So far in this sermon series, focussed on the sending out of the seventy-two we’ve been thinking about the preparations for the journey, about how they were to go, where they were to go, what they might expect when they got there, and now today, finally, we get to think about the content of the mission that they were being sent on. This mission action plan is very simple, it can be summarised in three words. Show and Tell. That’s it. Show and Tell.
Of course, just because something is simple to understand doesn’t mean that it’s not deep or difficult to do. So, we’re going to take these two aspects of the mission of the seventy-two and look at them over the next two weeks. Before we do this, though, I think it’s wise just to realise that they belong together. Too often in our history we have divorced showing and telling in our sharing of the good news of Jesus. We have split them from each other in a false division. Jesus did not say, “show or tell”. He said “Show and tell” The force of this phrase could be summarised, “Show whilst telling and tell whilst showing”. When it comes to our engagement with the world, we cannot show without telling, else nobody will know why we do what we do, or where the power with which we do things comes from. Similarly we cannot tell without showing, or there will be nothing to explain, there will be no evidence for us to point to in our conversations. Show and Tell.
Having said all that, we are going to spend a couple of weeks thinking about these things separately, but only so that we can understand them both more fully, and so that we can allow our deeper understanding and commitment to both to strengthen our witness to Jesus’ love and power to change lives.
So, to my text for this evening which, I think, is the shortest text that I have ever preached on, the first phrase of v9 “Heal those there who are ill…”
Another simple instruction. “Heal those there who are ill…” Now, we know that the disciples had seen Jesus healing people, but we have no indication that they had been involved personally in this ministry. I suspect that having seen Jesus do these things with their own eyes, their faith and belief that people would be healed when they prayed from them would have been quite strong, but I suspect also that they might have had the odd nagging doubt. Nevertheless, they followed Jesus’ instruction and off they went. And what happened? Well, skipping a few verses on we come to this in v 17, “the seventy-two returned with joy and said, ‘Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” They had obviously seen people healed and freed from oppression and bondage. They did what Jesus told them to do, and it worked.
This text might be short, and simple, but in some ways that makes it even more difficult to preach on. There is nowhere to hide. It’s not even as though Jesus said, “Pray that those who are ill may be healed.” That would be a far less challenging instruction. No, he says, “Heal those there who are ill.” There is nowhere to hide. What are we going to do with this instruction?
One option is to decide that it doesn’t apply to us. We could argue that this was a specific instruction to a particular group of people for the purposes of that mission trip. That it was during the time of Jesus’ life on earth, and he gave those disciples the power and authority to fulfil that command on that trip, but that it was limited to that. That would let us off the hook nicely. However, I don’t think that it can be sustained. There is example after example of healing accompanying the mission of different Christians throughout the New Testament, well after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. From Peter and John going to pray at the temple, and healing a beggar there in Jesus’ name, to Ananias praying for Paul and seeing him healed of his blindness, to Paul himself in the reading we’ve heard from Acts, whose healing gift was so profound that even cloths that had touched him brought healing to those who were ill.
Further than this, it wasn’t just those we might think of as “Apostles”, eye witnesses of Jesus’ life and works, that were given a gift of healing or other spiritual gifts. Again in the passage we read in Acts we hear about a group of disciples who had not heard the full gospel. They didn’t fully understand about Jesus’ and they had not received the Holy Spirit. So Paul explains the good news of Jesus to them, and baptises them. At which point the Holy Spirit fills them with power and gives them spiritual gifts.
The way in which Paul writes about the gift of healing, and other gifts in his letters to the churches seems to me to demonstrate that they were, in some sense, a part of normal church life. There were some problems associated with them, but these were largely to do with the immaturity in faith of the new Christians, not to do with the gifts themselves being inappropriate or dying out in the church. Similarly when James writes his book, he gives specific instructions on what to do if someone is ill. The elders of the church are to gather round, pray over them, anoint them with oil, and “the prayer offered in faith will make them well.” Again, it’s very simple.
