The subject of “healing” has probably generated as much discussion among earnest followers of the Lord Jesus, ranging from desperate hope to equally desperate discouragement, and from loving, encouraging ministrations to bitter blaming and recriminations, as any other topic. This study does not pretend to settle all questions, nor to present the elusive, infallible formula which so many have sought – or arrogantly claimed to have discovered. It merely seeks to offer, by means of examination of the vocabulary used in the New Testament, a bit of insight that may be helpful as we try to learn, to discern, and to follow our Lord’s instructions.
He did, after all, empower and instruct his disciples, when he sent them around the nearby countryside, to “heal the weak [sick], raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Mt.10:8 and parallels), as they announced the arrival of his Kingdom. Similar instructions are included in Mark’s version (16:17,18) of the Great Commission, and in the experience of the early church as recorded in Acts. Healing had been a significant part of Jesus’ own ministry, with at least 40 instances recorded in the gospels. Although some of these refer to the same events, the count would be even higher if we were to include cleansing lepers, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and mobility to the lame and paralyzed, that don’t specifically use the word “heal.” Some of the lesser manuscripts include “to heal those with broken [crushed] hearts” in Jesus’ announcement of his mission in Lk.4:18.
There can be no question, then, that healing is intended to have a significant place in the ministry of Jesus’ followers. An examination of the vocabulary expands that responsibility tremendously.
Of the words denoting healing, therapeuo (v.), with 38 translations as “heal”, 5 as “cure”, and one as “worship”, and its noun equivalent therapeia, 2x “healing” and 2x “household”, are by far the most common.
Historically, these words were much more versatile, including “to do service (to gods or men), to honor parents or wait on a master, to care for a person, to treat medically, to mend garments, to train animals, to cultivate land, to prepare food or drugs”! It would be an interesting exercise to consider some of these as alternative translations! Perhaps there is more involved than we realize in Jesus’ instructions.
The other word, more exclusively referring to medical healing, iaomai (v) “heal” 26x and “make whole” 2x, and iasis (n) “healing” 1x and “cure”1x, was also more restricted historically, listed as “to heal, cure, or attempt to do so, to treat disease, to repair or remedy, to be healed, to recover.”
Ten times, the verb sozo is used. This is treated in #5, being more often traditionally rendered “save”.
The conditions from which people are “healed” are likewise varied.
Arrostos (5x) is used of any sickliness, or bad state of health. In the plural, it referred to epidemics. Only rarely does it describe moral weakness.
Astheneo (20x), asthenes (22x), astheneia (22x), asthenema (2x), is by far the most frequently used, and the most ambiguous. In traditional translations, the noun and the adjective are more frequently rendered “weak, weakness” and the verb more often “be sick”, but lexically, they all carry both meanings, as well as “to be needy, to be unable to do something, to be without power (opposite of dunamis) or influence, poverty, want of strength, feeble, sickly, or morally weak.” That pretty well covers most “needs”!
Kamno, used only 3x (Jas.5:15, Rv.2:3, Heb.12:3) can refer to physical illness, but its primary lexical meaning is “to be weary or fatigued from work or exertion”, as well as “to win by toil” and “to meet with disaster”!
Malakia, used only of disease, is seen only in Matthew 4:23, 9:35, and 10:1, each time in tandem with
nosos (12 occurrences), which is a broader term, including “sickness, disease, distress, anguish, disease of the mind” (L/S), and (Bauer) “vice or character defect”. These latter two words appear exclusively in the synoptics, except for a single case in Ac.19:12.
With this semantic background, we can see that James’ choice of vocabulary in 5:13-16 may be more significant than we commonly realize. Only once does he employ the most common (and most ambiguous) of the words, when he addresses asthenei tis “whoever is sick / needy / weak /unable to function properly”. This is about as broad a category as you can imagine. Such a person is encouraged to call upon the elders for prayer (#91) and anointing (#155) in the name (#24) of the Lord – as his representatives and on his behalf. The prayer of the faithful (#1) is represented as the agent of “saving / rescuing” (#5) the supplicant, who is described as kamnonta, for which “worn-out” or “exhausted” is at least as valid a rendition as “sick”, thus greatly expanding the “eligible clientele” for such merciful service. IF he has somehow brought it on himself (note, that is NOT assumed), by either deliberate or immature behavior (v.15), that condition will also be remedied. This is the context for James’ admonition to the mutual confession and prayer, whose goal is revealed to be perhaps beyond our idea of merely physical healing, by the use of iathete, rather than a form of therapeuo, which includes deliverance from all sorts of ills or suffering, as well as the cure of disease.
