Signs & Wonders
Passage: Acts 5:12–5:17
12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
Signs and wonders. The apostles perform many signs and wonders. Anybody who takes seriously the first verse in their Bible, shouldn’t be alarmed. If God created the heavens and the earth from nothing (Gen 1:1; Heb 11:3), the miraculous is easy to accept. Christians agree that God is able to perform signs and wonders.
But Christians haven’t always agreed on the place of signs and wonders in the church’s mission. Some elevate signs and wonders to a place of central importance. They see them as so necessary to the mission that without them our evangelism will prove defective and our religion powerless. Others have rightly exposed this error, but past abuses—as well as present disappointments—make some leery to even pray for the miraculous. Still others argue that signs and wonders were limited to a special period in God’s plan of salvation, but that period is now over. Or is it, we must ask?
I won’t pretend to answer all questions surrounding these “signs and wonders,” but I would like to build a framework for understanding them. So what we’re going to do is first understand this passage. Then we’ll look at its broader context. And lastly, I want to make eight observations toward understanding signs and wonders.
Signs & Wonders by the Hands of the Apostles
Let’s first understand the passage before us. There’s a difficulty at the end of verse 12 and the beginning of verse 13. It says, “They were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.”[i] The difficulty is determining who “they” and “them” are. “They” could be the apostles: “[The apostles] were all together…the people held [the apostles] in high esteem” Luke would then be describing God’s powerful presence among the apostles. “They” could also be the church: “[The church] were all together…None of the rest dared join [the church], but the people held [the church] in high esteem.” Luke would then be describing God’s powerful presence among the church as a whole.[ii]
Whichever you choose, the point is that God’s powerful presence made some people fairly reticent to approach. After all, didn’t God just kill Ananias and Sapphira for their hypocrisy (Acts 5:5, 10)? Great fear came upon all who heard of these things (Acts 5:11). Now we’re seeing all these signs and wonders, and people become somewhat hesitant to join this group. Many flocked to Jesus as well, but others were unsettled by him. In Mark 5:17, after Jesus sent a legion of demons out of a man; they begged Jesus to depart from their region. There’s something about God’s powerful presence that makes some fearful and reticent to approach.
Not all respond this way, though. Notice verse 14: “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of men and women.” Some dared not join them, but God’s kingdom still advanced. I was talking with Tommy Hard at the picnic last week, and he pointed out from this passage how concerned God is for a regenerate church, a believers’ church. Believers were added to the Lord, while those who were faking it—like Ananias and Sapphira—were removed by the Lord.
That’s a good observation and another reason why we should take church membership and corrective discipline so seriously. But even more, this should give us impetus to pray for God’s powerful presence to rest upon us. God’s powerful presence not only purifies the church from false converts but grows the church with true converts. We should want God’s presence to be so manifest among us that hypocrisy gets exposed and sinners get converted (cf. 1 Cor 14:24-25). Let’s not go through the motions of “church” without the presence of God filling this church.
The other big thing we see here, of course, is all the signs and wonders. Verse 12, “Many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. They even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.”
It doesn’t say his shadow actually healed anybody. All we’re told is what the people wished for, much like the woman in the Gospels wished just to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment (Matt 9:21; Mark 5:28; Luke 8:44). At the same time, we can’t rule out the possibility, especially since later on in Acts 19:12 God heals people through handkerchiefs that touched Paul. The point is that God’s presence so rested upon Peter and the church, that it had this kind of draw. It truly parallels the ministry of Jesus (cf. Matt 14:36), which we’ll talk about more in a minute.
Verse 16 is then the first place where we see God’s presence in the church beginning to impact the surrounding regions. “The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.” Word is spreading. People are hearing. God’s kingdom starts pressing itself into other regions, gathering the broken and the oppressed. That’s who the kingdom is for, the broken and the oppressed. They were healed. In sum, we get a snapshot of God’s powerful presence working through the church to expand his kingdom.
Signs & Wonders in Answer to Prayer
Let’s now zoom out a bit further to see the broader context. Don’t miss that these signs and wonders come in answer to prayer. Look at 4:29-30, “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
God answers their prayer for boldness in 4:31. Then he answers their prayer for signs and wonders right here in 5:12. God’s power working through the church comes in answer to prayer. We can’t want the power of God’s presence without making time to sit in his presence. We can’t want the blessings of God without wanting God.
