THE TROUBLE WITH MIRACLES

Sixth-century mosaic of the Raising of Lazarus, church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (from here)

About a decade ago I wrote this:

Jesus never commanded us to perform miracles. He commanded us to love God and each other. He said that if we love Him we would obey His commands. When we do as Jesus commanded — when we love God and each other — we have the gift that matters most. We are the children of God. (from here)

Was I wrong? Did Jesus command us to perform miracles? What is a miracle? There are several definitions, but the first one applies to this discussion.

miracle  noun
mir·​a·​cle | \ ˈmir-i-kəl  \
1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs
\\the healing miracles described in the Gospels

Many of us have trouble believing in miracles. So, imagine being a Christian who feels commanded to perform the miraculous.

Did Jesus command us, those of us alive today, to perform the sort of miracles that that definition refers to? That does not seem likely. Even when the apostles were alive not many people went around performing miracles. Are not miracles, by definition, rare?

Consider why God gave Moses the power to perform miracles (see Exodus 4:1-9). Moses asked this question.

Exodus 4:1 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

4 Then Moses said, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say? For they may say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’”

We won’t believe someone who either claims to be speaking for God or claims to be God just because they make such a claim. We need some sort of proof, and miracles provide proof. If miracles were not extremely rare, then not even miracles would provide proof.

Jesus was not necessarily happy about it, but He clearly understood we need such proof.

John 4:48 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.”

So, does God give us miraculous powers? Well, God does give us spiritual gifts. What sort of gifts? In John 14-16, Jesus explains He is going to the Father, but He promises His disciples He will not leave them orphans. He promises them a Helper, the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What does the Holy Spirit do for us (John 14-16)?

  • He makes his home in us, bringing us close to God.
  • He gives us knowledge of the Truth, understanding of Jesus Christ and His teachings.
  • He gives us peace, the faith to believe we are the beloved of God and assured of salvation.
  • He gives us the ability to produce spiritual fruit, fruit that is of the Holy Spirit.
  • He convicts of sin, showing us the need for salvation in Jesus Christ.

What is the fruit of the Holy Spirit?

Galatians 5:22-23 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Miracles? Well, not in that list. Making us miracle workers does not seem to be high on God’s list of priorities. Read 1 Corinthians 13. Consider how it ends.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

So, what about miracles? Exactly how do miracles fit in with our work as Christians today? Instead of trying to write a long, lengthy post or a series of short ones, I think it best to provide some links and a few thoughts attached to each link.

Here is a series from settledinheaven.wordpress.com that looks at the issue of miracles from the perspective of accreditation. The writer, Brother Rob Barkman, is now deceased.

Well, that’s enough. I put the short articles up front. Hopefully, some of you read some of them.

How should we sum this up? About a year ago I wrote YOU NEED PROOF? In that post I listed a bunch of reasons to believe the Bible and in Jesus Christ. Let me emphasize that last “proof”, Christianity makes a difference. When we call ourselves Christians, others should see Christ in us, and we should be able to see Christ in other Christians. If we don’t believe Christ is within us and cannot see Christ in other Christians, then we need to go back to the Bible. We need to pray and study. We need to figure out just who Jesus Christ is and how He makes a difference in us. We need to understand that we are sinners who need a Savior.

James 1:21-25 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

Until we receive the Bible’s message of God love for us and how He saved us, we will not learn how to love God and how to love our neighbors. Until we have been convicted of our sins, we have not been reborn. Until we are born again in the Holy Spirit, we won’t see in others and in ourselves the miracle we most need to believe in.

So, what purpose do miracles ultimately serve? Except for the miracle that Jesus accomplished when He died and rose from the dead, miracles don’t save us. Miracles do, however, help to show us that God is real, that we are not alone.

Don’t watch movies much these days. So I can’t say much about it. But I hope you enjoyed the song.

So, is it okay to believe God commanded us to perform miracles, that you can perform the miraculous. Well, the Bible says we are suppose to pray for each other. That includes praying for the healing of the sick. And I suppose it is possible that God gives some people miraculous powers, but I have never seen much evidence of it, and that is odd. When the prophets and the apostles performed miracles, there was no mistaking what they were doing was miraculous.

One other thought. If you could perform miracles, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are that much more wonderful than anyone else. So that no one mistakes who is the source of His miracles, God seems to go out of His way to select weak vessels to be His wonder workers. The apostles, for example, became humble and virtuous men, but Jesus spent several years effecting that change in them. We know that because the Bible tells us so.

18 thoughts on “THE TROUBLE WITH MIRACLES

    1. That is certainly at least part true. Jesus gave the Jews the first opportunity to receive Him and accept Him as their Savior. The fact that Jesus fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies is a miracle the Jews should have appreciated most of all, and some did. Nevertheless, the apostles performed signs and wonders for the Gentiles too. So, the signs and wonders were not exclusively for the Jews.

