The door burst open and in rushed the shammes, his eyes alight with holy fervor. Rabbi!” he shouted, upon entering the tzaddik’s study. “A cripple just approached the bimah, laid his hand on the Torah and threw his crutches away! I witnessed the whole thing!”
The rabbi, a Hassid known throughout Lithuania as a wonder worker, jumped up from his chair and raised his hands heavenward. “A miracle from heaven!” he cried, his face aglow with spiritual rapture. “But where is the man now?”
“Lying in the aisle,” answered the shammes. “The poor man fell on his tuchus!”
(condensed from The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor, edited by Henry D. Spaulding; Jonathan David Publishers, New York; 1969; p. 81)
If the purpose of jokes is to lighten our hearts in the midst of tragedy, it is no wonder that the subject of miracles has its place in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor. Considering our heritage and the many miracles God performed for our ancestors, it is indeed tragic that those miracles are now viewed by many as no more than myths, legends, or ancient evidence of a God who once cared for us but hasn’t done much to prove it lately. Those who do not know God may try to ease their pain by laughing at their own unfulfilled expectations, but the joke raises a serious question for us who know the Lord: do we really believe in miracles?
Do We Believe in Miracles?
Many find it difficult to accept the possibility of the miraculous while others are convinced that we should always “expect a miracle.” Our own experiences can mislead us either way.
Those who are skeptical may be attempting to guard themselves or others from disappointment or deception, perhaps because that is what they have experienced in the past.
Have you ever asked God to perform a miracle, such as healing a terminally ill family member? Was that family member healed? If not, then maybe you are skeptical of miracles because your hope in the miraculous has led to disappointment and despair. This is understandable and yet we must be careful lest such skepticism cause us to doubt God and rob us of the joy of knowing he is at work in our lives.
On the other hand, our experiences can produce emotions that cause us to see “miracle-mirages,” to think we see a miracle where in fact there is none. Remember Mottel the tailor in “Fiddler on the Roof?” Upon his engagement to Tseitel, Tevya’s oldest daughter, Mottel runs through the woods exclaiming, “Wonder of wonders! Miracle of miracles!” He recounts many of the miracles of our Jewish people in times past: our deliverance from Egypt, the walls of Jericho, the slaying of Goliath, etc. But to Mottel the tailor, the most miraculous one of all is that God made him a man and is giving him a bride in Tseitel.
For Mottel the tailor the “miracle” was an improbable wish that had come true. The match required no divine display, no suspension of the laws of nature, yet for Mottel it provided a reminder that God cared enough to bring unexpected blessing. In his euphoria, receiving his heart’s desire seemed like a miracle. Or perhaps Mottel felt that in his impoverished state and homely appearance, becoming engaged to Tseitel truly was a miracle! Maybe you have received some unexpected blessing in which God’s grace is so plain that you cannot help but feel it is a miracle.
So whether or not we accept the miraculous may be influenced to a large extent by our own experience, or lack thereof. But our committed belief in the reality of the living God (or lack thereof) can also play a deciding role in how we view miracles.
In discussing this issue, we also need to realize that the word miracle may mean different things to different people. It isn’t possible to be comprehensive in defining supernatural events, but for the sake of clarity we can describe some of the things we do and don’t mean when referring to miracles.
What Is a Miracle?
Our Jewish tradition uses some broad strokes in painting a picture of the miraculous. Rabbis have taught that the regular order of daily life is a miracle. This is clearly stated in our Siddur (prayer book). In the Amidah for the daily prayer service we read, “For your miracles that are with us every day; and for your wonders and favors in every season evening, morning and afternoon.”1
Yet the idea that all of life can be considered one gigantic miracle which God is continuously performing raises confusion about the meaning of specific miraculous events. Why speak of the miracles in Egypt or at Mount Carmel or even the miracles Yeshua performed, if the rising of the sun each day is just as much a miracle? There is no doubt that God is involved in the rising and setting of the sun, the changing seasons, the cycle of birth, and in fact, in every aspect of creation. But it is more appropriate to use the word “providence” when discussing the Lord’s presence and power which is daily made manifest in his creation and in his dealings with us. Providence is God’s continuing care for and involvement with all existing things; it is the provision he makes for us and for the carrying out of his will in this world.
