The Role of Signs and Wonders

Prof. Johan Malan, Middelburg, South Africa (July 2009)

Signs and wonders are supernatural acts by which God demonstrates His omnipotence to miraculously save believers, to subdue His enemies, and to reveal aspects of His counsel. As in the time of Noah and Lot, divine judgements were at times poured out upon rebellious societies. Although the Lord can reveal Himself at any time through signs and wonders, there were periods in history when such phenomena more frequently occurred. That was particularly the case during and after Israel’s exodus from Egypt; during the wars of conquest under leaders such as Joshua, Gideon, Samson, and David; and also in the actions of prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. In the time of Joshua the Lord even caused the sun and moon to stand still in order for Israel to catch up with their enemies and destroy them before nightfall (Josh. 10:12-13).

The beginning as well as the end of the New Testament dispensation are also characterised by the large-scale occurrence of signs and wonders, but during the long period of the church dispensation itself, they do not play a prominent role. During this time the Lord maintains His presence on earth through His Holy Spirit who convicts people of their sin and guides believers into spiritual truth in accordance with Scriptural pronouncements. It is of the utmost importance that we should not artificially continue signs and wonders into the church dispensation that were basically meant for the preparation and establishment of the Christian church. It is just as important that we do not pursue the false signs that occur in the end-time as preparation for the revelation of the Antichrist.

A closer examination of the various groups of signs and wonders is required in order to determine their purpose and meaning, and where they fit into God’s counsel. True exegesis of Scripture and great discernment are needed to obtain clarity about this matter.

OT signs and wonders

In the Old Testament (OT) the Lord called Israel as His own people and placed them in opposition to the pagan nations that were in Satan’s power. There was a distinct boundary between God’s kingdom and Satan’s kingdom. The Lord often intervened in the physical battle between Israel and their hostile neighbours by ensuring great victories for His people. Jericho’s walls collapsed without Israel moving a finger (Josh. 6). Samson slew thousands of Philistines with his supernatural power. In the time of Hezekiah the angel of the Lord killed 185 000 Assyrians who besieged Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35). By God’s doing, the furnace of Nebuchadnezzar was powerless against three believing Israelites, while Daniel miraculously survived in the lions’ den. The omnipotence and saving power of the Lord could be seen by everybody, so that everybody could realise that there is a true God of heaven and earth who is far above all the vain idols.

In OT times, the religious practises among all nations manifested in many overt ways. Pagan religions were based upon various forms of idol worship. Therefore, when fighting against them, Israel had to physically destroy the images of idols as well as their temples. Israel’s religion mainly comprised the conducting of daily sacrifices in the tabernacle or temple. Ritual acts were of the greatest significance, as was the position of the priests as human mediators. The Lord often revealed Himself in supernatural ways through dreams, visions, an audible voice, as well as angels that were sent to people with specific messages from the Lord. His presence could sometimes be seen in the form of a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire. Holy places were prepared in the tabernacle or temple where certain anointed persons could inquire of the Lord.

Beginning of the Christian church

At the beginning of the New Testament (NT) period there was a distinct leading up to the establishment of the Christian church. It coincided with great signs and wonders – particularly the healing of the sick and the raising up of dead people – in order to validate the Messiahship of Jesus as the Son of God. His resurrection from the dead and ascension were the climax of a life in the power of God, so that all could see and know that He was the promised Messiah.

Peter reminded Israel of the divine aspects of Jesus’ life: “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.” He also referred to the great significance of Jesus’ crucifixion, “Him, being delivered by the carefully planned intention and foreknowledge of God” (Acts. 2:22-24). The miracles done by Jesus was God’s way of proving that Jesus is the Messiah and Saviour of Israel and the whole world.

In a time of great persecution against the early Christian church the apostles prayed that the Lord would enable them to do healings, and signs and wonders in the Name of Jesus (Acts 4:29-30; Heb. 2:4). These confirmative signs were part of their ministry (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12). There are indications that power to do these special signs was also given to other believers during this time. The Lord Jesus said:

“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. So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs” (Mark 16:17-20).

Profs. Walvoord & Zuck (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 196) say the following on Mark 16:17-20: “These verses list five kinds of signs which would attend those who believe. Signs are supernatural events attesting the divine origin of the apostolic message (cf. Mark 16:20). The signs authenticated the faith the early believers proclaimed, not the personal faith that any one of them exercised. In the light of this and historical evidence it is reasonable to conclude that these authenticating signs were normative only for the apostolic era. In fulfilling their commission believers would be given the ability to do miraculous things in Jesus’ name… As a final kind of authenticating sign they would put their hands on sick people and they would get well.”

