Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Epaphroditus, Sickness, and Healing

Epaphroditus is mentioned in Philippians 2.25-30 and he is sometimes brought up in discussions of sickness and healing.  The specific verses in the discussion are verses 26-27:
...because he was longing for you all and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick.  For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow.
Sometimes extravagant claims are generated from this small section of Scripture.  For example, John MacArthur writes:
 In Philippians 2:25-27 Paul mentioned his good friend Epaphroditus, who had been very sick.  Paul had previously displayed the gift of healing.  Why did he not simply heal Epaphroditus?  Perhaps the gift was no longer operational.  Or perhaps Paul simply refused to pervert the gift by using it for his own ends.  Either way, healing Epaphroditus was beyond the purpose of the gift of healing.  The gift was not given to keep Christians healthy.  It was to be a sign to unbelievers to convince them that the gospel was divine truth.
                      --John MacArthur Charismatic Chaos (Zondervan, 1992), p. 264

This statement is riddled with error.  Pastor MacArthur has brought a number of erroneous assumptions to the text and then reads into the text that which is not there to begin with.  This is the faulty kind of hermeneutics that MacArthur himself warns about:
It is possible, of course, to substantiate almost any idea or teaching with Scripture--if one employs proof texts apart from their intended meaning.  This is precisely how most of the cults use Scripture to buttress their false doctrines.
The task of hermeneutics is to discover the meaning of the text in its proper setting; to draw meaning from Scripture rather than reading one's presuppositions into it.
The importance of careful biblical interpretation can hardly be overstated.  Misinterpreting the Bible is ultimately no better than disbelieving it.  What good does it do to agree that the Bible is God's final and complete revelation and then misinterpret it?  The result is the same: one misses God's truth.  Interpreting Scripture to make it say what it was never intended to say is a sure road to division, error, heresy, and apostasy.  Charismatic Chaos, p. 103
Let's consider Pastor MacArthur's comments on Philippians 2.25-27.

1.  Paul had previously displayed the gift of healing.  Why did he not simply heal Epaphroditus?

Why does he assume that Paul didn't manifest the gift of healing and heal Epaphroditus?  The text simply says that he recovered ("God had mercy on him").  It doesn't specify how or by what means this recovery was brought about.  Pastor MacArthur has engaged in an argument from silence.  Someone might object: But if Paul had healed him wouldn't he have mentioned that?  The simple answer is: No.  If Paul had been the one through whom God brought "supernatural" healing to Epaphroditus there is no reason to think that Paul would see himself as the primary person who healed him.  He would speak of God as being the One who healed Epaphroditus.  Paul wouldn't be drawing attention to himself but, rather, exalting the power of God.  This is especially relevant given the context of Philippians chapter two and its focus on humility (see 2.3-8).  Consider the words of New Testament scholar John Christopher Thomas:
Despite Epaphroditus’s dire condition, God mercifully intervened!  This contrast is brought out in part by the use of alla.  Unfortunately, Paul is ambiguous in describing Epaphroditus’s recovery as he was in discussing his illness, choosing simply to observe that ‘God had mercy on him’.  Some scholars have interpreted this somewhat ambiguous phrase to mean that Paul did not or could not use the gift of healing to facilitate Epaphroditus’s recovery.  But such a conclusion is too simplistic at worst or too premature at best.  For one thing, it fails to pay careful enough attention to the way mercy is used in connection with the recovery of health in the New Testament.  While it is true that Paul does not normally use eleeo to describe physical healings, preferring to reserve the term to describe salvation either for Israel and Gentiles (Rom. 9.15-16, 18; 11.30-32) or Paul himself (1 Cor. 7.25; 2 Cor. 4.1), the term does occur in the Synoptics in contexts where individuals cry out to Jesus for healing (Lk. 17.13; 18.38-39 and parallels).  Paul’s point, of course, is that Epaphroditus recovered physically.  That he had been at the point of death and now was well enough to travel suggests a supernatural restoration of health.  To argue that such language excludes the healing of Epaphroditus at the hands of Paul or others appears to outdistance the text.  For there can really be little doubt that Paul and any other Christians with him would have offered earnest prayer on Epaphroditus’s behalf.  Such a scenario is ‘quite possible, and not unlikely’.  In point of fact, such actions can be taken more or less for granted.  However, the primary point for Paul is that Epaphroditus recovered, not how he recovered.
--John Christopher Thomas The Devil, Disease and Deliverance: Origins of Illness in New Testament Thought (Sheffield, 1998), pp. 80-81

