by Peter Ditzel
Many Christians suffer from various illnesses and injuries or have loved ones who do. Understandably, they wonder whether God still heals today. As we know, the Bible is full of accounts of healings. Many of them were spectacular, and the authorities of the day investigated some of them. In John 9 and in Acts 4:16, for example, the authorities never denied that the healing had occurred, they just took the stupid position of trying to cover it up. But does God still heal today? Or, to get right down to the heart of the controversy, does God promise physical healing to believers?
The question of healing is important, not only because there are people who would like God to heal them, but also because the question divides believers. Roughly, Christianity can be divided into three positions on this subject. There are those who say, Yes, God gives us an absolute promise of healing, and if we are not healed, it is because we lack faith. Then there are believers who say that God does not give us a definite promise of healing, but He may sometimes heal anyway. And then there are those who say that God does not heal today at all.
The Pivotal Verses
The verses that are at the heart of the controversy are Isaiah 53:4-5. Their context is that of a prophecy of the coming Messiah, whom we on this side of the New Testament know to be Jesus Christ. Let’s look at Isaiah 53:4-5 along with verse 6:
Surely he has borne our sickness, and carried our suffering; yet we considered him plagued, struck by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought our peace was on him; and by his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray. Everyone has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4: I think it would be hard to deny that the focus of the above passage is on Jesus’ atonement for our sins. Yet, as we read, it does also speak of Jesus bearing our “our sickness” and says that “by his wounds we are healed.” The Hebrew word translated “our sickness” is chŏlîy. Bible translators have long debated the meaning of this word. In over twenty other places in the Old Testament, it is translated as “sickness” or “disease.” And some translations also render it that way in Isaiah 53:4. But other translations render it in this verse as “griefs” or “pains” or “weaknesses.” In other words, scholars disagree over whether this word should, in this verse, be translated as referring to physical illness or whether it should be understood as meaning spiritual illness that is the result of sin.
Remember that elsewhere in the Old Testament, chŏlîy is translated as “sickness” or “disease.” The weight of this evidence would seem to answer the question, except it doesn’t. Because the Septuagint (often referred to by its acronym LXX), which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was completed over one hundred years before Christ was born, translates chŏlîy in Isaiah 53:4 as the Greek word hamartia. And hamartia means “sin.” Like the Bible, the LXX has been translated into many English versions, but they all translate Isaiah 53:4 similarly. Here’s one of them: “He bears our sins, and is pained for us: yet we accounted him to be in trouble, and in suffering, and in affliction” (The Septuagint LXX in English, Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, tr).
The LXX cannot be dismissed lightly. It was commonly used by Jews at the time of Jesus and writers inspired by the Holy Spirit quoted it throughout the New Testament. So, perhaps we should understand Isaiah 53:4 the way the LXX translates it. But we shouldn’t be hasty. Like a good mystery story, just when we think we know the answer, there is another twist. There is an exception about the use of the LXX in the New Testament concerning this very verse. Matthew, in Matthew 8:16-17, says, “When evening came, they brought to him many possessed with demons. He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘He took our infirmities, and bore our diseases.'”
Matthew, here, does not quote the LXX. In fact, he doesn’t even give us a standard translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew, acting under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has reinterpreted Isaiah 53:4 to show it was fulfilled in Jesus’ healing ministry. In fact, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament is a major theme in Matthew. The apostle Matthew frequently follows an account of an event in Jesus’ ministry by quoting an Old Testament Scripture along with saying that the event fulfilled the Scripture. Thus, Jesus’ fulfilling of Isaiah 53:4 was His taking and bearing the people’s sicknesses, not in the sense of imputing them to Himself in the way our sins were imputed to Him, but simply in his taking the sicknesses of the people away.
So, what can we conclude about Isaiah 53:4? While Jesus certainly bore our sins, and while He certainly bears us up in our afflictions and infirmities, the authoritative word of the New Testament clearly says that Isaiah 53:4 was fulfilled by Jesus’ healing ministry prior to the Cross. Jesus’ healing ministry ended at the Cross and, thus, Isaiah 53:4 cannot be used as evidence either for or against healing today.
Isaiah 53:5: Perhaps the most often quoted verse in defense of healing today is Isaiah 53:5: “But he was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought our peace was on him; and by his wounds we are healed.” The last part of the verse is what is most often cited, and the Hebrew Scriptures and the LXX agree on the translation.
