Just over one hundred years ago, B.B. Warfield delivered the Thomas Symth Lectures at Columbia Theological Seminary in Columbia, S.C. The transcription of those lectures forms the content of Warfield’s book Counterfeit Miracles, which opens with these words: “When our Lord came down to earth He drew heaven with Him. The signs which accompanied His ministry were but the trailing clouds of glory which He brought from heaven, which is His home.” Taking up the subject of miraculous healings in particular, Warfield summarized his assessment of contemporary claims to the continuation of healings when he stated: “All Christians believe in healing in answer to prayer. Those who assert that this healing is wrought in a specifically miraculous manner, need better evidence for their peculiar view than such as fits in equally well with the general Christian faith.” For Warfield, the great burden of the day was for Christians to reckon with the biblical teaching about the unique, redemptive-historical nature of the miraculous healings that occurred in the days of Jesus and the Apostles. That particular task is no less necessary in the twenty-first century than it was at the outset of the twentieth century. Many Christians still fail to understand that there is a nonrepeatable, redemptive-historical, and eschatological quality to the healing miracles of Jesus and the Apostles.
If it were possible for someone to combine all of the maladies of those who experienced the miraculous power of Christ during His earthly ministry into one person, that person would be a fully deformed person. According to Scripture, Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the deaf, the dumb, lepers, epileptics, paralytics, cripples, a woman with a fever, a woman with an unstoppable flow of blood, and a man with a withered hand. Most astonishingly, Jesus raised the dead. Christ came into the world to reverse the miserable effects of sin brought into this world by Adam. Though Jesus’ miracles of healing were complete healings, they were, nevertheless, selective and temporal. Jesus never purposed to heal everyone with whom He came into contact. Additionally, all those who were healed by Jesus ultimately died. Those facts lead us to the following vital questions: What purpose did Jesus’ miraculous healings serve? How are Christ’s miracles related to what He came to do on the cross and in His resurrection?
The miracles of Jesus and the Apostles were messianic markers, pointing beyond themselves to the Savior who came into the world to bring salvation from sin and from the misery of this life. Jesus is the last Adam who came to undo all that the first Adam did through his rebellion (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22, 45–49). Everything that plagues us in our daily experiences as fallen image bearers can be placed in one of two categories—sin or misery. The Westminster Shorter Catechism makes this clear when it states, “The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery” (WSC 17). These two categories help us better understand not only our experience as fallen sinners in this fallen world but also the saving work of Jesus, the last Adam, who came into the world to bear the sin and suspend the misery brought into the world by the first Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:20–28, 42–49). While the death of Jesus is first and foremost a substitutionary sacrifice that atones for the sin of His people, Christ’s sufferings and subsequent glories ultimately result in the removal of all of the miseries of the believer’s life.
The miracles of Jesus and the Apostles function as previews of the resurrection and consummation when believers will undergo the complete healing for which they long. The hope of believers is that one day all of the ills of this world will be cast under the feet of the Redeemer when He returns to transform His people into His glorious image. In his book The Coming of the Kingdom, Herman Ridderbos summarized the eschatological-sign nature of Jesus’ healing miracles in the following way:
Jesus’ miracles have an eschatological character as messianic deeds of salvation. This follows from . . . the fact that the cure of diseased persons, the raising of the dead, etc., are to be considered as the renewal and the re-creation of all things, manifesting the coming of the kingdom of heaven. These miracles, however, are only incidental and are therefore not to be looked upon as a beginning from which the whole will gradually develop, but as signs of the coming kingdom of God.1
This explanation accounts for both the selective and the temporal nature of Jesus’ healing miracles. We should not view the healing ministry of Jesus as something progressive and continual—as if it manifests itself throughout human history in order to seamlessly bring about the new heavens and the new earth.
A more difficult question concerns the connection between Christ’s miracles of healing and His work on the cross. If the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is the epicenter of the inaugurated kingdom of God, how do His miracles of healing relate to His death on the cross? The most significant explanation is found in Matthew’s appeal to Isaiah 53:4, where Matthew ties the healing ministry of Jesus to Isaiah’s prophesy about the suffering Savior:
That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” (Matt. 8:16–17)
The substitutionary nature of Christ’s work applies not merely to the sin of His people, but also to the misery they experience in this life. Again, Ridderbos reflects on this fact when he notes:
It is important that in Matthew 8:16–17 Jesus’ manifold cures are called the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4: “He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Here we find the thought that in His messianic work, Jesus takes over the burden of disease and suffering from men. It is true that in this passage Jesus does not appear as the one who takes this burden on Himself in His suffering (as does the Servant of the LORD in Isaiah 53:4). But the thought of such a transfer is clearly present and is explained in the light of the prophecy of Isaiah 53:2.
A great exchange occurred between Jesus and those He healed during His ministry. Jesus took the burden of the miseries of His people on Himself by virtue of His sufferings. When Jesus entered into His passion, He was blindfolded, beaten, and mocked. He was then nailed to the tree and poured out His blood unto death. Each healing miracle finds a counterpart in what the Savior suffered. Jesus was blindfolded in the place of the blind, became lame for the lame, became paralyzed for the paralytics, poured out His blood for those with an unstoppable flow of blood, became silent for the mute, had the powers of evil unleashed on Himself for those who had been demon-possessed, and was raised from the dead in order to raise the dead.
On the cross, the sinless One became unclean so that unclean sinners can be made clean before God. The law indicated that if someone touched a leper or a person who had died, they became ceremonially unclean. In the act of healing, Jesus touched both the leper and the dead (Luke 5:13; 7:14). Though the substitutionary transfer of the uncleanness was not evident immediately, it becomes clear that Jesus became the most ceremonially unclean person who had ever lived when He hung on the cross under the wrath of God (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:10–13). Just as Christ took our sin on Himself, He took our misery on Himself. Jesus substituted Himself for those for whom He had come into the world to save. In order to give us the hope of eschatological forgiveness, restoration, and life, Jesus had to take all our sin and our sickness on Himself in His sufferings.
Our confidence in Christ is not in the assurance that He will heal all of our sickness and disease in this life. Though God does often heal His people who cry out to Him for healing in the here and now, He has secured lasting healing of our whole person at the resurrection. In Christ, God “forgives all your iniquity, [and] heals all your diseases” (Ps. 103:3). However, our hope as believers is that we will experience the full realization of the substitution of Christ on the day of resurrection. There is a day coming for believers when “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on February 18, 2019.