|THE MIRACLES, SIGNS AND
OF THE GREAT COMMISSION
|Should the "Great Commission"
commanded by our risen Lord
be the "marching orders" for our missionary programs today?
In particular, should our missionaries expect to experience
During the final forty day period the Lord Jesus was with the eleven apostles He prepared them for a soon-to-be future ministry. As part of that preparation He specifically charged them to observe all things whatsoever He had commanded them. These commandments included what is frequently called "The Great Commission."
Today most of God's people who have gone into the mission field quote selected portions of this "Great Commission" to support the fact that the Lord Jesus is sending His servants into the world to carry out an intensive evangelization effort, whether that missionary endeavor happens to be on foreign soil, in a domestic rescue mission, in a printed ministry, or by radio and television. Since we believe that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, and for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16), we believe it is proper to apply selected portions of the Lord's kingdom commandments to God's servants who are burdened to spread the glad tidings to the lost. The Scriptures strongly agree that all members of the body of Christ, not just those who call themselves clergy, are ministers of the gospel and therefore should preach the good news to others here at home and abroad.
But while it is proper to apply some of the details of the Lord's final words while He was on earth to our current evangelization efforts, it is also important to understand the primary context of what has become known as "The Great Commission."
Over the years this writer has attended a number of "missionary meetings." In those meetings speakers have cited a limited number of features contained in the so-called "Great Commission" in support of "foreign missions." But at the same time certain specific aspects of the Lord's "Great Commission" were not mentioned. And seldom is this "Great Commission" taken up as a serious Bible expository topic.
To see what we mean, kindly look at the actual wording of our Lord's final charge to His followers on earth as it is recorded in each of the four gospels and in the opening chapter of the Acts. As you read our Lord's words you will see why we maintain that many missionary speakers do not quote all of the actual parting words of the Lord Jesus as we read them in all four gospels and in the Acts to promote and to describe their particular missionary endeavors.
The Great Commission in Matthew:
"But the eleven disciples went into Galilee to the mountain which Jesus had appointed them.
"And when they saw him, they worshiped him: but some doubted.
"And Jesus coming up spoke to them, saying, All authority has been given me in heaven and upon earth.
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit;
"teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you all the days, until the completion of the age. (Mat. 28:16-20)
The Great Commission in Mark:
"And he said to them, Go into all the world, and preach the glad tidings to all the creation.
"He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, and he that disbelieves shall be condemned.
"And these signs shall follow those that have believed: in my name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues;
"they shall take up serpents; and if they should drink any deadly thing it shall not injure them; they shall lay hands upon the infirm, and they shall be well.
"The Lord therefore, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat at the right hand of God.
"And they, going forth, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs following upon it." (Mark 16:15-20)
The Great Commission in Luke:
"Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,
"And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day:
"And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
"And you are witnesses of these things.
"And, behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry in the city of Jerusalem, until you are endued with power from on high.
"And he led them out as far as Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.
"And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.
"And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy,
"And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen." (Luke 24:45-53)
The Great Commission in John:
"Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be with you: as my Father has sent me, even so send I you.
"And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit:
"Whose soever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins you retain, they are retained." (John 20:21-23)
The Great Commission in the Acts:
"The former treatise I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,
"Until the day in which he was taken up, after he through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom he had chosen:
"To whom also he presented himself alive after his suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:
"And, being assembled together with them, he commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, you have heard from me.
"For John truly baptized with water; but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.
"Therefore, when they had come together, they asked him, saying, Lord, will you at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?
"And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father has put in his own power.
"But you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth.
"And when he had spoken these things, while they watched, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight." (Acts 1:1-9)
The above teachings of our Lord took place during the forty day period between His resurrection and His ascension into heaven. As recorded by Matthew our Lord had said, "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Mat. 28:20). The Lord did not say, "Look at all the things I have commanded you, then pick and choose what you like and toss out what you don't like." Among these "all things," the apostles must:
♦ Go into all the world (Mk. 16:15), and teach all nations (Mat. 28:19; Luke 24:47), preach to all the creation (Mk. 16:15). But they must literally begin at Jerusalem (Luke 24:47; Acts 3:26), then literally continue at Judea, then literally at Samaria, then they could go to the uttermost parts of the earth. Some modern day teachers have applied this sequence to mean we must begin in Chicago, then go to rural areas surrounding Chicago, then to the state of Illinois, then to the whole United States, then to every country on the globe, etc. But we must understand that such an application of the Lord's words, however appropriate as an application, is not an interpretation of what He intended when He instructed the disciples.
