The healing episodes in Scripture engage readers
in a way that the teachings and sermons may not. These wonderful
narratives spark our curiosity and heighten our interest. To
imagine one paralytic taking up his pallet and walking (Mark
2:12) or another leaping and shouting words of praise because
of an unexpected cure (Acts 3:8) is to experience the joy of
the Gospel. Think also of the relief of the woman with the flow
of blood (Luke 8:47) or the ecstatic response of Jairus at the
news of his daughter—s restoration to life (Luke 8:56).
Healing is part of a larger tradition within Scripture,
and the relationship between healing and sickness is not confined
to physical ills. In fact, the miracle tradition tells us more
about the power of God at work in our lives than it does about
health. These episodes point to growth in wholeness and holiness
because of the healing touch of the Lord.
Let—s examine these remarkable stories by reflecting
on the purpose and meaning of the miracle tradition in the first
century and the impact of Jesus— healing ministry then and now.
Miracle stories circulated independently before
their insertion into the written Gospels. Preachers readily
told audiences about what Jesus said and did, often adapting
the stories to suit the needs of the hearers. The written Gospel
narratives likewise reinterpret and adapt the original material
according to the community—s faith understanding of Jesus as
Messiah and Risen Lord. It is not uncommon to see that Jesus
heals individuals of their diseases "in fulfillment of the Scriptures"
(Matthew 8:17), since the Jews associated healing with Messianic
As the community—s faith in Jesus grows, they reflect
their understanding of Jesus— uniqueness. The healing power
of Jesus includes restoring sight to a man born blind (John
9:7) and life to Lazarus who is dead for three days (John 11:44),
miracles beyond the power of ordinary wonder workers of the
time. In other words, the miracle tradition becomes a vehicle
for expressing the faith convictions of the early Church.
What Is a Miracle?
While we often think of miracles as supernatural
events or a suspension of the laws of nature, the biblical mind
expected miracles and interpreted them as a manifestation of
God—s control over the world, life and evil. Miracles can rightly
be described as acts of power (from the Greek word dynameis).
However, the best description of a miracle in Scripture is as
a sign or wonder, an understanding that has precedents in the
Jewish Scriptures (Exodus 16:4, 15; Numbers 11:8; 2 Kings 5:14
Think for the moment about the purpose of a road
sign. It indicates or points to a direction. We pay little attention
to the sign itself; rather our interest is in its meaning. To
make this point clear to our university students, I use the
example of travelling to Seattle from Spokane on spring break.
"What do you do when you see the sign that indicates —Seattle
West—? Do you ever get out of your car, touch the sign, feel
the letters, examine the colors and so on?" You can imagine
Translate this approach to the signs/miracles
in the Gospels. Biblical signs are important because of what
they indicate. In the Gospels, the signs tell us something about
Jesus as healer and about the power of God at work in and through
Jesus. The people who witnessed these signs reacted with awe
and wonder because of the power of God acting on their behalf.
Many followed Jesus in faith and proclaimed the Good News as
a result of these signs.
Interpreting the Signs
The question we should ask of the healing episodes
is "What do they mean?" not "How did it happen?" Let—s examine
a few of the healings in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark
contains some insightful episodes about the healing power of
In Mark 2:1-12, the author relates the episode
of the cure of the paralytic and inserts within this account
a pronouncement about the forgiveness of sins, thereby changing
a healing story into a controversy. The controversies in Mark—s
Gospel lead to confrontations between Jesus and his opponents
over new interpretations of Jewish laws and rituals. In this
inserted section, the scribes receive a response to their inner
questioning: "Who has the power to forgive sins, but God alone?"
Jesus, knowing what is in their hearts, cures the man, but also
forgives him so "that you may know that the Son of Man has authority
on earth to forgive sins" (2:10).
The authority of Jesus is the issue at stake in
this episode. While all the observers were amazed and glorified
God, the opponents began to plot Jesus— death (Mark 3:6). This
interesting healing reflects the Marcan community—s understanding
of Jesus. He is the one who claims authority that belongs to
God alone and through his powerful acts God is glorified.
