Jesus - The Physician
Fr. Thomas Hopko · August 18, 2010
We know that Jesus is the Healer of soul and body, and the New Testament is replete with accounts of his miraculous works. But how do we differentiate between Jesus as the Healer and Jesus as the Physician?
As we continue with our reflections on the names and titles of Jesus, we want to think a bit today, reflect a bit today, about Jesus as the Physician. Now, as a title you don’t find this—how can you say?—directly in Scripture. You certainly have the activity of Jesus as a healer, as the one who heals, as the Physician, as we say in the Church’s Liturgy, “the Physician of souls and bodies,” of people’s lives and of their bodies, the one who can heal the diseases.
And certainly Jesus is shown on the pages of the New Testament, first and foremost, almost from the very beginning, as a healer. The minute that he begins his public ministry, after he is baptized in the Jordan, after he is tempted in the wilderness, he comes out to the crowds of the people, and he goes about healing all manner of their diseases, and it even lists them: epileptics and lunatics and paralytics and all these people who are suffering. They come to Jesus and they know that he has the power of healing, that he pronounces healing, that he can cleanse the lepers; he can open the eyes of the blind; he can make the deaf to hear, the dumb to talk, the lame to walk. He says, “Stand up and take up your pallet and walk,” and so on. He heals right from the very beginning when he begins to preach.
The devils recognize him and they see who he is. And it starts off, like in Mark, the most simple Gospel: he begins healing the mother-in-law of Peter of the fever, and it says right there, in the very first chapter of Mark: “That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons, and the whole city was gathered together about the door.” It’s in Capernaum. “And he healed many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew who he was,” because they knew him.
And then you have the leper being cleansed, the paralytic being brought, and that he announces the forgiveness sins together with the healing of soul and body. He even somehow identifies the two: “What is easier to say? ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Take up your bed and walk’? But that you might know that I have the power to forgive sins, I say to you, ‘Take up your pallet and walk.’ ” Then he continues, saying all through the Scriptures, certainly Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that it is not those who are well who need a physician. For example, in Mark’s second chapter: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” And you have this in Matthew; you have this in Luke 5. It’s right there from the beginning.
Also, right in the beginning, in the Gospel as it’s given to us by Luke, in the Lucan Gospel, you have even Jesus beginning his public ministry by referring to the Prophet Isaiah. He goes into the temple in Nazareth where he was brought up—excuse me, the synagogue; there’s no temple there; there’s only one Temple, in Jerusalem—the synagogue, as his custom was, on the Sabbath day, and there he reads from the Prophet Isaiah, and what is written is this: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.” You see: “He has made be to be the Christ.” This is Isaiah 61. “To preach the good news to the poor”: to announce the Gospel, the Evangelion. “He has sent me to proclaim release to those in captivity (to those who are bound), the recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then when he closes the book, gives it back to the attendant and sits down, everyone in the synagogue has their eyes fixed on him, and then he says, he began to say, it even says (Luke 4:21-23): “ ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ And all spoke well of him and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ ” And then he says to them: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb: Physician, heal yourself.” You see? “Iatros”: it means “doctor” or “physician,” literally, “physician.” So in Greek it says, “Iatre,” it’s the vocative: “O Physician”—”therapefson seafton—heal yourself.”
So he’s called “physician,” so we can say that’s a name and title given to him in Scripture, that it shows his activity as this Healer, the one who can forgive sins and heal. “Physician, heal yourself. What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do now also in your own country.” So not only down in Capernaum, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, but up here in Galilee, in Nazareth; do it here. And then he speaks again about healing. He refers to Elisha in the Old Testament. When Elijah was there and there was a famine, it was Elijah who was sent only to Zarephath in the land of Sidon, to help the woman. And Elisha, the successor of Elijah: there were many lepers in Israel, but only Naaham the Syrian was cleansed. And, of course, Jesus then says that this physician and healing ministry, it’s for all the peoples: it’s for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and so on.
Now, no one can read the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, for sure—without seeing how Jesus is healing practically on every page, forgiving sins, healing souls and bodies, lives of people. And then in St. John’s Gospel where you have the healings of Jesus called “the signs,” where he heals the child of the centurion; he heals the paralytic at the healing place of Bethesda; he heals the man who was born blind. And, of course, the ultimate healing is the restoration to life of the four-day-dead corpse, Lazarus.
So you see that Jesus has this power, and this power even comes out of him when he doesn’t know it. People come up to him to touch the fringe of his garment, because power goes out of him. And that’s the word for the miracles in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the healing miracles; it’s called “power.” In John it’s “signs,” and in the synoptics, it’s “power.” By the way, nowhere is the term “miracle” used. When I discuss “miracles” in my reflection on natural science and Christian theology, I point out that the New Testament never calls the acts of Christ “wonders” or “miracles.” They say, “Where does he get this power? Why did power go out of him?” He feels that virtue goes out of him. Even when the woman with the hemorrhage just touches him, she’s healed immediately.