♦ It was in Jerusalem that "Power from on high" (i.e., the gifts of, or from, the Holy Spirit), would be granted to them (Luke 24:49).
♦ The message included the requirement of repentance, and the promise of remission of sins (Luke 24:47).
♦ Next, the apostles' message would consist of the promise of the millennial kingdom long prophesied to God's covenant people Israel. (Acts 1:3, 6; 3:19-21). The truth of the believer's blessing in heavenly places was not part of their message, since, historically speaking, that sphere of blessing would not be revealed until more than 30 additional years would pass. Before this heavenly truth would be revealed Israel would reject the Holy Spirit both at Jerusalem (Acts 7 & 8), Judea, Samaria, and throughout the various localities where the Jews had been dispersed, and their final rejection would be at Rome, the last outpost of Judaism (Acts 28:17-28). God is extremely longsuffering, and would not withdraw His covenant relationship with Israel until the entire Jewish world (the Jewish dispersion) from Jerusalem to Rome had finally and decisively rejected their Messiah by sinning against the blessed Holy Spirit and rejecting the Spirit's miracles and signs. This unfortunate event was foretold by the Lord in Matthew 12:31-32 as the sin against the Holy Spirit for which there is no forgiveness).
♦ The apostles were to Baptize (ceremonially cleanse) with water (Mat. 28:19) those who respond to the kingdom message. This ceremonial cleansing would be in the name (singular) of the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit (Mat. 28:19). In Mark 16:16 this cleansing is set forth as an absolute requirement to receive the particular temporal salvation that was offered as part of the "great commission." This ceremony of cleansing was not an optional 'testimony' (subsequent to a conversion experience that had already taken place). It was a requirement that those who believed the good news must physically and spiritually cleanse and separate themselves by baptism from the wicked leaders, and from the religious system that had crucified the Lord. Water baptism was a solemn reckoning that their status as part of the first creation was ended, that it died and was entombed. It was in no sense a 'public testimony' that a person had believed in Christ as Savior. Peter describes this temporal 'salvation' effected by water baptism:
"Save yourselves from this untoward generation (Acts 2:40)."
♦ The apostles had the authority to remit sins, or to retain sins (John 20:23) This same authority had previously been promised by the Lord in Matthew 16:18: "And I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens; and whatsoever you may bind upon the earth shall be bound in the heavens; and whatsoever you may loose on the earth shall be loosed in the heavens."
♦ Teach them to observe all things the Lord had previously taught the apostles (Mat. 28:20).
♦ Those who believed the message of the "Great Commission" received the unequivocal promise that specific "signs" would be experienced by them (Mk. 16:17). Among these promised signs:
◊ Disciples were given an absolute promise they would cast out demons (Mk. 16:17).
◊ They were given an absolute promise they would speak with new tongues (Mk. 16:17).
◊ They would be unharmed by serpents (Mk. 16:17).
◊ They would be unharmed by liquid poisons (Mk. 16:17).
◊ They would heal others by laying hands on the sick (Mk. 16:17). And the Scriptures tell us that these signs did indeed follow those who believed, just as had been promised (Mk. 16:20).
And, the above is only a partial list of the "all things" the Lord commanded His disciples to observe. For example, the Lord elsewhere taught his followers to "raise the dead" (Mat. 10:8), [see Acts 9:37-41, and 20:9-10] and to "shake off the dust of your feet" as a testimony against an unbelieving city [see Mat. 10:14], a command followed by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:51 as an example of where the people in one city had their sins 'retained' by apostles (John 20:23). Other instances where apostles 'retained' the sins of individuals included the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10), and the temporary blinding of Bar-jesus the Jewish false prophet (Acts 13:6-12).
But, as interesting as some of these issues indeed are, we must avoid developing this into an unduly extended paper. I would, therefore, like to confine the remainder of this study to the 'miracles, signs, and wonders' of the so-called Great Commission specifically cited by Mark, and recorded as historical events by Luke in the book of Acts.
