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Miracles: Signs of Gods Presence
The evidence that Jesus was a compassionate and effective healer is overwhelming.
However, this same evidence raises some difficult questions for 21st-century people, modern
historians in particular. Do miracles really happen? Did Jesus really perform all the marvelous
deeds that the Gospels report? What did those miracles mean to Jesus, the early Christians
and the Gospel writers? What do they mean to us?
Jesus was a healer, not as a practitioner of medical science but rather as
a miracle worker. The Gospels are full of reports about his miraculous activities. Indeed,
almost one third of Mark’s Gospel is devoted to Jesus’ miracles. The first
half of John’s Gospel contains seven miracles known as “signs” that range
from Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana to raising his friend Lazarus
from the dead. According to one estimate (counting repeated passages only once), the four
Gospels include 17 healings, six exorcisms and eight nature miracles.
The makings of a miracle
The common definition of miracle is an event that is an exception
to the laws of nature. In the Bible, however, what we call miracles are described more
loosely as “signs and wonders”
or acts of power that are attributed to God.
Moses, in the early chapters of Exodus, and the prophets Elijah and Elisha,
later in the Old Testament, perform many acts of power as instruments of God. Ancient Israel
crossing the Red Sea under Moses’s leadership and crossing the Jordan River with
Joshua are celebrated in the Bible as signs that God was at work in these events on behalf
of his people.
New Testament scholar John P. Meier observes that a miracle has three basic
(1) It must be an unusual event that can be perceived by others.
(2) It has no natural explanation.
(3) It appears to be the result of an act of God.
On different pages
Modern historians have a hard time with the Gospel miracle stories. These
historians work on the following three assumptions:
(1) The past is basically the same as the present.
(2) Historical events can and should be interpreted only within the realm
of earthly cause-and-effect. No supernatural interventions are allowed as explanations.
(3) There are no unique historical figures.
Of course, these were not the assumptions of the evangelists or almost anyone
else in antiquity; nor are they the assumptions of most people today. Meier also notes
that the basic component of a miracle—interpreting the event as an act of God—goes
beyond the historian’s task and competence, and demands a philosophical or theological
judgment about the authenticity of any miracle.
The Gospel writers had no doubts that Jesus was a miracle worker. They all
depict him performing unusual actions, seen by others, for which there was no natural explanation,
and attribute them to the power of God made manifest in Jesus. Unlike other biblical miracle
workers, Jesus acts on his own authority and power, not merely as a mediator between God
and other persons.
Signs of the Kingdom
The early Christians, while acknowledging the humanity of Jesus, regarded
him as a unique figure in human history—the Son of God. Nevertheless, Jesus’ miracles
are not so much displays of power or even proofs of his divinity as they are signs of the
presence of God’s Kingdom in the person of Jesus. Their significance in Jesus’ life
and ministry is captured nicely in his own words: “If it is by the finger of God
that I cast out the demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you” (Lk 11:20).
This saying provides the key to a proper understanding of Jesus’ miracles.
During his lifetime there was little doubt about Jesus’ ability to
heal and perform other types of miracles. Even his opponents acknowledged his power to
do such actions. Their question concerned the origin or source of Jesus’ powers.
Did his power come from God or from Satan? In response, Jesus tried to show the absurdity
of their question, because his miracles were clearly signs of God’s victory over
Satan and the defeat of the powers of evil.
Miracles lead to discipleship
Matthew offers a collection of stories about Jesus’ miracles or mighty
acts in Chapters 8—9. His theological point is that Jesus the teacher was powerful
not only in word (the Sermon on the Mount) but also in deed (the miracles collection).
Matthew records three cycles of three miracles each, interrupted by teachings about following
Jesus. In using this structure, Matthew is suggesting that the mighty acts of Jesus demand
the response of discipleship. Focusing on these texts can help us to open up and better
understand the literary, historical and theological dimensions of the miracle stories in
The majority of the miracle accounts Matthew presents in these two chapters
are healing stories. Jesus heals a man with leprosy, the paralyzed servant of a Roman centurion,
Peter’s mother-in-law who was suffering from a fever, another paralyzed man, a woman
with a flow of blood, two blind men and a man unable to speak.
In each case we get some minimal information about the person’s medical
condition, but never anything like a full diagnosis. This was not the evangelist’s
real interest. In most instances the sick person or a friend approaches Jesus in a spirit
of faith and asks for healing. Jesus responds with words or sometimes with a touch, and
the healing is immediate and complete. The narratives often end with expressions of awe
on the part of the audience or with some other
“proof” that a miraculous healing has taken place.
Matthew has taken these miracle stories from Mark or some other source and
shaped them to bring out his favorite theme of “praying faith.”
