When I hear the phrase, “Jesus saves,” I think of poorly lettered billboards on many a country road. I also remember an unpleasant incident when I was buttonholed by a street evangelist who asked: “Are you saved, brother?” But these unhappy experiences of insensitivity cannot change what is central for me, as for every Christian: Jesus does save.
What does it mean? What does Jesus save me from, and how does it affect my life? In traditional terms, Jesus saves us from personal sin and from the effects of original sin, which include ignorance, weakness of will, disoriented emotions, physical illness, and death. Some of this freedom will unfold only after our physical death. But even now the process has begun: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus wants to free us from physical sickness—from all the sickness that destroys or lessens our humanity—in order to give us new life, a new relationship of love and union with his Father.
This is the astounding message of the good news. The danger is, and always has been, that we let this news remain a doctrine, a truth to be believed. But in reality, healing is the practical application of the Christian message of salvation, a belief that Jesus means to liberate us from personal sin and from emotional and physical sickness. So if we want to understand a Christian view of healing, we need to penetrate deeper into the meaning of “Jesus saves,” into the meaning of his mission—and ours.
Jesus the Savior. The Hebrews attached great significance to choosing a name for a newborn child. The name often indicated the role the child was to play in the family or in the history of God’s chosen people. The son of Isaiah, for example, was named “Shear-jashub,” “a remnant will return,” and the very name symbolized hope that the Israelites, after Isaiah’s own time, would return from exile and punishment. Similarly, John the Baptist was named at God’s command as a sign that he was specially chosen to play a unique role in preparing his people for the coming of the Messiah.
Little wonder, then, that when God came to dwell among us he chose a name that would indicate both who he was and what his mission would be. The angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call him Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
The word “Jesus,” or “Yeshua” in Aramaic, means “Yahweh is Salvation,” and though it was a common name in that day, the name here proclaimed the very mission of the one who bore it. The Messiah had come to express by his words and his works that “Yahweh is Salvation.”
Healing and Salvation Are Linked. This is precisely how Jesus conceived his mission: The time of the Messiah would be a time of healing, liberation, and salvation. As Jesus began to preach, he expressed clearly why he had come: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19)
Later, when John the Baptist sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus again pointed to his healing ministry as the sign that he was the Christ: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).
Today, we no longer view the miracles of Jesus solely as proofs of his divinity or as guarantees that his teachings came from God. Rather, we see that Jesus’ healing power is an integral part of the good news of the gospel. The healings weren’t just proof. They were actually part of the way Jesus wanted to save his people, the way he wanted to restore all that they had lost.
The Mission Continues. Since the healing of our humanity is an essential part of the gospel message, we can now see why Jesus gave his disciples the power to heal when he sent them out to preach (Luke 9:1-2; 10:1,8-9). Jesus was simply giving them the same power to preach the message of good news that he himself preached. And that message was not just a doctrine; it contained the power of God to liberate our sick humanity from the wretched state it was in.
The inspired account, of course, that describes the activity of the early church is the Acts of the Apostles. One important theme in Acts is that the early Christians had the same power to preach, to heal, and to cast out demons that Jesus had. The church is the continuation of Jesus’ saving power in history. The Jerusalem church (Peter) and the gentile churches (Paul) all carry on the same preaching and healing that Jesus did, because Jesus is the one who is still doing it. Only now he is multiplied in his apostles—and in us—who can be his witnesses to the end of the world.
Just as Jesus combined both preaching and healing in his presentation of the gospel, the early apostles carried on that tradition as well. The ordinary expectation of the apostles is shown by their direct form of prayer: “Walk” (Acts 3:6), “Stand up” (10:26), “Rise and make your bed” (9:34), “Stand upright on your feet” (14:10). The apostles use the same form of prayer that Jesus had used and that the church uses in the sacraments: It is a prayer that expects something to happen because we have prayed for it.
The clear implication is that healing and liberation are the mission of the church. The work of the church is not yet complete but is meant to continue with modern apostles, contemporary Christians who preach and perform the same acts of power that Jesus—and Peter, Paul, Barnabas, Agabus, Ananias, Philip, and Stephen—did.
An Evangelistic Strategy. What we have said so far about the centrality of healing to the preaching of the gospel was certainly understood by Christians for the first three hundred years. The approach to religion in the early church was very simple. Just as Jesus attracted crowds by his miracles and sent his disciples out to heal and cast out evil spirits, so too the early Christians saw healing and exorcism as a key to conversion.
In the centuries when Christians were persecuted, there were no massive evangelistic crusades. Instead, the ordinary conversion went something like the following. Imagine you are a sick devotee of a pagan god. A Christian friend tells you that you can be healed; you say, “All right, I’ll try it.” Your friend sends for an elder, and they pray for you. You are healed and you are so impressed that you ask for your whole household to be baptized. Then comes the teaching.
This approach appealed to the masses, while the intellectuals, a tiny segment of the population, scorned it as suited only to children, slaves, and women. Christians, however, attributed the explosive growth of the church to such works of healing and exorcism. What a difference in outlook from today!
Jesus Still Wants to Save—And Heal. Unless we hold that healing was meant only for the early Christian community, the healings in the early church should somehow continue happening in our day. We still have the sick with us, and we are still standing in the need of being made whole. All around us in the pews on Sunday morning, we see wounded people. And often those in the pulpit or at the altar are wounded as well. Clearly, we still need healing as much as ever.
If our work as Christians is to carry on the same mission as Jesus, we need to recapture the key elements of his mission. Think of what it might mean if you could, in all honesty, describe how you have fully entered into the life of Christ and you could truthfully say: “God has anointed me with the Holy Spirit and with power, and because God is with me, I go around doing good and curing all who have fallen into the power of the devil” (Acts 10:37-38).
And think of what it might mean if the entire church could answer those who honestly ask why they should join: “Go and tell the doubters what you have seen and heard: The blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the good news is proclaimed to the poor, and happy is the one who does not lose faith in me” (Luke 7:22).