Spiritual Gifts and the Sovereignty of God: Prophecy and Other Spiritual Gifts

Desiring God 1991 Conference for Pastors

Spiritual Gifts and the Sovereignty of God

I am going to take the liberty of talking almost entirely on other spiritual gifts than prophecy tonight. I plan to look at the gift of healing and praying for healing. I’ll skip over the material on speaking in tongues. I know we can talk about speaking in tongues all night and argue about it all night. I know there are useful things to come out of it, but I don’t think it’s the most helpful thing for us to talk about tonight, so I’m going to skip over that part.

Then I’ll go on and talk a little bit about ministry to people who have trouble with demonic kinds of attacks, and then talk a little bit about laying on of hands in the New Testament, and then try to tie it all together to say, “What do you do?” How do you do it when you’re going to pray for people? How does it work? I’ll just try to give some practical ways in which it seems to me we can increase our skill in praying for people in personal ministry. That’s what we want to do overall tonight.

I have felt a warm welcome here and I’ve enjoyed the interactions, the questions, the conversations, and the renewal of acquaintances from people who said, “Oh, you don’t look much different than you did 10 or 11 years ago.” It’s been good. So, thank you.

The Gift of Healings

Here are some brief notes on some other spiritual gifts. We’ll start with healing, especially prayer for physical healing. The source of this is Christ’s work of redemption. Matthew makes that explicit in Matthew 8:16–17, which says:

He cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”

Now the question is, when? When do we gain the complete freedom from infirmities and diseases that Jesus purchased for us? Well, in fullness, in perfection, of course that comes only at his coming, at his return. First Corinthians 15:23 says that Christ has been raised from the dead and he is the firstfruits. And then at his coming, those who belong to Christ receive resurrection bodies. So, I don’t expect to be free from aging and being subject to illness until Christ returns.

Yet there are times in which in this age God gives us a foretaste of that resurrection body, the new health that is ours, just as in many ways we have foretastes of the entire blessing of salvation that will be ours in the age to come. We have now some foretaste of that joy, some foretaste of that fellowship, some foretaste of the sanctification, some foretaste of the knowledge that will be ours, etc., so God, in the already and not yet of the kingdom of God, gives us the already sometimes — a foretaste of physical health that will be ours in the age to come.

When I pray for people for healing, I will often say, “Lord, you purchased perfect health for us, this back free from a ruptured disc, and I know it belongs to this brother. It’s going to be his someday. Will you, in your grace, grant him a foretaste of it now and bring healing to this disc?” Or whatever I’m praying for. So, that’s the basis.

Doctors and Medicine

Now, what about doctors in medicine? I certainly use them if available, because God works through them. I said to somebody this afternoon, I pray and take aspirin, because when God created the world, he looked at the material creation in Genesis 1:28 and saw that it was very good. Even after the fall, Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and all who dwell therein.” So I am not opposed to taking medicine for a disease, taking antibiotics if I have an infection, or wearing eyeglasses if I’m nearsighted. I think that’s from the Lord and it’s a gift, and he is to be thanked for that and for the skill that he has given to human beings to develop and use the resources of the earth.

In fact, I would go so far as to use Luke 4:12 to say that not using medicine when it is needed is forcing a test on the Lord. That is, to take an extreme case, if someone who is a diabetic, who requires regular injections of insulin, prays for healing or receives prayer for healing and then says, “Now in faith I’m going to throw away my insulin and I’m not going to take it anymore,” it seems to me that is forcing a test on God in a way that is inappropriate. It is parallel to what Satan tempted Jesus to do when he took him up onto the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the son of God, cast yourself down.”

Now, Jesus could’ve done that, but it would’ve been demanding that God do a miracle now, that he would land without damage miraculously, so that all the people would be amazed. Jesus refused to do that. And he quoted this verse from Deuteronomy in which he said, “You shall not force a test on the Lord your God.” You don’t put God in a situation where you say, “God, now you have to perform a miracle and I’m going to act in such a way that I will die if you don’t.”

Another example is the student who doesn’t study at all until the night before the exam and then says, “Now Lord, perform a miracle. Let me learn this calculus at the last minute.” It’s forcing a test on God. Now you know if you get in that situation, you can pray. I think it’s right to say, “Lord, I don’t have any claim on this. I throw myself on your mercy.” But it isn’t right to force that and make that a pattern of life. In the same way, I think if God gives medicine, fine. Pray for healing, but then if he gives the healing, then that should be confirmed by absence of symptoms; the cold goes away or whatever, or the doctor says by examination that it’s gone.

