the Fifth Sunday of Lent
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. General Idea
2. Biblical Terms Employed
1. Miracles in Gospel History
2. Special Testimony of Luke
3. Trustworthiness of Evidence in Gospels and Acts
1. Projudgment of Negative Criticism
2. Sir George Stokes Quoted
3. Effects on Nature of New Agencies
4. Agreement with Biblical Idea and Terms
5. J.S. Mill on Miracle
6. Miracle as Connected with Command
1. Miracles as Proofs of Revelation
2. Miracles of Christ in This Relation
3. Miracles Part of Revelation
1. Analogy with New Testament Miracles
2. The Mosaic Miracles
3. Subsequent Miracles
4. Prophecy as Miracle
1. Probability of Such Miracles
2. Pascal Quoted
I. Nature of Miracle.
1. General Idea:
"Miracle" is the general term for the wonderful phenomena which accompanied the Jewish and Christian revelation, especially at critical moments, and which are alleged to have been continued, under certain conditions, in the history of the Christian church. The miracle proper is a work of God (Exodus 7:3 ff; Deuteronomy 4:34 , Deuteronomy 4:35 , etc.; John 3:2; John 9:32 , John 9:33; John 10:38; Acts 10:38 , etc.); but as supernatural acts miracles are recognized as possible to evil agencies (Matthew 24:24; 2 Thessalonians 2:9; Revelation 13:14; Revelation 16:14 , etc.).
2. Biblical Terms Employed:
The Biblical idea of miracle as an extraordinary work of God, generally though not invariably ("providential" miracles - see below, II, 6), transcending the ordinary powers of Nature, wrought in connection with the ends of revelation, is illustrated by the terms used to describe miracles in the Old Testament and New Testament. One class of terms brings out the unusual, exceptional, and striking character of the works, as פּלא ,
II. Miracle in the New Testament.
1. Miracles in Gospel History:
The subject of miracles has given rise to much abstract discussion; but it is best approached by considering the actual facts involved, and it is best to begin with the facts nearest to us: those which are recorded in the New Testament. Our Lord's ministry was attended from first to last by events entirely beyond the ordinary course of Nature. He was born of a Virgin, and His birth was announced by angels, both to His mother, and to the man to whom she was betrothed (Matthew and Luke). He suffered death on the cross as an ordinary man, but on the third day after His crucifixion He rose from the tomb in which He was buried, and lived with His disciples for 40 days (Acts 1:3 ), eating and drinking with them, but with a body superior to ordinary physical conditions. At length He ascended to the heavens, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. But besides these two great miracles of His birth and His resurrection, Jesus was continually performing miracles during His ministry. His own words furnish the best description of the facts. In reply to the question of John the Baptist, His predecessor, He said, "Go and tell John the things which ye hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good tidings preached to them" (Matthew 11:4 , Matthew 11:5 ). Specimens of these miracles are given in detail in the Gospel narratives; but it is a mistake to consider the matter, as is too often done, as though these particular miracles were the only ones in question. Even if they could be explained away, as has often been attempted, there would remain reiterated statements of the evangelists, such as Matthew's that He "went about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of disease and all manner of sickness among the people" (Matthew 4:23 ), or Luke's "And a great number of the people from all Judea and Jerusalem, and the seacoast of Tyre and Sidon, who came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases; and they that were troubled with unclean spirits were healed. And all the multitude sought to touch him; for power came forth from him, and healed them all" (Luke 6:17-19 ).
2. Special Testimony of Luke:
It must be borne in mind that if there is any assured result of modern criticism, it is that these accounts proceed from contemporaries and eyewitnesses, and with respect to the third evangelist there is one unique consideration of great import. The researches of Dr. Hobart have proved to the satisfaction of a scholar like Harnack, that Luke was a trained physician. His testimony to the miracles is therefore the nearest thing possible to the evidence which has often been desired - that of a man of science. When Luke, e.g., tells us of the healing of a fever (Luke 4:38 , Luke 4:39 ), he uses the technical term for a violent fever recognized in his time (compare Meyer, in the place cited); his testimony is therefore that of One who knew what fevers and the healing of them meant. This consideration is especially valuable in reference to the miracles recorded of Paul in the latter part of Acts. it should always be borne in mind that they are recorded by a physician, who was an eyewitness of them.
