HOW TO INTERPRET SIGNS AND WONDERS
SERIES: PAUL, AN INSTRUMENT OF THE RISEN CHRIST
By Ron Ritchie
The studio audience at the Tonight show in Burbank is strangely silent,
staring intently at the proceedings on the stage. A shirtless volunteer
lies face up on a table, behind which stands a short, balding man with a
fringe of white hair, a bushy beard and piercing green eyes. He kneads the
exposed abdomen with both hands, presses one thumb down and draws it across
the skin. A trickle, then a stream of blood appears. The audience gasps.
Now his hand thrusts into the abdomen and, accompanied by a sickening, squishing
sound, pulls up a clump of bloody tissue. Host Johnny Carson grimaces. A
groan of revulsion sweeps the crowd; a woman faints.
Again the hands plunge down, bringing up more gore and then a tubular organ,
which the bearded man stares at momentarily. "Oh, no! That doesn't
come out," he apologizes, his eyes suddenly twinkling, and pushes it
back into the body. The spell is broken and the audience roars, then titters
nervously as he proceeds to remove additional gore. Finally he wipes away
the blood, revealing an expanse of unbroken, unscarred skin.
What millions of people have just seen is a demonstration of "physic
surgery." The blood had been donated by a volunteer before the show;
the "diseased tissue" consisted of shreds of lamb heart, hidden
in a tray behind the table and manipulated by the facile hands of a master
magician: James ("the Amazing") Randi, conjurer, showman, crusader
and America's most implacable foe of flummery. The props and the techniques
are those used by the so-called psychic surgeons of the Philippines, who
promise miraculous, painless, lifesaving surgery to lure desperately ill
people to their clinics. But what the sufferers get is sleight of hand,
not surgery, and Randi's goal is to spread that message. "These people
go to the Philippines," he explains, "they spend their money,
and they return home, in most cases to die."
Our secular humanist, high-tech, materialist world, with its lack of love,
mercy, grace, kindness, and the human touch, has created a hunger for the
supernatural that bypasses common sense. Today, signs and wonders are appearing
not only in the New Age community but also among the Christian body. This
phenomenon is causing confusion and division. Thus I want to address the
subject of signs and wonders this morning as we look at the life of the
apostle Paul from Acts 28.
We define signs and wonders as acts of God the Father invading his creation
with supernatural signs of power and love through his prophets, his Son
Jesus Christ, the apostles of Jesus, and his saints. In the Old Testament
for instance, God performed signs and wonders through his prophet Moses
to demonstrate to Pharaoh that He alone is the only living God. The miracles
of Jesus, his death, resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Holy
Spirit, were all signs to demonstrate to the Jews that he was their Messiah
and the Savior of the world. Nicodemus said to Jesus, "Rabbi, we know
that you have come from God as a teacher, for no one can do these signs
that you do unless God is with him" (John 3:2).
Through the apostles, God performed miracles among Jews and Gentiles as
a sign his divine authority and endorsement of Jesus, and as a sign of Christ's
resurrection and invisible presence leading toward redemption among unbelievers
and spiritual maturity among his saints. Believers in Jesus Christ are given
spiritual gifts of healings and miracles for the same purposes of redemption
and spiritual maturity Wonders, then, are the response of people who are
amazed at the signs of God's power and love.
Every generation, however, struggles to discern between true and false prophets,
messiahs, apostles, saints, gospels, and spirits. It seems every truth is
immediately counterfeited by the enemy. Moses declared this some 4,000
years ago when he said in Deuteronomy 13: 1-5:
"If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and
gives you a sign or a wonder and the sign or wonder comes true, concerning
which he spoke to you, saying, "Let us go after other gods (whom you
have not known ) and let us serve them, you shall not listen to the words
of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams ; for the Lord your God is testing
you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with
all your soul. You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you
shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to
And Jesus warned his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7: 15):
"Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep's
clothing, but are ravenous wolves.."
To the Pharisees who asked for a sign, Jesus declared,
"An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign and
yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet."
(Here he was speaking of his resurrection).
The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:3-4:
But I am afraid lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness,
your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion
to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus, whom we have not
preached , or you receive a different spirit which you have not received,
or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear it beautifully.
