On Wednesday, August 15, 2012 my older sister whom I’ll call Melissa passed away from colon cancer at the age of 72 years. I’d like to share her story.
Melissa lived a most successful life by the world’s standards. She was beautiful and very exotic looking. At the age of forty-five years she was still being carded when entering places requiring proof of age. Even at the age of seventy she attracted men far younger than her.
Professionally, she did very well for herself as a Clinical Psychologist with her own private practice in San Antonio. She lived in the penthouse of a luxury condominium where San Antonio’s rich and famous owned units, including one of the players on the San Antonio Spurs professional basketball team.
Melissa’s life in the world was so fulfilling that I never believed that she would ever come to Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She didn’t “need” Him. But Amy, another one of my sisters, was an intercessor who prayed to the Lord persistently for Melissa’s salvation.
Then Melissa came down with colon cancer. Finally, there was a need in her life which she could not handle, and she turned to Jesus Christ with a fury. Realizing that she had wasted so many years of her life for herself, she devoted herself to the Lord. She studied the Bible as well as books by Christian authors. Even though she was a new believer, she began to share about Jesus with the patients she was seeing as a therapist. I personally had the pleasure of baptizing her in January 2012.
Melissa also believed the Lord for her healing from cancer. I and my other believing sisters also prayed over her, and believed for her healing. Other trained disciples also ministered to her with great perseverance. Melissa asked the Lord for many more years on earth to serve the Lord. Our mother and father had gone home to the Lord at the ages of 96 and 95 years old, respectively. Her desire and request appeared to be eminently reasonable.
But all of our best efforts failed. What happened? Let us go to Scripture for some answers with regard to the matter of physical healing.
First of all, we have a well-known promise from Psalms:
Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits– who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, (Psalm 103:2-3)
These verses appear to be quite clear with regard to the Lord’s purpose to forgive all the sins and to heal all the diseases of His people in the Old Testament. However, it would appear unreasonable to conclude therefore that every Old Testament believer who was infirm was in fact healed by the Lord. There is no record of such a thing in Old Testament Scripture, although undoubtedly some, like Naaman the Aramean army commander, were miraculously healed. But we do see something to the contrary.
Let us examine an Old Testament incident in which the godly king Hezekiah fell critically ill. We see that it was not the Lord’s will to heal him.
2 Kings 20:1 In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.”
But Hezekiah of course did not want to die, and cried out bitterly to the Lord reminding him of his faithfulness and devotion. God heard his entreaty and actually changed his mind. Hezekiah was healed and given fifteen more years of life on earth.
2 Kings 20:2 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, 3 “Remember, LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly. 4 Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: 5 “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler of my people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the LORD. 6 I will add fifteen years to your life…’”
We therefore learn that it was not necessarily always God’s will to heal in the Old Testament despite Psalm 103:2-3. But it was indeed possible to “change God’s mind” through prayer. Hezekiah’s testimony, however, did not end there. Look what happened at some point during the fifteen-year extension of his life:
2 Kings 20:12 At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of Hezekiah’s illness. 13 Hezekiah received the envoys and showed them all that was in his storehouses–the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine olive oil–his armory and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them. 14 Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah and asked, “What did those men say, and where did they come from?” “From a distant land,” Hezekiah replied. “They came from Babylon.” 15 The prophet asked, “What did they see in your palace?” “They saw everything in my palace,” Hezekiah said. “There is nothing among my treasures that I did not show them.” 16 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD: 17 The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the LORD. 18 And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
Hezekiah apparently became proud after witnessing God’s favor through his miraculous healing, and sinned against the Lord by showing off his vast treasure to the king of Babylon. This incident which took place in Hezekiah’s life after God changed his mind and healed him was not pleasing to the Lord.
2 Chronicles 32:24 In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. He prayed to the LORD, who answered him and gave him a miraculous sign. 25 But Hezekiah’s heart was proud and he did not respond to the kindness shown him; therefore the LORD’s wrath was on him and on Judah and Jerusalem. 26 Then Hezekiah repented of the pride of his heart, as did the people of Jerusalem; therefore the LORD’s wrath did not come on them during the days of Hezekiah.
Nevertheless, the Lord’s wrath did come during the reign of Hezekiah’s son Manasseh—one of the most idolatrous kings of Judah. Interestingly, these things took place after Hezekiah refused to accept God’s will with regard to his death and prayed instead for healing.
Perhaps it would have been better if Hezekiah had gone home in God’s perfect timing. Then he would not have had the opportunity to become proud and to sin against God.
Then there is another significant incident from the Old Testament involving the great prophet Elisha.
2 Kings 13:14 Now Elisha had been suffering from the illness from which he died. …. 20 Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. 21 Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.
Elisha, who had the double portion of the spirit of his mentor Elijah, was mighty in word and in deed. It is reasonable to believe that Elijah wanted to be healed of his illness, and asked the Lord for healing. Based on the miracles God used him to perform, he certainly understood how to minister with authority. Nevertheless, the Lord did not heal Elisha and he was taken home. Interestingly, however, when a dead man’s body came into contact with his bones years later, the dead man came back to life. Elisha not only understood how to speak forth with authority, he also clearly had the Lord’s healing power resident in his body and bones. Why did he not recover from his illness?
It must not have been God’s will to heal him.
What does the New Testament teach?
Let us now turn to the New Testament—the “reality” in Christ behind the Old Testament shadow of the things that were to come (Colossians 2:17).
Peter reiterates Isaiah 53:4-5 which some say teaches that because Jesus bore our sins on the cross, our infirmities—which are ultimately a consequence of sin—can be healed.
1 Peter 2:24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
Therefore we teach that there can be healing in the atonement. But does this mean that everyone whose sins are forgiven will be healed of their infirmities? Is it God’s will for everyone to be healed? This is the crucial question we seek to answer.
The apostle John on one occasion did express a prayer and desire for his friend Gaius to be in good health and for everything to go well with him.
3 John 1:2 Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.
This verse should be taken simply as a cordial greeting at the beginning of a letter to a friend. It is of course natural that we want our friends to be in good health and for everything to go well for them. However, the verse should not be used as a text to prove theologically that God wills to heal everyone.
Jesus healed all who came to him
In the gospels it appears that Jesus healed every infirm person who came to him. What was the primary significance of the miraculous healings?
John 20:30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Although he certainly had compassion on the physically infirm, Jesus performed miraculous healings ultimately to prove that he was in fact the promised Messiah who had authority to forgive sin.
Mark 2:10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority upon earth to forgive sins, He said to the paralytic, 11 I say to you, Arise, and take up your cot, and go to your house.
We see that the context of the miraculous healings in the gospels and Acts was not simply as an earthly or temporal blessing to God’s people, but rather to direct people to Jesus Christ as the Messiah who would bear the sins of the people. The one who had authority to heal was the one who had authority to forgive sin and grant eternal life. And so the focus on earthly and material blessing we see in the Old Testament has for the most part been supplanted by the focus on spiritual blessing—that is on eternal life now and in the next age.
What about the blessings in Deuteronomy 28?
Old Testament material blessings such as those promised to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 28 in response to obedience to God’s commands is clearly not emphasized in the New Testament. Regarding earthly provision, the New Testament does promise that if we seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, then “all these other things”—meaning material provision—will be added to us (Matthew 6:33). Yes, Jehovah Jireh will indeed provide for His faithful ones. But the overwhelming emphasis in the New Testament is clearly on that which is to be inherited in the next age by faithful believers who in the present age persevere in obeying the Lord’s commands to live holy lives and to produce good fruit for him. We are to persevere and hold true to the gospel despite trials and tests, and our faith is to be demonstrated by good works of obedience.
Therefore the Old Testament emphasis on material and earthly blessing was but a shadow of the spiritual and heavenly blessing which we now have fulfilled in Christ.
