Expect Miracles

Are the Biblical miracles just “a foretaste”, given to the early church? Can we expect miracles today?

Understanding the Biblical miracles as an eschatological “foretaste” is helpful when considering the “consummated kingdom” to which they point, but such an understanding of miracles does not resolve the question of whether they are to be experienced today. This question is vital For someone who is suffering an illness or injury! Correctly setting their expectation is the quintessence of pastoral care.

Probably the most important assertion in this essay is, “As pastors, we must reclaim ‘miracles’ from the deconstructing work of the scholars, and also from the less-than-Biblical practices of the showmen“. I have seen many people badly hurt from both.


An “Apostolic Age?

Derickson says that Paul’s miraculous healing ministry diminished, possibly to nothing, even before he died:

the evidence examined, especially concerning the men Paul was unable to heal, argues for a decline if not an end, of his ability to perform miracles near the end of his ministry … Paul’s own testimony of being unable to help Epaphroditus, having to leave behind Trophimus, and only offering Timothy medical counsel point to his loss of miracle-working ability.[1]

He goes on to label the claims of modern faith healers as “wrong”.[2]

Elbert argues against that “‘apostolic age’ hermeneutic”,[3] observing that the post-apostolic Luke-Acts narrative provides evidence from Luke’s language that the miraculous events are to be considered normative for Theophilus.[4] This is a counter-argument to Derickson, but does not answer the more general “cessationism”, which often refers to canonisation as the end of the age of miracles.[5]

Cessation?

Brown argues from the cessationist perspective, observing that miraculous events appear to be clustered around the grand salvific works of God in history, of which Christ was the fourth and most recent:

In point of fact, miraculous signs are not uniformly distributed throughout the OT. They are largely grouped in three main periods, … These periods were: (i) The redemption of the people of God from Egypt and their establishment in Canaan; (ii) the conflict with pagan religion under Elijah and Elisha; (iii) the time of Daniel during the exile when the supremacy of Yahweh and the faithfulness of Daniel and his companions were vindicated … The same could be said for the fourth period of miraculous signs, the coming of Jesus and the gospel age.[6]

Wenham describes this view as “reputable” and “a convenient way of explaining the absence of New Testament style miracles”,[7] but he puts it in tension with the expectation of others; that the miracles of Jesus’ ministry “can, should be, and often are, seen now.”[8] Wenham discusses the faith-healing ministry of John Wimber in contrast with Brown’s views, observing that, “John Wimber is right in believing that many Western Christians have absorbed the unbelief of their contemporaries”.[9]

Faith Healing

Their “contemporaries”, however, are not exclusively marked by “unbelief”. We find Reiki and similar faith-healing practices in our modern world, Islam wrestles with questions about miracles,[10] and even in the Biblical narrative we find Simon Magus, Pharaoh’s magicians, the Witch of Endor, and countless other “wonder workers”. Tucker says that it is the development of monotheism which has led to wonders outside the orthodox faith being called “black magic”.[11]

The Bible Assumes that God will heal

Shogren makes a detailed critique of James 5:14-16a with respect to divine healing, concluding that “The unspoken assumption is that if God does not heal, it will be out of the ordinary”.[12] He nevertheless distinguishes this kind of healing prayer from Wimber’s “charismatic healings”,[13] as does Derickson:

Almost all evangelicals affirm that God can and does intervene today in miraculous ways. The issue for them, however, is whether He does so through human agents, or whether He sometimes performs miracles in answer to prayer apart from so-called “healers” or miracle workers.[14]

A Moderate View

This represents a more moderate path than either of the extremes: on one hand, spectacular, public, charismatic healing crusades; and on the other, the complete cessation of God’s intervention in daily life.

Excorcism

Similarly in exorcism, the extreme position of denying the existence of demonic possession is as unhelpful as the opposite extreme of insisting that every illness is an evil spiritual presence.

