Do we sometimes encourage a view of the Messiah that is already too materialistic by offering the gospel “plus” something?
|Part of the reason I want to talk about this is because as a Christian I do not think that we should seek the supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit. I don’t seek them in my life and I don’t encourage other Christians to seek supernatural signs as a discipline of the Christian life. I no longer seek out prophesy or words of knowledge or supernatural manifestations in my own life, although I did for a season. I don’t think it’s a good idea to seek that out. I don’t seek God’s voice in making decisions. I don’t seek anointings and those kinds of things, principally because I don’t believe that anointings are New Testament things. I think fillings of the Holy Spirit are New Testament, and I think that we ought to be filled. Of course I do seek filling because Paul encourages us to seek that, but he doesn’t encourage us to seek those other things, unless you are thinking in a more limited fashion where you go to the elders and ask for them to pray for you to be healed. I think that’s fully appropriate. I do seek to be filled by the Holy Spirit and I am available when others seek me for prayer for healing. I certainly believe in supernatural works of god as legitimate events or happenings in the Christian life. But the question is not whether God can work miraculously through prophesy or speaking to you or doing signs and wonders. The question is, ought we seek those things as an ordinary part of our Christian life, or in this case part of our Christian witness? My observation of the Scriptures has been that when there are signs and wonders accompanying the preaching of the Word they are there not because anyone sought those kinds of things or that they were meant to be expected as an ordinary part of the gospel witness. Rather it was something that was bestowed upon the Christians involved because God in His wisdom viewed those circumstances as needing that kind of thing to make the Word compelling. And again, I’m not against signs and wonders per se , even in evangelism, but I don’t think that we ought to seek that out as a regular part of our evangelism. We share the gospel. We heal a few people. We speak through words of prophesy and words of knowledge. We call down fire from heaven and then we have an altar call. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.
What I want to do is give some perspective to this issue to show that there is some liability to the use of signs and wonders in evangelism.
The liability is simply this. Whenever you give something with the Gospel — whether it’s a healing or a handout of some sort — there’s always the danger of the physical gift eclipsing the spiritual one.
I was reading recently about the development of fundamentalism and I read something this morning in fact. The famous nineteenth century evangelist Dwight Moody said, “When I was at work for the City of Relief society before the fire, I used to go to a poor sinner with the Bible in one hand and a loaf of bread in the other….My idea was that I could open a poor man’s heart by giving him a load of wood or a ton of coal when the winter was coming on, but I soon found out that he wasn’t any more interested in the Gospel on that account. Instead of thinking how he could come to Christ, he was thinking how long it would be before he got the load of wood. If I had the Bible in one hand and a loaf in the other the people always looked first at the loaf.” [Quoted in George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 37.]
Robert Gupta was a high-class Hindu that converted to Christ and then founded the Hindustan Bible Institute in Madras, India, where I had a chance to teach at last year. As I read his biography he talked about the liabilities he ran into with taking the gospel to villages in India. When he used signs and wonders, which he certainly had available to him, and when he would pray for people and people would get healed, people would apparently come to the Gospel. They would come to Christ and when he would go back to follow up on these folks he found that they had fallen away and their response was simply this, “I’ll contact you again next time I’m sick.” They thought Jesus was merely a substitute for the doctor, not someone they should bend their knee to in all circumstances of life.
Jesus ran into this exact same problem. Jesus encountered this frequently, and I personally think it’s one of the reasons He told those whom He healed to keep it to themselves. He didn’t want to encourage a view of Messiah that was already far too materialistic. Remember John 6, the famous “Bread of Life Discourse”? Jesus fed the 5,000 — which they clearly took as evidence of His divine mission. “When therefore the people saw the sign which He had performed they said, ‘This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world,'” referring to the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. They even intended to take Him by force and make Him king, so He withdrew to let their passions cool. When He returned to them the next day they had a passion of a different sort. Their profound insight quickly degenerated into a crass materialism that supplanted the Giver with the gift, and Jesus saw this. He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you. You seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled.” You’re just looking for another free meal, in essence. They started following Jesus for the signs themselves. “And a great multitude was following Him, because they were seeing the signs which He was performing on those who were sick.” (John 6:2) And soon even the wonder of the miracles was eclipsed when the people saw an opportunity to fill their stomachs — like a person who marvels at a another’s prophetic ability to foretell the future, who then becomes obsessed with using it to win the lottery.
