“What Is A MIRACLE”
1 of 5
A miracle is a divine act by which God reveals himself to
people. The classical definition of miracle assumes that it is contrary to
natural law, but this is not true. Many of the miracles of the Bible, such as
the wind that parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21), used nature rather
than bypassed it.
Understanding this does not take away from the awesomeness of a miracle. The
timing and content of the process can be miraculous, even though the event
may seem a part of nature.
The significance is God’s presence and revelation. God performed miracles not
merely as a “wonder” to inspire awe but as a
“sign” to draw people to himself.
THE VOCABULARY OF MIRACLES
In the Old Testament the two main terms are “sign” and “wonder,” which often occur
together. More than one Hebrew term is used for “wonder” one referring to it as an act of supernatural power and
another as something beyond man’s understanding. On the whole, they are used
synonymously for God’s providential acts within history.
The “sign” refers to an act that occurs as a token
or pledge of God’s control over events and as a revelation of God’s presence
with his people.
The New Testament uses the same basic idiom, “signs
and wonders,” with the same general thrust (John 4:48; Acts
2:43). The New Testament adds another term, however.
A third term is that for “power” or miracle, and this becomes the
predominant term in the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. It
signifies the mighty act itself by which God is revealed in Christ.
A fourth term is “work,” which along with
“sign” is preferred in the Gospel of John.
This term is used in John to show that in Jesus the work of
the Father is revealed. While the terms are often synonymous (the first three
occur together in Romans 15:19-20; 2 Thessalonians 2:9;
Hebrews 2:4), they designate different aspects of miracles.
“Signs” point to the theological meaning of miracle
as a revelation of God; “power,” to the force behind
the act; “work,” to the person behind it; and
“wonder,” to its awesome effect on the observer.
MIRACLES IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
To the Hebrew, a miracle was nothing more or less than an act of God.
Therefore, nature herself was a miracle (Job 5:9-10; Psalm
106:2), and an act of kindness or victory over one’s enemies is so
described (1 Samuel 14:23). The natural order is totally under
Yahweh’s control, so a miracle was observable not because of its supernatural
nature but because of its character as part of the divine revelation.
This connection with salvation history is crucial, for Israel at all times
tried to guard against a desire for the spectacular. Deuteronomy
13:1-4 warns against accepting a wonder as authenticating a prophet. The
authentication must come from the fact that he worships Yahweh, the one true
Miracles in the Old Testament are restricted to critical periods of
Many have discussed the act of Creation as the first miracle,
but it is not presented as such in the Genesis account. A miracle is
signified by its revelatory significance and/or its connection with crucial
points in the history of God’s people, like the Exodus or the victory at
Jericho. Creation is characterized by one major theme: a chronicle of the
On the other hand, the miracles of Genesis-striking blind the inhabitants of
Sodom, the Flood, Babel-all signify the wrath of God upon those who have
turned against him. This is the other side of redemptive history, the
judgment of God upon those who are not his people. The miracles of the Exodus
account have more than one focus: The plagues represent the absolute power of
Yahweh over the gods of Egypt.
The miracles of the wilderness wanderings show God’s absolute care and
protection of his people. The plagues are particularly interesting because
each one is directed at one of the gods of Egypt and reveals Yahweh as the
only true deity. The basic theme is found in Exodus 7:5 and is
repeated throughout the account: “When I show the Egyptians
my power and force them to let the Israelites go, they will realize that I am
The miracles were directed not only at the Egyptians but also to the
Israelites. They needed to know that their God would vindicate them against
the Egyptians. This is borne out in the major miracle, the crossing of the
Red Sea. The plagues themselves show a gradual increase in severity. The
wilderness miracles are intimately connected to the basic theme of the
wandering narratives, the trial of Israel in times of desperate need and
God’s providential protection of his people when they turn to him.
The basic organization of the stories concerns the need itself, which leads
to Israel’s complaint. This is followed by Moses’ intercession and then by
God’s sovereign intervention. The miracles are interspersed with other
stories that tell of God’s punishment when the people’s murmuring and
complaining goes too far. Miracles are conspicuously absent in the period of
the united monarchy when all of Israel was ruled by one of three kings: Saul,
David, and Solomon.
This was a time of self-sufficiency, when God worked through the monarchy and
did not intervene directly in the life of the nation. The reason is that
Israel’s eschatological hopes had been realized and made concrete in the
presence of the Holy City and the temple. It was different later during the
days of the prophets.
In the lives of Elijah and Elisha, miracles were predominant. This was a time
of weak faith. Under the reign of Ahab and Jezebel the nation turned to
paganism and the worship of Baal. The very existence of the Hebrew religion
seemed to be threatened, so the times called for extraordinary measures.
Here the wondrous nature of the miracles is more evident than anywhere else
in the Old Testament. There are conscious allusions to the Exodus miracles,
perhaps looking to Elijah as a new Moses reinstitutions the true worship of
Yahweh. Parallels between Moses and Elijah can be seen in the challenge to
the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:16-40); the revelation of God on Mount
Horeb with the wind, earthquake, and fire (19:9-13); and the parting
of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:10-14).
