October 19, 2017

Miracles: Then and Now

Rolland D. McCune

On occasion through the years one reads or hears of a great revival somewhere in the world, a sudden outburst of the power of the Holy Spirit. It usually includes the testimony of many souls saved as well as miracles of all sorts that seem to parallel those of the Bible. Fantastic accounts of healings, resurrections from the dead, walking over red-hot burning coals, exorcisms of the devil and demons and the like are reported. What is a fundamental Baptist believer to make of all this?

The subject of biblical miracles in the main has suffered disagreement over two factors — their nature and their purpose. Critical (liberal) scholarship long ago consigned miracles to the ashcan of superstition, ignorance and mythical notions. More sophisticated critical studies have routinely denied the validity of miracles by means of the principles of modern science. Divine intrusions simply cannot occur in the closed universe of strictly uniform processes.

Bible believing Christians have disagreed somewhat over the nature of biblical miracles but have had enduring differences of opinion concerning their purpose and longevity. My conclusion is summed up in this manner: The true nature of biblical miracles defined their purpose and their purpose defined their continuance.

The point in this writing is to analyze New Testament miracles especially, including those of the launching of the church. The church is the new body of God’s witness and work in the present stage in His overarching purpose of receiving the maximum self-glory from His creation. “Creation” in this sense entails everything that is not God. Some call this complex the world, the cosmos, the universe and the like. In any case this division (between what is God and what is not God) preserves the Creator-creature distinction that is basic to the whole Bible and theology (Rom 1:25). Nothing exists in man as it exists in God. The purpose of God getting glory to Himself means for Him to magnify His own person and cause it to be universally enhanced, honored, esteemed and worshipped by rational beings.

MIRACLES IN THE OLD TESTAMENT

First there must be a preliminary sketch of divine miraculous activity in the Old Testament. Old Testament history is honeycombed with miracles of all sizes and shapes. However there were times when clusters of miracles surrounded an important event or person. Some of these occasions were: (1) the Creation of the universe and man (Gen 1-2); (2) the choice of Moses, the Exodus from Egypt and the formation of the nation of Israel via the giving of the Law at Sinai (Exod 1-15); (3) the ensuing Sojourn in the wilderness (Exod 16-40, Numbers and Deuteronomy); and (4) the Conquest and Settlement of Canaan (Joshua and Judges).

The Law of Moses was the charter, constitution or governing legal instrument of the new nation, and it included the provision of ongoing miraculous activity for some of its functions. Examples would include health and healing (Exod 23:25), food (Exod 16:35), water (Exod 15:23-25), clothing and shoes (Deut 29:5), fertility (Deut 7:13-14) and a direct revelation from God when evidence of an unlawful activity was not certain (Num 5:11-31; 15:32-36).

During the United Monarchy (kings Saul, David and Solomon) there was little said of the occurrence of miracles. In the Divided Monarchy (kingdoms of Israel and Judah) there was an outburst of miraculous activity in the Ninth Century BC. This was during the apostasy and decline of the northern kingdom of Israel. Elijah and Elisha especially were used by God to rid the nation of the pernicious debauchery of the Baal-Asherah fertility cult and to call the people back to Himself. This false religion had been established by Ahab and Jezebel as the semi-official, state-supported civil religion, supplanting true Yahweh worship (850 of the cult’s clergy “ate at Jezebel’s table,” 1 Kings 18:19). The great confrontation between Elijah and the false priests on Mount Carmel vividly illustrates what was at stake (1 Kings 18:20-40, especially v. 39).

The writing prophets spoke little of miracles, the exceptions being Jonah and Daniel and the reference to Hezekiah in Isaiah 38. The prophets spoke often of the future golden Messianic Age when miracles would return as God crushes all earthly powers and sets up His kingdom on the earth.

