Paul Decker is a pastor in Williamsville, New York. And he told the story of an Amish father and his son who went to town and visited a mall that had just opened for business. And everything was brand-spanking new.
They stood for awhile in front of two shiny, silver walls that could move apart and back together again. The boy asked his father, "What is this father?"
The father (never having seen an elevator) responded, "Son, I have never seen anything like this in my life, I don't know what it is."
While the boy and his father were watching wide-eyed, an old lady in a wheelchair rolled up to the moving walls and pressed a button. The walls opened and the lady rolled between them and into a small room. The walls closed and the boy and his father watched small circles of light with numbers above the wall light up. They continued to watch the circles light up in the reverse direction. The walls opened up again and a beautiful 24-year-old woman stepped out.
The father said to his son, "Go get your mother."
Unfortunately, that is the way some people view miracles. They see miracles not as something for God's glory, or the advancement of His kingdom, but for our pleasure, our convenience, our comfort or maybe even our curiosity. Sort of like Calvin and Hobbes when they use the transmogrifier to turn themselves into anything they want – just on a whim. Now that is not to say that we shouldn't expect miracles, but it is to say that we need to have our views of miracles governed by the Scripture. And we should not expect what God has not promised. One rule of interpretation is that examples are not the same as commands or instructions. I gave a sermon earlier in Acts on why miracles will continue as long as the kingdom continues. But there is something rather unique here. Not even the most exaggerated claims of miracles today can claim that everyone they touch is healed, and everyone on whom someone's shadow falls is healed. And to fully appreciate the privelege we have of praying to God for miracles today (and I believe that we do have that privilege), we must first clear up our thinking on what to expect and what not to expect. And obviously this is not the last word on miracles – there are many other passages. But I think it will give us a good start.
The purpose of miracles
To serve as "signs" (v. 12)
Let's look first of all at the purpose for these particular miracles. Verse 12 says, "And through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people." They are called signs and wonders. The word "wonder" is "teras" and means terror, wonder, awe inspiring, fear inspiring. And we will look at that purpose in a moment. I think many modern so-called miracles often produce the opposite in people. But the first word ("sign") is also important. It is defined by the dictionary this way: It "denotes optical impressions that convey insights." And then it lists many examples. There can be literal road signs that are either telling you which way to go or announcing that you have arrived at a particular destination. It's an optical impression conveying an insight. Or this word can refer to the signals used by the Greeks and Romans. For example, the way a flag was waved would indicate to the soldiers on the battle field what their next move should be. That was a sign as used by the Greeks. Circumcision and baptism were signs of the covenant. They attested to the fact that the covenant promises had been claimed and they pointed to God's promises. But most frequently in the Bible the word "signs" was used to describe miracles. It's not the only function of a miracle, but it can be one of them. Josephus said that when God gave signs, ""God uses miracles to convince people" of something. So the first purpose of miracles was to point to something or to convince people of something. Over 50 times in the Bible miracles are called signs.
In this case it was to be signs to attest that they were indeed apostles (v. 12,15; cf. 2 Cor. 12:12).
And in this context, what is it that the people needed to be convinced of? Well, possibly that the Gospel they are preaching is true. But the immediate context seems to indicate that the miracles were being used to demonstrate that these apostles really were of God; that they really were who they claimed to be; that they really were apostles of Jesus. It's only apostles that are doing the miracles here, and no one but apostles were able to do miracles like this. In this sense, 2 Corinthians 12:12 says, "Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds." If they were signs of an apostle, you would expect it to be something unique - something others would not be able to do. Something that was only designed to show apostleship. And since apostleship has passed away (as we have already demonstrated previously in Acts), then we should not expect that there will be people who are so set apart by God that absolutely everyone they touched was healed, and absolutely everyone on whom Peter's shadow fell was healed. To me that is encouraging. It ought not to discourage you if there is not a healing every time you pray for someone. You can trace the last 2000 years of history, and you will not find anyone who could simply walk down hospital wards and every bed in the hospital is emptied as they walk by. There is something unique here. These were signs designed to attest to their apostleship, very much like Moses had. The calling of Moses in leading Israel and giving the Scriptures was so outlandishly unique that God attested to the fact that Moses was truly called by Him by giving Him signs – signs like the parting of the Red Sea, giving of Manna, sending earthquakes to those who questioned his authority, etc. And since the apostles were forming a new Israel, and like Moses were giving new revelation that would be recorded in the Scripture, they had to have something unique; something that stood out and that could show that God had indeed attested to them that they did indeed have this authority. And so, just as we would not expect that God would have to part the Red Sea, provide manna and do other miracles after Moses, we should not expect that God will provide miracles for us in an indentical way to how He provided them for the apostles. They were what Paul calls "signs of an apostle."
