Remember my preference

About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI


The Silences of God

Chapter 3

Silence Again: For Nineteen Centuries

     IT MAY BE wondered why, if the fig tree was now condemned to be cut down, it was not cut down immediately. For reasons which are partly discernible in Scripture, God saw fit to delay the Judgment for a period of forty years, the period from the final rejection of the renewed offer until the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Titus in A.D. 70. During this interval the performance of signs and wonders steadily declined. Miracles of healing, supernatural deliverances, dramatic and instant judgments, and the gift of tongues gradually ceased to be the commonplace events associated with the ministry of the disciples and apostles, until by the end of Acts they are either no longer recorded or they had, in fact, ceased altogether.
     But just as there was a tapering off of these signs and wonders when God's covenant relationship with Israel was suspended, so as the time draws near for that covenant relationship to be revitalized again with the return of the Messiah, once more we begin to detect, with increasing frequency, the re-appearance of signs and wonders. This phenomenon is indeed, I believe, one of the most promising and encouraging evidences that the coming of the Lord is near again.
     Let us examine this situation a little more carefully.

     When the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven and was received out of their sight, the disciples returned to Jerusalem rejoicing (Luke 24:52). A strange reaction this was, surely, to the departing of One so dear to them and so important to them. But just before He left them, He had made a wonderful promise, the promise that they could perform signs and wonders even greater than those He had performed Himself -- the fulfillment of a prophetic statement made to them earlier (Mark 16:17,18). These signs and wonders were to include healing

     pg 1 of 17      

the sick, casting out devils, and speaking with tongues. It was as though a reprieve for Israel had been granted and one last gracious effort was to be made by a tremendous public display of divine power to persuade the Jews that the Lord was indeed their Messiah.
     The opening of the ministry of Peter and the other apostles must have been so astounding in its immediate impact as virtually to defy adequate record. In Acts 5:12-16 it is written:

     And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people . . . (and believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women) inasmuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.
     There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks, and them who were vexed with unclean spirits; and they were healed every one.

      It should be remembered that these were Jews. There were no Gentile believers yet. The ministry of the apostles was still a testimony to Israel; Peter in his first sermon (Acts 2:14) specifically addressed himself to them and appealed to their Old Testament Scriptures for an explanation of the extraordinary events taking place -- including the speaking in tongues as a testimony of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon men and women alike. (31) Evidently the people who heard Peter were deeply moved by his words. When Peter said, "Let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God hath made this same Jesus whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Messiah" (Acts 2:36), the Jews had at once asked, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" From that day on, signs and wonders were continually performed by the apostles with a view to turning their hesitant inquiry into firm conviction.

31.  Although there is no unequivocal evidence of speaking in tongues in the Old Testament, it is sometimes argued that such an event occurred in connection with Saul (I Samuel 10:6-9). This passage has all the earmarks of a genuine conversion experience, accompanied by anointing by the Holy Spirit. The end result was that Saul became a new man, and the overt evidence of this was in his giving vocal expression, which is termed "prophesying." It is reasonable to suppose that such prophecy would be an insufficient sign of anointing unless it involved something more than merely foretelling the future. In Acts 2:17, Peter quotes Joel 2:28f. and seems clearly to be equating the word prophesy in this passage with the experience of speaking in tongues which was then causing so much amazement (Acts 2:11, 12). If Saul began to speak in an unknown tongue, and if this was interpreted by the onlookers as a sign that Saul was now one of the prophets, this suggests that the prophets were known among other things as people who had upon occasion the gift of tongues.

     pg.2 of 17     

    But something else was also happening which must have made the perceptive in Israel doubly aware of the validity of the claims these men made for their Messiah. This is the fact that men were not merely being blessed in remarkable ways, but also punished very suddenly. The falling of sudden judgment upon wicked men had been part of the Old Testament record. The most remarkable example was probably the fate of Korah and those who under his persuasion rebelled against the authority of Moses. The account of this event is given in simple but dramatic words in Numbers 16. When Moses knew the full circumstances of the matter, he challenged them as follows (verses 28-33):

     And Moses said, Hereby ye shall know that the Lord hath sent me to do all these works; for I have not done them of mine own mind.
     If these men die the common death of all men, or if they be visited after the visitation of all men; then the Lord hath not sent me. But if the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth and swallow them up with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit; then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord.
     And it came to pass, as he had made an end of speaking all these words, that the ground crave asunder that was under them: and the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, with their dwellings and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods.
     They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation.

