The word miracle is used somewhat promiscuously to describe everything from healing a paralytic to finding a parking space at the mall on the day before Christmas. So we begin our ten things we should all know about miracles with a definition.
(1) Max Turner, a professor of New Testament at London Bible College, uses the term in the semi-technical sense of an event that combines the following traits:
it is an extraordinary or startling observable event; it cannot reasonably be explained in terms of human abilities or other known forces in the world; it is perceived as a direct act of God; and it is usually understood to have symbolic or sign value (e.g., pointing to God as redeemer and judge).
Part of the problem is that many Christians envision God as remote from the world, removed from any direct involvement in their lives on a daily basis. Yet there are numerous texts that assert God’s immediate involvement in everything from the growth of a blade of grass (Ps. 104) to the sustaining of our very lives (Acts 17; Col. 1:17). For this reason we must reject the definition of a miracle as a direct intervention of God into the world. The phrase “intervention into” implies that God is outside the world and only occasionally intrudes in its affairs.
Some define a miracle as God working in the world apart from means, or an instrument, that would bring about the desired result. But God often uses instruments in performing the miraculous, as in the case of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand by means of multiplying one little boy’s lunch.
Others define a miracle as God acting contrary to natural law. But this implies there are forces (natural laws) that operate independently of God, forces or laws that God must violate or override to perform a miracle. But God is the author and providential Lord over all natural processes.
Wayne Grudem has proposed a definition that avoids the virus of deism while seeking to remain faithful to the Scriptures: “A miracle,” says Grudem, “is a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself.” What’s important for us to remember is that no matter how we define a miracle, we must not think that a miracle means a typically absent God is now present. Rather, the God who is always and everywhere present, upholding and sustaining and directing all things to their appointed consummation, is now working in a surprising and unfamiliar way. This also helps us answer the question of whether unusual answers to prayer are miracles. I would say yes—if such answers are sufficiently unusual to arouse awe and wonder and to evoke acknowledgement of God’s power and activity (e.g., 1 Kings 18:24, 36-38; Acts 12:5-17; 28:8).
(2) It will help us to understand miracles by looking at Galatians 3:1-5 where the apostle Paul clearly describes both the initial reception of the Spirit at the moment of salvation (“Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” v. 2) and the on-going supply and provision of the Spirit throughout the course of the Christian life (“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?” v. 5).
(3) Clearly, God never gives his Spirit at any time or works miracles because we have put him in our debt by doing good things. Obedience to the law, says Paul, is not the reason why or the instrument through which God gives his Spirit to his people, whether that be at the point of their conversion or at any time during their Christian lives. In other words, Paul is ruling out any form of legalism or works-based approach to our experience of the Spirit. Twice in this paragraph, first in v. 2 and then again in v. 5, Paul rules out “works of the law” as the reason why we experience God’s Spirit.
(4) Just as clearly as Paul ruled out works as the reason why we receive God’s Spirit he affirms that faith is the cause, faith is the instrument, faith is the grounds for our experience of the Spirit. Again, in both v. 2 and in v. 5 it is “by hearing with faith” that God bestows his Spirit. It is when we believe and trust God and his promises that he is pleased to pour out his Spirit, not only for the purpose of saving us and causing the Spirit to indwell us permanently (v. 2) but also for the purpose of working miracles in our midst.
(5) The faith to which God responds by giving us his Spirit comes by “hearing”. Hearing what? Obviously we “hear” the word of God when it is proclaimed or taught or read. Anytime the truth about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ is heard and believed and trusted and treasured and embraced, God responds by pouring out his Spirit.
(6) Merely “hearing” isn’t enough. We must have “faith” in what we’ve heard. Simply listening to a sermon isn’t enough. Just reading your Bible isn’t enough. Memorizing Scripture is wonderful, but if you don’t believe what you’ve memorized it serves no good end. Reading theology books is wonderful, but if you never move beyond understanding to faith in what you’ve read, it profits you nothing. God doesn’t reward us with the Spirit simply because we’re smart or well-educated. People can know a lot about the Bible and can out-argue anyone theologically and never be the recipient of the miracle-working power of the Spirit.
In both Galatians 3:2 and 5 Paul says that our hearing must be the sort that leads to faith. In other words, we have to “believe in” and “trust” and “treasure” what God has taught us or said to us in his Word. That’s what pleases God. That’s what serves as the instrument through which he pours out his Spirit.
(6) Observe closely how God himself is described in Galatians 3:5. He is portrayed as “he who supplies the Spirit to you.” This is a present tense participle. In other words, God is by his very nature and also by his choice a God who loves to give more of his Spirit to his people when they humble themselves and trust the truth of his Word. This is almost a badge of identification. God is saying, “This is who I am. This is what I do. I continually supply the Spirit to my people.”
