by Brian Shilhavy

Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers. (3 John 1:2)

When we use the word “health” in the English language today, we think primarily of physical health, and how our body is functioning. If we want to communicate something besides physical health, we generally add another word as an adjective, such as “mental health” or “emotional health.” But the word “health” itself is mainly used in terms of physical health, and the domain of “health” in western culture today is the domain of a large medical system which is called “healthcare.” It is an extremely influential and powerful system in most countries, controlled by pharmaceutical companies and licensed physicians, and regulated by the government.

Such a concept of “health” however, is a recent development in human history. So when we read ancient texts such as the Bible, and read the English word “health” which is used to translate words from the original languages of ancient cultures, it is very helpful to study how these words were understood in those languages and cultures. Otherwise we read our own cultural understanding of English words into ancient texts, and that can result in an inaccurate or incomplete understanding of the meaning of these texts.

The passage above in the third letter of the apostle John is a good example of how the term “health” was understood in the day of the biblical writers around the time of Christ. In the salutation that John uses, the word “prosper” is used twice, and he makes it clear in the second usage that he is referring to more than worldly or physical prosperity. He is also referring to those spiritual things that cause the soul to prosper.

So what about the word “health?” From this letter by John we can see that in the context of the following verses, he is linking the concept of health to “walking in the truth:”

For I was very glad when brethren came and testified to your truth, that is, how you are walking in truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth. (3 John 1:3-4)

Within this context, physical health is not the main concern. The later writings of the New Testament deal with a lot of problems in the church, particularly false teachings and false believers, and there is a lot of emphasis on correct teaching (or “doctrine”) about Jesus and the gospel message. Health then is connected to correct thinking about God and Jesus, and the lifestyle that results from such correct thinking and belief, which in turn is defined as “health.”

The Greek word here that is translated “health” is found in 23 other passages in the New Testament in either its noun or verb forms, and it is not always translated “health.” For example, in Paul’s letters to Timothy he uses this word to refer to correct teaching, or doctrine, and it is usually translated in English as “sound.” Some examples:

Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 1:13)

But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully, realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted. (1 Timothy 1:8-11)

If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing; but he has a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words, out of which arise envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions… (1 Timothy 6:3-4)

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

The word translated “sound” in these passages is the exact same word John uses in his third letter, which is translated “health.” But because the English word “health” or “healthy” has such a narrow meaning in our culture today, it was not considered a proper word to use in translating these verses dealing with “doctrine,” or teaching about truth.

Of course as soon as we seek to define “mental health,” we move outside of the realm of empirical science and into the realm of morals and values. Who gets to define what is proper “mental health,” and in turn actions resulting from someone deemed “mentally healthy”? With modern culture’s denial of a Creator and belief in unguided evolutionary principals, “truth” is defined politically, and in its most extreme form can result in medical tyranny, such as was seen in Nazi Germany pre-World War II. (For more on this see: German Medical Society Apologizes for Nazi-era Atrocities by Doctors, and American Eugenics on the Eve of Nazi Expansion: The Darwin Connection)

This word for “health” used in John’s letter is also used in the famous story of the prodigal son who returns home to his father:

And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.” (Luke 15:27)

The word is translated here “safe and sound,” because there is nothing in the text that would suggest that the prodigal son was sick in the way we normally define “sickness.” He had left his father’s household with his inheritance and squandered it all on a sinful lifestyle. Coming back to his senses, he returned to his father’s house and was restored to his position as son in the family. His “health” in this situation is defined in terms of his relationship to his father and his place in his father’s household.

Of the 23 occurrences of this word in the New Testament, there are some uses where physical health is involved. These occurrences are in the gospel records of the life of Jesus, and also in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and describe their healing ministries. Some examples:

So the crowd marveled as they saw the mute speaking, the crippled restored, and the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:31)

Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other. (Matthew 12:13)

In the first passage in the gospel of Matthew which is describing the ministry of Jesus, the word is translated “restore” in relation to “the crippled.” Again, the English word “health” or “healthy” does not seem appropriate here, as healing a cripple is not something that can generally be done with medicine. Same in the second passage where a man with a “withered” hand is healed. To translate the verse as “it was restored to health” seems awkward to us, as we think of health as something being restored from an illness with medicine, or other remedies.  So it is translated as “normal,” i.e. the way it was before it became deformed.

In Acts 4:10 we do have the word translated “health” in one translation as Peter describes the healing of a man who was lame:

let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead–by this name this man stands here before you ingood health. (Acts 4:10 NASB)

But more modern English translations of the Bible choose to translate this verse slightly different:

then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. (Acts 4:10 NIV)

“Healed” seems more appropriate for our modern day English as it has a broader range of meaning that can exclude medicine or cures, such as setting a broken bone or putting a dislocated joint back in place.

There are other Greek words that were used in the Bible for “health” other than the one we started with in 3 John 1:2 (hygiaino), and if we were to study their usage we would also see that they were used and understood quite differently from our modern day word “health.”

The concept of health in the biblical documents did not have the narrow meaning that our culture gives it today, where it generally refers to physical health and the domain of medicine and doctors. It started with correct thinking about the truth and the way we think about God and Jesus. And like the story of the prodigal son who returned home to his father “safe and sound,” health was seen as having a right relationship to God through Jesus, by accepting Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sins, which allows us to be reborn spiritually and begin a relationship with God as his adopted child. We come home to God, just like the prodigal son did. This is where true health begins, and it cannot be purchased from drug companies or doctors. It is the realm of God, and he gives it to whomever he desires as a free gift.

Are you truly healthy today?

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Related articles:

Who is Responsible for Providing Healthcare?

Who do You Run to When You are Sick?

What is Your Attitude towards Sickness?

What is the Purpose of Your Sickness?

Full article here: http://created4health.org/devotionals/What_is_Health.htm

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