George Mueller, a follower of Jesus Christ and director of orphanages in Germany in the 1800s, recalls a first-hand experience of the miraculous works of God in his life. In his journal he writes:
“The children are dressed and ready for school. But there is no food for them to eat,” the housemother of the orphanage informed George Mueller. George asked her to take the 300 children into the dining room and have them sit at the tables. He thanked God for the food and waited. George knew God would provide food for the children as he always did. Within minutes, a baker knocked on the door. “Mr. Mueller,” he said, “last night I could not sleep. Somehow I knew that you would need bread this morning.
I got up and baked three batches for you. I will bring it in.”
Soon, there was another knock at the door. It was the milkman. His cart had broken down in front of the orphanage. The milk would spoil by the time the wheel was fixed. He asked George if he could use some free milk. George smiled as the milkman brought in ten large cans of milk. It was just enough for the 300 thirsty children.”
Mueller’s experience is heralded by Christians around the world as an example of God working in the natural world by supernatural forces. Every believer understands that miracles occurred in the lives of those recorded in the Bible, yet few seem to live lives marked by miraculous expectations today.
Since God never changes, this paper will seek to define a working understanding of miracles, search the history of miracles, and seek how believers can understand miracles in modern times.
Miracles – Creating a Definition
As stated in the thesis above, for the purposes of this paper, a working definition of a miracle may be a rare occurrence in the natural world that goes against common understanding, causing one to look in awe at a supernatural source. However, does this definition suffice? Can modern-day individuals utilize this definition and use it to define the miracles that may or may not occur in their daily lives?
This definition takes into account the understandings brought into this argument that God is a providential, non-created being who preserves, controls, and governs all things in creation. While many humans understand and define a miracle when one occurs, it is still helpful to give come common definitions given by individuals – Christian and non-Christian, which can build a framework for discussion.
For some, a miracle may be a moment when God seemed to directly intervene supernaturally in the natural world. This view is seen as diestic, placing God as the great “clock-maker” who created the world, set it in motion, and then allows it to continue on its own – only intervening in moments of great need. Verses that refer to God as “causing the rain to fall” (Matthew 5:45) and that He “…carries along all things by His Word of power” (Hebrews 1:3) would seem to refute this view. However, this is a view that the vast majority hold, which may give the rise in those who see miracles as rare and unusual, instead of everyday occurrences.
Another definition often attributed to miracle is more active – God working in the world without using means to bring about the results he wishes. Yet to speak of God working “without means” leaves us with very few if any miracles in the Bible, for it is hard to think of a miracle that came about with no means at all: in the healing of people, for example, some of the physical properties of the sick person’s body were doubtless involved as part of the healing.
When Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, he at least used the original five loaves and two fishes that were there. When he changed water to wine, he used water and made it become wine. This definition seems to be inadequate.
Another way to define a miracle is that it is a natural event that is impossible to explain by natural causes. However, this definition requires that one fully understand all possible natural causes. Moreover, the definition does not consider God as the source of the miracle, and it assumes that God does not use some natural causes when he works in an unusual or amazing way. Like the deistic definition, this assumes that God only occasionally intervenes in the created world, and can increase the skepticism in those who seek miracles in only the impossible circumstances.
Based on the above assumption, it would seem that the best definition for miracle would be a combination of the above stated definition and an apologetic that points toward God’s glory in the ordinary. In defining a miracle this way, it becomes possible to see miracles as more common and possible in a world where God is sovereignly involved and engaged. In fact, when taking into account a fully-formed understanding of the metanarrative of scripture, one can see that miracles are a reality that occurs daily in the lives of those who are open to their existence and awareness. This paper will now turn to a short description of the biblical understanding of miracles.
Miracles – A Biblical Definition and History
Similar to the definition given above, the original biblical text points toward miracles being a God’s power at work to arouse people’s wonder and amazement. Grudem, in his systematic theology, present three sets of terms to designate miracles in the biblical text:
1 “sign” (Heb. אוֹת ,H253; Gk. σημεῖον, G4956), which means something that points to or indicates something else, especially (with reference to miracles) God’s activity and power;
2 “wonder” (Heb. מוֹפת , ֵH4603; Gk. τέρας, G5469), an event that causes people to be amazed or astonished;
3 “miracle” or “mighty work” (Heb. בוּרה ָגּ , ְH1476; Gk. δύναμις, G1539), an act displaying great power, especially (with reference to miracles) divine power.
Throughout scripture, the terms for “signs and wonders” are often used by the biblical authors to refer to miraculous acts (Exodus. 7:3; Psalm 135:9; Acts 4:30) Often the terms are combined as “mighty works and wonders and signs” (Acts 2:22) or in reverse, “signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:4).
