Tuesday, 11 October 2016

God Wants to Use Christians in Miracle Work Today – Part 1, The Biblical Data

It is surely true that a growing number of Christians worldwide are accepting that God works miracles today. Increasingly, believers are seeking to be used by Him as instruments in miracle work including supernatural healing.

There are still more than a few Christians, however, who claim that God does not work miracles today. They say that would-be miracle workers are deceived or sometimes even conscious deceivers.

I believe firmly that God does indeed work miracles today and that He wants Christians to seek to get involved in this work. In this article I will therefore do three things:

In part 1 I will discuss the most important biblical passages that have a bearing on the place of miracles today. In part 2 I will answer objections made by those who deny that God still wants to work miracles. And in part 3 I will say something about testimony of miracles.


When thinking about any topic, the most important thing to do is see what the Bible has to say about it. Scripture is our God-given “Manual for the Human Life,” and what it teaches must be given priority. So we will start with this.

John 14:11-12

John 14:11-12 is a good place to begin our discussion. This passage strongly implies that miracles will continue until Jesus returns. Here Jesus states: 
11 Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me. Otherwise believe because of the deeds themselves. 
12 Truly, truly, I tell you, the person who believes in Me, the deeds that I do, he will do also . . .” 
The deeds of Jesus that He refers to in both these verses surely include the miracles that He is found performing throughout John’s Gospel, as commentators widely agree.

It is true that it would be a mistake to take these words in v. 12 literally. Jesus surely doesn’t mean that we should expect every Christian to work the sorts of miracles that He Himself worked. That would contradict 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, where Paul is clear that only some Christians work miracles.

Instead, in these words of v. 12 the idea seems to be that being a believer in Christ is all the qualification that people need in and of themselves to work miracles. For someone to actually work a miracle, God would still need to take the extra step of granting the ability to perform the miracle in that specific case. But believing in Jesus qualifies us to potentially work miracles if God enables us.

Importantly, these words in v. 12 strongly imply that it is God’s will to grant the ability to work miracles to some Christians. If this were not the case, the words would seem to be meaningless.

Importantly too, what Jesus says here cannot be restricted to apostles. “The person who believes in Me” won’t allow us to make this restriction.

Similarly, those who want to restrict the words to Christians living in the first century are also clutching at straws:

First, that would be an extremely unnatural interpretation of the words.

And second, there is the date of John’s Gospel to take into account. Scholars broadly agree – rightly in my view – that this Gospel was written around the end of the first century. If this is right, then if the words I have quoted in v. 12 were only supposed to apply to Christians living in the first century or thereabouts, these words would have become obsolete almost as soon as they were written. But what would be the point of that? Instead, we can be confident that v. 12 applies to Christians throughout the Christian era.

To sum up, then, John 14:11-12 is a strong piece of biblical evidence that we should expect some Christians today to work miracles.

Acts 1:8

Another verse that fits awkwardly with the idea that miracles ceased in the first century is Acts 1:8. Here the risen Jesus tells the 11 remaining apostles: 
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the furthest reaches of the earth.”   
The receiving power the Lord speaks about here doubtless refers to the events on the day of Pentecost described in Acts 2:1-41. At that time the apostles received power from the Spirit, which remained with them afterwards.

Importantly, in the book of Acts there are many references to the apostles working miracles. And it seems a very unlikely interpretation that would separate the power the apostles received from their miracle work. The power that Jesus refers to in Acts 1:8 therefore surely includes power to work miracles.

Although Acts 1:8 was spoken to the 11 apostles, it seems natural to broaden its application to the whole church:

The first thing we need to recognise is that this verse strongly implies that the 11 will be Jesus’ witnesses in the power they will receive. Jesus is not telling them two separate things, one, that they will receive power and, two, that they will also be His witnesses. There is a much closer connection between the power and the witnessing than that. The witnessing will be done in the power they receive.