Many of the miracles were intended to demonstrate the powerlessness of Baal,
such as the drought, the contest on Mount Carmel, and the miraculous
sustenance supplied by God. Again, God’s actions within history were part of
his self-revelation, the vindication of his messengers, and the punishment of
Miracles are infrequent in the writing prophets, perhaps because they dealt
more in messages rather than actions. The two major exceptions (apart from
the recovery of Hezekiah chronicled in Isaiah 38:1-22) are Jonah and
Daniel. In Jonah, the miracle is addressed not to the Ninevites but to the
Israelites, who are called back to their covenant obligations as the
spokesmen for Yahweh.
In Daniel the direction is reversed, and the situation is the same as that in
Exodus or Kings. The miracles are directed to the Babylonians and Persians
and have the same focus as the earlier events of the Exodus and the
Elijah-Elisha chronicles, that is, the supremacy of Yahweh over the foreign
gods and the vindication of his messengers. This is the third and final time
of crisis and illustrates the major theological use of miracles in the Old
MIRACLES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The presence of the miraculous has a similar purpose in the New
Testament. It occurred at a crisis point in salvation history to
authenticate the presence of God in historical acts. It differs, however, in
that it is transcended by the presence of the very Son of God, who himself is
the greatest miracle of all. God now has not only acted in history; he has
entered history and has turned it to himself.
The parallels with the Exodus events are obvious and show that the miracles
of Jesus paved the way for the entrance of the new covenant in the same way
that the Exodus miracles prepared for the old.
Jesus stressed the connection between his miraculous ministry, especially the
casting out of demons (exorcism), and the coming of the kingdom of God. As in
the Old Testament, the miracles signify the presence of God, but here it is
more direct and also signals the inauguration of his kingdom (Matthew
12:28). As such, then, the exorcism miracles mean the binding of Satan
and the institution of the reign of God (Mark 3:23-27).
At the same time all the miracles signify the dawning of the age of
salvation, as expressed in Jesus’ inaugural address at Nazareth (Luke
4:18-21). Yet these miracles are not automatic signposts to the act of
God. They must be interpreted by faith. Jesus was well aware of the presence
of other miracles in his day (Matthew 12:27) and so stressed the
presence of faith in the healing miracles (Mark 5:32; 10:52).
This faith must be directed to the presence of God in the event and in Jesus
himself. The necessity of faith also helps to understand Jesus’ refusal to
provide his contemporaries with a “sign”
(8:11-12). Miracles could never “prove” the
presence of God. For a better understanding of the connection between faith
and miracles, it is best to note each author’s individual portrait of the
theological use of miracles.
MIRACLES IN MARK
Mark, the first of the four Gospels to be written, has often been called the
“action Gospel” because of its emphasis on Jesus’
deeds rather than his teaching. This is also true regarding Jesus’ miracles,
for Mark contains more proportionately than any of the others. There are five
groups or five kinds of miracles in Mark.
The first group centers on Jesus’ authority over demons (Mark
The second concerns Jesus’ authority over the law and conflict with his
opponents (1:40-3:6). They result in his fame, but he refuses to allow
his true identity as Son of God to be known.
The third group (3:7-30) contains exorcisms and the Beelzebub
controversy, centering on his power over Satan.
The fourth group (4:35-6:43) contains especially powerful miracles
(stilling the storm, the Gaderene demoniac, the raising of Jairus’s daughter)
and probably centers on the disciples, as Jesus thereby reveals to them the
meaning of the kingdom and seeks to overcome their own spiritual
The fifth and final group (6:30-8:26) continues the theme of the
disciples’ misunderstanding and prepares the way for the Cross, with the
message regarding the bread, blindness, and the judgment of God.
The miracles in Mark center on conflict, first with Jesus’ opponents and then
with his own disciples. While the miracles are harbingers of God’s kingdom,
their purpose is to force an encounter with Jesus’ true significance.
They do not show Jesus as a wonder worker; in fact, they lead only to
amazement and then disbelief in those who do not have faith. Jesus’
personhood has been hidden and can only be understood in light of the Cross.
The miracles are not proofs but powers. God does not authenticate himself
through them but shows himself to those with eyes to see.
MIRACLES IN MATTHEW
Matthew’s is the teaching Gospel, where dialogue takes precedence over
action. His focus is on the theological implications of faith. Matthew’s
groups of miracles are related to teaching passages. He combines narrative
portions and organizes them around teaching sections.
The first group (Matthew 8:1-9:38) combines
miracles from Mark’s first, second, and fourth groups and stresses Jesus’
significance as the servant of Yahweh who exercises sovereign power and
The secondary theme teaches discipleship and shows the awakening faith of the
disciples and their involvement in Jesus’ ministry.