These signs and wonders are seldom, if ever, cited by missionary speakers who hold non-charismatic views of the scriptures.(1) It is true that some charismatically oriented speakers do indeed claim the kingdom promise that believers would cast out demons, speak in tongues and perform healings, but most of that group are probably not as keen on drinking a cup of cyanide-laced fruit punch. Even those very few charismatic teachers who make a religious practice of handling snakes in this day and age are reported to have a high percentage of terrible scars on their bodies as a result of past experiences caused by their supposed 'lack of faith,' and quite a number of them have died as a result of their mistaken belief that Mark 16:18 represents truth specifically revealed for the present dispensation.(2)
Purpose of the signs and wonders
As we see it, the basic problem with the confusion that attaches to this topic is the general disagreement regarding the actual purpose for which these miracles, signs and wonders were performed by the Son of Man during His earthly ministry, and were then given to His kingdom followers. This purpose is clearly stated in Mark 16:20:
"And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following." (Mark 16:20)
Notice that the signs were not primarily given to build up the faith or spirituality of believers. They were given to confirm the [truth of] the word of God to Christ's intended audience, the Jewish people.
Why was it necessary to 'confirm' the word with the various signs? Unger's Bible Handbook gives its opinion as to why tongues, (one of the signs), were necessary:
There are two aspects in the manifestation of tongues: first, the tongues (languages) in Acts 2, 10, 19 (and probably in ch. 8); second, the gift of tongues (known languages) in the early apostolic church. The gift under the second aspect evidently was not permanent (1 Cor 13:9-13). . . . This sign gift with interpretation was meant to instruct the church before the completed NT Scriptures were given.
Under the first aspect tongues were a means by which the Holy Spirit witnessed to Israel on the day of Pentecost (2:4-13). They were a sign of the truth that Jesus was the Messiah and an indication to the Jewish Nation of the new age of the Spirit
This is the use of tongues in the introduction of the gift of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles (Acts 10:44-47). Nothing could have been more convincing to skeptical, unbelieving Peter and his Jewish colleagues than the fact that Cornelius and the other Gentiles spoke in supernatural languages just as the Jews at Pentecost. (Unger's Bible Handbook, Merrill F. Unger, p. 577, Moody Press, 1966)
Dr. Unger is entirely correct in stating that God witnessed to Israel by means of tongues (and other manifestations), and that they were meant to prove to the Jew that the Lord Jesus was their Messiah.
But Dr. Unger's opinion that tongues were also a sign gift to provide instruction for the church, is only partially correct, (if applied to the church in its early kingdom stage). It is certainly true the Scriptures mention 'edification' of believers as one aspect of tongues. However, it is only a secondary issue. The overwhelming primary purpose of tongues had to do with proving to Israel that Jesus is the Christ, and that the truth of Christ's resurrection was God's word to them. And, following the stoning of Stephen, the use of tongues, particularly by Gentiles, would be an especially important factor in provoking Israel to jealousy, a jealousy that would lead either to their conversion or to their ultimate hardening.
But Dr. Unger then states that tongues were "meant to instruct the church before the completed NT Scriptures were given." This common, but Scripturally unsupported interpretation, ignores the fact that all of the miraculous gifts of [the] Holy Spirit are millennial in character. They were specifically given during the period in which God was making a bona fide offer of that earthly millennial kingdom to Israel. The author of Hebrews makes it clear that the tongues, healings and other signs and wonders experienced during the book of Acts are the works of power of the Holy Spirit, and that these powers pertain to "the age to come." That "age to come" is the literal 1000 year reign of God's Anointed One, His Messiah, in the millennial kingdom on this physical earth. These signs and wonders were millennial gifts, meant for the early kingdom-oriented church whose promised sphere of blessing was at that time the physical kingdom that the Messiah would establish on earth:
"For it is impossible to renew again to repentance those once enlightened, and who have tasted of the heavenly gift, and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God, and the works of power of the age to come. . . ." (Heb. 6:4-5)
Mark 16:20 tells us the Lord confirmed the word by means of the signs that followed the disciples. See how the Lord explained this to the disciples of John the Baptist.
"Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples,
"And said unto him, Are you he that should come, or do we look for another?
"Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and show John again those things which you hear and see:
"The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the glad tidings preached to them.
"And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me." (Mat. 11:2-6)
Note that John had previously heard about the miracles of Christ (Mat. 11:2). The Lord's answer to John's two disciples was "Go and show John again those things which you hear and see." These "things," these works were the works of the Holy Spirit, and those works proved that the Lord Jesus was indeed "He that should come." Likewise, the works of the Holy Spirit that followed the disciples from Pentecost onward, confirmed that the word being preached was genuine, that it was indeed the word of the Messiah. It had nothing to do with the status of the canon of Scripture at that time. It was the physical proof to the Jews that Messiah had come to them, and if they accepted Him (Acts 3:19), He would return to earth in the same manner he went into heaven (Acts 1:11; 3:20), to bring to the "sons . . . of the covenant" (Acts 3:25) the "restoring of all things, of which God has spoken by the mouth of his holy prophets since time began." (Acts 3:21)
When the Lord healed the paralytic man in Mark chapter 2 He first forgave the man's sins. This act caused the Jews to raise charges of blasphemy against the Lord, because although they rightly recognized that only God can forgive sins, yet they refused to believe that God "manifest in the flesh" was in their very midst. This God who had revealed Himself in human flesh was the one forgiving those sins. Thus they rejected the deity of the man Jesus. And during this confrontation the Lord made the following remarkable statement:
"Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven; or to say, Arise, and take up your couch and walk?