It’s interesting that that healing is not only always connected with sin—“Your sins are forgiven” or “Go and sin no more,” you know: “Follow me”—but also we see that this healing is total. It’s not only supposed to be for the body. And in St. John’s Gospel, that’s even the point that’s made. “You’re paralyzed in body, but don’t be paralyzed in soul. Follow me. Do not sin any more.” Or the blind boy, young man, where he sees, and then Jesus says, “Do you believe in the Son of man, the Son of God?” He says, “Who is he?” He says, “The one you see.” And so he immediately takes him from physical blindness to spiritual blindness. And then he even says, “I have come so that those who can’t see will see, but those who say, ‘We see,” can be struck blind by the very light of God that they do not accept.”
But what we want to see now, very, very directly and very simply, is that Jesus has the healing power. He is a physician. He heals. He heals bodily diseases. And they’re listed. I already listed how it says in the Scripture that [he healed] “every manner of disease,” it says, that they came to him. I believe that [is] in the Gospel of Matthew, where they even kind of say in the beginning what these were, the kind of healings that he actually did, not only casting out the demons, but it says (Matthew 4:24-25):
...healing every disease and every infirmity of the people. So his fame spread through all Syria. They brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains—demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics—he healed them. Great crowds followed him.
And then he launches in Matthew’s Gospel, at that point, into the Sermon on the Mountain.
So Jesus is Physician. He’s Iatros. He is a healer. He does therapia, which means curing and healing. And this wholistic view of the healing being of spirit, mind—he restores people who are crazy, lunatics, insane; they’re restored; they’re in their right mind, like the [Gerasenes] swine story, where the crazy man who is naked and so on is now sitting, clothed and in his right mind; he gives the people sanity—and he gives them bodily soundness, bodily health. And this cannot be denied, and those are the signs that the Messiah will do.
When we look at Jesus as the Healer, there’s many things that we have to understand, that we can mention as we make this particular meditation. First of all, in the Scripture it’s very clear that human beings have diseases of mind and body, of soul and their flesh, because of sin. There is this absolutely ontological, organic connection between evil and disease. In the Genesis accounts, of course, that’s one of the points that is made. When Adam and Eve are in paradise and are obeying God and are enjoying life in the garden, there’s no disease; there’s no sickness; there’s no sorrow; there’s no suffering; whereas, when they break communion with God, when they’re cast out of paradise, then they are plunged into a world of disease, and even terror. They return to the earth. In the lines of the psalmist, they cannot keep themselves alive. We have no power to keep [ourselves] from Sheol.
There’s a wonderful psalm, 82, that’s sung in the Orthodox Church on the Eve of Pascha. It’s the Paschal Hymn, when the victory of Christ over death is celebrated and sung, and they change all the black and purple colors into bright white colors in the church and so on at the Paschal Vigil. You have Psalm 82, where it says:
God has taken his place in the divine council and in the midst of the gods he holds judgment. How long will you judge unjustly, show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the fatherless. Maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue all the weak and the needy. Deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
Then it continues:
They have neither knowledge nor understanding. They walk about in darkness. All the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you. Nevertheless, you shall die like men and fall like any prince.”
Then it says:
Arise, O God, judge the earth, for to thee belong all the nations.
This death is there. We’re made to be sons of God. Adam is called the son of God, yet we die like any beast of the field. We just perish like any kind of animal, but the claim is: that’s because of our breaking communion with God, through the disobedience of the commandments. And here, the Scripture teaching would be very clear: if we keep the commandments of God and we remain in communion with God and live by the Spirit of God, we would have power over every evil spirit and over every disease and every sickness. We would be able to keep [ourselves] alive, but none of us can do it.
We are all wedded unto death. We are all infected and poisoned, afflicted by diseases and sickness and sufferings in this fallen world. And the sufferings that come from corrupted nature, where our bodies get poisoned by natural means, so to speak—I don’t know: eating some poisonous mushroom or something like that, or breathing toxic air, or whatever it would be—but at the same time you have also just this violence. In the Scripture, the first act of the children of Adam and Eve is that they kill each other. Cain kills Abel. There’s murder.
In fact, if we were looking at the Old Testament as a whole, we could say that the whole tragedy of humanity in the Old Testament is that we break communion with God and die, and are overcome by all the powers of corruption, disease, and darkness. However, the teaching also would be that if we could maintain the law of God, if we would keep all of the commandments, then we would have control over all the elemental powers in the universe, both spiritual and physical and material and every possible cosmic power, and we would be able to keep [ourselves] alive.
