How do you determine whether or not a miraculous sign came from God?
The classic answer is to judge the “fruit” (result, outcome, or ramifications) of the sign, but I’m going to show you today that this doesn’t actually work (and it’s not actually biblical).
I was recently engaged in a Facebook discussion about this. One of my friends — a foreign missionary — said that he regularly encountered miracles, signs, wonders, healing, deliverance, and more in his church meetings. The response from another pastor (here in the States) came as a challenge that seemed sensible enough:
…I’d be interested in hearing about the fruit being produced in the church you are a part of. It’s an honest question here. You attest on this thread and others that I’ve seen that you guys are really experiencing some authentic stuff every single time you get together. You claim the miraculous is super normative in your community. In light of this, there must be significant salvations occurring and large numbers being added to the church. Additionally, the surrounding community must be being transformed in epic proportions. We’d all agree these things accompany authentic moves of the Spirit. I’d be interested in hearing more from you on this.
On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable expectation. The only problem is that it isn’t biblical… and it’s frankly wrong.
Let’s first take a look at the life and ministry of Jesus. Check out the onlookers’ response to a genuine sign from God:
John 12:28-29 — [Jesus said,] “…Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
So let’s get this straight: God publicly speaks from heaven in a voice that can be heard by the physical ears of an entire crowd, and NOBODY falls to the ground in fear or repentance?! And you can’t even say, “Well, the sign wasn’t for them,” because in the very next moment, verse 30, Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine.”
Here we have a valid sign from God that is both misinterpreted and even outright ignored by an entire crowd of people! Zero “fruit!” But the sign was still from God.
Matthew 11:20 —Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent…
I’m sure you can see my point: It is impossible to judge miraculous signs according to their fruit.
But isn’t that what the Bible says? you may ask.
There is actually no scripture that instructs us to judge miraculous signs according to their fruit. And that’s bad news for the online heresy-hunters who scrutinize other ministries to find fault with them. How many web sites, blog posts, radio shows, and YouTube videos are out there criticizing ministries like Bethel Church in Redding, CA, because of crazy signs and wonders like the “Glory Cloud” that has shown up on a few occasions? They like to ask questions like, “Why are the people all staring at it instead of falling on their faces in repentance?” or “Why isn’t the whole city saved by now if things like this are going on?”
Again, we can’t judge signs by their fruit.
Here’s what the Bible does say about fruit and discernment:
Matthew 7:15-16a — “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them…”
Luke 6:43-45 — “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
John 15:8 — “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
Notice that fruit is always a measurement of a person and never a measurement of a sign and wonder.
The fact is, there is no scripture anywhere that tells us to judge miracles, signs, and wonders according to their fruit. What we do have are instructions to judge people by their fruit.
And that poses a problem: False signs and wonders are real, and we still need to be able to identify them! Jesus promised in Matthew 24:24 that “false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” And in Second Thessalonians 2:9, we learn, “The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with how Satan works. He will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie.”
That last sentence is key in discerning the source of miracles, signs, and wonders. Miraculous signs, like road signs, point to something or carry a meaning. They serve a purpose. The question is, are they serving a lie from the enemy or are they serving the purposes of God?
Miracles, signs, and wonders are not judged according to their fruit. If they are, then we need to throw Jesus’ miracles out whenever the people were unimpressed, unrepentant, or rejected Him and His message–and that happened a lot. On the contrary, ministers are judged by their fruit, and miracles are judged by the agenda they serve.
As if to emphasize this point, notice what Paul wrote to the sin-filled, disorganized, disjointed Corinthian church. First, he was clear with them saying that they were not lacking in any spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 1:7). As I have written about previously, even though the Corinthian church lacked Godly order, God wasn’t afraid to meet them in their mess to perform genuine miracles. Paul considered the miracles, signs, and wonders of the Corinthian church to be true works of God, but he wasn’t shy about cleaning house among the Corinthians themselves.
While we could study the entire book to prove this point, I want to bring your attention to just three verses:
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 — If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Did you catch that? Paul talks about spiritual gifts like tongues, prophecy, faith, and more. In each case, he says that without love, he is a resounding gong, he is nothing, and he gains nothing. He doesn’t say that the tongues, the prophecy, the faith, or whatever else is invalid; he says that he as a minister would be invalid.
In this case, the fruit — “love” — was a measurement of the minister, not the ministry. It had nothing to do with discerning whether or not the gift was from God. If the sign points to Jesus, then it’s a good sign. Rather, the fruit of love was a measure for the minister. If the minister loved, then he succeeded; he gained something; he is something.
Is love the only fruit to look for in a minister? Actually, the Bible offers a few identifiers of spiritual fruit:
- Answered prayer (John 15:16)
- Expressions of the nature of Jesus like love, joy, peace, etc. (Galatians 5:22-23)
- Anything that “consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth” (Ephesians 5:9)
- Productivity in good works (Colossians 1:10)
- A person’s praise to God (Hebrews 13:15)
So here is how to know if a miraculous sign comes from God: Simply identify where the sign is pointing. Don’t look at where the people are going; look at where the sign is pointing. Some people drive the wrong way on a one-way street. Some people don’t stop for stop signs. Some people miss their exit on the expressway. If people ignore a sign, it doesn’t mean the sign is wrong. Again, don’t look at where the people are going; look at where the sign is pointing.
With that said, be on your guard, because there are unhealthy ministers out there who may be trying to follow Jesus, but their lives are not bearing good fruit. Jesus talked about people who had good signs in their ministry that were performed in His name, but He didn’t actually have a relationship with those people (Matthew 7:21-23). Don’t follow ministers just because there are good signs and good spiritual gifts happening. That’s one of the unfortunate things that has happened in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement. We often give our pulpits to people who have good signs but lousy character, and we have unfortunately opened ourselves up occasionally to false teachers and false prophets despite our good intentions. God can point to Himself through incredibly sinful people. (Remember when King Saul prophesied on his way to murder David? Check it out in 1 Samuel 19.) The presence of good signs is not necessarily evidence of a good minister.
But before you go on a witch-hunt, we have to practice a measure of humility, grace, and mercy. No one is perfect. If you’re looking for a minister who is exactly like Jesus, you’re going to be sadly disappointed. True ministers are not necessarily perfect ministers; they’re people who have good fruit in their lives. When we’re looking for people to minister to us, we shouldn’t waste our time looking for people who are perfect. We should simply look for “trees” who have good fruit that we want to eat. Look for godly people who demonstrate a healthy measure of the nature of Jesus. Look for people who are bearing fruit that you need in your own life. Look for people who are actively dealing with any bad fruit in their lives — people who desire transformation and are humbly submitted to the Holy Spirit for continual transformation.
As you probably know, I’m a huge fan of the miraculous. I love to see God’s power and love in action. I love being in meetings where most or all of the people experience physical healing. I love witnessing miraculous signs from God. Even the “weird stuff” God does is fascinating to me. But for all the value I place on those things, I’m an even bigger fan of people producing good spiritual fruit.
If you encounter a miraculous sign — whether its something you can find happening in biblical history or something completely new — look to where it is pointing. If you can find Jesus standing there, then it’s a great sign. If others are missing the purpose of the sign, help point it out. Don’t let yourself become distracted by the sign itself — the sign pointing to Disney Land is nowhere near as fun as the actual Disney Land! And finally, no matter how wonderful the sign is, don’t take it as an automatic endorsement of the minister behind it. Look for fruit in people’s lives, and only follow those who help you see Jesus more clearly.