In the Early Church How Often Did Non-Apostles Work Miracles?
At the present time, a growing number of Christians worldwide are accepting that God works miracles today. Increasingly, believers are seeking to be used by Him as instruments in miracle work, especially supernatural healing.
There are still more than a few Christians, however, who claim that God does not work miracles in our day. They say that would-be miracle workers are deceived or sometimes even conscious deceivers.
Often those who deny the place of miracles today appeal to apostles to try to make their case. The argument goes in this way:
In the early church, when God worked miracles using human agents it was always an apostolic thing. Most of the miracles were performed by the apostles themselves. And even when non-apostles worked miracles, it was always to validate apostolic ministry. However, there are no apostles today. So Christians should not expect to be used by God to work miracles.
I am sure that this argument is an extremely weak one, and in what follows I hope to show convincingly why this is the case.
God and Christians working miracles
Before going any further, I need to make a couple of brief points about terminology.
The first of these concerns who performs miracles.
At times the Bible speaks of Christians working miracles and at other times of God working miracles using Christians. In both these ways of phrasing things the idea is obviously of God working miracles through the agency of Christians. I will use both types of phrasing in this article without any difference of meaning.
What do we mean by an apostle of the early church?
The second point of terminology concerns exactly what we mean by an apostle of the early church.
Different New Testament authors actually use the term ‘apostle’ (Greek: apostolos) in different ways.
For example, Luke usually uses it to refer exclusively to members of the twelve (although in Acts 14:4, 14 he exceptionally refers to Paul and Barnabas as apostles).
Paul, however, often uses the term more broadly to refer to more than just the twelve. He frequently describes himself as an apostle. In 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, speaking of a time when he wasn’t yet an apostle, he probably implies that ‘all the apostles’ was a broader group than ‘the twelve’. And in Galatians 1:19 he probably refers to James the brother of the Lord as an apostle.
When Paul uses the term ‘apostle’, he usually seems to have in mind a group of Christians, including himself, who received an extraordinary commission for ministry by the risen Jesus. This definition appears to have been the most common one in the early church, and it is the one I will use in this article.
Is there apostolic ministry today?
One final preliminary point concerns the existence of apostolic ministry today. Some Christians claim that apostles exist in our day. Others say that they don’t.
It is surely true that there are no apostles today who have anything like the degree of apostolic authority that the twelve or Paul had.
However, I do think that God calls some Christians today to perform roles that have quite a lot in common with what the first century apostles did. Whether these people should be given the label ‘apostles’ is a valid question, although it isn’t one that I want to discuss here.
Those who make the argument based on apostles that I am countering in this article, believe that there are no apostles today of any sort. Importantly, however, none of my arguments in what follows depend on there being any kind of apostles today.
Let’s turn now to the key points of this discussion. If it is true that there are no apostles today, and if miracles in the early church involving a human agent were all connected to apostolic ministry, we might well expect God not to use Christians in miracle work today. We therefore need to ask whether it really is the case that in the early church all the miracles involving a human agent were connected to apostolic ministry.
The apostles worked many miracles
To begin with, we shouldn’t be in any doubt that in the first decades of the church the apostles were used by God to work many miracles. See Acts 2:43; 5:12; 9:32-41; 13:8-12; 14:3, 8-10; 15:12; 19:11-12; 28:1-9; Hebrews 2:4.
Miracles by apostles would have been used by God to validate the Christian message of good news. But it seems reasonable to think that these miracles would also have served to validate the ministry of the apostles too, at least to a certain extent.
The signs of an apostle
Another verse which refers to the apostle Paul working miracles is 2 Corinthians 12:12. Here, looking back to his earlier ministry in Corinth, he writes:
‘The signs of an apostle were performed among you in all endurance, in signs and wonders and miracles.’
‘Signs and wonders and miracles’ is a phrase which uses terms that overlap in meaning to refer to miracle work.
This is the key text used by those who claim that in the early church miracle work involving a human agent was always connected to apostolic ministry. They say that Paul wouldn’t have described signs, wonders and miracles as ‘signs of an apostle’ unless miracles were a specifically apostolic phenomenon.