On the other hand, we would make the wrong conclusion if we said that all miracles are done away once the apostles died. Notice in your outline that God used miracles as signs that pointed to the fact that others were who they claimed to be. Miracles are not just signs of an apostle. And I think this is a mistake that some cessationists make.
First of all I'll list some other unique things that they were signs of.
Earlier there were signs to attest that Jesus is from God (2:22)
If you turn to Acts 2:22 you will see that God gave signs that demonstrated that Jesus was truly who he said he was. "Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know…" He claimed to be the Son of God, and the miracles that He wrought by the Spirit showed that God was agreeing that Jesus was who He said He was. God attested to His claims by giving Jesus signs.
Signs that Moses was the man of God (Exodus 4:1-17,28,30; 10:1; 14:11)
I won't have you turn there, but you have the same purpose for the miracles that surrounded Moses. In chapter 4 Moses asks, "But supposed they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The LORD has not appeared to you.'" And God gives him the miracle of the rod turning into a snake and then back into a rod and says, "that they may believe…" (v. 5). And God says, if they won't believe you on that, then give them another miracle. And if they don't believe that, they will believe you if you do this third miracle. And he calls them signs.
Signs of God's approval of the temple (Lev. 9:24; 2 Chron. 7:1-3)
In Leviticus 9:24 God gave a sign to authenticate the temple. He caused fire to fall from heaven and lite the wood and the first sacrifice that was on the altar of the tabernacle to demonstrate to the people that this was a sacrificial system that was authorized by Him. He did exactly the same thing when the temple was erected in 2 Chronicles 7:1-3. That served as a sign that they could quit using the tabernacle, and that God approved of the new temple. And I think everybody would agree that we wouldn't expect the same fire now that there is not that same purpose.
Signs of imminent destruction of both temple and Israel (Acts 1:19-21; Luke 21:11,25)
Luke 21 indicates that God would send signs and wonders to Israel showing that they were about to be destroyed, and that their temple was about to be destroyed. And Acts 1:19-21 speaks of these wonders in the heaven above and signs in the earth beneath before the great and terrible day of the Lord against Jerusalem. There were boatloads of miracles and unusual signs in the sky and on the earth in the years leading up to 70 AD. Could God bring similar signs before the judgment of a nation today? I guess he could, but he hasn't necessarily promised it. But lets assume those are all unique.
Signs that the kingdom has come (Luke 11:20; Acts 1:8; cf. Acts 7:36)
But it's important to realize that these unique events were not the only things that called for signs. Another thing that miracles signaled was the presence of the kingdom. God had prophesied numerous miracles during the time of the New Covenant Kingdom. And Jesus Himself said, "But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you." Since we live in the time of the kingdom, we can expect that we can continue to cast out demons and that God will bless with other similar miracles. The point is that just because miracles could be signs of an apostle, does not mean that was their only function.
Signs to attest to believers (Mark 16:17)
Mark 16:17 says that signs would also follow ordinary believers during the whole time that the gospel is going out into the whole world and being preached to every creature. It says,
And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.
He isn't guaranteeing that this will happen every time we want. Even the apostle found that there were later some people who they couldn't heal. But it does indicate that we shouldn't be surprised if God blesses believers with miracles if it serves His kingdom purposes. They demonstrate that the kingdom has come. And they can demonstrate to pagans that we truly are believers and that God is truly in our midst.
Signs that the Gospel is true (Romans 15:19)
And then lastly, Romans 15:19 indicates that God gave signs through Paul to show that the Gospel message itself was a true message. My father told me about a group of missionaries in the 1800's who had been captured by some head hunters. Their cause looked bad until a missionary blurted out, "My God can move mountains." And the chief said, "If your God moves this mountain, your lives will be spared." And he thought, what a nut I am. Why did I say that? But with not a lot of faith, they prayed that God would move that mountain. They felt an earthquake, and the whole side of the mountain fell down into the ocean. That opened the whole tribe to hear and believe the Gospel. It seems that in pioneer mission situations, miracles have often served as signs of the truth of the Gospel. So with that survey I think you can see that some sign purposes would be temporary (like those signifying that the people should accept the Scriptures written by Moses and the apostles) and other sign purposes could continue throughout history. They have a sign function.
