More On Miracles

Miracles will not always lead to faith:

I just recently wrote a piece on signs and wonders. In it I asked whether the miraculous normally leads non-Christians to faith, and believers to greater faith. I argued that the biblical evidence was mixed: sometimes miracles did have this effect, sometimes not.

I said that we must seek to get the biblical balance: neither denying that God can do miracles, even today, nor insisting that we can snap our fingers and get God to show up with the fireworks. Whenever we want. The short version of that piece would go like this: I am not a gung-ho cessationist and I certainly am not a gung-ho name-it-and-claim-it proponent.

But the issue of whether or not miracles routinely produce faith is worth exploring a bit further. Some Christians, including many promoting the Health and Wealth/Word of Faith gospel argue that things like healing miracles will lead many to salvation.

But a closer look at the gospel accounts seems to dispel this idea. What we find instead is a mixed bag. Yes, sometimes people do come to saving faith when they encounter Jesus and the miraculous. Some examples (just from the gospel of John) would include these:

“This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.” (John 2:11)

“Still, many in the crowd put their faith in him. They said, ‘When the Christ comes, will he do more miraculous signs than this man?’” (John 7:31)

“Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” (John 11:45 – after the raising of Lazarus)

“So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.” (John 12:10-11)

Other passages however inform us that faith will not always be generated as a result of exposure to miracles. Luke 16:19-31 for example tells the story of the rich man in hell who wanted to warn his brothers of impending judgement with a messenger from the grave. He was told in verse 31 however that “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”.

Those who, because of unbelief and worldliness, will not heed God’s written word will not easily be moved by a miracle, even a resurrection miracle. As Norval Geldenhuys comments:

“These last words of the parable were undoubtedly uttered by the Saviour with a view to His own resurrection. The sign for which the Jews had so often asked would be given by His resurrection, but He knew that even this would not move the worldly-minded to a saving faith in Him. And this was abundantly proved by the actual course of events.”

Consider also Matthew 13:53-57 where we find these words:

And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

And just one more passage, this from John 12:36-39 about the unbelief of the people:

When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

Image of Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study
Jesus the Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study by Twelftree, Graham H. (Author) Amazon logo

So the biblical data on this is mixed. As Marianne Meye Thompson notes concerning John’s gospel, “it is difficult to detect a systematic understanding of the relationship between signs and faith” Or as Graham Twelftree said in his quite helpful 1999 volume, Jesus the Miracle Worker: “Miracles in themselves neither create faith nor dispel doubt. Rather, they confirm a person’s position in relation to Jesus.” (BTW, two more key volumes by him that you should be aware of are his 1993 Jesus the Exorcist and his 2007 volume, In the Name of Jesus.)

Thus miracles as an evangelistic tool may be of limited use. Indeed, as the above-mentioned episode of unbelief at Nazareth shows, those who are already hardened with unbelief have forfeited the right to any more demands for signs and wonders. Jesus will not perform miracles for them in order to counteract their unbelief.

Robert Guelich, examining the parallel passage Mark 6:1-6 describes the relationship between faith and miracle:

Jesus did not come as a magician or a miracle worker to display and dazzle his audience. His “words” and his “work” were from God (cf. 6:2). Those who rejected this inherent claim in his ministry could not experience God’s redemptive work on their behalf. Therefore, while faith does not represent the necessary cause of the effect of the miracle, miracles do not take place in the absence of faith.

Jesus’ use of miracles then, was not meant simply to lead people to faith. If it were, he was not very successful. In this sense his display of the miraculous was much like his use of parables: those who were seeking would find, but those whose hearts were hardened would go away empty-handed.

As Craig Blomberg remarks “Jesus never works a miracle solely to benefit himself. He shows no interest in the merely spectacular and, indeed, regularly refuses to give a sign to satisfy skeptics.” The skeptics could see miracle after miracle, yet continue in disbelief. And as F.F. Bruce observed, “while the healing miracles did serve as signs of the kingdom of God to those who had eyes to see, they did not compel belief in those who were prejudiced in the opposite direction.”

The gifts or the giver?

While there is nothing amiss in wanting to receive good things from the hand of Jesus, it is possible to want just the benefits, and not the person giving those benefits. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, “The gift without the giver is bare.” How many times did the crowds follow Jesus, not so much to hear and obey his teachings, but to get some material benefit from this miracle worker?