2.  Perhaps the gift was no longer operational.

Let us grant, merely for the sake of argument, that Paul didn't "heal" Epaphroditus.  Why would this justify even surmising that the gift of healing was no longer operational?  This is simply a logical non sequitur.  Furthermore, what in the text warrants this type of thinking?  Beware of playing the "perhaps" game with the text of Scripture!  Here are a few other "perhaps" questions that can be generated from idle speculation:
"Perhaps Epaphroditus lacked faith to be healed."
"Perhaps Paul sinned in refusing to pray and exercise his gift of healing."
"Perhaps someone who was traveling with Epaphroditus prayed for him on the way to see Paul so that by the time he got to where Paul was he was already healed."
"Perhaps God had sovereign purposes for not supernaturally healing Epaphroditus with the gift of healing but still the gift is operative." 
With sufficient imagination one can generate all sorts of conclusions--some wild-- that are not found in the text of Scripture.

3.   Or, perhaps Paul simply refused to pervert the gift by using it for his own ends. 

Here is another "perhaps" statement that is liable to all the criticisms above.  Beyond that why would it be "perverting the gift" to heal Epaphroditus?  This makes no sense whatsoever?  The healing of Epaphroditus would not merely serve Paul's "own ends."  It would also bless Epaphroditus and the Philippians.  This is clearly in the text.  Epaphoditus is given "mercy" and the Philippian church is to "rejoice" in the safe return of Epaphroditus (vv. 27-29).  Where is the "perversion" in this?  Honestly, this statement by Pastor MacArthur just comes out of "left field" without any textual basis whatsoever.

4.  Either way, healing Epaphroditus was beyond the purpose of the gift of healing.

This is mere statement without any foundation.  There is no reason in the text to think that this statement is anywhere near the realm of being true.  Pastor MacArthur does attempt to justify this assertion with his next statement listed below but, as will be seen, this statement is patently unbiblical.

5.  The gift [of healing-rjk] was not given to keep Christians healthy.  It was to be a sign to unbelievers to convince them that the gospel was divine truth.

The first problem with this statement is that it is a false disjunction.  Pastor MacArthur gives two options as if they are the only two available.  Why can't the gift be for healing some Christians?  This brings up the second, and more serious, problem.  Pastor MacArthur states that the gift of healing is a sign to unbelievers.  But when we go to the text of Scripture to see where the phrase "gifts of healings" is used we find that Pastor MacArthur is not correct.  The phrase "gifts of healings" (both words are in the plural in the Greek) is found in 1 Corinthians 12.9, 28.  The context of 1 Corinthians 12 is the church setting as is evident from 1 Corinthians 12.7: “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  The “common good” is contextually seen to be the edification of the church.  Consider also 1 Corinthians 12.28 in which Paul explicitly states, “And God has appointed in the church…gifts of healings…”  Where in the text that is most relevant to defining "gifts of healing" is there any mention of these gifts being for the unbeliever?  Granted, they can be for the unbeliever's edification--both in physical healing and attestation to the power of God.  But if we are faithful to the contextual clues in the text of 1 Corinthians 12 the primary emphasis is on the Christian congregation.  

Pastor John MacArthur is a great man of God who has been used to edify Christ's body for years.  He is a faithful expositor of God's word but something other than clear headed exegesis is happening in his comments on Philippians 2.25-27.  Too many logical fallacies and extra-Scriptrual ideas are imposed upon the text for this to be considered a faithful and true interpretation of Scripture.