"But that you may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins, he says to the paralytic,
"To you I say, Arise, take up your couch and go to your house." (Mark 2:10-12)
Although the miracle was indeed an act of compassion, it was much more than that. This miracle of healing performed by the Lord proved that he was none other than God's Anointed Son, the Messiah to the Jews. It was performed "...that ye may know that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sins."
But the supposition that the gift of tongues, or any other of the miraculous sign gifts, somehow temporarily substituted for the lack of written New Testament Scriptures is pure speculation, unsupported by the word of God. Actually, God's word does in fact clearly state the actual purpose for the miraculous gift of tongues that took place among believers after the Lord's resurrection and ascension. According to Mark 16:20 the signs were given to believers as proofs. God was "confirming the word with signs following." But this is not the only verse describing the purpose for the miracles, signs and wonders.
Peter's address to the Jewish worshipers assembled on "the feast of weeks" (Pentecost) tells us precisely the purpose of these signs:
"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus the Nazaraean, a man borne witness to by God to you by works of power and wonders and signs, which God wrought by him in your midst, as yourselves know" (Acts 2:22)
Weymouth's translation says "a man accredited to you from God by miracles and marvels and signs."
Jesus was "accredited" (NIV) by God through the "miracles" (lit. powers, a display of supernatural energy), the "wonders" (they aroused astonishment) and "signs" (signifying spiritual truth).... Nicodemus had said, "No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him" (John 3:2). All agreed, "God has visited His people" (Luke 7:16). - (Acts the Pattern Church, by Donald L. Norbie, p. 42, Walterick Publishers)
These miracles were "signs," pointing beyond the immediate scene to the Lord Jesus Himself. They were not primarily for the betterment of the healed but to validate the message and to point people to Christ. - (Ibid., p. 66)
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul attempts to correct the misuse of spiritual gifts, including tongues, by the gathering of believers. And in doing so he emphasizes the real purpose of the gift of tongues.
"In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that they will not hear me, saith the Lord.
"Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not" (1 Cor 14:21-22)
The source of the above passage is Isaiah 28:11-12. So, who is "this [unbelieving] people" to whom God would speak? And who are the "people" who "believe not"? Isaiah plainly tells us!
"Wherefore hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem." (Isa. 28:14)
According to the context of the above Scripture the people to whom the Lord would speak using "stammering lips and another tongue" was Israel. The rulers of Israel were the "scornful men" described in the above passage. Thus tongues were a sign to the unbelieving religionists who ruled the Jews.
God had said in effect, 'With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto ISRAEL; and yet for all that they will not hear me. Wherefore tongues are for A SIGN, not to them that believe, but to THE RELIGIOUS AUTHORITIES OF ISRAEL that believe not.'
Therefore, while Jews and Gentiles at Corinth could employ tongues, if properly used with interpretation, to edify their fellow believers, the primary purpose of the tongues was "for a sign" to the unbelieving nation Israel.
But attempting to prove that the gift of tongues ". . . was meant to instruct the church before the completed NT Scriptures were given," Dr. Unger and others gloss over the well known fact that the Christian Scriptures were not completed until approximately AD 95-98, yet tongues are only mentioned in the Acts and in First Corinthians. Both Acts and First Corinthians were composed during the period from AD 29 through AD 60, a time range during which God was still dealing with corporate Israel and offering the millennial kingdom to that covenant nation. No epistle composed after the close of the book of Acts mentions tongues. Tongues (as well as the other physical miracles) appear to have ceased nearly 40 years before the canon of Scripture was completed, thus indicating that this popular explanation of the purpose of signs and wonders is incorrect.
Occurrences of signs and miracles during the Acts:
There are several theories as to why God gave miraculous gifts to believers who lived during the historical period covered by the book of Acts. Among these theories:Theory #1: Some say these signs were necessary to authenticate God's spoken message because the Scriptures had not yet been committed to writing. We have briefly touched on this theory above.
