Anyone familiar with Jesus knows he spent a lot of time healing people. Those healings seem so foreign to modern disciples, as if from a far away land, the stuff of mythology or fiction. Yet, his healing ministry didn't stick with him; Jesus spread his power to heal into the lives of his followers. Does this mean that we too, as modern disciples, should practice healing? What should we expect when praying for it? Let's take a quick look at the 1st century to get our bearings. Then, we can turn to our response in the 21st century.
Imitating the Healer
To set the stage, there is a three part narrative cycle to Jesus’ ministry (Lk. 5-8): 1) Proclaim the kingdom message, 2) Perform an exorcism, and 3) Perform a healing. It’s a cycle of proclaiming the kingdom message and performing miracles. Jesus starts in this cycle (Lk. 4), calls twelve disciples to join him (Lk. 5-6), and then repeats the narrative cycle: kingdom message/exorcism/healing four times (Lk. 7-8). When we zoom in, Jesus proclaims the kingdom message through the parable of The Four Soils, exorcises the Gerasene Demoniac, heals Jarius’ daughter, and a woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years (Lk. 8). He is proclaiming the kingdom message and performing miracles.
Then Jesus sends his disciples on a mission of their own (Lk. 9). Notice what they’re doing: “And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal” (Lk. 9:1-2). Proclaim the kingdom message, perform exorcisms, perform healings. The same things in the same exact order. Coincidence? Hardly.
It happens again, but with seventy-two disciples instead of twelve--representing Jesus mission to all nations, not just Israel (Lk. 10; cf. Gen. 10). Why the repetition? Jesus does it four times, disciples do it twice. This narrative weight is telling us that disciples of Jesus imitate Jesus. Disciples of Jesus don’t just believe in him for a nice afterlife; they imitate him in everyday life.
Have you ever seen children imitate their parents or younger siblings imitate older ones? They pick up on mannerisms and patterns of speech. They talk and act like them. I recently met someone’s sister, and I knew right away they were related because of shared mannerisms. My wife tells me our son acts “just like me.” As disciples of Jesus, we should talk and act like Jesus, pick up on his behavior and imitate it. Jesus even says as much: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (6:40).
If you are a Christian, you are a disciple who is being trained by the Holy Spirit to act like Jesus (cf. 6:36). What are we to imitate? Clearly, it’s not everything, like dying on a cross. Jesus is committed to preaching and healing; he’s equally committed to raising up disciples who do the same thing. Luke underscores this “And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (Lk. 6:6). Jesus sends his disciples to preach and heal, not preach and serve or preach and study. As modern people, imitating this part of Jesus ministry often seems absurd, out of reach, unrealistic.
Skepticism of Miracles
Regardless of Luke’s careful historiography, we find this all very implausible today. Demons, exorcisms, healings? Before we can begin to imitate Jesus healing, we must first address our own skepticism. There is a healthy skepticism. We’ve seen enough 20/20 exposes on charismatic shysters who fake healings to rake in tithes. We shouldn’t check our minds at the door. But, as modern people, we also possess an unhealthy skepticism.
Mythological, Supernatural View
Our unhealthy skepticism views healings like Harry Potter magic—mythological, supernatural events. As myth, we think of healing as something from a wild imagination (a potion poured out on a wound for instant healing). We treat miracles as rationally implausible.
We believe that science has proven miracles to be impossible. But this belief, is in fact not a provable fact. The scientific method insists on natural causes for everything. But how then can you naturally disprove a supernatural explanation? You can’t test a supernatural hypothesis with a natural scientific method. This has been compared to a drunk looking for his keys only in the light, simply because he cannot see in the dark. But what if the keys are in the dark? See the contradiction? This shows us that even science, at times, requires faith; that answers may actually lie in the dark.
Theological & Natural View
The theological view starts with belief in God (without ruling out belief in science). It’s natural because miracles have a lot to do with the natural order of things. For Jesus and his disciples, healing has to do with God overthrowing the powers. Luke scholar Joel Green points out that when Jesus encounters disease, he treats it as evil. Jesus rebukes disease like he rebukes demons. He rebukes a fever (4:39) and in the same chapter rebukes a demon (vv. 35, 41). Jesus is confronting, not just the disease, but the power behind the disease. Satan is falling and the kingdom of God advancing as they preach and heal. Disciples are sent to not only preach, but to heal and exorcise demons.
Healings, then, are a direct confrontation of the powers of this world that would have the world undone, broken, and in complete disarray. Peter confirms this theological reading when he says of Jesus: “he healed all who were under the power of the devil” (Acts 10:38). When Jesus comes into the world, he sees right through disease to its origin—evil—and he confronts it. Like a good doctor, he gets past the symptoms to the cause and cures it. Healing is an overthrowing of the powers that propagate suffering and evil in this world, reintroducing us to God.
We are encountering, not the mythological, but the theological, the logic of God against the powers. Miracles aren’t supernatural, but natural. They are about the abnormal becoming normal; the natural order of things being restored; miracles are about restoration of creation. They’re not otherworldly magical events; they are this-worldy natural events.