(7) Don’t forget that Paul is writing to Christians! These people in Galatia have already trusted Christ for their salvation. Back in Galatians 3:2 Paul referred to the provision of the Spirit that God made to them when they first trusted Jesus for salvation. But now in Galatians 3:5 he is saying that God continues to make provision for believing men and women. I stress this point simply because this is one verse that should forever put to rest the debate about whether God continues after our conversion to supply and provide us with more and more of the Spirit. He doesn’t call this experience in Galatians 3:5 “Spirit baptism” or “Spirit filling”. He doesn’t use the word “anointing”. But does it really matter? All that matters is that God is the sort of God whose very nature and purpose it is to give more of his Spirit on an on-going, daily basis to his people.
(8) What specifically is it that God wants us to believe? In other words, what is the content or object of our “faith” to which God answers with the extraordinary supply and provision of his Spirit? We aren’t told explicitly, but I think I know. There are several things Paul likely has in mind.
Given the larger context and purpose of the letter to the Galatians, he surely has in mind our faith in the finality of Christ’s death and resurrection and our confidence in that gracious work of God as the only hope for salvation. In other words, believing that we are justified by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone is central to what we must believe. This is obvious when we read on in v. 6 of Galatians 5 where Paul speaks of Abraham “believing” God and being justified as a result.
I also think Paul has in mind our faith and confidence in the character of God. Do you believe God is the sort of God who loves to do wonderful things for his people? Do you believe God is the kind of God who delights to build up and restore and heal? Do you believe that God is of such a character and nature that he has compassion on his people and rejoices to do them good at all times? Believing this about God is crucial to our experience of the supernatural work of the Spirit.
Related to the former point is our faith that God is able to do such things. You may think that goes without saying. Surely if you are a Christian you know and are confident that God can do miraculous things for us. But may I remind you that Jesus always responded to that sort of faith with healing and deliverance and blessing. Let me give you a couple of examples of this. In Matthew 9:28-29 Jesus said this to two blind men: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then Jesus touched their eyes saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” And they were instantly healed.
According to what “faith”? What exactly had they believed that led Jesus to heal them? It wasn’t their belief or faith that it was his “will” to heal them. Jesus never asked them, “Do you believe that I am willing to heal you?” He merely asked if they believed he was “able” to heal them and when they said Yes, he healed them.
The leper in Matthew 8 said to Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (v. 2). The leper didn’t question Christ’s ability. He trusted that completely. He did have doubts about the willingness of Jesus to do it. But Jesus didn’t rebuke him for such doubts, as if it were a shortcoming in his faith that might jeopardize his healing. He healed him because of his confidence that he could do it.
(9) God is working miracles among and through these Galatian Christians in the absence of any apostolic influence. As far as we know, there were no apostles present in Galatia when Paul wrote this. Thus contrary to what most cessationists say, miracles were not exclusively or even primarily the work of apostles but were typically found among ordinary, average Christians like those in first-century Galatia.
(10) In conclusion, consider how this passage relates to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and the spiritual gift of “miracles”.The most literal translation of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is “workings of powers” (energemata dunameon). Although all gifts are “workings” (energemata) or “energizings” by divine power (compare to vv. 6, 11), the word is used here in conjunction with “powers” (dunamis) for a particular gift. The word often translated “miracles” in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is actually the Greek word for powers (dunamis). Thus we again have a double plural, “workings of powers,” which probably points to a certain variety in these operations.
So, does God “work miracles” among us, or do gifted individuals “work miracles” among us? Yes! God “works miracles” among us by awakening faith in his Word, in conjunction with or as a result of which he imparts a gracious divine enabling (i.e., a charisma, a gift) so that the believer can “work miracles” among us.
What are these “workings” or “effectings” or “productions” of “powers”? Whereas all the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are certainly miraculous, the gift of miracles must primarily encompass other supernatural phenomena as well. Simply put, whereas all healings and prophetic words are displays of power, not all displays of power result in healing or prophetic words.
Several possible manifestations of divine power may be included in what Paul means by “workings of powers” or “miracles.” Consider the following: see Acts 9:40 where Peter raised Tabitha/Dorcas from the dead (although even this is a healing in the strictest sense of the term). Or consider Acts 13:8-11 where Paul induced blindness on Elymas. One might also include here Peter’s word of disciplinary judgment that resulted in the immediate death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). Perhaps nature miracles would be included here, such as turning water to wine, stilling the storm on the Sea of Galilee, reproducing food, and causing the rain to cease (or commence), as with Elijah. We might also include supernatural deliverances (exorcisms) are in view as well.