Aside from Jeremiah, there is probably no other servant of the Lord who has been tortured more, so afflicted by illnesses, suffered continuously more exhaustion and fatigue for doing the work of the Lord, or sustained more humiliation and rejection by his own countrymen, his children in the faith, and the Roman Empire, than the apostle Paul (Acts 9:16).
Paul was raised in relative affluence and with a noble upbringing at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He experienced special miracle signs of healing, miraculously rose up on his own power after being stoned and left for dead, and had his life turned inside out with pain and suffering for his love of Christ. He teaches us that it was his illness and suffering that gave him the power to serve God, to learn humility, to marvel at the grace of God, to become a stronger Christian by perfecting His strength (2Cor 12:9), and to glory more in the Lord alone (2Cor 11:30). Just like illness, suffering, and humiliation, divine healing can also be a blessing from the Lord.
There are two types of divine healing. There are the miraculous healings connected with the signs and wonders of the early church, and there are natural healings that occur by virtue of prayer and medication. In certain cases, the latter is sometimes considered miraculous because of the rarity of the occurrence. On the other hand, it may have been considered miraculous because of the fortuitous coincidence of the events. The combination of events may involve the timing, the presence or absence of certain persons, the location of the event, and its coincidence with other events. Even the most remarkable serendipitous collection of events called a miracle today still does not even begin to equate with the “signs and wonders” types of miraculous healings done by Christ and by the apostles during the early apostolic days.
A “sign and wonder” may be defined as something that is accomplished contrary to nature, instantaneously, or within the hour (Matt 8:13), and where it can only result in giving glory to God regardless of the lack of faith of the recipient or the disbelief of the onlookers (Acts 3:1-22; 9:32-35). Raising someone from the dead, for example, cannot depend on the faith of the defunct since it is impossible to exercise faith of any kind. In addition, resurrection has a zero probability of occurring outside of the life-giving power of God. The healing sign can be further divided into the unique miracles of Christ and the special miracles of Peter and Paul.
The character of the person performing the healing sign further distinguishes the “wonder.” Christ uniquely performed a miracle numerous times (Matt 11:15; Luke 7:21). This miracle is indivually described on seven occasions and is in the exclusive providence of Jehovah according to the Law of Moses (Exo 4:11). This unique miracle was proclaimed prophetically by Isaiah in 29:18, 35:5, 42:7. Creating a new eye is the exclusive prerogative of God Himself and therefore, only our Lord Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, could do such a miracle. The latter is to be distinguished from resurrecting or re-injecting life into an eye that was already functioning normally. No OT or NT saint could ever perform such a miracle.
“Special,” but not “unique,” miracles of healing in the early apostolic days were performed by two of the Lord’s servants. God used the shadow of Peter (Acts 5:15), and the handkerchiefs or aprons of Paul (Acts 19:11-12), to heal every one that was ill or demon possessed (Acts 5:16).
The healings classified as signs and wonders are no longer occurring. This is evidenced Scripturally in various ways. First, we will consider the historical evidence of Paul’s life.
We can note Paul’s miraculous recovery from stoning in Acts 14:19 (A.D. 46) in contrast to the lack of healing from the thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:5-10 (A.D. 57). Paul was “immune” to snake bites and able to heal Publius of the bloody flux (dysentery) as well as many others with various other diseases on the island of Melita in Acts 28 (about A.D. 60). However, later, he had to leave Trophimus in Miletum sick (2Tim 4:20). He also advised Timothy to take medication for his gastric ailments (1Tim 5:23, A.D. 64). Thus, if the dating is accurate, the gift of healing as a sign and wonder for the apostle Paul waned and then expired between A.D. 57-60. The last miracles of Paul on the island of Melita probably occurred as a sign for those who were newly exposed to Christianity.
In the epistle, we note the unusual Corinthian assembly which still had the miraculous gift of healing (1Cor 12:28). Nevertheless they still had “many … weak and sickly” among them (1Cor 11:30). Evidently, the sign gift of healing (along with other sign gifts) was waning and was only manifested on a sporadic basis in view of the significant number of sick persons in their assembly (A.D. 57). In 2 Corinthians 4:16, the gift of miraculous healing is not even mentioned.
The writer to the Hebrews notes that the sign gifts belonged to the prior generation of Christians and those who heard Him (Heb 2:3, 4). His generation was sustaining infirmities (Heb 4:5).
The causes for illnesses and suffering were many. Epaphroditis cared more for the Christians than he did for his own health. It was for their cause that he nearly died, but the Lord in mercy brought back his strength (Phil 2:27). Illness and suffering can be the result of personal physical persecution and torture for the name of Christ (2Cor 11:30), or from sin in the assembly in general, not necessarily from one’s own personal sins (1Cor 11:30). It can occur from Satan buffeting a Christian (2Cor 12:7); from natural causes due the frailty of the human body (Phil 2:30; 2Tim 4:20; 1Tim 5:23); from congenital abnormalities, (Acts 3, John 9); from parasites, bacteria, and other vectors (Acts 12:23; Acts 28:7); and from accidents, (Acts 20:9-10). Time and chance (Eccl 9:11,12) happen to all as in the case of Luke 13:4 with the tower of Siloam. Also, there can be psychological and/or spiritual causes, (Acts 13:11), and demon possession (Matt 12:22).
Five out of the seven times that infirmity and sickness are mentioned in Scripture, they are associated with prayer. This is the Christian’s first resource. Another treatment is rest and cessation from travel, as in the case of Trophimus whom Paul left at Miletus sick. Medicinal oil (not the oil for temple rites) is mentioned by our Lord in Luke 10:34 and by James in 5:14. Wine as a medicine is mentioned by our Lord in Luke 10:34 and by Paul for the ailments of Timothy. Our Lord recommends an eye salve for the Laodiceans’ blindness, figuratively speaking, in Revelation 3:18. Thus, rest, prayer, and medications are the Biblical methods for treating illnesses today.
Just as the apostle Paul has become a blessing to many, so we, through our sicknesses and afflictions, can become a fountain of blessing to those whom we love in the Lord and to all who are around us. We can also reap a greater reward of spiritual peace and knowledge of Christ’s glory now, as well as a greater reward in heaven later (Phil 4:8-11; 2Cor 4:17). Through illness we can obtain a more abundant life in Christ now as the physical body fades away so that we can later be clothed from above (2Cor 5:1-4).