How was the first century group of believers so effective in preaching the Gospel to the world without modern electronic media and without government or big business backing? How did the 120 original believers (Acts 1;15) gain the attention of much of the known world and convince many thousands (maybe millions) of people to change beliefs held by their families for generations?
Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. And there was great joy in that city (Acts 8:5-8, KJV).
One man was able to reach an entire city in a very short time through the power of the Eternal.This is the same method used by our Savior (Matt 4:23), by the apostles in training (Mark 6;12-13), by the seventy men sent out in Luke 10:1-20 and by the apostles after His death (Acts 2:41-43, 2Cor 12:12). Our Savior said:
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. (John 14:12).
He also said:
Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.... And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover (Mark 16:15,17-18 KJV).
If anyone needs more Bible confirmation that miracles were the main method of gaining attention to preach the Gospel, look up the words "miracle," "sign," "wonder," "healed," etc. in a good concordance. Dozens of scriptures show that this was the primary means by which the Gospel went forth.
While it is obvious from the scriptures that the Eternal does not give every member every gift (1Cor 12:27-31), why does there seem to be a general lack of these miraculous gifts among Sabbath-keepers today? We certainly hear of individual healings and personal miracles, but we know of very few cases of open, obvious, public miracles that gain attention like those in the first century (Acts 4:16). [If these kinds of miracles are occurring, Servants' News is unaware of them and would like to hear from you so we can write about them.]
We Need Powerful Miracles
During his long life, Herbert Armstrong was responsible for spending somewhere around a billion dollars (in today's money) on electronic and print media to preach the gospel. A market survey conducted shortly after his death concluded that only about 1 of 10 Americans recognize the names Herbert Armstrong, Worldwide Church of God or Plain Truth. In Canada the figures were better, but in the United Kingdom it was closer to 1 out of 100. These numbers reflect name recognitiona much smaller percentage of people actually understood what he was preaching.
While much fruit was born from Herbert Armstrong's work, it is hard to imagine that the Eternal will judge nations when 90% to 99% of the people have no idea why they are being judged. The Old Testament is full of stories of prophets and other messengers warning nations of impending destruction unless they repent of their evil ways.
We certainly want to encourage all of those groups that are teaching the world through TV, radio, and the printed word. However, it is also important to realize that most organizations spend several hundred dollars on media to get one new person on a mailing list where the organization can begin to teach the Bible to them. To reach all of the 100 million American households this way would cost over 10 billion dollarsnot even beginning to reach the rest of the world. We must also realize that the combined media budgets of all Sabbath-keeping organizations today are probably less than the Worldwide Church of God media budget in the 1980's. This is further complicated by the large number of people (we have seen varying estimates from 50% to 95%) that never watch or listen to religious programs.
We do not want to discourage anyone from teaching the truth by any method (Phil 1:15-18). Each person will be judged by the work they do (1Cor 3:12-15). It is better to do a little work or even a high-cost, low-return work than do no work at all. Our point here is that traditional media-based evangelism is unlikely to reach the nations in the next 20 years. If the Eternal uses His people to witness to all nations in a big way, it will probably be by His spirit and His miracles, not an ever-increasing media budget.
Why So Few Major Miracles?
Explanations for why the Eternal does not bless us with great miracles include: we need to get every point of doctrine right first, we have to eliminate sin first, we have to get "closer to God" first or because "these miracles would bring great persecution on the church and it could no longer function." Yet we find the Corinthian congregation not lacking in spiritual gifts (1Cor 1:6-7), even though the rest of the book reveals their sins, doctrinal errors, and almost nothing about persecution. Spiritual gifts were so prevalent that Paul had to teach the Corinthians how to make them work together (1Cor 12), but he still encouraged them to ask for more (1Cor 14:1,12). The major difficulty we find in Corinth is the beginnings of sectarianismbrethren claiming they were followers of a certain human teacher rather than members of the Body of our Saviour. Paul taught against this in chapters 1, 3 and 12.
In summary, the Corinthians had spiritual gifts because they had asked and were asking for them. It appears they were beginning to try to use these gifts to distinguish one member as somehow "more spiritual" or "better" than the others, but there is no evidence that the sectarianism had progressed to the point where brethren were refusing to recognize one another because of it.