In our study in the life of the apostle, let us look then at the signs and
wonders that occurred on Malta, following Paul's being cast up on the island
after a shipwreck, as recorded in Acts 28:1-10, and see what we can learn
about interpreting them. Paul, together with Luke and Aristarchus, was en
route to Rome, following his appeal to Caesar after his two-year house arrest
and a couple of trials.
The ship, together with the 276 men aboard, foundered and broke up on a
reef off the island of Malta, some 500 miles south of Rome. The vessel was
a total loss but the entire 276 men were saved by the hand of God as promised
by the message of an angel who appeared to Paul in the midst of the storm,
saying , "Do not be afraid Paul; you must stand before Caesar, and
behold God has granted you all those who are sailing with you." (27:23-24).
How do we interpret signs and wonders? We first need to go back to the scriptures
and look at the context in which they take place, and then we need to look
within that context and try to see what God is really doing. Most people
stop at the signs and do not bother trying to discover the reasons behind
Two events in Paul's life on the island of Malta will assist us develop
some insight for interpreting signs and wonders, regardless of the age we
I. Question what is behind the snake, Acts 28:1-6
And when they had been brought safely through, then we found
out that the island was called Malta. And the natives showed us extraordinary
kindness, for because of the rain that had set in and because of the cold,
they kindled a fire and received us all. But when Paul had gathered a bundle
of sticks and had laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the
heat, and fastened on his hand. But when the natives saw the creature hanging
from his hand, they began saying to one another, "Undoubtedly this
man is a murderer, and though he has been sad from the sea, justice has
not allowed him to live." However he shook the creature off into the
fire and suffered no harm. But they were expecting that he was about to
swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But after they had waited a long time
and had seen nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and
began to say that he was a god.
Malta (the name means "refuge"), is a small island of some 18
miles long by 8 miles wide. This is where Paul, his companions and the entire
company of the ship found themselves safely beached by the waves following
the breaking up of their ship. Wet, cold, fearful and exhausted, Paul discovered
that all the soldiers, sailors and prisoners, as well and his beloved Luke
and Aristarchus, had survived the wreck. What a witness this was to all
of these men who had heard Paul testify that God would save them. This same
God who had spared their lives could and would save them spiritually if
they would place their faith in Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
The natives of Malta ("barbarians," Luke calls them), "showed
us extraordinary kindness," the text says. Some of these people must
have been standing on the cliffs overlooking the beach, watching as the
140-foot grain ship foundered and broke up on the reefs. The word went out,
and many others ran down to help the survivors. Luke was so impressed by
their unusual kindness he refers to it as "extraordinary." As
we will see in a moment, the Holy Spirit had gone ahead of Paul and the
others, warming their hearts. By building a fire, the natives sought to
warm their wet and cold bodies.
As the fire started to burn down, Paul, the servant of Jesus Christ, who,
like his Master, sought to serve rather than be served, began gathering
wood. As he put the wood on the fire a viper came out because of the heat
and fastened on his hand. Once again the apostle was being attacked indirectly
by the evil one. Ever since Paul's conversion on the Damascus Road, Satan,
directly or indirectly, through a variety of individuals and events, on
12 different occasions had sought to kill the apostle. Now the thirteenth
attack against his life is caused by a poisonous viper.
When the natives saw the creature hanging from Paul's hand, they began saying
to one another, "Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he
has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live."
These barbarians had a theology of a just god in the heavens dispensing
final justice to all evildoers. No one gets away with anything, in other
words. Someone has commented that the islanders had a poor philosophy and
an even worse theology.
Here we get some insight into the people of this island. They were heavily
influenced by the Greek and Roman religions as well as the various cults
and their own special ban of "folk religion." They observed life
through a very small window. Thus they said that if a man was bitten by
a snake, he could only be a murderer. He escaped the sea, but justice got
him on land. Justice wins every time, they held. When Paul threw the snake
in the fire and didn't die as expected, however, the barbarians changed
their minds as well as their theology and declared him to be a god.
What was going on behind the snake bite? May I suggest the following.
First, it served as an opening for the gospel to be preached to these islanders.
God had commissioned the apostles by the power of the Holy Spirit to witness
to Jerusalem, Samaria, and the rest of the world so that the Gentiles world
be given the opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Part of that
world included the island of Malta where these barbarians, men and women,
boys and girls, whose lives were filled with fear and superstition, caused
by the demon gods whom they served.
