If you’re not prepared to believe in miracles there’s little hope of your having much patience with the Bible. It’s full of them. If you pick up the gospels, for example, you meet the Virgin Birth at the very beginning and the Resurrection at the end. These set the tone for the whole life of Jesus. He went about "doing good"; and many of these "doings" were miracles.
What is a miracle? Oddly enough, the Bible doesn’t tell us. It’s often said that a miracle is something against nature (like an axe-head floating) or above nature (like Jesus using clay and spittle to heal a blind man). But the word "nature" in our modern sense never occurs in the Bible and Christians should treat it with great suspicion. It cannot get in God’s way or make things difficult for Him because it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t look after animals or make flowers grow or produce magnificent landscapes. It is God who does these things. If we’re going to use the word "nature" at all we have to remember that it’s only another word for God’s way of working.
What the Bible does do is to use three very suggestive words which between them give us a clear picture of miracles. Interestingly enough all three occur together in one of the great New Testament descriptions of Jesus: He was accredited by "miracles, wonders and signs" (Acts 2:22).
First of all, "miracles". The original word is very like our English word dynamite. It’s all about power and energy. A miracle is something God does and it’s possible because God is dynamite. He showed this when He created the world. First there was nothing. Then, a mere word from God, and there was heaven and earth! Another word, and there was light! This is why the poet, Robert Browning, described a miracle as "a flash of the will that can".
But miracles were also "wonders". A miracle wasn’t something secret. It was seen; and it was spectacular. It filled people with amazement. The reason, of course, was simple. A miracle was something completely out of the ordinary. The most dramatic example in the Bible is the day the sun stood still. Every day for thousands of years people had seen the sun rise and set. They couldn’t imagine things being different. But on that particular day something happened that they had never seen before: the sun didn’t set. Hence the amazement.
It was the same when they saw Jesus calm a storm, heal a paralytic or raise the dead. People felt a mixture of puzzlement, terror and admiration. You’d have said he was "brilliant"; "cool", even. You’d certainly have been impressed.
What about "signs"? Someone once said that miracles are "the great bell of the universe, drawing attention to God’s sermon." At first sight this is not so easy to grasp. The clue lies in the word "accredit" (Acts 2:22). Jesus’ mighty acts were signs that God was with Him and that God had sent Him. Earlier, the same thing had been true of Moses. How would the Israelites know that God had sent him? Through the signs he would perform: "Take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground." (Ex. 4:9).
This explains something very odd about the biblical miracles. They aren’t spread out evenly over the whole book. They’re in clusters; and the clusters are all connected with the great spiritual giants: Moses, the Redeemer of Israel; Elijah, who saved the nation from the Baals; Jesus, the Messiah; and the apostles, the foundation of the Christian church.
These were the very men who needed to be accredited. It wasn’t simply a matter of power, though something like Christ’s stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee certainly made that spectacularly clear. It was even more a matter of goodness. The miracles weren’t useless conjuring tricks or mere magic. They were God’s goodness in action, healing the sick, delivering the demonised and raising the dead.
Why are moderns put off?
It’s often said that "in the old days people believed in Jesus because of the miracles. Nowadays we believe in him despite them." Why are moderns put off by stories of miracles?
Mainly because of pure dogmatism! And it’s all the stranger for coming from men who pride themselves on their open-mindedness. The 19th century German philosopher, Goethe, for example, once said that not even a voice from heaven would convince him that water burned or a dead man rose again. But would he believe his own eyes? If he looked up into our modern skies and saw an airliner speeding overhead, would he believe it? If he saw one of his neighbours talking on the telephone to someone in South America would he believe it? And if he had actually gone to Jesus’ tomb on the Sunday morning after the crucifixion and seen it empty would he have said, doggedly, "It can’t be. He must be here, even though I can’t see him."?
Another modern thinker, Julian Huxley, although no friend of Christianity, had a much healthier attitude: "We must sit down before the facts as little children." It really is all about facts. We rule nothing out and we rule nothing in. The early Christians believed that Christ had risen from the dead because they had seen Him with their own eyes. What they saw wasn’t a miracle. What they saw was Jesus. "Miracle" was only the word they used to explain it.
What moderns are really saying is that God never does anything once. They insist that He (or "Nature") always keeps on doing the same thing. Every day for thousands of years he’s made the sun rise and set. Therefore He has to do it that way every day.
But does he? Can He not just once do it differently? Can He not, just once, turn water into wine or make an axe-head float? If we ourselves can sometimes do the one-off, why not God? After all, that’s exactly why a miracle is a sign. It’s God doing something different.
The odd thing is that if Jesus had performed no miracles the very people who now sneer at them would now be sneering at Him. Suppose he had been born in the same way as everyone else, spoken like everyone else and never done anything to cause the slightest astonishment, what would they be saying? "How can this be the Son of God! How can this be the Saviour of the world! If God came into the world, you’d expect ripples! You’d expect something different. Maybe he would heal the sick, or raise the dead or silence the waves! He would at least turn our water into wine!"
Are there miracles today? I doubt it. I’ve certainly never seen one and I’ve never been convinced by any story about one. Of course I know that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in my philosophy. I know, too, that God answers prayer, often in mysterious and solemn ways. In particular, he hears our prayers for the sick. And I can hardly ignore the fact that God opens human hearts and turns people to Himself in ways I can’t even begin to understand.
But there is no reason to believe that every age of the church must have miracles. For long periods in the Old Testament, for example, there were no miracles. It is not difficult to understand why. The miracles, as we have seen, were "signs" and they were closely linked to the great events of redemption. Redemption is now completed. The last great messengers, Jesus and his apostles have been abundantly accredited by the resurrection and by all the "signs of an apostle" which followed Peter, Paul and their colleagues.
No further signs are needed. Modern Christians attest their faith not by spectacular feats, but by living in such a way as to show that the life and love of God are in our souls. It’s far more important to be humble and holy than to be able to work wonders.
"Grace," said a wise man, "will bring a man to heaven without working miracles, but working miracles will never bring a man to heaven without grace."