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 Miracles - Have they Ceased?

Were They Only to Authenticate the Apostles?

John Hoole May 03, 2009


Last week we began examining a school of thought among some theologians that says, special revelation - e.g., prophecy, tongues, dreams, visions and miracles, along with the offices of the Apostle and Prophet, have ceased and did so when the first Apostles died. This school of thought is called Cessationism.

Fortunately for the Christian Church, whether or not the charismatic gifts are for today is not a salvation issue. I have many brothers and sisters in the Lord that do not believe as I do on this issue. The issue of whether or not the charismatic gifts are still to be operative in the church will most likely continue to be a debated issue.

I believe it saddens the heart of God when schisms or divisions arise within His body. However, this does not imply that all believers should or will agree on every aspect of worship style, organizational structure or dogma. The Bible does allow for differences. There are times when members of the body will "agree to disagree" while not being disagreeable in the process. We are still to love one another, even if differences exist.

Some Christians, while acknowledging that miracles happened in the Bible, have created a system of beliefs for our generation that discounts evidence that miracles can happen in modern times. On one side, their skepticism is understandable because they haven't witnessed what they call miracles in their own lives.

This is not the first time in history that circumstances led God's people to wonder whether or not God could continue his powerful work in their generation. We have such an occasion mentioned in the Bible. It occurred in the time of Gideon, when he was called into leadership by God.

Judges 6:12-13 (NAS) speaks of Gideon:

12 And the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, "The LORD is with you, O valiant warrior."
13 Then Gideon said to him, "O my lord, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, 'Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?' But now the LORD has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian."

Here we have Gideon, who lived in a generation that had not witnessed the miraculous power of God. All they had was stories from their fathers and grandfathers about a time when miracles were operative and witnessed within the nation of Israel. Sounds a lot like some congregations in our generation today.

Spiritual gifts have become a major issue of controversy in our generation - even over the last century, but especially so since the charismatic revival of the 1960's and 1970's which took the experience of these gifts beyond the confines of mainline Pentecostalism.

There are a number of positions held by believers as it relates to the operation of the charismatic gifts in our times. Let me identify five of them.

1. Some maintain what is called the traditional "cessationist" position. Charismatic gifts that are mentioned in 1 Cor. 12:8-10, plus possibly apostle and prophet, have passed away and not in operation in the church.

2. Others Christians, while acknowledging that these gifts could in theory occur today, have been reticent to embrace them because of the excesses that have occurred.

3. Still others approve of spiritual gifts in principle, but have had little contact with them personally and find little reason to actively seek them for their own lives.

4. Some Christian bodies embrace spiritual gifts, but feel that other issues in the church take precedence.

5. Still others believe that spiritual gifts are critical and that the whole church should embrace them. You will find this position representing the majority of mainline Pentecostals and charismatics.

In past lessons, I believe I have made it clear that my personal position is found in the 5th option. I strongly believe all spiritual gifts should be operative within the body of Christ.

We will be spending most of our lesson discussing numbers 1 and 5. The question is, does God give charismatic gifts to Christians today? Should we expect miracles and signs & wonders today? There are many excellent Bible teachers on both sides of this issue. And both camps use the Bible to support their positions. Those in the camp believing these gifts have ceased - known as cessationists - propose a number of arguments for their position.

1. One aspect of this belief holds that the gifts ceased when the last apostle died. These would maintain that miracles and sign and wonders were given to authenticate the apostolic ministry.

2. Some hold that the gifts ceased when the canon of Scripture was completed. According to this position, when the Scriptures were complete, the miraculous was no longer needed.

3. Still others teach that miracles were necessary for the gospel message to gain a hearing in the first century. They see the miracles and healings of Jesus and the apostles as a sort of rocket booster to get the church launched, and to get the gospel message an audience.

4. God said, in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, that these miraculous gifts and signs would cease.

There is one more argument proposed by the cessationists. It is not so much an argument for their own position, but, rather, an argument against the position held by Pentecostals and Charismatics. They assert that the Pentecostal position is based on "experience" rather than the Word of God. The implication here is that their position is based solely on the Word of God. But I hope to show that this is not the case.

Before discussing the arguments, let me make two statements.

1. Those who believe that these gifts have ceased, must categorically dismiss the experience of hundreds of millions of Christians today. It is estimated there are over 500 million Pentecostals and Charismatics in the world today. That represents the 2nd largest single block of Christians after Roman Catholicism.

Here is my second statement, which some might think too bold a statement.

2. No one ever just picked up the Bible, started reading, and then came to the conclusion that God was not doing signs and wonders anymore, and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit have passed away.

