Does a believer have authority to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead?

Q. Does a believer have authority to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead?

Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to
Jesus sends out his twelve disciples to “heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead.” Are believers authorized to do the same today? (Image: Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Die Bibel in Bildern [“The Bible in Pictures”], 1853.)
As I understand it, God still does use believers to do works of healing and deliverance in our day. However, I would stress that the authority we’ve been given to do this is delegated authority. It is to be used under God’s directions, in God’s way and in God’s time, to fulfill God’s purposes, which are to declare through such works like these that His kingdom is  breaking into our world.

In other words, we don’t have a blank check simply to “take authority” over any sickness or case of oppression that we might encounter. There needs to be a discernment process in which we seek to discover how God wants us to use the authority he has delegated to us in this particular situation.

Jesus himself said, “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” And so, for example, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, he first explained to his disciples, ““This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God.” In other words, Jesus had discerned that God wanted to use the occasion of Lazarus’ sickness and eventual death as an opportunity to announce the coming of His kingdom. Many people believed in Jesus because of the miraculous sign he did in raising Lazarus from the dead.

However, if Jesus had discerned instead that Lazarus’ sickness was “unto death,” that is, that his “time had come” and God meant instead to bring him home into His presence, then while Jesus would probably still have gone to provide strength and encouragement to Lazarus and his sisters, he wouldn’t necessarily have healed him, or have acted with such authority (“Lazarus, come out!”) if he had died before his arrival.

It’s really  hard to imagine this second possibility, however, because Jesus was something of a special case. He actually embodied God’s inbreaking kingdom in his own person. And that’s why we hear over and over again in the gospels that Jesus healed everybody who came to him. It’s hard to picture Jesus not using any occasion as an opportunity to announce God’s kingdom.

But later in the New Testament we discover that Jesus was indeed exceptional in this way. Paul had to tell Timothy in his second letter, for example, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.” Even though previously Paul had done extraordinary miracles of healing, in this case he had to go on without a badly needed co-worker because God apparently had a different purpose at work in the situation, as difficult as it might be for us to understand what it could have been.

All that said, I would encourage a person who felt strongly that God wanted to demonstrate His power and presence in a given situation, in order to announce the presence and liberating, life-giving character of his coming kingdom, to pray and act in bold faith, believing that God might indeed use them as a channel to bring about healing and deliverance.

Here are a couple of other posts that relate to this same subject:

Should we try to heal people today the way the apostles did?

Why doesn’t God intervene to relieve suffering?

If we have freedom of choice, how can God be all-knowing?

Q. I was taught that God is all-forgiving.When Judas was born his only reason for being here was to carry out the part that God made him to do. Now some people say you have freedom of choice, however, if you believe that God knows all things, then he knows what you are going to choose. People think they have a choice but if you really think about it, you really don’t. If you say yes you do, then you don’t believe God knows all things. We may think we have a choice, but he knows what you are gonna choose. Yes or No. Peace to you. Oh, by the way, back in the ’60s when I asked this question I was slapped in the face.

First of all, let me say how sorry I am about the experience you had when you asked this question before. Though it was probably fifty years ago, I’ll bet it still hurts, physically and emotionally. I call this blog Good Question for a reason. I honestly believe that questions like yours are good. They allow us to probe more deeply into what we believe, to see what we can understand better, and to recognize that there are maybe some other things we just won’t understand in this life. But there’s no such thing as a bad question, if it’s asked out of a genuine desire to learn and understand. May God give you grace and peace to deal with the memory of that slap. It should never have happened.

Your question is one that has actually been asked before on this blog, from a number of different angles. For example, one person asked how God could ever have created Satan. Even though he began as a glorious angel (Lucifer), didn’t God know that he would disobey, fall, and turn into a monster who would wreak havoc on the earth for all of human history? In my response, I rephrase the issues this way:

“How do we explain the creation and continuing existence of Satan?  Is God not all-knowing?  (He didn’t realize Satan would rebel?)  Or is God not all-powerful?  (He thought he could stop Satan but then wasn’t able to?)  Or is God simply not all-good?  (He doesn’t care whether his creatures are destroyed?)”

I think you’re getting at some of these same issues in your question. So here’s what I say in that other post:

“I think the solution to this problem lies in appreciating the radical nature of the freedom that God has endowed each of His intelligent creatures with.  It’s hard for us to understand this because we are created and finite, but an eternal and infinite God can make creatures who are so free that their moral choices are not predetermined and so cannot be known in advance.

But isn’t God supposed to be omniscient and know everything, even the choices that we’re going to make?  No, it is no failure in omniscience not to know what cannot be known.  And the freedom God has given us is so radical and profound that the essential moral choices we will make cannot be known in advance.”