3. Trustworthiness of Evidence in Gospels and Acts:
It seems to follow from these considerations that the working of miracles by our Lord, and by Paul in innumerable cases, cannot be questioned without attributing to the evangelists a wholesale untrustworthiness, due either to willful, or to superstitious misrepresentation, and this is a supposition which will certainly never commend itself to a fair and competent judgment. It would involve, in fact, such a sweeping condemnation of the evangelists, that it could never be entertained at all except under one presupposition, namely, that such miraculous occurrences, as being incompatible with the established laws of Nature, could not possibly have happened, and that consequently any allegations of them must of necessity be attributed to illusion or fraud.
III. Miracle and Laws of Nature.
1. Pre-Judgment of Negative Criticism:
This, in fact, is the prejudgment or prejudice which has prompted, either avowedly or tacitly, the great mass of negative criticism on this subject, and if it could be substantiated, we should be confronted, in the Gospels, with a problem of portentous difficulty. On this question of the abstract possibility of miracles, it seems sufficient to quote the following passage from the Gifford Lectures for 1891 of the late eminent man of science, Professor Sir George Stokes.
2. Sir George Stokes Quoted:
On page 23 Professor Stokes says: "We know very well that a man may in general act uniformly according to a certain rule, and yet for a special reason may on a particular occasion act quite differently. We cannot refuse to admit the possibility of something analogous taking place as regards the action of the Supreme Being. If we think of the laws of Nature as self-existent and uncaused, then we cannot admit any deviation from them. But if we think of them as designed by a Supreme Will, then we must allow the possibility of their being on some particular occasion suspended. Nor is it even necessary, in order that some result out of the ordinary course of Nature should be brought about, that they should even be suspended; it may be that some different law is brought into action, whereby the result in question is brought about, without any suspension whatever of the laws by which the ordinary course of Nature is regulated.... It may be that the event which we call a miracle was brought about, not by any suspension of the laws in ordinary operation, but by the superaddition of something not ordinarily in operation, or, if in operation, of such a nature that its operation is not perceived."
3. Effects on Nature of New Agencies:
Only one consideration need be added to this decisive scientific statement, namely, that if there be agencies and forces in existence outside the ordinary world of Nature, and if they can under certain circumstances interpose in it, they must necessarily produce effects inconsistent with the processes of that world when left to itself. Life under the surface of the water has a certain course of its own when undisturbed; but if a man standing on the bank of a river throws a stone into it, effects are produced which must be as unexpected and as unaccountable as a miracle to the creatures who live in the stream. The nearness of two worlds which are absolutely distinct from one another receives, indeed, a striking illustration from the juxtaposition of the world above the water and the world below its surface. There is no barrier between them; they are actually in contact; yet the life in them is perfectly distinct. The spiritual world may be as close to us as the air is to the water, and the angels, or other ministers of God's will, may as easily, at His word, interpose in it as a man can throw a stone into the water. When a stone is thus thrown, there is no suspension or modification of any law; it is simply that, as Sir George Stokes supposes in the case of a miracle, a new agency has interposed.
