One of the challenges we all face is whether to believe claims of miracles. What is a miracle? Those of us trained in the sciences frequently hear someone call a normal action of the forces of nature a miracle. Scammers often claim to be able to perform miracles. That also happened in biblical times. In Acts 8:9-24, we read about a man who made a business in sorcery. Acts 19:13-16 tells of a group of itinerant schemers who tried to perform exorcisms. What is the definition of real miracles, and what is their biblical purpose?
Religious people take John 21:25 to indicate that Jesus randomly performed a miracle for whoever had a need. That is not only irrational but fails to understand why Jesus performed miracles. If receiving a miracle was just a matter of a chance encounter with Christ, then some were given an advantage over others. Why were the widow’s son (Luke 7:11-15), Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8:40-42, 49-56), and Lazarus (John 11:1-44) the only ones the gospels tell us that Jesus raised from the dead? Didn’t many other people have huge unmet needs?
What is a miracle in the Bible? The New Testament has different words that refer to “miracles.” First, the Greek word “semeion” is used when the miracle was a sign, as in John 2:11 and 23 or Revelation 12:1 and 3. Next, the Bible uses the Greek word “teras” to refer to anything extraordinary, as in Matthew 24:24, Mark 13:22, or Acts 2:19, where it is usually translated as “wonders.” Finally, the Greek word “dunamis” indicates the miracle was one to show the power or the “mighty deed” of God, such as in Luke 4:36.
In the Old Testament, we see the concept of God’s power in Psalms 19:1, where the Hebrew word is usually translated as “handiwork.” Today, we have a scientific understanding of much of what would have been miraculous to an ancient Hebrew shepherd, but it is still powerful. The phrase “marvelous works” in Psalms 139:13-14 is not describing an instantaneous creation. Instead, it refers to the process of the development of a child in the womb, which people often refer to as a miracle even though it is well understood today.
The Bible shows God’s intelligence and design involved in all His actions. For example, Romans 1:18-23 reflects on the fact that everyone can all see God’s wisdom and design in nature–if they are willing to look. Likewise, Proverbs 8 tells us that all of creation shows God’s wisdom without suggesting magic or micromanaging by God.
The point of miracles in the Bible is to reveal God’s nature and show who spoke for God and who didn’t. What is a miracle today? There have always been those who claimed to be God or God’s representative on Earth. Miracles described in the Bible had a purpose and addressed a spiritual need. They showed God’s love and compassion, but also His power.
In today’s world, with the Word of God available, the practical guide for how to live and how to die is far more critical than looking for a flashy theatrical show. God can do whatever He chooses to do, but the focus on miracles today takes us away from the essential things in life. Knowing how to live with one another in love and peace is more important than seeing miracles.
— John N. Clayton © 2022