See the white space given at the beginning of this third chapter? It’s free. Most people don’t know this, but you don’t pay for this extra white space given at chapter breaks. Go ahead, take it. It’s yours. It came with the book, but it’s absolutely free. In this great, free, white space, write down a miracle you need. Your miracle could be relational, it might have to do with your health, your finances, your kids, or your marriage. What is it you need from God right now? Don’t most of us, at any given moment, expect or want something supernatural from God? If I could have a six-pack abs miracle by the end of this book, THAT would be awesome… and miraculous (and laughable my wife says).
How do you define miracles? Without the help of Wikipedia, what would you say constitutes a honest-to-goodness, real miracle? Is a driveway oil spill in the shape of Jesus’ face a miracle? That one really did make the news. There was also the tortilla in Mexico sporting Jesus’ face, and they built a shrine for that one. Unfortunately the Jesus tortilla was taken to grade school for show and tell, and it broke. The shrine and miracle were sadly shut down. My approach here is totally tongue-in-cheek, but I sincerely want to know: Were these things miracles? The miracle of the grilled cheese sandwich (which made serious money on Ebay), the fence with a shadow from nearby trees, the somewhat famous dental x-ray, the family in foreclosure with a huge maple knothole — all of which boasted Jesus’ mug — claimed the miraculous by their respective discoverers. Did God do this? How about the young couple with the miracle of the ultrasound? In their baby’s ultrasound picture was the face of Jesus. That’s enough to make a young expectant mother go, “Deja Mary!” Some who are bent to bend an elbow on St. Patrick’s Day like the miracle of the legendary beer. There in a frothy head of a Guinness was the face of Jesus. Was that really You, God? People everywhere are quite serious about these alleged, heavenly visitations. So many of these miracle sightings have been reported that some devilishly creative soul created a miracle parody of the phenomenon called the Jesus hickey. That was not a miracle, but rather a really bad joke… and admittedly, I laughed.
How do you define miracles, and do you have your theology together on this? If most of us want miracles (and I think we do), then what’s our foundational thinking?
Most people think that the Bible is chock full of miracles. Like a jar full of Miracle Whip, the Bible has plenty of signs and wonders to spread around. With every page turned, it seems, there is a great, big God doing one of His patented marvels. Actually, that kind of thinking is a bit far from the truth. There was a period in the Old Testament when God was forming a nation, and He did several miracles. Then there was a period where Jesus came on the scene in the New Testament, and He was establishing his Church. Jesus did several miracles then. However, other than that, miracles are surprisingly sporadic throughout the Bible. In fact, if you were actually living in ancient Bible times, you would have thought miracles to be extremely rare, uncommon, and quite special. They just didn’t happen all the time like many today think. There are actually many cases where needed and wanted miracles just did not occur.
The Apostle Paul was no stranger to supernatural wonders, but he also wrote about how God had to keep him from becoming conceited. God was pouring through Paul and his teaching, but allowed a “thorn” for Paul to contend with. Some scholars believe Paul had horrific eye troubles and that defined his thorn. Some are convinced he had problems with his legs, or that he was vertically challenged and did not like being short. Whatever it was, Paul asked God to miraculously take the physical disability away. Paul was convinced he could have served the Lord better if a miracle could remove the thorn. Instead the thorn remained and Paul was kept humble. The thorn helped Paul not to be conceited. God said no to Paul’s request for a miracle. Jesus eventually responded to Paul and said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” * Oh snap. Oh, God. No miracle.
Epaphroditus is a little-known name found in the New Testament. Apparently he became very sick. He almost died. He was a faithful worker and lover of God. He almost keeled over being an ambassador for Jesus. Don’t you think at some point the people around Epap would have prayed for a miracle? A logical and powerful prayer would have asked God to whip out one of His big healing miracles for poor Epap. Not only did God not provide Epaphroditus a miracle, the poor guy almost died. And so we have another example of a non-miracle in the Bible. *
Why even bring this up and bring people down? It’s because most Christians practically believe walking with Jesus should produce miracles 24/7, left and right, in mostly big shapes and sizes. In reality, miracles in the Bible are rare and often times just didn’t happen even when asked for. The good news is that if miracles aren’t happening all the time in your life, it doesn’t mean God has forgotten you. You haven’t slipped off His radar screen. Perhaps your non-miracle is God’s way of getting your attention. God might be saying, “Listen, I want you to stop trusting in what I do for you, and start trusting in Me.”
