Revisiting the purpose of miracles in the Gospels and how to talk about them

Many of you are quite busy and won’t read everything below, so here is a summary:
Jesus is miraculous (in the past and now); however, when we teach Jesus’ miracle stories in the Gospels, we usually miss the real point: they are signs of Jesus’ divinity (proof that Jesus is God). We often attempt to utilize Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels as a magical formula to fix our problems, and this creates problems with discipleship (and, more broadly, the gospel that we preach). My solution: read the miracles in the Gospels and look to see the impact they had on those who were present in the stories: preach for the same goal that Jesus had on his audience.
If you are interested, keep reading…
*Also special thanks to my email subscribers who gave me some great initial feedback and constructive input on this. Based on their input, I’d like to add two comments: When Jesus did a miracle in the Gospels, he was also often doing many other important things, like showing God’s compassion, love, and care for people. One last bit: I believe the miracles done in the book of Acts by Jesus’ followers are a continuation of the same theme (to witness to the divinity of Jesus), see Acts 1:8.

Warning, what you are about to read is a bit heady, theological, and probably difficult to swallow – the approach is, however, necessary in order to make an important point: By preaching Jesus’ miraculous activity as normative and personalized we can create a false impression of the God of the Bible and path of discipleship that can lead to disillusionment and desertion of the God they were introduced to. In other words, kids will say “yes” to a god that is not in the Bible. That is a pretty big claim, so here we go…
The truthfulness of miracles (historical and modern)
Before I go any further, I know that the tone of this discussion could lead one to believe that I am trying to minimize the historical reliability of Jesus’ miracles in the Bible. Let me be clear: I am fully convinced that Jesus’ miracles in the Bible happened just as they are stated in the Bible. As a Christian, I recognize that I am talking about a transcendent God. I am familiar with the explanations that try to deny the historicity of Jesus’ miracles, and for many reasons, they do not convince me. Further, but perhaps more controversial, I am convinced that Jesus still does miracles. I’ve seen non-physical miracles often, such as people’s lives change, families brought back together, and addictions ended. I’ve also seen a few physical miracles, though infrequently. In my opinion, I have every reason to believe that God still exercises the same miraculous power to heal (with God’s own timing and discretion, which almost always not as frequent as I would wish). Long story short: God really healed people through Jesus and God still does.
The purpose of Jesus’ miracles: to make known his divinity
A good place to look for the purpose of Jesus’ miracles is in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John is organized around seven miracles. These miracles are actually called “signs” by John (Greek: sēmeion, it sounds like the word ‘sign’ in English). There is no word used by the Gospel writers that equates exactly to our modern word “miracle.” Modern English translators use the word “sign” rather than miracle to describe what we often call miracles in our talks, perhaps that should be a hint to their purpose. For instance, at the end of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine, John writes: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11, ESV) Notice John’s two comments about this sign/miracle: first, it manifested God’s glory; second, it caused the disciples to believe in Jesus. Notice what did not happen next: the disciples did not ask for Jesus to create more miraculous wine. The sign/miracle had served its purpose, which had nothing to do with wine-creation. The purpose was to glorify God and bring people to belief in Jesus. One chapter later we meet Nicodemus who says: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2, ESV). Nicodemus had heard about Jesus’ sign/miracle and concluded that God “is with” Jesus. The miracle communicated Jesus’ nature to Nicodemus; note that Nicodemus didn’t say “can you do that again for me Jesus?” Let that soak in for a moment: Jesus’ true/real/factual miracles in the Gospels as signs… that should drive a question in our evangelism: “signs of what?” Answer: Signs that Jesus is divine / Jesus is God.
The response of those healed by Jesus: In awe of Jesus
The response of those who were actually involved in the miracles should help us understand more about the purpose of miracles in the Gospels. Consider the response of the disciples in the boat after Jesus had calmed the storm. Matthew writes: “And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’” (Matthew 8:27, ESV) Notice that the response of the disciples was that they “marveled” as Jesus and were perplexed and fascinated with who Jesus was. It would seem that a straightforward reading and understanding of the miracle of Jesus calming the storm should help us conclude that for those who were actually there, the miracle they witnessed firsthand led them to be in awe of Jesus Christ. I would like to suggest that we don’t change the meaning and purpose of this story into something else. Jesus’ miraculous work to calm the storm is not (primarily, or even secondarily) an invitation for us to brainstorm which “storm” in our lives we want him to fix – Jesus’ miraculous work was intended to later readers (you and me) to become in awe of Jesus.
