The Sickness Substituting Savior

Sin and misery are the two categories by which we can frame everything that plagues us in our daily experiences as fallen image bearers. By one act of disobedience, Adam brought all of us “into an estate of sin and misery” (WSC 17). Additionally, these two categories help us to better understand the saving work of Jesus, the last Adam, who came into the world to bear the sin and remove the misery brought into the world by the first Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; 42-49). Of course, the death of Jesus is first and foremost a substitutionary sacrifice to atone for the sin of his people. This is foundational to the message of Christianity. However, what many of us do not understand as well is the way in which Jesus’ sufferings and subsequent glories effect the removal of all of the miseries of the believer’s life.

When the members of the Westminster Assembly came to define the state of misery, they did so in the following way: “All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever” (WSC 19). Believers understand that Jesus restores lost communion with God, removes his wrath and conquers death and hell by his own life, death and resurrection. However, many still struggle to understand how Jesus’ death and resurrection relates to “all miseries in this life”–especially regarding sickness and disease. After all, the godliest saints still get sick, have hardships, trials, difficulties, tribulation, persecution, needs and disappointments.

One of the reasons why the health-wealth-prosperity movement–though an exceedingly erroneous theology–has gained so much traction is that it seeks to answer to the question about the relation between Christ’s saving work and the miseries of this life. The prosperity Gospel tells believers that if they just have enough faith they will have material and physical blessing in the here and now. The appeal to such teaching is bolstered by appeals to the fact that everyone who came to Jesus for healing in the Gospel records received the healing for which they came. The reality, however, is that each and every person who came to Christ for healing during his earthly ministry would die again. The miraculous healing they experienced were complete healings, but weren’t permanent healings. Additionally, it is not the case that everyone in the rest of the New Testament who cried out to Jesus for healing received that healing. In fact, the Apostle Paul pleaded with the Lord Jesus to heal him three times and was denied that healing. Rather, Jesus told him, “My grace is sufficient for you; My power is made perfect in weakness.” No one would dare say that he didn’t have enough faith. It was God’s purpose to keep the Apostle Paul humble through the affliction (2 Cor. 12:7-9).

So how are we meant to understand the healings in the Gospel records? They were Messianic markers, pointing beyond themselves to the Savior–testifying to who he was. They were also signs of the misery of this life, brought into the world on account of Adam’s sin. They point beyond themselves to the Savior who brings salvation from sin. Additionally, they are foretastes of the consummation, when, in the resurrection, believers will undergo the complete healing for which they long when they are transformed into the glorious image of the Son of God. In his outstanding work The Coming of the Kingdom, Herman Ridderbos first noted the eschatological-sign nature of the healing miracles of Jesus when he wrote:

“Jesus’ miracles have an eschatological character as messianic deeds of salvation. This follows from the connection that the gospel points out between the activity of the devil and the diseases, maladies, and disasters that threaten man. It also appears from the fact that the cure of diseased persons, the raising of the dead, etc., are to be considered as the renewal and the re-creation of all things, manifesting the coming of the kingdom of heaven. These miracles, however, are only incidental and are therefore not to be looked upon as a beginning from which the whole will gradually develop, but as signs of the coming kingdom of God.”1

Ridderbos then explained how Jesus’ miracles of healing were tied to his death on the cross:

“Especially noteworthy is the agreement between Jesus’ via dolorosa and the prophecy of the suffering Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53. Even before this suffering started, this agreement became visible…It is important that in Matthew 8:16-17 Jesus’ manifold cures are called the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53:4: “He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Here we find the thought that in His messianic work, Jesus takes over the burden of disease and suffering from men. It is true that in this passage Jesus does not appear as the one who takes this burden on Himself in His suffering (as does the Servant of the LORD in Isaiah 53:4). But the thought of such a transfer is clearly present and is explained in the light of the prophecy of Isaiah 53:2.”2

In short, Jesus took the burden of the miseries of his people on himself in his sufferings. There is a great exchange that occurs between Jesus and those he healed during his ministry. Jesus was blindfolded for the blind, paralyzed for the paralytic, poured out his blood for those with an unstoppable flow of blood, became silent for the deaf, had the powers of evil unleashed on himself for the possessed and raised himself from the dead in order to raise the dead. Jesus became unclean for the unclean. Jesus substituted himself for those for whom he had come into the world to save. In order to give them the hope of eschatological restoration and life, Jesus had to take all of our sin and our sickness on himself in his sufferings.

Our confidence in Christ is not in the assurance that he will heal all of our sickness and disease in the here and now. Though God does often heal his people who cry out to him for healing in the here and now, he has secured permanent healing of all our diseases for the day of resurrection. In Christ, God “forgives all our iniquities and heals all our diseases” (Psalm 103:3)–but, we will not experience the full realization of the substitution of Christ until the resurrection. There is day coming for believers when “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

 

1. Herman Ridderbos The Coming of the Kingdom (Ontario: Paidei Press, 1978) p. 115

2. Ibid., p. 165

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