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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.” (Acts 3:16)
Dr. Roger Olson, professor of Christian Ethics at Truett Theological Seminary in Texas, has made an interesting observation about church parking lots.
“I could almost predict by the brand of cars in the parking lot what the church believes,” Olson said during an interview for Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Miracles. “The more prosperous and educated we are, the more likely we are to substitute our own cleverness and accomplishments for the power of prayer. That’s the seductive power of prosperity – it makes us less reliant on God. We think we’ve got everything under control.”
Then he added this thought: “Many evangelicals don’t really believe in the supernatural until the doctor says, ‘You have a terminal illness.’”
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the New Testament’s five narrative books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts – are saturated with the supernatural. Approximately one-third of the Jesus stories in the gospels involve something miraculous.
But many American churchgoers have become allergic to the notion of actual divine intervention. What happens when someone gets sick? Olson notes, “Of course, we pray for them, but what do we ask? That God would comfort them in the midst of their suffering. That God would guide the hands of the surgeons. That God would give doctors wisdom and discernment.”
But we don’t always make the simple request that God would provide complete healing.
The book of Acts seems to belong to a different dimension of reality. In chapter three, Peter and John stop to address a beggar who has been lame from birth. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” says Peter, “walk!” (3:6). And he does. The result is celebration, commotion, controversy, and a huge burst of growth for the young Jerusalem church. The disciples explain in our “3:16” verse that this miracle happened “in the name of” Jesus, which means the healing power of Jesus was released through Peter as if Jesus himself had been standing there in his place.
Such claims of supernatural activity raise two important questions.
First, do miracles really happen? And second, if they do, why don’t miracles happen to everyone – to every person for whom we earnestly pray?
Both questions deserve serious consideration. That’s why we’ll devote both today’s and tomorrow’s reflections to the single text of Acts 3:16.
When inquiring about the reality of miracles, we need to know what we’re talking about. We’re not focusing on something trivial (“after my third trip around the block, God answered my prayer for a parking space right in front of Jack’s Donuts”). Or something that can be explained psychosomatically (“and suddenly my headache just went away”). Or the dramatic ending to a playoff football game (a Hail Mary pass caught in the endzone).
Instead, philosophy professor Richard L. Purtill suggests: “A miracle is an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature (5) for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.”
Luke, who is almost universally credited with the authorship of Acts, was clearly trying to show by means of his reports of healing miracles that God is able and willing to act in history.
In his book, Strobel cites a 2004 survey of 1,100 physicians by HCD Research which revealed that three-quarters of them believe that miracles happen today; that 55% of them have seen results in their patients that they would consider miraculous; and that six out of ten of those doctors pray for their patients individually.
But do contemporary “miraculous events,” which we can now examine with rational inquiry and medical technology, turn out to be compelling? Strobel reports a number of such events, including the experience of a woman named Barbara.
Two of her doctors, Dr. Harold P. Adolph and Dr. Thomas Marshall, were so astonished by her case that they have written about it in books of their own.
“Barbara was one of the most hopelessly ill patients I ever saw,” wrote Adolph. She had been an active high school student – an enthusiastic gymnast and flute player. Then she began to lose motor control. Barbara was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis. She deteriorated for 16 years. One lung became non-functional. The other worked at 50% capacity. She lost control of her bodily functions. She became legally blind. A tracheostomy tube was inserted into her neck.
“She now needed continuous oxygen, and her muscles and joints were becoming contracted and deformed because she could not move or exercise them,” recalled Marshall.
She was confined to bed, her body contorted like a pretzel. “Her hands were permanently flexed to the point that her fingers nearly touched her wrists,” writes Strobel. Marshall explained to Barbara’s family that, medically speaking, there was nothing left to do. She entered hospice care in her home. Her life expectancy was less than six months.
Then something remarkable happened.
In the spring of 1981, Barbara’s aunt and two other friends were reading aloud some of the prayers for healing that friends had sent to the house. That’s when Barbara heard a man’s voice speak from behind her – even though there was nobody else in the room.
“The words were clear and articulate and spoken with great authority, but also with great compassion,” Marshall later recounted. The voice said: My child, get up and walk – reminiscent of the words Peter spoke to the lame beggar.
Barbara began to move. One of the friends plugged the hole in her neck so she could speak. “I don’t know what you’re going to think about this,” she told them, “but God just told me to get up and walk. I know he really did! Run and get my family. I want them here with us!” The family was quickly summoned. Here is Dr. Marshall’s account of what happened next:
“Barb felt compelled to do immediately what she was divinely instructed, so she literally jumped out of bed and removed her oxygen. She was standing on legs that had not supported her for years. Her vision was back, and she was no longer short of breath, even without her oxygen. Her contractions were gone, and she could move her feet and hands freely.”
Her mother grabbed Barbara’s calves. “You have muscles again!”
What would you do if you were Barbara’s father, and had watched in agony as your daughter had wasted away for more than half of her life? He hugged her. Then they danced together around the family room.
That very evening there was a worship service at the family’s church. When the pastor asked if there were any announcements, Barbara “casually strolled toward the front, her heart pounding.” The congregation melted. Without prompting they began to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I was once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see!”
Marshall gave her a medical examination the next day. Her lungs were fully restored. The intestine that had been vented to the abdominal wall was reconnected normally. “This is medically impossible,” he told her, “but you are now free to go out and live your life.”
That is what she did.
Barbara got married, has served others for four decades, and as of this writing has not had a recurrence of her illness. Because of the detailed and specific clinical attestation of her condition both before and after her healing, and the many witnesses who were present, her story continues to both confound and inspire.
Dr. Adolph, perhaps, says it best: “Both Barbara and I knew who had healed her.”
If this remarkable story is evidence of the healing power of God, then why are there hospitals? And why are there so many funerals?
We’ll turn to those important matters tomorrow.
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