Has the church the mandate to heal?
To evangelists and preachers it is frequently said: “You are neglecting the command to heal!” Healing is supposedly part of the Gospel ministry and without this element one does not have a “full Gospel”. Does the New Testament really teach this view?
A brief survey
In the Old Testament salvation is announced or predicted. One example of this feature can be seen in the Proto-Gospel of Genesis 3:15.
In the Gospels salvation is presented as accomplished, as literally spoken in John 19:30: “It is finished.”
In the Book of Acts salvation is proclaimed. Acts 13:38-39 exemplifies this truth:
Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.
In the Epistles (from Romans to Jude) salvation is explained. Paul establishes, for example, in Romans 8:23: …we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
In Revelation salvation is completed. See for example Revelation 12:10: And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ:…
The Preaching in the Book of Acts
Evident from all the sermons recorded in the Book of Acts is that forgiveness from guilt and sin are offered in fulfillment of Luke 24:47. It is also clear that healing from all diseases of the body is never connected with this.
Why would the preaching of the Gospel offer only forgiveness of sins to men – even in the Book of Acts – and never healing from disease? When Peter told Cornelius: To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins, should he have added: “and healing from disease” if this were so?
Peter, of all people, was much earlier given a direct command from Jesus to heal men (Matt. 10:8). Would the apostles have forgotten to mention such a supposedly important element of their mission?
But they fulfilled rather the great commission of Jesus:
Thus it is written, and thus it behoved Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day: and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And ye are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).
That was the content of their message. Compare the following passages: Acts 2:38; 11:18; 13:38-39; 15:11; 17:30-31; 26:18 etc. The main point is forgiveness from guilt.
Healings do occur – even as mentioned in this book of Scripture – and many are quite spectacular. But healing is never the intention of any message as though it were an element of salvation.
Nevertheless some Charismatic circles insist that we have to heal the sick because God never changes. This claim they would prove from Matt. 10:8 and Luke 10:9. Here the imperative to heal the sick is evident. This kind of conclusion is easily drawn and propagated in an age like ours when dispensational thought gradually disappears.
It is true that God never changes (Mal. 3:6). But God often deals differently with His creatures (Heb. 1:1-2). A discerning reader of the New Testament understands that the Church of Jesus was born on the day of Pentecost and thus the New Covenant of Golgotha began (Luke 22:20). All the ministry of the apostles before that day, which occurred during the earthly ministry of our Lord, and everything they experienced was connected with His work among the people of Israel. The Church and the New Testament had not yet come into being. In Matthew 10 we see how the Master sent out the Twelve. He explicitly commanded them: Got not into the way of the Gentiles…but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (verses 5-6). In this context the Lord commands (verse 8): Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers…etc.
Mark 6:12-13 belongs to this same category: And they went out, and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.
This passage is descriptive of the events but does not include an imperative. In any case the events occurred before the New Testament Church Age.
The emphasis shifts, however, in the Book of Acts, as already mentioned. When the Church Age began the message centered on the sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Something unique and unbelievable had occurred. The Lamb of God, that carries the sins of the world, paid the price for all transgressions with His blood. God justifies the sinner (Rom. 4:5). This is the main theme of the disciples of Jesus. That was their “full Gospel”.
The Great Commissions
Many in these “empowered” circles appeal readily to the Great Commissions, only that they favor the passage in Mark 16. Luke mentions the central theme of forgiveness of sins, as already pointed out above. This forgiveness is preached in the name of Jesus and that is exactly what the apostles did (chapter 24:46-48). John speaks of the mission and also puts the emphasis on forgiveness (chapter 20:21-23).
Some slick interpreters of Scripture think to have found a command for healing in Matt. 28:19-20. John Wimber, for example, claimed that Matt. 10:8 is the fulfillment of Matt. 28. We have already indicated that Matthew 10 refers to the pre-church ministry among the Jews and has nothing to do with the Church Age. The nations are not brought into the mission before Matt. 28:19. These well known phrases on making disciples, baptizing and teaching have to do with a new ministry.
If one insists on healings, one cannot only want to take healing literally but also raising the dead should be part of the proper ministry of preachers. And not only that, but one ought also to leave his billfold and suitcase along with his second shirt at home (Matt. 10:9-10). It is strange that a different kind of life-style be found among those who claim to preach a “full” Gospel or Gospel of wealth, to put it mildly.