THE INTERTESTAMENT PERIOD

This historical interlude between the testaments (ca 400-4 BC) was a barren wasteland as far as miracles, prophetism and other revelatory vehicles were concerned. The temple, the Levitical system and the nation’s political fortunes were deplorable. Even the prior Restoration Period (538-400 BC) with Ezra, Nehemiah, Mordecai, Zerubbabel, Joshua the High Priest, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi was not much of a restoration of Israel’s politics and spirituality. The return from the Exile did not fulfill the prophecies of a future golden age. Prophets and people knew fully that Israel was not free and independent but was subservient to the Persian domination. This arrangement changed to the Hellenistic, Alexander the Great era (ca 334-166 BC) that included the Egyptian Ptolemies and the Syrian Seleucids. The Jews had a bob-tailed form of independence under the Hasmonean priests (166-63 BC) after which transpired the harsh rule of the Roman Empire, beginning in 63 BC. Into the Roman milieu the New Testament opens with the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (ca. 4 BC). By this time the nation was in an apostate condition but still possessed a small believing remnant (e.g., Zacharias, Luke 1:67-80; Simeon and Anna, Luke 2:25-38; the two from Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35).

NEW TESTAMENT MIRACLES

In the decades of the New Testament Gospels there was a huge break-out of miracles (e.g., Matt 4:23-24; 8:16; 9:35; 12:15; 15:30). (Interestingly John the Baptist performed no miracles–John l0:41.) These surrounded mainly the person of Jesus Christ and His claims to be God in the flesh and Israel’s promised Messiah. Genuine miracles declined in the transition period covered by the Book of Acts, and were gone by the Second Century AD. Thus the question: Are miracles needed and occurring today? If they are, or should be, why? And if they are not, why not?

The era of the Gospels begins with the gigantic miracle of the virgin conception and birth of Jesus Christ, the entrance of God in the flesh into the temporal world. The era closes with the most colossal miracle of all human history — the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This event superseded even the Old Testament touchstone of God’s power toward His people, namely the multiplied miracles associated with the Exodus from Egypt. For example, compare Philippians 3:10 (“the power of His resurrection”) with “redemption/redeemed from the house of slavery,” the index marker of the divine power of Old Testament miracles (Exod 15:13; Deut 7:8; 9:26; 13:5).

The Ingredients of a Biblical Miracle

The Direct Power of God

A miracle is a direct imposition of God’s omnipotent power into the physical order. This is in distinction from His indirect working through secondary causation (e.g., Psalm 148:8). God’s total relationship to His universe can be understood under four headings: He planned it, known as God’s decree; He made it, known as His creation; He upholds it with all its laws, properties, powers and processes, known as His preservation; and He absolutely controls it and brings it to His pre-planned goal, known as His providence. God could not be more personally involved in His universe. The point here is to emphasize the difference between His direct causation (e.g., the miracle of Creation) and secondary causation (e.g., using the laws of physical science). God’s healing of a congenitally crippled man is a miracle (Acts 3:7-8); God’s healing through medicine or the skills of a medical doctor is a work of providence. As well, God has endowed one’s physical body with amazing healing powers of its own.

In our culture, even among Christians, the word “miracle” is greatly overused. Highly unusual events or even manufactured products are called miracles. This goes from a hair-breadth escape from certain calamity or death, to a financial windfall, to miracle drugs, to a miracle shampoo, to Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread! But if everything is a miracle, nothing is truly a miracle.

Undeniable

New Testament miracles were public, spectacular, verifiable and undeniable; they were not done covertly, in isolation, or secretive. Most were of a physical healing nature. A good example is the healing of the crippled man at the temple gate Beautiful (Acts 3:1-8). In utter consternation the rulers and elders of the Jews confessed that “they could say nothing against it,” and “that indeed a notable miracle hath been done by [Peter and John] is manifest to all them that dwell in Jerusalem; and we cannot deny it” (Acts 4:14, 16; see also John 3:2; 11:47-48).

