When something amazing happens, we often say, “It’s a miracle!” But more than likely that is not technically correct. It was not a true miracle. It was amazing, it was abnormal, etc., but was it a miracle?
What is a miracle?
(1) A scientist gave the following definition of a miracle on an April 14, 1995 PBS program. He said, “A miracle is nothing more than a natural law not discovered.” So, he doesn’t believe in miracles. He thinks everything can be explained scientifically. This is an attitude which at the least denies any intervention into our world by God, and more than likely means that scientist denies the existence of God.1 I don’t see how raising someone from the dead, restoring a blind man’s sight, etc. are natural laws not yet discovered. This is obviously a bad definition. The fact that anyone would take this guy seriously is a sad commentary on our society.
(2) A computer magazine had the following definition in its word-for-the-day section: “Coincidence is a miracle where God chooses to remain anonymous.” In other words, there is no such thing as coincidence. This elevates almost everything to the status of being a miracle. I would have to go along with the idea that there is no such thing as coincidence or chance. If there is such a thing as chance, then God has an equal out there in the universe, against which He is competing. Think about that statement for a minute. If there is such a thing as chance, then God has an equal out there in the universe that He is competing against. In other words, God is not in control. So, although I think that God is control and is involved in our lives, does that mean that these events are miracles? No.
These two illustrations represent opposite extremes. The truth is somewhere in the middle. What is a miracle?
If we look at the words the New Testament uses for miracles we see the following:
(1) It is an act of a supernatural being. The word dunamis has the idea of a supernatural power. It speaks primarily of the agent of the act. That power may be delegated to a human agent. The question is where did Jesus’ power to do the miracle come from. There are two options - either from God or from Satan. Obviously, Jesus’ power came from God. Some suggest that Satan only imitates miracles. I think Satan can perform miracles. He does not have divine power, but he does have supernatural power. So the idea from the word dunamis is that there is supernatural power involved.
(2) Another word - terasa - speaks of the effect. A miracle is an unusual event. Terasa speaks of the wonderment of the event – as in signs and wonders. As a matter of fact, terasa is always used with semeion.
(3) The Greek word semeion means sign. A miracle is a significant event. It has purpose. Matthew, Mark and Luke uses the first two more. John uses the word semion, because he is focused on the purpose of Jesus in performing the miracles.
(4) Therefore, in our search for a definition, if we combine the ideas of these words used in the New Testament, we might come up with the following definition:
Definition: A miracle is an unusual and significant event (terasa) which requires the working of a supernatural agent (dunamis) and is performed for the purpose of authenticating the message or the messenger (semeion).
I don’t want to imply that God can’t do a miracle without a miracle worker or that He can only do miracles when He needs to authenticate His message. But, examination of Old Testament and New Testament miracles shows that when a human is the agent performing a miracle, the purpose is authentication of the person and his message. For example: Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Apostles… That is the norm. It is a little oxymoronic to use the words norm and miracles in the same sentence, but I think it is important to establish what the norm is if possible because of what various people teach concerning miracles.
What do people teach concerning miracles? I don’t think a study on the miracles of Jesus would be complete if we didn’t take a little time to look at what’s going on today and examine what is being taught by various groups in the church concerning miracles. But I’m not quite ready to dive into that discussion. I’ve been doing much reading and studying on the arguments from both sides and although I’ve come to my conclusion. I haven’t organized my thoughts well enough to explain it right now. Hopefully in a few weeks we can take a break from the study of the miracles and study the arguments. For now we will begin our study of the miracles. First though, we need to learn how to study the miracles.
Many people go to the Bible looking primarily for theological statements or propositional statements—statements that tell us what not to do, what to do, what to think, etc. Historically, Americans pastors and theologians have spent little time teaching or preaching the Gospels. Americans are practical, bottom line people and the Pauline and General epistles are easier to dig practical principles out of. They don’t typically know what to do with the Gospels because the Gospels are not very propositional. They are really a collection of small stories arranged to tell a bigger story about the life of Christ. The accounts of the miracles Jesus performed are contained in stories, and stories have context, characters, plot, climax, etc. Stories are literature, and in order to understand them, we need to look at the miracles literarily.
We will study the miracles following the usual steps of observation, interpretation and application, but since the miracles are stories, we will need to look at things like plot, character development, etc. to understand them fully.
We need to determine which gospel or gospels record the miracle? Sometimes it is difficult to tell if two Gospels are telling the same miracle or if they are just similar miracles. If we decide that they are the same event, which is the longest account of the miracle? That is the one we will use primarily for the study and then pull in the extra details we learn from other parallel passages to supplement the longest passage. What you will notice is that different gospel writers stressed certain things because they were writing to different audiences or have a different theological point to make. Because of these differences, many critics point to the differences in the miracle accounts to show that the Bible is full of errors. We will discuss these differences and try to determine why they exist. Sometimes we will understand why, other times we may not. That doesn’t mean the Bible has errors. My assumption is that the Bible is true and I haven’t figured it out yet. The critic’s assumption is that the Bible is full of errors and that is what he sees.
One of the most helpful things in studying narrative literature (stories), is learning to track the progression of thought in the narrative. The progression is the strongest thread that ties the story together as a creative whole. One might follow the progression:
What we know from knowledge of the culture will affect our understanding and interpretation. For example, in the healing of the leper or lepers, it helps to know how awful leprosy was, how it was viewed spiritually and as far as we can tell, that nobody had ever been cured of leprosy – except for Marion, Moses’ sister and Namaan the Syrian who was healed by Elisha. If lepers are being healed now, then something out of the ordinary is going on! It should have been a clear sign that God was here!
What do we know from the preceding or following context. What was Jesus talking about in His last conversation? Did He just preach a sermon? What was the point of that sermon? Perhaps the miracle illustrates the point. What statements is the author making about Jesus? Does this miracle relate to that? For example, when Jesus heals the blind man in two stages (Mark 8:22), it does not mean that Jesus’ power was inadequate for the task. He healed the man in two stages to illustrate the partial understanding of the disciples as to whom Jesus really was. You have to understand the larger literary and theological context of the book of Mark as well as have been tracking the disciples’ development along the way in order to understand that. So, although the immediate literary context is important, sometimes the larger context is also very important.
What does it mean theologically? Ask three questions:
1. What was the meaning for the Jews who saw the miracle?
2. What was the meaning for the disciples?
3. What was the meaning for the person healed?
I think that there is only one correct interpretation. There will be different subcategories of meaning for each question asked, but I think there is a right answer. By that, I mean that the author had some point in mind when he recorded the miracle. We will try to determine that. If we come to a different conclusion than someone else, then I think one of us is wrong. If we are wrong, then it is because we did poor observation or have some theological bias. In our age of relativism and no absolutes, this is not a popular concept. But I think it is a correct concept. Once we have determined the theological meaning we move to the next step.
What does it mean to me? Although there may be only one interpretation, there can be many applications.
Summary of the process:
We need to study the events of the miracle (observation), determine what truths it teaches (interpretation) and then determine how the truths apply to us (application).
1 This attitude can be traced back into the period of the Enlightenment and received one of its most cogent arguments in the philosopher David Hume. For a brief description of Hume’s arguments, especially as they touch on the issue of the resurrection, see Greg Herrick, The Historical Veracity of the Resurrection Narratives, www.bible.org.