Then the teaching would be: none of us can do that. None of us, because there is no one righteous, no, not one. We’re all sold unto death. And even the most righteous person on earth, Christ’s mother, Mary, for example. She would still die a natural death. And in the Old Testament, the worst kind of death that you could possibly die was in the middle of your life, especially for a man, when you were completely in your power, but then got stricken by some kind of disease, or were struck down by the enemy who kills you with his sword or some such thing, in the height of life. And the only hope that you could have would be in your children, so if you were childless, you were really the most to be pitied.
So from that point of view, Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Son of God, in the New Testament, shows that he identifies with us in our poorest, lowest, most weak, and most diseased and sinful state, by being struck down in mid-life by crucifixion, with no children, with no progeny, except all those who believe in him will be his seeds and the seed of David and the sons and the children of God Almighty himself, the Father. So Jesus has to come into the world and he bears our infirmities; he heals our diseases, by taking them upon himself. But he shows that he can do that voluntarily, and have the power. He shows that before he is crucified, so that he shows that he does have this power. He can heal the diseases. He can raise the dead.
And when he’s being crucified, they even taunt him and say, “Could not this man, who [has] opened up the eyes of the blind, kept himself from being crucified?” And the answer is: of course he could have, but the only way he could ultimately heal the world, and heal all the diseases of men and raise up the dead, where the death comes because of the diseases and the terror and the violence of human life, the only way he could make that ultimate is by obliterating it in its very essence and at its very core and in its very roots, by dying himself. He takes it upon himself and he heals it all by his own blood. He destroys all the darkness and diseases by enduring all that affliction and suffering himself.
When we look at Jesus on the pages of the New Testament as a healer, we see that his healings are always in connection to his own death and resurrection, that the healings of Jesus are not ultimate. If we spoke fancy language, we could say they’re penultimate. They’re to show that he has this power, but everyone that he healed got sick and died again, or were killed. In fact, it’s an ancient Christian tradition that many of the people that Jesus healed were healed only to die a martyr’s death at the hands of people who were persecuting Christians, because they were followers of Jesus. And even the dead that he raised—Jairus’ daughter, the only son of the widow, Lazarus the four-day-dead corpse—they all died again, one way or the other, either by disease or by martyrdom or whatever, but it’s not ultimate.
We all have to pass through death. We only enter the kingdom by affliction and suffering, and we only are ultimately healed by the Blood of Christ himself, into a new reality where, as the Prophet Isaiah said, that’s quoted in the Book of Revelation, that is quoted in the Orthodox funeral service, into the life where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor suffering, but life everlasting, without any sickness, any sorrow, any suffering, and no death, because there’s no sin any more. There’s just the total righteousness of Jesus, given by grace to those who believe in him and who want the righteousness of God that comes through Jesus.
We see that this is the case. In the Old Testament, we also see—we have to look at this point as well—that in the Old Testament, the power of God over sickness and disease and death is also shown in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, it’s very clear that God strikes and God raises up, God casts down. When sickness and disease [come], people feel that they are visited by the hand of God. But God also has the healing power, and according to the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, only God has the healing power. No creature, no man has the healing power. Only God has it.
God is the one who heals. “Raphael” is the name of the angel of healing: “God heals.” So there are healings in the Old Testament. Jesus himself referred, as I just read, to Elijah, to Elisha with Naaham the Syrian, and in the Old Testament you have many other healings that are done through the prophets. For example, God heals Mariam from her leprosy. He does that with Moses, too, when he wants to show his power. Hezekiah with the Prophet Isaiah: Hezekiah is going to die, and he asked God, please, to forgive him, and Isaiah intercedes and then God decides to give Hezekiah another 15 years.
It is certainly a teaching of the Holy Scripture, of the Old and New [Testaments], that only God has the healing power. Human beings do not have healing power. Human beings have healing power only through the grace of God, and certainly in the Bible, you have the prophets who did healings, but you have the apostles, also, of Christ, who do healings. Peter and John do healings. They say, “Silver and gold I have none, but what I have I give to you: stand up in the name of Jesus and walk!” So in the Book of Acts, you have the apostles doing acts of healing. St. Paul does acts of healings. He himself drinks the poison and the serpent bites him and he doesn’t die. And St. Mark, in the end of that Gospel, probably refers to St. Paul when he says that those who believe and baptized will pick up serpents and they’ll drink strong drink and it won’t harm them, and the signs of healing they’ll be able to do.
