Friday, September 29, 2006

The Purpose of Miracles

This is carrying on a series on miracles I started here with a study on how the word "miracles" is used and continued here, by thinking about the relationship between miracles and the laws of nature. The question I'd like to consider this time is the purpose of miracles.

In other words, this is an attempt to answer why God doesn't do more miracles to heal people, etc. (though I know plenty of people I trust who say they have seen miracles in the last few years)

What Miracles Don't Do

Perhaps surprisingly, what we've established over the course of these posts (read the comments too, and also this post that sprang out of a comment) is that miracles don't actually help people believe much. If people have decided not to believe in God, there is always another explanation they can think of for any miracle, whether it's the apparatus not working, whether it's alien technology, whatever. If someone doesn't want to believe, then a miracle isn't going to convince them. That's also true in the Bible - Pharaoh in Exodus is one classic example. God sends all kinds of plagues on Egypt, yet Pharaoh will not give in until in the end his army is destroyed in the Red Sea. The Israelites see the miracles too, and profit from them, yet over the following years they keep on failing to trust God.

So then, what's the point of miracles if they don't help people to believe?

The "Big" Miracles

There are a few miracles in the Bible that are referred to again and again, and it will actually help a lot if we think about them.

The miracles in Exodus are "big" - the plagues on Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the manna in the desert, ... They were all about God saving his people from slavery in Egypt so that they could worship him.

Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, "This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession
Exodus 19:3-5, NIV

The other really "big" miracle was the resurrection of Jesus. And once again, it's about God saving people so they could know him. In this case, Jesus rising from the dead meant that he beat death, so that people who trust in him can beat death too, so that we can know him. Just like God saved Israel from Egypt so they could know him and worship him, God saved us from sin and death so that we can know him and worship him.

The big miracles seem to be about God saving people so they can know him and worship him. So what about the small miracles?

The "Small" Miracles

Most of the other miracles in the Bible happen around a few key figures. Moses did quite a few, which showed people that God was going to use him to save his people. Elijah and Elisha did some, which showed that God was using them to warn his people to stay close to him. Jesus did lots, which again showed people that God was going to use him to save the people. And the apostles did some, which showed people they were announcing how they could know Jesus.

So if the "big" miracles are all about God saving people so they could know him, the small miracles seem to be about God pointing out to people that he's doing some saving. The point of miracles is that they point to God saving people in Jesus.

The Priority of Miracles

Here's the account of one of Jesus' miracles:

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. So many gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus and, after digging through it, lowered the mat the paralyzed man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . ." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!"
Mark 2:1-12, NIV

Now, there's quite a lot going on there, but there are a few points which it's useful to think about here:

What was Jesus' priority for the paralytic? Well, the passage makes it look very much like Jesus thought that the forgiveness was important, and the miracle was only done to show that he could forgive people. Jesus seems to think it is more important that people should be forgiven and should be right with him (which means we can know him) than that we are physically healthy. That actually makes sense when you think about it. What matters more? Where we spend eternity or how easily we can move around for the next 50 years?

Why did Jesus heal the person then? To show that he could forgive sins - once again, it's to point to the fact that he really is the saviour. He can save people, he can forgive them.

It matters far more that we are forgiven than that we are well.

So what is God's priority for a paralytic today? Or for someone with an amputated limb? That they should be forgiven, get right with God and be able to know him, to praise and worship him. That's far more important than physical healing?

Miracles don't convince people, but they do point to Jesus who saves people.

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