God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11-12)
Many charismatic groups send out cloths for healing. What do you think about it? Is it biblical? Could a church do it or is it unnecessary?
God heals through various methods. I am not drawn to this one because I avoid using objects and substances in ministry as much as possible. Considered in itself, of course it is biblical, and there might be practical reasons for it even when one does not prefer it. The problem is usually not the method, but whether it is used as a gimmick and whether it is used to raise money. Presumably, Paul used this method to deliver God’s healing power to people that he was unable to reach. When God’s power is in tangible manifestation, it could conduct through the body as well as fabric. There was enough power stored in Elisha’s bones that a dead man was revived when his corpse touched them. Jesus could feel power going out of him to heal the woman who had a bleeding condition when she touched his clothes. If something similar is happening here, it indicates that this power is also stored in fabric.
There are several modes by which God’s power can work through men. The “gifts of the Spirit” is only one of them. Although Christians often use the “gifts” language to teach and debate the entire subject, the Bible almost never refers to God’s power working through men as “gifts” — only a few times out of hundreds of instances. The “tangible anointing,” as the charismatics sometimes call it, is actually a different mode. The Bible represents this with a number of phrases, but we will use the charismatic term for the sake of convenience. The two sometimes overlap, but they are distinguishable. Even within the gifts of the Spirit, there are the gift of healing and the gift of faith, but the gift of faith can also heal. Thus even when we are talking about the gifts of the Spirit, there are different ways of doing the same things. Then there is the faith of the Christian that is not the gift of faith. It is a “gift” in the sense that it comes from God, and not manufactured by the man, but it is not the gift of faith that comes under “the manifestations of the Spirit.” This is the Christian’s ordinary and permanent faith. This kind of faith is the mode that operates most closely with the word of God, since that is the only thing it looks at. This is the mode of operation that is the most independent from feeling and environment.
Faith also enhances how one works with the gifts of the Spirit and the tangible anointing. Elisha was a strong prophet, but when the three kings consulted him about their battle with Moab, he was annoyed due to the presence of ungodly men. So he asked a musician to play, and while he played, the hand of the Lord came upon him, and he prophesied. Some Christians need to produce a pleasant environment whenever they operate in healing and prophecy. They use music, lighting, isolation before the meeting, and audience support during the meeting, in order to strengthen the manifestation of God’s power or to cooperate better with it. Those who are ignorant of spiritual things often think that this is mysticism, or part of a scam. But it is biblical, and dismissing something like this when it is clearly biblical is tantamount to dismissing the Spirit due to prejudice. If our theology cannot accommodate all of Scripture, then we must revise our theology. That said, if we operate by faith, it is almost never necessary to adjust the surrounding elements. Jesus healed the sick in hot, noisy, and uncomfortable environments, among hostile people. He did not need music to heal the sick. He did not need air-conditioning to prophesy. When we realize that he was also the most extreme faith teacher, the matter becomes clear. Faith enhances all the operations of God.
When the gifts of the Spirit come into play, I usually let them do what they want while I do my own thing by faith, unless they happen to demand my involvement. This is more likely with prophetic gifts, such as when I need to point someone out from the audience or say something specific to the person in front of me. When other gifts come into operation while I minister to the sick, like the gift of healing or the working of miracles, I would proceed as normal if possible. They would strengthen what I am already doing, and the people often can’t tell the difference, because what the gifts of the Spirit do, I have been doing by faith alone, so that they witness the same results either way. Sometimes the gifts disrupt the normal process, and I would adapt accordingly. When the tangible anointing is present, I almost never mention it to the people. I could be talking about healing and the power begins to burn my hands, but I would just ignore it. I would lay hands on the sick either way. Sometimes the power is especially strong. Even though Jesus was always ready to heal, in one place the Gospel makes a point of saying, “And the power of the Lord was present to heal them.” It would just be something added on top of what I am doing. I would operate by faith with or without it.
