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