Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Signs and Wonders: Perspectives from Acts and Implications for the Church Today

This is a short article that I wrote for Kairos magazine some months ago. Since it has been requested, I decided to publish it here in my blog.

Signs and Wonders: Perspectives from Acts and the Implications for the Church Today

“Whatever sickness that you may have – migraine, backache, gastric problems, cancer – God wants to heal you. So, take that step of faith, get out of your seat and come to the altar….”

The invitation was given by the preacher in a healing meeting I attended some years ago. Many responded to the “altar call” to be prayed for healing. Subsequently, those who were healed publicly shared that their sufferings had ended and their material well-being had been restored.

I felt a little bit uneasy. It is not that I do not believe in signs and wonders - I take it for granted that God still performs them today. My uneasiness was with the reason given in encouraging one to seek for signs and wonders: that miracles were normative in the daily life of the early Christian community in Acts and so it should be the same today. After all, how would one otherwise account for the impressive amount of space given to the recording of signs and wonders?

But can this claim be substantiated with a close reading of Acts? Do signs and wonders exist merely for the sake of alleviating human pain and suffering? Are they to be sought and experienced as part of our spiritual experience? To help us address these concerns, I hope to explore two questions in this essay. First, what was the purpose of signs and wonders in the early Christian community? Second, what are their implications in the church today?

The Purpose of Signs and Wonders in Acts

Luke uses the unique phrase “signs and wonders” with higher frequencies in Acts compared to the rest of the New Testament (see 2:19, 22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 7:36; 14:3; 15:12). Apart from this phrase, the word commonly translated “sign” can be found in 4:16, 22; 8:6, 13 while the word frequently translated “miracle” or “power” appears ten times elsewhere (1:8; 2:22; 3:12; 4:7, 33; 6:8; 8:10, 13; 10:38; 19:11).

In addition to the frequent use of these words, approximately forty supernatural and miraculous stories are also recorded. These include healings (e.g., 3:1-10), exorcisms (e.g., 16:16-21), angelic and heavenly visions (e.g., 10:1-48), speaking in tongues (e.g., 2:5-12) and other similar occurrences with clear demonstration of God’s power. As such, it is undeniable that Luke’s emphasis on signs and wonders is remarkably impressive.

What could possibly be the purpose for the abundant reference to the supernatural? Firstly, Luke was undoubtedly conscious of the significant role signs and wonders play in the expansion of the kingdom of God as expressed in the rapid growth of the early church. In fact, Luke anticipates that these signs and wonders will characterize the ministry and witness of the church in the “last days” (2:16-21).

It is interesting to note that these supernatural events in Acts are not recorded merely for their own sake, nor are they recorded as isolated events. Rather, the primary emphasis for these narratives is the results of these occurrences. Almost without exception, the direct result of signs and wonders is the expansion of the kingdom of God. The empowering of the Holy Spirit enables the apostles to perform signs and wonders and to proclaim the gospel with increased boldness and renewed zeal. This results in the conversion of the masses and Luke makes numerous explicit references to the numerical growth of the early Christian community (see 2:47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1; 8:4-6, 14; 9:31, 42; 11:19-21; 12:24; 13:42-43, 48-49; 14:1, 21; 16:5 17:4; 18:8; 19:10, 20). This pattern is constantly repeated throughout Acts (e.g., 2:1-41; 2:42-47; 3:1-4:44). As such, it would be hard to dispute the Luke is a strong advocate for signs and wonders.

While Luke’s attitude towards signs and wonders is positive, he is not uncritical about it. He is careful to warn against the preoccupation with signs and wonders for wrong motive, particularly those who seek it for personal gains. The story of Simon’s fascination with signs and wonders and his attempt to buy the ability to impart the gift of God (8:9-24) and the account of the seven sons of Sceva (19:13-16) serve as sober warnings against those who seek this power for selfish and corrupt motive. In this respect, Luke is not unaware of the potential abuses of signs and wonders.

Secondly, Luke also intimately links signs and wonders to intense opposition and persecution. The ability to bear bold witness for Christ in the face of persecution as a result of renewed faith and church growth is central to Luke’s understanding of divine empowerment. After the healing of the crippled beggar, Peter addressed the crowd, testifying that Jesus is the Christ. This led to his arrest (3:1-4:31). Again the pattern of performing signs and wonders and preaching the gospel followed by persecution can be found in 5:12-6:1. The experience of Apostle Paul is also similar (14:8-25).

The reality of suffering and hardships in the midst of our experience of God’s miraculous works remind us to avoid a superficial self-seeking perspective towards signs and wonders. It is unfortunate that modern charismatic signs of healing are often associated with the overall preoccupation with material well-being of granting some physical relief, a preoccupation that believers in biblical times would have found scandalous. It rightly cautions us that in our promotion of the ministry of signs and wonders, we should avoid the extreme danger of triumphalism.

