Prayer Cloths and Faith Healers
I’ll never forget the time I saw a huge palate of letters containing handkerchiefs from people who were seeking healing from God through this faith-healing televangelist. As he addressed the viewers and commenced to lay hands on and pray over the cloths and for the requests that were mailed in, he referenced Acts 19:12 as justification for this part of his ministry, “so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:12; ESV). Many in charismatic circles of this stripe see this verse (and some others) as applicable to their lives and ministries – and some would even say to all our lives as believers as well – and state their conviction in words like this, “The same miracle-working power of the Holy Spirit that was at Paul’s disposal is available to us today. We, too, are able to lay hands on and pray healing over cloths and the sick will recover. We just need to have the faith to operate in this dimension.” But is this true? Is this a proper understanding of this text? Is this biblical warrant for praying that the healing power of Jesus, in some mystical way, be transferred into these cloths through the laying on of hands, so that when people receive and apply them to their ailing bodies, they will be instantaneously healed and delivered from evil spirits? I believe the answer to each question is a resounding “No.”
First, if we go back just one verse, verse eleven, it clearly says that “God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul” (Acts 19:11, emphasis mine; ESV). Nowhere else in the book of Acts are miracles said to have occurred specifically through the medium of handkerchiefs and aprons by the hands of someone other than Paul. Certainly there were other believers – like Peter, who was an apostle – used by the Lord Jesus to perform miracles, signs, and wonders. Though it was rare, God even performed miracles through believers who were not apostles. Stephen was one (Acts 6:8), and Philip was another (Acts 8:6-7). But what was reported to have happened through the apostle Paul in Acts 19:12 was unique, special. Therefore, it should not be viewed as normative and applicable to all believers, or even just to some who claim they have been called by God to be faith healers.
Second, remembering the fact that Luke was writing under the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit and had a penchant for being detailed in his accounts, please note the text says that the cloths and linen garments “had touched his skin” (Acts 19:12; ESV). The way this reads is the cloths that people had on them somehow came in contact with Paul’s skin. Paul, therefore, was a passive participant. He didn’t stand up and proclaim to people that he had a special anointing exuding from his pores and they needed to bring him their handkerchiefs and aprons, so that he could touch them, and then they could take them back to the sick to be healed. Paul didn’t pray over the cloths. He didn’t lay hands on them (If Paul did “lay hands,” Luke would have plainly said so, as he did in other passages of Acts – see Acts 19:6). People had the cloths with them and they somehow touched his skin and God miraculously healed the sick when those cloths and garments were laid upon them. Also note, Paul didn’t subsequently launch a healing-in-my-skin-prayer-cloth ministry or host crusades with said name.
Third, and finally, the reason this rare occurrence in Acts 19:12 shouldn’t be seen as normative today or sought out by believers to be replicated in their ministries is because miracles were primarily designed to confirm the gospel of Jesus and the ministry of the apostles (2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:3-4) during the apostolic age and among new or unreached people groups at that time.
So to those who are sick or seeking healing from God for a loved one who is ill, keep your handkerchiefs and garments. No need to send them in to a faith healer along with your financial faith seed. If you are a believer in Jesus, you can pray to God for healing yourself (James 5:13a). If it is in his will to heal you (with or without medicine), you will be healed.
And if you just feel like you need someone to pray for you, let me suggest the following: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the LORD will raise him up.” (James 5:14-15a; ESV)