An Interpreter

A miracle required a God-appointed interpreter or explainer of what happened, without which its meaning and purpose were not understood. This commentator was usually a prophet, apostle or someone with authoritative special revelation from God. Note the miracle of God testifying to Himself by speaking from a cloud. Some thought it thundered or an angel had spoken; all were wrong. We have the miracle explained for us by the Apostle John via the inspiration of Scripture (John 12:27-30). (In the Old Testament this was the principal role of the prophets, i.e., to tell what God was doing or will do — Amos 3:7-8.)

The Purpose of Biblical Miracles: Authentication

The genius of biblical miracles was divine accreditation. They were designed to compel acknowledgment that God was at work attesting a person, message or event. They did not force faith in or acceptance of God. At best they were faith-helping crutches of a sort; they could foster faith but not compel it. God’s intent in a miracle could also be rejected and even blasphemed. And the results could be disastrous, as happened with Moses and Pharaoh at the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 5:1-2; 7:4-5; 9:16; 10:2; 11:3; 14:4, 14-18) and at the incident of the unpardonable sin (Matt 12:22-32), among others.

Miracles were not meant simply to make the sick and suffering well again, or to feed hungry and thirsty people. Nor were they a pre-evangelistic tool to attract a crowd and a wider hearing for the message. These were very delightful side benefits, to be sure. But because of their rather unique form and narrow teaching intent, i.e., divine authentication, God kept miracles to relatively few in number. In a real sense God was somewhat stingy with His miracles lest people would become complacent about them, take them for granted, or consider them as handy utilities for their personal ends (e.g., Simon Magus, Acts 8:9-12, 18-21).

The Miracles of Jesus Christ

John the Baptist (who did no miracle) was the new voice for God to Israel after the four sterile centuries between the testaments. His message concerned the Kingdom of God and the need to make spiritual preparation for it (Matt 3:2). He was followed shortly afterward by Jesus of Nazareth with the same message (Mark 1:14-15) but with an entourage of miracles. Note only a few examples.

Jesus’ miracles authenticated Him as the Son of God with authority to forgive sin and give eternal life. John expressly declared this as his purpose in writing (John 20:30-31). There were apparently eight such miracles: 1 each in chapters 1, 4, 5, 9, 11, 21 and two in chapter 6. To these one could add His resurrection from the dead, chapter 20.

In conjunction with Jesus’ claims to forgive sin was the factor of the added content to saving faith that He brought. Jesus Himself, the God-man, was made the sole object of saving faith (John 3:16; 11:28; 12:9, 45; 14:6). He also claimed to be the exclusive way to the Father (John 14:6). All these claims and demands were being accredited by His miracles (John 10:22-39).

John was clear that the coming of Jesus Christ brought a transformation, especially in God’s management of spiritual affairs. The Law of Moses was yielding to, or merging into, an era of grace and truth, whose dimensions thereof were without precedent (John 1:17). Grace and truth as such were not new, having been in the world since creation. But in Jesus their dimension went to unprecedented lengths.

Jesus’ miracles also accredited His announced claim to be Israel’s Messianic King with authority to sit on David’s throne (Matt 11:2-6}. The kingdom of God was “within them,” i.e., “in their midst” in His person as the King (Luke 17:20-21). In like manner the kingdom of God had “come upon” those who saw Christ’s miracle of demon exorcism (Luke 11:14-23). Their blasphemous rejection of this sign by attributing it to Beelzebul and by demanding still another sign (vv. 15-16) sealed their own eternal doom. It also pushed Israel beyond national redemption until the end times (vv. 24-26; Matt 12:22-32; 22:33-46).

The Miracles of Christ’s Representatives

Luke 10:1-16 relates how the Messianic King pre-authenticated the Seventy who were His forward heralds in cities He Himself would visit (cf. vv. 17-20). Their miracles of healing and exorcising demons were an announcement that “the kingdom of God has come near to you” (vv. 9, 11). Their accrediting miracles were God’s visible affirmation that their message was inviolable.