Today, our situation is much worse. Most congregations do not encourage their members to ask for spiritual gifts at all. Our sectarianism has been disastrous. Today there are hundreds of "Sabbath-keeping" organizations (The Bible Sabbath Association publishes a directory. For details call 405-227-4494). While many of these groups have an essential core of similar beliefs, most discourage their members from attending with other groups. Many will insist that their particular doctrines prove they are the "one true church of God," even though they have made little effort to examine the doctrines of all of the other organizations. (Since Matthew 7:2 shows we will be judged with the judgment that we judge others, it seems mighty risky to declare other groups or individuals "unconverted" when we do not even know what they believe or do. Should we be judged "unconverted" without a hearing?)
Our Savior warned his servants that they should not be fighting among themselves when he returns (Matt 24:45-51). Yet today, that is what we see. If we look at James 4:1-3 in this light, it appears to provide the answer as to why we do not have great miracles in our congregations today:
Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members?
Where do the arguments come from between the Sabbath-keeping groups? From the desire of one organization to be seen as doctrinally superior to another so it can have more members, which means more income, higher salaries, more benefits, nicer offices, etc.
You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war.
We have seen all kinds of "numbers" tricks used by organizations to make their membership or income look bigger than it is. Fortunately, we do not know of any murders committed to expand congregations, but there are many stories of lying, deceit and unjust "disfellowshipping." Many organizations cannot see that their efforts to control and keep "their members" often ends up driving them away.
If we want to serve and help more people or if we want to take a witness to the world, all we have to do is ask. Most of the ministries under "Study Resources" on the back page of Servants' News began as one person deciding to serve. If we desire spiritual gifts, we need to fast, pray and ask for them. An informal study of long-time "Church of God" members in 1994 found only a few percent had ever fasted and prayed for the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12. However, nearly all of them had fasted and prayed for an increased income for their organization. Do we really believe that income is more important than the power of our Father?
You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.
This verse (James 4:3) should be discussed at length. Some brethren are now asking the Eternal for spiritual gifts. But what would happen if they received them in today's "church organization environment"?
What Would Happen if We Had Great Spiritual Gifts Right Now?
Many "church publications" contain articles showing how that particular group is the only, the most Phila delphian, or somehow the best church. These claims are usually justified by showing the group's doctrines to be the most correct, claiming they have some modest divine healings (ignoring healings in other groups), or showing they have the right balance of evangelism, headquarters facilities, field ministers, etc. These organizations are usually quick to point out doctrinal or managerial errors of other organizations. They usually assure "their members" that the most converted and productive brethren will be members of their organization.
What would happen if the Eternal suddenly gave miracle healing power to a leader of one of these organizations? Would that leader get busy using this power to preach the Gospel to others? Would he encourage brethren everywhere to ask for the same power and to preach the Gospel, too? Or would he claim that his gift proves that his organization is the "one true Church of God"? If an organization uses the size of their media budget and other technical measurements to prove they are the "most active branch" of the Church of God, how much more would they use a manifestation of divine power?
Furthermore, if a man in organization "A" were granted miracle working power, what would organization "B", "C", "D", etc. say about organization "A". Would they point out the doctrinal error of organization "A" and claim that the great miracles were meaningless? Would they forbid their members to observe the miracles or be healed? More importantly, what would be the reaction of the general public to all of the in-fighting among Sabbath-keeping organizations? If the Sabbath-keepers do not recognize the Eternal's miracles, how can we expect the rest of the world to hear and repent?
What about you?
What would happen if the gift of miraculous healings were given to someone in your congregation? Do you think he should immediately "take over" the administration of your local congregation? Should all doctrinal questions be taken to him? Would you begin seeking his counsel before making any important decisions?
What would happen if the gift were given to you? Would you immediately begin to set up your own church organization? Would you give your doctrinal opinion on matters that you have neither studied nor prayed about? Would you assume that since you had this gift, that the Eternal would not let you make a doctrinal mistake? Would you allow others to begin "following" you and become your disciples?
