What is a Miracle?

I am going to begin this article by making an assumption. I am going to take it for granted that the great majority of you readers understand such a thing as a fortunate escape from an auto accident is not a miracle in the Bible sense of the term. True, most people today will call almost any unusual happening a “miracle’ -- if it turns out good!  But I believe that all of you know that a Biblical miracle is something quite different from a lucky escape.

In attempting to correct the popular, but false, idea of miracles described above, it has been common for preachers to stress the supernatural element in miracles. Usually this is done by citing some famous theologian who has defined a miracle as “any supernatural intervention in the ordinary course of natural events.”

In close connection with this, it is also frequently necessary to demonstrate from the N.T. that the “age of miracles” in the church was a temporary period, to be done away with once revelation was complete.

So far, so good. We have established that miracles are not “lucky escapes,” but are supernatural interventions in this world. And we have further established that such supernatural interventions were only for the apostolic age and we are not to expect supernatural, interventions on the part of God in our lives today.

But, without realizing it, we have established the firm foundation for total confusion on the part of thousands of Christians.

For the very same preachers that emphasize so strongly that the age of supernatural intervention has been done away will turn right around to teach a beautiful and thoroughly Biblical sermon on the power of prayer. And that’s where the confusion comes in. The Bible plainly teaches that we are to pray to God making requests for our needs. We are to pray for our daily bread (Matt. 6:11 ). We are to pray for guidance and protection (Matt. 6:13 ). We are to pray for the rulers of nations that we may lead “quiet and peaceable lives” (I Tim. 2:2). And we are to pray when we are sick (James 5:13 ).

But if the age of supernatural intervention has passed away, why pray for God to do any of these things? Either God does still intervene with supernatural acts in our lives, or there’s absolutely no point whatsoever to our prayers.

Now some have tried, to dodge this difficulty by saying that God does answer our prayers, but he does not do so by supernatural acts. Rather, God answers our prayers indirectly, through natural laws. Thus many brethren pray, not for God to heal the sick, but for him to “be with the hands that minister unto them.” Somehow this leaves the feeling that we are not praying for a direct act of God, but only for some vague, indirect act on his part. But friends, it doesn’t make a bit of difference whether God intervenes directly on the sick man or directly on the hands that are ministering to him. In either case, there is still a supernatural intervention on the part of God that causes something to happen that would not have happened if the workings of natural law had been allowed to run their course.

(One brother, apparently realizing the difficulty presented above, recently wrote me that “God does not heal the physical ills of anyone today.” He likewise let me know -- in a kind way -- that we ought not pray for the sick at all today!!!)

Another attempt that is sometimes made to explain how God can answer our prayers without supernatural intervention is to say that he acts through the written word to answer our prayers. The same brother mentioned above made the oft repeated assertion that God has no power on earth at all today except in the written word, Now brethren, I have no desire whatever to minimize the role of the gospel contained in the written word as the power of God unto salvation. But again brethren, if God’s only power on earth today is the written word then our prayers are totally absurd. We ought to quit praying altogether and simply study our Bibles and preach them to others.

On this basis, it would be wrong for us to even pray for God to “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” For God has already given us all the guidance he is going to give us in the written word, and we should not ask for any additional help. We should not even ask God to give the teacher a ready recollection of the things he has prepared to say because the only way he can get a ready recollection is by studying the word.

Now let me repeat that I do not wish to minimize the role of the written word by any portion whatsoever. After all, there is no way a teacher can have a ready recollection of the things he has prepared to say unless he has studied the word enough to have something to say to begin with.

But, on the other hand, if we try to deny that God exercises the power to intervene supernaturally in our lives, then our prayers are worthless. And I have a difficult time seeing the difference between us and the rank modernist who says that prayer is nothing more than pious wishing anyway.

So what are we to do with this seeming contradiction? On the one hand the Bible teaches that miracles are temporary and confined to the apostolic period. But, on the other hand the Bible commands us to pray in such a way that we are logically forced to expect some sort of supernatural intervention from God in answer to our prayers. Are we caught in an insoluble dilemma? Are we going to have to cease teaching that miracles were only for the apostolic period in order to maintain our belief in the reality of prayer?

To both of these questions I answer emphatically “No.” We do not have to start teaching that the N.T. miracles are still for our use today. Nor do we have to give up our belief in the power of prayer.

The dilemma that we seem to have fallen into is a false dilemma, but it is a dilemma of our own making. Our error has not been in teaching that miracles were only temporary. We are correct in that, and we must continue so to teach.

We have created this false dilemma and all the confusion that goes with it because we have not been using the proper Biblical definition of a “miracle”. (You see, I finally did get back around to what I started out to write about)

You will note that the definition of a miracle that was given at the beginning of this article was “any supernatural intervention in the ordinary course of natural events.” Now that is the modern use of the tern “miracle”. It is the definition given by Webster for modern usage. And it is the philosophical definition of the term. (It is even the definition that I used in a debate with an atheist.)  But it is not the Biblical use of the term.

In the N.T. the word “miracle” is most frequently used to translate a Greek word that simply means a “sign”. And that is the key to understanding the Biblical definition of the term. A Biblical miracle is not just any divine intervention in our lives. It was a very special type of divine intervention that could serve as a sign that the person performing the miracle had the power of God behind him.

Thus, when we look at those events in the N.T. that are identified as “miracles” we see that they all bear characteristics suitable to their functions as signs. They are accomplished instantaneously (Lk. 6:6-10). They were done in public (Lk. 5:18 -26). They were of such an astounding and wonderful nature that they could not be explained by natural means, and all had to admit that the power of God lay behind them (Jn. 3:2 and Acts 4:16 ). Almost without exception, they were done by some particular person -- i.e. the one for whom they served as a sign that God was with him. And they were not done simply to satisfy human needs, but as signs that would arouse faith in those that saw them (Jn. 2:11 ).

But not every act of supernatural intervention was intended to serve as a sign. For example, God furnished abundant crops for the Israelites when they were faithful, and he raised up their enemies against them when they were unfaithful. These were supernatural interventions by God, but they were not intended as signs, and consequently were not performed in the same manner as those events designated as “miracles” in the N.T. An unbeliever could, with a fair show of reason, attribute the good crops to natural causes and the foreign invasions to purely political causes. Nevertheless, the Bible tells us they came from supernatural causes. But still, they were not called “miracles”.

This then is the key to the whole matter. Miracles -- in the Biblical sense of the term -- are not just any supernatural intervention in our lives. Rather, they were a very special class of supernatural interventions of particularly astounding nature that were especially designed by God to serve as signs in the hands of certain men that he selected to be his messengers.

This special class of supernatural interventions was especially prevalent in the apostolic age when it was necessary for the apostles and prophets of the early church to be able to prove that they spoke by the power of God. The miracles were their signs of authority. But that purpose has now been fulfilled, and the miracles (signs) have ceased -- just as Paul said they would (I Cor. 13).

But that does not mean that all forms of supernatural intervention have ceased. God still intervenes on our behalf. We usually call these interventions “providence”, but they are still supernatural interventions, and we ought not be afraid to call them such. Indeed, to pray as we ought, we must not only believe that God can intervene on our behalf. We must believe that he will intervene (James 1:5-8).

--PR [ Phil Roberts] (The Plano Provoker, April 17, 1975, pp. 2-4)
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