Signs and Wonders, Then and Now: Miracle-working, commissioning and discipleship

Signs and Wonders, Then and Now: Miracle-Working, Commissioning and Discipleship Book Cover Signs and Wonders, Then and Now: Miracle-Working, Commissioning and Discipleship
by Keith J. Hacking
Nottingham: Apollos/IVP
ISBN 9781844741496



‘Signs and wonders’, such as healing and exorcisms, are characteristic emphases associated with the ‘Third Wave’ of contemporary charismatic renewal, which has been particularly influential in the church, across the denominations and around the world. Exponents of such emphases claim to reflect a model for Christian discipleship that they find presented in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts by Jesus and his followers, in which ‘signs and wonders’ are normative for the church today. Keith Hacking's contention is that Third Wave commentators too often fail to grapple adequately with important historical, literary and theological issues that arise from the biblical text. From an engaging and thorough analysis of the relevant material in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, he offers an approach that more accurately reflects the evidence and that, therefore, is more appropriate for informing contemporary theology and practice.


Reviewed by Robert P. Menzies, Kunming, China.

In 1970 James Dunn published his widely influential critique of Pentecostal theology, Baptism in the Holy Spirit. Now, one of Dunn’s Ph.D. students, Keith Hacking, has attempted to provide something similar for the theology of ‘signs and wonders’ associated with the Third Wave movement. The term ‘Third Wave’ refers to a movement of the Spirit that began in the 1980s, subsequent to the earlier Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. This ‘Third Wave’ of the Spirit sparked a movement that was significantly impacted by John Wimber and embraced many other conservative evangelicals who formerly had been dispensationalists and cessationists. According to Hacking, Third Wavers present the practice of healing and exorcism, what John Wimber calls ‘doing the stuff’, as ministries normative for the contemporary church. Central to Third Wave theology is not only the practice of Jesus himself, but also the mentoring and commissioning he gives to his disciples. Third Wavers emphasize that Jesus modeled and then commissioned his disciples to proclaim and demonstrate through signs and wonders the presentness of the Kingdom of God. Hacking seeks to examine the purported biblical basis for these Third Wave claims. He focuses particularly on the commissioning accounts and teaching on discipleship found in the synoptic gospels and Acts. Discussion of Pauline themes, such as gifts of the Spirit, is excluded.

From the outset, Hacking’s position is made clear. He chides Third Wavers for a simplistic, uncritical reading of the gospels. This ‘uncritical’ approach is marked by two major flaws, both of which flow from the Third Waves’ relative lack of engagement with the fruit of modern biblical scholarship. First, Third Wavers tend to read the gospels as one, homogeneous whole and thus they fail to discern the distinctive theological perspective of each gospel writer. Additionally, Third Wavers fail to grasp, especially for Luke, the importance of the shift in the epochs of salvation-history, which diminishes their ability to understand the unique role of Jesus and the apostles and the miracles they wrought. In short, Hacking suggests that in the rush of their enthusiasm for things supernatural, Third Wavers have foisted their agenda upon the NT texts.

Hacking develops his critique by examining the commissioning accounts and teaching on discipleship found in Matthew, Mark, and then Luke-Acts. Matthew, we are told, presents Jesus as a Mosaic prophet who rightly interprets the law. Jesus passes on his ‘authority to teach’ to the disciples and this constitutes the ‘heart of the Great Commission’ (100). Hacking grudgingly acknowledges that the ‘authority’ that Jesus confers on the disciples might also include authority over the demonic, but he insists that Matthew places far greater emphasis on authority to forgive sins, as well as to teach. Hacking concludes that Matthew’s teaching on discipleship, which includes the important themes of suffering and persecution, the necessity of forgiveness, and the discipline of righteous living, indicates that the working of ‘signs and wonders’ was not a particularly important dimension of Christian discipleship for Matthew. One is only left to wonder, particularly in light of Matthew’s clear association of ‘authority’ and charismatic ministry (e.g. Mt. 9:8, 10:1, 28:18), if Matthew and his community really felt that these obviously important themes and an emphasis on signs and wonders were mutually exclusive.

Mark too presents a rich picture of Christian discipleship, one that concentrates on much more than simply the ability to perform miracles. The weighty matters of discipleship are taken up by Mark in his central section. Here Mark teaches by describing the blunders of the disciples on the one hand, and the corrective teaching of Jesus on the other. Discipleship for Mark centers on ‘utter commitment, a servant spirit, willingness to suffer and a focus…on doing the will of God’ (152). Additionally, Hacking suggests that the commissioning of the disciples to perform healings and exorcisms is not aimed at the entire Christian community, but rather applies only to Christians engaged in pioneer missionary activity.