To be "wonders" instilling awe in observers
The fear that came from the destructive miracle (vv. 5,11)
The second word used in verse 5 to describe one purpose of miracles was "wonders." A wonder was something that put fear, or reverence, wonder or awe into people. Verse 5 says that the miraculous death of Ananias put fear into people – "So great fear came upon all those who heard these things." Well, I guess so. Wouldn't it make you a little nervous if you saw someone's sins exposed and saw them fall to the ground? And that's repeated in verse 11. God's purpose in giving miracles is not to make people think that He is a cosmic vending machine. His purpose is to make people stand in fear of Him and to tremble at His Word. Be suspiscious of anything that produces self-centered attitudes in the church rather than an awe of God that trembles at His Word. This is why I have such problems with the health and wealth Gospel. It is not that God is opposed to health or wealth. He loves to bless His people. But God's intention is not to bless selfishness, but to day by day draw our hearts out to glorify His great and awesome name. The miracles of the New Testament had this function of engendering awe and fear and reverence of God. And even though the deaths recorded in 1 Corinthians 11 in connection with the Lord's Supper may not have been miracles, Paul indicates that those judgments were designed to stir up awe in God's people.
The awe that came to unbelievers (v. 13)
Verse 13 indicates that it even produced awe in some of the unbelievers who witnessed the miracles. "Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly." There was a certain nervousness about being associated with a God that you can't control; a God who smites people with judgments yet also brings healings. Americans only want nice gods who only do nice miracles on our command. But God is not that way. God's miracles, when they do happen, are crafted by Him to induce fear or reverence. The shallowness of Christianity today that purports to have miracles at their command a lot of them are not miracles. They are scams - but it ought to be a clue that something is not right. Something is not right.
So the first purpose is to serve as some kind of sign. The second purpose was to produce fear.
To purify the church (v. 11,12b-13)
A third purpose for these miracles was to purify the church. Verses 12-13 show a separation between believers and hypocrites. I'll start reading in the second half of verse 12. "And they were all with one accord in Solomon's Porch. Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly." Commentators have debated what the phrase "none of the rest" means. They point out that it can't mean, none of the rest of the Jews, because the next verse indicates that many unbelieving Jews were becoming Christians and were joining them. But on the other hand, they point out that it can't mean none of the rest of the believers, because the last part of verse 12 indicates that all the believers were together. I think the best explanation that I have read is that it is a reference to the rest of those who (like Ananias and Sapphira) were driven by the desire to please men. They remained secret believers at least for a time. This was the problem with Joseph of Arimathea. He believed in Jesus (and the Scripture indicates it was a genuine faith), but He did so secretly because he feared the Jews (John 19:38). Later on he came out of the closet. John 12:42 says the same was true of many others: "Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue." They were too concerned with appearances before men.
So what happened was that these miracles purified the church and chased away false believers as well as cowardly believers who wanted to remain secret because of appearances. Why would the miracles have done that? I think these hypocrites were made nervous on several counts: 1) first, they began to realize that the way God did miracles served only His holy, sovereign purposes, 2) second, God's miracles were sometimes tough. And that is so contrary to the way that many people think of miracles. 3) third, God's miracles drew too much attention from the authorities. And if you are worried about what people will think of you, that's not welcome. And next week we will be looking at how all of this enraged the high priest and the Sadducees. If you were fearful of what others might think of you, believing in a God of miracles is not the way to go. It is much simpler to put God into a box. But God will not be put in a box. And unfortunately, we can try to put God into a box on either extreme – either saying that He cannot do miracles anymore or on the other hand saying that miracles can be had every day on demand. But getting back to the main point here: This point shows that God's purpose for the miracles was not to produce a carnal, self-centered church, but to produce a holy church; a separate church. Be suspicious of churches that promise to be able to schedule revivals and miracles, but have no interest in holiness and God-centeredness.
As an accompaniment to evangelism when the Gospel is newly penetrating a region (v. 14; Romans 15:19)
The last purpose for these miracles were as an accompaniment to evangelism, perhaps, to get the attention of the people. Verse 14 says, "And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick, etc." The word "so that" in the Greek indicates a strong connection between evangelism and miracles.
Now a caution should be urged at this point, because it is clear that miracles by themselves to not convert anyone. Turn to Luke 16. This is the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Both died, and Lazarus is in paradise and the rich man in hell. And in verse 27 the rich man begs Abraham:
I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.' And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead they will repent.' But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.
