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THE RATIONAL GOD
Does God Make Sense?
by John Clayton
CHAPTER 5: DO MIRACLES
DISCREDIT THE BIBLE?
To many people the subject of miracles makes God either a fake or a prejudiced, insensitive tyrant. The fake aspect comes from questions raised about whether the miracles actually happened. This is catalyzed by claims of miracles in today's world where the miracle worker extorts money from the person he or she claimed to heal, or the miracle itself is shown to have never really happened. I have had a personal experience with this kind of miracle. I have a son who was born with a combination of birth defects. Tim is totally blind, mentally challenged, has a moderate case of cerebral palsy, is schizophrenic, and has a latent form of muscular dystrophy. Tim was a child we chose for adoption; but, as the problems became clear we raised him as a ward of the state and he was a part of our home until he was 17. At that point he had needs beyond what we could give him, and he was placed in a nursing home that took care of multiple handicapped adults.
One of the workers in the nursing home was a young man named Paul who took an interest in Tim. Paul was a Catholic, and because Tim was and is interested in religions, Tim loved to pepper Paul with questions about his Catholic beliefs and the religious beliefs of others in the nursing home. I was in the habit of taking Tim out to get a meal or fast food twice a week, and Tim would come to our home for special events and special holidays.
One day Tim greeted me with the news that he had heard on the radio about a special healing service at a tent meeting held by a Pentecostal church not too far from the nursing home, and Tim announced that he wanted to go to the service. I refused and Paul was very upset that I would not take Tim to this service. I finally told Paul that he could take Tim and go if he thought it was so important, and he indicated he would. The service went for 90 minutes before they got to the healing part of the service, and for a young Catholic boy used to a 13-minute mass, that was quite an adjustment. Tim enjoyed the shouting, clapping, and singing that was a part of the service, and Paul hung on. Finally a healing invitation was extended.
Tim heard about the claim that anyone who believed in Jesus could be healed, that all they had to do was to come forward and they would have their disease or problem corrected. Tim grabbed Paul's hand and charged down the aisle, towing him to the reception area where Tim informed the greeter that he wanted to have his blindness removed and his legs healed. He was insistent that he believed in Jesus and wanted to be healed. The greeter looked at Tim and helped him into a side tent away from the main service. There he was hugged and “prayed over” and asked to leave. Needless to say he was no better from the experience. The next time I saw Paul I asked him if he was taking Tim back to the healing service and his response was an emphatic “no — that is your problem.”
Every study done on modern faith healers has shown similar techniques used by preachers who prey on desperate and helpless victims of serious diseases and circumstances in life. It is easy to see how claims of miracles in today's world can be dismissed as the malicious acts of charlatans who prey on people who are desperate. That said, one has to understand that even in today's world, where there is no evidence that the same type of miracles done in the New Testament are still being done today, there are still some very practical values to prayer. Learning to “look to a higher power” can be very helpful to people in distress. Psychosomatic and personality disorders can be helped by prayer. God can certainly answer the prayers of anyone to whom he chooses to listen, and God can give a miraculous healing if he chooses to do so. Our concern in this chapter is not to discredit prayer and its value, but to say that God does not act in the world the same today as he did in the time of Christ because his purpose for miracles has been completed.
Let us be clear that when we use the word “miracle” to describe the events in the Bible, we are not suggesting that there is any doubt about the claim of miracles during the first century. Skeptics have tried to explain away miracles in the Bible by natural processes or situations, but the miracles produced by Jesus and the apostles are far beyond any natural explanation. There is no question that the virgin birth of Christ was miraculous. You can attempt to deny it ever happened, but there is no rational way to explain it as a natural product of any scientific process. When Jesus healed the blind man in John 9:1 – 7, there was no question but that it was a miraculous act of God. Our vision is done mostly by the brain, and in fact the image that comes to the brain is inverted (upside down) due to the optical properties of lenses. The brain has to learn to turn the image over so that we can function with the vision we have. When someone today has a medical removal of the cause of their blindness, they have to learn to see because everything that comes to the brain is upside down. So too, when sight was restored by Jesus to a person who had been blind from birth, not only did the physical cause of the blindness have to be removed, but he also had to have the adjustment in the brain to be able to interpret the visual stimulus he was being given. I would suggest to you that a classic example of this is seen in Mark 8:22 – 26. Jesus comes to Bethsaida and people bring to Jesus a blind man. Jesus treats the man and asks what he sees. The man responds that he sees people that look like trees walking around. The eyes are working, but the brain is not interpreting correctly. Jesus treats the man a second time and the result is “he saw everything clearly.” Today we can understand why two miracles were involved in the restoration of his sight: one miracle was the repair of his eyes and the other was the modification of his brain to interpret sight.
The fundamental question here is whether the miracles had a purpose. What about the people for whom no miracle was given? In Nazareth, which was his home town, the Bible tells us Jesus did virtually no miracles. We are told in Mark 6:1 – 6 that the people of his home town were offended by what Jesus was doing, and he marveled at their lack of faith; and these factors are presented as being contributory to his not doing miracles there. Before going any further on this topic, may I call your attention to the situation that existed at that time and the fact that for many people it exists today.
