Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Studies in Acts (2): Miracles

By anyone's understanding the book of Acts miracles play an important role in the forward movement of the Christian message from Jerusalem to Rome.  I want to look at a number of the miracles narrated in the book of Acts in order to pay attention to how they function and what they result in as they are performed.  I will then draw some conclusions from this data.

1.  Healing of the lame beggar: Acts 3.1-8

Some of the effects flowing from this miracle:
A.  The people who witnessed the man, now walking and leaping and praising God,  "were filled with wonder and amazement at  what had happened" (Acts 3.10).
B.  This miracle draws a crowd to Peter and they are "full of amazement" (Acts 3.11).
C.  This leads to the opportunity for Peter to share the message of the gospel.  As a result of this message proclaimed, Acts 4.4 states:
But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand. 
D.  The scribes, rulers, and priests acknowledge the miracle (Acts 4.16) but rather than rejoice they, in opposition to them and their message, seek to silence the disciples (Acts 4.17). 
E.  The people "were all glorifying God for what had happened" (Acts 4.21).
F.  The disciples ask the Lord for more healing to happen in the name of Jesus (Acts 4.29-30).
2.  Judgment of death upon Ananias and Sapphira: Acts 5.1-10

Some of the effects flowing from this miracle:
A.  And great fear came over the whole church, and over all who heard of these things.  Acts 5.11
B.  But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in hight esteem.  Acts 5.13
3.  Signs performed by Philip in Samaria: Acts 8.6ff

Some of the effects flowing from this miracle:
A.  The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing.  Acts 8.6  (cf. this with verses 9-11 where the people had previously been "astonished" by the magic of Simon)
B.  There was "much rejoicing in that city" Acts 8.8.
C.  But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.  Acts 8.12
D.  There is a misplaced focus on the part of Simon.  He is amazed at the "signs and great miracles" (v. 13) and he seeks to offer them money to receive this power (vv. 18-19).
4.  Healing of Aeneas from his eight year paralysis: Acts 9.33-34

This produces the following effect:
And all who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.  Acts 9.35
5.  Raising of Dorcas from the dead: Acts 9.39-40

This produces the following effect:
It became known all over Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.  Acts 9.42 
6.  Blindness of Elymas the magician by the hand of Paul: Acts 13.6-11

This produces the following effect:
Then the proconsul believed when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord.  Acts 13.12
7.  Healing of a lame man at Lystra: Acts 14.8-10

Some of the effects flowing from this miracle:
A.  The people "raised their voice" (Acts 14.11).  There is a general excitement about the miracle.
B.  The people interpret this miracle from within their confines of their worldview.  They see Paul and Barnabas as the gods Zeus and Hermes and attempt to sacrifice to them (Acts 14.11-13).
C.  When Paul challenges their religious fervor (Acts 14.14-18) the people are stopped from their plans to sacrifice.
D.  Jews come from Antioch and stir up the people.  The crowds stone Paul and drag him out of the city (Acts 14.19).
8.  Exorcism of slave girl in Philippi: Acts 16.16-18

Some of the effects flowing from this miracle: Acts 16.19-24
A.  Persecution
B.  Legal trouble
C.  Jail time
9.  "Extraordinary miracles" by Paul and the failure of certain Jewish  exorcists in Ephesus: Acts 19.11-16

Some of the effects flowing from this set of miracles:
A.  Event becomes "known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived in Ephesus" (Acts 19.17).
B.  "Fear fell upon them all"  (Acts 19.17).
C.  "The name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified" (Acts 19.17).
D.  Confession and repentance of magic practices by believers (Acts 19.18-19).
E.  "So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing" (Acts 19.20).
10.  Healing of Publius' father from fever and dysentery by Paul: Acts 28.8

Some of the effects flowing from this miracle:
A.  The rest of the people "on the island who had diseases were coming to him and getting cured" (Acts 28.9).
B.  They honored Paul "with many marks of respect" (Acts 28.10) and helped Paul on his ways with supplies.   

Some conclusions from the above:

1.  Miracles, in and of themselves, do not save.
This is evident from a number of the instances above.  Jewish religious leaders (1.D. above), Simon (3.D), and certain Gentiles (7.B., 8.A) all encounter the miraculous but are left unsaved. 
2.  Miracles, in and of themselves, are not self-identifying.
This is most clearly seen in Paul and Barnabas' encounter in Lystra.  The people see an amazing miracle but they interpret it from within the confines of their religious worldview. It is precisely that worldview with its false gods that needs to be challenged in order for there to be proper repentance and, thus, salvation.  Miracles need a conceptual framework in order to be interpreted rightly.
3.  Miracles serve the gospel proclamation.
Two closely related points are important here.
A.  The primacy is on the proclaimed message for salvation.  This is most clearly seen in 1.C. and 3.C. but it also implied in 4., 5., 6, and 9.D. and E.
B.  Miracles do create opportunities to preach the word and an environment in which the proclaimed word is more readily assented unto.  This is evident from 1.B., 3.A., 4., 5., 6., and, perhaps implicitly, 9.A., B., and C. 
John Piper has accurately analyzed this dynamic of the relationship between the self-attesting power of the gospel and the power and place of the miraculous.  
My own answer to the question how the power of the word and the authenticating function of signs and wonders fit together is this. The Bible teaches that the gospel preached is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:161 Cor. 1:23). It also teaches that the demand for signs in the presence of God's word is the mark of an evil and adulterous generation (Matt. 16:41 Cor. 1:22). But the Bible also 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" (Acts 14:3; cf. Heb. 2:4Mark 16:20). So signs and wonders were God's attesting witness to the spoken word of the gospel.
Could we not then say, in putting all this together, that signs and wonders function in relation to the word of God, as striking, wakening, channels for the self-authenticating glory of Christ in the gospel? Signs and wonders do not save. They do not transform the heart. Only the glory of Christ seen in the gospel has the power to do that (2 Cor. 3:18-4:6). But evidently, God chooses at times to use signs and wonders along side his regenerating word to win a hearing and to shatter the shell of disinterest and cynicism and false religion, and help the fallen heart fix its gaze on the gospel.  "A Passion for Christ-Exalting Power: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Need for Revival and Baptism with the Holy Spirit" Jan. 30, 1991 available HERE.