     Thus was the authority of Moses as the Lord's spokesman demonstrated. Another example may be observed in the case of Er and Onan (Genesis 38:6-10). A similar thing happened with Peter in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, whose deaths were just as dramatic and sudden. The effect of it was that "great fear came upon all the church and upon as many as heard these things" (Acts 5:11). Later on, the apostle James, writing to the Hebrew Christians who had scattered after the first persecution began, seems to have been reflecting the same experience when he warned his readers not to grudge one against another lest they, too, be subject to the same kind of immediate and public divine condemnation: "Behold, the Judge standeth before the door" (James 5:9).
     We encounter another example of instant judgment in Acts 12:20-25. Upon this occasion Herod, dressed in royal apparel and sitting on a throne, made a speech to a large number of people who had caused him some displeasure. In their anxiety to mitigate his wrath, we are told that the people gave a shout saying, "It is the voice of a god and not of a man." And "immediately the angel of the Lord smote him because he gave not God

     pg.3 of 17     

the glory: and he was eaten of worms and gave up the ghost." The acclaim must have gone to his head, and although he may not have died on the spot, he was instantly struck down with some terrible disease that terminated his ugly reign.
     The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, addressing himself as James had done to the Jewish people who had been scattered, warned them that they had been witness to very many proofs that the Lord Jesus was indeed the Messiah, having seen the signs and wonders performed not only by the Lord Himself, but by the apostles afterward. Thus he wrote (Hebrews 2:3,4):

     How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation which at first began to be spoken by the Lord and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him, God also bearing them witness with both signs and wonders and with diverse miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will?

     After the great sermon in Acts 2 and some notable miracles in Acts 3, Peter was called to give an account before the Sanhedrin and asked by what power or by whose authority he was doing these things. It was a turning point in the life of Israel as a nation: the authorities, rather than repenting of their former decision to crucify their own Messiah, now set themselves more determinedly than ever to justify their actions and to silence all opposition.
     Some days later, Stephen made his final "presentation" on behalf of their Messiah before high priest and the council . . . and they murdered him.
    From that time forward, signs and wonders began to decline. Speaking in tongues appears to have become less and less frequent, as did miracles of healing and also dramatic and instantaneous judgments. We can trace this decline throughout the Book of Acts until, in Acts 28:25 and following, there seems to have come a terminal point in this respect. Paul said (verse 28), "Be it known therefore unto you that the salvation of God is sent unto the Gentiles and that they will hear it." With this, the Book of Acts comes to a close, and we find no further instances of healing recorded in any of the Epistles to follow. The active covenant relationship of God with his people Israel had come to an end for the present. As a consequence, signs and wonders which were the customary demonstration of the reality of that covenant were no longer granted to them. The kingdom has been taken from them and given to the Gentiles, who will bring forth the fruits thereof until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Romans 11:25).

But it is only for a season; for as Hosea prophesied (3:4,5):

     pg.4 of 17     

     The children of Israel shall abide many days without a King and without a Prince, and without a Sacrifice. . .
Afterwards shall the children of Israel return and seek the Lord their God and David their King, and shall fear the Lord and His goodness in the latter days.

     Let us trace now, briefly, the course of events after Israel had "sent" Stephen to heaven as their official notice of rejection, so fulfilling Luke 19:14.
     In these early wonderful days, very special protection of the apostles had been granted by the Lord. When their exasperated enemies had seized them and had thrust them into the common prison, the Angel of the Lord had come by night and opened the prison doors and brought them forth so simply and so wonderfully that the whole event is recorded in only two verses (Acts 5:19, 20). The next morning they were back preaching in the temple as though nothing had happened, while the officers themselves were not even aware that their prisoners had escaped. At a later date, when Peter was imprisoned by Herod and under sentence of death the very next day, the same thing happened again. Acts 12:6-10 has the story in its remarkable detail:

     Peter was sleeping between two soldiers bound with two chains, and the keepers before the door kept the prison, and behold the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison; and he smote Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.
     And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee and follow me. And he went out and followed him; and wist not it was true that was done by the angel, but thought he was dreaming.
     When they were past the first and second guard they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city which opened to them of its own accord: and they went out and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him.