So we ought not to focus on or major on temporal blessings, as important as they may be to us. We all want to have enough for our daily needs. We all want to be healthy. We all want our children to be blessed, and so forth. And, generally speaking, we can have these blessings if we obey the Lord. But our focus in this life should not be on them.
A weighty risk
What happens when we put complete and absolute faith in God to heal us or a loved one based on our understanding of his promises, but no miraculous healing is forthcoming? There is a possibility that we may begin to doubt his other promises as well—in particular, his promise to save us and grant us eternal life. We might even begin to doubt that he exists. Such doubts can and do surface in the minds of those who are not healed or their loved ones who have “claimed” healing based on their understanding of God’s promise.
A healthier and more scriptural approach would be to focus on the primary promise of God in the New Testament, which is his promise of eternal life now and extending into the next age. When we focus on eternal life and our eternal reward above and beyond that life, we will be encouraged to hold on to the hope that we have and not to relinquish it no matter what we see or do not see in his life.
How about Paul’s thorn?
2 Corinthians 12:7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given 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.
According to the respected and widely-used commentary by Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, the scholar Alford thought that Paul’s thorn was a bodily affliction causing him acute pain and shame. Thus there is a possibility that the thorn was a physical infirmity from which he suffered. If that is the case, then we can conclude that it was not God’s will to heal the apostle. It was more important for him to be kept from becoming conceited, as befell Hezekiah after God healed him.
Paul’s disciple Timothy was not in good health, and the Lord did not heal him miraculously. The apostle, whom the Lord used extremely powerfully to perform miraculous healings, even advised him to use wine as a form of medicine for his frequent illnesses.
1 Timothy 5:23 Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.
We therefore ought not to interpret references in Scripture about healing as a blanket guarantee for miraculous healing every time.
The “Hall of Faith”
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. (Hebrews 11:32-35a)
These heroes of faith all witnessed God’s dramatic miracles in their lives on earth. However, others did not experience any miraculous deliverance.
There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated– the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:35b-40)
However, not a single one of the heroes of faith listed in this chapter “received the things promised.”
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)
These heroes only saw the promises and welcomed them from a distance. What were these promises? We are told clearly that the promises were a country of their own—a better country, a heavenly one, a heavenly city. These are the primary promises of the New Testament upon which we must focus and on which we are to set our hope. Promises of temporal blessings in this life are distantly secondary and must never be allowed to blur our spiritual sight.
So do I actually believe in healing?
From what we have written, a casual reader might form the conclusion that I do not believe in miraculous healing. No, we have witnessed thousands of miraculous healings and trained other servants of God who have witnessed the same. But our focus is not on the miraculous healings themselves, but on using them as tools and signs to direct people to Jesus Christ and the life eternal he brings us through his death on the cross.
Once we focus too intently on the tool or the sign, we are in danger of losing sight of the reality.
What then should be our attitude toward healing?
We should first of all believe that it is generally God’s will to heal.
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. (James 5:14-15)
Those who minister to the infirm person should do so with power and authority over the infirmity, with no doubt in their hearts, and with perseverance. That is our part.
The rest is up to the Lord. More often than not, the infirm person will be healed. In some evangelistic services, every infirm person is healed. Sinners come to Christ for eternal life as a result. But when in the Lord’s wisdom he chooses not heal someone—instances of which we do see in Scripture—we should not be confused, discouraged or lose heart.
The Lord’s primary purpose in our lives on earth is to prepare us for the next age. And we will not lose sight of that.
And my sister Melissa…
My sister Melissa is now in our Father’s house enjoying her glorious reunion with my mother who went home in January 2012 at the age of 96 years. And there she is also seeing again her closest sibling “Ivy” with whom she grew up. It was Ivy whom the Lord used to bring our entire family to Jesus Christ. Ivy went home to the Lord in 1999 at the age of 57 years after having contracted pancreatic cancer.