Jesus said: “These signs shall follow them that believe” (Mark 16:17) (Part 5)
(This article is part of a continuing series. The previous article can be found here).
As we now turn our attention to the duration of miracles, we must first note some other significant limitations about the miracles recorded in the early days of the church:
Miracles were limited to apostolic ministry.
In the book of Acts – which records the early weeks (chapters 1-7), months (8-9), and years (10-28) of the church’s existence – there are numerous miracles recorded. Without fail, aside from those worked directly by God, these miracles were wrought either by (1) an apostle, or (2) someone on whom an apostle had laid hands. But did those on whom the apostles laid hands confer this gift to others?
Philip was not an apostle, but rather a disciple on whom the apostles had “laid hands” (Acts 6:4-5). In light of the first wave of persecution directed by Saul of Tarsus (Acts 8:1-4), he left Jerusalem for Samaria and “preached Christ to them” (Acts 8:5). The response was that “the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did” (Acts 8:6). Note that the message is of greatest significance, while the miracles take the secondary or supporting role, just as Jesus said would be the case (Mark 16:17-20).
A notable magician by the name of Simon was impressed with the actual miracles of Philip, believed his message, and was baptized into Christ (Acts 8:13). Soon thereafter, the report of the gospel’s favorable reception in Samaria came to Jerusalem, where the apostles were. They decided to send Peter and John to Samaria to follow up (v.14).
“When they [Peter and John] were come down, prayed for them [the Samaritan converts], that they might receive the Holy Spirit…then they [Peter and John] laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15,17).
Two questions: (1) why did the apostles have to come lay hands on these new disciples when Philip, an obvious miracle worker, was already in their midst?
And (2) why did the apostles pray for the Spirit to come upon them if the Spirit is given when one obeys the gospel (Acts 5:29)?
To answer the second question first: There is obviously a difference between the Holy Spirit, which is given to all believers as a guarantee, and seal of God’s approval (Ephesians 1:13,14), and this special manifestation of the Spirit that came by way of the apostles. The first does not involve miracles, while the second obviously does.
Irrespective of how the Spirit indwells, there is a permanent and non-miraculous instance of it that is for all saints, and there was a temporary and miraculous instance that was for some of the saints. This temporary, miraculous matter is the one that is of concern to us in this article.
So, to answer the first question: If Philip could have conferred these miraculous gifts, certainly he would have done so. However, one might argue that Philip was merely awaiting the approval from the apostles, and then, since they were on the scene anyway, they just went ahead and laid hands on these new disciples. But if Philip was merely awaiting the apostles’ approval, this would still imply that miracles could not be conferred by anyone (including Philip) once the apostles were no more.
Of course, there are those who argue that apostles are still living today. But there is no biblical evidence for this. Only one apostle was ever replaced after his death (Judas, by Matthias, Acts 1:15-26). When the apostle James was executed in Jerusalem, he was not replaced (Acts 12:1-2). Apostolic ministry was inter-congregational, miraculous, and temporary (we will add more to this matter in a future article).
Further, Philip’s ministry, although of interest to the apostles, was not directed by them. In the latter part of Acts 8, we see the Holy Spirit is leading Philip’s ministry, as is evidenced by the direct instructions the Spirit gave him with regard to the Ethiopian treasurer (Acts 8:35-40). If it had been the design of the Spirit for Philip to pass on these gifts to the new Samaritan converts, it could have been done at any time, with or without the apostles’ presence or knowledge.
There was more than enough opportunity for Philip to pass on miraculous gifts to the new disciples in Samaria, but he did not do it. The reason was clear, and even Simon the magician understood it, “that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given” (Acts 8:18).
There is no biblical evidence that such gifts of the Spirit were ever conferred in any other way. Quite to the contrary, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, tells the Roman saints that he would love to visit them and confer “some spiritual gift” upon them (Romans 1:11). While this may involve the non-miraculous, it is more likely that Paul meant such a gift as could only be supplied by a qualified apostle of the Lord.
We will consider more limitations of miracles in the next article.