Healing in the Gospels: The Essential Credentials

Kamila Blessing. Miracles: God, Science, and Psychology in the Paranormal. Editor: J Harold Ellens. Volume 2: Medical and Therapeutic Events. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.

Jesus [said], “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” ~ Luke 5:31 (NRSV)

At least since the time when Thomas Jefferson edited his version of the New Testament (1804), deliberately eliminating miracles, Western cultures have taken for granted the idea that Jesus, as physician, is only a metaphor. Some readers assume that Jesus healed only sinners and the moral side of the person. Others assert that spiritual healing was performed only in the past, or only by Jesus. Nevertheless, in the middle of the twentieth century, significant voices began to take healing and other miracles in the Gospels seriously. Most significant is Rudolph Bultmann, universally known for his thesis that the stories of the Bible are myths. By his definition, myths are belief or creedal statements; not necessarily untrue, but if they represent some truth, it is symbolic and metaphorical. Yet even Bultmann, writing on the subject of Jesus’ miracles, said this:

The Christian community was convinced that Jesus had performed miracles…. Most of the wonder tales contained in the gospels are legendary … But … undoubtedly he healed the sick and cast out demons. He obviously understood his miracles as a sign of the imminence of the Kingdom [reign] of God (Lk 11:20, Mk 3:27, Mt. 11:5), exactly as his church was later convinced that it possessed the powers of the Messianic age to work miracles. (Acts 2:43, 4:9-12, etc.)

Bultmann goes on to say why it must be so that miracle is central to the story of Jesus:

God is distant, wholly other, in so far as everyday occurrences hide Him from the unbeliever; God is near for the believer who sees His activity.

Bultmann was very much a part of the nineteenth and twentieth century cultural movement called scientific materialism, the theory that if we cannot humanly reproduce a certain object or result, then there is no such thing in the universe. This view reduces all of reality to what our limited minds and knowledge can produce. We should know better in this age of the Hubble Space Telescope and the discovery by physicists of black energy, which supposedly fills what used to be considered empty space in the universe. Today, that old theory of empty space is increasingly shown to be inadequate to explain the universe, or even the natural healing ability of the human body.

For this reason, even the medical community is today beginning to look at the spiritual side of healing. For this reason also, we must take another serious look at healing and other miracles in the Gospels. The task of this chapter is to explore and describe the Gospel stories of healing and their theological import.

The Great Physician

Some scholars think that the stories of healing in the Bible are simply part of a traditional ancient hero story. However, the fact is, there was an actual Jesus. He was a historical figure, mentioned in the works of Josephus, a Palestinian Jew who worked as a historian for Caesar in Rome in the first century. Josephus wrote:

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man…. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure…. and when Pilate … condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so…. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.

Several writers of the early second century, such as Roman historians Tacitus, Lucian, and Suetonius, confirm various facts about Jesus despite their prejudice against the Christians. Finally, the Jewish law book that is part of the Talmud, known as Sanhedrin, which is very much opposed to Jesus and the Christians, also confirms certain major tenets of the Gospel story, albeit through negative statements. The Talmud was written in the third or fourth century, but reflects the Jewish reaction to Jesus very near to the time of his earthly life. In general, these negative sources converge upon two points:

  • Jesus was a teacher (Josephus, Sanhedrin 43a)
  • Jesus did in fact work wonders (Josephus, Sanhedrin 43a, Lucian)

The Gospels of course tell us firmly that Jesus did heal, and we have no historical records to contradict that assertion. Just as important, at the end of Mark’s Gospel, we are told that it was not all in the past. In Mark 16:17-18, Jesus says: “These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name … they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” The epistle of James commands the church to carry out spiritual healing (Jas 5:13-16). Clearly, Jesus and his disciples held that the task of healing was to be a major aspect of Jesus’ mission, and also the mission of the incipient church.

In fact, the Gospels present healing as the whole point of Jesus’ coming, the changing of people’s lives at all levels of existence. Four times in the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as physician in the context of healing sinfulness. However, his healing ministry was far wider than that reported in the biblical text. To see this, we need only to think about the word, salvation; in Greek, sozo, to save, to heal, to deliver from illness. English derivatives include save, salve, salvage, to bring about the literal salvation of something. It is intrinsically connected with healing, to save from being sick, death-ridden, or destroyed materially, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The Gospels do not present Jesus as one who came to bring only an ethereal, invisible afterlife. There is no place in the Gospels where it says Jesus came to save people’s souls. The Gospels proclaim a total healing of the whole person.

Why the Misunderstanding?

The misunderstanding about the nature of healing in the Gospels persists for historical and philosophical reasons. We are heirs of Greek culture and of a Western, rational mode of thought that has been superimposed upon the teachings of Jesus. Ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle (fourth century BCE), wrote that the physical and the spiritual are essentially different and separate from one another. Plato said, in essence, that the human being was a spirit trapped inside a body. Aristotle softened this proposition by making it subtler, but still, the physical person was a pale reflection at best of true humanity. For Christians and Jews, this position means that if we were made in the image of God, we are still so distant from God’s nature that we are essentially incompatible with the spirit.

