One day a man with leprosy came to Jesus begging to be healed (Matt. 8:2-3). Jesus could have responded to this man in various ways. He could, for example, have been like the priest and Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan and said, I am too busy right now. Go away and come back later. Or he could have responded with indignation, as might have one of the Pharisees, and said, How dare you come near me, you unclean sinner. You might have defiled me. No, reaching out and touching the man, Jesus responded quite simply, I am willing. Be healed.
Long before this event in the life of Jesus, Isaiah had prophesied that the ministry of the Messiah would be one not only of teaching but also of comforting and healing those in need. Isaiah wrote:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zionto bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. . . . (Isaiah 61:1-3).
Written more than six centuries before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah had given this description of the anointed one, the Messiah. He was to bring not only the good news but also physical and spiritual healing for those who needed it.
Early in his ministry, Jesus visited the synagogue in Nazareth where he was invited to read from the Scriptures (Luke 4:14-30). Standing with the scroll in his hands he read from this same passage from Isaiah. When he had finished, he sat back down and said, Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
As we read of the ministry of Jesus, we can see that it was indeed one of both teaching and healing. Jesus' life and his teaching were the greatest revelation from God, and without this our understanding of the nature of God and his will for us would be incomplete. But Jesus also spent much of his time healing those who suffered from various diseases. In the same chapter of Luke's account we can read of Jesus healing several individuals. Summarizing, Luke recorded: When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them (Luke 4:40).
Unfortunately, we can no longer heal by laying our hands upon the sick as Jesus and others at that time were able to do. We can, however, still pattern our ministry after that of Jesus. Medical missions is one way that we, as the church, can combine a ministry of both healing and teaching.
Mission programs often emphasize evangelism, which seeks to reach the spiritual needs of individuals primarily through teaching. This is, of course, a part of the Great Commissionto go and make disciples of all nations. The approach of medical missions, or perhaps a more descriptive term, medical evangelism, is broader, seeking to reach both the spiritual and physical needs of those who are served.
Developing countries, with a high incidence of disease, malnutrition, high infant mortality, lower life expectancy, and general lack of the most basic health care, have been the sites for several medical missions programs. Given the example of Jesus himself and the basic principles of Christianity, it seems as if this is something that we as a church should be doing.
H. Glenn Boyd, president emeritus of International Health Care Foundation, answered the question Why practice medical evangelism? in the following way: There are millions of sick people in developing countries where we are preaching the Gospel. Shall we ignore their physical needs and say Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled (James 2:16)? It seems only natural to Christianity for those of us who claim to be following Christ to respond with compassion when we see hurting people. Yes, we must try to lead them to Christ, but if they do not see Him in our lives and in our treatment of them, it will be hard for them to grasp the meaning of our message. When they see that we care, their hearts will open for the Gospel. . . Opportunities abound for evangelism through rendering ministry to the suffering bodies of lost souls.1
Historically, missionaries typically went into the field with little or no medical training, intending to evangelize through teaching and preaching of the Word. Often, especially in developing countries, these same missionaries were called upon to help those in need of medical care. Gerry Nicks, who spent many years with her husband in Africa wrote:
My husband is not a doctor and I am not a nurse, so we didn't hang out a shingle in front of our house. We didn't have to, because it wasn't long until the people were coming day and night for us to help them with their physical problems. The most common complaints were headaches, malaria, tropical ulcers, and their belly trouble, which could mean a lot of things. The serious ones were accident injuries, women with delivery problems, babies with tetanus, dysentery and other life-threatening situations.2She also commented:
Many of the missionary wives, although not nurses, gave some of their time to help in this work. We used our knowledge of first aid, and treated their ills the way we would our own families. There were many times when we were unable to do anything and had to take them many miles to the hospital.3
Some of the clinics, hospitals, and medical mission trips sponsored by Churches of Christ have been a response to the needs observed by missionaries such as these.
The building of clinics and hospitals has also helped to open doors for further evangelism. For example, Bill Nicks, husband of Gerry, described the early missionary efforts in Nigeria as follows:
Upon entering the country, we had promised to the government of Nigeria that we would not only assist in teaching religion but also in the educational development and in helping with their sick people by establishing clinics or hospitals.4
Foreign governments have also at times required the building of hospitals. The Chimala Hospital in Tanzania is one such example. The evangelistic efforts of the missionaries in this country had resulted in tremendous growth in the number of new Christians. However, in 1962 the government of Tanzania informed the American congregation sponsoring the work that unless some benevolent or social service was provided, the evangelistic work in that area would not be allowed to continue.5 The Chimala Hospital, began in 1963 as a result of this movement by the Tanzanian government, is still in operation today and continues to be a great blessing to the people of Tanzania.
Today medical evangelism continues to open doors not only in developing countries, but in other places as well. Medical missions programs sponsored by the Churches of Christ have allowed Christians to enter places once thought to be impossible, such as the countries formerly controlled by Communism in Eastern Europe and Communist countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.6 Opportunities abound in much of the world for the sharing of the good news through the compassionate ministry of medical evangelism.