The fact that God is compassionate and merciful is good news for sinners. It’s why we don’t always get what we deserve.
And that compassion finds its fullest expression in the Person and work of Jesus Christ—God in human flesh. The incarnation itself was an expression of sympathy and identification with our weakness (Hebrews 4:15). In Christ we can see countless expressions of divine compassion translated into human displays that we easily understand and identify with—including sadness, sympathy, and tears of sorrow.
Though sinless Himself, Jesus suffered all the consequences of sin in infinite measure—and in so suffering, He identifies with the misery of all who feel the pains of human anguish. This was the whole reason God the Son became a man to begin with:
He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since he Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted. . . . For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 2:17–18; 4:15)
Those statements show that divine mercy extends far beyond empathy merely for our physical sufferings. Of course, the lovingkindness of God includes a heartfelt concern for our temporal, earthly, physical welfare—but it is infinitely more than that. Both the compassion of God and the earthly work of Christ must be seen ultimately as redemptive. In other words, our Lord’s tenderest mercies are concerned primarily with the salvation of our souls, not merely the suffering of our bodies.
Nevertheless, because illness, disability, pain, and all other forms of physical suffering are effects of the fall and fruits of the curse of sin, God’s sympathy for the human plight includes a special grace toward those who suffer physically. We see vivid evidence of that in the healing ministry of Jesus. Physical healing was not the central point of His earthly mission. He came, of course, “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10)—to provide redemption and eternal life for sinners. His one message was the gospel, beginning with a call to repentance (Matthew 4:17) and culminating in the promise of eternal rest for weary souls (11:29).
But along the way, He encountered multitudes of sick, lame, blind, and other physically suffering people. He healed “every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23; cf. 15:30-31), including congenital disabilities (John 9; Mark 7:32-35); chronic, medically hopeless cases (Luke 8:43-47); and cases of severe demon possession (Mark 5:1-16).
Those physical healings were vivid displays of both Jesus’ power and His compassion. They were proof of His deity and living demonstrations of His divine authority. They established His unlimited ability to liberate anyone and everyone from the bondage, the penalty, and the consequences of sin.
As such, the healing ministry of Jesus illustrates the gospel message, a true expression of divine compassion, and a definitive verification of His Messianic credentials. But physical healing was neither the central point of His message nor the main purpose of His coming. Again, He came to make propitiation for sin and to purchase redemption for sinners. And He did that by suffering in their place—dying for their sins.
The gospel, then, proclaims the way to forgiveness, redemption, a right standing with God, and the gift of eternal life. The gospel is not a guarantee that earthly suffering will be banished from our experience. It does not promise immediate or automatic healing from every physical affliction.
In fact, suffering itself can be a grace by which we are perfected—molded into the perfect likeness of Him who suffered in our place (1 Peter 1:14-17). “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29). And “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
That is why no televangelist or self-proclaimed faith healer today can really heal the way Christ and His disciples did. It is not that Christ has changed or that the power of God has somehow diminished. The problem is that the so-called faith-healers themselves have misconstrued the gospel.
The true meaning of the gospel is bound up in an accurate understanding of that famous prophecy in Isaiah 61:1, which Jesus read aloud in the synagogue in Luke 4:18:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18)
“The poor” whom he promised to bless are “the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). The “captives” to whom He proclaims liberty are “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Hebrews 2:15)—meaning those who are in bondage to sin (Romans 6:17). The “blind” who recover their sight are those who “turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins” (Acts 26:18). And the “oppressed” who are set at liberty are those who were formerly under the oppression of sin and Satan (Acts 10:38).
In other words, what the gospel announces is something that the physical healings merely symbolized; something more vital, more lasting, more momentous, and more real than temporary relief from the pains of earthly affliction. The gospel gives us the only true, abiding remedy for sin and all its guilt and repercussions.
Furthermore, because we gain so many eternal benefits from our earthly sufferings, the mercy that sustains us through our suffering is actually a greater mercy than if God simply erased every trace of hardship or difficulty from our lives. To put it plainly, instant healing would not be spiritually as valuable to us as the all-sufficient grace that cares for us in the midst of our suffering (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16–18)
Still, because we know God never changes, we can say with absolute certainty that His heart is full of compassion for those who suffer. Our lives and ministries should reflect that compassion as well—especially toward those who are burdened with physical agony in this life. We cannot proclaim the love of God faithfully if we neglect that duty.
(Some of the above material will be included in a book scheduled to be released by Ligonier Ministries in late 2016.)