October 14, 2001
THE MIRACLES OF JESUS
“What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” Matthew 8:27
There was nothing miraculous about Jesus. At least that’s what the Jesus Seminar says. Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin. His mother, Mary, got pregnant the way any woman gets pregnant. Jesus never did any real miracles. He never turned water into wine. He never multiplied a few loaves of bread into a feast for thousands. He never made blind people see or lame people walk. He never walked on water or stopped a storm. He never raised anyone from the dead. For that matter, Jesus himself didn’t rise from the dead. His body died and decayed. He never actually came back from the grave in living splendor.
The Jesus Seminar flatly denies Jesus’ miracles. What is the Jesus Seminar? It’s a group of people who took it upon themselves to vote on which parts of Bible stories about Jesus are true. They began by sorting through the words of Jesus and concluded that Jesus never said most of what the New Testament gospels attribute to him. Jesus’ followers just made things up and put the words in Jesus’ mouth. Having denied most of Jesus’ words, the Jesus Seminar turned to his works and voted down the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the miracles in between. The Jesus Seminar says these miracles are myths invented by the early church to make various points. They concede that some healings may have occurred in the sense that people felt better after meeting Jesus. But if so, the cure was due only to a change in mental outlook, not a miraculous change in physical reality.
The Jesus Seminar does enough grandstanding for the media to make its claims seem new, and there are enough professors in the seminar to make it seem scholarly. But the basic project isn’t new or scholarly. It’s old and shoddy. Skeptics have been denying Jesus’ words and miracles for centuries, and their denial is based more on their own biases than on real evidence. The Jesus Seminar’s denial of Jesus’ words and miracles isn’t based on discoveries of new facts. It’s based on their opinion of what Jesus could have said and done if he was a just man. But the New Testament was written in the first place because Jesus isn’t just a man. The Seminar doesn’t provide evidence that Jesus’ miracles didn’t happen; it simply assumes that no miracles ever happen. The Jesus Seminar isn’t a new search for truth. It’s dogmatic disbelief disguised as scholarship.
Were Past People More Gullible?
Some scholars who reject miracles consider themselves Christians and think they’re doing Christianity a favor. They’re updating it. They’re making it more sensible and believable for modern people. They say, “In past ages people were less scientific and more gullible, and that made it easy for them to believe miracles. But in our scientific age, we’re not so gullible. We know that miracles are impossible.”
But let’s get real. The people back then may not have had all the scientific information we have, but they knew where babies come from. They knew people don’t walk on water. They knew dead people stay dead.
When Mary got pregnant with Jesus, how did Joseph react? Did he say, “Hmm, another virgin birth–happens all the time”? Please! Joseph didn’t need a Ph.D. in biology to know where babies come from. He figured Mary must have been with another man, and he decided to break their engagement. Only after an encounter with an angel did Joseph change his mind and accept that Mary was a virgin and that the baby she was carrying was a miracle baby.
When Jesus’ disciples were out in a boat in the middle of a storm and saw him walking toward them on a lake, did they say, “What else is new–a bunch of people were out for a walk on the waves just yesterday”? No, they were astonished and couldn’t figure out what was happening. They didn’t need to know every formula of physics to know that people don’t walk on water.
And on the first Easter, when Jesus’ friends first found that his tomb was empty, how did they react? Did they yawn and say, “Must be a resurrection–knew it all along”? Come on! They didn’t need modern science to know that dead people tend to stay dead. Resurrection was the last thing on their minds that first Easter morning. They figured someone must have stolen the body. When Jesus appeared to some of the women, and they told the news to Jesus’ male followers, the men thought the women were out of their minds. They started to believe only after Jesus came to them and ate with them and convinced them he really was alive.
It’s nonsense to say that people back then found it easy to believe what people today find impossible to believe. Any miracle is impossible in terms of the ordinary patterns of nature; otherwise it wouldn’t be a miracle. That was just as true back then as it is today. But what is impossible in terms of natural patterns is perfectly possible if the God who designed those patterns decides to take direct action.
What Kind of Man Is This?
But there’s another objection to miracles. Even if miracles aren’t impossible, say some scholars, they really don’t matter. Jesus’ teaching and example are what count. Miracles are fine if all you want is a magic show, but they’re a distraction if you want profound religious insight. So, they say, it’s really an improvement of Christianity to get away from the supernatural stuff and to focus instead on Jesus’ moral principles.
Jesus seemed like an ordinary man in many ways, but he did so many amazing miracles that he couldn’t possibly be just another man. People who met him couldn’t help wondering who he was and where his power came from. Some scholars today try to say that Jesus didn’t really do miracles at all, or that his miracles really don’t matter that much anyway. But people who were there at the time didn’t have the option of saying that. There were just too many people who saw the miracles take place right before their eyes, and they knew that the miracles meant that something beyond human power was happening.
Even those who hated Jesus couldn’t deny his miracles. The things he was doing were so astonishing that there had to be a supernatural explanation. That didn’t mean, however, that they accepted Jesus or put their faith in him. Jesus’ enemies simply concluded that he must be doing all these astonishing things through the power of Satan. But don’t miss the fact that even Jesus’ enemies had to admit he was a miracle worker and had to come up with their own explanation for it.