Furthermore, Mark reminds the community that they,
as believers, continue to experience the healing power of the
Lord through forgiveness of sin. For the paralytic, the physical
cure indicates a deeper healing and restoration to wholeness.
Another key episode occurs in the center section
of the Gospel (Mark 8:22—10:52). Mark frames the journey to
Jerusalem with two episodes that relate the cures of blind men,
a technique called inclusion. The image of blindness and sight
is the interpretive key to the entire section. In fact, in the
first episode Jesus heals the man in two stages. Initially the
blind man sees people like trees walking, and then he sees clearly
Mark immediately follows this miracle with the
confession of Peter. In the account, Peter—s confession "You
are the Christ" is only a partial insight into the identity
of Jesus (Mark 8:30). Three passion predictions follow this
confession (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34), but Peter cannot accept
the suffering and the death of Jesus, and this causes a serious
rebuke by the Lord (8:32-33). Like the blind man in the preceding
passage, Peter must go through a second stage of healing if
he is truly to see who Jesus is.
The entire section moves the reader to another
level of understanding Jesus. He is the suffering Messiah who
will be glorified. Again Mark reminds his community that suffering
leads to salvation for the son of Man and for those who follow
him in faith (Mark 8:34). The miracles themselves challenge
all disciples to see Jesus truly and never to be satisfied with
partial limited vision.
Mark frequently links healing with Christology—an
understanding of who Jesus is—and discipleship—the following
of the Lord in faithchallenging us to see these works
in their proper perspective. The fact that Mark frequently challenges
those who witness the miraculous power of Jesus "to tell no
one" until the Son of Man is raised from the dead (Mark 1:44;
3:12; 5:43) indicates that the identity of the healer is more
important than the actions Jesus performs.
The Gospel of Matthew adds several features to
the miracle tradition by identifying Jesus— motivation for healing.
Mercy and compassion are the wellspring for Jesus— healing ministry
(Matthew 9:35-36; 14:14) and these acts are far more powerful
than in the earlier Gospel of Mark. Jesus heals two men possessed
by demons (Matthew 8:28-24 parallels Mark 5:1-20) and two blind
men (Matthew 9:27-31; 20:29-34 parallels Mark 10:46-52). Jesus—
healing fulfills the Scriptures by placing his miracles within
the context of Messianic activity. As Messiah, Jesus serves
the people, heals them of their diseases and, as in Mark—s account,
provokes conflict that will lead to his death (Matthew 21:14-15).
Matthew—s dramatic narratives clarify the community—s growing
faith in Jesus as Messiah who inaugurates a new age.
Luke—s writings, the Gospel and the Acts of the
Apostles, connect the healing ministry of Jesus with God—s gift
of salvation—liberation, forgiveness and peace, particularly
for the marginalized and oppressed. In fact, Jesus begins his
public ministry with a proclamation regarding his mission to
those in need (Luke 4:16-20). Many of the narratives are filled
with touching characters and special details that indicate the
care, compassion and love of Jesus for those in need. Physical
and spiritual needs receive equal attention because for Luke,
healing means wholeness and personal transformation, not simply
physical cures. In both the Gospel and Acts, disciples share
the healing ministry of Jesus. Those healed rejoice as they
offer praise and thanksgiving to God (Lk 5:26; 7:16; 13:13).
John weaves signs into the fabric of his Gospel,
frequently using an entire chapter to convey one powerful sign
(John 9; 11). The long discourse in John 9:1-41 on the cure
of the man born blind has an ironic twist. The symbolism of
light and darkness illuminates the relationship between faith
and knowledge. Those who claim to see and to know are, in the
end, blind, while the blind man sees and believes (John 9:40).
This sign indicates the real purpose of the miracle tradition,
believing in Jesus. In addition, the narrative suggests a strong
association within the Jewish world between sickness and sin.