Regardless of the way that the phrases are worded in the Hebrew or Greek, the above scriptures support the original definition that miracles arouse people’s awe and amazement and glorify the reality of God’s presence. Furthermore, the Bible frequently refers to God as the one alone who can do “miracles” or “wondrous things.” For example, Psalm 136:4 says that God is the one “who alone does great wonders.” Similarly, following the events of the exodus, Moses declared: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, terrible in glorious deeds, doing wonders? (Exodus 15:11)
Moses is a prime example of the experience of miracles given as signs to direct awe and wonder toward God. When Moses’s staff turned into a snake and back again, and the ability to make his hand leprous and then clean again (Exodus 4:2–8), were signs that would allow him to show the people of Israel that God had sent him. When Moses and Aaron worked the great signs of the plagues, even the imitations attempted by Pharaoh’s court (Exodus 7:12; 8:18–19; 9:11), showed that the Hebrew’s God was the true God. Finally, one of the greatest examples of miracles in scripture is found in 1 Kings, when the prophet Elijah confronted the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel and the incredible fire from heaven demonstrated that the LORD was the one true God. When the people saw the acts of Elijah, they fell prostrate and worshipped God. This response of worship can be seen as a proof of the miracle according to the development of the definition written above.
In the New Testament, Jesus’ miraculous acts often were signposts used to show that Jesus truly came from God Himself, often turning the hearts of the people far from God toward Him. The tax collector Nicodemus turned from his evil ways upon meeting Christ, exclaiming “No one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him!” (John 3:2). At the wedding in Cana, Jesus changed the vats of water into wine in a way that others witnessed as a “manifestation of his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).
Following Jesus’s earthly ministry, those in leadership of the early church in Acts and the epistles of worked miracles and referred to miracles in order to prove the existence of God to their audience. (Acts 2:43; 3:6–10; 8:6–8, 13). Often, miracles would occur even when a leader of the early churches such as Peter or Paul were not present. The apostle Paul, writing to the church in Galatia, wrote “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:5). The consistent working of miracles was not only normal, but expected among New Testament churches. Paul also refers to those in Corinth as “workers of miracles” (1 Corinthians 12:28) and names “the working of miracles” (1 Corinthians 12:10) as a gift distributed by the Holy Spirit.
It is also important to note, based on the verses above, that the working of miracles is not limited to those of leadership or authority. Jesus gave authority to heal the sick and to cast out demons not only to both His twelve close disciples as well as over 70 others at one time. (Luke 9:49–50, 10:1).
Miracles played a large role in the development of the early church past the New Testament period, helping give legitimacy to the works of the church fathers and the growing church movement. For example Tertullian looks on exorcism as a proof that Christ is victorious over the Roman gods, whom he equated with demons: “Mock as you like, but get the demons, if you can, to join in your mocking-let them deny that Christ is coming to judge! … Why, all the authority and power we have over them comes from our naming the Name of Christ … At our touch and breathing … they leave at our command the bodies they have entered-unwilling, distressed. And put to an open shame before your eyes.”
Even Augustine admits that he has seen or heard of some miracles:
“When I wrote that book, I myself had recently learned that a blind man had been restored to sight at Milan near the bodies of the Martyrs in Miracles in Church History that very city. And I knew about some others. So numerous even in these times, that we cannot know all of them nor enumerate those we know.”
However, most scholars point at the end of the early church period and the rise of enlightenment thinking as the time when many began to fall away from belief in miracles. One cause may be attributed to the proliferation of “miraculous objects” the Roman Catholic Church used as opportunity for indulgences. Another is the rise of enlightenment thought in individuals such as David Hume, who in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding that, because a miracle would be a ‘violation of the laws of nature’, miracles are impossible or that one cannot have a justified belief that a miracle occurred.
The thinking of Hume pervaded the greater consciousness of thought regarding miracles and the supernatural, and was almost completely defeated in the 19th century and the writings of men such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, who argued that “…the death and resurrection were not so much a miracle as much as the experience the believer has when reflecting on the event.” The ongoing damage done by enlightenment thinkers such as Hume and Schleiermacher have continued into the modern day. However, miracles are still reported in groups that have not encountered the teachings of these men directly, even though many still doubt their validity.
With the definition and history seen above serving as a framework, this paper will now turn to a development of the purpose of miracles.
