By John Piper on Sep 5, 2013
How John Piper understands the intersection of New Testament proclamation and miracles.
Acts 5:12–16: Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor.
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
The needs of the world today are so great and the present experience of the church is so weak, that we should long for the very thing they longed for. In the face of great opposition the Christians cried to God like this: "Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants 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."
They cried for boldness in their witness; they cried for God's hand to be stretched forth in healing; they cried for God to perform signs and wonders. They were not just "open" to signs and wonders. They were desperate for them. They prayed for them to come.
Why Did They Pray for Signs and Wonders?
And the question I want to get to in a few minutes is this: why did they want so badly for God to show signs and wonders? Why did they want him to stretch forth his hand to heal? This was the generation that had more immediate and more compelling evidence of the truth of the resurrection than any generation since.
Hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Lord were in Jerusalem. This was the generation of witnesses whose word was least in need of supernatural authentication of all the generations following. This was the generation whose preaching (apart from signs and wonders) of the mighty, soul-saving Word of God was more anointed than the preaching of any generation following—the preaching of Peter and Stephen and Paul. Why did this generation, with its immediate access to resurrection witnesses and its extraordinary preaching, feel such a passion to see God stretch forth his hand to heal and do signs and wonders among them?
You need to know exactly where I am coming from. This historical question is important because one key objection to our cry for God's healing power and for his signs and wonders shatters on the answer to this question. I will come back to that in a few minutes.
To Help People Come to Saving Faith
In today's text we see a pretty clear answer to the question of why the church wanted signs and wonders—with all their dangers, with all their abuses—and why they prayed: "Lord, stretch out your hand to heal and do signs and wonders in the name of Jesus." Acts 5:12 says, "Many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico." (I think "they" refers to all the church, because of the sequence of thought in 2:43–44.)
Verses 13 and 14 describe two results of this demonstration of signs and wonders. First, the people of Jerusalem—the outsiders stood in awe of the apostles and the church. Ananias and Sapphira had died, signs and wonders were being done, and verse 13 says, "None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor." But that's not all. In the midst of all this fear and amazement and wonder, many were coming to faith in Jesus. Verse 14: "And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women."
So I would say what Luke wants us to see is this connection between the signs and wonders done by the apostles in verse 12 and the multitudes being added to the Lord in verse 14. And I would say, then, that this is why the church prayed so earnestly for signs and wonders to be done. Signs and wonders helped bring people to the Lord. They helped bring people to saving faith.
A Pattern in the Book of Acts
This is not an isolated instance in the book of Acts. It is a pattern. I count at least 17 times where a miracle helps lead to conversions in the book of Acts. We have seen the miracle of Pentecost lead to 3,000 converts and the miracle of the lame man in Acts 3:6 lead to 2,000 converts (Acts 4:4). Acts 9:34–35 and Acts 9:40, 42 are the clearest examples. Peter heals Aeneas and Luke says, "And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord." Peter raises Tabitha from the dead, and Luke says, "It became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord."
There is no doubt that the working of miracles—signs and wonders—helped bring people to Christ. That is what Luke wants us to see and that is surely why the Christians would pray in Acts 4:30 that God would stretch forth his hand to heal and do signs and wonders. It would help bring people to Christ.
An Objection Against Praying for Signs and Wonders
Now let me bring in the objection that is sometimes brought up against praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with power in signs and wonders today. Some people say that this compromises the centrality of the Word of God.
It depreciates the value of preaching God's Word. It jeopardizes the sufficiency of the Word of God to save sinners. If signs and wonders are added to preaching, it must be because God's Word is not trusted or esteemed as sufficient to save. That's the sort of thing you hear. Right?
Texts Seeming to Support It
Well, this objection seems to have some crucial texts going for it. Romans 1:16 says, "The gospel is the power of God unto salvation." The gospel, not signs and wonders. In 1 Corinthians 1:22–23 Paul says, "Jews demand signs, Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified ... the power of God ... " And Jesus himself said, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign" (Matthew 12:39; 16:4).