The evidence concerning Isaiah 53:5 sounds pretty conclusive, doesn’t it? Should we then agree with what this article says? “The price for your healing was paid at Calvary by Jesus Christ. Your physical healing is part of your redemption from sin and ultimately Satan. A believer in Jesus Christ should have just as much confidence that God will heal their bodies as they have that God will forgive their sins” (“God’s Redemptive Plan“).
Does Isaiah 53:5 mean that Jesus not only atoned for our sins but also atoned for our sicknesses, thus procuring a sure healing for believers? Be careful before you answer. If Jesus’ atonement procured sure healing for believers just as much as it procured sure salvation for believers, then everyone who exercises saving faith in Jesus should also be instantly healed of any diseases and live a life of perfect health from then on. And anyone who professes to be a Christian but becomes sick would be immediately exposed as a false believer and not a real Christian at all. I think that very few people would want to teach this interpretation of Isaiah 53:5, but it is the logical conclusion of saying that healing is a part of the atonement.
Those who teach that the last part of Isaiah 53:5 is a promise of healing in the atonement tend to isolate “by his wounds we are healed” from its context. The first part of the verse says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions.” That’s talking about Jesus giving His life for our sins. Then, the verse says, “He was crushed for our iniquities.” The word “crushed” here is referring to being ground like grain in a millstone. This is talking about Jesus receiving the full force of God’s wrath for our iniquities. This is directly connected with what the verse next says: “The punishment that brought our peace was on him.” This punishment—this bearing of our sins while God’s wrath poured down upon Him—brought us peace with God. All of this is talking about Jesus’ atonement for our sin, not healing.
Now, let’s look at Isaiah 53:6: “All we like sheep have gone astray. Everyone has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Again, Isaiah is talking about our straying in sin and how those sins were imputed to Jesus. So, the context before and after “by his wounds we are healed” is about sin. It would be odd for Isaiah, in the middle of these statements about sin, to inject something about healing.
The Hebrew word for “healed” in Isaiah 53:5 is râphâh. It is a common word for physical as well as spiritual healing. Notice just a few examples of how the Bible uses this word for spiritual healing: “He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3); “Return, you backsliding children, I will heal your backsliding. Behold, we are come to you; for you are the LORD our God” (Jeremiah 3:22); “I will heal their waywardness. I will love them freely; for my anger is turned away from him” (Hosea 14:4). It seems likely, given both the context and the possible meaning of the word, that râphâh in Isaiah 53:5 means spiritual healing.
But let’s let the Bible interpret itself. Peter makes a direct reference to Isaiah 53:5-6:
For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example, that you should follow his steps, who did not sin, “neither was deceit found in his mouth.” Who, when he was cursed, didn’t curse back. When he suffered, didn’t threaten, but committed himself to him who judges righteously; who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live to righteousness; by whose stripes you were healed. For you were going astray like sheep; but now have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
1 Peter 2:21-25
Notice that Peter is discussing how the innocent Jesus suffered for our sin. Peter’s entire context, before and after “by whose stripes you were healed,” is sin. The context is not physical healing. Now notice 1 Peter 4:1-2: “Forasmuch then as Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind; for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin; that you no longer should live the rest of your time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” Part of Peter’s intention in this letter was writing to steel his readers against hardship. Pointing out a promise of physical healing, once again, does not fit the context.
Clearly, Peter has something other than physical healing in mind. I believe that it is very safe to conclude that the word “healed” in Isaiah 53:5 refers to spiritual healing. The Greek word Peter used to translate râphâh is iaomai. It is the word used in the LXX of Isaiah 53:5. It is one of the words commonly used for physical healing, but it is also used for spiritual healing. According to Thayer’s Greek Definitions, it means “to cure, heal,” “to make whole,” or, “to free from errors and sins, to bring about (one’s) salvation.” It is without doubt used for salvation in Matthew 13:15: “For this people’s heart has grown callous, their ears are dull of hearing, they have closed their eyes; or else perhaps they might perceive with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and should turn again; and I would heal them.” It has the same meaning in John 12:40.
Peter isn’t talking about the healing of our physical infirmities. He’s talking about the healing of our deadness in sin, the healing of our spiritual blindness, the healing of our spiritual deafness, the healing of our spiritual dumbness, the healing of our crippling inability, and the healing of our relationship with God from being enemies to being sons. This is the healing that Jesus procured for us with His stripes. This is the healing that is guaranteed to all believers.
But why did Jesus physically heal people in His earthly ministry? Does this ministry continue today? Doesn’t James 5:14-16 promise healing? Does God ever heal today? We’ll explore these questions and discuss the danger of hinging our faith on physical healing in part 2 of “Does God Promise Healing Today?”
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