it), but often there is a better thing that can only be attained by means of physical weakness.
More important to God than our physical health is our spiritual holiness. This isn’t to say the body isn’t important. God isn’t a Gnostic! He values and has redeemed our bodies and now dwells within them as his eternal temple. But while we live in this corrupt and decaying world, inner and spiritual conformity to the image of Christ often comes only at the expense of or at least simultaneous with physical deterioration and suffering (see 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
If I believe Romans 8:28, that God sovereignly orchestrates all events in my life for my ultimate spiritual good (and preeminently for his ultimate glory), I can only conclude that, all things being equal, if I’m not healed it is because God values something in me greater than my physical comfort and health that he, in his infinite wisdom and kindness, knows can only be attained by means of my physical affliction and the lessons of submission, dependency, and trust in God that I learn from it.
In the final analysis, we may never know why a person isn’t healed. What, then, ought to be our response? In the first place, don’t stop praying! Consider the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” which he repeatedly asked God to remove from him (2 Cor. 12:7-10). But why should Paul bother to pray for release from something that God wills to inflict? The answer is because Paul didn’t know what God’s will was in this particular case until such time as God chose to make it known. And neither do you or I know God’s will with regard to any particular illness that we may suffer.
If the Lord had never said in response to Paul’s prayer, “No, it isn’t my will that you be relieved of this thorn,” Paul would have been justified, indeed required, to continue to pray for his healing. I once heard my friend Jack Taylor put it this way: “Never cease praying for healing until you are shown otherwise either by divine revelation or death!” If you are able to discern, as did Paul, through some prophetic disclosure or other legitimate biblical means that it is not God’s will now or ever to heal you, you may cease asking him to do so. Otherwise, short of death itself, you should persevere in prayer. You never know but that God’s ultimate and long-term will for you is complete healing after he has for a season accomplished his short-term sanctifying purpose.
In Paul’s case, the only reason he ceased asking for deliverance was because God, in effect, told him to shut up! “No, Paul. I’m not going to heal you. It isn’t my will in this instance that you be set free from this affliction. Rather, I have a higher purpose in view: your humility and my Son’s glory manifest in the context of your on-going weakness.”