I develop these thoughts further in that post, and in a follow-up that deals in more detail with the issue of how our freedom can be reconciled with God being all-knowing. At the end of the first post there are links to some other related posts as well. (As you can see, many people have this same question!)

As for Judas, whether he didn’t have free will because God made him just so that he would betray Jesus, I deal with that question quite extensively, in a series of eight posts, which begin here. Once again you’re asking a question that other people of faith also wonder about.

I hope that this blog will always be a place where you and others feel comfortable and safe asking any questions you want.

What’s the biblical basis for Roman Catholic priests not marrying?

Q. What passages in the Bible does the Roman Catholic church use to support its teaching that priests cannot marry?

I have to admit that I didn’t know the answer to this question when it was posed to my blog. But I did a bit of research online and came across what I thought was a very well articulated reply from Catholic Answers, “one of the nation’s largest lay-run apostolates of Catholic apologetics.” I’ll quote the part of the reply that speaks directly to this question and then offer some comments afterwards.

Theologically, it may be pointed out that priests serve in the place of Christ and therefore, their ministry specially configures them to Christ. As is clear from Scripture, Christ was not married (except in a mystical sense, to the Church). By remaining celibate and devoting themselves to the service of the Church, priests more closely model, configure themselves to, and consecrate themselves to Christ.

As Christ himself makes clear, none of us will be married in heaven. By remaining unmarried in this life, priests are more closely configured to the final, eschatological state that will be all of ours.

Paul makes it very clear that remaining single allows one’s attention to be undivided in serving the Lord. He recommends celibacy to all and especially to ministers, who, as soldiers of Christ, he urges to abstain from “civilian affairs.”

I think this appeal to the Scriptures actually makes the case very well that all of us, Catholic or Protestant, ordained or lay, should reflect seriously on whether God wants us to serve Him with the advantages that singleness provides, and in the process to proclaim the “eschatological state” that is even now breaking into our world. This is one side of the Bible’s teaching about marriage, and it’s one that I don’t think we consider often enough for ourselves.

However, there is another side to the Bible’s teaching as well. With no disrespect intended at all for the Catholic position on celibacy for priests, I’d like to describe what I believe were the benefits of marriage for me as a married Protestant minister for some 20 years.

The Bible also says, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.” When God created the world, He proclaimed one created thing after another “good,” and in the end declared it all “very good.” But there was one thing that God then said was “not good.” It was not good for the man to be alone, so He made Eve as a “helper” for Adam. The Hebrew term actually refers to a strong ally who is at your side in time of need. (Most often in the Bible the term refers to God, as in, “Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”)

While, if I had been single as a minister, I would have had the advantages described by Catholic Answers above, I feel that because I was married, I had other advantages. My wife truly was my “ally” (“helper”), not only jumping in wherever needed to use her gifts to advance our shared ministry, but, I think even more importantly, always being by my side to encourage and advise me.

Many people told us that our strong, happy marriage, which was clearly life-giving for both of us, causing us each to flourish, gave great credibility to the Christian message I was preaching. Accodring to Paul, this models the love between Christ and the church.

At the same time, Martin Luther described marriage itself as “a little church,” meaning a place where husband and wife live a life of worship together under God. I’ve also often spoken of marriage as “the great school of character.” The lessons you learn by making one life out of two, if you really want to make that work, truly build the character of Christ in you, and that gets transferred into your ministry.

I hope this post helps my Protestant readers to understand the practice of their Catholic brothers and sisters a bit better, and for that matter, that it helps Catholics understand and appreciate why Protestants support marriage for their clergy.


Why do Matthew and Luke seem to disagree about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth?

Q. The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and was in a home of some sort when the wise men visited Him. Jesus was soon afterwards taken to Egypt to flee from Herod and then brought to the city of Nazareth where he stayed.

The Gospel of Luke claims that Augustus Caesar took a worldwide census, and so Joseph and Mary left their original place of Nazareth and went to Bethlehem. Jesus was born in a manger, not a home, and afterwards was taken to Jerusalem. There is no mention of Egypt. And then he was taken back to Nazareth.

How can both stories be right? Matthew insinuates that Joseph and Mary had never lived in Nazareth before. Luke calls it “their own city.” Also, did such a census from Caesar ever occur as Luke describes?

It actually is possible to reconcile the accounts that Matthew and Luke give of Jesus’ birth, though once I have sketched out how that can be done, I will then explain why I think we should still find the differences between them the most significant thing, because they point to each author’s purposes in telling the story of Jesus.