Beginning sometime in the first century, certain early Christian groups held a view parallel to that of Plato and Aristotle: that the physical and earthly were actually negative or evil and a spirit, particularly the Spirit of God, would never stoop to become one with its material or physical container. For them, Jesus could not be both divine and human in his earthly presence. Therefore, the Spirit of God could not enter into a person’s physical body to heal it. These views were later solidified and promoted by a group called Gnostic Christians.

This negative dualism denied the Incarnation, God become human. Though the resurrection is the miracle that launched Christianity, without the Incarnation there is no Jesus, no God-as-flesh to be resurrected. For this reason, the birth of Jesus is recorded in Matthew and Luke. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14), is John’s once-for-all pronouncement of the incarnation and its theological import. It is also John’s birth story for Jesus. If the Incarnation is denied, then Jesus’ healing can be denied; in fact, the entire Gospel story falls apart.

It is for these reasons that the Gnostic denial of Jesus’ dual nature was later condemned as a heresy. Jesus, as truly human and truly divine, is central in the Nicene Creed and in Christian theology generally. However, a negative form of dualism crept back into Christian theology during the Middle Ages when Plato and Aristotle were rediscovered in Europe. These philosophers’ work became the basis of the most influential theology of the Middle Ages. The body was again seen as a temporary and imperfect representation of personhood or God-likeness. Healing of the body by means of prayer went out of fashion. These attitudes toward healing persist today. As a result, some Christians believe that the miracles in the Gospels did occur, but those things no longer happen, a stance called “cessationism.” Others believe that even the miracles in the Gospels are simply the product of uneducated believers presenting Jesus as a mythical hero.

Excursus: The Resurrection of the Body and the Denial of Healing Miracles

Since this chapter is devoted to the Gospels, we cannot go deeply into systematic theology. However, a sketch of what became of the doctrine of bodily resurrection in theology is appropriate. The resurrection of the body was maintained by most of the church as a doctrine. This is important because it directly contradicted the denial of miracles. Yet it went largely unnoticed that the body is either holy to God or not, and therefore worth saving or not, and cannot be both.

The greatest theologian of the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas (1200s) rejected Plato’s absolute division between the physical and spiritual, and accepted Aristotle’s more subtle argument that the physical is the temporal and limited expression of a spiritual essence, for instance, of humanity. Thus Acquinas distinguished between the physical and spiritual while maintaining the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. However, notably Acquinas did not support the healing of the body in his theological works. Some modern theologians have maintained the doctrine of bodily resurrection, although Bultmann did not. More recently, even some Roman Catholic theologians have rejected the resurrection of the body (directly refuting Catholic doctrine), notably eminent Catholic theologian Hans Küng (in Eternal Life? Life after Death as a Medical, Philosophical, and Theological Problem, Doubleday, 1984). Influential Episcopal bishop John Spong also denies the resurrection of the body.

However, one of the greatest biblical theologians of the modern era, N. T. Wright, has written a massive investigation of the meaning of resurrection in the Bible and its contemporaneous cultures (The Resurrection of the Son of God). In it, he shows that our only evidence (the Gospels) do credibly maintain that Jesus was in fact resurrected. He thus effectively refutes new theologies that reject all physical resurrection as irrational or as revisionist history.

Other theologians argue the issue of when the body is resurrected—immediately or at a final moment in natural time when God resurrects the faithful from the dead. To this Karl Barth answers “immediately”; others say that this conclusion goes beyond the text of the New Testament. Certainly Jesus’ body is represented in the Gospels as resurrected immediately. It is possible that the resolution lies in the fact that God created natural time as he created all other things and therefore can dispose of it as he wishes.

Nevertheless, the great creeds of the historic church maintain the doctrine, specifically the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in … the resurrection of the body”). To deny this doctrine is tantamount to denying the whole fabric of the New Testament (and the Old) because without the resurrection of the body we deny Christ’s resurrection and therefore the whole basis and impetus for Christianity. Bodily healing was offered by Jesus and through his believers as evidence of this greater miracle; therefore the two things go together. This fact is made explicit in the Gospels where resurrections of the dead were among Jesus’ healings.

It is notable that other religions often consider the body to be of no further use after death, unless it is given back to nature. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, an ancient “guide” for the soul of the dead and for the mourners, is an example of this very different take on the holiness of God’s creation that is the body.

Now let us return to the subject of the denial of miracles.