Let us consider these five special signs and miracles:

Driving out of demons. The power of God over the kingdom of darkness was publicly demonstrated when people were delivered from demon-possession in a spectacular way. The purpose of these acts was to authenticate the apostles’ message of salvation: “And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many who were possessed; and many who were paralysed and lame were healed” (Acts 8:6-7). In the subsequent church dispensation the saving power of the Lord is still effective against all the works of the devil, but the ministry of reconciliation is not confined to certain “anointed” ones. In the process of deliverance much bigger emphasis should be placed upon the faith of the receiver, rather than on another person one-sidedly driving out demons. When someone approaches the Lord Jesus’ throne of grace in faith he does not need another person to rebuke the devil and declare him free from demonic bondage. However, biblically correct counselling and spiritual guidance are, in many cases, indeed necessary to ensure that a person’s confession of sin is complete, his faith in the saving power of Christ is based upon firm promises, and that his deliverance and cleansing are fully accepted in faith. He should be taught to turn to Christ’s throne of grace where deliverance can be obtained through the blood of the Lamb (Eph. 1:7), and not to persons with special “powers” to rebuke devils, break bondages, or to heal.

Speaking in other tongues. During the time of the early Christian church there was not yet a Bible with concrete commands and promises of the Lord in order that sinners could repent and young converts be established in the full counsel of God. During this time the Lord revealed His will in a supernatural way through the signs of other tongues. However, these were other known tongues (glossa) or dialects (dialektos) which the particular person did not know. The Holy Spirit then gave him the gift to speak in one or other foreign language and to someone else the gift to translate it into the language of the audience. They did not speak in a strange gibberish. Because of this sign, unbelieving and sceptical listeners believed that it was the work of God and hence accepted the message: “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14:22). When, later in the first century, the gospels and epistles of the NT were written and circulated among congregations, the speaking and interpretation of tongues were gradually replaced by Scripture reading and the interpretation of Scripture (cf. Col. 4:16 and 1 Thess. 5:27). At that stage it was no longer necessary to receive supernatural revelations of God’s will, since His whole counsel is declared in the Bible (cf. Acts 20:27). The Bible not only replaces the speaking in tongues, but also divine revelations through dreams, visions, audible voices, and angels who deliver messages. God speaks to us by the word of His Son as recorded in the Bible (Heb. 1:1). That means that the function of prophets have also ceased. We can only study and proclaim biblical prophecies. Extra-biblical prophecies uttered by self-appointed prophets are a breeding-ground for spiritual deception and are used to deceive many people.

Power over venomous serpents. The Lord also used this sign to convince pagans that his apostles proclaimed the truth. On the isle of Malta Paul was bitten by a deadly venomous snake and the inhabitants expected that he would become very ill or fall down dead. When nothing happened to him they accepted him in amazement as a divine person. He preached the Word to them and also healed the sick in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 28:1-10). Believers do not have such special powers in the church dispensation. Even if somebody is miraculously protected against lethal snake venom it still does not constitute a general rule that applies to all.

Power over other types of poison. During the time of the apostles even the Grecian poison-cup did not pose any threat to the special servants of the Lord. However, believers in the church dispensation are not automatically safeguarded against the effect of poison and other life-threatening substances and neither can they lay claim to this sign.

The power of healing. The apostles had the gift of the laying on of hands, which was practised to secure the healing of large numbers of sick people. This gift was also practised by elders in the early church (Jas. 5:14-15). Because of this sign many people believed the gospel and received Christ as Saviour. However, the special apostolic gift of the laying on of hands ended long ago. The apostles lived during a transitional time when the emphasis shifted from a visible (physical) level to an inner (spiritual) level. The Lord wants us to realise that He primarily died to bear our spiritual ailments so that healing may be attained for our sick and starving souls (cf. Isa. 53:4-5). If bodily healing was part of the reconciliation on the cross there should never be a sick Christian who does not find healing. But that is not the case! In spite of this we should still confidently mention all our problems and illnesses in prayer before the Lord’s throne because He cares for us. But we should remember that we do not have special power or anointing to heal people – neither can we claim physical healing by virtue of Christ’s death on the cross. The Lord can miraculously heal a person by His grace, and it often happens, but that is not the experience of all sick and disabled people. Even Paul who healed many people suffered under bodily afflictions from which he was not delivered. But he was content with his situation as the Lord allowed it with a purpose (2 Cor. 12:7-10). We live in a perishing world in which our bodies are subject to corruption. Some people die earlier than others, but the important matter is that our earthly lives are passing away. Our highest priority should not be earthly happiness, prosperity and a life without sorrows, but peace in our hearts that our case with Him has been settled. The completeness for which we long will only be attained when Jesus comes again.

Conditions in the church dispensation

We in the church dispensation are in an extremely privileged position in that we have the fully revealed will of God in the Bible, as well as His uninterrupted presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit. We have enlightened eyes of the mind to understand the mysteries of Christ’s grace, and are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live accordingly. We should strictly abide by NT principles in our life of faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus who came long ago for our salvation, and who will come again for the revelation of His kingdom. The following facts with regard to signs, wonders, the struggle against evil, as well as God’s revelations to us, should be clearly understood:

·       There is no longer a geographic delimitation between God’s people and the pagan world – we are like wheat and tares that grow in the same field. The physical battle in the OT between the Chosen People (Israel) and the pagan nations with their idol-worship has changed in the NT to a spiritual battle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. The coming of the Messiah has introduced an entirely new dimension to this battle since He is the Conqueror against Satan’s power, and in His name we can also prevail. Because we do not wrestle against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:10-12) we must put on spiritual armour to remain standing and achieve the victory (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Physical strength is of no avail in this battle – only the power which the Lord gives to us through His Holy Spirit enables us to conquer.