     Paul also experienced a similar wonderful deliverance (Acts 16:25ff.), though he did not actually leave the prison until he had established the dignity of his own person as a Roman citizen.
     Now the important thing to observe here is that such deliverances occurred only in the earlier years of the ministry of the apostles (including Paul), and they did not occur later either in Peter's case or in Paul's. Peter was martyred without deliverance and undoubtedly after some indefinite period of imprisonment. Paul shared the same fate -- though in his case we know something of the details of his imprisonment in short, we know that  

     pg.5 of 17     

he was imprisoned and not miraculously set free. Why the change? Why did God at first move heaven and earth to set his witnesses free, but in the end leave them to their fate? No doubt their martyrdom was to his great glory and perhaps, at the beginning, imprisonment would have totally hindered their ministry. But in Paul's case at least, imprisonment did not have this effect. Indeed, we owe some of the great epistles to this circumstance. Yet I think there is another reason.
     I believe that the answer is probably that this kind of dramatic deliverance was still one of the signs and wonders which the Jewish people needed in order to convince them individually, if not as a nation, that Jesus Christ really was what He claimed to be. Once it became apparent that nationally the Jews would not accept this testimony, then God began to turn to the Gentiles. But Jewish believers would probably have refused to accept the Gentiles into the commonwealth of Israel unless signs and wonders had continued as a validation first of Peter's ministry and then of Paul's ministry, demonstrating to them that this "new thing" was acceptable in the sight of God. It is clear that one of the surest and simplest signs in this connection was the gift of tongues. When Peter went to the home of Cornelius and preached the gospel to a Gentile family for the first time, "the Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God" (Acts 10:44-46).
     Thus it was that God accommodated signs and wonders to the need of the early Hebrew Christians in such a way that they would find it possible to accept Gentile believers as having really been brought into a similar covenant relationship with God. In view of all their background it seems likely that this was the simplest and most appropriate way in which to carry forward their understanding of the things which were beginning to happen, the transfer of the kingdom from Jew to Gentile. Moreover, since Paul was soon to become the great missionary to the Gentiles, it was necessary that some signs and wonders should become known as having accompanied his ministry also. There is little doubt that Paul himself had spoken with tongues as a validation of his calling (I Corinthians 14:18), and there were some striking cases of sudden judgment (Acts 13:6f.), raising of the dead (Acts 20:9-12), casting out demons (Acts 16:16-18), deliverance in prison (Acts 16:25f.), from the bite of a viper (Acts 28:3-6), and many miracles of healing (Acts 19:11, 12; 28:8, 9). Only by such shared experiences was it possible for the middle wall of partition which had hitherto rigidly divided Gentile from Jew  

     pg.6 of 17     

to be broken down (Ephesians 2:14). Paul could therefore validate his own ministry to the Gentiles in front of those Hebrew Christians who must at first have had serious doubts. He refers to this when writing to the Romans (15:18, 19):

     For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ hath not wrought by me to make the Gentiles obedient by word and deed, through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem, and round about Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of the Messiah.

     Wherever he went, until we come to the crucial point in Acts 28, Paul still preached first to the Jewish people (Acts 13:46; 17:2, 3; 18:4). And as evidence of his propriety in then turning to the Gentiles, he could point out that the same gifts which had been granted to the Jewish Christians were now being granted by the same Holy Spirit to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 12:1-11). Not only were the Jewish believers called upon to accept the Gentiles as having enjoyed a like experience, but the Gentiles themselves needed assurance that their experience was of the same nature as that of the Jewish believers. Assurance was needed on both sides. Signs and wonders served this purpose for both. Thus Paul wrote to the Gentiles (2 Corinthians 12:12) "Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds." The Gentiles themselves were thereby convinced that a like Christian experience was now granted to them. Once this conviction was well established, such signs and wonders were no longer essential: they were not necessarily absent entirely, but they were not essential for conviction.
     As time went on, conversions among the Gentiles seemed to depend less and less upon miracle. In fact, in one place where Paul preached and performed a notable miracle, the effects of the miracle were entirely undesirable. Having healed a man at Lystra in response to faith (Acts 14:9), the local residents were at first so amazed and impressed that they tried to make Paul and his co-worker Barnabas into gods (verse 12). When Paul and Barnabas insisted that they were not gods but men like themselves, the crowd instantly became hostile, and with a little persuasion from certain Jews of Antioch and Iconium, Paul was stoned and left for dead. It seems clear from this time on that miracles no longer played the part of validation which they had when God's covenant relationship with Israel was active.
     This fact is borne out in another striking way. We have spoken of the manner in which, as part  

