The miracles of Christ are expressions of God’s power in the divinity of Christ, testified authoritatively to in the Bible, which signified the coming of that salvation that was associated with the kingdom of God.
Modern, Western society often assumes that the reality of miracles is in tension with the methods of modern science. However, this is a function of modern, naturalistic presuppositions, not necessarily with science itself. The miracles of Christ are exercises of the power of God, which Christ wielded fully in his incarnation as the divine Son. The Bible testifies to these miracles, and the fact that the Bible is historically accurate and divinely authoritative should give us pause before rejecting miracles because they are in tension with current, naturalistic presuppositions. These miracles were apart of God’s larger plan of salvation and testified that the kingdom of God, where God would bring about the climactic and definitive salvation of his people, had come in the person of Jesus, who was both divine Son and promised Messiah.
Did Christ actually work the miracles that the Gospels record? And what do we learn from them? What is their significance?
The Reality of the Miracles
Let us first consider the question of whether the miracles recorded in the four Gospels actually took place. A great deal of skepticism about biblical miracles has arisen in the Western world. Skepticism exists in scholarly circles, in elite culture, and also in the broader culture at large. But the skepticism is largely a Western phenomenon. People in some other cultures find little problem, because they already believe in a spirit world.
Cultural Narrowness of Skepticism
This cultural narrowness of skepticism shows that one topic to consider has to be what it is about the leading edges of Western culture that creates the difficulty. At least part of the problem is the influence of a materialistic or naturalistic worldview. This worldview says that the universe is an impersonal system, whose basic character is matter and energy in motion. There is no room for a personal God. There is no room either for finite spirits, such as angels, demons, or departed spirits. As a consequence, there is no room for miracles. There is no room for God, as a personal God, to act in a personal way that deviates from the normal patterns in which he rules the world. There is no room either for finite spirits who would interrupt the normal course of nature. “Nature” is conceived of as impersonal, and there can be no exceptions.
This worldview wields powerful influence because it is so widespread, yet people seldom analyze whether it actually has support beyond the level of being a cultural prejudice. It is widely assumed that the successes of natural science support a materialistic worldview. And yet those successes originally arose within the context of early modern Europe, which still had a more-or-less Christian worldview. In the early days, science itself was conceived as an investigation of the wisdom of God in the ways that he ruled the world. It focused on the regularities, what we call “scientific law.” It is only by a philosophical commitment, a kind of atheistic faith, that people could conclude that there must be no exceptions, no miracles.
One aspect in treating the miracles of Christ is to refuse merely to accept the modern, Western materialistic point of view. Instead, we have to deal positively with what kind of world we live in. The world we experience is actually a world created and maintained by God. The regularities are the regularities of his faithful rule over the world. But he can also act exceptionally, and that is what we call “miracle.”
The Divinity of Christ
Next, we have to reckon with who Christ is. According to the Bible, he is the eternal Son of God (John 1:1), who took on human nature and came to earth to save us. If he really is the divine Son of God, and not merely an especially religious human being, it makes all the difference. If God is who he is, and the divine Son is who he is, we should be surprised if there were no miracles accompanying the decisive acts that brought about the salvation of the world. People are prejudiced against the reality of the miracles because they are also prejudiced against who Christ actually is.
Evidence for Historical Reliability of the Bible
We can also appeal to the historical reliability of the Bible. Several scholars have written books indicating how many times the historical reliability of the Bible can be confirmed in places where it is possible to cross-check from other ancient records.
Divine Authority of the Written Text of the Bible
In support of miracles, we can appeal to the divine authority of the Bible. The New Testament is not merely a work of various human authors who might be trying to be reliable and yet might sometimes fail. It is also a divinely authored work, commissioned by Jesus Christ. Christ sends his Spirit to his apostles and to others (like Mark and Luke) who faithfully give us his word by the power of the Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21).
Miracles Outside the Bible
Finally, we can inspect reports of miracles outside the Bible. These, of course, do not have the infallibility of the divine authority of the Bible itself. But they can further testify to the fact that we live in a personal world governed by God, a world that also has angelic and demonic spirits.
The Significance of the Miracles of Christ
What now is the meaning and significance of the miracles of Christ? This question is actually deeper and more multifaceted than the question of whether they happened. Why did they happen? What was God doing?
The Larger Plan of God for History
The miracles occur within the overall unfolding plan of God for all of history, and especially for the history in which he works out the redemption of the world. Christ and his coming are at the center of that redemption. The works he accomplished—above all his suffering, his death, and his resurrection—are the all-important foundation for the entire plan of God for redemption. The Old Testament anticipated the coming of Christ and the coming of the kingdom of God. In the Gospels we see that coming actually taking place. In the rest of the New Testament we see the outflowing consequences, both in the historical events in Acts and in the explanations and exhortations and warnings in the New Testament letters. The letters show the New Testament people of God the meaning of Christ’s salvation and the way in which it comes to bear on their lives.