Examples of Medical Intervention and Reliance on God

I have some examples. They may not be the most exhaustive or persuasive. Second Kings talks about putting a cake of figs on the boil, so it could be recovery from the illness. And then 2 Chronicles talks about where Asa died and he is judged because he relied on doctors instead of the Lord. Now, that’s the opposite extreme and that’s the naturalistic assumption on which much of our world, and sadly many evangelicals, rely. You perhaps know the situation where people will not pray but go to doctor after doctor seeking naturalistic results apart from the Lord.

Now, the other thing that must be said is that Jesus can heal where doctors and medicine cannot. We see that in Luke 8:43–44, which says:

There was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased.

She could not be healed, but Jesus certainly can do it. There are cases, no doubt, where that happens. We prayed for a woman who had migraine headaches for two years and no medication would take them away. They were persistent and would come and would stay for a couple of weeks. A number of us went out to her home one evening and prayed, and just in the course of that prayer time, for 30 or 40 minutes, God brought relief from the headaches. That was a year and a half ago. They came back once for 15 minutes later that week and she rebuked it. It turned out there was a kind of demonic affliction that we rebuked and that left.

In the middle of the week, in the middle of the night, it also came back once for a few minutes. She rebuked it and prayed that the Lord would take it away and it’s gone. Since then, except for that one 15 minute period, there have been no migraine headaches. That’s not uncommon, I think, for people praying for healing today to see that Jesus heals where doctors and medicine cannot, and I certainly wanted to say that.

The Laying on of Hands

Now, in this process of praying for healing, outward symbols of the Holy Spirit’s work can be helpful, for example, the laying on of hands. Let’s look at Luke 4:40, because there’s something that you may have missed in here in this verse:

Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them.

Now, those are the multitudes. Jesus could have raised his hands over the multitude and said, “Father, heal them.” Or he could have pronounced with his voice of authority, “Be well,” or, “Be healed.” But he didn’t do that. He laid his hands on every one of them. Think how much time that must have taken, ministering individually to them.

But what was happening as Jesus came to each person and laid his hands on them was that there was a physical, perceptible, visible symbol, manifestation, or indication of the power of the Holy Spirit flowing through him as he prayed. I think when we are willing to do that, to say, “Can I pray for you now?” and then, “May I put my hand on your head, or on your shoulder” — with discretion and modesty and whatever is appropriate — we are saying in that, “I think God may do something right now, not just 10 days from now or a month from now. I believe that God is here now to touch you and to heal.”

Over the last year or two, I have begun praying more and more for people that way, asking permission first. Sometimes people are uncomfortable with that and I don’t want to force it. It isn’t necessary. But it’s remarkable how it increases my faith and I think it increases the level of faith in the person being prayed for. And God often blesses in that way.

I could say too, in connection with this verse while we’re on it, that Jesus apparently didn’t distinguish between those who believed in him as the Messiah and those who didn’t. He prayed for everyone who came to him and healed them. Everyone. My reflection on that has encouraged me to pray for non-Christians as well as Christians. I prayed for my neighbor across the street who had lung cancer. I visited him in the hospital and just said, “Joe, would you mind if I pray for you?” He was delighted. I just put my hand on his shoulder there in the hospital bed and prayed for him, and he had some sense of God’s presence.

Examples of Laying on Hands

Another neighbor had had eye surgery and there were some other medical problems, and we were at his house. We just stopped by one afternoon, Margaret and I. I said, “Ted, could I pray for you?” He said he would be really happy. Well, they were Greek Orthodox. I’m not sure if they’re believers or not. There are some indications of faith there and I’m thankful for that. But I said, “Well, I’m not going to touch your head,” because he had this big bandage on, “but could I put my hand near your head?” He said, “Oh sure, that’s all right.” So I put my hand on him and just asked that God would come and bring his healing power and bring restoration and also bring peace. There were some emotional needs and concerns and troubles that went along with it. I stopped praying and he said, “You know, when you prayed, I felt heat shoot through my body from my head to my foot.” I said, “That’s the Lord doing that. That’s God doing that.”

Just last month I was in the barbershop and there was a woman who works in the barbershop and cuts my hair. It’s called Fantastic Sams, and it’s the most economical barbershop that we can find. Julie, the woman who cuts my hair every time I go in, was there and she’s had a number of difficulties in her life. This time she was coughing and sneezing and she said, “Oh, I can’t get rid of this cold. I’ve had it for a couple of weeks and it won’t go away and it’s such a hassle.” I said, “Well, can I pray for you?” “Sure, that would be fine,” she said. People love that. I just sat there in the barber chair and I said, “Lord Jesus, would you touch Julie, touch her body now and take away that cold that she has that’s troubling her? Amen.” That’s it. I paid for the hair haircut and left.