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      1. They were prophetically prescribed for the Jews in the OT. The Jews were looking for them, the gentiles were not.

        I think they flourished while the Gospel was still being preached in Jerusalem but when Paul went to the gentiles the signs ceased.

        “Jews seek after a sign, the Greeks seek after knowledge.”

        Liked by 1 person

        1. @Angel

          Acts describes some miracles that the Apostle Paul performed. In one of the places that Paul and Barnabas visited, Lystra, the locals confused Barnabas with Zeus and Paul with Hermes (Acts 14) because of a miracle. Nevertheless, the miracles slowly diminished.

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  1. Tom,

    I have not read all the articles yet, but I like this post very much. Because the miraculous is by definition unexplainable (or at least unexplained), I wonder if one of the purposes of faith is to accept the more profound truth of God’s wonders without the need for complete literal or rational understanding? Indeed, do you think it’s possible that we can even lose that more profound understanding if we make too much of our own varying and limited rationalizations about the infinite, the miraculous, the incomprehensible?

    In modern times the world “mystic” has taken on an occult or magical connotation. However, here is a definition of “mystic” in the more traditional religious sense:

    “a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect.“

    This seems like the kind of (miraculous?) openness to the Holy Spirit that comes from our surrender to the faith, hope and love that you have quoted. It seems that this sort of Christian mysticism appears helpful to an understanding of the everyday miraculous that Christ can bring to every life.

    The other word that deserves some contemplation in a discussion of the “miraculous”, I think, might be the term “supernatural”. Maybe regarding miracles, “supernatural” is not so much a term for something outside a state of nature and more something “ultra natural”, always there, but beyond present scientific human understanding. For example, just because it appears unnatural, miraculous and even magical for a human, after three days dead, to come back to life in some extraordinarily new sense, it could be the most natural thing in the world for God (and for us in God). Thinking about it this way, at least for me, transcends this notion of Jesus as someone who in a single historical event needed magic to prove to us He was divine, and instead He becomes the God who always was, always is and always will be the incarnate Christ eternally natural and “supernaturally” present everywhere in all of us. For me, this eliminates the need to prove to nonbelievers the profound truth and significance of a miraculous event over 2,000 years ago – rather they and we only need open ourselves to the constant and eternal reality that amazing event affords us in the NOW. One leap of faith leads to another.

    This is my small take on this, but I am learning and still have much to learn. Your post here is very helpful to that effort. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tsalmon,

      You’re a Catholic so I’m going to explain in the old understanding of Catholicism void De Lubac’s “humanity’s supernatural end to God.”

      Fundamentally, the difference between the miraculous (Grace) and the magically the gratuitous nature of Grace and the inwardness of the conjuration of magic throughout its understanding in human history.

      “Thinking about it this way, at least for me, transcends this notion of Jesus as someone who in a single historical event needed magic to prove to us He was divine, and instead He becomes the God who always was, always is and always will be the incarnate Christ eternally natural and “supernaturally” present everywhere in all of us.”

      I would caution because this sounds like material heresy to me. It’s very similar to the idea that the Apostles didn’t actually witness a historical event but rather the message of Christ lived on in them in their preaching etc. Of Course, naturally, this fundamentally rejected by the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians. If Christ did not rise from the dead you are still in your sins–your faith is in vain. The whole premise of Christianity is lost by a shift away from the Resurrection being a historical event. In fact, Catholicism’s doctrine of transubstantiation would be meaningless without a physical resurrection–although 70% of Catholics do not believe in it. Of course, out of 10 people, only three in a room would believe it, my wife and both do, so am I to presume Tsalmon that you’re the other one?

      St. Paul led with the Resurrection. St. Augustine teaches that first and foremost the key to Catechecize is tell the story. So, there is some wisdom that things just have to be taken by faith. The difficulty is that the earlier generations did not have to combat scientism which is taught by the culture. Paganism is very different because it didn’t have a place for the lowly; however, humanism adopted by secularism has co-opted Christian ethics in this regard, although I’d argue without Christianity as a competitor for souls humanisms compassion would all but disappear.

      “For example, just because it appears unnatural, miraculous and even magical for a human, after three days dead, to come back to life in some extraordinarily new sense, it could be the most natural thing in the world for God (and for us in God).”

      The above quote is not the Catholic understanding of God who in his essence is existence. God is pure act–pure actuality. As such, it’s not compatible with the narrative of Genesis. The narrative tells us that the plan was eternal friendship and death is unnatural, so as death entered the world through one man it would be restored by one man–read St. Athanasius On the Incarnation and St. Augustine On Nature and Grace. Death came to be because of sin and sin has no substance, evil has no substance, it is the deprivation of the good. So according to Catholicism, it cannot be natural in any sense.

