While books have been written painting an optimistic picture of the Church’s progress in the Great Commission, for example reporting on various people groups around the world turning to Christ, my perspective as a missionary who has taught in over 40 countries around the world differs. Yes, observing the rapid growth of the Church in China there are reasons to rejoice. Yet at the same time we are at this moment witnessing a dramatic resurgence of Islam on the world scene with a reported 1.6 billion adherents and counting. According to Islamists, every man, woman, and child on earth must either convert to Islam or face severe consequences—which in some cases have included death. When we add this extraordinary zeal of the Islamists for their religion to the lukewarm state of the Church as a whole and the ineffectiveness of her evangelism especially in Third World countries, the overall prospects for our discipling all nations appear dim indeed. There must be radical change in our evangelism. For this we must simply return to Scripture.
What is the major difference between missionary evangelism as recorded in the gospels and Acts and missions today?
When the disciples proclaimed the kingdom of God in the gospels, they did so while healing the sick as supernatural evidence to the lost that Jesus was in fact the promised Messiah.
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. … So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. (Luke 9:1,2,6)
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. …Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:1,9)
In Acts we see a similar pattern in which the miraculous often confirmed the truth of the gospel to the lost, resulting in abundant harvests of souls.
Acts 3:7 Taking him by the right hand, he [Peter] helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. 8 He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God. 4:4 But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.
Acts 8:5-12 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. …they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.
Note: the Samaritans were half-Gentiles hated by the Jews. “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” wrote the apostle John. Yet the Lord was pleased for Philip to perform great miraculous signs when he preached the gospel to them, resulting in a great harvest for the kingdom of God. Miraculous signs therefore were not only for Jews in the gospels, but also for gentiles in Acts.
Acts 9:34 “Aeneas,” Peter said to him, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” Immediately Aeneas got up. 35 All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
Acts 9:40 Peter sent them all out of the room; then he got down on his knees and prayed. Turning toward the dead woman, he said, “Tabitha, get up.” She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up. 41 He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. Then he called for the believers, especially the widows, and presented her to them alive. 42 This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord.
Although there are instances in Acts where the miraculous did not accompany the preaching of the gospel, it is reasonable to conclude that miracles were important and at times even necessary for the effective sharing of the message.
“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” (John 4:48)
This did not apply only to the Jews, but also to the Samaritans in Acts 8 above who turned to Christ after witnessing the miraculous signs Philip performed.
The New Testament pattern we see above contrasts sharply with what we generally see in missions and evangelism today, where instances of the miraculous are relatively rare—to put it charitably.
Why the big difference?
Due to a doctrinal position
One explanation for this stark difference in evangelical circles between then and now is the teaching of cessationism which generally posits that God no longer performs miracles today as He did in the New Testament. Even when not openly taught to believers, it is an unspoken assumption carrying much weight in conservative evangelical churches. The undeniable scientific breakthroughs in technology and medicine in the 20th and 21st centuries have to some extent made the miraculous “unnecessary” or at best an afterthought in the minds of evangelical believers in the West.
I personally suspect that one motivation behind cessationism today (certainly not a conscious one) might be ascribing the visible lack of the miraculous in the contemporary Church today to a decision on God’s part, and not to any failure on the part of the Church.
Or simply “accepting the facts” without asking the tough questions
However, even in charismatic circles where miracles are still acknowledged, few are seen in practice except in the ministries of an elite coterie of “superstar” preachers—who by themselves apart from the Church cannot get the job done. “Not everyone has the gift of healing,” it is reasoned. Or the sick are healed “only if God shows up or if God wills,” we are told. Then there is the well-known escape clause: “the sick people lack faith.” There may be some truth in these explanations, but more significantly charismatic believers (whether consciously or not) have made the decision to avoid this tough question by conveniently sweeping it under the rug.
So what is the reason for the lack of the miraculous in the preaching of the gospel?
Sadly, we have neglected a very powerful tool (weapon, actually) the Lord entrusted to his disciples for proclaiming the kingdom of God to the lost. The weapon is authority and power over diseases and demons to be used in the context of proclaiming the kingdom of God to the lost (Luke 9:1-2). When applied properly this authority and power will result in miraculous healings as evidence of the truth of the gospel. It is essential to distinguish this authority and power from the very different gift of healing which is primarily for ministering to sick believers in the context of building up the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Generally in the preaching of the gospel today, the miraculous is not considered a significant factor, whether one is a charismatic or (especially) a cessationist. In the “Christian” West the preaching of the gospel can be fruitful without the miraculous accompanying the message as in the ministry of Dr. Billy Graham. However, the rest of the world is populated by the overwhelming majority of earth’s inhabitants which are highly gospel-resistant people groups like Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and idol-worshipers. For them Christianity is the very foreign religion of their former European masters. For them the truth of the gospel must be demonstrated by convincing miraculous signs if we expect to reap the kind of harvests we see in Acts through the ministry of the early disciples.
