Bible Answer

Apostolic powers today?

Are the Apostles' supernatural powers available for Christians today? How do you decide when to interpret Jesus' words as universal to all believers, or limited to His immediate audience (i.e., the Apostles)?

Regarding the first question, we believe both Scripture and the collective experience of millions of Christians make clear the Apostles were granted unique supernatural abilities not shared by other believers. The office of Apostle was a unique office granted to a limited number of Jewish men, which included unique privileges and powers necessary for their calling. The office was granted solely by the Lord through a personal appearing, including to the Apostle Paul in his experience on the road to Damascus.

The office of Apostle was established for the purpose of founding the church, and it resulted in special powers and authority and privileges. For example, in Matt 19:27-28 Jesus promises the Apostles they will rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. This is a privilege unique to these men.

Furthermore, in the book of Acts we see numerous examples of the Apostles performing miracles not generally available to other believers. These special powers were used by the Spirit to establish a beach head of faith in the city of Jerusalem and beyond.

In Acts 3:1-7, we see a clear example of how the Apostles' supernatural powers worked to promote the growth of the early church.

Acts 3:1 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer.
Acts 3:2 And a man who had been lame from his mother’s womb was being carried along, whom they used to set down every day at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, in order to beg alms of those who were entering the temple.
Acts 3:3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms.
Acts 3:4 But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, “Look at us!”
Acts 3:5 And he began to give them his attention, expecting to receive something from them.
Acts 3:6 But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene — walk!”
Acts 3:7 And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened.

In that passage, Peter heals a paralytic man through a presentation of the Gospel followed immediately by a command to rise and walk. It's clear from the text that Paul determined to work through this man's circumstances to establish the Gospel. After Peter heals him, Acts 3:11-4:4 records the effect of this miracle. Through this miracle, Peter obtains an audience of Jews for a wider presentation of the Gospel, and it results in 5,000 new believers coming to faith.

We can find many more examples like this one in the book of Acts, in keeping with Jesus' words to these men. As another example, you may remember the words Jesus spoke to the Apostles:

Matt. 16:19 “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Jesus' statement has often confused Bible students, who wonder what it means that a believer could "bind" or "loose" things both in heaven and earth. We must remember Jesus spoke these words to the Apostles, and we can see it's unique purpose in their ministry demonstrated in places like Acts 5, when Peter confronts a deceptive believer. In Acts 5:1-5 Peter "binds" a believer to a judgment of physical death for his deceptive practices in the church.

Acts 5:1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property,
Acts 5:2 and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, h laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Acts 5:3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?
Acts 5:4 “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
Acts 5:5 And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it.

The effect (and therefore, the purpose) of this power is shown a few verses later:

Acts 5:11 And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.

The church becomes fearfully reverent of Christ's power over His Church as exercised through the office of the Apostles. Later, Paul leverages this same respect for a similar good purpose in rebuking the Corinthian church in 1Cor:

1Cor. 4:18 Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you.
1Cor. 4:19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I shall find out, not the words of those who are arrogant but their power.
1Cor. 4:20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.
1Cor. 4:21 What do you desire? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love and a spirit of gentleness?
1Cor. 5:1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.
1Cor. 5:2 You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.
1Cor. 5:3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.
1Cor. 5:4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus,
1Cor. 5:5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Paul challenged false teachers in that church by reminding them that the authority of his teaching was backed up by supernatural power (v.20). If these false teachers were going to contradict his teaching, they had better be prepared to demonstrate similar supernatural power to validate their authority (which they couldn't do, of course). Paul then goes on to give a demonstration of his Apostolic power to "bind" on earth and in heaven by judging the behavior of a sinful member of the church and condemning him to physical death at the hands of the Enemy. Paul accomplished this judgment while still living hundreds of miles away!

Moving from Scripture to our personal experience today, we recognize that Christians today simply do not have such powers. Try as we might, we cannot repeat the "binding" and "loosing" that the Apostles exercised. Likewise, Christians today do not routinely raise men from the dead, cause paralytics to walk, cast out demons, etc. Our collective experience confirms Scripture's teaching that Jesus awarded unique powers to the Apostles for specific purposes in founding the early church.

