Paradoxes of the Miraculous
So here’s three questions.
Firstly, do displays of miraculous power validate authentic gospel ministry, or not? This question was prompted by reading Eugene Peterson this morning: “Without debunking miracles as such, Jesus flatly denied that they were evidence of authenticity and gave a stern warning against being duped by them: ‘false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect’ (Matt 24:24; see also 2 Thess 2:9 and Rev 19:20). Jesus also, though he performed a number of miracles in the course of his life, bluntly refused to use a miraculous sign as validation or proof of his divine authority and had harsh words for those who asked for one: ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign’ (Matt 12:39; see also Luke 23:8 and 1 Cor 1:22).” An even more striking example, in my view, is Jesus’ prophecy that many would do mighty works in his name and find that he had never known them (Matt 7:22-23). On the other hand, Jesus challenges his disciples to believe in him on account of the works themselves (John 14:11), Paul appears to connect signs and wonders with the validity of his apostolic calling (2 Cor 12:12) and gospel preaching (Rom 15:18-19), and Hebrews describes signs and wonders as bearing witness to the gospel (Heb 2:4). So how do we hold these texts together? Do miracles validate gospel ministry, or not?
Secondly, are all Christians able to work miracles and heal people? In favour of an affirmative answer is Jesus’ statement in John 14:12 that whoever believes in him will do the works he has been doing, as well as the (secondary, but usually accepted by evangelicals) statement of Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” In contrast, Paul’s extended discourse on interdependency and spiritual gifts indicates a negative answer: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Cor 12:28-30). The anticipated answer in the Greek construction here is clearly “no”. So what do we do with this?
Thirdly, should we expect miraculous gifts to be given in greater measure to Christian leaders? The very egalitarian nature of the gift of the Holy Spirit to male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free alike (Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor 12:13; etc) would seem to indicate not, and it would in fact be hard to justify the idea that leaders received greater gifts than others from any specific text. But then I want to ask: why are almost all the miracles in the book of Acts done by either the apostles or the “seven”? And why does James urge sick people to get the elders to pray for them, as opposed to just anyone (James 5:14)? What is the deal here?
These questions are quite sincere, and very practical. I have often heard healing evangelists, and others with significant miraculous gifts, emphasise that there is nothing special about them, and that everyone can do what they are doing. So, based on Scripture, I am asking: is that the case? I know many of you are far too busy and important to reply to a blog post, but I’d be intrigued to hear your answers to these three questions. Do miracles validate gospel ministry? Are all Christians able to work miracles and heal people? And should we expect such gifts to be given particularly to Christian leaders?