St Michael’s, 17th April 2016
Readings – Matthew 9:14-26; Acts 9:32-43
What do we make of the claim that God heals?
At one extreme, there are some who positively insist that God heals today. Such people claim that if you just pray in faith you will see God powerfully at work, and experience an immediate change in your life.
At the other extreme, there are some who would say that all these healings we read about in the Bible were special works of God at a particular moment in history. They would not deny that God still works in power today, but they would question any claim that God still heals directly, and we must not expect such miracles to happen ourselves.
And for most for us, who probably are somewhere in between these two views, the whole question of healing can seem at times both confusing and also on a personal level quite challenging. I guess nearly everyone here today can talk about occasions when we have seen God work miracles. But we can also share many examples of when God has apparently not answered our prayers, and we have seen no immediate change.
So how do we begin to make sense of the claim that God heals? Let’s hold that question for a moment as we turn to our reading from Acts. Now whenever we open our Bibles and turn to a passage of Scripture, it is always worth taking a moment to step back and consider the bigger picture. Why is it that we have an account of miraculous healing at this particular point in this particular book of the Bible?
Well, Acts is the second half of a work written by a man called Luke. It is the sequel to the gospel that bears his name, and in many ways it is rather unfortunate that the church has placed the unrelated gospel of John in between, as Luke’s gospel runs directly into the book of Acts. Luke tells the life of Jesus on earth leading up to his death and resurrection, and Acts explains what happens next.
So the book of Acts begins with the risen Lord Jesus appearing to His apostles and making this promise, in Acts 1:8: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And really the rest of the book aims to show how Jesus’ words were fulfilled in the life of the church. After the Holy Spirit comes upon the believers at Pentecost, we see how the good news of Jesus spreads out from Jerusalem: first to the surrounding Jewish areas; then into the more mixed provinces round about; and then right into the heart of the Roman Empire.
And as the good news of Jesus spreads so certain things begin to happen. For a start, individuals are dramatically and wonderfully converted. We saw this last week as we read how the risen Lord Jesus met with the Pharisee named Saul on the Damascus Road. This week we will see how the good news of Jesus leads to great miracles and acts of healing. And then over the next few weeks we will also see how new people groups are reached, new churches are planted, and also how believers face extreme opposition and persecution.
None of this should surprise us because the book of Acts makes clear that the word of God brings with it the power of the risen Lord Jesus. So when the good news is preached, we should expect the living Lord Jesus to make a real tangible difference. But what exactly does this mean?
Let’s look more closely at our reading…
Verse 32: As Peter travelled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. So here is the apostle Peter on some kind of preaching tour, encouraging the very new churches that have begun to spring up all over Judea. And as he does so, he encounters real people with very real needs – a paralysed man named Aeneas, a church grieving the loss of their dear sister Tabitha. This shouldn’t surprise us, because throughout the book of Acts there is no question of ministry being something dry or theoretical. Peter didn’t just pass through, preach a few encouraging words, and then disappear again. No, just as Jesus stopped and spent time with those who sought His presence, so Peter stopped and spent time with those who most needed to receive the presence of the Lord, and indeed there are striking parallels between our reading from Acts and the incidents recorded in Matthew chapter 9 – the healing of the paralytic man, and the raising of the ruler’s daughter from the dead.
And this leads us to the first important point we need to make about works of healing – that their purpose is to glorify the name of the Lord Jesus.
Listen carefully to verses 33-34: There he found a man named Aeneas, a paralytic who had been bedridden for eight years. “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and tidy up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. Did you notice what Peter said to this particular paralysed man. He didn’t say, “I bring you healing in the name of Christ”, or “I’m going to say a prayer for you”. He said, “Jesus Christ heals you”. So often people who seem to most actively promote healing ministry also seem to promote themselves. Peter could have set up his own ministry or asked for donations to fund his work. But he knew that he was only a servant of the Lord Jesus whose task was to continue the very same ministry that His Master had carried out here on earth.
And what was the effect of this miraculous healing? Verse 35: All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord. Now that may seem like a small detail, but just imagine for a moment that you were someone who was living in Lydda and Sharon at the time. Quite possibly this was the first time you had ever heard or seen anything definite about Jesus. You may have had the Scriptures we now call the Old Testament, and you may have heard a few stories coming from Jerusalem. But you certainly didn’t have the gospels, because they hadn’t been written yet; the church was still small and new; and this miracle was the first sign that this wandering teacher they called Jesus of Nazareth really was the Lord.
So here is one reason why we find so many miracles in the first few chapters of Acts. The miracles explained the good news to people who otherwise had no chance of finding out the true identity of Jesus. And exactly in the same way today the Lord is continuing to work in countries where the Bible is banned and church gatherings are illegal. For example, in Iran, the huge growth in the underground church comes in part from the works of power Jesus is performing to reach those who have no other way of encountering Him.
But for us here in the West we do have access to the Bible, we do have freedom to come to church. And the usual means for us to encounter the power and presence of the living Lord Jesus is by reading the word of God and by gathering in His name. Because it is ultimately the word of God that brings the healing we all need – as we read of a Saviour who died for our sins to bring us peace with our Heavenly Father.
