Someone brought up an interesting question recently. Why don’t the apostles of today do the things done by the apostles in the ancient Church? When I asked what prompted the question, they listed a number of scriptures that all referenced the miracles done by the ancient apostles then said that we don’t ever hear of miracles being done by modern apostles. The assumption by the person was that if the calling is the same then the works need to be the same as well. It took me a while to think this assumption through. I have since determined that this is faulty thinking, though when the person first said it I was prone to agree.
This is a complicated subject, so I will do my best to break it into pieces and address the different aspects of the subject so when put back together the answer will make sense.
The nature of the priesthood
The answer to this person’s question lies deep in the nature of the priesthood itself. The power of the priesthood doesn’t change from generation to generation. The purpose of the priesthood in all generations is to provide the saving ordinances to all of God’s children. But how that is done changes from generation to generation and dispensation to dispensation. Adam’s generation through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph used the Patriarchal order of the Melchizedek priesthood. The priesthood was held most notably by the prophets. John Q. Public rarely held the priesthood. They all lived the law of animal sacrifice, the offering of animals that pointed to the last and great sacrifice the Savior of all mankind would make when he offered himself for an offering in Gethsemane and on the cross.
The patriarchal order of the Melchizedek priesthood was replaced with the law of Moses, primarily because of the lack of faith and personal righteousness of the family of Israel. During the time of the Mosaic law the people were governed by carnal commandments and an expanded version of the law of sacrifice, officiated through the Levitical priesthood.
When the Savior came he replaced the practice of animal sacrifice with the sacrifice of a broken heart and contrite spirit. He also fulfilled the law of Moses and replaced it with the law of the gospel. Apostles were called and ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood, along with a quorum of Seventy to be traveling ministers. Their chief responsibility was to bear witness of Christ’s mission and resurrection. More people were allowed to hold the priesthood than at any time in our record of the history of the world. Bishops and others were ordained to help move the Lord’s work along.
With the restoration of the gospel in the latter days, the priesthood was given to the general membership of the Church. Now every man is expected to be a priesthood holder and a receiver of revelation. Though the function of the priesthood has always been to bring the covenants of salvation to God’s children, until the final dispensation of time the priesthood was never given to all male members. This privilege has been reserved for the last days.
Changes in the priesthood
It is the nature of the priesthood to change based on the needs of God’s children. Many of the responsibilities held strictly by the prophet in the early days of this dispensation are now held by Stake Presidents. In the early days of the Church the prophet had to sign your temple recommend. Over time that responsibility was delegated to the Twelve Apostles, and finally down to the Stake Presidents. That is just one example of how flexible the priesthood administration is.
Another example of the flexibility of priesthood administration can be in the comparison of ancient prophets and their duties to modern prophets and their duties. Elijah called forth a famine then the Lord instructed him to go live by a small stream and drink from it while the ravens brought him food twice a day. When was the last time you saw a modern prophet being fed by birds?
By the same token, which Old Testament prophet can you name that appeared on an internationally televised talk show and was given the opportunity to explain parts of the plan of salvation to the world? The ancient prophets would have given their eye teeth for such opportunities as were had by President Gordon B. Hinckley. And something new with President Nelson is the involvement of the apostle’s wives in their ministering tours around the globe. That was never done in the early days of the Church or in ancient times.
And most recently, as of this writing, responsibilities held in the past strictly by Bishops, over ministering, ward missionary, and family history work are now under the auspices of the Elders Quorum President, and coordinated with the Relief Society President. That would never be dreamt of in earlier dispensations.
Changes in the Apostleship
This brings us to our perception of the holy apostleship. When we think of apostles we most often think of the ancient apostles Jesus chose. They were opening a new dispensation. Every member of the Church was brand new to the gospel of Christ. There was no such thing as a church culture or of a multiple generational saint. Everyone was a first generation saint.
As happened in the beginning of the dispensation of Moses, the dispensation opened by Christ was full of miracles. Christ, himself, performed larger-than-life miracles for thousands to see. He fed thousands at a time with only a small amount of food, he publicly raised the dead, healed the sick, etc. But what about the apostles? We can all think of miracles of healing etc. performed by the apostles, but how many can you name that were done deliberately in front of hundreds or thousands of people, like Jesus did?
