The historical evidence for Jesus’ healings (already examined) is clear, and most experts today, whether religious or not, agree that he must have performed deeds which others deemed ‘miracles’. But what was the meaning of the healings, in the mind of Jesus himself? For this, we have good evidence.
Jesus’ deeds are portrayed in our texts as a sign within history of the restoration of all things at the end of history. Jesus’ power over sickness, evil, and nature are a preview, you might say, of God’s coming kingdom. This is a point Jesus himself makes at the end of a dispute with the Pharisees (a strict sect of first-century Jews) in the Gospel of Matthew: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:22–28) The same statement is found in Luke 11:20, meaning it derives from the early source (shared by Matthew and Luke) known to scholars as Q, from the German word Quelle or 'source'.
Healing the Blind
(Duccio, 13th century)
Usually, the “kingdom of God” mentioned in this source is a future reality. It refers to the moment when all creation will be brought into conformity with the wise and loving purposes of the Creator. The technical word for this is eschatology. Justice will reign, peace will ensue, and all nature will thrive and flourish. In the well-known Lord’s Prayer (or “Our Father”), for instance, Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Your kingdom come,” a plea for God’s dominion over the world to come soon.
In the passage just quoted, however, Jesus describes that kingdom as present in some way in his ministry of healing and exorcism: “the kingdom of God has come upon you,” he says. What was usually described by Jesus (and other biblical writers) as an ultimate future reality is glimpsed, he reckoned, in his startling deeds. The renowned classicist and historian of religion David Flusser (a Jew not a Christian) puts the point well in his study of Jesus’ life:
According to Christian Scripture, only in the final kingdom of God will there be no more pain, death, and discord. As the second-to-last chapter of the New Testament envisions: "He [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4)
What is promised in prophecy and vision here in the book of Revelation (and elsewhere) was, the Gospels say, temporarily experienced within history in the ministry of Jesus: evil was overthrown, frail bodies were restored, and nature itself was put right. The “kingdom of God” had in miniature come upon them. And, as we have seen, it left its mark throughout the ancient sources. As much as the miracles point to Jesus’ compassion and authority, more fundamentally they preview the renewal of all things in the kingdom to which Jesus invited his hearers.
For Christian believers in my readership I should probably add that I do believe that God in his mercy chooses to heal people today—sometimes through prayers, sometimes without them. He did this in Old Testament times; he will do it in contemporary times, the New Testament assures us (e.g., James 5:14–16). In my view, the many fully verified unexplained medical recoveries are the “miraculous” work of the Creator, whether or not the people involved are Christians, or prayed.
But I want to stress this is not what the Gospels are trying to teach us in their accounts of Jesus’ miracles (nor is it a point I wish to stress in a book like this). What Jesus did within history was not a program that is meant to be enacted in the ongoing life of the church; it is rather a window into a future kingdom that is hoped for and proclaimed by the church.
The purpose of Jesus’ startling deeds was not to evoke a belief in miracles today but rather to inspire a longing for the day when God’s kingdom comes fully upon the world. That’s the perspective of the Gospels. Throughout history, Christian faith has always involved a restless hope—a hope captured perfectly in the prayer “Your kingdom come!” The previews of the kingdom glimpsed in Jesus’ miracles has typically made Christ’s followers dissatisfied with the way things are and desperate for the way things Christ said they would one day be. Christian hope is thus confident but restless: it praises God for the preview (in Jesus’ life) and pleads him for the finale (in the “kingdom come”), when evil will be overthrown, humanity healed, and creation itself renewed.
Throughout the ages this restless hope has also inspired diligent work while waiting. Christians pray not only “Your kingdom come,” but also “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In theory—and others can judge if this is worked out in practice—people who have glimpsed the future in the healing deeds of Jesus commit themselves to serving the world, just as he did, in whatever way they can this side of the kingdom. They relieve suffering at every opportunity and resist evil wherever they see it. The creation of Christian hospitals and hospices in fourth-century AD Rome and the (largely Christian) movement to abolish slavery in eighteenth-century England were, in part, motivated by this ancient (theo)logic.
Recently I was in Rome shooting scenes for a documentary (on this mixed history of the church) about a remarkable woman who, while virtually unknown today, was amongst the most notable women of the fourth century. Fabiolo was born into one of the founding families of Rome and was one of the capital’s wealthiest people. She suffered greatly in an abusive marriage, before gaining rare permission to divorce her husband and begin again. At some point she met Christians, who by this period could be found in all ranks of imperial society. She heard the news about Christ, and devoted herself to the powerful, tender Master we read about in the Gospels. What Fabiola did next was extraordinary.
Fabiola of Rome
(died AD 399)
Fabiola sold her entire holdings, turned it into cash, and devoted herself, and all her resources, to assisting the poor and sick of Rome. She established what may well have been the first public hospital in history. Hospitals were part of the military apparatus of the empire, of course, but the idea of throwing open the doors of medical care to the whole population was novel. Remarkably, she tended to people not just with her money but with her own hands. “How often she carried on her own shoulders poor filthy wretches tortured by epilepsy!” wrote an eyewitness and friend. “How often did she wash away the purulent [pussy] matter from wounds which others could not even endure to look at! She gave food with her own hand, and even when a man was but a breathing corpse, she would moisten his lips with drops of water.” She expanded her operation. “Rome was not large enough for her kindness. She went from island to island, and travelled round the Etruscan Sea, bestowing her bounty” (Jerome, Letters. Translated by F. A. Wright. Loeb Classical Library 262. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933, 77.6).
In this sense Jesus’ healing ministry recorded in the Gospels did provide a program for the church in society—not in the ministry of “faith healers” but in practical attempts to repair what is broken in the world. The logic is simple: we might not yet possess all the resources of the “kingdom come” but we do know its aims—to renew human life and put an end to evil—and these aims shape what we strive for here and now. That is the theory. I am painfully aware the church hasn’t always lived up to its confession of Jesus the Healer.
This is an excerpt from A Doubter's Guide to Jesus, out February 2018