God’s providence should be no less a source of wonder and amazement for us than his miracles. And God’s care for us goes beyond providence as we see specific answers to prayer. Many people claim that God has performed “small miracles” for them: the highly unlikely parking spot in just the right place, the abnormally quick recovery from the flu, or the ability to quit smoking or drinking without the anticipated cravings or withdrawal symptoms. These are what I would call phenomenal answers to prayer. Let me give you an example. This is a story of Ilana, a Jewish believer who has known the Lord for fourteen years:
I was brought up Reform and kinda lost my way. My sister-in-law was a believer and tried to talk to me about Yeshua. I was headstrong and would not listen.
Due to a mix-up in paperwork the army, where my husband was employed, deducted $600 from his pay. I didn’t work and we needed every penny of his pay. As I walked down the field, I spoke to God as I was known to do. Well, this time I said, ‘If Jesus is really Your Son—give me back the $600.’ When I got home, I found a check in the mailbox for exactly the amount of money the Army had taken. It was a settlement from a car wreck I had seven years before and had forgotten about.
It may be coincidence, but it was enough for me. This turned my life around.
Judas turned in Yeshua for 20 pieces of silver. God ‘bought’ me for $600. It sounds weird and illogical, but by the very sense that it is not logical no one can convince me that Yeshua is not the Messiah.
God told me and I believe it and that’s that.
Now that’s what I call a phenomenal answer to prayer! Perhaps you have had a similar experience.
These answers to prayer are occasions to praise God. They stand as testimonies to the fact that God hears our petitions. They go beyond providence because they demonstrate in a personal way God’s involvement and his loving care in arranging the circumstances of our lives. Yet I would not call even these phenomenal answers to prayer miracles.
Perhaps the simplest definition of a miracle is C. S. Lewis’s “an interference with nature by supernatural power.”2
Lewis indicates that in order for an event to qualify as a miracle, it must be contrary to or beyond the realm of what could possibly naturally occur. The Bible gives us examples of such events: Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of salt, manna coming from heaven on every day but the Sabbath; Elijah’s calling down fire from heaven. These events were clearly outside of the natural order of things. Or what shall we say of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead even after his flesh had begun to stink? And Jesus’ own resurrection to a body that was no longer subject to death’s decay is the greatest miracle ever witnessed by any human being.
We who believe the Bible and know God is real recognize his providence as well as his personal care for us in those occasions whereby, as Corrie Ten Boom said, “God raises the level of the impossible.” But if we believe in God, we must also be willing to accept that he who created the universe is certainly able to “interrupt” at will the order that he created.
Skepticism or Unbelief?
We should believe in miracles because we believe in God (and some of us also believe in miracles because we have witnessed them), but we must expect to face some skepticism. When it comes to the unsaved, we have to remember that true skeptics have a real question in their mind as to whether or not they should believe. If they are really questioning, they will be open to God’s answer in whichever way he chooses to show them. If they are not true skepttics, they might seek to perpetuate an appearance of objectivity by raising doubts about God’s activity in our lives and asking questions they think are yet unanswered. But for those people, there are no real answers, for they have no real questions.
Yeshua declared that his miracles were evidence of his deity. Those who rejected his claims, though they had witnessed the miracles, took up stones to stone him. Yeshua said, “I showed you many good works (i.e. miracles) from the father; for which of them are you stoning me?”
Brothers and sisters, things have not changed all that much. Presented with the evidence and answers to their questions, how can today’s skeptic or cynic respond? They can either accept the evidence or doggedly attempt to explain it away while searching for other questions to ask and other doubts to raise. If they persist in doing the latter, they are no longer an objective skeptic but a committed unbeliever.
What about skepticism in the believer regarding miracles, particularly miracles today? We walk a fine line here, for we cannot allow skepticism to cast doubt on who God is. His all-powerful sovereignty dictates that miracles must always be a possibility. On the other hand, there is a sense in which skepticism can be healthy.
In preparing for this issue of the Mishpochah Message we invited you all to send in accounts of any miraculous healings that have taken place in your lives. We also asked that independent verification be provided for these healings. We received a number of inspiring testimonies. Yet there was no one who had an instance where a medical test had been made to diagnose a condition with a corresponding test made later to show that a healing took place that was contrary to the laws of nature. One person on a regular mailing list (who does not receive the Mishpochah Message) claimed to have a healing where a diagnosis was made and recorded (bone cancer) and that tests were done after the alleged healing showing that the cancer had disappeared. In fact, the person explained that the doctor himself had been healed of cancer. When we called to verify this with the doctor whose name had been supplied, he was quite adamant in telling us that he had no idea what we were talking about and that he didn’t “hold to that sort of thing.” Sadly, this type of experience is all too common.
