Some scholars say that the miracles of Jesus
If they are right, Jesus cannot be our Savior.
In the film Being There, British comedian Peter Sellers walked across a lake at the end of the film. He was starring as a backward gardener who rose to prominence among important political power brokers in the United States. Presumably, Mr. Sellers’ end-of-the-movie feat served as a metaphor. Being at the right time and place can make the most slow-witted person appear miraculously astute.
Those of us who saw the final scene laughed with delight. Of course, we knew that the actor wasn’t walking on the water. We took it for granted that just below the water’s surface some kind of platform sustained him as he ambled across the lake.
Jesus on the water
This article is not about a film plot. Rather, it is about the idea of miracles, and what they mean. In particular, it concerns itself with Jesus’ miracles, such as his walking on the water. Was there some “trick” to his miracles as well?
Jesus’ disciples were rowing a boat across the Sea of Galilee. An unexpected storm whipped up high winds and treacherous waves. The vessel was at the point of sinking. The frightened disciples peered out across the turbulent sea. There was Jesus walking on the water! He strode toward the boat, climbed into it and stilled the storm (Matthew 14:22-32).
The Gospel account tells us how the disciples reacted: “Those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:33, New King James throughout).
Such stories of Jesus working miracles are not idle tales of wonder, according to the Bible. They have a vital purpose that touches our spiritual salvation, our eternal life. They help us, said the apostle John, to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). The reason? So that we “may have life in His name” (verse 31).
As we read the Gospels, the miracle-working activity of Jesus jumps out at us. “Jesus went about all Galilee,” one Gospel writer tells us, “healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23).
Jesus said his miracles provided corroborating evidence he was the Messiah—the Savior—”God with us” (Matthew 1:23). We see the point made as John the Baptist’s disciples questioned Jesus about his identity. “Are You the Coming One,” they asked, “or do we look for another?” (Luke 7:20). Jesus’ answer was, “Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard” (verse 22). He stressed miracles that fulfilled the description of the coming Messiah as proof of his person and mission. Said Jesus, “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them” (verse 22).
The Gospel writers paint Jesus as an individual who healed numerous people. The masses thronged to him because of such miraculous powers (Mark 6:56).
Tricks or hypnotics?
When one reads the accounts of Jesus’ work, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the miracles are a key part of the story. We cannot dismiss them as fabricated wonder tales.
British historian Ian Wilson concludes in his book Jesus: The Evidence that there must be something to the miracles. He writes, “That Jesus performed deeds that men called ‘miracles,’ is…one of the best attested items of information about him.”
That is not to say that he believes the miracles recorded in Jesus’ name were supernatural events. He and other scholars have tried to discredit them by offering natural explanations. For example, one suggestion claims that Jesus didn’t actually walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee. He staged a clever Hollywood-style trick. Jesus, it is said, actually walked on a sandbar just below the water’s surface.
Another notion is that Jesus may have hypnotized his hearers into thinking he was performing miraculous acts. Ian Wilson explains: “Hypnosis provides the key to understanding and believing at least some of Jesus’ reputed miracles.”
Mr. Wilson claims this theory works well for Jesus’ healing miracles. Jesus “used a type of hypnosis in effecting a cure,” he avers. Mr. Wilson extends this explanation to include Jesus’ nonhealing miracles, such as the turning of water into wine. “If we are prepared to accept that to those present the water appeared to have turned into wine,” he says, “then hypnosis becomes not only possible but highly tenable as an explanation.”
Why put forth such an unlikely interpretation? Mr. Wilson explains the problem. “If we believe the water was actually turned into wine,” he says, “then we must either accept it as a genuine miracle, or…dismiss the story as a complete fabrication.” For Mr. Wilson, a genuine miracle is simply not possible.
We ask: Is the hypnosis argument, which Mr. Wilson finds satisfactory in this case, really defensible? Consider the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 men, plus women and children from five loaves of bread and two fish (Matthew 14:13-21). The idea that thousands of people could have been hypnotized into thinking they were being fed when they weren’t is—forgive the expression—hard to swallow.
Reality or Fraud?
There are only two possible explanations for the miracle stories in the Gospels. Either Jesus’ miracles happened or they did not. Many scholars have opted for the second alternative, casting doubt on the Bible’s truth. They may accept the value of Jesus’ moral teachings but consider the miracles to be stories with a lesson, or pious frauds.
Robert E. Webber, professor of theology at Wheaton College in Illinois, explains the dilemma of many modem theologians. These scholars, he says, have been “unable to verify in any historical or logical way the supernatural assertions of the New Testament.” They have “resorted to a mythological interpretation of the life and times of Jesus.”
Many other scholars have also been suspicious of the biblical miracles because they could not be explained by natural means. The French philologist and historian Ernest Renan (1823-1892) said, “No miracle has ever taken place under conditions which science can accept.”
True, science cannot demonstrate that the miracles ascribed to Jesus really occurred. However, just because we cannot explain miracles scientifically does not mean they did not take place. Since the Bible states that Jesus’ miracles were accomplished by supernatural power, we should not expect to find any natural explanation. By definition, a miracle is something beyond the scope of science to explain.
Webster’s dictionary defines a miracle as “an event or effect that apparently contradicts known scientific laws.” Miracles deviate from the known laws of nature by definition. Science and scholarship can neither confirm nor deny whether Jesus performed miracles.
The key question
Whether Jesus’ miracles were real or fabricated by human imagination depends on a more fundamental question: Does God exist? Two popular religious writers, Kenneth Boa and Larry Moody, expressed it well in their book, I’m Glad You Asked. They said, “If God created the universe, there is a supernatural dimension to reality, and this means that miracles are possible.” If God exists, does he have the power to interact with and alter any law of nature? The answer must be yes.