But the great difference between Jesus Christ, our Lord, and the prophets and the apostles is that Jesus does it in his own name. Sometimes when he heals, he even prays to the Father: “I’m doing this for their sake. I can just say, ‘Your sins are forgiven. Stand up and walk.’ ” And that’s what made his actions so blasphemous in the eyes of the leaders of the people, because he’d forgive just by saying, “I forgive you.” He healed just by saying, “I say to you.” But only God could do that!
And that’s one of the proofs that he’s divine. He doesn’t do it by intercession. He doesn’t say, “I’ll intercede with the Father for you.” Sure, he is our Intercessor; we’ll get to that later when we see one of his titles is Mediator and Intercessor; definitely, with God the Father, but he is a divine who becomes human and as a man becomes our intercessor by bringing all the fullness of divinity to us in his own person, even in his own flesh. The power of healing goes out of his body when they just touch it.
He is not a mere man. That’s the whole point. He’s not presented on the pages of Scripture as a mere man. None of the Gospels show him as a mere man. He is the Physician. Now, many can by physicians by faith and by grace, just like many can be sons of God by faith and grace; many can become priests and prophets and apostles by faith and grace; many can do the works that Jesus did by faith and grace, but Jesus does them by his own power, the power given to him by God himself because he is God’s real Son, and God is really, literally, his Father.
God alone is the Physician of our souls and bodies, and so Christ is the Physician of our souls and bodies, and he shows that in his humanity by his human activity. The one Christ, both divine and human, he heals us. So anyone who can do a wonderful, miraculous showing of the power of God, they do it by prayer, by faith, by grace, not by their own person or their own power. But Jesus is the very power of God; that’s one of the titles. He is the Power of God. He is the Dynamis that comes out from him.
Another thing that we should mention when we think about physicians is that there are physicians among human beings who have that particular vocation to be a physician, and physicians are blessed in the Holy Scripture. They’re definitely blessed. Probably the most celebrated passage in Scripture is in the Wisdom of Sirach in the Old Testament, where you have physicians being praised. It’s the 38th chapter of Sirach, called Ecclesiasticus in some Scriptures. It says; I’m reading from [the] 38th chapter:
Honor the physician with the honor due to him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him. For healing comes from the Most High. And he will receive a gift from the king. The skill of the physician lifts up his head, and in the presence of great men he is admired. The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them. Was not water made sweet with the tree in order that God’s power might be known? But he gave skill to men, that he might be glorified in his marvelous works. By them he heals and takes away pain. The pharmacist makes of them a drug, a compound. His works will never be finished, for from him health is upon the face of the earth.
My son, when you are sick, do not be negligent, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Give up your faults and direct your hands aright. Cleanse your heart from all sin. Offer a sweet-smelling sacrifice, a memorial portion of fine flour. Pour oil on your offering, as much as you can afford, and give the physician his place, for the Lord created him. Let him not leave you, for there is need of him. There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians, for they, too, will pray to the Lord, that he will grant them in success in diagnosis and in healing for the sake of preserving life.
So there is a charism in being a physician. And it is the teaching of Scripture, that Luke, the author of Luke, Acts, the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, was a physician. He definitely was a physician. Then in Scripture it says that there were those who had the charism of healing, as a kind of miraculous grace and gift of God, like, I don’t know, the daughters of Philip and so on. But then in the Church tradition—I should say and, also, in the Church tradition—there is a tradition of holy physicians, holy doctors. And it’s interesting that in the tradition, the saintly doctors, the holy physicians, they heal both by natural means and by miraculous means through the grace of God.
And here I think it’s a wonderful example of how the wonders of God act through natural ways, natural means. Even Jesus did that. He spit, he anointed. When the apostles healed, they anointed with oil. In the Letter of James, it says, “Is anybody of you sick? Call for the presbyters of the Church and they will pray over them, anointing them with oil.” The good Samaritan pours oil and wine into that Jew’s wounds, oil being soothing and comfortable, like a salve, and wine being antiseptic, filled with alcohol. So you don’t have this kind of radical bifurcation between natural and supernatural. You have divine activity through what is natural, through powers and, how can you say, knowing how to manipulate the created things, knowing how to use the waters and the herbs and the plants and the oils of earth. God gives that understanding. So you have the holy physicians.
In the Orthodox Church tradition, the ancient Church tradition, there is even a special category of saints called the holy physicians, the unmercenary healers. They’re called anargyroi, the silver-less; in Slavonic, bessrebreniki. That means that they don’t take money for their healing. They heal but don’t ask any money, and they heal by God’s grace. But, and, they also heal by their medicinal means. So on the icons of the holy healers, they are holding usually a box of medicines. They’re holding their medical box, their medical kit.
