The term “miracle” is derived from the Latin word miraculum meaning “something wonderful.” But due to its casual use in our day, the term has lost much of its lustre.
So how should Christians understand these “wonderful” and supernatural events? Unfortunately, there is no consensus view on what constitutes a miracle or how miracles function today.
Three current views
Some scholars, such as author Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, hold the position that miracles (as splendid displays of God’s supernatural power) ceased after the Apostolic Era. These scholars believe that, in our day, the gentle working of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God largely, if not totally, supersede miracles.
These folks argue that miracles are a means of authenticating Jesus’ identity and message, and since this purpose is essentially accomplished, miracles are no longer needed. They point out that faith comes from hearing the word of God (Romans 10:7), not by miracles, since signs and wonders might become a judgment to those who fail to put their trust in Jesus (Matthew 11:21-24).
However, those who adopt this position find it hard to explain anecdotal accounts of healing and deliverance except to assign them to the realm of mystery or, worse, to the work of Satan. Furthermore, by limiting what God can or cannot do in the present era, they run the risk of missing out on God’s supernatural leading.
Second, there are those who regard the ability to work miracles as an ongoing spiritual gift essential for furthering God’s message and work. The “signs and wonders” movement, popularized by John Wimber in the 1980s, says that miracles (and healings in particular) are a sign of God’s kingdom breaking into the present age.
In his writing, Wimber affirms that healing is a significant ministry of the church and puts great emphasis on equipping and empowering the laity to minister in the power of the Spirit. He also refuses to isolate healing of the body from forgiveness, reconciliation, a growing personal relationship with God, and other aspects of the kingdom.
Unlike some faith healers, Wimber repudiates the idea that God always wills immediate bodily healing, or that healing is hindered only by lack of faith on the part of the recipient. However, he seems to assign a key role to sudden supernatural insights (“words of knowledge”) in his healing ministry, something that lacks a solid biblical foundation.
On the contrary, James 5:14-18, with its mention of the elders praying, seems to provide a more balanced approach as to how we view healing ministry today. First, it validates the church as a healing community. Second, it points to a holistic understanding of healing (i.e. to restore), which neither precludes nor obliges God to act in a supernatural way.
Finally, there is the camp heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking, which essentially rejects any idea of supernatural intervention. For example, they understand the crossing of the “Sea of Reeds” described in the book of Exodus as a natural phenomenon, and suggest it was a strong wind slowly driving the shallow waters to land overnight that provided a dry place for the Israelites to cross. The “miracle” was that Israel crossed this precise place, at exactly the right time, when Moses lifted his staff. However, they never offer a convincing explanation as to how a “shallow” sea could drown an Egyptian army with horses and chariots.
These scholars simply assert that biblical stories should be interpreted as allegory – that “miracles” in these stories weren’t intended to be taken literally. Take for instance, Jesus’ resurrection. These folks, such as author John Dominic Crossan, consider it a figurative rebirth, an idea put forward by the disciples who were “inspired” by Jesus’ teaching. As for the real Jesus, his body was devoured by animals and never made it to the tomb.
Such a view of miracles represents humans’ attempt to harmonize the “mighty deeds” recorded in the Bible with God’s natural law. In so doing, the historicity of Scriptures is denied and faith is rendered no more than a philosophical belief system.
Looking at the biblical text
Some of these current views may help us better understand the role and function of miracles today. But, it seems that none paints an adequate or complete picture. For this, we must turn to Scripture.
The description of most miracles (Neis) in the Hebrew Bible fits the definition that God intervenes in the laws of nature. He may suspend or speed up the laws of nature to produce a supernatural occurrence (healing accounts, the 10 plagues). He can create matter out of nothing or breathe life into inanimate matter (the Genesis creation account).
The same holds true for the miracles recorded in the New Testament (healings, the withering of the fig tree, the calming of the sea, turning water into wine, feeding of the thousands, the bountiful catch, the resurrection of Jesus).
Three Greek words are primarily used to designate these miracles:
1. Semeion, a “sign;” i.e., an evidence of a divine commission; an attestation of a divine message (Matthew 12:38-39;
16:1, 4; Mark 8:11; Luke 11:16; 23:8; John 2:11, 18, 23; Acts 6:8); a token of the presence and working of God; the seal of a higher power.
2. Terata, “wonders;” wonder-causing events; portents; producing astonishment in the beholder (Acts 2:19).
3. Dunameis, “mighty works;” works of superhuman power (Acts 2:22; Romans. 15:19; 2 Thessalonians 2:9); of a new and higher power.
Interpreting the text
Most scholars recognize that miracles play an important role in the synoptic tradition. However, opinions differ as to how these miracles function within the context of the gospel message. Are they just evidence to authenticate Jesus’ identity? Or are they part of something greater? Should they be interpreted figuratively? And finally, are these functions mutually exclusive?
From a careful reading of the Gospels, it seems miracles fit all these roles. When confronted with those who challenged his teaching, Jesus told the skeptics to look at the miracles he performed (John 10:25, 38). In the synoptic Gospels, miracles are sometimes referred to as signs of God’s kingdom becoming a present reality (Jesus’ authority over sickness, demons, nature, and finally death).
At the same time, healing stories are highly symbolic. They’re regarded as features of God inaugurating the long-delayed New Exodus. Only, this time, Israel’s predicament – blindness (lack of spiritual discernment), deafness (spiritual rebellion), lameness (spiritual infirmity) and leprosy (spiritual uncleanness and rejection) – will be reversed through the work of the suffering servant, Jesus.
With this framework in mind, we can safely assert that miracles are indeed a present-day reality.
However, God’s kingdom does have a future component, an important reminder that the world as we know it will one day pass away. As we’ve noted, one of the biblical definitions of a miracle is a “sign” that points to a greater reality. Therefore, we’re called not to dwell on the mystical experience but to put our trust in Jesus. In fact, Christ warned us against expecting miracles on demand (Matthew 12:39). We must remember that God, the initiator, should be the primary focus of miracles.
Finally, since miracles are signs pointing to the fact that the coming of God’s kingdom is at hand, repentance should be our most appropriate response (Mark 1:15).