Some people suggest that we should always talk about the tangible presence of God’s power to honor his work and to increase expectation. I understand this perspective, and it is fine to talk about it. Indeed, when it comes to things like these, whatever you talk about tends to become stronger. However, I would always prefer to draw people’s attention to the word of God. If we fail to focus on faith, then the people might become increasingly impressed with the tangible manifestations such that they would keep waiting for them when they can just take God at his word at any moment. They might also think that the more spectacular works are done only when these manifestations are present, but this is not true. God answers faith, and he performs the most spectacular works; therefore, faith performs the most spectacular works. If it is something that God is doing, then it is not wrong to acknowledge it, but we must focus on his word.
The tangible power indeed affects what I do when it moves in a way that demands my attention. Jesus felt the power go out of him when the woman touched his clothes, and so he stopped to ask about it. If I am preaching and I sense this power reaching out to a certain person, I might pause and point it out. It depends on several factors as to whether or not I say anything. Sometimes God is doing his own thing and I will hear about it later. Or, if I am talking to a person on stage and I sense the power entering a certain area of his body, I would realize that he has a sickness in that area that God is healing. I can say, “You are healed. What was wrong with you?” or “God is healing your back right now. What was wrong with it?” Again, this could coincide with the gifts of the Spirit, but it is not the same thing. Knowing something this way is not the same as prophecy. There is usually no specific information with the tangible anointing. Jesus did not know who touched his clothes or what condition was healed. Prophecy can potentially locate the person, name the condition, describe the circumstances surrounding the sickness or injury, and a combination of various items.
The tangible anointing could direct the timing of ministry. I am always ready to move by faith, because the word of God is always the same, but if I sense that I am supposed to wait, then I might keep talking to the person or the audience, going on and on, and not praying for the person or laying hands on him. Then suddenly the power moves, and I move with it. Sometimes you see a preacher doing this during healing and prophetic ministry. He seems to talk more than he needs to before he lays hands on each person. This could be the reason, but I suspect many of them do not realize why they are doing this. They are doing it instinctively. Then sometimes the power runs down the line so fast you have to run to keep up.
The power can also come when a minister is preaching or teaching. The Bible often mentions how the hand of the Lord comes upon a person as he speaks. How it affects this kind of ministry is another subject. But it does not fall exactly under the gifts of the Spirit. To relate this to healing, when Jesus was teaching, demons were sometimes forced to cry out, so that they exposed themselves and were cast out. Sometimes people stationed close to me are healed as I preach, or when they come close after I preached, but this does not happen while we are, say, just eating or shopping. The power comes with the exercise of a gift or ministry. The same effect, like healing, can be delivered by different ministries. Sometimes we find that a person has little success when he lays hands on the sick, but he obtains consistent results when he delivers healing in the form of prophecies. Someone like this probably has a strong gift of prophecy, and covers all kinds of topics, and healing is only one of them. He might not even have a gift of healing. One may have a strong healing ministry, but people receive healing only when he prays for them, not when he is preaching to them. In fact, he might make a mess of teaching on healing. This is probably because he has no ministry for doctrine or for teaching. Someone like this should not be the head of a ministry, but he should submit under a pastor or teacher. Many defective ministries have been formed because they are founded by people who think they can lead a major work just because they have certain gifts like healing and prophecy. Sometimes they confuse the ministry of exhortation with the ministry of preaching or teaching. Any believer should be competent in teaching simple truths, so gift or no gift, there is no excuse, but you do need a doctrinal gift or ministry to lead a Christian work. Use your strengths to deliver Christ to people, while continue to develop other areas.
You can see how important it is to understand that there are different modes of operation, and how ignorant it is to focus only on the gifts of the Spirit when discussing whether God still performs miracles through men. When it comes to the ministry of healing, there is a reason that makes this understanding essential. Some Christians assume that the only way God performs miracles is by the gifts of the Spirit, and some of them also realize that there is such a thing as God’s tangible power. And so they wait for these things. They think they are helpless until these things come. Some people wait even with the ministry of preaching or teaching. They pray and wait, pray and wait. You don’t need to pray for something that is already here, just like you don’t need to pray that Jesus would come down from heaven or that he would rise from the dead. He already did. The word of God is always here, and it is always the same. What does faith say? “The word of God is near you: it is in your mouth and in your heart” (see Romans 10:6-8). If you have faith, you can always do what the word of God says you can do. If you have faith, you can always receive what the word of God promises. There is no need to wait for some gift or power to arrive. It is also unnecessary to wait for some special minister.
