In his new book, Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire, charismatic radio show host Michael Brown points to his commitment to sola scriptura as the main reason he is a continuationist. Not only does Brown reject cessationism “because of the definite and clear testimony of the Word” (AF, 166), but he also finds the position “exegetically impossible” (AF, 165).
In chapter six of Authentic Fire, Brown presents the primary biblical arguments for the continuation of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. In one of these arguments, Brown appeals to the words of Jesus in John 14:12. In this verse, Jesus said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father” (John 14:12).
According to Brown, John 14:12a — “he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also” — contains a universal promise to the church of Jesus Christ that “whoever believes in the Son will also perform miraculous signs” (AF, 189). To support his conclusion, Brown notes that the immediate context emphasizes miracles as the works done by Jesus and that the phrase “he who believes in Me” (ho pisteuon eis eme) is universal in its scope when used elsewhere in the Gospel of John (6:35; 7:38; 11:25; 12:44, 46) (AF, 189). According to Brown, then, everyone who believes in Christ will perform miraculous signs.
Brown is correct in his assertion that Jesus was referring to miraculous works in John 14:12 when He spoke of “the works that I do.” This is clear not only from the immediate context of John 14 (see verses 10-11) but also from the greater context of John’s Gospel in which the miraculous works of Jesus gave evidence of His identity (see 5:36; 10:25; 20:30-31). And what miraculous works was Jesus referring to? He doesn’t name them, but the Gospel of John—which records only a fraction of the signs and wonders Jesus performed (21:25)—provides several examples:
- Jesus changed water into wine (2:1-11).
- Jesus healed a boy who was about to die (4:46-54).
- Jesus healed a man who had been crippled and unable to walk for 38 years (5:1-9).
- Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (6:1-14).
- Jesus walked on water (6:16-21).
- Jesus healed a man born blind (9:1-41).
- Jesus resurrected a man who had been dead for four days (11:1-45).
According to John 14:12a, these are the kinds of miraculous works that will be performed by “he who believes” in Jesus.
Brown is also correct in his assertion that the other uses of “he who believes” in the Gospel of John are universal, applying to everyone who believes in Christ (6:35; 7:38; 11:25; 12:44, 46). In fact, seven other uses the substantival participle “he who believes” (ho pisteuon) (3:15; 3:16; 3:18; 3:36; 6:40; 6:47; 11:26) could be added to the five listed by Brown, and all of them are universal as well. Therefore, each of these twelve uses of the term “he who believes” (outside of John 14:12) introduces a promise that is unconditionally true for every single believer in Christ, and this is a valid argument for Brown’s position.
But what initially appears to be Brown’s strongest argument ultimately turns out to be the most significant problem for his view. By assuming that “he who believes” is also universal in John 14:12, Brown ends up arguing that every single believer in the history of the church has performed (or will perform) the same miraculous works as Jesus, works such as healing the crippled, giving sight to the blind, and raising people from the dead.
Apart from the obvious observation that there are more than a few believers in the past two thousand years who have never raised the dead or given sight to the blind, the apostle Paul made it clear in 1 Corinthians 12:27-30 that it was never God’s design to give every Christian the ability to perform the miraculous:
27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? (1 Cor. 12:27-30; emphasis added)
The implied answer to each of these rhetorical questions is, “No, of course not!” If it was never God’s design that all believers perform miracles and healings, how can Brown affirm an interpretation of John 14:12 which says that it was?
Brown’s interpretation of John 14:12, then, faces a significant obstacle. Even though it is undoubtedly true that every single believer will have eternal life (John 3:15, 16, 36; 6:40, 47), is not judged (John 3:18), will never thirst (John 6:35), will experience the rivers of living water (John 7:38), will live even if he dies (John 11:25, 26), believes in the Father (John 12:44), and will not remain in darkness (John 12:46), it is simply not the case that every single believer does (or will do) the miraculous works that Jesus did (2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-9; 6:1-14; 6:16-21; 9:1-41; 11:1-45). This was never the sovereign design of God for the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27-30), and it was not promised by Jesus in John 14:12.
So what does Jesus mean when He says that “He who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also”? The key is found in remembering the original audience of Jesus. In John 14-16, Judas had already departed and Jesus was exclusively addressing the eleven disciples, the very ones He would soon send out as His apostles. Even though much of John 14-16 can be applied to every believer by extension, all of what Jesus says in these chapters applies directly to the apostles and some of what He says applies only to the apostles (e.g., John 14:25-26; 16:13). John 14:12 falls into this latter category.
In John 14, Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father (v. 8). Jesus responded by rebuking Philip (v. 9) and asking him whether or not he believed that He is in the Father and the Father is in Him (v. 10). Then Jesus widened the scope of His instruction (the Greek transitions from singular to plural) by addressing all of the disciples and exhorting them twice to “believe” in Him (v. 11). Therefore, when Jesus referred to “he who believes in Me” in the very next verse (v. 12), it makes good sense to conclude that the scope of that phrase is limited to those whom Jesus was addressing, namely the eleven disciples. As Richard Mayhue writes, “Christ’s charge to the disciples [in John 14:12] should not automatically be assigned to all believers throughout the ages unless specifically indicated by the text. Nothing here points beyond the disciples” (The Healing Promise, 162).
The promise of John 14:12, then, is that once Jesus sends the disciples out as His apostles, they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform miraculous works just like He did. Not only does this interpretation fit the immediate context of John 14-16, but the Book of Acts records that the apostles did indeed perform the miraculous works promised by Jesus in John 14:12: “many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles” (Acts 2:43; emphasis added). If the promise of John 14:12 is universal and every believer performed signs and wonders, why does Luke single out the apostles in Acts 2:43? Where is the biblical account that “many wonders and signs were taking place through all the brethren”?
In Acts 5:12-16, Luke fills in some detail on these apostolic miracles, providing a lengthy description of their ministry in the early church:
At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number, to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed (Acts 5:12-16; emphasis added).
Notice that these miraculous works did not simply consist of the apostles praying that sick people would get well, with varying degrees of success, depending on the faith of the one who was ill. Their miraculous power was so conspicuously obvious that the crowds were bringing the sick to the apostles and “they were all being healed” (Acts 5:16). The reason the apostles were given these miraculous gifts was to authenticate them as authorized representatives of Christ who received and proclaimed divine revelation to the early church (Eph 2:20; 3:5; Acts 2:42). This is why 2 Corinthians 12:12 identifies signs, wonders, and miracles as “signs of a true apostle,” and this is why Hebrews 2:3-4 speaks of God testifying to their apostleship “by signs and wonders and by various miracles.”
Brown insists that the promise of John 14:12 cannot be limited to the apostles (AF, 189, 205), but a closer look shows that this verse does not apply to every believer. Sadly, Christians today who claim this promise for themselves—and who are unable to perform the kinds of signs and wonders that Jesus did—may find that they are tempted either to water down the biblical definition of a miracle or to waver in their commitment to sola scriptura. Better to maintain confidence in the Bible’s sufficiency and to interpret this verse in its original context. There is no support for continuationism in John 14:12.
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NOTE: Incidentally, I did not comment on the “greater works” in the second half of John 14:12 for two reasons: (a) this is not part of Brown’s argument for continuationism in Authentic Fire, and (b) many interpreters on both side of the debate—including both Brown and MacArthur—agree that it goes beyond physical miracles to the spiritual miracle of conversion that God accomplishes through the proclamation of the Gospel (Brown, Authentic Fire, 189; MacArthur, John 12-21, 106-07).