My philosophy for preaching is to go verse-by-verse through books of the Bible at Renovation Church. So far, I have had the honor of teaching all the way through the Gospel of John and 1 Peter. Now we are working our way through the Book of Acts.
One of the many benefits of this type of preaching is I am forced to deal with difficult questions I would tend to ignore on a Sunday morning. This past Sunday, we looked at the account in the Book of Acts when Peter healed a man who was paralyzed and then later raised a woman named Tabitha from the dead. Although most Christians would agree that dramatic miracles such as these DID happen during the New Testament, many Christians would say that these kinds of dramatic miracles no longer happen today. (On a side-note, I find it interesting that it tends to only be Western Christians who make this claim).
In contrast with this belief system, I believe that dramatic miracles are possible but they are not normative. In other words, I fully believe God does, at times, perform the same types of dramatic miracles we see in the Book of Acts but it is not a normative experience for every Christian. I believe the reason many Christians have come to the conclusion that these miracles no longer happen is there are many false teachers who think that these miracles should be normative for the Christian life. In other words, they teach that if you have enough faith you will never get sick, experience suffering, or endure poverty. Those who proclaim this type of message are false teachers pushing a false gospel that will damn a person to hell; as a result, many of us are leery of all miracle claims.
In this article, I want to show you from Scripture, history, and experience that God continues to use the so-called “sign” gifts that we see in the New Testament. The “sign” gifts are the more remarkable miracles such as prophecy, raising the dead, and gifts of healing.
First, let’s begin with Scripture. All other experience and viewpoints must be evaluated by the measuring rod of Scripture. Those who believed that these types of dramatic miracles ceased with the time of the Apostles and the creation of the New Testament generally point to 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. In my study of this topic, there is virtually no other passage of Scripture that defends the viewpoint that certain miraculous gifts have ceased with the close of the apostolic age or the creation of the New Testament canon. As a result, let’s look closely at this passage and seek to discover the original intention of the author (i.e. Paul).
1 Corinthians 13:8-13
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put aside childish things. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known. 13 Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love—but the greatest of these is love.
First, let’s begin with the context. This is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. Corinth, among other things, was known as a place of spiritual immaturity and they had a strange obsession with the gift of tongues (sounds like some Christians today, doesn’t it?). The meaning of this passage hinges on a proper understanding of verse 10 – “but when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end.” Those who believe these types of miracles have ceased (known as Cessationism) claim that the “perfect” being spoken of by Paul refers to the completion of the New Testament. According to this line of reasoning, the New Testament allow us to see God “face to face” and to know God “fully.”
Let’s consider this for a moment.
First, Paul had no idea that there would be such a thing as the New Testament. At this time, the Bible of the early church was the Old Testament Scriptures. The Church read the Old Testament through a Christ-centered framework. According to the Apostle Paul in another letter he wrote to Corinth, it is only through Christ that the veil of the Old Testament is removed and we understand the true purpose of these Scriptures through Jesus (2 Cor. 3:16). Virtually all scholars would agree that in writing this passage, Paul did NOT have the New Testament in mind.
Second, it is clear as you read the entire passage that the “perfect” being referred to is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. This fits the use of this language elsewhere in Paul’s letters (and the letters of the other New Testament authors). Even now, with the incredible benefit of the New Testament, we do not see God “fully” as we are “fully known” by Him. If this was true, there would be not disagreements throughout the church. This language of knowing God fully is the word ἐπιγνώσομαι which is a type of knowledge of God that will only be possible when we are fully and entirely in God’s presence at the end of the ages when the Kingdom of God is fully established on earth as in heaven.
Third, the best rule in understanding difficult Scripture is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. In other words, we should use passages that are more clear to help us interpret passages that are less clear. Every other passage in the New Testament that speaks about miracles, signs, or spiritual gifts are written with the expectation that these things will continue until Jesus comes back for the Church.
Fourth, if you read Paul’s very next sentence, this is what he says, “Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy…” In other words, failure to desire spiritual gifts – especially the sign gift of prophesy – is in contradiction to Paul’s clear command to not only the church in Corinth but to all Christians who receive the Scriptures as God’s Word for us. The burden of proof is not on those who believe these gifts continue until the present day; it is on those who claim the gifts have ceased. The passage above is the only passage they point to in defense of their beliefs but an honest and intellectual look at this passage in its surrounding context makes it clear that the “perfect” is Jesus – not the completion of the New Testament.