Secondly, I see this incident as yet another example of spiritual warfare.
Satan was seeking to kill Paul and his companions, as well as all the others
on board the ship, and thus prevent the apostle from witnessing to the gospel
in Rome. But the Lord saved all of them and defeated Satan by using his
servant Paul to witness to the barbarians. Satan responded by trying to
kill the apostle with a snake bite, but God overrode that attack and used
it to get the attention of the pagan people to consider Jesus as the one
and only living God. This is the second time Paul was called a god. Earlier,
in Lystra, when he and Barnabas healed a lame man, the people there had
called him a god.
Thirdly, this incident has caused a lot of misunderstanding in church history.
Many cults practice snake-handling as part of their worship services. Even
to this day there are churches in the hills of Kentucky and Tennessee which
include snakes in their worship. Unfortunately several people are bitten
each year and die. These people take their authority from a text in Mark
16:14-18 which says, "And these signs will accompany those who have
believed ; in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new
tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison,
it shall not hurt them, they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
But in this context the risen Lord was taking to his eleven doubting and
unbelieving apostles who were going to be the foundation for the new spiritual
church of Christ. If they believed that Jesus arose from the dead and that
he was their Lord and Savior, they would be given the resurrection power
to speak prophetically in new tongues, fulfilling Isaiah 28:11; power over
evil and death, demons, snakes and poisons; and power to heal the sick.
The apostles did all five ministries in the following thirty years. Mark
16:20 says, "The Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the
signs that followed." Luke 10 records the story of Jesus sending out
seventy of his disciples with "authority to tread on snakes and scorpions,
and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall injure you."
These men returned later to confirm what God had done among them. That does
not mean that any Christian can do these things. Second Corinthians 12:12
says, "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all
perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles."
How do you interpret signs and wonders? In this instance, you must question
what was behind the snake. Here, God was using the snake so that the people
of Malta could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in the age of the Spirit.
Secondly, God used this incident to establish divine endorsement of Paul's
spiritual ministry as a apostle of the Christ. He was bitten by a poisonous
viper and yet did not die. In this case the risen Lord, not Paul, performed
the miracle. This is the first witness of Jesus Christ for the barbarians
and the second witness for Paul's shipmates.
So we must question what was behind the snake. We must move beyond the physical
sign, by which the Lord preserved the life of the apostle to witness to
his own power and presence, so that others might be encouraged spiritually
to place their faith in the only one who could deliver them out of the
kingdom of darkness and death to the kingdom of light and life.
Secondly, we should.
II. Question what is behind the fever, Acts 28:7-10
Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to
the leading man of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained
us courteously three days. And it came about that the father of Publius
was lying in bed afflicted with recurrent fever and dysentery; and Paul
went in to see him and after he had prayed, he laid his hands on him and
healed him. And after this had happened, the rest of the people on the island
who had diseases were coming to him and getting cured. And they also honored
us with many marks of respect; and when we were setting sail, they supplied
us with all we needed.
The Roman centurion Julius is forced to stay on the island of Malta for
the following three winter months along with his mysterious prisoner Paul,
as well as the rest of the prisoners and crew, until he can hire another
ship and sail on some 600 miles north toward Rome.
The ship had been wrecked on the reef near the land belonging to a leading
man on the island named Publius, who welcomed all the survivors. The man's
father was afflicted with illness, and Paul visited him and healed him.
This sign confirmed that Paul was a true servant of the risen Jesus Christ.
Jesus was confronted with this same type of fever in the case of Peter's
mother-in-law in Capernaum (Mark 1:29-31), and also with the royal official
in Cana who said that his son had a fever unto death (John 4:46-54). Jesus
rebuked the fever in the woman and it left her; and in the case of the official's
son the Lord healed the son in Capernaum, based on his father's faith, while
he and the boy's father were talking in Cana, some 25 miles away. John tells
us this was the second sign Jesus performed that men might "...believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have
life in His name." (John 20:31).
What is behind the fever? Paul was moved and then empowered by the risen
Lord to have compassion and bring physical healing to this father. This
was an outward sign of what could occur spiritually in the heart of every
man, woman and child on that island if they would place their faith in the
risen Jesus. They could be immediately healed spiritually, have forgiveness
of their sins, and receive the gift of the person and power of the Holy
This outward sign of physical healing was used by the risen Lord, as the
text goes on to say: "And after this had happened, the rest of the
people on the island who had diseases were coming to him and getting healed."