Two weeks later my son Elliot, who is 16, walked into the barbershop. There are about eight chairs in that barbershop. He walked into the barbershop and as soon as he got in the door, the manager of the barbershop said, “Elliot, your dad prayed for Julie and her cold went away.” Well, I’ve been encouraged by Jesus’s procedure, to just say, “Can I pray for you?” People talk about power evangelism as if it were some dramatic confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal. It just seems to me to be such a quiet, gentle kind of care for people. And when you see a need, say, “Can I pray for that?” It’s just exercising a little bit of courage, a little bit of boldness, and a little bit of willingness to look funny, and God blesses it.

In fact, it’s been my experience that it seems that God is almost more willing to answer our very simple prayers when we pray for unbelievers, sometimes, than for believers. I’m not sure exactly why. I haven’t sorted all that out, but it has to do with his recognizing the difficulty of the situation we are in and giving blessing and grace in it. So there is the laying on of hands.

Touched by the Lord

This idea of laying on of hands was quite common in Jesus’s ministry. We see it in Luke 4:40, and if you take a concordance with the word “hand” and look it up, you’ll see a number of times where Jesus laid his hand on a blind man or laid his hand on a leper, etc., and he healed him. It wasn’t 100 percent of the time that Jesus did this, but often he did it. It was so often that it seemed to be the way that Jesus ordinarily was thought of in his healing ministry by other people. A revealing verse is Matthew 9:18, which says:

While he was saying these things to them, behold, a ruler came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”

You would expect, “Come and pray for her and she will live.” But rather he says, “Come and lay your hand on her and she will live.” He must have known that that was the way Jesus ordinarily did this. Similarly, Mark 5:23 says:

My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.

That’s the way Jesus was invited by people to come and pray. Mark 7:32 says:

And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

Matthew 19:13–15 is another kind of situation; not prayer for healing, but the impartation of blessing. Remember when people brought children to Jesus?

Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.

So there was prayer for the impartation of blessing, but I think much of the same thing happened when Jesus laid his hands on the children. They saw and felt the hands of Jesus coming on them, and they had an expectation that God was going to do something right then. And it was an increase in their faith and I think then they realized, when that blessing came, that it really was an answer to prayer, or was coming through the mediation of Jesus and who he was.

Following Christ’s Steps in the Ministry of Healing

Now, we could say that was unique to Jesus’s own ministry, because he was the Son of God. But in fact it was imitated by the disciples. They learned from Jesus apparently that this was how you prayed for people. And it happened in various ways. In Acts 6:6 we see the appointment of what I think are the first deacons:

These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

There’s the laying on of hands, I think to equip for service. In Acts 13:3, similarly it says of Barnabas and Saul:

Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

There it’s not for healing but again for imparting the power of the Holy Spirit. Acts 14:3 says:

So they (Paul and Barnabas) remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.

Now if you have the New International Version it does not say that. It says, “By them,” right? There’s about 10 times or so that the New International Version has decided you don’t need to know that hands were mentioned in the Greek text. John is laughing because he and I object to the fact that the NIV interprets a little too much at many verses.

If you have a Strong’s Concordance, an Englishman’s Greek Concordance, you can look up the word “hand” (cheir) and you’ll find all those references again and your NIV will be restored to life. Or you can get a New American Standard Concordance and a New American Standard Bible will be more literal and will put “hand” in there. So will the RSV. But there are a number of cases, both in Jesus and the apostles, where miracles were done by their hands, and the NIV just says, “Miracles were done by them.” They just omit the details. And yet it seems then that was characteristic of how these things were done.

Similarly, Acts 19:11 says:

And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul,

Does NIV have hands there? No? It’s by the hands of Paul. I think it indicates the method by which the Lord did those miracles. Other places are Acts 8:17–18, Acts 9:17, and Acts 19:6. They laid their hands on them and the Holy Spirit came in power on those people. And then a verse that’s not in this point of the outline but another example is Acts 28:8, where Paul prayed for the father of Publius, the chief man of the island. Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him, he healed him.

An Ordinary Method of Prayer

So this seems to have been such a common thing as we look at the Gospels and Acts. It seems it was the ordinary way in which people prayed to minister to one another for needs of one kind or another, for healing, for imparting the power of the Holy Spirit, for bringing blessing to people, etc. It seems like the ordinary way of praying. So much so that now I think Hebrews 6:2 makes sense.

It talks about “elementary doctrines” and says the laying on of hands is an elementary doctrine. You see, what I think was happening in the early church was people were becoming believers and they were saying, “Now, how do we pray for people?” And the people in the early church were saying, “Well, this is how you do it. If someone has a sore shoulder, you put your hand on the shoulder and pray for the shoulder. It’s an elementary doctrine. You learn it week one in Sunday school class. It’s how you minister to other people.” It’s kind of basic, and here it is. We’ve perhaps lost it, but I think we would do well to recover it. It will increase our faith, and I think overall God will bless it to increase our effectiveness in ministry.

