Signs and Wonders: God’s Creation of a People

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“Signs and wonders” is most commonly associated with certain Christians. They argue that the way to evangelize is through signs and wonders. “This was what Jesus and the apostles did,” they say.

Their claim has some merit. Scripture records for us what the Apostle Peter said to the people at Pentecost. “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22). In addition, that was how God chose to confirm the message of the Apostles. “So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.” (Acts 14:3).

“Power evangelism” is the term they use for evangelism that is accompanied by “signs and wonders”—which is mostly healing. So the claim is that if you want to reach the world effectively for Jesus, you need to do so with signs and wonders. Let us put aside our questions, but just look at Scripture without the burden of proving one thing or another.

SIGNS AND WONDERS IN THE OT

It may surprise some to learn that “signs and wonders” did start from the OT.

The first use of “signs and wonders” began early in the OT when God told Moses “But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in Egypt he will not listen to you. (Exodus 7:3-4). This is then repeated in Deuteronomy looking back to the same event, saying, “The Lord did miraculous signs and wonders before our eyes, dealing terrifying blows against Egypt and Pharaoh and all his people.” (Deuteronomy 6:22, NLT, cf. Deut. 3:24; 7:19; 11:3; 26:8; 29:3; 34:11). There is a remarkable uniformity of reference in these occurrences. These signs and wonders were all said with reference to what was done against Egypt. Every single reference to “signs and wonders” in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) identifies the signs and wonders as what God did to Egypt for the Hebrews. We will call this the “Exodus Event.”

The OT references outside of the Pentateuch use this term in the same way. Jeremiah spoke of “signs and wonders in Egypt,” and “You brought your people Israel out of Egypt with signs and wonders.” (Jeremiah 32:20,21). Nehemiah speaks of “signs and wonders against Pharaoh” (Nehemiah 9:10). As in the Pentateuch, every single reference to signs and wonders points to what was done to Egypt to deliver God’s chosen people so they can be a nation as promised to Abraham.

The Psalms also use this term, speaking of “the day he displayed his signs in Egypt.” (78:43) Also, “He sent Moses … and Aaron. They performed signs among them, his wonders in the land of Ham.” (105:26-27). Here “Ham” is used as a poetic equivalent of Egypt as the reference goes back to Moses and Aaron.  “He sent his signs and wonders into your midst, Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants.” (135:9). Up to this point, every reference to “signs and wonders” is to Yahweh’s acts of sheer power against Egypt/Pharaoh in delivering his people from Egypt.

In the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar (the Babylonian king), also uses this term. “It is my pleasure to tell you about the miraculous signs and wonders that the Most High God has performed for me.” (Daniel 4:2). Even though Nebuchadnezzar was never delivered by Yahweh in the way Israel was delivered, and Egypt was not involved, he uses similar language. However, he immediately follows up with the declaration of God’s kingdom, “How great are his signs, | how mighty his wonders! His kingdom is an eternal kingdom; his dominion endures from generation to generation. (4:3)

It appears that Nebuchadnezzar is appropriating to his own life God’s signs and wonders in the building of God’s eternal kingdom, which stands apart from Babylon.

In Daniel, the Persian king, Darius said: “I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

“For he is the living God and … his kingdom will not be destroyed,
  his dominion will never end. | He rescues and he saves;
  he performs signs and wonders | in the heavens and on the earth.
He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.” (Daniel 6:26-27)

Here, Darius begins with God’s eternal kingdom and follows it with the declaration of “signs and wonders,” adding a reference to the amazing deliverance of Daniel from the lions.

Two foreign kings use “signs and wonders,” without reference to God delivering Israel from Egypt, but with reference to God’s eternal kingdom.

Summary. There are two meanings to “signs and wonders” in the OT: (1) the Exodus Event and (2) the eternal kingdom of God. The Exodus Event is the event that created a nation. The eternal kingdom is also the creation of a nation, but this nation, unlike other nations before, will not be created through human means, will sweep away all the nations that come before (Babylonia, Persia, Greece and Rome), and it will last forever (Daniel 2). This was powerfully fulfilled when Jesus was born under the Roman Empire, swept it away, has endured and continues to endure to this day. We are living in this period of fulfillment. The formation of Israel in the Exodus Event and the formation of the eternal kingdom will be accompanied by “signs and wonders.” The two references to “signs and wonders” in the OT seem disparate at first, but they are really powerfully tied together. “Signs and wonders” in history (the Exodus Event) and “signs and wonders” in prophecy (the inauguration of the eternal kingdom). God had formed national Israel through signs and wonders; God will form his eternal kingdom through signs and wonders.