·       At the beginning of the dispensation of faith in Christ it was of the utmost importance to authenticate and confirm the Messiahship of Jesus, as well as His message of spiritual salvation, by divine power and signs. Many things would drastically change, and for that reason the message of Jesus was not popular among Israel’s leaders who were immovably caught up in their legalism and form of godliness. Jesus would not be a military leader to liberate Israel from Roman domination, but a spiritual leader to save His people from their sin. He abolished the OT sacrificial system when He sacrificed Himself as the spotless Lamb of God on the cross. He did not continue Israel’s ritualistic temple service, but rendered the priestly order obsolete and caused the veil of the temple to tear, thereby offering all believers access to the throne of grace. He would subsequently be the High Priest of all believers and also our only Mediator to the Father. The role of human mediators was ended. In the new dispensation the righteous would live by faith and not through institutionalised religious traditions.

·       The apostles were empowered to continue with authenticating signs for confirming the Messiahship of Jesus until the early church was well established. Actually, their special powers were in conflict with the NT position of the believer as well as our free access to the throne of grace, and for that reason they only functioned for a limited time until their purpose had been served. The sign of speaking in tongues ceased when the statement was clearly and repeatedly made that the gospel was to be proclaimed in all languages to all people. The very common sign of healing through the laying on of hands which was initially offered without reservation to all people also ceased when there were no longer any apostles with special powers. After that, all believers had to approach the Lord’s throne of grace themselves in prayer with all their needs and problems. He gives healing, relief, or acceptance of our difficult circumstances, illness or disability, as well as strength to face our challenges as we look forward to the completeness that we will one day have. We should be content with provision in our basic needs while finding our way through a broken world, gladly bear our cross and follow Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 6:7-12). We must always be mindful of the fact that we do not yet live in kingdom circumstances where there will be no want, tribulation or affliction. Christ’s reign of peace is still future, and we presently live in a spiritually and morally dark world which lies in the sway of the Evil One (1 John 5:19; Phil. 2:15).

It is obvious that we should not be looking for signs and wonders in the NT, but keep on growing up in the most holy faith. Even during the time of great signs and wonders the Lord Jesus warned against a pronounced inclination towards these things. He said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:39-40). The sign of Jonah was fulfilled in Jesus, who was raised from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion and burial. Are the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus the central truths upon which your spiritual life has been built, or do you still look for miracles and extraordinary revelations of God through dreams, visions and extra-biblical prophecies?

End-time signs and wonders

In the end-time there will again be big and dramatic revelations of God’s power. For some people it will be to salvation and for others to condemnation. One of the biggest and most dramatic interventions of God in the destiny of humanity will occur at the rapture. The deceased believers of all time will be raised from the dead in a moment and receive glorified, immortal bodies. After that, living believers will also receive glorified bodies in the twinkling of an eye, then all of them will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Cor. 15:51-53; 1 Thess. 4:16-18). To us, faith will be replaced by sight while great and wonderful things are revealed to us.

On earth the Antichrist and false prophet will be revealed to institute a satanic new world order. Their rule will be accompanied with dramatic signs and wonders since the coming of the Antichrist is “according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9). The false prophet also “performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men” (Rev. 13:13). Through his signs he will deceive humanity into accepting the mark of the Antichrist and to worship his image (Rev. 19:20).

We are living in the end-time shortly before the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom and should be on the alert for the worldwide occurrence of false signs and wonders through which people will be conditioned to accept and follow a false christ and his false prophet. There are presently many false prophets who act in the name of Jesus, but in reality they are paving the way for the coming false christ. The Lord Jesus warned against them:

“Take heed that no one deceives you… Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many… For false christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:4,11,24).

What will be the end of these false teachers who deceived people in the name of Jesus? “Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name? And then I will declare to them, I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practise lawlessness!” (Matt. 7:22-23).

There are many of these deceivers today who prophesy falsely, claim that they cast out demons, and also perform sensational signs and healings. They do not prepare people to appear before the heavenly Bridegroom in holiness, but will surrender them to the great end-time deceiver of the devil’s kingdom.

Signs and wonders are supernatural phenomena that are often difficult to judge. Given the fact that the devil will extensively use them to deceive humanity, we should be very cautious not to accept anything by its outward appearance. John says: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Apply a Scriptural test to the “prophets”. Determine if what they say is strictly in accordance with biblical pronouncements. The devil is intent on distorting the Bible and creating false expectations among people. Also see if their methods conform to biblical guidelines. Strange phenomena such as slaying in the spirit, holy laughter, prophesying in the spirit, and many similar manifestations are foreign to the Bible and therefore false.

Ensure that your knowledge of the Bible is sufficient to be used as a frame of reference to test all doctrinal disputes and controversial questions: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Do not be deceived – particularly not by the false signs and wonders of the enemy.