Modern Arguments over Biblical Miracles

Some argue against miracles because some strata of the New Testament (NT) text are late, but the entire New Testament was written by the beginning of the second century, and our oldest complete manuscripts are from the fourth century. We have to take the Bible on its own terms; it is the text around which the church grew and flourished. D. Moody Smith’s, John Among the Gospels (2001, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, Second Edition), indicates how complex the development of the texts of the Gospels was, and sets the question of strata dates in context

There is a valid question whether a passage appears to have characteristics that mark it as part of the oldest stratum of the story of Jesus as opposed to a later interpretation by someone with an interpretative agenda. N. T. Wright has shown the originality and reliability of the greatest miracle, the resurrection. Some argue that the Gospels differ from each other and therefore some part of them must be incorrect. Every Gospel has the aim of telling the story as faithfully as possible, addressing the issues that faced particular communities of believers, with slight differences. All were written within a century of Jesus’ life and death, by those who had heard the witness of the apostles and had been transformed by the story to which they witnessed. All the Gospel writers present a concept of the human being that is different from the Western idea, one in which healing by miracle is fully logical and, indeed, necessary to their message. In the Gospels, the incarnation says firmly that the body is holy to God, and in the resurrection, the ultimate healing has incipiently been fulfilled. Therefore the healings and miracles in the Gospels must remain valid, or the message is seriously damaged.

The Whole and Indivisible Person

There is a specific reason Jesus’ healing by means of prayer is perfectly sensible to the Gospel writers. The Hebrew notion of personhood is that of a unitary entity. Paul’s letters seem to take a Greek view of body, spirit, and soul. However, in the Judaic perspective, persons are characterized by integrated and unified personhood. To put it another way, Hebrew thought is aspective, not partitive: we can speak of physical, spiritual, and other aspects of the person, but not of those things as distinct and separate from one another. In the Greek New Testament, as in English, there simply were not words that could express the total unity of the human being and make the intention clear. But to Jesus, Paul, and the other writers of the Bible, the inseparability of the human being was an unquestioned reality. Persons are made in the image of God, body, heart, brain, mind, spirit, genitals, and all (Gen 1:27).

The impact of Jesus’ resurrection upon the apostles and disciples was the immediate reason for spreading their belief in Jesus and the one reason to write down the accounts of Jesus’ life later in the first century. The resurrection is the reason we have the NT. This ultimate teaching of the NT contains within it what is implicit in creation: that the physical body is holy to God and to be honored as the instrument, not merely a disposable container, of our spirituality, our relationship with God. The resurrection of Christ, as presented in the Gospels, puts back the holiness of the entire creation, including its physical aspect.

The concept that the essential aspects of a person cannot be separated is confirmed by the resurrection. It does involve a paradox. Surely, the physical body disintegrates after our death. Paul makes an analogy with a grain of wheat. The seed has in it the entire wheat plant. When planted a tall plant grows; a living thing. It is the whole of the plant. Notably this resurrection is not resuscitation. The original seed is not dug up and dusted off but is as a whole transformed.

Another analogy to resurrection is that of a fine perfume. I am told that among professional perfumers, there are people called noses who can take a complex perfume and identify every type of flower, spice, or other scent in it. A really goodnose can tell you exactly where the flowers were grown. The flower, in its original physical form, is no longer visible. In fact, to our human eyes, it has been destroyed. However, the essential identity of the specific flower is still intact.

An individual person dies and the body is gone, but God knows that person in his or her individuality, just as surely as we would know a friend if she came back in her original body. That is the basic Christian understanding of salvation. Paradoxical as it seems, Jesus came to save the whole, essential self of each one of us, not just a part of us. In the Gospels, Jesus gave to people a foretaste of the healing of the total self, in the form of the healing of illness or injury. He also thereby showed that God’s plan is to redeem the entire creation, not only an invisible spiritual part of it.

Miracles: God’s Demonstration Project

In fact, Jesus deliberately used his healings and miracles as an audiovisual aid to show people what more God has to offer them. Ancient people were not necessarily superstitious or naïve, as we tend to think. The Jews knew that the Messiah would be able to perform such saving acts. Imposters were stoned. In the Gospel stories, most of the witnesses treated the miracles of Jesus as invitations to a new kind of understanding. Jesus performed a miracle, and the crowds followed him, listening to his teaching. They saw the miracle before they came to believe in him (Jn 2:11). The healings were his way of getting people’s attention and demonstrating God’s power, the presence of God’s reign. Thus Jesus did not heal all the sick, but just a paradigmatic few.

For the above reasons, one-fifth of the verses in the Gospels are devoted to healings. Over one-third of the Gospels address healing, apart from the accounts of the incarnation and the resurrection. This is not a minor matter.

What Healings?

All in all, by the count of the Thomson Chain Reference Bible’s “Chain Index,” where repetitions of the same story have been consolidated, Jesus performed 18 physical healings, four resurrections including his own, five exorcisms, each of which included some physical and psychological healing, and 10 other miracles. About 20 times, the Gospels refer to Jesus healing all who came, or to God’s healing in general. Of the 10 other miracles, seven are miracles of provision, feeding, or nurture, also a form of healing because it sustains the life of the receiver. These miracles include turning water to wine at the marriage in Cana, feeding the 5,000, feeding the 4,000, provision of tribute money in the mouth of the fish (Mt 17:27), the catch of fish in Luke 5, the second catch of fish in John 21, and the resurrection appearances. The appearances provide for the life of the incipient Christian community and sustain them emotionally and physically as they begin to go out into all nations (Mt 28:19).