Who are these specifically sainted people because they were physicians? Well, I could name I think virtually all of them. If you do the longer version of the proskomide and you’re an Orthodox priest, you say these people’s names every time you serve the Liturgy. And if you do the service of healing, the unction of healing on people, then you say their names. And so what are their names? Panteleimon, Hermolaos, Samson, Diomedes, Photius, Mocius, Anicetas, Thallelaeus, Trypho. Those are the big names. Cosmas and Damian, Cyrus and John, Panteleimon, Hermolaos, Samson, and Diomedes. So these are the big names. And there are three women among them: Hermione (you know, of Harry Potter fame: Hermione), Zenais, and Philonilla. And, I believe that, traditionally, they’re considered to be the prophetic daughters of Philip in the Book of Acts.
In any case, among the category of saints called physicians, you have men and women who actually were physicians, like Luke. There’s one who was a doctor in the Kievan Cave monastery. His name was Agapit. He’s called an unmercenary healer. In our time you have the Bishop Luke in [the] Soviet Union who might be canonized someday, who was a physician. And even in more recent time, in the West, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, Anthony (Bloom) from England who recently died. He was a medical doctor. So you have medical doctors who are in the priesthood and who are in monastic life who combine together the natural skills and charisms of being a physician of soul and body and then they have the grace of God acting with them, empowering their proper use of their natural powers.
And then, of course, these physicians are not only dealing with the physical, they’re dealing with the spiritual. So then you have a lot of the holy Fathers and saints who were physicians of souls, who knew how to heal people who were mentally ill, whose minds were crazy. They knew how to straighten out people who were spiritually ill. They knew how to cast out demons because they [healed those who] were in the hands of the devils. And you have [this] kind of people with these kinds of charisms all over the place in Christianity. Practically all of the saints in one way or another had a dimension of their sanctity being in healing. But then there are those who had the very particular charism of being a healer, and, as I mentioned, some of whom were actual medical doctors in their earthly life.
If anyone is a physician and a healer, we Orthodox Christians would say it’s because of God, because of the talents and the graces and the charisms that God gives, that Christ gives, that Christ has and gives through the Holy Spirit to those who are open to receiving these charisms and are able to use them. But the Physician par excellence is Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. He is the theanthropic Physician, the divine-human Physician, the man who is God in the flesh, who has the healing powers to heal all manner of diseases among the people. That’s what’s said about him.
A couple other things, very important: going back to this connection between forgiveness of sins and healing, it’s interesting that when Jesus does do a healing on the pages of the Scripture, very often in English, it will be translated, “and the person was made whole” or “the person was healed,” but when you read those texts in Greek, the verb that is used is “saved—sōson.” “Do you want to be saved?” is sometimes what it literally says when it’s translated, “Do you want to be healed?” And when a person is healed, it doesn’t say, “Your faith has healed you” or “the faith has made you whole,” it says, “Your faith has saved you.”
And here, faith is, of course, necessary. In Mark’s Gospel it says that even Jesus couldn’t do certain healings and signs and has powers in certain places because the faith of the people was absolutely closed to it, and they were not open to the healing powers of God. They just rejected it, just like some people won’t even go to doctors and so on. But here, you’ve got to know that there is this holistic element, and it is connected with salvation. So the ultimate healing is eternal salvation in the coming kingdom of God.
Therefore, any type of physical healing is always in function of the spiritual healing. Physical healing is never an end in itself; it’s always for the sake of a soteriological purpose, so to speak. It’s for a saving purpose. And in the [Greek] language, the word “soteria,” which means “salvation,” could also mean “victory”; It could also mean “healing,” and particularly victory over diseases, demons, darkness, death. That’s the victory which then is inherently a healing act. So in some sense, healing, victory, and salvation are one and the same thing, ultimately.
Jesus, however, may give a healing to a person—a mental healing, a spiritual healing, a bodily healing, a physical healing—for some ultimate purpose of salvation. And here the teaching is very clear in the New Testament, that if Jesus never does a healing just to show off… Jesus was not a faith-healer in that sense. He never said, “Step right up and I’ll show you my powers. Stick out your withered hand and I will heal it,” and everybody will go ooh and ahh and believe in him. No, that didn’t work that way at all. A lot of times when he healed people, he said, “Don’t tell anybody” or “Go show the priests and offer the proper offering.” Every time that he healed, he said, “Don’t go and sin any more.” And then he said, “Now you are obliged to be a person who has been healed, and you’re going to have to answer for that.”
