The Holy Spirit is the most misunderstood member of the godhead. Speaking from personal experience, I believe a poll of the religious community would yield a variety of answers concerning the Spirit’s identity, role, and presence. I know people who strongly assert that God’s Spirit does not dwell in Christians at all except through the implanting of His word. Others believe they possess miraculous power endued by the Holy Spirit in the same measure experienced by first century Christians. While there are many dileneations between, these two interpretations represent the current extreme positions found in the religious community. I do not consider either extreme correct. The aforementioned conservative position is rare; in fact, I have spoken to very few religious people who do not believe in the Spirit’s indwelling to some degree. Therefore, I feel it best to address the second view of the Spirit: that He empowers people of faith with the same miraculous abilities we observe in the first century church.
The Purpose of Miracles
Miraculous power has always been bestowed by God to confirm revelation. The Bible’s first great “miracle worker” — Moses — was bestowed with power to confirm he was God’s messenger: “And Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses. Then he did the signs in the sight of the people. So the people believed…” (Exodus 4:30-31) God understood that divine revelation required, for man’s sake, a confirmation — irrefutable proof that the message was from God. In this case the rod turning into a serpent and the leprous hand corroborated Moses’ claim. Thus the captive Jews, the Pharaoh, and the entire Egyptian nation were left with no reason to doubt that this Moses was a messenger of God.
Miraculous power served the same purpose in the ministry of Christ. Nicodemus confesses this very thing, “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.” (John 3:2) Nicodemus along with his Sanhedrin peers could not deny the source of Jesus’ teaching since it was accompanied by miraculous signs. In John 5:36, Jesus declares, “But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish–the very works that I do–bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me.” Jesus not only claimed to be the Son of God, He performed works which confirmed His testimony. He pleads with the apostles later, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works.” (John 14:10) The Father did not leave the Son without a corroborating witness: miraculous power affirmed to every eyewitness (and now to every reader) that the message and claims of Christ were divinely endorsed.
Furthermore, the display of miracles substantiated the preaching of the early church. The writer of Hebrews asks, “how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Hebrews 2:3-4) Here the purpose of miracles is once again clearly stated: they served to confirm the message of both the Lord (Jesus) and those who heard Him (the apostles). In Iconium, Paul and Barnabas, “stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” (Acts 14:3) The Lord established the truth of Paul and Barnabas’ message by the display of miraculous power. Thus the public could be sure that Paul and Barnabas were not speaking on their own authority, but carried a message from God.
Because miraculous power only confirmed a divinely-ordained message, it failed to produce an enduring faith. The Exodus from Egypt is a prime example of this ineffectiveness. The Jews not only witnessed the aformentioned signs from Moses, they also witnessed the ten plagues and perhaps the greatest miracle aside from Christ’s resurrection: the parting of the Red Sea. Furthermore, they miraculously received both bread and water in the early stages of their wandering (Exodus 16-17). They witnessed the descent of God’s presence onto Mt. Sinai, heard the voice of God utter the ten commandments, and their elders witnessed a representation of God (Exodus 24). Yet in spite of all this sensory evidence, they, within three months of their exodus, were fashioning a molded calf and recomitting themselves to idolatry (Exodus 32). The greatest series of miracles, signs, and wonders on the Israelite side of the cross failed to produce a faith that endured beyond Moses’ departure up the mountain.
Miraculous Power Beyond the First Century
Does miraculous power endure to this day? Does the Holy Spirit empower Christians to work miracles such as healings, exorcisms, speaking in other languages, or prophecies in our time? Despite what our eyes may tell us, the Bible offers no reason to believe that the miracles, wonders, and signs performed by the Holy Spirit through the hands of gifted, first century individuals persist to the present day. The reason is quite simple: the authority and ability to bestow this miraculous power died with the apostles of Jesus Christ and the generation upon which they laid their hands.
In Acts 8, we observe the church preaching beyond the confines of Jerusalem for the first time. While the church scattered after the stoning of Stephen and persecution of Saul, the apostles remained in Jerusalem. Acts 8 tells us of Philip’s preaching among the Samaritans. Notice that Luke highlights again the purpose of miraculous power:
“Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to them. And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralyzed and lame were healed.” (Acts 8:5-7)
Philip preached Jesus Christ, the Spirit confirmed the truth of his message, the Samaritans knew it was of God and therefore accepted Christ. Upon hearing the joyous news of the Samaritans conversion, the apostles at Jerusalem send Peter and John to the region. Now Philip was obviously capable of preaching the gospel on his own, he possessed the mirculous power to confirm his testimony, so why would two apostles be dispatched from Jerusalem? Luke tells us:
Now when the apostles who were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them, who, when they had come down, prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For as yet He had fallen upon none of them. They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17)
There was a limitation to Philip’s power: he could baptize people in the name of Jesus, but he could not pass on the miraculous power of the Spirit. Beyond controversy, Acts 8 teaches that this ability was only bestowed through the apostles’ hands. Simon observed this as well, “And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money…” (Acts 8:18)
This apostolic power is further corroborated in Acts 19. The Ephesian disciples — presumably taught by Apollos — only knew the baptism of John. Paul first suspected this because they were ignorant of the Holy Spirit:
And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” (Acts 19:1-3)
Upon hearing of baptism in Jesus’ name, the Ephesians desired a rebaptism. Following their obedience to the Lord, “Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:6) Here is another clear instance where miraculous gifts were only bestowed through the laying on of an apostle’s hands.
Putting Acts 8 and 19 together, we can easily reach a satisfying and defensible conclusion: miraculous gifts were only bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Clearly, Philip had received such a gift but could not pass it on. Therefore, once the apostles passed away, the bestowal of miraculous gifts ceased. Furthermore, once the individuals who received those gifts died, miraculous power ceased in the church.
I know sincere people who are convinced they have personally witnessed or experienced a miracle. While I believe God continues to operate in our world in ways we cannot perceive, detect, or confirm, I do not believe He operates miraculously through human agency. Miracles were present in the first century to confirm the gospel’s revelation and declaration. Once this mission was fulfilled and the word of God complete, there remains little reason for further corroboration. Moreover, since the apostles were dead by the second century, the Bible offers no assurance that the Holy Spirit empowers individuals with miraculous ability. Since we are to walk by faith based on God’s word and not by sight, I find no compelling evidence to accept such claims.
Seeking to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ by talking with people who love the truth.