In his book Revival and Revivalism, Ian Murray reflects on the Second Great Awakening. God’s powerful presence revived the churches of the early 19th century. But listen to this, “One thing can be said with certainty about the 1790s, before any general indications of a new era were to be seen, is that there was a growing concern among Christians to pray.”[iii] The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church for 1803 also recorded that “…the institution of prayer societies, or seasons of special prayer to God, generally preceded the remarkable displays of Divine grace.”[iv]
God’s powerful presence works through the church when the church prays. I cannot stress this enough; and we’ll continue to see it throughout Acts. Prayer is the means God ordained to accomplish his purposes. If you want to see God’s powerful presence working in your life and through this church, devote yourself to prayer.
Pray for God’s power to rest upon us. Pray for him to heal. Pray for him to press the gospel into enemy territory and deliver people from Satan through you. Oh that God’s powerful presence would so rest on churches in Fort Worth, that multitudes of men and women get added to the Lord. That’s the goal, right? That multitudes would be added to the Lord, that they worship him and enjoy his salvation. Pray for it.
It’s also good for us to see that God’s powerful presence in the church will not be liked by all. What happened in chapters 3-4? God heals a lame man through Peter, he preaches the gospel, and then gets jailed for it all. The same will happen here. God powerfully heals many people as they preach the gospel. The next thing we’ll see is more persecution. It’ll happen again with Stephen. He does great signs and wonders as he preaches the gospel. They oppose him and stone him to death for it.
In other words, God’s powerful presence in the church doesn’t mean a more comfortable church. It doesn’t mean a safer church. It will mean greater opposition. The kingdom of Satan will never win out, of course. In fact, nearly every time the church experiences persecution, Luke follows with a little snapshot of how the church continues expanding and the gospel keeps advancing (Acts 4:23-37; 5:41-6:7; 8:1, 4). Satan’s kingdom can’t win. But it will do all it can to frighten us and harm us and destroy us.
So let’s be sober-minded. As we pray for his power to rest upon us, let’s also pray for God to strengthen us to endure the opposition.
Toward Understanding Signs & Wonders
Now, having looked at the passage and its context, let’s now zoom out even more. Let’s now work to understand these “signs and wonders.” How should we think about them? How do they function in the Bible’s storyline? What meaning do they have today? I’ve got eight brief observations. This is part of your application. Prayer for God’s power was one. Right thinking about “signs and wonders” is another.
1. “Signs and wonders” recalls God’s act of deliverance in the Exodus
First observation: “signs and wonders” recalls God’s act of deliverance in the Exodus. If you took a concordance and searched where these words appear most in the Old Testament, you’d find a unique concentration around the Exodus. Repeatedly, the Old Testament describes the Exodus as a time when God delivered his people with great “signs and wonders.”[v] Stephen describes it the same way in Acts 7:36, “[Moses] led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea…”
The next place where you get such a concentration on “signs and wonders” is with the ministry of Jesus and the apostles.[vi] What’s the connection? The connection becomes clearer when we remember what Luke said about Jesus in 3:22. He’s the greater prophet like Moses. In the same way God led his people out of slavery through Moses with great signs and wonders, God is leading his people out of slavery through Jesus with great signs and wonders. But way better than Moses, Jesus leads us out of slavery to sin.
God’s act of deliverance in Christ is the greatest exodus. The greatest deliverance is Jesus dying for our sins on the cross and rising from the dead. He now reigns and continues to work in and through the church until all his people reach the true “Promised Land,” the New Heaven and Earth. These signs and wonders signal the dawning of a new era of deliverance. They say, “Hey, listen up, if you want true freedom, freedom from sin, trust in Jesus as your deliverer.”
2. Part of the new exodus in Christ was God healing his people
A second observation: part of the new exodus in Christ was God healing his people. Look with me at Isaiah 35. In the midst of Israel’s helpless condition God gives them a future hope. But he explains that hope in terms of a new exodus. There’s a wilderness in verse 1. Verses 3-4 imply the people have suffered enemy oppression; they’re weak and need rescue. God will make a highway for them in verse 8. He’ll ransom them in verse 10. All images that reach back to the exodus.
