“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Acts 2:42–45, NRSV
How often do Christians think about radical sharing as a miraculous demonstration of the Holy Spirit’s power? Pentecostals and charismatics believe that the Holy Spirit endows believers with spiritual gifts and that signs and wonders continue to be part of Christian experience today. Sometimes the “flashier” gifts, like tongues, healing, and prophecy, can take precedence over more seemingly “mundane” gifts, like forms of assistance (1 Cor 12:28). This is understandable. If Christ is really present with us through the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit empowers us to heal and perform miracles, why wouldn’t we be out demonstrating the amazing works of God? One thing we must take care to consider is our motives, and the passage above shows us why. When we hold a distorted view of “signs and wonders” that separates us from how Jesus calls us to live, we fall into a warped practice of the gospel.
For example, capitalist approaches to miracles have created the distortion of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Prosperity preachers promise miraculous health and wealth to their followers—provided those followers practice “seed faith,” which enriches the pastor without contributing to the reconciling work of God. (In recent years, Benny Hinn has stated he has changed his mind about at least some extreme aspects of the “prosperity gospel;” we can hope that others follow suit.) As Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, we must carefully discern our understanding of power: what empowerment means, and what the Holy Spirit empowers us for.
In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus tells his disciples that he will send the Holy Spirit for a particular purpose:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Empowerment is connected with witnessing. But what does it mean to be witnesses to Jesus? Preceding the passage that opens this article, Peter spoke to the gathered crowd on the day of Pentecost, sharing the message of Jesus, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and finally inviting them to “save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” (1:40). It is these first converts who witness the apostles’ signs and wonders, become baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and then share all that they have.
Jesus’ miraculous ministry was concerned with both personal and communal well-being: in other words, the kingdom of God. He did not perform miracles just to demonstrate that God is capable of them; they had communal, often economic, consequences. As one example, staying within the narrative of Luke-Acts, we can look at Jesus’ miracle of raising the widow of Nain’s son from the dead (Luke 7:11–17). Jesus does not perform this miracle for the dead son’s sake or to demonstrate God’s power. In the social and economic context of the time, the widow would have been destitute without her son to provide for her. It is his compassion for her, and what it would mean for her wellness as a member of the community, that inspires his act (13). Likewise, in Acts, signs and wonders are not performed for their own sake or to enrich individuals. Witnessing to Jesus, evidenced by signs and wonders, results in a change of relationship, releasing converts from greed and moving them toward caring for one another. If we are enamored with signs and wonders for other reasons, we ought to pause and consider why.
Faith Van Horne received her Master of Divinity from the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She is currently a postgraduate researcher in Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis explores how perceptions of selfhood and the body influence theological visions of redemption for survivors of sexual abuse. She also blogs for Red Letter Christians UK.
Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!