Many people today doubt the reality of demons or demon possession. But Christians who have worked with those caught up in the occult can testify to too many strikingly similar incidents that still take place for such skepticism to prove convincing.[15]

 

However…

Most healing stories make no mention of demonic influence and very few evil people are portrayed as demonised[16]

Define “Miracle”

Wenham suggests that the key to the tension in these views consists in the premise of Brown’s definition of miracles as constituting a contravention of the natural order,[17] which our eschatological “foretaste” definition possibly implies. The phrase “foretaste of the consummated kingdom” implies a dichotomy between our normal expectations in the “natural” order, and the “supernatural” experience of a “miracle” from a (necessarily) different order. Pre-rationalism thinkers did not conceive of such a dichotomy. Tucker labels the view “anachronistic”:

[The] definition of miracles as breaking the laws of nature is anachronistic. The concept of immutable laws of nature was introduced only in the seventeenth century, thousands of years after the Hebrews had introduced the concept of miracles.[19]

Harrison agrees:

It is generally acknowledged that the concept of physical laws of nature arose in the early modern period, when the longstanding notion of a natural moral law was applied to the material realm. Prior to this, miracles cannot have been understood as events that contravened the laws of nature.[20]

Categories of Miracles

Tucker offers a categorisation of the Biblical miracles,[21] as: resurrections, transmutation of fluids,[22] cure of sicknesses, military victories through divine interventions,[23] and prophesy. His point, as part of a polemic against Hume, is that none of them violates the laws of nature.[24] But he leaves out exorcisms, feeding the 5000, walking on water, and many others which would not so readily fit his argument.

Tucker is not denying that “miracles” ever happened, quite the opposite,[25] but he questions the definition of what constitutes a “miracle”. He points out that winning the lottery is sometimes called “a miracle”,[26] in which case it may not be a “limited foretaste” of anything, just a subjective response to what we interpret as God’s provision.

Limitation of the Eschatological Foretaste view

Understanding miracles only as part of a limited eschatological “foretaste” would tend to affirm the cessationists view, that since such miracles are observed to mainly occur around salvific historical events, the scriptures warning of counterfeits[27] should inform our attitude towards reported miracles today.

However, such a view would deny believers the hope which is promised in James 5:14-16a that God will heal. It similarly dampens any anticipation of God’s provision in other areas, which Jesus explicitly told us to expect.[28] It allows for hope only in the future consummation to which the miracles point, discouraging prayer about our immediate needs. The “foretaste” understanding, by itself, is therefore potentially unhelpful as a pastoral foundation. It can obscure the incomparably valuable privilege we have in prayer, in that we have received the right, as children, to ask for, and to anticipate good gifts (Lk 11:13) from God today. Not because of a future event, but because of an historical one: The Advent-Crucifixion-Ascension-Pentecost event.

Where is our faith?

Our faith is to rest, not merely on the “promises of God”, but on the faithful God who made those promises (Heb 10:23), and who does not change (Heb 13:8). If we teach and encourage this approach, then our congregation will appreciate that we can, and indeed ought to, pray wholeheartedly with an expectation of God’s provision, mercy and compassion. But that we also must accept that God’s will is not always to remove suffering. Sometimes He wishes to journey with us in suffering, and bless us there. Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, as well as Matt 5:10-11, Romans 5:1-5, Philippians 4:11-13, and many similar passages make no sense if we see God’s blessing merely as an absence of suffering.

The Pastoral Imperative

As pastors, we must reclaim “miracles” from the deconstructing work of the scholars, and also from the less-than-Biblical practices of the showmen. The Lord has a people and He provides for them now, as ever before. That provision sometimes appears mundane,[29] sometimes “miraculous”, and sometimes it even appears inadequate, but the distinction is our own.[30] Our faith is to remain in Christ, accepting His grace as we suffer, even while praying expectantly for relief, trusting that God is being glorified over all. The temporal sicknesses and other personal needs of the congregation will always exist,[31] and we must relieve them in practical ways, even as we pray for divine relief and celebrate when it is granted. This is our corporate spiritual role as the ‘body of Christ’.

The Purpose of Miracles

St John describes the miracles, not as a “foretaste”, but as a means to an end, which is “that you may believe”, and therefore “have life” (Jn 20:31). Having responded to acute practical needs in deed and in prayer, the best service that we can provide our congregations is in discerning and expounding all of the ways in which God has been working among them through their corporate journey-of-faith, so that they may know the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom He sent (Jn 17:3).