The other three miracles are the stilling of the storm, walking on the sea, and the cursing of the fig tree, all demonstrations of the power and presence of God in the world. These miracles signify provision for improved life in this world and the next.

The Essential Credential

In performing these miracles, Jesus deliberately invoked what was, for the Messiah, the essential credential. John the Baptist sent some people to ask: “Are you the one who was to come?” (Mt 11:3). By this, John meant, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus replied: “Report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Mt 11:4-5; see Lk 4:16-21). That is the one proof Jesus needed, and the only qualification he offered. This list of types of healing comes from Isaiah 61:1-2, the accepted list of the credentials of the genuine Messiah. Jesus gave a similar testimony in Luke 4. At the synagogue in Nazareth, he read aloud that passage from Isaiah. When he finished, he said to the congregation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21).

Such was Jesus’ claim. Much of the reason the Gospels give for believing Jesus’ claim comes, paradoxically, from the circumstances of the crucifixion. We need only to look at the last of the plots to kill Jesus. The occasion was the raising of Lazarus. In John 11, the stated reason was specifically the miracles. When Lazarus had been raised, some people “went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done” (Jn 11:46). The immediate result is recorded in John 11:47-48: “The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’” They had to kill Jesus, precisely because his miracles could not be disproved. Jesus’ worst enemies acknowledged his miracles.

Finally, Jesus made it clear that his followers were to do the same kinds of healing. He never once sent out his disciples to preach without also telling them to heal; and they did so. The story of the formation and growth of Christianity after the resurrection, found largely in the book of Acts, shows the continuation of healing miracles in the church. The disciples continued to use miraculous healing as evidence of the truth of Jesus’ promise of salvation, just as Jesus himself had done. Healing was their essential credential, too.

One among Many? About Ancient Healers

Some scholars believe that the stories of Jesus’ healing simply are a Christian parallel of the ancient pagan literature about spiritual healing and healers. Or they believe Jesus was just one of many wonder-workers of his time. In the pagan literature, the healings were the entire point. In the Gospels, the healings were all about ministry to the suffering, with the exception, perhaps, of John 9 in which Jesus manipulates and exploits the suffering of a blind man to make his own political-theological point about the superficiality of Jewish legal constraints. The miracles pointed to the divinity of Christ, the completion of salvation, and the unique and ongoing relationship between the believer and God.

The truly important thing in understanding healing in the Gospels is that Christianity was brought about by Jesus, and then by the disciples demonstrating the power of God on this earth, through healing. The miracles stunned Jews and pagans alike, and some of each were transformed forever by the direct and indirect action-in-the-world of this healer and savior, Jesus. That Jesus healed and therefore demonstrated and promised a genuine salvation was the point of the Gospels. In short, the healings and miracles are presented as the essential credential.

What Kind of Healing?

What kind of healing did Jesus do? He did the kinds that are still today the most difficult. In general, there are three kinds of healing: physical, including functional and organic; emotional; and ethical. In functional physical illness, something in the body does not function correctly, but the function can be restored. In organic illness, part of the body is defective, and more is needed than restoring its function. The emotional is what we would call psychological healing. Ethical relates to change of character and behavior. In all of the Gospels, there are only two ethical healings, the woman at the well (Jn 4),6 and Zacchaeus, who decided to stop extorting money from people (Lk 19:2-9).

Many of the healings by Jesus were the kinds that are still a mystery for modern medicine: the organic, and the psychological. For example, Jesus healed the paralytic (Mt 9). We do not know if his bones were deformed, which would be an organic illness; otherwise, it was a functional illness. The healing of the man with the withered hand (Mt 12:10) is definitely in the organic category of physical healing.

What about psychological healing? While on the cross, Jesus presented his mother and his disciple John to each other as a new mother-son family. That was in the category of emotional healing, even though the text does not tell us how they felt afterward. We do know that the terrible fear felt by the disciples after the crucifixion was replaced by joy and confidence when they saw the resurrected Jesus. His statement to them was a healing of the emotions and of the spirit: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (Jn 20:21-22). Though the resurrection itself is the focus of the story, we should not overlook the fact that an emotional healing of enormous proportions had also taken place.

Now let us consider actual mental illness, that is, emotional illness that is severe enough to interfere with a normal life. It is common knowledge that mental illness is often impossible to cure. Clinically ill people are frequently recidivist. Alcoholics and addicts are even more so. Jesus’ healing of the young boy in Matthew 17:14-18 is described as an organic disorder, epilepsy, and a psychological disorder. Jesus cast out a demon. Both probably refer to the organic disorder of seizures. However, Jesus is described as performing a number of exorcisms, all of which were likely some serious form of psychopathology. The ancient cultures thought that evil spirits could be one source of a tormented mind, and so there is a connection between exorcism and psychological healing. One thing we know: the Gospels tell us that those who had been possessed, and all of the others who were healed by Jesus, were totally healed (Mk 1:23-26).

