|Signs and Wonders: Then and Now - Part 3
by John Piper
In the previous section I argued that "signs and wonders" in the New Testament were not the prerogative of apostles only. The "seventy" performed them (Luke 10:9,17), deacons performed them (Acts 6:8; 8:6), Galatian Christians performed them (Galatians 3:5), Corinthian Christians performed them (1 Corinthians 12:9-10). Since signs and wonders were not the prerogative of the apostles, there is no New Testament warrant for inferring that these miracles were to cease after the apostolic age.
In fact, I want to argue in this section that the New Testament teaches that spiritual gifts (including the more obviously supernatural or revelatory ones like prophecy and tongues) will continue until Jesus comes. The use of such gifts (miracles, faith, healings, prophecy, etc) give rise to what may sometimes be called "signs and wonders." Therefore signs and wonders are part of the blessing we should pray for today.
There is no text in the New Testament that teaches the cessation of these gifts. But more important than this silence is the text that explicitly teaches their continuance until Jesus comes, namely, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12.
The main point of this passage is that love is superior to spiritual gifts like "prophecies" and "tongues" and "knowledge". The basic argument for the superiority of love is that it lasts forever while these gifts do not. They cease "when the perfect comes," but love goes on forever. The reason given for why these gifts cease is that they are "imperfect". But when the "perfect" comes the imperfect will pass away. So the key question is: When does the "perfect" come which marks the end of the imperfect gifts like prophecy?
The answer is plain in the text if we follow Paul's line of reasoning. Verse 8 says, "Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away" (RSV). Why are these gifts temporary? The answer is given in verse 9: "For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect." So the reason these spiritual gifts are temporary is their incompleteness or imperfection.
How long then are they to last? Verse 10 gives the answer: "When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away." But when is that? When does the perfect come? The answer is given in verse 12: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." The "now" of incompleteness and imperfection is contrasted with the "then" of seeing face to face and understanding even as we are understood.
So the answer to the question of when the perfect comes and when the imperfect gifts pass away is the "then" of verse 12, namely, the time of seeing "face to face" and "understanding as we are understood." When will this happen?
Both of these phrases ("seeing face to face" and "understanding as we have been understood") are stretched beyond the breaking point if we say that they refer to the closing of the New Testament canon or the close of the apostolic age. Rather, they refer to our experience at the second coming of Jesus. Then "we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2) The phrase "face to face" in the Greek Old Testament refers to seeing God personally (Genesis 32:30; Judges 6:22). Thomas Edwards' hundred-year-old commentary is right to say, "When the perfect is come at the advent of Christ, then the Christian will know God intuitively and directly, even as he was before known of God" (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 353, italics added).
This means that verse 10 can be paraphrased, "When Christ returns, the imperfect will pass away." And since "the imperfect" refers to spiritual gifts like prophecy and knowledge and tongues, we may paraphrase further, "When Christ returns, then prophecy and knowledge and tongues will pass away."
Here is a definite statement about the time of the cessation of spiritual gifts, and that time is the second coming of Christ. Richard Gaffin does not do justice to the actual wording of verse 10 when he says, "The time of the cessation of prophecy and tongues is an open question so far as this passage is concerned" (Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 111). It is not an open question. Paul says, "When the perfect comes [at that time, not before or after], the imperfect [gifts like prophecy and tongues, etc.] will pass away."
Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 teaches that such spiritual gifts will continue until the second coming of Jesus. There is no reason to exclude from this conclusion the other "imperfect" gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Since these include miracles, faith, healings, etc., with which we associate "signs and wonders", there is clear New Testament warrant for expecting that "signs and wonders" will continue until Jesus comes.
Now add to this conclusion the forthright command in 1 Corinthians 14:1, and you will see why some of us are not only open to, but also seeking, this greater fullness of God's power today. This command says, "Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy." And it is repeated twice: "Earnestly desire the higher gifts" (12:31); "Earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues" (14:39).
I wonder how many of us have said for years that we are open to God's moving in spiritual gifts, but have been disobedient to this command to earnestly desire them, especially prophecy? I would ask all of us: are we so sure of our hermeneutical procedure for diminishing the gifts that we would risk walking in disobedience to a plain command of Scripture? "Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy."
I have come to the point of seeing that the risk lies in the other direction. It would be a risk not to seek spiritual gifts for myself and my church. It would be a risk not to pray with the early church, "Grant your servants to speak your word with boldness while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through your holy servant Jesus." Disobedience is always a greater risk than obedience.
Much of my experience disinclines me to "earnestly desire spiritual gifts" especially the gift of prophecy. However, I do not base my prayer for such spiritual empowering on experience, but on the Bible. The Scripture is sufficient for all circumstances by teaching us the means of grace to be used in all circumstances. And I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones that one of the means of grace needed in our day is the extraordinary demonstration of power by signs and wonders. Here is what he said:
What is needed is some mighty demonstration of the power of God, some enactment of the Almighty, that will compel people to pay attention, and to look, and to listen. . . . When God acts, he can do more in a minute than man with his organizing can do in fifty years. (Revival, pp. 121-122)
Lloyd-Jones calls this mighty demonstration of power a fresh baptism in the Holy Spirit and he relates it directly to spiritual gifts.
The special purpose . . . of the baptism with the Holy Spirit is to enable us to witness, to bear testimony, and one of the ways in which that happens is through the giving of spiritual gifts. (The Sovereign Spirit, p. 120)
By the use of these gifts, he sees the possibility of "compelling people to pay attention" in their speed to destruction. By this, the gospel could receive fresh authentication in our day as in the days of the apostles.
It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions . . . Was it only meant to be true of the early church? . . . The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary - never! There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, pp. 31-32)
But now we can say even more. In 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, there is a clear teaching that not only were these things not temporary, they were meant to last till Jesus comes.
By John Piper. ©Desiring God. Website: http://www.desiringgod.org/. Email: mail@desiringGod.org. Toll Free: 888.346.4700.
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