Two questions came in to Jonny after his recent sermon on Miracles. Here, he seeks to address them.
- Jonny said in his sermon that only apostles (and Philip) heal anyone in the book of Acts, but what about Ananias in Acts 9:17-19?
- Could you talk some more about your observation that only a few people seem to have been used in healing in Acts and what that might mean for us today in the church?
No sermon questions for a while and then suddenly 2 in one sermon! The question of who does the healing in Acts (or who doesn’t) was one of the things that struck me most in my sermon prep, and I did leave it hanging a little, so thank you to those who asked questions about it. Hopefully, I can help us think this through a little more, particularly related to how it actually should affect our practice.
First though, let’s get the awkward bit out of the way…
Yes, I admit it- I missed Ananias. Apologies. I could smooth this over in any number of ways, but the fact of the matter is that I simply missed him.
While I’m at it on the apologies, listening back to the West site recording, I wonder if there may be another clarification to make too. I made an accompanying point in the sermon that Paul seemed to heal more regularly when ministering to Jews than Gentiles, and while I stand by that point generally, I do want to make it clear that he did heal Gentiles. Lystra (Acts 14:8-13) and Ephesus (Acts 19:11-12) would be two good examples (alongside Malta, which I mentioned). I meant to highlight that he didn’t heal anyone in Athens (Acts 17) and, apart from Malta, any time from his capture in Acts 21 up until his imprisonment in Rome at the end of the book, but I think what I said could have suggested something slightly more sweeping.
I am genuinely sorry about this mistake and this imprecision as I recognise that preaching is a big responsibility and it is important to actually get facts correct.
So, with all that cleared up, I’ll try to redeem myself by addressing the second question, because despite these errors, the general point still stands- it seems that only a few people were involved in healing people in the book of Acts. And the majority of healings are carried out by apostles. What should we do with this perhaps surprising realisation?
In short, I think that it helps us once again to maintain a helpful balance in our view of healing, because the New Testament seems to encourage all believers to pray for the sick expectantly, but at the same time, it makes very clear that we should seek out the gift of healing particularly, and that those with this gift will do the majority of healings. So let’s look at both of the sides of this story.
Why should all believers pray for the sick expectantly?
The main place we get this is from the ministry of Jesus. Jesus healed loads of people. No surprises there. But then he sent out his 12 disciples to do the same (Luke 9). Again, pretty obvious. But he didn’t stop there. He also sent out the 72 in the same vein- ‘heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The Kingdom of God is near you.’ (Lk 10:9). It’s hard to read these passages without getting the sense that to be a follower of Jesus during his time on earth, meant to pray for the sick with an expectation that you’d see people healed.
Yes, these guys were in a slightly unique situation, but I think we must take this seriously as Christians today. Basically, if you’re a follower of Jesus today, as we must still announce the coming of God’s kingdom, we should look to pray for people who don’t know Jesus, in faith that God will heal at least some of them as a sign pointing towards him and his kingdom.
One final point on this is that there is at least a hint in Jesus’ commission to his followers that we should look to continue to heal the sick. In Mt 28:18-19, he says ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go…’ As the gospel writers frequently make the link between Jesus’ authority and his healings, it would not be a massive leap to read this into the Great Commission too.
Why should we look for those with the gift of healing especially?
With that last point made though (and Ananias’ example duly noted), the rest of the New Testament does seem to go strangely quiet on healings. I’ve talked about Acts already, but the strangest thing I noted in my sermon prep in this whole area is that in Paul’s letters, there are no instructions to Christians to heal the sick at all!
Paul refers to miracles he’s done (eg Rom 15:18-19), but in his writings, he never instructs anyone to pray for the sick. As Pauline scholar G. H. Twelftree mentions:
‘The only place where Paul refers directly to healing of illness is when he mentions gifts, or ‘charismata of healings… in his list of gifts of the spirit (1 Cor 12:9)’
And I think that this reference is crucial. In the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12:9 (all of which we are to eagerly desire) he mentions that the Spirit gives to some ‘gifts of healing’. Later in the chapter he lists a number of specially gifted people who God has given to the church, including ‘workers of miracles’ (1 Cor 12:28). It is worth noting that right after this, he asks rather strikingly- ‘do all work miracles?’ (1 Cor 12:29). The context suggests that Paul thought the answer was ‘no’.
Now I recognise that we must treat this topic with some caution. Just because Acts describes things in a certain way, it doesn’t mean necessarily that we should do things in that way (for example, just because only a few people healed others in Acts, it doesn’t definitely follow that we should have the same expectation). Also, we’ve got to be aware that just because Paul doesn’t tell anyone to heal anyone that he didn’t think they should (he didn’t tell us to stretch before exercise or to eat our greens or even to breathe either!)
Finally, it must be noted that the New Testament is not silent on this matter. We are all encouraged to pray for one another with an expectation of healing in at least one verse outside of the gospels. It’s found in James 5:16:
‘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.’
Well that seems pretty clear cut then! However, as always we’d be wise to check out the context. This is what James writes two verse previously:
‘Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well’
Wait a minute- who should do the healing then? Everyone or the elders?
I don’t know about you, but I think I can see a pattern developing here. James’ teaching seems like a very good summary of all we’ve seen:
- We should all pray for the sick, expectant that God can heal through us, but…
- We must recognise that some people will move in this gifting more than others (the apostles in Acts, the elders for James, those who have ‘gifts of healing’ for Paul)
What should we do as a result of this?
But that does still leave us with the original question- what do we do with all of this?
I wonder whether, as a church, we’ve been so keen to highlight the ‘pray for each other’ side of things, that we’ve underplayed the importance of seeking out and stirring up the special spiritual gifts of healing. As I gave examples of healings I’d witnessed at Churchcentral in this sermon, I was struck by the fact that the same people seemed to be involved in most of the healings I could remember. Recognising this shouldn’t deter the rest of us from praying for people whenever the opportunity arises, but it should help us do the following:
- Ask God for ‘gifts of healing’ for ourselves. We are encouraged to especially desire prophecy, but as for the other gifts, I wonder whether in practice we ask for, say, the gift of tongues more than ‘gifts of healing’. This is something to seek God for.
- If we want to grow in this gift, we should seek out those with this gift. Do you know who at Churchcentral seems to exhibit this gift? If so, get alongside them. Try to get in their Life Group. Ask them to pray with you and talk to you about it.
- If you are sick or have friends who are sick, while it is right and good for you to pray for them (you too can be an Ananias!) you may want to look for opportunities to go to those who have a track record of using the gift of healing more regularly too.
Now, just one final thing. Where do the elders (or apostles for that matter) fit into this today? Well, as already noted, there does seem to be a link between healing and authority (Luke 7:1-10, 9:1) and that may be why there is an expectation that church leaders will move in healing more than others. To be honest, I’m still thinking this one through, but what I can say with certainty is that the elders would be more than happy to pray for you if you want us to, so please feel free to take us up on that offer!