     pg.7 of 17     

of these signs and wonders, judgment had been apt to fall very suddenly upon those who, for one reason or another, were tending to undermine the testimony of the apostles to the reality of the Lord's claim for Himself. In the earlier epistles to the Gentiles, and even in the later epistles, to the Jewish brethren scattered abroad, there are a number of intimations that when those who had become members of the household of faith, and had openly declared themselves as such, fell into evil ways which brought reproach upon the name of the Lord, judgment was likely to fall upon them swiftly, especially when the apostles themselves called upon the Lord so to act. It happened, of course, with Ananias and Sapphira. This is a clear example. But there are a number of intimations: and it is worth just examining these briefly, because toward the end of his life it appears that Paul could no longer depend upon the Lord to act in judgment in the same immediate way whenever he (Paul) called upon Him to do so.
     Consider the implications of 1 Corinthians 11:29, 30. Here we have a picture of the young church, some of whose members were evidently making the Communion service an occasion for irreverence, provoking Paul to write:

     He that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh condemnation unto himself . . . for which cause a number are weak and sickly among you and many sleep.

     There is no doubt as to the meaning of the word sleep. The Lord had taken these people home. In a similar manner, James wrote to the Hebrew Christians to advise them to take upon themselves the duty of correcting the behaviour of those among them who, knowing the Lord, nevertheless were bringing reproach on His name. Thus he wrote (James 5:19, 20):

    Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turneth the sinner back from the error of his ways shall save a soul from death.

     Not all were thus persuaded and rescued from judgment, for in 2 Peter 2-1 we read that false teachers "who privily brought in heresies which were to be condemned" by denying the Lord that bought them, had brought upon themselves "swift destruction."
     In writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul said (Romans 8:13): "For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live."

     pg.8 of 17    

     I'm sure that the promise did not have reference to eternal life, but for this we certainly do not obtain by our own efforts in mortifying the deeds of the flesh. Paul was surely speaking of escaping the punishment of sudden destruction. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews was speaking in the same vein when he wrote (12:9):

     Furthermore, we have had fathers of our flesh who corrected us and we gave them reverence. Shall we not rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits and live?

      Christian behaviour may not always have been so extreme that the Lord found it necessary to act in swift judgment, for as John says (in 1 John 5:17) while "all unrighteousness is sin, there is a sin not unto death." Nevertheless the effect of only slight misbehaviour, while the church was still as it were an infant in stature, was sometimes such as to lead weaker brethren into more grievous sin, with the correspondingly greater penalty -- that they were removed. Thus Paul wrote in Romans 14:14, 15:

     I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself, but to him that esteemeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died.

     In pagan worship it was customary to take offerings of meat or live animals to be slaughtered in reverence to the idol. The priests lived off the sale of this meat to the public, after it had been presented. In these special "market places" (referred to as "the shambles") the best meat could either be purchased or actually eaten on the spot at reduced cost. Poorer Christians apparently took advantage of this supply of cheap food in order to save money, but they thereby tended to give the impression that they were condoning the offering of sacrifices to idols. This was becoming a cause of stumbling to younger Christians. Whereupon Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 8:10, 11):

     For if any man see thee who has knowledge sit at meat in an idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him that is weak be emboldened to eat these things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge [i.e., you knowing what you are doing] shall the weak brother perish for whom Christ died?