This conclusion creates a tension with Hacking’s earlier statement that ‘Discipleship for Mark has mission as its purpose’ (112). This tension is never resolved, but intensified when we realize that the central section of Mark’s gospel includes a story about the disciples’ inability to exorcise a demon (Mark 9:14-29). After an implicit rebuke (‘O unbelieving generation…how long shall I put up with you!), Jesus exorcises the demon and then instructs the disciples concerning how these kinds of demons are to be cast out. Elsewhere in the central section this sort of misunderstanding and correction is cited by Hacking as Mark’s method of instruction. On the basis of Hacking’s earlier conclusions, one would envision that here Mark is instructing his church concerning the proper method of and approach to exorcism. Not so, declares Hacking. In an interesting bit of reverse logic, Hacking concludes that the story teaches ‘that the earlier spectacular successes on the part of the disciples sent out by Jesus in mission should not be regarded by Mark’s readers as the everyday norm for the church’ (130). This puzzling hermeneutical shift continues with Hacking’s analysis of Mark 9:38-41, which describes Jesus’ correction of John, who is peeved that someone apart from the Twelve was casting out demons. Jesus declares, ‘Do not stop him….No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward’ (Mark 9:39-41). It would appear that this story, which has impressive parallels to Numbers 11:26-29, encourages the Twelve and, by extension, Mark’s church, not to limit the casting out of demons to a select few. Yet Hacking gleans something rather different from this text. According to Hacking, the story teaches that ‘exorcism in Jesus’ name need not necessarily involve (true) discipleship and, as such, should be regarded by his readers as being of relatively minor importance’ (133).

Hacking’s treatment of Luke-Acts follows a pattern that has now become rather predictable. First, he argues that Luke does not present Jesus’ reception of the Spirit as a model for later disciples. This is the case in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Hacking ignores the fact that Luke has crafted his narrative in such a way as to stress the parallels between Jesus’ reception of the Spirit at the Jordan and the disciples’ reception of the Spirit at Pentecost: both receptions take place at the outset of their respective ministries; both experiences are accompanied by visible manifestations; both are interpreted as a fulfillment of OT prophecy in the context of a sermon that closely follows the event. Hacking’s judgment at this point is impaired by his tendency to accept the notion that Luke has a rigid, fragmented view of salvation-history. Conzelmann’s three-epoch view was discredited long ago, but Hacking still operates with a slightly modified version of Conzelmann’s scheme. Martin Hengel gave voice to a virtual consensus in Lukan scholarship when he wrote some years ago that Conzelmann’s view ‘that Luke divides history up into three periods…was nevertheless misleading….In reality, the whole double work covers the one history of Jesus Christ, which…includes the interval between resurrection and parousia as the time of his proclamation in the “last days” (Acts 2:17)’ (Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity [London: SCM Press, 1979], 59).

Unfortunately, this faulty presupposition also encourages Hacking to emphasize discontinuity between the charismatic ministry of Jesus and the apostles on the one hand, and ministry in Luke’s church and ours on the other. Hacking frequently argues for the uniqueness of the miracles of Jesus and the apostles. He states that ‘signs and wonders in Acts are to be understood as being instrumental in the formation of the infant church’ (257). Hacking builds on this by arguing that Luke restricts signs and wonders to a chosen few, a select group of designated individuals who are set apart and commissioned, initially by Jesus, but later by their local congregations. He concludes, ‘Luke associated signs and wonders only with those who had a transparently authoritative role to play in the missiological progress of the church’ (257).

Yet these conclusions again run counter to the evidence from Luke-Acts. The sending of the 72 (Luke 10:1-16) is a case in point. Hacking argues that the instructions given to the 72, which include ‘heal the sick’ (Luke 11:9; cf. 11:17), were limited to the earthly ministry of Jesus and were ‘not intended by Luke to provide an ongoing contemporary paradigm’ (195). This text, however, has important parallels to Number 11:24-29 and should be read with Moses’ declaration, ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets’ (Nu. 11:29), in mind. The manuscript evidence, divided as it is between a sending out of 70 or 72, attests to the fact that the early church understood the text in this way. The actual number of the elders who were anointed in Numbers 11 is somewhat ambiguous, depending on whether or not Eldad and Medad are included in the original 70. This accounts for later scribal discrepancies. This passage then, which expands the group of empowered disciples beyond the Twelve and echoes Moses’ wish for a prophethood of believers, finds its fulfillment in the Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit.

