Why Miracles?

In past articles I have demarcated what miracles are and several opposing views for, and against, them. You can catch up on that discussion here:

Demarcating Miracles

This leaves an enormous void as to the reason for the very existence of miracles. I would like to expound upon this notion in the following paragraphs. Now that we have a good theological basis for what miracles are (and are not) it would only beg the question: Why then, do miracles exist and what are they used for? Although there is a myriad of positions on this topic, I am only going to advocate the affirmative position of authority and argue against the position of worship. In essence, most of the miracles in the Bible have one main purpose with several ancillary outcomes. The normative reason for why miracles existed in history has primarily been for theological reasons and not for worshiping or the temporal betterment of mankind.  

Definitions Matter:

To recap: “MIRACLE (δύναμις, dynamis). An event that defies common expectations of behavior and subsequently is attributed to a superhuman agent; an occurrence that demonstrates God’s involvement in the course of human affairs.” This needs a bit more unpacking before argumentation can be made. It is necessary to distinguish what I am talking about.

Determining what is a miracle is grounded in four questions:

  1. Can the supernatural event be attributed directly or indirectly to a supernatural agent?
  2. Does the event function to reveal the power or identity of the supernatural agent?
  3. Does the event have a noticeable and, perhaps, alarming effect on the natural world?
  4. Is there a human intermediary performing the supernatural event?[1]

The miracles I will be referring to can be attributed to a “yes” to these four questions. Further data concludes that:

 Miracles have been classified as one of nine miracle types.

  • Affliction: Miraculous events that cause physical ailments such as injury, disease, or disability.
  • Communication: Miraculous events that involve supernatural messages to a human audience.
  • Exorcism: Miraculous events that involve the casting out of one or more demons from a person. Exorcisms may co-occur with healings.
  • Healing: Miraculous events that result in the curing of injury, disease, or disability.
  • Judgment: Miraculous events where the supernatural event functions as a punishment on an individual or group of people. Judgments may co-occur with other miracle types.
  • Nature: Miraculous events that affect or disrupt the physical world.
  • Provision: Miraculous events that result in the beneficiary having something they did not have previously.
  • Resurrection: Miraculous events that cause a dead patient to be brought back to life.
  • Other: Miraculous events that are not one of these more specific types.[2]

For the sake of brevity, the miracles I am advocating encompass all these concepts. The miraculous events in the biblical text are often referred to as miraculous, signs, wonders, etc. It is on this foundation that I state my case. I am not interested in the ambiguity of miracles, either now or in history; what I am referring to are miracles that if true (which I have previously argued are) can only be contributed to an amazing supernatural event that no sane, reasonable person could deny. “As with most topics, critical theological scholarship has never been uniform in its conclusions about the topic of miracles. This applies not only to the subject has of the historicity of such occurrences, which probably occasioned the most controversy, but also to such other issues as the relationship between miracles and faith on the one hand, and between miracles and mythology on the other.”[3] In addition, I am not concerned with acts of God like floods, earthquakes, and such, although a strong case for that can be made, it does not pertain to the parameters of this polemic. I am specifically concerned with the signs and wonders of the Old and New Testaments that were attributed to God and man. This will be the focal point of my argument.

Why Miracles?

This is an important question most people of faith never ask. The subject of what are miracles, if they exist, what causes miracles, are they historically accurate, etc… consumes the debate. The perplexing question of why God uses miracles rarely holds the main point of the discussion and this is dangerous. What it leads to is a false concept of miracles, how they fit into worship, and their relevance to the history of the local, and global, church. Not having a sound theological basis for why God (or man) performed miracles leads to false worship, a low view of God, and counterfeit miraculous tales. This is what we see across the world in Catholic and Charismatic circles where miracles have become a part of the worship service or testimony.

Let me back up for a biblical example, or two. I am going to skip the entire book of Genesis. I am sure that no one is advocating for those types of miracles taking place in the Church today. No new people or universes are being created ex nihilo (out of nothing). We can debate Sodom and Gomorrah at another time. A common misconception of the Bible is that it is replete with miracles, as if God, Israel, and Jesus Christ were all about the miraculous. The Bible paints a different picture. John MacArthur writes: “most biblical miracles happened in three relatively brief periods of history: in the day of Moses and Joshua, during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and in the time of Christ and the Apostles. None of those periods lasted much more than a hundred years.”[4] The notion that the biblical narrative is one of extraordinary signs and wonders throughout is an empirical overstatement and is often used to advance modern charismatic theology.

What we do see in the biblical text is that miraculous signs and wonders performed by an intermediary on behalf of God start with Moses. This should be a great baseline for why God uses miracles and more importantly why He performs them through man.

In Exodus chapter three, Moses encounters God on Mount Horeb. There is a lot to be said about this encounter that has deep theological but the one portion I wish to focus on is what God says to Moses. While Moses is in discord with YHWH (I Am), the Lord says two very striking pronouncements about why He (God) is going to perform this miracle of freeing is Israelites from slavery: “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12).[5] God is telling Moses that He will deliver Israel out of Egypt as a sign of His (God’s) authority over everyone. He goes on to bookend the passage with another proclamation: “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that, he will let you go. And I will give these people favor in the sight of the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:19 – 21). Notice in the two passages the words signs and wonders show up. This is the genesis of the term “signs and wonders” from the text.

