When Miracles Fail

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What role do we expect miracles to have among people? Would we expect a miracle to lead an unbeliever to Christ? Does a miracle solidify faith? Would it lead those in opposition to join our cause? Are miracles a sign of truth saving faith?

These are some questions that need to sit on the foundation in this discussion. First, perhaps, what are we talking about? Does a miracle occur when your spouse finally puts his shoes up? Is it a miracle when your teenager simply says, “Sure, I’d be happy to do that dad?” (That second one probably is a miracle, lol). But for this article, we are talking about the miracles in the Bible: Red Sea splitting in two and the ground being dry while Israel crosses it. Acts 14:8 represents a miracle,

“At Lystra a man was sitting who had no strength in his feet, lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. 9 This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze on him and had seen that he had faith to be made well, 10 said with a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he leaped up and began to walk.”

Obviously this is not TLC’s The Foot Doctor who performed surgery and through editing the person walked. This is special. The man, probably older, doesn’t matter though could not walk from the moment he was born. He lived crippled up until this day. Luke informs us the man is a believer before the miracle. He listens to Paul preach (probably a similar sermon found in Acts 13:16) and he believes Christ is who Paul says He is.

This is one of many signs and wonders Paul exhibits as he worked that first missionary journey. “Therefore they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3). Luke makes sure we understand, signs and wonders are a normal part of Paul’s work here.

But what do we expect these signs and wonders to accomplish? Do we think a sign or wonder will communicate the Gospel? Is it leading people to Christ? The answer here is actually shocking. If you read all of Acts 14 as one narrative, as Luke wants you to, then the thesis to the chapter is not, “Paul does miraculous works.” Instead Luke records the thesis in Acts 14:22, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” This is the point of Acts 14, the ministry endured despite opposition.

The miracles are not the point of each story in Acts 14. If you read the text, in each case, Luke spends more time talking about the opposition and negative responses to Paul’s ministry.

In Iconium (14:1-8) Paul preached, worked signs and wonders and some responded in faith, however the opposition grew to the point where it became life threatening to Paul. “But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren” (14:2). At this point in the narrative, the Jews responded to the preaching. As Paul continues to preach to the disciples and the crowds, God performs signs and wonders through them. What should be the response? If I listen to some, this would be the magic wand leading the entire city to believe. Instead, here is how the opposition responded, “But the people of the city were divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. 5 And when an attempt was made by both the Gentiles and the Jews with their rulers, to mistreat and to stone them” (14:4-5). The believers had already responded to Paul’s preaching. The opposition hates Paul’s preaching. They see the signs and wonders and they still seek to kill Paul because of his teaching. The Old Testament commands false preachers be stoned to death. They view Paul as a false teacher. The text doesn’t say, but they may have even assessed the miracles to Satan and demons. Remember when Jesus was accused, “But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:24)?

If the signs and wonders were meant to communicate saving faith, then they failed. If it was meant to evangelize and rid opposition, they failed.

In fact, these rulers, distraught and upset, seek Paul out, find him, and stone him anyway! “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (Acts 14:19). They came from Iconium to Lystra in order to do this (btw, this is not a 5 minute walk across town).

The second people group Paul encounters, perhaps the miracles will do their job there? Acts 14:8-18 records Paul’s healing the man’s foot. What response would he receive? Maybe this will win the Lyconians to the Gospel. They’ve seen an amazing work, something only the creator can do. Maybe they’ll work this time? Nope. It’s sad. The miracles have failed. Because instead, the people respond by calling Barnabas Zues and Paul Hermes. They associate the power as something only god can do but they assign to them the wrong false gods. The miracles have failed.

If we assume signs and wonders are the vehicle to communicate truth, then Acts 14 is a colossal failure. If we say, it takes faith to activate these signs and wonders, then Iconium doesn’t make sense and we make humans that catalyst for God’s sovereign hand. These two lines of thought fail the text.

If we instead assume God uses His word to communicate the truth, evangelize, and strengthen believers, then we can rightfully understand God and how He communicates. He communicates through His Word. This is Paul’s argument in Romans 10, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!” (10:14-15). The truth must be proclaimed and people will believe.

The appearance of miracles does not guarantee the one seeing it will rightfully process the miracle as God’s hand. If your computer, tablet, or phone immediately started levitating, you might assign it to God. Shouldn’t that prove to the atheist God exists? No, unless the person hears the truth, he will not receive the information needed for salvation. The atheist will instead ascribe some other natural phenomenon to the event and come up with an alternative explanation, just like the Lyconians did.

Hebrews 2:1-4 sheds more light on the purpose of these signs and wonders. “For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”

The author calls the church to listen. To what? the miracles? No to what we have heard! What did they hear? “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son,” (Heb 1:1-2). They heard the message of the Son. And it’s to Him we must listen, pay attention to, and cling to. We are not to drift away from the message. It was spoken through unyielding, solid means: angels (delivered the OT law), through the Lord, and finally through the eye witnesses (apostles).

To have fellowship with the Father is to agree with apostolic teaching about the Son. John 1:1-4 affirms this as well. So what role do the signs, wonders, and miracles play? They testified alongside the message. They were not the message, they validated the messengers were God’s messengers. The apostles performed the same miracles Jesus performed. Those familiar with the OT text would see the nature of signs and see they coordinate with God’s written revelation.

Acts, Hebrews, 1 John, and the apostles overwhelmingly communicate that truth comes by hearing and the spoken content needs to be the Word of God. Relying on signs, wonders, and miracles to communicate truth will lead to failure. Acts 14, the written Word testifies to this truth.

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Jason Vaughn

About Jason Vaughn

Jason is a graduate of the Master's Seminary and the pastor of Cornerstone Las Vegas, a Grace Advance church plant. He loves Christ, his wife Kyla, sometimes his kids :), the church, missions, people, and coffee. You can also follow his podcast at https://soundcloud.com/user-201412896.