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Should Christians Expect Miracles Today? Objections and Answers from the Bible, Part 1, by Wayne A. Grudem

7. Doesn’t Paul say miracles were the “signs of an apostle” (2 Corinthians 12:12) that were given to show the unique authority of the apostles? And doesn’t that mean we should expect such signs today?

This objection is based on 2 Corinthians 12:12, where Paul says, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.”15  Some people say the “signs of an apostle” here are miracles, and this verse implies that only the apostles (and their close companions) had the authority to work miracles.16  These people then argue that this means other people did not have the authority to work miracles. They say that the working of the miracles ceased when the apostles and their close associates died. Therefore, they conclude, no further miracles are to be expected today. (Those who hold this position are sometimes known as “cessationists,” because they hold to the ceasing or “cessation” of miracles early in the history of the Church.)

This argument is unpersuasive, however, for several reasons:

A. The word “sign” alone does not necessarily mean “miracle.” People who say 2 Corinthians 12:12 shows that miracles ceased usually assume that “signs of an apostle” in this verse means miracles, but they do not give any reasons to support their assumption. And, the assumption is open to serious objections (see below), and, if no arguments can be given in its favor, there is no reason we should accept it.

Among modern commentators on 2 Corinthians, I found only three who understand the phrase “signs of an apostle” in 2 Corinthians 12:12 to mean miracles.17  None of these commentators gives any argument to support this view. By contrast, the majority of commentators understand “signs of an apostle” to have a much broader meaning, including the qualities of Paul’s life and the character and results of his ministry.18  Some of these commentators think that these life and ministry qualities were accompanied by miracles or included miracles as one component among many, but none understand the phrase to refer primarily or exclusively to miracles.

The meaning of the word “sign” in Greek (semeion) is consistent with this. Although the word often refers to miracles, it has a much broader range of meaning than just “miracle”: semeion simply means “something which indicates or refers to something else.” Many nonmiraculous things are called “signs.” For example, Paul’s handwritten signature is his “sign” (2 Thessalonians 3:17); circumcision is a “sign” of Abraham’s imputed righteousness (Romans 4:11); Judas’ kiss is a “sign” to the Jewish leaders (Matthew 26:48); the rainbow is a “sign” of the covenant (Genesis 9:12); eating unleavened bread during Passover every year is a “sign” of the Lord’s deliverance (Exodus 13:9); Rahab’s scarlet cord is a “sign” that the spies told her to hang in her window (Joshua 2:21).

Therefore, we cannot just assume that the phrase “signs of an apostle” means “miracles”. We must rather look to the context to see what sense the word “signs” has in Paul’s argument at this point.

B. The grammar of this verse requires that the “signs of an apostle” are something other than miracles. At the end of 2 Corinthians 12:12, Paul uses a different phrase, which piles up terms in such a way that miracles are unmistakably in view: He says,

The signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.19 The last phrase, “with signs and wonders and mighty works,” contains a collection of all three terms used for miracles, and similar collections of terms elsewhere clearly are used to refer to miracles (note “signs and wonders” in Acts 4:30; 5:12; 14:3; 15:12; Romans 15:19; Hebrews 2:4). But if this last phrase means “with miracles,” then Paul is saying, in effect,

The signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience, with miracles. This means that the “signs of an apostle” must be something different from miracles—the signs of an apostle were not themselves miracles, but they were done with miracles.

C. Paul tells elsewhere in 2 Corinthians what the “signs of an apostle” are. This is not the only verse in 2 Corinthians in which Paul is concerned to defend his apostleship. The main theme of chapters 10-13 is Paul’s defense of his true apostolic authority in opposition to the false apostles who were troubling the Corinthian church. If we want to know, then, what “signs” Paul pointed to when he wanted to establish his genuine apostleship, we need only look at the things he mentions in 2 Corinthians 10-13. In several verses Paul tells what marked him as a true apostle:

  1. Spiritual power in conflict with evil (10:3, 4, 8-11; 13:2-4, 10).
  2. Jealous care for the welfare of the churches (11:1-6).
  3. True knowledge of Jesus and His gospel plan (11:6).
  4. Self-support (selflessness) 11:7-11).
  5. Not taking advantage of churches; not striking them physically 11:20-21).
  6. Suffering and hardship endured for Christ (11:23-29).
  7. Being caught up into heaven (12:1-6).
  8. Contentment and faith to endure a thorn in the flesh (12:7-9).
  9. Gaining strength out of weakness (12:10).

The first item may have implied miraculous power in conflict with evil, but even that is not stated. The important thing is that Paul pointed not to miracles but to indications of his personal character and Christlike ministry when he wanted to show what marked a true apostle in contrast to self-seeking pretenders to that office (cf. 2 Peter 2:1, 22).

Another evidence that the “signs of a true apostle” in 2 Corinthians 12:12 were all these things and not simply miracles is that Paul says, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you in all patience.” Now it would make little sense to say that miracles were performed “in all patience,” for many miracles happen quite quickly. But it would make sense to say that Paul’s Christlike ministry, his selflessness, his contentment, and his endurance of hardship for the sake of the Corinthians were performed “in all patience.”

D. The New Testament never says that miracles proved someone to be an apostle. We should note that nowhere in this list does Paul claim miracles to prove his genuine apostleship. No verse in the New Testament says that miracles distinguished the apostles from other Christians.20 Miracles could not be used to distinguish apostles from nonapostles, because many people who were not apostles also worked miracles—Stephen (Acts 6:8), Philip (Acts 8:6-7), Ananias (Acts 9:17, 18, 22:13), Christians in the churches in Galatia (Galatians 3:5), and those with gifts of “miracles” in the Body of Christ generally (1 Corinthians 12:10, 28). “Workers of miracles” and “healers” are actually distinguished from “apostles” in 1 Corinthians 12:28: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers.”

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Category: Pneuma Review, Spirit, Winter 2000

About the Author: Wayne A. Grudem is Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary, Phoenix, Arizona. He has authored over twenty books, including Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (1994), Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (2010), The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution (2013), The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, and "Free Grace" Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel (2016). He was also the General Editor for the ESV Study Bible (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Book of the Year, 2009).

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