Outward Symbols of the Holy Spirit’s Work

We’ve focused on outward symbols of the Holy Spirit’s work and how it can be helpful. We have the laying on of hands, and we also have anointing with oil. Though this is not as commonly mentioned, it is mentioned from time to time. Look at the passage Mark 6:13 first. It says:

And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.

Again, there is not only laying on of hands, but there’s an anointing with oil. If you trace this idea of anointing with oil back into the Old Testament, it’s used again as a symbol of the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon people. David is anointed with oil as king, for example. And here the oil is used, I think as well, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s power. So James encourages elders to do this; to pray, anointing people with oil and the prayer of faith will save the sick man (James 5:14–15).

I don’t think that either of these things are commanded in every case and that they always have to be done. We see healings where Jesus didn’t do either, for example. I understand that. But nonetheless, there is an encouragement that these things are part of the frequent or perhaps customary practice of the early church, and it perhaps would be wise for us to do that and to imitate those procedures in one or the other or both ways.

The Sovereignty of God

Certainly God is sovereign. He works all things according to the counsel of his will. He is sovereign. Yet it is right to ask God for healing. Though I’m a Calvinist, I’m not a fatalist. I believe that my prayers have real results. You do not have because you do not ask (James 4:2). I believe, as I think John Calvin would agree, that God works through secondary causes, and he has ordained his relationship to the world in such a way that our actions have real results. Our voluntary choices, our willing choices, have real consequences. They have eternal consequences. Our prayers bring real responses from God. And our actions thereby are not inconsequential, they are the way in which God ordinarily works.

So in healing it isn’t enough to say, “God is sovereign. He’ll do whatever he wants.” It is also appropriate to pray and ask God to heal, just as in evangelism. It isn’t appropriate to say, “God is sovereign. He’ll save whom he wants.” I want to say God is sovereign and he has called us to preach the gospel. And when we preach and pray for blessing, he will save whom he wills. In healing very much the same thing happens. And in both cases, any real result has to come from the Lord, doesn’t it? It comes from his willingness to answer. So, it is yet right to ask God for healing.

In Matthew 6:13, Jesus encourages us to pray. There are a couple of places in the Lord’s Prayer we have indications here. First, he says to pray, “Thy kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10). I had a situation with a friend who was active in a speaking kind of ministry and he had a back problem that was very difficult and it was making it painful for him to walk, painful for him to carry anything. It had been going on for a while. And I asked, “Could I pray for you for that?” “Sure, I’d be happy,” he said. We talked about it a little bit first and I said, “Well, it seems to me that this back problem is really hindering your ministry.” He said, “Yes, it is.” And I said, “It seems to me also therefore that it’s really not what the Lord wants in your life.” He said, “Yeah, I agree.” I prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When I see something that is really hindering ministry, tearing it down, obstructing it, something in me says, “This isn’t from the Lord. It’s not what he wants,” and it is appropriate to pray against it. And I have a sense that it is God’s will in those cases that the person be healed. So I said, “Well let’s pray and ask God to take it away.” So we did. I said, “Can you stand up and can I put my hand on your back where it is?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Can you tell me what it is specifically I’m praying for?” He said, “Well, this certain disc is pressing against a nerve.” So very specifically I prayed and said, “Lord, would You cause the swelling in that disc to go down so the pressure would be released on that nerve?” And then I just waited for a minute or two. And I said, “Well, now do you feel anything?” He said, “I don’t feel anything.” I said, “Is it hurting?” He said, “No, it doesn’t seem to hurt.” I said, “Well, do you want to try walking?” And he walked across the room. He said, “It seems to be better. I’m good. Praise God.”

Now in those cases I say, “Well, is it 50 percent better? 100 percent better?” In that instance he said, “Well, it’s at least 70 or 80 percent better.” I said, “All right, good. Thank God for that. Let’s pray once more.” So I prayed again and then it was gone, and it doesn’t seem to have been a problem since.

Answers to Prayer

Now, I’m telling you only success stories. It’s sort of like a couple of hours after the Super Bowl when you get the highlights. You get all the touchdown passes and all the completed passes, and you don’t see any of the fumbles or the misses and things. So let me say right here, I didn’t bring an agenda of failures that I was going to tell you about, but there have been a number.

I remember I was praying for a friend who had a back problem recently, and it sort of half went away and he is able to walk, but it wasn’t gone. And we’ve prayed for a number of other cases where people have not been healed. And I did mention another one this morning, didn’t I? There was a woman whose back problem Margaret and I prayed for and it wasn’t healed. I don’t mean to imply by that any kind of 100 percent success rate in praying for people, but I do want to say that over the last couple of years since I’ve been praying in a more active way for physical healing and emotional healing, Margaret and I both, and many other people in our church have seen more immediate answers to prayer than in all of our previous 40 years before that combined.