Finally, the presence of signs and wonders also carries with it missiological implications in overcoming barriers and obstacles that might otherwise prevent those genuinely seeking God from coming to faith. In the narrative of Cornelius coming to faith, angelic visions appear to both Cornelius and Peter (10:1-48) resulting to the conversion of his household. In this incident, not only the gift of the Holy Spirit is given thereby enabling them to speak in tongues (10:45-46), it also serves as a sign for the Jewish believers that God does not show favoritism (cf. 10:34-35) - a sign needed to change their negative perception of the Gentiles. This subsequently led Peter to confess: “So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Chirst, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17) As such, Luke places special emphasis that the conversions of the Gentiles would not have been made possible if not for the miraculous works of God that remove all barriers and obstacles that hinder them to faith.

From our discussion, we can conclude that the primary purpose of signs and wonders according to Acts is for the sake of the expansion of the kingdom of God. Signs and wonders are visible manifestations of the coming of the kingdom of God, resulting in the numerical growth of the early Christian community; the strengthening of their faith as they face intense persecution; and the removal of barriers and obstacles that might otherwise hinder others from coming to faith. As such, the primary purpose of signs and wonders are for the benefits of the church, and not for the individuals.


The Implications for the Church Today

Reading Acts is a timely reminder that the primary purpose of signs and wonders two thousand years ago is still the same today – it is for the expansion of the kingdom of God and a witness to the unbelieving world. They testify to the reality of God so that the faith of believers could be strengthened with renewed boldness and increased inspiration to the witness of the gospel. They are also a demonstration of the power of God to an unbelieving world so that those who have yet to believe may be persuaded to place their trust in God.

The direct result of signs and wonders resulting in the expansion of the church may inevitably leads to opposition and persecution, particularly in situations where Christians constitute a minority or live within a hostile environment to the gospel. Acts reminds us that in this life, suffering will often not be removed. Although signs and wonders have been the focal point particularly among Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, we need to be reminded that true biblical Pentecostal missions has always been the reliance on the divine enablement to remain faithful in the midst of suffering and persecution.

We must also not discount that God will continue to use signs and wonders to reach out to those who seek him, particularly those who may have been hindered from coming to faith as a result of the imposition of legal, religious and social restrictions. Like the incident of Peter and Cornelius (10:1-48), the church must be sensitive to the leading of the Lord in reaching out to this particular group of people.

It is unfortunate that some Christian circles have abused signs and wonders in an unbiblical way for personal benefits. At the same time, it is also regrettable that some circles have also discounted the possibility of signs and wonders by arguing that they have ended in the apostolic age. As such, Acts helpfully remind us that signs and wonders and the proclamation of the gospel are complementary, and they belong together in the missionary endeavour of the church – both in the apostolic age and in the church today.

25 comments:

davinci said...

From practical point of view, I only concern;

are we seeing genuine signs and wonders?

I am afraid, as overwhelmingly witnessed by rational scrutiny, they are fake ones...

sad!

Tony Siew said...

Dear Kar Yong, this is a balanced and well-written post on signs and wonders in Acts. With your kind permission, I might want use it for my NT 1 Class next Semester. BTW, congrats on your forthcoming paper in Rome. You are certainly going places. Well done!

Alex Tang said...

Hi Kar Yong,

Thank you for a 'politically correct' article on signs and wonders. This area is a minefield with a lot of high explosive potential. It deals with a God who seems to remarkably 'absent' nowadays that we have to give Him praise for the 'healing' of headaches and head colds.

While affirming that God still heals today, I wonder if any of your readers will send me details of patients who have been diagnosed with an incurable disease (well documented medically) and divine healing of the disease (also well documented medically) which is the result of direct divine healing without the additional of medical treatment. Claims of healing of any disease which relapses within two years do not count.

I can be reached at draltang@gmail.com

Kar Yong said...

Hi Davinci,
I do believe genuine signs and wonders still exist today. But my concern is the purpose of the signs. Is it ONLY for personal well-being? What about the larger purpose of these signs and wonders?

Kar Yong said...

Hi Tony,
Thanks for your kind words. Yes, please feel free to use this article if it is of any help.

I am looking forward to Rome - for SBL and also in meeting up with some friends there.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Alex,
I do hope you get some responses. Let me see if I can get some testimonies to you.

davinci said...

I am in line with Dr Tang's argument...

I am active participants among charismatic rally/community for more than ten years,can furnish you with testimonies, but sorry , never the documented ones..hehe..

You want that kind un-documented testimonies, can resort to Jean Lim "Jesus heals ministry"...

I heard gold dust, gold teeth and etc,,,but sad to say, still yet to witness it with my sherlock homes eyes...

If any sign and wonders, true and genuine case, I praise God for that, even it is for personal well-being...