Please note we are not suggesting that such miracles are impossible today; rather, we are saying they are no longer common experiences for the Church, nor can they be summoned at will by believers as the Apostles once did. In keeping with their office and mission to establish the early church, the Apostles demonstrated these powers (including those mentioned in Mark 16:15-18) during their lives, but the powers have clearly faded from the common experience. Therefore, we should not expect nor desire them today. Instead, the Church is called to witness to the world through God's word and through a life lived to God (Rom 12:1-2).

To your second question regarding when to interpret Jesus' words broadly for all believers, our response should be a familiar one: context. We must rely on the context of Scripture to guide our interpretation, and by context we mean the entire Bible, particularly the New Testament. Here are some general guidelines we follow when relying on Biblical context to understanding how to interpret and apply Jesus' teaching:

1. Who did Jesus address with His comments? Did He repeat his comments to multiple audiences?
2. What application did Jesus make, if any?
3. How did Jesus' audience respond to the comments?
4. Do the New Testament authors repeat and extend Jesus' comments to a larger audience?
5. Do we see evidence of Jesus' comments at work in the Church today?

As an example, let's examine the passage from Mark 16 using these questions:

Mark 16:15 And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
Mark 16:16 “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.
Mark 16:17 “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;
Mark 16:18 they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
Mark 16:19 So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.

1. Who did Jesus address with His comments? Did He repeat his comments to multiple audiences?

Jesus was speaking to the eleven immediately before His ascension. These were His last words to the Apostles. Therefore, He never spoke these words to other believers apart from these eleven men.

2. What application did Jesus make, if any?

Jesus says that these men should go into the world and preach the Gospel, and the signs He lists will "accompany" those who believe. The Greek word for "accompany" is parakoloutheo, which means "to follow closely to investigate."

Jesus wasn't saying that the new believers themselves would have such powers, but rather that when new believers are converted to belief, their conversions would be followed closely by miracles in order to satisfy those who might investigate the legitimacy of such conversions. This statement is perfectly consistent with the scene we saw in Acts 3, when Peter's conversion of the paralyzed man was "accompanied" by the man's supernatural healing.

So the application Jesus makes is that the Apostles should expect to see supernatural proof accompany their work as evangelists to validate their ministry among the people.

3. How did Jesus' audience respond to the comments?

Immediately, the Apostles began to follow Jesus' words of instruction. Peter and John began declaring the Gospel and producing the miracles Jesus described, beginning in Acts 2 and continuing throughout first century. Famously, Paul encounters a deadly snake in Acts 28:3-5, but he is not harmed by the bite. These experiences confirm that Jesus' immediate audience accepted Jesus' words as a literal truth for their lives and lived accordingly.

4. Do the New Testament authors repeat and extend Jesus' comments to a larger audience?

In a word, no. None of the New Testament authors ever teach Jesus' words as a universal truth for all believers. The letters from the Apostles give no authority to believers in general to speak in tongues, cast out demons, heal the sick or handle deadly animals without harm, etc.. Consequently, we should not assume to receive such gifts or powers without specific evidence that the Holy Spirit has chosen to gift us such powers.

On the other hand, we do know that men apart from the eleven Apostles in the early church were gifted to heal and cast out demons (i.e., Acts 8), but these men were also operating under the authority of the Apostles and within the time of the early church. Consequently, we should conclude from the context of Scripture that while such powers are possible outside the office of Apostle, they are not commonly available to believers today nor are believers encouraged to seek or expect such powers.

5. Do we see evidence of Jesus' comments at work in the Church today?

We rarely see such powers at work in the Body of Christ today, especially as a consequence of conversions. Remember, Jesus promised that these signs would "accompany" conversions. Though supernatural healing, demonic exorcism and other miracles do occur in the Church today from time to time, they are not the common experience when people come to faith. In the earliest days of the Church, they were commonly associated with conversions, but today they are not.

Since we know that such power must come from the Spirit, we can conclude that the Spirit has not purposed to make them as prevalently today as He once did in the early Church, which is in keeping with their intended purpose to validate the conversion within the early Church.