A Commentary by John Stott
I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done (18) – by the power of signs and miracles through the power of the Spirit (91a). This is a very valuable statement of Paul’s own understanding of his ministry. The repetition of the word dynamis (power) in verse 19 justifies our calling it a ‘powerful ministry’. He alludes to at least five features of it.
First, Paul describes the objective of his ministry as being to lead the Gentiles to obey God. The same two Greek words occur in 1:5 and 16:26. There, however, Paul’s phrase is ‘unto obedience of faith among all the Gentiles’; here it is ‘unto obedience of the Gentiles’. It is surprising that he now omits any reference to faith, for of course his objective is to bring people to Christ, indeed to faith in Christ (e.g. 1:16). Nevertheless his emphasis is on obedience, presumably because it is the indispensable consequence of saving faith, and is a vital ingredient of Christian discipleship.
Secondly, Paul refuses to recount his own exploits. All he will dare to talk about, he says, is what Christ has accomplished through me. To be sure, the relationship between Christ and his evangelists is variously portrayed in the New Testament, and sometimes it is seen as a collaboration (e.g. ‘We are God’s fellow-workers’). But Paul is not altogether comfortable to think of himself as Christ’s partner; he prefers to be Christ’s agent or even instrument, so that Christ works not ‘with’ him but ‘through’ him. ‘We are…Christ’s ambassadors,’ he writes, ‘as though God were making his appeal through us.’ It is safer to think in this way because if the work is Christ’s, the glory will be Christ’s as well.
Thirdly, Paul writes, what Christ has accomplished has been by what I have said and done, literally ‘by word and deed’. This combination of words and works, the verbal and the visual, is a recognition that human beings often learn more through their eyes than through their ears. Words explain works, but works dramatize words. The public ministry of Jesus is the best example of this, and after his ascension into heaven he continued ‘to do and to teach’ through his apostles. It would e wrong to conclude, however, that ‘works’ means only miracles. One of Jesus’ most powerful visual aids was to take a child into his arms, and one of the early church’s was their common life and care for the needy.
Fourthly, Christ’s ministry through Paul was by the power of signs and miracles. This expression brings together the three commonest biblical terms for the supernatural. ‘Signs’ indicates their significance (especially in demonstrating the arrival of God’s kingdom), ‘powers’ their character (exhibiting God’s power over nature) and ‘wonders’ their effect (evoking people’s amazement). Paul’s only other use of these three words in relation to his ministry is in 2 Corinthians 12:12, where he calls them ‘the things that mark an apostle’ or ‘the sings of a true apostle’(RSV). This is not to deny that God can perform miracles today, for it would be ludicrous to acknowledge that their chief purpose was to authenticate the unique apostolic priesthood were ‘not the long garment and the bells as they of old, nor the mitre and the turban, but the signs and wonders, far more aweful that these’.
Fifthly, Paul’s ministry was also through the power of the Spirit. Since this clause is separate from the reference to the power of signs and wonders, its meaning is likely to be different too. Physical miracles are not the only way in which the power of the Holy Spirit is displayed. Indeed his usual way is through the Word of God, which is his ‘sword’. It is he who takes our feeble human words and confirms them with his divine power in the minds, hearts, consciences and wills of the hearers. Every conversation is a power encounter, in which the Spirit through the gospel rescues and regenerates sinners.