Healed persons never returned to Jesus for another cure of the same thing. In one healing (Mk 8:22-25), a man who had been treated by Jesus for blindness returned to say the healing was not yet complete: “I see people like trees walking” (v 24). Jesus gave him another treatment and his healing was complete. The Gospel writers did not cover up this instance. In fact, this odd detail of the story sounds a lot like an eyewitness account of the event. Clearly we have here a careful attempt to preserve the accurate history of the miracle.

The critical point is: Jesus successfully carried out the most difficult of all healings. He most pointedly took on the worst sickness of all, our mortality. Jesus resurrected three people: Jairus’ daughter (Mk 5:21-24, 35-43; Lk 8:41-42, 51-56); the son of the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17); and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-44). Such was the demonstration project of healings and miracles confirming the incipient presence of the reign of God’s grace that works and love that heals.

Jesus’ Approach to the Sufferer

Jesus, apparently, never turned anyone away. The point is made strongly in the story of the man who, in asking for the healing of his son, makes it clear that he has little confidence in Jesus. He says to Jesus, “If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mk 9:22). Even after Jesus’ assurance, he is still uncertain. However, being desperate, he says, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). In this case, his desperation was what brought him to Jesus in the first place. He would have tried anything. Of course, Jesus did heal the son of the man. The father’s lack of faith was no barrier to healing.

Likewise, Jesus never told anyone, apparently, that he was too sinful to be healed. In certain specific instances, he healed the person and then said “sin no more” or “your sins are forgiven.” In those healings, notably that of the paralytic (Mt 9:2; Mk 2:3; Lk 5:18), forgiveness is a healing unto itself. Jesus used the healing to demonstrate to the onlookers that he possessed God’s power to forgive sin. In any case, and in every case where sin was involved, he healed first, and only then commanded holiness. Though Jesus acknowledged that sin can be a cause of suffering, he also made a point (Jn 9) that sin may have nothing to do with the affliction. More important, however, is the overall theological issue: if Jesus was to be true to his own purpose in coming, the message of salvation and its audiovisual aids, the healings, could not depend upon people’s limitations. This is the doctrine of grace, unearned mercy from God, which is central in the Christian worldview. In this, Jesus contradicted one entire stream of OT theology that maintains that suffering is always God’s punishment. Jesus represents the other stream of OT belief, namely, that God is only good and brings his people only good, and out of his loving-kindness grants healing in a broken world.8

In fact, Jesus promised that prayers in his name would be answered (Jn 14:13). He did not say when or how. However, the act of asking for healing, that is, one type of prayer, may itself be a sort of healing, of the relationship between the person and the Lord. Thus in the healing of Mark 9, the son was healed of possession and the father was also healed by being brought into relationship with God through a personal interaction with Jesus.

The Theological Purpose of Healing in the Gospels: A View from the Greek

A great deal of the significance of Jesus’ miracles is carried in the Gospels through the choice of specific Greek words. Several Greek terms are used for one concept such as healing or miracle. When there are many occurrences of any one of those terms, or if different groups of people used one versus another, we know that the writer was trying to convey more than what occurred factually. He was making a specific theological point or interpretation by his choice of Greek words.

Further, as with body, spirit, and soul, there are often no English words that are precisely equivalent to the intended meaning of a Greek term. Various Greek terms are often translated by just one English word such as healing. In such a case, as indicated in the work of Laato and Koskenniemi in this volume, the biblical writer’s intended connotations are lost. Thus translations often dilute meaning of the text, hiding it from the modern reader.

For example, in John 11:12, most translations say something like, “if he [Lazarus] is sleeping, he will get better.” Actually, the last word is a form of sozo, he will be saved. The theological meaning of the healing of Lazarus is thus obscured in translation. For these reasons, let us explore the terms for two central concepts: healing; and miracle or mighty work. There are three terms for healing, and three for miracle.

Terms for Healing: Salvation in Nuce

The Gospels contain 52 uses of the term to heal. This English term actually represents three different Greek terms, as shown in the following Table 11.1.

Let us begin with sozo because we have already talked about its meaning. The four instances of its use for healing occur in Matthew 9:21; Mark 5:23; Luke 8:50; John 11:12. The use in John refers to Lazarus. The other uses are not repetitions of a single saying from one Gospel to another but occur in the context of other, distinct healings. Thus there are four distinct witnesses, three of them in the mouths of people who were looking for healing and received it. These witnesses are saying to the reader: healing is a sign, foretaste, and guarantee of the greater salvation. Here is the explicit message that the healing we see, in itself, is not the entire point. The Gospel writers are distinguishing Jesus from other healers and instituting the reign of the God of Israel, signified by Jesus’ kind of healing.

Therapeúo (a verb) and therapeía (a noun) bear meanings in the Gospels that are distinct from their use in other ancient literature. The original root meaning in classical Greek was to serve, as a servant serves his master, but also as a human being serves or worships God. The verb implies devotion to and advancement of the good of the one served. Classical writers, specifically Plato, also used it to mean to care for the sick. In the Gospels it is used pointedly to mean causing the wholeness of:

  • Persons (for example, Lk 9:11) or
  • The nations (that is, Gentiles, see Rev 22:2).