But this exodus will be greater. He’ll turn their desert into a garden paradise; the ransomed return with joy and gladness (Isa 35:8-10). Part of that salvation includes verse 5: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy…” When God brings this greater exodus deliverance, the broken world will experience a divine reversal: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame leap.
Then enters Jesus. In Luke 7:19, John the Baptist asks whether Jesus is the coming one, the Messiah, or should he look for someone else. Then it says in 7:21, “In that hour [Jesus] healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you’ve seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.’”
Why didn’t Jesus just say, “Yep, I’m the Messiah”? Why heal many people and then tell John, “The blind see, the lame walk”? Because it says so much more. He’s the God of Isaiah 35. He has come to lead his people out of their brokenness into that new creation glory. His signs and wonders witness to that truth of his salvation (cf. Acts 2:22). In fact, they even serve as a concrete expression of his salvation.
3. Signs and wonders authenticate Jesus and the apostles
Which leads to a third observation: the signs and wonders authenticate Jesus and the apostles. Acts 2:22 says that God “attested” to Jesus with mighty works and wonders and signs. Hebrews 2:4 says that God delivered the message of salvation and also “bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (cf. also 2 Cor 2:12).
Signs and wonders had an undeniable apologetic function: they authenticated Jesus and authenticated Jesus’ ministry through the apostles.[vii] This is why the Jewish authorities get so perturbed. How can anyone deny the healings? It was so obvious to the people that God was with Jesus and his apostles.
But we need to clarify how the signs and wonders authenticated them. They didn’t authenticate them in a parallel fashion. They weren’t just random displays of power that came alongside their message but never really had anything to do with their message. Rather, the signs gave concrete expression to their message.[viii] It’s one thing to announce that Jesus heals the broken, rescues the oppressed, and then pull a rabbit out of your hat—it’s got nothing to do with the message. But it’s another thing when you announce that Jesus heals the broken, rescues the oppressed, and then the lame start leaping and unclean spirits flee in Jesus’ name.
That’s how the signs authenticated the apostles, and what helped many to believe their message. We see it again in Acts 8:6—“the crowds…paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did.” By healing people and casting out unclean spirits, God authenticated Jesus and the apostles by giving concrete expression to their message. That concrete expression helped compel belief.
4. Signs and wonders manifest Jesus’ in-breaking kingdom
Fourth observation: signs and wonders manifest Jesus’ in-breaking kingdom. The Gospels make it very clear that God’s kingdom arrives, at least in part, with Jesus’ first coming (Mark 1:15). He is the King; he brings the kingdom with him. One way his miracles functioned was that they signaled the arrival of his kingdom. They signaled the divine reversal. Everything broken will be healed. Satan’s kingdom will be overthrown.
Matthew 12:28 is a good example: Jesus says, “But if it’s by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Meaning, it’s already arrived by the fact that the King is present and casting out demons. He is proving his authority over Satan’s kingdom. In Luke 9:1-2, Jesus then grants his twelve disciples authority to continue his ministry; and he does it again in Luke 10 with the seventy-two. Both groups preach the kingdom and heal people to prove the kingdom’s presence.
That’s all a precursor to the book of Acts, where the signs and wonders serve the same purpose. Think about it. Chapter 3—the lame man gets healed, and the whole point is to announce, “God glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13). He made him King over all by resurrection (cf. Acts 3:14; 4:11). Healing the man was but one manifestation of the power of his present reign. The same for chapter 5.
Now, that doesn’t mean everybody gets healed now. We still live in the “already-not-yet.” Some may get healed now. But it’s just as true that God leaves some in their sickness and suffering to demonstrate his sufficiency and glory in other ways.[ix] We even observe that with Paul himself who healed on many occasions, but on other occasions he had to leave friends behind sick (2 Tim 4:20). Still, God chooses to heal some, and we need to understand what those healings point to: God’s coming kingdom in Christ. They’re foretastes of the holistic liberation to come.
5. Signs and wonders illustrate the compassion of God in the gospel
Fifth, signs and wonders illustrate the compassion of God in the gospel.[x] The two signs we find most often in Jesus’ ministry and the church’s ministry are healing the sick and liberating the oppressed from the demonic.[xi] On one occasion in Luke 7:12, “a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow…And when the Lord saw her,” it says, “he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” He then goes on to raise the woman’s son.
