picture of doctor hands holding white pack and pills

by Brian Shilhavy

She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. (Mark 5:26)

To answer the question “Do doctors really heal?” one must first define the term “health,” to understand what it is doctors are supposed to be restoring, and then we need to define the word “doctor.”

As was discussed in a previous article, the concept of “health” was understood very different among the ancients in biblical times. Among the people of faith, health was defined in terms of a proper understanding of truth, and a restored relationship with God which was provided with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

So if we understand health the way ancient people in the Bible understood the term, the answer would be that most modern day doctors who are licensed physicians and practice medicine generally are not healers in terms of helping people to understand the truth of God, and come into a restored relationship with him through Jesus Christ. What was once the domain of spiritual leaders is now the domain of the pharmaceutical industry.

As we saw in the article on “health,” when we compared how modern English understands the word “health” with how people in biblical times would understand the same concept, so too the word “doctor” or “physician” in modern English takes on a completely different meaning from what people in biblical times would understand when using words that are today translated into our English words “doctor” or “physician.”

Starting with the verse above from the Gospel of Mark, we see that the term “doctors” is used negatively in terms of being able to heal someone, while faith in Jesus brought about healing:

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, “Who touched me?'” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.“(Mark 5:24-34)

What the “doctors” could not do for 12 years while taking all of her money for their services and products, Jesus accomplished in a moment through the faith of the woman – free of charge.

Who were “Doctors” in the Ancient World?

So who were these “doctors?” How was this title used in biblical times?

When we use this word today in English, we automatically imagine someone in a white coat at a clinic or hospital who examines people and prescribes medicine or other medical procedures designed to deal with physical sicknesses. We would not think of a “doctor” as someone who looks at spiritual issues in addition to physical issues, and tries to find remedies through invoking certain spirits, through incantations, spells, or magic. We would not imagine someone working in a temple offering up sacrifices to “gods” as bearing the title “doctor.” No, we would not imagine “doctors” like this today in the “modern” world. Since the days of “enlightenment” and since the time of Darwin and the new age of Darwinian-based “science,” such practices have for the most part ceased to be a part of popular western culture.

When you see the English word “doctor” or “physician” in the biblical literature, however, this is just how the word was understood in those days. They were usually temple priests, seen as having experience with the spiritual world, in addition to experience with physical remedies. They bore some resemblance to the doctors people pay to see today, in that they accepted money in exchange for “health” services or products. But the types of services and products were vastly different in the ancient world. Dealing only with the physical realm and only physical health is a recent development in human history, particularly post Darwin and the theory of Darwinian biological evolution.

In the ancient world, if you went to see a doctor you would most likely be going to some temple where sacrifices were made to appease the spirits or gods that were causing the illness, and trying to get on the good side of the spirits or gods that supposedly had the power to heal you. There were also physical remedies that were used in the physical realm. The Greeks, for example, were strong in empiricism and rationalism and used empirical examinations to find causes and effects to problems. But they combined this with their belief system in their gods, especially Apollo who for a period of Greek history was considered the mediator of healing between men and Zeus, one of the highest Greek gods.

Depiction of Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. The apostle Paul’s healing ministry during the first century greatly disturbed its business. See Acts 19.
Photo courtesy of psu.edu

In the 5th Century B.C., Hippocrates, considered by many to the be the father of modern medicine, formed a kind of “physicians guild” to uphold a higher standard of ethics in the healing arts, and developed the “The Hippocratic Oath,” still widely referred to today thousands of years later.

Most medical schools still have some form of the original oath that they require their students to take, but probably all of them have left out the opening of the original:

“I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract…”

When Paul and Barnabas conducted a healing in the name of Jesus in the Roman town of Lystra on one of their missionary excursions, for example, the people were so impressed with the healing that they concluded the Greek gods themselves, whom they associated with healing, had come down to visit them. They called out the town priest to offer the appropriate sacrifices. This was not some remote secluded tribal area, but a major metropolitan area in a very advanced western culture. They understood the spiritual realm, and they understood that healing was not only related to the physical realm.

In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk. When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. (Acts 14:8-13)

Healing Apart from God is Idolatry

Understanding then how “doctors” performed their healing arts in ancient times, it is easy to see why the nation of Israel was forbidden to participate in the healing arts of magic and witchcraft which called upon the spirit world. They were to only worship the one true God and depend solely on him, since he is the Creator of the universe and more powerful than lower, created spirits that the physicians relied upon.

And since God had miraculously delivered the Israelites from their bondage and slavery to Egypt, they had a contract with God to serve Him only. The whole confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in Egypt was a confrontation between the one true God of the universe and the Egyptian gods over the power of sickness and healing. God won, the Egyptian gods (who performed real magic) lost. Therefore, depending upon other “gods” for healing was idolatry, and strictly forbidden in the Jewish laws.