Craig Keener, in his book Three Crucial Questions About the Holy Spirit," writes:

"I believe that the position that supernatural gifts have ceased is one that no Bible reader would hold if not previously taught to do so."

Keener is not a Pentecostal. Neither are those who recommend this book in its preface:

J. I. Packer - Professor of theology - Regent College
Craig Blomberg - Professor of New Testament - Denver Seminary, Colorado
Ben Witherington - Professor of New Testament interpretation - Asbury Theological Sem.

Having made these two statements, let's begin discussing the arguments presented by the cessationist. I want to begin with what I believe is the primary argument among modern cessationists.

This argument purports that the primary purpose of New Testament miracles was to authenticate the apostles as trustworthy authors of Holy Scriptures.

The arguments goes something like this: After the apostles had written the New Testament, miracles would have fulfilled their purpose, and would no longer be necessary, for now the church would possess forever the miraculously attested written Word of God.

And if someone would ask why only the apostles needed authentication for their witness to be credible, and not the succeeding generations of witnesses, the cessationists would have a ready answer. They would assert that the apostles were not just any witnesses. They were unique in that they were the founders of the Church and writers of Holy Scripture.

Therefore, more would be required to give them credibility than any other witnesses in history. So the purpose of miracles was not simply to authenticate the apostles as reliable witnesses of Jesus. Miracles also, according to this view, showed them to be trustworthy teachers of doctrine and ultimately authenticated them as the divinely accredited human authors of Scripture. In practical terms this means that the real purpose of miracles was to authenticate or confirm the writers of Scriptures. Once they had written the Scriptures, miracles would no longer be necessary, for the Church would now possess the perfect written Word of God.

When I began to ponder what it would mean if miracles were given in the early church for the express purpose of authenticating the apostles and their ministry, I was puzzled over a few issues.

1. Are we specifically told in Scripture that this was the purpose of miracles? If so, was it the only purpose of miracles? If not, does the Bible tell us the purpose(s) of miracles?

2. Were the supernatural charismatic gifts only the possession of the apostles in the Bible?

3. Did only the apostles have ministries accompanied with signs and wonders?

4. Were the apostles the only human authors of Scripture?

One thing you will notice if you study this subject is that there are very few direct statements in the New Testament regarding the purposes of miracle. I never found a statement to the effect that "God gave miracles in order to...." What I did find is that the purpose of miracles is sometimes indicated by "function" words that accompany the miracles themselves.

For example, Mark says that miracles "confirm" (Mark 16:20) John says that they "testify" (John 5:36). Peter says that Jesus is "accredited" by miracles, wonders, and signs" (Acts 2:22). At other times the purpose of a miracle must be inferred from the context or from the result of the miracle.

The Bible does appear to be clear in a couple of areas as to the purposes of miracles.

Firstly, one purpose of miracles and signs and wonders was to authenticate the character of Jesus and his relationship with his heavenly Father.

We find miracles indicating the following in the character of Jesus and his relationship with the Father.

Miracles show that...

1. God is with Jesus (John 3:2; Nicodemus says, "no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.")

2. Jesus is from God

John 9:32-33

32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind.
33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."

3. God has sent Jesus (John 5:36)

4. Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins (Luke 5:24-25 NIV)

24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . He said to the paralyzed man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home."
25 Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God.

5. Jesus is approved by God (Acts 2:22)

6. The Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father (John 10:37-38 NIV)

37 Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does.
38 But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father."

7. In Jesus the kingdom of God has come (Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20)

8. Jesus is the Messiah (Luke 7:18-22)

9. Jesus is the Son of God (Matthew 14:25-33)

The Bible fairly clearly defines the purposes of miracles as it related to the character and life of Jesus.

A second purpose of miracles was…to authenticate the message about Jesus. This was the major function of miracles as far as the ministry of the apostles was concerned. Mark 16:20 tells us that the Lord "confirmed the word that the apostles preached by the signs that accompanied it." When Luke described the ministry of Paul and Barnabas at Iconium, he said that the Lord "confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders." (Acts 14:3)

Notice that in both of these texts the Lord does not confirm the apostles themselves, but rather "his word" or "the message" that the apostles were preaching. In fact, when I looked up all of these references, I found that not one reference ever said or implied that miracles bore witness to the apostles, or attested to the apostles.

God always wants all attention directed to His Son. The work of the Holy Spirit, whether through spiritual gifts or not, is to exalt Jesus Christ. God is not interested in bearing witness to His servants, but rather to His Son and the message about his Son.

When it comes to the miracles which result from the charismatic gifts, the Bible gives us yet another reason for them.

