Today in the 21st Century there are various ways the gospel is being preached in Third World gospel-resistant countries. One way is “friendship evangelism” in which missionaries and disciples of Jesus Christ first emanate the love of God in a culturally-relevant, “contextualized” fashion toward their unbelieving friends, neighbors and co-workers. The sharing of the gospel will generally come later in the relationship.
Humanitarian works by Western missionary organizations also play a major (but often an indirect role) in the sharing of the gospel. Feeding the poor, caring for orphans, aid during natural catastrophes, and other good works perhaps are the major means of evangelism in gospel-resistant countries in the Third World today.
As pleasing to God and fruitful as these approaches may be, we should ask ourselves how the Lord Jesus himself directed his disciples to preach the gospel. Since we claim to believe in the authority of Scripture, it would behoove us to study how the early disciples preached the gospel in Acts.
When Jesus sent out the seventy-two disciples to preach the gospel to the Jews in Luke 10:9, he commanded them to “heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you.’ ” He commanded them to heal the sick using the power and authority he had given to the twelve disciples earlier in Luke 9:1-2.
Luke 9:1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. …6 So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.
We see that in the gospels the disciples were in fact proclaiming the gospel and healing the sick as Jesus commanded them when he sent them to the Jews. Was this same approach used in Acts after Jesus sent them to “the ends of the earth” to preach the gospel to the idol-worshiping Gentiles as well? In Acts we see the disciples preaching the gospel in a spiritual atmosphere quite similar to what we have in much of the Third World today—where a pantheon of false gods (e.g., Roman and Greek gods) were worshiped.
If we examine Acts closely, we see that the early disciples continued to heal the sick in the same way as confirmation of the truth of the gospel to the lost—using the power and authority entrusted to them by the Lord. We are not saying that the miraculous healings accompanied the preaching of the gospel on every occasion, but that the Acts record clearly shows that they played a major role in the very fruitful harvests reaped by the disciples at that time.
However, despite our insistence that Scripture is inerrant and authoritative, we non-cessationist evangelicals in practice downplay the importance of miracles in the preaching of the gospel in the Third World. Instead we focus on the approach of humanitarian good works. Why is that?
One reason is the impact of cessationism on evangelical leaders. Let us examine why this teaching might be so attractive.
Arguably, cessationism appeals to contemporary evangelical leaders primarily due to the “hijacking” (if you will) of the teaching of miraculous healing by what some call “hyper-charismatics.” In some streams it is taught that God wants to heal everyone—especially sick believers—contrary to what evangelicals believe. Some healing evangelists take advantage of miraculous healings to coax big offerings out of adoring crowds. There are can be practices and manifestations witnessed in charismatic healing services—attended mostly by saved believers—which are not recorded in the New Testament and which evangelicals might have difficulty accepting.
Some moreover believe in a “special anointing” to heal the sick or to minister in some supernatural fashion given only to a few chosen servants of God—an anointing however not taught in evangelical circles. Seeking after this “anointing” has even led some believers to practice “grave-sucking” at the tombstones of departed servants of God who were thought to be specially anointed when they were still alive on earth.
Because of the above—added to the harsh reality that Acts-like miracles are inexplicably not taking place in the Church today—contemporary evangelical leaders might shy away from miraculous healing and thus by default lean toward cessationism—perhaps giving them a doctrinal cloak for their stand which actually has little scriptural support. Instead, the teaching of cessationism relies in part on support from Church history following the close of Acts where the miraculous mysteriously fades from the ministry of the Church. However, Church history over the past 2,000 years is by no means “inerrant” but rather shows clearly how man can err from what the Lord desires for His people.
This is all very sad for the cause of the gospel and the Great Commission. In Acts—primarily due to powerful miracles never before witnessed—the gospel exploded and spread throughout the known world in one or two generations, leading the early disciples to believe that the Lord Jesus was about to return. Our thesis is that following the close of Acts the miraculous healings gradually fading away—no longer accompanying the preaching of the gospel to those who never heard—was not God’s doing but rather attributable to the backslidden Church. As a consequence, even after a very long 2,000 years the Church has failed to fulfill the Great Commission.
During these last days, however, the Lord is graciously restoring to us understanding of miraculous healing which non-cessationist evangelicals can accept—an approach which does not follow usual charismatic teaching which usually emphasizes “the gift of healing.” By this approach we mean miraculous healing not simply for believers, but rather in the far more critical context of proclaiming the gospel to those who never heard, especially in gospel-resistant nations. This miraculous healing does not depend on the operation of the gift of healing from the Holy Spirit available only after Pentecost, but rather on the very different power and authority Jesus delegated to his disciples in the gospels for preaching the gospel to the lost. Evangelical servants of God will be able to preach the gospel to them as Jesus and his disciples did in the gospels, and as the disciples continued to do so extremely fruitfully in Acts—leading to the fulfillment of the Great Commission during these Last Days.