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Pursuing Presence, Not Signs: Balancing Pentecostal Experience with Biblical Teaching

The Spirit and the Word

Christ warns that highly deceptive signs and wonders will accompany deceptive messengers.

According to Robert Menzies, the proclamation of the Word and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit are deliberately connected in the miraculous accounts of Luke-Acts.23 Certainly “word and sign are complementary” for Luke,24 and the Lukan account often differs from other gospel accounts because of the inclusion of hearing and teaching along with miraculous events—this emphasizes the relationship between the Word and the Holy Spirit in Luke’s accounts.25 For Luke, the primary evidence of the Holy Spirit in the early Church was not weighted in favor of the miraculous, but rather in the “bold and inspired verbal witness, particularly in the face of persecution.”26

Examining the message of the so-called prophets will be the only way to validate the divine origin of the messenger.

Comparing narratives found in both Mark and Luke will help to illustrate this point. In one particular narrative, Jesus healed a leper and afterwards went away from the crowds and away from the city. Mark and Luke describe the aftermath somewhat differently. Mark records that after the healing, “Jesus could no longer openly enter a city, but stayed out in unpopulated areas” (Mk. 1:45). Luke notes that “large crowds were gathering to hear Him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus Himself would slip away to the wilderness and pray.” (Lk. 5:15-16).27 The Markan account records the result of Christ’s miracle as crowds, but Luke adds that the crowds followed Christ not only to be healed, but also to hear him.28 This and other examples indicate that Luke’s perspective of Christ’s ministry linked His teaching and His miracle working power together. Ultimately, the centrality of the verbal witness (the proclamation of the Word) in the Lukan account is validated, but not superseded by the accompanying signs and wonders.29

Any reliance on the miraculous will lead to deception.

The final example of the ascendancy of the Word over the miraculous is found in the Parousia. In it, Christ warned His disciples that His return would be preceded by the emergence of false prophets and false Christs, which would show “great signs and wonders,” which would be of such a great significance that if it were possible, they would deceive even the elect (Mt. 24:24-26). Revisiting the experiential paradigm against the backdrop of the Parousia, it becomes clearer why the Word must have the ascendancy over the miraculous. Christ warns that highly deceptive signs and wonders will accompany deceptive messengers, thus implicitly requiring that His followers examine first the message of the so-called prophets, because it will be the only way to validate the divine origin of the messenger. Any reliance on the miraculous will lead to deception. Even self-deception is a danger, for Christ reminded His followers in Matthew 7:23 that there would be those who had “prophesied and cast out demons” in His name who will, in the end, be told to “depart from Him.” The performance of miracles provide no assurance of eternal life.

Christ’s warnings present unique dangers for Pentecostals and Charismatics who believe in the continued operation of the gifts of Holy Spirit. If Pentecostals and Charismatics flock to places like Toronto, Canada and Pensacola, Florida because of laughter, falling to the ground, and inner healing, what will be the result when false prophets and false Christs begin working substantive miracles—miracles that resemble those found in the Scriptures? If we take literally Revelation 13, it informs us that the false prophet will have power to call down fire from heaven in the sight of humanity, or to speak to a statue that will then come to life (Rev. 13:13-15). As those days approach, one can only wonder whether Pentecostals and Charismatics will take the time to authenticate the messages of these deceivers or if they will simply follow the miraculous. We can start to address this question by examining one alleged recent Pentecostal/charismatic event to determine the degree to which it accords with the biblical witness concerning miracles.

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2009

About the Author: Jessica Faye Carter, J.D. (Duke University), M.Div. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is a lawyer, entrepreneur, and nationally-recognized expert on cultural and gender diversity. She is the author of Troubling Her: A Biblical Defense of Women in Ministry (Purple Girl, 2010), Double Outsiders: How Women of Color Can Succeed in Corporate America (JIST Works, 2007), and “Known and Yet Unknown: Women of Color and the Assemblies of God.” LinkedIn. Twitter.

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