It's interesting that recently, I've been hit a few times with questions relevant to signs and wonders (miracles). Thus it seems the church is becoming more increasingly aware of and desiring to know the biblical teaching on miraculous gifts. So I thought I'd post a brief on it... And maybe I'll follow up with some more research if the questions keep coming.
Miracles may be defined as “supernatural manifestations of divine power in the external world, in themselves special revelations of the presence and power of God” (Unger, 1988:872). Other biblical terms for miracles include: “signs”, “wonders” and “powers”. The act of creation is undoubtedly the first historical account of God's great miraculous acts. But this study explores God's miraculous acts through human agents. Whenever God used human agents to perform miracles, His purpose was twofold: to authenticate the message, and the messenger. “God's prophets were accredited by “signs and wonders” (cf. Deut. 13:1-3) with the sole purpose of validating the messenger and the message-that both were truly from God” (Kaiser, 1990:325). It is also important to note that “miracles did not happen at random throughout Scripture but occurred in three major periods: in the days of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and Christ and the apostles. There were select miracles outside that scope of time, but not many” (Enns, 1989:271).
1. Miracles during the time of Moses and Joshua
God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be foreigners for 400 years before they could occupy the Promised Land (Genesis 15). After the 400 years, God appeared to Moses as his chosen instrument to deliver the people from Egypt. God did not just send Moses with His word, but with “wonders” (miracles) as well (Exodus 3:19, 20) to authenticate both Moses as the messenger and his message as authoritative from God (cf. 4:5). Joshua would later succeed Moses and such miraculous activity as the tumbling of the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6) and the sun standing still (Joshua 10:12-14) characterized his leadership.
2. Miracles during the time of Elijah and Elisha
In the idolatrous reign of King Ahab, God used miraculous signs to distinguish Him from powerless pagan idols such as Baal. An example is when Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to offer sacrifices to their god, and Elijah would do likewise to the God of Israel. Only the God of Israel responded by consuming the sacrifice by fire (1 Kings 18:20-40). “The interest in 'miracles' here must be compared with their special occurrence at other times of national crisis such as the period of the Exodus and, for the church, the period of Christ's birth, death and resurrection and the subsequent birth of the church” (Wiseman, 1993:163). Elijah was taken up into heaven in chariots of fire but left behind his ministry mantle to Elisha (2 Kings 2:11-13).
3. Miracles during the time of Christ and the Apostles
When the time came to fulfill the prophecy about the Messiah's eventual coming, miraculous signs such as His virgin birth followed (Matthew 1:18). And during His earthly ministry, He proved that He is the Son of God with the power to forgive sin through the miracles He performed (e.g. Mark 2:10, 11). “The healing of the paralytic [in Mark 2] was more than a display of mercy to a wretched man. The announcement and presentation of radical healing to a man in his entire person was a sign of the Kingdom of God drawn near.” (Lane, 1974:99). And when He rose from the death on the third day after His crucifixion (another great miraculous display), He ascended into heaven. Leaving behind His apostles, He empowered them with miraculous signs that accompanied the preaching of the Gospel in order to establish the Church (Acts 1:8; cf. Hebrews 2:3, 4).
Miracles themselves do not necessarily lead to repentance. In all three cases above, not all who witnessed them responded to God in saving faith. In the time of Moses, despite the outstanding miraculous evidence, Pharaoh continued to harden his heart. In the time of Elijah, King Ahab and the nation as a whole still did not turn back to God. And in the time of Christ, the Jews, to whom He was sent, crucified Him and later persecuted the Church. Further, miracles to such a magnitude ceased immediately after these three eras.
So should we not expect miracles today? Well, in His providence God continues to influence the day to day affairs of man as He pleases. But miraculous signs to such a degree as in the three periods above, and the use of human agents to display them, is not to be expected today. “The necessity for miracles no longer exists... The promise of miraculous power... was completely fulfilled in the early period of the church, when such power was needed for the establishment of Christianity” (Unger, 1988:875). “With the completion of the canon of Scripture the need for miracles as a validating sign disappeared; the authority of the Word of God was sufficient to validate the messenger's word.” (Enns, 1989:272).
Miracles in the future
Concerning miracles in the future, great signs and wonders will characterize the end of time when the Lord returns. An example is in the resurrection of the saints into glorified bodies (1 Corinthians 15), and the creation of a new heaven and earth (Revelation 21:1-5). And in using human agents once again, during the Great Tribulation period, two witnesses from God will boast miraculous power (Revelation 11). But interesting to note is that eschatologically, Christ warned that “false christs and false prophets will arise” and their ministries will be characterized by performance of “great signs and wonders” (Matthew 24:24). “'Miraculous' activity is, in the Bible, by no means always the work of God (cf. Dt. 13:1-3...). In such a situation the elect need to be forewarned... if they are not to be led astray...” (France, 1985:342). If miraculous signs were to continue to characterize God’s messengers after the time of Christ and the apostles, then surely Christ would have used another distinction to identify false prophets in future.
Today, the only authority from God validating His message and His messenger is His Word as revealed in the Bible accompanied by its proper interpretation and practice thereof. If any miraculous signs are to be anticipated, then it should be in Christ’s Second Coming as is consistent with His Word. This however, does not limit God in His providence, to affect the affairs of mankind in a supernatural way as He may please today.
· Enns, P. P. 1989. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody Press
· France, R. T. 1985. Matthew. (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press)
· Kaiser, W. C. 1990. Exodus. (In_Gaebelein, F. E., ed. The Expositor's Bible Commentary. Vol. 2. Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House)
· Lane, W. L. 1974. Mark. (In_Bruce, F. F., ed., New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT). Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
· Unger, M. F. 1988. The New Unger's Bible Dictionary. Chicago: Moody Bible Institute
· Wiseman, D. J. 1993. 1 & 2 Kings. (In_Wiseman, D. J., ed., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press