Bible

How Are You To Be “More Than A Conqueror”?

How Are You To Be “More Than A Conqueror”?

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, all threats against you are tamed. Jesus conquered death, so death and evil are not the end of the story and we can have hope.

To the One Who Conquers, I Will…

In Revelation, one of the key themes is conquering through suffering. The number of occurrences of the verb “to conquer” throughout the Book of Revelation illustrate this theme.[1] John describes amazing promises made to Christians, addressing the promises specifically to those who “conquer”:

  • To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God (2:7)
  • The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death (2:11)
  • To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it (2:17)
  • The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations (2:26)
  • The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels (3:5)
  • The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name (3:12)
  • The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne (3:21)

The One Who Conquered

How will these staggering promises come to pass? How will “the one who conquers” conquer amidst affliction and persecution? How will they find the strength to endure and overcome against all odds? John provides the answer: they will conquer by looking by faith to the One who has already conquered, Jesus Christ. We read in Revelation 5:5-6:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.

John describes Jesus as both the kingly Lion and the meek Lamb who has conquered all His and our enemies. Jesus has conquered his enemies through his suffering and death on the cross and yet he is also one who has been slaughtered. Jesus is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” and he is the one who “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father.”[2] We reign with him because he died and freed us and made us a kingdom for his glory.

This truth is a strong encouragement to you in the midst of suffering. We follow a crucified redeemer who by his death and resurrection has conquered death. Death is no longer the enemy that produces fear in you. Jesus says: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”[3]

This image of the conquering Christ who prevailed through suffering gives you hope. In being united to Christ, you too will conquer as you look through the eyes of faith to the one who has accomplished everything on your behalf through his death and resurrection. It is for this reason that John writes in 12:11: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

We Are More Than Conquerors

The truth of Rev 12:11 can free you to breathe a sigh of relief and thanksgiving instead of despair. Because God’s plan for you is never to allow anything to separate you from his love, you can face the worst of the world’s uncertainties with great confidence, as St. Paul writes in Romans 8:31-39:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[4]

No opposition. No accusation. No condemnation. No separation.

And since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, God will most surely, most certainly, without any doubt or any possibility of failure, provide for us. John Chrysostom explicates: “The wonder is not only that God the Father gave His Son but that He did so in this way, by sacrificing the one He loved. It is astonishing that He gave the Beloved for those who hated Him. See how highly He honors us. If even when we hated Him and were enemies He gave the Beloved, what will He not do for us now?”[5]

Because God’s plan for you is so certain, you can face the most difficult circumstances, the most terrifying enemies, and the most devastating ordeals with confidence. You do not merely survive your trials; you are “more than a conqueror” because absolutely nothing will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ.

 

[1] John uses the verb “to conquer” 17 times: Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21; 5:5; 6:2; 11:7; 12:11; 13:7; 15:2; 17:14; 21:7

[2] Revelation 1:5-6

[3] Revelation 1:17-18

[4] Romans 8:31-39

[5] John Chrysostom, “Homily on Ephesians I.I.8.” in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol. 8, Ed. Mark J. Edwards (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 114.

The Justice Calling

The Justice Calling

The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance is a comprehensive biblical theology of justice that is practically engaging. Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson bring together their deep study of scripture and their direct engagement with human trafficking and slavery, their scholarship and their activism.

To give you a glimpse of the book, here are two brief excerpts that reflect its theological richness:

“The source of justice in the midst of even the most heinous injustice in our world is Jesus Christ. God’s very character is one of justice, and he has given us Jesus as the manifestation of his justice both now and for eternity. God is the one who reveals the justice calling upon our lives, because God is the source of justice.

