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Stories of Jesus Healing in the Bible: Historical and Religious Context

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

Detail from a pen and ink drawing attributed to Govert Flinck depicting the raising of the daughter of Jarius.

The Raising of the Daughter of Jarius, attributed to Govert Flinck (1615–1660), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Christians are sometimes taught that stories of Jesus healing are included in the Bible to provide proof of his divine power. Because of these healing stories, we are told, we can be sure that Jesus was the first Christian.

But these two claims are misleading and obscure the deeper meaning of his healing ministry. When we consider more carefully the significance of his Jewish heritage, we can learn more about the meaning and means behind these stories healing.

We know, for example, that Jesus knew the psalms–God’s promises that the God of Israel is always with us.

The LORD is my shepherd. . .he restores my soul. . . Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. . .I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. (Psalm 23)

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, . . .will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; . . . You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday. . .Those who love me, I will deliver;. . .When they call to me, I will answer them;. . .I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation. (Psalm 91)

The healing prophets of Israel

Jesus knew the stories of the prophets of Israel too. Elijah healed a young child.

The son of the woman, . . . became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. . . [Elijah] cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. . .  So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” (1 Kings 17)

This mother learned from Elijah that the power of God was present even when death looked so overwhelming.

Then there was Elisha, who learned from Elijah:

Naaman, commander of the army . . .though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. . . Elisha said, “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel” and he sent a messenger to Naaman, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times.” But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God. . . . But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? . . . So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy. (2 Kings 5)

Once again, this healing story conveyed the message of the prophet—that Israel’s God was present for all the nations, all the time. All they had to do was ask.

The presence of God among us

Whether from psalms of prayer or stories of healing, these ancient examples of restoration all point to the reason for healing: they open our eyes to see the presence of God among us.

We see the same idea in the teachings and stories of Jesus healing in the New Testament. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus encountered ten men who were also suffering from leprosy. He sent them to the priest to confirm that they were already clean, and each was healed along the way. One of them came back to thank Jesus, praising God, and Jesus explained that it was his faith that had cured him (Luke 17).

At another time, some Pharisees asked Jesus when he thought God’s kingdom would come. In a tone reminiscent of the psalms, Jesus confirmed that the kingdom of God was already and always present. He said, in slight paraphrase, “it’s not coming with things you can see. It’s already here and among you” (Luke 17).

The temptation to dismiss the healing stories of Jesus

There are several tempting reasons to dismiss the healing stories of Jesus as either miracle or magic.

If we ignore his Jewish humanhood, it is easy to brush off these seeming medical aberrations as God’s mysterious ways of doing things. When we consider Jesus only as God without his human identity, then we don’t need to bother to understand the stories of his healing. We just assume Jesus is too divine for mere humans to comprehend.

Also, the idea of seemingly miraculous healing doesn’t set well with our modern view of medicine. We’re familiar with placebos, and possibly there are some explanations for the phenomena of healing without medicine that will emerge from quantum theory. But if we set aside our medical doubts for a moment, we can better appreciate the significance of these healing accounts by looking at them as meaningful and consistent within the context of Jesus’s Jewishness.

The greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages, Moses Maimonides, reminded his own followers that relying on miracles (present or past) to prove one’s faith is dangerous, since they could be the result of magic or illusion.

The Jewish purpose: to advance a story about God

But the real purpose of the supernatural stories of Jesus or any other Hebrew prophet or rabbi was to advance a story about God. Modern-day Rabbi Evan Moffic explains:

Why did God split the Red Sea? Because the Israelites needed to cross it. Why did God bring down manna from heaven and water from a rock? Because the Israelites were hungry and thirsty. Had the purpose of the miracles simply been to show God’s power, God could have performed a supernatural act with no other purpose than to demonstrate power. But God did not. (What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Jewishness of Jesus, 88)

Jesus made it quite clear that the story about God he wanted to advance was the reality of God’s presence among us, a message with its roots deeply embedded in his Jewish heritage.

If we were to take Jesus’s message seriously—that God’s kingdom (or realm) is already here—then the stories of Jesus healing could have a major impact on our own experience. If we would only consent to the idea that God is with us, loves us, and cares for us, then the healings of the paralytic at Bethesda, the blind Bartimaeus at Jericho, the centurion’s servant, Peter’s mother-in-law, the daughter of the Syro-Pheonician woman, or the boy suffering from epilepsy could inspire us to admit God’s transforming and healing presence abides with us always.

This post is available as a Bible and Beyond Video Essay. Watch it on YouTube here.