In the newly formed United States at the end of the eighteenth century, the young nation’s president, George Washington, was fatally ill. One doctor drew 14 ounces of blood from the president’s veins in the mistaken belief that when a fever rises, the best thing to do is to take overheated blood out of the body. When that didn’t work, Washington’s physicians drained even more blood. In this weakened condition the president begged his doctors to let him die in peace. His death occurred on December 14, 1799, at his Mount Vernon, Virginia, estate. He was 67 years old.
This story gives us an idea of the state of medicine in the early United States. In fact, by the mid-1800s things weren’t much better. Some common medical procedures included (believe it or not!) the use of mercury to cure disease; prescribing alcohol to help patients sleep; tobacco as a remedy for ailing lungs; and, of course, the time-tested process of cutting open veins and bleeding patients of what we now know is a fluid essential for health—blood.
This was the medical environment in which God raised up the Seventh-day Adventist health message. It was sorely needed for many reasons, not just to correct some of the unscientific medical practices of the time.
Let’s examine four reasons that the Lord in His mercy gave His people the health message to share with the world, and why it remains relevant for us today:
God gave us the health message because He wants us to live healthier, happier lives while living on this earth. This principle is illustrated in Jesus’ healing of the paralytic in Matthew 9:1, 2: “So He got into a boat, and crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed.”1 Notice that “they” brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. The paralytic did not come by himself. Don’t miss this crucial point: The New Testament catalogues about 30 separate cases of healing; in more than half of them the sick did not come to Jesus by themselves. Somebody was concerned enough to bring their loved one to Jesus.
Jesus is the true source of all healing. In the use of rational scientific methods we create an environment in which healing can take place, but the One who heals the body is the One who created it in the first place. Whether we use natural remedies or twenty-first-century cutting-edge technology, we do not heal—Jesus does.
Verse 2 continues: “When Jesus saw their faith . . .” Faith is not just something cognitively believed; rather, it’s something that’s seen when it’s translated into action. It’s real; it’s tangible. The full sentence in Scripture reads, “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.’” The man is healed and Jesus declares: “Be of good cheer.” Not only was the paralytic physically healed, his sins were forgiven, and Jesus encouraged him to be of good cheer. In other words, Christ was saying to the man, “My desire for you is to live a happy, abundant life. Your sickness has robbed you of enjoying life in all its fullness. I have given you back not only your health but life in all its richness.” That’s the same thing Jesus wants not only for us but for the people we come in contact with in our daily lives.
One of the primary reasons God has given His people the health message is to enable them to enjoy life to the fullest. It’s not some legalistic requirement to cause people to feel oppressed by all the things they have to do or cannot do. The health message is given by a loving God so that you and I can live an abundant life and share that life with those we meet.
Link to the Mind
God gave His message of health so we can know Him in all His fullness. There’s an intimate link between our physical, mental, and spiritual health. Jesus often spoke of physical healing and forgiveness in almost the same breath, such as in the story of the paralytic.
Many times in the New Testament Jesus told those whom He healed to go and sin no more. On other occasions Jesus first forgave, then healed. This tells us that healing from Jesus is restoration—physical, mental, and emotional. Sin has left its deadly toll on all aspects of our lives. The gospel is to restore men and women wholly to the image of God. There is a strong mental and spiritual component to the health message. Our physical bodies, our mental states, and our spiritual lives are all intimately connected to one another.