      The fundamentals of Catholicism is (both; and,) as Aquinas explains in the Summa Theologiae that human nature is a composite of both body and soul called hylomorphism. In this sense, although our souls can move us toward God in prayer such as contemplation what we do with our bodies and what happens to them is essential to Catholic teaching that’s why in the Liturgy our actions move us toward God.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Philip,

        You sound like you know your Catholic Catechism. I don’t argue with any of what you wrote, nor do I think that what I wrote substantially disagrees with what I know of the Catholic Catechism (post Vatican II), or with Thomist, Augustine and Pauline teaching or the teaching of the Pope today. Instead, I can only guess you may be simply misreading or reading some other theology into what I meant to say.

        For example, I never said that Jesus’ resurrection was not an historical fact. You are right in that, if you and your wife are the two people in the room of 10 with “faith” that Jesus rose from the dead, I indeed would be a third. However, even though I know that this faith redeems me, I do not pretend to comprehend on a rational level more than has been given to me by the revelations that have been graced to me through that faith. I think that our ability to accept the “historical” literalism of the incarnation, death and resurrection comes from a faith and grace that renders saving belief whereas a literal acceptance of the miraculous, absent the God given spiritual knowledge that faith and grace provide, isn’t real spiritual knowledge at all. It’s like Saint Thomas saying that he wouldn’t believe it until he could prove to himself that it was literally, scientifically, historically true. Our inability to touch Christ’s wounds does not make the historical event any less true, but the grace of truth still comes to those who have faith even without the recourse, or even the need, of such “literal” evidence.

        Finally, the historical truth is not diminished by a recognition that the “event” 2000 years ago is ongoing (profoundly and awesomely in transubstantiation) and throughout history in Christ, as Paul says, the Alpha and the Omega.

        Does that make sense? I don’t claim to be a theological expert, even in Catholicism, which I have studied all my whole life. I think that there is also much room for doctrinal disagreement and debate without our resorting to accusations of apostasy and heresy. It seems to me that, often when we make such accusations it is because we are trying to convince ourselves and have already lost everyone else. It think God is strong enough to overcome our theological arguments, even when they are erroneous in the details (which don’t you think they are bound to be?). After all, wasn’t Jesus crucified by us as an heretic? This alone should give us humility.

        I only have what little grace God gives me. I don’t want to claim more than God has allowed me to grasp, which is not much, and yet it is everything.

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        1. I just want to make clear that material heresy is the expressed opinion that disagrees with doctrine. Formal heresy is obstinate disagreement. So, I wouldn’t get hung up on that particular part of the comment or teminology–more or less it was a caution to clearify language.

          One aspect that I would push you toward is that, yes, you’re correct that it is an ongoing event and it is taught expressedly in post-coniliar Church and is found in the source and summit of the Catholic faith which is the Mass. What the liturgy expresses is the movement of humanity toward the divine. The east expresses it in the best terminology–Theosis. During the Mass, Christ left us with a material method of matter–the sacrament– as a means to encounter his sacrifice on the cross through a mystical communion within the body of Christ.

          Liked by 1 person

    2. @tsalmon

      Glad you find the post helpful. However, I think you have Phillip a bit concerned.

      I don’t think miracles are explainable, but they are observable. The signs that Jesus and the apostles performed were especially observable. They are also especially unusual, not something all of us should expect we should be able to do.

      Our rebirth in Jesus, when we become the temple of the Holy Spirit, is not easily observable. Nevertheless, we also hope this miracle is one that happens to everyone. This sort of miracle, because it is not easily observed, cannot be used by someone to prove we speak for God. Instead, when we perceive the change within us (which can be quite subtle), we more easily find peace.

      The acceptance of the signs and wonders in the Bible is the first step that leads to rebirth. Unless we believe Jesus died and rose from the dead, we have no reason to believe he paid the price for our sins, no reason to repent and turn to Him, and no cause to accept the Holy Spirit and be born again.

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      1. Tom,

        I’m at a loss as to what you and Phillip think I’m asserting that disagrees with anything that either of you just wrote. I have “faith” in the Resurrection as an historical fact without having witnessed the event, or as Saint Thomas required, putting my hands in His wounds. That belief is enhanced by, not substituted for, my faith in the spiritual incarnation of the Christ in the “material” world as an ongoing eternal reality (and that in no way denies the Thomist metaphysics of the uncaused cause and the unmoved mover acting dynamically now to engender both the material and spiritual reality).

        We can argue the semantics of the word “miracle” or the supposed historical inerrancy of church doctrine on the numeration of pin sitting angels if you want, but if you are saying that I’m stating something that is substantially different from what you’re both saying, then you’ll have to be more specific. I don’t mind arguing for the sake of argument (runs in our family), but first I have to understand the importance of what we are arguing about and where we actually disagree.