"Who sinned, this man or his parents?" (John 9:2). Both John
(9:1-3) and Luke (13:1-5) negate this connection. John—s episode
indicates that wholeness and health on all levels is a tangible
result of Jesus— healing ministry (cf. Ezekiel 18:20).
The Healing Jesus
Questions still remain: How and why does Jesus
heal individuals of their afflictions? Jesus often heals with
a word or a touch. He heals at a distance in response to a request
by the royal official; in the presence of opponents, as in the
paralytic—s cure; on the Sabbath; after expressing his grief
and offering prayer as in the raising of Lazarus.
The reasons for restoration to health and wholeness
vary. Jesus has compassion for the widow who has no future without
her son and so restores him to life. He frequently responds
to the requests of those who suffer and offers a cure. At times,
the request is silent, as in the case of the woman with a hemorrhage.
Friends bring those in need for healing to Jesus and he responds
to the obvious as well as the deeper need by physically curing
the paralytic and forgiving his sins. Many colorful and dramatic
episodes demonstrate how and why Jesus heals those in need.
The Gospels also indicate another reason for healing.
The miracle tradition is a vehicle for Jesus— teaching and an
opportunity for the observers or onlookers to praise God for
the wonderful signs. For individuals healed by the Lord, the
miracle often leads to a response of discipleship. In these
instances, the healings become a variation of the Gospel—s call
episodes (Mark 1:16-20) as those restored to wholeness follow
Jesus in faith.
Jesus seems more concerned about the faith of
individuals than their physical condition. In fact, wholeness
has more to do with fidelity to God than it does with health.
The real sickness that needs Jesus— healing touch is that of
sin, isolation, marginalization, anxiety and lack of peace.
The fullness of life that Jesus brings is the opposite: authenticity,
community, integration, wholeness and peace. Therefore, the
miracle tradition always asks us to ponder the deeper questions
implied in the narrative and to identify real, rather than obvious,
needs in ourselves and others. This approach was certainly the
focus of Jesus— ministry and it may offer us insight about our
own responses as people of faith.
Healing and Faith
A final observation concerns the relationship
between miracles and faith. Matthew, Mark and Luke demonstrate
a different view of this relationship than John.
In the Synoptics, faith is a necessary prerequisite
for the Lord—s healing touch. "Your faith has saved you" (Mark
5:34; Luke 7:50). Faith opens the person to the possibility
of a physical cure. But this healing faith becomes a sign of
something more—salvation and transformation of life. The Gospel
writers again suggest that real health is more than lack of
In John—s Gospel, the signs serve a variety of
purposes. Sometimes they lead to initial faith (John 2:12) or
deeper faith (John 9:38). In other instances reliance on signs
indicates inadequate faith. "Blessed are those who do not see,
yet believe," Jesus tells Thomas, who will not believe the testimony
of others (John 20:29). Sometimes the signs even lead to rejection
of Jesus and his message (John 1:11; 9:40). John also demonstrates
that the faith of those healed is in Jesus, not only in God—s
power at work in Jesus.
The healings are truly signs that can transform
people, redirect their energy, instill commitment and inspire
service. The faith that is so integral to the signs is the faith
that leads to discipleship. Spectacular events are of little
importance when compared to the miracles within the human heart
and mind and an authentic following of the Lord in faith.
Reading the biblical healing episodes requires
more than savoring the story; it calls for a mature interpretation
of the meaning of these events. The Scriptures also challenge
us to cultivate appropriate attitudes regarding healing and
wholeness in our own lives, while being sensitive to God—s power
at work in our world. While some Christians want and need powerful
signs in order to believe, others readily accept the gift of
faith and nurture it by reflecting on the testimony of Scripture,
of other believers and of the Church. The transformation of
their lives attests to their faith in Jesus as Risen Lord. Their
experience of his presence and power results in their living
witness to Gospel values. Isn—t this wholeness and holiness
the real purpose of the powerful signs that we call miracles?
Next: Understanding the Apocalypse (by Wilfrid