It’s long been argued that miracles died out a generation after the apostles, because miraculous gifts were given exclusively through the laying on of apostolic hands. And there are indeed a number of verses that suggest this to be true. However, on close study, I’ve come to conclude otherwise.
(Acts 8:17-19) Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. 18 When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money 19 and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 19:6) When Paul placed his hands on [the Ephesian disciples], the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
Certainly, there were occasions where the receipt of miraculous gifts is associated with the laying on of apostolic hands, but this hardly makes this the exclusive means of receiving such powers.
(1 Tim. 4:14) Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you.
This passage certainly suggests that Timothy received a special gift via the elders’ laying on of hands. And this is so despite–
(2 Tim. 1:6) For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.
The most likely interpretation is that Timothy received more than one gift. And so, if the elders were able to impart some special gift, clearly the power was not limited to the apostles. But there are, I think, more convincing reasons to reach this conclusion.
Consider the Corinthian congregation. They were divided over personalities, some claiming to follow Paul, some Apollos, some Peter, and some Christ. Paul celebrated the fact that he’d not baptized but a few himself, so that only a few would claim some special connection with him, rather than Christ.
(1 Cor. 1:14-15) I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized into my name.
However, the Corinthians were rich with miraculous powers as described in chapters 12 and 14. Why would he decline to baptize with his own hands and yet lay hands on so very many Corinthians? Surely receiving the power to speak in tongues, heal, or perform other miracles from Paul’s own hands would even more powerfully create a Paul “fan club” than merely being baptized by him!
Moreover, the laying on of hands appears to be more of a charging for mission than the giving of a gift. For example,
(Acts 6:6) They presented these [seven deacons] to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
(Acts 13:3) So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on [Saul and Barnabas] and sent them off.
(1 Tim 5:22) Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.
Hence, the practice of laying hands on a baptized convert would be part of commissioning the convert to the mission of the Kingdom and necessarily for giving miraculous powers. If a baptism were immediately followed by the laying on off hands, this would be first opportunity for the Spirit to manifest spiritual gifts, if he were so inclined.
And we see many converts baptized by apostles and not receiving miraculous powers.
(Acts 2:41-43) Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.
None of this is absolutely persuasive, of course, and so we turn from these examples to doctrine.
(1 Cor. 12:8-11) To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
Up to this point, it was arguable that the apostles (or apostles and other empowered people) decided to whom to give which gifts. But Paul plainly states that the decision is made by the Spirit himself. This would hardly makes sense if Paul had the power to grant or to withhold such gifts!
We also should consider the number of times Paul encourages us to pray for gifts of the Spirit. Why pray if what I really need are an apostle’s hands? For example,
(1 Cor. 14:13) For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.
(Eph. 3:17b-19) And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
[knowing something that surpasses knowledge requires a miracle, does it not?]
(Col. 1:9b-12) … we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: … 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.
[“Power” is frequently associated with miracles in Paul’s vocabulary, e.g., 1 Cor. 2:4; 6:14; Rom. 15:19.]
Finally, the entire notion assumes a clear distinction between miraculous and non-miraculous gifts. We don’t really know whether “wisdom” in 1 Cor. 12 is some splendiferous, awe-inspiring gift, or the same gift of wisdom we find even today among some of our members. Is the gift of faith miraculous faith? Or is it the faith that sends some of today’s members to foreign lands to spread the gospel?
(Eph. 4:11) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers … .
Here’s another list of “gifts,” some of which are plainly of the miraculous sort–such as apostles–and some plainly not–such as pastors (elders).
(Rom. 12:4-8) Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Verses 4-5 sound just like 1 Corinthians 12. We expect these words to be followed with a list of spectacular, miraculous manifestations. But once we get past prophecy, the gifts look downright mundane.
You see, the New Testament writers make no distinction between the spectacular gifts and the mundane. All are from God. All are Spirit given. All are graces. So there’s no basis to suggest that, while the gift of encouraging can be received by any Christian at anytime, however the Spirit wills, the gift of tongues may only come by apostolic hands. If the scriptures make no distinction, then neither should we.
We need to pause here and reflect on what should be obvious. If God gives me the power to teach, he did it by more than coincidence. My gift came as a result of God’s will–his creative force. Therefore, a law of nature was necessarily violated.
If whatever fissures and synapses in my brain that allow me to teach as I do would have been there without God’s intervention, then it wasn’t a gift–it was a fluke, a coincidence. It’s humanistic and Deistic to suggest that this gift came solely from my reading the Bible. Of course, I’ve read the Bible, but there are those who’ve read it as much as or even more than I have who can’t teach worth a flip. Not everyone has the gift.
I have a friend who is a great encourager. I only wish to be able to encourage as he does. But it’s just not in me. On a scale of 1 to 10, if he’s a 10, then I’m a 1. And I try.
Now, it could be a happy accident of birth and environment. Or it could be a gift from God. Or it could be gift that multiplies and empowers a native ability. But if it’s a gift, it’s outside of nature.
Nature has no free will. God does. Gift-giving is an act of will. Therefore, it is not an act of nature.
And if both spectacular and mundane gifts are God-given in violation of the laws of nature, then there’s no reason to suppose that some must be given by apostolic hands and some may be received whenever the Spirit wishes.
Therefore, if the Spirit is no longer as generous with the more spectacular gifts than he once was, it’s just the Spirit’s will. And it’s easy to speculate as to why that might be. But we can’t fairly conjure up a law or rule that binds the Spirit’s decisions.
And one of the dangers of imagining such a rule is that we then imagine our gifts of teaching or wisdom or faith are self-made or even sheer coincidence. We become a little more humanistic, a little less thankful, and a little less committed to using God’s gifts in his service.
Worse yet, we fail to praise God for he does among us. We see man’s work where we were meant to see God’s. And so we become proud and even arrogant. We take credit when we should give credit. And the work of the Kingdom suffers.