What is a miracle?
A Few Questions...
So what is a miracle?
There are many definitions of a miracle: an astounding event; a coincidence of significant meaning; an unexplainable event; an event beyond ordinary, natural causes; an astonishing, but explainable event. So, a lot depends on who's defining what a "miracle" is. Many of our definitions are the result of trying to fit Jesus' "miracles" into our modern understandings of the world. If we're talking about Jesus' miracles, then we MUST allow the gospel stories themselves to define what a miracle is and is not.
There is, in fact, no word for "miracle" in all of the New Testament (or the Bible for that matter). The words used in the Bible that are translated as "miracle" in most English Bibles are: "wonders," "remarkable things" (paradoxa), "glorious things," "signs," "marvels," and "powers." So, whatever they are, they are events that inspire wonder and awe.
They do more than just inspire wonder and awe. Fireworks do that. Acts of wonder in the Bible also reflect God's involvement in the events of life. So "miracles" are special, out of the ordinary events that reveal the active presence of God in marvelous ways, say something specific about God, and inspire awe in the God who performed them.
There are a couple important things to add to this.
1. Jesus' acts of wonder are NOT events that defy the laws of nature. It's only for our modern minds that we have clear lines between the physical and supernatural or spiritual. If it's a miracle, then it must be beyond the realm of normal natural activity, we think. For Jesus' audience, there were no "laws of nature" that defined what people thought could or could not happen. God defined what could or could not happen.
The 19th century British philosopher A.E. Taylor wrote that "there are no laws of nature to be violated, but only habits of expectation which any one of us, as a fact, finds him/herself unable to break through." Many people today can't conceive of "miracles" or they look for "natural" explanations to miracles because in our modern minds God is not directly involved in the events of this world. For ancient minds, God was always involved in things and everything was connected with God and God's activity. A "miracle" was not impossible because it was beyond the ordinary laws of nature; it was God showing up in a wonderous way for a special purpose.
2. Jesus' (or God's) acts of wonder CANNOT be naturally explainable events. We can't, for example, explain things as if they happened through a "natural" sequence of happenings and say that God is behind it. For example, the signs in the story of the exodus (water turning to blood, frogs, flies, locusts, darkness, and so on) should not be explained by natural causes. Attempts to explain the events of the exodus are only trying to fit God's acts of wonder into a modern scientific mold. An act of wonder done by God or Jesus must involve the direct interaction of God involved in our world, and not something that can be explained "naturally" but then attributed to God setting those events in motion. Doing this leaves the possibility open that it may not have been God behind it, but just a domino-effect of natural happenings and it resorts to the mindset that miracles must be able to be "proven" in accordance with natural events.
How many miracles did Jesus perform?
All four of the gospels together record many miracles. Most of these miracles are recorded in more than one of the gospels. For example, the story where Jesus heals the ruler's daughter and the hemorrhaging woman is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This doesn't mean he did this three times. Each gospel writer tells this same story (even if they have some different details).
All together, Jesus does about 37 acts of wonder in the gospels. This is all of the different miracle stories in all of the gospels. If we look at each gospel on its own, then the numbers are all different.
The gospel of John tells us that Jesus did "many other things" (John 21:25). This likely refers to miracles. How many other "things"? We don't know. If there were more miracles, why don't the gospels have more miracle stories? Why are there only 37 miracles total (or less in each gospel)?
The best answer to this is that each gospel writer told about certain miracle stories for a reason. The gospel writers are not just telling random miracle stories that they knew about. They are telling about certain stories because the miracles make important points. This is all the more reason to read these stories and study them!
Jesus raises Lazarus in only the gospel of John. Why?
Good question. Is it that Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not know of this story? If they did, why would they not include it? Luke's gospel is the only other one that even talks about Lazarus, so you'd think Luke would include this great act of wonder. But, he doesn't. It's really tough to answer why only John's gospel tells about the raising of Lazarus. This is one of those mysteries of the New Testament.
What to the miracles mean?
John's gospel helps us understand the miracles when it calls them "signs." Jesus' miracles--healings, miracles over nature, casting out demons--are signs of something. What are they signs of? There are a couple ways to answer that.
First, they are signs that the presence of God is in Jesus. Jesus could not perform miracles if God was not working in him. But, there is something important to add to this! In Jesus' time, other people performed miracles, too. Their miracles also were signs of the presence of a god. So, it is very important to be clear about what God Jesus' miracles are signs of. This leads to the second important point.
Second, Jesus' miracles are evidence of the fulfillment of promises God made. In the Old Testament the prophets look forward to a time when miraculous things would happen. The prophet Isaiah says it in Isaiah 35:5-6:
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
the ears of the deaf will hear.
Then those whose bodies struggle to move will leap like a deer
and the tongues of those who struggle to speak will be bold and clear.
Jesus in fact quotes these verses in Matthew 11:4-5 when he explains to John the Baptist that he is God's chosen one. The miracles are signs of this. Not only that, but they are signs that God has begun to restore all creation. It's not a done deal yet. So there still is suffering and pain. Life is not as God made it to be. But, we know that in Jesus God has not abandoned us! And God is working to make all things new. God's long awaited promises are being fulfilled.
So what are miracles signs of? They are signs of the presence of the God who has been present all along, working through God's people Israel. They are signs of this God, and no other God. This is the God of all creation, the God who called Abraham and gave him a promise, the God of the deliverance from Egypt. This means that the miracles are more than just signs of power. They point to the God who delivers, to the God who looks out for the poor and oppressed. And the miracles are signs that this God is working in Jesus and fulfilling in Jesus what God promised to do: restore all creation--humanity and the created world to right relationship with God.
So if you've noticed that not everyone gets healed--that miracles like Jesus performed do not happen every day--that's no reason to think God is not still working. The miracles weren't for everyone. They were things Jesus did to show that he was God's chosen one to restore the world to God. And that will never change.
Signs of Renewal
Jesus performed many miracles. Unfortunately, we don't talk much about his miracles. This is too bad, really. Jesus' miracles have a lot to tell us about his identity, what he came to do, and even what we should be all about as people who put our trust in him and follow him. Click to learn more, or take the miracles quiz!