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Signs and Wonders: Then and Now (2)

By John Piper, Desiring God

Part 2: Signs and Wonders and “the Signs of the Apostle”

In the previous section I argued that when the early Christians prayed for signs and wonders (Acts 4:30) they were not “evil and adulterous;” nor were they abandoning the centrality of the preaching of the cross. Signs and wonders witnessed to the word of grace (Acts 14:3); they did not replace it. They did not save; they helped open people to the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation.

Another objection raised against signs and wonders is that those who pursue them do not take seriously the futility of a fallen world, the Christian call to suffer, and the “not yet” of the kingdom. This is a very important objection because we do live in a fallen and futile world (Romans 8:21-22). We groan in bodies that will not be redeemed before the second coming (Romans 8:23). The power of Christ is made perfect in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22). And our afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).

The answer to this objection is that signs and wonders happen within ministerial suffering, not instead of it.

Notice that all the texts quoted in the preceding paragraph about the place of suffering came from Paul. That’s not surprising, because at the very beginning of his ministry Jesus said,

“I will show [Paul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).

Paul’s life was one long experience of suffering – physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally.

So we ask: Did this make signs and wonders inconsistent in his ministry? No.

He summed up his ministry like this: “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Romans 15:18-19)

In other words, a life of suffering and a ministry of signs and wonders were not inconsistent for the apostle. C. K. Barrett put it like this in his Commentary on 2 Corinthians:

“Miracles were no contradiction of the theology of the cross which Paul proclaimed and practised, since they were performed not in a context of triumphant success and prosperity, but in the midst of the distress and vilification he was obliged to endure” (p. 321).

What this means is that many high-living healers today are far from the spirit of Paul.

But it also means that the prayer for signs and wonders today is not necessarily a denial of the Biblical call to suffering. Paul’s ministry (not to mention Jesus’) proves that. If we see a man in a wheelchair performing a healing ministry for others, let us not be among the number who stand back and say the ominous words, “Physician, heal thyself.” Paul’s “thorn” no doubt pressed deeper with every healing he performed.

Now the question rises: Were the miracles of Paul the unique “sign of an apostle”? Should we refrain from praying for signs and wonders today, since they were meant to authenticate the authority of the apostles who were the once-for-all foundation of the church? (Ephesians. 2:20)

In 2 Corinthians 12:11-12 Paul is defending his apostleship. He says,

“I am not at all inferior to these superlative apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of the apostle were performed among you in all patience by signs and wonders and miracles.”

Note the wording carefully. The “signs of the apostle” are not equated with signs and wonders. The “signs of the apostle” are done “by (or with) signs and wonders and miracles.” (Beware: the NIV misses the Greek construction entirely!)

This probably means that “signs and wonders and miracles” were part of the validating work of God in Paul’s life, but by no means the whole of it.

For example, Paul calls the transforming power of his preaching the “seal of apostleship”: “Am I not an apostle? . . . You [my converts] are the seal of my apostleship” (1 Corinthians 9:1-2; see also 2 Corinthians 3:2).

He also says that the way he works without asking for pay is a way of showing his authenticity (2 Corinthians 11:7-12); and all the sufferings he endures for the gospel are mentioned as evidence of his vindication over the “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:22-33).

Charles Hodge suggests eight evidences of apostleship which may be included in “the signs of the apostle” (Commentary on 2nd Corinthians, p. 291).

The text does not require that “signs and wonders” be unique to the apostles.

For example, if I say, “The sign of a professional biker is strong thighs,” I do not mean that no non-professionals have strong thighs. I only mean that professionals do, and when taken together with other evidences, this can help you know that a person is a professional biker. Paul is not saying that only apostles can perform signs and wonders. He is saying that apostles certainly can, and together with other things this will help the Corinthians know that he is a true apostle.

Consider an analogy with the miracle-working of Jesus:

Was it a sign of his messiahship? Yes it was. In Matthew 11:2 John the Baptist’s disciples asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus’ answer was, “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” In other words, it would be fair to say that the miracles of Jesus were “the signs of messiahship.”

Nevertheless in Matthew 10:8 Jesus commissions the twelve and says, “Preach as you go saying, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” They were to do the miracles he was doing. But this does not prove that each of the twelve was the messiah. So somehow the miracles of Jesus could evidence his messiahship even though non-messiahs could do them. The reason is that the miracles themselves are only part of the evidence. Taken together with other things, they confirm his messiahship. So it is with “the signs of the apostle”. It is not that only apostles can do them, but that they are a crucial part of the evidence.

There are good Biblical reasons for thinking that signs and wonders are not meant by God to be unique to the apostles. I’ll mention four.

