I am sceptical about people who claim to have benefited from miracles. Some of course, have been to faith-healers and have had cancers removed, sight restored and legs lengthened. Others have had visions of the Virgin Mary upon a wet patch of a church wall or upon the clouds of a mountain top. Recently, the image of Mother Teresa appeared upon a spiced bun in a pastrycook's shop. I think in these cases we see what we are seeking.
Yet some people have strongly documented cases of a miracle having occurred in their lives. One of our members here, Lisa Yardley, has a wonderful testimony of personal miracles in her life. Others have prayed for a wayward son, and by God's grace there has been a miraculous intervention and the lad's life has been changed. The tragedy is that others of equal faith, suffer without divine intervention. Denominations that provide the miraculous are well attended by believers, and those churches which deny the miraculous never see a miracle. Perhaps we do see what we seek.
Many people use the word miracle loosely today. I saw on television during the week my friend in Melbourne, Peter Sumner. Peter has been blind for forty years, but a successful cornea transplant has given him sight for the first time since an early childhood accident robbed him of sight in both eyes. Peter regards that surgery as miraculous. I would not dispute that one bit. I think it is a wonderful miracle of surgery. By the same argument, in another place a mobile 'phone could be regarded as a miracle, as could a lap-top computer. Are miracles just something beyond our current knowledge?
In the Bible miracles, signs and wonders are events which unmistakably involve an immediate and powerful action of God designed to reveal His character or purposes. Words used to describe miracles include sign, wonder, work, mighty work, power. The two words most frequently used for miracle are translated sign and wonder. A sign points people to God. A wonder describes God's supernatural activity. Signs appeal to the understanding, and wonders appeal to the imagination.
1. THE INTERPRETATION OF MIRACLES.
Miracles were denied even in classical times. Cicero the Roman philosopher, asserted that "nothing happens without a cause, and nothing happens unless it can happen. When that which can happen does in fact happen, it cannot be considered a miracle. Hence, there are no miracles." The philosophers of the time of Jesus argued Christian miracles are most improbable, but, even if they were genuine, they were the result of evil powers. This was the standard pattern of argument: miracles were denied but when they could not be denied, they were ascribed to diabolic agency or to the fraudulent practices of priests or occasionally to a misinterpretation of natural phenomena. The Pharisees refused to believe it was God's power working in Jesus when He gave a blind man sight. John 9 They recognised the man could see, but declared it was an evil power at work.
Belief in miracles depends upon your beliefs regarding God, the world, the operations of nature, and causality. In modern times the belief that nature is a closed system functioning in accordance with strict causal laws rules out miracles.
If you do not believe in God, you have no option but to squeeze out the possibility of a miracle. For a mechanical world controlled by unalterable laws cannot allow for the possibility of miracles. But Christians refuse to have a limited and mechanical universe. Christians believe that the order created by God could also be suspended by Him. There is no distinction between the natural and supernatural. Miracles are not contrary to nature but only what we know of nature. Human knowledge does not fully understand the higher laws that God employs in miracles. Healing of the sick is not against nature. It is sickness that is abnormal, not health. Healing is simply returning to the proper order.
2. MIRACLES IN THE BIBLE.
Many people who have not read the Bible but who talk about miracles, like journalists and broadcasters, say the Bible is full of miracles. It is not. In fact few miracles are recorded. There are none during the first 700 years from Abraham to Moses. Then in the span of a few years, there are a number of miracles associated with Moses. Then there is another period of 300 years and no miracles are reported until in the 9th century BC with Elijah. Over the next 400 years no miracles are spoken of until the coming of Jesus. The immediate followers of Moses, Elijah and Jesus also performed miracles. Then the Biblical miracles ceased.
Many have claimed miracles in their lives since. But these are not miracles that can be seen as continuing the wonders and signs of Jesus and the early church. The Bible gives only those three brief periods of miracles round Moses, Elijah and Jesus. Miracles since have not been as frequent or obvious.
3. THE CREDIBILITY OF THE MIRACLES OF JESUS.
Jesus performed 35 miracles. Mostly they were physical healings, four nature miracles, three resusitations of dead people who later died a natural death, and one destruction of a fruitless fig tree.
Although we have 35 recorded miracles of Jesus, the scriptures state Matt 9:35 "Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness." These miracles were not part of a side-show for entertainment. They indicated He was the Christ, the long awaited Messiah. John 14:11 "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves." Moses and Elijah had performed miracles as a sign of God's power within them. Now Jesus has the ability to perform miracles.
