A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.
24th July 2009
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Preaching through 1 Corinthians 12-14 raises numerous questions about miracles.
Our modern culture has been dominated by the wonders of machinery since the industrial revolution. We know the power of explaining everything in terms of cause and effect. Any apparent interruption in the machinery of creation disturbs our explanation.
Such interruptions set up a disturbance between our belief in the Creator and our belief in the orderliness of creation. If the Creator is interfering with the creation, then our sense of security in the stability of our world is undermined. We cannot be sure that tomorrow will be the same as today. We cannot be sure that the same cause will have the same effect. Science and technology are built on the basis of this consistent orderliness of the created world. Miracles seem to be a challenge to our whole way of thinking.
If the Creator creates creation and then leaves it alone like a well-oiled machine to function as it has been created, we can get on with our work of understanding the machinery of creation. But if God continues to interfere with it, then we are unable to master it, for it has become unpredictable.
Thus for generations, those Christians most influenced by modern thought have been keen to downplay the miracles of the Bible and the possibility of miracles today. All manner of explanation have been given for the miraculous. It is said that Jesus did not walk on water but in the shallows; that he shamed the five thousand men into sharing their bread; and that Lazarus was not dead but in a coma.
In reaction to hardcore naturalistic explanations of the world, a more ‘spiritual’ explanation has arisen in our society. New age bookshops and alternative medicine claim a large and growing market. There is a new openness to magic, fantasy and science fiction. For many people it is not fiction.
Those Christians most influenced by this reaction to naturalism emphasize the miracles of the Bible and of today. “A spiritual war for the soul of humans fought out by demons and spirits” is an attractive alternative explanation to the godless conspiracy theories of fantasy science fiction. Furthermore there is the reality of what Jesus did and what we can see happening around us today.
But the Bible has a different view of God and the world to that of naturalism and reactionary spiritualism. The miracles of the Bible are not viewed as a suspension of the fixed laws of cause and effect. Some of them like the crossing of the Red Sea are even explained in terms of ‘natural’ causes without diminishing for a moment their status as a miracle. Within the Bible the creation is not a self-sustaining machine but is personally upheld, in all its details, by God. He, not the creation, is our security and stability.
Within the Bible the miracles point to God, not to prove his existence but to indicate his plans and purposes. Some are indications of his judgement upon human sinfulness. Some are to rescue people from the consequences of the fallen world in order to show God’s love and faithfulness. The important thing about miracles is not their sheer wonder and amazement but their significance. Little wonder John calls them “signs”.
The miracles of Jesus and the apostles often have particular significance. John tells us that his reason for choosing to record the signs that he does is “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ” (John 20:31). Jesus’ actions revealed that he was the Christ as he displayed his Father’s glory of grace and truth (John 1:14).
More specifically, Jesus’ signs fulfilled the Old Testament expectations of the Christ. So he replaced the symbolic water of legal cleanliness with the spiritual wine of new life. He was the prophet like Moses feeding the multitude in the wilderness and walking ahead of them across the sea. Jesus was glorified in demonstrating he was the resurrection and the life in raising his friend, Lazarus.
Similarly the Apostles’ miracles carry significance beyond the mere fact of God’s power. These symbols of salvation and inclusion in the kingdom show the lame man entering the temple, the eunuch being baptised, the salvation of the Samaritans and the Gentiles, the miraculous inclusion of pagans in Lystra and the conversion of magicians in Ephesus.
The miracles happened because God is God. He is the sovereign ruler of the universe for whom nothing is impossible. They can happen today just as they happened at the time of Jesus. We must not exclude from God the power and possibility of doing anything consistent with his character and revealed will.
However, miracles show us what God did, not what he will do. They do not tell us whether he will do the same or similar or even different miracles today. Only the clear promises of God will tell us what he is planning to do and what we should expect to see.
We know that it is an evil and adulterous generation that seeks signs and so Jesus refused to provide miracles on request or to trust people who believed because of miracles (Matthew 16:1-4, John 2:23-25). Furthermore to avoid sidetracking his ministry Jesus withdrew from doing miracles (Mark 1:35-39, John 7:1-9). He even warned us of false prophets and unbelievers who could perform miracles (Mark 13:22, Matthew 7:21-23). So the performing of miracles, even in the life of Jesus was not continuous and “on demand”.
After all, Jesus did not ultimately come into the world to perform miracles but to save sinners.