With a more balanced approach towards miracles, let’s look at a couple of Jesus’ miracles, and see if we can find application that makes sense — or as much sense as the miraculous can make. Can we start with the words of Jesus? Are they miraculous?
Jesus went into a town called Capernaum, which was nestled next to the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was several hundred feet below sea level, and was in large part, a place of wet, marshy, lowlands. Malaria outbreaks in the ancient world were well known there. Many people died from this mosquito-carried plague. Malaria always has a very high fever attached to its sting. Having been diagnosed with this exact same disease from a mission’s trip to Kenya, I know all about the fever and horrors of malaria. 105 to 106 degree fevers are common when malaria is battling the body.
Jesus was teaching in Capernaum, and the people were literally blown away by His words. When was the last time you were blown away by the words of Jesus? Jesus’ message carried an authoritative punch. His words even scared the demons possessing the fever-fried minds of post-malaria victims.
At the beginning of the Old Testament, Satan was told he would be crushed underneath the heels of Jesus. You wonder if in Capernaum, demons were fearful this was the beginning of Satan’s demise. Nobody had been able to touch them, but now these demons were wondering if Jesus would destroy them. Jesus told the demons to be quiet, but the Greek words Jesus used indicated a muzzling of an animal. “You are an animal, now be muzzled and rendered powerless.” Suddenly and decidedly a demon left a man. Make no rookie mistake here; this was a definitive miracle. That’s the way Bible miracles go. Nobody was scratching their head saying, “Was that a miracle or not? I just couldn’t tell without the Spielberg special effects.” Like an Oreo with no white, fluffy middle, you would have known this miracle was not the norm.
In the first century, different cults and religions tried to exorcise demons. They would gather ginger or dandelion root and jam it up people’s nasal cavities to try and force demons out. The whole ordeal was painful, slow, and it usually didn’t work too well. When Jesus removed a demon and did so decidedly, people would have been absolutely wide-eyed as they scored a point on the miracle board for Jesus.
After Jesus amazed and astounded with such a miracle, the Bible said people were blown away at His teaching. His what? Yep, His teaching. His words. Sometimes when you read the Bible, it’s helpful to ask yourself what wasn’t said. At Capernaum, what wasn’t said was, “That was an amazing miracle.” Instead they talked about His words. They surmised it was Jesus’ words that forced the demons to flee, and not His razzle-dazzle dandelion techniques. News and excitement about Rabbi Jesus’ words began to spread as fast as an urban legend on the Internet.
In Jesus’ day, there were all kinds of rabbis who were really boring. Jewish teachers and leaders would give long, tired, lifeless sermons that could put a Ritalin deprived, ADD teenager to sleep. Rabbis waxed boorishly long because they learned boxy tradition, Old Testament law, and Torah from the older, crotchety rabbis. Whatever they learned from the older rabbis they simply passed down. It was all very tedious and dreary, but deemed necessary because, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Some things never change.
Occasionally and thankfully a rogue, exciting, and different rabbi would come into town. They would flaunt their own interpretations. These were independent, free thinkers, and they were able to draw huge crowds. Their own personal stories and applications set them apart from rabbis who got stuck in merely repeating what had been repeated for years upon countless long years. Rabbis who would speak for themselves and spoke with authority would say things like, “You have heard it said, but I tell you…” Sound familiar? Rabbis with such command and chutzpah were said to have “schmika.” Ancient Jewish people loved rabbis with schmika and would travel by foot for miles on end to hear a teacher with this kind of power and authority.
When was the last time Jesus’ words blew you away? When was the last time His miraculous words of salvation rocked your world? When was the last time His words of power and authority put light and life back into your, dusty, rusty, crusty, old, predictable Christian ways?
Words are powerful. A brief look at politics makes my point. At a media-hyped Iowa caucus, a Republican candidate beat out the front-runner who had a more supportive bank account. The cable news channels were buzzing. A popular third place candidate conceded that Mike Huckabee won because he refused to use negative words. Television pundits were saying the entire political landscape of America had been changed with a unique approach. Wow. Really? All because of words. Huckabee refused to run negative ads, and won the war of words.
