In my last post I tried to lay out my understanding of the term ‘miracle’. You can go back and review all that. The long and short of it is that as I have come to understand the definition and purpose of miracles, almost all the miracles recorded in the Bible fall into three widely separated periods concentrated and Moses/Aaron and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the Apostles. That amounts to 150 years out of 5,000 years of recorded Biblical history - 10,000 or more years if you try to assign dates to pre-flood history. Sticking with the 5000 year figure, Almost all the recorded miracles of the Bible are packed into just 3% of the Biblical time line. That leaves 97% of the time in question to receive no more than 5% of all the recorded miracles of the Bible. And we’re not talking about that many miracles to start with.
How many miracles are recorded in the Bible? Well, the count varies depending on the definition used by the counter. One list I checked says 126. Another says 163. Another says 185. * Let’s go inclusive, round up and say 200. Proposing 200 recorded miracles, we’re talking about 190 of them happening in three waves comprising 150 years which leaves 10 to be spread out over the remaining 4850 years. If the distribution were even, it would amount to one miracle every 480 years or so – give or take a few months here and there.
The point to understand is that miracles were always rare. And the few time periods in which miracles are more concentrated are also rare. And Jesus was plain on this – the majority of people fail to read the ‘sign’ portion of miracles correctly and get caught up only in the act of power itself – or what they perceive to be the miracle’s immediate practical uses. If I could just have a clay pot that was always full of olive oil no matter how much I took out – I could be rich! Thus, the performing of miracles mainly leads to the demand for – MORE MIRACLES – rather than to a stampede toward the truth God is trying to communicate. We’re that way. A miracle a day would only lead us to wonder why we couldn’t have an AM miracle and a PM miracle!
All of this is not to say that no miracles happen today. It is to say we should expect them to be rare and SIGNIFICANT. God cares about the suffering of the sick and hungry. But most sick people will not be miraculously healed and we shouldn’t expect multiplications of fish and loaves every Tuesday. We (by which I mean mankind) could put an end to world hunger if we wanted to. We could do it using the wonderful creation God has put in our care and a little conscience. World hunger is not solved because we are sinful. The same for crime, injustice, poverty etc. These problems will not be solved until the world to come. And the rare and significant application of miracles is supposed to point us to that world! The expectation that miracles should be commonplace so as to solve the problems of this world is a fool’s game and we shouldn’t play it.
When miracles are performed at all, especially in any time when miracles are concentrated, we should be first and foremost concerned to see what God is pointing us to.
In the meantime, prayers will continue to be answered. Providence will continue to be showered upon us. Angelic ministries will not cease. History will be guided by the Almighty Hand and Everything God does will always be wonderful. But when we talk about miracles, let’s know what we’re talking about and if one occurs – let’s focus on where God wants to lead us through it.
*If you’re interested, All the Miracles of the Bible from Herbert Lockyer’s unique ‘All’ commentary set is available online for as low as $5 used, $18 new.
Many people ask questions like – Do miracles still happen? Others are quick to point at something in their experience and call it a miracle. I have had many conversations with many different folk about – miracles. And I always find such discussions to be un-helpful until we can make sure we are talking about the same thing. God’s providence and answered prayers are wonderful things but they are not necessarily miracles. At least I don’t think so. Also, direct actions of God like the creation of the world or scouring that same world with a great flood may or may not fall into the category of miraculous. I have often heard it claimed that every new baby is a miracle. I agree that life itself is inexplicable without God and that babies are extremely important – and very cool! But if all the workings of nature (beautiful to be sure, a testament to the handiwork of God for certain) are understood to be miracles, the usefulness of the term – or, as I understand it, of Biblical miracles themselves – disappears. For miracles to serve their purpose they must be distinguishable from the general order of things – no matter how wonderful the general order is. Miracles must stand out against the background, not disappear into it. When everything is a miracle, then nothing is.
Taking the words used along with the term ‘miracle’ in the Bible and just paying attention to the VERY basics of context will help us form a more useful definition. The two words most closely associated with the term ‘miracle’ in Scripture are ‘signs’ and ‘wonders’ There are other terms but these three will give us a baseline understanding.
In and of itself, ‘Miracle’ indicates an act of great power. Good enough. But the specific application of power also creates a sense of ‘wonder’. Things formerly regarded as impossible may be possible after all! My previous comfortable world view may need expansion in light of this kind of act of power. In creating ‘wonder’ the specific application of power opens observers up to new possibilities.