The latter signifies that God is going to bring the nations to worship and be accepted by the God who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 4:24). These healings are represented as the direct action of God in the world, taken in the name of Jesus and by the agency of the Holy Spirit of God. This message is the essence of the Gospel, embodied in Jesus and acknowledged by the persons who gave the original witness to Jesus.

Iátro emphasizes the role of the spiritual physician. In the Gospels, the focus is on the great physician, Jesus. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, iátro is used to translate the Hebrew word raphah, to heal. In Hebrew, the Lord is called, among other titles, Adonai Ropheh, the Lord the Healer. The understanding in the Gospels, as in the OT, is that the Father in heaven is the ultimate healer. The healing itself is never the point, but rather, a demonstration of God’s reign breaking in upon the world. Iátro in the Gospels particularly keeps before the reader one point, namely, that central in every healing is the person of Jesus present with the one who is healed.

Summary: The Meaning of Healing

Thus the three terms for healing, all mixed together in English, actually make a series of theological statements and promises. Healing is accomplished by God’s direct intervention for the person on this earth, intending to restore wholeness of the entire person. The personal presence of Jesus is central in the act of healing and, of course, in salvation. Finally, a personal relationship with the healer is offered to everyone, no matter who they are. In ancient Judaism, it was unthinkable that God would include pagans in salvation, even though Isaiah and others prophesied that the Gentiles would all worship God, and that in fact, Abraham’s original blessing was in part for the “healing of the nations” (goyim).The book of Acts depicts Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. These Greek terms, taken together, anticipate that God intended to extend his healing reign to all ethnic groups and persons. The Gospels intend to propel the reader to these conclusions. The promises in English pale compared with what the writers of the Gospels intended to say.

Miracle: God’s Power on Earth

The terms for miracle are also theologically significant. There are three major words, shown in Table 11.2. In understanding these terms, it is useful to know the distinction made by scholars between John and the first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Synoptics—seen as similar). Dýnamis (power, mighty work), semeíon (sign), andérgon (a work), are used somewhat differently by the Synoptics than in John. All of the usages, however, specifically invoke the power of God as manifested in the OT. Their use in general conveys one message: the Jesus of the Gospels is fulfilling the promises of the OT prophets that God intends to restore his creation. The principle term for Jesus’ wonder works in the synoptics is dýnamis, power or act of power, hence also miracle or great work. The use of this term to refer to Jesus’ mighty works, however, is limited to the Synoptics. The Synoptics put a strong emphasis on Jesus’ coming to destroy evil, and proclaim God’s reign on earth. Dýnamis perfectly expresses this double purpose, particularly in connection with exorcisms.

Sign in the Synoptics

Semeíon (“Sign”) is used in three ways:

  1. In an eschatological (end of the world) setting. This usage stems from the prophetic and apocalyptic parts of the OT such as Daniel 4:2.
  2. When nonbelievers demand a miracle as proof.
  3. As a simple description of the miracles of Jesus and the apostles.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke use sign in the pejorative context. An example is Matthew 12:38: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him [Jesus], ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’” He was referring to the Jonah story in which he was in the belly of the fish for three days, and then was saved. Jesus’ burial for three days and rising again would be a sign to all. The Synoptics also use semeíon in phrases such as the signs of the times (Mt 16:3, an eschatological usage) and signs from heaven (Mt 16:1, a simple designation of the miraculous).

Sign in John

John’s use of semeíon is unique and very deliberate. Except for the summary in 20:30, John uses sign only in chapters 1 to 12, hence the term the book of signs applied to those chapters. In John, semeíon is used by other people to describe Jesus’ works; Jesus himself uses érgon (“work”). It has been said that sign expresses the human viewpoint about the miracles (who is that fellow?); while work expresses the divine viewpoint (salvation fulfilled “in your hearing”).

The most characteristic Johannine use of sign is as a favorable designation for a miracle, similar to the third usage above, but with a punch. For example, 2:11 says: “This [changing water to wine], the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (emphasis mine). The reader is given to know that there will be a series of demonstrations of the Lord’s power (the first of his signs), of his oneness with the Father whose power it is since such signs cannot be performed by a mere human, and therefore of God’s glory. These signs will create the unique relationship between Jesus and his disciples, and they believed in him. All of this is contained in the termsemeíon in the context of that sentence.

John is usually said to recount seven signs, each of which demonstrates these same theological points. The seven are:

  • Healing the offcial’s son (4:46-54)
  • The multiplication of loaves (6:1-15)
  • Walking on water (6:16-21)

These three have parallels in the Synoptics; the next two of the seven are:

  • Healing the paralytic (5:1-15)
  • The man born blind (9).

These are similar to healings in the Synoptics, but from different sources; and finally:

  • Changing water to wine at the marriage in Cana (2:1-11)
  • The raising of Lazarus (11:1-44)

which have no Synoptic parallels. In fact, there are eight signs, not seven, the last being the resurrection of Jesus. The number eight signifies the beginning of the new creation, seven and the Sabbath (seventh [day]) symbolizing the completion of the original creation. The seven miracles explicitly named signs in John signify that the old creation is complete in the sense of having fulfilled its purpose and being ready for a resurrection in toto.

