By: Deji Yesufu

Sick Christians in the New Testament

There is a strange little scripture in Matthew were Jesus confessed that he was sick and thereby identified with all ill Christians all through the centuries. Here:

“For I was hungered and you gave me meat: I was thirsty and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:35-40)

While this scripture is not saying that Jesus Christ was ever sick, it is pointing to a fact that Christians will be sick and it will not be abnormal to say so. In fact Jesus Christ himself, our Lord and Master, went further to identify with the sickness of his people by saying that when they were sick, he was the one that was sick. In talking about the sick Christians, Jesus did not say “I was sick and you healed me…”; rather he said “I was sick and you visited me…” Christ in this passage did not suggest healing as a direct prerequisite to the sick Christian; rather he expected that the church, fellow Christians, would visit an ill brother and commiserate with him – bearing in his burden somehow. This fact leads us to a reality in the New Testament itself, which is that healing was not always automatic to all sick Christians even in the days of Jesus. Rather many Christians were sick who were never healed. Two examples will suffice here:

In 1 Timothy 5:23 Paul instructs Timothy to cut down on water and drink wine for what he referred to as Timothy’s “frequent infirmities”. The exact nature of Timothy’s illness is not known but Paul is here suggesting he should use wine for a sickness he described as reoccurring. The question that should follow this kind of scripture is this: How could an apostle of Jesus, who is known to have healed many diseases, not be able to heal his subordinate in ministry? The reason is clear: the healing and miracles that followed Paul’s ministry were a sign to the unbelieving world and a means to point men to Jesus Christ. Among Christians, who are already believers in Jesus, there would actually be no need for such signs and wonders. They were already believers. Surely, Paul and Timothy would have called on God but God in his wisdom chose not to remove Timothy’s illness. In fact he allowed it to be reoccurring and frequent.

In Philippians 2, Paul talked about the illness of his fellow laborer in the ministry, Epaphroditus. He wrote:

“For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick. For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow…” (Philippians 2:26-27)

This text of scripture shows us that a Christian, a fellow companion of an apostle was sick and he almost died in the process. But God had mercy on him and (very likely) restored him back to health. I believe these texts of scripture show that Christians can indeed be ill. And if we have health or have been healed in anyway at all, it is because God has chosen to show us mercy. Now, when Christians are ill, we see from the words of Jesus himself that while it is good and fine to pray for such persons, what God expects the most from us is empathy: we should visit such persons and try to ease the burden of the sickness on them.

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

 We come now to a much disputed text in the New Testament but which some of us think, if taken by the simplicity of its words, shows that not only was it recorded that Christians were sick in the New Testament, it was also recorded that an apostle had a sickness that defied every known solution. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, explains:

“And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, my grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Many have debated over the exact nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Some have said it was an eye infirmity. Others have said it was persecution that he underwent in certain places where he went to preach. Some said it was a demonic affliction of some kind. I think it was an illness that Paul endured. I say this because of verse 9: “… most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities…” Paul had just described how God had chosen not to take the infirmity away and then he concluded by saying that he would then glory in infirmity; which is very likely a pointer to the earlier description he was making. Then he concludes by looking at general things that could cause a man to be weak: infirmity, necessity, persecution, and distress. Paul says that all these things are good for the Christian because in our weakness, we enjoy God’s strength.

In Galatians, Paul speaks about a bodily ailment that was on him as he ministered to the Galatians:

“Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? For I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.” (Galatians 4:13-15)

This scripture shows clearly that Paul was sick. And many have pointed out that the infirmity might have been one that afflicted him in the eye, thus his reference to the Galatians wishing to pluck out their own eyes and give to him. If someone chose not to see infirmity in 2 Corinthians 12, clearly this Galatians 4 scripture showed that the apostle was sick. And in Corinthians we see that the illness would not even go away after he had sought God to heal him.

The Heart of the Matter

While I hold the position that healing is premised on the will of God alone, I also believe that there is a place for sincere faith in the life of the Christian in God that is manifested even in the place of prayers for healing. And I think that despite the faulty theologies of the Word of Faith folks, a number of them have gotten this matter of faith right and God does honor their faith in him. In numerous scriptures when Jesus Christ healed the sick, he always commended the faith that these people have in him (Luke 7:50; 17:19; Mark 5:34; 10:52). Similarly in Acts 14:9, Paul looked upon a man and observed that he had faith to be healed and a miracle followed. On the other hand, some of us orthodox Christians, in the name of trusting God’s will for healing and miracles, have often been weak in our faith when we bring our request to God. It is important therefore that we understand what true faith in Christ is.

True faith is not “faith in faith”; it is not trusting in our ability to exercise a force of faith to “bring down the hand of God on our behalf for a miracle”. All of such exercises are cultic in nature. True faith is simply exercising steadfast trust in God. And this is how it comes about.

Before the Christian can begin to consider the matter of healing or miracles in his or her life, we want to be sure that certain realities are first etched upon the heart. This reality is best asked in the form of a question: is the person who is seeking healing born again? The born again Christian is one whose heart has been transformed by the power of the living God and has now been made a new creation. The born again Christian is one who has placed saving faith in Jesus Christ; he is the person who trusts God with all his heart, mind and soul. The born again person is one who has been justified by faith. Saving faith is true Christian faith. This is the faith that grows out of a relationship between a son and his Father in heaven. It is one that trusts God’s providence concerning one’s life. True faith in God trusts God in good times and in bad. This is the faith that the Christian brings to God in the place of prayer when he is seeking God’s mercies concerning any challenge in life. This is the faith that we bring to God as we trust him for healing concerning an illness.

It is important to therefore note that sincere faith is premised on God’s perfect will for our lives. Already, the Christian is one that has enjoyed the grace of God both in salvation and in other areas of life; and he is one that is secure in the grace of God. True faith in God sees God’s gracious hands in everything; including the evils that come our way. Therefore when we kneel in prayer and cast the burden of a sickness on God, true faith in God can be likened to that of the three Hebrew children in knowing for certain that God is able to heal a disease, but even if he does not heal us, he remains our God. True faith in God trusts God in good and in bad times.

Again, it is important to emphasize the fact that true faith grows out of saving faith. It is a hopeless exercise to ask unsaved hell-bound sinners to come to God for healing. Truth is that even if they get this healing, it would not do their souls any good – except it provokes saving faith in them. Therefore, we want to be sure that the faith in the one seeking healing is genuine saving faith. Following this, we can trust God that such a person can approach God in the place of prayers and find healing to whatever ailment they may have according to God’s will and purposes for them.

Lastly, one final note on why Jesus commended the faith of those he healed. I believe our Lord did this because underneath the actions of the people who exercised faith in Christ and received healing was a firm faith in the Lordship and Messiahship of Jesus Christ. We would remember that Christ did not work many miracles among the Pharisees because they despised him and did not accept that he was the messiah. It stands to reason therefore that those who enjoyed his miracles and healing, whose faith he commended, were persons who submitted to his Lordship even when they did not understand everything about his person. They saw the miracles he worked and they accepted the fact that he was a sent one from God. In the process God blessed them with healing.

To be continued in (III)

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Posted by Deji Yesufu

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