Cessationists are Christians who maintain that God no longer heals through human agents. For them, healings served to authenticate the Gospel message to non-Christians in the first century. At a certain point in time, cessationists argue, the gift of healing ceased. In Acts, the apostles could heal people at will (Acts 9:32-42; 28:8-9). Later on, however, Paul had to pray for God to heal Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-27), which indicates that Paul couldn’t do so himself. He left Trophimus sick at Miletus instead of healing him (II Timothy 4:20). He gave Timothy some medical advice for his stomach problems rather than healing him from afar (I Timothy 5:23). As far as cessationists are concerned, Paul could no longer heal people at will.
In Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, scholar Jack Deere boldly takes on cessationism. He challenges the cessationist claim that the apostles could heal at will; rather, for Deere, they could only heal a person “when the circumstances were conducive for healing” (63). For example, Paul healed a crippled person in Lystra when he saw the man had the faith to be healed (Acts 14:9-10). Consequently, for Deere, it’s no surprise that Paul didn’t heal certain Christians: maybe they lacked faith, or the circumstances were not conducive to their healing.
I was thinking about cessationism yesterday, as I did my daily quiet time in Acts. In Acts 9:32-42, we read about Aeneas and Dorcas:
“Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed. Peter said to him, ‘Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!’ And immediately he got up.
And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’
So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (NRSV).
I notice certain things here. For one, contra Jack Deere, Peter healed Aeneas at will. The passage doesn’t say that he prayed hard for Aeneas; rather, he walked up to him and told him to get up. And second, Peter healed believers, yet the healings served as a sign for non-believers. The text narrates that people turned to the Lord after they learned of them.
So are the cessationists right? I wouldn’t go that far. They do well to ask why Paul didn’t heal Epaphroditus, Trophimus, and Timothy at will, if he indeed had the gift of healing (which he didn’t, in their minds). But I’m not sure if everything can fit into their cookie-cutter approach. Here’s why:
1. Peter healed Aeneas at will, but he asked God to raise Dorcas from the dead. So how did Peter know when to heal people at will, and when to pray? Maybe God told him before he went out. He could have said, “Peter, you will go out and meet Aeneas, a paralytic. Tell him to get up, for I will heal him.” Or perhaps God told him this right when he encountered Aeneas. The text doesn’t say. But there are times when the apostles speak authoritatively as they heal a person, as if they have no doubt that their wishes will come true. And then there are times when they have to beg God to heal someone.
2. Even in the first century church, when the disciples could actually heal at will, they didn’t always do so. Peter raised Dorcas from the dead, but he didn’t do the same for James and Stephen, who were martyred for the faith (Acts 7-8:2; 12:2).
3. Healings could serve as signs for the non-believing world, but that wasn’t their only function. As Jack Deere notes: “If this were the case, why did Paul heal Eutychus, a believer, by raising him from the dead in the presence of only believers (Acts 20:7-12)? Furthermore, the gift of healing mentioned in I Corinthians 12:9 is said to be for the edification of those in the church (I Corinthians 12:7)” (63).
4. II Timothy 4:20 says that Paul left Trophimus at Miletus sick, which means that he didn’t heal him. When was Paul at Miletus? In Acts 20:15-17. Yet, Paul had the gift of healing after he left Miletus. In Acts 28, he heals the inhabitants of Malta. Of course, he cures Publius by praying and laying hands on him (v 28), which is not exactly the “at will” approach. But could he have used the “at will” approach for the other inhabitants of Malta? (Disclaimer: see Trophimus at Miletus).
The Bible cannot always be subjected to the cookie-cutter generalizations of cessationists or their opponents. There were times when God’s agents healed people at will, and there were times when they either could not, or did not. They probably relied on direct guidance from God to discern which approach was appropriate for a given situation.