Thirdly, the purpose of spiritual gifts is to serve, or edify, the body of Christ

1 Corinthians 12:7 NIV

7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

1 Corinthians 14:26 (NIV) adds

26 What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

What we have learned so far is that the purposes of miracles and signs and wonders, including the use of supernatural spiritual gifts are:

1. They testify to the character Christ and his relationship with the Father,

2. They are to be used by God to confirm the gospel message,

3. They are to edify and serve the body of Christ.

I would also suggest that all these are necessary as much today as when Jesus and the apostles were alive.

Let's answer another of the questions we asked earlier. Were the supernatural charismatic gifts only the possession of the apostles in the Bible?

If the primary, or only, purpose of signs and wonders and miracles was to confirm the apostles, then why did Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Philip do signs and wonders? (Acts 8:6, 7, 13) And why was Agabus used in the supernatural gift of a prophet? Additionally, Paul indicates, in 1 Corinthians 1:7, that all these gifts were operative among the members of the Corinthian church.

And, from Galatians 3:5, we find those within the local body gifted in the ministry miracles and signs. And what about when Jesus sent out the 72 - not just the 12 apostles. Luke 10:9 says they were granted authority by Jesus to "heal the sick" wherever they went. And when they returned, they said "Lord, even the demons were subject to us in your name" (Luke 10:17). These miracles in Jesus' name show that the apostolic signs and wonders are not unique to the apostles.

What about the unnamed man in Luke 9, who is casting out demons? And what is meant by Luke 9:49-50 (NIV)?

49 "Master," said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us."
50 "Do not stop him," Jesus said, "for whoever is not against you is for you."

Here we have an anonymous man who was doing something that only Jesus and His disciples thus far had been empowered to do - driving out demons. Why does Mark include this story? What is he trying to tell us? Whatever else the reason may have been, he certainly is an exception to the theory that only the apostles did miracles. The miracles certainly were not for the purpose of authenticating the apostles. Here we have a person that Jesus says is "for us." But he was not an apostles, as indicated by John's statement: "he is not one of us."

Tongues in the Book of Acts

If you looked at the book of Acts to find the supernatural gifts in operation, I think it would put to rest the idea that only the apostles were active in these gifts. In the book of Acts, we find 3 occasions where people spoke in tongues as well as two other occasions where speaking in tongues is implied. And in all cases except for Acts 2, those speaking in tongues were not apostles. And if you look at the Acts 2 - the day of Pentecost - you find 108 people beside the apostles in the upper room where, we are told, they all spoke in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Prophecy in the Book of Acts

The book of Acts also mentions a number of people who exercised the gift of prophecy.

o The prophet Agabus (Acts 11:28; 21:10-11)

o The five individuals in Acts 13:1, not all of whom were apostles.

o The prophets Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32)

o The disciples at Tyre who "through the spirit…..urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem." (Acts 21:4)

o Philip's four unmarried daughters (Acts 21:9)

o Ananias (Acts 9:10-19)

Now you can add Stephen and Philip to the list, for they each had a ministry of miracles, signs and wonders. Ananias not only prophesied, but was active in a number of gifts.

o Healing of Paul's blind eye.
o Word of Knowledge, knowing that Paul's future was to suffer for the name of Christ.
o Word of Wisdom, knowing what to do and where to go with the information revealed to him.

In addition to these, it was when Ananias laid hands on Paul that he received the Holy Spirit.

If the Charismatic gifts were given only to apostles to authenticate their ministries, why does Luke mention miracles in Acts in the ministries of only 2 apostles - Paul & Peter, but also mentioned more than a dozen others, who were not part of the Twelve or Paul, but still had ministries where miracles and other gifts were present. You could also add those who exercised charismatic spiritual gifts who were not apostles. This would include being used by God in prophecy, tongues, healings, miracles, etc. Included would be the 108 non-apostles on the Day of Pentecost that spoke in tongues. Also, this would include the Corinthian believers, who experienced all the gifts. And how about Cornelius and others at Caesarea.

I think it is quite clear that there are many exceptions to the theory that the miraculous gifts were for the purpose of authenticating the apostles.

To summarize, if the primary purpose of miraculous gifts was to authenticate the apostles, then why did any one else have a ministry of signs and wonders? Since signs and wonders were not the unique prerogative of the apostles, there is no New Testament warrant for inferring that these miracles were to cease after the apostolic age.