His special interest in Jesus’ healings was not so much in the spectacular displays
of Jesus’ power but rather in the prayerful encounter between persons in great need
and Jesus the powerful healer.
These stories had been handed on and reshaped in the early Church for many
years before Matthew came to write down his Gospel near the end of the first century A.D.
Those who passed them on were less interested in piling up factual details than they were
in exploring the significance of these stories for their lives—and our own.
The dead are raised
The accounts about Jesus restoring dead people to life represent a special
category among the healing narratives. In one such story Jesus restores to life the daughter
of a synagogue leader who tells Jesus of her death. “[B]ut come and lay your hand
on her, and she will live” (Mt 9:18).
Similar stories are told by Luke about the son of the widow of Nain and by
John about Jesus’ friend Lazarus. While we assume that these persons would eventually
die a second time, the narratives foreshadow the Resurrection of Jesus and also are signs
of the Messiah’s presence among us: “the blind receive their sight, the lame
walk…the dead are raised” (see Mt 11:5; Lk 7:22; Is 35:5-6).
Matthew also records two exorcisms, that is, the healings of persons who
were thought to be possessed by demons or by Satan, the prince of demons. One is a much
shorter version of Mark’s account about the Gerasene demoniac. In Matthew’s
version, two possessed men behave aggressively toward others. But the demons within them
recognize that Jesus is the Son of God and that his appearance marks the end of the time
for their domination over the two men. Jesus sends the demons into a herd of pigs, who
in turn jump into the Sea of Galilee and drown. Of course, pigs were unclean animals for
Jews, and so the story has an element of insider ethnic humor.
The second exorcism story is about a man whose inability to speak is explained
in terms of demonic possession. He is healed as soon as the demon is expelled.
An exorcism account is a form of a healing story. There are other exorcisms
in the Gospels: the possessed man in the synagogue at Capernaum, the possessed boy and
the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. Moreover, according to Luke, Mary Magdalene (“from
whom seven demons had gone out”) had been healed of demonic possession, presumably
For historians, the problem raised by Jesus’ exorcisms is the nature
of the maladies involved. Were they a sign that the persons he healed were actually taken
over by demonic supernatural forces? Or were their symptoms due to conditions that psychiatrists
today might diagnose as mania, depression or schizophrenia?
Was their abnormal and aggressive behavior due to the tense and repressive
political situations in which they lived? To what extent are these stories imaginative
representations of Jesus’ victory over the forces of evil in the world? Elements
from any or all of these explanations may have been factors underlying the Gospels’ exorcism
There is one nature miracle in Matthew 8—9. Jesus stops a storm on
the Sea of Galilee by his words alone: “[H]e got up and rebuked the winds and the
sea; and there was dead calm” (8:26). Other nature miracles in Matthew (and other
Gospels) include the feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000, Jesus walking on the water, Peter
finding a coin in the fish’s mouth and the withering of the fig tree. John’s
Gospel contains accounts about the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast at
Cana and the miraculous catch of fish (2:1-11, 21:1-14; see also Lk 5:1-11).
The nature miracles are presented as events in Jesus’ ministry that
are dramatic exceptions to the laws of nature. They sometimes meet real human needs like
feeding crowds and rescuing disciples. They are among the most spectacular displays of
power on Jesus’ part and mark him as unique among humans and, indeed, as divine.
In walking on the water and in feeding the poor among God’s people,
Jesus does what God does in the Old Testament. The way in which the nature miracles are
narrated evokes many biblical motifs and precedents, and highlights the theological dimensions
of Jesus’ person and actions. Even more than the healings and exorcisms, the nature
miracles are vehicles of early Christian theology.
Jesus the miracle worker
The miracles of Jesus are a major part of the Gospel tradition. Their prominence
indicates that Jesus’ contemporaries—and even his enemies—acknowledged
that he was a miracle worker. But the nature of our sources may not allow us to answer
definitively all the questions posed by modern historians.
Early Christians were not seeking to simply recount the factual details of
Jesus’ marvelous actions. Rather, following the lead of Jesus himself, they found
in the miracles powerful signs of the presence of the Kingdom of God and testimony to Jesus
as the proclaimer and embodiment of God’s Kingdom. Believers today follow in the
tradition of these early Christians.
Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit
School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and editor of New Testament Abstracts since
1972. He is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association.
Next: Lord, Teach Us to Pray
What experience of the miraculous power of God have you had
in your own life or witnessed in the lives of others?
What difference do the accounts of Jesus as a miracle worker
have in your belief in him as the Son of God? Would it be more difficult for you
to believe if he had not performed miracles? Why or why not?
Matthew suggests that the mighty acts of Jesus demand the
response of discipleship. What is your response to Jesus’ actions in your
life? Are you being called to do more?
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