Are Signs, Wonders, and Miracles the "Signs" of an Apostle?3
One often hears the cessationist defend his view by arguing that signs, wonders, and miracles are “the signs of a true apostle.” According to the cessationist, since apostles no longer exist, neither do the signs, wonders, and miracles that allegedly attest to or confirm their ministry. To quote cessationist Norman Geisler: “the ‘signs of an apostle’ passed away with the times of an apostle” (Signs and Wonders, 118).
The passage they typically cite in defense of this view is 2 Corinthians 12:12. After all, does not this text refer to the miraculous as “signs” of the apostles? No, in point of fact, it does not. The NIV contributes to the confusion by translating as follows: “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance.” This rendering leads one to believe that Paul is identifying the “signs/marks” of an apostle with the miraculous phenomena performed among the Corinthians. But the “signs/marks” of an apostle is in the nominative case whereas “signs, wonders and miracles” are in the dative. Contrary to what many have thought, Paul does not say the insignia of an apostle are signs, wonders and miracles. Rather, as the NASB more accurately translates, he asserts that “the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by [or better still, accompanied by] signs and wonders and miracles.” The ESV also renders this as: “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (italics mine).
Paul’s point is that miraculous phenomena accompanied his ministry in Corinth. Signs, wonders and miracles were attendant elements in his apostolic work. But they were not themselves the “signs of an apostle.” [Those who read Greek might be inclined to argue that this could be an example of the instrumental dative. Whereas this is grammatically possible, it is conceptually unlikely. What could it possibly mean to say that suffering, holiness, and Christlike humility were done “by means of” signs and wonders? The associative dative, which designates accompanying circumstances, seems more fitting. The important point, again, is that Paul does not equate the marks of apostleship with miracles, as if to suggest that only the former do the latter.]
This argument by cessationists is also severely weakened, if not destroyed, by the fact that nowhere in the NT does it say that “authentication” or “attestation” of the apostles and their message was the sole and exclusive purpose of such supernatural phenomena. Let me repeat that: Nowhere in the NT is the purpose or function of the miraculous or the charismata reduced to that of attestation. The miraculous, in whatever form in which it appeared, served several other distinct purposes. For example, there was a doxological purpose (i.e., to glorify God). Such was the primary reason for the resurrection of Lazarus, as Jesus himself makes clear in John 11:4 (cf. 11:40). The doxological purpose of the miraculous is also found in John 2:11; 9:3; and Matthew 15:29-31. Miracles also served an evangelistic purpose (see Acts 9:32-43). Much of our Lord’s miraculous ministry was an expression of his compassion and love for the hurting multitudes. He healed the sick and even fed the 5,000 principally because he felt compassion for the people (Matt. 14:14; Mark 1:40-41).
There are several texts which indicate that one primary purpose of miraculous phenomena and gifts of the Spirit was to edify and build up the body of Christ. At one point in Charismatic Chaos John MacArthur says that noncessationists “believe that the spectacular miraculous gifts were given for the edification of believers. Does God’s Word support such a conclusion? No. In fact, the truth is quite the contrary” (117).
Oh really? What, then, will one do with 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, the list of what all agree are miraculous gifts such as prophecy, tongues, healing, and interpretation of tongues? These gifts, says Paul, were distributed to the body of Christ “for the common good” (v. 7), i.e., for the edification and benefit of the church! These are primarily, but not exclusively, the very gifts that serve as the background against which Paul then encourages (in vv. 14-27) all members of the body to minister one to another for mutual edification, insisting that no one gift (whether tongues or prophecy or healing) is any less important than another.
One must also explain 1 Corinthians 14:3 where Paul asserts that prophecy, one of the miraculous gifts listed in 12:7-10, functions to edify, exhort, and console others in the church. The one who prophesies, says Paul in 14:4, “edifies the church.” We find a similar emphasis in 1 Corinthians 14:5 where Paul says that tongues, when interpreted, also edifies the church. And what will one do with 1 Corinthians 14:26 in which Paul exhorts us to assemble, prepared to minister with a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation, all of which are designed, he says, for “edification”?
If “tongues never were intended to edify believers,” why did God provide the gift of interpretation so that tongues might be utilized in the gathered assembly of believers? If “tongues never were intended to edify believers,” why did Paul himself exercise that gift in the privacy of his own devotions? That he did so is demonstrable from 1 Corinthians 14:18-19 (I wrote on this in an earlier post on Paul’s personal practice of praying in tongues).
My point is this: all the gifts of the Spirit, whether tongues or teaching, whether miracles or mercy, whether healing or helps, whether prophecy or faith, were given, among other reasons, for the edification and building up and encouraging and instructing and consoling and sanctifying of the body of Christ. Therefore, even if the ministry of the miraculous gifts to attest and authenticate has ceased, a point I concede only for the sake of argument, such gifts would continue to function in the church for the other reasons cited.