I have been on a journey to discover justice rooted in Jesus, to know this call that comes first from God, and to navigate the brokenness of this world with biblical hope as my sure-footed guide. Justice rooted in Jesus broke open for me the possibility and promise of persevering hope—the possibility that I could shed my paralysis and actually move forward one small step at a time because there is a God who is and will be victorious over injustice. And while God certainly could and does act on his own, God beckons us to join him, calling us into his family to be part of his work of redemption and healing through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.” (pages 3-4)

“In the light of Christ, we come to see that we are all poor, wretched, helpless, and utterly dependent on God’s saving grace to rescue us. Outside the grace of God, we are incapable of getting right with God, others, ourselves, and the rest of the created world. As slaves to sin, we find it impossible to be holy, to act justly, and to love mercy, but thanks be to God that Jesus Christ came to this earth to find the lost and free the enslaved. Through Christ’s righteousness we can become righteous and be restored to right relationships. Because of this grace, we can live the way of life God intended for his holy people, the way of justice and righteousness, the way of shalom.” (page 28)

I appreciate how Bethany and Kristen explore the convergence of justice and spirit formation. This excerpt from an interview with them capture this well:

You speak about this idea of moving into the darkness, how would you encourage someone who longs to do so but is paralyzed by fear?

Bethany: I think there is a temptation to despair or even to be apathetic and draw back and embrace cynicism rather than believing anything can change or holding onto hope. What we learn from the prophets, especially Habakkuk, is that we can contend with God. We can argue, wine, ask questions of God, and we can know that He sees everything we see in a far more specific and complete scale than we ever could. He invites us to bring our questions to him and to wrestle with him. Just the act of questioning, rather than an affront to God—even if we are angry, is still us coming to God. And God longs for you to talk to him and tell him all the details, to leave nothing spared of what weighs on you and to let him enter into it with you. There is a beauty that he brings from even the most devastating ashes.

Throughout the book, justice work is defined as being long and hard, what would you say to someone who is burnt out from justice work?

Kristen: We know that burn out is very common for those who long to see justice in this world. That’s a big reason we wanted to write this book–to explore what it would take to seek justice as people with deep roots that are sustained and nurtured by the living waters of Jesus Christ. We believe that what we do is supposed to flow from who we are – so that our work of justice, ideally, flows from the grace we have been given in and through Jesus Christ that enables us to become God’s children. This same savior, Jesus Christ, is the one responsible for reconciling all things (Col 1:20).  We are invited to share God’s ongoing commitment to reconciliation and justice, but this work ultimately depends upon God, not us. We hope that by looking deeply at God’s commitment to justice and righteousness throughout the whole story of Scripture and by being reminded of the centrality of Jesus Christ for the reconciliation of all things, you might find strength to continue on in the journey. We hope that the practices of Sabbath, lament, worship, and Eucharist might be ways the Spirit can revive you as you are reminded of the beauty of God’s vision for the world along with your own identity in Christ and your reliance on him for all things.

Click to download a free sampler of Chapter 1.

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Jesus and Children

Jesus and Children

In his ministry, Jesus showed striking interest in and love for children. To the surprise of his disciples, he often including them in his teaching: “Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt 19:13–14). When the disciples came to Jesus asking him which one of them was going to be the greatest in Christ’s kingdom, Jesus called a child to himself (Matt. 18:2) and said, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:4). Jesus went on, telling his followers that part of their duty is to receive little children: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Matt. 18:5).

In Mark 10, Jesus upholds childlike faith as admirable: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15; cf. Luke 18:17).

Jesus wants his followers to honor, protect, and care for those among them who are small and vulnerable, especially children. Part of Jesus’ ministry on earth involved healing children. In Mark 5:39, Jesus came into the house of a ruler of the synagogue, whose daughter had just died. Jesus said that she was not dead, but only sleeping. After they laughed at him, Jesus said to the child, “Little girl, I say to you, arise” (Mark 5:41; cf. Luke 8:54). Mark recounts what happened next: “And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement” (Mark 5:42). Similarly, in Mark 9, Jesus encounters a young boy who had been having demonic attacks. Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of him (Mark 9:25) and the boy fell down as if he were dead. Jesus took him by the hand and he was healed (Mark 9:27). Jesus, who calls himself “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), brings life and healing to children.

The tenderness and care Jesus showed for children is an expression of God’s heart toward the small, the weak, and the vulnerable. Judith Gundry-Volf, also points out the ways Jesus’ teaching and practice highlighted the importance and significance of children:

  1. “He blesses the children brought to him and teaches that the reign of God belongs to them.”
  2. “He makes children models of entering the reign of God.”
  3. “He makes children models of greatness in the reign of God.”
  4. “He calls his disciples to welcome little children as he does and turns the service of children into a sign of greatness in the reign of God.”
  5. “He gives the service of children ultimate significance as a way of receiving himself and by implication the One who sent him.”
  6. “He is acclaimed by children as the ‘Son of David.’”