How beautifully are the Lord’s people utterly dependent upon one another!
Other than that one instance, we have no record of a pre-condition being imposed upon any person in need of healing. It is true that Jesus remarked upon the faithfulness of the friends who carried a paralytic to him for healing (Lk.5:20), rebuked the disciples who had been unable to heal a child (Lk.9:41), and challenged the child’s father to trust him (Mk.9:22-24), but he made no such demand upon any person in need! In at least one case (Jn.5:13), the person didn’t even know who had healed him!
I suspect there are very good reasons for which the specific illnesses or disabilities are usually not clearly identified. The preponderance of references are to “all manner of” or “divers diseases”, “infirmities”, or simply “all who had need of healing.”
It is also true that while amazing healings bore testimony to the power of Jesus in the New Testament church (Ac.3 and 4, 8:7, 9:17-18, 14:9, 19:11-12, 20:10, 28:8), there were also occasions when healing did not take place (Gal.4:13, I Tim.5:23, I Cor.2:3, Phil.2:26-27, II Tim.4:20). We still face similar dilemmas.
There is no prescribed formula offered to “guarantee” healing. Jesus often accomplished it with a touch, and at other times simply with a word. On occasion, the disciples were instructed to apply oil (Mk.6:13, Jas.5:13-16), but this was not “standard procedure”.
Someone once suggested that the plague of “denominations” began when three blind men whom Jesus had healed, met each other at a “healing meeting.” One boasted that all it had required was a single touch of the Master’s hand (Mt.20:30). Another argued that wasn’t sufficient (Mk.8:25), but that a second touch was necessary in order to see clearly. The third maintained adamantly that unless Jesus put mud on your eyes, you had not experienced “the real thing.” So instead of rejoicing together at the mercy they had been shown, each went off to start his own church, criticizing the others for “teaching false doctrine”!
We are also not provided with any easy explanation of why, although many of us today can also point to times when the Lord has graciously intervened with his gift of healing, we have to acknowledge that , as we saw in the New Testament accounts as well, this does not always happen. Blaming the victim, as we have seen above, is unwarranted – and also cruel.
Notice, also, that neither Jesus nor his disciples ever urged anyone to “claim” or “believe” a healing in the absence of any observable evidence.
When unsuccessful disciples asked Jesus why they had been unable to help a child (Mk.9:29), his reply was a need for prayer (some manuscripts add “fasting”). We all have a lot to learn about that! (See #91)
There may be another key, in I Cor.11:30, where Paul suggests that simply going through the motions of some ritual without “discerning the Lord’s Body” (#84) may account for the weakness, sickliness, or even death, of some members of the group. Healing is listed among the functions described in a healthy Body, in the following chapter (12).
Might we become a more successful demonstration of our Lord’s Kingdom, if we allowed ourselves to be built more completely into a united, interactive Body? (Please see chapter 7 of Citizens of the Kingdom).
This concept needs a lot more attention than it receives.
In addition to “healing”, the Lord’s people are urged to “support the weak” (I Thes.5:14), to exercise patience with those whose conscience is weak (I Cor.8:7-10), and to recognize the value of members who “seem” to be more weak (“feeble”) (I Cor.12:22). Although a person “weak in faithfulness” (Rom.14:1,2, 21) is not to be included in discussions requiring mature discernment, the “strong” are admonished to “bear with” their weakness, for their benefit (Rom.15:1). These are all necessary functions of a Body, although they would be merely a nuisance to an institution, which simply eliminates those who are perceived not to “fit”. The Lord never told his people to form – or to become – an institution.
It is deliberate, that this study does not end with a summary, or a coherent conclusion.
I have none to offer.
I merely present these observations in the hope of their being augmented and corrected by yours.
May we help each other toward both faithfulness and wholeness.