8. The Meaning of the Miracles (Mark 4:35-41)
When I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dr. Henry M. Morris, co-author of The Genesis Flood, spoke to the student body. In an effort to distinguish between Class A and Class B miracles, Dr. Morris told the true story of a young pilot named Tom (now with Missionary Aviation Fellowship) who was flying at 30,000 feet when his plane exploded. All in the plane were killed except Tom. As Tom was plummeting to the earth, he pulled the rip cord, but his chute failed to open. At the last minute, the chute did open but it was in shreds, hardly breaking the speed of his fall.
Meanwhile, a Christian woman was standing in her drive watching this horrifying scene. Knowing he was in desperate trouble, the woman prayed for his safe descent. Tom, needless to say, was praying, too. Tom landed virtually at the feet of the woman. Looking up, they saw that the ropes of his parachute had caught in two trees, breaking his fall and lowering him gently to the ground.
The most interesting point about this true story is that Dr. Morris used it as an illustration of what he called Class B miracles. After recounting the story, Dr. Morris said to the assembled faculty and student body, “Now men, don’t be overly impressed by the Class B miracles.”
Since we understood Dr. Morris’ conservative theological position, we were not upset, but amazed at his dry sense of humor. But the sad truth is that many theologians throughout the history of the church have not taken any of the miracles of our Lord seriously. The Jews of our Lord’s day did not challenge the actual events, but rather the power by which these miracles were performed (cf. Mark 3:22ff.) The heathen Greeks did not challenge the miraculous event either, but only its interpretation.93 Others, such as Spinoza, held the pantheistic view that miracles were contrary to the nature of God.94 Miracles were considered impossible by Spinoza because of his presuppositions. Skeptics, like Hume, held that miracles are simply incredible, because they contradict man’s normal experience.95 Since Hume doubted that nothing could be known with absolute certainty, those phenomenon which took place outside of the normal course of nature could never be accepted as true. Schleiermacher and others explained the miraculous in terms of the unknown and misunderstood. Our Lord’s miracles were ‘relative miracles,’ as a savage might consider television, which he does not understand.96 The Rationalistic School would have men believe that Christ never claimed to perform any miracles. Only those who sought the spectacular found something miraculous in the records.97 Christ did not change the water to wine at Cana, but merely provided a new supply of wine. He did not walk on the water, but on the nearby shore. Others, Like Woolston have found the Gospel miracles to have no factual or historical validity, but are merely ‘tales’ which contain a much deeper spiritual truth.98
Such are the views of the skeptics and critics of God’s Word. But for the sincere student of Scripture, there is no satisfaction in these theories. The miracles are an integral part of our Lord’s ministry. They not only authenticate His message; they are a vital part of it.99
We have been studying highlights in the Life and Ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have already dealt with the period of preparation, and are now considering the presentation of Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior of the world. The miracles of our Lord are an essential part of that presentation, for, in part, they authenticate His claim as Messiah.
The Terms Employed
The miraculous works of our Lord Jesus were communicated by the use of three primary terms, each of which accentuated one particular facet of the supernatural activity of Christ. These three terms are found together in several passages. “Men of Israel, 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” (Acts 2:22, cf. also 2 Corinthians 12:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:9).
The term ‘miracle’ (dunamis), emphasizes the mighty work that has been done, and, in particular, the power by which it was accomplished. The event is described in terms of the power of God in action.
If ‘miracle’ emphasizes the cause of the miraculous event, ‘wonder’ (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 (e.g. Mark 2:12; 4:41; 6:51, etc.). Origen pointed out long ago that this term ‘wonder’ is never employed alone in the New Testament, but always in conjunction with some other term which suggests something far greater than a mere spectacle.100
The most pregnant term used with reference to the miracles of our Lord is ‘sign’ (semeion), which focuses upon the deeper meaning of the miracle.101 A sign is a miracle which conveys a truth about our Lord Jesus. A miracle is usually a sign, but a sign need not always be a miracle (cf. Luke 2:12).