An elder at our church, a person who I count as one of our most deep and overtly spiritual thinkers, sent me an email. He had a question. “Alan, think about this. If corn oil comes from corn, and vegetable oil comes from vegetables, where does baby oil come from?” That’s just sick, but words can make us laugh, can’t they? Words challenge us. Words make us think. Words can change our lofty perceptions of elders.
Occasionally I will bring an unsuspecting person to the stage on a Sunday morning and place them in what I call “the affirmation seat.” Usually I try to find someone in need of a little encouragement. Once my subject is seated, I ask the rest of the Church to shout words of encouragement to the thirsty soul. Invariably I will hear someone scream, “You’re the greatest. You’re awesome! We love you. You’re a child of the most-high God. Jesus loves you. You rock. You’re a child of God. You’re a great mom.” Even the sound guy gets in on the action and blurts, “Karen, you are fearfully and wonderfully made!” How do you think those words felt to Karen? To a person like Karen, who had strung together a couple of rough years, she would say it felt pretty cool.
We know the power of words. Why then do we so often ask for spectacular, sensational, miraculous stuff, and neglect the powerfully miraculous words of Christ when He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” * Why would someone hear those words of salvation and say, “Yeah, but give me something REALLY cool.”
Henry Blackaby writes, “If Jesus could speak and raise the dead, calm a storm, cast out demons, and heal the incurable, then what effect might a word from Him have upon your life?” How miraculous are the very words of Christ? Do you approach the Word(s) of God with a holy expectation of the miraculous?
Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. It seemed Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever. We would guess, being in Capernaum or it’s marshy suburbs, that malaria was the likely culprit. This was life threatening and would have required more than a few ibuprofen to bring the temperature down. With the thermometer rising to 105 or 106, this was one sick puppy of a mother-in-law. People in such dire straits, more often than not, died in ancient Capernaum. Jesus rebuked, chastised, and wagged a dissenting finger at the malaria bug, and the fever broke immediately. Then Jesus just started showing off. The woman jumped out of bed and began waiting on Jesus and the other guests. Isn’t that cool? It wasn’t as if Jesus told her to be healed, and then she laid around in bed recovering for a week to ten days. Miracles in the Bible were without a doubt, and unambiguously so.
To keep our balanced perspective, I’m reminded how miracles of healing still have a 100 percent mortality rate. Sorry for that wet blanket, but let’s keep digging.
When the sun was setting on a Saturday, religious ceremony was officially over and business as usual resumed for the middle-eastern Jew. With the Sabbath ending, people were allowed to bring people to see Jesus. Sick people, possessed people, blind and lame people all came for a miraculous healing. Jesus physically touched and loved people one at a time. You didn’t see too many boring, stuffy, old rabbis doing that kind of thing. I hope you can see how incredibly cool this was for Jesus to operate beyond the normal rabbinical M.O. After all, Rabbi Jesus had schmika! Immediate and miraculous healings were followed by more demons silenced and hurled out of people and back into the pits of hell where they belonged. Jesus spoke and unbelievable things happened. This was heady stuff. This was the stuff of miracles from the mouth and words of Jesus.
Some people are resolved that there never were such miracles. Some think there are no additional miracles, and will never be. If you stand somewhere within those lines, you have to awkwardly deal with the resurrection. If you are a miracle skeptic, what will you do with the resurrection?
Jesus died a horrific and violent death. Three short Jewish days later He was alive. It was a resurrection miracle. Only eight other individuals through the hundreds of years covered by God’s Word experienced this rarity. (There was a time when several people came back to life when Jesus was killed, but that was a total group thing.) Once Jesus burst forth from His cave tomb, He appeared to over 500 people at different times. This would have validated a physical, real, resurrection miracle. To leave no doubt about His physical resurrection, Jesus ate some fish. Oh the details of the Bible!
Some write this all off and claim Jesus really didn’t die. He was beat up real good, suffered severely and came close to death, but He recovered. He never actually died. There’s still an ancient rumor about Jesus’ body being stolen. Desperate disciples would have done anything to keep their good thing alive, right? Wrong. Would you die for a lie like that? Almost every Apostle did die for the mission of Jesus. They died believing Jesus was alive, and many were sent to their own funerals through violent means.