When a good friend of mine, a Jewish believer who is a medical doctor, heard that we were considering miracles for this article he wrote a word of caution. Apparently my friend had done some personal investigation to verify the miracles in a number of books written concerning signs and wonders. He read the books thinking that God might be calling him into a healing ministry, but to his dismay he found each of the instances where healing was claimed to be questionable. My friend knows and loves the Lord and believes that God works in the lives of people today. He believes in the miracles of the Bible and believes that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. His caution was based on his own experience and training as a medical doctor as well as the conclusions he drew from researching various believer’s claims to the miraculous.
This does not mean that some of you have not experienced miraculous healing! But such miracles are not commonplace. I know I would do well to take seriously his note of caution. Proper questioning of claims to the miraculous is not a sign of unbelief; truth is never threatened by honest questioning.
Miracles: Can We Expect Too Much?
While some people (even believers) may be in danger of missing out on God’s blessings because of their unbelief, many have an opposite problem. They emphasize the importance of miracles to a level that is unhealthy for their faith and story. Sometimes they are so hungry for the reality of God in their lives that they are willing to call things miracles when they are not. If we lower the standard of what we consider the miraculous in our lives, we not only tend to delude ourselves, but we can also cast a cloud over the case for the lordship of Yeshua in the eyes of unbelievers.
An overemphasis on miracles usually reflects one of two false teachings: that miracles are sufficient to produce faith or that faith is sufficient to produce miracles.
Some people believe that miracles are the most effective means of convincing unbelievers of the gospel truth. Have you ever thought that if only God would perform a miracle of great significance to your family then certainly they would believe in Yeshua? After all, look at the Gospel of John. It includes numerous miracles that Yeshua worked in the presence of others. John wrote, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). Does this mean that Jesus’ miracles are to reach through time into the heart of the unbelieving reader and produce faith?
Certainly many came to believe based on the miracles Yeshua performed, but Yeshua himself did not entrust himself to those who believed in him because of the signs he performed.
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did But Jesus did not commit himself to them, because he knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for he knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25). Those who were closest to Yeshua were drawn to him and followed him because he was true:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
John 6:68, 69
What about the story of Ilana? Does her coming to faith after a phenomenal answer to prayer make her a second-class believer? Not at all! God in his wisdom knew the best way to confront her skepticism, and in his grace he made himself known in the circumstances of her life. But he also knew that her heart was ready to receive the truth. Another person might have explained the $600 away as coincidence. We spoke to Ilana before including her story. She is very much aware that while God used an unusual means of bringing her to faith, that one answer to prayer would not have been sufficient for her to keep her commitment to the Lord.
Miracles are experiences which can be building blocks for faith; they can act to get our attention or to confirm something which we are already willing to believe, but they will never do as the foundation. And if experiences are the building blocks, then Scripture is the mortar which holds our faith together.
Ultimately our faith must be based on truth of the gospel miracle: that Jesus the Messiah died for our sins and rose from the dead on the third day according to Scripture. We must reject the notion that other miracles, signs and wonders are necessary for effective evangelism. Remember the words of “doubting” Thomas who declared, “Unless I shall see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my fingers into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). After Thomas recognized the Lord, Yeshua said, “Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believe” (John 20:27-29). That is still true today.
The only supernatural act required to bring our families to faith is the working of the Holy Spirit to open their eyes, to soften their hearts and to unstop their ears that they might receive him. For that miracle we must pray without ceasing.
Equally erroneous is the notion that faith produces miracles. God produces miracles, and he is not a machine to be operated by our faith. We are seriously mistaken if we think verses like Matthew 17:20 mean that if we believe hard enough, God will do whatever we wish. Having faith means a joining of our mind and our heart to God’s. It means accepting his truth as our reality. Faith does not give us control. It allows us to accept God’s control. It is not channeling God’s power for our purposes. It is believing and submitting to his power for his purposes.
