Many today claim to be able to work miracles of one sort or another, and many more claim to be endowed with the sign-gifts that believers had in apostolic days. These claims often cause doubts and anxieties to arise in the minds of believers who do not possess such abilities. In the light of this, we do well to turn to the Scriptures of truth, so that we may be given guidance on these important and pressing issues.
DEFINITION OF MIRACLES
Miracles have been defined as “works of a supernatural origin and character, such as could not be produced by natural agents and means”. W.E.Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament words. They are exceptions to normal events, which occur due to the intervention of a power beyond natural power.
We must beware of devaluing the word miracle by using it of happenings which are simply out of the ordinary, or merely coincidences, or take place at a particularly opportune moment. We must also beware of labelling as miraculous, events which would have occurred anyway. An example of this would be illnesses that are known to go into remission naturally. An event does not become a miracle because it is an answer to prayer.
The apostle Peter coupled three words together in the phrase “miracles and wonders and signs”, Acts 2:22. The second of these words expresses the effect the miracle had upon those involved. At best, in the case of miracles wrought by Christ and the apostles, those around would be constrained to believe on the Lord Jesus. As He said in John 14:11 “Believe Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me: or else believe Me for the very works’ sake”. (Note that belief in Himself is the goal in each case; it is not “believe Me or else believe the works”). At worst, there were those who responded to Christ’s miracles by wanting to make Him king simply because He could multiply loaves. He withdrew from such, John 6:15.
This word reminds us that the miracles had a lesson to teach, they had sign-ificance. They were not simply acts of mercy and compassion, but doctrine made visible in vivid ways. We see this especially in John 6, where the Lord’s long discourse on the Bread of Life is based on His miracle of feeding the five thousand.
Summarising, we may say that a miracle is an event beyond the normal, with an effect beyond the usual, giving expression to things beyond the natural.
We must always remember that Satan is able to imitate God’s work to a certain extent, as Moses and Aaron discovered in Exodus 7:11,12,22. See also 2 Timothy 3:8,9. This will come to a climax at the end times, when the Lawless One is revealed “whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders….” 2 Thessalonians 2:8,9. Note that in this case the wonders are lying wonders, for they do not further the truth of God, but rather, the Devil’s lie.
A WORD OF WARNING
The current obsession in charismatic circles with happenings which are out-of-the-ordinary is conditioning professing Christians to look for exhilarating experiences, instead of being built up by the exposition of the Word of God. It is part of Satan’s New Age strategy to influence the minds of men so that they give themselves over to spirit forces, and so further his end. His object is to draw believers away from the written revelation of the Word of God, and attract them to “spiritual” experiences.
THE MIRACLES OF CHRIST
Christ’s miracles were a witness to His own person. Those performed by the apostles witnessed to His person, too. They were certainly not performed to bear witness to themselves. See Acts 3:12; 14:8-18. They also were one of the ways in which God confirmed certain vitally important truths, as we shall see.
(I) THE WITNESS TO HIS PERSON AS THE SON OF GOD
John chapter 5 contains Christ’s first public discourse as far as John’s record goes. Significantly, it concerns His Deity, and is preceded by the healing of the impotent man on the Sabbath day. The Lord Jesus establishes His authority for healing on the day of rest by saying “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work”, verse 17. The Jews understood very well what He was claiming by this statement, even “That God was His (own) Father, making Himself equal with God”, verse 18.
Later, in John 5:31-39, the Lord Jesus spoke of four witnesses to His person, these being John the Baptist, verse 33; the works which the Father had given Him to finish, verse 36; the Father, who bore witness at His baptism, verse 37; and finally the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures, verse 39.
So the works which the Father had given to Christ to do were a testimony to the genuineness of His person, that He was indeed the Son of God. Hence John appeals to them in John 20:31 as the reason why men should believe.
