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..