Jesus the Wonder-Worker

The Message Behind the Miracles of Christ

For some very good reasons, we tend to think of the miraculous acts in the Bible as so very extraordinary that they have little to nothing to do with how we ought to live out the Christian Worldview. But, when we look at the nature and intentions behind these works of wonder, we see that there are a great many things which we not only can but must bring into our daily lives.

Such miracles are among the most compelling aspects of Christ’s legacy, but they are also among the most controversial. Reports of His supernatural powers are among the most distinguishing characteristics of the Gospels, but accepting them for what they claim to be carries so high a price that many critics or half-hearted admirers find one way or another to diminish their reality.

For many opposed to His teachings or claims about Himself, finding an counter-explanation for these extraordinary events is a fairly straightforward proposition. Either they deny that they happened, the tactic most commonly employed in recent days, or, as was done more often in ancient times, they claim that His miraculous power flowed from a diabolical source.

This latter complaint takes His abilities at face-value. That is, since they couldn’t deny that He’d done great things, they sought to explain away the implications by saying that He was in league with the devil or merely to silence Him and those He’d healed.

In the case of the Pharisees, they averred that since He couldn’t be who He claimed to be, the Son of God, His powers must be devilish. The Jerusalem priesthood, being rather less keen on such supernatural interventions into their social order, opted instead to “off” the recently resurrected Lazarus. If they couldn’t deny that Lazarus was back among the living, then the best plan was to return him to the realm of the dead.

Other pundits from the ancient world, or of more recent vintage, made similar arguments. Accepting that Jesus must have had some form of amazing skills but unable to tolerate what these powers entailed, they suggested that Christ used the dark secrets of the mysterious East to perform works of magic.

As the more “rational” age of modernity dawned, such compromises with the unscientific past could no longer be tolerated. The erudite scholars of the Enlightenment had no room in their formulations for such unnatural events. Since miracles did not happen in the ordinary course of life, there could be no reason to accept that they happened in the past.

Some, like David Hume, could grant that the miraculous was theoretically possible, but its sheer unlikelihood meant that it was always better to hold that a report of a miracle was false than that it was true. Now, this is, of course, quite silly. The entire point of the miraculous is that they don’t happen every day (a point which Hume grants, to his credit, even if he then moves along in the wrong direction).

In one of my very favorite C. S. Lewis quotes, my hero put the lie to a great many of these enlightened critics of the faith. Using the example of the Virgin Birth, he noted that while there’s no doubt that a modern physician was better informed about human biology, the likes of Mary and Joseph knew perfectly well where babies came from.

Our contemporary scientific knowledge does not require that those who’ve gone before us were credulous fools, eager to find sprites under every toadstool. In many ways, they were more in touch with the nitty-gritty of real life than we are in our sanitized world. They reported that miracles happened not because they thought they were a normal experience but precisely because this kind of thing didn’t happen every day. The unusual nature of these extraordinary events pointed to greater needs and hopes than what humanity in its finite nature could perceive.

When we look at miracles in the Bible, even there in this religious book, we don’t find the magical world of fairy-tales and superheroes, where the magical lurks around every corner. While many Christians of a more charismatic variety expect signs and wonders in our daily lives, the tales of the saints of old reveal no such expectation. In fact, when you glance through the Scriptures, you’ll find that supernatural interventions may be quite real, but they’re also quite rare.

Think about it. Where do you see the miraculous? These events are few and far between, occurring at moments of great transition in redemptive history and which serve to authenticate God’s messengers or, in the case of Christ, God’s presence. These extraordinary moments show up at four basic times: Creation, the Exodus, Elijah & Elisha, and Christ & the Apostles. It’s not that they don’t happen at other times, but in these pronounced periods, there is a special blessing of regular examples of divine interruptions in our story.

While the Creation account in Genesis almost seems like a unique instance, it carries a profound implication for understanding later miracles. If you posit a Being who can by His mere word bring the entire cosmos into existence, a piddly thing like turning a few gallons of water into wine seems like child’s play. With the time of the Exodus, we see Moses and Joshua demonstrating that, unlike the gods of the Egyptians, the God of Israel was more than the petty projection of human imagination. Elijah and Elisha’s ministries stand out from the lives of those like Samuel or Ezekiel. While these latter men saw amazing visions and occasionally witnessed the unusual, with Elijah and his apprentice, the unusual came close to being the expected. These two were used by God to distinguish the reality of the power of Yahweh over against the make-believe nature of Baal.

