When the men came to Jesus, they said, 'John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else ?''
At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, 'Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.' (Luke 7:18-23)
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, John the Baptist was imprisoned by King Herod in Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea and some way from Galilee. Yet a number of the disciples who had followed him during his desert ministry remained loyal to him, and visited him in prison. It was they who kept him informed of the momentous events taking place in the outside world. John had announced the coming of Jesus, the one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire (Lk 3:15-18). It was Jesus, the glorious and terrible Messiah, who would gather the wheat into his barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (3:17). John the Baptist had of course, personally encountered Jesus before his imprisonment. Indeed it was John who had baptised Jesus and pointed him out to the onlookers as the Son of God (Jn 1:34). But, watching events anxiously from his prison cell, it seems that John had become concerned, even disillusioned. Month after dreary month had gone by. Where were the dramatic acts of salvation and judgment that the Messiah was going to perform? When was the kingdom of heaven, the new Messianic age going to be instituted? When would the hateful Roman occupiers together with the traitorous collaborators like Herod, be given their just deserts?
So John sends his disciples to Jesus with a straight and pointed question. He wants reassurance - and perhaps he also wants to urge Jesus into a dramatic action of self-revelation. Are you really the Messiah or should we expect someone else? Prove yourself, Jesus! So what is Jesus' reply? Where is the proof that he really is who he claims to be? Jesus points to the visible and public evidence. He tells John's disciples to go back and simply relate to him what they have seen with their own eyes, and what they have heard from other witnesses. It is the healing miracles which are the outward evidence, the authenticating signs of Messiahship. Jesus is reminding John of the signs of the Messianic kingdom foretold by Isaiah - 'then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.' (Is 35:5-6)
The New Testament writers often used the Greek word seimeion, a sign, to refer to the healing miracles of Jesus. They were signs of authentication: external, objective evidence to authenticate and verify the personal claims of Jesus. They were public signposts pointing to the Messiah. Of course the Gospel writers also emphasised that the healings were motivated by compassion, they were signs of God's love in practical action. But the healing miracles were objective proof, incontrovertible evidence for a cynical and disbelieving generation. Several commentators have pointed out the distinguishing features of Jesus' healing miracles:
- They nearly all involved permanent, major disease that was recognised to be incurable by the physicians of the day. Paralysis, leprosy, congenital blindness, and, of course, death itself- pretty irreversible by most medical criteria!
- The healing occurred instantaneously with or without the direct contact of Christ.
- The healing was complete. There are no recorded instances of partial healing.
- The healing was apparently permanent. There are no recorded instances of relapse.
- The healing was always successful. There are no recorded instances of failure.
- The healing was unambiguously miraculous. No first century physician however cynical could come along and say of Lazarus raised from the dead, 'Well it probably would have happened anyway'!
So what about the claims for healing miracles in the Christian church today? No Christian in the health professions can avoid the question for long. The issue is a live one in all Christian denominations at present. What is our attitude to the healing 'miracles' that are reported so widely? This is a controversial subject and Christians are still deeply divided on the subject.
First of all, it does seem pretty clear to me that most of the Christian healings that are reported today appear to be very different in nature from the healing miracles of the Gospels. They frequently involve minor disease such as back-ache, colds, hayfever, legs of unequal length. The healing often occurs gradually and progressively, not instantaneously. It is often partial and temporary in nature. Unexplained failures to heal are recorded by all, even the most gifted healers. Yes, there are many accounts of dramatic healings, especially from pioneer missionary outreach in developing countries, but few of them are well-documented and carefully witnessed. I dare to say that very few of these healing miracles would meet the standards for objective evidence that Dr Luke would demand before he would have added them to his casenotes. The healings are above all ambiguous. Was the healing a miraculous intervention or was it part of a natural, if unexplained, healing process?
With the eye of faith many of these events may be seen as miraculous acts of God. But a cynical and disillusioned world is unlikely to be persuaded. The experiences of the Christian church in healing in the twentieth century do not classify as unambiguous sign-miracles.
Miracles in the Church?
This has led some Christian medical observers to deride the claims for spiritual healing in the Christian church today. They conclude that all so-called healing miracles are merely the working of natural processes overlaid with gullibility and wish-fulfilment. But I cannot come to such a negative conclusion. It is too simplistic to dismiss the whole phenomenon as fraudulent. I believe that God still does on occasion act directly and miraculously to bring healing to individuals, but this is in the context of love and service within the body of Christ and not as sign-miracles for cynical outsiders. Paul mentions gifts (plural) of healing in the context of the other gifts of the Spirit (charisma) (1 Cor 12:9). It is clear that the spiritual gifts were to be an expression of love within the body of Christ, for the mutual upbuilding of the local Christian community. The gifts of the Spirit are not given primarily as evidence for a cynical and disbelieving world. We misuse these gifts if we interpret them as being given for this purpose. The gifts of Spirit are given primarily for upbuilding the body, the believing Christian community. So within the context of the loving and caring community it really doesn't matter if the healing in response to prayer is ambiguous. Perhaps it was God's direct intervention, perhaps it was the doctor's tablets. It seems to me that it doesn't really matter. All healing comes from God anyway.
What signpost today?
But when it comes to Christian outreach to the outsider the situation is rather different. What use is a signpost if it is unclear? When it comes to persuading a cynical and disbelieving society the healing miracles of the contemporary church are not very effective. They are too open to question, doubt and reinterpretation. Evangelism which is based around modern-day healing miracles is likely to be less than totally convincing. So is there no sign for the modern-day cynic? What is the authenticating evidence that Christian truth is really what it claims to be. Perhaps the real signpost is less spectacular but more convincing. 'By this all men will know that you are my disciples,' said Jesus, 'if you love one another' (Jn 13:35). The signpost for an unbelieving and cynical generation is the quality of the relationships in the Christian community, living under the cross. It is not our miracles but our love which should be the most powerful pointer to Jesus. It is commonplace, uncomplicated yet supernatural love, not the weird and spectacular miracle, that has the power to break through the hardened shell that the cynic surrounds himself with. If we wish to be pointers to Jesus then we need to pray, not for more miracles, but for more love.