Concerning Cessationism: Purpose of Miracles

Sermon preached on John 20:19-31 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 2/18/2018 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
John 20:19-31

Purpose of Miracles

Today we begin a three-sermon miniseries advocating the biblical doctrine of cessationism. Cessationism is the doctrine that the extraordinary spiritual gifts such as tongues, prophecies, and healings, ceased with the close of the apostolic age. This is in contrast to the various somewhat recent Pentecostal or charismatic movements which believe those supernatural gifts have returned to the church. In even more general terms, the opposite doctrinal position to cessationism is called continuationism. They would believe that all the spiritual gifts seen during the apostolic age have continued to exist in the church. Reformed Christians officially and historically have affirmed a cessationist position (along with many other Christians from other denominations as well ñ itís not a position unique to the Reformed). That being said, we live in a world where we interact with various charismatic Christians. If you are not familiar with the two different positions, it can cause great confusion when someone comes up to you and tells you they have a word from the Lord for you, or asks you if you speak in tongues, or maybe invites you to some healing crusade by one of their so-called apostles. And itís often these charismatics that spend the most time trying to make a biblical case for their position, that we can forget why so many Christians have historically held a cessationist position. The charismatics also sometimes leave other Christians unsettled by suggesting that they somehow donít believe in the power of the Holy Spirit or have somehow quenched or despised the Spiritís power. The ideas of charismatics have also trickled into various Christian traditions in more subtle ways. They may not display the excess of some of the charismatic movement in so called things like ìholy laughterî and being ìslain in the Spiritî. Yet, more seemingly conservative flavors of these charismatic positions have worked themselves into many evangelicalsí understanding of the Christian experience and divine guidance. Most recently, many evangelicals whoíve come with great joy to embrace more Calvinistic and reformed teachings, have brought with them some of these continuationist ideas.

So, for at least these reasons, I wanted to be a voice to reaffirm the biblical doctrine of cessationism with these three sermons. Today, weíll speak about miracles, and talk about their purpose according to the Bible. Next week, weíll look at the foundational role in the new covenant of apostles and prophets in terms of prophecy and revelation. In the third sermon, weíll consider specifically the gift of tongues. All of these will contribute to the point that these extraordinary gifts were just that ñ extraordinary. They are not something we expect to see regularly a part of the church. We donít expect to see some Christians today gifted as supernatural healers, or with the gift of prophecy or tongues.

So then, we begin today by considering what is the purpose of miracles. Why did some saints have the ability to work miracles like healings or other wonders? What was the main purpose of those miracles? Yes, there is at least some aspect of compassion, as we see Jesus in Matthew 14:14 heal sick people because he had compassion on them. But, as weíll see itís not possible to make a Biblical case that miracle working in the Bible is primarily a mercy ministry. Others have speculated a completely different purpose for such miracles. They say that such miracles are proof to unbelievers of the validity of Godís Word, whenever the gospel is preached to some new area or people group. That proposal is getting closer to the truth, but lacks a certain precision which ultimately makes it inaccurate. Rather, what we find in the Bible is this: God gave gifts of miracle working to certain people in order to validate the revelation they received from God at that time. These miracles affirmed revelation at the time the revelation was first received and delivered. We see this in the book of John and todayís passage. We also see it elsewhere in Scripture.

Letís start elsewhere in Scripture. It would be helpful to note that in general, miracles are the exception, not the norm, in the Bible. The Bible doesnít record miracles in every era of Godís people. Rather, when look at the Bible, we really only see three main eras of miracle working in the Bible. Itís there with the time of Moses. Itís there with the time of Elijah. And itís there again with Jesus and the apostolic era. Thatís really just three main eras where we see an ability to work such miracles. (The prominence of those eras and men is surely reflected by the fact that it is Moses and Elijah that are on the mount of transfiguration with Jesus.) In other words, even though weíll show that miracles served to affirm the validity of divine revelation, there is actually a lot more revelation received than miracle working; the miracles can largely be confined to these three eras in Scripture. An example here would be Abraham, father of the faith. He received much revelation, and through him God established the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham himself even experienced a miracle from God when God opened the womb of Sarah to bring Isaac in their old age. But Abraham was not a miracle worker. He did not have that supernatural gift to work miracles like we see with these other eras in Scripture.

So then, starting with Moses, letís look at what we find there about the purpose of his ability to work miracles. In Exodus 4:1-8, we see Moses is concerned that God is commissioning him to be his prophet and go before Pharaoh. Moses is concerned that Pharaoh and the Egyptians wonít believe that God sent him. God then gives Moses three signs to show them: the staff turning into a snake and back; the hand turning leprous and back; and water being poured out from the Nile and turning to blood. The plagues that God has Moses bring on the Egyptians also served the same ultimate purpose. They showed that God was with Moses and that Godís Words through Moses must be heeded. In short, miracles at that time confirmed that Moses was a prophet of the Lord. Thatís the explicit point made there in Exodus 4 with Moses. Overall, this abundant season of miracles around the time of Moses, and to a lesser degree his successor Joshua, ultimately confirmed the Torah and the establishment of the Mosaic covenant.