Various passages can be mentioned here. One comes from Mark’s gospel. In the story about the crowds who follow Jesus (3:7-12) we are told that he was besieged by the masses in the hopes of obtaining healing. The motivation, in other words, was not so much to soak up his teaching as to receive the benefits of his miracle working power. Says R. T. France:

“Mark is enough of a realist to recognize that it was primarily the hope of physical and spiritual deliverance which motivated the crowds to gather from far afield. They have not come out of pure disinterested concern to hear the message of the kingdom of God, but to witness and to benefit from his power in healing (v. 10) and exorcism (vv. 11-12).”

Or as James Edwards puts it in his commentary on Mark: “The sizable crowd attracted by Jesus’ fame is again an ambivalent force, providing both an opportunity and impediment to Jesus’ teaching and ministry. . . . The crowd is a paradox. Its needs command Jesus’ attention, and Jesus is fully attentive to the misery present in its numbers, but its clamor is not a response of faith”.

Other texts can be cited. After Jesus performed the miracles of the loaves and the fishes (as recorded in John 6), the disciples soon thereafter were grumbling among themselves, and Jesus had to rebuke them: “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!  The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe” (vv. 62-64).

Indeed, we are informed in verse 66 that from this time many disciples stopped following Jesus. Says G. R. Beasley-Murray, “The crowds who wanted to make Jesus king melt away when he makes it plain that his kingdom is not of this world, and the disappointed disciples who cannot stomach his teaching join them. P. J. Temple comments: ‘Those who wanted a temporal king who would give them food for the body turned their backs on the King’s Son when he promised a banquet truly royal for the soul’.”

The ability of miracles and the meeting of need to point people in the wrong direction is a common experience, even among God’s people. Missionaries have long complained about “rice Christians” – those who give allegiance to Christ more for the material benefits to be accrued than any spiritual benefit. The story of the bread and fishes, and the wrong reaction to it, as recorded in John 6, is repeated throughout church history.

D. A. Carson’s comments on the passage are applicable to every generation: “[The crowd’s] attention was focused on food (v. 26) and victory (v. 15) – not on divine self-disclosure mediated through the incarnate Son, not on the Son as the bread of life, not on a realistic assessment of their own need.”

So care is needed here. As I said in my previous piece, there is certainly a place for signs and wonders, and many people either become Christians as a result of witnessing these things, or they can be greatly strengthened in their faith as a believer.

But as always this can be a two-edged sword. We can come to rely upon and give all our devotion to miracles, instead of the miracle-worker. If so, we have the wrong priorities.

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2 Replies to “More On Miracles”

  1. Bill, what are your impressions of the relevance of William Paley’s classic Natural Theology (1802) to this debate? I first read it when I was a student nurse, many long years ago, but it makes a good and relevant case in this context. Our God is an intricate and complex Designer and thus, He makes it evident in the natural world, to be discerned through scientific insight into his Creation.

    I know it’s one of the benchmark works of intelligent design creationism these days, but I have always found it to mean that a loving, merciful and compassionate God provides evidence of His loving intervention in our lives through providing latent scientific discoveries to await our scrutiny and benefit us. Would either of our beloved late spouses have been able to stay with us for as long as they did without that great blessing and mercy from our Lord and Saviour, to say nothing of the committed, continual loving involvement of hospice staff, for which I daily thank God?

    To those who expect supernatural intervention on a constant basis- I’m not ruling it out either, but, our Lord and Saviour is with us in the little things as well as the grand ones. Look for Him there.

  2. Thanks Rhona. Although the topic you raise is not quite what this post is about, a few very quick replies. Natural theology is a very large topic, and the term can be used in different ways. In some senses, the biblical Christian can only take natural theology so far. It brings up the differences between general and special revelation. The former – as per Romans 1-2 – gives fallen mankind enough knowledge and understanding to condemn us, to show us our need and our guilt (via creation and conscience), but not enough to save us. For the latter we do need divine revelation, specifically Christ and Scripture. But that theological, philosophical and apologetics topic is quite complex and has long been debated by believers and cannot here be fully and finally resolved.

    As for small and daily mercies and blessings from all sorts of sources, sure, that happens all the time. But that too is a somewhat different issue again from what I discussed in my piece, and what you raised re Paley. However, as sometimes happens, a comment will spur me on to do a whole article, which I just did. So if you are interested in more on this, see here:

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