Theory #2: Others teach that the book of Acts covers a "transitional" period. During that period they stipulate there was a gradual change from a 'signs and wonders' economy to a 'sign-less' era. Some feel this gradual change began shortly after Pentecost with the result that signs and wonders began to disappear shortly after Pentecost and continued to gradually decline until they had fully disappeared by the last chapter of Acts.A variation on this theory is that signs were part of the Pentecostal kingdom church of Acts 2, but gradually disappeared as a 'different' church, known as 'the body of Christ' began at Acts 9 (or Acts 13) and gradually replaced the first 'kingdom church' during a "transitional period" that occurred during the Acts period. (Mid-Acts theory)
Theory #3: Miraculous signs were a specific, integral, part of God's dealings with Israel, hence, they only occurred during two significant dispensational periods in the Acts during which God dealt with Israel in a covenant relationship:
♦ The signs were present while God was making a bona fide offer of the millennial kingdom to Israel at Jerusalem (Acts 2 through 7).
♦ The signs were only valid while Israel was in the process of being hardened and blinded (Acts 8 through 28). But once corporate Israel throughout the world committed the unpardonable sin of totally and finally rejecting the works of the Holy Spirit, their pathway of unbelief was sealed. At that point the signs and wonders which had testified of the glorious truth of Israel's Messiah through His chosen messengers abruptly ceased, having no further purpose. (Acts 28:28 position)Theory #4: The signs were directly proportional to the spirituality of believers in the early days of the church, and any absence of signs today amongst those within today's mainline churches and denominations simply reflects the low degree of spirituality of church-goers who do not possess these miraculous gifts.
Examining the above positions
We propose to examine the above positions in the following manner. Let us stipulate, for example, that position #1 is correct (signs were necessary to authenticate God's spoken message because the Scriptures had not yet been committed to writing). If this position is correct one might logically expect that starting with Acts 2 (A.D. 29) and ending with the writing of the Apocalypse (A.D. 95), miraculous signs would either gradually taper off during that 66 year timeframe, or continue strongly throughout the period, then suddenly cease once the canon of Scripture was completed. That scenario may be illustrated by one of the following two charts:
Theory number 1: Signs are present during the 66 year period during which the canon of Scripture is incomplete, and they gradually taper off until the entire canon of Scripture is completed when John writes the Apocalypse (at AD 95).
Theory #1: The signs .
Another way to visualize this is by assuming that signs are relatively constant during the 66 year period while the canon of Scripture is incomplete, but suddenly cease once all books of the Bible are written.
Some who hold the above theory believe miracles only took place during an initial visit of one of the apostles to a particular city, and that such miracles did not occur during their subsequent visits. It appears, however, that the signs and wonders performed by the believers at Corinth were not 'one-shot' events. They continued day after day. It was because of this continuing use or misuse of some of these 'works of power of the age to come' (Heb. 6:5) that Paul had to inject corrective measures (1 Cor. 11:17:34). Thus, the 'initial visit' theory appears to be laid to rest.
Theory #2: Assumes that during the Acts there was a gradual change from a 'signs and wonders' economy to a 'sign less' era. If this position is correct we might expect to see a gradual decline in the occurrences of signs and wonders during some period covered by the Acts. The Mid-Acts dispensational position espouses this theory. This interpretation envisions that the 'Pentecostal kingdom church' is gradually replaced by a church known as the 'body of Christ' during a 'transitional period' covered by the second half of the book of Acts, under the ministry of Paul. This new church is thought to begin either at Acts 9 or at Acts 13. As the first 'kingdom' church is replaced by the second church, the signs and wonders belonging to the 'Pentecostal kingdom church' gradually diminish to a sign-less dispensation belonging to the church which is the 'body of Christ.' If this theory is correct one might logically expect miracles, signs and wonders to gradually taper off during the period from Acts 9 to Acts 28 or from Acts 13 to Acts 28 as the 'body of Christ church' waxes and the 'kingdom church' wanes. The following chart attempts to illustrate such a gradual decline in signs and wonders beginning somewhere in the middle of the Acts, and with this decline becoming fully completed at Acts 28:28.
