In “The Grand Inquisitor”, a chapter of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the returned Christ is accused of having rejected miracle, mystery and authority during his temptation in the wilderness, the very three things that the Church must use to make people happy. Dostoevsky did not mean God-given miracle, mystery and authority, but specifically the kind of demonic perversion of these that Satan intended, where miracle is reduced to something carnal, mystery to spectacle, and authority to enslavement in a twisted logic that is supposed to create a utopian society.
Miracles are a fascinating subject, because they are biblically and practically a paradox and a problem to this very day. The rationalists who reject miracle and mystery appear to have gutted the faith and made it void. Those who openly accept miracles, and indeed seem to need them and thrive on them for their Christianity today, strike some as being deluded by wishful thinking—if not downright dishonest in their faith. The paradox is this: a faith that is embarrassed about miracles is as conflicted as a faith that demands miracles. In the closing pages of A Life of Jesus, Shusaku Endo suggests that the miraculous birth at Bethlehem occurred not in a historical or divine way, but because humanity wanted it to happen. It is probably safe to say that not all of humanity wanted it to happen, if for no other reason than that most of humanity was unaware of that corner of the globe in the first century. Moreover, wishing something hard enough does not make it any more real. I mention this only as an example of the kind of academic embarrassment modern Christians often feel about the miraculous in their faith.
And, perhaps they have good reason to be embarrassed. Our television programming and Christian bookstores are cornucopias of miracles, healings, and spectacles, most of which are quite probably untrue, and even if they were, they are presented in such bad taste that we would have to wish that they were not true. Besides this, we also want to uphold the miraculous elements in the Bible by appealing to scientific speculation, pseudo-science, or questionable scholarship that mainstream science ridicules or ignores. Our consciences and hearts must be very tortured to find ourselves in this predicament. I once was asked what I thought about “intelligent design” and God’s creation. I said I thought that “intelligent design” was a poor and disrespectful term for describing what the Almighty has done and will do. My response was dismissed as superficial or irrational, but I insisted. God is too great to be merely “intelligent”; it is we mortal humans who by grace occasionally have intellect. What God has defies words. That He designed and created the universe is abundantly clear to me; I know this through revelation in Scripture and I know this through logic, but more importantly I know it through faith. I do not believe that God used evolution to create life, but at the same time, I see something very much like evolution at work in the world—the universe is not static. Moreover, if God did use evolution to create life, who am I to argue with God? The debate is pointless. I believe what the Scriptures teach me. Although I find their opinions very valuable for my life, I do not need the consensus of the academic community to regulate what I think or believe. We should be embarrassed about faux miracles, but we should never be embarrassed by the miraculous. I believe that a lot of our problems with faith today center on a misunderstanding of what miracles are. Without some clarity regarding miracles, we cannot approach the Scriptures honestly, nor can we claim in good faith to be sealed with the Holy Spirit and empowered for the divine life in Christ.
Our word “miracle” comes from the Latin miraculum, an “object of wonder” and mirari, “to wonder at.” I like this term precisely for its vagueness, even if it is much abused today. Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries shows that one of the Hebrew terms for “wonder,” found in Exodus 3:20, is pala, or something that is too hidden, too great, difficult, distinguished and marvellous. Another term in Deuteronomy 7:19 is mopheth, which comes from a root yaphah meaning “bright” or “beautiful” but “in the sense of conspicuousness; a miracle; by implication a token or omen:–miracle, sign, wonder.” In the New Testament, we have other terms. In Matthew 24:24, the Greek term is teras, which means a prodigy or omen, but it is paired with semeion, which means “an indication” or a sign, and is an ancestor of our modern words semiology, semiotics, and semantics. This latter term is prevalent in the Gospel of John, which was thought by Raymond Brown to contain a “Book of Signs” and a “Book of Glory”. The “Book of Signs” contained the seven miracles performed by Jesus in this Gospel, each one signifying a spiritual mystery or teaching about the nature of God or the Kingdom. The contexts of miracles throughout the Bible are even more varied than the etymological richness we see, suggesting that we should never treat the subject in a simplistic manner as a matter of merely suspending the “laws of science” or “proving” the divine and so on. This will take us nowhere on our journey of faith or our cultivation of reason.
To save time, I would like to use the word miracle as an umbrella term for the various hyponyms we could potentially assign to the various types of miracles in Scripture and everyday life, and briefly look at the contexts of these different types as well as what the Lord or the faithful say regarding these events.