As for Jesus’ friends, they also couldn’t help asking what sort of person would be able to do such miracles. In Matthew 8 the Bible tells of a miracle where Jesus actually took charge of the weather. He and his disciples were in a boat.
Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
Jesus replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
That’s the question Jesus’ miracles forced everyone to ask: “What kind of man is this?” And that’s the question you and I need to ask: Who is this Miracle Man? What kind of person is he? Jesus’ enemies figured he must be a tool of Satan. His friends couldn’t help concluding that he must be God in human flesh.
One option they didn’t have–and an option we don’t really have either–is to say that Jesus was a fine man who lived a good life and left behind some great teachings. No, this man had supernatural powers, and he claimed to be equal with God. So you can’t just say he was a good teacher. You either have to reject him as the ultimate deceiver from hell, or else you have to worship him as Lord and God.
Some scholars have tried to avoid that choice by denying that Jesus ever did miracles or claimed equality with God. But this approach wasn’t an option for those who actually encountered Jesus, and it’s not an option for us today. Jesus’ miracles and his claims to be God are recorded in the biblical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and we can’t avoid them. God inspired these authors to write an accurate account. Even if you don’t want to believe in divine inspiration, you still need to face historical evidence. Recently discovered manuscript fragments of the New Testament gospels have been dated to confirm that these accounts of Jesus’ life were written down within a few decades of Easter. The authors knew the events firsthand, and if they had written anything that didn’t fit the actual events, many other eyewitnesses would have been around to set the record straight. The miracles of Jesus described in the Bible are a reality that we have to recognize and reckon with.
What’s the significance of the miracles? Well, to put it simply, the miracles of Jesus confront us with the reality of God himself. The miracles are demonstrations that God is present and at work in the person of Jesus. In his miracles Jesus demonstrates that he is Lord of the creation we’re living in, and also that he is Lord of the new creation that still awaits us.
- S. Lewis, in his book titled Miracles, offers fascinating insights into what he calls “Miracles of the Old Creation” and “Miracles of the New Creation.”
Lewis emphasizes that in Jesus’ miracles we see an invasion of nature, but it’s not a hostile invasion by some enemy of nature. No, it’s an invasion by the One who is nature’s designer and rightful ruler. Some religions teach that all physical things are evil or an illusion, and for such religions, the only proper miracle would be to break away from the patterns of nature and escape from the physical world entirely. If you want a religion that’s purely spiritual, if you think the physical world is bad or unimportant, you’ll care only about spiritual teachings, and physical miracles won’t have any significant place because the physical doesn’t matter. But Christianity teaches that this physical world matters. It’s created and kept by God, and it will be rescued and restored by God to a splendid newness and perfection. The miracles of Jesus are signs that he is indeed the God who is Lord of both the old creation and the new creation.
Miracles of the Old Creation
In miracles of the old creation, Jesus does things that God has already been doing all along. Jesus does rapidly and directly and in miniature what God usually does gradually and indirectly and on a worldwide scale as Creator and Sustainer.
Jesus’ first miracle was to change water into wine at a wedding banquet. This was remarkable, of course, but don’t forget: God changes vast amounts of water into wine every day. He just uses vines and natural processes to do the job rather than an instant transformation.
Jesus took a little bread and fed over five thousand people with it. A miracle indeed! But think of what God is doing right now. Again this year the Creator will take a little grain, he’ll transform it gradually with soil, sun, and water, and make of it enough to feed six billion people. We call it a miracle when the Lord fed five thousand, but when he feeds six billion, we yawn and take it for granted.
Psalm 104, written long before Jesus came, says that God “makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate–bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man … and bread that sustains his heart” (Psalm 104:14-15). When Jesus changed water to wine and fed thousands with bread, he was showing in a striking way that he is to be identified with the Creator God who has always done these things for us, often without our noticing.
Much the same could be said for Jesus’ miracles of healing. Jesus demonstrated a deep concern for the bodily wellbeing of people he met, and he gave many of them instantaneous healings from all kinds of diseases. In doing so, he showed himself to be the God described centuries earlier in Psalm 103:3 as the one “who heals all our diseases.”
We tend to overlook the fact that God created our bodies with marvelous capacities to heal themselves. When I get a scratch, I bleed a little and then it stops. I don’t sit around wondering why the blood doesn’t just keep flowing until my body has no blood left. I take it for granted that blood clots itself and skin heals itself. When I get over a cold, I don’t ask why I didn’t die of pneumonia. I take it for granted that my immune system fights those germs. The astonishing healings of Jesus are demonstrations that he is the very Creator who also provides us with all the healings that we don’t find so astonishing.