SIGNS AND WONDERS IN THE NT

When we come to the NT, we see the repeated declaration that the kingdom of God has come. This is the good news. God’s Messiah has come to establish the eternal kingdom of God spoken by the prophet Daniel.

In the proclamation of the Good News

Jesus brought in the kingdom of God by his life, death and resurrection. From the start of his ministry, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.  News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. (Matthew 4:23-25).

The term “signs and wonders” is not a restrictive term but a general term encompassing healing, freeing the demon possessed, and the miraculous works of nature. We see Jesus doing two things in tandem: proclaiming the good news of the (eternal) kingdom and healing people from diseases and from demonic possession. This is exactly as prophesied in Daniel. The Apostle Peter reminds the people of Israel, “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22).

While Jesus was powerful, the disciples were powerless – until the day of power, the day of Pentecost. This was the day when the disciples took up where Jesus left off. And when the Holy Spirit was poured out on them, they became God’s agents to perform signs and wonders.

On the day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter explained, “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel … ‘I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below.’” (Acts 2:16,19).  “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.” (Acts 2:43). We note that most of the signs and wonders came through the apostles. This showed the people the apostles were indeed God’s servants. It also authenticates the message. The authentication of the messenger and the message are really one and the same matter. If the messenger is true, the message is also true.  We are told repeatedly, The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. …” (Acts 5:12).  “So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.” (Acts 14:3). …“by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. … I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. (Romans 15:19). “I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.” (2 Corinthians 12:12) “God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Hebrews 2:4).

Summary. Signs and wonders accompanied the ministry of Jesus and of the Apostles as they proclaimed the eternal kingdom of God. “Signs and wonders,” especially healing, accomplished four things: (1) it caught the people’s attention; (2) it authenticated the messenger; (3) it authenticated the message; (4) it fulfilled the prophecy in Daniel.

In the conversion of Gentiles

The majority of people in God’s Kingdom today are Gentiles. It is easy to forget the first Christians were Jews who struggled with the question: “Who should inherit God’s Kingdom? Or, to whom should we share this Good News?” Acts outline for us God’s hand in leading the early church from Hebraic/Aramaic-speaking Jews to Greek-speaking Jews to Gentiles. This was a severe culture shock to the first Christians, and the Holy Spirit of God had to demonstrate to them clearly that such was his intention.

Acts tells us the first church had both Hebraic/Aramaic-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews). To serve the needs of the Greek-speaking Jews, “They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 6:5).   “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8). Stephen was the spearhead messenger of Good news to the Greek-speaking Jews. Those who rejected his message plotted his death (Acts 6:9ff). Stephen’s death accelerated the spread of the Good News because Christians fled Jerusalem, bringing the Good News everywhere (Acts 8:1,4).

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21)

Luke intends to show us that the proclamation of the good news to the Gentiles is superintended by God. It began with Stephen who was authenticated by God through signs and wonders.

Next, we have the account of the conversion of Cornelius by Peter. Cornelius was not a Jew, and not circumcised. But when he believed, the Holy Spirit came on him and he spoke in tongues (Acts 10:44-48). Since God had approved Cornelius without circumcision, Peter decided to baptize Cornelius. But “the circumcised believers criticized him  and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’” (Acts 11:2-3). Peter explained, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. … So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:15-17).

The issue of baptism without circumcision finally came to a head with all the church leaders meeting to deliberate on the issue (Acts 15). “The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them.” (Acts 15:12) And this finally convinced the circumcised believers that they could baptize Gentiles without circumcision, and circumcision should not be required of Gentiles.

Summary. The supernatural manifestation of God variously described, through healing, tongues, miracles, signs and wonders, were used by God to show the early Christians that the promises of God’s Kingdom were not limited to the Jews, but were available to the Gentiles without their first becoming Jews through circumcision.

