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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

On Miracles

Mark 1:21-28

(Mark 1:22-28 NIV) The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. {23} Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, {24} "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God!" {25} "Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" {26} The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. {27} The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching--and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him." {28} News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

(Luke 4:31-37 NIV) Then he went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and on the Sabbath began to teach the people. {32} They were amazed at his teaching, because his message had authority. {33} In the synagogue there was a man possessed by a demon, an evil spirit. He cried out at the top of his voice, {34} "Ha! What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God!" {35} "Be quiet!" Jesus said sternly. "Come out of him!" Then the demon threw the man down before them all and came out without injuring him. {36} All the people were amazed and said to each other, "What is this teaching? With authority and power he gives orders to evil spirits and they come out!" {37} And the news about him spread throughout the surrounding area.

(Mat 8:14-17 NIV) When Jesus came into Peter's house, he saw Peter's mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. {15} He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him. {16} When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. {17} This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases."

(Mark 1:29-34 NIV) As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. {30} Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. {31} So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. {32} That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. {33} The whole town gathered at the door, {34} and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

(Luke 4:38-41 NIV) Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. {39} So he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them. {40} When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them. {41} Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Christ.

The subject of “miracles” continues to fascinate mankind. We have TV shows about them; books are written about them; and Sunday School teachers teach lessons about them. Of the approximately 200 lessons I have written for my class since 1993, 31 mention miracles in one way or another. Today we shall limit our scope to three questions:

·         What, precisely, is a miracle -- and what is not.

·         Why does God perform miracles?

·         What are man’s reactions -- right and wrong -- to miracles.

What, precisely, is a miracle?

Many people confuse miracles with providence. So that we may limit the discussion to the “signs and wonders” of the Bible, here are some simple guidelines:

·         A miracle, translated often as “sign” or “wonder” in the New Testament, is just that, Anyone who saw it would regard it as a supernatural intervention; no other explanation would be possible. By its nature, it is impressive. It is also an apparent violation of natural law.

·         Providence, on the other hand, is God’s daily care for us, as Christ explains it in the Sermon on the Mount. When your Aunt Louisa finds her second best thimble with the aid of prayer and the Holy Spirit, it’s providence. It is neither impressive nor is it in violation of natural law.

There are three general views of the miraculous in the Bible. The first view is the liberal view, sometimes called the naturalist view (mistakenly so called[1]). In this view, the liberal scholar denies the existence of miracles and attempts to rewrite the Scripture to fit around this. This is rather difficult -- Dr. Nave, for example, lists over 1400 verses in the Bible which deal with miracles -- but it is a common viewpoint among liberal Christians. I present it here not because I believe it to be a viable one (it really is not) but because it clearly points up the problem that miracles cause for the intellectual Christian:

·         The Bible clearly teaches us that God is eternal and unchanging -- immutable. His purposes are fixed; He does not “change his mind” as we do.

·         The Bible also clearly teaches us that God is the author of nature, and therefore natural law. In fact, the Scripture tells us that the unchanging order of nature is a reflection of God’s character, and evidence for us that He will not change -- that He can be relied upon.

·         If this is so, then (argues the liberal), how can God suddenly inject miracles into this system? Is this not self-contradictory, a thing which God cannot be?

There are two common answers to the problem as raised in this formulation. Both have had a great deal of favor at various times, and both serve as more than adequate answers.

·         Thomas Aquinas argued this way. Each “cause” (we might say “change agent” in today’s management culture) produces its own order of effects. But some of these causes are wrapped inside others, like a hierarchy. His own argument goes like this: a father sets down the law in his own household[2]; if you want to know the law in the house, ask dad. But dad is subject to the city magistrates; so you might have to ask them. And they are subject to the king’s orders, so you might have to ask the king. Nature, then, is a lower order of cause than God. The ultimate reality is not Nature, but a Person (indeed, three Persons). Hence, there really is no conflict.