Jesus as Messiah
The miracles of Christ demonstrate and confirm some truths about Christ himself. They show that he is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises that predict the coming of the Messiah, the great king in the line of David, the one who will rule forever (Isa. 9:6–7).
Jesus as Divine Son of God
The miracles show Christ’s divine power. It is true that some of the prophets in the Old Testament, like Moses and Elijah, worked miracles. But it is clear from the contexts that these prophets did not work miracles by their own power and might. They were merely servants of God. By contrast, Jesus’ religious opponents were offended by him because he behaved as someone who was more than just a prophet. He had innate authority. In connection with healing the paralytic, he claims authority to forgive sins, which belongs only to God (Matt. 9:1–8). After the stilling of the storm, the disciples ask each other, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” (Matt. 8:27). After the incident when he walks on water, “[T]hose in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matt. 14:33).
The miracles of Jesus display divine power. God is present in them. God shows that his kingdom is arriving. God the Father is doing his works in the Son: “the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10).
Miracles as Signs of Redemption
The arrival of the kingdom has another side to it. God is not merely present to display who he is. He is present to work out the accomplishment of the salvation that he promised all the way through the Old Testament.
The expression “the kingdom of God” in the Gospels does not focus on the fact, true though it is, that God rules all the world and all of history (Ps. 103:19). It focuses on the new exercise of his divine power in the course of bringing about climactic and definitive salvation. Jesus, in whom God the Father dwells, is the Savior. The miracles are miracles of the kingdom. Therefore, they are also miracles of salvation. That does not mean that every person whom Jesus healed was eternally saved. Saving faith came to some but not necessarily to all those who were physically healed. The physical healing was a good thing. But in itself it was not ultimate. The people who were healed would eventually die a physical death.
So the cases of healing in Jesus’s ministry pointed to something more. They were signs that pointed beyond themselves. (The Gospel of John characteristically uses the word “sign” to describe Jesus’ miracles, thereby pointing to their deeper meaning.) The miracles dealt with people being saved from physical ills. Or they depicted being delivered from demonic power. Both of these deliverances were real in themselves. But they also signified the whole structure of salvation as a whole. Jesus came not simply to accomplish something temporary in the lives of various individuals, but to bring lasting and permanent salvation. This salvation includes, centrally, deliverance from spiritual death—deliverance from sin, from guilt, from the power of the kingdom of Satan. These deliverances Jesus brought about climactically through his suffering, his death, and his resurrection. His resurrection means for us permanent deliverance from sin and condemnation. It also guarantees the resurrection of our bodies. We will in the future be perfectly delivered from every bodily sickness and ailment, and even from death itself. The miracles that Jesus worked were foretastes of this two-stage deliverance, in his resurrection from the dead, and then, finally, in our resurrection of the body, in union with and by the power of his resurrection.
Let us consider, as an example, the healing of the centurion’s servant, recorded in Matt. 8:5–13. Jesus healed the servant from being paralyzed and from “suffering terribly” (8:5). The release from the bodily disability of paralysis foreshadows the final release from every bodily disability, which will come with bodily resurrection. Physical paralysis is also a suitable analog for the spiritual “paralysis” of sin, which keeps us from carrying out the will of God. Jesus in his death takes our sin on himself, and in his resurrection he enters new life that gives us the power to be free from sin and its guilt (Rom. 4:25). Instead of suffering in the body, in the resurrection of the body we enter a life entirely free from suffering (Rev. 21:4). Instead of spiritual suffering from sin, we enter the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21, 23).
In like manner, many of the miracles of Jesus during his earthly life are small-scale pictures, anticipations, or foreshadowings of the two stages of his definitive accomplishment: first his death and resurrection; and then his coming again, including the establishment of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1).
- C. John Collins, The God of Miracles: An Exegetical Examination of God’s Action in the World. See this book summary, and this author interview.
- Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts
- Craig Keener, “Miracles with Dr. Craig Keener”
- F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents – Are They Reliable?
- Peter S. Williams, “Archaeology and the Historical Reliability of the New Testament”
- Probe Ministries, “The Historical Reliability of the Gospels”
- Richard D. Phillips, Mighty to Save: Discovering God’s Grace in the Miracles of Jesus
- Vern Poythress, The Miracles of Jesus: How the Savior’s Mighty Acts Serve as Signs of Redemption
- Vern Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. See this author interview.