I recently posted a lengthy review of the sixth chapter of Michael Brown’s book, Authentic Fire. I wanted to focus upon his main theological arguments as to why he believes miraculous signs and wonders gifts are active today among Christians, but there still remained a handful of important biblical passages he raised for his argument. My desire was to interact with them also, but my article had already become rather long. I thought I would dedicate an entirely separate post considering those other key passages he uses in his chapter.
Before I begin,
Remember, one of the presuppositions Brown seems to operate under is the idea that any mention in Scripture of miraculous power, dunamis, the charismata, or spiritual gifts, is applicable to ANY and ALL Christians throughout ALL of church history. Brown is adamant that nowhere in the NT did any writer say that miraculous gifts like healings and tongues were only operational for a few decades and then they would cease. Any clear reading of the NT, argues Brown, will tell us that God intended for miraculous gifts to be a normal experience for all Christians for all time. Healings, miracles, and tongues should be both expected and experienced by God’s people today.
When we consider these key passages, we need to keep in mind that Brown’s presupposition is the governing force in interpreting them. If it can be shown, however, that those passages can be understood differently, it doesn’t really matter if no “clear” verses exist that say the spiritual gifts will cease or are only operational during the age of Christ and the apostles.
The question to be asked, then, is whether or not the overall context of the NT brings us to the conclusion miracles continue until today and God intends for all Christians to experience signs and wonders now. Or does the context of the NT bring us to the conclusion those spectacular, public displays of miracles were meant only for a period of time at the hands of Jesus Christ and His chosen apostles during the first century when the NT church was being established.
So with that brief background, let me consider five key verses Brown uses to prove the continuation of the gifts.
Acts 2:14-21 – The Last Days
Brown cites Peter’s use of Joel’s OT prophecy about events that will come about during the “last days” and writes,
I highlighted the words “in the last days” because they are not in Joel’s original Hebrew text, which simply says, “And afterwards,” nor are they in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Rather, Peter inserts those words to say, “This is now the period of the last days, the period of the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh, the period when the gift of prophecy will be multiplied to many, along with dreams and visions.” [AF, 195-196].
After noting a few NT texts that speak to the “last days,” he then concludes by stating,
There can be no possible question that the New Testament authors understood that they were living in the last days, and they lived in the anticipation of the Lord’s return…In sum, the last days are here right now and the last days have been here many years. … And Peter declared that the outpouring of the Spirit with prophecy and dreams and visions was something that would take place “in the last days.” Those are the days which we live. [AF, 197]
Certainly he is correct that Christ’s first coming brought in the last days, or what is also called the latter-days or last times in other Scriptures. MacArthur even writes in the notes of his study Bible for Acts 2:17 that, “This phrase [last days] refers to the present era of redemptive history from the first coming of Christ to His return.” So Brown’s understanding of the term “last days” is not particularly unique to a continuationist perspective, nor is it special in proving the reality of continuationism for the modern church.
Let me offer a few thoughts. First, the prophecy of Joel has an emphasis upon the revelatory work of the Spirit. It speaks to prophecy, dreams, and visions, which are a supernatural work of the Spirit described throughout Scripture as imparting divine revelation to the recipients. The notion of miraculous works like healings is not implied with this prophecy Peter quotes, but the idea of God revealing divine content, in this case, the work of Christ and the establishment of the NT church.
Secondly, the emphasis is not so much upon the vehicle by which the Spirit imparts divine revelation (prophecies, dreams, and visions), but upon the actual recipients of that move of the Spirit, that being, “all flesh,” “daughters and young men,” and “menservants and maidservants.”
The greater idea being presented here by Peter is the work of the Spirit transcending national boundaries, gender boundaries, and class distinctions. The move of the Spirit will be among gentiles as it is with Jews, among women as it is men, and among all the classes of people within a society. All of them will receive the Spirit without exception. It is similar to what Paul wrote in Galatians 3:27-29 and 1 Corinthians 12:13.
Thirdly, it should be noted that Brown leaps from the emphasis of the spiritual outpouring made by Peter upon the divine revelation of prophecy, visions, and dreams, to expanding the outpouring to include miraculous gifts like healing and tongues. Yet nothing in what Peter says in Acts suggests miraculous healing gifts. It is focused exclusively on prophecy. Brown expands the emphasis into these other areas without any real exegetical warrant.
Furthermore, nothing Peter proclaims in the text of Acts 2 tells us that miraculous gifts should be expected to continue among Christians throughout church history. Yet Brown insists that their continuance are clearly implied with the next verses I want to consider,
Acts 2:38,39 – The Gift of the Holy Spirit.
Brown states that the last days will also be marked by the outpouring of the Spirit in miraculous ways and continues citing Peter’s words from Acts 2:38,39 that says, repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.
He then writes,
Again, the text is quite straightforward. Peter has just explained that the miraculous phenomena which the crowds had witnessed was the result of the outpouring of the Spirit, a sign that the last days — the Messianic era! — had begun, and now he declared that the gift of this same Spirit was for all who would repent and be immersed, telling them that the promise was for them, their children, and “all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself [AF, 198].
Brown gives us the impression he believes Peter is saying that because the Messianic age has begun, the “gift of the Spirit” has been imparted and the ability granted for all spirit-filled Christians to tap into the power of God in order to pray down healings and speak in tongues. But let’s take a step back and examine the broader context of this paragraph where those two verses are found.
After Peter explains to his hearers that the episode they were witnessing among the Christians there was the Holy Spirit being poured out, he presents to them the Gospel, reminding them that it was they who crucified the Lord of Glory. The people were cut to the heart and react by crying out in anguish asking Peter what they must do. Peter answers them by calling them to repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, and then they will be be forgiven their sins.
