It is not unusual that some new believers in every church community increase in their faith while others fall away. This was, after all, the point of the Lord’s parable about the sower and his seed (cf., Luke 8:4-18).
This may have also been a problem for the community to which the Epistle to the Hebrews was addressed. In chapter two we read this caution to its readers: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Hebrews 2:3, 4)
Christ’s preaching had been accompanied by various signs and wonders: He healed the sick and raised the dead, He expelled demonic spirits and performed miracles in the natural order (such as calming the sea, multiplying the loaves and fish). Before His passion He promised that His followers would do the same and more: “Most assuredly, 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 My Father” (John 18:12).
When the risen Christ sent His disciples forth to spread the Gospel, He promised them: “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues, they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” Mark concludes his Gospel by saying, “They went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” (Mark 16:17,18,20).
The Book of Acts records some of these signs and wonders, miracles and gifts which accompanied the preaching of the apostles. Like Christ they healed the sick (cf., Acts 3:1-10), expelled demons (cf., Acts 8:4-8), and raised the dead (cf., Acts 9:36-4). They also bestowed the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying-on of hands: an act so wondrous that the magician Simon sought to buy this power (cf., Acts 8:14-25).
Signs and Wonders after the Apostles
Miracles and healings did not disappear from the Church with the death of the last apostle. Writers of the second and third centuries ad such as Irenaeus of Lyons (120-202) speak of these blessings continuing among the faithful. St Justin the Philosopher (c. 110-165) wrote, “The prophetic gifts remain with us to the present time. Some do certainly cast out demons… Others have knowledge of things to come. They see visions and utter prophetic expressions” (Dialogue with Trypho, 82 ).
St Justin also affirmed the effectiveness of exorcisms in the Church. “[Jesus] said, ‘I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions’ … and now we have all the demons and evil spirits subjected to us when we exorcise them.” His claim is echoed in still-extant writings by Theophilus of Antioch (169-185), Origen of Alexandria (c. 184-254), Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339), Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-367), Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-387), Basil the Great (c. 330-379), and Gregory the Theologian (329-389). In The City of God 22, 8 St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) described this experience in his diocese: “It is only two years ago that the keeping of records was begun here in Hippo and already, at this writing we have more than seventy attested miracles.”
St Gregory the Wonderworker
On November 17, 380 St Gregory of Nyssa delivered a eulogy praising St Gregory the Wonderworker (c. 213-270), who had been bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Asia Minor. St Gregory’s oration was quickly translated into several languages, giving all the Churches a glimpse of how Christ’s promise was fulfilled in third-century Asia Minor.
Son of a prominent pagan family in Neo-Caesarea, Gregory was preparing for a career in law by studying philosophy under Origen, the noted Christian lecturer. Gregory became his disciple and a Christian and later a member of the clergy.
The new priest was soon granted a vision of St John the Theologian who directed him to spread knowledge of the Holy Trinity among his people. Neo-Caesarea was still pagan and there was no Christian church in the city. As Gregory of Nyssa describes it, “When Gregory arrived in the city at evening from the countryside, a violent rainstorm forced him to seek shelter in a temple. This place was renowned because one of the demons revered there used to manifest himself to the temple’s custodians, and a certain prophet was empowered to utter oracles. Once [Gregory] entered the temple with several companions, one of the demons was petrified at the invocation of Christ’s name. Having purified the defiled air with the sign of the Cross, he spent the entire night in prayer and singing hymns according to his usual custom. In this way he transformed into a temple of prayer this place which had been profaned by unclean sacrifices and images.” When the temple priest and servants arrived in the morning Gregory began teaching them as St John had directed. His teaching was confirmed in their eyes by a wonder – Gregory moved an enormous rock by his faith alone – and they became Gregory’s first converts. “The town’s entire populace gathered to learn about this novel wonder, and everyone desired to see this man called Gregory.”
“After several persons had received preliminary instruction before the end of the day, they hastened to a first synaxis at sunset … At daybreak men, women, children, the old and young, and whoever was afflicted by demons or bodily affliction gathered at the door…. Both those who heard and saw him were struck with wonder at the miracles he performed among the sick.” In a short time Gregory’s preaching and witness had brought many to Christ. They all contributed to building a Christian temple and, as Nyssa observed, its existence testified to Gregory’s godly power. “When in our lifetime the city suffered a severe earthquake and almost every public and private dwelling was completely destroyed, the temple alone remained unscathed and unshaken, testifying to that great man’s strength and vigor.”
“[Gregory] often gave witness to the power which God bestowed upon him. All the inhabitants of the city and surrounding areas were astounded at such wonders which were reminiscent of the Apostles. They believed his words and actions came from God’s power…” Gregory’s reputation grew and over the years many in that region became Christians. It is said that while Gregory began his mission with only seventeen Christians, at his death there remained only seventeen pagans in Neo-Caesarea.
In the early centuries, when becoming a Christian meant courting the risk of persecution, receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit was identified with the mysteries of initiation – baptism and the laying-on of hands. In later years, when being Christian became socially expected, such signs and wonders came to be associated with the ascetics and monastics, many of whom were canonized as “Wonderworkers.”
Miracles are also attributed to the tombs of the saints, their relics and their intercession. When the Great Church of Constantinople, Agia Sophia was built in the sixth century, relics were placed in the columns. People soon began touching and kissing the column containing St Gregory’s relics. Both Christians and Muslims still venerate his relics by placing their thumb into a hole made in the column for that purpose). Despite the passage of centuries, signs and wonders continue witnessing to those who believe.