It's A Miracle! Or Is It?
A terminally ill patient will not make it through the night...yet, the next morning, the doctors find the patient completely healthy. The doctors have no scientific explanation.
First responders arrive at the scene of a horrific car crash. A driver lost control, careening into oncoming traffic, missing a tanker truck by mere feet; yet he suffers only minor injuries. How can this be?
Accounts similar to these, and other noteworthy examples, have occurred throughout history. Most individuals of faith exclaim, “It’s a miracle of God!” They mean of course that there is no evident human explanation for these instances. Still, it is appropriate to ask, are these supernatural situations? More specifically, do they align with the signs, wonders, and miracles that are in Scripture? Some will quickly conclude that they do, but is it possible that other factors are at play? Might God involve Himself in non-miraculous ways, or is He even involved at all in such affairs? The purpose of this article is to better understand miracles and the current manner of God’s activities.
Providing a conclusive definition of what constitutes a miracle is not easy. Even in-depth study of Scripture can leave questions unanswered on the subject of the miraculous. Nothing is crystal clear here, and grasping the notion of God’s providence adds a whole other layer of difficulty. Still, we must begin somewhere so let us begin by defining miracles.
Miracles may be defined as, “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.”¹ Merriam-Webster adds, “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.”² Most individuals coming from a non-biblical perspective would agree with these definitions. Nevertheless, for a more thorough understanding of miracles, Christians must look to God’s word to grasp the true nature and purpose of miracles.
A Key Illustration of Miracles: Creation in Genesis 1
Though communicated in a straightforward manner at the opening of Scripture, believing that creation is the sole product of God’s supernatural power can be highly controversial. For this reason, Christians cannot depend upon what the world believes regarding how creation came about, but must rather trust in God’s word to inform. The Hebrew writer states, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible” (Heb. 11:3). God’s supernatural creative power is self-evident. As Paul wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Creation is the opening demonstration of the supernatural in the Bible. The beginning of all things as we know them was nothing short of miraculous as it predated and transcended the laws of natural causes. Since miracles, or acts beyond the laws of nature, were employed in creation, that helps us to better understand what they are.
Other Miracles in Scripture
Miracles didn’t just start at the ministry of Jesus, but at the beginning of creation. Consider some other examples from the Old Testament. Most believers will not deny God’s miraculous, supernatural involvement in the ten plagues of Egypt (cf. Ex. 7:14ff). Even after the plagues, God continued to deliver the Israelites from the Egyptians through the parting of the Red Sea (cf. Ex. 14:21ff). Much later, God demonstrated His miraculous power during the contest of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (cf. 1 Kgs. 18:20ff). Verse 38 in particular describes an incredible display of God’s awesome power: “Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” What an incredible sight this must have been! There are countless more examples of the miraculous in the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, the miraculous is cited in a variety of contexts. Jesus performed miracles, as did the apostles. One of the major passages that details miracles in the early church in in 1 Corinthians 12-14. The Apostle Paul even outlined the various miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8-10). These included: 1) Wisdom; 2) Knowledge; 3) Faith; 4) Healing; 5) Miracles; 6) Prophecy; 7) Discerning of spirits; 8) Tongues; and 9) Interpretation of tongues. This passage in particular has been the seedbed of much difference in understanding the role of the miraculous. David Banks observes,
“Some believe that a person is not confirmed as a true Christian until God endows him with some kind of spiritual gift (usually tongue speaking). Others profess that only certain Christians are endowed with miraculous gifts. Still others profess that since some gifts are greater than others (1 Corinthians 12:31) God uses these gifts to single out certain individuals for various ministries. There are, no doubt, many other interpretations about how miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are endowed and who can and cannot receive them.”³
The Nature and Purpose of Miracles in Scripture
No doubt, miraculous abilities played a pivotal role throughout Scripture. To say anything less would be irreverent. However, to consider the role of miracles today we must evaluate what their purpose and nature were in the Bible. The Apostle John wrote, “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn. 20:30-31). What we may conclude from this passage is that the primary purpose and meaning of miracles during the life of Jesus was to establish the fact that He is God (cf. Acts 2:22). In conjunction to this purpose, miracles were also employed to confirm the message of the gospel delivered by the apostles (cf. Acts 2:42ff; Heb. 2:1ff). In light of the departure of Jesus and the end of the apostolic age, it would seem that the role of miracles performed by human intermediaries is fulfilled.
The clearest indication that miracles were to grow obsolete is given to us through Paul’s words. Paul said, “…But if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away…but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away” (1 Cor. 13:8-10). We have been given everything for life and godliness, which is the word of God (cf. 2 Pet. 1:2-3). Therefore, miracles performed by the hands of men have fulfilled their purpose. Banks further observes,
“Many have claimed that the statement, ‘when that which is perfect has come…’ is a reference to the second coming of Christ. It is clearly not a reference to Christ since the statement is to ‘that’ which is perfect instead of ‘He’ who is perfect. Notice that the statement, ‘that which is perfect,’ is in contrast to the following statement, ‘that which is in part.’ The reference, therefore, is to complete, as opposed to partial, knowledge. Paul’s statement was that when complete knowledge has come, miracles would no longer be needed.”³
Two other factors must be briefly stated about miracles. Generally speaking, miracles were only transferred by the laying on the apostles’ hands (cf. Acts 8:14ff). Since the apostles are no longer alive, then that process has ceased. Secondly, miracles were not always necessarily proof of divine approval. Jesus dispelled this myth, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘ I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt. 7:21-23). We see by Christ’s words that just because certain people had miraculous abilities, that itself did not ensure their salvation. The Egyptian magicians Jannes and Jambres may fit this description (cf. 2 Tim. 3:8). Whether what they did was directly allowed by God is not certain, but they were capable of performing certain signs (Ex. 7:10ff). Ultimately though, their abilities were limited in comparison to the LORD’s through His servant Moses (Ex. 8:18).
