Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Ananias and Cessationism
Image: Depiction of the baptism of Paul by Ananias in the Duomo di Monreale, Sicily, Italy. The Latin inscription reads: Hic conversus Paulus baptizatur ab Anania [Here the converted Paul is baptized by Ananias].
Last Sunday, I resumed the afternoon series through the Baptist confession with a message on the final clause of chapter one, paragraph one: “which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will to his people being now ceased" (listen to sermon here).
I made the point in the message (1) that the extra-ordinary gifts in the apostolic age were restricted to the apostles and evangelists (apostolic associates) and (2) that those gifts have now ceased since the extra-ordinary offices have ceased.
To cinch the point, I noted that in the book of Acts ordinary Christians are not depicted as performing miracles but this is the special activity of the apostles and their associates, citing:
Acts 5:12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people….
Acts 19:11 And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul:
After the meeting several of us were discussing this point and one person asked about Ananias’ laying hands on Paul when he was blinded on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. Would this be an example of a non-apostle performing a miracle?
Ananias is simply described as “a certain disciple of Damascus” (Acts 9:10). He is instructed by the Lord in a vision that Saul “hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight” (v. 12). Ananias then goes to Saul, “and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost” (v. 17). Saul’s eyes were then opened, as if scales had fallen from them, he arose, and was baptized (v. 18). Ananias is presumably the person who administers the baptism.
So, (1) is Ananias an ordinary disciple and (2) is the restoration of sight to Saul a healing miracle performed by him?
First, who was Ananias?
He was not an apostle. But, was he merely an ordinary disciple? The fact that he is sent to Saul and that he apparently baptizes him indicates that Ananias was an officer of the church. He is in Damascus and not Jerusalem, where the apostles reside, but this does not preclude the possibility that he was sent there by the apostles. Clearly, Ananias did not live in ordinary but extra-ordinary times. He lived in the age of the apostles. The Lord directly entrusted him through a vision with the important task of discipling Saul. This is not the norm for ordinary believers (but cf. the Spirit’s direction of Philip, an apostolic associate, toward the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26, 29). The cessationist position does not say that only apostles performed miracles or had extra-ordinary experiences. The apostolic associates, like Stephen and Philip, also performed such deeds. Compare:
Acts 6:8 And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.
Acts 8:6 And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did.
Acts 8:13 Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.
So, if the restoration of Saul’s sight was a healing miracle, then Ananias might be considered an apostolic associate like Stephen or Philip.
Second, was the restoration of Saul’s sight a healing miracle?
Nevertheless, it might also be argued that the opening of Saul’s eyes was not, in fact, a healing miracle. His temporary blindness only comes upon him after his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:8-9). Ananias is told to place his hands on Saul “that he might receive his sight” (v. 12), but the imposition of hands might have more to do with his ordination to service as “a chosen vessel” (v. 15) than to healing. It might be that Ananias is not sent to “heal” Saul but to baptize and ordain him, upon his reception of spiritual insight into the identity of Jesus. If this is the case, Ananias need not be an extra-ordinary officer but an ordinary one.
What did Calvin say?
A review of Calvin’s commentary on Acts 9 indicates that the great Reformer also seemed to be pondering these questions.
When discussing the Lord’s instruction to the blinded Saul (“it shall be told thee” v. 6), Calvin’s description of Ananias is as an ordinary teacher rather than as an extra-ordinary healer. He notes:
Christ putteth Ananias in his place by these words, as touching the office of teaching; not because he resigneth his authority to him, but because he shall be a faithful minister, and a sincere preacher of the gospel.
Likewise, in his commentary on Ananias’ vision in v. 10, Calvin says, “And this vision was necessary for Ananias, lest through fear he should withdraw himself from that function which was enjoined to him, to wit, to teach Paul.”
Calvin does not describe the restoration of Saul’s sight as a healing but his focus in on the special call upon the apostle’s life: “To conclude, Christ pronounceth that Paul was chosen unto great and excellent things” (commentary on v. 15).
Calvin even expresses this cessationist sentiment: “If any man object that the Lord speaketh not at this day in a vision, I answer, that forasmuch as the Scripture is abundantly confirmed to us, we must hear God thence.”
The description of Ananias’ ministry to Saul does not contradict the cessationist position. First, Ananias lived in the age of the apostles, and so we should expect he might have been involved in extra-ordinary experiences even if he was not an apostle. Second, the restoration of Saul’s sight by the imposition of Ananias’ hands does not so much call to mind a healing per se as it does an ordination (cf. Acts 6:6; 13:3).