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig. Jesus and the Gospels : An Introduction and Survey. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1997.

Brown, Colin. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol.2, G-Pre. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1976.

C.D.Marshall. “Ghostbusters – Then and Now.” Reaper, no. 74/5 (1992): 14-16.

Derickson, Gary W. “The Cessation of Healing Miracles in Paul’s Ministry.” Bibliotheca sacra 155, no. 619 (1998): 299-315.

Elbert, Paul. “Pentecostal/Charismatic Themes in Luke–Acts at the Evangelical Theological Society: The Battle of Interpretive Method.” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 12, no. 2 (2004): 181-215.

Harrison, Peter. “Miracles, Early Modern Science, and Rational Religion.” Church History 75, no. 3 (2006): 493-510.

Hobbes, Thomas. “The Project Gutenberg Ebook of Leviathan.” In LEVIATHAN OR THE MATTER, FORME, & POWER OF A COMMON-WEALTH ECCLESIASTICAL AND CIVILL Edward White, and David Widger, 2009.

Loebenstein, Judith. “Miracles in Ši?i Thought a Case-Study of the Miracles Attributed to Imam Ga?far Al-S;Adiq.” Arabica 50, no. 2 (2003): 199-244.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John : The English Text, New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971.

Shogren, Gary S. “Will God Heal Us : A Re-Examination of James 5:14-16a.” Evangelical Quarterly 61 (1989): 99-108.

Tucker, Aviezer. “Miracles, Historical Testimonies, and Probabilities.” History & Theory 44, no. 3 (2005): 373-90.

Wenham, David. “Miracles Then and Now.” Themelios 12, no. 1 (1986): 1-4.

 

 

 