So it does seem to me that there is something to be said for, number one, looking at Scriptures and seeing that God does do this today; number two, praying in a way that seems to be imitating the model of prayer that we see in Scripture; and number three, continuing to ask people honestly what is happening and get feedback from them as you pray. We have an expectation that yes, God is going to do something. And it seems to me that where we’ve had the opportunity to pray for people, more often than not there will be some perceptible result. Now, sometimes it won’t be the physical thing that is taken away. Sometimes nothing happens. That’s true. And we just go on. We pray again for another thing or something else. Sometimes a person comes down with a cold and it turns out that there’s a financial need, or divorce situation, or problem with a child and that’s the real problem, and then that deeper need is prayed for and there’s sometimes a blessing and result there.

But in all cases when we pray, I’m hesitating to say God will always heal, because I know he doesn’t do that. Quite honestly I haven’t quite formulated how I want to phrase the idea that God is willing to heal, because there are various senses of God’s will. But I do want to encourage us and say, I am sure it is right to pray and ask God for healing. So that’s where I am at this point.

The Prayer of Faith

If you continue on in Matthew 6:13, it says:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

You can translate that as “evil” or “the evil one.” It’s either “evil” or “the evil one” and his results. In either case it seems again that Jesus is giving us a model to say if there is evil in the world, then we should pray that God would deliver us from it. He will not always do so, but it’s right to pray that he will. In Luke 4:40 again we see Jesus healed all who came to him. In 3 John 2, he says, “I pray that you may be in health.”

Now when we pray, sometimes God will give faith and assurance that he will heal. Sometimes welling up within us we’ll get a greater confidence that we’re able to pray with a greater boldness and even thank the Lord that we sense that he is bringing healing. James 5:15 talks about the prayer of faith. My understanding of that — which I first heard from Carl Lundquist in Bethel College Chapel, and also now Doug Moo in the Tyndale Commentary takes this view of James 5:15 — is that the prayer of faith is not every single prayer, but it’s a prayer where God gives special faith to believe that there will be healing in those cases. Now, that will happen from time to time. Even when we don’t have that special strong kind of faith, often God will heal and we can thank him for it.

Note that God’s attitude is seen in the life of Jesus. Jesus didn’t turn away anyone. Jesus didn’t say to anyone — at least it’s not recorded in the Gospels — “Well, I know that you have leprosy, but go away and God wants you to keep your leprosy and learn spiritual lessons from it.” Jesus didn’t do that. I mean, that isn’t Jesus. He healed all who came to him with any kind of disease. So I think that the attitude of God toward healing is one of compassion for our needs and our diseases, and we should see a great deal of God’s attitude revealed in the life of Jesus.

If God Doesn’t Heal

Now, what if God doesn’t heal? Sometimes God will not give such assurance and will not heal. But Romans 8:28 is still true:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

If we ask him for healing and he does not give the healing, then it is right for us to say, “Lord, I trust that you will bring good out of this and you will teach me from it.” We have passages that talk about that. We have 2 Corinthians 12:7–10, which speaks of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. I just wrote a mini commentary, a little set of notes for a Study Bible on 2 Corinthians. I did a little work on that passage, on Paul’s thorn in the flesh. I haven’t exhausted the passage exegetically, but my conclusion was that I agreed with Philip Hughes and the majority of commentaries on 2 Corinthians. We just do not know what the thorn in the flesh was. It could have been demonic harassment, it could have been persecution of Jewish opponents, it could have been physical ailment, and there are arguments that can be made for them all. But Philip Hughes says it’s probably just as well that we can’t pin it down to any one of those, because we can then take comfort when we find ourselves in any of those situations. Whatever it was, I’m not sure, but there God gave power in weakness.

Margaret and I had a situation over December like this. It was the whole month of December, about five weeks. She had a bronchial congestion and a sinus congestion and a cough, and it just would not go away. And we prayed for it. I prayed for it, the kids prayed, people in our church prayed, our pastor prayed, and the governing council of our church and the wives prayed. And we have a Christian doctor who gave her all sorts of medicine and he prayed, and it just wouldn’t go away. So we just had to rest in that. God has finally taken it away, but we had to rest and say, “Lord, we believe that you will bring good out of this and we wait for you to take care of it in your time.”

