Does God grant signs and wonders in response to the prayers of Christians today? Some very readily answer, ‘No’, and every scrap of interest or belief in contemporary miracles is dismissed as ‘strange fire’. Others reply with a simple, ‘Yes!’, regarding any doubt of qualification as a quenching of the Holy Spirit.
I like John Piper‘s candour, when he tells us how much he has struggled over the question of whether we should pray, as the early Christians prayed (Acts 4:29-30), for such miracles today. I like too his readiness to go to Scripture, in order to wrestle with texts that can seem opposite directions.
Arguments that suggest that signs and wonders were limited to the apostolic age
- We know that Jesus sent his disciples out to preach and to heal (Mt 10:7f). But in the same breath our Lord tells them: ‘Do not go to Gentile regions and do not enter any Samaritan town.’ So it does not follow that he sends us out in exactly the same way. It suggests, rather, that there was something unique about the miracles of Jesus and his first disciples.
- According to Acts, signs and wonders provided divine attestation of the ministry of Jesus (Acts 2:22), and also characterised the ministry of the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 14:3; 15:12). This suggests that we should understand signs and wonders as accompanying and attesting to the apostles as Christ’s witnesses, and that we should not expect them to be normal accompaniments of preaching and evangelism.
- In 2 Corinthians 12:12 Paul says that ‘the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds’. This, too, suggests that signs and wonders were given specifically to authenticate the ministry and message of the apostles.
- According to Heb 2:4, ‘God confirmed [the witness of the first Christians] with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.’ Once again, the inference is that the church looked back on such things as authenticating the testimony of eyewitnesses.
- It is a matter of historical record (says Piper) that no-one since the days of Jesus and the apostles has healed as they did – permanently, instantaneously, completely, and without failure. This fact does not indicate that all modern healings are false: but it does suggest that they are of a different order from those of New Testament days.
Arguments suggesting that signs and wonders should be pursued today
- John 20:21 suggests that there is a continuity between the ministry of Jesus and that of those who came after him. The preaching of the gospel was accompanied by miracles, and if the preaching is to continue to the end of the age, it is reasonable to think that the miracles will continue also (Mt 24:14). See also John 14:12.
- Signs and wonders were not limited to the apostles, but to others, such as Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Phillip (8:6).
- According to Galatians 3:5, miracles were being experience among the Galatians believers, when neither Paul nor any of the other apostles was present.
- In 1 Corinthians 12:7f Paul teaches that God distributes various gifts – including those of healing and miracle-working – among his people (and not only among the apostles). In fact, Paul distinguishes between the gift of apostleship and those of healing and miracle-working (1 Cor 12:28).
- On the one hand, we ought to honor the uniqueness of Jesus and the apostles and of that revelatory moment in history that gave us the foundational doctrines of faith and life in the New Testament.
- On the other hand we ought to be open to the real possibility that this too might be a unique moment in history, and in this moment it may well be God’s purpose to pour out his Spirit in unprecedented revival—revival of love to Christ and zeal for worship and compassion for lost people and a missionary thrust with signs and wonders.