Isolating two particular scenes from the portion of the book of Acts referenced in the previous post will allow us to see the value and the limitation of miracles in frontier missions. Alhough they do it from very different vantage points, both stories actually lead to the deeper truth behind God’s design for signs and wonders.
The first account comes immediately after the great persecution had begun in Jerusalem. Philip, one of the seven chosen to serve the assembly of believers (Acts 6:1-6), traveled to the city of Samaria to proclaim Christ. The region of Samaria, of course, is referenced in the gospel accounts but was never the site of Jesus’ public ministry and its citizens only held to a skewed perspective on some Old Testament tradition. For this reason a very loose comparison could perhaps be made with the context of Muslims of today. We then find the following narrative of what happened after Philip began preaching:
“The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing in that city…But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. Even Simon himself the believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.” Acts 8:6–13
Now consider the account of when Paul and Barnabas visited the city of Lystra:
“At Lystra a man was sitting who had no strength in his feet, lame from his mother’s womb, who had never walked. This man was listening to Paul as he spoke, who, when he had fixed his gaze on him and had seen that he had faith to be made well, said with a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he leaped up and began to walk. When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds. Acts 14:8–13
The story of what happened in Lystra certainly didn’t stop there, but it did not have a happy ending. Even after tearing their garments and pleading loudly, Paul and Barnabas were barely able to restrain the crowds from offering sacrifices to them. Then these same multitudes, who just hours before had viewed Paul as a god, were persuaded by the Jewish leaders from surrounding cities to stone him. The miraculous healing of the lame man ended with disciples gathered around Paul’s limp body after he was left for dead on the outskirts of Lystra (cf. Acts 14:14-20).
What underlying truth could unite scenes that seem so divergent on the surface? Looking at just two stories cannot provide a thorough understanding of God’s purposes for miracles among the unreached. Above all else, let these accounts stir you to search out this subject with greater depth. Yet I believe both of these scenes do powerfully illustrate the crux of God’s design for signs and wonders in frontier missions. Simply put, miracles are intended to magnify the message.
The message is paramount, and it is the truth of the message which holds the potential to pierce the heart and quicken the faith necessary for regeneration. In the first story, the crowds with one accord were giving attention to the preaching of Christ and His coming kingdom because of the astonishing signs and miracles being done by Philip. In the second story, everything goes wrong precisely because the miraculous healing was not interpreted within the context of Paul’s teaching. The apostles tried to correct this in their desperate plea that followed, but by that point the miracle had already been assimilated into the preexisting worldview of those in Lystra.
Miracles may, at times, go before the message and cause greater attentiveness to it. At other times miracles may follow after the message and strengthen the confidence of the one who has believed. Yet in either case it is the message which remains central. To simply approach someone on the street or in a village and pray for them to be healed because “Jesus loves them and will forgive their sins so they can know God” is totally insufficient.
Unless we have clearly told them, they have no idea what “God” actually means, or who “Jesus” is, and what this “sin” is that they need to have taken away. Their leg might be healed or their eye opened, but we have not given them anything of substance to actually put their faith in so they can be saved. “Jesus” could be a holy sage in the next town, the prophet from their Quran, or just another deity to be added to the millions they already venerate. Without a clarion proclamation of Christ and His gospel, it is far more likely that a miracle will be interpreted within their own paradigm of worship rather than converting them to true one.
What then shall we do? We must fervently seek signs and wonders in frontier missions, but we must have an even greater resolve to insure that we have a message that is clear and true enough to be attended by power. God is jealous for His glory among the unreached and desires a mighty witness of the gospel to penetrate their darkness. We can go forth with confidence that He will stretch out His hand in power to further this work. Yet this witness must be informed and accurate. For why would God desire to have a sign pointing to an incorrect, shallow, or incomplete presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ?