Disease and suffering, and attempts to relieve them, have been essential attendants of human life since the Fall. The Bible presents a view of man in all his experiences, and hence there is frequent mention of the illnesses of individuals and of the epidemics of communities, and of attempts to prevent or remedy them, just as there are accounts of all other human experiences.
A. Biblical Etymology
The words used for disease and healing, and their cognates, both in Hebrew and Greek, are mostly typical everyday words. Hâlá is used for 'to be sick' (nouns holi and mah'la) and also madweh (Dt.7:15; 28:61) and davar (Ps.41:8) meaning 'a matter/word' (i.e. evil matter/word).
In the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) disease is called astheneia (weakness), malakia (misfortune), noséma and nosos (more specifically and medically 'disease'); verbs used are astheneó and kakós echein, and in one verse (Jas.5:15), kamnó. Arrhóstos ('not robust') is used in one place (Mk.6:13).
In the Tanakh (Old Testament) rápá (to heal) is most commonly used for healing, and is also used for 'physician' in Genesis 1:2 (twice) (2 Chr.16:12; Job 13:4; Jer.8:22). Other Tanakh (Old Testament) terms include chaya (revive - cp. chayim = life) and sűb (restore).
In the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) the intransitive verbs ischyó (be strong) and hygianó (more specifically, 'be healthy' - from which we get the English 'hygiene') are used, and for healing (transitive) sózó and diasózó (save) are used non-specifically (though they are used in this way by other writers, including Hippocrates). Stereoó ('set up', 'make strong') is used in Acts 3:16. Specifically medical words for healing are therapeuó (from which we get the English word 'therapeutic'), iaomai and apokathistémi (from which we get the English 'apothecary', 'chemist' or 'drug store').
There does not seem to be any special significance about the use of sózó, and the translation of all these words in the KJV (e.g. 'save', 'restore', make well', 'make whole') are indiscriminate uses of the contemporary English of the translators.
The noun holokléria (KJV, 'perfect soundness') is used in Acts 3:16 and it may have reference to active rehabilitation as well as physical restoration. In some places, e.g. Isaiah 53:5 (cp. 1 Pet.2:24), words with the specific meaning of 'healing' are used with a purely spiritual connotation. Similar instances are Isaiah 6:10 (cp. Ac.28:27) and Matthew 13:15.
B. The Biblical View of Disease
The topics of suffering and disease in the Bible are closely bound up with questions of the nature and origin of evil itself. Suffering is a human experience, with diverse causes, and is one of the results of human sin. In the case of suffering from disease, the direct connection is not usually obvious, though sometimes the illness is directly connected. From the account of the fall of man in Genesis it is clear that soon afterwards man knew insecurity, fear, and pain (Gen.3:16-17). Here, 'issabón (KJV, 'sorrow') is better translated "pain", and then mental anguish (Gen.4:13). The direct connection between sin and suffering becomes rapidly more complex, but nations which obey Yahweh were, in general, promised freedom from disease (Ex.15:25-26; Lev.26:14-16; Dt.7:12-16; 28 - especially vv.22,27,58-61). On the other hand, pestilence is one of the three sore judgments on the people of Elohim (God) (Jer.24:10; 32:24; Ezek.14:21) and on other nations, e.g. Philistia (1 Sam.5:6) and Assyria (2 Ki.19:35).
There are passages such as Psalm 116:67 where the sinner himself is involved:
and the case of the impotent man healed in John 5:1-16 where his own fault is implied:
"Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your Davar (Word)" (Ps 119:67, NIV)
David acknowledged that his own illness was the cause of sinning on his part:
"Later Yah'shua (Jesus) found him at the temple and said to him, 'See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you'" (John 5:14, NIV).
David's sin also involved the affliction of others:
"O Yahweh, do not rebuke me in Your anger
or discipline me in Your wrath.
For Your arrows have pierced me,
and Your hand has come down upon me.
Because of your wrath there is no health in my body;
my bones have no soundness because of my sin.
My guilt has overwhelmed me
like a burden too heavy to bear.
"My wounds fester and are loathsome (Ps.38:1-8, NIV).
because of my sinful folly.
I am bowed down and brought very low;
all day long I go about mourning.
My back is filled with searing pain;
there is no health in my body.
I am feeble and utterly crushed;
I groan in anguish of heart"
On the whole human suffering, from disease or from any other cause, is the effect on the individual of the malaise of the human society of which he is an integral part.
In the Book of Job (especially chapter 1) something is seen of the activity of Satan. This is also apparent in Acts 10:38 where the sick are spoken of as "all who were under the power of the devil" (Ac.10:38, NIV), and in the suggestive parable of the wheat and tares ("An enemy did this" - Mt.13:28, NIV). Again, Yah'shua (Jesus) Himself spoke of "whom Satan has kept bound" (Lk.13:16, NIV).
"So Yahweh sent a plague on Israel from that morning until the end of the time designated, and seventy thousand of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. When the malak (angel) stretched out his hand to destroy Jerusalem, Yahweh was grieved because of the calamity and said to the malak (angel) who was afflicting the people, 'Enough! Withdraw your hand.' The malak (angel) of Yahweh was then at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite" (2 Sam.24:15-16, NIV).
Elohim (God) does not stand by helplessly, however. Suffering is sometimes used punitively. At times, as mentioned above, this may be on a national scale owing to a violation of a national, corporate covenant. Or it may be applied to individuals, as in the case of Moses (Ex.4:24), Miriam (Num.12:10), Uzziah (2 Chr.27:16-21), Jeroboam (2 Chr.13:20), Gehazi (2 Ki.5:25-27), Ananias and Sapphira (Ac.5:5,10), Herod (Ac.12:21-23), and Elymas (Ac.13:11).
Much more detail is given when suffering is used constructively (Heb.12:6-11), as in the case of Jacob, who, after a real physical injury miraculously inflicted, learnt to depend upon Yahweh, and matured spiritually to fulfill his new name of Israel (Gen.32:24-32). Hezekiah's illness demonstrated his emunah (faith) in Elohim (God), and is probably in this category (2 Ki.20:1-7).
The Book of Job shows that the real issue is a man's relationship to Yahweh rather than his own attitude to his own suffering. It is the principle Tanakh (Old Testament) refutation of the view, put forward with great skill by Job's 'comforters', that there is an inevitable link between individual sin and individual suffering. After disposing of the view, which is only partially true, that the reason for the existence of suffering is disciplinary, it leads to the sublime picture of Job both comforted, vindicated, and blessed.
It is so important to realise that the biblical picture is not a mere dualism. Rather, suffering is presented in the light of eternity and in relation to an Elohim (God) who is sovereign, but who is nevertheless forebearing in His dealings with the world because of His ahavah (love) for men (2 Pet.3:9). Conscious of the sorrow and pain around them, the writers of the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) look forward to the final consummation when suffering shall be no more (Rom.8:18; Rev.21:4).
This conception is radically different from the pagan Greek one which regards the body as something inherently evil, and the spirit as something inherently good (see Gnosticism). The biblical conception of the transience yet nobility of the body is best seen in 2 Corinthians, especially in verses 1-10 (cp. also 1 Cor.6:15). It is an integral part of the complex of the individual through which the personality is expressed.
C. Hygiene and Sanitation
The biblical outlook on the sick, and on health in general, has a bearing on modern medical practice, and is more up-to-date than generally realised. The story of the good Samaritan (Lk.10:30-37) presents an ideal of care which has always inspired the medical profession, and typifies selflessness and after-care. The basis of hygiene and sanitation is rooted in the Torah. It deals with public hygiene, water supply, sewage disposal, inspection and selection of food, and control of infectious disease. Indeed a knowledge of these things is implied which the Israelites did not possess before the receiving of the Torah and which in the circumstances of the Exodus in the wilderness they could scarcely have discovered for themselves, such as the Kashrut laws forbidding the consumption of parasite-laden pigs and of animals that had died natural deaths, the burial of excreta, etc., and of the contagious nature of some diseases. The ultimate origin of the word 'quarantine' is the Israelite use of the period of 40 days of segregation from patients with certain infectious diseases (Lev.12:1-4) adopted by the Italians in the 14th century because of the relative immunity of Jews from certain plagues.
D. Miracles of Healing
When we think of 'miracles', it is the rapid or spontaneous healing by supernatural means, without major medical intervention, that we tend to have in mind. This includes both organic and mental conditions. The biblical cases of healing, aside from demon possession, show healing in its primary medical sense, not to necessarily be confused with changes in spiritual outlook or the natural spontaneous remission of disease which occur as part of the body's design (which though miraculous in their own way, may be said to be of a different category). Biblical healing partakes, in the theological sense, of the miraculous in the sense of a striking imposition of divine power by which the operations of the ordinary course of nature are overruled, suspended or modified. That said, all forms of recovery - from the natural to the supernatural - are generally attributed in the Bible to the intervention of Yahweh, the difference being merely in degree or speed.
Thus, the recovery of Moses (Ex.4:24-26) from the illness associated with his disobedience over his son's circumcision is given an entirely spiritual significance. The healing of Miriam's leprosy (Num.12:1-15) and of Naaman, through Elisha 2 Ki.5:8-14), appear to be miraculous. The healing of Jeroboam's suddenly paralysed hand (1 Ki.13:4-6) and the raising from the dead of the son of the widow of Zarephath by Elijah (1 Ki.17:17-24) and of the son of the Shunamite woman by Elisha (2 Ki.4:1-37) are clearly miraculous. Though this boy's illness has been attributed to sunstroke it could equally well have been fulminating encephalitis or a subarachnoid haemorrhage. (The Hebrews were conscious of the effects of the sun - see Psalm 121:6 - and a case of sunstroke is reported in the Apocrypha - Judith 8:2-3). The recovery of the Israelites bitten by the snakes when they looked upon the brazen serpent is miraculous also, though individuals are not specified (Num.21:6-9). The deliverance of the Isaelites from the later plagues in Egypt is a curious example of what might be termed a 'prophylactic miracle, i.e. for them disease was miraculously prevented rather than miraculously healed. The recovery of Hezekiah (2 Ki.20:1-11) was probably natural, though it is attributed directly to Yahweh (v.8) and is accompanied by a natural miracle (vv.9-11), the illness probably being a severe carbuncle.
Recorded miraculous healing, even counting raising from the dead, is unusual in the Tanakh (Old Testament), and the few cases seem to cluster about the two critical times of the Exodus and the ministry of the nevi'im (prophets) Elijah and Elisha. See Exodus 7:10-12 for nature miracles performed by Moses and Aaron. The miracles apparently performed by the Egyptian sorcerers (Ex.7:22) were probably counterfeits, as they could not cope with the plague of boils (Ex.9:11).
Yah'shua the Messiah's (Jesus Christ's) miracles of healing are reported by the synoptists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as groups (e.g. Lk.4:404-41) and, in greater detail and more specifically, as individual cases. Demon possession is clearly distinguished from other forms of disease (e.g. Mk.1:32.34), where kakós echein (regular disease) is separate from daimonizomenos (demonic issues). People came to Him in large numbers (Mt.4:23-24) and were all healed (Lk.4:40). Doubtless cases of mental as well as physical illness were included, and on one occasion the Master even restored the severed part of a body (Lk.22:50-51). At the same time, these recorded instances can represent only a small fraction of those ill in the country at this time.
In the combined narrative of the four Gospels there are about two dozen stories of healing of individuals or of small groups. Some were healed at a distance, some with a word but without physical contact, some with physical contact, and some with physical contact and 'means', i.e. the use of clay made from spittle, which was a popular remedy of the time for blindness (Mk.8:23; Jn.9:6) and deafness (Mk.7:32-35). This may have been to aid the patient's emunah (faith), or to demonstrate that Yahweh does not exclude the use of means, or both. (The realisation of the connection between deafness and dumbness in this latter case is interesting in view of the known genetics of these conditions being an autosomal dominant problem with a 50 per cent chance of inheritance).
When miraculous healing takes place, natural recovery was previously unlikely and the healing itself is usually instantaneous, or almost so. There is an immediate restoration to health with no convalescence, no rehabilitatation and no relapse.
Luke's Gospel is the only one to contain the story of the Good Samaritan. It also includes three miracles of healing but recorded by the other evangelists. These are the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Lk.7:11-16), the healing of the woman "bent over" (Lk.13:11-16), and the healing of Malchus' ear (Lk.22:50-51). More details of cases are given, and the writer (who was himself a physician) uses the more technical iaomai for healing, rather than the non-technical words.
The fourth evangelist (John), unlike the synoptists, never refers to healing of people in large numbers, nor to demon possession (though demons are referred to, and the word diamonizomenos is used - Jn.10:21). In addition to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, only three cases are described. These are the healing of the nobleman's son of a serious febrile condition (Jn.4:46-54), the man paralysed 38 years (Jn.5:1-16), and the man born blind (Jn.9:1-14). The accounts are well documented, and all describe cases of apparently organic disorder instantly or almost instantly healed. The raising of Lazarus after four days (Jn.11:1-44) is no less miraculous, and the suggestion which has been made that this is no more remarkable than recovery after a few seconds' stoppage of the heartbeat during a surgical operation makes nonsense in the light of modern physiology. These healings in John's Gospel are not only mighty works (dynameis) but also signs (sémeia). They demonstrate that Messiah's miracles of healing have not only an individual, local, contemporary physical significance but a general, eternal, and spiritual meaning also. For example, in the case of the man born blind, the point is made that individual sickness is not necessarily attributable to individual sin. (In the case of the man sick of the palsy it is difficult to connect sickness and sin; e.g. syphilis seems to have been unknown at that time; his absolution by Yah'shua/Jesus does not necessarily imply a man whose illness was caused by sin.)
