By Robert G. Eaton
Miracles are physics-bending events. Walking on water, changing water into wine, and feeding 5,000 people from five loaves and two fishes.
Many theologians in the history of the church, especially the last 150 years, have not taken any of the miracles of our Lord seriously. And thus the witness is given to the Church, that either they didn’t really happen or they happened then and not now, or there’s no way we peons could ever or should ever consider ourselves as participating in their existence.
According to the Bible, miracles are incredibly important as demonstrations of God’s power, and the miracles of our Lord are an essential part of the presentation of him as Messiah, for in part they authenticate his claim as Messiah. And guess what, he still is the Messiah, and he is alive! So, we should still expect them to take place. Nothing says otherwise.
Let’s take a quick look at where and how miracles are mentioned in the gospels.
The miraculous works of our Lord Jesus were communicated by the Gospel authors and by the use of three primary terms, each of which accentuated one particular facet of this supernatural activity of Christ. These three terms are even found together in several passages. “Men of Israel,” St. Peter said on Pentecost, “listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through him in your midst, just as you yourselves know.”
The word miracle (translated from the Greek dunamis, from which is derived the English dynamic), emphasizes the “mighty work” that has been done and, in particular, the power by which it was accomplished. The event is thus described in terms of “the power of God in action.”
If miracle emphasizes the cause of the miraculous event, wonder (translated from the Greek teras underscores its effect on those who are witnesses. On many occasions, the crowds (even the disciples) were amazed and astonished by the works of our Lord. The ancient theologian Origen pointed out that this term wonder is never employed alone in the New Testament, but always coupled up with some other term that suggests something far greater than a mere exhibition of curiosity.
The term that seems to have the most interconnection of meanings used with reference to the miracles of our Lord is sign (semeion, as in the sign of Jonah, which refers the actual miraculous experience of Jonah, as the Lord intended for it to be understood centuries later with Jesus). It focuses on the deeper meaning or higher purpose of the miracle. So, a sign is a miracle that conveys a truth about our Lord Jesus. A miracle is usually a sign, but a sign need not always be a miracle.
All that background to say this: the miracles of our God are at one and the same time a visible manifestation of divine power (miracle) an awe-inspiring spectacle (wonder), and an instructive revelation about God (sign).
There are quite a few characteristics of the Miracles performed by Jesus, but I want to share three in particular.
The only way we can talk about the particular characteristics of the Miracles of Jesus Christ, I suppose, is to admit that there were what we could call “miraculous deeds” around the time of the Incarnation and through to the Ascension. And certainly, as we look into the Old Testament, we can see what you might call the “battle of the miraculous,” as with Moses and the plagues, and the wizards of Egypt keeping up for a while in replicating those things. It was quite the wonder when the snake of Moses ate up the snakes of Egypt. There is much here to say about the deceptions of the enemy, Satan, and the magic arts, as with Simon the Magician. But simple observation and investigation tell us that the miracles he accomplished were far different than those claimed by other religions.
First, we can say they were truly historical. In the Gospel accounts, and throughout the Bible, so no variation here, the writers have not presented the miracles of our Lord as anything other than actual events. They are not “true myths,” mythical stories with “spiritual lessons,” but real events that equally conveyed spiritual truths or purpose. The miracles of other religions are far more mythical in nature.
Second, to use one of our favorite Anglican terms, Jesus’ miracles were reasonable. The miracles of the apocryphal Gospels are fantastic and questionable. They are completely out of character, with Jesus arbitrarily and capriciously using his supernatural powers. In contrast, the Gospels show a highly ethical use of his power, in a way totally consistent with his person.
Third, they were immensely useful. Almost every miracle of our Lord Jesus was designed to meet a physical need. Our Lord refused to employ his powers to satisfy his appetites, or to ensure his protection. He turned down every invitation to do the miraculous to satisfy idle curiosity.
Besides characteristics, there are some particular purposes of the miracles that emerge from the Scriptures.
For one thing, they attracted people of all sorts and kinds of men, women, and children. Every supernatural act of Jesus was meant to be complimentary to the mission of proclamation of the Good News. And so, as an obvious result, those men and women attracted to the buzz about his miracles, and healings and exorcisms, were going to hear his message. And those who were anxious to hear his message found the message validated and affirmed by miracles and more.
For another thing, the miracles gave divine validation to Jesus. It was expected that when the Messiah came he would perform miracles. When Jesus presented himself at the synagogue in Nazareth, and gave fair warning when he quoted a passage from Isaiah chapter 61:
“And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. And he opened the book, and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:17-19) .
The people expected the Messiah to present himself by signs. Even the Son of God’s power over demons demonstrates the coming of the kingdom: “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” And then the accompanying kicker, from the 10th chapter of John, when Jesus said that by reason of his work alone, men should receive him as Messiah.
And a third thing, the miracles reveal God. The miracles of Jesus were not merely deeds to authenticate the message of Messiah, but a vital part of that message. The miracles not only revealed the power of God, but his person, who he is and is to come. Further, in the miracles of Jesus we see the sympathy and compassion of God. Jesus was deeply moved by human suffering and need. These needs prompted him to action. Again, the miracles reveal Jesus to be the redeemer and restorer of a fallen universe. He came to save, and it is the power of his kingdom he makes use of, not the power of this world.
The miracles, and all the other phenomenon of the kingdom of God, became the platform for what God expected to see in the followers of the Son of God, after the ascension.
And this point especially becomes our application. You see, the saints of God are just folk like you and me (“and I want to be one, too”), able to talk about Jesus, and able to be vessels through which God works his wonders and signs and miracles. I can say that to you by recalling the Scriptures.
Jesus said, “Greater things than these shall you do.” And if Jesus could pass a loaf of bread around to just his apostles after blessing it and saying, “This is my body,” but then Paul can affirm the same action for all believers so they can also receive the Real Presence of Christ, but not be those apostles, then Jesus can say to his disciples, “Greater things than these shall you do” to his apostles, and Paul can later affirm that reality for all those disciples who follow, but are not apostles themselves.
Pentecost came and the Holy Spirit descended, and the Holy Church was kickstarted, including a variety of spiritual gifts, which would be God’s power initiated by and through his people.
The gifts of the Spirit in the body of Christ today continue to do the same as before (as in those greater things spoken of by Christ, now seen as a normal and regular function of the power of the Holy Spirit).
And here is the particular point regarding how we define the saints, but already hear that we are all gifted: some of us are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be miracle workers, that is, workers of miracles, according to the writers of the New Testament.
The difficulty in the application, the difficulty in seeing, and believing, and then being willing to have a miracle work through us, only resides with us.
We need to open our understanding and invite Christ to stir up those gifts in us. None is more important than others, although obviously miracle workers throughout the life of the Church (and Bible) gain much more attention as saints.
All are given the special abilities of the Holy Spirit to do something or act in some way for the benefit of the church. A few of us have received the special ability to be miracle workers.
Your job then is to keep your eyes open and be prepared to step out in faith — which may take something of a learning process, I won’t deny — but still, to step out in faith and be God’s next miracle worker for the sake of his kingdom.
The Rev. Robert G. Eaton is interim rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Belleville, Illinois.