STUDY ELEVEN: MIRACLES AND THE MIRACULOUS IN MATTHEW

© Rosemary Bardsley 2012

Introduction: The Greek words used in the New Testament:

[1] dunamis = miracle [the normal meaning of this word is ‘power’ – hence it is used to refer to a miracle = a manifestation of power]
[2] semeion = sign [a proof, evidence or convincing token – addresses the mind and understanding]
[3] ergon = work [usual word for any kind of deed]
[4] teras = wonder [something amazing – impacts the emotions and imagination; used only twice in the synoptic gospels – both reporting the same statement of Christ about end-time false Christs and false prophets. The word is not used by the synoptic writers to refer to anything done by Jesus].

Note: English translations are not consistent in their translations of these words. Some add ‘miraculous’ as in interpretative comment in front of semeion or ergon. This can mislead the reader into focusing on the miraculous, rather than focusing on the significance of the ‘sign’. Some translate teras as ‘miracle’.

A. MIRACLES, SIGNS AND WONDERS IN THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS – WHAT THE EVIDENCE REVEALS

About the kinds of miracles and signs done by Jesus:
The signs and miracles performed by Jesus in the synoptic gospels fall into four categories:

• Healing miracles [acute and chronic illnesses, and disabilities]
• Nature miracles [feeding miracles, exercising control over nature]
• Raising the dead [2 only]
• Casting out demons

 

Some miraculous occurrences supposedly occurring today simply did not happen in the ministry of Jesus and the disciples:


• There are no miracles in which Jesus made anyone rich, or suggested those who believe in him would be rich. The only reported occasions in which he benefited anyone in terms of material resources were the two feeding miracles, the fish Peter caught with the coin in its mouth to pay tax for himself and Jesus, and the miraculous catch of fish. None of these could be described by the words ‘wealth’ or ‘wealthy’.
• There are no reports of Jesus [or anyone] ‘speaking in tongues’.
• There is no evidence that either Jesus [or anyone] received or spoke ‘words of prophecy’ or ‘words of knowledge’ or ‘words or revelation’ in the contemporary sense. Jesus did on occasion demonstrate that he knew the heart or mind of a person, but that is attributable to his divine omniscience.
• There is no evidence that Jesus [or anyone] practised ‘slaying in the Spirit’.
• There is no evidence of ‘word faith’ or ‘positive confession’ practices or expectations.

 

About the role of faith:
In contrast to contemporary Christianity’s heavy emphasis on the role faith in obtaining God’s miraculous intervention, the synoptic gospels give us very little evidence of such a connection between ‘faith’ and the miraculous. Consider the following statistics:

 

  • In only 4 separate incidents of miraculous healing is the faith of the person healed mentioned.
  • In 4 incidents of miraculous healing the faith of a third party – an associate or relative of the patient – is mentioned. In addition there is one incident in which the father of the epileptic boy confessed both faith and unbelief.
  • 1 failed healing is attributed to insufficient faith on the part of the ‘healer’ [the disciples; but Jesus added that prayer and fasting were also necessary in this case.]
  • There are no incidents reported in which the absence of faith, or the inadequate faith, of an individual patient is a barrier to healing. Such a concept simply isn’t there.
  • In 1 incident it is reported that Jesus ‘did not’ [Matthew] or ‘could not’ [Mark] do many miracles in his home town because of their lack of faith. He did actually do some miracles. [The comment is not about the necessity of personal faith being present for a person to be healed, but to a fundamental failure of these people to see Jesus as anyone other than the carpenter’s son. After all, why even bother to bring sick people to the carpenter to get healed!?]
  • 23 miraculous incidents are reported with no reference to faith at all. It may well be that in some of these instances faith was present, but it is very obvious that faith was not present in many. Some of these miracles were done simply because Jesus chose to do them, irrespective of the personal state of belief or unbelief in those who benefited.

 

About the role of the miraculous:


• Faith was not a precondition for the miraculous. As seen in the tabulated analysis below, his miracles were indicators of his divine identity. Their purpose was to demonstrate that he, Jesus of Nazareth, was God in human flesh, and so to confirm that he, and he alone, was the right and proper object or focus of faith. He did not set out to be a miracle worker, attracting followers by the spectacular [he had already rejected that option during his temptation]; he worked miracles to demonstrate his deity, to confirm that he was indeed God in human flesh – that the carpenter of Nazareth was the Christ, the Creator and Sustainer of the world. Rather than faith being a precondition for the miraculous, the miracles of Jesus pronounce judgment upon all who did not respond to his miracles with appropriate faith and repentance, that is, upon all who rejected his claim to deity.

• He rejected the superficial faith that saw only the miracles or looked for miracles. In fact he said that miracle-seeking faith, sign-seeking faith, was not acceptable to him; it was, he said, actually evil and spiritually adulterous. The miracles and signs were never meant to be the focus of faith; their role was to point beyond themselves to the fact that the person who did these miracles is God in human flesh. They confirmed his verbal testimony that he was the Son of the Father, the King of the Kingdom of God.