Belief in Jesus’ miracles, then, rests on belief in God. As John Lafarge once said of miracles: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is needed; for those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”
To accept Jesus’ miracles as myths or mere stories with a lesson and to seek natural explanations amounts to a tacit presupposition that God does not exist, or that he is unable to affect the natural world and, therefore, is removed from our experience.
Proof of office
Assuming Jesus’ miracles happened as the Bible said they did, we have another question to answer. Why were they necessary? There are several important reasons for Jesus’ miracles. However, in this article we have space to examine only the reason that pertains to Jesus directly. The miracles Jesus performed attest to his exalted spiritual office, his deity. They provide evidence that he was God made flesh, and dwelt with humans (John 1:1, 14).
Consider these examples. When Jesus stilled the storm, the disciples cried out, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:27). When he was in Jerusalem on the Passover “many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did” (John 2:23).
When Jesus fed thousands from five loaves of bread and two fishes, the people said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). When the Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, he said, “We know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
When the apostles preached in Jesus’ name, they asserted that Jesus’ miracles authenticated his person, his message, his divine mission. The apostle Peter stressed this point on the day the New Testament church began. He told the assembled throng about “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst” (Acts 2:22).
Jesus declared his miracles to be evidence he had come from God—and was God. “The works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do— bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me” (John 5:36).
Jesus is Lord of all
The miracles of Christ establish his claims to deity and Messiahship. The expulsion of demons show his power over the evil spirit world; the healing of lepers, his power to remove sin’s defilement; the making of bread and wine, his power to create; the raising of the dead, his power to resurrect the just.
Jesus is, as Herbert Lockyer puts it in All the Miracles of the Bible, “triumphant over all human disorders, whether physical, mental or nervous; over all cosmic forces, on land or sea, organic and inorganic; over the spirit-world represented by the Devil, demons and death.”
This final point is crucial. No miracle is more central to the Christian faith than the resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Paul said to the church, “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection miracle was unique as the decisive triumph over sin and death. It makes God’s plan of salvation a reality. [Click here for an article on the evidence of the resurrection.]
Because of this supreme miracle—and of all his miracles—we can have confidence that Jesus is our Savior, able to overcome what we are powerless to conquer alone. With Paul we can say, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).
The Greatest Miracle of All
The Bible describes many stunning miracles, especially those of Jesus. Yet something equally miraculous is taking place today, though largely unrecognized. Jesus has continued to perform miracles in human minds for the last 2,000 years. Perhaps you are experiencing this greatest miracle of all— the calling of God to spiritual understanding and a new way of life.
Seeing the way of truth
Jesus must perform this spiritual miracle in our minds or else we cannot be his disciples. That’s because without it, we cannot understand God’s ways and purposes. Jesus told his disciples that this miracle had made a difference in their understanding of spiritual truth. “It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven,” he said (Matthew 13:11). This understanding was not then available to the vast majority in the crowds (verse 11).
The disciples were only beginning to grasp God’s truth and way. Not until they received the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost did they receive a more complete spiritual understanding and power. On the final night of Jesus’ earthly life, just before his arrest and trial, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper with his disciples. He explained how the Pentecost miracle would occur in their minds—and can in ours.
“I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper,” said Jesus (John 14:16). This miraculous helper was “the Spirit of truth” (verse 17), who would bring an understanding of God’s purposes and ways. The Holy Spirit “will teach you all things” and “guide you into all truth,” said Jesus (John 14:26; 16:13).
The world could not receive this Helper, said Jesus (John 14:17). But the disciples were beginning to experience the miracle of understanding. For the Holy Spirit “dwells with you and will be in you,” Jesus promised them (verse 17).
There is a reason why a miracle of understanding and faith must occur in our minds. We are what the Bible calls “fleshly” beings. We understand only what our eyes, ears and other physical organs bring to our mind. We grasp only human purposes and actions. But God is Spirit. His ways, character and purposes cannot be understood unless he grants us a miracle of additional understanding (Isaiah 55:8-9).
The apostle Paul explained why this miracle involving spiritual understanding is needed. “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him,” said Paul. “Nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned,” he continued (1 Corinthians 2:14).
The miracle of understanding solves this gap between our minds and God. God miraculously reveals to us, through his Spirit, the things “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man” (1 Corinthians 2:9). That’s because “the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God,” said Paul (verse 10).
Receiving spiritual power
But the miracle that Jesus performs in our minds provides more than understanding. It creates a motivation to overcome human weaknesses and follow God and his way. Paul expressed this miracle as a death of the old self and the awakening to a new life. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me,” said Paul (Galatians 2:20). “The life which I now live in the flesh,” he continued, “I live by faith in the Son of God” (verse 20).
By a miracle, our minds can be given spiritual power to live a new life. In this greatest of all miracles, we can receive a token of God’s will and character. It is a power “of love and of a sound mind,” wrote Paul (2 Timothy 1:7). But this greatest miracle of all cannot occur if you do not respond to God. How are you responding?
The proper human response to God’s grace and truth is to show interest in him and his way. It means to seek God’s way in obedience and faith, with zeal and determination (Matthew 22:36-40). If you want to experience the greatest miracle of all, then Jesus says you must respond with your whole heart—follow his way with zeal. Lip service will not suffice. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
The path toward faith and trust in God was summarized by Peter on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit, who gives this understanding, was made available in a general way to humans. Peter said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). For more information about baptism, click here.