Luke’s concern to encourage his church to see the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit and the charismatic power that it provides as available to every believer is further emphasized in Luke 11:9-13 (par. Mt. 7:7-11), where Luke alters the Q version of the saying to read ‘Holy Spirit’ rather than ‘good gifts’. Luke’s redacted version of this saying (‘how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’) obviously anticipates the post-Easter experience of the church, since the gift of the Spirit was not bestowed until Pentecost. By contemporizing the text in this way, Luke stresses the relevance of the saying for the post-Pentecostal community to which he writes. He crafts his narrative so as to encourage his church – indeed, the entire church – to pray that they too might be empowered by the Pentecostal gift.

Finally, Luke could hardly have stated the matter more clearly than he does in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (see esp. Acts 2:17-22). Peter declares to the amazed crowd that the events of Pentecost which they have just witnessed represent the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32. The universality of the promise is highlighted in Acts 2:17-18 with the reference to ‘all people’ and the poetic couplets that follow (sons/daughters; young men/old men; men/women). The point is unequivocal: in the last days the Lord will pour out the Spirit on all of God’s servants.

Equally important for this discussion is Luke’s alteration of Joel’s text in Acts 2:19. With the addition of a few words, Luke transforms Joel’s text to read: ‘I will show wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth below.’ The significance of these insertions, which form a collocation of ‘wonders’ and ‘signs’, becomes apparent when we look at the larger context of Acts. The first verse that follows the Joel citation declares, ‘Jesus…was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22). And throughout the book of Acts we read of the followers of Jesus working ‘wonders and signs’. In this way, Luke links the miraculous events associated with Jesus (Acts 2:22) and his disciples (e.g. Acts 2:43) together with the cosmic portents listed by Joel (see Acts 2:19b-20) as ‘signs and wonders’ that mark the end of the age. For Luke, ‘these last days’ – that period inaugurated with Jesus’ birth and leading up to the Day of the Lord – represents an epoch marked by ‘signs and wonders’. This text indicates, then, that Luke is conscious of the significant role that miracles have played in the growth of the early church and anticipates that these ‘signs and wonders’ will continue to characterize the ministry of the church in these ‘last days’.

Nevertheless, Hacking seeks to argue that Luke restricts the working of miracles to the apostles and a few heroes of the Spirit who received special commissions. Yet the very fact that Hacking has to expand the ‘limited’ group beyond the apostles to other heroes of the Spirit should give the reader pause. Other questions emerge as well: Are we really to understand the prayer of Acts 4:29-30 (‘Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders….’) as limited to a select few? Philip was commissioned to help with the distribution of food, not pioneer churches, and yet miraculous signs accompany his proclamation in Samaria (Acts 8:6). How does this fit with Hacking’s thesis? And, apart from the apostles and other heroes of the Spirit, what other characters could Luke use to make his point?

In short, Hacking raises interesting and important questions concerning the theology of ‘signs and wonders’. His discussion of discipleship material in the synoptic gospels and Acts is often insightful and inspiring. Furthermore, he demonstrates that the gospel writers were not fixated on charismatic power, nor were they uncritical in their approach to the miraculous. But key aspects of his thesis – that the gospel writers were largely uninterested in ‘signs and wonders’ as a significant component of Christian discipleship, that the miracles of Jesus and the apostles were not intended to serve as models for the post-apostolic church, and that the commissioning accounts are relevant to only a select few who are specifically commissioned to engage in pioneer work – appear to be built on a selective reading of the text and faulty presuppositions.

Yet Hacking’s question cannot be ignored: Should every believer expect to see ‘signs and wonders’ as a part of their Christian life and witness? I have no doubt how the vast majority of my Christian friends in China would answer this question. And a recent survey of Pentecostals from ten different nations concludes that a very high percentage claim to have personally witnessed or experienced instances of divine healing (87% in Kenya, 79% in Nigeria, 77% in Brazil, 74% in India, 72% in the Philippines, 62% in the U.S.). Additionally, a majority of Pentecostals in seven of the 10 countries surveyed say that they personally have experienced or witnessed the devil or evil spirits being driven out of a person (  Perhaps it is time for those of us from increasingly secular and skeptical Western countries to learn from our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. After all, aren’t their cultures often closer to that of the biblical authors than our own? It seems to me that their experience and perspective point to significant weaknesses in the presuppositions that often guide our socio-historical, linguistic, and literary-critical methods.




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