We’re in the middle of a blog series called “The Life of the Church” where we are unpacking Acts 2:38-47. The first blog post introduced the literary design of the passage and connected it to God's design for church growth. The second post explored the design pattern of baptism throughout the story of the Bible. In this post, we’ll discuss the relationship of teaching and signs in the Bible.
First, let’s review the literary structure of Acts 2:38-47.
The Literary Structure of Acts 2:38-47
As you review the literary structure above, do you notice how the apostles are mentioned twice? The first time they are mentioned for their teaching, and the second time they are mentioned for the signs and wonders God did through them. The repeated word “apostle” in both lines causes us to consider a parallel relationship. This is a literary device called parallelism, and Luke uses it here to help readers see the correlation between teaching and signs in the Bible. So what is that correlation?
This connection is made by Luke throughout the entire book of Acts. The apostles taught people about Jesus, a teacher and a prophet, who they said was alive from the dead. And their message was amplified by the miraculous signs that Jesus continued to do through them by the power of his Spirit. In other words, the apostles taught and signaled the truth about Jesus’ teachings and signs. But the relationship between these two concepts is not limited to the book of Acts. Throughout the biblical story, we see that teaching and signs share the same purpose and find their fulfillment in the same person. Let’s take a closer look at this.
What Is the Relationship Between Teaching and Signs in the Bible?
In the Hebrew Bible
To further understand the relationship between teaching and signs, let’s get a quick overview of how these words are used in the story of the Bible.
The Hebrew word for sign is ’ot. When we track this word through the Old Testament, we learn that signs are given to warn people, execute divine judgement, and deliver people from oppression (e.g., Israel’s exodus from Egypt). Signs are also given to guide and mark sacred time. For example, they are assigned to each covenant, confirm divine directions, memorialize instances of God’s miraculous protection, and highlight laws that mark sacred days and years (e.g., the Sabbath and circumcision). Lastly, Isaiah prophesies about a sign that would lead to the birth of Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” and another that anticipated a savior for all nations.
So what do all these different kinds of signs have in common? Well, let’s notice how each points people back to God. Through these signs, God intended to teach his people to know and rely on him alone (Exodus 7:17; Exodus 14:18; Exodus 29:46; Deuteronomy 29:6; Isaiah 45:2-3). In every case, it was never about the powerful signs in and of themselves. Instead, the signs were verified as trustworthy only when they faithfully pointed to Yahweh as the one and only God worthy of trust.
In the New Testament
As we look at the New Testament writings, we might expect to discover similar intentions and learn more about signs that would deliver from oppression, signify sacred times, and bring God near to all nations. And we do—but that’s not all we discover. We learn that Jesus is the ultimate sign. He absorbed divine judgment of sin to provide an exodus from sin’s oppressive powers. He fulfilled every covenant promised to Israel and began a new covenant that marked the beginning of an eternal Sabbath. He is God with us and the Messiah for all nations. His death and resurrection served as a sign that his message was trustworthy (Matthew 12:38-42).
So what’s the relationship between signs and teaching? They share the same purpose. God wants his people to know and trust him. When they disregard his words (teachings) and fail to recognize the significance of his works (signs), he is grieved as his people suffer the consequences of their mistrust. He is grieved because he desires that his people “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). He knows that the fruits of joy, peace, and love only multiply where God and humanity are united in trust. So in Jesus, God gives himself as a sign to teach his people to rely on him, so they can live in the overlap of Heaven and Earth. This space is where God’s people grow and thrive, and he wants that for the good of the whole world. Before Jesus ascended to the heavens, he instructed his disciples to teach all nations to remember and follow him (Matthew 28:16-20). Then he sent the Holy Spirit to empower his followers and bring Heaven to Earth.
The early Church followed the words and works of Jesus as the apostles carried out their calling to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God. But what did it look like practically for the apostles to do this? Who is privileged to echo God’s words through teaching in the Bible? And how should we regard signs today?
Who Can Teach and What Methods Are Encouraged?
If biblical teaching is the act of retelling the story of God, who gets to teach? In the Bible, kings, prophets, apostles, teachers, pastors, mothers, and fathers are specifically called to teach those who they lead. But no one is left out of this calling. Everyone in the family of God is called to participate in passing on the story of God (see Colossians 3:16). But before anyone can teach, they must learn.
The Bible encourages many methods of learning and teaching. For example, God’s people are called to meditation (Psalm 1:1-3; Joshua 1:8) and memorization (Deuteronomy 11:18; Proverbs 7:2-3). They are called to devote themselves to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13). Parents are called to teach God’s story through life’s rhythms (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). And God provides symbols and holy days to remind people of what he has done for them. The objects and occasions become memorials to empower each generation to learn about God’s provision and promises (e.g. Exodus 13:6-10, 16:32-33; Joshua 4:21-24; 1 Samuel 7:12).
These are all wonderful ways to learn and teach God’s wise counsel and loving character. But as we embrace them, let’s not forget the purpose. If the practice of honoring a sacred day leads us to trust in the practice itself, we’ve missed the point. Teachings and signs were always meant to support our trust in God alone.
What About Signs Today?
So does God still use signs to guide his people? If God followed his teaching with signs and wonders in the book of Acts, is that what we should expect in our modern context too? Even in the early days of the Church, biblical teaching wasn't always accompanied by miraculous signs (Mark 8:11-12; Matthew 13:53-58). This is because those who seek a sign without trusting God can’t receive anything that would convince them (Matthew 12:38-40; Luke 16:29-31; James 1:5-8). And those who really trust God don’t need a new sign to confirm his providence. Yes, God can still use signs, just as he can still use teaching to support those who trust in him. But ultimately, we are called to trust in Jesus, not signs. And when we trust Jesus, we ourselves can become signs of God’s reality and promises. When we trust in Jesus, we receive the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:12-14) and are empowered to reflect Jesus’ teachings in our lives. This process makes us into living signs to the world, so that they may know and trust Jesus (John 17:22-24).
Biblical teaching is one key way the community of God spreads and grows. As we look at the theme of teaching in the Bible, we find it shares a relationship with signs from God. These two concepts share the purpose of pointing people to trust in God alone. We also discover that Jesus is the ultimate sign. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension made a way for us to be in a united relationship with God. So as we trust and align our lives with this reality, we ourselves are empowered to signify and reflect God’s goodness in the world (Philippians 2:15-16). There are many ways to receive and pass on the story of God, and everyone is invited to participate.
This blog is the third post in our series, "The Life of the Church.” Next up, we will focus on fellowship and the sharing of resources in the Bible.