If you understand the doctrine of total depravity, you will realize that no amount of evidence will convert a person, if the Scriptures don't convert Him. Their lack of faith is not because of lack of evidence. There is plenty of evidence within them and all around them so as to leave them without excuse. Scripture says that their unbelief is a willful unbelief, and apart from regeneration, they will not believe. No sign or wonder will change the dead heart of an unbeliever to believe. God has to first speak new life into them first.
But, that does not mean that God cannot use miracles to get people's attention or to accompany the Gospel as it goes into new regions. In fact regeneration itself is a miracle as remarkable as rasing someone from the dead. It's not a sign because it cannot be seen but it is a miracle. So this point says that it frequently accompanies the Gospel in new regions. In fact, Paul said that God had repeatedly done that in connection with the Gospel in Romans 15:18-19 where he spoke of "…word and deed, to make the Gentiles obedient – in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and round about Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ…" Are miracles necessary for the Gospel to go forth? No. The Gospel has it's own power. But it is interesting to see how many times miracles accompanied the preaching of the Gospel when it penetrated a new area. We saw it in Ethiopia. You see it in India and China and in any place where the Gospel is new. And you tend to see less of it when the Gospel has been in a region for a longer time. In China, every one of the church leaders that I talked with said that God did many more miracles when there were few Christians and the Gospel had just begun. My parents said the same thing about Ethiopia. So again, we should not be surprised to see miracles more when the Gospel is newly penetrating a region.
The uniqueness of these miracles
A shadow of Peter healed (v. 15)
"they were all healed" (v. 16)
I don't need to go over Roman numeral II. I think by now you realize that this situation was very unique. Only with Christ and with the apostles do you see a situation where they were all healed. Actually, even with Christ this wasn't always true. He went to His home town and Mark says that He wasn't able to do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. And only Peter has his very shadow being used by God to bring healing. When it says that they were all healed, it doesn't mean everyone in Jerusalem, but everyone who was brought out to Peter. Later the apostles do other healings. But this truly was unique.
The methods used – no magic forumala
peaking (vv. 4,9)
In Roman numeral III, I want you to notice that God is not bound by magic formulas when it comes to healing. In verses 4 and 9 Peter simply speaks and does not lay hands on the people.
Laying on of hands (v. 12)
But, in verse 9, it speaks of healing "through the hands of the apostles," and commentators assume that their hands must have in some way been used. Jesus frequently used His hands to heal. But again, it says, "through the hands." It was not the hands that healed, but God who healed the people, and used the apostles hands as a medium.
Peter's shadow falling upon them (v. 15)
But then, in verse 15 you have a totally different, and somewhat surprising method that was used by God. In verse 15 Peter didn't even have to be aware of what disease was present or even pray. Just walking by brought healing. Everybody that his shadow touched was healed.
Done "among the people" not in front of crowds (v. 12)
Then in verse 12 we see that rather than calling people to the front of a stadium, he went among the people.
And the reason I bring up all these methods up is that it is so easy to think that it was the hands, or the voice, or the shadow or something else that was essential to the healing. It's kind of interesting to notice in various charismatic and Pentecostal churches that people tend to copy-cat what they see an evangelist do with regard to healing. If he blows on people, everybody has to blow. If his hands are shaking, then you begin to see all kinds of hands shaking. A lot of what happens in such services is simply emotionalism, and when the sick person wakes up the next morning, he finds that he wasn't healed after all. There have been a lot of people that have been hurt by the manipulation of pastors and by the false expectations that have been raised.
In fact, they promised that you too can sign up for a school of healing. And depending on which school you go to you will find people insisting that you use your hands in the right way, and at the right time and with the right intonation. It kind of freaked me out at one place where everyone was blowing on people, and they said that was receiving the Holy Spirit for healing. And if you imitate the so-called healer, you too can do a miracle. That is to think in terms of magic – this formula produces this cool event. And it is so important to realize that God is sovereign. He can use any means that He wants, or He can totally bypass means. But He only performs miracles when and where they serve His kingdom interests and His glory. You cannot have miracles on demand. And people say, "What about here?" Was this not on demand? And the answer is, "No." These were signs of an apostle, and once their apostleship was established, the healings were not as remarkable. Paul too was given signs of an apostle where literally everyone he touched, or even people who touched handkerchiefs or aprons that he had touched were healed. But later on, once his apostleship was established clearly, there were people that Paul couldn't heal, and he didn't send out handkerchiefs or aprons. And yet you have charlatans today who sell handkerchiefs that they have blessed, and they guarantee a healing. They have merchandized God's grace. It is to make a mockery of the Scriptures. If you look at the people who have been healed in the first four chapters, you realize that Jesus didn't heal everyone in Israel. Nor did he cast out every demon. Healings are not for our comfort, but for God's glory. And they are sovereignly distributed.