The apostle Peter also appealed to the miracles and wonders and signs performed by Christ, but his purpose was to show that He was approved of God, Acts 2:22. So whether it is a question of His person or His character, the matter is settled when the testimony of the miracles is received.
(2) THE WITNESS TO HIS PERSON AS THE CHRIST, OR MESSIAH OF ISRAEL
Not only did John record the miracles of Christ that we might believe that He is the Son of God, but also that we might know He is the long-promised Christ, or Messiah, John 20:31. The prophets had told of the Messiah as one who would come to bring in what the Jews called “the age to come”, when He would reign over them from Jerusalem. Hebrews 6:5 describes the miracles of Christ as the “powers of the world (age) to come”. Isaiah had written that in the time of the kingdom, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as the hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing, Isaiah 35:5,6. The fact that these things did indeed happen when Christ was here, is proof positive that He is the Messiah.
So the miracles Christ did were not only expressions of compassion, but powerful and indisputable witness as to who He was. So confident is the apostle John of this witness, that, guided by the Spirit of God, he bases on it his appeal to his readers to believe that Jesus is the Christ, that no less a gift than eternal life may be theirs.
THE MIRACLES OF THE APOSTLES AND OTHER SIGN-GIFTS
(I) CONFIRMATION OF CHRIST’S PRESENCE IN HEAVEN
The resurrection and exaltation of Christ was confirmed by things that could be seen and heard, Acts 2:32,33. The seen things were the tongues of fire that sat upon each of the apostles. The heard things were the spoken tongues or languages which the apostles were miraculously able to use when speaking to the foreign Jews who had gathered at Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost.
Note that Peter quotes from Joel 2 in his address on that occasion, not because all the events that passage mentions were coming to pass then, but because Joel spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and also the opportunity to call upon the name of the Lord for salvation. Those two things, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, and the salvation of some in Israel, were what were relevant at that time. Note also that Peter does not quote from the Old Testament passage which expressly speaks of tongues, namely Isaiah 28:11, because that was not so appropriate at that time.
(2) CONFIRMATION OF THE PREACHING OF THE APOSTLES
The prophecy of the Lord Jesus in Mark 16:17,18, was that certain signs would follow them that believe. What had been foretold indeed came to pass, for when Mark summarises the book of the Acts for us in verses 19 and 20, he writes in the past tense, and then ends with the words “confirming the word with (by means of) signs following”. So the signs manifested in apostolic days were a confirmation from the Lord in heaven that what was preached was indeed God’s word.
With this agree the words of Hebrews 2:1-4, where the writer identifies three lines of testimony. First, that of the Lord Himself when here, as He spoke of “so great salvation”. Second, when those who heard Him confirmed to others what they had been taught, and third, when God bore witness to both these testimonies by enabling signs and wonders to be performed, giving added proof that what the apostles preached was of God.
(3) CONFIRMATION THAT NON- JEWS HAVE RECEIVED THE HOLY SPIRIT
Apart from the initial pouring out of the Spirit on Jews only in Acts 2, there were certain groups that were dealt with separately by God, because they were special cases.
The Samaritans. These were potentially a cause of friction amongst the believers, if they allowed the enmity between themselves and the Jews to spill over into their new life in Christ. “The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans”, John 4:9. Hence in Acts 8:14-17, Peter and John are sent to Samaria to personally and directly lay hands on those who had believed from amongst the Samaritan nation, that they might receive the Holy Spirit after a delay. That delay was not normal, since the moment a person believes and receives the gospel the Holy Spirit is given. We know this from Galatians 3:2, where the apostle indicates that the Spirit is given when a person hears in faith. (The indwelling of the Spirit of God is never presented to us in the New Testament. as something that can be earned, but rather the gracious gift of God the moment true faith is exercised). But the Samaritan situation was not normal, given the bad relations between the two nations, so an unusual procedure was followed. And because the apostles themselves laid hands on the Samaritan believers that they might receive the Holy Spirit, they did not need confirmation of the fact, and therefore we do not read that the Samaritan believers responded by speaking in tongues. They may have done so, but we are not expressly told.
