Sunday May 14, 2023

Acts 5:12-16 - Signs and Wonders in the Early Church


     Luke, having presented the ideal Christians, who were loving, selfless, and giving (Acts 4:32-37), in contrast with those who were carnal (Acts 5:1-11), now offers a summary statement that describes the growth of the church over the first few months (Acts 5:12-16). In defiance of the Sanhedrin’s command not to preach, the apostles continued to proclaim Jesus and His resurrection to those who would listen. Being entirely Jewish believers, they gathered at the temple in an area known as the portico of Solomon, the place where Peter and John had previously been arrested.

     The ongoing preaching of Jesus and His resurrection, the miracles being performed through the apostles, and the growing number of new believers, concerned the members of the Sanhedrin and, no doubt, threatened their positions and perceived authority. The initial healing of the lame man triggered their concerns (Acts 3:1-10; 4:1-3), and in this pericope Luke will inform us about many others who were healed (Acts 5:12-16).


     This section opens with the statement, “At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico” (Acts 5:12). This action by the apostles was in direct defiance of the Sanhedrin, who had “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). God was working through His apostles to perform signs and wonders (σημεῖα καὶ τέρατα semeia kai terata) (Acts 5:12). The term sign (σημεῖον semeion) appears thirteen times in Acts (Acts 2:19, 22, 43; 4:16, 22, 30; 5:12; 6:8; 7:36; 8:6, 13; 14:3; 15:12) and denotes “a miracle of divine origin, performed by God himself, by Christ, or by men of God.”[1] The noun wonders (τέρας teras) appears 9 times in Acts (Acts 2:19, 22, 43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 7:36; 14:3; 15:12), only in connection with a sign (σημεῖον semeion), and refers to “something that astounds.”[2] The purpose of the signs and wonders was to harness the attention of the witness. Whereas a sign demonstrated a supernatural occurrence, the wonder represents the human response. And these signs and wonders were taking place publicly “among the people” and in “Solomon’s portico.” Furthermore, they were not intended to be an end in themselves, but to point people to Jesus for salvation.

     We must remember that Satan empowers his false prophets to perform miracles in order to deceive. When Moses was executing God’s plagues upon Egypt, it is recorded that three times “the magicians of Egypt did the same with their secret arts” (Exo 7:10-11; cf., 7:21-22; 8:6-7). Moses warned the Israelites who were about to enter the land that they should guard themselves against false prophets and dreamers of dreams who arise and give them a “sign or wonder” and then seek to lead them away from God (Deut 13:1-4). Jesus warned of future “false Christs and false prophets who will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24:24). And Paul spoke of the coming Antichrist, “whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved” (2 Th 2:9-10). Those who know God’s Word and live by it will guard themselves against the deceiving power of false miracle workers.

     Luke continues his report, saying, “But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem” (Acts 5:13). Why were some reluctant to associate with the apostles? It’s possible they were afraid because of what happened to Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). It could also be they were concerned about being arrested and mistreated by the religious authorities, as Peter and John had been (Acts 4:1-3). The passage does not give us a reason, only that some held their distance. I tend to think these were believers, as they held the apostles in “high esteem.”

     Such distancing of believers is not unheard of in Scripture. Elsewhere, there were some people who believed in Christ as Savior, but lacked the moral courage to confess Him openly. In the Gospel of John, we’re told, “many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue” (John 12:42). Of course, there we’re given the reason, as “they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God” (John 12:43). We also read about Joseph of Arimathea, who was “a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38). One could argue that Peter was hiding from persecution when he denied the Lord three times (Matt 26:33-35, 69-75).   

     Throughout Scripture, hiding from persecution was not necessarily wrong. By faith, Moses’ parents hid him from Pharaoh (Ex 2:1-2). The writer of Hebrews comments on this act, saying, “By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw he was a beautiful child; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Heb 11:23). By faith, Rahab protected the two spies that came to her house, for “she had brought them up to the roof and hidden them in the stalks of flax which she had laid in order on the roof” (Josh 2:6; cf. Heb 11:31). When David was being persecuted by King Saul, Jonathan told David, “Saul my father is seeking to put you to death. Now therefore, please be on guard in the morning, and stay in a secret place and hide yourself” (1 Sam 19:2). During the days of Elijah, “when Jezebel destroyed the prophets of the LORD, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave, and provided them with bread and water” (1 Ki 18:4). These were true prophets, for a false prophet would not have been afraid of the public hostility of Ahab and Jezebel. It is recorded that Jesus “hid Himself” (κρύπτω krupto) from an attack by the Jewish leadership (John 8:59). Certainly there was no sin in Jesus’ action. There was another time when Jesus “hid Himself” (κρύπτω krupto), though the text does not say why (John 12:36). 

