On Signs, Wonders, and Spiritual Gifts

I would tell you a story, here, to get you interested in the topic presented to us this evening. I have plenty of experiences to share, but God has instructed us not to share primarily about our own experience. Instead, we are to share what His word tells us. So, we will simply explore the Scriptures tonight. I would not want anyone to be persuaded by my experience or by the manipulation of his or her emotions. I would not want to captivate anyone by exalting the mystery of this topic. We will, tonight, suffice only to explain what God has said and make His word and work plainer for us- not adding any confusion to this conversation.

Jesus has been teaching the Old Testament text expositorily. Preaching and teaching was the primary part of His ministry. As He preached the coming of the kingdom of heaven, Jesus healed people and exorcised demons. In today’s text, this ministry in both parts, is handed from Jesus to His apostles.

Matthew 10:1

Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness.

Exposition

Jesus has, so far, modeled what this ministry looks like. We see it in this section of Matthew’s Gospel (8:1-10:16). The reason Jesus performed miracles in conjunction with His preaching ministry, according to Matthew, was to fulfill what was spoken in Isaiah 53:4. It was proof that God was present, the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and God was taking upon Himself the infirmities of His people (8:17; cf. Luke 11:14-23). So, it is clear that Jesus’ healing and exorcism ministry was meant as a sign (cf. John 4:54, 6:15).

As Jesus gives this authority to His apostles in this verse, we understand it to be the gifts that have been described by Matthew directly preceding this part of the text. Jesus’s authority over evil spirits and over every kind of disease is being given to these apostles at this point in time. Since Matthew does not indicate a different reason for this authority being given to the apostles, we understand, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, that it is being given as the same type of sign gift to be rightly practiced by these apostles.

This text cannot rightly be applied to every believer or every preacher who has lived or lives. It cannot even rightly be applied to the normative ministry of the apostles. All we can really know from this verse is that, at this particular time, this authority is given explicitly to the apostles as a sign that they represent the Messiah. This is the correct exposition of this one verse, but it opens up many questions about healing and exorcism.

Systematic considerations

The question is, then, is this ministry, in both parts, handed only to Jesus’s apostles at this particular time, or will this ministry continue in the church today? Why or why not?

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul is addressing the local church’s unhealthy view and practice of supposed spiritual gifts. What we find is a solid explanation of the spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit provides to His each one of His people for service in the local church for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). So, all of the gifts that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12 are not the messianic or apostolic sign gifts. Those who claim that the “sign gifts” have ceased are correct in this respect. Neither Jesus nor His apostles are walking the earth today. They are not writing Scripture. So, there is no need for sign gifts. In this respect, the Bible takes what we call a cessationist position. “Sign gifts” have ceased.

Paul gives a different purpose for the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12. Verse 7 is clear that the purpose for these gifts is for the common good, that the people of God might serve one another through these gifts. If a gift is not practice in service to others, it is not a genuine spiritual gift. The purpose is not that the giving of these gifts would ever be a sign of salvation or authority. They are given explicitly for our service to one another.

Considering this purpose for gifts in the body of the New Testament church, I want to consider 1 Corinthians 12:28-31:

And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.

Notice that it is God who has appointed people with varying gifts. These gifts are listed as separate, though possibly overlapping in nature. Miracles are separate gifts from healings and are separate gifts from tongues (also translated, languages). Since these terms are purposefully distinguished in the text, we know that the gifts of healings are not the same as gift of miracles just as the gifts of tongues or languages are not the same as the gift of miracles. So, the gifts of healings may be miraculous or may be providential (e.g. a medical doctor). The same is true for tongues, prophecy, teaching, helps, and administrations. God providentially equips us through our experience, study, and hard work so that we can serve others in His church for the common good. He will also do miracles. This text indicates that spiritual gifts, particularly healing for our purpose tonight, can be both miraculously and providentially given. We will unpack each of these gifts more fully and robustly when we walk through 1 Corinthians on Sunday mornings following our study of 1 Samuel.