Interpreting the Greek of this verse is not entirely straightforward. Nevertheless, it does seem highly likely that Paul is saying that performing miracles is a major distinguishing feature of apostles.
However, there are two key points to make here:
First, the words Paul uses in this verse can be understood simply to mean that every apostle worked a significant number of miracles, without also implying that non-apostles only rarely worked them.
Second and much more importantly, we need to read 2 Corinthians 12:12 in the light of what else Paul tells us about miracles, especially in 1 Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 Paul writes:
‘8 For to one is given a word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another a word of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another workings of miracles . . .’
This passage is unusual in distinguishing healing from miracles. Usually when Scripture refers to miracles, it is speaking more broadly of supernatural acts that include healing. In what follows, as I have done so far, I will use the more common biblical way of defining things. When I refer to miracles, I am including supernatural healing.
We should note carefully that there is not the slightest hint in this passage that the miracles referred to are in any way connected to apostolic ministry. Apostles are not even mentioned in the context. Instead, Paul’s focus is simply on a variety of gifts from the Holy Spirit that would be found in a typical church in his day.
1 Corinthians 12:28-30 is even more important. Here Paul says:
‘28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, managing, various kinds of languages.
29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? . . .’
Here apostles are actually distinguished from those who have gifts of miracle work.
This of course doesn’t mean that apostles didn’t have some of the other gifts mentioned, including the ability to work miracles. Nor does it mean that non-apostles never fell into more than one of the categories. But it is crystal clear that Paul envisages numerous miracle workers who are not apostles. And there is not the remotest hint in this passage that the miracle ministry he is referring to somehow validates apostolic ministry. The fact that apostles are distinguished from miracle workers actually points strongly against this.
Therefore 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30 very strongly implies that much miracle work in the early church was not connected to apostolic ministry.
Furthermore, it is surely not true that when Paul referred to ‘the signs of an apostle’ in 2 Corinthians, he contradicted what he had written in 1 Corinthians a matter of months earlier. 2 Corinthians 12:12, then, cannot be saying that miracle work is a specifically apostolic thing.
Miracles in Galatians
The passages we have looked at so far are enough by themselves to prove that in the early church miracles using a human agent were often unconnected to apostolic ministry. But there is much more evidence besides.
Let’s continue our study by considering Galatians 3:5. Here Paul asks the Christians in Galatia:
‘So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you do so by the deeds of the Law or by the hearing of faith?’
The implied correct answer is obviously ‘by the hearing of faith’.
The first thing to note about this verse is that the miracles Paul has in mind very probably involve a human agent. Only on a few occasions in the New Testament do we find God performing miracles without human agency, and there is no suggestion that there is no agent in view here. The fact that the miracles in this verse occur by the hearing of faith makes it even more likely that a human agent is involved.
Second, note how Paul says that God ‘works miracles’, not ‘worked miracles’. It is therefore very difficult to understand Paul’s words simply as a reference to miracles performed by him when he was with the Galatians in the past.
Third, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the miracles are worked only through the agency of some other apostles who visit the Galatians. It is far more natural to understand the Galatians themselves as God’s agents.
Fourth, there is nothing in the text which suggests that these miracles somehow validate apostolic ministry.
Fifth, there is no reason to think that the churches in Galatia were unusual in their experience of miracles.
Galatians 3:5, then, quite strongly implies that in the early church non-apostles often performed miracles that had nothing to do with validating the ministry of an apostle.
God pouring out His Spirit
Peter’s quotation of Joel in Acts 2:16-21 on the Day of Pentecost also most naturally suggests that in the early church many non-apostles worked miracles.
Here is the text of verses 16-18:
‘16 But this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “And it will be in the last days”, says God, “that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. And your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they will prophesy.”‘
Peter is saying that the events of the Day of Pentecost are the beginning of the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Joel prophesied that God would pour out His Spirit, says Peter, and this has now happened.
