Commenting on Acts 2.43 — And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. — John D. Polhill observes: “The miracles are described with the characteristic combination ‘signs’ and ‘wonders.’ The same phrase continues to be used of the apostles’ miracle-working in 4:30 and 5:12 and is applied to others as well: Jesus (2:22), Stephen (6:8), Moses (7:36), Philip (8:13), and Paul and Barnabas (14:3; 15:12). It is interesting to note that the phrase is no longer used after chap. 15, although Paul continued to work miracles.”
When a distinction this profound is observed, one has to wonder why? Why is “signs and wonders” so frequently used in Acts 1-15 and never afterward, even though clear miracles were performed.
Adding more, Polhill observes in a footnote: “Perhaps this is reflective of Luke’s subtlety as a writer. ‘Signs and wonders’ is a common OT phrase and so is employed in the earlier chapters of Acts, where the witness was primarily to Jews. In the later portions of Acts, with their Greek setting, Paul [sic – Luke?] used less ‘biblical’ terminology (cf. 19:11).”
Curiouser and couriouser… is “signs and wonders” a particularly Jewish phrase? And if yes, what are the implications for our view of signs and wonders in this age?
Signs and Wonders defined
When we use the term signs and wonders, according to biblical usage, we are talking about supernatural events. That is, they are such things as those miracles that attested to the person and work of Jesus (Acts 2.22) and those prophesied by Joel (Acts 2.19). They are such things as the apostles were performing in the early church (Acts 2.43), prominently illustrated by the healing of the lame man at the beautiful gate (Acts 3.1-11). There are signs that belong exclusively to the action of God alone (the deliverance of Judah from the Assyrians (Isa 37, 2 Ki 19), but we are particularly interested in those signs that are attributed to individuals. They are not merely answers to prayer, where someone might petition God for the healing of the sick (Jas 5.16), but those actions performed on an at-will basis by God’s power through his agents among men (e.g., Peter saying, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”).
Signs and Wonders: Biblical Usage
A survey of the biblical use of the term “signs and wonders” confirms some of the observations made above. The phrase occurs first in the account of the Exodus, Ex 4.21; 7.3, 9; 11.9-10. The majority of other uses in the Old Testament also refer to the wonders of the Exodus (Dt 4.34, 6.22, 7.19, 34.11; Neh 9.10; Ps 78.43, 105.27, cf.135.9; Jer 32.20-21). The only exceptions are Isa 8.18, where Isaiah and his children are said to be “for signs and for wonders in Israel” and Dan 4.2-3 (Nebuchadnezzar) and Dan 6.27 (Darius) where the term is on the lips of pagan kings describing what they have seen God do. Both of these last instances are included in a book written by an Israelite for Israelites. The overwhelming usage of the term suggests a strong connection to the events of the Exodus and also to its significance especially for the nation Israel.
We already mentioned the unique use of the term in the first fifteen chapters of Acts. In Acts we find the three references in Acts 2: 19, 22, 43, sparked by the Pentecostal phenomena of tongues and demonstrated in Jerusalem by the apostles going forward. The early church prayed for continued signs and wonders in face of Sanhedrin persecution Ac 4.30. We see additional signs and wonders in Jerusalem by the hands of apostles Ac 5.12 and also Stephen, one of the deacons, performing signs and wonders in Jerusalem Ac 6.8. Stephen, in his sermon, refers back to the works of Moses Ac 7.36, in a decidedly OT kind of usage. The other references are to Paul and Barnabas in Iconium (Gentile city) Ac 14.3 and then when Paul and Barnabas report to Jews about signs and wonders among Gentiles 15.12.
The New Testament usage outside of Acts is also instructive. Jesus chides the synagogue official for demanding signs and wonders (Jn 4.48) and Jesus predicts that false Christs and false prophets would arise with false signs and wonders (Mt 24.24; Mk 13.22) — the purpose of this deception is to deceive “the elect,” i.e. Israel in the last days.
Last, we have the uses of the term in the epistles. Paul refers to the Gentiles coming to faith “by signs and wonders” (Rm 15.19). Paul says that signs and wonders are the signs of an apostle (2 Cor 12.12). Hebrews [written to Jewish believers] says that the apostles confirmed their gospel by signs and wonders (Heb 2.3-4), and significantly, the antichrist will be marked by signs and wonders (2 Th 2.9).
We can make these observations about the NT usage:
- We see in these passages that the NT description of signs and wonders is tightly connected to the apostles and their ministry, especially among the Jews.
- We see that Jesus and Paul predict an age of signs and wonders intended to deceive, “even the elect” Jesus said. In the context of Mt 24, Jesus is referring to the Jewish nation, not the Christian church.
- One of the first objects of antichrist’s deception will be the Jews, who will enter into an alliance with him at the beginning of the Tribulation (an alliance which the antichrist will ultimately break).
Present day significance of signs and wonders
The life of the Christian church comes from the gospel (Rm 10.12-17). The church is a new body, not revealed in the Old Testament, but called together in this age by the preaching of the gospel. The church is not formed in response to signs and wonders but in response to the message preached. “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?”
Indeed, Paul says in 1 Cor that the preaching of the cross (the constitutive element of the Christian church) is foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling blocks to the Jews. Why is it a stumbling block to the Jews? Because “the Jews require a sign” (1.22, cf. 1.21-23). (Greeks, on the other hand look for wisdom.) Isn’t it interesting that Paul notes the importance of signs to the Jews specifically?
One day, the Jews will get their sign – they will see Him whom they have pierced, descending from heaven to deliver them. They will mourn for Him as for an only son, and will be saved from their enemies and given new hearts. That sign remains, not for today, but for an age to come.
In the Bible, signs and wonders are particularly connected to the Jewish nation. When the apostles were preaching, they demonstrated signs and wonders in particular among the Jews and for the Jews. When the New Testament church was founded, indeed, as the church began to spread among the Gentiles, the age of signs and wonders began to wane. Eventually they disappeared.
The signs are not for today – the age of the apostles is over. Today all that remains is the gospel, that is what we must preach, and rely on the Spirit to bring men to Christ through the Word. Sometimes folks will come with some innovative method or event that will build the church. Sometimes some “star” convert will be touted as one to draw people to the church. God doesn’t work that way. Today it is the still small voice of the gospel. Preach the word, pray for sinners, offer salvation, trust that some will believe.
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.
The article above is a manuscript form of a message preached September 25, 2016 at Grace Baptist Church of Victoria. You can get the audio here.