the HOLY SPIRIT
Signs and Wonders in the Early Post-Apostolic Era
By Frank A. DeCenso, Jr.
CBN.com Cessationism teaches that the types of signs and wonders evidenced in the New Testament are not for today. The reasons given by cessationists are varied, and the internet is full of Web sites dedicated to this doctrine. However, many scholars have written in favor of signs and wonders being for today, and they have shown that the arguments against signs and wonders today are weak and biased.
Some of the most impressive examples of polemical writings in favor of signs and wonders today include The Kingdom and the Power, edited by Dr. Gary Greig and Kevin Springer; Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, by Dr. Jack Deere; Confronting Powerless Christianity, by Dr. Charles Kraft; On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Post-Biblical Miracles, by Dr. Jon Ruthven; just to name a few.
I want to take you back in history and present to you an argument for signs and wonders revealing that the miraculous works done by Jesus and the apostles were also done by the early Church – thus showing that the main thesis of cessationists, signs and wonders passed away with the last of the apostles, is false. I will limit my discussion to exorcism and healing, and I will quote writers from the 1st-3rd centuries who have written about continuing signs and wonders. I will also add commentary where I feel it may be helpful and relevant for today’s church.
One of the main themes I found in the early church writings I examined was exorcism. In the New Testament, exorcism is a sign, wonder, or miracle, bringing deliverance to an individual who is demonically oppressed or possessed. Let’s first examine some of the evidence that exorcism continued on, past the apostolic age.
“For numberless demoniacs throughout the whole world, and in your city, many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, have healed and do heal, rendering helpless and driving the possessing devils out of the men, though they could not be cured by all the other exorcists, and those who used incantations and drugs.” -- Justin Martyr, c.155 (or shortly thereafter)(ANF 1.190)
“We call Him Helper and Redeemer. Even the demons fear the power of His name at this day, when they are exorcised in the name of Jesus Christ, . . . they are defeated.” -- Justin Martyr (ANF 1.209)
“He said, ‘I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions.’ . . . And now we have all the demons and evil spirits subjected to us, when we exorcise them.” -- Justin Martyr (ANF 1.236)
Justin Martyr shows quite clearly that exorcism was being practiced around the mid 100s, which is well beyond the life of the last apostle John. What strikes me as important in these quotes is how Justin shows ordinary Christians performing exorcisms.
For example, his statement, “many of our Christian men exorcising them in the name of Jesus Christ”, reveals a ministry that was not confined to Christian leaders, elders, bishops, pastors, or any other Christian authority figure. They were being done by “Christian men” and this appears to indicate an authority that all believers shared.
Today, believers can also engage in this work if and when needed. Our world is filled with folks who are demonically oppressed in numerous ways. When we encounter them, we may just be needed to help them break free from the enemy who has enslaved them.
“Even to this day, the demon-possessed are sometimes exorcised in the name of the living and true God.” -- Theophilus, c.180; Origen, c.248; Lactantius, c.304-313 (ANF 2.97)
The authority and power of Jesus’ name is above all other names and adversaries. It’s in His name that these works continued, and it’s in His name that we continue His works today. Later, Origen and Lactantius also wrote about the power of Jesus’ name in this context:
“A similar philosophy of name applies to Jesus. His name has already been seen in an unmistakable manner to have expelled myriads of evil spirits from souls and bodies. This demonstrates how great the power was that was exerted upon those from whom the spirits were driven out” -- Origen (ANF 4.406)
“Even at the present time, the demons and other unseen powers show that they either fear the name of Jesus as that of a Being of superior power, or else they reverentially accept Him as their lawful ruler. For if the commendation had not been given Him by God, the demons would not have withdrawn from those whom they had attacked. For they withdrew in obedience at the mere mention of His name.” -- Origen (ANF 4.479)
“As long as there is peace among the people of God, these spirits flee from the righteous and fear them. And when they seize the bodies of men and harass their souls, they are adjured by [Christians] and are put to flight at the name of the true God.”-- Lactantius (ANF 7.159)
The authority we have in Jesus name is more than we can imagine, but we need to understand at least a smidgen of it if we are to do works in His name.
“...they realize that one day these woes will overtake them. Fearing Christ in God, and God in Christ, they become subject to the servants of God and Christ. So, overwhelmed by the thought and realization of those judgment fires, at our touch, our breath, and our command, they leave the bodies they have entered - unwilling and distressed. For before your very eyes, they are put to an open shame.” -- Tertullian, c.180
Here again, this time from Tertullian, we read that ordinary believers were doing this extreme ministry. If we are “servants of God and Christ”, the power we have in Christ is far superior to any power that the enemy can muster. Thus, if ministry to relatives or neighbors or street people brings us into a place where the demonic is manifest, we can rest assured the power of God is with us to enable us to do whatever is necessary is freeing slaves from Satan.
“The demons themselves confess concerning themselves as often as they are driven by us from bodies by the torments of our words and by the fires of our prayers….when renounced by the only and true God, the wretched beings unwillingly shudder in their bodies and either at once leap forth – or else vanish by degrees.” -- Mark Minucius Felix, c.200 (ANF 4.190)
Notice here that fear is not an attribute that a Christian involved in deliverance should have – it’s a response that demons will have to the ministry of Jesus through us. The writer emphasizes this by stating that the demons “shudder.”
