What is the Purpose of Miracles? (“Manager’s Override”)
© 2021 C. O. Bishop
We have been working our way through the Gospel of John. There were about a dozen messages from chapter one, and we have finally arrived in chapter two. My first thought, when reading this passage, was to teach about marriage, because it is the account of the wedding feast at Galilee; but it occurred to me that most people reading this passage are probably attracted to the miracle involved. So, we need to address the purpose of miracles. Why does God sometimes override the laws of nature (though He is the author) and do something “outside the rules?” Managers in retail stores often are called to “override the system” when a regular clerk can’t accomplish something or has made an error. Why would God step in and “override the system?”
On the other hand, since He is the Author, with authority to “override the system” as it were, why would He not do it all the time, to make us happy and healthy and blessed? Why does God allow bad things to happen at all? And particularly, why allow bad things to happen to his children, the believers?
So, trusting the wisdom and goodness of God, I have to assume that He has a plan, and that His plan usually involves allowing the normal rules of nature and science to apply without His interference, and usually, to allow us to suffer the consequences of sin in the world. But if that is the case (and it is!) then what would be His purpose in ever going “outside the rules?”
What was the purpose of the Miracle at Cana?
Consider a time when Jesus did not use His authority to benefit a needy person: During His own testing, (Matthew 4:1-11) Satan challenged Jesus with this exact question. He said, “You are the Son of God; prove it! You are hungry; turn these rocks into bread!” But Jesus refused…why?
He answered, quoting God’s Word (Deuteronomy 8:3), “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” He deliberately set aside His own prerogatives as God the Son and subjected Himself to the authority of God the Father. Until God provided food, He chose to continue his fast, or to get food by ordinary means, like other humans. And, when we read the rest of that account, we see that, in this case, when the test was over, God did meet His needs through angelic intervention.
But there is a miracle here at the Wedding feast at Cana, for far less cause: The people had consumed all the available wine, and the party wasn’t over. I have asked Hebrew Christians about this passage, and they assured me that the celebrants at these weddings get fairly far into the cups before the party is over. So, running out of wine was a bad thing. (By the way: yes, it was alcoholic wine, not fruit juice. The word used here is identical with the word in Ephesians 5:18, where believers are warned against drunkenness.)
Is that the real reason for the miracle? Was it just to alleviate poor planning on the part of the people hosting the feast? Or was it just in response to Jesus’s mother being there, and having alerted Him to the fact that they had run out of wine? (Incidentally, when people are elevating Mary to a position of “semi-deity” or beyond, be aware: this is the only command Mary ever gave in scripture…she told some servants, “Whatever He says, do it!”) From Jesus’s reply to Mary’s “nudge,” my guess is that He didn’t do it just for her sake. So, what was the point?
It also looks as though none of the guests ever found out what happened. Mary and the servants and Jesus and His disciples may have been the only ones who knew the secret of the sudden influx of high-quality wine. But, the result was that Jesus was glorified and His disciples believed on Him! The miracle drew attention to the person of Christ and His message. If a miracle does not do these two things, there is something wrong.
What about other miracles?
We see healings, some of which seem to have been done specifically to show the enmity between Jesus and the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders. He healed on the sabbath, at Bethesda, which infuriated those Jewish leaders. He consorted with lower-class people, whom they snubbed. He claimed God as His Father, which they considered outright blasphemy. But He also kept performing miracles in the public view. He fed the five thousand men with their families, by miraculously multiplying the bread and fish. And in every case, He taught: he had a message. And, in every case, the miracles gave credence to the message.
At Sychar, the woman at the well was impressed because He told her about her own checkered past: and did not judge her. She and the others believed His message. In John chapter nine, He healed a man blind from birth, and caused a great division amongst the Jews. They began to realize they had a decision to make: The Pharisees said he was a sinner, because he healed the man on the sabbath… but the people were starting to wake up a little, and they protested, “How could a sinner do such miracles?” (That’s a good question!) The miracles drew people’s attention to the message Jesus was preaching: the Gospel of the coming kingdom, and they glorified Him for who he was…the King!
His unquestionable authority demonstrated who He was. He raised the dead, He healed the lame, He cast out demons by sheer authority, not by any device, nor charms, nor liturgy of magic words. He used real authority…not even the assumed authority of the threat of violence, like the Romans used. He did not have to “threaten” the wind and the waves, in order to bring them to heel. He simply spoke. He did use threats to get the demons to leave: He simply ordered them to go. They knew who He was! They called Him by name! And they obeyed!