The miracles of our Lord 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).102
Classification of the Miracles
Perhaps the most common classification of the miracles of our Lord is into three categories: (1) those which pertain to nature; (2) those which pertain to man; and, (3) those which pertain to the spirit world.103
I find it helpful to distinguish between what can be called ‘Class A’ and ‘Class B’ miracles. ‘Class A’ miracles overrule or transcend the laws of nature. Such would be the case of our Lord’s walking on the water (Mark 6:45-52). Here the law of gravity was overruled. ‘Class B’ miracles do not overtly violate natural laws. For example, the stilling of the storm did not appear to violate any natural law. Storms on this lake, we are told, stopped as quickly as they commenced. The fact that it stopped at the time of our Lord’s rebuke is evidence of His sovereignty over nature. ‘Class B’ miracles would be viewed by unbelievers as mere coincidence. ‘Class A’ miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus were an outright affront to natural laws and processes (thus the statement, ‘he stinks’ in John 11:39, stressing the normal course of nature). Both categories, ‘Class A’ and ‘Class B,’ are miracles, but ‘Class A’ miracles are more undeniably so to the skeptic.
Characteristics of the Miracles of Our Lord
Miraculous deeds were not unknown to the age in which our Lord revealed Himself to men. But the miracles which He accomplished were far different than those claimed by other religions. For a few moments, we shall attempt to characterize the miracles of our Lord:104
(1) They were truly historical. In the Gospel accounts, 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 conveying spiritual truths. The Miracles of other religions are far more mythical in nature. Though perhaps not precisely stated, we can sense a kind of ‘once upon a time’ mood. Not so in the Gospels.
(2) They were reasonable. The miracles of the Apocryphal Gospels are fantastic and questionable.105 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.
(3) They were useful. Almost every miracle of our Lord was designed to meet a physical need. Our Lord refused to employ His powers to satisfy His own appetites, or to ensure His protection. He turned down every invitation to do the miraculous to satisfy idle curiosity (cf. Luke 23:8).
(4) They were accomplished openly. The miracles were performed in the most public situations, not oft in a dark corner. While so many alleged ‘miracles’ of today defy documentation, those of our Lord were mainly public.
(5) They were accomplished simply. Others who claimed to be ‘miracle workers’ always operated with a great deal of ritual and ceremony. A ‘miracle’ was an extravaganza, a carrying-on with pomp and circumstance. Our Lord most often merely spoke a word, and at times performed His miraculous deeds at a distance (cf. Matthew 8:5-13).
(6) They were accomplished instantly. With very few exceptions, the miracles of Jesus were completed instantly and completely.
(7) They were accomplished in a variety of circumstances. While some could do their deeds only under the most controlled environment, Jesus did His works under a great variety of circumstances. His powers were demonstrated over nature, over sickness and disease, and over the forces of Satan. The sicknesses He healed were of amazing variety.106
(8) They were accomplished on the basis of faith. The miracles of the Gospels were accomplished on the basis of faith, either that of our Lord (cf. John 11:41-43), or of the one cured (cf. Mark 5:34), or of others who are concerned (cf. Matthew 8:10, Mark 2:5). Where there was little faith, little was accomplished (cf. Mark 6:5,6).
(9) They were gratuitous. While in the cults, a fee of payments was expected, the miracles of our Lord were free of charge. No fee was expected or accepted. Our Lord’s ministry, from start to finish, was one of grace.
(10) They were free from retaliation. With the possible exception of the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) none of the miracles of Jesus were of a punitive or negative variety. This is in contrast, not only to the desires of his own disciples (Luke 9:52-56), but also the practices of other ‘healers’ of His day, and even of what often occurred in the Old Testament.107
(11) They were eschatological. The miracles of Jesus were evidence of the dawn of a new age. With the presentation of Jesus as Messiah, a new age had begun. He had come to restore man from his fallen state, and creation from the chaos resulting from sin. He had come to restore and to save. Man had been placed an the earth to rule over it. When the last Adam (Jesus Christ) came nature immediately recognized its master. When our Lord confronted sickness and disease He mastered it. He came to save, and thus the word often used for healing was ‘to save.’108
The Purpose of the Miracles
Several purposes emerge from the Scriptures for the exercise of miracles by our Lord.
(1) They attracted men. Though not the primary thrust of our Lord’s miraculous ministry, one outcome was that His miracles attracted men and women who were anxious to hear His message. To many, His deeds were at least those of a prophet (cf. John 3:2; 4:19). Here was a man with a message from God.
Our Lord made many attempts to avoid the spectacular and to arouse misdirected Messianic hopes (Matthew 8:4; 12:16; 16:20, etc.). But we must also recall that it was the miraculous healing ministry of Jesus which drew the multitudes to the place where the Sermon on the Mount was delivered (Matthew 4:24-25).