The world always has been and still is full of charlatans and con artists who are looking for ways to gain a following and become rich. It started with Satan in the Garden of Eden and it continues today. For us common folks, one of the great struggles in life is knowing whom to trust and whom not to trust. We have trouble with all kinds of people who claim to have an answer to whatever it is that ails us. It was no different in the time of Jesus and his disciples. In Acts 8:9 – 23 we read of a man named Simon, a sorcerer, who “amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great.” When Simon saw the real powers of the followers of Jesus he wanted to buy them because he won adoration and money through deception by claiming powers he really did not have. In today's world we have people making claims of everything from miraculous diets to alien cure-alls in the same way. Some of these people are very clever, and some of them are criminal in their conduct and objectives.
Imagine even today someone coming to the local mall and claiming to be the Son of God. How would we prove or disprove their claim? Imagine this same problem in a primitive society with limited ways of checking someone out. Doing something that could be just another magic trick would not motivate people to give up everything they had and follow Jesus. The demonstration of power had to be so spectacular and overpowering that no one could deny it was anything other than an act of God. The miracles of Jesus are so incredible that you cannot devise ways of faking them. You can either deny them and claim they are out and out lies and never happened, or you can accept them and look for the message they convey. In John 10:36 – 38 Jesus said, “I am God's Son.” “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”
The miracles Jesus performs are not done for show or for money. He lived and associated with the common man, and his miracles were calculated both in terms of what they showed him to have power over and whom he influenced. Most of the time people who received the miracle were told to tell no one about what had happened. Jesus tried to avoid the circus-like atmosphere that his performing of miracles would be likely to generate.
The most convincing way to see that miracles were a rational and logical methodology of God is to study each miracle and ask what affect that miracle would have on the people who received it and on the people who observed it. I plan to write such a book should the Lord give me enough time to do so; but, let us look at a few examples of what I am trying to say.
THE BLIND MAN OF JOHN 9. The followers of Jesus wanted an explanation of suffering. Here was a man born with one of the most incapacitating birth defects that can exist in a primitive society — he was born blind. A blind person in such a culture was relegated to begging, and verse 8 tells us that this had in fact been this man's livelihood. As a parent of a blind child I know what a blind baby is like, and how difficult, even in our modern time, raising a blind child can be.
The followers of Jesus had already concluded that any birth defect was the result of sin, they just wanted to know whose sin was responsible — “Master, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus denies that sin was responsible for this man's blindness. Jesus also does not say that God did this to the man. There are some things that happen just because we live in a physical world and things in the physical world can go wrong that are not the result of any action of humans. Earthquakes, tsunamis, mud slides, floods, hurricanes, drought, climate change, etc. are sometimes things that happen where man has no role but may be negatively impacted by what happens. More often than this are things that man does do through greed, stupidity, or ignorance; but, God is not the cause in any of these cases.
In this case Jesus says, “this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” The Bible repeatedly tells us that God can take the worst things that can be imagined and cause good to come out of them. Romans 8:28 tells us “..we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” My son Tim's blindness has radically affected who I am as a human being. It has also affected the lives of other people who have come in contact with us. I am not glad that I had such a painful occurrence in my life, but I can see that God has brought good out of what for me was a desperately bad situation.
The religious leaders of Jesus' day could not tolerate any invasion of their territory, and this miracle had been done on the Sabbath. They tried everything to discredit the miracle that the entire community had seen done. They tried to suggest that since it was done on the Sabbath that Jesus had to be from Satan, saying, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath;” but, some of their own number argued that such a miracle could not be from anything other than God. They then tried to deny the man was ever blind (verse 18), but the parents of the man verified that he was born blind and told the Pharisees to talk to the man himself because the parents feared for their own security. The blind man gives a wonderful rebuttal of religious hypocrisy as he leads the Pharisees through the lack of logic in their vitriolic attack concluding with the statement , “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (verse 33). Their response reminds us of the original challenge of the disciples of Jesus in John 9:1 – 2. “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” and they threw him out of the synagogue (verse 34). Jesus concludes this episode by saying, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (verse 39). The event polarized the community and showed the spiritual blindness of organized religion in the first century, much of which still exists today.
Our point here is not about pain being caused by sin (which is not always the case), but rather that the miracle was not a knee jerk reaction of Jesus to a situation. It also was not because the man sought out Jesus or had enough faith for a miracle. The fact is that neither the man nor his parents knew who or what Jesus was. In verses 35 – 36 when Jesus comes back to the man after the Pharisees threw him out of the synagogue, Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” The blind man responds, “Who is he, sir?, … that I may believe in him.” Those who maintain that the granting of a miracle is based upon the faith of the person asking for it need to realize that miracles did not always hinge on belief. They sometimes had another local or regional purpose.