With the Apostles we see this same pattern. Miracles weren’t just done willy-nilly. They were done at key times in the life of the Early Church to establish that something new had come, that these men were latter-day prophets, calling attention to the long-promised arrival and enduring work of the Messiah. Early on the mere presence of Peter, John, Philip, or Paul could lead to a supernatural healing or even a raising from the dead. However, later on and for most of the book of Acts, the power of God was revealed through the Apostles’ teaching and the invisible work of the Spirit changing people’s lives. Their works of healing the body were meant to remind people of the need to heal their souls. Tangible and temporal needs were important, but fixing these was scratching only the surface of human need.

Even in the life of Christ, the miraculous moment is never about itself. It’s not even, after a fashion, about the person being healed or fed. Instead, the miracles of Jesus pointed to Himself, to the One with the power to perform these great works. Look over the amazing feats which He accomplished in His life. While He worked all sorts of wonders, there is one thing which nearly all of them have in common. We see again and again two concepts: fear and faith. His power as manifested in a miraculous event forced His audience to choose to flee from Him or to trust in Him. Like a light in the darkness, the miracles were not an end to themselves but a means to enable people to see who He was and to confront their need of Him.

Ultimately, Jesus didn’t come to heal the sick, at least not in the way we usually think of it. Yes, without a doubt, wherever He went, Christ had compassion on the hurting people. He loved these sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who were suffering the fate which their First Parents had inflicted upon them, and which they continued to inflict upon themselves. He did heal their temporal and temporary ailments, but His purpose was always to point them to their deeper need. Yes, they needed food and wine and health and life, but more than this they needed Him.

It was not as though once healed of their sicknesses – real and painful effects of the Fall that these might be – that they’d now be in a position to live the life that they’d always wanted. No, they needed to live the life that God had always intended. There was a deeper, more abiding ailment that had laid them lower than they could imagine. The sinful nature which they inherited from their ancestors and which they worked each day to cultivate themselves was a disease so entrenched in their lives that they needed to be shocked into an awareness of its presence and their powerlessness to escape from it. Christ’s surface-level healings and provisions pointed to His power to save us from our far deeper needs.

All else being equal, we lack the power to perform such miracles ourselves. But, the purposes for which God used these extraordinary means still stand as guiding lights as we contemplate our more ordinary works in this world. Our error all too often is to think that our good works are their own end, that our limited actions are the purpose as opposed to the means to point to something bigger still. If even Christ’s wondrous works worked to illuminate our great need and His great salvation, we’ll fail to serve our fellow man if our eyes and intentions are not in the same theocentric place.

One of the fundamental principles of the Christian Worldview is that God is working to restore this Fallen world. It is not the way it’s supposed to be, so He’s embarked upon a grand plan to redeem His honor, His Name, and His Image Bearers. As Christians we are called to work in this world to make it more and more in conformity to His intentions.

The moment we think that it is our good efforts which will solve humanity’s ills, that it’s our pet projects, our political grandstanding, our plots and plans and schemes that will save our world, it’s then that we lose the ability to do so. When we pretend that our reforming efforts are all that we need, it’s then that we will fail to see this redemption accomplished. It’s then that we become just another special interest group, intent on foisting our pet projects on the world by our own all too insufficient power.

In a theological irony, we only help the people around us when we do good to them not for them but for the God who lives above us all. This can sound like a cop out, and sadly it often is. If God is all that matters, then, or so we might be tempted to think, what does it matter whether we do any actual good, just so long as we do it “worshipfully”? We may even wonder if we need to do good works at all if all that matters is the faith behind such works.

As tempting as this might be, and tempting is entirely the appropriate word, it’s also entirely the wrong conclusion. A theocentric view of good works does free us from the sense of responsibility for when things go wrong, but, by making God the center of our efforts, by making it about His glory, His honor, His blessing, we strip away any excuse we might have for cutting and running when things get hard.

By centering our labor on the One who has granted us eternal life, we are empowered and impassioned to work for the good of His world and His image bearers beyond what we could on our own ever desire or they could on their own ever deserve.

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