Theory 3: The Acts 28:28 theory stipulates that signs and wonders were an integral part of God's dealings with the Jews during the period when He was making a bona fide offer of the millennial kingdom to Israel (Acts 2 - 7). It holds that this program directed at Israel was fully in effect during the entire book of Acts. The signs and wonders were equally valid while Israel was in the process of being hardened and blinded (Acts 8 - 28), but once Israel was blinded with finality and its covenant relationship with God was terminated these signs abruptly ceased. They did not 'gradually' cease. These signs were fully active from Acts 2 - 28, and abruptly ceased only when the Jewish leaders at Rome, the last outpost of Judaism had decisively rejected the works of the Holy Ghost and the millennial kingdom was placed in abeyance. If the Acts 28:28 theory is correct we would expect that signs and wonders would continue at a more or less constant level throughout the entire book of Acts, but would abruptly cease, never to be mentioned in Scriptures written subsequent to Acts 28:28. This theory is illustrated in the following chart:
Theory #4: Signs continued among 'truly spiritual people' from Pentecost to the present day, but ceased as non-spirituality crept into the church. Inasmuch as it is impossible to specify when 'truly spiritual people' existed in God's local gatherings, or even to define what is meant by 'truly spiritual people,' we are unsure as to how to simulate such a scenario with a chart. Certainly, such signs did not manifest themselves with the appearance of Luther, Calvin, or with the beginning recovery of dispensational truth in the so-called 'Brethren' movement.
However, this position is commonly held today by charismatic teachers who claim to experience [some of] the miracles, signs and wonders promised in Mark 16 and mentioned in the Acts and in Paul's first letter to the Corinthian believers. The "spirituality" view is also held by charismatic "snake handlers" to explain why many of their own members who lack 'spirituality' suffer awful bites, horrible gangrene, and even death(2) when they "take up serpents" in claimed obedience to Mark 16.
Surprisingly, 'Brethren' author J. N. Darby seemed to hold a modified "spirituality" view:
In reference to the passage which has been quoted in Mark 16:17, if the question be asked wherefore is the power in the church now not the same as in the days of the apostles? Clearly because of man's unfaithfulness. The promise in Mark is not made to the apostles, but to those who believed in the apostles' ministry. It did follow those who believed, and that promise was accomplished; it is left in a vague manner, because it was to be the proof of the faithfulness of the church in the deposit that was given to it, and it failed. (Power in the Church; or Not Imitation, but Obedience in the Sense of Present Ruin, Vol. 31, p. 299, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby)
In the above quotation, Mr. Darby appears to attribute "power in the church" to the decline in faithfulness and spirituality of Christians in the church on earth, and to the subsequent 'ruin' of that church. Whether Darby's definition of "power" includes the miracles and signs of Mark 16 is unknown. In any case, the Corinthian believers, who characteristically lacked spirituality, were certainly not lacking in miraculous spiritual gifts. And the Corinthians were certainly contributing to the 'ruin' of the church by creating sectarian divisions (1 Cor. 1:11). It is also noteworthy that none of the chief men or women in the so-called 'Brethren' movement, are known to have ever claimed to possess any of the miraculous gifts which were in abundance in Corinth, even though the level of spirituality of such men within the movement as J. G. Deck, Anthony Norris Groves, C. H. Mackintosh, George Muller, William Kelly, F. W. Grant, and Mr. Darby himself, probably exceeded anything in Corinth. It appears Darby, an early architect of dispensationalism, may not have accounted for the dispensational factor involved in that cessation of gifts, viz., that these miracles and signs specifically targeted the unbelieving nation Israel during the period (Acts 2 - 28) when God was making a bona fide offer of the millennial kingdom to Israel, and, secondarily, to provoke Israel to jealousy by means of the signs exhibited by Gentile believers from Acts 10 - 28).
If we stipulate that position #4 (the spirituality theory) is correct, we would expect to see among the 'truly spiritual' only a sporadic appearance of miracles during the Acts, and possibly throughout the history of the church on earth to this day. One supposes this theory might be represented by a chart showing rare outpourings of the physical signs of the Spirit in extremely spiritual Christians. A reading of First Corinthians, however, is more than enough to convince most that miraculous gifts were sovereign outpourings of the Spirit on individuals who professed to be Christians, and not necessarily on those who were actually the most spiritual persons.
When the lame man was healed at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, Peter was quick to point out that this miracle did not happen because of any godly character possessed by Peter.
"And when Peter saw it, he responded to the people, You men of Israel, why do you marvel at this? or why do you look so intently on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk?" (Acts 3:12)
The Lord Himself clearly indicated that sign gifts were not an indication of the spirituality of those who possessed these gifts when He stated:
"Not every one that says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven.
"Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out demons? and in your name done many wonderful works?
"And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity." (Mat. 7:21-23)
It is only necessary to actually read the book of Acts to see that interpretation #4 lacks a Scriptural foundation.
