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What exactly constitutes a miracle, and did they really occur as recorded in the Bible? Paul Taylor explains.
The Christian encyclopedic website, Theopedia, has defined a miracle as “any action in time where the normal operation of nature is suspended by the agency of a supernatural action.”1
Essentially, a miracle is an unusual manifestation of God’s power designed to accomplish a specific purpose. The consistent Christian recognizes that God’s power is constantly displayed in the clockwork operation of the universe. The Bible teaches us that it is Christ’s power that holds everything together (Hebrews 1:3). Yet, we would not call that power a miracle because it is the normal way God upholds the universe. A miracle must be unusual if it is to be called a miracle.
A miracle is not necessarily a violation of the laws of nature. God could demonstrate His power by using the laws of nature in an unusual way. For example, God used wind (a natural phenomenon) to drive back the water of the Red Sea, allowing the Exodus of the Israelites (Exodus 14:21). Although there is no obvious violation of physics, who could doubt that the parting of the Red Sea constitutes a miracle? At the very least, the timing of the event was miraculous. Of course, if God wants to suspend a law of nature, He is free to do so. They are His laws after all. But we should be careful about assuming God has suspended a law of nature to perform any particular miracle. After all, we do not even know all the laws of nature.
Most definitions given for the word miracle are interestingly partial. The popular Christian author and broadcaster, C.S. Lewis, wrote this in the introduction to his book on the subject: “I use the word Miracle to mean an interference with Nature by supernatural power.”2 On the same page, he footnoted this definition with an explanation.
This definition is not that which would be given by many theologians. I am adopting it not because I think it an improvement upon theirs but precisely because, being crude and ‘popular’, it enables me most easily to treat those questions which ‘the common reader’ probably has in mind when he takes up a book on Miracles.3
Lewis used his book to argue that miracles exist. To do so, he made use of a concept from outside nature—the supernatural.
The eighteenth century secular philosopher David Hume had a different approach. He defined a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent.”4 He went on to argue that the evidence will always be stronger for natural laws than for miracles, and hence he concluded that the wise man should always favor natural law instead of a miracle. Hence, miracles do not happen. Hume’s definition goes beyond the standard definition of a miracle. Nonetheless, even if we accept his restricted definition, his argument does not stand.5
Circular reasoning is the logical fallacy whereby the conclusion to an argument is assumed as a presupposition.
The arguments used by both Hume and Lewis have been critiqued as using circular reasoning. Circular reasoning is the logical fallacy whereby the conclusion to an argument is assumed as a presupposition. The notion miracles are impossible because they would (potentially) go beyond the laws of nature is not a rational argument. It merely presupposes the very thing it is supposed to be proving. The tacit assumption in the argument is that anything that goes beyond the laws of nature is impossible. But this is simply a restatement of the presupposed conclusion that there are no miracles (under Hume’s definition).
Some have suggested the creationist argument is also circular, since it assumes the inerrancy of Scripture. However, the inerrancy of Scripture can be argued without assuming up front that violations of natural law ever occur. In fact, the very existence of laws of nature makes no sense apart from Scripture, as we have written elsewhere. David Hume was stumped by this very issue; he could not come up with a rational basis for induction (the temporal consistency of laws of nature) apart from the Christian worldview. Our presupposition that the Bible is true is therefore justified by the existence of uniform laws of nature, regardless of whether or not such laws are immutable. Therefore, it makes complete sense, logically and consistently, to look for the way miracles are described in the Bible and, using our presupposition the Bible is true, see what case can be made for their existence.
Three Hebrew words are used to represent miracles in the Old Testament. These are ’ōth (אות), mō-phēth (מופת), and pālā’ (פּלא).
The word ’ōth means “sign.”6 The word can be seen in the emphasized part of the following verses.
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years.” (Genesis 1:14, emphasis added)
And the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him. (Genesis 4:15, emphasis added)
Neither of the above verses used sign to imply a miracle happened. Instead, the sign is there for a purpose. In Genesis 1, the signs are literal, as people have always used the stars for direction. In Genesis 4, the mark signifies that Cain is not to be killed.