Jesus chose the Twelve to accompany Him in fulfilling His mission (Matt 10:1-42). His commission to them was restricted “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”; the Gentiles and Samaritans were specifically excluded (vv. 5-6). Their message of announcing the impending kingdom (v. 7) was authenticated by miracles (vv. 1, 8) bringing with its rejection a fate worse than Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 15).

When Israel’s rejection of the message was certain at the unpardonable sin incident (Matt 12:22-45), Jesus resorted to a different method of communicating new truth, i.e., parables (Matt 13:10-17). The change in method corresponded to the change in message. For the Jews this new message was a cause of blindness and hardness. No longer was the announced kingdom impending but instead a new set of historical conditions for Israel and the nations would prevail for an uncharted period of time. A few months later, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus announced three new subjects pertaining to this intervening period: (1) An open announcement of his coming death in Jerusalem (Mark 8:32; Matt 16:21), (2) the first announcement of the coming church and some of its polity (Matt 16:18-20) and (3) the first mention of His second advent (Matt 16:27).

Coupled with these factors was also the parable of the pounds (Luke 19:11-27) whose principal teaching was to offset the idea that “the kingdom of God should immediately appear” (v. 11). This corrective was due to the delay in Israel’s prophetic program caused by the nation’s apostate leadership that had spurned the person and message of their Messiah.

The Miracles of Acts and the Epistles

The original miraculous authentication of Jesus and the apostles was carried with them through the transition to the inauguration of a new institution — the New Testament church. Miracles bore divine witness to this new organism and the fresh revelation therewith (Mark 16:19-20; Heb 2:1-4). This revelation included the new message of the finality of redemption through the finished work of the atonement of Christ — the “new and living way” — the only way to God (Heb 10:20). To this end the Apostle Paul, for example, would thus reveal his apostolic credentials when needed, i.e., his “signs” of being an apostle (2 Cor 12:12). This is demonstrated perfectly at the beginning of this new era with the crippled man and the apostles at the temple gate. Acts 3:1-11 is the sign/miracle accrediting the apostles Peter and John, and vv. 12-26 gives the associated divine apostolic message concerning Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 4:3; 17:18).

The Spiritual Gifts for the Church

In the spiritual gift lists in the New Testament, some gifts were miraculously endowed and immediately exercised (e.g., healing, tongues, prophesying) and some were non-miraculously, naturally inherited and used (e.g., administrations, helps, teaching). These latter gifts obviously required a substratum of intelligence, instruction and nurture for their use.

The Purposes of the Spiritual Gifts

All gifts were to be exercised in the context and authority of the local church, described by Paul as the “church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” in the church age (1 Tim 3:15). Note Paul’s emphasis on the local assembly as the proper venue for the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:28; 14:4, 5, 12, 19, 23, 33, 35). The gifts were not designed for any personal profit or one’s own spiritual enrichment; they were for the benefit of others. Corinth apparently had the most gifts (1 Cor 1:7) but was the least spiritual church.

Establish Local Churches

In starting local assemblies those gifted as apostles, pastors, teachers and evangelists would especially be needed. As well, the revelatory gifts were a must because there is no truth distinctive to the New Testament church that can be found in the Old Testament. Local churches in the beginning were bereft of a body of ecclesiastical instruction that governed their polity, officers, mandates, ordinances and such.

Edification

The spiritual growth and maturity of believers in their Christian experience is a major priority in doing church (Matt 28:18-30). The building up of God’s people is stressed by Paul as a self-conscious goal in the exercise of the gifts (1 Cor 14:3, 4, 5, 12, 17, 26; Eph 4:12, 16).

Work of Ministry

Spiritual gifts were designed to culminate in the “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry (service)” (Eph 4:7-13). Some teach that the gifted ones do the equipping and the equipped ones do the work. A better understanding is that those with the gifts also participate in the “work of serving.”

The Common Good

A generic purpose that probably includes the exercise of all the gifts is “the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). Paul’s directive here notes that every believer has been gifted for the benefit of all.

