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A Point-by-Point Response to the Film, “Cessationist” (Part Five)

Those in the film Cessationist appeal to 2 Corinthians 12:12 where Paul says that “the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” If these latter phenomena were “the signs of a true apostle,” designed to confirm, attest, and authenticate the apostles as representatives of Christ, it would only make sense that once the apostles were themselves no longer present, the supernatural signs that bore witness to them (such as tongues, interpretation, prophecy, healing, and the discerning of spirits) would likewise disappear. Or so they insist.

This argument is patently false, as we’ll shortly see.

Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth is largely devoted to a defense of his apostolic calling and authority. The false apostles in Corinth had argued that someone lacking verbal eloquence, like Paul, who also failed to demand financial support for his ministry, couldn’t possibly be a true apostle. When Paul turns to defend himself, he doesn’t appeal to the criteria the Corinthians had come to expect as essential for apostolic authority. Instead, Paul points to those things that “show” his “weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30). He hopes that the believers in Corinth will come to recognize that he is “not at all inferior to these super-apostles” (2 Cor. 12:11). In fact, “the signs of a true apostle were performed among” the Corinthians “with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor. 12:12).

But does this text refer to the miraculous as “signs” of the apostles? No! The NIV contributes to the confusion by translating as follows: “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance.” This rendering leads one to believe that Paul is identifying the “signs” or “marks” of an apostle with the miraculous phenomena performed among the Corinthians.

This is where a closer look at the Greek text will help us. The word translated “signs” or “marks” (sēmeia) is in the nominative case, as one would expect. But the terms “signs, wonders and miracles” are all three in the dative. If Paul were identifying the “signs/marks” of an apostle with “signs, wonders, and miracles,” the latter three terms would also be in the nominative case. Thus, contrary to what many have thought, Paul does not say the insignia of an apostle are signs, wonders and miracles. Rather, as the ESV more accurately translates, he asserts that “the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with [or better still, accompanied by] signs and wonders and mighty works.” Mark Seifrid rightly confirms this point by noting that “unfortunately, both the NIV and the NRSV basically ignore the datives (sēmeiois te kai terasin kai dunamesin), equating them with the ‘signs of an apostle.’ The ESV, however, rightly connects them to Paul’s perseverance” (The Second Letter to the Corinthians, 184).”

Did the apostles minister in the power of signs, wonders, and miracles? Absolutely. But so too did numerous non-apostolic believers. More on this below.

I think what Paul is saying, here and elsewhere in the NT, is that miraculous phenomena were a necessary sign of apostolic identity, but not a sufficient one. One could hardly claim to be an apostle of Jesus Christ (at least in the sense in which the original twelve, plus Paul and a handful of others were apostles) in the absence of these supernatural works. But the mere presence of such works was not in itself sufficient to prove that one was an apostle. Signs, wonders and miracles were, undoubtedly, attendant elements in Paul’s apostolic work. But they were not themselves the “signs of an apostle” as if to say that only apostles performed them.

What, then, did Paul have in mind when he spoke of “the signs of a true apostle”? [It should be pointed out that the word “true” (ESV) is not in the original Greek text.] The signs of an apostle, the distinguishing marks of true apostolic ministry were, among other things:

(1) the fruit of his preaching, i.e., the salvation of the Corinthians themselves (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1b-2, “Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, as least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord”; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-3);

(2) his Christ-like life of holiness, humility, etc., (cf. 2 Cor. 1:12; 2:17; 3:4-6; 4:2; 5:11; 6:3-13; 7:2; 10:13-18; 11:6,23-28); and

(3) his sufferings, hardship, persecution (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4; 4:7-15; 5:4-10; and all of chapter eleven). The “first commendation of an apostle,” notes Seifrid, is “perseverance” or “endurance” in the midst of affliction (457). Paul patiently, in perseverance, displayed these “signs” of his apostolic authority. And this was accompanied by signs, wonders and miracles he performed in their midst.

Let us also remember that Paul does not refer to the “signs” of an apostle nor to the miraculous phenomena that accompanied his ministry as a way of differentiating himself from other, non-apostolic Christians, but from the false apostles who were leading the Corinthians astray (2 Cor. 11:14-15,33). “In short,” writes Wayne Grudem, “the contrast is not between apostles who could work miracles and ordinary Christians who could not, but between genuine Christian apostles through whom the Holy Spirit worked and non-Christian pretenders to the apostolic office, through whom the Holy Spirit did not work at all” (“Should Christians Expect Miracles Today?” 67).

So, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that signs, wonders, and miraculous deeds did not, in fact, serve to authenticate or attest to the truthfulness of the message the apostles proclaimed. They most assuredly did. But nowhere in the NT are such supernatural phenomena said to be the signs or authenticating seal on the apostles themselves. That would have been impossible, given the fact that numerous non-apostolic Christians operated in the ministry of signs and wonders. We cannot easily ignore the fact that more than one-hundred non-apostolic believers on the day of Pentecost were recipients of the gift of tongues. And the clear implication of Peter’s words is that they would experience dreams and visions as a result of which they would prophesy (Acts 2:17-18).

Consider the many non-apostolic believers who were recipients of miraculous gifts of the Spirit. Stephen, a deacon, “full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). But no one would have said these supernatural phenomena were a confirming sign that Stephen was an apostle.

Philip, another deacon (Acts 6:5), performed many miraculous signs, healed the sick, drove out demons (Acts 8:7), and displayed “great miracles” (Acts 8:13), yet no one argues that on this basis he was an apostle. Non-apostolic Christians in Antioch prophesied (Acts 13:1-3), as did anonymous disciples of the John the Baptist, who also spoke in tongues (Acts 19:6-7). The aforementioned Philip was blessed with four daughters, all of whom prophesied. Paul expected the average Christians in Rome to prophesy (Rom. 12:6), but never suggested that operating in this miraculous ministry meant that they were apostles. The miraculous gifts and powers in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are said to be distributed to average believers in Corinth, none of whom would ever have been thought to be apostles. Paul also describes how the Holy Spirit worked “miracles” among the Galatians (Gal. 3:5), apparently in the complete absence of an apostle.

My point in citing these instances is simply to highlight once again the fact that miraculous gifts and powerful signs were not restricted to the apostles. This confirms that whatever else Paul may have meant in 2 Corinthians 12:12, he was not saying that “signs, wonders, mighty works” were the exclusive domain and authenticating mark only of apostles.

Cessationists also contend that prophecy was itself one of the more important miraculous gifts that confirmed a person to be an apostle of Christ. But how then could Paul exhort and encourage all the non-apostolic Christians in Corinth to earnestly desire to prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1, 39)?

One final comment is in order. This may catch many by surprise, but the phrase “sign gift” appears nowhere in Scripture. Cessationists often (always?) create a special category for certain miraculous gifts and speak of them as “sign gifts,” believing that this will provide grounds for contending that such gifts served a unique purpose in the first century but have since been withdrawn.

The word “sign” does often appear, and likewise the word “gift” (charisma). But no spiritual gift is explicitly called a “sign gift.” And no author ever speaks of this category of gifts in order to differentiate them from the more ordinary or less miraculous charismata. In Romans 12:6-8 the gift of prophecy (one of the cessationist’s so-called “sign gifts”) is listed alongside serving and teaching and mercy. No attempt is made to single it out or any other miraculous gift, as if they were of a different nature and purpose from those gifts that all Christians acknowledged continue in the life and ministry of the church today.

It is true that in 1 Corinthians 14:22 Paul says that “tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.” However, as we’ll see in a subsequent article in this series, to speak in tongues without interpretation in the presence of unbelievers is a negative sign of judgment that Paul does not want the Christian community to give. He does not use the word “sign” to set apart tongues into a different category. In other words, he is rebuking them for a misuse of tongues, not identifying the actual purpose of tongues in the life of the believing community. And be it noted that when Paul immediately mentions prophecy, the word “sign” does not appear in the original text.

The word for “sign” (sēmeion) appears often in Acts but usually with reference to “signs and wonders.” The latter typically refer to the abundance of miracles that were associated with Jesus and the original company of apostles (see Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 7:36; 8:13; 14:3; 15:12; also Rom. 15:19). The use of the word “sign” in Hebrews 2:4 will be addressed in a subsequent article. Could a particular healing serve as a “sign” in some capacity? Yes (see Acts 4:16, 22; 8:6), but neither healing nor tongues nor prophecy are ever described as “sign gifts” in order to indicate that they were temporary and in a different category from other gifts that were designed by God to be permanent. Again, although on occasion a healing may serve as a “sign,” at no time is healing called a “sign gift.” The only possible exception to this is in the long ending to Mark’s gospel, a paragraph that the majority of NT scholars do not believe is part of the original text of Scripture (see Mark 16:17-18).

Thus, to speak of certain spiritual gifts as “sign” gifts does not serve us well. It tends to suggest a narrow and temporary purpose for some gifts, something not corroborated elsewhere in the NT.

To be continued . . . (like the gifts!)


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