But does this mean that now they are in the place where they can receive the ability to perform miracles if they pray for them? Brown directs us to the phrase “gift of the Holy Spirit” and links that to the promise as noted in Isaiah 59:21. By that connection, it is concluded that this outpouring includes the profusion of the gift of prophecy along with the addition of God’s miracle power [AF, 198].
But is that what Peter is really saying? Or is it a promise of salvation and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit taking up residence within a person to bring them into conformity to God’s laws and holiness? I believe that is what Peter had in mind, and Brown is importing his charismatic theology into this text to make is say God is promising miracle power.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 – The Power of God
Another passage Brown uses for his view of modern day miracles is 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. I won’t quote the entire passage, but the relevant portions are found in verses 4 and 5 where Paul writes, And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Commenting upon this passage Brown writes,
Based on New Testament evidence alone, you can no more separate the gospel from being the power of God to save than you can separate the Spirit of God from being the power of God to heal and deliver. This is reiterated in Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.[AF, 192, emphasis his]
Briefly, I would merely note that I, along with any other cessationist, would agree. However, the issue isn’t whether or not God will heal and deliver which no cessationist would deny. Rather, the issue is whether or not He still uses gifted individuals today to heal and deliver and if divine healing should be understood from this passage to be a normative experience for any and all Christians. Nothing with what Paul states here in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 even hints at what Brown suggests.
He simply states that when he brought the gospel to Corinth, it was attended by power. The power gave Paul the ability to perform miracles for sure, which should be expected because he is an apostle and even says that the “signs of an apostle” were done among the Corinthians (2 Cor. 12:12). That power, however, also did an even greater mirace by changing the lives of the Corinthian Christians. The focus on “power” in this passage, I would argue, is hardly upon the normalcy of supernatural healings among Christians throughout the church age, but upon the saving, redemptive power of the gospel to change lives from God haters to God fearers.
Hebrews 13:8 – The Immutability of Christ
This verse in Hebrews is a favorite among charismatics and Pentecostals. Brown cites it frequently throughout his book. It is believed that what is being affirmed when the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, is that miracles will be on display for as long as Jesus lives, which of course is forever. Just as Jesus performed miracles “yesterday” during His first coming, so will He continue to perform miracles “today” in modern times.
Here is a classic example of how understanding the wider context helps us. Verse 8 is found in the middle of a passage that is addressing leadership in the church. Verse 7 exhorts Christians to remember the rulers who rule over them, or in other words, pastors and teachers. These rulers are supposed to rule (that’s obvious), teach the word of God, prevent strange doctrines from coming into the congregation, and be models of godliness.
When the writer of Hebrews calls the readers to consider the conduct of their rulers, he reminds them of the character of Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The point being is that earthly leaders may come and go, but all of them should conduct themselves according to the ultimate standard, who is Jesus Christ, who never ceases His sovereign, heavenly rule over the entire church. This verse is hardly a promise that supernatural miracles are still in operation today and are a normal function within the body of Christ.
Praying for the Sick – James 5:13-15
The last passage Brown raises is James 5:13-15. He writes,
Once more, then, I ask my cessationist friends to supply me with one single verse that negates these verses or states that they only apply to the apostolic era. To the contrary, the complete reverse is trues: All these exhortations [in James 5:13-15] should be a normal part of congregational life until the end of this age, as seen in the context that follows… The fact that we don’t see more sick people healed doesn’t negate this, unless we are basing our theology on experience, and again, it is impossible to argue that this only applied to the apostles, since here it is simply the congregational elders – not specifically apostles or prophets – who are charged with praying in faith for the sick. [AF, 206].
As I have already noted above, no cessationist is arguing that God relegates supernatural healing only to the apostolic era. God can certainly heal today if God so chooses. He can use any means He deems fit; it is just that He no longer uses supernaturally gifted individuals who have the ability to heal with a spoken word or touch as His primary means. God may use doctors, or even the natural healing properties of the human body to heal. Also, healing is not always instantaneous, but could be gradual.
The fact that Brown hints at the reality that people aren’t being healed in spectacular, supernatural ways according to the formula given to us here in James reveals the massive elephant standing in his room. If what James is saying here was truly meant to provide guaranteed supernatural healing, then desperate people suffering with catastrophic aliments all throughout the church would be calling elders to lay hands upon them and anoint them with oil to heal them from their stage four cancer or spinal cord injuries. The fact they do not tells us James may have had something else in mind.
Taking a closer look at the words of James, there is much more to the situation described than just a sick person calling for the elders and him receiving a supernatural healing by the means of their prayers. The word for “sick” is asthenei, and it indicates a serious condition, as other NT uses reveal (John 4:46-47, John 11:1-3, Acts 9:37). Moreover, the sick person is the one who calls for the elders, and after they pray for him, he is raised up and then James writes that if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.
The inclusion of sins and being forgiven is interesting, because it implies that the sickness described here may very well have been due to the person’s sinful behavior. The presence of elders also indicate that maybe there was some disciplinary action taking place. So it could be that James is describing a situation in which a person in sin who is quite possibly under divine judgment, becomes sick. He then calls the elders in order to seek restoration, and by the confession of sin and the prayer for his sickness, the person is raised up.
Whatever the case, nothing with what James writes tells us he is providing a supernatural formula that includes church leaders, anointing oil, and prayer that will certainly guarantee supernatural healing of what ever disease the person may have.
It can be said that Brown raises some interesting passages in favor of his perspective, but at second glance, those passages are not quite teaching what he claims they are. He is just as equally committed to a set of presuppositions when reading the text as he charges cessationists. Thus he is equally guilty of reading the Bible according to his theology, and thus not “sola scriptura.”