You might be familiar with an English translation of Matthew that begins the story of his birth something like this: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.'” This sounds very much as if the birth of Jesus is nearly contemporaneous with the wise men’s visit, and so we are surprised when they find him in a “house,” since according to Luke (and the traditional Christmas “manger scene” or crèche) he should be in a manger.

But Matthew actually uses a particular Greek construction to begin his account (the “genitive absolute”). It specifies what one subject was doing or had done before a different subject and their situation is introduced. We might translate more literally, “Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men came from the east.” (In light of this, many English translations read, “After Jesus was born . . .”)

So the birth of Jesus is not so much a contemporaneous event as a background event, a “given” for the narrative that follows. When we pay attention to the fact that the wise men first saw the star two years earlier, it’s less surprising that Jesus is no longer in the manger. For that matter, there’s no reason for him to be in Bethlehem any more, either. The census is actually long over and Mary and Joseph could even have returned to Nazareth. (Matthew says simply that the star went ahead of the wise men and led them to “the place where the child was.” He doesn’t identify that place.) They would still have been within the jurisdiction of Herod the Great even in Nazareth, however, and would have had to take Jesus to Egypt for his safety.

I say they could have gone there because Matthew seems to suggest that Joseph’s plan after Herod died was to come to Judea, and that he only went up to Galilee and settled in Nazareth instead when he learned that Herod’s son had succeeded him as the ruler of Judea. So it’s also possible that Joseph and Mary stayed somewhere in Judea for two years after Jesus was born.

Much of this is a matter of “filling in the blanks” to try to reconcile the accounts, and I think its chief value is to show that they are not inherently contradictory. But as I said earlier, I think it’s much more fruitful to ask why there are differences, as these point to Matthew and Luke’s purposes in writing and thus to the “take homes” they each have for their original audiences, and for us.

Matthew was an observant Jew who was writing for an audience of Jews who had come to believe in Jesus as their Messiah. But at the time he was writing, his community was locked in a contest with groups led by the Pharisees over what the future of Judaism would be after the destruction of the temple in the first Jewish-Roman War of AD 66-70. So Matthew wants to portray Jesus not only as the Son of David (and heir to the Messianic promises) but as a “new Moses,” whose teachings should be followed rather than the strict literal reading of the law that the Pharisees are promoting.

So even if Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth before the census, Matthew doesn’t mention this because he wants to highlight that Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born there. Matthew describes Herod’s slaughter of the baby boys and the flight into Egypt to show how Jesus recapitulates events in the life of Moses: escaping from a murderous ruler and coming up out of Egypt. Matthew mentions Nazareth only at the end because he can then point out that Jesus being called a “Nazarene” is another in the chain of Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled.

Luke, on the other hand, is a Greek, and a Gentile, writing for his fellow Greeks and Gentiles. He wants to reassure them that the good news of Jesus is for them, too, not just for Jews (or for those who will convert to Judaism, or become culturally Jewish). There have been tensions about this question within the community of Jesus’ followers and Luke’s readers aren’t so sure any more that they are welcome. So he is interested in presenting things like the message of the angels to the shepherds that the birth of Jesus is “wonderful, joyous news for all people” and Simeon’s prayer in the temple in which he says that Jesus will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” as well asfor glory to your people Israel.” (However, Matthew’s report of the visit of the wise men shows that he, too, understood that while Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews, he was also the Messiah for Gentiles as well.)

I hope this is helpful. As for whether the so-called “census of Quirinius” actually happened, or happened around the time Luke says, there’s a good discussion here.

“The Holy Men” © Liz Lemon Swindle. In this contemporary painting the wise men are clearly visiting a two-year-old in a home, not an infant in a manger.

Was Adam saved?

Q. Was Adam saved?

The Bible doesn’t answer this question directly, but I personally feel that the narrative in Genesis gives us some good reasons to believe that Adam was saved.

The most important is the announcement God makes that Eve’s descendant will crush the serpent’s head. Like most Christian interpreters, I see this as a statement that can be recognized, in light of later redemptive-historical developments, as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus and his victory over Satan at the cross. This “bad news” for the serpent was “good news” for Adam and Eve, and I personally believe that they trusted in it.

One significant reason why I say this is that the two of them accepted and wore the “garments from animal skins” that God made for them. Again like most Christian interpreters, because these required the death of the animals, I see them as foreshadowing the blood sacrifices that would come later under the covenant with Moses, which themselves foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In other words, accepting the garments was a way of “looking forward” to the cross, as believers did for salvation in the First Testament (just as we, under the New Covenant, “look back” to the cross).

