Jesus vs. the Jewish View of Sickness

by Spiros Zodhiates

It will be helpful to examine the widely-held attitude toward physical sickness in the Jewish culture at the time of our Lord's first coming.

A most interesting story recounted in 1 Kings 17 gives us insight: Elijah, hiding from the wrath of the king, first hid by the Brook Cherith, and after it dried up God sent him to a widow in Zarephath. There, after an act of obedience and faith on her part, Elijah remained in her household. But later her son became gravely ill and then died. Now notice this grieving mother's attitude, as expressed in her remonstrance to the prophet: "What have I to do with you, O you man of God? are you come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" (v. 18). In other words, she believed her past sins were responsible for her son's death.

This ancient error, compounded with more false belief, surfaced again in the episode of the blind beggar (John 9:1,2): "And as Jesus passed by, He saw a man which was blind from his birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" They knew the man had been blind from birth, yet they asked if it was his sin or his parents' which was responsible for his blindness. How could he possibly be responsible, if as an innocent baby he was born blind?

Some early Jewish theologians taught that it was possible for unborn children to sin while still in the womb. They based this on Genesis 25:22 in which Esau and Jacob are reported to have struggled in Rebekah's womb. An alternative belief that souls exist before they are embodied, and could sin in that preexistent state, was also held by a few of the ancient scribes and was, therefore, part of the religious background.

What Was Jesus' View?

Jesus spoke against all such errors: "Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (John 9:3). None of them was responsible for the man's blindness. Let us never lose sight of the basic fact, however, that all illness and all suffering are the result of the original disobedience of Adam and Eve.

An unbeliever has no relationship with God; he has no use for God. So when he is sick all he can do in his illness is suffer and be miserable. But the believer, although subject to the same ills of the flesh as the unbeliever, is in fellowship with God. He knows who his Healer is, and he says, Lord, what are You trying to teach me? Sickness never occurs in a vacuum. There is always a purpose in it, and that is what the Lord Jesus implies.

Now I want to bring out a word here in John 9:2,3 that is used in the original Greek text; it is hna, "that": "Master who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" Hna can either denote result or purpose. In the disciples' question it denotes result, but in Jesus' response it denotes purpose: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." That is purpose. In other words, we must never arrive at the conclusion that God, in order to show how great He is, makes a person blind. No, He takes a person who is the product of original sin and demonstrates His power in and through that person.

God uses sickness to reveal His glory. And the most important thing He can do, as far as Christians are concerned, is not primarily to heal them, but to help them develop an attitude of faith and grace in sickness. Think of stories you have heard of Christians suffering from cancer and other dreadful diseases and how wonderfully they have praised God.

Does Satan Cause Sickness?

Satan certainly plays a role in illness and has from the very beginning, since he enticed Eve to taste the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Satan is, as the New Testament tells us, the chief of the principalities of the air. He is all around, but we must not give him more credit than he is due. We should understand that there is nothing that Satan can do without God's permission-whether in regard to nations or individuals.

Luke 13:10-16 tells of Jesus healing a crippled woman who suffered for eighteen years. She could not stand upright; she was bowed down. This woman had "a spirit of infirmity"-in the Greek, asthéneia, sickness or weakness, as we saw earlier. After Jesus laid His hands on her and healed her, He was accosted by the leader of the synagogue for healing on the Sabbath. The Lord replied in part: "And ought not this womanwhom Satan hath bound?" He understood her illness as being caused by Satan's action. It was caused in this woman by an evil spirit within her. She was a "daughter of Abraham," a Hebrew; however, she could not have contracted her disease while a follower of Jesus, since she had suffered from it for eighteen years.

Could, then, a believer today be inwardly bound by an evil spirit, or spirit of infirmity? We answer, "No," based on 2 Corinthians 12:7. Recall that Paul had been granted an experience so exalting that even after fourteen years he still could not put it into words. Then Paul says that God, in order to keep him from becoming puffed up, sent him a "thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him." A buffet is a heavy blow. We need not concern ourselves here with the nature of that satanic attack. The point is that it came from without, not within. The same word "buffet" is used in Matthew 26:67 to describe the blows the Jewish leaders rained upon Christ Jesus before they handed Him over to the Romans. Satan was not inside Christ or Paul, but was attacking them from the outside.

For Jesus, this attack came as a prelude to the cross, and then glory. For Paul, it was the prelude to the glorious lesson that "when I am weak, then am I strong," because God's strength is made perfect in our weakness" (2 Cor. 12:10).

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