Jesus’ love, honor, and care for children leads us to imitate his care for children and take action to protect them from those who try to harm them.

GMMcover

Pre-order our children’s book: God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect Their Bodies.

Pentecost

Pentecost

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, which is the commemoration and celebration of the receiving of the Holy Spirit by the early church as recorded in Acts 2.

In Acts 2, Jesus’ promise of the Spirit becomes a reality as the Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost. The disciples “began to speak in other tongues” (2:4), and devout Jews from many nations were amazed, “because each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (v. 6). God shows that the gospel is breaking through linguistic barriers and going to all nations, and then Peter stands up and, in the first recorded sermon in Acts, explains how Pentecost is the glorious and long-anticipated fulfillment of God’s work of redemption since the beginning. Through Peter’s sermon we see the most prominent theme of Acts: the gospel of Jesus will go out to the nations, through the witness of his disciples and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.

God Initiates

When the celebration of Pentecost comes, Acts 2:1, 5 places 120 of the disciples (1:15) together in Jerusalem. Acts 2:2 then says “and suddenly there came from heaven.” The direction of agency is important. While often in religion humans must first do the equivalent of speaking in other tongues (mysterious incantations, complicated rites, elaborately altered behavior) in order to lure the gods into visitation, at Pentecost God’s Spirit rushes into the scene of his own accord: the apostles are just waiting. Pentecost illustrates the fact that God is the initiator of our salvation; he comes to us independent of our control.

Babel

Since the time of Babel, the nations of the earth were divided by language, unable to come together as a result of their rebellion against God (Gen. 11:1–9). Even in God’s redemptive acts of the Old Testament, he singled out the Jewish nation in order to mediate blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1–3; Ex. 19:6). The good news of God’s grace was only communicated in the Hebrew language. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the curse of Babel begins to unravel. No longer is the gospel confined to the Hebrew language; it is available directly to all nations and all languages. The restored order of God’s kingdom begins to break into the dark and confused world of sin. Pentecost is, in a sense, a magnificent reversal of Babel.

The Coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1–13)      

Since the time of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9), the nations of the earth were divided by language, unable to come together as a result of their rebellion against God. Even in God’s redemptive acts of the Old Testament, he singled out the Jewish nation in order to mediate blessing to the nations. The good news of God’s grace was only communicated in the Hebrew language.

With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the curse of Babel begins to unravel. No longer is the gospel confined to the Hebrew language, but is available directly to all nations and all languages. The restored order of God’s kingdom begins to break into the dark and confused world of sin.

This gives us hope today. The gospel of Jesus Christ triumphs in a world that is still groaning under the curse of sin (Rom. 8:22). One day his reign will be fully realized, and the effects of sin that plague us will fall away completely.

While often in religion humans must first do the equivalent of speaking in other tongues (mysterious incantations, complicated rites, elaborately-altered behavior) in order to lure the gods into visitation, at Pentecost God’s Spirit rushes into the scene of his own accord: the apostles are just waiting. Pentecost illustrates the fact that God is the initiator of our salvation; he comes to us independent of our control.

The experience of the Spirit at Pentecost is a fulfillment of the prophecy of John the Baptist concerning the one—Jesus—who would baptize in the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:6, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33). This promise is also repeated by Jesus Christ in Acts 1:5. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost has a specific purpose in redemptive history: to show that God’s salvation is now flowing out to people from every nation, tribe, and language. This is repeated in the three outpourings of the Spirit that follow in Acts 8, 10–11, and 19.

Pentecost is a climactic event in salvation history for the whole Church. Luke’s focus in Acts 2 is on the fulfillment of prophecy, not on paradigms for personal experience. Luke is introducing the expanding gospel ministry of the Holy Spirit as the gospel is beginning to spread.

The story in Acts is also our story, because we are participating in God’s story. The descent of the Spirit on these apostles who looked like crazy drunk men is really our birth story, for those in Christ. While we think of our lives in terms of our own births, upbringing, education, families, line of work, and so on, there is another story that has been happening parallel to these things, actually it has weaved its way through these things. And it begins here with the descent of the Holy Spirit who fills these believers. If this had never happened, if God had not looked on Christ’s work on the cross and said, “It is good,” then raised him from the dead and set him at his right side, pouring out his Spirit on his people to take the message of his gospel of grace to the nations, we would still be in our sins. We would still be lost and without hope.