     Much more serious seems to have been the tendency for the Christian community in Corinth, that most wanton and morally degraded of all cities, to accept the low standards of behaviour of the community and, even worse, to allow themselves still greater liberties -- perhaps on the grounds that they were not under the law. Paul wrote to them,

     pg.9 of 17     

     It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and a kind of fornication which is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife. And you are puffed up and have not rather mourned that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. . . .
     In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

     We have no way of knowing precisely how soon sudden acts of judgment began to become less frequent. Looking at the date of the epistles which contain such references as these, one has the feeling that later epistles refer to such judgments rather as possibilities than certainties: they seem to remain as certainties rather longer in the epistles to the Hebrew Christians, and perhaps this is not so surprising. Among Gentiles on the whole, threats of sudden destruction seem seldom to have had the force of persuasion that signs and wonders had with the Jewish people. As Paul said, in effect, the Jews seek a sign: the Greek-speaking Gentiles are more concerned with rationalization (1 Corinthians 1:22).

     At any rate, it seems to me that we do have some evidence that even this sign of "sudden judgment" was beginning to pass out of the church's experience in the later epistles of Paul. As is apparent from the above references, Paul was quite assured in his own mind that if he but handed over some particularly disobedient individual to Satan for the destruction of the body as a warning, God would honour his action. But we find in
1 Timothy 1:19, 20 that he was concerned with some who were by their behaviour and persuasive powers leading weaker Christians to make "shipwreck" of their faith, "of whom were Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered unto Satan," as he says. But one year later, Alexander at least was still at large, unhindered in his destructive activities (2 Timothy 4:14, 15).
     This would be about A.D. 66. Thirty years later, even the small remaining groups of Hebrew Christians were no longer experiencing such sudden judgments, if we are to be guided by the implications of 3 John 9-11, where the behaviour of some members of local churches was atrocious, and yet unchecked by any divine intervention. Even Paul's ministry of healing seems to have failed toward the end: as in the case of Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:27) and of Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:20).
     It would seem, therefore, that little by little all the signs and wonders which marked the ministry of the Lord and the early witness of the apostles -- miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, extraordinary deliverances, and  

     pg.10 of 17     

sudden judgments -- were becoming rare indeed. They had persisted until the Jewish authorities had finally made their choice and rejected their Messiah, and they continued with less and less frequency once the transition had been made from an exclusively Jewish church to a predominantly Gentile one. We do not know positively that miracles became less common, nor speaking in tongues: we can only judge by the fact that they receive almost no mention in the later epistles. A great "silence" gradually descended upon the world in so far as any public manifestation of divine power and interference in human affairs was concerned. Indeed, the silence seems all too frequently to pertain now even in the matter of the experience of the individual, and the fact proves to be a stumbling block in the minds of many thoughtful people.
     Sir Robert Anderson has written eloquently on this circumstance. He observed:

     If in the days of His humiliation, a poor crippled child had been brought into His presence, He would have healed it. And I am assured that His power is greater now than it was when He sojourned on earth and that He is still as near to us as He then was.
      But when I bring this to a practical test, it fails . . . this poor afflicted child must remain a cripple. I dare not say He cannot heal my child but it is clear He will not.

     In the days of his presence on earth in Palestine, geographical and physical barriers prevented many from coming to Him for healing. On one occasion only by breaking up the roof could He be reached (Mark 2:1-5). So there were limitations to his ministry. But now the situation is entirely different. He said, "Lo, I am with you even unto the end of the world" (Matthew 28:20). He is everywhere now. And one would therefore suppose that miracles ought to be occurring everywhere in the world with even greater frequency than ever. But we meet with silence for the most part.
     Men may intellectually reject the concept of God as being contrary to reason, but emotionally men are more likely to reject the concept of God because, did He exist, He could not but act on man's behalf in the face of many of the tragedies of life. To quote Anderson once again, writing in the last century:

     If it were merely on behalf of this or that individual that God failed to interfere, or on one occasion or another, belief in His infinite wisdom and goodness ought to check our murmurings and soothe our fears. And, further,  

32.  Anderson, Sir Robert, The Silence of God, Pickering and Inglis, London, 11th edition, no date, p.24
33.  Ibid., p.9.

     pg.11 of 17     

if as in the days of the Patriarchs even a whole generation passed away without His once declaring Himself, faith might glance back and hope look forward amidst heart searchings for the cause of His silence. But what confronts us is the fact, explain it how we may, that for eighteen centuries, the world has never witnessed a public manifestation of His presence or His power.

