Question: As a Christian I believe in miracles. We have just celebrated Christmas in which we focus on a virgin birth. The Gospels are full of miracles Jesus performed: healings, exorcisms, feeding the multitudes with a few fish and loaves, etc. But have there been any real miracles since Jesus left the earth?
Frank answers: yes. But we need to understand what we mean by a “miracle.” We use the term “miracle” in everyday speech to explain something that happens in spite of circumstances that would have precluded it from happening. For example, someone says “It was a miracle that I got to work on time this morning, seeing that there was so much traffic on the freeway.” It would be close to the biblical view to then say, “I take this as a sign that I was meant to be here on time” – especially if turns out that something important happened at work this morning.
A miracle can be generically defined as an event that evokes wonder or astonishment and thereby promotes fear or faith, awe or trust. Miracles are reported in all of the world’s religions. In Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) miracles are performed by people using mystical acts. In Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) miracles are believed to be acts of divine intervention.
In the Bible miracles are regarded as “signs” that point to God’s will and work. It’s like following signs to find a museum or an airport. The “signs” that Jesus performed pointed to the breaking in of God’s kingdom in our broken world as demons were cast out, the sick healed, the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, the multitudes fed, etc. The signs also pointed to the fulfillment of prophecy. These are things that the Old Testament prophets said would be happening when the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed one, comes. When Jesus read about this in Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue, he said to the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). When the apostles performed similar signs in Jesus’ name in the Book of Acts, this was taken to mean that God’s kingdom had come in Jesus.
“Jesus Healing the Sick” by Washington Allston (1813)
Such signs have continued to be performed throughout the history of the church. Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism are traditions that put a lot of emphasis on miracles. Catholics expect miracles from the saints, especially from the Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord. Millions of pilgrims go to the shrines at Lourdes, Fatima, and other places praying for healing. Pentecostals put signs front and center in their worship — speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing, exorcism, etc. Some Pentecostals and Evangelicals expect special blessings from God that will bring them health and wealth.
Pentecostal prayer for healing with laying on of hands
An interesting question is whether something has to break a natural law for it to be a miracle? C. S. Lewis defines a “miracle” in his work by the same name as an interference with nature by a supernatural power. This has been a standard way of interpreting miracles since the rise of modern science with its “laws of nature”. But this assumes that we know all there is to be known about how “nature” works. We have seen some “laws of nature” superseded by other laws. The world of Newton is not the world of Einstein.
Moreover, are all miracles contrary to nature? Lions eat, but they don’t always eat. Why didn’t the lions eat Daniel? Were the multitudes listening to Jesus on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee all without any food supplies? Of course, we don’t know the answer to such questions. And it’s best not to always look for rational explanations. Miracles are signs to be received in faith and with gratitude, such as that displayed by the grateful Samaritan whom Jesus healed of leprosy.
The thankful Samaritan worshiping Jesus
Many of us have experienced occurrences that set aside our expectations. I was once summoned to the hospital to help a family make the decision to end life support measures for their mother and grandmother because she was suffering cerebral hemorrhaging and was not expected to survive. I told them that there was nothing unfaithful about letting “nature” take its course and commending their mother into God’s care. They decided to remove the life support system and I prayed with the family that God would take her. The next day she revived — against all expectation. Nature had taken its course, but it wasn’t a course any of us — following the advice of medical science — expected. Even the medical staff had to say, “It was a miracle.” And it wasn’t one we prayed for! (Or, maybe someone did!)
I would propose another way of understanding miracles that doesn’t require supernatural intervention. It comes from my Lutheran understanding of the presence of Christ’s body and blood “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. We don’t believe that the elements of bread and wine are changed (transubstantiated) by the words of Christ, “This is my body, This is my blood.” The bread and wine remain bread and wine. But we do believe we receive the body and blood of Christ, according to his word. We say we receive Christ’s body and blood “in, with, and under” bread and wine.
I think the same thing can be said about miracles. If a healing of body and mind takes places, or if evil spirits are expelled, these signs of God’s will for wholeness of body and mind do not occur by setting aside nature, but occur in, with, and under nature. We may not understand how that happens, but we don’t know everything. Whether I survived cancer because the surgeon and oncologist did their jobs, or because the surgeon prayed for a positive outcome (which he did!), the fact that I have survived is a sign that God had more for me to do in this life. In fact, the surgeon who prayed for me before performing surgery told the Lord that “you still have more work for Pastor Senn to do.” So here I am. However it happened, isn’t that miracle enough? It is for me!
Pastor Frank Senn
Image above this post: “Miracle of the Bread and Fish” by Giovanni Lanfranco (1620-1623)
Image below this post: pilgrims at the grotto of our Lady of Lourdes, France, many looking for healing.