As far as I can see, the gift of healing was not restricted to Jesus, or to Jesus’ time. It was not restricted to Jesus’ closest followers, “the Apostles” and the sense of the teaching given to the churches was that it was to be part of church life and mission at that time. But what about now? Did those gifts cease when the canon was closed, once the church had got a good kick start and had got going. Almost as if the Holy Spirit primed the pump with healing and now the engine is running those gifts aren’t needed any more.
Christians take different views on this. It seems to me that neither case can be proved from Scripture. Depending on the weight you put on certain verses, and the way in which they are read, you can make an argument both that these gifts have ceased or that they continue in some form. It is my understanding that they continue. This is based on how I read the instructions in the letters to the churches and my understanding of the Holy Spirit as having been poured out on all people in the new covenant of Jesus’ blood.
It is also based on my knowledge of church history and the many examples and witnesses of miraculous healings through the centuries that have been a key part of revivals and Christian mission around the world. From Jackie Pullinger seeing heroin addicts freed from addiction in Hong Kong through the intervention and healing of the Holy Spirit, to Charles Spurgeon recounting the occasions on which he pointed out someone in the congregation about whom he had just received an insight, without any prior knowledge of the person, which proved to be entirely accurate, to the work of the Healing on the Streets prayer movement in this country at the moment.
Gospel for Asia is an organisation that works on the Indian subcontinent, training and sending our indigenous missionaries. This is part of a field report from last month,
“Being the closest thing to a doctor that his village had, Aarav traveled from place to place giving medicine to his patients. There were always people in need of some remedy to cure their ailing health. But when Aarav began to have pain in his right hand, he had no medicine that could ease the discomfort.
During this trying season in his life, Aarav enjoyed having conversations with his friend Rangan, a GFA-supported pastor who served faithfully in Aarav’s village. Aarav witnessed the hope and peace Pastor Rangan personally held in Christ. With great interest in Jesus, Aarav began attending church services to find out about this God who offers eternal life.
Aarav read the account of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand, and the miraculous and awesome description of Jesus’s power sunk deep into his heart. Aarav began to believe Jesus could heal his hand, too.
One hour later, Aarav felt the pain in his hand diminish completely! He headed home with a light and joyful heart. But when he reached his house, he found his wife suffering from stomach pain. With his faith already growing in Jesus, he prayed for his wife and testified to her about what Jesus had done for him. After his prayer, she too was healed completely. As a result of experiencing God’s mercy, Aarav offered his heart to the mighty Healer.
Now Aarav is growing in his love for Jesus and has seen how God’s Word stands true and endures forever. Aarav and his wife were healed by faith, and through it, God worked in Aarav’s heart to show him just how much He loves him!”
When I receive the GFA field reports they nearly always contain accounts such as this. To my shame I catch myself in cynicism asking if they really happened, or feeling jealous that these people are healed and people that I pray for very often aren’t healed. How much better if I was encouraged and rejoiced in the fact that God is at work in people’s lives, bringing healing and new life. If I allowed my faith to be built up by these accounts, and if I got down on my knees repenting of my own lack of faith and asking for more.
So, where do we end up with this? Well, it seems to me that God does still use healing specifically as a sign of the breakthrough of God’s kingdom into people’s lives and as a demonstration of love for them, as a foretaste of the complete healing that all who acknowledge Jesus as Lord will receive in eternity. We have to hold on to that, whilst living with the reality that not everyone receives healing now, and in fact, on earth all healing is temporary. We all die. It is also true that not everyone has a gift of healing. Those of us that do should exercise it in proportion to our faith, and pray for more faith so that we may use if more effectively and with greater power. Those of us who don’t have it should still pray for healing for people, who knows what God will do. We should also pray for greater faith, and can ask for the gift. Those of us who have other gifts should use those to show the power and love of God’s kingdom to those that we are sent to, that they may experience them and, in turn, be drawn to be closer to Christ.