Most ppl care for personal well-being except some like Mother Teresa...

Sze Zeng said...

Hi KY,

It's really a guiding and 'politically correct' (in Alex's word) article. Now I know where to start to talk about this issue when someone ask me.

On the other hand, so far, I have not witness any medically documented healing which do not take any medication. Hence I'm rather inconsistent in my skepticism over this and my approval over those who experienced healings, saw signs & wonders.

But of course, I'm ever affirming when people tell me that they experience divine healings. I even said "alleluai" in-front of them. That's simply because "Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded." (Batman in The Dark Knight).

There is also this medically-shown 'placebo affect' which I heard takes up about 20% of patients' recovery (if I'm not wrong, i heard it from Dinesh D'Souza).

And this effect extends to all humans regardless whether they prayed to Jesus or Buddha or Caesar. Perhaps Alex Tang able to share more about 'placebo effect'.

As curious.

Sze Zeng said...

"I am looking forward to Rome - for SBL and also in meeting up with some friends there."

You know the Pope!!?? :)

Paul said...

Thanks Doctor Lim

Helpful article

不肖生 Sceptics said...

signs and wondoers, for personal well-being or mission/kingdom purpose?

empirically, both are not mutually inclusive, attested by success of charismatic/pentecostal movement

不肖生 Sceptics said...

sorry, I mean, "both are mutually inclusive"...

Kar Yong said...

Hi Davinci,
Thanks for your comments and for highlighting that even if healings are for personal well-being, there is reasong to praise God. I do agree with that. As someone who has been in pentecostal movement for more than 7 years, I have seen miracles happen (well, unfortunately it is not documented). But the sad part is that as I read Acts, I don't see those who perform miracles emphasising the fact that the function of the miracles is not merely for personal well-being. There is a bigger purpose! That is almost alien from many teachings on signs and wonders today.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Sze Zeng,
Glad you find this of some help. How's preparation for TTC?

Kar Yong said...

Hi Sze Zeng,
Rome ah - I know the Pope by name - I am not sure he knows me.....Hopefully I could get a glimpse of him when I get to visit the Vatican City..:-)

Kar Yong said...

不肖生 Sceptics,

Thanks for your comments. Like I said, I don't seem to find the emphasis on mission/kingdom purpose in recent teaching on signs and wonders. Most focus on personal well-being. This is the sad part.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi KY,

Not yet start preparing... still busy working at the moment. Probably will start to buy textbooks in June.

Thanks for asking.

Kar Yong said...

Hi Sze Zeng,
You still need to buy textbook? I thought you should have all of them by now...Haha

Israel Lee said...

I think the problem with the current charismatic movement is that they promise and sell Jesus and the gospels 'too much'. Something which the Lord may not be willing to confirm unlike what we read in Mark 16:20 or in Acts. This could be due to the shallow if now skewed doctrine on signs and wonders that most charismatic preachers promising healing adopt. It is no wonder that miracles do not often occur. This continues to be my burden for my charismatic brethren since I count myself as one. If I have the resources, I will send them each one of Fees' book on the Spirit. ;-)

On signs and wonders, I think we should not just focus on healing, the ability to cast our demons is still a great sign that the kingdom of God has arrived in the Spirit. I have personally witnessed demon possession more than once and tried my hands on demon casting as well in my college 'spiritual swashbuckling days'. ;-)

Sze Zeng said...

hahaha.. i will if i have a money printer or a goose that lays golden eggs! :)

Kar Yong said...

Hi Israel,
Thanks for your input. Yes, I would agree with you - as I have been in the pentecostal circles for more than 7 years. There is just too much "selling"! BUt on the other hand, like I pointed out, many traditional churches also shun signs and wonders.

Also agreed with you on casting out demons!!

PengYou said...

Dear Dr Lim,

This is the first time I have come across such a faithful and unbiased critical evaluation of the purpose and implications of signs and wonders in the Church, as documented in the NT, especially from a person like you who has seen miracles happen in more than seven years of involvement in the Pentecostal movement.

I have found your assertions very helpful indeed: that signs and wonders were used, and continue to be used, by God for the expansion of His kingdom, resulting in the increasing number of Christians in the Church, and for crossing barriers that obstruct the preaching of the gospel to certain people, while being closely linked to intense persecution and sufferings. Thank you.

Kar Yong said...

Dear Peng You,
Thank you so much for your kind words and comments.

Binoj said...

Dear Sir, Thank you for the good balanced arguements. I am am M.Th Missiology student. I focused my study on miracleas and church planting. I would like to say, there are miracles today. But not every 'drama' is a miracle. I have many amazing stories, though I am a critical reader inthis matter. GOD is a miracle GOD

Kar Yong said...

Hi Binoj,
Thanks for dropping by, and I am glad the article is of some use to you.

I wish you all the best in your studies towards ThM in Missiology