     We may not entirely agree with Anderson that the world has witnessed no public manifestation of His power. There have been events affecting the lives of thousands of people which seemed to those who witnessed them to have the stamp of divine Providence upon them: the unusual dead calm of the English Channel, for example, during the last war when it came time to recover the Allied Forces from Europe after the first great setback. But the millions of Jews and great numbers of their sympathizers who were put to death without mercy during the same war shrink these few possible examples of Providence into comparative significance. In the presence of the stern and dismal facts of history, the expectancy of miracle in the days of the early church had faded away, for God seems to have become passive and often unavailable to such an extent that to many He is for all practical purposes non-existent. Because of the absence of divine activity in a manifest way which all men can see, God appears indeed to be dead. Even the most earnest believer must wonder sometimes why God is so silent.
     One cannot help but mark the contrast even in Acts between the early and the later chapters. Measured by years, the total period embraced is comparatively brief: but in terms of divine intervention, the end of Acts seems to belong to a different age from the beginning.
     It is so easy to suppose that because the child of God is so highly favoured, so very specially the object of the Father's concern, if he will only walk in the Lord's way he will always prosper and be preserved from harm and delivered in distress. The Lord often does deliver, and as Sir Robert Anderson said, He always can. But certainly He does not always do so. As Gresham Machen said, after quoting Paul's triumphant cry, "If God be for us, who can be against us?":

     These words constitute a veritable battle cry of faith; they might have served as the motto for countless heroic deeds. Trusting in the God of Israel, men fought mighty battles and won glorious victories; the Lord of hosts is a powerful ally.
     Jonathan thought so, when he and his armour-bearer made that foolhardy attempt upon a garrison of the Philistines. "There is no restraint to the Lord," he said, "to save by many or by few." David thought so, with his

34. Machen, J. Gresham, What Is Faith?, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1946, pp.66f. 

     pg.12 of 17   

five smooth stones from the brook and his great boasting adversary. "Thou comest to me," he said, "with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel." Elisha thought so, when he and his servant were shut up in Dothan. The Syrians had sought to take his life; he had revealed their plans to the king of Israel; and at last they had caught him fair. When the servant of the prophet arose in the morning, the city was all surrounded by the Syrian hosts. "Alas, my master," he said, "how shall we do?" But the prophet was not dismayed. "Open his eyes," he said, "that he may see." And the Lord opened his eyes, and behold the hills were covered not only by the Syrian armies, but also by the fiery horses and chariots of God's protecting care. The apostles thought that God was a powerful ally, when they testified in the council of the Jews: "We must obey God rather than men." Luther thought so on that memorable day when he stood before kings and princes, and said -- in substance if not in word -- "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen."
     In these great moments of history the hand of God was revealed. But alas, the thing is not always so plain. Many prophets as true as Elisha have been surrounded by the armies of the aliens, and no fiery horses and chariots ever put in an appearance; five smooth stones from the brook, even when slung bravely in the name of the Lord of hosts, are not always able to cope with modern artillery; many men of God as bold as Peter, as sturdy as Luther have testified faithfully to the truth, and, being unprotected by the favour of the people or by wise Gamaliels or by friendly Electors of Saxony, have gone to the stake for their pains. Nor does it always seem to be true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. Persecution sometimes seems to be crowned with a tragic success. As when pure religion by the use of physical weapons was largely stamped out of Italy and Spain and France, so often the blood of the martyrs seems to be shed in vain. What is true, moreover, in the large arena of history is also true in our workaday lives. Sometimes, in times of great spiritual crisis, the hand of God is revealed; there has been a signal answer to prayer; deliverance has come in wondrous ways when expected least. But at other times prayer just as earnest seems to go unanswered, and faith seems set at naught.