The Greek text uses two different words here, one denoting miraculous healing,
the other describing a process of getting cured. It seems Dr. Luke also
became involved in treating and healing many of the islanders.
This physical healing led to spiritual healing and redemption. Although
there is no recorded conversion in this passage, tradition tells us that
Publius became the first Gentile Christian on the island of Malta. Catacombs
which have been discovered on the island dating from the fourth and fifth
centuries have many drawings of Christian symbols.
Some believers today try to duplicate the steps which Paul took in this
instance with Publius. They visit the sick, pray that God will heal them
physically and lay hands on them, expecting healing to occur. Sometimes
this works and sometimes it does not. But that is the rub. For when Jesus
and his apostles applied their healing gifts, either by their word or by
touch, the healing was instant (although on one occasion it happened in
stages). And it encompassed organic defects (feet, legs, eyes), and diseases
of all kinds. They even raised the dead. All of their attempts at healing
were successful, except on one occasion when the disciples did not understand
that some demons needed to be cast out after prayer and fasting (Mark 9:17f).
All their healings lasted and there were no relapses.
Most modern faith healers have no such record. I believe this is because
they do not have the biblical gift of healing. These people are self-seekers
who are looking for power, fame, and fortune among the people of God. God
allows them to continue for a while and then eventually exposes them in
one way or another, as he did with Simeon the magician in Samaria, during
Philips ministry; Bar-Jesus on the island of Cyprus during Paul's ministry;
and the seven sons of the high priest in Ephesus during Paul's ministry.
The TV evangelist Peter Popoff is a modern example of this kind of thing.
Many of you used to watch this man, who claimed to be guided by the voice
of God, until he was exposed as a fraud a couple of years ago. Popoff would
race around the auditorium, striding up to dozens of people he had never
met, greet them by name, reciting their addresses, diagnosing their illnesses
and then pretending to heal them with a laying on of the hands. But one
evening Randi, whom we quoted at the outset, came to a meeting and saw some
of Popoff's people with a video camera and a radio frequency scanner. He
also discovered that Popoff's wife Elizabeth toured the audience before
the service began and engaged in seemingly causal chitchat. In her oversize
purse was a radio transmitter that carried the conversations backstage where
Popoff transcribed them. Then the evangelist later made his rounds of the
audience with a hidden miniature receiver in his left ear that enabled
his wife to direct him to those members of the audience she had already
pumped for information. Randi said after he exposed Popoff, the man claimed
that God spoke directly to him because he is an anointed minister. "But
two things amazed me," said Randi, "God has a radio frequency
of 39.170, and second, God is a women who voice sounds exactly like Elizabeth."
The true spiritual gift of healing, which would include physical, emotional
and spiritual healing, appears to be demonstrated among us today more on
emotional and spiritual levels. We must remember that the Holy Spirit is
free to heal as he wills through truly gifted men and women to bring physical
healing to some, either as a step towards their redemption, or to believers
as a step towards their spiritual maturity.
At our board of elders meeting last week a young man asked us to pray for
physical healing for him. To make sure he understood what would happen,
Bob Roe set out for him what the Scriptures teach about healing, saying
that we were not the healers but merely men who believed that God could
heal him. The young man shared about himself and we all rejoiced over his
humility and maturity. His sickness had resulted in a Christlike character.
Now we are waiting on the Lord to heal this man in His own time and way.
How to interpret signs and wonders? In the context of this story from the
book of Acts, we must ask what is behind the snake and what is behind the
fever. Satan performs signs and wonders in every age. During the tribulation
he will do false signs and wonders through the beast and the false prophet,
for he will always try to counterfeit everything God is doing in the world
as well as in the church. This he will do especially among people who really
do not want to know that there is no tooth fairy, no Santa Claus and no
Easter Bunny, resulting in their discouragement, disillusionment, and destruction.
On the other hand, when our risen Lord works through his people by signs
and wonders in the Age of the Spirit, whether in the world or in the church,
it is always towards redemption and spiritual maturity, and to the glory
of His Father.
Catalog No. 4112
Ron R. Ritchie
August 7, 1988
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