Peter’s Sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–41)

Peter begins his famous Pentecost sermon with an extensive reference to the Old Testament, a citation from the prophet Joel, who predicted that God’s Spirit would be poured out in the last days, the days before the final judgment (the “day of the Lord”). According to Peter, the last days have begun. This “new religion” is actually the continuation of what God has been doing through Israel all along. Better yet, this God made promises years ago that these “last days” would come, and at Pentecost God is demonstrating that he is faithful and powerful to keep his promises. As he promised, God is pouring out his Spirit on all flesh—men and women, young and old, Jew and Gentile. God is mercifully and joyfully calling all people to salvation.

In Peter’s first sermon, the essence of gospel proclamation is clear: “Jesus is Lord” (v. 36). This simple statement poses a fundamental challenge both to the Jews (with their strict monotheism) and to the Romans (with their religious-political system founded on the supremacy of Caesar as Lord). The resurrection is also one of the core elements throughout the gospel presentations in the book of Acts. After setting current events in redemptive history, here Peter quotes from the Psalms to show that the resurrection (Ps 16:8–11) was God’s intention along. The crucifixion of Christ was part of God’s plan, and he followed it by raising Jesus from the dead. Peter shows that this is all promised in Scripture. God’s grace breaks through the walls of the worst of human rebellion.

Just as Jesus promised that the gospel would spread to the end of the earth, Peter proclaims that “the promise is … for all who are far off”. The gospel is not confined by geographical boundaries, but is universal in scope. But “far off” is not just geographical: by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has reconciled to himself all of us who were formerly “far off” from God and one another. No one is so far removed that God cannot redeem them.

The Fellowship of the Believers (Acts 2:42–47)

The Holy Spirit brings forth a devotion to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, community, and prayer. Notice also the unity of mind and heart of these first believers. When God is present by his Spirit, unity happens. This shows us what the Holy Spirit does when he works in us individually and collectively. He brings forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23).

The Spirit’s ministry also brings forth conversions and numerical growth to the church, as we see that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v. 47). The Spirit produces not only inward spiritual growth, but also expansion and growth of the church. Gospel-fueled, Spirit-empowered growth is a repeated theme that runs throughout the rest of Acts, as we see that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14) and “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5; see also Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 19:20). The Spirit continues to testify through the church to the grace of God in Jesus, bringing about growth in love and in numbers. The grace of God is fruitful and effective, and we see God taking the initiative to spread his grace to ever-expanding numbers of people.

 

This post is adapted from my book, Acts: A 12-Week Study, and my notes on Acts in the Gospel Transformation Bible.

No One Is Lost Beyond Hope

No One Is Lost Beyond Hope

“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.” -Acts 9:1-9

In the book of Acts, God’s gospel not only overcomes formidable ethnic and geographical barriers but also breaks through the most formidable barrier of all: human sin. Saul learns firsthand how closely Jesus identifies with his church, here described as “the Way.” In persecuting those of the Way, Saul was persecuting Christ himself. In response to the question, “Who are you?” Saul would have preferred any response to the one he receives: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” In opposing God’s people, Saul has opposed God himself (cf. 5:38–39).

Saul is blinded by the magnificence of this appearance of Christ, and his physical blindness allows him to see himself truly. He finally recognizes his own powerlessness and weakness, and accepts his blindness in humility. Before commissioning Saul to take the gospel to the Gentiles, God tears down his reliance on his religious zeal. Only after being brought to a position of abject humility is Saul ready for the uplifting gospel of Jesus Christ. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

Saul was at his worst, overseeing the murder of men and women in the church, with no sign of repentance, when Jesus met him on the Damascus road. Here again we are admonished against condemning anyone as lost beyond hope, and this includes ourselves. God will reach to his farthest-out enemies, he will defeat the uttermost human rebellion, but in doing so he does not crush these rebels but loves and converts them into chosen instruments of the good news (Acts 9:15). In Saul we see a rebel against God, an enemy of the long-promised Messiah. Yet Saul is reconciled to God through Jesus and is called God’s ambassador, through whom God makes his appeal to the entire world (2 Cor. 5:20).