He spoke and healed a man sick of the palsy…whatever that ailment was…there have been many illnesses called “palsy.” When I was growing up, they called Parkinson’s Disease “palsy,” perhaps just as a colloquialism…but the fact is, the man they brought to Jesus couldn’t walk, and was permanently bedridden. And, when Jesus commanded him, he got up, picked up his bed and walked home. All this showed Jesus’s authority before His enemies, the Pharisees and Priests.
What was the Purpose?
The message Jesus brought was entirely different than that of priests. Jesus taught the Grace of God under the Law. They only taught judgment, and a phony show of “technical righteousness,” which conveniently made themselves look good, but enslaved the people.
Jesus drove them out of the temple where they had set up money-changing tables and stalls from which to sell sacrificial animals in the court of the Gentiles. This was the specific place that was designated as the place where non-Jews could approach God…and they had defiled it.
The poor people rejoiced to see genuine righteousness. The rich and powerful were offended that He showed them no special respect, but rather rebuked them openly. Jesus invited people to get to know their God. The Priests put up barriers against any such relationship.
When Jesus healed a man, the poor and the sick rejoiced because He offered Hope. The powerful religious leaders only saw the threat to their power. By healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind, etc., Jesus was fulfilling the prophecies showing Him as the Messiah. He used miracles to announce the coming kingdom, as John the Baptist had done, and to introduce Himself as the King. The poor were far more open to receive Him than were the rich and powerful. The miracles brought Glory to God; they brought Glory to God the Son, and they confirmed the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus and John the Baptist were preaching.
But then The Message changed!
There came a point at which the Jews as a nation (not the people at large, or the poor, or the common folk, but the leaders) completely rejected Jesus, so He quit offering them the Kingdom. In Matthew 12:22-42, the leaders accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus sharply warned them that this was perilously close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and He went on to point out the consequences of that sin.
But then in verse 38, in a bizarre twist, they asked Him for another sign; another miracle! And His response (v.39, 40) was that they were an unbelieving generation and that the only sign they would now receive was the sign given by the prophet Jonah: He said, “as Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so the Son of Man (Jesus) will spend three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” He offered His own death and resurrection as the sign! And, of course, we know that when it actually happened, they also rejected that sign. But he was no longer preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom: He was warning of the Tribulation to come.
And, in John chapters 11 and 12, when He publicly raised Lazarus from the dead (after four days in the tomb) the religious leaders (who were right there to see it) responded by plotting to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. They had utterly rejected Him as their King and Messiah.
In every case, the miracles were to bring Glory to God, to prove the authority of Jesus as God in the Flesh, and to prove the truth of His message. They also brought comfort, hope and healing, as a rule (not always…remember the fig tree He cursed.) But Jesus only healed one man at Bethesda. He only fed one crowd with the bread and fish. He could have started the manna falling every morning, again, if it had suited His purpose: but it didn’t!
Even the miracle of feeding the five thousand was specifically to provide the opportunity to preach Himself as “the Bread of Life.” He was the one who gave them the original manna, but He pointed out that the manna was only a picture of the Bread of Life who was The true Messiah: He said that whoever partook of Him (by faith) would have eternal life. Many of the people who had been following Him (possibly for the wrong reasons) were offended by this message, and they eventually walked away and quit following Him. They wanted the fish and the bread…not Jesus.
The Miracles Continued
In the Book of Acts, there were still miracles while the “new” Message, the Gospel of Christ, began to take hold. In Acts chapter 2, we see all the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking the glory of God in the languages of the assembled crowd. The miracle drew the crowd, and drew attention to Peter’s message, giving credibility to his words.
Then, Peter actually offered the Kingdom one last time, in Acts 4…but the leaders rejected it again. The miracles continued with essentially the same purpose as before: they brought Glory to God and confirmed the message of the Apostles. As we are reading, the thing we want to notice, is that in every case there were Jews present, and specifically either unbelieving Jews, or, as they began to go to the Gentiles, there were Jewish believers present, who needed to see that the message was valid among the Gentiles as well.
