How can we tell which "miracles, signs, and wonders" are of God?
—Jim Reid, Houston
In 2 Thessalonians 2, the passage from which this question is taken, Paul describes the deeds of the "man of lawlessness." This compelling figure's emergence will be in accordance with the work of Satan and demonstrated in false miracles. The three New Testament words for "miracle" are all featured in 2 Thessalonians 2:9—dunamis (an exercise of supernatural power), semeion (a providential sign or event that points to a greater meaning), and teras (something extraordinary that causes wonder). The man of lawlessness (whom some consider the Antichrist) will appear on the world scene to oppose and "exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped" and will actually proclaim himself to be God. No matter how dazzling his acts may be, they are total deception.
Many Christians believe that miracles ceased with the passing of the Apostolic age. If that were the case, all occurrences of miracles since then have been counterfeit; none are of God. An increasing number of believers, however, recognize the continuing reality of miracles. But how do we tell the legitimate ones from the kind exercised by the man of lawlessness? There are at least five biblical tests.
1. The miracle glorifies God. Miracles always declare that God is active in our world and that he can disrupt the activities of nature to reveal his character and purposes. The principal test of any miracle—then, now, or in the future—is this: Who receives the glory? This can be a very subtle matter, for self-glorification is not always obvious. We should be on guard against anyone, however extraordinary his deeds, who glorifies himself (like Simon the magician who, in Acts 8:9, "boasted that he was someone great").
2. It stems from a righteous source. Jesus declared that in the last days false prophets will come to "perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible" (Matt. 24:24, NIV). Much earlier, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said, "By their fruit you will recognize them" (Matt. 7:15-16). Their words may sound true and their actions may appear impressive, but it may all be counterfeit if their lives show no good fruits.
3. It rings true to the Holy Spirit. According to Paul, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is the "discerning of spirits" (1 Cor. 12:10, KJV), an ability granted through God's power that enables one to distinguish between true and false spirits. Paul demonstrated this discernment when he was confronted by a "Jewish sorcerer and false prophet" named Elymas who tried to block someone from hearing the gospel. "Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 'You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right!'" (Acts 13:6-10, niv). Paul did not say this as the result of some previous knowledge about Elymas, but through the Holy Spirit, he perceived the utter baseness that was in the man.
Not every believer will have this specific gift of spiritual discernment. But the Holy Spirit—the Giver of the gift—dwells within all believers, and it is only through his eyes that the rightness or wrongness of a miracle, sign, or wonder can be gauged.
4. It stands the test of external verification. On one occasion Jesus healed ten lepers and said to them, "Go, show yourselves to the priests" (Luke 17:14). This customary procedure was for the purpose of ceremonial cleansing and also for inspection and verification of results of a given healing (Lev. 14).
Let's change the scene somewhat: it can be valuable, for example, to have a miracle of physical healing checked out by a competent medical authority. Say there is a claimed miracle of healing for deafness; this could be followed up by a doctor's examination. Many persons hesitate to do this lest they might, as is sometimes said, "lose their miracle." However, that line of reasoning characterizes God as some cruel prankster; he does not give his children stones in place of bread. If a healing appears to have occurred—not a counterfeit but a real one—a person should welcome impartial verification.
5. It builds up the church. Paul writes that "In the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles" (1 Cor. 12:28). Just as surely as apostles, prophets, and teachers are God-given appointments for the functioning of the church, so are workers of miracles. Both teaching and miracles, word and deed, occurring in unity are vital activities in the overall upbuilding and outreach of the church.
Consider the example of the evangelist Philip: "When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs that he did, they paid close attention to what he said" (Acts 8:6). So it remains today: our Spirit-led words and deeds (miraculous and otherwise) can work in beautiful harmony for the proclamation of the gospel.
J. Rodman Williams is professor of theology at Regent University.
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J. Rodman Williams' site at Regent University offers a biographical sketch, and even some of his books online.
J. Rodman Williams answers other theology questions at CBN.com.
In a recent opinion piece for Christianity Today, Chris Lutes cautions against becoming too enthusiastic about miracles.
In a 1997 column for Christianity Today, Philip Yancey noted how reluctant Jesus was to use miracles.
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