What are miracles? What is the purpose of miracles? Are miracles for today? These are the questions that my family and I (or at least I) looked for answers to as we read Chapter 17, “Miracles,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan 1994) in our after-breakfast Bible reading time during the past few days.
What are miracles?
Many definitions have been given for “miracle,” several of which Grudem considers the adequacy or inadequacy of. However here I’ll give just one compiled by me from the definitions for “miracle” given in my dictionaries: “an extraordinary event which cannot be explained by the known laws of nature and is attributed to God.” The definition identifies three characteristics of a miracle: it is extraordinary, it cannot be explained by the known laws of nature, and it is attributed to God. Let’s see how these characteristics fit with how the Bible describes the miracles it records.
It is extraordinary. An extraordinary event is one that is so uncommon that it arouses awe and amazement. The terms commonly used to refer to miracles in the Bible–“sign,” “wonder,” and “miracle” or “mighty work”–suggest this characteristic. As well miracles in the Bible often aroused people’s awe and amazement.
It cannot be explained by the known laws of nature. “Laws of nature” are the rules of behaviour imposed by God on the parts of the physical world which enable us to predict how they will behave. Many of the miracles connected with the Exodus, such as the dividing of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:15-25), or performed by Jesus, such as his walking on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 6:45-51 and parallel passages in Matthew and John), certainly couldn’t have been predicted.
It is attributed to God. Illustrative of this are Elijah’s calling fire down from heaven demonstrating to those watching that the LORD was the only true God (1 Kings 18:30-39) and Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44).
Should answers to prayer be considered miracles? Yes, if they have the above characteristics. No, if they don’t. However even if they don’t qualify as miracles, we should remember to thank God for them.
What was the purpose of miracles in the Bible?
Although the Bible records numerous miracles in connection with the Exodus from Egypt under Moses, the struggle with Baalism under Elijah and Elisha, and the trials of Daniel as well as those worked by Jesus and the early church, Grudem concentrates on the latter because of their implications for the whole church age and thus for us. He identifies these five purposes of the miracles described in the New Testament:
To authenticate the message of the Gospel. This is brought out clearly in Jesus’ response when John the Baptist had his disciples ask Jesus if he was the Messiah–he healed many people and told John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22, ESV; all Bible quotations from the ESV). Miracles performed the same function in the ministry of the early church, as is demonstrated in Philip’s ministry in Samaria: “Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed” (Acts 8:5-7). That their paying attention to him included their believing is indicated by their being baptized (8:12) and receiving the Holy Spirit (8:17).
However Jesus refused to work a miracle for scribes and Pharisees who asked him for one as a sign: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth'” (Matthew 12:38-40). His answer to them suggests that authenticating his message wasn’t his primary purpose in working miracles. It also points forward to the great miracle that would authenticate his message, his resurrection from the dead.
To bear witness that the kingdom of God has come. Jesus told the Pharisees, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).
To help those who are in need. When a crowd came to Jesus in a desolate place, “he had compassion on them and healed their sick” and later multiplied bread and fish to feed them (Matthew 14:13-21).
To remove hindrances to people’s ministries. “And immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (Mark 1:29-31). Jesus and those with him probably went to Peter’s house to be ministered unto by Peter’s mother-in-law and she wouldn’t have been able to do that if Jesus hadn’t healed her. However I suspect that Jesus’ primary reason for healing her was to help her rather than to enable her to minister to them.
To bring glory to God. When the crowds saw Jesus heal a paralytic, “they glorifed God, who had given such authority to men” (Matthew 9:8). Grudem observes that all the other purposes of miracle contribute to this purpose.
Are miracles for today?
Because miracles are not distributed uniformly throughout the Bible and because some think that miracles in the early church were limited to apostles and those closely connected with them, some scholars conclude that miracles occur only at special times of crisis in the history of redemption and that they are not for today.
The main reasons why some think that miracles in the early church were limited to apostles and those closely connected with them are that there are indications that there was an unusual concentration of miracles in their ministry (see, for example, Acts 5:12-16 and 19:11-12, quoted below) and that they interpret 2 Corinthians 12:12 and Hebrews 2:3-4 (quoted below) as implying such.
– (Acts 5:12-16) “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they…even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.”
– (Acts 19:11-12) “And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
– (2 Corinthians 12:12) “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.” They equate “signs of a true apostle” and “signs and wonders and mighty works.”
– (Hebrews 2:3-4) “It [such a great salvation] was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles.” They identify “those who heard [the Lord]” as the apostles.
However the unusual concentration of miracles in the ministries of the apostles doesn’t prove that others didn’t work miracles too. In fact Stephen’s doing “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8) and Philip’s doing “signs” in Samaria (Acts 8:6) demonstrate that ones other than the apostles worked miracles in the early church. As well 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 and Galatians 3:5 indicate that miracles were occurring in the churches those letters were addressed to although Paul was no longer there. As for 2 Corinthians 12:12, careful reading of the passage shows that Paul distinguishes “the signs of a true apostle” from “signs and wonders and various miracles.” Grudem gives a long list of things that Paul indicates elsewhere in 2 Corinthians were signs of his being a true apostle (Grudem, pages 363-64). And as for Hebrews 2:3-4, not only did many besides the apostles hear Jesus but also the passage doesn’t indicate that the preaching of ones who hadn’t heard Jesus wasn’t accompanied by miracles.
Thus the working of miracles in the early church was not limited to the apostles and there is no reason to think that the working of miracles in the church would cease with their death. However that miracles might occur today doesn’t mean that we should ask God to perform miracles today. Under what circumstances would it be appropriate for us to do so? Certainly it wouldn’t be appropriate if we just want entertainment, as Herod did in Luke 23:8, or to advance ourselves, as Simon the magician did in Acts 8:18-19–in both cases their request was denied. However surely it would be appropriate if our purpose is one of the purposes that I listed above under “What was the purpose of miracles in the Bible?” Accordingly, if we see a serious need in people’s lives which only a miracle can remedy, let us not hesitate to go to God in prayer for it, always remembering how Jesus closed his prayer when he had such a need, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
Works about miracles that I found especially useful in my personal study of miracles besides Chapter 17, “Miracles,” of Grudem’s Systematic Theology are:
– Brown, Colin. “Miracle.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 volumes. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1979-88. Vol. 3, pages 371-381.
– McCasland, S. Vernon. “Miracle.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. 4 volumes. Edited by George Arthur Buttrick. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1962. Vol. K-Q, pages 392-402.
– Strong, Augustus Hopkins. “Miracles as attesting a Divine Revelation.” Systematic Theology. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1907. Pages 117-133.
– Williams, J. Rodman. “Miracles.” Renewal Theology. 3 vol. in one. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1996. Vol. 1, pages 141-168.