In Acts there are several accounts of of individual miracles, which have much the same character as those performed by Yah'shua (Jesus). The lame man in Jerusalem (Ac.3:1-11) and the one at Lystra (Ac.14:8-10), the paralytic (Ac.9:33-34), and Publius' father's dysentery (Ac.28:8) are individual cases, and there are a few reports of multiple healings, including that in Acts 5:15-16 and the unique case of clothing taken from Paul (Ac.19:11-12). Two people were raised from the dead (Dorcas - Ac.9:36-41, and Eutychus - Ac.20:9ff.) and demons were cast out on two occasions (Ac.5:16; 16:16-18). The author (Luke) distinguishes between demon possession and other illness (Ac.5:16), and might be expected of a physician.
Cases of illness amongst believers in apostolic times are mentioned. The fact that they occur indicates that the apostolic commission to heal could not be used indiscriminately to keep themselves or their friends free from illness. Timothy had a gastric complaint (1 Tim.5:23). Trophimus was too ill to accompany Paul from Miletus (2 Tim.4:20). Epaphroditus was gravely ill (Phil.2:30), and his recovery is attributed to to the mercy of Yahweh (Phil.2:27). Clearly there is no warranty for modern 'health-and-wealth' doctrines (which maintain that all sickness is the product of sin) from the apostolic record.
Most striking of all is Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (skolops té sarki), which has been variously identified (most often as a chronic eye disease), but by few convincingly and by none conclusively. Its spiritual significance far exceeds its importance as an exercise in diagnosis. Paul gives three reasons (2 Cor.12:7-10) for it:
There is perhaps more resemblance between this "thorn" and Jacob's shrunken sinew (muscle) than has been realised. In any event, it proves that sometimes sickness has a positive, redemptive purpose.
- 1. To "keep [him] from becoming conceited" (v.7, NIV);
- 2. To enable him to be spiritually powerful (v.9); and
- 3. As a personal service for Messiah - "for Messiah's sake" (v.10).
The classical passage on prayer for the sick is to be found in James:
There are two common misinterpretations of this passage:
"Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the fellowship (church) to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Master. And the prayer offered in emunah (faith) will make the sick person well; the Master will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
"Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
"My brothers, if one of you should wander from the emet (truth) and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins" (James 5:13-20, NIV).
The important points are that the outlook in the passage is spiritual (i.e. the matter is referred to Yahweh), the distress of the individual is made the concern of the local congregation, and what is said neither excludes nor condemns the legitimate use by doctors of the proven means of healing available at any particular time and place, nor of natural remedies such as a proven healthy diet based on biblically-acceptable kosher food. The whole of this passage is really concerned with the power of prayer.
- 1. That which finds in it authority for the institution of anointing those who are in extremis (at the point of death); and
- 2. That which regards it as a promise that all who are sick and who are prayed over in emunah (faith) will recover.
E. The Significance of the Miracles of Healing
The miracles of healing reported in the Tanakh (Old Testament) and in Acts are few compared with those of Yah'shua (Jesus) reported in the Gospels. In general, it is true to say that the significance of the miracles of healing is not fundamentally different from other miracles. In the Tanakh (Old Testament) miracles are more frequently nature miracles than miracles concerned with the individual, while in the Messianic Scriptures (New Testament) there are more recorded that affect individuals, such as the miracles of healing. Both display the power of Elohim (God) over evil and its effects. But the most important feature of miracles is their connection with revelation:
Matthew connects Messiah's healing miracles with the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4 (Mt.8:17), and Yah'shua (Jesus) Himself referred to them as evidence of the validity of His claims to be Messiah (Lk.7:22; Jn.10:37-38). They are spoken of as attesting Him (apodeiknymi, lit. 'point away to') in Acts 2:22, in their threefold nature as:
"Miracles do not appear on the page of Scripture vagrantly, here, there, and elsewhere indifferently, without assignable reason. They belong to revelation periods..." (B.B.Warfield)
This explains, at least in part, when even Yah'shua's (Jesus') miracles of healing were not indiscriminate and universal. The Master's reference to the "greater works" which the apostles were to do (Jn.14:12) must, of course, refer to the scope of the influence of their work, not its actual nature, for even when men were raised from the dead, these were not greater works than His. The charismata of 1 Corinthians 12 include both the gift of healing and the gift of speaking supernaturally in contemporary foreign languages ('tongues).