Creates a New Problem
These are the kind of texts that are brought against seeking the Lord today for signs and wonders. But I have not yet heard any of these objectors even ask the question let alone answer it: if praying for signs and wonders belittles the preaching of the gospel, and if only wicked and adulterous people want signs, then why did Peter and John and the disciples pray for them in Acts 4:30? Why does Luke bend over backward to show how valuable they are in winning people to Christ?
Do you see what people are doing? They are giving the impression that seeking signs and wonders today is a problem for reasons that would have also made it a problem in the book of Acts, namely, it compromises the sufficiency of preaching. But they don't address that problem. So let me address it, because it is the really important question. Why was the prayer for signs and wonders in Acts 4:30 not wicked and adulterous, and why did it not jeopardize the sufficiency of preaching as the power of God unto salvation?
Why Is the Prayer of Acts 4:30 Not Wicked?
The answer to the first question is this: seeking signs from God is wicked and adulterous when the demand for more and more evidence comes from a resistant heart and simply covers up an unwillingness to believe.
If we are carrying on a love affair with the world, and our husband, Jesus, after a long separation, comes to us and says, "I love you and I want you back," one of the best ways to protect our adulterous relationship with the world is to say, "You're not really my husband; you don't really love me. Prove it. Give me some sign." If that's the way we demand a sign, then we are a wicked and adulterous generation.
But if you come to God with a heart aching with longing for vindication of his glory and the salvation of sinners, and that's why you long to see him stretch forth his hand to heal and do signs and wonders in the name of Jesus, then you are not wicked and adulterous. You are a faithful wife, only wanting to honor your husband, Jesus.
Why Do Signs and Wonders Not Compromise Preaching?
The answer to the second question—the question why signs and wonders do not have to compromise the power of preaching the gospel—goes like this: Acts 14:3 says that Paul and Barnabas "remained a long time [in Iconium] speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands."
This is utterly crucial. Signs and wonders are God's witness to his Word. They are not in competition with the Word. They are not against the Word. They are not over the Word. They are divine witnesses to the value and truth and necessity and centrality of the Word.
Here is the way I would sum up the relationship between the gospel and signs and wonders: signs and wonders are not the saving Word of grace; they are God's secondary testimony to the Word of his grace. Signs and wonders do not save.
They are not the power of God unto salvation. They do not transform the heart—any more than music or art or drama or magic shows. What changes the heart and saves the soul is the self-authenticating glory of Christ seen in the message of the gospel (2 Corinthians 3:18–4:6).
But even if signs and wonders can't save the soul, they can, if God pleases, shatter the shell of disinterest; they can shatter the shell of cynicism; they can shatter the shell of false religion. Like every other good witness to the Word of grace, they can help the fallen heart to fix its gaze on the gospel where the soul-saving, self-authenticating glory of the Lord shines.
Seeking Signs and Wonders in Prayer Today
My purpose this morning has not been to defend the validity of signs and wonders for today. I have done that before, and will no doubt do it again. The purpose has been to show what their function was in the book of Acts and how that is no hindrance to our seeking them today, just like they were sought in Acts 4:30—as divine witnesses to the Word of God's grace.
And I do believe God wants us to pray for them today. Nor am I alone in the reformed community that loves the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace. So I close with a challenge from one of our most revered spokesmen, Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions ... Was it only meant to be true of the early church? ... The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary—never! There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, pp. 31–32)
Lloyd-Jones believed in the steady-state, regular, ordinary ministry of the church. It has its blessing and its glory from the Lord. But I think he became increasingly disillusioned with business as usual toward the end of his 30 years of steady-state ministry at Westminster Chapel in London in 1965.
[We] can produce a number of converts, thank God for that, and that goes on regularly in evangelical churches every Sunday. But the need today is much too great for that. The need today is for an authentication of God, of the supernatural, of the spiritual, of the eternal, and this can only be answered by God graciously hearing our cry and shedding forth again his Spirit upon us and filling us as he kept filling the early church. (Joy Unspeakable, p. 278)
What is needed is some mighty demonstration of the power of God, some enactment of the Almighty, that will compel people to pay attention, and to look, and to listen ... That is why I am urging you to pray for this. When God acts, he can do more in a minute than man with his organizing can do in fifty years. (Revival, pp. 121–122)