  • Jesus sent out the seventy, not just the twelve apostles, “to heal the sick” (Luke 10:9). And when they returned, they said that the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name (Luke 10:17). These miracles in Jesus’ name show that apostolic signs and wonders are not unique to the apostles.
  • In the book of Acts, Stephen “did great signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 6:8), even though he was in the “deacon” category not the apostle category (Acts 6:5). Similarly it says that “the multitudes gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did” (Acts 8:6). Philip was not an apostle, but performed miraculous signs.
  • Paul writes to all the churches of Galatia and says, “Does he who is supplying the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:5). The point is that God is now supplying his Spirit to the Galatians and working miracles among them when he is not there. Hans Dieter Betz notes that “the [present] participle ‘supplying’ (epichoregon) suggests a continuous supply rather than an initial and momentary ‘outpouring‘” (Hermenia, Galatians, p. 135). And Ernest Burton says, “In view of the dative ‘to you’ after ‘supplies,’ the ‘miracles’ must be supposed to have been wrought not principally by Paul but by the Galatians themselves, as 1 Corinthians 12:10,28,29 imply was the case among the Corinthians” (I.C.C., Galatians, p. 152). Peter Masters does not adequately deal with this grammatical fact when he says that these miracles refer to Paul’s own miracles which he had worked among the Galatians when he was recently among them (The Healing Epidemic, p. 134). Burton also wrestles with our very question concerning “the signs of the apostle” and astutely observes, “2 Corinthians 12:12 indeed suggests that such things were signs of the apostle, yet probably not in the sense that he only wrought them but that the dunameis of the apostle were in some way more notable, or that they constituted a part of the evidence of his apostleship” (Galatians, p. 152)
  • Finally, 1 Corinthians 12:9-10 says that among the spiritual gifts given to the members of the church at Corinth were “gifts of healings” and “workings of miracles.” Thus (as Burton suggested) such “signs and wonders” were not the “sign of the apostle” in the sense that only apostles could do them. Various gifted members of the church were also empowered in these ways as well. This is confirmed in verses 27-29, where these gifts are distinguished from the gift of apostleship

Therefore, if signs and wonders were not limited in function to validating the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, but rather had a role in the edifying and evangelistic work of the church in general, then there is good reason to trust God for their proper use today.

In the next section we will see that the New Testament calls for this very thing.

To be continued..

One comment on “Signs and Wonders: Then and Now (2)

  1. Mass email from Ryan LeStrange in Bristol, Va. He claims to be an apostle and was mentored by Norvel Hayes. He is originally from CA and claims to have been up and coming in the entertainment/tv industry when he heard God’s call to preach. I have attended his church. He is a nice person, but very loud preacher and into the typical “charismatic” manifestations: slain in the spirit, word of faith, loud repetitive worship, ‘prophecy’…. Also big on apostles and five fold ministry.

    I believe there are hundreds of pastors “out there” like this. Really into “charismania”. Working hard at outreach etc, but are their teachings and practices sound?

    I would like feedback/insight into the message below. It seems off,though it does contain some truth.

    I didn’t know exactly what catagory to post this under so I put it here.

    We’re looking for a few good young men and women to commit 10 months to study, work in our ministry, travel the world with us and learn how to shake the nations with the power of GOD.

    Pastor Ryan In Europe

    You can follow Pastor Ryan’s Ministry trip by going to our website. We will be posting pictures and updates from the services under “Ministry News.”

    May 31 – June 9

    Pastor Ryan’s Itinerary

    5/31- River City Church, L.Derry, Ireland
    6/1- River City Church, L.Derry, Ireland
    6/2- Hope International Christian Fellowship, Belfast, Ireland
    6/4-6/5- Lithuania
    6/6-6/9- Word of Life Church, Zagreb,Croatia
    6/14-6/20- Saturate Youth Conference- Pigeon Forge, TN
    8/15- IIAF Pastor’s Conference- Santa Ana, El Salvador
    Spiritual Indentity III

    Jeremiah 1:4…Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.

    The call on Jeremiah’s life came before he was born. He was handcrafted for a specific purpose, a call. Those things that you try to change in yourself were formed in your mother’s belly to go along with the assignment. Of course there are things in our characters that need to be developed. But we are trying to be and God says quit trying to be, you simply are. God formed you, God made you for the assignment upon your life. You are born with a spiritual identity that is as real as your natural identity. Your natural DNA caused you to have blue eyes, your spiritual DNA causes your call to be formed in you. When you analyze the events of your life and your characteristics, your call becomes even clearer. When we discover who we are everything falls into place. Just like when you are born, you are either male or female, you grow into a man or woman. You are born with a destiny, you grow into the assignment. You grow into the gifting, but you are born with it. Some of you are resisting. You are trying to fit a mold, to be something you were never created to be. You don’t have to work to be whatever God’s called you to be, you are that.