This is not to deny miracles can and do still occur today, but they are not an end in themselves. The result of the folk in Lydda and Sharon seeing this healing was that they turned to the Lord, and if we ever lose the connection between acts of healing and a living, personal faith then we are in danger of misunderstanding the reason why God chooses to work in power. These acts are signposts that point to the living Lord Jesus, nothing more, nothing less, and this is something we must never forget.
And what do these signposts tell us?
Well, the second point about works of healing is that they reveal the personal care of a loving God.
Let’s move on to the account of this lady called Tabitha. Her name apparently means “gazelle” and she was in every sense of the word a real dear. Verse 36 tells us she was always doing good and helping the poor. Yet just because she was a wonderful person of course didn’t mean that she was immune from the ravages of disease. And so the story goes on: About that time she became sick and died, and her body was washed and placed in an upstairs room. You can only imagine the sad scene as the church gathers to mourn their dearly departed. No doubt preparations were already underway for the funeral, perhaps arrangements were being made for her children.
Yet there is news – the apostle Peter is nearby and there are reports of something extraordinary happening down the road in Lydda. So when the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda, they sent two men to him and urged him, “Please come at once!” Now we have no idea what difference the believers expected Peter to make. Maybe they simply wanted him to take the service or provide pastoral care to the bereaved. Or maybe, just maybe they were hoping for something more.
We don’t know. But Peter left everything behind and came straight away. He didn’t decide he was too busy with all these people coming to faith, or put off his departure until a more convenient moment. Again his concern was only to follow the example of his master Jesus who when told that the ruler’s daughter was dying, left whatever He was doing to meet the need.
There is something intensely moving about the sight that greets Peter in the upper room at Joppa. Verse 39: Peter went with them, and when he arrived he was taken upstairs to the room. All the widows stood around him, crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. And if we ever talk about healing and the power of God without weeping real tears, then we are not following the example of Christ who Himself wept at the grave of His friend Lazarus. The need for healing arises quite simply from the fact that this world is broken and less than it should be, that we dwell in the shadow of the valley of death where all too frequently there is sickness and pain and disease.
That’s why it seems to me quite right that our Bibles put a paragraph break between verses 39 and 40, otherwise we could too easily run onto the next part of the story without thinking about these widows are so lost in their grief. Yet this story does continue, and what happens next is almost too wonderful to describe. Verse 40: Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning towards the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.
Somehow Peter sensed that on this occasion Tabitha’s death was not meant to be the end of the story. He knew that he had been called to Joppa to raise this lady from the dead. We don’t know how he knew, but as the last widow left the room, and the door closed, the risen Lord Jesus gave him the strength and the power to perform this miracle.
But notice again the effect of Peter’s actions on the surrounding area. Verses 41-42: He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called the believers and the widows and presented her to them alive. This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord. Because as we said earlier, miracles are only meant as signposts to the living Lord. The long-term result of Tabitha’s resurrection was to be measured not in how many more miracles took place, but in how many people came to personal faith in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
Of course Peter’s raising of Tabitha raised a huge and very important question. Yes, Tabitha was a very special person and no-one could deny it was wonderful she was raised from the dead. Yet there were no doubt other very special people in Joppa at the time. There is no account of any of them being healed. Tabitha herself would sooner or later suffer death, and this time the loss to her church and her family would be permanent and very bitter. So what actually is the relevance of this miracle to us?
This leads to the third point I want to make about works of healing today, that they are pointers to eternal life. What do I mean by this? Well, think for a moment about the cross. Christians believe that on the cross Jesus defeated the power of sin by dying the death we should have died. Through dying in our place He enables all who believe and trust in Him to have eternal life. Now eternal life means many things, but one thing above all is clear: thanks to Jesus we have a hope that one day all be well, that there will be no longer any sickness or injury or death.
Yet for now we all know we experience plenty of sickness and injury and death. The victory has been won, but we are still in the throes of the final battle. Life for us here and now is a complicated messy mixture of sorrow and of joy, and sometimes it is hard to hold on securely to our hope. That’s why I believe sometimes God performs miracles that defy human explanation, to give us a glimpse of the life to come, and to strengthen us in our faith. Why our loving Heavenly Father chooses to act in some situations and not others I cannot tell, because I am not God. But I know enough to understand that, whatever I go through, His love and His care still remains. Because what the book of Acts shows us is that the power of the Holy Spirit is real and that even in the darkest moments, the presence of the Lord Jesus is with us by His Spirit to enable us to endure and eventually to overcome.
So what do we make of the claim that God heals? The answer is, that sometimes He does. But healings are not an end in themselves. They are signposts that point to the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. They are evidence of Jesus’ personal care and love. But they only act as pointers to remind us to the reality of eternal life.
That’s why to finish I want to read some verses from the end of the Bible, from Revelation 22:1-2, describing the hope that is to come:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
And my prayer is that whatever your situation, whatever the Lord is doing in your life, that you might be strengthened in that hope, to the glory of His name. Amen.