The New Testament example

The Lord Jesus Christ from the beginning of his ministry performed miracles of healing, including three resurrections to demonstrate the divine stamp upon his work. The first “sign” of John’s Gospel was the miracle of turning water into wine, and the record declares: “This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and mani­fested forth his glory, and his disciples believed on him” (John 2:11). The miracle or sign demonstrated his glory, which we have already seen in John’s Gospel was “as of the only begotten of the Father”, and it prompted belief.

The same chapter tells us that when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, “many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did” (2:23); here was evidence that just could not be denied. So when Nicodemus came to Jesus under cover of night what could he do but say “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2). The Pharisees later added their testimony to that of Nicodemus when they said of Christ after he had healed the man blind from birth, “How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles?” (John 9:16). The answer was infuriating but obvious: he must be who he claimed to be. To the blind man who now could really see, it was clear: “If this man were not of God, he could do nothing”. And when Jesus challenged him to “believe on the Son of God” his response was unhesitating: “Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him” (John 9:36–38).

Scripture attests firmly that these miracles, wonders and signs carried out by our Lord were real, involved Divine power, and were used for the specific purpose of providing incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was Son of God. They were an adjunct to his teaching ministry, resulted in accept­ance and belief by many, and prompted even from Jesus’ enemies the reluctant acknowledgement that only a man of God, one not a sinner, could do such things. Let the Apostle Peter give us a better sum­mary: “Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know” (Acts 2:22).

The apostles followed on: “And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” (Mark 16:20). The Acts record sets out the grand adventure of the gospel going forth. The apostles and others endowed with the Spirit gifts by the laying on of the apostles’ hands carried out “wonders and signs” to confirm the divine authority of the gospel message:

  • Stephen: “full of faith and power, did great won­ders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:8)
  • Philip: “the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did” (Acts 8:6)
  • Paul and Barnabas: “they speaking boldly in the Lord, which gave testimony unto the word of his grace, and granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3)

What do we need to explain? Here is God’s Word, God’s power, God’s men. None could deny it, and the Word of God grew and multiplied.

But – “false Christs and false prophets”?

In the course of the Olivet Prophecy, Christ de­clared: “… if any man shall say unto you, Lo here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matt 24:23–24). Is Jesus really saying that these imposters would be able to demonstrate legitimate miracles, “great signs and wonders”? We know that in those times of “great tribulation” that a number of men emerged, who did attract a fol­lowing. Gamaliel mentioned “Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred joined themselves” and “Judas of Galilee” who “drew away much people after him” (Acts 5:36–37). There were others. Simon in Samaria provides a distinctive template. He had “used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one” (Acts 8:9). Until Philip arrived, preaching the gospel and carrying out clear miracles of healing, the people were fooled, but Simon’s trickery gave way before God’s word and God’s power. Simon was fascinated by actual miracles: “when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.” Simon knew he was a fraud, so he was the more impressed by the real thing.

Surely this was what Christ was saying in Matthew 24:24. False Christs and false prophets would fool some, but with equally false signs and false wonders. Imposters through and through.

Signs and wonders

In Deuteronomy 13:1–3, Moses gives words of sol­emn warning: “If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” One who purports to be a prophet, who has been beguiled by idolatrous worship, may seek to bring others with him into that false but attractive path. He may even present clever illusions as Pharaoh’s magicians and sorcerers appeared at first to duplicate the signs done through Moses. No matter how powerful such might seem to be, the people were not to be swayed. “Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him” (13:4). There was a trial of faith here in which God was involved, unknown to the “dreamer of dreams” and the real issue was whether Israel would hearken to the commandments and voice of God or the fair words of the false prophet. So serious was this matter that the false prophet was to be put to death (13:5).

Though it is my personal view that the “signs and wonders” were mere illusions (this seems to me to be supported by the evidence of Christ and the apostles that we have considered), it must be noted that respected brethren have opined that, beyond merely permitting “dreamers of dreams” to act and speak as a way to prove His people, God did indeed send “strong delusion that they should believe a lie” (2 Thess 2:11). The observations of Nicodemus and the man born blind, quoted above, do strike me as compelling.

Brother H P Mansfield’s comment on this section of Deuteronomy 13 is interesting as he addresses the principles involved: “The real test of truth is not a sign, wonder or prediction coming to pass; it is the Truth itself; the Word of God as plainly written. Everything contrary to what is plainly stated therein is false, regardless of the seeming endorsement by sign or miracle. God al­lows signs and wonders to prove men, trials to test one’s love for Him. Even heresies can make manifest the approved.”

These are not simple issues, and though my views are probably clear, we hesitate to limit the ways in which God may choose to prove His ser­vants. We welcome readers’ comments.