Millions of people have given their very lives for the resurrected Jesus. If you don’t believe in miracles, what on earth do you do with this divine resurrection miracle and the testimony of legions? If you write off miracles, you have to wrestle with Jesus either being a liar or a lunatic, because as Lord He resurrected. * That’s what you’re up against when you’re set against the ideas of miracles.
Some people will bridge the miracle gap by claiming miracles did occur but have stopped. This flavor of miracle doubter is technically called a cessationist. I Corinthians 13 can be the banner text for a cessationist. When, as the Bible says, we were a child, we acted like a child; but then the perfect came. The perfect, some believe is the Church and the completed Word of God. There was a time miracles were necessary scaffolding for the initial building, but no longer needed since the Church and the entirety of the Bible is established. There is no longer a need, some would say, for miracles.
What do you believe foundationally? Did you write a miracle down you needed, but are unsure of what you actually believe about that miracle happening? If your mouth would articulate, “God, I need a miracle,” would your theology permit it to happen?
My Grandma Scott was a grand, old, Pentecostal, charismatic, Godly woman whom I loved spending the night with during the summer. The summer I was nine years old, I headed off to Grandma’s. I grew up in the opposite kind of church from my Grandma. At my church we didn’t talk about the Holy Spirit, we seldom clapped, and our theology was all figured out. So when I went to my grandmother’s house that summer of 1969, I took my hay fever, allergies, and theology on miracles with me. All three were a mess.
After sneezing and blowing and coughing, Grandma got tired of my miserable routine so she hauled me off to her Thursday night healing church service. I remember this quite vividly. We went down into a packed, dark basement of someone’s house and took our seat in a row of metal folding chairs. There was a yelling preacher dude up front hitting people on the head and causing them to lie out flat on the cold cement floor. This was not my mother’s church. Without warning, my beloved grandmother (God bless her miracle-believing soul) grabbed my hand, and dragged me up the makeshift aisle to the front of the very dangerous space with the very loud preacher. I had never seen this kind of stuff before from the back of any church, much less on the front row. The yelling pastor said a few words and tapped me on the head. Nothing. Nothing happened. There was bedlam and all kinds of spiritual activity going on all around me, but nothing doing with me. Well, except for the fact that I stopped sneezing. That was cool. Grandma took me back to our metal chairs, and within 10 seconds my annoying sneeze pierced the Spirit-filled air again. Grandma gave me one of those looks that said, “I really can’t wait for your father to pick you up in the morning.”
What’s my theology and thinking on miracles? Where do I land? I’m prone these days to approach God with humility, allow Him to determine the size and shape of miracles, and ask for a miracle backed with purpose. I certainly don’t have all this figured out. I hope I never will, but that’s where I’m currently landing. I do think praying about the mission and purpose behind miracles is a very good thing to do. If there isn’t purpose behind miracles, can’t things get really skewed like what I see a lot on Christian TV?
When Jesus was wrapping things up at Capernaum, the people tried to keep him from leaving. I love that. I love the honesty and real-ness of the Bible. If Jesus had just completely healed your city’s sick, lame, deaf, and blind, would you want Him to move on down the road? No way! You wouldn’t want Him to go anywhere but the dining room of your house where He could chill and take excellent care of you and your family.
It’s interesting how earlier in Dr. Luke’s fourth chapter there were people who wanted Jesus dead because of His words. His words of authority were convicting, challenging, and embarrassing. Because of His teaching and schmika, people wanted Him dead. But in Capernaum, people wanted Jesus to hang out and hang a shingle. Those were two fairly broad spectrums of what people wanted to do with Jesus and his amazing words.
What do you want to do with Him? Are you tired and done with His teaching? Do Jesus’ words convict, irritate, or bore you to the point you want Him gone? If this is you, do you still want a miracle or two?
Jesus told His adoring fans in Capernaum He MUST leave because He had to… preach. THAT is very interesting. He didn’t say He had to hit the road because He must do more miracles. He had to preach more good news to more people. Jesus’ brief explanation takes us to school on the purpose and mission of miracles.