Now, add the concept of ‘sign’ to the mix. The act of great power and the ensuing sense of wonder are not generalized. They convey specific information, point at something, directing our attention to a truth beyond the miracle itself. The point of Jesus’ miracles was not just to be impressive or even that sick people need healed, hungry people need fed, and so forth. The miracles pointed beyond the utility of being able to multiply food (Obvious utility) or walk on water (Think of the short cuts!) The miracles were also signs pointing to the truth that Jesus was the son of God and the Messiah. Jesus carefully explained that if you read the information on the ‘sign’ of the feeding of the 5000 as ‘Line up here for a free meal!’ you had missed the point.
A miracle then may be defined as an act or application of great power which creates a sense of wonder in the observers enabling them to perceive a truth beyond the miracle itself.
Now let’s add another kink. ‘Miracles’ as far as I can tell by looking at the use of the term in Scripture, require a human miracle worker. Perhaps some of you can show me something I have missed in Scripture but I do not find the world ‘miracle’ except in instances involving a human ‘miracle worker’. I realize the power comes from God. The human miracle workers generally realized that as well. Moses did get into some trouble for blurring over that distinction a little bit. In all of these cases, one function of the miracle as a ‘sign’ was for observers to trust and follow the human miracle worker as one currently appointed by God.
I add then to the definition – An act or application of great power, involving a human miracle worker, which creates a sense of wonder in the observers enabling them to perceive a truth beyond the miracle itself.
By this definition God’s original act of creation is not a miracle and as far as I have been able to find, the Bible never applies the term ‘miracle’ to the creation described in the first two chapters of Genesis. In fact, every use of the term ‘miracle’ in the Old Testament Scriptures refers to the acts of power done through Moses/Joshua to liberate the Israelites from Egypt and get them to the land of promise.
Which leads me to my next point. If we accept this definition of ‘miracles’ (and I am willing to be shown in Scripture why I should not) then almost all the miracles of the Bible happen in three concentrated waves through a very small handful of human miracle workers.
This concentrates almost all the miracles of the Bible into three widely separated fifty-year periods.
* Each of these time periods is closely associated with the formation of Scripture. Correlation is not causation I know. Just saying.
*It is consistent with the repeated admonition for later generations of Israelites to remember the miracles God did to lead them out of Egypt.
*It is consistent with the expectation of a prophet to come – a prophet like - or recapturing the glory of the days of – Moses/Elijah.
I’ll leave it here for the moment with the promise to add more soon. But if anyone is worried I will tell you this much – I do not believe that NO miracles can happen today and if I am correct and the majority of miracles are concentrated into brief spans of time, that in no way indicates that God is doing nothing in between those time periods.
Today is election day – so I won’t discuss the election. Rather, I will discuss something foundational to our nation. We live in constant danger of forgetting this crucial founding principle which sets the United States apart from other nations – all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, including but not limited to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our government is neither the source nor the guarantor of these rights. In fact, as President Obama correctly observed – our constitution is something in the way of a charter of negative liberties – that is, it primarily defines the things government CANNOT do (to us) in such a free society where our rights descend from a higher source. Long before President Obama, Thomas Paine stressed the difference between government and society regarding society as a great blessing and government as, at best, a necessary evil that, over time, tends to become an intolerable evil. I always recall the tag line from Paine’s discussion – I tell you; the palaces of kings are built over the bowers of paradise!
Many struggle here with what seems an inherent contradiction. On the one hand we believe it necessary to maintain a wall of separation between church and state and forbid the establishment of an official state religion. But on the other hand, our founding principle is based on the notion that we are endowed with basic human rights by our creator. A few thoughts.
Even as I say this I realize that prisons and capital punishment certainly seem to qualify as depriving individuals of liberty or life or the pursuit of happiness – all of which are counted among those unalienable rights granted by the creator. And yet – the rationale for so depriving individuals of life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness is not the prerogative of the government but of the people. The people recognize that situations arise in which certain individuals, for whatever reasons, become threats to the everyone’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. A free society will not countenance my pursuing happiness by taking an ax to all my neighbors. This would be in complete disregard of the very idea of unalienable human rights. Whether my neighbors put a stop to the threat themselves or call on the services of the government – sacred rights are protected rather than denied by preventing me from taking the ax to my neighbors. The role of government is ONLY to carry out these terms of our social compact in as least violent and invasive way as possible.
Problems arise when the government ceases to be the servant of the free society and sets out to become its master. Problems arise when the government begins to regard itself as the author and guarantor of our unalienable rights rather than as the servant of all we rights-bearers.
So, it’s election day. Remember who we are and vote.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church