The Gentiles. Peter had needed a vision from the Lord to convince him that it was indeed the Lord’s purpose to call Gentiles to faith. He had taken certain believers with him on his visit to Cornelius in order that they might be fellow-witnesses of what took place. This was a wise precaution, for afterwards Peter was criticized for his actions. These fellow-believers who companied with Peter were astonished that upon the Gentiles the Holy Spirit had been poured out, Acts 10:45. But how did they know this? Verse 46 begins with “for”, they knew they had received the Spirit “for they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God”. Hence, again, the speaking in tongues is audible proof of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The disciples of John. In Acts 19, the apostle Paul came across disciples of John the Baptist, who did not know that the Holy Spirit had been given at Pentecost. Having heard of the Lord Jesus from Paul, they believed and were baptized. Having received the Holy Spirit by the laying on of his hands, they spoke with tongues and prophesied. No doubt this was a great encouragement to them, confirming that they had been right to cross over from allegiance to John to faith in Christ, a step John would have encouraged, see John 1:35-37; 3:25-30.
We see then that various special groups are dealt with by God in ways that are not regular. Since they are special cases, they do not provide precedents for today. Believers today receive the Holy Spirit the moment they believe, and do not need any to lay hands on them before this can happen. Nor is the supposed speaking in tongues of some today, any evidence that they possess the Spirit of God. After all, the devil-worshipping “Whirling Dervishes” of the Middle East utter sounds indistinguishable from modern tongues-speaking!
(4) CONFIRMATION OF JUDGEMENT UPON UNBELIEF
God had warned Israel of the penalty of unbelief, namely that a foreign power would carry them away, and they would hear strange languages spoken by their captors, Deuteronomy 28:45-51. He warned the people of the same danger in Isaiah 28:11. The judgement fell when the Assyrians took the ten tribes into captivity. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:21,22, used these Scriptures to show that tongues-speaking was a sign from God to those who believe not, just as the “tongues-speaking” of the Assyrians had been to unbelieving, idol-worshipping Israel in Isaiah’s day.
Clearly the things that are confirmed by the gift of tongues were new at the time. The gospel of a crucified and risen Christ; His ascension to heaven; the pouring out of the Spirit on the Gentiles; the particularly grave sin of rejecting a Saviour who had been received back into heaven, these were all fresh and different matters, and God graciously confirmed their reality by the exhibition of miracles. Once this confirmation has been done, it does not need to be repeated, or else doubt is cast upon the original confirmation, and upon the Scriptures which record it.
It is an historical fact that sign-gifts did cease. Chrysostom, the well-known “church father”, was unable to find them practised in his day. The onus is upon those who claim to perform miracles and speak in tongues today, to prove from Scripture that their return at the end of the age is to be expected. They should also offer evidence that what they do is identical in character to the signs of the apostolic age, and is accompanied by a strict adherence to apostolic doctrine and practice.
THE NATURE OF THE SIGN GIFTS Miracles and other signs did have an important role to play in the days when the record of the New Testament was not complete. They are listed for us in three passages. In Mark 16:17,18, we read of the casting out of demons, speaking with new tongues, taking up of serpents, drinking of deadly things without harm, and the laying of hands on the sick, so that they recovered. Further on, in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, we find mention of the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, divers kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. A further two, namely helps and governments, are found in 1 Corinthians 12:28.
God never wastes time or energy on mere entertainment. Each of these gifts had great usefulness. A brief notice of each will make this clear. The gifts of Mark 16:17,18 are mentioned in connection with the command of the Lord Jesus to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. It is no surprise, then, to find that they are especially of use in pioneer evangelism.