In Philip in Samaria we see both things operating, the drawing power of miraculous demonstrations as well as the liabilities. “And the multitudes with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing.” (Acts 8:6) Simon the magician (Acts 8:13ff), “As he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed…. When Simon saw that the Spirit was being bestowed through the laying on of the Apostles’ hands, he offered them money saying, ‘Give this authority to me as well so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.'” So this miraculous power had drawn him to them. Then his degenerative motives actually became obvious. That was basically the downside of signs and wonders, by the way
Even giving love carries this liability. I’m sure each of you knows people in your church who seem to hang out principally because churches offer an environment of acceptance for the “walking wounded.” These are the people who continually take and give nothing in return. The churches are full of them, and sometimes I wonder about the genuine state of their spirituality.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not rejecting signs and wonders just as I’m not rejecting love in the church. I think we ought to be open to both of them. I think there are some important reasons why we have signs and wonders. I’m not against signs and wonders, of course. I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I stand against those who say signs and wonders were merely for authenticating the Bible, and now that we have the Bible we don’t need them anymore because signs and wonders in the Scriptures were used for a couple different things.
One purpose of miracles was to accredit the person and mission of Jesus. He said, “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20) Then, of course, there’s Nicodemus, humbly approaching Jesus, impressed by the true meaning of His signs. “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)
Not only did the signs accredit the person and mission of Jesus, but it functioned, to some degree to stimulate belief. We see Jesus making this point in John 14. He says, “Believe on account of the works themselves. [John 14:11, also John 10:25, 38] If you don’t believe my words, believe at least the works.”
There is a third reason, too, that Jesus did miracles, and this is why I am not willing to accept that all the miracles have ceased simply because the need allegedly for them has ceased since we have the Word, and Jesus has done His job, and all of that is behind us. I don’t think it even follows to say that these are the needs, and therefore miracles don’t happen nowadays. I think that’s bad thinking, but I even think that the first premise is wrong. I don’t think that the only reason for miracles was to validate Jesus’ ministry. Part of the reason that Jesus did miracles was to meet deep human need.
Jesus’ miracles acquainted the people not just with His power, but also with His person, revealing the sympathy and compassion of Christ and the Father. That’s why we look to Jesus and see what the Father is like. Part of what we see is sympathy toward the down-trodden. “He saw a great multitude and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14) This need, of course, is still there. There are still sick people. There are still the down-trodden. Jesus still has the compassion for the lost and for the sick and for those who are hurting, so there is a genuine need for this kind of a thing. Now keep in mind when we apply miracles to the needs, it doesn’t always have the desired effect. Maybe the miracle is performed and the person gets healed, but in getting healed they may still not turn to Christ. Then it becomes even more tragic for that individual because the miracle becomes a testimony against them when belief is not forthcoming. For example, Jesus said, “Woe to you….” (Matthew 11:21-24) It seems clear that Jesus was saying that the cities that had the most dramatic display of his Messianic power would suffer worse for their rejection of Christ than those who had no such display, even though the other cities were terribly immoral.
Miracles do have a place, but they are not the key to dynamic and ultimately productive witnessing. In fact, they had limited impact even in the ministry of Jesus. Peter and the early Apostles ran into trouble employing them. There certainly is no directive to employ signs and wonders as a witnessing tool, only that there will be occasions in which “signs will accompany those who have believed,” as Jesus is recorded to have said in Mark 16:16 (if we accept the long ending of the Gospel of Mark’s Gospel as authentic).
When we see signs and wonders being used most effectively, even today, it seems the result of a sovereign move of the Holy Spirit. God is welcome to do anything that He wants, and there are times when He visits His work with a special power in which those things seem to happen. But this underscores my point about all phenomenon of this nature. These are things that the Holy Spirit decides to do on His own, and it’s not characteristically to seek them. In fact when we do seek these kinds of things I’ve seen more chaos and craziness than I have seen what I would consider genuine spirituality manifested there.
Signs and wonders are not to be identified as the principle evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, for in fact one way the filling of the Holy Spirit is characterized is by a bold, powerful and effective witness of the Gospel rather than by external manifestations of power (Acts 4:8, 31; 7:55).
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