Easter 2 • Acts 5:12–20 (21–32) • April 11, 2010
by David Maxwell
SIGNS AND WONDERS—FOR WHAT?
Acts 5:12–16 presents a picture of a time when signs and wonders were a common occurrence. The ESV is perhaps over-translating in verse 12 when it says, “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles.” The word “regularly” is a translation of the imperfect aspect of the main verb egeneto. This is a legitimate translation, but it is worth noting that Luke uses the imperfect indicative throughout these verses simply to narrate past events. Thus, the preacher should not put too much weight on the word “regularly” (other translations do not even use it). Nevertheless, it is clear that these miracles were happening frequently enough for people to come to expect them.
The question this raises for us is, “Why don’t these things happen today?” More pointedly, perhaps, Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison in verses 17–32 raises the question of whether we, too, should expect this kind of deliverance. How, exactly, does this text apply to us?
God can, of course, do whatever he wants. However, there are some indications in the text that the signs and wonders are not functioning primarily to mark God’s presence. If that were their function, then we might expect to see them wherever God’s presence is, even today. In this text, the signs and wonders vindicate the apostles in much the same way the resurrection vindicated Jesus. In verse 12, for example, Luke includes the specification that the signs and wonders were performed “by the hands of the apostles.” A similar linkage to the apostles may be seen in Acts 8:18, where Simon Magus observes that “the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands.” Faced with the charge of disobedience, Peter and the apostles tell the council, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The miracles serve to authenticate Peter’s testimony and vindicate him from the charges leveled against him.
This parallels the way that the resurrection vindicates Christ. Peter continues, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:30–32). Perhaps we may not be accustomed to the idea that the resurrection vindicates Christ. Lutherans tend to stress that the resurrection conquers death (1 Cor 15) or that it proves that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was acceptable (the synodical exposition of the Small Catechism). However, Luke is very concerned to show that Jesus was not a failure who died the death of the criminal. That is why the centurion at the cross, in Luke’s account, says, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Lk 23:47). The same point is critical in the story of the two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13–35). They were going to Emmaus because they thought Jesus had failed. Jesus’ appearance to them convinces them that his death was not a failure, and they turned around and went back to Jerusalem. Likewise, in our text, Peter cites Christ’s resurrection as evidence that God the Father had vindicated him, overturning their criminal execution of him.
The signs and wonders in this passage, then, serve not as an example of what we, too, can do if we only believe, but as vindication of the apostles’ message of repentance and forgiveness (Acts 5:31).