(I) GIFTS OF USE IN EVANGELISM
When God embarks upon a new phase in His dealings with men, Satan is always ready with his opposition, which often takes the form of demon activity. This, however, was no problem to an evangelist penetrating a new area with the gospel, for he could cast out demons, being gifted to do so. He had no language problem, either, for he could speak with new tongues. By ” new” is meant “unaccustomed”; that is, the one speaking was not used to the language, it was not his native dialect. It does not mean new in the sense of newly-invented.
Hacking his way through the jungle, he inadvertently disturbs a sleeping cobra. But this is no problem, either, for he can handle serpents! Thirsty and hungry from his exertions, he drinks contaminated water, and eats the fruit of a poisonous tree, yet comes to no harm. He finds himself in a clearing, where malaria-ridden natives huddle in their mud huts. Imagine the effect upon these poor souls as he touches the untouchable, and they instantly recover. What an introduction for the evangelist as he brings to them the gospel!
Notice that this man does not need to learn a language, or take a course in a school of tropical medicine, or learn botany, to prepare him for his mission, for he had been gifted by God. But where is the missionary today who is so fitted? He does not exist, for the simple reason that these gifts have been withdrawn in the wisdom of God.
(2) GIFTS OF USE IN THE ASSEMBLY
The gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are useful too, but most of them in connection with the gatherings of God’s people, as again we might expect given the context in which they are found.
THE GIFTS OF WISDOM AND KNOWLEDGE
How valuable a word of wisdom would have been in those early days when so many new things were happening, and before the scriptures of the New Testament were written. Of course there was the written wisdom of the Old Testament, but it was not always relevant to the new conditions prevailing at that time. So, too, the word of knowledge, insight directly from God on a particular, and perhaps strictly local problem.
THE GIFT OF FAITH
The tremendous challenges of those days would need to be met by men with the gift of faith, who could “move mountains” so that the work of God could go forward. Needless to say, this faith is not saving faith, which is the common possession of all the people of God.
THE GIFTS OF HEALING AND MIRACLES
There were those with the gift of healing, (but with no mention of the laying on of hands), who like Paul in Acts 19:11,12, could heal from a distance. This gift is distinguished from that of working of miracles, for whereas healing was a beneficial thing, sometimes miracles of judgement were necessary to preserve the testimony, as in Acts 5:5-11 and Acts 13:8-12. The raising of the dead would also be classed as a miracle, rather than an act of healing.
THE GIFT OF PROPHECY
The gift of prophecy, or the forth-telling of the mind of God, was vitally necessary if the saints were to be built up in Christian doctrine. The believers could not open their Bibles and find, say, Ephesians 3, for it had not yet been written. Nor could the apostles be everywhere at once to personally teach the saints. Hence the man gifted with insight into the mind of God filled a very real need.
THE GIFT OF DISCERNING OF SPIRITS
In those days there was no lack of imposters, and in order that the companies of the Lord’s people be not infiltrated by these, this gift was very necessary, so that the fraudulent might be kept out.
THE GIFTS OF TONGUES AND INTERPRETATION OF TONGUES
In the pioneer situation envisaged above in connection with Mark 16, the interpretation of tongues was not needed, for those addressed would all be of the same tongue. The same would be the case on the Day of Pentecost, for each nationality could gather round the particular apostle that was miraculously speaking their language.
In the assembly gatherings at Corinth, however, there might be several languages represented in the one company, especially as Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, and near to the sea-port of Cenchrea. If a brother began to speak the truth of God in the language of one of these groups, the fact that that group could testify to hearing their own language spoken accurately, (even though the speaker did not know the language), was in itself part of the object of that gift; it was a sign that God was at work. But all things, according to 1 Corinthians 14:26, must be unto edifying, and so far only the minority that knows the tongue has been edified. There needs to be, then, the interpretation of that particular tongue, for the benefit of the rest.
THE GIFT OF HELPS AND GOVERNMENTS
As time went by, there would arise administrative needs such as distribution to the poor, so it was very necessary for some to be gifted with practical and organisational skills to enable this to be done without the work of preaching being held up.