As God’s concession

One day a desperate man pleaded with Jesus to heal his son. Jesus lamented, “Unless you people see signs and wonders … you will never believe.” (John 4:48). This refers to the miracle of healing of someone whose son was about to die. Jesus obliged the desperate father even though this is not what Jesus wants to see. The sad reality is that people want to see healing before they will believe. This event reveals God’s heart on the matter of miraculous signs. It is not the ideal way for God to reveal himself, but he does it as a concession to human need for proof.

One great danger associated with miraculous deliverance such as healing, is that it breeds the expectation that God must always heal. This is not true. God will ultimately heal in the resurrection. But the ultimate healing of God at the resurrection is different from God healing us every time we fall sick. If that were so, we would not die! The curse on Adam has been neutralized by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

God wants to be wanted for himself. By providing a supernatural intervention, people tend to want God for what he can give. Even though it draws people to God, there is an inherent danger associated with supernatural signs.

Another grave danger is that the awe of miracles will quickly wear out. The Israelites had the daily miracle of manna, but that became the new normal and the daily miracle did not help them obey God any better.

This brings us to yet another grave danger of depending on signs and wonders for our faith. It leads us to stop evaluating truth claims and we become susceptible to falsehood.

Negatively as a warning

On the Mount of Olives, Jesus warned his disciples, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Matthew 24:24; cf. Mark 13:22). The miracles here do not come from Jesus the true Messiah, but from false messiahs and false prophets. These false teachers will use miracles to try to deceive God’s people.

Paul affirms strongly that in the last days, “lawless one will use all sorts of displays of power through signs and wonders that serve the lie.” (2 Thessalonians 2:9). This is a clear warning to believers, that as much as they have been brought to faith through signs and wonders, the evil one will seek to use the same method to deceive.

In Connection with the OT

The NT continues the OT tradition of using “signs and wonders” to describe the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt. (Acts 7:36).  It is such a well-established idea that it does not require repetition; instead, the NT moves on to the fulfillment of the eternal kingdom of God through miraculous signs and wonders.

Summary for the NT

In the NT, “signs and wonders” together with healing, is (1) an important means of drawing people to Jesus so they will listen to the message. This was also true with the Apostles. (2) “Signs and wonders” authenticate the messenger. (3) They also authenticate the message. (4) The miraculous accompanying the proclamation of the kingdom of God is fulfillment of prophecy. (5) The use of the miraculous for the people to accept the Good News is not considered ideal and Jesus lamented over it. It is a divine concession to hard-hearted people. (6) There are inherent dangers when people use signs and wonders as proof because the evil one is able to act falsely to imitate these signs and wonders and lead people astray. There is therefore a severe warning about false messiahs using signs and wonders.

CONCLUSION

“Signs and wonders” describes a phenomenon which includes tongues, healing, judgments, etc. They are supernatural acts that demonstrate God’s deliverance. In the OT, there is restricted reference to the Exodus Event, and in the Book of Daniel it is tied in to God’s eternal kingdom.

Jesus and his Apostles brought in the eternal kingdom of God through miracles. This replicates the Exodus Event, and fulfills the connection established in Daniel. The eternal kingdom of God is pried out of the hands of the evil one, no less that Israel was pried out of Pharaoh’s clutches. God’s people in Jesus are delivered from our bondage to sin. And when God wins, the devil loses.

“Signs and wonders” is not the norm in Israel’s history beyond her inception. While there were miracles throughout the history of Israel, they were not of the magnitude or character as the Exodus Event. This also holds true for the eternal kingdom of God. The inauguration of the kingdom under Jesus and the Apostles was a season of unparalleled miracles, but there is no evidence of the same level of miracles sustained over the years.

It is not the purpose of this article to advocate the cessation of the miraculous. I will only opine that it may be an overreach to say all miracles have ceased. At the same time, to argue that the supernatural events surrounding the inception of God’s eternal kingdom ought to be repeated in our day and age is a dangerous overreach in the opposite direction. And this overreach is more dangerous than the other because of the inherent dangers of proving truth with miracles. The Bible warns us that in the last days, the “lawless one” will be using this tool to deceive.

We cannot relive the miracles of the early church any more than Israel can relive the miracles of the Exodus. We need to see that the use of the miraculous is not God’s preferred method in the long run as Jesus himself lamented it, even while he was healing miraculously.

May the Lord grant us clarity and boldness as we study his word. Amen!

Pastor Peter Eng

 

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