Paul serves as an example. He is not following Jesus when Jesus gives this authority to His disciples in Matthew 10. Sometimes he was able to miraculously heal others (e.g. Acts 16:16-24, 20:7-12), and sometimes he was not but trusted in proven medicinal solutions (e.g. 1 Timothy 5:23). This is not a gift that was normative even for the apostles before or after this particular occasion described in Matthew 10. It was meant on certain occasions according to God’s will. It is certainly not normative today. It is not the case that healing and exorcisms will necessarily accompany the preaching and teaching of God’s word. Preaching and teaching is the primary ministry of the church in the world today. However, God can and does heal people and cast out demons and 1 Corinthians 12 indicates that the Holy Spirit gifts people at the appropriate time to do these things either by affecting miracles or by providence according to the will of the Father for the purpose of the common good.

We also have some plain instruction for the local church concerning healing.

“Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him.

Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:13-16).

This text does not promise that someone will absolutely be healed. It promises that the person who is sick will be restored in some way and that his or her sins will be forgiven. The prayer of a righteous person, referring to the elders of the church, can accomplish much. The indication, here, is that a prayer offered in faith (refer to the notes on Matthew 9:18-26 and Matthew 9:27-34), will result in restoration according to the will of God.

Notice what the text does not say. It does not say that doctors or hospitals are evil. We want to make this disclaimer. If we anoint you with oil and pray for your healing, we still want you to go to the hospital and have someone, whom God has providentially gifted in the medical profession, examine you.

There are two extremes that I have seen in the world. There is hard cessationism, which isn’t really cessationism and which claims that all miracles have ceased. That is not what the Bible tells us, but people are really good at ignoring passages they don’t like or explaining them away by twisting, adding to, or taking away from the text. There is also hard continuationism, which claims that all miracles continue as signs of salvation and authority. This is also not what the Bible tells us, but again, people are really good at ignoring passages they don’t like or explaining them away by twisting, adding to, or taking away from the text.

Here, in Matthew’s Gospel, there is a uniqueness to Christ’s and the apostles’ healing ministry. It was miraculous and meant as a sign. There is a reason for us to be very cautious today.

“For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24).

“Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Thessalonians 2:8-10).

If someone is, in these end times, using perceived miracles as some sort of sign or wonder and if he or she is prostituting signs and wonders in order to gain a following, Jesus and Paul both identify that person as a false prophet, a friend of Satan, a deceiver for those who are perishing, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. These are strong words. So, we practice our gifts for the common good within the local church. We do not make a show out of healing or anything else. If you are really sick or feel as though you are being oppressed by a demon, though, call upon the elders of the church as we see explicitly instructed in Scripture for the common good. May God work according to His will and according to the degree of faith that He has allotted to each one while we are still in this world.

In 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul concludes his correction of the Corinthians use of spiritual gifts. He writes, “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.”

Many of the spiritual gifts are seen as lesser gifts. Prophecy (proclaiming the explicit word of God) is seen as the superior gift that is truly desirable. Furthermore, the goal is that we pursue and achieve genuine and sincere love for one another. So, someone’s view of the gifts is usually a third or fourth tier issue. Right love and correct prophesy (teaching) are first-tier issues. We can have Christian fellowship with those who think differently about healing or some of the other gifts. We cannot have Christian fellowship with those whose goal is not love and who do not strive to teach God’s Bible correctly. The gifts are never the primary focus. The Gospel is. So, we resolve not to make mountains out of mole hills. We will try to understand every biblical doctrine, but the lesser doctrines will not divide us. In the resurrection, these will seem like silly issues because there will no longer be any sickness, pain, death, or demon possession against which we will contend. This is why we primarily pursue, hunger for, love and sound doctrine. For many of those who experience healing (or any charity from God or His church) will ultimately reject Christ anyway and not enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matthew 7:21, Luke 7:11-19).

Questions

  1. What does it mean that there might be lesser doctrines? What makes a lesser doctrine a lesser doctrine?
  2. Why is the doctrine of healing, in itself, not to be a dividing issue?
  3. Why do you think there are so many people who make this the “make-or-break” doctrine?
  4. What is the make-or-break pursuit or doctrine?
    1. I’ll answer this one for you because it is too important to leave blank- love and justification.
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