4. Agreement with Biblical Idea and Terms:
This, indeed, is the main fact of which miracles are irresistible evidence. They show that some power outside Nature, some super -natural power, has intervened. They are exactly described by the three words in the New Testament already mentioned. They are
5. J. S. Mill on Miracle:
The words of J. S. Mill on the question of the possibility of miracles may also be quoted. Dealing with the objection of Hume in his Essay on Miracles , Mill observes: "In order that any alleged fact should be contradictory to a law of causation, the allegation must be, not simply that the cause existed without being followed by the effect, for that would be no uncommon occurrence; but that this happened in the absence of any adequate counteracting cause. Now in the case of an alleged miracle, the assertion is the exact opposite of this. It is that the effect was defeated, not in the absence, but in consequence, of a counteracting cause, namely, a direct interposition of an act of the will of some being who has power over Nature; and in particular of a Being, whose will being assumed to have endowed all the causes with the powers by which they produce their effects, may well be supposed able to counteract them. A miracle (as was justly remarked by Brown) is no contradiction to the law of cause and effect; it is a new effect, supposed to be produced by the introduction of a new cause. Of the adequacy of that cause, if present; there can be no doubt; and the only antecedent improbability which can be ascribed to the miracle is the improbability that any such cause existed" ( System of Logic , II, 161-62).
6. Miracle as Connected with Command:
There is, however, one other important characteristic of miracles - of those at least with which we are concerned - namely, that they occur at the command, or at the prayer, of the person to whom they are attributed. This is really their most significant feature, and the one upon which their whole evidential value depends. One critic has compared the fall of the fortifications of Jellalabad, on a critical occasion, with the fall of the walls of Jericho, as though the one was no more a miracle than the other. But the fall of the walls of Jericho, though it may well have been produced by some natural force such as an earthquake, bears the character of a miracle because it was predicted, and was thus commanded by God to occur in pursuance of the acts prescribed to Joshua. Similarly the whole significance of our Lord's miracles is that they occur at His word and in obedience to Him. "What manner of man is this," exclaimed the disciples, "that even the winds and the sea obey him?" (Matthew 8:27 ).
IV. Evidential Value of Miracle.
1. Miracles as Proofs of Revelation:
This leads us to the true view of the value of miracles as proofs of a revelation. This is one of the points which has been discussed in far too abstract a manner. Arguments have been, and still are, constructed to show that there can be no real revelation without miracles, that miracles are the proper proof of a revelation, and so on. It is always a perilous method of argument, perhaps a presumptuous one, to attempt to determine whether God could produce a given result in any other way than the one which He has actually adopted. The only safe, and the sufficient, method of proceeding is to consider whether as a matter of fact, and in what way, the miracles which are actually recorded do guarantee the particular revelation in question.
2. Miracles of Christ in This Relation:
Consider our Lord's miracles in this light. Assuming, on the grounds already indicated, that they actually occurred, they prove beyond doubt that He had supreme command over Nature; that not only the winds and the sea, but the human soul and body obeyed him, and in the striking words of the English service for the Visitation of the Sick, that He was "Lord of life and death, and of all things thereto pertaining, as youth, strength, health, age, weakness and sickness." This is the grand fact which the miracles establish. They are not like external evidence, performed in attestation of a doctrine. They are direct and eloquent evidence of the cardinal truth of our faith, that our Lord possessed powers which belong to God Himself. But they are not less direct evidence of the special office He claimed toward the human race - that of a Saviour. He did not merely work wonders in order that men might believe His assertions about Himself, but His wonderful works, His powers - virtutes - were direct evidence of their truth. He proved that He was a Saviour by doing the works of a Saviour, by healing men and women from their diseases of both body and soul. It is well known that salvation in the true sense, namely, saving men out of evils and corruptions into which they have fallen, is an idea which was actually introduced into the world by the gospel. There was no word for it in the Roman language. The ancients know of a servator , but not of a salvator . The essential message of the miracles is that they exhibit our Lord in this character - that of one who has alike the will and the power to save. Such is our Lord's own application of them in His answer, already quoted, to the disciples of John the Baptist ( Matthew 11:4 , Matthew 11:5 ).
