Nate generated some discussion on miracles on his Finding Truth blog. Some of his blog, and the subsequent discussion, suggested that miracles in the Bible and the ministry of Jesus were meant to provide proof of Jesus’ divinity. And therefore if God wants us to believe in him today, he should keep on providing convincing miracles for all who need them to believe.
I thought these ideas were worth considering in more detail than a blog comment allows ….
Why did Jesus do miracles?
What he said
On at least three occasions said he would not do miracles to prove a point.
- In Luke 4:9-12 he rejected the temptation to jump off the top of the temple as a stunt, because that would be pushing God.
- In Mark 8:11-12, the religious leaders asked him from a “sign from heaven”, but Jesus said that wouldn’t be given to them.
- In Luke 23:8-9 Herod wants Jesus to do a miracle, but he refuses.
Jesus most often called his miracles “works”, or “works of power”, not emphasising their evidential value, but rather their role in bring in the kingdom of God “forcefully”. And for him, the kingdom of God was about putting things right, healing and freedom:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
What the gospel writers say
Matthew, Mark and Luke use similar words to Jesus – outgoings of divine power.
John uses the word “signs”, which might seem to be closer to ‘proof by miracle’, and which conveys the double meaning of pointers to Jesus’ divine authority, and tokens of God’s new order. But on several occasions (e.g. John 4:48, 6:29-36) Jesus criticised people for needing such signs, and on one occasion (John 10:25, note he doesn’t use the word “sign” but “works”) he suggests needing signs is second best.
What the scholars say
The scholars I looked up all agree that Jesus didn’t primarily do miracles to prove his divinity, but to demonstrate the power and purpose of God to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.
Jesus’ powerful acts of healing, then, together with all the other extraordinary things the gospels credit him with, are not done in order to “prove” his “divinity”. …. new creation is breaking into the world
NT Wright, Simply Jesus, p 148-150
Jesus believed that in exorcism and in some other kinds of healing, he released people from the power of the devil.
Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, p 278
the mighty works of Jesus were the reign of God in action
AM Hunter, The words & work of Jesus, p83
In addition to displaying Christ’s power and compassion, the miracles have at least two important theological dimensions….. the covenant curses described in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere were being lifted …. [and] a foretaste of God’s kingdom
John Dickson, A spectator’s guide to Jesus, p40-43
So I think it is clear that Jesus’ miracles indeed pointed to his divinity, but their primary purpose was to demonstrate the kingdom of God – how God was going to put things right.
It seems to me that the situation is similar today. There are many plausible miracle stories (see, for example, Healing miracles and God), enough for anyone willing to believe, but not so much as to compel belief.
I conclude that God is being consistent. Some people receive divine healing and this begins or confirms in them a strong faith in Jesus. Others of us can find pointers to God in the verified stories of miraculous healings, but more often than not God seems to use other means to encourage faith.
I’m inclined to think God works this way because his primary purpose is to create autonomous, freely choosing, rational, ethical beings, and over-use of his power would negate that purpose. But that is just a guess.
How does God ‘prove’ himself to believers?