In the New Testament Church today we often hear the expression “prayer for the sick.” This is based mostly on the instructions in James Chapter 5 regarding ministry to infirm believers.
James 5:14 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. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 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.
Note that James teaches both “praying over” the sick as well as “praying for” each other. These two different phrases reflect differences in the Greek prepositions. The meaning of “praying over” someone is not immediately obvious. Moreover, this is the only instance of this particular expression in the Bible. The fact that James uses the two different expressions “praying over” and “praying for” can signify that they in fact carry different meanings.
For the meaning of “praying over” the sick, please see the other relevant articles in this section.
Without discussing the possible meaning of the expression “praying over,” let us look at how Jesus and the disciples ministered to the infirm in the gospels and Acts.
It is not recorded in the gospels that Jesus ever prayed for the sick as is done by the Church today. At the very least, there is not recorded a single miraculous healing in which the miracle was a direct result of his prayer to the Father on behalf of the afflicted person. Rather, Jesus was able to heal the infirm himself by virtue of the authority and power over disease which the Father gave him when he was anointed by the Holy Spirit.
In the same way, it is not recorded that the miraculous healings performed by the disciples in the gospels were ever a direct result of their prayer to the Father (or to Jesus) on behalf of the afflicted. Since Jesus had given them power and authority over demons and diseases, he sent them out and commanded them to heal the sick.
Luke 9:1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. …6 So they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people everywhere.
Luke 10:1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. 9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God is near you.’
Similarly in Acts, the disciples did not simply pray for the sick; they healed the sick in Jesus’ name with the authority given to them by the Lord. The one instance in Acts where direct prayer to God was involved in a miraculous healing is found in the final chapter.
Acts 28:8 His father was sick in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him.
Even in this case, the healing took place after Paul prayed when he placed his hands on him and healed him.
In light of this, it is surprising that down through the centuries the Church has clung to the practice of simply praying for the sick and asking the Father to heal in the name of Jesus Christ. As we have just seen, support in Scripture for the traditional way of praying for the sick is relatively weak in comparison to the voluminous support for directly healing the sick as Jesus taught and commanded his disciples to do. In Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John one cannot find a single command from Jesus to his disciples to pray for the sick as is done by the Church today.
Without a doubt, the sick have been healed through traditional healing prayer to the Father in Jesus’ name. God is sovereign and can heal in the way that He chooses, sometimes in direct response to prayer or through gifted people. But healing miracles today are rare by the standards of the Book of Acts where miracles were powerful, instant, and numerous—spurring the rapid growth of the Church. Why are such miraculous healings relatively rare in the Church today?
They are rare primarily because the Church has failed to heal the sick in the way that Jesus taught and commanded his disciples 2,000 years ago. Healing the sick has rarely if ever been taught down through the history of the Church. Even in Acts, it is not clearly recorded that the original disciples taught the new believers to heal the sick as Jesus had taught them while he was still with them. Jesus had commanded the original disciples to teach these things to the later disciples:
Matthew 28:18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
But it is not clear in Acts that the new disciples were taught to heal the sick and cast out demons in the context of proclaiming the Kingdom of God to the lost.
At this time in the history of the Church, it is time to learn what Jesus taught and commanded his original disciples to do. If we do not do this, the Church will not be able to complete the Great Commission, especially in Third World countries where the lost demand to see miracles. We can begin by examining the “theology of helplessness” which has paralyzed the Church for centuries, if not millennia. According to this theology, believers are completely helpless to do anything in the realm of the supernatural which is beyond our natural ability. Our responsibility is simply to pray and fast and wait patiently on God to move. Although there is some truth to this, the wholesale acceptance of this theology without exception has resulted in the weak and almost laughably ineffective Church that represents Jesus Christ in the very skeptical and fallen world of the 21st Century.
That this theology is now prevalent in the Church can be easily demonstrated. To our ears the phrase “healing the sick” supernaturally smacks of arrogance, presumption, and false teaching. In contrast, the more humble phrase “prayer for the sick” is commonly used and accepted. But this is not in accordance with Scripture. It is now time to re-evaluate our precious tradition in light of the word of God. There is no reason why ministry to the sick today should be so different from the way in which Jesus and the disciples ministered to the sick in the gospels and Acts. The only reason would be that based on the doctrine of cessationism which teaches that after the passing of the original apostles, miracles ceased.