We see something similar with Elijahís time. Elijah worked many miracles. We see the purpose of these miracles brought out by Elijahís dealings with Ahab in the drought. The scripture in 1 Kings 17-18 shows how Elijahís prophetic ministry to Ahab is confirmed by the drought that Elijah orders and reconfirmed when he tells Ahab the drought is lifted. This idea is also seen in the test between Elijah and the Baal prophets on Mt. Carmel. There God gave supernatural attestation of Elijah and his message, through the sign and wonder of fire coming down from heaven. We might wonder why Elijah and subsequently Elisha had these special miraculous giftings. Yet clearly, they stand as the gateway into a more formal prophetic ministry which we have especially collected in the major and minor prophetic books of the Old Testament. They begin a new era of prophetic revelation that speaks of judgment and hope to Israel. Interestingly, we donít see a lot of miracles being performed by these other prophets. Similarly, John the Baptist in the New Testament is said to be the last of such prophets, and the Bible explicitly makes that point that he didnít do any miracles (John 10:41). So, apparently, Elijah and Elishaís miracles served to affirm and validate a new era of prophetic revelation which was then recorded in writing. So then, their miracles seem not only serve to confirm their ministry, but the ministry of the old testament prophets in general.

Lastly, we come to Jesus and the apostolic era. Weíll discuss Jesusí miracles in a moment when we turn to Johnís gospel and todayís passage. But in terms of the apostolic era, we see that the miraculous was first and foremost housed in the apostles themselves. Acts 5:12 says that it was specifically at the hands of the apostles that many signs and wonders were done. And though there was certainly supernatural gifting beyond the apostles themselves, the ability to impart such gifting especially seems connected to the apostles and their laying on of hands. For example, in Acts 8, the Samaritans first come to faith and are baptized at Philipís preaching, but there is no supernatural gifting of those new believers until the apostles come to lay hands on them. This is also seen very clearly in 2 Corinthians 12:12. Though the Corinthian church themselves clearly had a lot of supernatural spiritual gifting at that time, Paul speaks there about how the miracles that he had performed among them were signs of his apostleship. That reference makes the same point we keep stating, that Paulís miracles validated his apostolic ministry and message.

Hebrews 2:1 further affirms this same point by explaining the purpose for these signs and wonders done during this apostolic era. It says that God bore witness to Christ and the gospel through both these miracles and even the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Itís put in past tense there, clearly a reference to that foundational apostolic ministry; something by the time of Hebrews was already in the past!

The point is that we need to see how the Bible describes those with gifts to perform miracles. We have to see what the Bible says about the purpose of such miracles. That purpose is to affirm that the revelation they bring is from the Lord. That purpose is seen most clearly in Jesusí life. Acts 2:22 says that Jesus was attested by God with the mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him. This purpose of Jesusí miracles was especially seen in the gospel of John and even as illustrated in this passage from John. This can be seen first Johnís preferred term for miracle. John doesnít actually use the word for ìmiracleî. He uses the word ìsignî, in the Greek. The NIV helps to explain that this is a reference to his miracles by translating that word in Johnís gospel consistently as ìmiraculous sign.î The point in Johnís gospel for using the word ìsignî is that signs communicate something. A stop sign tells you to stop. The bread in the Lordís Supper says that Jesus is the bread of life that we need for our spiritual nourishment. In terms of Johnís gospel, itís clear that the signs that Jesus performs are supposed to validate his ministry, authority and message. The principle is illustrated well in Jesusí conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:2. Nicodemus says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”

And so, considering further Johnís gospel, we see in John 2:18, after Jesus cleansed the temple, the Jews demand a sign that shows he has authority to have done that. Of course, Johnís gospel is organized around those very signs. Throughout the book, the question is raised over the identify of Jesus. And so, the first half of the book contains seven of these signs. They are wonderfully laid out from lesser to greater signs; the first being changing water to wine, and the last being that he raised Lazarus from the dead. Finally, the book climaxes with the greatest sign of all: Jesus laid down his life and then took it back up again. The resurrection is the sign of signs in Johnís book. Itís actually the answer he prophetically gave them in John 2 after cleansing the temple: destroy the temple of his body and he will raise it up again in three days. Thatís his sign that he has the authority to cleanse the temple! If you read the whole book, youíll see this idea of signs keeps getting raised in Johnís gospel, and the repeated point is that Jesusí ministry is confirmed and validated by these signs as being from God.

