By Signs and Wonders: Where Christ Has Not Been Named

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. 15 But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God 16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. 17 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. 18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, 21 but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”

This is the second message I have preached on this paragraph. The first was January 29. Let me sum that message up very briefly and then turn to aspects of this text we did not touch on.

The main point was that Paul’s goal as an apostle, and our goal as pastors, is to exult in the truth that in all our work to bring people to faith in Christ, and obedience to his will, it is ultimately and decisively God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son who are doing the work in and through us. Be sure you see this before we move on. It is utterly crucial for all of you, even as non-pastors, as you will see in just a moment.

Father, Spirit, and Son Working In and Through Us

First, Romans in 15:15b-16a, Paul says, “I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles . . . .” So notice the words “the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus.” Paul did not choose apostleship as a vocation. God chose him and called him and fitted him for it. Paul never got over the amazing grace that God would call a Christian-killer to lead the Gentile mission.

Second, verse 16b: “. . . so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Not only is Paul himself a work of God’s grace, but the fruit of his labor in sanctified—transformed—people is also the work of God. Only this time it is explicitly God the Spirit. An “offering of the Gentiles . . . sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Paul is working for their faith and obedience, but it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately and decisively does the transforming.

Third, verse 18: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience.” So once more Paul attributes the fruit of his ministry—the obedience of the Gentiles—to God, only this time it is God the Son, Jesus Christ. “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through.”

So in verse 15 the grace of God the Father gives Paul his ministry to the Gentiles; in verse 16 God the Holy Spirit does the decisive transforming work in Paul’s converts; in verse 18 God the Son, the living, risen Jesus Christ brings about the obedience that Paul labors for.

So the point was: God works through apostles and, by implication, through all ministers of the word, to do his saving, sanctifying work. Therefore, we who do the work of the ministry should never boast in ourselves, but only in Christ. We should say with Paul, “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.”

In other words, this text aims at three things: deep humility in pastors and missionaries, great confidence that God will use our poor efforts, and more glory to God who is the one who is the ultimate and decisive worker in all our work.

Christians Ministering the Gospel to Each Other

Then, we closed with one surprise point from verse 14: “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct (nouthetein) one another.” So who then is preparing the offering of an obedient people for God? The answer we see now is not two levels of working, but three.

God is at work in and through the apostles and pastor-teachers. The apostles and pastor-teachers are working by that power with humility and boldness. And now we see that all Christians—the holy offering being prepared for God—are themselves supposed to minister to each other the word of God. “You yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct [or admonish] one another.”

Which means for us pastors that our aim is now: to exult in Christ and his work through us to prepare an offering of obedient people by preaching and teaching and praying and applying the gospel of Christ in such a way that you—the people, all Christians—will be filled with goodness and knowledge and able admonish and instruct and exhort and warn and encourage each other. When we come to shepherd group Sunday on September 17, remember: This is your calling. All of you. Some of you to lead small groups, and all of you to join in this mutual ministry of goodness and knowledge. That was the message on January 29.

Now the rest of this paragraph (verses 18b-21) tells us the method that Christ used through Paul “to bring the Gentiles to obedience.” And when I say “method,” I mean both the instruments and the strategy. The instruments that Christ used are described in verses 18b-19a, and the strategy in verses 19b-21. And the reason Paul is going into this kind of biographical detail, as we will see in verses 22ff, is that he wants the church in Rome to understand why he has not come to them sooner and what he would like from them when he comes. We will focus on the instruments this week and, Lord willing, the strategy next time.

Christ’s Instruments in Paul’s Mission: Word and Deed

Let’s look at the instruments that Christ uses in Paul’s mission. Verses 18-19a, “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God.” Each of these three statements of the instruments Christ used to bring about the obedience of the Gentiles gets more specific.

First, the most general statement: Christ wins obedience through Paul (verse 18, at the end) “by word and deed.” In other words,Paul spoke and Paul acted. Christ spoke and Christ acted through Paul. Second, Paul tells us the specific kind of deeds he had in mind. Verse 19a: “by the power of signs and wonders.” The deeds were miracles that Paul performed. Third, Paul tells us whose power was behind these signs and wonders. Verse 19b: “by the power of the Spirit of God.”

The Centrality of the Gospel

Let’s clarify what these words and deeds are and how they relate to each other, and then ask about the relevance for today. The Spirit of God saves people and transforms them into obedient followers by word and deed. The word is emphasized in this paragraph. Verse 19 at the end: “I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ”—word. Verse 20: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel”—word. Verse 21a: “Those who have never been told of him”—word. Verse 21b: “Those who have never heard will understand”—word. So the word—the gospel—gets a strong emphasis. That’s because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

The deeds have a supporting role. They are not the direct means of saving people the way the word is. Deeds cannot tell the story of the death and resurrection of Christ with its saving meaning. Only words can. So the deeds have value as they confirm the word. That’s the way Luke explained the relationship between word and deed in Acts 14:3. Paul and Barnabas were in Iconium, and Luke says, “So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly [word!] for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands [deeds!].” God bore witness to the word of his grace. That was the function of the deeds. They witness to the truth and value of the word.

To describe the deeds he has in mind, Paul calls them “signs and wonders”—in other words, miracles (wonders) that signify (signs) something. When Paul and Barnabas reported to the Council in Jerusalem, it says, “All the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.”

We see a couple examples in Acts 16. There was a young woman in Philippi who was demonized and making a disturbance so that Paul’s ministry was almost impossible. So Paul says in verse 18, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. The man that was using the girl in her demonized state was angry and manipulated Paul’s arrest. So Paul and Barnabas were beaten with rods and put in jail. Then verse 26 tells us that at midnight an earthquake loosed their stocks and opened the prison doors.