Honest exegesis does not permit us to take one point in a context literally – and go to town with it – and at the same time circumvent the other points. Similarly is the fate of Mark 16:17-18 at the hands of all kinds of cults and false teachers throughout church history (Montanists, Gnostics, Mormons, Christian Scientists, New-Apostolics, modern Gnostics and others).
Typically only tongues, exorcism and the laying of hands on the sick are picked out of the list in verses 17 and 18. But then also the drinking of poison and lifting up of snakes ought to be included as normal circumstances to a “power” evangelism. But this is not something common, but rather unusual.
An important observation: these verses do not use the imperative but the indicative form. (The variant reading and questions regarding textual criticism is an issue for itself, since the oldest known manuscripts do not include this passage.)
But , as is often the case, cultists and false teachers are characterized by taking difficult or debated Bible passages and using them to build a massive structure of doctrine.
Israel waited for the establishment of the Kingdom of God when Messiah comes (Matt. 4:17). If the nation had not rejected the Messiah, they may have seen the erecting of the messianic kingdom of peace. This included healing of disease, among other things, as the prophet Isaiah declared that one would be considered a child if he died in that dispensation 100 years of age (Isaiah 65:20).
This much can be said, that a pre-fulfillment occurred when Jesus publicly ministered before the beginning of the Church. He confronted Israel with the offer of the kingdom. As Lord he healed the sick (Matt. 8:16-17). The concept of the Church is only mentioned twice in the Gospels, only in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17 and nowhere in Mark, Luke or John.
But Israel rejected his Savior. Salvation passed to the Gentiles. In this age of the Church we have no command to heal. We must emphasize however, that God is still with us and can heal, and He apparently does this especially in pioneer evangelism.
The promise that the Messiah would bear our “grieves” (German: diseases, Is. 53:4) will surely find its ultimate fulfillment in the Millennium under the Messiah’s government at His second coming. At that time all the other promises of the lasting peace etc. will be fulfilled literally.
The Explanation of the Epistles
For us as the Church of the Lord salvation is explained in the Epistles. There we never find a command to heal. We do have a command to pray for those who are ill (James 5:14ff). We ought to have more courage and faith in this respect. Repeatedly we hear how God has healed or given believers improved health or recovery when this biblical command is respected. The healing is esp. brought into connection with a readiness to confess sin (verse 16). But during this aeon we groan and are weighed down and await for the day when this mortal shall be swallowed up with immortality (II Cor. 5:4).
The Church is a mystery which was primarily revealed through the Apostle Paul. His letters show us that the mystery of the Body of Christ and the Age of Grace were not known or at most hinted at in the Old Testament Age (Eph. 3:4-6; Col. 1:26-27). Jesus Himself lived during the age of the Old Covenant, the time of the Law. Therefore we find little reference to the Church in the Gospels. It is therefore not permissible on the basis of sound exegesis to derive commands from the Old Testament or from the Gospels and to transfer them for the Age of Grace, unless the peculiar commands are singled out in the Epistles and as such confirmed. We find the basic doctrine for the Church in the letters of the Apostles.
Paul explains (Romans 8:23) clearly that our body is not yet redeemed. That is why we age, can become ill and must sooner or later perish, if we do not see the return of Christ beforehand.
The First Epistle of John in particular indicates the reason for the coming of our Lord. It mentions the warning about deception and commands us to test the spirits. This letter shows the biblical criteria of believers. John confronts the influence of Gnostics who were propagating the mandate to heal. Wherever the reason for Christ’s coming is mentioned (I John 3:5,8, etc.) the context deals with sin. Not once do we find anything like Christ coming to heal. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (I John 4:10). It would be a serious omission if a supposed self-understood mandate for the Church to heal was left out in these verses.
We may agree with the statement made by the former chairman of the German Evangelical Alliance, Dr. Rolf Hille:
Indeed may the question of guilt be explained for Christians, that Jesus Christ forgives sins, but the question of happiness or wealth on earth may remain open. The Charismatic movement is, in this respect, “the most tragic movement in the history of the Church, ”according to Hille. It fails because of a defective interpretation of Scripture, since healing is seen as the normal case and sickness as the exception. But the wish for the restoration of paradise will not be fulfilled in this life (ideaSpektrum, 36/2009, p. 14).
Alexander Seibel, December 2010