Also, for the cessationist argument from 2 Corinthians 12:12 to carry weight one would have to demonstrate that only the apostles performed signs, wonders, or exercised so-called miraculous and supernatural charismata. But this is contrary to the evidence of the NT. Others, aside from the apostles, who performed signs and wonders and exercised miraculous gifts include (1) the 70 who were commissioned in Luke 10:9,19-20; (2) at least 108 people among the 120 who were gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost; (3) Stephen (Acts 6-7); (4) Phillip (Acts 8); (5) Ananias (Acts 9); (6) church members in Antioch (Acts 13:1); (7) new converts in Ephesus (Acts 19:6); (8) elders in the church at Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:18-19; 4:9); (9) women at Caesarea (Acts 21:8-9); (10) the unnamed brethren of Galatians 3:5; (11) believers in Rome (Rom. 12:6-8); (12) believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14); and (13) Christians in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-20). None of these folk were apostles! Clearly, then, signs, wonders, miracles, and supernatural gifts of the Spirit were never tied up exclusively with the apostles. So how can the performance of these supernatural phenomena serve to identify the apostolic company such that when the latter died so too did the former?
Perhaps an illustration will help. When my daughter was much younger she took dance lessons and especially enjoyed ballet. Although only 17 years old at the time, she had incredibly strong and well-developed calf muscles. Indeed, it might even be said that the “sign” of a ballet dancer was strong calf muscles. But I would never argue that only ballet dancers display this physical characteristic. I simply mean to say that when taken in conjunction with other factors, her lower leg development would have helped you identify her as one who dances on her toes. Likewise, Paul is not saying that signs, wonders and miracles are performed only through apostles, but that such phenomena, together with other evidences, should help the Corinthians know that he is a true apostle of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, when one reads 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, it does not sound as if Paul is saying that only apostles are endowed with the miraculous charismata. On the contrary, gifts of healings, tongues, word of knowledge, discerning of spirits, etc., are given by the sovereign Spirit to ordinary Christians in the church at Corinth for the daily, routine building up of the body. Farmers, shopkeepers, housewives, as well as apostles and elders and deacons received the manifestation of the Spirit, all “for the common good” of the church.
A counter argument is often made to the effect that signs and wonders and miraculous charismata in Acts were closely connected to the apostles or to those who were themselves associated with the apostolic company. But we must remember that the book of Acts is, after all, the Acts of the Apostles. We entitle it this way because we recognize that the activity of the apostles is the principal focus of the book. We should hardly be surprised or try to build a theological case on the fact that a book designed to report the acts of the apostles describes signs and wonders performed by the apostles.
Furthermore, to say that Stephen and Phillip and Ananias don’t count because they are closely associated with the apostles proves nothing. Virtually everyone in Acts has some degree of association with the apostolic company. It is difficult to think of one person, who figures to any degree of prominence in the book of Acts, who is not associated with at least one of the apostles. But wasn't there a remarkable concentration of miraculous phenomena characteristic of the apostles as special representatives of Christ? There was indeed (cf. Acts 5:12). But the prevalence of miracles performed by the apostles in no way proves that no miracles were performed by or through others.
So, let’s return now to 2 Corinthians 12:12 and ask the question: What are the signs of an apostle? What are the distinguishing marks of true apostolic ministry were? Among other things, we should point to: (1) the fruit of his preaching, i.e., the salvation of the Corinthians themselves (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1b-2, “Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, as least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord”; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-3); (2) his Christ-like life of holiness, humility, etc., (cf. 2 Cor. 1:12; 2:17; 3:4-6; 4:2; 5:11; 6:3-13; 7:2; 10:13-18; 11:6,23-28); and (3) his sufferings, hardship, persecution (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4; 4:7-15; 5:4-10; and all of chapter eleven). Paul patiently, in perseverance, displayed these “signs” of his apostolic authority. And this was accompanied by signs, wonders and miracles he performed in their midst.
We must also remember that Paul does not refer to the “signs” of an apostle nor to the miraculous phenomena that accompanied his ministry as a way of differentiating himself from other, non-apostolic Christians, but from the false apostles who were leading the Corinthians astray (2 Cor. 11:14-15,33). “In short,” writes Wayne Grudem, “the contrast is not between apostles who could work miracles and ordinary Christians who could not, but between genuine Christian apostles through whom the Holy Spirit worked and non-Christian pretenders to the apostolic office, through whom the Holy Spirit did not work at all” (“Should Christians Expect Miracles Today? Objections and Answers from the Bible” in The Kingdom and the Power, ed. Gary S. Greig and Kevin N. Springer [Ventura: Regal, 1993], 67).
Therefore, the fact that miraculous phenomena and certain of the charismata occasionally served to attest and authenticate the message of the gospel in no way proves that such activities are invalid for the church subsequent to the death of the apostolic company.