Miracles, Wonders and Signs
The revelatory contents of prophecy and tongues give an indication that they have ceased with the closing of the canon. The question may be asked, however, whether this conclusion is in keeping with the role which tongues played according to the New Testament. Therefore, it is to the question of the role and the purpose of tongues that I now turn. In his Pentecost sermon Peter quotes Joel 2, which had prophesied of Pentecost and in this context had announced: “wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath” (Acts 2:19). When Peter applies this passage to the events that are taking place, he comments: “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs” (2:22). Peter uses the same words that Joel used: wonders and signs. This would make one expect that he would apply the expression “wonders and signs” to the outpouring of the Spirit. This is not the case, however. Peter uses this phrase not to refer to Pentecost, but to Jesus of Nazareth. The wonders and signs that Jesus did were an attestation or an accreditation to his identity.
Why does Peter do this? Why does he speak of the “miracles, wonders and signs” which Jesus did, rather than those which the Holy Spirit is doing now at Pentecost? To understand this we must keep the purpose of the book of Acts in mind. In the very first verse of this account, Luke states that in his gospel he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach. This means that Acts is the continuing account of Jesus’ acts and teachings. The book of Acts witnesses the exalted Lord at work. Why does Peter speak of the “miracles, wonders and signs” which Jesus did when he was on earth? Peter himself alludes to the reason in the remainder of his speech. With an appeal to Psalm 16 he states that Jesus, the Lord, has been raised and exalted to the right hand of God. From there, Peter says,
He received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
In other words, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the work of the exalted Lord. The outpouring of the Spirit is one of those acts which Jesus continues to do now that He is at the right hand of the Father. Just as Jesus did “wonders and signs” when He was on earth, so He does “wonders and signs” when He pours out His Spirit.
Peter not only speaks of “wonders and signs.” He precedes this phrase with the word “miracles.” The word translated by “miracles” (dunameis) is a word that Luke has also used in his “former book.” There the word describes miracles that Jesus does to authenticate himself. These miracles give Him accreditation. On their basis the Jews must accept Him. Luke makes clear, however, that the Jews in Galilee reject him. In Luke 10:13 Jesus chides the cities of Galilee, where he performed many of His miracles: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles [!] that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago.” Similarly, during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem the crowd of disciples praise God “for all the miracles [!] they had seen” (Luke 19:37). The miracles are an attestation and proof that Jesus is the messianic King who comes in the name of the Lord (cf. 4:36; 5:17; 6:19; 8:46).
It was the function of Jesus’ “miracles” to provide proof of His identity as the Messiah. But Peter is not satisfied simply to speak of the Jesus’ miraculous acts as “miracles.” Going by Joel 2, he adds the qualification “wonders and signs.” In so doing, he uses a phrase that in the Old Testament is often connected to the exodus from Egypt. 1 The “signs and wonders” surrounding the exodus are attestations that prove the very presence of God. God is present for the good of His own and with vengeance for those who oppose Him. Signs and wonders can either be positive or negative. For example, they can be positive signs and wonders for Israel, but negative signs and wonders to Pharaoh. They are “an indication of God’s attitude” 2or, perhaps better, an indication of God’s presence, a presence which either comes with a blessing or with a curse. At Pentecost some believed, while others mocked.
Signs and wonders were an attestation of God’s powerful presence in leading out His people Israel. Miracles, signs and wonders were an attestation of Jesus’ identity as the Christ during His stay on earth (Acts 2:22). Similarly, signs and wonders were an attestation of the presence of the exalted Christ in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:19, 22).3 The attestation itself is never the key element. It always comes with a message in order to underline it. Acts make clear that it is the message which counts.4 When in Acts 4 the Sanhedrin sets Peter and John free, they pray with their friends: “Lord, enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” Then they add: “Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders” (4:30). The result of their prayer is that all are filled with the Holy Spirit and speak the word of God boldly (4:31). In this passage the signs and wonders are, so to speak, sandwiched in between two references about the proclamation of the Gospel. The signs and wonders are an attestation with a message. It is the message which counts.
Later, when Philip proclaims the Gospel in a city of Samaria, the crowds hear him and see the miraculous signs that he does (8:6). Also here the hearing of the message and the signs by way of attestation are closely connected. Finally, when Paul and Barnabas are in Iconium they speak boldly for the Lord. The Lord then bears witness to the message with signs and wonders (14:3). The signs are there by way of support to bring people to faith in the message, and, ultimately, to bring people to faith in Christ, the exalted Lord who performs these signs and wonders. The same point is made by the author of the letter to the Hebrews, when he states that our salvation was confirmed to us by eyewitnesses, and that God also testified to this salvation by signs, wonders, and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 2:3-4).