The next place we should examine is the course of church history. If it is true that the miraculous gifts ceased with the death of the Apostles, there should be no more dramatic miracles after the death of the Apostles who wrote the New Testament. Even an extremely brief survey of the church fathers (the leaders of the church directly after the Apostles) would prove that this is a terribly false claim. Here are some quotes you will discover if you begin studying the church fathers (which I HIGHLY recommend!). For the sake of time, let me share with you the writings of two of the most famous church fathers – Irenaus and Origen
Irenaus (late 2nd century):
“the Lord raised the dead, and the apostles did so by means of prayer, and this has been frequently done in the brotherhood on account of some necessity. When the entire church in that particular locality entreated God with much fasting and prayer, the spirit of the dead man returned, and he has been bestowed in some answer to the prayers of the saints.”
“We also hear many brethren in the church who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages (!), and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men.”
Origin (late 2nd century):
“Traces of those signs and wonders are still preserved among those who regulate their lives by the teachings of the Gospel.”
“The Jews no longer have prophets or miracles. Yet, traces of those things are still found among Christians to a considerable extent. Some of those miracles are more remarkable than any that existed among the Jews. I have witnessed these myself.”
In addition, verifiable accounts of miracles at the hands of Christians have been testified to in every century from the Book of Acts until the present day. I shared one such modern account that can be verified through medical journals and other peer-reviewed literature of a dead person being raised in a previous blog post – as well as a resource that documents and verifies these many miracle claims from an academic viewpoint from the 1st century until 2015: Raising the Dead
Finally, I will share briefly from my own experience. The reason this one is last on the list is because personal experience is subjective and can be used to manipulate others. We should never establish doctrine or seek to interpret Scripture through our own experience. Instead, our experience must always be judged in light of Scripture and the teachings of Christians throughout the centuries (that’s why I begin with Scripture and then moved on to history).
When I first became a Christian, I was invited to start a Bible Study for other teenagers at the home of Lisa Hubers in Pipestone, Minnesota. We would meet one day a week, Lisa would graciously open her home and cook a meal for us, and then we would study the Bible together. At the end of the Bible Study, we would take time to pray for one another individually. It was at this Bible Study where I first witnessed the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit being in operation. Lisa, as many people know, has a prophetic gift. One of the things I love about Lisa is that she believes fully in the gifts of the Spirit but is rigorously academic – holding a Masters of Divinity degree and understanding Greek better than I do. As Lisa prays over people, the Holy Spirit often reveals to her an image, a vision, or a Scripture for that person. It’s incredible to watch Lisa pray for people she has never met and as she shares about the picture God is showing her, people tend to break down in tears because it is something from their childhood or a passage of Scripture that is especially relevant to them. After watching the example of Lisa, I used to go around Pipestone (especially the Pipestone Monument) and ask people if I could pray for them. I can recall a handful of times in prayer where the Holy Spirit also revealed to me either a picture, a word, or a passage of Scripture that seemed to be especially relevant to that person.
The reason many Christians are leery of this understanding is they think it downplays the place of Scripture. Hopefully, as you have noticed in my explanation, experience should never come before Scripture. Scripture is the only objective standard & revelation of God that we have; nevertheless, the Holy Spirit uses Scripture (and spiritual gifts) as a means of making the person of Jesus personal to those we come into contact with. Our aversion to such things as prophetic prayer is in direct contradiction to Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21, “Don’t stifle the Spirit. Don’t despise prophecies, but test all things. Hold on to what is good.”
Finally, let me close by sharing with you one of the “pictures” Lisa Hubers shared while she was praying for me. This is from when I was 16 years old and brand new to the Christian faith. I had no idea what my future held but I had no plans on entering into pastoral ministry. As she was praying for me, she said that she saw me leaving the large cities and big churches in order to go into the “highways and byways” of a rural community and inviting people to the wedding supper of the Lamb (an allusion to Revelation 19). She shared how she saw me going to a community that is generally overlooked by big churches and shining the light of the Gospel for those in that small town.
Ten years later, I am the Lead Pastor of Renovation Church in the small town of Garretson, South Dakota. My job literally consists of inviting people in my small town – and neighboring communities – to experience the true life and hope that is found in Jesus and Jesus alone.
Finally, if you are interested in developing a thoroughly Biblical understanding of the spiritual gifts, please reach out to me. I would love to schedule a monthly Zoom meeting with you and we can go deeper into Scripture and study this topic together. This would be free of course – just reach out and we can set it up!