    There are SEVEN DIMENSIONS of God being released into our lives and one of these is the dominate spiritual gift in your life.

    I Corinthians 12:28….And God has set them in the church…..

    God sets them…

    We’ve got to be where God sets us. When God sets you, people recognize the setting and the settling of God. When God sets you, it will all fall into place.

    First, apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles (the office of evangelist), gifts of healings (pastoral office), helps (helps other five dimensions of God…service or financial gospel entrepreneurs), governments (church organizers), varieties of tongues (brings us to understanding of other dimensions).
    The five-fold ministry gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, are offices God sets you in. This office then becomes your full time vocation and the thrust of everything you do.

    Pastoral people love other people. They love to be with the sheep. When you are going through something they will feel your hurt, feel your pain. They will throw their arms around you and love on you. These are the ones that can tell you a story for an hour. Pastoral people will sit with you for hours, they are driven by the needs of people.

    Apostolic people are doers, builders, list makers and accomplishers. They are sent people. They are visionaries. They are short listeners as their minds move quickly. They like to do three or four things at once. They are never satisfied with where they are at because they have a vision of where they need to go. They should be influencing regions, a people group or a nation because they are sent to somebody. They are so compelled by the sending call that it drives them through their life. They are very task driven people.

    Prophetic people live to pray and hear from God. They see the dominate problem in people’s lives as a lack of hearing from God. Their avenue of helping people is to give them what God says. A prophetic person is god-minded, not people minded so much. They see the answer to every problem in the word of God. Prophetic people do not make good pastors. They tend to be harsh and bold.

    Evangelists are people who live to see the good news go out. They view church not as an assembly but a group of people that need to get outside of the four walls and help people. Evangelists are not real good maintainers. They’re good at starting a fire, but not good at keeping it going.

    Teachers are word-oriented people. They have typed, organized notes. They tell you the Hebrew, Greek and definition of every word. Teachers address problems by the word of God. They’ll give you a systematic plan to get you out of your problem.

    Helps people are servants. These people are probably the most needed gift in the Body of Christ. The five-fold ministries would crumble and die if they did not have helps people. Helps are people compelled to serve and compelled to finance the gospel.

    Governments are organizational giftings in the Body of Christ. Typically they are not real spiritual people. They are not people that will press to get a word from God. These are the people who are going to come in and organize the spiritual vision. They are the people that can put a plan together for an outreach or event. When they hear the vision they immediately begin to formulate a plan to carry out the vision. These are the problem solvers, the solution people. They are not negative people because they always see the way to make it happen.

    One of these seven dimensions is operating in your life. Some of you are frustrated because you are not putting on your coat of many colors. We must embrace our calling and spiritual identity to be effective.

    Ephesians 1:1….Paul announces the office from which he is speaking.So that they knew what to receive from him, he identified himself.

    We must come at your spiritual assignment by embracing your spiritual identity. Why do we struggle with our spiritual identity? We are scared because of the curse of the law. The law said God can’t use you unless you do this and this and this. No human could fulfill the law. The minute we are confronted with our spiritual identity, if our mind is not renewed in the word of God it goes to shame. We all have a dark place, something we struggle with that hinders us from flowing in our spiritual assignment. We overcome through the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony.We struggle with inadequacy. We struggle with our past. We struggle with our lack of abilities. God himself stood in front of Jeremiah with his call and Jeremiah’s first words were why he couldn’t fulfill that call, bringing up his inadequacies.

    The spiritual identity in us CAN do it!

    Gal 3:6…Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.

    Did Abraham have right standing with God because he was without sin? No. He had it because he believed God. When we stand before God and tell him we believe what He’s called us to do we are in right standing. We are telling Him we believe what He says about us. How do we flow in our assignment? We believe God. We were built to do our assignment. The way we get in right standing with God is by our faith, not by our works. Faith will produce works but works without faith is dead religion. We get frustrated when we become religious. We have been justified by faith. We cannot work hard enough to deserve our calling but we can walk by faith and walk in our calling. When we put on our spiritual identity we put on the blessings of God, we put on the favor of God, we put on the glorious and divine connections that will propel us into our destinies. If we sit on the sideline and receive the lie that we are not good enough then we block the blessings. When we get our minds renewed and put on our coat of many colors we get ourselves in position for the blessing.

    Put on your coat and tell God you believe Him.

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