The brain, for instance, is nourished by the quality of the blood transported to it through veins and arteries. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through our brain. When we’re continually inactive, the blood that passes to the brain isn’t able to fully oxygenate it. We can also impair our health in other ways that negatively affect our brain, such as eating a high-fat diet, which damages the quality of the blood that nourishes the brain. When we live such unhealthful lifestyles, it becomes much harder for the Holy Spirit to “reach” us. Our minds are unable to understand as clearly the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Ellen White makes this point in an 1881 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald article: “Let none who profess godliness regard with indifference the health of the body, and flatter themselves that intemperance is no sin, and will not affect their spirituality. A close sympathy exists between the physical and the moral nature. . . . Wrong habits of eating and drinking lead to errors in thought and action. Indulgence of appetite strengthens the animal propensities, giving them the ascendancy over the mental and spiritual powers.”2
God has given us the health message so that among other things we can have clear minds, enabling us to draw closer to Him in prayer and Bible study. He wants to protect us from consuming a diet that will destroy the health of our bodies and deaden our spiritual impulses. God doesn’t want us to be so stressed from overwork and the lack of physical exercise that we have foggy brains and sluggish thoughts. He desires that we have clear minds so that we can hear His voice speaking to us through His Holy Spirit and His Word—then our hearts will be in tune with His heart, and our minds with His mind. In short, He wants us to know Him more fully.
Preparing for the Coming of Jesus
The gift of good health helps to enable us to be ready for the coming of Jesus. Here’s where the Seventh-day Adventist health message is unique. Although many of our specific health practices are taught by others, Adventists endorse healthful living for a higher purpose—to help prepare people for Jesus’ second coming.
Health is not an add-on to Jesus’ teachings, but an integral part of His last-day message. The apostle Paul affirms this in 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Adventists believe that human beings are an integrated unit: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. What affects our physical health affects our state of mind. What affects our state of mind affects our physical health. What affects our mental and physical health affects our emotional health. What affects our physical, mental, and emotional health affects our spiritual health.
Healthful lifestyle practices open the mind so that the Holy Spirit can take full control and prepare the whole person for the coming of Jesus. In this way the Holy Spirit can empower us to surrender our lives fully to Jesus. It’s impossible to obtain salvation by diet or exercise; salvation comes only through the grace of Jesus Christ. When His grace permeates our lives, however, we consecrate every aspect of our beings to Him in preparation for His soon return. The health message is part of His last-day message of giving “glory to Him” in the final generation. 3
More Effective Witnessing
The health message enables us to be the most powerful witnesses possible for Jesus as we approach His return. Many people will never be reached through a direct proclamation of God’s Word. But when we approach them with kindness, love, and understanding, when we sympathize with them over their struggles with health issues, doors are opened to the medical missionary that are not opened to one who proclaims the gospel only.
Again in Matthew 9 we read: “As they went out, behold, they brought to Him a man, mute and demon-possessed.”4 Mark 8:22 tells us, “He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him.” Again and again medical missionaries brought people to Jesus.
Ellen White wrote, “Nothing will open doors for the truth like evangelistic medical missionary work.”5
The Ultimate Goal
What then is the ultimate purpose of medical missionary work? It’s certainly to give us longer, healthier lives and a more intimate relationship with Jesus. But it also provides us with opportunities to share Jesus with others. As we provide hydrotherapy treatments, encourage smoking cessation, share the benefits of a healthful diet, we are to watch for moments in which we can tell of the Creator’s love and His longing to develop a close relationship with His children and always reflect His grace.
There’s a difference between medical missionary work and providing only health education. We are medical missionaries with a task to accomplish for Jesus. We are much more interested in the souls of men and women than we are in merely helping them to live a few years longer on this earth. We want them to live eternally with Jesus.
If love for others leads us to work as a health professional—physician, dentist, health educator—or to share the benefits of healthful living in more simple ways such as with cooking schools and smoking-cessation programs, that same love should compel us to introduce others to Jesus, the true health restorer, our friend and Savior.
God has opened up opportunities for medical missionary work so we can be channels of blessing to the world. This type of ministry is a vehicle to touch people with the gospel. It provides opportunities to kindly and compassionately introduce people to Jesus.
May we recognize the sacredness of our calling and be faithful to the task.
1 All Bible texts are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 Ellen G. White, in The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, Jan. 25, 1881.
3 Rev. 14:7.
4 Matt. 9:32.
5 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Releases, vol. 14, p. 270.
Mark Finley is an editor-at-large for the Adventist Review and an assistant to the General Conference president. This article was published July 12, 2012.