Each sign is accompanied by a verbal exposition of its meaning. For example, in John 6:1-15, Jesus miraculously fed the 5,000; this event is followed by the discourse wherein Jesus proclaims “I am the bread of life” (6:35). Jesus is thus compared with both Moses and manna. Whereas Moses was an earthly leader, though appointed by God, and manna could sustain only earthly life, John makes the point that Jesus was able to sustain life eternal, through the direct action of God (6:32-33).

The Oneness of Jesus with God

John places tremendous emphasis on the oneness of Jesus and the Father. For example, in John 8:28-29: “Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him’” (see also Jn 5:30; 12:50; 14:10). In this connection, John often uses sign in a way that is analogous to the second Synoptic usage. In John, faith may be based on signs, but it is an incomplete faith because it fails to focus specifically upon the relationship between Jesus and the Father.

Sign and Evil: The Reign of God Now Present

Unlike the Synoptics, John does not emphasize Jesus’ mission against evil per se. (In fact, John records no exorcisms.) His emphasis is upon the miracles as revelation—as signs—inextricably connected with salvation. Sign pointedly evokes the signs and wonders of the Old Testament, particularly related to salvation and liberation from bondage, as in Exodus 3:12: “[God] said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign [semeíon] for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’” In John, such physical restoration is always a sign of spiritual life granted by God (see Jn 11:24-26).

In John, the new spiritual life is already granted. Where the Synoptics look for a second coming of the Lord in which judgment and salvation will finally take place (Mk 10:30), John looks at Jesus’ physical presence as well as his resurrection appearances as the realization of God’s reign on earth. It is incipient but nevertheless already victorious. Thus he can write (Jn 1:12), “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” It is significant that in Greek, the verb “he has given” is a continuing past tense; it is already a done deal for believers in general and it is ongoing. God has continued to give this power to new believers in the time since the Gospel was written. The end of John complements the beginning: unlike the Synoptics, Jesus’ last words are “It is finished” (19:30), signifying that the entire task of salvation has been completed. See also John 17:4 where Jesus prays and says to God that he has completed the work God gave him to do.

The reader can see the two different views of salvation as complementary. The Gospel of John was written later than the Synoptics and had greater signs and wonders continuing in a later decade—to which John witnesses. Also, the kingdom is not fully come; John’s point is that we need not be in suspense; it is promised. It is a done deal.

Johannine signs parallel the prophetic actions of the Old Testament. Jesus performs an action at God’s command like, for example, Isaiah 20:2; Jeremiah 13:1-11; Ezekiel 12:1-16. As with the prophets, the action (sign) points beyond itself. The signs point to a present spiritual life and foretell a spiritual life that is to be attained without the necessity of signs after Jesus’ resurrection. However, there is a difference between Jesus’ signs and those of the prophets. With Jesus, the sign itself is intrinsically valuable and directly changes the lives of those who are healed, fed, or given a view of the reign of God (as in changing water to wine). The prophets’ signs are followed by a prophecy in words, but the words often foretell something fearful such as invasion by the Babylonians. With Jesus, the people sometimes do not want to hear what he says in explaining the signs, but the prophetic word is always an invitation to salvation.

Work in John

I have already introduced the third term, érgon, work. Érgon is used by Jesus of his miracles 17 times in John, many of them powerful statements of the relationship between Jesus and the Father. As an example: Jesus said, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the worksthat I do and, in fact, will do greater [works] than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:10-12) (emphasis mine). Érgon is used with this meaning only twice in all of the Synoptics, in Matthew 11:2 and Luke 11:28.

In these verses, as elsewhere, word and work are closely related, and the Father’s words and works are the sole source of the words and works of Jesus. The word work in brackets represents a place in Greek where the word is not literally present, but is implied. John clearly means us to hear works four times, emphasizing their importance. Note that if it is by their fruits that we are to know people, it is much more so with the Son of God.

In John, érgon, unlike the other two terms for miracle, represents the entire mission of Jesus. The term has a special function that is augmented by semeíon: it very deliberately and pointedly echoes the mighty acts (works) of God on behalf of his people in the OT. Most importantly, érgon and semeíon are prominent in the accounts of creation and of the exodus. In the creation story, there is a special connection between work and word because God accomplishes creation by the word alone. In the Gospels, as Raymond Brown writes, “Word reminds us that the value of the miracle is not in its form but in its content; the miraculous work reminds us that the word is not empty, but an active, energetic word designed to change the world.”

Summary: Miracles in the Four Gospels

All of the Gospels proclaim the continuation and fulfillment of God’s promises as recorded in the OT. However, the miracles in John are fewer than in the Synoptics. The Synoptics, taken together, emphasize a future kingdom, the defeat of evil and the reign of God to be completed after a second coming of Christ on the clouds of heaven. John, on the other hand, dwells most upon God’s reign already incipiently granted, the oneness of Jesus and God, and the relationship of Jesus and the believer. The significance of the difference between John and the Synoptics, regarding miracles, is this: In the Synoptics, miracles are demonstrations of the reign of God returning through Jesus Christ. By the later time of John, the signs had been accepted as the backbone of all that Jesus was and is; in themselves, they constitute the definitive statement of the Gospel and thus the salvific work of God in the world.