Consider Matthew’s record of the responses of what we know about those were present at the other miraculous works of Jesus: “she began to serve him” (8:15), “the men marveled” (8:27), “the herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything” (8:33), “they were afraid, and they glorified God” (9:8), “the crowds marveled, saying ‘never was anything like this seen in Israel’” (9:33), “those in boat worshipped him, saying ‘truly you are the Son of God.’” (14:33), “they glorified the God of Israel” (15:31), and “[they] followed him” (20:34). We should hope that in our retelling of the miraculous stories of Jesus people would respond in the same way: marveling at Jesus, wanting to tell others what they heard, glorifying God, worshipping God, and following Jesus.
Jesus’ comments on the nature of his miracles: Don’t seek miracles, seek “me”
Jesus was quickly surrounded by people who wanted to be near him because of his miraculous power (Jn. 6:2). I would too. Trust me, in times when I have needed healing for myself, a friend, or a family member – if I knew Jesus was around the corner, I would want to find Jesus and ask him for help ASAP. At times, especially early in his ministry, Jesus healed all those who came to him for healing (for example, see Lk. 4:40, 6:19, Jn. 4:46-54).
As Jesus’ ministry went on, it seems that Jesus’ attitude toward miracle-seekers started to change- especially for those who did not believe in Jesus, but instead sought miracles as a test for Jesus. For instance, notice Luke’s comment: “others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.” (Luke 11:16, ESV). We should pay specially attention to Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees when they demanded him to produce miraculous signs.
And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven… ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.’ So he left them and departed.” (Matthew 16:1–4, ESV)
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’” (Matthew 12:38–40, ESV)
Why is it that Jesus won’t produce a sign-on-demand for the Pharisees (as well as the Sadducees and scribes; see also Lk. 11:29)? The clue to the reason why Jesus did not produce for them a sign-on-demand is in Jesus’ answer to them: the real sign is the sign of Jonah. The sign of Jonah is a prophetic allusion to Jesus’ resurrection. But, a sign of what? The resurrection is the ultimate sign/miracle of Jesus’ divinity. What Jesus was saying to the Pharisees and others was that he would not produce a sign-on-demand to try to convince them of his divinity (he had already done plenty of miracles); but, he would give them one more ultimate sign/miracle: the resurrection. The Pharisees were evil and adulterous because they did not seek Jesus because they wanted to know God, they wanted to disprove or discredit Jesus so they could retain religious (and political) power. They were like the crowd from the 5000 that Jesus fed who kept following him, Jesus told them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (John 6:26, ESV) Jesus rebuked the crowd because they did not understand that the purpose of feeding the 5000 was a sign to tell them that Jesus is God; instead, they kept following Jesus because of the free food. For them, Jesus was their means to self-preservation, to keep feeling good with minimal effort since Jesus would do what they wanted for them. These people… Jesus rebuked.
The temptation to paint a picture of Jesus as the worker of miracles-on-demand is thick in today’s individualistic consumer driven culture. We have almost no place for a God who doesn’t do what we want. In his book Prophetic Lament, theologian Soong-Chan Rah comments on Israel’s time in exile as an echo we need to hear in our own society: “For a people lacking hope in exile, the false prophets would tempt them with self-serving prophesies of palatable answers… They would operate like vending machines. A vending machine offers a high degree of certainty – you get what you want… In difficult times or times of great challenge, the people of God are tempted to believe solutions that are easy to follow because they align with what they desire.” We need to ask ourselves and our approach to proclaiming Jesus: Is God a means to our own ends or an end in Himself?
A suggestion on how to talk about Jesus’ miracles: Let the text talk for itself [don’t try to spice it up for the crowd]
I know this conversation might sound like I’m trying to paint a picture of Jesus that is like a grumpy uncle who quips: “you’ll get nothing… and, you’ll like it!” No! I’m arguing that what Jesus offers us is so much better than miracles-on-demand! Miracles-on-demand-Jesus is like wanting a boyfriend or girlfriend (or husband or wife) so they can do your laundry or mow the lawn… that is a very shallow view of a relationship… especially a relationship with the Living God of the Universe. Some might find it interesting that modern skeptics of Christianity have tried to explain Jesus’ miracles as magic. Why would they do that? Because there is a world of difference between a magician and a Messiah. Jesus wants to offer us himself, a relationship with the living God, through the gift of the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We want a miracle-button, He offers us His eternal presence. And sometimes… He does a miracle.
OK, so what does this mean? So what? Especially, what does this mean for people, like myself, who frequently get to share the wonderful stories from the Gospels about Jesus’ life on earth? It is very simple: Tell the stories of Jesus’ life. That is it. Let the story talk for itself. As I showed above, the reactions, responses, and next steps of the people who were actually at the miracles of Jesus are right there in the Gospels. Consider inviting people, in response to hearing about Jesus’ miraculous power, to marvel, worship, glorify, follow, and tell others about Jesus Christ: fully God, fully man.