St. John Chrysostom, he’s brutal in his commentary on this point. He said if anybody has been healed, whether by an operation in a hospital or by some laying-on of hands by some holy saint, an elder, man or woman, that person is answerable, accountable, for the fact that they’ve been healed. Therefore they have to give an answer to God at the Last Judgment for the fact that they were healed; that God did not let them die. He provided the proper physician, whether that physician was a miraculous healer or not, still the power and the healing power is given by God. And if you go just to a physician and he cuts out your tumor and saves your life, that’s an act of God’s grace, and you’re going to have to answer for it. Here the teaching would be, as Chrysostom says, if you are healed for longer life on the Planet Earth before you actually have to die—and everyone’s going to have to die, sooner or later…
And it’s very interesting that a lot of the unmercenary healers, like Cosmas and Damian, and Cyrus and John, and Panteleimon and Hermolaos, they died very young. Panteleimon is probably the quintessential healing saint in the Orthodox tradition, being a doctor, an actual physician, but he died before he was 30 years old. He didn’t live even as long as Jesus, who lived only to 33. So sometimes the healers are the ones who die, and sometimes there’s funny stories in the lives of the saints. There’s a story in the Kievan Paterikon about a man who had the gift of healing, and everyone came to him, and he prayed for them, laid [his] hands on them, and the people were healed, but that man, while he was healing, was [lying] on his bed, covered with sores. So he himself was not healed, but he had the gift of healing for others.
There’s another story in the Kievan [Paterikon] about a guy called Poimen the gravely-stricken, who was sick his entire life. He couldn’t get out of bed. He couldn’t go to church. He couldn’t fast. He couldn’t pray. He had to be taken care of by the brethren. They wouldn’t even tonsure him a monk. But then he was miraculously healed by some grace of God. He stood on his feet. He went to the church. He kept the vigil. They tonsured him a monk. He received Holy Communion, got a shovel, went to the cemetery, dug the grave, and died that very day. So he died healthy; physically healthy, he died. And as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, “Some people die healthy and some people die sick, but everybody dies.” And that is true. Everybody dies.
So if we are healed, it’s for certain purposes. And here, Chrysostom and the other saints, they make a list. It can be for the purpose that God gives us more time, like Hezekiah, to fulfill his will on earth. Maybe God gives us more time to repent of the sins we have committed. Maybe God gives us more time because he wants [us] to be of greater service to our brethren. Maybe God gives us more time just to show his own divine power. Maybe God gives us more time so that when we don’t repent for having been healed, we have no excuse when we find [ourselves] in hell.
St. Pachomius said that in so many words. He said, “God may heal people so that when they are lost because they really do hate God, they’re not even grateful for the healing that he did to them in their earthly life.” And Pachomius even went an extra step. He said, “God may even give the charism of healing to some people who by their prayers and intercessions can heal others, but they themselves may be lost.” They may be lost. It’s that horrible sentence. I call it horrible or horrifying, terrifying sentence. In the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “Not everybody who says, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom, but the one who does the will of my Father.” And the will of the Father is to love God and to love the neighbor and to keep the commandments and to be a virtuous person.
And then Jesus says, “On that day, many will say”—many, polloi—“many will say, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not cast out demons in your name, and do mighty works in your name?’ ” Specifically, you could say, “Did we not heal people in your name?” And then Jesus said, “I will say to them: I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.” So evildoers could be the instrument of God for the healing of others. They could be the instrument of healers and everybody could say, “Oh, look at that person. They have the gift of healing.”
And that person themselves may be lost. That person themselves might really not love God. They may be arrogant; they may be proud; they may be vain; they may be showing off; they may be condemning other people who don’t have these gifts—well, God still gives it to them so that, as St. Pachomius said, St. Pachomius, on the day of judgment, they won’t have any excuse. They not only were healed themselves, maybe, but they even healed others, maybe, but they still are lost.
So healing is not an end in itself. And here, I would want to say that I consider it absolutely blasphemous when studies would be done, like comparing people who pray to people who didn’t pray; and did people who pray live longer than people who didn’t pray; did people who pray, were they more healed than people who didn’t; did the people who pray [get] a good doctor who knew how to treat their illness, where another person who didn’t pray, didn’t? I think it’s very, very, very dangerous, superficial, and I even would say sacrilegious and blasphemous to start making statistics and doing studies. That’s ridiculous.
God does what he wants. He may make a holy person die young. He may make a holy person suffer terrifically badly. And he may make an evil person live very long and even have the gift of healing to others, maybe as a successful surgeon or even as a successful healing charismatic monk. But it doesn’t mean that those people are, themselves, virtuous or holy. Not at all. We are the instruments; God works through us. So healing is never an end in itself, never. Even in ourselves or in other people, it’s not an end in itself. It’s always for the glory of God and the good of the neighbor, as the Elder Paisios said on Mount Athos. And Paisios, by the way, used to teach people what herbs to eat in order to fight certain diseases. Even though he had miraculous gifts of healing, he would tell them what kind of herbs to eat.