In Acts chapter 10, we see that Peter really did not want to go to the house of Cornelius with the Gentile messengers who were sent to him.. But God made it abundantly clear that he was to go, and he took a group of Jewish believers along with him. The whole household of Cornelius believed the message and God immediately filled them with the Holy Spirit, giving miraculous confirmation by their speaking in languages they had not learned… that is what “speaking in tongues” is, in the Bible…not gibberish, but real, human languages. That was what happened at the day of Pentecost, when the disciples spoke the languages of all the various Jewish peoples that were gathered from many nations, who were there for the feast of tabernacles. They spoke those languages, never having learned them. It drew the attention of the Jewish crowd and gave credence to the message that Peter brought.
So, some of these Jewish believers were now hearing the same thing happen again, with a “bunch of heathens!” (That’s what “Gentile” means.) And their conclusion was that “This is the real thing! These people have been accepted by God!” And Peter proceeded to baptize them all.
Later, (Acts 11:1-18) when Peter was accused by other Jews of having “entered the home of Gentiles” and having eaten with them, this specific miracle was his defense: the Jewish witnesses who had been with him confirmed it. So, everyone had to admit that God was doing a new thing, and bringing in the Gentiles. God used that miracle to confirm the message, prove the Authority of the Name of Jesus, and to shut the mouths of those who argued against it.
But, What about later?
In 1st Corinthians 1:17-25, the Apostle Paul makes several important points about the primacy of the Gospel of Christ—the message of the Cross. But in the midst of it, (22-25) he says something that is very easy to miss: He says that the Jews demand a sign, and the Greeks (Gentiles) seek after Wisdom, but that God’s wisdom is greater, and His power is greater, and that both of them are demonstrated in the Person of Jesus Christ.
Did you get that? We Gentiles want everything to “make sense.” We tend to think that everything should be approachable through human wisdom…and if the message doesn’t fit our Human wisdom, then it is rejected as “foolish.” Meanwhile, the Jews want miracles and signs. They demonstrated that over and over with Jesus, and still in the book of Acts, they were the ones looking for signs and wonders. If they can’t see miracles, they reject the message…but once they have rejected it, even the miracles have no effect. They still reject the Messiah.
We all tend to think either that we are too smart for God, or too good for God. We reject things we can’t understand, and declare them to be foolishness, or we reject the Blood of Jesus at the Cross, demanding that we have the privilege of earning our salvation. What a pack of idiots we are, as a race! We reject the author of Wisdom because we can’t understand Him, and when the Author of Life proved His authority by raising the Dead, we wanted to kill him…and then asked for more miracles! Amazing!
What about Today?
We are still doing it today! We yearn for the exotic, the miraculous, and the exciting! We are not satisfied to feed on the Bread of Life, the Living Word of God. We are “tired of manna!”
I have come to believe that, while the power of God remains unchanged, there are very few circumstances in which I would expect Him to step in and “override the system.” Those would possibly include situations where the Gospel is first being preached by missionaries in remote places, and/or in the lives of new believers, who need to be encouraged by the evident hand of God in their lives. Yet He really does it fairly regularly if our eyes are open to see it in our lives.
I find less than plausible those who go from town to town claiming to “heal lots of people” or to “perform lots of miracles.” They are not doing the kinds of miracle Jesus did (in public, with lots of unbelievers around…specifically unbelieving Jews.) They never heal someone born blind, or having a major, visible, verifiable illness or injury. It is virtually always in the presence of only believers, and only on issues that were questionable to start with. And they usually seek pay!
Are there exceptions? Possibly… many of us have heard of or even have seen miraculous interventions of some sort, whether great or small. But, in God’s Word, the thing we are actually called to do is to walk by faith! That does not mean we get “miracles and warm fuzzies” all the time! It means that we are called to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” Paul did not have the privilege of healing his co-laborers: Epaphroditus nearly died. And he couldn’t even claim healing for himself: God actually told him to stop asking. He said, “My Grace is sufficient for you!” God’s Grace, and the sign of the Resurrection should be sufficient for us, too!
Yes, we serve the God of Miracles! But He is the one to choose when to “override” nature and do something supernatural. As a general rule, we are told to accept what He provides and press on with our job. Let’s get on with the job, but still keep our eyes open to see His hand at work! He is still working, and we are invited to work with Him!
Lord Jesus, we desire to see Your Power in our lives, but we recognize that the Power You are exerting is the Power that raised You from the dead. We ask that we can walk in the newness of Life with You and raise others to life by the Power of Your Gospel and Your Name.
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