I personally don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see these “garments from animal skins” in Genesis as the equivalent of the “white robes” that believers are symbolically portrayed as wearing in the book of Revelation: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”; “The one who is victorious will be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels.”

So I don’t think Adam was lost. Paul does say about him in Romans, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.” But Paul goes on to say, “If the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” In other words, the same people—the whole human race—who were affected by the sin of Adam are also recipients of grace through Jesus. And that would include Adam himself, so long as he “looked forward” to the cross—as I believe he did.

William Blake,
William Blake, “The Angel of the Divine Presence clothing Adam and Eve with coats of skins,” watercolor, 1803, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England

Did the Israelites really massacre the Canaanites, and if so, was this really at God’s command?

Q. Peter Enns has a book out called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In this book, among other things, he argues that there is a huge lack of archaeological evidence for the exodus and for the Canaanite “genocides.” He says that outside of evangelical scholarship this is essentially an undisputed fact. He argues that these stories likely reflect a sort of “tribal deity” rhetoric/mentality and are full of hyperbole and would have been characteristic of how people in that time and place related to God. He also argues that to the extent that the Israelites did massacre the Canaanites, they were not in fact carrying out God’s will but were instead doing what they erroneously thought God was telling them to do (since they related to him as a tribal warrior god). What do you make of these claims?

I haven’t yet read this particular book by Enns, though I have read some of his other books and I appreciate him as an honest, thoughtful, careful, articulate, and provocative writer. But I do discuss the historicity of the Canaanite genocides and their theological implications in this post, in light of a review of another book that makes similar claims.

I’m not qualified to speak to the archaeological debate, though I can  imagine how it could easily devolve into circular arguments: “Of course there’s no trace left of the campaign against the Canaanites, because the Israelites were told to ‘break down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn their Asherah poles, cut down their carved idols, and completely erase the names of their gods.’ You shouldn’t expect to find anything.  It’s just an argument from silence that it didn’t happen because you haven’t found anything.” But basically I will leave the archaeology to others.

Instead, to address the biblical and theological side of things, let me say again that the biblical stories of genocide are so disturbing that it would be a great relief to think that they never really happened. However, I think we have to ask ourselves what the implications would be if they actually had happened, and for that matter what the implications are that the Bible says they happened. As I wrote earlier, I think we need to see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible, and on that basis see whether we can account for them somehow.

The best I’ve been able to do with that is still to see the life and teachings of Jesus as normative for the interpretation of all of Scripture, and on that basis to conclude that no one today should emulate the actions or attitudes represented by the genocide stories in the Bible. Instead, we need to hold them in an uncomfortably painful tension with the normative teachings about loving our enemies and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation, pursue those things, and await the day when “we shall know fully, even as we are now fully known,” and hopefully then understand.

What if you’re trying to persuade someone from the Bible and they just don’t agree?

Q. I have a question about contrasting interpretations. Since we do not accept a Magisterium [an official, authoritative teaching], believers like me and you and many others seem to have no way to convince another about what Scripture teaches, if the other simply does not agree. This means we end up with the challenge of having many denominations, let alone many believers, each believing many different things, including things that are mentioned in Hebrews as being “milk” doctrines, things that are to be taught to new believers, yet even with these items, some teachers teach things that are incompatible with what others teach, so they cannot all be true; for example, either infant baptism or believer’s baptism. As far as I can see, we will only achieve unity in the faith when all of us sit at the Master’s feet. Do you have any wisdom about this state of affairs?

"Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter," fresco, Pietro Perugino, 1481–1482,  Sistine Chapel. Roman Catholics believe that a definitive teaching authority now resides in the Church. What are Protestants to do to settle their disagreements?
“Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter,” fresco, Pietro Perugino, 1481–1482, Sistine Chapel. Roman Catholics believe that a definitive teaching authority now resides in the Church. What are Protestants to do to settle their disagreements?

I think you’re right that in the absence of a Magisterium (that is, a recognized authoritative teaching office such as there is in the Roman Catholic church), the principle of sola Scriptura—appealing to Scripture alone as our authority—does not bring about agreement among believers. I think the main reason for this is that people approach the Bible with different interpretive presuppositions, so that they can look objectively and honestly at the same data and come to opposite conclusions.

One of the best examples I’ve seen of how this works comes from my seminary days at Gordon-Conwell.  Dr. Gordon G. Fee, who was then on the faculty, agreed to do an event on the topic of women’s ministry together with a professor whose name I unfortunately no longer remember, who was from a Presbyterian seminary. Dr. Fee didn’t feel it would be respectful to women to have a “debate” about them, so he suggested, and the other professor agreed, that the two of them should instead explain what they felt had led them to their positions on the issue, and allow the other person to ask questions about this. They met and prayed together beforehand.