Now I just got a call yesterday, last night when we got back to the hotel, that the mother of an acquaintance whom we had prayed for died yesterday. I just remember sitting in our friend’s car and praying for her mother just a few days ago. She had a case of terminal cancer and God did not heal. Now, that is going to happen, isn’t it? And it is right to pray for healing. But when that happens, then we still say Romans 8:28 is true and God works all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

A Little Wine for Your Stomach

We see in 1 Timothy 5:23 that Paul says, “Take a little wine for your stomach’s sake and for your frequent ailments.” That’s Timothy. We see 2 Timothy 4:20, which says, “Trophimus I left at Miletus because he was ill.” Did Paul pray for him? I imagine he did. Was he healed? No. It happened. Psalm 119 has these verses that say:

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word (Psalm 119:67).

And it says:

It is good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn your statutes (Psalm 119:71).

Romans 8:23 says that our situation in this present age is that we groan and travail, waiting for the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:17 says this happens “provided that we suffer with Christ in order that we may be glorified with him.” And 2 Corinthians 4:16 says:

Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.

It is not God’s way for any of us at this time to have perfect resurrection bodies. Our outer nature is wasting away, though our inner nature is being renewed day by day. Margaret reminds me of that every once in a while, that my outer nature is wasting away and I’m aging. And that happens to all of you, right? We realize that and God doesn’t undo this in this present age. First Peter 4:19 talks about those who suffer “according to God’s will.” So I want to say that while saying nonetheless that God much more frequently will heal if we will ask him and seek him for it.

You Will Receive Power

Not that miracle working power is characteristic of the New Testament church. Now, a change in my understanding of Acts 1:8 occurred about a year ago when I got out a concordance and looked up the word power. Acts 1:8 says:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

I had thought that just meant power in proclamation of the gospel so that people would believe. But when I got a concordance and looked, nine other times in the book of Acts that word “power” (dunamis) occurs, and eight of those nine times it refers to miracle-working power. It’s healing or miracles, whatever. And one time it’s ambiguous. You can’t tell.

If you look back in Luke’s Gospel, it’s an even larger number than that, the number of times where dunamis means miracle-working power. So I think what Jesus is saying in Acts 1:8 is, “You’ll receive miraculous power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth.” If you trace what happened in the Book of Acts, it’s full of what we would call miracles, where people are healed and demons are cast out. Even the dead are raised. There is incredible power.

Now, I don’t want to exclude the powerful proclamation of the gospel from the compass of that word, but I want to say that it certainly also includes (and perhaps the primary focus is) miracle-working power. Note Luke 4:14. It says that Jesus came in the power of the Holy Spirit. As Don rightly said this morning, that passage in Luke 4 is the introduction to succeeding passages where we see what happens in the power of the Holy Spirit where Jesus has power over demons, power to heal, and power to heal a woman who touched him, etc.

A Ministry Infused with Power

Paul’s gospel came not only in words, but in words and power. In Romans 15:18–19, Paul characterizes his ministry in this way. He says:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience — by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God — so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ . . .

Now, John Murray says in his commentary on Romans that Paul’s ministry was a miracle-working ministry. It was characterized by works of miracles. And here’s a verse that describes not only what happened in one or two cases, but the general course of Paul’s ministry. It was working by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the power of signs and wonders. So in 1 Corinthians 2:4–5, he says:

My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

In 1 Corinthians 4:19–20, he talks about that power in church discipline:

But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.

Apparently Paul realized that where there were people stubbornly promoting heresies in the church at Corinth, he could walk on the scene and have a kind of power encounter where he would stand face to face with them and in some way God would bring judgment on the wrongdoers when they were persisting in their wrongdoing. He said, “I’ll come and I’ll find out not the talk of these people, but their power.” I don’t know what form that discipline would’ve taken, but I can tell you I would not have wanted to be one of those persons standing on the opposite side from Paul when he came for a power encounter to see who was preaching the truth of the gospel.

There was power in that way and power in church discipline:

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 5:4–5).

In 2 Corinthians 6:7, we have Paul saying:

By truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left . . .

There are other passages here talking about the power of God. We see Hebrews 2:4, where it says:

God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Perceptions of the Holy Spirit’s Activity

Now, I’m not going to go into all of those passages, but can we know when that power is present from time to time? What about perceptions or sensations indicating the Holy Spirit’s power? Well, there are a few hints. Luke 8:46 says that Jesus felt power go out of him. He knew that something had happened. In Acts 8:29, it says that the Holy Spirit spoke to Philip and Philip had some indication of that. First Corinthians 12:10 talks about the ability to distinguish between spirits. Acts 10:44–45 talks about the fact that the Holy Spirit fell on the hearers and apparently people knew that. In Acts 14:9, interestingly, Paul saw that the man in Lystra had faith to be made well. He saw some indication of faith in that person. There are other passages in the Old Testament that I haven’t listed. Others have made lists of these.

