Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | June 30, 2008

Who are authorized persons that can perform miracles? (Lesson 7: Question 1 Answer)

1. Who are authorized persons (or beings) that can perform miracles?

 

There is much confusion, speculation and manipulation when we consider the topic of miraclous works of the Holy Spirit.  As we consider this topic we will seek to bring clarity and convey the biblical view of miracles, which is conveniently manifested in our passage.  As we proceed to perform this task we will remain focused on the following verses:

1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

2This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

As we gather from the text, a significant and influential person approaches Jesus during the night to engage in a dialogue.  Nicodemus is reported to be a Pharisee and a member of the ruling class in Jerusalem.  The Pharisees were considered the conservative party in Israel during this time and were known for their scrupulous observance of the Mosaic Laws.  This observance comprised subscription to first five books of Moses and the traditions or interpretations of these laws handed down orally by the elders (Mark 7:3, 5) 3.  They differed with the Saducees, who were the priestly class on several points of belief (Acts 23:8), however shared the rule of the nation with them in the body known as the Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin was comprised of seventy elders who were the native ruling authority, granted limited autonomy by the Roman overlords.

Thus, we should recognize that Nicodemus is an individual in an esteemed position in the Israelite society.  As an elder of the people he would have been respected and feared.  In such a position we must recognize that it would have at least been a matter of interest for him to seek out and to visit a controversial figure who had just challenged the authority of the temple leaders.  This is further reinforced by the apostle’s mention of this visit taking place at night, under cover of darkness, which would have been ideal to maintain privacy and prevent the knowledge of this visit being discovered.

There are a few different reasons that may have motivated Nicodemus to trouble himself to make this visit.  Whether the nature of the trouble was that of a risk to his reputation or just taking the time to associate himself with Jesus, the motivation had to be fairly significant.  The following reasons or alternatives are those that we believe present the most viability:

 

·         Nicodemus was sent by his party as representative to make a formal inquiry into who Jesus was and who He specifically claimed to be.  His motivation was thus out of loyalty to his party.

·         Nicodemus was sympathetic to Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and restoring the purity and dignity of covenant worship in Israel.

·         Nicodemus was eagerly awaiting the advent of the Messiah of Israel, the promised seed of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent.  In hope that Jesus may be that promised seed was the motivation to make this visit.

·         Nicodemus was witness to the miracles that Jesus performed during the Passover festival.  His understanding of the role that miracles played in redemptive history validated that Jesus was preaching with the authority of God.

·         A combination of some or all of the above mentioned items.

We can never really ascertain the true motivation that caused Nicodemus to approach Jesus for a discussion.  His later sympathetic references in the fourth Gospel (John 7:50; 19:39 ) are not necessarily indicative of what his feelings were towards Jesus prior to the encounter.  Nonetheless, his statement recorded in the subsequent verse at least provides strong evidence that the fourth bullet above was a factor.

As a man who must have been conversant in the Law and Prophets, which comprised the Old Covenant canon, Nicodemus would have understood the role that miraculous signs and wonders played in redemptive history.  In redemptive history, miracles tend to cluster during periods of new revelation that God provides to His covenant people.  The primary examples of this in the Old Covenant are the miracles of Moses that occurred during the exodus from Egypt and wilderness wanderings.  God’s revelation of Himself to His people followed these signs and wonders, culminating in the compilation of it in the Pentateuch as a written record.  Upon the deliverance of this law and the conquest of the land through Joshua the occurrences of revelation and miracles were not as prevalent ultimately ceasing after the time of Malachi.   It should be noted that miracles were not normal or common occurrences in redemptive history, especially when one considers the Old Testament period was over 1500 years. 

This view of miraculous signs and wonders must be the implication of the statement made by Nicodemus here to our Lord.   The purpose of miracles are to manifest the authority of the representative who is speaking on behalf of God (John 5:36; 9:33; Acts 2:22).  Thus, Nicodemus could be confident that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God.  The advent of our Lord begins the most significant period of revelation in redemptive history and included a multitude of miraculous acts to substantiate it.  This was followed by the apostolic age, which continued to display a similar amount of miracles.   

Certainly, one can point to the content thus far and note that these are the words of Nicodemus who did not speak for God.  Thus, for us to rely on his statements to support our point would be problematic.  However, this is an instance where Nicodemus is consistent with the inspired testimony of the New Testament authors (Hebrews 2:4; 2 Corinthians 12:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:5).  These miraculous signs (and gifts of the Holy Spirit) were extraordinary acts that defied the laws of nature, which necessarily required the intervention of the God who is above the creation to endow men with the ability to execute them.  Thus, the power over these ordinances of nature manifests a special authority that can only come from God.  These signs can then serve to authentic the new revelation being spoken from the person performing these miracles as being from God and not a spurious source.

