Monday, July 20, 2020

Anonymous Asks (102)

“Do miracles still happen today?”

I guess the answer to this depends on one’s definition of a miracle. For example, some people who are enthusiastic about children refer to the “miracle of life”. I suppose if you are using the word in that sense, then the answer would have to be of course.

The more important thing is how the writers of the Bible use the word “miracle”.

In the New Testament, “miracle” is one of several English words used to translate the Greek dunamis, and refers to a display of supernatural power; something which would not and could not have occurred in the normal order of things. By that standard, physical birth, while a wonderful event, does not really qualify as a biblical miracle.

What Miracles Didn’t Do

Bible miracles often provided tremendous benefits to those who experienced them, but the benefits were never their primary purpose. Parting the Red Sea, bringing water from a rock, turning water into wine, feeding the 4,000 and 5,000, healing the sick, driving out evil spirits or raising the dead all had positive effects on the groups or individuals who experienced the miracles, but they were only temporary fixes to human problems; in some cases very temporary indeed.

For example, Israel benefited greatly by crossing the Red Sea rather than being killed or taken captive by Egyptian soldiers, but many of those same men and women who miraculously escaped Egypt failed to enter Canaan and died in the wilderness. Likewise, water from the rock quenched a nation’s thirst and wine made hearts merry at the wedding in Cana, but Israel moved on from Meribah and needed water from other sources, mostly natural, and while the marriage celebrants surely enjoyed the exceptional vintage produced at Mary’s request, it was very much a one-time experience. The crowds who ate the Lord’s miraculous bread and fish got hungry again the moment they left him. The sick were healed, oppressive spirits driven out, and the dead raised, but all those miraculously healed and delivered people promptly aged, declined and eventually died.

For the recipients of miracles, these moments of grace were a one-time reprieve from the human condition, not a permanent change to it.

What Miracles Did

Since even the most well-attested biblical miracles only ever provided a temporary fix for human hunger, pain, sorrow or distress, we must look elsewhere to find their purpose. The Bible does not make us search too hard. The primary purpose of the New Testament miracles was to draw attention to something more important than physical needs and bodily ailments. These supernatural acts testified repeatedly and emphatically that the Son is the Father’s remedy for the spiritual ills of the human race. The miracles were signs pointing to him and demanding a choice: deliverance or judgment.

Thus, when the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida did not respond to the miracles of Christ by repenting, the Lord’s response was “Woe to you!” Having not accomplished the first purpose for which they were intended, the only purpose for those miracles to serve was to testify against the people of those cities on the day of judgment. Far from being thrilled that he had done great good and healed many of the aches, pains and besetting ills of the citizens of Chorazin and Bethsaida, the Lord was quite dissatisfied with the outcome there. The momentary respite for the beneficiaries of his grace was quite beside the point. Any miracle that did not produce repentance had not done its primary job. We see this again in Nazareth, where the Lord did few “mighty works” because of their unbelief. What was the value of a temporary fix for a physical need that was massively widespread and would inevitably recur in the Lord’s absence, if that temporary fix did not result in a spiritual harvest? The answer: none. Jesus moved on.

The writings of the apostles confirm that the primary purpose of miraculous acts was to serve as testimony to Christ. The miraculous gift of tongues was not primarily given for the enjoyment of Christians, but as a sign for unbelievers. The purpose of tongues was not to produce a euphoric state but to send a divine message to the world. Likewise, the miracle of resurrection “declared the Son of God”, says Paul. The term “signs and wonders” occurs repeatedly throughout the late Old Testament and throughout the New. Why? Because the miracles of the apostles occurred not primarily for the good of those who benefited from them, but to point to a greater and more transcendent truth: that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.

Miracles Today

Can we honestly say that we see the sorts of miracles we find in the New Testament indisputably occurring today? I don’t think we can. We hear all kinds of stories about events some people call miraculous — mysterious voices that guide the police to discover a baby trapped in a car, a child revived after 101 minutes of CPR, or the boy who fell down the mountain and survived with only ice burns — but proof that many of these events even occurred at all is rarely provided, and even when they can be demonstrated to have actually transpired, there is no guarantee that God was behind them. Sometimes weird stuff just ... happens.

How do we explain the absence of miracles in our present day? If they were designed to point to Christ, why don’t we see them pointing to him today? Well, possibly because they would be redundant in our current era. Miracles did their job of authenticating the message of the gospel, and of authenticating the words of the men who wrote about it for us. Having done what they were intended for, miracles appear to have quietly retired. They will reappear in a future day when they are needed.

Today’s only indisputable miracle is the gospel:
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power [dunamis] of God.”
And God’s word is absolutely sufficient. Nothing more is required. God does not feel compelled to prove himself to mankind over and over and over again.

Moses and the Prophets

One of the strongest evidences that miracles don’t do anything that the written word couldn’t do (and do more effectively) is found in the Lord’s story of the rich man and Lazarus. Afflicted with the torments of Hades, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his father’s house to warn the rich man’s five brothers of their impending fate. Abraham’s response is this: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

Where there is no possibility of a miracle producing the result for which it is intended, there will be no miracles. The five brothers had all the testimony they needed in Moses and the Prophets.

And we have all the testimony and all the warning of coming judgment we need in the word of God.

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