Or think of the miracle we looked at earlier, when Jesus calmed the storm. Jesus’ disciples couldn’t help exclaiming, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” They could have found the answer to their question by looking in their scriptures. Psalm 89:8-9 says, “O Lord God Almighty, who is like you? You are mighty, O Lord, and your faithfulness surrounds you. You rule over the surging sea; when its waves mount up, you still them.” In the very act of stilling the storm, Jesus had already answered his disciples’ question. What sort of man is this? He’s none other than the Lord Almighty who rules the sea and stills its waves.
When the Lord Jesus calmed that storm with suddenly with a short command, he did in a direct and miraculous way something that he’s constantly doing in less direct and ordinary ways. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “God made Nature such that there would be both storms and calms: in that way all storms … have been stilled by God.” God controls even the weather itself, and he watches over each person who is affected by the weather.
Maybe you’ve always thought of miracles as violations of the laws of nature. But Jesus’ miracles aren’t violations of the laws of nature. They are demonstrations by the Lord of nature. What we call “the laws of nature” are really just the ordinary patterns by which creation operates, as ordered by the Creator. Those so-called laws are in no way binding on God himself. When God lived and walked among us in the Person of Jesus, he did miracles to show his identity as the King of creation and as the Lord who is “loving toward all he has made” (Psalm 145:13).
Miracles of the New Creation
But Jesus’ miracles did more than demonstrate that he is Maker and Master of the old creation. The miracles also reveal him as the Maker and Master of a new creation, and the miracles give us a taste of that new creation. When Jesus changed water to wine, and when he fed a multitude with bread, he was giving a sign and a taste of an eternal banquet, in which he himself is our food. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Christians celebrate this every time we eat bread and drink wine in the Lord’s Supper.
When Jesus did his miracles of healing, he sometimes did rapidly what some processes of healing in the old creation do gradually–but on many occasions he did something brand new. He reversed the process of disease and decay and death which grips an old creation poisoned by sin, and he gave a sneak preview of what he’s going to do on a universal scale in the new creation. Jesus made paralyzed people walk. He made deaf people hear and mute people talk. He gave sight to the blind. He raised the dead. He gave a glimpse of a day when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,” when he makes everything new (Revelation 21:4-5).
The supreme signs of the new creation were the dead people whom Jesus brought back to life again. He raised the son of a poor widow, the little daughter of a synagogue ruler, and an adult named Lazarus. In this old creation, poisoned by sin, death seems to have the final word, but Jesus’ miracles of raising the dead showed his power over death itself. Death won’t have the final word. Jesus will. “I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus. “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). In Jesus the new creation has already appeared among us.
Believing in Jesus
Jesus did his miracles to show that he is one with God, the God who creates and the God who re-creates. His miracles are a call for you and me to believe in who he is and what he does as God with us. Jesus himself put it this way: “I and my Father are one…. Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it … believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father (John 10:30,37-38). Jesus wasn’t a just a man who made himself out to be God; he is God who made himself a man.
That brings us once again to the two supreme miracles, the two miracles that are the very foundation of faith in Christ: the virgin birth and the resurrection.
In a sense, the virgin birth is a miracle of the old creation. Making babies is nothing new. It’s a marvel of God’s old creation that two tiny cells can combine and become a human person. Every baby that’s ever been conceived has a life that originated with the Creator. But when the time came for God himself to enter the old creation in human form, he had to form a brand new humanity, untainted by the sin that human parents pass along to their children. The Spirit of God formed a child in the womb of the virgin Mary: human just like us, flesh and blood just like us, growing and developing just like us, but with a newness and purity unlike any of us. The virgin birth is the way God’s Son became human like us without becoming sinful like us. This is the grand miracle by which the Lord entered his old creation without being tainted by it.
The resurrection, on the other hand, is the miracle by which Jesus became the first member of the old creation to enter completely the new creation. When Jesus earlier raised other people from the dead, he gave a sign of the new creation where death will be overcome, but those people simply had their old bodies fixed up, and they later died again. But the resurrection of Jesus isn’t just a sign of the new creation. It is the new creation. In his resurrection Jesus entered into a new mode of life. He overcame death and received a glorified, immortal body fit to enjoy fellowship with God forever in a brand new creation. And Jesus intends to take the rest of this creation along with him into the newness of resurrection.
The resurrection is the miracle that stood at the center of the early church’s faith, and it is still the center of our faith today. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, says the Bible, our faith is useless. But Christ has been raised, and so our faith in him is well-founded and our work for the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15). Those early Christians weren’t just excited at what Jesus’ teachings could do for them. They were excited that Jesus had overcome death itself and set in motion a whole new creation.
Having said all that, I now have to ask you: What’s your response to this Miracle Man? Do you believe that he is the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the Creator and Provider of every good thing you enjoy right now? Do you trust that he is the God who can break the grip of sin and death in your life and give you eternal life in his renewed creation? You can’t avoid answering these questions. Jesus won’t let you.
Lord God, we praise you for your power, your wisdom, your goodness, and your love. Thank you for revealing yourself in the wonderful words and mighty miracles of Jesus. Forgive our sins and our unbelief, and work the miracle of new birth in us. Come back to earth soon, dear Jesus, to transform your creation and make all things new. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.