Secondly, note how Jesus tells the 11 that they will be His witnesses “to the furthest reaches of the earth.” However, the good news was not taken this far before the 11 were all dead. So it makes sense to think that the witnessing in power would be continued by other Christians after the 11 had died. This is supported by the fact that in Acts itself we find Christians other than the apostles receiving power from the Spirit (Acts 6:8-10; 8:4-13; 9:17-18) and acting as Jesus’ witness (Acts 22:20).

Most naturally, then, Acts 1:8 suggests that witnessing in power will last until the good news has gone to the furthest reaches of the earth, which really means until Jesus returns. And because, as I have noted, this power includes the ability to work miracles, most naturally we would expect miracle work to continue until the Lord returns.

Acts 2:16-18

Peter’s quotation of Joel in Acts 2:16-21 is also awkward for the view that God no longer wants to use Christians in miracle work.

Here is the text of verses 16-18: 
16 But this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 
17 ‘And it will be in the last days,’ says God, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. And your sons and daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy.’” 
Peter is saying that the events of the day of Pentecost are the beginning of the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Joel prophesied that God would pour out His Spirit, says Peter, and this has now happened.

It is true that Joel and Peter make no specific mention of miracle work in this passage. Nevertheless, it makes sense to think that God’s pouring out His Spirit involves the working of miracles. In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, which I will cite below, “gifts of healing” and “the working of miracles” are said to be gifts of the Spirit.

Importantly, we should note the time reference in Acts 2:17. This verse states that God will pour out His Spirit “in the last days.” The last days here is the period of time that began with the crucifixion-resurrection-giving of the Spirit and will end with the return of Christ.

But if miracle work, and other gifts of the Spirit, ceased in the first century, this would mean that in fact it was only in the very first part of the last days that God poured out His Spirit as Joel and Peter describe. And this does seem a rather awkward interpretation of the text. Acts 2:16-18 therefore reads most naturally if miracle work is something that lasts throughout the Christian era.

1 Corinthians 13:8-10

Another important text on this subject is 1 Corinthians 13:8-10.

Before examining this passage itself, however, we actually need to back up a little and look at a passage in the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Here Paul makes a list of gifts of the Holy Spirit: 
8 For to one is given a message of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another a message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another the working of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another distinguishing between spirits, to another kinds of languages, and to another interpretation of languages.” 
“Languages” here refers to what is commonly known as speaking in tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:8-10 is almost unique in the Bible in distinguishing healing from miracles. Usually when Scripture refers to miracles, it is speaking more broadly of supernatural acts that include healing. In what follows, as I have done so far, I will use the more common biblical way of defining things. When I refer to miracles, I am including supernatural healing.

Paul looks back to his list in 12:8-10 when he states in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10: 
8 . . . if there are prophecies, they will be done away with. If there are languages, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when what is complete comes, what is partial will be done away with.” 
Paul clearly believes that a time will come when the gifts he has listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 will no longer be used. It is true that he refers explicitly only to prophecy, speaking in tongues and messages of knowledge becoming redundant. But he implies that the other gifts, including miracle working, will also cease when these others do.

Paul seems to imply too that the gifts will stop being used “when what is complete comes.”

There are some who claim that the time Paul is referring to in this clause is the point at which the New Testament was completed.

This, however, is simply not a credible interpretation of the words. “When what is complete comes” is certainly not referring to any experience that can be found in this world of ours. Rather, it has in view a time after Jesus has returned to earth.

The context of verses 8-13 confirms this. In these verses Paul contrasts a present state and a future state. The present state involves knowing in part and seeing indistinctly. The future state, which begins when what is complete comes, involves knowing fully and seeing face to face. Paul is clearly contrasting the present experience of Christians with our future state of existence. So “when what is complete comes” is definitely referring to a time after Jesus has returned to the earth.

Therefore, when Paul says that gifts of the Spirit will be done away with “when what is complete comes,” he is most naturally suggesting that these gifts will continue to be used until Jesus returns.

