Why Did Jesus Heal?
During his plenary address at the CCHF Conference in May, Dr. Karl Watts posed this question: “Why did Jesus bother to heal people,” since it was not a condition of becoming the propitiation for our sin on the cross? His short answer proposed that “because life is sacred, it thus follows that health is sacred. The truth about healthcare is that it is a parable of the Gospel.” He went on to add that this truth fully “removes healthcare from being just a commodity that is bought and sold on the open market.” This has profound implications for the way we, as Christ-followers, should view the provision of healthcare, whether as a charitable gift or as a monetary transaction.
The scriptures are clear about these things with regards to Jesus’ healing ministry: it was an indication of the nearness of the kingdom of God,1 implying its encroachment on the previously unchecked kingdom of darkness. Furthermore, it was a sign that verified His claims as the Messiah.2 The apostle John wrote that Jesus came both to destroy the works of the evil one (stealing, killing, and destroying) and so that we might have abundant life.3
Death is a persistent and obvious reminder of our mortality owing to Original Sin and sickness is its advance payment. Although allowed by God as part of the penalty of that Sin, it nonetheless would seem that death and disease are a great affront to the Spirit of the Creator living in Jesus. (Domineering husbands, thorns, thistles, the pain of child birth, and other effects of the Fall weren’t confronted by Him.) Thus, anytime Jesus was restoring physical bodies to health or life, it was a direct assault on their manifest separation from God. Alas, even this unprecedented healing ministry was more or less temporary; eventually, all of those Jesus healed went to the grave. This momentary alleviation from pain, sickness, and death can be likened to one of the purposes of the tabernacle in the desert: it was given by God as a means for Him to dwell among them—but an impermanent means at that.
The book of Hebrews teaches that the full intent of the tabernacle was to point towards the fulfillment of Christ’s priestly ministry which brought about an end to sacrifices, once and for all.
Similarly, I believe that Jesus’ earthly healing ministry was to give people a small taste of what it is like to be in the presence of our Creator—a natural outflowing of God being incarnate and His longing for us to be fully restored. His purpose was not just to communicate that health is important, even sacred, to God but also to communicate the greater goal of what a restored relationship with the Father looks like.
Thus, we have to be careful how we apply our healing arts. Jesus did not use healing miracles primarily as an attractant to His unique claims. In fact, He often sought to downplay and conceal His healing. Instead, they were an illustration of His teaching about the coming kingdom.
The biblical pattern clearly holds that miracles accompanied the preaching of the kingdom; it was true for Jesus, his disciples,4 and His newly formed church as well.5 There’s good reason for this, and the feeding of the 5,000 provides a good lesson for us (albeit not a healing). In this incident, Jesus first taught the crowds that followed Him and then as an act of kindness fed them. Soon thereafter, He invited the crowds to a deeper covenant relationship with He and the Father (“eat my body and drink my blood”). This challenge caused the crowd and many of His disciples to abandon him.
Just as good works are not a foundation for salvation—they are an outflow of it—similarly, I don’t see that we should strive to do good works primarily as a means of drawing people into salvation. Although servant evangelism is in vogue right now in the Western evangelical church, I get very nervous about using kindness, service, and even miracles with a hidden agenda of drawing people towards God. People are easily attracted to whatever meets their physical needs first. Our mandate is the same as Jesus’: to call them into a covenant relationship with their new Savior and Lord. Bait and switch just isn’t God’s game.
This doesn’t negate the possibility of leading with healing in our relationship with the lost. When people rightly responded to Jesus’ ministry of healing, it left them hungering for more of God, not just seeking Him the next time they needed a miracle. Think about the man healed by Peter and John at the Temple gate in Acts 3—he went walking, leaping, and praising God into the temple court, a place he had never been allowed before because of his infirmity. Healing provided a springboard for him to seek His creator at a deeper level because he experienced the presence of Jesus and a taste of heaven.
We could consider the theological question of why Jesus only practiced supernatural healing and did not practice medicine. Short answer: He didn’t need to—He is the creator. But this in no way relegates our application of knowledge and training in “natural” means to inferior status: all healing comes as a gift from God. The effective qualities of chemicals, herbs, and radiation were inherent gifts from God for us to unwrap in due time. This should lead those in the medical profession to practice constant humility in delivering their gifts.
A quote by St. Francis of Assisi is enjoying a popular resurgence: “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” Although the Evangelical segment of the Church may be recovering from a bit of a “social justice siesta” (caused in some part by a neo-Conservative movement hangover), we must not shrink back from the power of declaring the Gospel of love both in word and in deed.
It was Good News that Jesus preached. He preached healing with His hands, and He preached healing with His mouth. Reconciliation with God is a healing of our relationship broken by Sin in the Garden. Jesus provided healing as a physical manifestation of that restoration; a taste of the coming age when we will receive new bodies and death will reign no more.
By whatever means we heal people, we are confronting our fallen nature. We are enforcing a temporary injunction against the inevitable decay of our bodies. We are performing a parable of the Gospel because it illustrates the reality of our full restoration with God in a physical way. This gives us ample opportunity to explain to our patients that their desire to be whole is part of “eternity placed in their hearts”—a desire to return to a whole state near their Creator. That is Good News.
1 Luke 7:21-22
2 Luke 10:9; John 10:38
3 1 John 3:8, John 10:10
4 Matthew 10:7-8
5 c.f Mark 16:20
Steven Reames is the executive director of Genesis World Mission in Boise, Idaho. He pastored for many years with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel and is proud to work alongside Dr. Karl Watts, MD, Genesis’ founder and president.