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. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:16-17).
The verse above is full of hope, and yet at times misunderstood. Matthew declares that Jesus’ healing the sick and casting out demons is done in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4, which reads as follows: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:4-5).
There is a teaching in the church that goes like this: as surely as Jesus has come to bear our sins, he has also come to heal our diseases. Therefore, we can pray in faith that Jesus will heal our diseases when we come to him. In other words, we have every right to expect, on the authority of Matthew 8:17 and Isaiah 53:4, that God will cure a cancer for the asking. For if he didn’t come to deal with our sicknesses, neither did he come to deal with our sins. Which is true—in part.
The true part is that Jesus did come to heal us from our sin and our diseases. In fact, disease is the inevitable outworking of sin—not necessarily our own direct sin, but certainly the sin that pervades this fallen world and taints everything in it (see, e.g., John 9:1-3). If Jesus deals with our sin, then it is certain that he deals with our diseases as well.
The part that is not true, at least in the way that it understood among some, is that Matthew and Isaiah promise that the Lord will always heal in this world for the asking. Again, if the Lord really did deal with our sin at the cross, then he really did deal with our diseases also. But the assumption imported into that thinking is that these things happen in this world. But neither Matthew nor Isaiah defines the horizon of our healing.
Think of it in terms of sin. We are forgiven and freed from sin here and now. But at the same time, we still deal with sin. This is why John can say both “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin,” and in the very next sentence can say “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:7-8). The great word of hope is that “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). In that day, sin will be forever and permanently vanquished. But until that day, we still deal with it.
So with disease. There will be a day when the Lord completely heals all sickness and disease. But until that day, we still deal with it. Thanks be to God, the Lord does heal sicknesses today—cancers and viruses and the like. But he does not always. And it does no violence to either Matthew 8:17 or Isaiah 53:4 to acknowledge it. In other words, Matthew calls Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4 because Jesus has come to irreversibly vanquish all sin and death. Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law is a real healing, and also a sign of that which he will come do completely in that day. Think of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus was really raised, but the point of the raising wasn’t that we could expect all people to be raised in the here-and-now, but that in Christ there will be a resurrection in the last day. Which is why Jesus raises Lazarus having stated “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:35).
To say it another way, Isaiah 53:4 is a promise of what the Lord will do completely in that day, which is reflected in what the Lord does sometimes today. The healing in Matthew 8 is not the end game—it is simply a pointer to the complete healing that will happen at the Resurrection to all who are in Christ.
The problem with understanding Matthew 8:17 and Isaiah 53:4 as a promise for this worldly healing is that it suggests that somehow the Word of God is unfaithful when healing doesn’t happen. It is natural that we would want these Scriptures to promise healing in this world. But it becomes tremendously discouraging when we believe the Scripture promises something that it doesn’t. Besides, Peter’s mother-in-law died eventually, as did Lazarus (again). The promise for complete healing is only full of hope if it looks not to the horizon of this world, but that of another.