I mention the above for two reasons, other than the fact that this is an opportunity to discuss some of these things. First, it is important to note that the cloths Paul sent out likely carried this tangible healing power. Second, I want to point out that these things are biblical, and not strange. They are not mystical or anti-intellectual. They can be intelligently studied from the Bible, then discussed and practiced. The reason they might feel wrong to people is because the “Christian” worldview in mainstream evangelical theology is not really biblical. It predetermines what is allowed from the Bible, and then it arranges the filtered data into doctrines. After that some things in the Bible can no longer fit into this belief system or this view of reality. And those things are then considered unbiblical. Thus although the effort supposedly honors Christ, in reality it constructs an intellectual stronghold that sets itself up against the knowledge of God. There it stands stubbornly against the parts of the Bible that it has discarded.
Returning to Paul, it is certainly biblical to send out cloths for healing, but there are other considerations I would like to discuss.
Due to improved technology for travel and communication, as well as the wider spread of the gospel throughout these centuries, we are now in a better position than the one the apostle lived in. I do not mean that we are better than Paul, but that Paul has made things better for us. Now Christians all over the world can pray for the sick, and the sick can also pray for themselves and receive healing that way. Many Christians no longer have to send for help to someone far away, but if he lacks knowledge on the subject, or if his faith is weak, he might find Christians around him who can teach him and pray for him. Even when someone who is far away asks for help, our first response does not have to be healing cloths. It is now easy to send instructions, even entire books and recordings, in an instant. We can teach the person to pray for himself, and to expel the sickness from his own body by the authority that God has given to every believer. The instances where healing cloths seem necessary have been drastically reduced.
The method is too often used as a gimmick. By this, I mean that many ministries send out cloths when they are unnecessary and when they are ineffective. If the healing can be achieved by teaching the people, either the sick or those around them, then this is the first route to take. Teach the people the promises of God, the atonement of Christ, and the rights and powers that they can exercise by faith. The main reason to send out cloths is when there are people unfamiliar with healing who are struck with urgent cases, and there is no way to quickly teach them to receive for themselves. If it is still somehow necessary to send out cloths, they need to be effective — the people must actually receive healing. If a ministry has not been receiving definite reports of success, it should stop using a scattershot approach in sending out cloths, where it just blasts the things all over the place not knowing whether anyone ever receives healing because of them. Even if it continues to send out cloths, it should reserve them for people that it cannot reach locally, and switch to a more deliberate and monitored approach. Record the names, addresses, and conditions of the people receiving the cloths, then follow up. Obtain detailed testimonies, medical reports, x-rays, and so on.
One way to improve the success rate is to ensure that the fabric has been in contact with the tangible power of God. I have the impression that many ministries cut up tiny squares of thin fabric and send them right out without even praying over them. This is dishonest, but dishonest or not, it is useless either way when no one is receiving healing from them. This is a different operation from healing by faith alone. You need the power to enter the cloths before sending them out. And use bigger and thicker cloths, not tiny squares of paper-thin fabric. Have the cloths ready at church meetings so that when the tangible power is in manifestation, lay hands on them and pray over them. Or, the minister can carry the cloths on him for a while during services where this power is in manifestation. This most likely means that a ministry would be unable to send out tens of thousands of them. Good! Of course, the cloths should never be used to raise money. Healing is one ministry about which Jesus explicitly said, “Freely you have received, freely give.” If a group discovers that it does not really have this kind of ministry, then stop sending out cloths. Focus on teaching the word of God and laying hands on the sick. Help those who are far away with intercessions and instructions, especially teachings on what belongs to them in Christ and what they can do by faith in his name.