The Purpose of Miracles
If one can better understand the purpose of miracles, it may become easier to see miracles as reality in everyday life. One of the major purposes of miracles, as laid out in scripture, is to bring validity to the message of the gospel. For example, men such as Nicodemus acknowledged that Jesus was from God upon seeing the miracles and works done by Him. (John 3:2). Similarly, when miracles are worked in the gospel accounts, they give evidence that God is truly at work in the lives of those whom they impact. Upon hearing from Jesus, the Samaritan woman told her entire village, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did” (John 4:29), an act of proclamation that led to many of the Samaritans believing in Christ. In the early church years, when Philip the apostle went to a city in Samaria, it is written that the crowds listened to his words based on his message and the works and signs he completed in the name of Jesus: “For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.” (Acts 8:6–8)
A second purpose of miracles is to give proof that the Kingdom of God has come into the human realm, and that healing, restoration, and salvation is possible through Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus proved this was the purpose of His acts, saying, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28). Every miracle of healing or deliverance from demonic forces was a sign that the Kingdom of God was present and advancing in Jesus’s ministry, brining hopefulness through wondrous acts.
A third – and more practical purpose for miracles – was simply the grace and kindness of God on the lives of those in need. In Matthew, Jesus healed two blind men on the road to Jericho simply because they cried out for mercy. (Matthew 20:30, 34) Similarly, when Jesus saw a great crowd of people on the hillside, “… he had compassion on them, and healed their sick” (Luke 7:13). Just as important as drawing awe and wonder to the power and authority of God, miracles exist to bring healing and hope to those who are sick physically and mentally.
Finally, a fourth, and ultimate, purpose for miracles is to bring glory to God. When miracles occur in the Old and New Testament, the automatic response is one of awe and glory. For example, when Jesus would heal the crowds “were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Matthew 9:8). Jesus would heal some so “that the works of God might be made manifest in him” (John 9:3). When Jesus exorcised demons and sent them into the pigs, those who worked the farm begged Him to leave their town because His power was frightening, and they also feared losing money by having their livestock thrown into the water. The pig farmers cared more about their finances, than the miracle that occurred. (Mark 5:1-20)
Based on the above stated purposes, it is clear that God is still at work in bringing Himself glory and bringing hope to a broken world. Therefore, it is improbable to believe that God does not work miracles today. The issue is not with the miracle, but perhaps with the understanding of miracles themselves. With a definition and purpose developed, the final portion of this paper will turn toward the modern-day response to miracles.
A Modern Day Understanding of the Reality of Miracle
In this paper it has been argued that miracles still do occur because God is still at work bringing glory to Him. The question must then be asked: Should believers ask and seek for miracles to occur in the modern day?
According to theologians such as B.B. Warfield and Wayne Grudem, the proper answer to that question is dependent on the purpose behind seeking the miracle. Examples of this behavior are shown in the Old and New Testament alike. Simon the magician, when seeking the power to work miracles in Jesus’ name, was rebuked by Peter, who told him “…your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:21–22). In the same way, asking for miracles for entertainment’s sake is also wrong: “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him” (Luke 23:8). When brought before Herod with the promise of release for a miracle or two, Jesus remained silent.
One of the greatest issues is when those who do not follow God ask for a miracle simply to prove those who believe as false. “And the Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test him they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “…An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” (Matthew 16:1–4) This rebuke against seeking signs is repeated elsewhere in the Gospels, but it is important to note that rebukes against seeking signs are always directed against hostile unbelievers who are seeking a miracle only as an opportunity to criticize
Jesus. Jesus never responds with anger or hostility to those who are earnestly seeking the Kingdom of God in seeking a sign or miracle from God.
When approached appropriately and with faith, believers are welcome to approach God to seek miraculous acts in their lives. What is appropriate? Just as posed above, those seeking miracles should seek them as they confirm the truthfulness of the gospel message, bring help to those in need, and bring glory to God. Throughout the Bible, those who approached God for these reasons were met with miracles time and time again. Jesus even sent those who experienced miracles out to work miracles themselves, saying “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7–8). Based on His own words, Jesus appears to be commanding His followers to seek miracles.
When following the early church’s example, it is clear that miracles were part of everyday life. The disciples in Lydda asked Peter to come and pray for Tabitha after she had died, asking for the raising of the dead by God (Acts 9:38). James instructs the church to pray and seek instantaneous healing for those who are sick (James 5:14).
Based on the definition given in the thesis of this paper, it is clear that one should believe that miracles are a part of the reality of life. Those who have eyes to see, in the words of Jesus, are those who will understand that the Kingdom of God is at work in the midst of daily life. One should not assume that an obviously miraculous answer to prayer is somehow better than one that comes through ordinary means (such as medical help for sickness). In the same way one must also realize that asking God for a particular need does not guarantee that the prayer will be answered.
Regardless, it is clear throughout history that God has and will work in powerful and even miraculous ways beyond common understanding. Believers must stand guard against a secular worldview that assumes that God will answer prayer in rare instances. Grudem reminds his readers, “Miracles are God’s work, and he works them to bring glory to himself and to strengthen our faith.” With God’s character being unchanging and forever, one may believe that miracles will continue to occur in the lives of those who earnestly seek His face.
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