(2) They accredited Jesus. It was expected that when Messiah came He would be accredited by miracles. When our Lord presented Himself at the synagogue in Nazareth, 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, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:17-19) .
The people expected Messiah to present Himself by signs (John 7:31). Our Lord’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” (Luke 11:20). By reason of His work alone, men should receive Him as Messiah (John 10:37-38).
(3) They reveal God. As we have previously noted, 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. In the miracles of Jesus we see the sympathy and compassion of God. Jesus was deeply moved by human suffering and need (cf. John 11:35). 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.
The Stilling of the Storm
Jesus had spent the entire day teaching the multitudes (verse 35), entering into a new phase of teaching by the use of parables. No doubt, He was completely exhausted, as any preacher could testify. Our Lord had been sitting in the little boat, and apparently without even getting out of the boat, they pushed away from shore and set out for the other side of the lake, leaving the multitudes behind. Following along were other little ships (verse 36).
Within moments, our Lord was in a deep sleep in the stern of the ship, resting an a cushion. (This is the only reference in the Gospels to our Lord sleeping.) Some have piously referred to this sleep as the slumber of faith. If I could be less spiritual, I would simply call it the slumber of fatigue. Once again the humanity of our Lord Jesus is evidenced.
The Sea of Galilee was surrounded by hills, through which the winds violently funneled, creating violent storms which ceased as quickly as began. Such a storm arose as they were in the middle of the lake. The waves were lashing at the ship, filling it faster than the men could bail it out. Even these seasoned sailors were terrified. Higher and higher the water rose within the ship as well as without. How incongruous it must have seemed to the disciples for Jesus to be resting peacefully while they were floundering helplessly.
When they could stand it no longer, they abruptly and rudely wakened the Master with words of rebuke, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Although the synoptic writers describe the event independently, Mark (as reported by Peter) chose to report their rudeness by the fact that He was not called Master, or Lord, but only Teacher.
Many Bible students seem to think that the underlying problem was the lack of the disciples faith in God’s protection since Messiah was in their midst. The ship, they tell us, could not have sunk.109 It is my personal opinion that the disciples believed that Jesus was fully able to save them. That is why they called on Him for help. The real problem of the disciples is precisely that of Christians today; they did not rebuke Jesus for His inability, but rather for His indifference. “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” What irked these men was not that Jesus was helpless in the face of the storm but heedless of it. They were sinking and He was sleeping! Don’t You care?
When Jesus was awakened, He rebuked the winds and the waves. The forces of nature recognized their Lord even if the disciples did not. There was an immediate calm. But not only did the wind and the waves need a word of rebuke, so did the faithless disciples. “Why are you so timid? How is it that you have no faith?” (Mark 4:40). You see, the ‘lack of faith’ for which Jesus rebuked His disciples was not a lack of faith in His ability to save, but a lack of faith in His attentiveness to our needs. Their ‘God’ was able to save, but insensitive to their need.
The words of our Lord, and even more, the obedience of the wind and the waves overcame the disciples with wonder and awe. “Who, then, is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41).
The question of the disciples is probably rhetorical, and the answer is left for us to supply. That answer is not difficult to arrive at. The Jews believed that only God had power over the winds and the seas. “O Lord God of Hosts, who is like Thee, O mighty Lord? Thy faithfulness also surrounds Thee. Thou dost rule the swelling of the sea; When its waves rise, Thou dost still them” (Psalm 89:8,9).
The disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, but because their concept of Messiah was largely shaped by that of their contemporaries, they had much to learn. Their understanding of this One would continue to increase, even until the time of His ascension. But now they are forced to the conclusion that He was far more than they anticipated. He had authority even over the forces of nature.
The unbelief of the disciples is just as evident in we who are Christians today as it was in that little ship, tossed by the sea. It is not so much that we doubt God’s ability to save as it is God’s awareness of our needs. We falsely suppose that because our Lord is with us the storms of life will pass us by. And when the trials of life sweep full force over us and it seems that we are losing ground, here our faith is tested. We impugn the character of God by challenging His failure to act in our defense. We wonder at why God seems to be ‘asleep at the wheel’ while we are only too aware of our impending peril. We do not doubt God’s power to act in our behalf; we wonder at His refusal to act. Can God really care for us and let us sail headlong into disaster? It is God’s timing that we question. Our Lord’s sleep was that of human fatigue, but God was not asleep, as Elijah accused Baal (1 Kings 18:27). God delays His deliverance of men to the point of despair so that His salvation will be acknowledged as totally divine. It was only when the disciples were snatched from the jaws of death that they sensed their inability and His omnipotence. We must trust God’s ability as well as His timing if we are to be people of faith.