Attestation

The purpose of the author of Hebrews is especially to instruct Jewish Christians about the superiority and finality of the accomplishments of Jesus Christ. His major project is to wean them off the Law of Moses and bring them fully into the dispensation of grace. To do this he invokes the prior teaching of the Lord that was confirmed to these professing Christians by various attesting miracles (Heb 2:1-4).

As we have seen early on in the Old Testament, authentication or accreditation was the most primitive purpose for signs and wonders in the first place. As a First Century AD example, the miraculous gift of speaking in tongues was a “sign” to the unbelieving Jews (1 Cor 14:21-22). God was “speaking” to first century Israel in a metaphorical manner. He had spoken to ancient Israel in judgment “by men of strange tongues,” i.e., the Gentile Assyrians (Isa 28:11). When these Jewish Christians heard tongues-speaking in church, they knew it was a sign that God had, by judicial hardness (Rom 11:25-27), set Israel aside and had turned to the Gentile “strangers” to call out “a [new] people for His name” (Acts 15:14; 13:46; 18:6; 28:28). So I would conclude that since God has accredited His apostles and their new message, in this case by tongues, especially to the Jews, there is no further need for the miraculous gift of tongues.

The same pattern can be said of all the biblical miracles, especially the miracles of the New Testament. Jesus and His helpers/disciples have been attested and will not be so again. The apostles had their persons and messages confirmed by signs and wonders and need not, and cannot, be brought back and perform miracles. Nor does anyone since then have cause to duplicate those apostolic miracles. National Israel has been set aside and the Gentile church has been grafted into God’s place of favor until the end times (Rom 11:25-27). All these situations were stamped with God’s approving miraculous power in the First Century AD.

Scripture warns that the desire or demand for miracles is both unnecessary and dangerous; it betrays a lack of faith in, if not contempt for, God’s plan and purposes (1 Cor 1:22). Israel’s recurring, unbelieving mantra was, in effect, “show us just one more sign” (e.g., Matt 27:40, 42). The attesting miracles are recorded in the inspired, and thus inerrant, Word of God for all to see. Even unbelief in the terrors of Hades would not be mitigated though one came back personally and miraculously to testify about them. Only the divinely accredited authors of Scripture will ever keep someone away from such an awful place (Luke 16:27-31). Attempts to walk on burning coals, raise the dead, and mass healings cannot and do not add any divine authenticity to the Gospel message. In fact, they detract from the infallible testimony of God’s witnesses in the Scriptures and instead focus on an evangelist or healer.

Miracles Today

The question persists among many Christians: Does God perform miracles today? Or a variant: Can God produce miracles today? If not, why not? If God’s power is infinite, is anything too hard for Him (Gen 18:14)? But in reality the question is not one of God’s power but one of His intent. When it is said that “God can do anything,” it does not mean that “anything can happen.” As one of my pastors often observed, “God’s power is always equal to His will.” It is quite evidently not His will to perform physical miracles as defined earlier. If God does work miracles today, they would be in the spiritual realm. The new birth and all that it entails is a moral miracle with an unending, eternal consummation. It was suggested by one of my teachers that the “works” greater than Christ’s that believers today could participate in doing (John 14:12) would be the moral miracles of the new birth that God is regularly performing.

A lingering question also persists: What about the alleged miracles as claimed by some preachers and religious leaders of today? It must be remembered that there can be counterfeit miracles that do not come from God. The Egyptian magicians seemed to duplicate some of Moses’ miracles (e.g., Exod 7:11, 22; 8:7; c.f., 8:18). In the Tribulation period counterfeit miracles will be performed by a cohort of the antichrist (Rev 13:11-18; 19:20) and even demons (Rev 16:14). One would be advised, therefore, that not all would-be miracles are simply hokum.


Dr. Rolland McCune is the author of A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, (Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3). Dr. McCune served a distinguished teaching career at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary and Central Baptist Seminary. He is now enjoying retirement, but he is “not yet reduced to feeding the pigeons all day.”


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