• Jesus also taught that where a human had the ability to perform miracles that did not in itself indicate that the person with this ability was a genuine believer, or that the miracles were done by God’s power. In fact he taught that false teachers and false Christs would perform mighty signs and wonders, and warned believers not to be deceived by them.

 

About Jesus’ attitude to his own miracles
[1] As indicated above, Jesus saw his miracles as signs confirming his divine identity.

[2] It is also obvious that Jesus was not on a healing crusade. He left towns before all the sick or demon possessed had been cured, even though people had gathered together because he was there. He did not go around raising every person who died. On several occasions he refused to do miracles.

[3] Jesus did not want people flocking after him because of his miracles, or to get healed. He deliberately commanded people not to tell anyone about their healings.

[4] Right from the outset he refused to use the spectacular/miraculous to attract followers.

[5] Right from the outset he refused to focus on the physical.

[6] Right from the outset he refused to use the spectacular/miraculous for personal advantage.

This attitude of Christ to the miraculous is in distinct contrast to the attitudes found in some contemporary Christian circles.

 

About miracles and sin
From the synoptic Gospels, as obvious in the tabulated analysis below:


• Not one person who was healed, or from whom a demon was cast out, was required to first confess their sins or get rid of their sins before healing could occur.
• One man’s sins were forgiven by Jesus – without any verbal acknowledgement of sin or request for forgiveness; after that Jesus also healed this person as a demonstration that his word had the power to implement what he said.

The contemporary teaching that suffering, sickness or poverty is due to unconfessed or hidden sin cannot be supported by the synoptic gospels.

 

About on-going miracles, signs and wonders

 

  • Apart from his actual resurrection appearances, there is no record of Jesus doing any post-resurrection miracles in the synoptic gospels. As noted above, Jesus did miracles as signs of his deity. As we will see later, the resurrection is the ultimate sign, the final proof, of that deity. No additional signs are needed to establish his deity.
  • The word ‘wonders’ is used only twice in the synoptics, both reporting the same message of Jesus, and then only to refer to the miraculous works of the false Christs and false prophets who would come towards the end of the age – Matthew 24:24. There is no reference to any ‘wonders’ being performed in the future by followers of Christ.
  • There is one promise relating to the coming of the Holy Spirit – ‘you will be clothed with power from on high’.
  • There is no anticipation of people being ‘slain in the Spirit’.
  • ‘Spiritual gifts’ are not mentioned.
  • ‘Speaking in new tongues’ is mentioned only once [Mark 16 – in the section not found in the earliest manuscripts]. It is mentioned as a ‘sign’ by which the Lord would confirm his word.
  • Also in this section of Mark 16, Jesus mentions ‘signs’ that would accompany believers. Note that he did not call them ‘miracles’ or ‘spiritual gifts’. He called them ‘signs’, indicating a specific function – these miraculous occurrences were to be pointers to something else. Mark’s comment in the last verse indicates that what that ‘something else’ was is Christ’s ‘word’ which these eleven disciples went and preached. By the miraculous ‘signs’ accompanying the eleven, Christ confirmed that what they spoke was his word.

 

B. TABULATED ANALYSIS OF REFERENCE TO MIRACLES AND THE MIRACULOUS IN MATTHEW

Ref

Content

Comment

Matthew 4:1-11

 

Satan tempted Jesus to use his divine powers [1] for selfish, physical reasons, [2] to attract multitudes of followers.

Jesus refused these inappropriate uses of miracles. He considered that such use of miracles

[1] was self-focused,

[2] made the physical more important than the spiritual – both in terms of [a] human life, and [b] the kingdom,

[3] involved disobedience to the written Word of God,

[4] put pressure [expeirazo] on God – tried to force God to act, and

[5] involved submission to and worship of Satan.

Matthew 7:22

dunamis

Many miracles, including casting out demons, done by false believers in the name of Jesus. Jesus said he never knew them.

Just because a miracle happens does not mean that God did it. Nor does it validate the person’s faith or ministry.

Matthew 8:4

 

Jesus healed a leper in response to his request. The healed leper was commanded to tell no one. No faith mentioned.

Jesus avoided public exposure as a miracle worker. To avoid the miracle seeking crowds he withdrew to lonely places.

Matthew 8:5-13

 

Centurion’s servant healed in response to faith.

Jesus drew attention to his faith because he was a Gentile.

Matthew 8:14-17

Many healed, demons cast out. No faith mentioned. Reference made to Isaiah 53:4 – ‘he took up our infirmities and carried our diseases’

 

Matthew 8:23-27

 

Calming the storm. Not because of faith – Jesus rebuked them for the smallness of their faith.

Demonstration of Christ’s deity.

Mat 8:28-34

 

Healing of two demon possessed men. No faith involved.

