The continuationist/cessationist debate nags at me. A blog, a video, a comment—almost anything brings it to mind. So does 2 Corinthians 12:12. Here it is in context . . .
“11 I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 The things that mark an apostle– signs, wonders and miracles– were done among you with great perseverance” (2 Corinthians 12:11,12, NIV).
Verse 12 reminds me of that debate because cessationists claim this verse teaches that miracles marked a man as an apostle. And, since apostles died by the end of the first century A.D., so did miraculous gifts.
Before unpacking these verses, let’s define terms. Most simply, a cessationist believes the gifts of the Holy Spirit (sometimes limited to the “miraculous” gifts) ceased with the death of the apostles. The continuationist believes the gifts continue to today until Jesus returns.
In 12:11 Paul refers to the “foolish boasting” he did in 11:1-33 (http://theoldpreacher.com/plain-foolishness/). “ . . . you drove me to it,” he claims. In other words, “When the ‘super-apostles’ cut me down, you should have defended me. Instead, you took their side. Listen, I’m not inferior to them in any way.”
In 12:12, according to the NIV translation, Paul is saying, “You saw me perform the signs of an apostle—‘signs, wonders and miracles.’” So, says the cessationist, there we have it. Miraculous works were the marks of an apostle. But they’re all dead, and with them, miraculous gifts must be.
But the NIV translation is poor. The better translation of the Greek is . . .
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works (ESV).
How to interpret that, though? Does it mean Paul performed “the signs of a true apostle” accompanied by perseverance and miraculous signs? (In this case, he’s not identifying the signs of a true apostle.) Or does it mean perseverance and miraculous works were the signs? The better ESV translation leaves it unclear.
Either way, miracles weren’t the work of only apostles. Stephen and Philip both performed wonders and signs, but were not apostles.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).
“And the crowds all paid close attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs he was performing. For unclean spirits, shouting loudly, came out of many who had them. And many who were paralyzed and lame were healed” (Acts 8:6,7).
Other non-apostles also exercised spiritual gifts . . .
The seventy-two: “After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go . . . ‘Heal the sick who are there and tell them, “The kingdom of God is near you”’” (Luke 10:1,9).
Ananias: “Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord– Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here– has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength” (Acts 9:17-19).
Church members in Ephesus: “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6).
Philip’s daughters: “Leaving the next day, we reached Caesarea and stayed at the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven. He had four unmarried daughters who prophesied” (Acts 21:8,9).
Believers in Galatia: “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:5).
Believers in Rome: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully” (Romans 12:6-8).
Believers in Corinth: “For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).
Believers in Thessalonica: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thessalonians 5:19,20).
These were not apostles who exercised spiritual gifts, many the so-called “miraculous gifts” such as prophecy, tongues and healing. How then can spiritual gifts/miraculous gifts be signs that the person is an apostle? If they’re not, then the argument that the apostles’ death marked the end of the gifts falls apart.
Why is this theological debate important? Why should it matter to “ordinary Christians”?
One, if spiritual/miraculous gifts have ceased, those who believe they continue and practice them are deceived and involved in something not of God in God’s name. Two, if they have not ceased, those who believe they have are missing one of the wonderful graces the Lord has provided for the Christian life.
Much more must be said, of course. And I’ll weigh in more in future blogs. But here in 2 Corinthians, where Paul refers to one of the debate-issues, we’re called to thoughtfully consider it now.
As we do, here’s a good prayer-song, not for spiritual gifts per se, but for the Holy Spirit . .