This particular healing shows that Jesus’ healing ministry was driven by compassion (also Matt 14:14). The same applies when Jesus helps a family in Mark 9:22 by healing their demon-possessed boy. The parents ask him, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus shows compassion; he heals.
Standing behind these healings is God’s compassion for humanity.[xii] Ever since the Garden, Satan has tempted and oppressed humanity, and we’ve still chosen to follow him. Our own rebellion thrust the world into a state of brokenness and death that we could never reverse. And yet God, who had every right to leave us broken and oppressed and perishing—he has compassion on us. The salvation he brings humanity is motivated by compassion, mercy toward the helpless.
Of course, God’s supreme act of compassion is displayed in the cross of Christ. His compassion for sinners moved him to give up his only Son. He died in our place to solve our greatest problem, sin. Yet it’s also through dealing with our sin, that he also brings us healing Isaiah 53:4 says (cf. Matt 8:16-16). Most importantly, he heals our relationship with God now. He will eventually heal all things in the new heaven and earth. These signs and wonders illustrate what God is like in the gospel—he comes to save the broken, the oppressed, the weak, the enslaved.
It’s no wonder that in Acts 14:3, the Lord himself bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by Paul and Barnabas’ hands. Yes, he used Paul and Barnabas to preach his “word of grace.” But he then illustrated that word of grace further by granting signs and wonders.
6. Signs and wonders help, but they’re not necessary or most important
Sixth, signs and wonders help, but they’re not necessary or most important. I’m persuaded by the New Testament that signs and wonders are expected to continue until Jesus returns again. It wasn’t only the apostles who were gifted to heal—so were Stephen, Philip, and Ananias. It also seems clear from places like Galatians 3:5 and 1 Corinthians 12 and James 5:16, that God still gifts people to heal and even perform miracles on occasion, just like he did in the early church.[xiii]
If we view these signs within the framework that we’ve already covered, they can be helpful and even desirable, especially when pursued with right motives. But, we must never say they’re necessary. If we say they’re necessary, then we jeopardize the message of the cross—what Paul calls the power of God to save (1 Cor 1:24). Sadly, many churches have put so much stress on the miraculous, that they’ve gradually pushed the gospel of the cross to the periphery when Jesus meant for it to be the center. They’ve thrust aside what Paul says is “of first importance,” the gospel; and in doing so, they’ve led others astray. You can have a healthy church without healings; but you’re no church at all without the gospel being central.
Jesus’ words in Luke 10:20 are also helpful. The seventy-two he sent come back from their mission rejoicing, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name.” Jesus says, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Far more important than signs and wonders is knowing God, and more importantly, being known by God—having your name in his book of life.
You may never do a miracle in your life, but if you’re in Christ, you have God. Rejoice in that as you leave today. If you’re not in Christ, believe on him for the forgiveness of your sins and you will be saved.
7. Don’t be deceived by mere signs and wonders
Seventh: don’t be deceived by mere signs and wonders. The Bible is very clear that God enables some very evil people to perform signs and wonders (Deut 13:1-3; Rev 13:13-14). Jesus says in Matthew 24:24 that in the last days “false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” 2 Thessalonians 2:9 says that “the coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders.”
So not all signs and wonders are innocent. Some are intentionally meant to deceive and lead people into false worship. How can we know the difference? Three crucial tests: doctrine, character, purpose. What’s their doctrine like? Does what they teach align with Scripture? Do they believe in God as Trinity? Do they preach the gospel of Christ? Or do they preach a different Jesus, a false Jesus divorced from the cross and any call to take up our own cross?
What’s their character like? Jesus said that we’ll know a false teacher by their fruits. They will be workers of lawlessness. Matthew 7 says, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
And finally, what’s their purpose? Is the purpose of the miracle to bring God glory? Revelation 13 says the Beast performs miracles too, but his miracles lead people into false worship. Do the signs produce true worship? Are the people treating God as a cosmic Genie to get whatever they want? Or is the goal to devote their lives to his purpose and priorities? Do the prayer meetings produce the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, self-control? Or do they reflect the disorder of another spirit?