It is true that Paul is speaking very concisely here. And it is true too that his main focus in this passage is not on precisely when the gifts of the Spirit will cease being used. I am not saying that this passage proves outright that miracles should be taking place today. But Paul’s words certainly fit better with them continuing until Jesus returns than ceasing centuries ago.

1 Corinthians 14:1

Another verse that points in the same direction is 1 Corinthians 14:1. Here Paul instructs the Christians in Corinth: 
“Pursue love, and eagerly desire spiritual gifts . . .” 
The “spiritual gifts” Paul refers to here certainly include the gifts he has listed in 12:8-10, quoted above, which include miracle work.

The first thing to note about the command to desire spiritual gifts in 14:1 is that it must have applied to all Christians in the 50s of the first century, when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Clearly, this command was given to all the Christians in Corinth. And there is no reason whatsoever for thinking that Paul or God would have wanted anything different in other churches at that time. We should therefore have no doubt that in the mid first century God wanted all Christians to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, including the ability to work miracles.

Next, we need to give due weight to an argument from probability:

If we consider the rest of the New Testament, it contains hundreds of commands that would have applied to all Christians at the time they were written. I am not aware of a single one of these that no longer applies to Christians today.

If it is correct that every other NT command that applied to all Christians at the time of writing still applies today, then, all other things being equal, it is highly probable that the command in 1 Corinthians 14:1 also still applies. And this argument from probability carries considerable weight, although I admit that it doesn’t prove outright that God gives gifts of miracle work today.

Even if I am mistaken about other NT commands that applied to all Christians when they were written, and there are a few that no longer apply today, the number of these is surely very few. So the argument from probability would still carry some weight, although admittedly not nearly so much.

James 5:14-16

James 5:14-16 is another key passage. Here James says: 
14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. 15 And the prayer of faith will heal the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 So confess your sins to each other and pray for each other, so that you may be healed.”   
In this passage James instructs his readers to seek healing miracles for those who are ill.

The letter of James was written to Christians generally. So the instructions in James 5:14-16 would have applied to all Christians alive at the time of writing, probably sometime in the mid first century.

The same argument from probability that applied to 1 Corinthians 14:1 also applies here:

If it is correct that every other NT command that applied to all Christians at the time of writing still applies today, then, all other things being equal, it is highly probable that the commands in James 5:14-16 also still apply.

And again, even if there are a few NT commands that no longer apply today, the number of these is surely very few. So the argument from probability would still carry some weight.

The signs of an apostle

In 2 Corinthians 12:12 Paul, referring to his earlier ministry in Corinth, writes: 
“The signs of an apostle were performed among you in all endurance, in signs and wonders and miracles.” 
Interpreting the Greek of this verse is not entirely straightforward. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that Paul is saying that performing miracles is a major distinguishing feature of apostles.

There are some who argue as follows:

This verse shows that in the early church miracle work was basically the preserve of the apostles. Because there are no apostles today, we should no longer expect miracles.

This an extremely weak argument:

First, the words Paul uses in this verse can be understood simply to mean that every apostle performed a significant number of miracles, without also implying that non-apostles only rarely performed them.  

Second and much more importantly, we need to take account of 1 Corinthians 12:9-10, 28-30, passages that Paul wrote a matter of months before writing 2 Corinthians. In these passages he clearly envisages many non-apostles working miracles. And it is not reasonable to think that he would have contradicted himself in 2 Corinthians.

There is also a great deal more biblical evidence that in the early church non-apostles often performed miracles. For more details, see my article: In the Early Church How Often Did Non-Apostles Work Miracles?

2 Corinthians 12:12, then, cannot be saying that miracle work is basically the preserve of apostles. And so this verse in no way implies that we should not expect miracles today.