Now what happens? What do I say to my neighbor when he says, “When you prayed for me, I felt heat go through my body from head to toe.” I say, “I think that’s the power of God that’s touching you. It shows that he is present.” What do I say when I reach out my hand to pray for someone and I feel a tingling in my hand. I don’t quite understand it. I have the other hand and it’s not tingling at all. And then I shift it and then the tingling starts somewhere else. Well, it seems to me to be some kind of indication of the Holy Spirit’s power. Not everybody feels that. Some people report feeling a heat or a trembling.

It has been the influence of John Wimber saying in his writings, in power evangelism, power healing, that this can indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit. Then I started thinking, “You know, I’ve had that happen many times.” I remember freshman year in college, which was 1967 or 1967, sitting in an inter-varsity prayer meeting, and feeling my hands tingling during a prayer time and saying, “I think somebody here needs prayer for something.” And then someone across the room said, “Yes, and this is a situation in my life.” And we prayed with effectiveness there. It’s an indication of the Holy Spirit’s power.

Time and again now as we’ve prayed for people this happens. It happened just this afternoon. We’re praying for someone here in the room and I said to this person afterward, “Did you feel something while we were praying?” Because I could see that on this person there was some indication that God was working. And she said, “Yeah, it was kind of a rush of a sense of God’s presence. Physically, I could feel it over me.”

Physical Manifestations

Well, what do we do with that? I understand it to be the gracious working of the Holy Spirit to help us notice when he is working, and to encourage us then when that happens to pray more directly in that way. You see, in the Old Testament, God showed his presence with the Shekinah glory, right? The bright cloud of the glory of God’s presence filled the tabernacle, and later it filled the temple. In the Gospels, God showed his presence in the visible, physical presence of Jesus in the flesh. But what about in the church age? How does God show his presence? By the power of the Holy Spirit at work from place to place, from time to time.

Sometimes there will be physical manifestations of the Holy Spirit that we can sense or we can feel. Sometimes it’ll result in praise and worship, and sometimes it will result in weeping and repentance. I’ve seen it result in people quietly trembling with a sense of the presence of God. And maybe many of you have, from time to time in prayer or in worship, felt something like that. It can vary from person to person. But it’s something that indicates to you or in you a sense of the presence of God. It seems to me that those are not inappropriate and Scripture does from time to time talk about those kinds of things.

There are other verses than that. Paul, when he was at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him (Acts 17:16). Or he says, “My spirit did not find rest when I did not find my brother Titus there” (2 Corinthians 2:13). And Romans “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16). There are indications of passages where the Holy Spirit will manifest his presence.

Practical Matters

In practical matters, we can learn from those with experience and God’s blessing in the past. If you want to know how to preach, go sit under a good preacher, listen to him for a while, then try preaching while he listens. Let him critique you and then go out on your own. Do you want to know how to do evangelism? Just spend a week with John Nyquist who teaches evangelism at Trinity Seminary. Walk with him from door to door through a college campus and listen to him as he approaches people. And then go ahead and try sharing the gospel with people yourself while he’s with you and he’s coaching you. Then go off on your own and do it. Isn’t that true?

In practical ways we can learn so much from people who have experience and by trial and error have found what is effective preaching and what isn’t, and what is effective evangelism and what isn’t. We don’t violate the principles of Scripture. We go from the principles of Scripture and the teachings of Scripture. We glean as much from Scripture as we can, but nowhere in Scripture does it say you have to have three points with alliteration in your sermon, maybe for good reason. But at least in some kinds of sermon delivery that’s found to be effective. So we use that kind of experience.

Don’t think of evangelism and preaching as simply natural activities. We require the blessing of the Holy Spirit for success in those too, don’t we? It’s not only in evangelism and preaching, but why not also in prayer for healing, or in prophecy, or in casting out demons? Why not be able to learn from those who, through trial and error, through praying for 200, 400, 500 people, have learned ways that are effective? I don’t think that’s trying to manipulate God. It’s simply saying that, in practical matters, God hasn’t told us every detail of what is effective. And perhaps that could vary from culture to culture and time to time, to some degree. We follow what we can in Scripture and then I think there are things we can learn with experience and God’s blessing in the past.

How to Pray for People

It is not only true of the Vineyard, but it is true of something that I think John Wimber and the Vineyard are giving to the evangelical church generally. There is a way of praying for healing that many, many people are finding very helpful and that John Wimber, through trial and error, has found very helpful. And you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to, but I just want to tell you about it. All right?