[1] “the evidence examined, especially concerning the men Paul was unable to heal, argues for a decline if not an end, of his ability to perform miracles near the end of his ministry … Paul’s own testimony of being unable to help Epaphroditus, having to leave behind Trophimus, and only offering Timothy medical counsel point to his loss of miracle-working ability” – Gary W. Derickson, “The Cessation of Healing Miracles in Paul’s Ministry,” Bibliotheca sacra 155, no. 619 (1998): 315.
[2] “it is wrong for proponents of faith healing to claim that God must work the same today as He did at the beginning of the church” – ibid., 315.
[3] Paul Elbert, “Pentecostal/Charismatic Themes in Luke–Acts at the Evangelical Theological Society: The Battle of Interpretive Method,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 12, no. 2 (2004): 183.
[4] Elbert recommends to an enquirer “to put herself in the position of Theophilus and to read Luke–Acts tabula rasa front to back”, to appreciate this perspective – ibid., 212.
[5] “A belief in the closing of the biblical canon often includes an understanding that miracles must necessarily have ceased with its completion [Nb] The meaning of το τέλείον (“the perfect”) in 1 Corinthians 13:10 is often a part of the argument.” – Derickson: 301.
[6] “In point of fact, miraculous signs are not uniformly distributed throughout the OT. They are largely grouped in three main periods, … These periods were: (i) The redemption of the people of God from Egypt and their establishment in Canaan; (ii) the conflict with pagan religion under Elijah and Elisha; (iii) the time of Daniel during the exile when the supremacy of Yahweh and the faithfulness of Daniel and his companions were vindicated … The same could be said for the fourth period of miraculous signs, the coming of Jesus and the gospel age.” – Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Vol.2, G-Pre (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1976), 627.
[7] David Wenham, “Miracles Then and Now,” Themelios 12, no. 1 (1986): Under ‘Miracles Today’.
[8] Ibid., Under ‘Miracles Today’.
[9] Ibid., Under ‘Miracles Today’.
[10] “The Qur’an uses a number of words to descibe miracles. The meaning of these terms is similar and can be translated as sign, proof or token … Two other terms … ([which] do not appear in the Qur’an) are mu’giza and kar­ama. – Judith Loebenstein, “Miracles in Ši?i Thought a Case-Study of the Miracles Attributed to Imam Ga?far Al-S;Adiq,” Arabica 50, no. 2 (2003): 203.
[11] “Of course, the meaning of ‘miracle’ mutated through history. With the establishment of priestly monotheism, miracles ceased to prove the superiority of one deity such as Jehovah over other deities. A miraculous act performed by nonbelievers became ‘magic,’ even ‘black magic.’“ – Aviezer Tucker, “Miracles, Historical Testimonies, and Probabilities,” History & Theory 44, no. 3 (2005): 379.
[12] Gary S. Shogren, “Will God Heal Us : A Re-Examination of James 5:14-16a,” Evangelical Quarterly 61(1989): Under ‘4. Oil was used as a Symbol of Divine Favour’.
[13] “If anything, Jas. 5 leads us away from charismatic healings” – ibid., Under ‘4. Oil was used as a Symbol of Divine Favour’.
[14] “Almost all evangelicals affirm that God can and does intervene today in miraculous ways. The issue for them, however, is whether He does so through human agents, or whether He sometimes performs miracles in answer to prayer apart from so-called “healers” or miracle workers.” – Derickson: 300.
[15] “Many people today doubt the reality of demons or demon possession. But Christians who have worked with those caught up in the occult can testify to too many strikingly similar incidents that still take place for such skepticism to prove convincing.” – Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels : An Introduction and Survey (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1997), 270.
[16] “Most healing stories make no mention of demonic influence and very few evil people are portrayed as demonised” – C.D.Marshall, “Ghostbusters – Then and Now,” Reaper, no. 74/5 (1992): Under ‘Exorcism Today’.
[17] “the sense that Brown proposes, e.g. in the sense that God has overturned the normal order of the world be [sic] created.” – Wenham: Under ‘Miracles Today’.
[19] The “definition of miracles as breaking the laws of nature is anachronistic. The concept of immutable laws of nature was introduced only in the seventeenth century, thousands of years after the Hebrews had introduced the concept of miracles.” – Tucker: 373.
[20] “It is generally acknowledged that the concept of physical laws of nature arose in the early modern period, when the longstanding notion of a natural moral law was applied to the material realm. Prior to this, miracles cannot have been understood as events that contravened the laws of nature.” – Peter Harrison, “Miracles, Early Modern Science, and Rational Religion,” Church History 75, no. 3 (2006): Under ‘I. MIRACLES AND LAWS OF NATURE’.
[21] Tucker: 375-76.
[22] Of “(water, blood, and wine) into one another by messengers of the divine.” – ibid., 375.
[23] “such as the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, earthquakes, or the “bombardment” of the enemy by means of boulders falling from the sky.” – ibid., 376.
[24] “Note immediately that none of these ‘miracles’ is in violation of the laws of nature, as Hume claimed.” – ibid., 376.
[25] “Even if miracle hypotheses have low probabilities, it may still be rational to accept and use them if there is no better explanation for the evidence of miracles.” – ibid., 373.
[26] “For example, it is highly probable that someone will win the lottery; it is no miracle. However, if the person who wins it needs money urgently to pay for a complex operation on his or her brain, it is ‘a miracle.’ – ibid., 379.
[27] Examples: Matt 24:24, 2 Thes 2:9-11, Rev 13:13, Rev 19:20
[28] Examples: Matt 6:25-34, Luke 18:1, Mark 9:23, Luke 17:6
[29] “Miracles are Marvellous workes: but that which is marvellous to one, may not be so to another.” – Thomas Hobbes, “The Project Gutenberg Ebook of Leviathan,” In LEVIATHAN OR THE MATTER, FORME, & POWER OF A COMMON-WEALTH ECCLESIASTICAL AND CIVILL. ( Edward White, and David Widger, 2009), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm.Ch26, under “Divine Positive Law How Made Known To Be Law”
[30] “What to men are miracles, to God and to Christ are no more than ‘works’. This is their normal way of working.” – Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John : The English Text, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 690.
[31] “There will always be poor people in the land.” Deut 15:11a Cf. Mat 26:11;Mk 14:7;Jn 12:8
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