The miracles of our Lord force us to come to a decision concerning Jesus Christ. He was no mere man. His claims were either that of God or of a lunatic or a liar. The Person the Gospel writers present to us is no mere man, and His mighty works (miracles) must be taken as seriously as He.
“But there are no such miracles today,” you respond. No, as such there are not. But it was not the miracles alone which brought men to faith. It was belief in what our Lord said, in the final analysis. You must respond by faith or rejection to the works of our Lord as documented by the Gospel writers. But more than this you must place your faith in the Person of Jesus Christ Who came to bear the penalty for your sins and to provide the righteousness which God requires for salvation. Ultimately, it is the condition of your heart that determines your response to Jesus Christ and not the spectacular works which He performed.
“But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:30-31).
93 “Having recounted various miracles wrought, as he affirms, by Appolonius, he proceeds thus: ‘Yet do we not account him who has done such things for a god, only for a man beloved of the gods: while the Christians, on the contrary, on the ground of a few insignificant wonder works, proclaim their Jesus for a God.’” R. C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1949), p. 39.
98 “...Woolston undertook, by the engines of allegorical interpretation, to dislodge them from these also, and with this view published his notorious Letters on the Miracles. It is his manner in these to take certain miracles which Christ did, or which were wrought in relation to Him, two or three in a letter; he then seeks to show that, understood in their literal sense, they are stuffed so full with extravagances, contradictions, absurdities, that no reasonable man can suppose Christ actually to have wrought them; while as little could the Evangelists, as honest men, men who had the credit of their Lord at heart, have intended to record them as actually wrought, or desired us to receive them as other than allegories, spiritual truths clothed in the garb of historic events. The enormous difference between himself and those early Church writers, to whom he appeals, and whose views he professes to be only re-asserting, is this: they said, This history, being real, has also a deeper ideal sense; he upon the contrary, Since it is impossible that this history can be real, therefore it must have a spiritual significance. They build upon the establishment of the historic sense, he upon its ruins.” Ibid., p. 49.
99 “There is an indissoluble connexion of proclamation, miracle, and faith. The Gospel miracle cannot be isolated from this service. None of the miracles takes place in a vacuum. None of them takes place, or is recounted, or claims significance, in and for itself. Their significance is only as actualizations of His Word, as calls to repentance and faith.” Everett F. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 109.
“Wescott wrote, ‘They (miracles) are essentially a part of the revelation, and not merely a part of it.’ Warfield expressed himself similarly. ‘Miracles are not merely credentials of revelation, but vehicles of revelation as well.’” Ibid., p. 116.
100 “Origen … long ago called attention to the fact that the name repara is never in the N.T. applied to these words of wonder, except in association with some other name. ... The observation was well worth the making; for the fact which we are thus bidden to note is indeed eminently characteristic of the miracles of the N.T.; namely, that a title, by which more than any other these might seem to hold on to the prodigies and portents of the heathen world, and to have something akin to them, should thus never be permitted to appear, except in the company of some other necessarily suggesting higher thoughts about them.” Richard Chenevix Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Marshallton, Delaware: The National Foundation for Christian Education, n.d.), p. 320.
101 “In this word (‘sign’) the ethical purpose of the miracle comes out the most prominently, as in “wonder” the least. They are signs and pledges of something more than and beyond themselves (Isai. vii. 11; xxxviii. 7); valuable, not so much for what they are, as for what they indicate of the grace and power of the doer, or of the connection in which he stands with a higher world. Oftentimes they are thus seals of power set to the person who accomplishes them (“the Lord confirming the word with signs following,” Mark xvi. 20; Acts xiv. 3; Heb. ii. 4); legitimating acts, by which he claims to be accepted as a messenger from God. “What sign shewest thou?” (John ii. 18) was the question which the Jews asked, when they wanted the Lord to justify the things which He was doing, by showing that He had especial authority to do them. St. Paul speaks of himself as having “the signs of an apostle” (2 Cor. xii. 12), in other words, the tokens which designate him as such. Thus, too, in the Old Testament, when God sends Moses to deliver Israel He furnishes him with two signs. He warns him that Pharaoh will require him to legitimate his mission, to produce his credentials that he is indeed God’s ambassador; and equips him with the powers which shall justify him as such, which, in other words, shall be his signs (Exod. vii. 9,10). He “gave a sign to the prophet, whom He sent to protest against the will-worship of Jeroboam (1 Kin. xiii. 3).” Miracles, pp. 4-5.
