One question Christians rightly ask, in the face of illness or disease, is whether the cause is spiritual or physical. Is it the work of Satan, or is it physical frailty?
Clues to the answer can be found in the ministry of Jesus. One misconception can and should be cleared up readily, and that is the misconception that the ancient world, including the world of Jesus’ day, believed that all illness was the work of evil spirits.
But Jesus clearly proves that this is not the case, since he himself treated some illnesses as the work of demons and other illnesses as physical in origin. He knew the difference between the two and was never confused about it.
Matthew 8:16, for instance, reads this way (emphasis mine throughout): “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick.” In other words, some who came to Jesus were demonically oppressed, others were physically ill.
There is a simple way to tell when Jesus was dealing with demonic oppression and when, in contrast, he was dealing with straightforward physical disease. When the issue was demonic in origin, Jesus spoke. He never laid hands on the demonically oppressed; rather he delivered them with a spoken word. He commanded the demons to come out of the afflicted, and they came out.
If the indwelling demons were responsible for some physical affliction, the physical affliction left with them. There were illnesses which were caused by demons, and the solution in such cases was a command issued with his authority as the Son of God and ruler of the entire world of the spirit.
But when the illness was bodily in origin, Jesus laid his hands on the sick. Healing power for physical illness flowed from the throne of God through his physical touch into the body of the diseased and they were healed in an instant. We see this in Matthew 8:15, where we read that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law with the laying on of hands. “He touched her hand, and the fever left her.”
Earlier in Matthew 8:3, with regard to the leper, we read that “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him,” and “immediately his leprosy was cleansed.”
Jesus was never confused about whether illness was physical or spiritual in origin. Now some argue that when Jesus appeared to believe the sickness was spiritual in origin, he was merely accommodating himself to the spirit of the age, and to the widely held superstitions the people of his pre-Enlightenment day believed.
But Jesus never accommodated superstition. He confronted it and exposed it. On another subject, life after death, he said quite pointedly, “if it were not so, I would have told you” (Jn. 14:2). If demons did not exist, and if they could not cause illness, Jesus would have said so.
So some illness is spiritual, some is physical. When the illness is spiritual, healing comes through the word, through a command issued in the all-powerful name of Jesus. When the illness is physical, healing comes through touch, through the laying on of hands and prayer offered in the all-powerful name of Jesus.
How can we tell the difference? Discernment. How do we acquire discernment? By considering both possibilities and through experience learning to differentiate between the two. Some Christians today are so spooked at the thought of demons and spiritual warfare they never stop to consider whether unseen workers of darkness may have something to do with the problems of the individual they are seeking to help. If the problem is spiritual in origin, and spiritual warfare prayers are not used, the individual will experience no relief.
On the other hand, some Christians think everything is demonic in origin. But as Jesus’ own ministry makes clear, he did not treat every disease as the work, at least directly, of Satan.
One other misconception that many Christians have about healing is that it is something that can be commanded in the name of Jesus. No, it is something that may be requested but can never be demanded. The leper who came to Jesus modeled the biblical approach, when he threw himself at the feet of Jesus and said, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
He understood that God may have purposes in allowing physical illness to linger. Paul discovered that himself, when God declined to remove his “thorn in the flesh” despite repeated and sincere prayers. Paul was not healed because he lacked faith; no, he was not healed because God had a larger purpose for his life and Paul’s illness fit into that larger purpose.
Paul mentions once that he left a traveling companion, Trophimus, “sick at Miletus” (2 Tim. 4:20). If healing is something that can be ordered up on demand, that wouldn’t have happened.
So when we lay hands on the sick and pray for them, we must always believe that God can heal in an instant, and at the same time we must always pray yielding to God’s will, which he alone may know.
Can demons cause illness today? Of course they can. Can illness be physical and not spiritual in origin? Of course it can. We know this because Jesus told us.
But whether illness is spiritual or physical in origin, can Jesus still heal today? Of course he can. And he does.