This post was adapted from my notes in the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible. For more on Acts, you can get my book Acts: A 12-Week Study.

Why Study the Book of Acts?

Why Study the Book of Acts?

In addition to writing the notes on Acts for the Gospel Transformation Bible, I also wrote Acts: A 12-Week Study.

Author and Purpose

Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Both were written by Luke, a physician who traveled with the apostle Paul. Luke’s purpose for writing his Gospel (see Luke 1:3–4) applies to Acts as well: to give an “orderly” account of the early church after Christ’s resurrection. Acts is a historical account of how the resurrection of Jesus changes everything through the birth of the early church.

Geographical Expansion 

Acts is the story of God’s grace flooding out to the world. Nothing 
is more prominent in Acts than the spread of the gospel. Jesus promises
a geographic expansion at the outset (1:8), and Acts follows the news of his death and resurrection as it spreads from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the faraway capital of Rome.

This is why Acts 1:8 is a key verse to understanding all of Acts: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Preaching

The preaching of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central in Acts. The Greek verb for “preach the gospel” (euangelizo) occurs more in this book than in any other in the New Testament. About a third of the book of Acts consists of speeches, and most of these are speeches of Peter or Paul proclaiming the gospel. The good news of the salvation accomplished in Christ and applied by the Holy Spirit extends to the “ends of the earth” through preaching.

God is central to the gospel’s expansion. He is at the heart of the gospel message, the news that reconciliation with the Father is now possible through Jesus Christ. God the Holy Spirit is responsible for the growth of the church and its remarkable expansion.

God’s Passionate Pursuit

In Acts, “grace” is a parallel for “the gospel” or “salvation.” Jesus’ message is summarized as “the word of his grace,” believers are said to have received “grace” or to be “full of grace,” and they are challenged to continue in “grace.” The missionaries in Acts proclaim the grace of God, and it is through this grace that people are able to respond with faith.

Acts reveals God’s passionate pursuit of his people, beginning with his followers in Jerusalem, expanding to Samaria, then to the rest of the world. By the end of the book we see Paul living in Rome “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31).

The gospel draws people in, constitutes them as the church centered on the grace of Jesus, and then sends them out in mission to the world. The new group of believers is marked by the Holy Spirit, who creates such a distinctive community that others are drawn in, experiencing God’s grace. At the same time, they take the gospel message to new people and new lands, making God’s grace known to the ends of the earth.

Barriers, Weakness, Opposition, and Persecution

The gospel spreads despite barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture, gender, and wealth. Many of these barriers appear so inviolable that when the gospel is preached to a new segment of society, riots ensue. But Luke makes clear that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power, nor is anyone exempt from the need for God’s redeeming grace.

In Acts, the gospel expands not through human strength, but through weakness, opposition, and persecution. Demonic forces, worldly powers and authorities, governmental opposition, language and cultural barriers, intense suffering and bloody persecution, unjust imprisonment, unbelief, internal disunity, and even shipwrecks and snakes all threaten to slow down the gospel’s advance. But opposition and suffering do not thwart the spread of Jesus’ grace; rather, they only fuel it.

Acts and the Rest of the Bible

Acts shows that the new Christian movement is not a fringe sect, but the culmination of God’s plan of redemption. What was seen only as shadows in the Old Testament, God reveals finally and fully through Jesus Christ. The book of Acts does not primarily provide us with human patterns to emulate or avoid. Instead, it repeatedly calls us to reflect upon the work of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, establishing the church by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The gospel’s expansion is the culmination of what God has been doing since the beginning. Acts consistently grounds salvation in the ancient purpose of God, which comes to fruition at God’s own initiative. This reveals God to be the great benefactor who pours out blessings on all people. Even the opportunity to repent is God’s gift.

God’s Hospitality

God’s Hospitality

I was recently a special guest on the White Horse Inn podcast for a four-week series, God’s Hospitality. We explored the them of feasting from Genesis to Revelation. After eating the forbidden fruit, humanity was cast into sin and death. As Scripture unfolds, we discover God’s gracious plan of redemption that culminates in the great feast at the end of the ages. We who were strangers and enemies of God are welcomed to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

  1. God’s Hospitality
  2. Avoiding the Feast
  3. Feasting with God
  4. Sharing in God’s Hospitality
Why Don’t We See Miracles Like the Apostles Did?