As we established in previous lessons, Christ is the climax of revelation and God has completely spoken in Him (WCF 1.1).  The completion of God’s special revelation in Christ, thus, has direct ramifications on the continuation of miraculous signs and wonders in history.  Since miracles were essentially the visible evidence to establish the authority and credentials of the words of God’s earthly representatives, the completion of God’s revelation in Christ eliminates the need for their continuation.  In fact the cessation of special revelation with the completion of the canon of Scripture included the cessation of the miraculous signs and wonders that accompanied it.  Although, there are many who claim the continuation of these mighty acts and signs, when they are brought under closer scrutiny they fail the test of authenticity. Moreover, even enthusiasts who claim the continuance of these signs and extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit concede that they passed out of use in the Church until the “latter days”.  Thus, Warfield argues the best biblical and historical explanation of this is the doctrine of cessation after the passing of the Apostolate in the following:

This deeper principle may be reached by us through the perception, more broadly, of the inseparable connection of miracles with revelation, as its mark and credential; or, more narrowly, of the summing up of all revelation, finally, in Jesus Christ. Miracles do not appear on the page of Scripture vagrantly, here, there, and elsewhere indifferently, without assignable reason. They belong to revelation periods, and appear only when God is speaking to His people through accredited messengers, declaring His gracious purposes. Their abundant display in the Apostolic Church is the mark of the richness of the Apostolic age in revelation; and when this revelation period closed, the period of miracle working had passed by also, as a mere matter of course. It might, indeed, be a priori conceivable that God should deal with men atomistically, and reveal Himself and His will to each individual, throughout the whole course of history, in the penetralium of his own consciousness. This is the mystic’s dream. It has not, however, been God’s way. He has chosen rather to deal with the race in its entirety, and to give to this race His complete revelation of Himself in an organic whole. And when this historic process of organic revelation had reached its completeness, and when the whole knowledge of God designed for the saving health of the world had been incorporated into the living body of the world’s thought–there remained, of course, no further revelation to be made, and there has been accordingly no further revelation made. God the Holy Spirit has made it His subsequent work, not to introduce new and unneeded revelations into the world, but to diffuse this one complete revelation through the world and to bring mankind into the saving knowledge of it4.

Jesus demonstrated through His earthly ministry the authority from God that He possessed by performing miracles.  The prophets of the old covenant and the apostles of the new covenant demonstrated these same signs and wonders, to authentic the authority they had been given to speak on behalf of God to the people.  How else are we to explain Nicodemus’ statement?  It is evident from this text that this was the purpose for miracles, which protected the people of God from being deceived and led astray.  As Calvin points out in his comments on this verse:

And he had good grounds for thinking so, because God always intended that miracles should be seals of his doctrine.  Justly therefore does he make God the sole Author of miracles, when he says that no man can do these signs, unless God be with him; for what he says amounts to a declaration that miracles are not performed by the arm of man, but that the power of God reigns, and is illustriously displayed in them…To whatever extent Satan may, like an ape, counterfeit the works of God in the dark, yet when the eyes are opened and the light of spiritual wisdom shines, miracles are a sufficiently powerful attestation of the presence of God, as Nicodemus here declares it to be5.

It’s really quite clear from this that we are not to expect the performance of miracles from anyone else than those who represent God.  We now turn to the obvious implication of this, as Calvin alludes to above, that this precludes Satan and demons as well.  Although, we must concede that there is certainly a realm of the occult and magic that has some sort of power or apparent power, it is not on the same level as an authentic miracle.  This is why Scripture refers to false and lying signs (2 Thessalonians 2:9; Matthew 24:24), which have the power to deceive many.  However, our Lord seems to teach that these signs will not deceive the elect who are sealed with the Spirit and equipped with the authentic Word of God.  These false and lying signs are just that, counterfeit and inauthentic, they are not even comparable to the power of God (Acts 8:9-25).

The modern charismatic movement has done much violence to this doctrine and seeks to deny it vociferously.  However, just as a cessation occurred in the Old Covenant at the completion of the canon, a cessation in the New Covenant occurred at the completion of its canon.  The whole purpose revelation and the miracles that accompanied it were designed for very different reasons than the modern charismatics thinks.  As Warfield stated above, “the mystics dream” would be for God to reveal Himself atomistically to private individuals about His hidden will.  It is indicative of a blatant dissatisfaction with God’s complete revelation in Christ, and His Gospel, canonized in the Scriptures.
It should be noted that although a cessation of miracles in this age has occurred, when the age to come dawns the use of miracles will resume.  This is especially evident with the forthcoming resurrection on the last day, which will include the dead being raised and Christ’s church being taken up in the clouds to be with Him.  This will be another period of great revelation with our Lord’s return, which will follow the pattern of other periods in redemptive history and include miracles.  However, until that day we have the ordinary signs and seals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  These signs do not confirm new revelation, but God’s word which is proclaimed to us by His modern day “prophets” from the pulpit on the Lord’s Day.  This Word is contained in the canon of Scripture and is sufficient for the Church in this age to receive Christ.  Let us then be satisfied with the means that God has ordained in these last days when He has spoken to us in His Son. 

 

 

3 Ferguson, Everett.2003. Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: WB Eerdmans, Third Edition) p 516

4 Warfield, Benjamin The Ceasing of the Charismata

5 John Calvin (1550) Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ According to John (Calvin’s Commentaries, 17; Baker, 2005) 106-107

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

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