Your answers to these questions show how much sectarianism is still in you. It is a human tendency to want to "get behind" the most spiritual, most knowledgeable, most capable or most gifted leader we can find. The Corinthians were beginning to have that problem (1Cor 1 and 3). The false doctrine of hierarchical church government reinforces this thinking: If the Eternal worked only through one top human leader, then it would be our task to find that leader and to serve himall spiritual functions including preaching, teaching, miracles and prophesying would be controlled by the one top man.If we had Bible questions, we could just ask the top manknowing that even if he was wrong, we will not be faulted for following his "Government of God." (For an in-depth study of human government in the Bible, please write for our article, How Does the Eternal Govern Through Humans?) But if we read what the Bible says on spiritual gifts, we find they are given directly by our Savior as He sees fit (Rom 12:4-8, Eph 4:11-16, 1Cor 12).
The gift of administrating is just one of many gifts. Yet, so many organizations are geared to placing someone in charge who will then control nearly all functions within the organizationeven though these leaders are powerless to grant any spiritual gift. Our need is for individuals to pray for spiritual gifts, for the Father to grant them, and for them to be recognized by the other brethren.
Brethren with the gift of wisdom should be consulted in making major decisions and judgements. Brethren with the gift of knowledge should speak on difficult scriptures and subjects that require study and research. Those with the gifts of healings and miracles should work with those with the gift of teaching to preach the Gospel. People with the gift of languages (tongues) can help preach the Gospel internationally. Without covering every spiritual gift, we can see, in general, how the Eternal was working with the Corinthians.
But do we know how to work in this manner?
If the Eternal gave you great miracle-working power today, but someone came to you tomorrow and tried to show you a scripture that you misunderstood, would you still listen to them with the same attitude that you had yesterday? Or would you assume that since the Eternal is working through you, your doctrines must be nearly right?
We would like to think that everyone would see their gift as a great blessing while maintaining their attitudes of humility. But we receive many letters, phone calls, and publications that indicate otherwise. Even among people that have rejected hierarchical government, we too often find a disturbing attitude: "I have the holy spirit, I study, and I have no known errors in my theology. I disagree with your understanding of this doctrine and therefore you are in error and not worth listening to."
A Little Truth can be Dangerous
We believe we have learned Biblical truth from a number of individuals and groupsboth large and small. Yet we find groups from which we learned truth taking an "all or nothing approach" to learning from others. We receive letters and calls like this: "I read your article on such-and-such and I must admit there were things in it that I have never thought of before. But if you are so smart, please tell us how you explain this..." that person will continue to ask a question about a difficult doctrine, prophecy, or scripture. If we do not understand it the way they do, they are often ready to completely reject usthey have proven we have a point of "error" and we therefore cannot be the "true church." Sometimes, they are not even interested in teaching us what they believe to be the truth.
If we have not studied that particular point of doctrine, we may have to say that we have not studied it enough to give an opinion. A few people accept that. Others do not seem to understand how we can be teachers, but not be able to answer their Bible question.
This, again, is influenced by years of top-down authority. A leader of a Sabbath-keeping group is often expected to have the answer to every Bible question lest his followers conclude that the Eternal is not working through him. We at Servants' News wish we could have the answers to all Bible questions, but the Eternal has not given them nor have we studied every important question. It would be utter foolishness on our part to pretend that we do have the answers when we do not. We believe we can teach others on some subjects where we have studied and been given understanding, and we believe we can learn from others that have studied and/or been given understanding. The holy spirit will guide us as we are ready.
We would like to have a Passover article in this issue that teaches the Biblical truth of the matter and answers all of the significant questions asked by other points of view. But what good would it do to publish an article that does not answer everything and claim that it does? The principle of distribution of spiritual gifts shows that the Eternal does not give all of the gifts to one person, but spreads them out.
We hope that people, to whom the Eternal has revealed truth can also recognize that they are still learning, too. If they have special understanding of a doctrine or scripture, they should teach it to others, not use it to set themselves up and divide the brethren. If brethren become divided because one was given a small doctrinal understanding, how much more will they be divided if one is given great miracle-working power?
On to Perfection!
We must get over the idea that we (as individuals or a group) have all of the answers. We must realize that all brethren are growing. Spiritual gifts are "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:12-13, KJV). None of us have arrived yet!
If we are to receive spiritual gifts, we need to (1) ask for them, (2) be ready to acknowledge them in others, and (3) be ready to use our gifts to the glory of our Father, not to the glory of ourselves or our group.
-Norman S. Edwards