The Bible abounds in miracles on a grand scale. The creation of the world, the cataclysmic flood, the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus, the sun and moon standing still over Gibeon and Ajalon, fire coming down onto Mount Carmel, the virgin Mary giving birth to Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, to name a few. These miracles reveal the awesome power of God, and show how God shapes the narrative we find ourselves living in. Modern scholarship doubts these miracles, but we lose cohesion and meaning in the Bible when we strip them away. Regardless of what liberal theologians or the scientifically inclined might think, these epic miracles are essential to the form and content of our faith. As Paul said of the resurrection, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15). It is true that some would have us view certain miracles of this nature as metaphors. The question remains, though: why would an Almighty God use mere metaphors to show His strength, when He can do anything He wants? What good is a metaphorical resurrection to me? If we speak of a metaphorical virgin birth, are we not being obscene, hypocritical, and not a little ridiculous? Some would try to argue that certain miracles can be explained by scientific phenomena. If this is the case, then the miracle is no longer a miracle—it is merely a natural phenomenon that did not receive the requisite scientific attention it needed. There may be some scientific explanation of the effects or vestiges of such miracles as the creation or the flood, which are logically completely possible (if not verifiable) and not at all contrary to reason, but it is unlikely that they will ever receive serious treatment in academic circles in our lifetime. On the other hand, with certain miracles—the virgin birth and the resurrection—science will not help us whatsoever, since here we have God performing what is naturally or humanly impossible—not just seemingly, but actually impossible, to remind us that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:16).
Some miracles in the Bible are testimonies, either of what God has done, or of what God has empowered certain men and women to do. Thus, as horrible as the story may seem to us, she-bears maul forty-two of the boys who disrespect Elisha, calling him “baldhead”; his sanctity and authority as a prophet is confirmed by this portent (2 Kings 2:24). Jesus himself was given miraculous power to show that he had authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). Likewise, to show that the apostles had the authority to speak about the Kingdom and Christ, they were given gifts by the Holy Spirit: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you” (Luke 10:29). The miracles in these cases were testimonies of God’s power and his appointment of certain individuals to bear witness and to speak the truth in His Name. The ark of the covenant, one of the most enigmatic objects in the Old Testament, was in many ways a strongbox holding the testimony of the Lord (Exodus 25:16). In these instances, the testimonial aspect of the miraculous shows us that truth itself is holy, perhaps too holy for us to comprehend. The testimony demands, more than mere belief, a deep reverence for what is sacred.
Not all miracles are pleasant, as we noted in the case of the she-bears. Many miracles were signs of God’s judgment. This is the case of the burning of Sodom and Gomorrha (Genesis 18, 19) and the Ten Plagues against Egypt (Exodus 7-12). This is precisely the type of miracle that James and John wanted to visit on the inhospitable village (Luke 9:54).
Although the relationship of miracles to faith can be difficult to grasp in the New Testament, Jesus himself said that one aspect of the miracles was to invite people to belief: “Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you going to stone me?’…If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’” (John 10:32-38). When Jesus speaks of the consequences of faith, he deliberately employs motifs that strike us as exaggerated, impossible, and certainly miraculous: “For truly, truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).
In some instances, a miracle is not the invitation to faith, but the reward for faith. Jesus tells the woman with the discharge, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matthew 9:22). To the two blind men he heals, he says, “According to your faith be it done to you” (Matthew 9:29). To the Syro-Phoenician woman, he exclaims: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28). There are numerous other examples. What is interesting is that the miracle does not create the belief; it crowns and rewards the belief that was already present.
Many of the miracles are merely manifestations of God’s grace and good will towards human beings: “While he was in one of those cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately the leprosy left him.” (Luke 5:12-13). We are reminded of Jesus’ teaching, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11). As James remarks, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:17-18). Thus, on the night of Jesus’s birth, the angels sang of peace and good will toward men (Luke 2:14). God’s will is good for us; He wants to give us what is best, the good life that is Jesus Christ Himself.