Nor can we insist that we will get our miracle based on the idea that it will glorify God. God will glorify himself. If we want to glorify him (and we certainly should want to glorify him!) we can do that every day by obeying him. I believe that God indeed performs miracles to glorify himself. But we cannot count on a miracle merely because we have believed hard enough and promised to give him the glory. It is all too easy for us to deceive ourselves: to want something so badly that we are convinced that God has promised it to us, to claim it in faith, and then have to deal with the disappointment when we don’t get what we thought God promised.
I have a dear friend whose mother recently died. Her mother was a believer in Yeshua, yet in her grief over the loss of her mom, my friend is angry with God. She is doubting her faith and questioning the Savior’s love. Her mother had been ill for several years, so death did not come suddenly. Yet it came as a surprise to my friend because she had led herself to believe that God would heal her mother. She had asked God for a sign that he would heal her mother and believed God had given her that sign. She was wrong.
I don’t want to minimize the very natural grief and sense of loss my friend is going through, nor her real need to feel pain and sorrow over her loss. Yet I can’t help but think that she is missing out on the hope and joy that she might experience as a believer, knowing that her mother is with the Lord. The Bible tells us that “this perishable must put on imperishable, this mortal must put on immortality.” For those of us in Christ, death is swallowed up in victory. If we focus too much on healing miraacles, we can change the experience of death from a triumphal entry into heaven to a defeat that causes us to leave the field of battle. To live is Christ, but brothers and sisters, to die is such greater gain than any temporary healing could bring. Let’s not set ourselves up for such disappointment by believing for miracles God never promised us.
To believe and claim miracles is not wrong. Yet our insistence upon the miraculous can sometimes be a sign of spiritual weakness. Yeshua said, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Matthew 12:39). The religious leaders of Yeshua’s day had demanded that he give them a sign. He refused to accede to their wishes. God does not need to prove anything to anyone. He is the sovereign Lord of creation! And he has already revealed himself to us by sending his son to die and rise again from the dead. This is the sign of Jonah. We need no further demonstrations of his love and care, though God in his grace and sovereign timing is sometimes pleased to provide them.
Yet many people talk of “their miracle” as though it somehow elevates their spiritual status, shows how important they really are. A hunger for the miraculous is sometimes an indictment of our faithlessness and an immature need for reassurance. That reassurance can be found in God’s Word and in his providential care for us.
If Miracles Are Possible Today, Why Don’t We See More of Them?
Miracles come infrequently as a divine surprise. Though many miracles occurred in Bible times, remember that the Bible was written over 1500 years and spans a time of at least 3000 years. There were long periods of time in Bible history when no miracles were recorded. We pray for God to perform miracles. Sometimes he does, but more often he does not. Why?
I will not venture a definitive answer to the question of why we do not see more miracles, but I have a couple of thoughts. First, God in his grace knows that we would be destroyed by too many miracles.
God is the creator of the natural order. As finite creatures, we are unable to cope with an inconsistent universe. If miracles became common, life for us would become a theater of the absurd. Our sanity would not be able to withstand the frequent suspension of “normal” reality. Our expectations would be constantly raised and lowered and moral chaos would ensue. Should we work for food or look for manna? Should we stop taking our children to the doctor? Should we quit our jobs and go sit on a mountain waiting to hear the Savior’s voice? If we don’t hear his voice audibly or see a visible manifestation of his glory, should we be seeking someone else who has?
There is also a potentially devastating matter of responsibility and accountability regarding miracles. Think of the many miracles God performed when he brought us out of Egypt. Remember the short memories of our people? Remember the grumbling, the golden calf, etc.? In the days characterized by miracles, people were frequently “zapped” by God, struck dead or fatally ill. Judgment is very harsh for those who have seen such concrete evidence of God’s reality and do not respond in obedience. Sometimes God is merciful in not showing the hard-hearted ones his miracles because of the condemnation that follows a lack of responsiveness.
These reasons fit the big picture, but might sound hard-hearted when it comes to the people who just want one small miracle: the couple who have been told they can never bear children and cannot understand why their prayers for a miracle child have not been answered. Or what about the mother who prays that her terminally ill child will be healed, or the children in the Middle East who are praying that the killing will stop? We don’t need a multitude of miracles, just a few here and there. Why are they so rare?