So then, in this passage today from John, we especially see this to be the case. Here, we see Thomas doubting about this greatest of Jesusí signs: his resurrection. In verse 25, he says he wonít believe unless he can personally see the sign. Once Jesus shows up and he personally witnesses the sign and proof of Jesusí own resurrection, then he believes. Verse 28, he cries out when he sees Jesus, ìMy Lord and my God!î See how the sign brings faith in Thomas even to recognize Jesus in this way, as his Lord and God! Itís important to note here that Thomas shouldnít have needed this sign. Jesus softly rebukes Thomas along these lines, first in verse 27, speaking against his unbelief. Then, in verse 29 when he basically acknowledges that Thomas only believed because he saw the sign, but then Jesus mentions how others will believe without personally seeing the sign. Thomas had heard Jesusí predictions about the resurrection. He had heard his close friendsí eye witness reports of the sign of seeing Jesus alive. He could see that the tomb was empty. Thomas had every reason to believe the report about the signs, without having to see the sign himself personally. But the point nonetheless is that when Jesus does show up to Thomas personally, that serves as a sign that does do what signs are supposed to do. Miraculous signs confirm the validity. Jesusí many signs, especially the resurrection, confirmed the validity of his ministry and words. Itís these signs, that verse 31, says come to us. Theyíve been recorded for posterity in the Bible, including this book of John. And they still serve the same purpose: to bring us to faith in Jesus and his gospel teachings. So that we can believe and have eternal life.

In our final point, Iíd like to transition to advocating that such a gifting for someone to work miracles like this ñ that has now ceased. I know that Iíve not made a full case yet for cessationism. I hope that this message along with the next two will paint a fuller picture as we put all the biblical pieces together on these supernatural giftings. But for starters weíve seen that such miracle working is intimately connected with revelation. Not all revelation comes with miracles, but such miraculous giftings always come with revelation. Thatís their very purpose. To confirm the message from God as God delivers it through his spokesman. As weíll develop in the next two sermons, we donít expect to receive more revelation. If we donít expect to receive more revelation, then we shouldnít expect to receive more miracle workers like Moses, Elijah, Jesus, or the apostles.

I love how we see this cessationist point clearly implied and illustrated in this passage. At that time, Jesus did these signs. Those first disciples, including Thomas, got to personally receive those signs. They were eye witnesses to those signs. But if these sorts of signs were going to continue in each generation, then Jesus wouldnít need to say what he says in verse 29. Jesus credits Thomas for believing because he saw the sign. But Jesus acknowledges that in the future there would be believers who donít get to see the signs. That right there assumes a cessationist position! Jesus predicts cessationism!

How then could such future believers become believers if they donít have these signs to see? The answer is simple. Itís right there in verses 30-31. John wrote down a record of the signs. In fact, he didnít even need to write down a record of all the signs; thatís what he says in verse 31. All the many signs are less important than what he has right here recorded in the Gospel of John. These signs were written down so that we might believe. Thomas and the disciples had the signs so they would believe. We have the written record of the signs, so that we would believe! Itís right here. This is the era we live in. They had the miracles so they could believe; we have the Bible, so we can believe.

So then, let us be people of the book. Think of what God does with the written Word. The Holy Spirit works to change hearts and lives as he works through the Word. The Spirit draws people to faith through that written Word. Thatís what John is talking about right here in this final verse. Thatís what you and I have experienced. God has converted us by the Spirit working through the written word, where the supernatural workings of God have been recorded for posterity. And think about this. We are all the more blessed for believing in Christ because of the Word instead of because of the sign. Thatís what Jesus said here in verse 29.

And so, I appeal even then to any who are here today that havenít put their faith yet in Jesus. The gospel says we are all sinners who need to be saved by Jesusí death on the cross for our sins. This gospel was affirmed and validated when God miraculously rose Jesus from the dead. This gospel calls us to acknowledge our sins and turn to Jesus in faith. Believe in Jesus, and be saved.

In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I remind you that multiple gospels record Jesus saying that an evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign (e.g. Matt 12:38). Though Jesus did perform many signs, he lamented how miracle-craving the people were. Itís like when Jesus fed the five thousand, Johnís gospel records that they showed up the next day looking for another miracle of food. They seemed to crave signs and miracles and their benefits more than what the signs were all about. Miracles were supposed to point us to the Lord and his Word. They werenít to be an end in themselves. Sadly, so many in the charismatic movement today seem so focused on finding signs and wonders, with so comparatively little zeal for the Lordís teaching in his Word. Itís too common to find such people praying for God to give them a word from the Lord, when they havenít even read this whole Word from the Lord which heís already given (i.e. the Bible).

Let us then recognize in faith the great treasure that we have in the written Word of God. It has been given to us by divine inspiration, and confirmed by signs and wonders to be from the Lord, and is profitable and useful for our growth as Christians. Let us have much zeal to see the Spirit work through it. Let us have much passion to study it, to meditate on it, to memorize it, and look to practice it in our lives. Let us seek after how God will do amazing, even supernatural things, by the Spirit working in our hearts by his Word. Amen.

Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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