So when we read about what King Asa did when he was crippled in his feet and how he went to the “physicians” instead of to the LORD, we may be tempted to think “What was so bad about that?” given modern day Christians’ acceptance and high regard of the current medical-pharmaceutical system. But what was more than likely happening was that the King of Israel was running away from God and was seeking a pagan priest with his magic, spells, and potions instead of seeking the one true God of Israel through the Levitical priests:

In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was afflicted with a disease in his feet. Though his disease was severe, even in his illness he did not seek help from the LORD, but only from the physicians. (2 Chronicles 16:12)

This was considered idolatry, and something that God hated. Israel’s belief and service to the one true God was what separated them from all the other pagan nations around them.

Old Testament Priests were the authorities in healing. Incense and anointing oils were commonly used.

These sins of idolatry are also prohibited in the New Testament biblical writings. One of the more interesting Greek words that is usually translated as “witchcraft” or “sorcery” in English is pharmakeia, from which we get such English words as “pharmacy” or “pharmaceutical.” Outside of the biblical texts, it would probably most often be translated into English as “medicine.” It is used in Galatians 5:20:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

Can you imagine using the English word “medicines” in place of “witchcraft” in the list of sins in the verses above? Obviously the modern translators of the English Bible could not, and yet that was the word the ancients would have used for our modern day word “medicine.” It is also used in the book of Revelations in a couple of places:

The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. (Revelation 9:20-21)

In this verse the word pharmakeia is translated “magic arts.” It is used below in referring to Babylon:

The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray. (Revelation 18:23)

Here the word pharmakeia is translated “magic spell.” Again, “medicine” did not seem appropriate to the translators in these verses, because of the current acceptance and understanding we have in the word and concept of “medicine.”

When we look at the word group for “physician” in the New Testament, we see the verb form of that word was used quite a bit for the activity of Jesus, such as:

And all the people were trying to touch Him, for power was coming from Him and healing them all. (Luke 6:19)

The verb “healing” here comes from the same root word used in the noun “physician” in Mark 5:26 above.

Interestingly, it is in Luke’s writings where this verb form of the word was used most often to describe the healing ministry of Jesus. Could this be because Luke was at one time numbered among the pagan physicians, but now had turned to the true healer and had become like Jesus in looking after men’s souls? When Paul referred to Luke as a “physician” he qualified it with the word “beloved,” no doubt to distinguish him from the commonly understood meaning of that word among the pagans who practiced magic and witchcraft: “Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings…”(Colossians 4:14) I think Luke chose this particular word to describe Jesus’ healing ministry to distinguish him from the professional physicians of his day who could not accomplish true healing.

So when we use the English word “doctor” today, and try to understand how people in the ancient cultures would have understood this term, we need to think in terms of temple priests, who although they may have sold certain remedies to be ingested, also offered up sacrifices and practiced in the spiritual arts as well, such as magic.

The Jewish people did not seek out these “doctors,” but instead went to the Jewish priests in their own temple or synagogue, as this is what was prescribed in the Law of Moses.

Jesus and His Disciples – Healers for the Modern Ages

When Jesus arrived on the scene in the first century, he presented a huge conflict to the ruling priests, because he went around healing everyone, (and more effectively than they did!) challenging their authority as he was from among the common people, without the formal education they had. Jesus’ authority came directly from God, and he passed this authority on to his disciples who were also common men with no formal education. (See: The Authority to Heal)

The_Exhortation_to_the_Apostles-James_Tissot

The Exhortation to the Apostles – by Tissot, Brooklyn Museum. These “common” men with no formal education changed the world.
Source Wikimedia

The Levitical priesthood was replaced in the New Testament with the “priesthood” of  believers, where everyone who believes in Jesus now has the same authority to heal that Jesus had.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:4-9)

Jesus, although not from the tribe of Aaron that the Old Testament priests were descended from, took on the permanent role of high priest: but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.  (Hebrews 7:24)

James, the brother of Jesus, wrote instructions for believers to follow in matters of healing, and it did not include seeking out “doctors”:

Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:14-16)

The acts of the early disciples of Jesus are recorded in the Book of Acts, where common men went throughout the entire Roman world, practicing the principles Jesus had taught them, challenging the “doctors” and health authorities of their day, both in the Jewish as well as in the Greek communities. Their success in healing people is well documented in the biblical records.

Who are you trusting in today for your healing? Do you hold on to a belief system based on Darwinian evolution that sees “health” as purely a physical condition? Because that is the system of “healing” that is licensed today, and based on pharmaceutical products with the presupposition that all sickness is a result of physical causes only. There is no room in modern medicine, which is really a system developed from Darwinian biology, to consider spiritual causes at all.

Or have you come to understand the biblical definition of health which defines health in terms of our relationship to our Creator? There is only one physician who brings true health, and that is Jesus. Physical health may have some value in the short term during this life time, but by itself it holds no value for the future when you enter eternity through physical death and meet your Creator. All the lies of Darwinian evolution and modern-day scientism will prove worthless then, and the medicines of doctors will be of no help, just as it is prophesied in the book of Revelation.

He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. (1 Peter 2:24)

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

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