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        1. @tsalmon

          Consider how you started.

          I have not read all the articles yet, but I like this post very much. Because the miraculous is by definition unexplainable (or at least unexplained), I wonder if one of the purposes of faith is to accept the more profound truth of God’s wonders without the need for complete literal or rational understanding?

          Miracles are miraculous primarily because they involve the suspension of natural law. They literally happen. We rationally record their occurrence. God does them for explicable reasons, and we know God does them because only He has such power.

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          1. This sounds like a semantic confusion rather than an substantive disagreement. Let me see if I can parse this out:

            ”Miracles are miraculous primarily because they involve the suspension of natural law.”

            Definitionally, you are correct, which is what makes them “unexplainable” or perhaps “just unexplained”. Natural Law is after all what the God of nature makes it to be, something we can only discover in an evolving way, not something we dogmatically invent and determine once and for all for all time inerrant and without change. We also have the paradox of whether something can really be unnatural, even a phenomenon we call “a miracle” if God does it?

            These are interesting, but inherently not perfectly resolvable definitional issues, don’t you think?

            “They literally happen. We rationally record their occurrence.”

            Agreed, as a matter of empirical historical record in scripture, but I think you would also agree that we “experience” their profundity through the God given revelation of grace I n a relationship with God through faith.

            “God does them for explicable reasons, and we know God does them because only He has such power.”

            Perhaps, but again I think that you would agree that rational doctrinal “explicability” is also subject to the limitations of our human understanding and our human error. The Pharisees and Saul also thought in their pride that they had inerrancy of doctrine. They actually lived in the time (or near to it) of Jesus’ miracles and yet they crucified Him. They actually received real time evidence of His Resurrection, and yet they persecuted Him and His followers. Have you ever wondered, if Jesus came again at a time when Christian religious doctrine had the power, a Christian church so caught up in the hubris of their own doctrinal inerrancy explaining His miracles, would not crucify Him again?

            As you have often said, we are given by God what we need to know to be saved by faith and grace. I’m not saying that miracles are not profoundly important, and perhaps that is where you think we disagree. What I am saying is that our necessarily flawed doctrinal human explanation of these miracles should be regarded humbly and OUR UNDERSTANDING should not be exalted above the actual incarnation of Christ in all of us, the revelation of which is accessible by grace through faith, hope and love for all of us, not just the doctrinal scholars among us.

            Honestly, I don’t really see how we disagree on the substantial parts of this, and if so, I find it counterintuitive to fight over it. So I guess I’ll have to just agree to agree and move on.😊

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          2. @tsalmon

            There are two distinct issues with inerrancy.
            1. Is God inerrant? Yes. So, if the Bible is the Word of God, then the Bible, at least as we originally received it, is inerrant. Of course, we only have copies of the original books now. So we have to deduce by comparing the numerous copies what the original said.

            God seems to enjoy leaving us with the most annoying puzzles. Jesus did all the work of our salvation, but He still left plenty for us to figure out and do.
            2. Is Man inerrant? No. Then we can misunderstand almost anything, including the Word of God. That means we should study the Bible carefully, and we should keep the doctrine we draw from it as simple and straightforward as we can.

            When the Bible states something plainly, let’s celebrate!

            Have you ever wondered, if Jesus came again at a time when Christian religious doctrine had the power, a Christian church so caught up in the hubris of their own doctrinal inerrancy explaining His miracles, would not crucify Him again?

            Replace the word “they” with “we”.

            Fortunately, we won’t get to test this theory. When Jesus comes the second time, He will come to render judgment. The Bible plainly states in Hebrews that we only get to sacrifice Him once.

            The Bible deals with this problem, our religious hubris, in Matthew 23. The Bible records what Jesus said to the Pharisees for our edification.

            The average Jew called for the crucifixion of Jesus. Only those who loved Jesus or God hesitated. As Jesus predicted, Jerusalem was destroyed in punishment in 70 A.D. The entire city suffered immensely, not just the Pharisees.

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  2. I think miracles as noted in your definition are still performed today by some channeling Jesus’s power, but are much rarer than when He walked the earth.

    There are all sorts of “smaller” ones though all around us, every day. A baby’s smile, a beautiful sunset, an artist performing their craft flawlessly, all are miraculous in their own ways to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What is interesting is that in the Gospels Jesus says miracles are rare even in Biblical times:

      Luke 4:25-27 Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. 26 It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephathp in the land of Sidon. 27 Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “When we call ourselves Christians, others should see Christ in us, and we should be able to see Christ in other Christians.”

    Amen, Tom. While I DO believe (like Grudem in one of the articles) that miracles are for today, although somewhat rare (by definition), and I’ve personally seen miracles, the greatest miracle of all is the transformed heart of a follower of Jesus who has learned how to walk in His love.

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