These kinds of questions aren’t meant to make us skeptics of everything miraculous. God still heals and liberates. They’re meant only to help us discern when we encounter the miraculous, so that Jesus remains our treasure and so that others get added to him. We don’t want people to perish because of false people and false motives. We want them “added to the Lord” in truth. That’s the point. The point is multiplying worshipers who respond to God’s powerful presence. Let us pray that God’s powerful presence rests on us, that we too may see multitudes added to the Lord.
8. Signs and wonders point to a kingdom free from brokenness & oppression
Lastly, signs and wonders point to a kingdom free from brokenness and oppression. Again, the two signs we find most are healing the sick and liberating the oppressed from the demonic. With the coming of Jesus, these serve as pointers of what his final kingdom on earth will be like.
His kingdom will be one totally free from all brokenness. The broken world will be made right: all natural catastrophes will cease. Broken relationships will cease. Broken bodies, he will transform into glorious bodies. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4).
Satan will also be vanquished forever. Through Jesus’ cross and exaltation, God has already ousted Satan from heaven (John 12:31-32; Rev 12). The accuser of the brethren has been cast down. And when Jesus’ kingdom comes again, the kingdom of Satan will be finished off forever. No accuser. No tempter. No evil. No oppression. No demonic strongholds. No deceiver. No darkness. No fear. Pure freedom and peace and loveliness before God’s presence always.
Let these signs in Scripture remind you of that coming day. Let them point you to what Jesus’ final kingdom will be like. Let them move you to share the hope of his kingdom with others who are broken and oppressed; and may many more be added to the Lord.
[i] E.g., Bock, Acts, 231.
[ii] That “they” refers to the church may have more going for it. The word behind “together” (homothumadon) also appears in descriptions of the church in Acts 1:14; 2:46; 4:24. Also, in describing the church earlier, Luke notes that “awe came upon every soul” (Acts 2:43) and that the church had “great favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47), which is similar to them holding the church in “high esteem” in Acts 5:13.
[iii] Ian Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1996), 129.
[iv] As cited in Murray, Revival and Revivalism, 130.
[v] E.g., Exod 3:20; 7:3; 8:23; 10:1, 2; 11:9-10; 15:11; Num 14:22; Deut 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 26:8; 29:3; Josh 3:5; 24:17; Pss 78:43; 105:27; 135:9; Jer 32:21.
[vi] E.g., Acts 2:22, 43; 5:12-16; 6:8; 8:6, 13; 14:3; 15:12; Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12; Heb 2:4.
[vii] Throughout Acts “signs and wonders” are performed through the apostles, as well as a few others. See those performed by all the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12, 16), Peter and John (Acts 3:1-10), Peter alone (Acts 5:15; 9:32-34, 39-41), and Paul (Acts 15:12; 19:12; 20:11). Others included Stephen (Acts 6:8), Philip (Acts 8:6-7), and Ananias (Acts 9:17-18).
[viii] For more on how signs and wonders legitimate the apostles intrinsically, see the helpful treatment by Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 248-54.
[ix] John 9:1-3; Rom 8:35-39; 2 Cor 1:3-11; 4:17-18; 12:7-9; Phil 2:25-27; Heb 12:3-11; Jas 5:7-11.
[x] Some signs and wonders are reserved for Jesus alone: walking on water, feeding the 5,000, changing water into wine. Their purpose was to reveal him as the Messiah directly. But other signs he did, he continues to do through the church.
[xi] Taking Luke’s two-part narrative as our guide, see e.g., the healings from sickness in Luke 4:18, 39, 40; 5:13, 24-25; 6:10, 18a; 7:9-10, 14-15, 21, 22, 47, 54-55; 9:1-2, 11; 10:9; 13:12-13; 17:14; 18:42; Acts 3:6-7; 5:16; 8:7b; 9:34, 40-41; 14:10; 19:12; 20:10-12 and the liberation from demonic oppression in Luke 4:33-35, 41; 6:18b, 21; 8:2, 32-33; 9:1, 42; 10:17; 11:20; Acts 5:16; 8:7a.
[xii] Keener, Acts, 2:545.
[xiii] For six reasons supporting the continuation of the gifts until Jesus’ return, see my sermon from 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, “The Spirit and the Permanence of Love.”