     It is proper for the child of God to accept this fact, to follow Job's example, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him!" (Job 13:15). This is surely triumph indeed. The Lord told his disciples that two sparrows were sold for far less than a single cent! Yet "not one of them falls to the ground without your Father" (Matthew 10:29). Not one of these tiny creatures whose value seems so small falls in its flight without what? Without our heavenly Father knowing it, or without our heavenly Father permitting it? Both surely. He must know.  He could prevent. This much is absolutely certain. But evidently there are times when He doesn't prevent. Can we trust Him for ourselves - -even when we fall to the ground? Throughout the intervening centuries since these words were  

     pg.13 of 17     

spoken, countless numbers of the Lord's children have learned that God may allow us to fall to the ground while still asking us to trust Him. It is a hard, hard lesson.
     This silence has persisted for almost two thousand years, and its otherwise unaccountableness has often been one of the most distressing problems for Christian philosophers. "When they call, I will answer" has been in some way and to a very large extent replaced by "The heavens shall be as brass". Privately, the life of the believer may be as filled with divine interferences as any chapter of the Old Testament or the Gospels, but publicly, even in Christian nations or those nations which at times in their history have some right to call themselves such, the display of God's power in the performance of miracles, of healings, of deliverance, of sudden judgment, of speaking in tongues has been absent. I do not mean that men have not been wonderfully saved and that individual Christians have not had marvelous experiences of the Lord's providential care throughout these silent centuries. What I do mean is that millions have been persecuted and slaughtered and languished in prison: and millions of innocent people -- men, women, and children -- have suffered untold agonies: yet, while the wicked have gone unpunished, God has seemingly been deaf to their cry. It is one of the great problems of the church age, that God should remain apparently unmoved by human suffering.

     Perhaps a little light, then, is shed on this tremendous problem in view of what has been said thus far about the special covenant relationship which God established with Israel. As we have already seen, it was prophesied that Israel should be for many days with neither priest nor king, cut off from God in a very special way because of their rejection of the Messiah. It is during this time of suspended covenant relationship that such signs and wonders are in abeyance. It is a striking thing that forty years elapsed between their final rejection of the Lord by the martyrdom of Stephen and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Titus.
     The number forty in Scripture represents a time of suspended judgment. Jonah warned Nineveh it would be destroyed in forty days (Jonah 2:4). The wilderness wanderings occupied forty years (Numbers 32:13), and Jeremiah was called to warn the Jews of the coming destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar just forty years before the blow fell. It seems to me that the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews was aware that this time of pending judgment was nearly come for the nation in Palestine. He could speak of the daily sacrifices still being offered in the temple (Hebrews 7:27; 10:11), so we must assume that the veil of the temple which had

     pg.14 of 17     

been rent when the Lord died (Matthew 27:51) had in the meantime been repaired again. Nevertheless he pointed out that the old order was just about to come to an end, that the order which was even then decaying and waxing old was about ready to vanish (Hebrews 8:13). It is not without significance that the Book of Acts appears to end only a few years before this Judgment overtook the Holy City and the temple. This marked, in short, the point at which God imposed upon Himself the virtually complete silence which He has since maintained with respect to "signs and wonders".
     It marked something else also. With the demolishing of the temple and the practical destruction of Judaism in Palestine, the Hebrew tongue, the language of the Old Testament, became virtually a dead language. With the death of the Hebrew tongue, the whole culture which went with it passed into abeyance. With its passing, the basis of the Old Testament covenant ceased to have any spiritual meaning. Such is the close bond between culture and language.
     With the passing of the temple and the priesthood and an order of worship which had, in a real sense, localized God as a national deity in much the same way that the Gentile nations had localized their gods previously, the confining nationalism of Judaism was finally destroyed. In a similar way Alexander had broken down the religious nationalism of the Gentile world; only he had done it more peaceably. For Israel, due to their strong attachments to Jerusalem and the temple, a more drastic remedy had been required.
     For some reason, the Gentile nations, unlike the Jews, never seemed to have asked for any very manifest demonstrations of the reality of their gods. On the other hand, it is clear that Israel's history had so profoundly influenced the Jews in their thinking that signs and wonders had become the hallmark of the reality of their covenant with the Lord. This was never true of the Gentiles. We may suppose that the performance of miracles would be a strong argument to unbelievers at the present time, but experience seems to show that this is not really the case. If any clear demonstration of this should be required, it is surely to be found in the events predicted in the Book of Revelation for the end of the present age. For here we read, especially in chapter 11, of all kinds of signs and wonders more dramatic and more awesome even than those which at times the children of Israel had witnessed, and yet the record foretells that the nations do not repent. I think we must assume that although there is every appearance that the silence of God in the face of human suffering allows men to confirm themselves in their unbelief, if God were habitually to manifest Himself as He did in earlier days  

     pg.15 of 17     

the effect would not be to lessen unbelief but only to harden it. The greater the display, the more determined would be their unbelief, as the events in the Book of Revelation seem to show.