Now that we have supplied various charts that attempt to illustrate what might have been expected under some of the above theories, we now present the actual 65 times where various miracles are alluded to throughout the entire book of Acts. In the following chart it is quite evident that the number of occurrences of miracles, signs and wonders per chapter are relatively constant from the beginning of the church at Acts 2 until the final culmination of unbelief by Israel at Acts 28:28. The obvious exceptions to this are at chapters 17, 24, 25, and 26 where Paul is offering a legal defense of his ministry before various officials, rather than presenting the gospel to the Jewish and Gentile world during his three missionary journeys. In short, there appears to be no evidence that signs and wonders were gradually petering out as we approach the final chapter of Acts. Scriptural data used to create this chart are appended to this study.(3)
Another possible chart (by the way, agreeing with the Acts 28:28 theory) shows the sudden and complete disappearance of miracles following God's blinding and hardening of Israel after they utterly rejected the ministry of the blessed Holy Spirit throughout the Acts. Thus the complete rejection of the Christ at Rome, the last outpost of official Judaism.
The above conclusion is supported by the fact that the list of spiritual gifts in First Corinthians 12:7-11 differs radically from the parallel list of spiritual gifts given in Ephesians 4:11 The epistle to the Corinthians was written during the second half of the book of Acts, while the mystery of Israel's blindness was in effect. This is when God was in the process of provoking Israel to jealousy by means of signs and wonders, signs which were particularly obnoxious to the Jews when performed by Gentiles. The letter to the Ephesians was written after the final blinding of Israel at Rome, and completely omits reference to the miracles, signs and wonders elucidated in First Corinthians, and teaches a far different list of spiritual gifts, because Israel is no longer in view.
1 Corinthians 12
[Before Acts 28:28]
[After Acts 28:28]
But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. [vs. 18]
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. [vs. 7]
Now ye are Christ.s body, and members in particular. [vs. 27]
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling. [vs. 4]
But to each one of us has been given grace according to the measure of the gift of the Christ. [vs. 7]
For the perfecting of the saints; with a view to [the] work of [the] ministry, with a view to the edifying of the body of Christ. [vs. 12]
And God hath set some in the church: [vs. 28]
then miraculous powers;
then gifts of healings;
kinds of tongues.
And he has given [vs. 11]
and some prophets,
and some evangelists, and some shepherds and teachers
While the so-called 'Great Commission' given to the disciples in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and in the Acts, can be wonderfully applied to us today spiritually, as we send out missionaries to evangelize unbelievers whom the Lord would draw into His church, it is important to note the 'address on the envelope' was God's covenant people Israel (Acts 3:25). Moreover it applied specifically to the period when God was wooing His covenant people to be part of the "gathering" (ekklesia) the Messiah had promised to build (Mat. 16:18-23). To them every aspect of that commission, including the physical signs and wonders, applied literally and without omission.
We conclude with a helpful quote from the Works of Miles Coverdale which should be kept in mind as we search the scriptures daily in a desire to see whether those things are so (See Acts 17:11).
It shall greatly helpe ye to understande Scripture, if thou mark
not only what is spoken, or wrytten,
but of whom,
and to whom,
with what words,
at what time,
to what intent,
with what circumstance,
considering what goeth before, and what followeth.
Endnote 1: Various Bible teachers have chosen portions of the Lord's 40 day ministry as being the Great Commission for today. For example:
C. H. Mackintosh quotes Luke 24:44-49 and says: "This splendid passage of Holy Scripture sets before us the great commission which the risen Lord entrusted to His apostles just as He was about to ascend into the heavens, having gloriously accomplished all His blessed work upon earth." - (The Great Commission, Miscellaneous Writings of C. H. Mackintosh, Vol. 4, Loizeaux Brothers)
In an article The Prevailing Confusion Over This Commission, Berean Searchlight, Nov 2006, pp. 13-14, the late C. R. Stam, a "Mid-Acts" dispensationalist, cites the position of a number of prominent Bible teachers on the Great Commission of Matthew 28:
"Dr. H. A. Ironside . . . held that the Church's commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20" (Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth, P. 17).
Mr. Darby: "The accomplishment of the commission here in Matthew has been interrupted...for the present it has, in fact, given place to a heavenly commission, and the Church of God" (Collected Writings, P. 327). [no Volume # given]
Note: Mr. Darby also said ". . . But more, the commission in Matthew 28 was never carried out; Paul's [commission] took its place (Gal. 2:6-9), and Paul puts his mission in contrast on these points with theirs. They [the apostles] may have gone abroad, as Mark 16; but this is the only allusion to it in Scripture, the tradition as to it [i.e., going throughout the world] being a very late one." (Christological Pantheism, Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 29, p. 228). [This note inserted by R.L.B.]