Hebrews 2:3-4

Hebrews 2:3-4 is another passage that is relevant for our subject. Here the author writes: 
3 . . . how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? This salvation was first announced by the Lord, and then it was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 while God added His testimony by signs and wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will.” 
This passage is often cited by those who say that God no longer works miracles today. They argue in this way:

If the author believed that miracles still occurred at the time of writing, we would expect him to have concentrated on God testifying to the message by miracles in the present rather than at some time in the past. Therefore, this passage strongly implies that miracles were no longer taking place at the time of writing.

I do admit that this argument isn’t one that should be quickly dismissed. Nevertheless, there are a few points to make here.

(1) The passage is too indirect and brief for us to reach clear conclusions on what the author believed about the existence of miracles at the time of writing.

(2) It is possible that the author felt that after mentioning Jesus and the first generation of Christians, he had done enough to make his point.

In Hebrews 2:1-4 he is aiming to convey to his readers what an enormously important thing the Christian message of salvation is. So he tells them that no less a person than Jesus began announcing the message. And then he goes on to say that people who heard Jesus themselves were the ones who passed on the message to the author and the readers. He also notes that God accompanied this passing on of the message with miracles (and gifts of the Spirit) to validate it.

Maybe having said all this, he thought that he had said enough to make his point that the message of salvation was extremely important. If so, then he could have chosen not to move on to speak about the time of writing, even if he was aware that God was still doing miracles in his day.

(3) In Hebrews 6:5 the author refers to Christians generally as people who have “tasted . . . the powers of the age to come.”

This could well suggest that miracles were ongoing at the time of writing.

(4) I think it is quite possible that at the time this letter was written, miracles may have been a lot less common than they were earlier in the first century. And this could have motivated the author in Hebrews 2:3-4 to focus on miracles among the first generation of Christians.

I will say something about the frequency of miracles throughout church history in part 2 of this article, and I refer the reader to the discussion there.

(5) Even if this passage does more naturally seem to suggest that miracles were a thing of the past, we need to beware of drawing conclusions based on one or two proof texts.

An example of the dangers of this can be seen in Colossians 1:19-20, where Paul writes: 
19 For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him [Christ], 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace by the blood of His cross – whether things on earth or things in the heavens.” 
In this passage, Paul explicitly says that God was pleased “to reconcile all things to Himself.” And the “all things” he has in mind are described as “things on earth or things in the heavens.” There can be no doubt that he is including human beings in what is talking about. So the most natural reading of this passage is that all human beings will be reconciled to God through Christ.

However, Paul cannot have meant that, since it would contradict so much else in his letters. See, e.g., Romans 2:5, 9; 2 Corinthians 2:15-16; Galatians 6:8; Philippians 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9.

Instead, he must mean that all things will be reconciled to God apart from one unexpressed, exceptional group of beings, comprising some people and some angels, that will experience eternal destruction.

The most natural reading of Colossians 1:19-20 is therefore not the correct one. And the same could potentially be true of Hebrews 2:3-4.

All things considered, then, Hebrews 2:3-4 falls a long way short of proving that God no longer wants to use Christians in miracle work today.

Summing up

Various other Bible passages have some relevance for the topic we are considering, but I have given the most important of them. The above discussion has shown that Scripture fits well with the view that God wants to use Christians in miracle work today, but very poorly with the opposite view.

Importantly too, we need to take full account of the fact that 1 Corinthians 14:1 and James 5:14-16 contain not just teaching about miracles, but commands to seek to work miracles.

As we saw, these commands would have applied to all Christians at the time of writing. However, when we see a biblical command that applied to all Christians when it was written, it would only be right to make a conscious decision not to obey it today if we can make a compelling, biblically-based case why we are not still supposed to obey it.

As regards the commands in 1 Corinthians 14:1 and James 5:14-16, not only is there no such case that can be made, but biblical teaching as a whole strongly suggests that God does still want us to seek to work miracles. We should all therefore certainly choose to obey the commands in these passages. 

In part 2 I will move on to answer objections made by Christians who deny that we should seek to work miracles today.

See also:

Is It Always God’s Will to Heal Christians?