Jesus restores in two ways. The obvious way is that the sick are restored to health, dead brought back to life. The not so obvious way is their restoration into community. Often when Jesus heals he expresses concern for the damage done to social and communal life. Jesus is concerned with their status, their acceptance, their relationships. Jesus encounters a Gadarene man (Lk. 8), a former urbanite, who now lives in rural graveyards, where he wears no clothing, cuts himself, and is bound by chains, which he breaks over and over again. He wasn’t always this way. He used to be a boy, someone’s son. Imagine what his deranged state did to his relationships, to his community.
The better view of miracles is theological and natural; it overthrows the powers and restores creation and community. Story after story, Jesus not only confronts the powers, but also restores his creation--a widow’s son returned to her from death, a woman marginalized for twelve years restored in peace to her community. Evil banished, health restored; isolation removed, community recovered.
Miracles for Modern Disciples
So how are we to respond as modern disciples of Jesus? In 2010, I was brought close to the desire for healing, for the powers of disease to be overthrown and creation to be restored. We were in Dallas for Thanksgiving. At 3:30am on Friday morning, my wife thought her water had broken. She was nineteen weeks pregnant. We combed the internet for advice, texted our doctor, prayed for healing, and fell asleep. By 9am, we were at Baylor Hospital’s ER at our doctor’s request. Every possible scenario was flying through our minds—stillborn, miscarriage, birth to an incomplete baby. If there was a time to ask God for miracle, this was one of them.
Our son made it through that scare, but when he was actually born his heart rate kept dropping drastically. Nurses and doctors would burst into the room unannounced in the wee hours of the morning to check on my wife and little Owen. This happened over and over again. I kept praying for healing. We found out that the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and when Robie went into contractions, he would move down the birth canal, tightening the cord around his neck. This sent the monitors screaming. We prayed and pleaded, and by God's grace, the cord came undone and he was delivered naturally, without a scratch.
I've prayed for my son's life and my daughter's eye and they've been delivered, but also asked God to intervene in other people's lives and their suffering only persisted. Sometimes God heals and sometimes he does not. As I’ve pondered healing for today, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should pray with great faith in the power of God to heal and with, perhaps, greater faith in God not to heal. Very often, as we pray, our faith slips into healing and away from God. We get hung up on healing instead of trusting in the Healer.
Even if God does heal, the disease of death is inevitable. Why, then, should we seek temporary healing? What is God doing when he interrupts our lives with temporal relief? Are they displays of deity? In Luke, Jesus’ healings don’t so much prove deity as they do explain the gospel. We are sent to proclaim the gospel and heal. Healing always comes in tandem with preaching. Jesus is showing us that the gospel announces and inaugurates the restoration of all things, restoring the world to the way it is supposed to be. When miracles happen we get a glimpse into the past, the way things were before Satan fell and, and a glimpse into the future, the way things will be when the powers are overthrown once and for all at Jesus second coming.
The gospel is a message of reversal, the reversal of everything back to its blessed, original state—whole not broken, health not sickness, life not death, community not isolation. Disciples of Jesus have stepped into a space and time rift, where the glory and power of God are seeping into our world, renewing people, culture, and creation. The problem is that many of us barely have our foot in the door. Our minds are broken, captive to the mythologized, supernatural view of all things. The gospel liberates us from this to believe and know a God who overthrows the powers and restores creation. Jesus has come to re-integrate the world to a place where there is no supernatural/natural, mythological/rational division. He’s rescuing us from our captivate minds and is pressing his kingdom of new creation back into this warped world. He’s turning it inside-out, showing us the way it’s supposed to be.
If it is true that Jesus is restoring creation, removing the supernatural/natural/sacred/secular divide, then we should reflect that reintegration in our work and play. The future of restoration should peak out, not just in prayers for healing but in ways of working and living. If we are imitators of Christ, we should talk and act like Christ in everything we do. The problem is many of us are bound by the mythological view of Jesus, that he is practical fiction. People can’t tell that the gospel dissolves the sacred/secular divide because we uphold it by the way we live. We refuse holiness; we make shoddy culture; we consume the city; we ignore the poor. Your ethics, your holiness, your language, your dress, your work, your play all say something about Jesus, about the gospel.
Does your life reverberate with the age of restoration? Are we discovering new cures, making breakthroughs in technology, making great art, raising good citizens, displaying the imitation of Christ to our city? The restoration of all things, the reintegration of the mythological and the rational, the sacred and the secular. We are sent, like the twelve and the seventy-two, to preach and to heal, to heal our society through caring for the poor, counseling the troubled, creating great culture, raising great citizens, making great art, living distinct and holy lives. If we are disciples, our lives should demand a gospel explanation. Should we pray for healing? Absolutely. But we should also live the healing, the healing of all creation through the power of Christ is us, the hope of glory!
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of City Life Church in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Unbelievable Gospel, and Raised? He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others.