The miraculous works of our Lord Jesus were communicated by the use of three primary terms, each of which accentuated one particular facet of the supernatural activity of Christ. These three terms are found together in several passages. “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22, cf. also 2 Corinthians 12:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:9).
The term ‘miracle’ (dunamis), emphasizes the mighty work that has been done, and, in particular, the power by which it was accomplished. The event is described in terms of the power of God in action.
If ‘miracle’ emphasizes the cause of the miraculous event, ‘wonder’ (teras) , underscores its effect on those who are witnesses. On many occasions, the crowds (even the disciples) were amazed and astonished by the works of our Lord (e.g. Mark 2:12; 4:41; 6:51, etc.). Origen pointed out long ago that this term ‘wonder’ is never employed alone in the New Testament, but always in conjunction with some other term which suggests something far greater than a mere spectacle.
The most pregnant term used with reference to the miracles of our Lord is ‘sign’ (semeion), which focuses upon the deeper meaning of the miracle. A sign is a miracle which conveys a truth about our Lord Jesus. A miracle is usually a sign, but a sign need not always be a miracle (Luke 2:12).
The miracles of our Lord are at one and the same time a visible manifestation of divine power (miracle) an awe-inspiring spectacle (wonder), and an instructive revelation about God (sign).
Perhaps the most common classification of the miracles of our Lord is into three categories: (1) those which pertain to nature; (2) those which pertain to man; and, (3) those which pertain to the spirit world.
I find it helpful to distinguish between what can be called ‘Class A’ and ‘Class B’ miracles. ‘Class A’ miracles overrule or transcend the laws of nature. Such would be the case of our Lord’s walking on the water (Mark 6:45-52). Here the law of gravity was overruled. ‘Class B’ miracles do not overtly violate natural laws. For example, the stilling of the storm did not appear to violate any natural law. Storms on this lake, we are told, stopped as quickly as they commenced. The fact that it stopped at the time of our Lord’s rebuke is evidence of His sovereignty over nature. ‘Class B’ miracles would be viewed by unbelievers as mere coincidence. ‘Class A’ miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus were an outright affront to natural laws and processes (thus the statement, ‘he stinks’ in John 11:39, stressing the normal course of nature). Both categories, ‘Class A’ and ‘Class B,’ are miracles, but ‘Class A’ miracles are more undeniably so to the skeptic.
Miraculous deeds were not unknown to the age in which our Lord revealed Himself to men. But the miracles which He accomplished were far different than those claimed by other religions. For a few moments, we shall attempt to characterize the miracles of our Lord.
(1) They were truly historical. In the Gospel accounts, the writers have not presented the miracles of our Lord as anything other than actual events. They are not true myths, mythical stories with ‘spiritual lessons,’ but real events conveying spiritual truths. The Miracles of other religions are far more mythical in nature. Though perhaps not precisely stated, we can sense a kind of ‘once upon a time’ mood. Not so in the Gospels.
(2) They were reasonable. The miracles of the Apocryphal Gospels are fantastic and questionable. They are completely out of character, with Jesus arbitrarily and capriciously using His supernatural powers. In contrast, the Gospels show a highly ethical use of His power, in a way totally consistent with His person.
(3) They were useful. Almost every miracle of our Lord was designed to meet a physical need. Our Lord refused to employ His powers to satisfy His own appetites, or to ensure His protection. He turned down every invitation to do the miraculous to satisfy idle curiosity (Luke 23:8).
(4) They were accomplished openly. The miracles were performed in the most public situations, not oft in a dark corner. While so many alleged ‘miracles’ of today defy documentation, those of our Lord were mainly public.
(5) They were accomplished simply. Others who claimed to be ‘miracle workers’ always operated with a great deal of ritual and ceremony. A ‘miracle’ was an extravaganza, a carrying-on with pomp and circumstance. Our Lord most often merely spoke a word, and at times performed His miraculous deeds at a distance (Matthew 8:5-13).
(6) They were accomplished instantly. With very few exceptions, the miracles of Jesus were completed instantly and completely.
(7) They were accomplished in a variety of circumstances. While some could do their deeds only under the most controlled environment, Jesus did His works under a great variety of circumstances. His powers were demonstrated over nature, over sickness and disease, and over the forces of Satan. The sicknesses He healed were of amazing variety.
(8) They were accomplished on the basis of faith. The miracles of the Gospels were accomplished on the basis of faith, either that of our Lord (cf. John 11:41-43), or of the one cured (cf. Mark 5:34), or of others who are concerned (cf. Matthew 8:10, Mark 2:5). Where there was little faith, little was accomplished (cf. Mark 6:5,6).
(9) They were gratuitous. While in the cults, a fee of payments was expected, the miracles of our Lord were free of charge. No fee was expected or accepted. Our Lord’s ministry, from start to finish, was one of grace.
(10) They were free from retaliation. With the possible exception of the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) none of the miracles of Jesus were of a punitive or negative variety. This is in contrast, not only to the desires of his own disciples (Luke 9:52-56), but also the practices of other ‘healers’ of His day, and even of what often occurred in the Old Testament.107
(11) They were eschatological. The miracles of Jesus were evidence of the dawn of a new age. With the presentation of Jesus as Messiah, a new age had begun. He had come to restore man from his fallen state, and creation from the chaos resulting from sin. He had come to restore and to save. Man had been placed an the earth to rule over it. When the last Adam (Jesus Christ) came nature immediately recognized its master. When our Lord confronted sickness and disease He mastered it. He came to save, and thus the word often used for healing was ‘to save.’108
The Purpose of the Miracles
Several purposes emerge from the Scriptures for the exercise of miracles by our Lord.