Jesus identified preaching as the reason He was sent. It was why He exorcised the demon. It was why the malaria melted off the mother-in-law. Jesus told his religious admirers the reason He did all the cool stuff they liked was because of the message. It was to substantiate the preaching. It was about lost people and salvation. It was about the gospel… the good news of God coming to earth to save us. Jesus didn’t have a driving need for the spectacular, but He did have a passion for mission and lost people, which fueled the miraculous.
Jesus knew the sensational would distract from the mission. Miracles, as Jesus understood, don’t necessarily change somebody’s heart. Did a friend just pop into your head, that if God would just deliver a whopper of a miracle, they would believe? “Jesus, a miracle or two would bring them to you!” Have you ever prayed that? I have.
Take a quick glance at the period in the Old Testament when miracles were happening left and right. God was establishing His nation of Israelites. He was parting the Red Sea, raining bread from heaven, providing miracle quail for food, physically guiding His people with clouds and fire, and using rocks as water faucets. Those fortunate people back in the good ‘ole days of the Old Testament had it made, didn’t’ they? Nope. Packaged in with all the miracles were a difficult lot of people who seldom obeyed and often longed for the comfort and nostalgia afforded by the shackles of slavery. How’s that for rational thinking? They wanted to go back to Egypt. They wanted to exchange Jehovah God for the comfort of a smaller “g” god.
Doesn’t this tell us something about miracles that Jesus plainly knew? Miracles alone don’t necessarily change hearts. Because of this sad, human fact, every one of the miracles Jesus performed had purpose and mission behind it. Miracles played an important role in Jesus’ ministry, but His priorities were on prayer and preaching. Jesus had a mission for the lost. It was all about salvation; we just forget.
How do we get so sidetracked that salvation is just a so-so God thing? How do we lose sight of the modern day miracle of Jesus resurrecting Himself within anyone who chooses to die to self? It’s why I absolutely love and celebrate baptisms. Salvation should blow us away. We should still be amazed at the shmika and authority coming through the words of Jesus that save us. I can still remember Becky and Perry, a couple baptized on a cold December Sunday morning. They had a really bad history of drugs, arrests, kids taken away by the State, and a convenient relationship outside of God’s design of marriage. Becky and Perry were a very real mess, but the miracle of salvation swept them off their feet when they were completely powerless to do anything for themselves. On the same Sunday the Bishops were baptized, several gracious ladies of our church creatively put together a small wedding ceremony and reception. It was a grand day in the Kingdom. It was a salvation party that Jesus DID attend. We were all front row ticket holders to the miracle of salvation. Although Becky and Perry still don’t live perfect lives, they have received and hung on to their perfect salvation miracle. The undeniable miracle of salvation is something real Christians and authentic churches should elevate and pray for.
Henry Blackaby writes, “The difference between a church and a social club is the miraculous.” The miraculous should be a part of the Christian experience. We either believe nothing is impossible with God or we don’t. Personally, I never want to hem God into a no-miracle zone ever again. Let God be God, and He can do whatever He wants. Even if He wants to put the face of Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich. Maybe that IS a miracle. Maybe.
Here’s what I am totally sure of: A lost person who is far from God, but gains eternity and salvation, is a spectacular thing only a supernatural and miraculous God can do. That is a miracle by anyone’s definition. Which is the greater miracle? Is it forgiveness and somebody far from God connecting, or a cured disease? Many Christians who need to polish their religious label will struggle with this. Salvation is OK, but a stage-4 cancer healing would really boost our own personal ratings. A healed disease, however, still has a 100 percent mortality rate, and not everybody is changed by a miracle — remember? But a soul changed and saved for all eternity by the blood and resurrection of Jesus is the quality of miracle no Hollywood script or cheesy TV preacher can duplicate.
I’m convinced, now more than when Grandma was around, real Christians should pray for miracles. Straight up and flat out, we should pray for God’s hand to do things we’re not used to. With humility and a predetermination that God will decide the size and shape of miracles, we should boldly ask for them. We should ask and pray for purpose to be attached. If you need a financial miracle, pray your brains out, and attach a lost person to that prayer. If a marriage miracle is needed, pray and attach purpose and mission and salvation to that miracle. If you’re praying for a relational miracle, then attach purpose, vision, and mission to it, because that’s the way Jesus did it. When the miracle maze gets confusing, always go back to the way Jesus did it. Always.