Check out the new Convergence Church Network! 

Visit and join the mailing list.

Enjoying God Blog

This is the seventh installment in my series of articles responding to the film, “Cessationist.” Here I want to address comments made about Hebrews 2:3-4. At one point in the film, a contributor claims that the author of Hebrews says in chapter two, “I’m not working miracles now.” Really? I’ve read and re-read this passage, and I don’t see the author of Hebrews ever saying that, anywhere. What, then, does he say?

The author of Hebrews says that the gospel message “was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” The urgency of paying close attention to this great salvation and fixing our faith on Jesus alone is of massive importance because of the way God confirmed the truth of the gospel. Notice that there are three stages in this process of confirmation.

(1) Jesus Christ himself declared that he had come to save sinners. His word of forgiveness and redemption for those who trust and treasure him was proclaimed loudly and clearly and with the self-authenticating power of his divine authority.

(2) Those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus while he was on the earth, who saw him and heard him and walked with him, in turn told us about their experience. They bore testimony that all he did and said was real and true. They were present when he cleansed the lepers and drove out demons and walked on water and refuted the Pharisees and raised the dead.

(3) In turn, God the Father also bore witness to the truth of this message of salvation by granting signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Such displays of divine power confirmed and attested to the reality of all that Jesus claimed to be.

All Christians (both cessationists and continuationists) agree on these points. But what of the claim that this suggests, perhaps even requires, that “signs and wonders and various miracles and . . . gifts of the Holy” served their purpose in the first century and should not be expected or prayed for subsequent to the death of the original apostles?

John MacArthur believes that this passage “confirms that validation of the prophets was the chief purpose for biblical miracles” (Charismatic Chaos, 118). He argues yet again that “we see Scripture attesting that signs, wonders, miracles, and miraculous gifts were God’s confirmation of the message of Christ and his apostles (‘those who heard’)” (119). MacArthur also believes that the past tense of the verb “it was attested” is “a clear biblical word that the miracles, wonders, and sign gifts were given only to the first-generation apostles to confirm that they were messengers of new revelation” (119).

But there are several things that should be said in response to this argument. First, even should we concede that “validation of the prophets was the chief purpose for biblical miracles” (an argument in itself that is false and nowhere stated in the NT), this in no way suggests, and far less requires, that it was the only purpose. The NT consistently testifies to several other purposes or effects of miraculous ministry.

Second, the author of Hebrews does not limit his text to the apostles. In fact, the word “apostle” doesn’t even occur in this passage. Now, it is certainly the case that the apostolic company are among those in view when he speaks of “those who heard.” But there is no reason why it should be limited or restricted to them. Numerous others, beyond the twelve, heard Jesus preach and watched him perform miracles. And many more than the twelve exercised spiritual gifts (one example of which is the 72 in Luke 10 who healed the sick and cast out demons).

Third, the text does not say to what or to whom God “bore witness” by signs and wonders. The NIV goes beyond what is in the original text by inserting the words, “to it.” However, the most likely interpretation is that “the great salvation” mentioned in v. 3 is in view.

Fourth, there is something else our author doesn’t say that many have simply assumed he did: he nowhere says that the miracles which attested to or confirmed (or “validated”) the message were performed only by those who originally heard the Lord. The word translated “bore witness” sounds as if it is in the past tense, as if to suggest that God used to do this, that in the past he formerly bore witness by signs and wonders, but that he no longer does so in the present day. But the participle translated “bore witness” is in the present tense in Greek. Although that doesn’t prove my point, it certainly makes room for it (both grammatically and theologically). It means that it is entirely within the realm of possibility that even in the time during which the recipients of this letter were living God was still bearing witness to the truth of the gospel through signs, wonders, miracles, and spiritual gifts. In other words, as William Lane has noted, our author’s language suggests “that the corroborative evidence was not confined to the initial act of preaching, but continued to be displayed within the life of the community” (Hebrews 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary [Dallas: Word, 1991], 39.” Tom Schreiner acknowledges this possibility and says that “perhaps the miracles described here were also ongoing in the life of the readers” (Commentary on Hebrews, 83).

Fifth, there is nothing in this passage that suggests God cannot, does not, or will not continue to attest to and confirm the truth of the gospel through supernatural spiritual displays of power. Some argue that since we have the Bible we no longer need such miracles or spiritual gifts to confirm the truth of the gospel. But the Bible itself nowhere says that. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that the Bible replaces miracles or that the gospel cannot still be confirmed by supernatural displays of power. If supernatural displays of power and the operation of spiritual gifts confirmed the truth of the gospel of salvation in the first century, why could they not continue to do so today?

Sixth, even if God no longer uses miraculous events to confirm or attest to the truth of the gospel (although I believe he does), such spiritual gifts have other purposes they serve. As we’ve already noted in previous articles in this series, Paul clearly teaches that all spiritual gifts, even the more overtly miraculous ones, serve the “common good” or are for the benefit and building up of the body of Christ (see 1 Cor. 12:7-10). The gift of prophecy is designed by God to encourage, console, and edify believers (1 Cor. 14:3). Every spiritual gift is used to strengthen and build up believers in the church. And that is a purpose they serve that will never come to an end until Jesus himself returns in the clouds.

In other words, while acknowledging that supernatural displays of miraculous power served to authenticate and confirm the truth of the gospel, we must never think that such was their only purpose. Nowhere does the NT reduce the purpose of the miraculous to attestation and confirmation.

Finally, the standard word for spiritual gifts (charisma) doesn’t even appear in this text. It literally reads, “distributions of the Holy Spirit” (v. 4). As I have written elsewhere, “perhaps the author is not even describing ‘gifts’ per se, in which case pneumatos hagiou [Holy Spirit] may be an objective genitive referring to the Spirit himself as the one whom God distributed or supplied to (cf. Gal. 3:5) his people. If, on the other hand, ‘gifts’ are in view, note that he distinguishes between ‘various miracles’ (lit., ‘powers,’ dynamesin) and ‘gifts’ of the Spirit. This would suggest that by ‘gifts’ he intends more than what we would call miraculous charismata. Is anyone prepared to restrict all spiritual gifts to the first century simply because they served to authenticate and attest to the gospel message? In view of these factors, I am not persuaded that this passage supports cessationism” (“A Third Wave View,” Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? 4 Views [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 191, n. 21).

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


Write a Comment

Comments for this post have been disabled.