THE EXERCISE OF THE GIFTS
A reading of 1 Corinthians 14 will show clearly that the gifts, particularly of prophecy and tongues, were to be exercised with dignity and restraint. For instance, the maximum number allowed to speak in tongues during a meeting was three, verse 27, and that by course, or one after the other. The spectacle of large numbers of people all speaking with tongues at the same time, would raise questions as to their sanity, verse 23.
The situation was similar with regard to the gift of prophecy. Verses 32 and 33 make it clear that those who were gifted in this way did not abandon self-control, (which after all is a fruit of the Spirit, Galatians 5:23), but in an orderly and becoming way they edified the gathered saints. If a revelation was given to a prophet sitting alongside the current speaker, then the latter was well able to hold his peace and defer to the other.
“Let all things be done decently and in order”, is the final word of the apostle in chapter 14, for “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints”, verse 33. It is sadly true that many gatherings of those who claim to possess these gifts today, have not been notable for orderliness or dignity. This raises serious doubts as to the validity of what they claim.
“THE TORONTO BLESSING”
The current obsession with this phenomenon is a very grave matter. Far from being a repeat of apostolic practice, there is every indication that earnest, unsuspecting souls are being subjected to hypnosis in the name of Christ. If this is what is happening, then it is outrageous, because the unbelieving public looks on, and finds that what they think of as Christianity, is represented by those who seem intent on making fools of themselves, instead of preaching Christ.
It is said that 90% of the population can be hypnotised without much difficulty. Any run-of-the-mill secular hypnotist can induce feelings of being washed clean, of peace, of tingling sensations, of feelings of energy passing through the body, of seeing bright lights and so on. He can make people lay down, go stiff, laugh uncontrollably, and also heal minor ailments like migraine and back pain. And all this without the power of the Holy Spirit at all! Just unbelievers hypnotising unbelievers!
The methods by which these things are done in the world are in principle the same as are used in charismatic meetings. The persuasive voice of the leader; the mind-numbing use of repetitive music; the exhortations to relax and give way; the encouragement to look for an experience which the leader assures everyone is about to come; the testimonies of those who have had the experience before; all these things combine together to produce a situation where almost everything can happen under the control, and touch, of the plausible master of ceremonies. And all in the Name of the Lord!
THOU SHALT LOVE THE LORD THY GOD WITH ALL THY….MIND
It is highly dangerous for believers to abandon reason in favour of feelings. The service of God is to be “reasonable service”, Romans 12:1, intelligent action as a result of a careful understanding of what God requires, as detailed in His Word.
We are NEVER called upon to abandon rational thought-processes, and give ourselves over to the influences abroad in the world. Satan is determined to control the minds of men, so that they willingly do his bidding. His strategy is to alter the state of a person’s consciousness, so that he may introduce a new set of perceptions, and cause the old values to be rejected, paving the way for the ultimate deception, the lie that the Antichrist is Christ.
Any supposedly Christian activity, therefore, which displays so many of the classic features of hypnotism, and which encourages the abandonment of reason, is highly suspect.
What alternative is there then, to the practices of the signs and wonders movement? The answer is simple- the Scriptural alternative. The apostle Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 13 that whereas prophecies, tongues and knowledge come to an end, faith, hope and love do not. This is true whatever the phrase “that which is perfect” means. The cultivation by the believer of these three cardinal Christian virtues will result in steady growth in Christ-likeness, which surely must be the main aim.
The apostle also makes clear in Ephesians 4 that the ascended Christ has given gifts to His people, which will ensure that they all “come…unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ”, Ephesians 4:13. The gifts Christ has given are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Through their ministry the end-result God is looking for, even likeness to His Son, is certain to be achieved.
May the Lord revive His people, so that they once again have a love for His Word, and an earnest desire to put it into practice, to His glory alone.