Matthew 15:1 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” 3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’[a] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[b] 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 “‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”
In such a way Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Is it possible that today in the New Testament Church we are doing what the Pharisees did—setting aside the commands of God in some way in order to observe our human traditions? Man’s traditions can be extremely strong and very difficult to change.
Yes, we New Testament believers have broken free from the Old Testament traditions of the Pharisees. But being human, we can still be subject to man’s traditions which in effect causes us to set aside some of God’s commands. And this is to our own loss.
Let’s examine human traditions versus the commands of God in the area of ministry to the sick in the New Testament.
What the evangelical church today calls “healing prayer” is almost considered sacred, nearly equivalent in importance to sacraments like baptism, Holy Communion, marriage, and so forth. In fact, one of the seven sacraments in Roman Catholicism is “Anointing the Sick.”
Interestingly, however, “healing prayer” as we know it is non-existent in the gospels. Jesus never prayed for the sick as evangelicals do today. Instead he actually healed the sick with the use of authority and power. Neither did he ever teach or command his disciples to pray for the sick as we do today. One wonders how healing prayer rose to the importance it has today in the Church.
Rather in the gospels Jesus clearly commanded his disciples to heal the sick as he did.
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 proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.
Matthew 10:8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
Luke 10:9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
Now our cessationist/dispensationalist brethren can easily deal with such an anomaly simply by decreeing that such miracles have ceased—ergo cessationism. The miracles performed by the disciples in the gospels and Acts were simply a description of what happened back then, and certainly not a prescription for what we should be doing today. We have now entered into a new and different dispensation.
A troubling discrepancy
But non-cessationalists (or “continualists”) need to face the huge discrepancy between how the disciples ministered to the sick in the gospels and Acts on the one hand, and on the other hand how we minister to the sick today in the Church. In the gospels and Acts, we read of many miraculous healings done in the name of Jesus. But when we minister to the sick through traditional healing prayer, we almost never see such miracles.
How do we explain (away) such a discrepancy? Usually we will mutter something about God’s will or God’s time or the faith of the sick person being tested or even lacking. But such explanations can be unsatisfactory since they may be tantamount to sweeping the matter under the rug. Why were such explanations (or excuses) for sick people not being healed not explicitly found in the gospels or in Acts?
Of course we will look to the teaching of James 5 for an explanation.
“Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they 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 person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:14-16)
But even James teaches us that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” James, likely the younger half-brother of the Lord Jesus who very likely witnessed the powerful miracles of his older sibling and then again in Acts as an elder of the Church in Jerusalem, mentioned nothing about God’s will with regard to healing the sick. He mentioned nothing about God healing them through doctors or gradually over time as we so often suggest today. He simply taught that “the prayer of faith” would result in a miraculous healing for the sick person as he himself had likely witnessed in the gospels and in Acts.
What did James mean by “the prayer of faith”? For an understanding of this, let’s look at what he subsequently taught about “the prayer of a righteous person” we know as the prophet Elijah.
How did Elijah “pray” regarding the rain?
James 5:17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
Exactly how did Elijah pray in order for there to be no rain and then for the rain to fall again? Let’s go back to the Old Testament narrative.
1 Kings 17:1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from the Gilead settlers,[a] said to Ahab, “As the Lord God of Israel lives, I stand before Him, and there will be no dew or rain during these years except by my command!” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
1 Kings 17:1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe[a] in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” (NIV)
Elijah’s “prayer” was not traditional prayer to God as we know it today. But rather he spoke forth an authoritative word or command. From this we can begin to gain an understanding of what James meant by “the prayer of faith.”
We can gain even more insight as we conclude that whatever James understood and taught about healing, he must have learned from his older sibling, the Lord Jesus. Nowhere in Scripture it is claimed that James received any special revelation about ministering healing in addition to or different from what Jesus did and taught in the gospels.
How did Jesus minister healing to the sick? Most often he used authority and power. With authority over disease from his Father, he would issue authoritative commands directly to infirmities and to the infirm. Often he would also physically lay hands on or touch the infirm in order for healing power to flow into them.
The exercise of authority by issuing commands was what James learned from the healing ministry of Jesus. And this is also what James saw in the ministry of the prophet Elijah as well who issued commands to the rain. Therefore when James instructs us to “pray over” the sick, he is not speaking about traditional prayer for the sick as we know it. He is talking about the exercise of authority over disease, about laying hands over infirm people for healing power to flow just as Jesus did. Traditional healing prayer results in few if any of the miracles we see in the gospels and in Acts. By stark contrast, when we exercise authority and power over disease as Jesus did, we will not surprisingly often witness miraculous healings.
Jesus taught his disciples to use authority and power
In Luke 9:1-2, Jesus called his disciples and gave them authority and power over diseases and demons before sending them out, commanding them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. They were to minister to the sick and cast out demons exactly as he did.
Luke 9:6 So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.
Merely a description of the past, and not a prescription for us today?
And that is also what we see them doing in Acts when proclaiming the gospel not only to the Jews, but also to the gentiles. Therefore we cannot say that what the early disciples did in Acts was merely a description of what took place back then, and not a prescription for what we should be doing today. In Acts we see the early disciples also healing the sick when preaching the gospel to the gentiles as well as to the Jews.
Acts 9:32 As Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the Lord’s people who lived in Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas, who was paralyzed and had been bedridden for eight years. 34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
According to Bible-History.com, Lydda was not Jewish, but rather pagan. The apostle Paul also healed the sick when proclaiming the gospel to the gentiles.
Acts 14:8 In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. 11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker.
It’s clear that Paul was preaching the gospel to gentiles who mistook him for the Greek god Hermes after he healed the lame man by authoritatively commanding him to stand up on his feet.
We also see Paul laying hands on the sick as Jesus did. After he was shipwrecked off the coast off the island of Malta inhabited by gentiles, he made it to shore but was bitten by a poisonous viper. When he did not die, the gentile islanders said that he was a god. Then the following incident took place on this island.
Acts 28:7 There was an estate nearby that belonged to Publius, the chief official of the island. He welcomed us to his home and showed us generous hospitality for three days. 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.
The sick man was not healed during Paul’s prayer. Rather he was healed when following the prayer Paul laid hands on the man and healed him. This is also how Jesus himself healed the sick.
Luke 4:40 At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.
The point here is that just as the disciples obeyed the Lord’s command to heal the sick when proclaiming the gospel to the Jews, they also did so with gentiles. In the same way we are to preach the gospel to every creature, and to make disciples of all nations.
Luke 10:9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’
Setting aside the commands of God in order to observe our own traditions
Today we are no longer obeying the Lord’s command to “heal the sick” as we proclaim the kingdom of God to the lost or as we minister to sick believers as James taught. Instead we pray to God and ask Him to heal the sick. Indeed healing prayer as such is a wonderful tradition, and would appear very spiritual indeed. Instead of arrogantly trying to do it ourselves, we pray and trust the Lord to do it according to His time and will. And so if and when the person is healed, God gets all the glory. This tradition would sound very spiritual indeed but for the fact that Jesus never commanded us to pray for the sick. Rather he commanded us to heal the sick, especially when sharing the gospel with the lost. And later James would in so many words repeat the teaching he received from Jesus when instructing elders how to minister to sick believers.
We have a fine way of nullifying the word of God for the sake of our tradition. Unfortunately, in some Christian denominations today in the West remaining faithful to the word of God can put one’s job or position at risk. In order to justify our tradition, we can be tempted to elevate our tradition almost to the level of the word of God. This has been done by otherwise very faithful and fruitful servants of God.