THE WIDOW'S SON. In Luke 7:11 – 17 we see what in biblical times was a personal catastrophe. A widow who had one son was faced with the fact that her only source for the basics of life was gone. The law of the day said that when a man died his estate went to his oldest son, who was responsible for the care of his mother. One has to be reminded of the fact that as Jesus hung on the cross he assigned the care of his mother to John. Jesus had other siblings, but as the oldest son he had the authority to mandate the care of his mother and he did so with his disciple. In the account of Luke 7 there was no other sibling and no surrogate to which the widow's care could be assigned. She would be relegated to begging just to survive. This dead son is being carried out of the city for burial and the grieving mother and a sizable crowd of people from the community were with her (verse 11). Jesus touches the casket and calls the young man inside to get up and “the dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother” (verses 14 – 15).
Once again it is very obvious that neither the young man's faith nor his mother's faith was involved in the miracle. In this case the purpose is not to challenge the religious establishment, but to proclaim to a large number of people that he was the Messiah. The result was exactly that, a ground swell of acceptance of Jesus as God's Son. Verse 16 tells us that people responded with awe, they gave God the glory saying, “God has shown his care for his people” (verse 16). The next verse tells us “Before long, all over Judea and in all adjoining lands, they were speaking of Jesus.” This is followed by the disciples of John the Baptist showing up to ask if Jesus was the promised Messiah. Jesus calls these disciples of John to look at what He was doing and base their judgment on his actions. The miracles had a public relations purpose. It was the fastest and surest way of getting the message out among the common people that God's Son was among them (John 1:1 – 14).
THE CALMING OF THE SEA. Another type of miracle was the miracle that demonstrated Jesus' power over the forces of nature. The classic examples that we are all familiar with are the calming of the sea in Matthew 8:23 – 27; Mark 4:36 – 41; and Luke 8:22 – 25. The reason for the miracle in this case is obvious in the statement of the witnesses. In Matthew 8:27 “The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’ ”
DEMONS. Perhaps no story of miracles is more complex or has more questions linked to it than the story of the mad man of the Gadarenes, told in Matthew 8:28 – 34 and Luke 8:26 – 40. No matter what your understanding of demons is, the story of demons entering a herd of pigs who then stampede into a lake and drown, makes you wonder why it is even in the Bible.
For the people of this region, this mad man was a constant threat. He was naked and lived in the cemetery (Luke 8:27) and had been chained and imprisoned in the past but without success (verse 29). When this demon-possessed scourge was removed, the people who had lived of fear with it were still fearful. They apparently felt that Jesus, who had powers they did not understand, was a threat, and so they asked Jesus to leave. The most accurate translation of verse 37, I am told, is “they were seized by panic and asked him to go away.”
What purpose then did this miracle have outside of the obvious benefit to the man who was relieved of his demons? If you read on you will see that the man wanted to go on with Jesus in his journey, but Jesus told him, “Return to your home and declare how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). The Bible makes a point of telling us the result of this miracle and how well the healed man did this. In the next verse we read, “When Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him.” Nothing is more powerful than a person who has accomplished something great giving credit to God who made it possible. For over 50 years I have been telling people about how God has taken an ignorant atheist whose life was unproductive and abusive, and turned it into something that has value. The lesson of the purpose of the mad man of the Gadarenes' healing still rings true today.
We have just taken four miracles that had different purposes and have attempted to show you that the miracles Jesus did make sense; they had a purpose. After Jesus died and the church was established, the same purposes existed. Any charlatan could stand up and claim to represent Jesus. The New Testament did not exist at this time, and people had no way of knowing who spoke for God and who did not. There needed to be an identification technique, and that technique was “the signs, wonders and miracles” done by the apostles, the things that mark an apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12).
One of the funniest stories in the Bible is the story of the seven sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13 – 17 who had tried to set up a business doing what they saw the apostles of Jesus doing, performing exorcisms. These sons of the Jewish chief priest were saying, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, [we] command you to come out” (verse 13). The demon replies, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” (verse 15). Whereupon the demon-possessed man attacked the seven sons violently and tore off all their clothes, “they ran out of the house naked and bleeding” (verse 16). The Bible then tells us why this happened in the next verse: “When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor.”
The problem of knowing who spoke for God and who didn't existed until God's Word was complete. The purpose of the miracles after Jesus ascended was to give authority to his chosen disciples to speak his words, and to complete the Bible. Paul indicated in 1 Corinthians 13:8 – 10 that all of these miraculous events would eventually end “when completeness [perfection] comes, what is in part disappears” (verse 10). Later in 2 Timothy 3:16 – 17 Paul writes that scripture has been given “so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (verse 17). There have been those who think that 1 Corinthians 13 was referring to heaven, but the context and the message of the rest of the Bible, especially when viewed through the eyes of the people of the day and their struggle with who spoke for God, makes it clear that it was God's perfect Word that was being referred to, not man's ultimate place of dwelling with God.
Miracles are rational in that they had a purpose and they had meaning in the first century. They were not irrational, purposeless acts designed purely for show or for money. Today this purpose for miracles does not exist. Miracles today are personal responses by God to human needs, not authenticity devices. God's Word is complete and authenticated by him. God's Word is what we must trust — never humans.
Continue to the Chapter 6: IS BIBLICAL MORALITY RELEVANT?
Return to the Chapter 4: IS THE CHURCH A RATIONAL CREATION OF GOD?