Dr. James M. Gray: "This is the Kingdom Commission...not the Christian Commission" (Christian Workers' Commentary, P. 313).
Dr. I. M. Haldeman: "We must call this the Kingdom Commission" (The Commission, P. 14).
Dr. Arno C. Gaebelein: "This is the Kingdom Commission" (Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2, P. 323).
Dr. Wm. L. Pettingill: "This we would call the 'Kingdom Commission'....It would be a strange thing to find the Church's commission in the Kingdom Gospel" (Bible Questions Answered, Pp. 106,107)
Note the following from 'Brethren' writer Charles Henry Mackintosh (1820 - 1896) as to the true earthly character of the church that existed between Pentecost and Acts 28:28. In his later years C.H.M. accurately identified the kingdom nature of the church prior to Acts 28:28, and clearly understood that the remarkable manifesting by Paul of its never-before-revealed heavenly character took place in his prison epistles written ONLY AFTER national Israel was temporarily set aside:
"The doctrine of the Church's heavenly character was developed in all its power and beauty by the Holy Ghost in the Apostle Paul. Up to his time and even during the early stages of his ministry, the divine purpose was to deal with Israel. The thought of a church composed of Jew and Gentile, 'seated together in the heavenlies', lay far beyond the range of prophetic testimony. The Kingdom was still the very highest thought. The Church as seen in the opening of the Acts ... was still the Kingdom, and not the great mystery of the Church. Those who think that the opening chapters of Acts present the Church in its essential aspect, have by no means reached the divine thought on the subject." (C. H. Mackintosh, Life and Times of Elijah, Concluding Remarks, Miscellaneous Writings, Loizeaux Brothers, Volume 5, pp. 127-130).
As to Acts 28:28, the great dispensational 'line in the sand,' C.H.M. said:
"Every effort that love could make had been made, but to no purpose; and our apostle, with a reluctant heart, shuts them up under the power of that judicial blindness which was the natural result of their rejection of the salvation of God. ...now all was over...he must therefore set himself to bring out that holy and heavenly mystery which had been hid in God from ages and generations---the mystery of the Church as the body of Christ united to its living Head by the Holy Ghost. Thus closes the Acts of the Apostles, which like the Gospels, is more or less connected with the testimony to Israel. So long as Israel could be regarded as the object of testimony, so long the testimony continued; but when they were shut up to judicial blindness, they ceased to come within the range of testimony, wherefore the testimony ceased." (Op cite, pp. 141-142).
Newport, Tenn. (AP) - Members of the tiny Holiness Church of God in Jesus' Name have tested their faith with snake handling and poison. Now their minister says some will try fire.
The mountain folk of the church buried two of their brethren Thursday after they drank strychnine during services Sunday. The bodies of the Rev. Jimmy Ray Williams, 34, of Carson Springs and the Rev. Buford Pack, 30, of Marshall, N.C., were buried with Bibles opened to a passage in the Gospel of St. Mark:
"They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them. . . ."
After his brother and Williams were buried, the pastor of the church, the Rev. Lister Pack, said: "Several brothers have been drinking strychnine for years in addition to handling the serpents. We will continue. In addition, we are going to test our faith with fire."
In the 11th chapter of Hebrews, the minister read:
"Who through faith . . . quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in fear, put foreign armies to flight."
Preacher Ruble Campbell down the road is going to give the church a blowtorch. God will furnish the power and we the faith," said the minister, whose church has 48 members. He said the blowtorch will be turned on the faces and arms of "those anointed by the Holy Ghost."
The deaths of the two men Sunday have shaken some members of the church, he said, adding, however, "We will keep on testing our faith in the Holy Ghost." (Snakes and poison are faith testers, The Courier-News, Saturday, April 14, 1973, p. A-2)
Endnote 3: List of actual occurrences of Miracles, Signs and Wonders used for the foregoing bar chart.
Key to the data chart:
DR = Direct Revelation
Ch 17: (no occurrences)
Ch 22: (no occurrences)
Ch 24: (no occurrences)
Ch 25: (no occurrences)
Ch 26: (no occurrences)
Be sure to read our article entitled
Birthday of the Church versus
Was there more than one
Also see our Article
Acts Dispensationally Considered
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