Evidence of Christ’s deity.

Matthew 9:1-8

 

Healing of the paralytic – his friends had faith; his own faith not mentioned.

Demonstration of Christ’s authority

Matthew 9:18-26

 

Jairus’ daughter raised. Faith mentioned. Parents did not expect her to come alive again.

Woman healed. Faith mentioned.

Told not to tell anyone.

Matthew 9:27-34

Blind men healed. Faith mentioned.

Jesus asked the blind men if they believed he was able to do it.

Mute/demon possessed healed. No faith mentioned.

Told to tell no one.

 

 

Pharisees attributed his power ‘the prince of demons’.

Matthew 10:1-8

 

Jesus gave the twelve [including Judas] authority to drive out evil spirits, raise the dead, and heal every disease and sickness – among the Jewish towns. He expressly forbid them going to the Gentiles and Samaritans.

[Some of the instructions given here are revoked in Luke 22:35-38 just before Jesus’ death]

 

The miracles were signs to the people of Israel that Jesus was the divine Messiah – the King of the kingdom.

 

Note also: contrary to the belief of ‘power evangelism’ that signs and wonders are an essential part of evangelism, it is these cities, where most of Jesus’ miracles were done, that Jesus sternly rebukes for failure to repent. Miracles do not automatically predispose people to repent and believe.

Matthew 11:1-6

ergon

 

Jesus lists his miracles as proof for John the Baptist that he was the expected Messiah.

Matthew 11:20-24

dunamis x 3

Jesus rebuked the cities of Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, ‘where most of his miracles had been performed’ for their failure to respond appropriately to his miracles. Even the godless pagan cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom would have repented [turned to God] and escaped the judgment that fell on them if Jesus had done his miracles there; yet here are God’s people, the Israelites, refusing to repent in the face of impactive evidence of the deity of Christ.

Matthew 12:1-14

 

Man with shrivelled hand healed. No faith mentioned.

Demonstration of Jesus’ authority over the Sabbath

Matthew 12:22-24, 28

Demon-possessed/blind/mute man healed. No faith mentioned.

Jesus did it by the Spirit of God; evidence that the Kingdom of God is present in his presence.

Matthew 12:38-40

semeion x 4

Jesus rebuked those who wanted a ‘sign’ calling them an evil and adulterous generation. He told them the only sign they would be given would be his resurrection.

Validity of need for signs denied; desire for signs understood as evil & adulterous

Matthew 13:53-58 – dunamis x 2

 

The people in his home town question the source of Jesus’ miraculous powers, and were offended by him. Because they did not believe in him Jesus did not do many miracles there.

[Mark states that Jesus ‘could not’]

 

Matthew 14:2

dunamis

Herod thought Jesus could do miracles because he was John the Baptist risen from the dead.

False conclusion drawn from miracles

Matt 14:13-21

Feeding of the five thousand. No faith mentioned.

 

 

Pointers to Christ’s deity

Matt 14:22-33

 

Walking on water – the disciples worship him as the Son of God

[These verses indicate that the feeding of the five thousand was a revelation of the divine identity of Christ, but the disciples hadn’t seen it because their hearts were hardened. Because they had not understood the impact of that miracle they are completely amazed at Christ’s divine authority over the water and the wind.]

Peter walked on water for a while. His lack of constant faith mentioned.

Matt 14:34-36

 

Healings. No mention of faith.

Note: all who sought healing were healed. There were no failed or partial healings.

Matt 15:21-28

 

Canaanite woman’s daughter freed from demon. Faith mentioned.

 

Matt 15:29-31

Various afflictions healed. No faith mentioned.

People amazed. God glorified.

Matt 15:32-39

 

Four thousand feed. No faith mentioned

 

Matthew 16:1-4

semeion x 5

Similar to 12:38-40

Validity of seeking miraculous signs denied

Matt 17:14-21

 

Boy with a demon healed. Inability of disciples to drive out the demon attributed to their inadequate faith. [Some manuscripts add the significance of prayer and fasting.] The father acknowledges both faith and unbelief.

It was the healers’ faith that was inadequate. The boy’s faith is not mentioned.

Matt 21:18-22

 

The fig tree withered. Significance of faith.

 

Matthew 24:3– tthew 24:3 ntionedquate,venife, and [2] the kingdoms used in several different contexts, not just in discussion of '31 semeion x 3

teras

 

The disciples asked for a ‘sign’ of Christ’s coming. His reply included a strong warning that false Christs and false prophets would come and deceive many people. These false prophets will ‘perform great signs and miracles [= terata` – wonders] to deceive even the elect – if that were possible.’ When he comes ‘the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky’.

Signs are false, seductive and deceptive. No mention of genuine miracles as a ‘sign’ of his second coming.

Only use of the word ‘wonders’ in synoptic gospels, and it refers to the things done by false Christs and false prophets.