Why Don’t We See Miracles Like the Apostles Did?

Many contemporary Christians feel disconnected from the vibrant, Spirit-filled ministries of the prophets and apostles described in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God seemingly took the people of Israel through miraculous event after miraculous event. In the New Testament, those who watched the ministry of Jesus were seized with amazement (cf. Luke 5:25) at the miracles he performed, and the apostles in the early church regularly performed signs and wonders among the people (Acts 5:12).

Yet today, such miraculous events seem rare and, when we do hear reports of miracles, many Christians are skeptical. At the very least, Christians feel that there is something different about the way God worked in the Old and New Testament periods and the way he works today. This raises a valid question: Why don’t we experience today the miracles we read about in the New Testament?

To answer that question, we need to understand not only how God works through providence and common grace [link to previous standalone post on miracles and providence], but we must also understand the purpose of miracles in the Bible.

 

The Purpose of Miracles in Scripture

Miracles in Scripture are acts of God that proclaim his sovereign power over creation as well as his commitment to the good of his people. Miracles are often significant because they serve a larger purpose in God’s redemptive plan, giving evidence of the authenticity of God’s messengers who bring his revelation to humanity. This is one of the primary functions of miracles in the Scriptural narratives: “When miracles occur, they give evidence that God is truly at work and so serve to advance the gospel.”[1] Miracles serve as an authentication of God’s message and his messengers.

In the Old Testament, Moses did miracles to attest to his authority as God’s spokesman (Exod. 4:1–9). Similarly, the prophets were given words to speak from God, and in order to verify their authority God granted them the ability to perform miracles (1 Kings 17:17–24, 18:36–39, 2 Kings 1:10).

Whereas “the miracles of the Old Testament age authenticated Moses and the prophets as men of God…the miracles of the New Testament age authenticated in turn Christ and his apostles.”[2] Nicodemus, for example, recognized that God was with Jesus because of the miracles he did (John 3:2). Luke records approximately 20 of Jesus’ miracles and four—all healings—are unique to only Luke. Jesus’ miracles authenticate his authoritative role in the divine plan that brings salvation (Luke 7:22). In fact, the scope of Jesus’ healings shows the breadth of his authority. He heals the sick, casts out evil spirits, and cures a variety of specific conditions: a flow of blood, a withered hand, blindness, deafness, paralysis, epilepsy, leprosy, dropsy, and fever. He resuscitates the dead and exercises power over nature.

Miracles also point to God’s kingdom and the restoration of creation. John calls the miracles of Jesus “signs” (John 4:54, 6:15), and Jesus suggests that his miraculous works verify that the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:14-23). Jesus performed healings, exorcisms, and “nature” miracles (such as turning water into wine and multiplying food) as a sign that the kingdom of God had come to earth. As Grudem puts it, the one of the purposes of miracles was “to bear witness to the fact that the kingdom of God has come and has begun to expand its beneficial results into people’s lives.”[3] This is exactly the point of what Jesus says in Matthew 12:28: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Because of Jesus’ miraculous works, those who saw him knew that the God of Israel was once again acting in their midst.

Tim Keller points out that miracles

“lead not simply to cognitive belief, but to worship, to awe and wonder. Jesus’s miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce…Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order.”[4]

Jesus’ miracles reveal his divine identity—an identity that calls for worship. This is the response of the disciples after Jesus walks on the water: “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). When asked whether he was the “one who is to come” (Luke 7:19) Jesus, instead of answering with a word testifying that he is the Messiah, points to his miracles. Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is focused on his authority and the promise he brings. Jesus’ saving work inaugurates the kingdom of God, delivers sinners, secures forgiveness of sin, and provides the Spirit.