So it’s not so, how can you say? so simple. You’re a holy person, you pray to God, you make an act of faith, you name it, you claim it, God gives you power, and you get well, and you heal other people, and if you just do it right, God is at your beck and call to do what you want. That is not true! It is not true.
And here, I just want to mention an interesting little thing in the Old Testament translations. In Psalm 87 (88)—87 in the Septuagint, 88 in the Hebrew—it’s one of the six psalms at matins, there’s a line in the psalm—it’s actually the 10th and 11th verses of the psalm—that say this:
Dost thou work wonders for the dead? Do the shades rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
These questions are addressed to God. “Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the dead, the shades, the souls in Sheol, do they rise up to praise you?” But it’s interesting that when the Jews translated this text into Greek, that word, “shades” or “the souls of the departed in Sheol”... In Hebrew you only have consonants, you don’t have any vowels. Well, if you make different vowel-points, you put in different vowels at the point, in that psalm you can translate it a different way and, in fact, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text does translate it a different way. And this is what it says:
Will you work wonders for the dead, or shall physicians—iatroi, physicians—raise them up, that they shall praise thee? Shall any declare thy mercy in the tomb, or thy truth in destruction?
That’s from the Orthodox, that’s from the Septuagint version. The Orthodox Study Bible, which is translated from the Septuagint, [translates] that very same text in this way:
Will you work wonders for the dead or will physicians raise them up and confess you, acknowledge you? Shall anyone in the grave describe your mercy and your truth in destruction? Shall your wonders be known in darkness and your righteousness in forgotten land?
Here I would want to say, honestly, that I believe that the Hebrew text is the more accurate text. It fits better into the setting, when it says, “Can you work wonders among the dead? Can the shades rise up to praise you?” because “physicians” doesn’t seem to fit in there. And Fr. Ephrem Lash, I believe it was Fr. Ephrem—thank you, Fr. Ephrem, if it’s you—Fr. Ephrem gave a talk once. He was a great linguist and a biblical scholar. He is; he’s still alive, in England. And he said he believes that the Jewish translators put “physicians” in there on purpose, because physicians were so honored and glorified as being almost next to God that people in Alexandria were thinking that the physicians could heal anything. They don’t really need God, and so the translator, instead of saying, “Can the shades rise up to praise you?” they translated it pointing that Hebrew word with different vowels, “Will the physicians rise up and save you?” Can doctors save you?
It was kind of an irony. Can doctors save you? Well, doctors may save you, penultimately, but doctors cannot save you ultimately. And if doctors, physicians, can save you penultimately, heal you of diseases by so-called natural means, it’s because they know, by their study, by their intellect, by the powers given to them by God, how to manipulate realities and drugs and various chemicals and how to cut with knives in surgery and use technological equipment. God gives those powers to people in order to be able to do that, and that’s why physicians are praised.
However, two things have to be said about that. Number one is: that power comes from God. Even if you think of it as purely natural. But at the same time, there isn’t anything that’s purely natural. Grace of God is involved in everything. Then we have to also say there are people who have a charism to do miraculous healings. St. John Maximovich could do that. We pray to him for that purpose. St. Herman could do that. Many saints who were not physicians, just by prayer, just by invocation, but even they would often lay on hands and anoint with oil and so on. They can have that healing power of the grace of God through their means, which are, in [a] sense, natural. To pray is natural. To lay hands on, to put oil on, is natural.
But then there’s Jesus Christ himself, who is the Physician, of our souls and bodies. He is the Healer. He is God in human flesh. And Jesus has the very healing power of God himself. The Father has given everything to the Son, from all eternity. And then the Son is born on earth of a Virgin and becomes our Healer. And so, when Jesus is on earth, he does acts of healing. But he never does them just to show off. He always does them to show the power of God. He always does them to show that he is the Messiah. He always does them to show that he has the power to forgive sins and to raise up paralytics and to cast out demons and to heal crazy people. He’s got that power.
But he also does it to show that he himself, having that power, voluntarily gives himself over unto death. He bears our infirmities; he takes up our diseases; he takes upon himself the sins of the world; and he dies on the Cross, being wounded for our transgressions so that he could raise up the dead, destroy the power of death, and give us a life that never has any sickness, any disease, any sin, any sickness, any sorrow, any suffering at all, at all, at all, which will come to us in the age to come when he returns again in glory.