It is true that Joel and Peter make no specific mention of miracle work in this passage. Nevertheless, it makes sense to think that God’s pouring out of His Spirit involves the working of miracles. In 1 Corinthians 12:9-10 cited above, ‘miracles’ and ‘gifts of healing’ are said to be gifts of the Spirit.
This passage in Acts 2 clearly envisages God pouring out His Spirit on apostles and non-apostles alike. Given, then, that the pouring out of the Spirit seems to involve miracle work, the passage makes most sense if many early Christians, including apostles and non-apostles, worked miracles.
Finally, there is no suggestion in the text that God’s pouring out His Spirit, whether in miracle work or in prophecy or in some other way, has anything to do with validating apostolic ministry.
Stephen and Philip
Acts tells us that Stephen and Philip the evangelist (not to be confused with the Philip who was one of the twelve) worked miracles. We have no reason to believe that either of these men was an apostle.
In Acts 6:8 Luke tells us:
‘And Stephen, full of grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.’
The Greek verb I have translated ‘performed’, epoiei, is in the imperfect tense, showing that Stephen’s performance of miracles was an ongoing one for a time.
In Acts 8:6-7 Luke writes:
‘6 And the crowds all paid close attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs he was performing. 7 For unclean spirits, shouting loudly, came out of many who had them. And many who were paralysed and lame were healed.’
And in Acts 8:13 Luke continues:
‘And even Simon himself believed, and when he had been baptized, he followed Philip closely. And as he saw signs and great miracles taking place, he was amazed.’
There are some who claim that the miracles Stephen and Philip worked were indirectly apostolic miracles, because, when they were first commissioned, they had had hands laid on them by the apostles (Acts 6:5-6).
This is a very dubious conclusion to draw, however:
First, nothing in the text of Acts suggests that Stephen’s or Philip’s miracles were in any way apostolic in nature.
Second, this idea fits poorly with Acts 13:1-3. In this passage we are told:
‘1 Now at the church in Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, and Simeon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen who grew up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
2 While they were serving the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”
3 Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them on their way.’
Note how v. 3 says that the apostles Barnabas and Saul, i.e., Paul, had hands laid on them to commission them for their upcoming mission (described in chapters 13-14).
It is not entirely clear who did the laying on of hands. It seems highly probable that we should understand the Christians at Antioch in general to be the ones who did everything described in v. 3, including laying on hands. But it is just possible that only Simeon, Lucius and Manaen laid hands on Paul and Barnabas.
However, regardless of which of these options is correct, those who laid hands on Paul and Barnabas at this time would very probably have been at least mainly non-apostles. On balance, it even seems likely that all of them were non-apostles. There is no evidence that Simeon, Lucius or Manaen was an apostle. Nor is there evidence that any other apostles were present in Antioch at the time.
Obviously we wouldn’t say that the miracles Paul and Barnabas went on to perform in chapters 13-14 were somehow indirectly non-apostolic miracles because non-apostles laid hands on them to commission them for their mission. Instead, we should see Paul’s and Barnabas’s miracles as their own. Similarly, it makes sense to see Stephen’s and Philip’s miracles as their own despite the fact that the apostles had laid hands on them.
Lastly, there is no suggestion anywhere in Acts that Stephen’s or Philip’s miracle ministries were used to validate apostolic ministries.
In Acts 9:10-19 we learn about Ananias, a Christian ‘disciple’, who laid hands on Paul, as a result of which Paul’s blindness was healed.
There is no reason to believe that Ananias was an apostle. Nor does anything suggest that this miracle was used to validate apostolic ministry in any way. Paul’s ministry had not yet begun, and the passage says nothing about any other apostles being present.
Healing ministry in James
James 5:14-16 is another key passage. Here James says:
‘14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord and pray over him. 15 And the prayer of faith will heal the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 So confess your sins to each other and pray for each other, so that you may be healed.’