Jesus is reported to have healed the sick, cleansed the leprous, enabled the disabled, restored withered limbs, gave sight to the blind, brought peace to possessed minds, raised the dead, multiplied loaves and fish, turned water into wine, calmed a storm at sea, and made people whole in body, mind and spirit. Luke 6:19 "the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all."
The miracles of Jesus are believable for a number of reasons. The miracles of Jesus are completely different from fairytales and legends. They are always obviously fictious but the works of Jesus have a ring of credibility. The miracles of Jesus are free from exaggeration and fictious overtones.
Jesus only performed miracles in response to need. He never used His powers to benefit Himself. He never used them to show off. He required quietness and seclusion, and asked the healed person not to make a fuss over Him. When Luke 23:8-9 "Herod hoped to see him perform some miracle...Jesus gave him no answer." He refused to work a miracle for the authorities or during His temptations.
His methods were unlike those of faith healers today. Jesus used no music, no special lighting, no stage, no props., no emotional rituals, no displays, took no offerings and sought no emotional response. When He met blind Bartimaeus Mark 10 51 He said "What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him. The blind man said, "Rabbi, I want to see.""Go," said Jesus, "your faith has healed you." Immediately he received his sight." His miracles were mostly along the roadside, in the open, attested by hundreds of people. He never blamed a person's lack of faith for failure, but Matt 8:16 "when evening came, many who were demon possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick." His enemies tried to discredit Him, but faced by His miracles, they were silent. They could not deny them. They could only claim the miracles were done by an evil power.
Matt 12 "They brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, "Could this be the Son of David?" 24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons." The only answer lay, not in denial but in discrediting Him.
Quadratus in 125AD wrote to Emperor Hadrian a defence of Christianity during the early persecutions: "Our Saviour's works were always there to see, for they were true - the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Saviour was among us, but for a long time after His departure; in fact some of them survived right up to my own time." They were alive! It would have been easy to brand the early Christians liars, but the evidence was standing before them in the healed people and they could do nothing accept the miracles of Jesus as having happened.
Today many critics deny the miraculous. The self-selected scholars in "The Jesus Seminar" state the New Testament records of the miracles of Jesus never occurred but were made up by believers after the death of Jesus. Some scholars dismiss all miracles as a literalist handicap to seeing the historical Jesus. These scholars reject the virgin birth, the exorcisms, the healings and the resurrection of Jesus. Modernists of the 19th and 20th Centuries explained away the miracles naturally. They said Jesus did not walk on water but in the shallows of the beach. They said He did not multiply the loaves and fish, but by sharing, He inspired others to take from their hidden resources, food enough to share so that everyone had some. So Earnest Renan in his Life of Jesus stated "Miracles are things that never happen...I reject the miracles the Gospel writers recount. The Gospels are legends." If you start with the pre-supposition that miracles are impossible, naturally you must reject the Gospel accounts and in turn reject the miracles.
Jesus was a miracle worker as attested to by many scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann who declared "there is no doubt that Jesus really healed the sick and expelled demons." Or Marcus Borg who says "Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist." p61 Or Dom Crossan who declares "throughout His life Jesus performed healings and exorcisms for ordinary people." p51
Some scholars try to explain away the miraculous by describing Jesus as a holy man or magician. But that does not answer the greatest miracle of all - the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Himself. It always seems to me, that if you can accept the fact that 2 Cor 5:19 "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them" then it is only natural that Jesus would use the powers of God to help people understand who He was. As A.M.Hunter says "It all turns on what we think of Him. If Jesus was and is..the Son of God, ..there is nothing inherently incredible in the belief that such a person as Jesus may have had control over the great frame of nature itself. Grant the grand miracle of the Incarnation, grant that God became man in Jesus, and most of the objections to His miracles fall to the ground." p93
The question is not of miracles, but of the grand miracle: do you believe 2 Cor 5:19 "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them." If you can accept Jesus Christ as both Lord and Saviour, sent by God to save you from your sins, anything He did along the way is credible and historical. That's what I believe!
REFERENCES USED IN THIS SERMON:
DISCOVERING JESUS G Moyes Albatross 1984
MIRACLES C S Lewis Bles 1952
JESUS UNDER FIRE M J Wilkins J P Moreland Zondervan 1995
CHRISTIANITY TODAY P Yancey 19.5.97 p80
JESUS: A NEW VISION M Borg Harper 1987
JESUS: A REVOLUTIONARY BIOGRAPHY J D Crossan Harper 1994
BIBLE AND GOSPEL A M Hunter Westminster 1969
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