“While John performed no sign, yet everything John said about this man [Christ] was true” (John 10:41).
Could anyone doubt that God was powerfully at work through the life of John the Baptist? Jesus said there was none like him (Matt. 11:11) and assigned him a strategic place of importance in the unfolding history of redemption. Like many great saints to follow, he did not do any miracles.
Should we consider the miraculous essential to our Christianity? Yes, of course, if you mean that a miracle is something inexplicable, the finger of God reaching in an unexplainable way into our natural world. Our salvation is a miraculous intervention of God. Evangelism is all about miracles. We pray asking God to change the human will, or to override and arrange the natural course of things in certain ways, or to defy all odds. We certainly do believe that God can do anything He wishes. Should we then seek a life of continuous miraculous experience? Years ago a prominent “faith healer” promoted the idea that we should expect “a miracle a day.” Was he right? Would John the Baptist make this man’s list?
Miracles of healing did authenticate Christ’s divinity and the apostles’ authority. Nicodemus said to Christ, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). “Believe the works,” Jesus said, “so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38). No one would believe that Christ and His apostles had a message from God without external signs accompanying their message.
The writer of Hebrews said that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:2). He goes on to say that “we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard. . . . For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” (Heb. 2:2-3). Next, note the necessity of signs:
After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will. (Heb. 2:3-4)
This testimony by signs, wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Spirit “according to His own will,” was essential to confirm to first century listeners, and to us, that “those who heard” Christ (meaning here, the apostles and some others) had the same message as Christ and were speaking for Him. We must consider ourselves to be supernaturalists if for no other reason than this. Something had to happen outside of nature in order to authenticate the gospel message. We can look back to apostolic signs and wonders and know that God gave clear evidence that the apostles’ words were true.
Signs Inadequate and Often Deceptive
Though miracles of all types did speak of Christ’s divine origin and were instrumental in authenticating His and His apostles’ message, Christ surprisingly did not appreciate those who sought for a sign. Herod was among them (Luke 23:8). In fact, Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign” (Matt. 12:38).
Also, signs, even from the hands of Christ, did not guarantee belief, as is clearly seen in the all the people who would not respond positively to Christ no matter what miracles He performed.
In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus describes the rich man as begging for Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house—”in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (Luke 16:27-28).
But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” But he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” But [Abraham] said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.” (Luke 16:29-31)
Indeed, someone did rise from the dead—Christ Himself—and most do not believe. Ultimately, no sign, miracle, wonder, or gift will persuade a person to believe if God has not opened his heart to receive the word (cf. Acts 16:14). The elect of God can point to signs to validate their own belief in Christ’s divinity, but they are not going to reach anyone with them who is not drawn by God to Christ (John 6:44, 65).
Many who see signs will at first appear to believe, yet will still be unconverted. “Many believed in His name, observing the signs which He was doing,” said John. “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them” (John 2:23-24). Why not? John says it was because Jesus knew their hearts (v. 25). Seekers may be entranced by the miraculous and look as though they are true believers, yet still be unchanged in their hearts. Surely there is much to consider when thinking of this issue of signs.
In fact, Christ taught that there would surely come an emphasis on lying signs and wonders to be wary of. These wonders will be able “to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). False prophets will abound. Some of these will appear as “angel[s] of light” and “servants of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14). We have only to turn on our televisions to find many of them.
We also remember what Jesus said about the future judgment. He said, “Many will say to me . . . ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ ” (Matt. 7:22). Jesus continued, “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’ ” (v. 23).
Christ goes on in this passage to emphasize obedience to His words, comparing a man who builds on them to “a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt. 7:24). In this passage at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, he lays out a noteworthy comparison between those false prophets who have no fruits of true obedience, though abounding in miracles, with those who build their lives on Christ’s teachings. Those teachings of Christ are found in the Sermon on the Mount (from which this passage is taken), and in all of the New Testament, written by His apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5).
It is easy to see that many false prophets are among us these days, gathering people who are desirous for signs to satisfy an ever-increasing appetite, laying all their emphasis on the miraculous instead of Christ’s word. Often these leaders have lifestyles that are suspect. Many teach strange doctrines, and sadly, have a great love of money.
Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned; and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Pet. 2:2-3)
Many leaders in this arena are persons who “suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). In most you see opulence in lifestyle and an appeal for money that is totally uncharacteristic of our Lord and His apostles. There surely may be exceptions among the noted leaders in this area, but I’m hard pressed to find them among those who are most well-known.
Is this kind of person in Paul’s mind when he labors over the importance of Scripture and charges Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction (2 Tim. 4:2)?
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (v. 3-4)
False prophets prey on the weaknesses of the audience. When a sign-seeker comes to a large meeting of a typical faith healer, he is usually predisposed to respond to the healer’s promptings with knee-trembling awe, readily falling to the ground when bid, as a sign of submission to God’s will. He wants it. Since faith is seen as “acting like it is so regardless of the circumstances,” many will seek to prove they have healing faith by saying they are healed, regardless of the reality. The audience is sure something wonderful has taken place, yet they have only witnessed self-deception at its worst. I believe this is normative.
We certainly must be pray-ers. Like many of you, I have thankfully experienced many clear answers to prayer through the years, and even a few immediate healings. As a pastor I’m always ready to pray and even anoint with oil for the healing of a brother or sister who comes to me (James 5:14-16). In fact, because of the way God has led my wife and I to live financially, if God does not come through for our family each day, then we will be entirely destitute. I cannot doubt that God is able and willing to answer our prayers.
We should be able to recount those special answers to prayer. We should also expect more. Yet supernatural experience should be subservient to understanding, applying and proclaiming His Word. And ultimately, as in the case of salvation, God will heal and do other things we may ask for as He decides. He is sovereign, but He always gives to His children “good gifts” (Matt. 7:9-11; Luke 11:11-13; James 1:17).
Remember that Paul, who left Trophimus “sick at Miletus” (2 Tim. 4:20), and who was not successful at an immediate healing of Epaphroditus (though Epaphroditus revived after a long sickness in which he nearly died, cf. Phil. 2:25-27), could not accomplish his own healing after soul-searching prayer three times (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
My appeal is for you to rest in God’s sovereign will and to put more emphasis on developing discipline in your life, learning and practicing God’s Word, becoming holier in word and spirit, proclaiming the gospel, and “engaging in good deeds” (cf. Titus 2:14; 3:1, 8, 14), rather than being enamored with the pursuit of visible signs. Be careful about following those who can turn miracles on at 7 p.m. during a certain meeting. Pray and trust at all times, but do not become absorbed in a lust for miraculous signs like the wicked and adulterous generation Christ spoke of. It will be an illusory journey that will often disappoint you.
God’s will is your sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3). Pursue this first of all. Put far more emphasis on being what God has called you to be. “Be holy as I am holy,” God says (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Seek to display the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). And develop a life of secret prayer, “in your closet” (Matt. 6:6).
Which of us will ever doubt that God can do whatever He wishes? Who can doubt that we have freedom to come to God at any time for mercy and grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16)? And who will ever say that we, as the people of God, should not pray together for big things and expect God to respond according to His sovereign will? But this does not mean that we must align ourselves with a sensual “spirituality” about which we have so many justifiable concerns. It is not all or nothing, as many of today’s false prophets would have you believe.
Some of you will say, “But I experienced healing in my life!” I understand and am glad for it. I believe I have as well, though of the slower variety and not in the instant way the Gospels typically portray such miracles. And I have, as mentioned, also seen immediate and dramatic healings. I am hopeful that God will heal many others. But these answers to prayer should not point any of us to a life of lusting for signs and drooling over faith healers who have no real emphasis on holiness, or biblical doctrine, or sound practice. God doesn’t need to prove Himself to us, or to entertain us. We ought to repent of lionizing such sensationalists and showmen as we find on many of our television programs. We have “Moses and the prophets”; let us believe them!
George Muller, the 19th-century man of faith who fed, clothed and housed 10,024 orphans without asking anyone but God for support, believed he had seen over 50,000 specific answers to prayer. May we see more of such men who are totally devoid of the ugly sensuality that accompanies the current faith-healing world. His commitment to biblical study and meditation was exemplary. He lived in expectancy, as should we. Muller presents a strikingly different model than the modern faith healer. In my view it is a better one.
Consider ordering Jim Elliff’s Led by the Spirit: How the Holy Spirit Guides the Believer as a compliment to this article. Order online at order_catalog.asp.