     But now it is difficult to read contemporary reports of the current "religious scene" without becoming aware of the increased interest in and renewal of some of these signs and wonders again. We not only hear more and more frequently of a recurrence of the phenomenon of speaking in tongues, but we also begin to see the re-appearance of faith-healing on a new scale. Here and there through the centuries there have been reports of miraculous healings, and particular places have gained notoriety by reason of them -- Lourdes, for example. There can be little doubt that there is some truth in these claims, however we may choose to account for them. By and large, however, the few individuals healed among the many who went were deliberately seeking healing for themselves. What has been happening more recently is that people are now being healed who were not specifically seeking healing, who by their own testimony did not even have faith, and who in not a few instances, for all their being healed, still did not at once become believers. This is a circumstance that has been authenticated a great number of times in the case of the ministry of the late Kathryn Kuhlman. (35) It is therefore a recurrence of something which must have been comparatively common when our Lord was present on earth: for example, only one of the ten lepers is ever heard of again and there is no reason to assume the others actually took the Lord as Saviour. The paralytic beside the Pool of Siloam did not even recognize the Lord at first when He found him in the temple. A careful reading of a number of these New Testament healings will show that men were healed sometimes without any requirement that they believe, and they went away healed without any expression of personal faith. Furthermore, we are reading now quite frequently of people who have been healed in their own homes, caught almost unawares, whose experience remarkably parallels some of the New Testament instances.
     In the matter of speaking in tongues -- although there is much controversy still as to the meaning of it -- it can hardly be doubted that the phenomenon superficially parallels the experience of the early church in Acts subsequent to Pentecost, especially at Corinth. The parallelism suggests that it was a real phenomenon,  

35.  Kuhlman, Kathryn, I Believe in Miracles, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersy, 1969.

     pg.16 of 17     

whatever it means. And coupled with the increase in healings, it may surely be taken as an evidence that signs and wonders are beginning once more to be displayed as public manifestations of the reality of God's power and presence. Could it be that the purpose is to warn the Jewish people that the time of their rejection is drawing to a close? Could it be that it is an invitation to them to look once more to their own Scriptures, and to study the times and the seasons, for the coming of their Messiah again may be drawing nigh?
     What a wonderful thing it would be if we who know the Lord should see these signs, and perhaps some of the other signs that were once part of God's witness to Israel, being fulfilled increasingly in order to advise us that we should begin to prepare ourselves for the second coming of our Lord -- in the same way Israel was told by John the Baptist to prepare themselves for His first coming.
     There is no question that just before Jesus' return there will be a tremendous recurrence of signs and wonders. Revelation 11 is a striking illustration of this, foretelling as it does great judgments and mighty spectacles in the sky and on the earth such as man has never witnessed in the past. Yet characteristically, it seems as though the Gentiles will be largely unmoved by them all -- terrified perhaps, but not driven to repentance or faith. Signs and wonders seldom have engendered saving faith among Gentiles. They have only confirmed or encouraged a faith that was already alive. For Israel as God's special people, they served only to validate the constancy and reality of his covenant relationship with the nation as a whole. Whenever that relationship has been in abeyance, they have ceased. This, I believe, accounts for God's silences.
     The first period of silence lasted only 400 years. Perhaps this was all the time it required for the civilized world to lose entirely the restraining and corrective influence of the light of the Old Testament before plunging into almost total darkness and despair. It was time for God to enlighten man further. The light of the New Testament was so much more brilliant than that of the Old, that it has taken almost two thousand years, or five times as long, for the same process of degeneration to bring the world to the sad position it was in when the Lord came the first time. Surely the coming of the Lord draws nigh once again. 

     pg.17 of 17     

Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

Previous Chapter                       * End of Part I *               Next Chapter (Part II)

Home | Biography | The Books | Search | Order Books | Contact Us