Dr. Fee went first and explained that he’d grown up in the Assemblies of God denomination, where he’d seen many women pastors minister very effectively with the gifts God had given them. He felt he’d seen God bless their work and give it much fruit. And so, he said, to be honest, that was likely a significant factor why he wasn’t persuaded by arguments, even from the Bible, that said God didn’t want women to be in these roles.

The other professor then explained (and I really appreciated his honesty) that he’d grown up in a Presbyterian denomination that taught predestination, and it seemed to him that if God had chosen one group (the elect) to be saved, and another group (the reprobate) not to be saved, then certainly God might also have chosen one group (men) to be in certain roles in the church, and another group (women) not to be in those roles—that was a smaller thing.

I think this illustrates that while Protestants don’t have an official Magisterium, all of us who are Protestant probably do walk around with an unofficial Magisterium in our heads, consisting of the teachings, precedents, experiences, approaches to the Bible, etc. that we’ve been exposed to in the past. This whole constellation of things probably changes over time, but very slowly, as new things are added and others are dropped or come to be regarded as less authoritative. But it is this unofficial Magisterium that you need to move in order to persuade someone, from Scripture, of a viewpoint different from the one they currently hold. That’s unlikely to happen as the result of one conversation or online exchange, though they might budge things slightly.

So I guess I am granting that “we will only achieve unity in the faith when all of us sit at the Master’s feet.” How should we respond to this reality?

I think Dr. Fee and his conversation partner provide a further good example here. While they were on opposite sides of an issue that inflames great passions, they spoke to and about one another very charitably. Dr. Fee said of the other professor that he was “welcoming him to our campus as a brother.” They didn’t move an inch closer to one another’s positions during the conversation, and afterwards they both went back to communities that had different and mutually exclusive practices. But nevertheless I think something very positive was accomplished. They demonstrated that they had “unity in the faith” in another sense, that while they didn’t agree, they were still part of one body and united by the love of Christ.

I think this is the most we can hope for in this world, but I think it’s actually something very positive and powerful. We often say that Christians are free to disagree on minor, non-essential points, so long as they agree on the major, essential ones. But then we discover intractable disagreements on things that seem pretty foundational, such as baptism (as you mention), and we realize how few “essential” beliefs there are that Christians really all do agree on (such as the divinity of Christ).

So failing that kind of agreement, I think instead we should first strive to be “fully convinced in our own minds,” as Paul writes in Romans about some issues that must have seemed pretty crucial for belief and practice in his day (keeping the Sabbath, and whether one could eat and drink certain things). The more settled our minds are, the more calmly and graciously we will be able to engage others. I think most of the damage is done not by the fact of disagreement itself, but by people vilifying those who differ, impugning their character and questioning their good faith. A gracious, Christ-like attitude is probably the best evidence we could ever offer someone for the possibility that we could be right about something we believe that they currently don’t.

Let me close by telling a story about baptism, which I agree is a good example of a “milk” or foundational doctrine that you’d think Christians should be able to agree about. My example once again comes from my seminary days.

One evening my wife and I hosted several friends for dinner and the topic turned to baptism. Those who baptize infants and those who baptize believers at least agree that a given person should only be baptized once. Churches either baptize infants and confirm believers, or else dedicate infants and baptize believers. But it turned out that in our dinner party of eight, my wife was the only person who’d been baptized just once. Everyone else had been baptized at least twice.

And it wasn’t just that several of us who’d been baptized as infants later felt that, with all due respect to our parents and home churches, we wanted to be baptized as believers. One woman had been baptized by immersion as a believer at age 12. She sincerely believed in Jesus at the time, but this was on the basis of what her parents and church had taught her. Later, as a young adult, her faith became more first-hand, through the ministry of a Methodist church she was then attending. Their help had been so meaningful to her that she wanted to be baptized as an adult, as her own personal expression of faith, “in the Methodist way”—by sprinkling. And another guest had been baptized once as an infant, again as a believer, and a third time, for good measure, in the Jordan River while on a tour of Israel.

So the fact that various churches held different positions on the issue of baptism had allowed us to move back and forth between them and so have experiences (double and triple baptisms) that nobody was teaching were normative. For me this is something of a parable: maybe what matters most is not that all of these differences be resolved, even though they seem to be about very important things, but that people genuinely grow and learn and deepen their faith and commitment to God as they are exposed to these various understandings. Because it’s entirely possible that some of the truths of our faith are so profound that no one perspective entirely does justice to them. Maybe in some cases it’s the sum of the understandings resident in the community of faith that’s closest to the truth that will enable us to “reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”