(1) They attracted men. Though not the primary thrust of our Lord’s miraculous ministry, one outcome was that His miracles attracted men and women who were anxious to hear His message. To many, His deeds were at least those of a prophet (John 3:2; 4:19). Here was a man with a message from God.
Our Lord made many attempts to avoid the spectacular and to arouse misdirected Messianic hopes (Matthew 8:4; 12:16; 16:20, etc.). But we must also recall that it was the miraculous healing ministry of Jesus which drew the multitudes to the place where the Sermon on the Mount was delivered (Matthew 4:24-25).
(2) They accredited Jesus. It was expected that when Messiah came He would be accredited by miracles. When our Lord presented Himself at the synagogue in Nazareth, He quoted a passage from Isaiah chapter 61:
“And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book, and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:17-19) .
The people expected Messiah to present Himself by signs (John 7:31). Our Lord’s power over demons demonstrates the coming of the Kingdom: “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). By reason of His work alone, men should receive Him as Messiah (John 10:37-38).
(3) They reveal God. As we have previously noted, the miracles of Jesus were not merely deeds to authenticate the message of Messiah, but a vital part of that message. The miracles not only revealed the power of God, but His person. In the miracles of Jesus we see the sympathy and compassion of God. Jesus was deeply moved by human suffering and need (John 11:35). These needs prompted Him to action. Again, the miracles reveal Jesus to be the Redeemer and Restorer of a fallen universe. He came to save.
Jesus had spent the entire day teaching the multitudes, entering into a new phase of teaching by the use of parables. No doubt, He was completely exhausted, as any preacher could testify. Our Lord had been sitting in the little boat, and apparently without even getting out of the boat, they pushed away from shore and set out for the other side of the lake, leaving the multitudes behind. Following along were other little ships.
Within moments, our Lord was in a deep sleep in the stern of the ship, resting an a cushion. (This is the only reference in the Gospels to our Lord sleeping.) Some have piously referred to this sleep as the slumber of faith. If I could be less spiritual, I would simply call it the slumber of fatigue. Once again the humanity of our Lord Jesus is evidenced.
The Sea of Galilee was surrounded by hills, through which the winds violently funneled, creating violent storms which ceased as quickly as began. Such a storm arose as they were in the middle of the lake. The waves were lashing at the ship, filling it faster than the men could bail it out. Even these seasoned sailors were terrified. Higher and higher the water rose within the ship as well as without. How incongruous it must have seemed to the disciples for Jesus to be resting peacefully while they were floundering helplessly.
When they could stand it no longer, they abruptly and rudely wakened the Master with words of rebuke, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Although the synoptic writers describe the event independently, Mark (as reported by Peter) chose to report their rudeness by the fact that He was not called Master, or Lord, but only Teacher.
Many Bible students seem to think that the underlying problem was the lack of the disciples faith in God’s protection since Messiah was in their midst. The ship, they tell us, could not have sunk. It is my personal opinion that the disciples believed that Jesus was fully able to save them. That is why they called on Him for help. The real problem of the disciples is precisely that of Christians today; they did not rebuke Jesus for His inability, but rather for His indifference. “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” What irked these men was not that Jesus was helpless in the face of the storm but heedless of it. They were sinking and He was sleeping! Don’t You care?
When Jesus was awakened, He rebuked the winds and the waves. The forces of nature recognized their Lord even if the disciples did not. There was an immediate calm. But not only did the wind and the waves need a word of rebuke, so did the faithless disciples. “Why are you so timid? How is it that you have no faith?” (Mark 4:40). You see, the ‘lack of faith’ for which Jesus rebuked His disciples was not a lack of faith in His ability to save, but a lack of faith in His attentiveness to our needs. Their ‘God’ was able to save, but insensitive to their need.
The words of our Lord, and even more, the obedience of the wind and the waves overcame the disciples with wonder and awe. “Who, then, is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” (Mark 4:41).
The question of the disciples is probably rhetorical, and the answer is left for us to supply. That answer is not difficult to arrive at. The Jews believed that only God had power over the winds and the seas. “O Lord God of Hosts, who is like Thee, O mighty Lord? Thy faithfulness also surrounds Thee. Thou dost rule the swelling of the sea; When its waves rise, Thou dost still them” (Psalm 89:8,9).
The disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, but because their concept of Messiah was largely shaped by that of their contemporaries, they had much to learn. Their understanding of this One would continue to increase, even until the time of His ascension. But now they are forced to the conclusion that He was far more than they anticipated. He had authority even over the forces of nature.
The unbelief of the disciples is just as evident in we who are Christians today as it was in that little ship, tossed by the sea. It is not so much that we doubt God’s ability to save as it is God’s awareness of our needs. We falsely suppose that because our Lord is with us the storms of life will pass us by. And when the trials of life sweep full force over us and it seems that we are losing ground, here our faith is tested. We impugn the character of God by challenging His failure to act in our defense. We wonder at why God seems to be ‘asleep at the wheel’ while we are only too aware of our impending peril. We do not doubt God’s power to act in our behalf; we wonder at His refusal to act. Can God really care for us and let us sail headlong into disaster? It is God’s timing that we question. Our Lord’s sleep was that of human fatigue, but God was not asleep, as Elijah accused Baal (1 Kings 18:27). God delays His deliverance of men to the point of despair so that His salvation will be acknowledged as totally divine. It was only when the disciples were snatched from the jaws of death that they sensed their inability and His omnipotence. We must trust God’s ability as well as His timing if we are to be people of faith.
The miracles of our Lord force us to come to a decision concerning Jesus Christ. He was no mere man. His claims were either that of God or of a lunatic or a liar. The Person the Gospel writers present to us is no mere man, and His mighty works (miracles) must be taken as seriously as He.