The calling of the apostleship is to bear witness of Christ’s divinity and resurrection. And they do this to individuals and families. When they do this there are frequently others witnessing it, but we are talking a handful or a couple of people or the individual or family only. They don’t do things for public display, either now or in the early Church.
When this dispensation began, and everyone in the Church was a first generation saint, there were lots of miracles to confirm their faith. This pattern followed the pattern set in the previous two dispensations of Moses and Christ. But after the first generation of covenant makers, the miracles became more and more a confirmation of individual faith, and less and less a public spectacle. People often ask why the miracles of the ancient apostles aren’t being replicated by the modern apostles. Good question. Let’s look at that for a moment.
Ancient vs. modern apostles
Where do the accounts of the New Testament apostle’s miracles come from? Are they a matter of public record? Do we read about them from historians of the period? No. We hear about their miracles from the writings of the letters written by the apostles themselves to the saints. These letters were meant to confirm the members’ faith and to teach them about the gospel and how it works. Their miracles were done one on one. The miracles they performed were meant to confirm people’s faith.
Think about the society of the ancient apostles. Things were rarely done to masses of people at once. Most of the interactions they had were with individuals or families. The groups were small, the settings private. Can you imagine today what would happen if one of our apostles were to perform a miracle publicly in front of someone with a cell phone or some video equipment? What chaos would ensue as the video went viral and social media exploded with Tweets and flames from people who wanted to disprove what they just witnessed? The point of a miracle is to confirm faith, not convert someone who refuses to believe.
Do the apostles perform miracles? Yes, I believe they do. I have spoken with people who know of those who were healed by blessings from apostles. But again, these are private confirmations of those peoples’ faith. Are miracles a primary part of their calling? No more so than miracles are a primary part of any priesthood holder’s calling. We are all expected to exercise faith in the priesthood power and to listen to and follow the promptings of the Spirit when we give blessings. Does this mean there are miracles happening every day throughout the Church? Yes, it does. Miracles are granted because of individual faith, and are meant to confirm that faith.
What is the difference?
So what differences are there in the callings of the ancient and modern apostles? Well first off, not much. Both are called and ordained to that office in the priesthood to bear witness of Christ in all the world. Both anciently and in modern times their responsibility is to seek out the individual or family the Lord wants them to minister to. Their’s is still a ministry to individuals, even though they serve the whole world. Look at this video by Elder David A. Bednar. In it he talks about the responsibilities of the holy apostleship. As you listen to what he says, I believe you will begin to see that what he is describing is just what we read about in the New Testament with Christ’s apostles.
Answering the original question
The original question asked why the modern apostles don’t perform the miracles performed anciently. My answer is that the person asking the question is mistaken in that they expect the miracles performed by these priesthood holders to be done publicly and in front of masses of people. That just isn’t the way the Lord works. He never has, and never will work that way.
The questioner’s original assumption was that because we have record of miracles being openly performed in the New Testament (though it was done privately between the apostle and the person being healed or in front of just a small group of people only) that apostles today should be doing the same thing. But as I have already pointed out, it would not be safe for miracles to be done publicly in today’s society. There simply isn’t the faith to warrant such confirmations of people’s faith. And miracles are not confined to apostles. All worthy priesthood holders and faithful members of the Church have the right to revelation and answers to their prayers in their daily lives. Miracles happen, and more often than we give credit for them happening. In the Church we tend to become expectant of miracles, because they happen so often. And because of that we no longer consider them miracles.
How many of us have experienced miracles with the law of tithing, the word of wisdom, from fasting and prayer, or from a special priesthood blessing? The Lord’s hand is at work in our lives all over the world. We just have to open our eyes to the wonders he is performing for the faithful latter-day saints every day. The apostles calling hasn’t changed. They are still fulfilling their calling to witness to the world of Christ’s divinity and resurrection. We may not have record of every blessing and good deed they do, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fulfilling their calling just as worthily as the apostles who came before them.