Sometimes, we fail to see the absence of miracle as a kind of miracle. God is unimaginably and incomprehensibly powerful. It seems that His nature dictates that He cannot do anything that is not miraculous. Because of His love, grace and power, He is always at work, pouring out the miraculous upon us. And yet, we see striking instances of God withholding the miraculous from humanity or taking away the miraculous. One interesting instance is that God promised the obsolescence and disappearance of the ark of the covenant: “In those days, declares the LORD, they shall no more say, ‘The ark of the covenant of the LORD.’ It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again” (Jeremiah 3:16). Similarly, Paul prophesized the cessation of certain miraculous gifts from the Holy Spirit: “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:8). During His ministry, Jesus did not perform many miracles at Nazareth, “because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). In fact, on several occasions he chastised the Pharisees and others for demanding signs: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12); “An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39); “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48). Ironically, it is Jesus, and not the skeptics, who point out the very strange mathematics of “miracles”: “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:24-27). To make matters even more perplexing, Jesus gives us this cryptic statement about his reign: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21). The absence of miracles, the uneven distribution of miracles, and the outright refusal to grant miracles are miraculous instances in themselves; they teach us something about ourselves, about God, and about miracles. They teach us that miracles are not about human will and selfish expectation. Miracles are specific revelations from God that remind us of the great unknown that God wishes to make known—if by faith we are able to contemplate, to step out of ourselves, to seek—and not just seek the sign, but seek the Giver of the sign. Otherwise, miracles become nothing more than another class of idols we venerate.
Let us take a moment to think about John’s very specific use of the semeion in his “Book of Signs”. In changing the water into wine, Jesus is showing the mystery of grace—the ceremonial Law is replaced by the best wine, Jesus Himself. In feeding the five thousand, Jesus shows his power to create something from nothing (and if you really believe this is just a metaphor about learning to “share” and “build community” in the church, then I ask you what exactly the impoverished masses had to share) and to feed us with the bread of heaven. In raising Lazarus, Jesus points to His own resurrection and the realized eschatology we have through faith in Him while we live—even before the final day when all the dead rise. All of these “signs” seem to echo a major them of the Gospel: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4); “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The signs in the Gospel of John function almost like parables, revealing to us the mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven and the nature of its glorious King, Jesus Christ.
Some of the greatest miracles, however, are the miracles that we take for granted. Our very existence is a miracle, a gift. We did not make ourselves, and we did not make the world we live in. Whether we like this gift or hate it, we cannot deny the fact that existence comes to us as a gift from a Giver, however you choose to define that Giver. The Scriptures reasonably show us a wonderful Giver, a Giver who gives every day, to the good people and to the bad people: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45). In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us not to take the gift of existence for granted and not to worry excessively, as though we were the givers and not the receivers of this gift: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:26-30). In one sense, Jesus echoes the line of reasoning presented at the close of Job. All of nature is wonderful and the thoughts of its Creator too high for us—who are we to judge and pontificate? Who are we to question? Are we not blessed just to have been given the gift of existence in this miraculous universe? And yet, Jesus does not use epic things like the Leviathan or the Behemoth (Job 40, 41) to reason with us. Jesus speaks of the miracle of existence by pointing to the little miracles, the commonplace things: birds and flowers. It is the world captured in haiku rather than in spectacle. The smallest pebble or sparrow is something to be wondered at.
All miracles, in my opinion, point to the mystery of salvation. They take us beyond the binary obstacle of spectacle and rational justification. As Paul said, “For Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:22). The Cross is the great mystery that all miracles relate to.
All things come from God, and God is reconciling all things to himself (Romans 5:11, Romans 11:15, 2 Corinthians 5:19) to manifest His love and glory (Romans 8). John Macquarrie has said that we live in a sacramental universe. The greatest miracles, then, are the gracious and mighty things that God is doing through the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. As Hippolytus of Rome taught, the supernatural is discerned in the normal ministry of the word and sacrament; instead of pursuing spectacular gifts, healings, and prophecies, we would do better to cultivate those miraculous attributes of Jesus our Saviour: the virtues, the fruits of the spirit, and more importantly, faith, hope, and love, the “more excellect way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) of rising up into God’s life.
What are the greatest miracles? Genesis 1:1. John 3:16. John 20:22.
Miracles are real, and they do exist today, albeit probably not in the much publicized way. Miracles are not necessarily what we expect or want. They are not about us. They are not the cheap tricks of television, nor are they scientifically identifiable phenomena of laboratories. They have a much deeper nature and purpose. They are about God. Without the miraculous, there can be no faith; without miracles, our faith miraculously grows. It is impossible to fully define a miracle, because we cannot define God. God reveals Himself to us. I do hope, however, that this discussion will aid someone in understanding the complexity and rich beauty of the miraculous—especially the fact that our mere life is a miracle, one that is preparing us for the greatest miracles of eternal life lived face-to-face with God.