The letter of James was written to ‘the twelve tribes that are in the dispersion’ (James 1:1). ‘The twelve tribes’ here is either a reference to the whole worldwide church or, less probably in my view, specifically to all Jewish Christians. ‘The dispersion’ refers to the fact that the Christians addressed were dispersed over a wide geographical area.
Even if James wrote specifically to all Jewish Christians, his teaching in this letter would certainly have applied to Gentile Christians too. So the instructions in James 5:14-16 would have applied to all churches when the letter was written in the first century.
In this passage James refers to elders of churches praying for healing. Obviously the overwhelming majority of these first century elders would not have been apostles.
Nor is it reasonable to think that the healing miracles in view here somehow validated apostolic ministry. Apostles are not mentioned. And in the vast majority of places where prayer for healing took place, apostles would not have been present.
During His time on earth, Jesus sent out the twelve to do ministry that included performing healing miracles (Matthew 10:1, 7-8; Mark 6:7, 12-13; Luke 9:1-2, 6).
But Luke’s Gospel tells us that he also sent out a much larger group of followers to do likewise. In Luke 10:1, 2, 9 we read:
‘1 After this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them in pairs . . . 2 And he told them . . . 9 . . . heal those . . . who are sick, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”‘
There is some doubt about whether Luke wrote ‘seventy’ or ‘seventy-two’ in v. 1. Our Greek manuscripts differ. But because this difference isn’t important for our purposes, I will just assume that ‘seventy’ was original.
At the time the 70 worked healing miracles, none of them was an apostle. (And there is no doubt that most of them never became apostles after Jesus’ resurrection either.)
We know, then, that both apostles and non-apostles were significantly involved in miracle work in an evangelistic context during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Therefore it would be surprising if the same was not the case in the early church too.
It is true that the impression we gain from Acts is that in the first 30 years of the church the apostles did a majority of the miracle work that took place in an evangelistic setting. And there is no reason to believe that this impression is misleading.
Nevertheless, we have seen that the ministries of Stephen and Philip were exceptions to this. And we must bear in mind too that most of what happened in the early church has not been recorded. To argue from silence, therefore, that Stephen and Philip were the only non-apostles who combined evangelism with miracles, or that only very rarely did other non-apostles do this, is to stand on shaky ground.
Finally, we should note clearly that the healing miracles of the 70 had nothing to do with validating apostolic ministry. Rather, they served to validate Jesus and His message. In view of this, it would make most sense if the miracles of non-apostles in the early church had the same function.
There is no doubt that in the early church many non-apostles had the ability to prophesy. See 1 Corinthians 11:4-5; 12:10, 28-29; 14:1-40; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11; Acts 2:17-18; 11:27-28; 13:1; 15:32; 19:6; 21:9-11.
It is possible that a few of the prophets who are referred to by name in some of these verses in Acts may have been apostles too. However, there is no evidence for this. And even if some of them were apostles, it is still certain that many non-apostles in the early church could prophesy.
Importantly, 1 Corinthians 12:28; 14:1 clearly implies that prophecy is a greater gift than miracle gifts including healing. Given, then, that many non-apostles prophesied, it would be very surprising if the lesser gifts were not also often used by non-apostles.
It is worth noting too that there is no suggestion in the text of any of the passages I listed three paragraphs above that prophecy by non-apostles served to validate apostolic ministry. All other things being equal, therefore, we would expect the same to be true of non-apostolic miracle work too.
That concludes our discussion of the biblical evidence concerning non-apostolic miracle work in the early church. Actually, there are other important passages that I could have referred to as well. But I will end the discussion at this point to prevent the article from becoming too long.
It should be very clear that in the early church many Christians who were not apostles were used by God to work miracles, including healing miracles. And it should be just as clear that when non-apostles worked miracles, these miracles, at least usually, had nothing to do with validating the ministry of an apostle.
Even if, then, there are no apostles today of any kind, this would be no good reason for claiming that God does not want to use many Christians to work miracles in our day.
For positive reasons to believe that many Christians should be involved in miracle work at the present time, see my article, ‘God Wants to Use Christians in Miracle Work Today‘.
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