It’s this. First, you ask what the person wants to have prayer for. Wimber calls this “the interview.” You just get a little information. You ask, “What’s the problem?” They say, “Well, it’s a sinus infection.” You ask, “Well, when did it start?” They might say, “Well, it started three weeks ago.” You can ask, “What were you doing then?” You just get a little bit of information, because sometimes it’ll happen where someone says, “Well, I got in an argument with my husband. We haven’t spoken to each other since.” You can be surprised how often that comes out. You say, “All right. Can we pray about the situation with your husband? And pray about the sinus infection as well,” or whatever. So you ask. That’s number one. Ask what the person wants prayer for and just get a little information, enough so you know how to pray intelligently. Don’t counsel people. You can counsel people some other time, but in prayer time don’t try to give advice and counsel, just get information.

Second, ask the Lord for wisdom in how to pray. You just do that silently. Say, “Lord, now please help me to know how to pray for this person.” Or you can do it out loud. You may just say, “Lord, now will you please help us to know how to pray?” And then third, pray. So I might just say, “Lord, John has a sinus infection. It’s been going on for three weeks, and would you please take it away?” I would say, “Could I put my hand there?”

Fourth, ask for feedback. I’ll just say, “John, is anything happening? Are you feeling anything? Or is God bringing anything to mind?” Maybe he’ll say, “Oh, I feel this burning sensation all through my sinuses.” I’ll say, “Great, let’s keep on praying. Lord, will you keep on doing that and healing him?” Or he might say, “I’m not feeling anything.” I might say, “All right, that’s fine. Just be honest, because you know best of all what’s happening and I need you to be honest.” Or it might be that the person says, “The Lord is bringing to mind that I really wasn’t honest with my boss a week ago. I lied to him about something. I told him I had a project done that wasn’t done.” Now we’ve gotten to a root problem. And then you can say, “Well, can we deal with that? You need to confess that. Confess it to the Lord, and ask his forgiveness.” So you deal with it. You never quite know where the situation is going to go. It’s kind of exciting in that way.

Interactive Prayer

You men with years of pastoral experience will know where to go. You’ll know how to deal with those things, when a sin comes up, a broken relationship comes up, or a sadness that hasn’t been healed comes up. You’ll know how to pray for those things. You’ve been doing that for years. But don’t make it a long prayer. Just pray briefly. Ask the Lord again for more help. And we go back and do the same thing. You pray, “Lord, will you deal with this thing,” and whatever has come up, say, “Is anything happening?” They might say, “No, I think it’s done.” And then you’re just asking for feedback.

While you’re doing that — and this is kind of a hard thing to get used to maybe — keep your eyes open and watch the person. You could just say to him, “I’m going to be talking to God, but I’m just going to be watching, because sometimes the Lord will show me things as I’m praying. So I’m just watching.” And as I’m watching, if I see John begin to get very red in the face or begin to weep or something, I say, “John, what’s happening?” And then we go from there. I call this “interactive prayer.” I’m asking the Lord and then I’m talking to John in the presence of the Lord and saying, “John, what’s happening?”

It’s amazing, as we do that, how often God will be so gracious and will help us know what to pray for and what direction to follow in our prayer. It is really effective in ministry. It’s come to the point where in the last year and a half, what do Margaret and I enjoy doing more than anything? We enjoy having people come over to our house and we pray for them. It’s just so fun, because you see God working and it’s so exciting. Lives are changed and people are healed. It’s great. I don’t know if I can convey that to you, but it’s so exciting. It’s God at work now, and we just let him work.

Practices for Follow Up

Then here are some follow up directions, some follow up of what to do. You will know according to the situation. If there’s restitution that needs to be made, if there’s asking forgiveness from someone that needs to be done, you give direction on that. If there’s Scripture that comes to mind, write them down and ask the person to read them, meditate on them, and pray about them later. Encourage the person and say, “Look now, God has done something here and we should thank him for it. But you should know that it could be that the enemy is going to try to take this away. He’s going to try to attack you, discourage you, or whatever. So you need to keep praying, keep turning it over to the Lord and trusting him.” Say some things like that, and then we let it go.

In that feedback time, again, we ask, “Well, how do you know? Is it better? Is it 50 percent better, 100 percent better?” Just ask people to be honest. I think we can learn from those with experience and God’s blessing in the past. If healing does come, then our belief in God’s sovereignty requires that we give praise to him and not search for ways to minimize or deny what has happened.

There are Christians who go around trying to investigate every instance of someone who has claimed healing and will put great effort in trying to figure out some psychosomatic cause, thinking, “You really weren’t sick. You just imagined it. And maybe there’s some medical thing that happened.” Calvin would say, “The eye of faith will see the hand of God at work here.” Wouldn’t he say that? Don’t you hear Calvin again and again in Institutes talking about “the eye of faith” seeing God’s hand at work in the good events that happen? Our belief in his sovereignty requires that we thank him for those things that happen and not minimize or deny what has happened.

is research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary and author of Systematic Theology. He co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and served as the general editor of the ESV Study Bible.