Reactions to the Signs: The Man Born Blind

In the Gospels, the people who witness the healings and other signs respond in several different ways. These are most clearly delineated in John but occur in all of the Gospels. There are four general categories of response:

  1. Refusal to see the sign with any faith (Caiaphas, Jn 11:47)
  2. Regarding signs as wonders and believing in Jesus merely as a wonderworker: Jesus refuses to accept this response, for example, in John 2:23-25; 3:2-3; 4:45-48; 7:3-7.
  3. John 10:38 regarding signs as evidence of Jesus’ oneness with the Father, particularly after the resurrection (Thomas in Jn 20:28: “My Lord and my God!”)
  4. Believing in Jesus without seeing signs (Jn 20:29; compare 14:12), based on the word of those who were with Jesus when he was present on earth.

John and the Synoptics all propel the reader to one conclusion, specifically through the stories of healing and the ultimate healing, the resurrection: the faith of the apostles is available to God’s people even in the present age. The gospels charge the believer to take to heart the word of the apostles’ testimony and to ask for healing for themselves and others. The healing includes a relationship with Jesus, though that relationship may come after healing. The believer is then to pass on the healing and the relationship to all nations.

The point is brought home forcefully in John 9, when Jesus was about to heal the man born blind. The disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Look carefully at what this must mean. It cannot be that God wanted the man to be blind. What Jesus was saying, and what he then acted upon very forcefully by healing the man, was this. First, the man’s sin did not cause the blindness. Second, in this man’s body, the glory of the Lord God will be known. The healing of blindness, regarded as something only the Messiah could do, will be accomplished. With the repetition of Jesus’ statement, “I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5, echoing 8:12), the onlookers are given to know that genuine knowledge of God in the world will be given to anyone who is open to it.

All four types of reaction to the miracle occurred in this healing. The rulers of the synagogue refused to see the healing as a work of God at all. The man’s parents apparently acknowledged the wonder work but did not acknowledge Jesus as one with God’s own person and power: “His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes’” (9:20-21). The man himself, with crushing and ironic simplicity, testified to the oneness between Jesus and God. Responding to the Pharisees’ refusal to believe in the divine origin of the miracle, “the man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes…. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing’” (9:30-33). It is evident from this text that the reader of a later era is also to see the entire miracle as evidence of Jesus’ oneness with the Father and of his ability to bring about the ultimate salvation.16 Indeed, the irony of this last statement makes the reader feel totally idiotic if he does not agree with the statement of the healed. That is John’s style.

Finally, the man, having been excommunicated by the rulers of the synagogue, met Jesus again. John strongly implies that Jesus came specifically to show him that with God, he was still a participant in the covenant, synagogue or no synagogue. The man, evidently healed of the powerful social and religious rejection he had just suffered, turned to Jesus and said, “ ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshiped him” (9:38). At this juncture, Jesus also rebuked the establishment, in another of John’s ironies, by referring to the Pharisees as blind. Overhearing, “some of the Pharisees near him … said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, We see, your sin remains.’” The roles were reversed; the blind saw and the seeing were theologically blinded. In John 9, then, the essential credential has been demonstrated, the credential that states that Jesus is one with God and that he is salvation come in person.


Healing in the Gospels thus represents the entire message of the Gospel writers and of Jesus himself as they remembered him. With the incarnation, Jesus reclaimed the human body as holy, prophesying the restoration of creation. The defeat of the final enemy, death, is promised. With the resurrection of Jesus’ body, his whole self, he became the fulfillment of that promise. In between, the healings and other miracles each present the promise and the incipient victory of God’s reclamation of the world.

The Gospels, particularly John, leave the reader with a challenge. Put in modern terms it is this: does the reader choose to be Thomas Jefferson or Thomas the Apostle? With Jefferson, idealizing Jesus’ ethical standards but denying the miraculous and God’s presence in him? Or with the apostle, realizing the unique nature of Jesus and the immediate presence in him of “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28)?

Certainly, the Gospels were written to propel the reader to the latter revelation. However, it is not just an aspect of the Gospels, a literary style, or a superstition superimposed upon a reforming Jewish prophet. The miracles are the very substance of their message. The medium is the message, as McLuhan declared! Without the miracles, the promise of eternal life and salvation is reduced to a mere ethical proposition, a speculative philosophical statement that can be put aside if the reader so chooses. As Bultmann wrote, “Everyday occurrences hide Him [God] from the unbeliever; God is near for the believer who sees His activity…. Undoubtedly he [Jesus] healed the sick and cast out demons … as a sign of the imminence of the Kingdom of God.” With the miracles, then, the Gospels proclaim the renewed dominion of the God of history, the one who can, truly and directly, be known.