Most theologians focus on the I am portion of this passage or the burning bush itself but take a step back and listen to what God is telling Moses. He is giving Moses the reason for the signs and wonders; to show God’s authority over man and the gods of the other nations (we learn later in the Exodus narrative). Freeing Israel is an ancillary benefit, one which goes through much ingratitude and anguish as the story plays out in the history of ancient Israel.  What can be gleaned from this passage that often goes unnoticed is that God tells Moses why this miracle is about to take place. The sign is that God has the authority to free Israel alone, and the wonder is the mighty hand of God by which it is accomplished.

If you look closely at the miraculous signs and wonders performed in the Old and New Testaments, you find that the reason behind these miracles is not for the benefit of individuals (although that does happen) but to show the authority of the one performing them. Miracles do not constitute worship or salvation. This is quickly proven in the constant rebellion of the Israelites. God explains this in the book of Numbers. In chapter fourteen the Israelites rebel again and God says as much: “And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (Numbers 14:11-12 ESV).[6] Remember this is very early on in the Torah (Pentateuch) and very early in the history of Israel, they have not even entered into the promised land. In fact, it is this story that God curses the Exodus generation from entering into the promised land. The purpose of miracles does not convince people to believe or inaugurate salvation.

This is played out time and time again in the Old Testament storyline. We see this materialize in the New Testament. A perfect example is the rich man and Lazarus in the book of Luke:

The Rich Man and Lazarus

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you, a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead (Luke 16:19 – 31 ESV).’ ” [7]

The story was given by Jesus Christ! He is explaining that seeing a man rise from the dead will not have a more devastating effect than the written word of God. Once again, it is a prime example of how signs and wonders do not cause salvation. Salvation is a miracle of itself, a miracle of the Holy Spirit transforming a person dead in his/her sins to a renewed life in Jesus Christ. The signs and wonders of the biblical text were to show the authority and majesty of God and His sovereign on mankind and the universe.

Synthesis

It would be very easy to give many more examples of this from both the Old and New Testaments. Too much focus is given to miracles because church leadership has bad hermeneutics on why miracles existed in the first place. It was never about worship. God is not a magician given to arbitrary feats of supernatural interaction. This has been grossly hijacked by the charismatic movement in America over the last century or so. God has given us His authority to rely on: His divine word, the Bible. Once again, we know this because God tells us: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV). [8] The miraculous signs and wonders of the Old and New Testaments no longer take place opening and on display. Just ask yourself, when was the last time someone parted a large body of water, cured serious physical birth defects, and raised a dead person? Those acts are no longer needed. Common sense can go a long way, even in theological circles.

Now many of my charismatic brothers and sisters use the word cessationism as a way of quenching the spirit. I am not a huge fan of this word and I think it takes away from the position. God no longer performs the signs and wonders that were present in the biblical text because we now have the biblical text. The text is the proof. You do not need someone of authority any more authoritative than the Bible itself. It is the remnant that leads humanity to faith. Self-proclaimed apostles and prophets only muddy the waters and take away from the gospel message. Proclaiming to have supernatural healings in services elevate man-centered worship and teach the congregation that miracles are needed for faith or salvation.

Moreover, miracles were not used to change the position and heart of the healed. Israel we led out of Egypt yet died in the desert. Jesus Christ was crucified. The majority of the Apostles were killed. A large portion of the early Church was hunted down, persecuted, tortured, and murdered. If signs and wonders were afforded all these Prophets, Apostles, and the first century Church, why all the pain and suffering? A large portion of the Epistles are devoted to perseverance through persecution, torture, and misery. If God had the power, why not inaugurate the new world with the resurrection of Jesus Christ? The answer is that all this had to happen so the Bible could be created and given to human history for salvation purposes. Once again it is an authority issue all over again. The Bible is now the sole authority for the promulgation of the good news.

In conclusion, why miracles – because the Lord designed it that way. “A miracle is an amazing demonstration of power performed by God or an agent whom he appoints. Within the biblical narrative, miracles serve as signs that reveal God’s activity and will. Biblical authors frequently use miracle stories to communicate truths and shape the behavior of their audience.”[9] Now, pastors, teachers, and evangelists use the miracle of the biblical text to do the same.

Footnotes:

[1] Michael Aubrey, All the Miracles in the Bible, Faithlife Biblical and Theological Lists (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2021).

[2] Michael Aubrey, All the Miracles in the Bible, Faithlife Biblical and Theological Lists (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2021).

[3] R. Douglas Geivett and Gary Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (IVP Academic, 1997), 11.

[4] Charismatic chaos 134.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ex 3:12.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Nu 14:11–12.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Lk 16:19–31.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Ti 3:16–17.

[9] Eric Lewellen, “Miracles,” ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).

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