     Luke tells us the church was growing numerically, saying, “And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (Acts 5:14). Previously, Luke mentioned three thousand (Acts 2:41), and five thousand (Acts 4:4) who had believed in Jesus. Here, he simply states, “multitudes of men and women” were being added. Jesus, prior to His death, burial, and resurrection, had explained to His apostles, “I will build My church” (Matt 16:18). What we witness in Acts is the work of the Lord Jesus through His obedient apostles. Those who came to faith in Christ are now in heaven, partly because of the work of the Lord’s servants who were willing to do His will.

     Luke continues his summary report by telling us that many were coming to the apostles “to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them” (Acts 5:15). Here was faith. The apostles were God’s conduits of truth and grace, and those who came near them, even as close as a shadow, could taste the Lord’s goodness. Here was blessing by association.

     It is only natural that people who were sick, or knew someone who was sick, would want to bring them for healing. And there were many who came. So many that there was no room at the temple, so they “carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets.” Were there people being healed who did not come to faith in Christ? That’s possible. We know Jesus healed many and fed thousands, and it’s likely that not everyone who was blessed by Him ultimately turned to Him in faith. Though this verse does not say people were healed as Peter’s shadow fell on them, then next verse answers it by revealing that those who came were “all being healed” (Acts 5:16). According to Earl Radmacher, “In the ancient world many people believed that a person’s shadow could possess magical healing powers. The people referred to in this verse were not necessarily Christians, but those who believed that Peter, as an advocate of a new religion, had magical powers. The people imposed their superstitions upon this new faith.”[3]This is not surprising, for even if they were believers, human viewpoint and pagan superstitions are not automatically expunged from the mind and replaced with divine viewpoint. Such renovation of the mind occurs in phase two of salvation as the believer studies God’s Word and learns to operate by it (Rom 12:1-2; 2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2; Jam 1:22). What we observe in this passage is that God graciously healed people, even those whose theology was somewhat questionable.

     Not only were people in Jerusalem bringing their sick loved ones, but “Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed” (Acts 5:16). This is reminiscent of Jesus’ ministry where multitudes were coming to Him for healing, and they were not disappointed. Mark records:

  • "When they had crossed over they came to land at Gennesaret, and moored to the shore. When they got out of the boat, immediately the people recognized Him, and ran about that whole country and began to carry here and there on their pallets those who were sick, to the place they heard He was. Wherever He entered villages, or cities, or countryside, they were laying the sick in the market places, and imploring Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were being cured." (Mark 6:53-56)

     Luke tells us later in Acts about God working through the apostle Paul in miraculous ways, saying, “God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out” (Acts 19:11-12). According to Warren Wiersbe:

  • "It is significant that all of these people were healed. There were no failures and nobody was sent away because he or she “did not have faith to be healed.” These were days of mighty power when God was speaking to Israel and telling them that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed their Messiah and Savior. “For the Jews require a sign” (1 Cor. 1:22), and God gave signs to them. The important thing was not the healing of the afflicted, but the winning of lost souls, as multitudes were added to the fellowship. The Spirit gave them power for wonders and power for witness (Acts 1:8), for miracles apart from God’s Word cannot save the lost."[4]

     These miracles were a sign of a dispensational shift. We saw God perform signs and wonders when calling His people out of Egypt, when Elijah and Elisha began a new era of prophets, when Jesus offered His kingdom, and now through the apostles at the beginning of the church age.

Is God producing signs and wonders through apostles today?

     To be an apostle necessitated seeing the risen Christ (1 Cor 9:1), which no one can honestly claim today. Paul told the Christians at Corinth, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Co 12:12). If there were true apostles today, one would expect to see the kind and volume of miracles performed by those in the early church. But there are none, because there are none. According to Warren Wiersbe:

  • "One of the qualifications for an apostle was that he had seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor 9:1); and, since nobody can claim that experience today, there are no apostles in the church. The Apostles and prophets laid the foundation for the church (Eph 2:20), and the pastors, teachers, and evangelists are building on it. If there are no apostles, there can be no “signs of an apostle” as are found in the Book of Acts (2 Cor 12:12)…This certainly does not mean that God is limited and can no longer perform miracles for His people! But it does mean that the need for confirming miracles has passed away. We now have the completed Word of God and we test teachers by their message, not by miracles (1 John 2:18–29; 4:1–6). And we must keep in mind that Satan is a counterfeiter and well able to deceive the unwary. In the Old Testament, any prophet who performed miracles but, at the same time, led the people away from God’s Word, was considered a false prophet and was killed (Deut 13). The important thing was not the miracles, but whether his message was true to the Word of God."[5] 

     It is true that God still heals and performs miracles today, but not as a means of confirming an apostle, as was the case in the early church. It seems that the powers of an apostle phased out during the first century while the apostles were alive. Paul mentions his friend, Trophimus, whom he “left sick at Miletus” (2 Tim 4:20). And Paul could not heal himself of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10). The important thing to look for is not signs and wonders, but the accurate teaching of God’s Word, which can lead people to salvation by faith in Jesus (1 Cor 15:3-4), and help them advance to spiritual maturity (Heb 6:1).


[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 920.

[2] Ibid., 999.

[3] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1375.

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 424.

[5] Ibid., 423.

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