A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 3:23-31. Conclusion: signs and wonders (conclusion).
Secondly, is it certain that signs and wonders are meant by God to be ‘everyday occurrences’ and ‘the normal Christian life’? I think not. Not only are miracles by definition ‘abnorms’ rather than norms, but the Acts does not provide evidence that they were widespread. Luke’s emphasis is that they were performed mostly by the Apostles (2:43; 5:12), and especially by the apostles Peter and Paul on whom he focuses our attention. True, Stephen and Philip also did signs and wonders, and perhaps others did. But it can be argued that Stephen and Philip were special people, not so much because the apostles had laid hands on them (6:5-6) as because each was given a unique role in laying the foundation of the church’s world-wide mission (see 7:1ff. and 8:5ff.). Certainly the thrust of the Bible is that miracles clustered round the principal organs of revelation at fresh epochs of revelation, particularly Moses the lawgiver, the new prophetic witness spearheaded by Elijah and Elisha, the Messianic ministry of Jesus, and the apostles, so that Paul referred to his miracles as ‘the things that mark an apostle’ (2 Cor, 12:12). There may well be situations in which miracles are appropriate today, for example, on the frontiers of mission and in an atmosphere of pervasive unbelief which calls for a power encounter between Christ and Antichrist. But Scripture itself suggests that these will be special cases, rather than ‘a part of daily life’.
Thirdly, is it certain that today’s claimed signs and wonders are parallel to those recorded in the New Testament? Some are, or seem to be. But in his public ministry by turning water into wine, stilling a storm, multiplying loaves and fishes, and walking on water, Jesus gave a preview of nature’s final, total subservience to him – a subservience which belongs not to the ‘already’ but to the ‘not yet’ of the kingdom. We should not, therefore, expect to do these things ourselves today. Nor should we expect to be miraculously rescued from prison by the angel of the Lord or to see church members struck dead like Ananias and Sapphira. Even the healing miracles of the Gospels and the Acts had features which are seldom manifest even in the signs and wonders movement today.
Let me come back to the Acts to illustrate this, and take the healing of the cripple as my example. It is the first and longest miraculous cure described in the book. It had five noteworthy characteristics, which together indicate what the New Testament means by a miracle of healing. (i) The healing was of a grave, organic condition, and could not be regarded as a psychosomatic cure. Luke is at pains to tell us that the man had been a cripple from birth (3:2), was now more than forty years old (4:22), and was so handicapped that he had to be carried everywhere (3:2). Humanly speaking, his case was hopeless. Doctors could do nothing for him. (ii) The healing took place by a direct word of command in the name of Christ, without the use of any medical means. Not even prayer, the laying on of hands or anointing with oil were used. True, Peter gave the man a helping hand (3:7), but this was not part of the cure. (iii) The healing was instantaneous, not gradual, for ‘instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong’, so that he jumped up and began to walk (3:7-8). (iv) The healing was complete and permanent, not partial or temporary. This is stated twice. The man had been given ‘this complete healing’. Peter said to the crowds (3:16), and later stood before the Council ‘completely healed’ (4:10, 1978 edition of NIV). (v) The healing was publicly acknowledged to be indisputable. There was no doubt or question about it. The crippled beggar was well known in the city (3:10, 16). Now he was healed. It was not only the disciples of Jesus who were convinced, but also the enemies of the gospel. The as-yet-unbelieving crowd were ‘filled with wonder and amazement’ (3:10), while the Council called it ‘an outstanding miracle’ which they could not deny (4:14,16).
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. For so it was with the congenital cripple. Peter took his miraculous healing as the text of both his sermon to the crowd and his speech to the Council. Word and sign together bore testimony to the uniquely powerful name of Jesus. The healing of the cripple’s body was a vivid dramatisation of the apostolic message of salvation.
Tomorrow: Acts 4:32-6:7. 4). Satanic counter-attack.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.