However, in other verses, we do see ’ōth representing miracles. This illustrates that miracles were for a purpose—to demonstrate God’s power.
I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:3, emphasis added)
This same word is translated as miracles in a number of places in some English versions.
Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness. (Numbers 14:22, KJV, emphasis added)
And his miracles, and his acts, which he did in the midst of Egypt unto Pharaoh the king of Egypt, and unto all his land. (Deuteronomy 11:3, (KJV), emphasis added)
If ’ōth is for miracles that display God’s power, then mō-phēth implies miracles “exhibited by God to produce conviction.”7 The word mō-phēth is frequently translated as “wonders” and is often used in conjunction with ’ōth (e.g., “signs and wonders”).
And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do all those wonders before Pharaoh which I have put in your hand.” (Exodus 4:21, emphasis added)
You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land—the great trials which your eyes have seen, the signs, and those great wonders. (Deuteronomy 29:2–3, emphasis added)
Less frequent as a word for miracles is pālā’, which refers to something marvelous or wondrous. Thus, when Gideon asked about where all the miracles had gone, which accompanied the children of Israel leaving Egypt, he put a different emphasis on the miracles than the previous two words would. He concentrated on the display of the miracles, rather than their purpose.
Gideon said to Him, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites.” (Judges 6:13)
In summary, the Old Testament uses three words for miracles—one stresses God’s power, another is designed to produce conviction, and the other emphasizes the effect of the miracles.
Three New Testament Greek words need to be covered in this discussion.
The implication of this word is a sense of power. Vine stated that it “is used of works of a supernatural origin and character, such as could not be produced by natural agents and means.”8 This sense of power is why the word was taken into the English language in such concepts as dynamo or dynamic.
In many ways, this word is the equivalent of the Hebrew pālā’. It is translated as miracles in such places as Acts 8:13, 1 Corinthians 12:10, and Galatians 3:5.
Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done. (Acts 8:13, emphasis added)
Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Galatians 3:5, emphasis added)
This word means a miracle, sign, or wonder, so it is the New Testament equivalent of ’ōth. It seems to refer to “an unusual occurrence, transcending the common course of nature.”9
Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him. (Luke 23:8, emphasis added)
For, indeed, that a notable miracle has been done through them is evident to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. (Acts 4:16, emphasis added)
Teras is not actually translated as miracles, but I have included it here, because it is translated as wonders and seems to be a New Testament equivalent of the Hebrew mō-phēth. As such, it frequently occurs with semeion, as the phrase “signs and wonders.”
In summary, the use of words for miracles in the New Testament seems to be similar to that in the Old Testament. One word concentrates on pointing to God as the source of the miracle, another to the wondrous character of the miracle itself, and another to a declaration of God’s power.
Armed with this set of biblical definitions for miracles, we should examine some actual miracles to see how God worked through them.
If a biblical miracle is recognized as an occurrence that is clearly of a miraculous nature, identifies God as its source, and declares God’s power, then we see miracles in nearly every book of the Bible. It is unrealistic for the purposes of this study to list every miracle.
Probably the most miraculous event of all would be God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. During the Creation Week, God created through miraculous means. Our current natural laws were being set up as God miraculously created our universe and everything in it.
Other miraculous events in Genesis would include the Flood, the confusion of languages at Babel, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The events during the life of Moses are especially significant. At the birth of the nation of Israel, God seemed to be emphasizing who He was and is and how powerful He is. The purpose of the plagues is interesting.
But I am sure that the king of Egypt will not let you go, no, not even by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders which I will do in its midst; and after that he will let you go. (Exodus 3:19–20)
The miraculous signs that were to be performed before Pharaoh were not specifically designed to instantly persuade Pharaoh. Indeed, God indicated that Pharaoh would not let the people go immediately. Instead, the signs were to demonstrate God’s nature and power.
Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, we read about numerous miracles: water appearing in the hollow place in Lehi (Judges 15:19); the idol Dagon falling twice before the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 5:1–12); a widow’s son raised from the dead (1 Kings 17:17–24); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego delivered from the fiery furnace in Babylon (Daniel 3:10–27); and Jonah swallowed by a big fish (Jonah 2:1–10). Although there are clusters of miracles, for example, at the time of Moses and at the time of Elijah and Elisha, there were many other times during the Old Testament period when God performed miracles.
In the New Testament, miracles took on an even more important role because of the presence of Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity. Some miracles allude to the Lord’s divine power as Creator. In John 2 Jesus not only turned water into wine, but also, according to the master of the feast, the wine was of the best quality. Wine is itself a complex mixture of chemicals. Good wine requires an aging process, during which slow chemical changes are taking place in the mixture. Jesus miraculously created wine that had not undergone the normal aging process. It is not surprising He could do this since He created all the individual atoms in the first place.
Another creative miracle occurred in Matthew 14:13–21 when Jesus fed 5,000 people, starting with just five loaves and two fish. Not only was everyone fed, but also there were 12 baskets full of leftovers. Why was there so much leftover? The miracle demonstrated His power and emphasized new material had been created.
Three specific miracles performed by Jesus are generally considered to be Messianic miracles (i.e., miracles that would indicate the miracle-worker was the Messiah):
A miraculous healing from leprosy was extremely rare. (Two special cases deserve mention. Miriam was given leprosy for seven days for speaking against Moses and was subsequently healed. Naaman was a Gentile Syrian healed of leprosy.) Instead, lepers were to be treated as unclean. In Jewish exorcism rituals, it was necessary to get the possessing demon to give its name. This could not happen if the demon caused dumbness. And, although people who had become blind could be healed, the healing of a man born blind is of exceptional note. So there would seem to be strong evidence that these three miracles authenticate Christ’s claim to be the Messiah.
Miracles subsequent to Christ’s life and death also appear to authenticate Him as the Messiah since they were performed “in the name of Jesus.” For example, when Peter and John healed a lame man, Peter said:
Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk. (Acts 3:6)
Miracles were done for a specific purpose—pointing to God and demonstrating His power—and they were often performed before witnesses. The reactions and accounts of these witnesses are mentioned in Scripture. For those who take the Bible seriously, this is absolute proof these miracles happened. Indeed, if we started from the premise that miracles could not happen, this would undermine our belief in Scripture since so many important events were miracles worked by God.
Those who start with the presupposition that Scripture is not true have a difficult problem with miracles as well, because of the large number of miracles specified. Often, non-believers want to infer that miracles are listed for symbolic purpose. But, if this were true, then the symbolism would be lost because otherwise reliable witnesses would actually be deceivers or deceived. It is not satisfactory to claim that good moral lessons are taught from events that never happened, related by people who lied or were deceived! It is difficult to accept that all these witnesses could be wrong when we look at the caliber of the witnesses, such as Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Luke, and especially Jesus. Even members of the Sanhedrin, who were strongly opposed to the gospel message, admitted Peter and John had performed a “notable miracle” (Acts 4:16).
It is increasingly difficult to understand how Christians, who believe in the New Testament miracles of Jesus, fail to believe the miracles of the Creation Week in Genesis. The genuine miracles in the New Testament are not offered as a proof of creation but as a necessary corollary. Those who believe creation happened exactly as God revealed in Genesis 1 have no problem accepting the later miracles.
We have seen how some of Christ’s miracles point to His creative power. This makes complete sense when we realize the Bible describes Jesus as the Creator (see John 1, Colossians 1, and Hebrews 1). The theistic evolutionist, on the other hand, believes God stepped in at certain times during human history, but he has no precedent for miracles since he thinks everything gradually evolved over millions of years of prehistory. This is inconsistent thinking. A theology of miracles is problematic when isolated from God’s creative actions in Genesis.
I am reminded of a statement made by a speaker I heard while I was at Nottingham University Christian Union in the late 1970s. He implored us to “get your theology right on Genesis. Then everything else will fall into place.” I have witnessed this to be true time and time again. If we distrust God’s Word in Genesis, then we will be inconsistent in how we interpret the Word of God and will have a tendency to distrust other portions of Scripture.