As we preach through the book of Acts, there is a miracle happening in almost every chapter. This raises the question: should we be experiencing this type of phenomenon today? How should we think about miracles, or “signs and wonders,” in this day and age?
What exactly are miracles, signs, and wonders?
Miracles are things which appear to violate the natural order. However it is more accurate to think of them as works of God which restore the created order (that is, undo brokenness):
“Jesus’s miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce…Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order.” (1)
Signs and wonders are different ways of talking about miracles. Signs point beyond themselves to a greater meaning, concept, or purpose. In the Scriptures, “signs” are miraculous works of God that point to who he is and what he is doing in the world.
For example, in the Old Testament:
- Signs point to the start and finish of a day (Genesis 1:14)
- Signs remind God’s people that he is faithful to his promises (Genesis 9:12)
- Signs mark out God’s people as distinct and holy in the world (Genesis 17:9-14, Exodus 31:13)
- Signs are evidence that God’s presence is among his people (Deuteronomy 4:34, Deuteronomy 6:22)
Wonders are similar to signs, but have a different emphasis. “A sign appeals to the understanding; a wonder appeals to the imagination” (2) ‘Sign’ emphasizes what the miracle proves and ‘wonder’ emphasizes how the miracle inspires worship.
We should also distinguish between providence and miracles. God upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). Therefore, he is constantly providing for us all that we need through secondary means, that is, through creation. This is what is called God’s providence. He feeds us, but through the grocer, for example. He takes away our headache, through the use of ibuprofen.
Miracles, on the other hand, are when God directly and supernaturally intervenes in a way that seems to go against the natural order. For example, the Scriptures treat manna falling from heaven (Exodus 19) and putting food on the table through hard work (Genesis 3:19) differently. We should avoid being liberal with our usage of the label of miracle, sign, and wonder.
Why does God perform miracles?
In the Old Testament, in the ministry of Jesus, and in the book of Acts, God performs many miracles. Here are three key reasons he performs them:
1. To authenticate his messenger
- When Moses went to Pharaoh and told him to release God’s people, the works performed by God through Moses demonstrated that Moses was speaking on behalf of God. They also showed that Pharaoh should certainly obey the message he was receiving through Moses (Exodus 4:1-17).
- With Jesus, miracles attest to his identity as the Son of God and thus demonstrate the veracity of his teaching (Matthew 11:4-5, Mark 1:21-28). His “signs point beyond themselves. They authenticate Jesus’ filial [familial] relationship, even identity, with the Father.” (3)
- The apostles’ “miracles functioned as a “demonstration’ (1 Corinthians 2:4)…a technical term for a compelling conclusion drawn from a reasoned argument; in Paul the argument [for his validity] twas not verbal but ‘of Spirit and of power’.” (4)
2. As part of his message
When Jesus heals a person, it is part of the gospel. Here, God is literally making all things new in Christ. The “miracles do not illuminate the message of Jesus; they are the message, and his teaching is intended to explain them.” (5) As the Kingdom of God comes near (Mark 1:15), renewal overcomes, and the kingdom of sin and death retreats. We also see this pattern in Acts. The preaching and teaching follow the renewing, miraculous activity of the Kingdom. The message is clear: miracles are microcosms of the cosmic restoration that has begun in the person and work of Jesus.
3. To serve as a foretaste
The miracles performed by the Spirit though Jesus and the Apostles were true and faithful samples of the coming Kingdom. What will the New Creation be like? We can hear about it from the Prophets, but we can also see it in the Gospels and the Acts.
Does God still perform miracles today?
Yes. Depending on our background (Christian or otherwise), we will all have different levels of comfort surrounding this issue. But we needn’t fear or doubt. We can heed the words of Evangelical theologian John Stott: “If we have hesitations about some claims to ‘signs and wonders’ today, we must make sure that we have not confined both God and ourselves in the prison of Western, rationalistic unbelief.” (6)
We must not limit our God to our own understandings. The Bible teaches that miracles, signs, and wonders will not pass away until the New Creation, until we see Jesus face to face (1 Corinthians 13:8-12).
Does he perform miracles in the same way today?
No. While he still performs the same type of miracles, the means by which he performs those miracles is different. This is where we should be nuanced. God still performs miracles today, but the absolute power we see in Jesus and the Apostles is no longer located within individuals. For example, in Acts 3:6, Peter commanded healing. Jesus and the Apostles could command signs and wonders, now, we pray and ask God to do signs and wonders.
These type miracles were performed, in large part, to authenticate the message that the Apostles were speaking and writing. “The miracles of the early church served an immediately relevant purpose in redemptive history: verifying the authenticity of God’s revelation and signaling the coming of the new eschatological age [the already and not-yet of the kingdom] among God’s people.” (7)
During the Reformation (1500s), one of the Roman Catholic objections to the work of Luther and Calvin was that their movement lacked miracles. John Calvin’s response to this critique is worth noting: “In demanding miracles from us, they act dishonestly; for we have not coined some new gospel, but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought.” (8) The reformers did not teach a new gospel, thus, they did not need to work miracles to confirm it. Rather they were teaching the same gospel that had already been confirmed by the miracles of Jesus and the Apostles fifteen centuries earlier.