The second group (12:1-50) centers on his
authority over the law (the man with the withered hand) and over Satan (the
The third group (14:1-15:39) parallels Mark’s
fifth group but has a different purpose. Rather than arousing conflict, the
disciples are seen in positive guise, actively involved in the Master’s work.
So the disciples become the means by which Jesus’ ministry is continued.
Therefore, the disciples are involved as “learners”
(the meaning of “disciple”) in his miraculous
MIRACLES IN LUKE
Luke, and its sequel Acts, is remarkable and extremely important because it
establishes beyond dispute the early church’s belief that it was to continue
the work of God in the world. Luke’s major stress is on salvation history, so
one of his major stylistic methods for showing this direct connection is
Especially enlightening here is Acts 9:32-42, where in two healing
miracles Peter duplicated the Lord’s miracles (the healing of the paralytic
Aeneas, 5:18-26; the raising of Dorcas, 8:49-56).
Luke returns to Mark’s interest in the deed more than the teaching. However,
Luke goes even further than Mark, for the miracles validate Jesus more
The first group of miracles follows the inaugural address, which itself
presents the miraculous deeds as authenticating signposts to Jesus’
personhood. They center on Jesus’ power and authority (4:18-41) and
validate God’s power in Jesus (5:17; 8:39) as well as faith in
Jesus (especially in Acts 9:35; 13:12; 19:17). The
presence of “fear” at the miracles is a human
response to having witnessed God’s power (Luke 5:26; 7:16).
The call to the disciples occurs in the presence of miracles. Luke views
miracles as having redemptive significance. However, this is not contrary to
Mark’s picture. Luke still avoids picturing Jesus as a mere wonder worker.
Jesus still refuses to satisfy people’s curiosity for an external sign
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31) he teaches that
the unbelieving heart can never be convinced by such events. Nevertheless,
miracles can lead to repentance (10:13-16).
MIRACLES IN JOHN
John is the most theological of the Gospel writers. Miracles are
characteristically given a distinctive coloring by him. In the other three
Gospels, miracles are “acts of power” signifying the
entrance of God’s reign into this world through Jesus. Jesus establishes
Satan’s defeat and God’s sovereign control of history.
John, however, contains no exorcisms, and the miracles are seen as
“signs.” At the same time miracles are part of the
larger category of “works” (the other term for
miracles used in John), by which Jesus shows the Father’s presence in himself
(John 10:32-39; 14:10). They give witness to Jesus as the sent
one (5:36; 10:25). John
selects only seven “sign miracles” from many others
(20:30) and uses them as part of the thematic
For instance, changing the water into wine is a messianic act, signifying the
outpouring of the kingdom blessing in the ministry of Jesus, the Messiah
(2:1-11) The multiplication of the loaves builds upon the “bread of life” and points to the messianic banquet as
spiritually present in Jesus (6:1-15).
The paradoxical nature of miracles is even greater in John’s Gospel. He gives
more stress to the wondrous nature of the events by providing such details as
the stupendous amount of water changed into wine (John 2:6,
approximately 120 gallons, or 454.2 liters); the distance over which Jesus’
healing power works (4:46, almost 20 miles, or 32.2
kilometers); the length of time the man of Bethesda had been lame
(5:5, 38 years; see also 9:1, where the man had been born
blind); the amount of bread needed to feed the 5,000 (6:7, where
Philip said 200 denarii, or days’ wages, would not have bought enough); and
the proof of Lazarus’s death (11:39; he had already begun to
John has a great interest in the miraculous. Yet at the same time there is
even greater stress on the inadequacy of miracles for faith. The miracles as
“signs” have saving value and point to the true
significance of Jesus but are related to an awakening faith and in themselves
are insufficient (2:11; 4:50).
They look to Jesus’ sonship and the Father’s authentication of
him but are based on the salvation decision of the individual. As
“signs,” they contain the very presence of God in
Jesus, the spiritual reality of the “sight” and
“life” he brings (9:35-38;
Yet they divide the audience with the need to decide: seek
understanding or merely watch and wonder.
Some refuse to consider the signs, and thus they reject them
(3:18-21). Others see them as mere wonders and fail to see in them the
true significance of Jesus (2:23-25). On the other hand, some view
them with the eye of faith and go on to a realization of Christ’s identity
(John 2:11; John 11:42). In John the highest faith of all is
that which does not need outward confirmation (20:29).
MIRACLES IN THE REST OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
Apart from Acts, several passages in the New Testament speak of the
value of miracles. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:12 and Romans
15:18-19 considered them as “sign-gifts,” which
authenticated the divine authority of the “true
apostle.” He listed healing and miracles as specific “gifts of the Spirit” in 1 Corinthians
12:9-10. In Galatians 3:5 he considered them evidence for the
presence of the Spirit.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews in Hebrews 2:4 said
“God bore witness” to the true message of salvation
by way of miracles. Therefore, in the age of the apostles the miracles
performed by God’s servants were seen as authenticating signs of God’s
presence and power in his messengers.