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The Purpose of Signs and Wonders in the New Testament: What Terms for Miraculous Power Denote and Their Relationship to the Gospel, Part 1, by Gary S. Greig

Can “ordinary” healing or words of knowledge6 (insights from God) or spiritual gifts of these types be called “signs and wonders” in the sense in which the New Testament uses the phrase? What do “signs and wonders” refer to in the New Testament and what are their function and purpose? Are ongoing “signs and wonders” to be expected in evangelism and ministry in the Church today? Some evangelicals say “no,” claiming to argue from biblical and linguistic grounds.

The following study will focus on “signs, wonders, and miracles” attributed to God in the New Testament and will not consider in detail counterfeit signs and wonders worked by Satan in the last days which are mentioned in Mat. 24:24; Mk. 13:22; II Thes. 2:9; Rev. 13:13; Rev. 16:14; Rev. 19:20. (For discussion of counterfeit miracles, see Wayne Grudem’s chapter in this book, objection no. 23, “How do we know that spiritual gifts today aren’t just demonic counterfeits designed to lead people astray?”) The fact that there will be “counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders” (II Thes. 2:9) worked by Satan in the last days suggests that there will also be genuine miracles, signs, and wonders worked by God as well (cf. Rev. 11:3-13).

 

I. “Signs, Wonders, and Miracles” Denote Healing, Deliverance, and Spiritual Gifts in the New Testament

A recent study by D. A. Carson of “signs and wonders” claims that New Testament “signs and wonders” have little to do with healing and spiritual gifts. But the analysis he offers fails to account for all the relevant evidence in the New Testament. The claim is made in his essay that “in Wimber’s predominant usage, signs and wonders include exorcism, healing the sick, and words of knowledge.”7 The claim is also made that “at the purely linguistic [italics his] level, ‘signs and wonders’ cannot easily be made to align with the kinds of phenomena that interest Wimber”8 and that it is “against New Testament usage” to “apply the expression ‘signs and wonders’ to all Christian expressions of the more spectacular charismata, or of miracles generally.”9

However, these statements entirely contradict the linguistic evidence related to the phrase “signs and wonders” (sēmeia kai terata) in the New Testament which largely denotes precisely miraculous healing of the sick, deliverance from demons, and the gifts of the Spirit, including word of knowledge and healing. Long ago in a linguistic study of the evidence, S. V. McCasland, noted that the phrase “signs and wonders” in the New Testament largely denotes “ordinary deeds of healing performed by faith” rather than “grandiose phenomena” as it denotes in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.10

The vocabularies of all natural languages are grouped in various semantic fields or lexical fields—groups of words having the same or related meanings and denoting the same or related entities in the outside world.11 Most languages have lexical fields for color (red, black, yellow, etc.), furniture (bed, chair, lamp, etc.), animals (cat, dog, cow, bull, etc.), and so on.

It is clear from the evidence listed in the paragraphs below that in the New Testament the phrase “signs and wonders” (sēmeia kai terata) is synonymous with other Greek words such as dunamis “miracle” (plural dunameis “miracles”) and ergon denoting “miraculous work” in the Gospel of John. In a monograph dealing with the linguistic evidence, R. C. Trench pointed out a century ago that the words “sign” (sēmeion), “wonder” (teras), and “miracle” (dunamis), all belong to a group of Greek words which are “all used to characterize the supernatural works wrought by Christ in the days of his flesh.”12

Some evangelicals claim for theological reasons that “there is a danger … of equating ‘power’ with ‘miracles’“ in various New Testament passages.13 But such statements simply do not explain well the lexical evidence of Greek dunamis and the concept of God’s “power” in the New Testament. The Greek word dunamis, “power, miracle” denotes both “power” and “miracle, deed of power” in the New Testament.14 The fact that “power” and “miracle” are related senses of the same word shows the obviously close relationship between the concept of God’s “power” and the concept of “miracles” in the New Testament, as several scholars have noted.15 “Miracles, works of power (dunameis)” are manifestations of God’s power, as Dr. Alan Richardson pointed out half a century ago.16 Dr. Karl Gatzweiler adds, “While the plural dunameis throughout denotes miracles, the singular dunamis can, on the other hand, mean likewise the power which produces miracles … as well as the power and the Spirit which the miracles reveal.”17

Together with these words the phrase “signs and wonders” comprises the lexical field of “Power” in New Testament Greek.18 This lexical field is comprised of dunamis “power” and its synonyms which include the phrase “signs and wonders (sēmeia kai terata).” H. Hendrickx cites the following words which belong to this word group: “power, miracle (dunamis),” “acts of power, miracles (dunameis),” “signs and wonders (sēmeia kai terata),” erga denoting “miraculous works,” “wonders (thaumata, thaumasia),” “wonderful thing (paradoxon).”19 Richardson adds “power in exercise, energy20 (energeia),” “force, violent power (bia),” “strength, especially physical (ischus),” “might, manifested power (kratos),” and “authority, liberty of action (exousia).”21

Within this lexical field the words and phrases “signs and wonders (sēmeia kai terata),” “signs (sēmeia),” “miracles (dunameis),” and “miraculous works (erga)” all denote healing and deliverance from demons22 (otherwise denoted by therapeuō “cure, heal,” iaomai “heal,” and sōzō “save, heal”).23 The phrase “signs and wonders” and the words “sign” and “miracle” are also often associated with and may denote the gifts of the Holy Spirit—including, of course, the gift of “word of knowledge.”

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2007

About the Author: Gary S. Greig, Ph.D. (University of Chicago), is Vice President for Content, Bible and Theology for Gospel Light Publications and Regal Books and an adjunct faculty mentor of United Theological Seminary (Dayton, Ohio) and of Dr. Randy Clark’s Global Awakening Ministries. He was an associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Regent University, School of Divinity from 1995–1998, and before that an adjunct professor of Hebrew for Fuller Theological Seminary. He was co-editor with Kevin Springer of The Kingdom and the Power of the Cross: Are the Healing and Spiritual Gifts Used by Jesus and the Early Church Meant for the Church Today? A Biblical Look at How to Bring the Gospel to the World with Power (Regal, 1993), a compendium to lay out the biblical foundations of power evangelism and power ministry. LinkedIn

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