We need to realize that there is another question behind that question, and it is a big one: Why does an all-powerful God allow so much suffering in the world? That is really what the person who just wants one or two miracles is asking. And we only have the answer in part. We don’t know why God intervenes to alleviate some of the suffering and allows other suffering to run its “natural” course.
We do know that some of the suffering in our lives is intended as opportunity for victory—not through a miracle, but through the testing of our faith which produces patience. By letting God see us through the suffering, our faith is strengthened, and we will be whole (James 1).
We also know that the purpose of God’s miracles is not to make a heaven here on earth, or to transform our problems into paradise. God’s miracles point to something other and something better. He wants people to be homesick for heaven and to long for his presence instead of the world and its enticements. In order for that to happen we must know the world for what it is: a place of sin and rebellion which causes suffering for the innocent as well as the guilty.
It would be wrong to say that God enjoys allowing pain or suffering. It would be wrong to say that we fully understand why he does not prevent it. But it is right to say that God is good, and that we ought to trust him.
What Should We Believe About Miracles?
We cannot know God’s purposes completely. But we can know that he has revealed himself in certain miraculous ways throughout history. He commanded us to record and recite those miracles from generation to generation. God has placed certain landmark miracles in history so that we might recognize and participate in his redemptive plans and glorify him for accomplishing his purposes. We know that this is so in the history of the Jewish people and in the history of the early church and we know that it will be so again when the prophecies of the Second Coming of Yeshua are fulfilled.
I believe that miracles do happen today, perhaps more often than we might know, yet not as often as many might claim. God has answered some of my prayers in such a way and at such a time that I cannot help but believe it is a miracle. Other prayers have gone unanswered—or as some might put it, have been answered in the negative. Let me illustrate what I mean.
Patti just gave birth to our second child, Ilana Michelle. It was a difficult pregnancy for Patti. During her last trimester she developed sciatica, a painful condition in her leg caused by the position of the baby pressing down on a nerve. It became difficult for her to sleep at night and she had to walk with a cane during the day. This condition lasted for several weeks. One night while we were at the Jews for Jesus West Coast Ingathering, she was in so much pain that she barely slept at all. The next morning, I called our two-year-old, Isaac, over and the two of us laid hands on Patti’s leg. We prayed that God would heal her. Without any fanfare or outward sensation, God answered our prayer. From that moment Patti had no more pain in her leg and the condition never returned. Nevertheless several weeks later Patti developed bronchitis. Because she was still carrying the baby, she was very limited in what kind of medication she could take. She coughed so hard that she strained the muscles around her ribs. When she tried to lay down she went into coughing spasms, so she had to try to sleep sitting up. Once again, Isaac and I prayed. We asked the Lord to heal her, but as I write to you Patti still has bronchitis. We will keep praying, but I will not doubt my God because he has not yet healed her of bronchitis. Nor will I cease to be thankful for his healing her sciatica. We must not stop praising God for the wonders he has done because we are disappointed about the wonders he has not done!
When we ask ourselves if we really believe in miracles, for those of us who know the Lord the answer must be a resounding “yes!” If we have been truly born again then certainly we have already experienced the miraculous. We have been joined to the Lord of creation, who interrupted nature by his miraculous birth, and conquered death by his astounding resurrection.
Beyond that, we may or may not witness a miracle in our lifetime. We should never deny the possibility of a miracle. Remember, the Almighty is not confined to our ideas of what is possible. Nor should we expect God to prove his love to us or validate our faith by suspending the laws of nature.
God reveals himself both through miracles and through the manifold acts of his providence. Somewhere between providence and miracle we find the reality of God’s daily presence in our lives, and that is where we must anchor our souls. We draw strength in those times when our own efforts are exhausted and all we can do is pray and watch our heavenly Father intervene in the affairs of our lives to accomplish his purposes. This is the reality we seek: more of God, less of ourselves. Whether we see him through providence, phenomenal answers to prayer or miracles—let’s let him decide. The sign we should seek is the sign of his coming, the wonder we can experience daily is his transforming power that makes us more like Yeshua.
- The Complete Art Scroll Siddur, Mesorah Publications Ltd; Rabbi Nossin Sherman, ed. New York, 1984; p. 113.
- Miracles, C.S. Lewis; Macmillan, New York, 1947; p.5.