Other questions that naturally arise out of this discussions are:

o Why did God give gifts of healing and miracles to the church at all if they were only to authenticate the apostles?

o Why are the lists of spiritual gifts all within a context of the body of Christ, if in fact the body was not to function in these gifts - only apostles?

o Why would Paul spend so much time giving instruction on the use of spiritual gifts if he knew that they were only to be operative for less than one generation?

To those cessationists who believe that the spiritual gifts were for the first generation church, but also admit they were operative within the local New Testament congregations I have yet another question. What were the purposes of the gifts in the local bodies, and aren't these purposes still needed in the body today?

Let's review once again the statement of the cessationist which we are addressing. "The primary purpose of New Testament miracles was to authenticate the apostles as trustworthy authors of Holy Scriptures." Let's look at the last half of this statement.

None of the writers of Scripture ever appealed to miracles to support their claims that they were writing Scripture. They certainly knew that they were writing Scripture. For instance, Paul wrote, "if anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord's command" (1 Cor. 14:37). But Paul never appealed to the miracles in his ministry to support the fact that he was writing Scripture. Nor did Peter, when he referred to Paul's writings as Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16.

One question that has to be addressed by the cessationist is this: If the primary purpose of miracles and signs and wonders was to authenticate the apostles as trustworthy human authors of Scripture, why is it that we have at least three authors who were not apostles, and who are never recorded in the Bible as having miracles in their ministry.

WHAT AUTHORS OF NEW TESTAMENT BOOKS WERE NOT APOSTLES?

Mark - Gospel of Mark
Luke - Gospel of Luke, Acts of the Apostles
Jude - Epistle of Jude (Jude is the Lord's brother)

We don't know who is the author of the book of Hebrews.

All of these were not apostles, and none of them have recorded miracles. And yet, we do not give less authority to these books than the books of Paul and Peter. If the authority of Scripture rests on miracles, then these writings would of necessity have less authority.

Orthodox Christian theology has long held that the authority of Scripture does not rest in miracles. But rather, the authority of Scripture rests on its author - God.

Westminster Confession of Faith (1646)

"The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God, the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God." (1.4)

Miracles are not a test of the Scriptures. It is just the opposite - Scriptures test miracles. Notice what Luke records in Acts 14:3.

3 Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.

Here, we are told that signs and wonders are God's witness to His Word. They are not in competition with the Word.

Let me end our lesson today with a story from history. Those who support the cessationist position often quote from one of the early church fathers. Augustine of Hippo was an extensive theological writer and apologist. He was born in A.D. 354 in the north African city of Tagaste - in what today is called Algeria. The city of Hippo Regius, where Augustine became the bishop, is today called Annaba, Algeria.

His most voluminous writing is "The City of God," which is 22 volumes in length. In it, he deals with God, martyrdom, Jews, and other Christian philosophy. Its title - The City of God - has to do with New Jerusalem, which he refers to as the Christian's mystical and spiritual residence.

He admits in his writings that he is influenced by what he saw or didn't see in the Christian community. And since Jesus hadn't physically returned in more than 300 years, he develops an end-time prophetic scenario that sees the coming of Christ as spiritual. Christ then is not going to reign for a literal thousand years, but His coming is spiritual and we already have residence in this spiritual city.

This is what is known today as Amillennialism, which began with the teaching of Augustine. And he had a great influence upon the Roman Catholic Church, which, to this day, hold to an amillennial view. Not only did Augustine formulate this position because he couldn't imagine Christ waiting 300 years before returning to the earth. But also, early in his Christian life, he becomes the father of the cessationist view of miracle. Again, he admits this is influenced by the lack of observable miracles in the church of his day.

Later in life, he would change his positions, but what was published couldn't be unpublished. One position was that of Cessationism. This was because he began to see spectacular miracles in his church at Hippo.

I quote from "Voices of Pentecost" written by Vinson Synan - page 16.

"One year on Easter Sunday, a notable miracle took place in his church in Hippo. A young man named Paulus was healed of convulsions before the eyes of the congregation. The next day his sister Palladia was also healed [of another manady]. The following description of the moments just after the healings is one of the most vivid scenes in all the literature of the early church fathers."

(From writings of Augustine) "Then everyone burst into a prayer of thankfulness to God. The entire church rang with the clamor of rejoicing."

"Augustine took the young man in his arms and tenderly kissed him. The congregation had a similar response the next day when Paulus' sister was healed in a similar way. Augustine continues his own eye-witness description: "Such wonder rose up from men and women together that the exclamations and tears seemed as if they would never come to an end….[The People] shouted God's praise without [normal] words, but with such a noise that our ears could scarcely stand it."

This is reminiscent of early Pentecostal prayer and healing meetings that took place in the early part of the twentieth century.

   
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