3. Miracles Part of Revelation:
It is therefore an extraordinary mistake to suppose that the evidence for our faith would not be damaged if the miracles were set aside. We should lose the positive evidence we now possess of our Lord's saving power. In this view, the miracles are not the mere proofs of a revelation; they are themselves the revelation. They reveal a Saviour from all human ills, and there has been no other revelation in the world of such a power. The miracles recorded of the apostles have a like effect. They are wrought, like Peter's of the impotent man, as evidence of the living power of the Saviour (Acts 3; 4 ). "Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even in him doth this man stand here before you whole.... And in none other is there salvation: for neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved" (Acts 4:10 , Acts 4:12 ). In a word, the miracles of the New Testament, whether wrought by our Lord or by His apostles, reveal a new source of power, in the person of our Lord, for the salvation of men. Whatever interference they involve with the usual order of Nature is due, not to any modification of that order, but to the intervention of a new force in it. The nature of that force is revealed by them, and can only be ascertained by observation of them. A man is known by his words and by his deeds, and to these two sources of revelation, respecting His person and character, our Lord expressly appealed. "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do them, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father" (John 10:37 , John 10:38 ).
It is therefore a mistake to try to put the evidence of the miracles into a logically demonstrative argument. Paley stated the case too much in this almost anathematized form.
"It is idle," he said, "to say that a future state had been discovered already. It had been discovered as the Copernican system was; it was one guess among many. He alone discovers who proves; and no man can prove this point but the teacher who testifies by miracles that his doctrine comes from God" ( Moral and Polit . Philosophy , book V, chapter ix, close).
Coleridge, in the Aids to Reflection , criticizes the above and puts the argument in a more just and more human form.
"Most fervently do I contend, that the miracles worked by Christ, both as miracles and as fulfillments of prophecy, both as signs and as wonders, made plain discovery, and gave unquestionable proof, of His Divine character and authority; that they were to the whole Jewish nation true and appropriate evidences, that He was indeed come who had promised and declared to their forefathers, Behold your God will come with vengeance, even God, with a recompense! He will come and save you . I receive them as proofs, therefore, of the truth of every word which He taught who was Himself the Word: and as sure evidences of the final victory over death and of the life to come, in that they were manifestations of Him who said: I am the resurrection and the life! " (note prefatory to Aphorism
This seems the fittest manner in which to contemplate the evidence afforded by miracles.
V. Miracles in the Old Testament.
1. Analogy with New Testament Miracles:
If the miracles ascribed to our Lord and His apostles are established on the grounds now stated, and are of the value just explained, there can be little difficulty in principle in accepting as credible and applying the miracles of the Old Testament. They also are obviously wrought as manifestations of a Divine Being, and as evidences of His character and will.
2. The Mosaic Miracles:
This, e.g., was the great purpose of the miracles wrought for the deliverance of the people of Israel out of Egypt. The critical theories which treat the narrative of those events as "unhistorical" are, I am convinced, unsound. If they could be established, they would deprive us of some of the most precious evidences we possess of the character of God. But, in any case, the purpose to which the alleged miracles are ascribed is of the same character as in the case of the New Testament miracles. "For ask now," says Moses, "of the days that are past ... whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it? Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live? Or hath God assayed to go and take him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that Yahweh your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? Unto thee it was showed, that thou mightest know that Yahweh he is God; there is none else besides him" (Deuteronomy 4:32-35 ). The God of the Jews was, and is, the God manifested in those miraculous acts of deliverance. Accordingly, the Ten Commandments are introduced with the declaration: "I am Yahweh thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage," and on this follows: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2 , Exodus 20:3 ). Without these miracles, the God of the Jews would be an abstraction. As manifested in them, He is the living God, with a known character, "a just God and a Saviour" (Isaiah 45:21 ), who can be loved with all the heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.
