This article is about miracles and signs as proof of the identity of Jesus Christ, the purpose of speaking in tongues, and the use of prophecy in missions.

Source: Clarion, 1996. 4 pages.

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.


  1. ^ Cf. Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) VII.216.
  2. ^ The phrase is from Wayne Grudem, “1 Corinthians 14.20-25: Prophecy and Tongues as Signs of God’s Attitude,” Westminster Theological Journal 41 (1979) 389. Grudem comments: “These indications are either positive or negative: positive toward those who believe and obey God, but negative toward those who disbelieve and disobey him.”
  3. ^ Cf. C. Trimp’s comment that signs were a “cooperation of the exalted Lord with the apostles and a confirmation of the word that they spoke” (“De charismatische gemeente,” in De gemeente en haar liturgie: Een leesboek voor kerkgangers [Kampen: Van den Berg, 1983], p. 34). 
  4. ^ The word “sign” by itself occurs in Acts 4:16, 22; 8:6. The combination of “wonders and sings” or “signs and wonders” occurs in 2:19; 2:22; 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 7:36; 8:13; 14:3; 15:12.
  5. ^ It is interesting that the “signs and wonders” are always connected with the apostles or with those who had received the laying on of hands, such as Philip and Stephen (Acts 6:7). Perhaps this point must not be stressed, seeing that tongues and prophecy were also “signs” in the congregation of Corinth (1 Corinthians 14:22). But see 2 Corinthians 12:12: these things “mark an apostle.” Cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:9; Hebrews 2:4.
  6. ^  L. Floor, De doop met de Heilige Geest (Kampen: Kok, 1982), p. 201. J.W. Maris argues against any possible private use of tongues. He takes exception to the positions of L. Floor and Richard B. Gaffin. According to Maris, as well as Stott, Paul uses irony when he says that tongues edify the speaker himself (Geloof en ervaring: Van Wesley tot de pinksterbeweging [Leiden: Groen, 1992], pp. 241-42); John R.W. Stott, Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today, 2nd ed. [London: Inter-Varsity, 1975], pp. 114-15). However, as indicated above, 1 Corinthians 14:4 is not the only text pleading for a private use of tongues. Moreover, there is no indication that Paul means this particular statement in an ironic fashion. Gordon D. Fee correctly notes: “The edifying of oneself is not a bad thing; it simply is not the point of gathered worship” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], p. 653; cf. p. 657).
  7. ^ Note the consistent emphasis on “upbuilding.” Paul uses this terminology six times in this passage (vv. 3, 4 [2x], 5, 12, 17). 
  8. ^ Cf. similar charges of childishness in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2; 13:11. 
  9. ^ Paul does not quote the Hebrew text literally, nor does he stick to the Septuagint. For a careful textual analysis, see Fee, 1 Corinthians, p. 680
  10. ^ Some have taken this negative “sign” element one step further. O. Palmer Robertson states that when Isaiah announces that a foreign nation will overrun Israel’s borders, he is “simply applying to his day the covenantal curse of Deuteronomy 28:49” (“Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing,” Westminster Theological Journal 38 [1975] 44). This text warns that the Lord would punish His people with a nation “whose language you will not understand.” In other words, via a quotation of Isaiah, Paul would be reaching back to the covenantal language of Deuteronomy 28. According to Robertson, tongues “serve as a sign of covenantal curse” (“Tongues,” 46). Concludes Robertson: “In a very literal sense, the ‘tongues’ of Pentecost represented the taking of the kingdom away from Israel and the giving of the kingdom to men of all nations (“Tongues,” 47). Such an interpretation requires that Paul sees the “sign” of tongues as a covenantal sign against God’s own unrepentant people, rather than as a sign against outsiders. Gaffin, who also adopts this line of thinking, argues that the Gospel is facing Jewish opposition in Corinth, and that tongues are a covenantal sign against these Jews (Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 108; cf. also J.W. Maris, Geloof en ervaring, pp. 239-41). Gaffin rightly acknowledges, however, that 1 Corinthians 14:22a applies not only to unbelieving Jews, but to all unbelievers. This is indeed the case. Seeing tongues are a “sign” to all unbelievers, would it not be better to leave out the reference to Deuteronomy 28:49 altogether? Nowhere in 1 Corinthians does Paul intimate that he is opposing the Jews. All in all, it seems to me that the negative “sign” function, while present, must not be overplayed.
  11. ^ It is not likely that the Corinthian prophecies actually mentioned specific sins, and that this led to their public exposure. Grudem is of the opinion that this is the case, seeing that the verb “to lay bare” or “to manifest” (phaneroō) always refers to “a public, external manifestation” (1 Corinthians 14:20-25, 394). It must be kept in mind, however, that the prophecy is directed toward believers, not unbelievers. The latter simply overhear what is going on in the Christian assembly. The prophecies have the mysteries of the gospel as their contents (13:2). So it is the gospel of salvation which convicts unbelievers of their sinfulness before God. Cf. D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), p. 116, n. 22. 
  12. ^ Paul has used the verb “examine” (anakrinō) earlier in his letter. In chapter 2 Paul makes clear that the spiritual man “examines” all things, and that this spiritual man himself is “examined” by no one (2:15). In chapter 4 Paul defends himself against the charge that he is a weakling as an apostle. In response, he comments that he would consider it a very minor thing if the Corinthians were to “examine” him. He does not even “examine” himself. It is only the Lord who “examines” him (4:3-4). It is clear from this that the apostle is of the opinion that the Corinthians cannot be treated as “spiritual” people. They are in no position to “examine” the apostle Paul. In chapter 6 the apostle argues against using civil courts for problems among brothers. He reminds them that saints will “judge” (krinō) the world, that they will “judge” angels. The Corinthians are “examining” and “judging” Paul, but they don’t even seem to be able to find some wise person in their midst to investigate and deal with a problem between believers in the congregation. They certainly don’t act like the “spiritual” people that they are supposed to be.
  13. ^ Cf. Isaiah 45:14 and Zechariah 8:23 for similar exclamations of recognition on the part of heathen nations that God is present among His people Israel.
  14. ^ Carson, Showing the Spirit, pp. 116-17.
  15. ^ Cf. Carson’s comment that the “essentially salvation-historical structure of the Book of Acts is too often overlooked” (Showing the Spirit, p. 150).

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