Even skeptics want to believe in miracles. Most of the people who ventured out to view the legendary emperor in his new clothes sincerely wanted to admire the enchanting” outfit sewn from invisible fabric. All hoped to have eyes to see the amazing garments. Unfortunately, the emperor’s new clothes were a fiction, an unkind trick and a deceit. After the child announced the king’s nakedness, the crowds attested to this sad truth. On the other hand, if the invisible cloth had turned out to be genuine, the three tailors would have had their product verified, and they would have been credited with a miracle.
What is a miracle? Literature professor and author C. S. Lewis offers a definition that may not work for theologians but is illustrative:
“I use the word Miracle to mean an interference with Nature by supernatural power.” (1)
We remember many of these “interferences with nature” as we celebrate the events on the religious calendar. At Hanukkah, we recount the story of the oil that burned in the temple menorah for eight days when there was only enough oil to last for one day. Nes Gadol Haya Sham—A Great Miracle Happened There. At Passover, we sit around the seder table telling the story of our all-powerful God who brought us out of Egypt with signs and wonders. We sing of the miracles of the parting of the Red Sea, the Plagues and the Giving of the Law. The rabbis have said that the purpose for these miracles was “to sanctify His great name in the world.” (2) The Mishnah even provides a blessing to be pronounced on the location of miracles. “If one sees a place where miracles have been wrought for Israel, he should say, blessed be he who wrought miracles for our ancestors in this place.” (3)
In the same matter-of-fact manner, the New Testament records the miracles of Jesus of Nazareth and states that they were seen, experienced and verified. Jesus’ miracles are often seen in light of his claims to be the Messiah.
A Miracle-Working Messiah?
First-century Jews were looking for a Messiah to rescue them from Roman oppression. The fact that the Messiah would have supernatural powers was assumed. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a time when “the eyes of the blind [would] be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped…the lame [would] leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.…” (4)
Although it was assumed that the Messiah would work miracles, the people primarily desired a political leader who would challenge the Roman government. When Jesus accomplished the miracle of multiplying the loaves and the fish to feed five thousand people, the crowds attempted to take Jesus by force to be that political savior. They hoped that he would inaugurate the Kingdom of God. (5)
It is interesting to note that Jesus rejected demonstrations of power designed to prove his messianic role. (6) He also warned people that they should not make public spectacles of healings. (7) It is possible that this could have been a reaction to the people’s high expectation of a political messiah during that period. This might also be why Jesus didn’t use the term messiah in the same way that he used the appellations Son of God and Son of Man. His miracles aside, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (8) and his cleansing of the Temple (9) demonstrated that he was openly and carefully declaring his messiahship. Even Jesus’ disciples had to rethink their interpretations of what the messianic mission was.
Jesus’ miracles might have been a sign that he was a prophet or anointed rabbi but not absolute proof that he was the promised Messiah of Israel.
“The first century expectation of miracle working was not merely limited to the Messiah. Other figures such as ‘prophet’ and ‘divine man’ were regarded as miracle workers. Reports of miraculous events similar to those recounted in the Gospels and [Book of] Acts are found in extra-Biblical literature from both Greek and Jewish cultures. While, in the ancient world, the capacity to work miracles may have added authenticity to one’s teaching,…reports of miracle working power were not unique to Jesus.…Thus…the miracles could not uniquely demonstrate messiahship.” (10)
Even though Jesus’ miracles were not the only biblical proof of his anointing, they were important in confirming his identity; the rabbi Nicodemus knew that Jesus was a teacher “come from God” because of the miraculous signs he performed. (11) His miracles supported the truth of his teaching.
When John the Baptist was in prison, he heard about the words Jesus spoke and the works he was doing. John sent the disciples to ask Jesus if he was “the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus responded by citing the Isaiah 35 passage “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.…”(12)
The New Testament Record
In John’s gospel we read, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (13)
The words signs, wonders and miracles are used interchangeably in the New Testament. The way in which the words are used in the Gospels gives us insight into the purpose of Jesus’ miracles. The only miracle that appears in all four Gospels is the feeding of the five thousand. (14) This sign demonstrated power over nature as well as an understanding of basic human need. Jesus is called “the Bread of Life” in the New Testament. He made the claim that he had the ability to feed all of our needs. Jesus wanted the people’s response to the miracle to be to feed on the “true bread from heaven.” Yeshua wanted people to know that his expression of power was a sign of “the kingdom of God come upon them.” (15)
The relationship of Jesus’ deeds to his words cannot be overlooked. In Matthew chapters 5 through 7, one can see the authority of Jesus’ teachings. It is further displayed in his deeds. The effect is to heighten the emphasis on the uniqueness of Jesus as seen in his authority over illness, the natural elements and spiritual powers.
If the purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to confirm his messiahship and point to his message, then what was his message? One of the clearest examples in conjunction with a miracle is found in Mark 2:1-12. Before Jesus told the paralytic to get up, he proclaimed, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” What was the real miracle here? Was Jesus himself, who spoke with the authority of God although encased in human flesh, the real miracle?
Jesus told the teachers of the Law, “Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk?’ But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” (vv. 9-10).
The Ultimate Miracle
Jesus was not a fame-seeking miracle worker. If Jesus was a man desiring to run for the office of Messiah, he should have lined up parades of healed lepers, cured demoniacs and miraculously fed people led by Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter. He would have been extremely popular if he had changed not only the contents of the Cana cisterns, but also everybody’s water into wine!
Yet he did not try to impress people with his power. On many occasions, he implored the recipients of the miraculous to remain silent.
Unlike the makers of the emperor’s illusory garments, Jesus was for real. His miracles were always married to his message of life and death. At the heart of his messianic mission was the knowledge that he was to suffer and die in order to save people from their sins, not from oppressive Roman rule.
In addressing the people of Israel, God is accredited with these words: “All the miracles and mighty acts which I performed for you were not with the object that you should give Me a reward, but that you should honour Me like dutiful children and call Me your Father.” (16) Was Yeshua merely a miracle worker, or more?
- Lewis, C. S., Miracles: How God Intervenes in Nature and Human Affairs (Collier Books, New York: 1947), p. 5.
- Sifre Deut. 306;132b.
- Soncino Talmud, Berakoth, chapter 9 [54a].
- Isaiah 35:5, 6.
- Ladd, G. E., A Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1974), p. 139.
- Matthew 4:5; 16:1-4.
- Mark 1:43—the leper; 5:43—Jairus’ daughter; 7:36—the deaf and dumb demoniac.
- Zechariah 9:9; Matthew 21:1-11.
- Matthew 21:12-16.
- Allen, Ronald J., Our Eyes Can Be Opened: Preaching the Miracle Stories of the Synoptic Gospels Today (University Press of America, Inc.: 1982), p. 3-4.
- John 3:2.
- Matthew 11:2-6.
- John 20:30,31
- Matthew 14:15-21; Mark 6:35-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:5-13.
- Matthew 12:22-27.
- Exod. R. XXXII.5.