Kinds of miracles
Sudden death (vv. 1-11)
The last thing I want to look at is the kinds of miracles that were performed. There was sudden death in verses 1-11. Now it's hard to market that in the church, so you don't tend to see a lot of people taking credit for killing people with a word. And yet, I believe God continues to occasionally perform such miracles. I have personally witnessed several remarkable disciplines from the Lord when the church was willing to exercise church discipline. I even saw a pastor struck down in our Presbytery years ago. And I think the Lord did it as a testimony to others. He was in process of divorcing his wife and had talked a woman in his congregation into divorcing her husband and marrying him. He refused to repent, came under church discipline, and God immediately struck him down with a rare case of a virus on the brain which killed him within days. He did repent on his death bed. I know of several stories like that, a couple of which the man fell down dead on the spot. Peter Hammond tells of one head of state in Africa who repeatedly made it his stated goal to destroy every bible and every Christian in his nation, had harassed the church so much that they finally began using the imprecatory prayers – and God answered by striking his plane with a lightning bolt and making it crash. I told you the story some time back about a police officer who had persecuted the church so much in Ethiopia that the church began to pray against him and he was struck by lightning. And whether God used natural means or miraculous means to discipline people in 1 Corinthians 11, that chapter definitely shows that our God continues to be a God of judgment.
Generic miracles (v. 12)
Then verse 12 speaks generally of "many signs and wonders."
Healings (v. 15-16)
Verses 15-16 speak of healings.
Casting out demons (v. 16)
And verse 16 speaks of the casting of demons as being miraculous. And that may seem a little strange. Why does the New Testament always present the casting out of demons as being something miraculous? It was because this was something that had not been done in the Old Testament. I think that is why Christ said, "But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you." (Luke 11:20). That is a general kingdom power that will be exercised until there are no more demons in the world. Zechariah 13:2 prophesies a time when there will be no more demons in the earth, but all will be cleansed from the land. Now there are some cessationists who deny that demons should be cast out today. And on apostleship and prophecy, I am a cessationist. I have already taught on that earlier in the book. That means that I believe that there are no more signs of an apostle (which are remarkable groupings of miracles to authenticate their claim). We will probably never see everyone that a shadow falls upon healed. But, I believe just as strongly that the miracle of casting out demons itself is not unique to the apostles. Ordinary believers cast out demons. Christ's disciples complain that there were not apostles casting out demons in His name and Jesus commanded them not to forbid it. He who is not agaist me is for me. In fact, Matthew 7:21 indicates that the casting out of demons will be so common in the New Covenant that even false believers will be able to do so (or at least think that they have done so). The 70 are given that power in Luke 10. Ordinary believers are given that power in Mark 16 in the context of the Gospel being preached to every creature. It is virtually impossible to minister on the mission field for very long without seeing this miracle of demons being cast out performed.
Another thing to notice here is that verse 16 shows Satan's goal is to torment ("those who were tormented by unclean spirits."), whereas God's grace and presence brings healing and peace. It takes away the torment. But it is a scary thing to be handed over to Satan in discipline. Likewise, in contrast to the uncleanness of the evil spirits, Acts presents the holiness of the Spirit.
And one of the things we will notice later in this book is that though demons can do miracles too, demons always end up bringing people into bondage and uncleaness By their fruits you will know them. Just because a person can produce miracles is no indication that he is blessed by God. Rather, the miracles that manifest the purposes of God and shows forth the fruits of the Spirit show by their fruits that they are of God. And so this sets up a powerful context in which the Saducees filled with rage begin to persecute the church; to beat the apostles; to pour forth hatred and hurt in contrast to the love and healing of God. It shows an incredible contrast in the goals of both groups as well: the apostles are willing to lay down their lives for the advancement of Christ's kingdom and His grace, whereas the Saducees are willing to try to stop Christ's kingdom and grace because it is a threat to their own kingdom, comfort, security and purposes. And so we are right back where we started this sermon with the Amish man at the elevator. He was just joking with his son, but many who display that attitude toward miracles are not joking. When you pray to God, whether for a miracle or for an ordinary means of answer, do you pray like the Pharisees who want God to serve their own purposes or do you pray like the apostles who want only God's glory and God's kingdom? May it be the latter. May we see God as sovereign and ourselves as His servants. But at the same time, may we never limit the power of our Sovereign to do as He pleases with miracles or without them. To God be the glory. Amen.