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YOU TOO CAN MAKE THE ILL BETTER
Healing - Lessons we can learn from the early church
by David W T Brattston
Like Jesus, we can cure the ill or make them better. This is not based on just one possible interpretation of the Bible among many. Christians who lived contemporaneously to the writers of the New Testament could ask them for clarifications or explanations of what they had written. The following article will include these non-biblical authors to show that ancient Christians embraced the same convictions about healing as does Across Ministries - and many Christians - in our own day.
Perhaps you are familiar with Christ’s command in Matthew 10.7-8 and Luke 10.9 that missionaries and other travelling preachers are to cure the ill before telling them that the Kingdom of God is near. Perhaps some readers have heard of a writing from a minority of early Christians called the Gospel of Thomas. Although different from majority in many ways, it repeats the commandment and extends it to all who travel, presumably as missionaries. Also in a missions context, Mark 16.18 widens the power of healing to all who truly believe.
Following the Apostolic period, Christians regarded more everyday non-miraculous virtues and deeds of love to be more important than supernatural cures. For instance, although the church father Origen recorded in the late 240s that ‘traces’ of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, including cure of the ill, remained in the church,  he considered among the greater gifts to be ‘a marvellous meekness of spirit and a complete change of character’. He thought supernatural healing to be less important and less indicative of the working of the Holy Spirit than works of mercy and love. Even if you cannot perform a miracle, you too can perform such works.
A chief way of helping the ill is to visit them. Remember Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25.34-39 that it is deeds of love and mercy—such as feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, and looking after the ill—that will be rewarded in heaven. This agrees with Matthew 7.21-23, where Christ said that performing miracles does not replace such works. What we do for the least ill person we do for Christ (Matthew 25.40). Visiting might not cure the patient but it can make their symptoms less uncomfortable, making their lives better, although not perfect.
Visiting the ill was strongly encouraged in early Christianity. Clement of Alexandria, dean of the foremost Christian educational institution of the time, quoted Matthew 25.34-40 to remind Christians of this duty in the 190s. A few decades later, the church father Tertullian in Carthage spoke of it as one of the desirable fruits of a happy Christian marriage. Another ancient Christian writing considered it a very serious duty.
Shortly before AD 249, Three Books of Testimonies classed visiting the ill as among such important Christian activities as forgiving sins, helping the poor, loving one’s enemies, and the Golden Rule itself—which indicates that Christians held visiting the ill in the highest regard. The author repeated Matthew 25.36 and quoted an earlier author: ‘Be not slack to visit the ill man; for from these things thou shalt be strengthened in love.’
It is particularly appropriate for ministers to visit the ill. James 5.14 instructs church officers to do so. A church manual written around AD 217 encourages deacons to find out who is ill and inform the pastor so that he can pay a visit. Ill people, it says, are much comforted when they know the pastor (their ‘high priest’) is mindful of them.
Your loving acts such as visiting can make the situation of the ill better. But can you actually cure them? Remember one thing: the Bible does not say that healing must always be caused by a miracle; you can contribute to their welfare by ordinary means. In describing Christian good deeds in the early third century, Bardesan in Syria included healthy workers giving toward the support of the ill, while Justin, a martyr for the Faith around AD 165, noted that it was common for church funds to be used to relieve Christians in financial need due to illness. Even the most ordinary person can donate to Christian medical missions and hospitals and thus (help) cure the ill.
While the church fathers saw that no miracle was involved in visiting and donating toward the ill, they usually considered cures to be miracles and thus evidence of divine power, but did not regard it as necessary that every healing be supernatural. Divine love was the only essential ingredient for all cures. This is shown by a second-century instruction that patients are to give testimony to God for all healings, even when the cure came about through drugs.
According to John 14.12, whoever believes in Jesus will do greater works than His. Although people gifted with the grace of divine healing have never been plentiful, the Bible and church fathers state that anyone at all can do great works equal in love and mercy to those of Christ. By visiting the ill, taking care of their bodies, and helping with their finances, we can all make the ill better and so fulfil the will of God.
 Origen Against Celsus 1.46 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) ed. A Cleveland Coxe (reprint: Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans) vol. 8 p. 414.
 Origen Against Celsus 1.67 ANF vol. 8 p. 427.
 Clement of Alexandria Quis Dives Salvetur = Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved? 30.
 Tertullian Ad Uxorem 2.8.
 Apocalypse of Zephaniah 7.4.
 Three Books of Testimonies against the Jews 109 ANF vol. 5 p. 555.
 Hippolytus Apostolic Tradition 30.
 Bardesan De Fato = Laws of Diverse Countries ANF vol. 8 p. 725.
 Justin Martyr 1 Apology 67.6.