Paul was the last Apostle (1 Corinthians 15:9); and, when this office ceased, the Apostolic authority to heal ceased along with it. The gift of healing we see in 1 Corinthians 12 is different than the authority to heal that the Apostles had.
Should we be praying for miracles like they did in Acts 4:30?
Yes. In Acts 4:29-30, the church prays:
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. (ESV)
Yes, we pray for healing (James 5:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Philippians 4:6). We certainly should continue to pray that God’s Kingdom would come in powerful and miraculous ways. Of course we should pray that we will be bold in the midst of God’s Spirit at work renewing the world! God has not stopped working miracles and he is a good father who gives good gifts to his children (Matthew 7:11). Part of our faithfulness to God is to cry out to him in prayer in the way the Psalmists and Prophets did: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence” (Isaiah 64:1 ESV)!
However, we have to consider our context in redemptive history when praying for these miracles; the frequency with which God was performing miracles in the first century is different than the frequency with which he performs these signs and wonders today, as there no longer are Apostles. When the church prayed this, their context (proximity to the Apostles) allowed them to assume a higher regularity with which God was performing signs and wonders – this assumption can be seen in the prayer above. Since there are no longer Apostles on Earth who need to be authenticated, God says “not now” to our requests for miracles more often now than he did then. The Holy Spirit still works miracles, but less often than when Peter and Paul walked the earth.
Does a lack of a miracle indicate that I didn’t have enough faith?
No. Sometimes Jesus heals people on the basis of their faith (Mark 5:34), sometimes he heals people despite them having no faith (Luke 7:11-21, Matthew 12:9-13), and sometimes extremely faithful people are not healed and continue in their suffering. Paul the Apostle experienced that God, in his sovereignty, allows brokenness to remain in our lives. After praying three times that he would be healed from his “thorn in the flesh,” Paul writes:
“But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:8-9 ESV)
I remember when one of my good friends was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer when we were 18 years old. We (our whole community) prayed and prayed for healing, but we did so knowing that God would heal his body either here-and-now or at his resurrection when Christ returns. Ethan ended up passing away. He more than anyone of us understood that if God healed him of his cancer now, that was only a temporary healing; he would certainly die later on anyway. Permanent healing only happens at the Second Coming of Jesus. Even Jesus, whom we claim to follow, was not healed from his wounds until after he died.
Sometimes he will say “yes” and sometimes he will say “later.” When he says “yes” our response is easy: celebrate and praise the Lord! The answer “later” is usually frustrating as it often feels like a “no.” We should honestly express the emotions this creates in us to God through lament and prayer (See Psalm 13 for an example of this). In the midst of this frustration we must trust that we serve a God who is both smarter than us and who “works all things together for good” (Romans 8:28).
Jesus and other biblical men and women all assign warnings to our view of miracles, signs, and wonders. Jesus is critical of the Pharisees and of Herod when they demand signs (Mark 8:11-13, Matthew 12:38-42, 16:1–4, Luke 23:8-12). This should serve as a warning to religious and/or powerful people when they expect and demand signs from God.
Jesus and Moses also both warn about false teachers who perform “signs and wonders” (Deuteronomy 13:1-3, Matthew 7:15-23, Matthew 24:24). How they voice their concern here shows us that healthy doctrine is of more eternal importance to God than a healthy body.
Furthermore, “Jesus retains a skeptical assessment of faith induced by signs (John 2:23–25; 4:48)” (9). Many in Acts see signs and wonders and remain unconverted, showing that the obstacle to conversion is a hard heart, not lack of proof (Acts 4:13-22). So we see that “a faith based or nurtured exclusively on signs, rather than on the reality to which they point, is immature and at grave risk. Mature faith rejoices in what signs it perceives, but does not depend on them.” (10)
God still performs miracles today, but he does so differently. Rather than being located within a particular Messianic or Apostolic authority in the flesh, they are now accomplished by the Holy Spirit through prayer as God wills or even spontaneously as God wills. These miracles occur less often than they do in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, because the work of authenticating the apostolic faith found in the Scriptures has already been accomplished. John Stott summarized this well:
“If, then, we take Scripture as our guide, we will avoid opposite extremes. We will neither describe miracles as ‘never happening’, nor as ‘everyday occurrences’, neither as ‘impossible’ nor as ‘normal’. Instead, we will be entirely open to the God who works both through nature and through miracle. And when a healing miracle is claimed, we will expect it to resemble those in the Gospels and the Acts and so to be the instantaneous and complete cure of an organic condition, without the use of medical or surgical means, inviting investigation and persuading even unbelievers.” (11)
1. A New Age of Miracles by Tim Stafford
2. Why I Am a Cessationist by Thomas Shreiner
3. Why I Am A Continuationist by Sam Storms
4. Why Don’t We See Miracles Like the Apostles Did? by Justin Holcomb
5. When God Doesn’t Heal by Mark Yarbrough
(1) Keller, The Reason for God, 95-96
(2) Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1136.
(3) New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 778
(4) New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 780
(5) New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 781
(6) John Stott, The Message of Acts, 100
(7) Justin Holcomb, Why Don’t We See Miracles Like the Apostles Did?
(8) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Prefatory Address to the King of France
(9) The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 949.
(10) New Bible Dictionary, 1100.
(11) John Stott, The Message of Acts, 104