- 1. Wonders (terata);
- 2. Signs (sémeia); and
- 3. Mighty works (dynameis).
F. Healing After Apostolic Times
Conservative Christians and Messianics divide over whether the gift of healing continued after the end of the apostolic era. Those who believe they did are called 'continuationists' and those who do not, 'cessationists'. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that in the post-apostolic era, and in particular that of what is known as the patristic age of the 'post-apostolic fathers' (the second generation), the frequently quoted passages in Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Justin Martyr, which purport to show that miracles of healing continued well into the third century, will not, in fact, bear that interpretation. Since we have no way of being sure exactly what happened in the immediate generations after the apostles, claims from this period should be treated with extreme care: the ecclesiastical miracles of patristic times, often posthumously attributed, sometimes become absurd. To be cautious in this regard is to not in any sense to be 'liberal' or materialistic but to exercise wisdom and maintain rigorous scholarship over the records that have survived. For not only must we contend with fabrication and exaggeration, but with real occurences that are counterfeits, manifestations not of Yahweh but of dark powers. For a discussion, see Cessationism: The Witness of a Continuationist.
The Messianic Evangelical position is qualified 'continuationism'. We believe that all the New Testament gifts are, and have been, available since the ministry of Yah'shua (Jesus) but that much, if not most, of what has been manifested since apostolic times, and continues to be manifested in charismatic and other churches today, is psychic and counterfeit. Part of the problem is that the belief in miracles as well as dispute about the authenticity of miracles (e.g. Mk.3:22-24; 2 Thes.2:9-10) is a common phenomenon in most religions, ancient or modern. Unique in the biblical understanding of miracles over against that of other religions contemporaneous with the biblical period is that it identifies the power as originating with Elohim (God).
The Bible has two principle explanations for illness:
Healing is most certainly aided and promoted by sanitation, exercise, good diet, mental soundness, emotional balance, sensible sleeping habits, moderation in all things, and sound medical practice, which are mitzvot (commandments) from Yahweh, because we are to take care of our bodies like temples of the Ruach (Spirit) (1 Cor.3:16; 6:19). Supernatural, miraculous healing is not an obligation on the part of Yahweh, nor has He given the 'power' to ministers to heal at whim, yet so many people have found healing after they have surrendered or died to the RIGHT to be healthy and simply trusted Yahweh to heal them if He wills. Our surrender to Yahweh's will, whether He grants healing or not, is the main thing.
- 1. The first, represented by Deuteronomy 28, affirms that health and well-being (Heb. shalom,) are conditional upon the fulfillment of certain covenant stipulations in the Torah that are fully disclosed to the members of the covenant society (including, as seen, obedience to the moral and ethical mitzvot/commandments, sanitation and diet or the eating of prescribed foods), and illness stems from violation of those stipulations. Healing includes reviewing one's actions in light of the Torah covenant, which continues in the B'rit Chadashah (New Covenant), and making the necessary lifestyle and behavioural adjustments to properly line up with the Torah; and
- 2. The second, found in the book of Job, offers a contrasting, yet complimentary, view which argues that illness may be rooted in divine plans that may not be disclosed to the patient at all, and not in the transgression of the Torah (Law). The one who is sick must trust that Yahweh's undisclosed reasons are just and ultimately serve a purpose.
Key Things to Remember
There are four key things to remember when it comes to health and healing:
Divine healing is one of the characteristics of the Besorah (Gospel) of Yah'shua (Jesus). It doesn't always happen in the way we expect it and sometimes it doesn't happen at all; but when Yahweh wills it, spectacular healing can, and does, take place in the Messianic Community (Church). (17 October 2017)
- 1. Yahweh promised the Israelies good health if they would follow Him and apply His Torah ways to their lives - the same promises hold good today (Ex.15:26; Dt.7:12-16);
- 2. Yahweh is able to restore our health and heal physical maladies by natural processes or by supernatural means (Is.38:16; Mk.8:22-25; Lk.1:25);
- 3. Yahweh can use poor health - even death - to discipline people (Num.12:9-10; Act.5:5,10; 12:21-23; 1 Cor.11:27-32; Jas.5:16); and
- 4. Not all physical ailments are Yahweh's punishment for sin. Illness can direct our attention to Elohim (God), deepening our relationship with Him (Gen.32:24-32; 2 Ki.20:1-7; Jn.9:1-38)