How could Jesus heal a man based on his friends’ faith?

Q. In the episode where a man’s friends lower him through the roof to Jesus, it says that “when Jesus saw their faith,” he forgave and healed the man. Does this mean that my friends can be healed if I have enough faith for them? Aren’t we supposed to have faith for our own healing?

Matthäus Merian the Elder, “The Healing of the Paralytic,” 1625-27

Actually, I see this as one of those places in the gospels where Jesus recognizes that God is at work by the faith God has given someone to believe He will intervene.

For example (as I explain in my study guide to John), at the wedding feast in Cana, “When the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother Mary asks him to help. Jesus expects that the power of God will only be increasingly demonstrated through him as his ‘hour’ draws near (meaning the time of his death as the Savior of the world). But Mary’s persistent faith and implicit trust show that God is powerfully at work in this very moment. Jesus performs a miracle and transforms well over a hundred gallons of water into fine wine. This demonstrates God’s concern to provide for material needs, even for celebrations. It also illustrates the joy and abundance God wants people to experience. This first sign reveals Jesus’ ‘glory’—not so much his miraculous powers, but his intimate relationship with God and his sensitivity to the work that God wants to do through him at each moment.”

As I explain more generally in another post on this blog, “Jesus pursued what scholars often call ‘co-operation’ with the Father.  Within the context of his overall life mission as he understood it, Jesus discerned where God was already at work and considered how he could join in. His classic statement of this approach was, ‘The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.'” And one way Jesus often discerned where God was at work was by recognizing when God had given people special faith to believe and trust for God to do something that would transform a situation.

So I’d encourage you to frame the question in this way: It’s not a matter of you trying to have enough faith for God to heal your loved ones. Rather, the faith you already have for this (or you wouldn’t be asking about it!) may have been given to you by God and it may be an indication that God is disposed to work in the situation. You should certainly investigate that possibility by praying earnestly according to that faith and seeing what God will do.

In fact, as I also say in that other post, “‘Co-operation’ can also work in the other direction. Besides seeing where God is already at work and joining in, we can also take sanctified initiative within the context of our life mission, and see whether God will join in with us!” It’s certainly never wrong to pray for the healing of the sick, knowing that Jesus always had compassion on them.

However, as I explain further in a post on my other blog Endless Mercies, “Prayer for healing must be understood as the first step in a process of seeking guidance. It’s an appropriate and necessary first step; whenever we hear someone is sick, we should always pray first for their healing. But then we should be watching and listening to discern what God might show us about the purposes He wants to accomplish through the illness. (We don’t believe that God actively causes someone to be sick or injured, but rather that God is always looking for a way to advance His own purposes in the face of these unfortunate realities of our broken world.) Particularly if what we discern suggests that a person might indeed be going to die, we need to help them die well. That means being lovingly cared for, in a way that allows them to say goodbye and leave a legacy. But ultimately this all comes down to the faith God gives us to respond to a situation. Prayers for the recovery of a friend who appears to be going to die may be offered in audacious defiance of what seems to be happening. So praying about and responding to a sickness as if it were ‘unto death’ or ‘unto the glory of God’ is not a matter of conforming to the circumstances, but rather of following guidance actively received from God.”

In those terms, “when Jesus saw their faith,” he was actively receiving guidance from God about what God wanted to do in the situation. We may do the same and trust that God will still do things today through our own prayers that are offered according to the faith He gives us.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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