The role of extrabiblical supernatural manifestations
But some supernatural manifestations and practices not found in Scripture and taught by some charismatic groups have unfortunately served to turn off conservative evangelicals, driving them in the direction of cessationism. Sadly, many evangelicals have consequently rejected the miraculous altogether by “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”—to the detriment of the Great Commission. Actually, such extrabiblical manifestations, as impressive as they may appear to be, are not necessary for the Church to fulfill the Great Commission. When proclaiming the kingdom of God it is sufficient simply to obey what Jesus commanded His disciples in Matthew 10:7 and 8. “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”
These essentially are the reasons why the Church even after 2,000 years has failed to live up to the expectations of what our Lord commanded us just before He ascended to the right hand of the Father. We simply do not preach the gospel as He and his early disciples did. Even in the so-called christianized West which is classified as “reached” for the gospel, a generation has arisen which knows not the God of their fathers, but is enslaved by secular humanism, materialism, and the lusts of the flesh.
Judges 2:10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.
That generation did not witness the powerful miracles the LORD did for Israel when He delivered them from slavery in Egypt. They were not present when forty years later the Lord took them with a powerful outstretched arm into the Promised Land to drive out the Canaanites. They did not personally witness the LORD’s awesome miracles. And significantly they did not know the LORD, although for a while at least they enjoyed His material blessings on Israel. It is the same today with the current generation of those living in the “Christian” West. But as happened to backslidden Israel, God’s blessing on the West which has forsaken the LORD is also being withdrawn. We can observe how the “Christian” West is today being threatened by powerful enemies, both from within as well as from without.
What must we now do?
First of all, in “christianized” countries, especially America, we must stop focusing on how to maximize God’s various blessings in this life. Unfortunately when the dimension of the miraculous is missing, this is generally the only way we can market the Church to the masses who feel “entitled” to the American Dream and through which we can grow huge megachurches. This has become the primary emphasis of much of the Church in the materially prosperous West today. Therefore we must repent of this unscriptural emphasis and instead focus on how we can please God by obeying His commands in this life—keeping in mind that our eternal reward in the next life will largely be based on how fruitful we have been for Him on earth.
We should go back to the gospels and Acts to study exactly how Jesus and his early disciples ministered healing to the sick and cast out demons as evidence of the truth of the gospel. When we do that, we will understand the principles involving authority and power by which they ministered so effectively. And when we dare to apply this authority and power, especially in the context of proclaiming the kingdom of God to the gospel-resistant, we will see infirm people miraculously healed and set free. The miracles which their pagan gods and beliefs cannot do will open their hearts to consider our Father as the only true God and Jesus Christ as the only way to Him. Every disciple of Jesus Christ—not just a handful of “chosen” or “anointed” ones—can be trained to preach the gospel in this way at some level of effectiveness and fruitfulness according to the Lord’s promise to us:
Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:11-12)
The Lord has called The Elijah Challenge to train believers to preach the gospel with accompanying miraculous signs as Jesus did—for the sake of the Great Commission before the great and terrible Day of the Lord. The teaching, even though actually not charismatic (which will emphasize the gifts of the Holy Spirit) is still readily accepted by most believers with a charismatic background. Evangelical believers who are not cessationist can also accept the teaching since it follows New Testament Scripture very closely without touching on the gifts of the Spirit, and moreover consistently works in practice when applied to confirm the truth of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ to resistant people groups on the foreign mission field. After such peoples witness the miracles performed by our Lord through His servants, many of them believe the message and receive Jesus Christ as their only Lord and Savior. This is the pattern we see recorded in Acts. Why should we not follow it?
In view of what Jesus Christ commanded us in the Great Commission, can we actually say along with our cessationist brethren that what we read in Acts is only a description of what took place back then, and not a prescription for what the Church should be doing today in evangelism? Is not our Lord Jesus the same—yesterday, today, and forever? What He did in Acts through His disciples can He not do through His disciples today? Cessationism would of course argue a resounding “no” and might call what we are teaching here disturbing and even heretical. But let’s examine what Jesus commanded in the Great Commission:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
What did Jesus specifically command His disciples to do when proclaiming the kingdom of God to the lost?
Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)
This command to heal the sick is not simply description for how the early disciples were to reach out to the Jews in the gospels, but also a prescription for us today inasmuch as they also healed the sick in Acts when the gospel was preached to gentiles. Therefore are we not today to teach the Lord’s disciples to obey His command to heal the sick as they proclaim the kingdom of God to the billions of gospel-resistant peoples around the world? How can we dare presume that part of the Great Commission is no longer valid, even before the very end of the age?