Tongues and Upbuilding
The role of the “signs and wonders” in Acts is primarily positive. It is an attestation to the message of Christ, to the presence of Christ in the proclamation of the apostles.5 This “sign” character of tongues functioned by way of worship and praise to God. Paul speaks of prayer, of blessing and of thanksgiving as being the contents of speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:13-17). This element of praise is a constant element also in the book of Acts. At Pentecost people from all over the world hear the 120 believers “declaring the wonders of God” (2:11). When the Holy Spirit is poured out on Cornelius and his relatives and friends, they speak in tongues and praise God (10:46). Tongues-speaking was an inspired form of praise, of worship. This could be in the context of a public worship service, but this was not always necessarily so. Paul indicates that he speaks more in tongues than all of the Corinthians (14:18). Given this character of praise it is no wonder that Paul says that speaking in tongues is edifying for the person who does it (14:4). The combined evidence of the occurrences in Acts and of Paul’s statements to the Corinthians make it more than likely that speaking in tongues was done in private as well as in the public worship service. Floor even goes a step further:
The gift of speaking in tongues ... lies entirely in the personal sphere, and this gift is only of use for the upbuilding of the congregation if a second gift is added: the gift to explain languages or to translate tongues.6(1 Corinthians 12:10)
This does not mean that “signs” are invariably positive. I already noted that they could either be an attestation of blessing or of curse. Both come to the fore in a difficult passage in 1 Corinthians 14. In the context, the apostle has been urging the Corinthians to consider prophecy of greater value than tongues. Prophecies, although they also must be tested, interpreted and evaluated, are nevertheless understandable the way they are. Tongues need interpretation to be of use. Prophecies are upbuilding as it is; tongues can only build up the church if they are interpreted (14:1-17).7 The upbuilding of the church is an important criterion by which to judge the value of speaking in tongues. After he has paid attention to prophecies and tongues in connection with the internal upbuilding of the church, Paul turns to the external growth of the church in the verses 20-25. He appeals to the Corinthians to stop thinking like children.8 He does so with a quotation from Isaiah 28:11-12. There the Israelites are upset with Isaiah for talking to them like small children who have just been weaned from their mother’s milk (vv. 9-10). At that point, Isaiah comments that by way of punishment they will get a real dose of the medicine which they so much despise. God will really come to them with a language which they do not understand: the language of the Assyrians. The Assyrians will invade: “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people” (28:11).
Paul picks up on this statement in his discussion on tongues-speaking. He quotes Isaiah as follows: “Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me.” 9 Paul then continues to explain that tongues are a “sign” for unbelievers (14:22). For, he states, an unbeliever who would come into their worship service might well think that they have gone mad. Their tongues-speaking might turn him away from the Gospel. This would mean that their tongues-speaking would result in judgment on this unbeliever. Thus, Paul applies Isaiah’s words about the Israelites not listening to God’s message to the unbelievers who enter the worship service. In this way, tongues become a negative “sign” for the unbelievers.10
Prophecy and Outreach
It is the other way around with prophecy. Prophecy is a sign for believers. Here, however, the sign is not negative, but positive. Prophecy does not need interpretation or translation to make it understandable. This means that an unbeliever coming into the worship service will have no problem understanding what is being said. The prophetic proclamation of the Gospel message may touch his heart.11He may so be convicted of his sins and be “examined” by all.12 If the prophecy of the Corinthians would so “examine” unbelievers who happen to enter the worship service, they would truly show themselves to be “spiritual” people who are in a position to examine and to judge.
In this way the unbeliever might be won for Christ. He might exclaim, “God is really among you!” This would be a positive sign.13 It would be a positive sign for the believers, who may observe that their prophetic utterances lead to numerical church growth. Carson rightly concludes: “The point is that even so far as outreach is concerned, tongues must take a back seat to prophecy. The question of intelligibility has returned, but now with reference to unbelievers.”14
What may we conclude are some of the functions of speaking in tongues? According to Acts 2, tongues play a role at a particular point in the history of salvation, where they are attestations pointing to the message of the gospel and so to the very presence of God.15 This salvation-historical function of tongues means that they accompanied the spread of the kingdom of God from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, as this is recorded in Acts. Perhaps this historically determined role of tongues does not provide incontrovertible proof that they have ceased. Nevertheless, it strongly leads in this direction. Such a conclusion is certainly in keeping with the notion that tongues, as a means of revelation, have come to an end with the closing of the canon. It is within this salvation-historical context that the Holy Spirit gave some the gift of speaking in tongues in order to praise God, and so for their personal edification. It could function in the public worship service if it were accompanied by interpretation. If used wrongly, however, it could – as a side-effect – become a negative sign that would turn unbelievers away from the Gospel.