·         St. Augustine (coming from the Greek humanist cultural background) and C. S. Lewis (echoing Augustine’s thoughts, but in a post-Christian naturalist background) argue differently. Where Aquinas acknowledges interference with Nature, Lewis argues that there is no interference -- it’s just that we don’t understand all the rules. One of the rules the physicist must leave out is the answer to “what is the purpose of the universe?” Without that, miracles can’t be understood, in this view. He compares it to chess. The rules say that a pawn moves this way, a knight that -- but once per game a contestant may perform the maneuver called “castling.” It cannot be repeated -- but it is in the rules. An observer who could see only one game, ever, would have trouble with this, since it would seem not to be repeatable and thus a violation of the rules. In fact, it’s in the rule book. Hence, a miracle is not a violation of natural law -- it’s just another form of natural law.

In the passage above, we see some of the common points of miracles of the New Testament. There are two key characteristics which may help us in picking among theories:

·         There is a certain style to miracles. Stones do not become bread; water becomes wine, just as in nature.

·         Sometimes that style is an anticipation. All will rise at the last day; some are raised by Christ.

·         The miracles are personal; they come from the heart. Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ grave.

Why does God perform miracles?

God has a number of reasons for performing miracles. It is best to let the Scripture speak for itself, but we may categorize the miracles:

·         Sometimes God uses miracles as a form of credentialing:

·         In Exodus 4:2-9, God gives Moses certain miracles so that the Israelites might know that God is indeed God -- and that Moses was sent by Him.

·         In Mark 2:1-12, Christ uses the miracle to credential himself -- and his ability to forgive sin.

·         Often, it is to deliver a message, or to force a choice.

·         In Numbers 17:1-9, Aaron’s rod is the one that buds and produces almonds -- so that the Israelites might know that the tribe of Levi is to be the priestly tribe.

·         In 1 Kings 18:36-39, Elijah calls down fire from heaven, to force Israel to choose between God and Baal.

·         There is most definitely a series of miracles which are designed to further the divine plan.

·         God chose to forge the nation of Israel as an instrument to bring forth salvation to the world. The events detailed in Exodus forged that nation so well that the Jews to this day retain their identity, long after all the nations around them have melted into forgetfulness.

·         The Resurrection, the supreme miracle, was for our salvation.

·         Building the church by miracles, as detailed in 1 Corinthians 12:7-12, is another use in divine plan.

·         Finally, sometimes miracles are used just to show the glory of God. See John 9:1-7, the story of the man born blind.

Human Reaction

One of the most common reactions to miracles is, “Why don’t they happen today?” I submit there are many reasons; here are three:

·         Miracles seem to occur in spurts, at times of spiritual crisis in history. There are long stretches of Old Testament history in which no miracles are performed. God does them when He chooses to.

·         Miracles seem also to be conditioned, in some cases, upon the faith of the participants. An outstanding example of this principle is the disciples’ failure to cast out a demon, told in Mark 9:17-29.

·         Finally, it may be that the church is just too rich in worldly good! Remember Peter and John healing the crippled man (Acts 3:1-8)? “Silver and gold have I none...” so they gave what they had. When the church has silver and gold, God tells the church to tithe. When the church is poor, it is blessed (Sermon on the Mount), and gives of its blessings.

Peoples reactions to miracles vary.

·         Sometimes, like the disciples, the sight of a miracle has increased their faith.

·         Others, like the Pharisees, see the miracle as an offense -- something which denies their system of belief, and therefore must be destroyed.

·         Some recipients of miraculous healing react with gratitude. But we should remember that ten lepers were healed, and one returned to give thanks.

·         I like Peter’s mother’s attitude best. She rose up and served.

If the faithful react that way, we should also note that the evil react towards miracles too.

·         The call of the evil man is always, “Show me a miracle, and I’ll believe” -- see, for example, Matthew 12:34-40. It is written, do not put the Lord your God to the test.

·         The day is coming when evil men will perform miracles:

(2 Th 2:7-12 NIV) For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. {8} And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. {9} The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, {10} and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. {11} For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie {12} and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

Even in this, however, there is a Christian reaction:

(2 Pet 3:3-14 NIV) First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. {4} They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." {5} But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. {6} By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. {7} By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. {8} But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. {9} The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. {10} But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. {11} Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives {12} as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. {13} But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. {14} So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.

This is the ultimate of miracles, the coming of our Lord in glory. And how should we prepare for this event? “Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.”

[1] The true naturalist view holds that Nature is “all there is;” that there is no God. It also has absolutely no reason to deny the existence of miracles -- it just has no explanation for them.

[2] How times have changed!

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