3. Subsequent Miracles:
The subsequent miracles of Jewish history, like those wrought by Elijah, serve the same great end, and reveal more and more both of the will and the power of God. They are not mere portents, wrought as an external testimony to a doctrine. They are the acts of a living Being wrought through His ministers, or with their cooperation, and He is revealed by them. If the miracles of the New Testament were possible, those of the Old Testament were possible, and as those of the New Testament reveal the nature and will of Christ, by word and deed, so those of the Old Testament reveal the existence, the nature, and the will of God. Nature, indeed, reveals God, but the miracles reveal new and momentous acts of God; and the whole religious life of the Jews, as the Psalms show, is indissolubly bound up with them. The evidence for them is, in fact, the historic consciousness of a great and tenacious nation.
4. Prophecy as Miracle:
It should be added that the Jewish Scriptures embody one of the greatest of miracles - that of prophecy. It is obvious that the destiny of the Jewish people is predicted from the commencement, in the narrative of the life of Abraham and onward. There can, moreover, be no question that the office of the Christ had been so distinctly foreshadowed in the Scriptures of the Old Testament that the people, as a whole, expected a Messiah before He appeared. our Lord did not, like Buddha or Mohammed, create a new office; He came to fill an office which had been described by the prophets, and of which they had predicted the functions and powers. We are told of the Saviour, "And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27 ). That, again, is a revelation of God's nature, for it reveals Him as "knowing the end from the beginning," and as the Ruler of human life and history.
VI. Ecclesiastical Miracles.
1. Probability of Such Miracles:
Some notice, finally, must be taken of the question of what are called ecclesiastical miracles. There seems no sufficient reason for assuming that miracles ceased with the apostles, and there is much evidence that in the early church miraculous cures, both of body and soul, were sometimes vouchsafed. There were occasions and circumstances when the manifestation of such miraculous power was as appropriate as testimony of the living power of Christ, as in the scenes in the Acts. But they were not recorded under inspired guidance, like the miracles of the Apostolic Age, and they have in many cases been overlaid by legend.
2. Pascal Quoted:
The observation in Pascal's Thoughts eminently applies to this class of miracles: "It has appeared to me that the real cause (that there are so many false miracles, false revelations, etc.) is that there are true ones, for it would not be possible that there should be so many false miracles unless there were true, nor so many false religions unless there were one that is true. For if all this had never been, it is impossible that so many others should have believed it.... Thus instead of concluding that there are no true miracles since there are so many false, we must on the contrary say that there are true miracles since there are so many false, and that false miracles exist only for the reason that there are true; so also that there are false religions only because there is one that is true" ( On Miracles ).
VII. Miracle in Works of Grace.
It has lately been argued with much earnestness and force in Germany, particularly by J. Wendland, in his Miracles and Christianity , that belief in miracles is indispensable to our apprehension of a real living God, and to our trust in His saving work in our own souls. The work of grace and salvation, indeed, is all so far miraculous that it requires the influence upon our nature of a living power above that nature. It is not strictly correct to call it miraculous, as these operations of God's Spirit are now an established part of His kingdom of grace. But they none the less involve the exercise of a like supernatural power to that exhibited in our Lord's miracles of healing and casting out of demons; and in proportion to the depths of man's Christian life will he be compelled to believe in the gracious operation on his soul of this Divine interposition.
On the whole, it is perhaps increasingly realized that miracles, so far from being an excrescence on Christian faith, are indissolubly bound up with it, and that there is a complete unity in the manifestation of the Divine nature, which is recorded in the Scriptures.
Trench, Notes on the Miracles ; Mozley, Bampton Lectures (Mozley's argument is perhaps somewhat marred by its too positive and controversial tone, but, if the notes be read as well as the Lectures, the reader will obtain a comprehensive view of the main controversies on the subject); A.B. Bruce, The Miraculous Element in the Gospels . For modern German views see J. Wendland, Miracles and Christianity ; Christlieb, Modern Doubt and Christian Belief . Paley's Evidences and Butler's Analogy may profitably be consulted. On continuance of miracles, see Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural , chapter xiv, and Christlieb, as above, Lecture V.
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Miracle'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​isb/​m/miracle.html. 1915.