Grudem’s description of miracles in the Old and New Testaments is worth quoting:

“It seems to be a characteristic of the New Testament church that miracles occur. In the Old Testament, miracles seemed to occur primarily in connection with one prominent leader at a time, such as Moses or Elijah or Elisha. In the New Testament, there is a sudden and unprecedented increase in the miracles when Jesus begins his ministry (Luke 4:36–37, 40–41). However, contrary to the pattern of the Old Testament, the authority to work miracles and to cast out demons was not confined to Jesus himself, nor did miracles die out when Jesus returned to heaven. Even during his ministry, Jesus gave authority to heal the sick and to cast out demons not only to the Twelve, but also to seventy of his disciples (Luke 10:1, 9, 17–19; cf. Matt. 10:8; Luke 9:49–50).”[5]

The miracles of the early church, then, served an immediately relevant purpose in redemptive history: verifying the authenticity of God’s revelation and signaling the coming of the new eschatological age among God’s people.

Consider the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. One of the largest disputes in the early church concerned whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity had to keep the Old Testament Law and be circumcised. It became such an issue of dispute that Paul, Peter, and Barnabas met with the leaders of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to debate the issue. What is interesting is that, as Acts 15:12 says, “all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” Here the miraculous works of God served as evidence to the Jewish Christians that God was in fact working in a new and unique way among the Gentiles as well.

 

Miracles Today

How should Christians think about miracles today? First, we must realize that the sheer volume and close proximity of the countless miracles in the Old and New Testaments served significant purposes in God’s redemptive plan at the time. However, this does not mean that God does not still do miracles today. Indeed, as Wayne Grudem notes, “There is nothing inappropriate in seeking miracles for the proper purposes for which they are given by God: to confirm the truthfulness of the gospel message, to bring help to those in need, to remove hindrances to people’s ministries, and to bring glory to God.”[6] Miracles still happen, and Christians should avoid the two extremes of seeing everything as a miracle and seeing nothing as a miracle.

Second, Christians need to expand their understanding of God’s action to include both his providential sustaining in daily affairs and his miraculous works of redemption in the church. For example, in John 14:12, Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” But it is not immediately clear what Jesus means when he says that those coming after him will do “greater works.” Some may think that these “greater works” refer to more miracles and other such events. However, D. A. Carson’s insights here are helpful:

Greater works…cannot simply mean more works—i.e. the church will do more things than Jesus did, since it embraces so many people over such a long period of time—since there are perfectly good Greek ways of saying ‘more,’ and since in any case the meaning would then be unbearably trite. Nor can greater works mean ‘more spectacular’ or ‘more supernatural’ works: it is hard to imagine works that are more spectacular or supernatural than the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the multiplication of bread and the turning of water into wine.”[7]

Instead, Carson says that the “greater works” done by those coming after Jesus point primarily to the new eschatological order established by Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

The ‘signs’ and ‘works’ Jesus performed during his ministry could not fully accomplish their true end until after Jesus had risen from the dead and been exalted. Only at that point could they be seen for what they were. By contrast, the works believers are given to do through the power of the eschatological Spirit, after Jesus’ glorification, will be set in the framework of Jesus’ death and triumph, and will therefore more immediately and truly reveal the Son. Thus greater things is constrained by salvation-historical realities.[8]

And while these works certainly included the signs and wonders done by the early church in the Spirit’s power, they are not limited to those miraculous deeds. Instead, they also included the “mystery” of Gentiles being included into the one new people of God, to which Paul referred in Ephesians and Colossians. God’s miraculous works in the church include the forgiveness of sins and the inclusion of those who were formerly far off into God’s one new people. Healings, signs, and wonders are extraordinary, but no more extraordinary than the redemption accomplished by Christ.

What this means, ultimately, is that just because we do not frequently see any extraordinary miraculous events happening around us, it does not mean that God is inactive. Rather, we should recognize (a) that God is active in the regular (natural) processes we see every day; (b) that God is miraculously calling people to himself as his church grows and expands; and (c) that people are experiencing God work in miraculous supernatural ways in their lives in other parts of the country or world. To miss this is to miss the scope and significance of God’s action described in Scripture.

Whether or not we are privileged to witness obviously miraculous, supernatural events, Christians can be confident that God is actively at work in the world, bringing people to himself, bringing glory to Jesus, and building his church (Matt. 16:18).



[1] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 360.

[2] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 412.

[3] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 360.

[4] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, 95–96.

[5] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 359.

[6] Grudem, 371.

[7] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 495.

[8] Carson, John, 496.