What is the Role of Miracles Today?
As we further evaluate this question, it is imperative to consider two great truths about God. First and foremost, God is still active in the world and He may act in any manner that He chooses—after all, He is God! Second, God will NEVER contradict His word. If He has indicated that a past method of addressing matters has been done away with, then that is our answer. However, if He hasn’t directly addressed a particular matter, then that knowledge is reserved for God alone. People get themselves into trouble when they push speculations too far. Let’s be careful when we propose absolutes for God, unless He clearly states His purpose in a matter.
So, what more can we say about miracles today? Well, what is seen today by those who claim they have miraculous gifts of the Spirit is universally contrary to God's character and His stated purposes for miracles. Actually, there is a real sense of chaos going on in many instances. The majority of cases are of people speaking incoherently with no understanding whatsoever. In other cases, so-called “healers,” place their hands on individuals who then convulse or fall. When these incidents occur, this should cause great concern, not curiosity at the possibility of the continuation of miracles. God’s word tells us, “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace…But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Cor. 14:33, 40). One who is completely honest with themselves will see the difference between what occurs today and what the word of God says. However, this does NOT mean that God has stopped involving Himself in our daily lives. He is very much in control, and the Bible attests to this fact!
Miracles vs. Providence
God’s word gives us great comfort in that He didn’t just create the world and say, “Here you go, I have done what I needed to do. Fend for yourselves!” Paul wrote, “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). The Lord cares very much for His creation, and this is where we get the concept of the “providence” of God. A caveat to this is that sometimes things, whether good or bad, do happen by chance (cf. Ecc. 9:11). Nevertheless, we will focus the remainder of this article on the providence of God.
The phrase, “providence of God,” isn’t found in Scripture. The Greek word for providence/provision, “pronoia,” is used twice in the Bible (Acts 24:2; Rom. 13:14), but not in respect to God’s providential care.⁴ When we use the term providence, it is an accommodative term. If we look up “providence,” it is defined as: 1) divine guidance or care; 2) God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny.⁵ Simply put, the providence of God means God provides.
The providence of God is often broken down into two categories: General and Special Providence. General Providence refers to God’s care over His creation in a general sense, whereas Special Providence is specifically God’s non-miraculous actions toward His faithful children.⁶ An example of General Providence is in Matt. 5:45, “…For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Special Providence can best be understood as God answering the prayers of His children. Jesus talked about this during the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matt. 7:7-11). This type of providence occurs when prayers are in accordance with the will of God (cf. 1 Jn. 5:14). After studying the Scriptures, we can confidently say that both the righteous and the wicked benefit from God’s providential care.
God’s fingerprints and care are evident throughout the Bible. It is unthinkable to dismiss the account of Esther as a mere series of coincidences. The role of divine providence in the book is obvious in Mordecai’s words to Esther, “Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Est. 4:13-14) Briefly consider the progression of events that transpired culminating in the Jews victory over the wrathful ire of Haman the Agagite:
- The queen is deposed (Est. 1:19ff), and Esther is chosen as the new queen (2:17).
- Mordecai, Esther’s guardian (2:7), happens to overhear a plot against the king (2:21ff) and saves his life.
- The king’s high official, Haman, seeks to destroy the Jews (3:13).
- Mordecai implores Esther to intervene on her people’s behalf.
- Esther fears that her life would be in danger, not only because she is a Jew, but also because no one could enter the king’s presence without first being summoned (4:11).
- Esther appears and is granted an audience with the king (5:2ff).
- The king discovers that Mordecai saved his life (6:2ff).
- Mordecai receives honor from the king, which has to be bestowed by Haman (6:10ff).
- Haman is hanged on the gallows that are initially prepared for Mordecai (7:10).
- The Jews are able to defend themselves (8:11ff) and defeat their enemies (9:2ff).
Anyone would be hard-pressed to deny God’s involvement in these situations. The account of Esther is a great illustration of how God can be active behind the scenes. The book of Esther is a great illustration of divine providence without necessarily invoking the miraculous.
One final matter to consider in the discussion of divine providence is how to determine whether a matter illustrates divine providence. An insightful observation in this regard was made by Thomas Thornhill, “In reality, no one can speak with certainty about when God exercises His providence, unless it is so stated. The KNOWN providence of God is recorded as past events.”⁷ A perfect example of this is from the account of Joseph. Joseph speaks to his brothers and tells them, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant if for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Gen. 50:20). Outside of the Bible, great danger arises when someone immediately believes the providence of God is behind a parking spot opening up, or all the traffic lights happen to be green as one heads to their destination. The LORD may do things, but it is not indisputable and should never be trivialized by subjecting God’s sovereignty to our conveniences.
Even though the period of miracles performed by the hands of people has passed, it doesn’t mean that God is inactive. We can have confidence that God is at work and that He does what is best for His children (cf. Rom. 8:28) as well as for creation. May we ever seek to better understand Who God is by reading and meditating on His word (cf. Psa. 1:2; 119:15).