What is critical is that we understand the purpose of these works. Yes, they are compassionate divine interventions, but they also mark out Christ as unique. The word, Christ, means to mark out for a role of supreme authority.
The mighty works of healing and demon expulsion revealed Jesus to be a uniquely supreme. As the promised Messiah of the Jews and the Saviour of all mankind, His words carry more weight than any others spoken throughout human history. Matthew mentions that Jesus was marked out by his power to reverse every imaginable illness. The word of this had spread far and wide: ‘News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.’ (Matt. 4:24,25) That same power heals and delivers today.
Luke also remarked: ‘Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him' (Luke 4:14,15)
In spite of this, the momentum of His healing ministry ground to a near halt when He reached His home-town of Nazareth. As He taught in the synagogue, doubts about His credentials eventually surfaced:
‘Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:2,3)
Quite simply, His fame elsewhere had aroused the opposite reaction in His own neighbours. The barely concealed contempt for Him was itself based on that most contemptible of human emotions: sullen jealousy. They had a hard time accepting that an otherwise average member of a very ordinary neighbour’s family had risen to such heights. Of course, they would have been happy to plunder as much of the miraculous ministry of Jesus for their own advancement in status as the young rabbi was prepared to share.
It was Jesus who recited the following passage of scripture in the synagogue of His home-town.
because he has anointed me
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18)
After reading the messianic proclamation from the scroll of Isaiah, He claimed it to be fulfilled then and there by saying: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 20:21)
How many countless healing services have begun with this reading from Isaiah 61:1,2? The reaction to it is much the same as it was then. Preachers proclaim that God wants to heal and undo every imaginable kind of harm. Preachers of so many denominations declare that healing (and I mean even physical healing) has always been a fundamental part of the gospel. Biblically, we are also exhorted to pray for healing. Yet, it is as clear today as it would have been to those in Nazareth that the healing power of the Holy Spirit was in that town restricted to a few sick folk. We may hear of minor illnesses being cured by prayer, but what of major illnesses. We might well ask (as they appeared to question): ‘Why won’t God heal us as well?’
On an individual basis, there is no simple answer. God will heal, if we behave and act in a manner that demonstrates that our purpose is driven by an expectation of healing. Yet, the woman with the constant period flow had spent every penny she had on various unsuccessful treatments by the time that she reached out to Christ. The consistent hallmark of each answered plea for healing was complete and utter desperation for God to intervene, not a mere 'I hope he might'. In contrast to this desperation that will not be denied, we see far too many who, at the outset of trouble, resort to the prayer of pious resignation. They almost feel obliged to protect themselves from the threat of expected disappointment by saying: ‘Give me the grace to accept this as my lasting fate, O Lord’.
Christ declares that we must insistently ask, then wholeheartedly seek and then repeatedly knock until we have our miracle from God. God will intervene when that approach pervades our life-purpose (rather than resigning ourselves to overwhelming odds). In my life, on numerous occasions of actual and potential harm to body, soul and mind, God has intervened miraculously.
The unfolding events on Jesus’ return to Nazareth were interpreted by Luke with a bit more detail than Mark. The initial reaction is positive one: All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. (Luke 4:22) Yet, all of the four evangelists report Christ as saying: ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own town and in his own home’. It’s clear that while his neighbours recognised Him as gifted rabbi and healer, they had no intention of recognising one of their own as the bearer of God’s final message of mercy and warning to mankind. While there were a few instances of compassionate healing, the ethos of the town echoed a much earlier era of Israel’s contempt for God.
Here’s Christ’s own explanation of why healing grinds to a near halt:
‘“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:24 – 26)
Elijah had invoked the chastening hardship of drought on his own knowingly rebellious and idolatrous society. Yet, he took the opportunity to extend divine healing and miracles towards rank outsiders who were eager to discover the difference that God could make in their ordinary oft-blighted lives, but had no religious pedigree.
In short, Christ’s parallel exposed the Jews of His era to be no less dismissive of God’s intervention than the Jews of Elijah’s day. They lacked that indispensable catalyst for lasting change and redemption: DESPERATION. To re-phrase Christ’s first beatitude: ‘Favoured are the desperate, for to them will belong the authority and riches of heaven’ (Matt. 5:3) The Greek word for poor: ptochoi is derived from a word meaning ‘to crouch or cringe’. It is the posture of a beggar: one who can no longer conceal the reality of being overwhelmed by hardship and driven to unabashed dependence on hand-outs. The underlying idea is that of desperation that abandons all pride and will not be denied.
It was at this point that the mood in the synagogue changed to anger. The comparison of the town’s behaviour to Israel’s earlier rejection of God and opposition to Elijah was an insult: ‘All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.’ (Luke 4:28 – 30)
I would expect no less rejection today. Tell those proud of our country's Christian heritage that their own churches will languish in the depths of relative decline and powerlessness, while God will prosper heathen nations with numerous conversions through the outpouring of God’s mighty healing power and you will reap resentment. Despite that reaction, be assured that God will shower restoration, forgiveness and blessing upon foreign nations that have had far less opportunity than our own to learn of God’s final message to mankind in the gospel of God’s gift of His Son: a gift that assures His followers of eternal life with a loving all-powerful Father.
God will continue to heal ‘a few sick folk’ in those societies that have heard the gospel, but continue to be characterised by the idolatry of affluence, self-glorifying mainstream cultural values and vain humanist ideals at the expense of God’s moral compass.
In contrast with the faithful, just tell the half-hearted and rebellious: ‘don’t expect miracles’!