102 Cf. Calvin on 2 Cor. xii. 12: “They are called signs because they are no idle spectacles, but are designed to teach. Prodigies (wonders), because by their unwontedness they should rouse and strike. Powers or virtues (miracles), because they are greater indications of divine power than the things which are seen in the ordinary course of nature.” Trench, Miracles, p. 6.
105 It may be well to cite a few examples in proof, however unpleasantly some of them may jar on the Christian ear. Thus some children refuse to play with Him, hiding themselves from Him; He pursues and turns them into kids. Another child by accident runs against Him, and throws Him down; whereupon He, being exasperated, exclaims, ‘As thou hast made Me to fall, so shalt thou fall and not rise’; at the same hour the child fell down and expired. Such is the image which the authors of these books give us of the holy child Jesus. Even the miracles which are not of this revolting character are childish tricks, like the tricks of a conjurer, never solemn acts of power and love. He and some other children make birds and animals of clay; while each is boasting the superiority of his work, Jesus says, “I will cause those which I have made to go,”—which they do, the animals leaping and the birds flying, and at his bidding returning, and eating and drinking from his hand. While yet an infant at his mother’s breast, He bids a palm tree to stop that she may pluck the dates; it obeys, and only returns to its position at his command. The miracles which He does, so those that are done in his honour, are idle or monstrous; the ox and the ass worshipping Him, a new-born infant in the crib, may serve for an example. Trench, Miracles, pp. 28-29.
106 “Jesus cured a wide variety of complaints. Making due allowance for the imprecise medical terminology of the Gospels, we may distinguish various forms of paralysis, congenital defects like blindness, deafness and dumbness, diseases like leprosy, dropsy and fever, hemorrhage, curvature of the spine, and a severed ear. If even half of these are correctly diagnosed, the Gospel account of Jesus healing ‘all kinds of diseases’ seems no exaggeration.” R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1976), p. 67.
107 “Those of the Old wear oftentimes a far severer aspect than those of the New. They are miracles, indeed, of God’s grace, but yet also miracles of the Law, of that Law which worketh wrath, which will teach, at all costs, the lesson of the awful holiness of God. Miracles of the Law, they preserve a character that accords with the Law; being oftentimes fearful outbreaks of God’s anger against the unrighteousness of men; such for instance are the signs and wonders in Egypt, many of those in the desert (Num. xvi. 31; Lev. x. 2), and some which the later prophets wrought (2 Kin. i. 10-12; ii. 23-25); leprosies are inflicted (Num. xii. 10; 2 Chr. xxvi. 19), not removed; a sound hand is withered and dried up (1 Kin. xiii. 4), not a withered hand restored. Not but that these works also are for the most part what our Lord’s are altogether and with no single exception, namely, works of evident grace and mercy. I affirm this of all our Lord’s miracles; for that single one, which seems an exception, the cursing of the barren fig-tree, has no right really to be considered such. He needed to declare, not in word only but in act, what would be the consequences of an obstinate unfruitfulness and resistance to his grace, and thus to make manifest the severer side of his ministry. He chose for the showing out of this, not one among all the sinners who were about Him, but displayed his power upon a tree, which, itself incapable of feeling, might yet effectually serve as a sign and warning to men. He will allow no single exception to the rule of grace and love. When He blesses, it is men; but when He smites, it is an unfeeling tree.” Trench, Miracles, pp. 25-26.
108 “The word commonly employed of our Lord’s gracious acts is heal, but now and again the word is save (to make sound or whole), pointing to a connection between the restoration of afflicted bodies and the saving of the soul. The Lord came to redeem the whole man. Not infrequently the healing of the body was closely linked to a pronouncement of forgiveness of sins, as in the case of the paralytic who was brought by his four friends (Mk. 2:1-12). The Savior bore men’s sickneases and infirmities in the days of public ministry, and their sins he bore at its close.” Harrison, A Short Life of Christ, p. 117.
109 Geldenhuys, for example, states, “Just as it was impossible for that ship, with the Redeemer of the world on board, to founder, no matter how many storms broke over it, so it is equally impossible for the church of Christ, the body of which He Himself is the Head and Preserver, ever to be destroyed, notwithstanding all the forces of hell that continually assail it.” Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), pp. 252-253.