And that is the teaching of the Scripture, and that is the teaching of the Christian faith. And, of course, the teaching is that all who belong to Christ should be healers together with him. The same way we should be sons of God with him, words of God with him, icons of God with him, have the powers of God with him. He gives everything to us. He says, “The one who believes in me will do greater works than I do, because I will go to the Father and send them the Holy Spirit. And they, being mere mortals, will actually do the divine signs and powers that I myself have done on earth.”
Again, those who belong to Christ and are members of Christ have the powers of Christ. And some of us Christians specifically have the power of healing, just like some specifically have the power of prophesy. Some specifically have the power of teaching. Some specifically have the power of praying. Some specifically have the power of administration and the various gifts that are listed by the Apostle Paul. But the Physician, ho Iatros, the Physician, of our spirit, soul, mind, passions, emotions, body, flesh, bones, muscles, joints—that’s Jesus Christ himself. And the healing is whole and ultimate from Jesus. We are healed completely, totally, and we are healed of every possible disease of soul and body.
Our goal in life should be the way one woman put it in my lifetime. I had the wonderful grace of being connected with a woman named Galina. She was dying of cancer. She had bone cancer, terribly suffering, awful. In fact, I can tell you that one day she threw me out of the hospital room. I came to see her and she [said], “Get out of here, Father. I don’t want you here. Go away.” And I said, “Can I pray?” And she said, “No! Leave!” And so I left, and couldn’t imagine why she’s throwing me out of the hospital room.
When I went back to the seminary and was going into chapel for vespers, a woman was standing on the porch of the seminary. Her name is Serafima. She was a member of the Church, the Orthodox Church. I chrismated her myself, actually. And she said to me, “Fr. Tom, you look terrible. What’s the matter?” I said, “I just got thrown out of a hospital room.” She says, “Really?” I said, “Yeah. Galina threw me out.” And this woman took all her courage in her hands and she looked me right in the eye and she said to me, “You know why, Father, don’t you?” And I said, “Why?
She said, “Because you went there just by yourself today. You didn’t bring God. You didn’t bring the gracious healing power of God with you.” And she felt that. She knew that. Because sometimes you bring it and sometimes you don’t. “Well, she didn’t need you.” And then this woman said this incredible sentence that rings in my ears to this day. She said, “No one needs Fr. Tom. People need God. They don’t need Fr. Tom. As a priest and as a Christian, your job is to bring the presence of the Lord and the power of God to people, not yourself.”
And then I can’t resist telling you that this woman said to me, “Can I tell you something else?” I said, “Well, go ahead. You’re on a roll.” I start praying even harder my Jesus prayer or whatever, but she said to me, “Fr. Tom, you do that when you serve and preach, too. You do that when you teach, too.” She says, “Sometimes in church, we just know God is there, and sometimes it’s only Fr. Tom.” And she said again, “No one needs Fr. Tom.” No one needs Fr. Tom, and no one needs Fr. Joe or Fr. Pete or Fr. Bill or Fr. Basil or Fr. Pavnutios or Fr. Paisios. People need God. And it’s God who has this power, and that power is Christ, and he gives it to us.
Now this woman, Galina, who threw me out of the hospital room, she had a saying that I want to share with you. She said, “Fr. Thomas, I’m determined to die healthy.” And she meant spiritually healthy. And she was really sick before she got cancer: in her soul and in her spirit and in her mind. I can honestly tell you, and I know she wouldn’t mind my telling you, that her life was pretty much of a mess before she got cancer. But she believed that that cancer was given to her to save her soul and to reconcile her with her own self and with her family and with the people who harmed her in life. And she was greatly harmed in life by other people. She was terribly abused, and her life was really, really awful. But she got this cancer, and then she said, “I am determined to die healthy.”
And I can honestly say that I believe she died healthy. At the age of 43. She died of cancer in her 40s, but she died healthy, because she was able to use that disease for the forgiveness of her sins and for the healing of her soul and body, and for the healing of all the rest of us, too. So how long a person lives on earth, how much they suffer or don’t suffer physically, that’s up to the mysterious providence of God. Some will be healed; some won’t. Some will die young; some will die old. Good people will die young, and evil people will die old. Holy people will have the gift of healing and even sinners may have the gift of healing, because God wants to use them for his own purposes and they themselves may end up in hell.
But one thing is for sure today: healing is only ultimate in the age to come, and God alone is the Healer. And healing is not an end in itself; it’s for the glory of God, the salvation of souls—our own and other [people’s]. And a great mystery is operating here in the area of healing. But the Healer is God, the Healer is Christ, the one only Physician with a definite article: the Physician is Jesus Christ, our Lord. And so, Jesus as the Physician is one of the ways that we address him, pray to him, worship and adore him, and preach and teach him, according to ancient, scriptural, traditional Orthodox Christianity.