Also notice that sometimes deliverance is “by degrees.” Folks who have operated in deliverance, such as Dr. Charles Kraft, Francis MacNutt, and John Wimber, have written about this in their books. Ministry to those under severe oppression may require a long time commitment on our part. If we are not willing to give the time required, we should not venture into the arena of deliverance. But if we embrace the compassion of Jesus, we will spend whatever time is required to see someone freed from the bonds of satanic slavery.
“Oh, if only you could hear and see them when they are adjured by us. For they are tortured with spiritual scourges and are cast out from the possessed bodies with tortures of words. Howling and growling at the voice of man and the power of God, they feel the stripes and blows and confess the judgment to come. Come and acknowledge that what we say is true.” -- Cyprian, c.250 (ANF 5.462)
What’s relevant here is that some exorcisms will result in resistance of the demons being expelled. This is not unusual. Even Jesus experienced demonic resistance to expulsion at various times. But the resistance should not deter us from continuing the mission of authoritatively expelling the demonic invaders from someone’s life.
Cyprian also gave us a picture of why demons may resist:
“This is also done in the present day. For the devil is scourged, burned, and tortured by exorcists – by the human voice and by divine power.” (ANF 5.402)
The terminology of being “scourged, burned, and tortured by exorcists” may be a glimpse into the pain inflicted on demonic spirits as the name of Jesus and the power of God come to bear on a deliverance scenario.
“What is nobler than to tread under foot the gods of the nations, to exorcise evil spirits, to perform cures, to seek divine revelations, and to live to God? These are the pleasures – these are the spectacles – that befit Christian men.” -- Tertullian, c. 212; Origen c. 248
“See how many men of rank have been delivered from devils and healed of diseases!” -- Tertullian, c. 212, 3.91
“There are still preserved among Christians traces of that Holy Spirit that appeared in the form of a dove. They expel evil spirits, perform many cures, and foresee certain events.” -- Tertullian, c. 212, 3.107
“Not a few cures are brought about in the name of Jesus, and certain other manifestations of no small significance have taken place.” -- Origen, c. 248, 4.415
The performing of cures, or the healing of diseases, is mentioned by numerous writers of the post-apostolic era. The first quote by Tertullian tells us that the ministry of healing is a noble undertaking for all Christians. It’s not limited to those in a large stadium in front of 10,000 people. As we saw with exorcism, ministering healing to people is something that is to be expected of Christians. --( Origen, c. 248, 4.475)
The second quote from Tertullian leads us to believe that even those in some sort of governmental or religious rank have been touched by the miraculous healing power of God. In fact, Tertullian tells his readers to notice this fact, perhaps as evidence of the truth claims of Christianity and it’s relevance to peoples’ lives.
The last two quotes from Origen reflect what Tertullian stated about Christians performing these healing activities, and he adds that it’s the ministry of the Holy Spirit, through Christians in the name of Jesus, that makes it possible. No man or woman can heal; only God can, and He can with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit through men and women today.
Tertullian also gives us insight into why God allows His healing power to continue into our time:
“….God everywhere manifests His signs of His power – to His own people for their comfort; to strangers, for a testimony unto them.” (ANF 3.228)
What is so inspiring in this quote from Tertullian is that he gives a beautiful reason for God’s miraculous activities continuing – comfort and evangelism. God is the God of all comfort and He wants to bless His people with His power – power that can take away ills, oppression, disease, or anything else that would hurt His kids.
He also wants to show His power to the world, as a testimony to His greatness, glory, and love for them. What a merciful, loving God He is. His love and mercy are the same today as when Jesus and the apostles walked the earth. Thus, His works that brought comfort and salvation are continuing today to show that love and mercy.
Arnobius amplifies the evangelistic results of God’s power being demonstrated world-wide:
“Christ’s virtues have been made manifest to you, along with that unheard-of power…that was used over the whole world by those who proclaimed Him. It has subdued the fires of passion and caused races, peoples, and nations that are most diverse in character to hasten with one accord to accept the same faith. For the deeds can be listed and numbered that have been done in India, as well as among the Seres, Persians, and Medes.” (Arnobius, c. 305, ANF 6.438)
(22) Through the LORD's mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not. (23) They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. (24) "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "Therefore I hope in Him!" (25) The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, To the soul who seeks Him. (26) It is good that one should hope and wait quietly For the salvation of the LORD. (Lamentations 3:22-26)
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
God has always been in the salvation business. No doctrine of man can ever change that.
More about the Holy Spirit on Spiritual Life
More from Spiritual Life
All of the quotes are from the 10 volume The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson between 1885-1887. They are cited in A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, edited by David W. Bercot. The citations use the convention of “volume number.page number”; thus 1.200 indicates a quote is from volume 1, page 200. I will use the notation of ANF 1.200 to designate a quote’s location.
Frank DeCenso is the author of Presence Powered Living: Building a Life of Intimacy and Partnership with God, published by Vineyard International Publishers. He is currently working on another book detailing how believers can continue the ministry of signs and wonders that Jesus and the early church engaged in.
His Web site is http://presencepowered.com. Frank lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia with his wife of 15 years.
Repr. 10 vols. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994.
© 2007 Frank A. DeCenso, Jr. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
All Scripture Verses are from the New King James Version.
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.