Thursday, 2 July 2015

When healing isn't given

... I left Trophimus sick in Miletus. 2 Timothy 4:20

... the Lord... heals all your diseases. Psalm 103:3

What do you know about Trophimus? Answer, I’m pretty sure: not a lot. And you can’t be blamed for that, for his name is mentioned just three times in the New Testament - Acts 20:4 and 21:29 and here in 2 Timothy.

What can we glean from these three references? Again, not a lot. He was from the city of Ephesus. He was a gentile Christian. He was one of Paul’s team of missionary helpers. Once you know those bare facts you know as much about Trophimus as the most learned professor of New Testament anywhere in the world.

Except for one thing I have deliberately missed out. Trophimus got sick in the city of Miletus, and Paul left him there in that condition. So Paul himself tells us. But you might very likely say, “All right, sorry to hear Trophimus wasn’t well, but, er, so what?”

And the answer to that is actually quite important. Here’s why... We all know that in the New Testament the healing of the sick was common. This was the case, of course, in the ministry of Jesus. But it continued in the ministry of the apostles as we read about it in Acts. 

So the question arises: Why on earth did Paul leave Trophimus sick - in Miletus or anywhere else? Why didn’t he heal him? 

Acts makes clear that Paul did have this gift - two specific examples we are given are the crippled man in Lystra (Acts 14:8-10) and poor Eutychus, the young man who fell asleep during a talk by Paul, fell out of a window, and was “picked up dead” (Acts 20:7-12). Why didn’t Paul do for Trophimus what he had done for others?

And the answer to that question is simple: we just don’t know, we aren’t told.

If you ask again, quite understandably, “So what?”, the answer is that it puts a new angle on the whole question of healing in the New Testament. 

We are living at a time when, in some quarters of the church, a strong emphasis is given to healing. Much is made of verses like Matthew 8:17, where Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4: “He took up our infirmities, and carried our diseases”. Jesus wasn’t only concerned with the forgiveness of our sins, but also the healing of our bodies.

And so the claim is sometimes made that we should always expect healing, any time we are sick. All you need is sufficient faith.

But if the Trophimus story is anything to go by, it seems it isn’t quite as simple as that. And it’s not the only one.

Timothy himself, the young pastor Paul wrote these two letters to, apparently had a dodgy stomach and various other medical problems. So what does Paul say to him? “Have faith to get healed!”? “Get someone to lay hands on you or to anoint you with oil!”? No; he advises, “Use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23). He accepts Timothy's problems as a fact, and suggests a very ordinary remedy.

Hey, what has happened to Paul! Has his faith weakened since those great, heady, early days of his conversion? Has he lost conviction on this matter?

No; he has simply learned that there is a mystery to the whole question of healing which has to be left to the wisdom of God.

As far as we are concerned, these hundreds of years later, the most we can say is this...

First, God can heal. Oh yes! He doesn’t change, so we should never think of healing as a thing purely of the past. Second, God does heal. Many of us, over the years, have seen instances where prayer has been answered in clear and sometimes exciting ways. 

But third, healing by direct supernatural means is very much the exception rather than the rule. We all know strong, faith-filled Christians who have lived for years with serious illnesses, and we ought to look that fact fairly and squarely in the face.

And fourth, God will heal. The earthly ministry of Jesus and his apostles gives us a wonderful and tantalising hint of that great day - the day when God’s people will be freed of all the ailments, physical, mental and emotional, which dog us as long as we are “in the flesh”.

Perhaps it can all be summed up like this: Believe God can. But don’t presume God will. Not yet, at any rate. The timing is up to him.

And that means that if you are sick, and have prayed for healing, and it hasn’t been given - there’s nothing necessarily wrong with you (if you know what I mean).

Loving God, thank you that you heal all our diseases. Help me to believe in your power to heal today, but give me also the patience to trust you for your timing. Amen.

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