The result was the salvation of the jailer. But how did he get saved? Here’s the way Luke described it. He was saved by hearing and believing the word. Acts 16:30-32, “‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ And they said [word!], ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word [!] of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” And so it went through Paul’s ministry: Gospel word accompanied confirming deed (cf. Acts 19:11; 20:9).

Gospel-confirming Miracles Today?

Now what about today? Should we be expecting the same miraculous confirmations of our witnessing today? My answer is yes, but not in the same measure that the apostles experienced this miraculous power. The reason I say yes is that I don’t see any compelling reason given in the New Testament that God has declared a moratorium on miracles. But I do see lists of miraculous gifts for the church (not just apostles) in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. So I think God intends to bless his word and his people with miracles in our day—extraordinary works of divine power that go beyond the laws of nature.

But the reason I say, probably not in the same measure that the apostles experienced this miraculous power, is that there is good evidence that miracles were especially prominent in the early days to vindicate the deity of Christ and the authority of the apostles as they laid the foundation of the church. For example, Jesus said in John 5:36, “The works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.” So it seems that the miracles of Jesus had a special function role to play in confirming that the Son of God was here.

Then there is evidence that Paul saw his miracles as a special validation of his apostleship. For example, in 2 Corinthians 12:12 he says, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” So it seems that Paul saw the signs and wonders God worked through him as a special mark of his apostleship. Not that God only uses apostles to do miracles, but there was something extraordinary in how God blessed his founding apostles.

So when the Lord Jesus returns to heaven and the apostles have laid the foundation of the church in the New Testament and are taken off the scene, I think what we have is not a de-supernatualized religion. Not at all! The Holy Spirit has been poured out, and he is still fully capable of doing signs and wonders. Rather, we have a centralized focus on the word of God, the gospel, because all the central acts of salvation are now in history and it is the word that connects us with these saving acts of God in the past.

Keeping the Gospel Central and Praying for Miracles

I think what needs to be said today is that some Christians expect more miracles than they should. They may think, for example, that God never wills for his children to be sick, but that believers should always be miraculously healed. That goes against what we see, for example, in Romans 8:23 where Christians groan with unredeemed bodies.

But on the other hand—and I think this relates to us at Bethlehem—some Christians expect too few miracles. We slip into a naturalistic way of thinking that makes the devil and the Holy Spirit almost irrelevant. When we pray, we are almost afraid to ask God to heal people—directly, miraculously. As long as we are submitted to the freedom and sovereign goodness of God to do as he pleases, I think we should regularly pray for the miraculous intervention of God. And we should expect that some will have a gift that makes them more fruitful in this than others.

As long as we keep the word of God in its properly central place, I think it would please the Lord for us to pray the way the early church did in Acts 4:29-30. Here’s what they said, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness [cf. Acts 1:8], while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” We don’t dictate when or what kind or how many miracles God may do among us. But not to ask for them seems to me to be more secularistic and naturalistic than biblical.

The Need for Miracles Today

The more you are involved in the lives of unbelievers with a deep desire that they be saved, the more you will long for supernatural breakthroughs, both spiritual and physical. Just yesterday I got an email from one of our missionaries. I’ll be very careful not to release her identity or location. Here is a very shortened version of the plea:

I need you to pray for me—I have a situation here where the occult is involved . . . . My friend has confided in me about some things . . . . I believe her story and believe that she may be in danger (as well as I) and am certain that her husband is in danger. I have been asking the Lord to save this woman and her husband for several months now. . . . I love these people so much my heart (literally) aches when I think of them separated from God forever.

It takes a miracle to save anyone. God must supernaturally change our nature. If you are saved, that’s how you got saved. It’s called the new birth (John 3:3). The devil hates it, and he hates newborn Christians. Therefore, he uses all kinds of weapons against the lost to keep them blind to the word, and against Christians to keep us weak and fruitless. Some of his weapons are natural like lust, greed, power, hate, addiction, disease. These weapons work against our souls and our bodies.

Some of the devil’s weapons are supernatural. These things are far more obvious on mission fields where people are not so secularized, but they are present here and will be more so as this post-secular West returns to outright paganism. We get a list of them in Deuteronomy 18:10-12, where Moses says, “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a wizard or a necromancer, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.” But they are real. Don’t play with them. They are not a plaything.

Stay Close to Jesus and Near His Cross

There will be moments in your life when you will need a sign and a wonder. I urge to stay close to Jesus and near to his cross, otherwise you may be taken totally off guard by the enemy. Here is some of what I wrote to this missionary. I close with it and pray it for you as well:

Your situation fills me with a sense of urgency that our people understand some of the battle many of them do not feel, but which you are tasting firsthand. My prayer for you is that God would give you a deep peace in his absolute sovereignty over all principalities and powers and world rulers of this present darkness and spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Put on the whole armor of God, and you will STAND against all the fiery darts of the evil one. “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11).

. . . The greatest thing in the universe is that when Christ died he disarmed Satan and all his hosts (Colossians 2:13-16). I take that to mean that he stripped him of his one mortal weapon—unforgiven sin—because he nailed all the charges against us to the cross. That means Satan can rough us up but cannot damn us. I do not take lightly the threats, but they are not ultimate. They are limited. You can always say, Jesus is superior in strength and he died so that no accusation can hold against his people.

The great accuser, liar, murder has been exposed. He has been defanged. He can hurt us by gumming us, but his poison is gone. We cannot die. We cannot lose the battle that God fights for us with the death and resurrection of his Son. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Jesus. Lay hold on him. Speak his sovereign name. Trust his power and mercy and blood and righteousness implicitly.

We are holding the ropes and love you.

Let’s hold the ropes for each other and go down over the cliffs where people don’t know Christ—that’s next week.