Signs and Wonders
“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles (Acts 2:43 NRSV).”
Having analyzed Acts 2:42 in a four–part series of articles, this week we turn our gaze toward the subsequent verses that elaborate on the daily and weekly rhythms of the early Christian church. Acts 2:43-47 offers a briefly sublime account of the church after the day of Pentecost. The first believers shared all things in common and broke bread together in homes. It is no surprise then, as Luke reports, that “awe came upon everyone.” A church practicing radical generosity and intentional community is certainly noteworthy. Furthermore, the apostles worked “many signs and wonders” within the church community and in public spaces.
A Loaded Phrase
Living in a time heavily influenced by the global rise of Pentecostalism, it is hard not to read the expression “many signs and wonders” as a loaded phrase. This brief remark conjures up images of the apostles speaking in tongues during the weekly service while worshippers fall to the ground, slain in the Spirit. In the back, deacon Stephen appears with a box of snakes while a few widows wave banners off to the side. While it is tempting to read our modern context into the biblical text, doing so often obscures the original meaning of a passage. With this in mind, it is good to take a closer look at the way signs and wonders are depicted in Acts.
The Spirit at Work in Jesus
Before looking at the way signs and wonders function in the book of Acts, it is best to go back to the Gospel of Luke. Right after the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness and right before Jesus begins his public ministry, Luke describes Jesus returning home to Galilee “filled with the power of the Spirit (Lk 4:14).” The next verse tells of Jesus preaching and teaching in synagogues in the region. While it is easy to skip over Luke 4:14 as a passing remark, it establishes an important principle about the ministry of Jesus: his work was a Spirit-filled ministry.
The next passage, which recounts a scene at a Sabbath service in the local synagogue, elaborates on the way the Spirit works in the ministry of Jesus. During the service, Jesus stands up and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He reads from a passage in Isaiah 61:1-2, which reads,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk 4:18-19).”
These words from Isaiah, serve as a kind of manifesto for the work of the Spirit. Wherever the Spirit is, whether in the person of Jesus or at work in his followers, there will be good news for the poor, release from captivity, recovery of sight, freedom from oppression, and the favor of God.
The Spirit at Work in Acts
In the book of Acts, the apostles simply continue the Spirit-filled ministry of Jesus. They perform many of the same signs and wonders that Jesus performed because it is the work of the same Spirit. This is why it is so imperative that the apostles stay in Jerusalem “until you have been clothed with power from on high (Lk 24:49).” The disciples cannot do the work of Jesus until they have received the Spirit from God the Father.
We should not be surprised then we read of Peter healing a crippled beggar in Acts 3:1-10. As the story recounts, Peter was unable to offer this poor man any silver or gold. Instead Peter says to the man, “What I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk (Acts 3:6).” Following in his Lord’s steps, Peter offers good news to the poor and freedom from oppression. A few chapters later, Luke indicates that the apostles gain a reputation as healers. People even “carried the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by (Acts 5:15).” This verse in particular might be difficult to understand from a modern perspective, but the point is clear: the presence of the Spirit in the apostles brings the healing and restoration of God’s kingdom.
The beginning of Acts 6 tells about one of the first controversies in the early church. Some widows were being discriminated against on the basis of their ethnicity in the daily distribution of food. The apostles decide to appoint “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom (Acts 6:3)” to oversee the equitable distribution of food. Given that these men are full of the Spirit, it should come as no surprise that Acts 6:8 says that Stephen “did great wonders and signs among the people.” This reference is important because it shows someone other than the original apostles working signs and wonders. Stephen, traditionally viewed as the church’s first deacon, worked signs and wonders too.
The stories continue throughout the book of Acts and are too numerous to list in a short article. Acts 8:4-8 says that Philip performed signs and wonders in Samaria, showing that the Spirit was not limited to the city of Jerusalem. Rather, Jerusalem was an epicenter out of which the Spirit flowed in all four cardinal directions. Acts 15:12 says that Paul and Barnabas performed signs and wonders among the Gentiles on their missionary journeys. One notable example is Paul casting a demon out of a fortune-telling girl, liberating her from the oppression of greed and exploitation (Acts 16:16-24).
In the book of Acts, signs and wonders are an expression of the presence of God’s Spirit. In the words of Paul, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor 3:17).” In Jerusalem the Spirit brings freedom from sickness of the body, and in Philippi the Spirit brings freedom from sickness of the spirit. What is important to note about these signs and wonders is that they do not appear designed to draw a crowd. The Spirit does not work signs and wonders to attract an audience to hear the gospel message. Rather, signs and wonders occur because of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. They are the natural side effect of God’s presence with us and are a foretaste of the age to come, when all things will be put to rights.