Miracles: Snapshots of the Supernatural

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 6, 2014

Matthew 8:1-4; Mark 2:1-12; Mark 4:35-41; John 11:1-44 The Jesus Profile: Miracles: Snapshots of the Supernatural

Bam!
About 6 years ago—April 2, 2008—a Christian revival began in Lakeland, Florida. Evangelist Todd Bentley, who had a background with something called the Toronto Blessing, was invited to speak at Ignited Church. It was supposed to be a 5 day stay, it turned into 144.

This was one of the first charismatic revivals to really benefit from the internet. With services airing live on God.TV Bentley preached and engaged in healing ministries and reported all sorts of miracles. Within the first two months it was estimated that 140,000 people from over 40 nations had visited, and 1.2 million had watched on the internet. By the end of the third month, over 400,000 people from over 100 nations had attended.

The revival displayed many “ecstatic manifestations” and some participants claimed divinely inspired visions and prophecies. People were caught up in what was called “holy laughter” and frequently fainted in the power of the Holy Spirit. And there were miracles. All kinds of miracles. Bentley claimed to heal people of tumors, to cure spina bifida, and otherwise fix all sorts of ailments. Plus, there were at least 20 claims to cases of resurrection from the dead.

Bentley was not your typical preacher. He liked to yell “Bam! Bam! Bam!” while praying for the sick. He was known to forcefully kick, hit, smack or knock over participants. In one incident, a man was knocked over and lost a tooth. In another, an elderly woman was intentionally kicked in the face. Bentley held that the Holy Spirit led him to such actions, and that miracles were happening simultaneously. Trevor Baker, who had invited Bentley to the Revival Fires Church in Dudley (UK), also defended these actions, saying: "He never does anything like that without first asking for the person's permission."

Of course, with crowds that big, and actions like that, as well as the claims of so many miracles taking place; there’s bound to be some attention. In June of that year ABC’s Nightline did an investigative report on Bentley. Though his staff insisted that they welcomed scrutiny, the information they gave ABC about people who were healed was sketchy and incomplete. Contact information was missing, and doctors’ names were blacked out. In the end, Nightline said it was unable to confirm even a single miracle.

The revival ended abruptly in October when it was announced that Bentley was splitting with his wife after an inappropriate relationship with his children’s nanny was revealed. Unfortunately, Bentley continues to travel the world and receive speaking invitations to this day.

The Miracle Maker
It’s not that hard to see through a charlatan like Todd Bentley. And episodes like this tend to give Christianity a black eye. A lot of people who believed they were going to receive healing ended up with their hopes dashed.

But it’s hard to deny the attractive power of the miraculous. People with serious disabilities are looking for something supernatural to turn things around. Even though some people will use false claims of miracles to take advantage of the vulnerable, we still want to believe that miracles can and do happen.

And, of course, Jesus did miracles. You cannot read very far in any of his biographies without running into something that defies scientific explanation: being born to a virgin, walking on water, feeding five thousand with a few loaves and fishes, or coming back from the dead. Jesus is a miracle maker. You cannot tell the story of Jesus accurately without talking about the miracles.

But with Jesus, it’s nothing like the three ring circus that goes with a guy like Todd Bentley. Philip Yancey points out that the miracles actually play a much smaller role in the life of Jesus than you might imagine for someone who has such easy access to divine power. Depending on how you count them, Jesus is described performing only about three dozen miracles. They are not common occurrences—that’s what makes them “miracles” instead of “ordinaries.” Moreover, when Jesus does do a miracle, instead of hyping them up, the Bible often downplays them. Says Yancey:

Often Jesus asked those who had seen a miracle not to tell anyone else. Some miracles, such as the Transfiguration or the raising of a twelve-year-old girl, he let only his closest disciples watch, with strict orders to keep things quiet. Though he never denied someone who asked for physical healing, he always turned down requests for a demonstration to amaze the crowds and impress important people. Jesus recognized early on that the excitement generated by miracles did not readily convert into life-changing faith. (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 166)

I believe in Jesus’ miracles, of course. I believe that He is the Son of God who came to earth trailing clouds of glory, so it isn’t hard for me to accept that He was capable of things no one else could do. But what are we supposed to learn from the miracles? What were they for?

What I’d like to do with you this morning is look briefly at four different miracles Jesus performed. It’ll be like grabbing a snapshot of each story. And with each one, I believe we’ll get a partial answer to why Jesus did miracles, though I think we’ll need to consider all four to get the full picture. So, instead of camping in one portion of the Bible this morning, we’ll jump around a little.

Jesus…Touched the Man
First, Jesus did miracles out of compassion. He did miracles, especially miracles of healing, because He wanted to relieve suffering.
The story I think of here is the man healed of leprosy in Matthew 8.

One of the worst diseases of the ancient world—and still a problem in the developing world—is leprosy. The thing about leprosy is: there is no pain. In fact, that’s the problem. Leprosy bacilli deaden nerve cells in such a way that those infected don’t even realize they are damaging their own bodies. So, where you and I, if we felt a stone inside our shoe, would stop and remove it; the leper feels no discomfort and so goes through the entire day with this stone rubbing against the foot. The result will be a wound that does not want to heal.

The distinctive marks of leprosy: the open sores, the scabs, and the missing body parts, are not caused by the disease so much as the damage done to a body that cannot feel. The leper is destroyed by a loss of pain.

But, while they may not hurt, leprosy patients surely suffer. Because the marks of leprosy are so distinctive, and because the disease is so contagious, leprosy patients are almost universally banished. In Jesus’ day, lepers were forced to live outside the city walls and were required to shout “Unclean! Unclean!” whenever someone passed within earshot of them.

For a modern comparison, Philip Yancey compared the treatment of lepers to the way AIDS patients were treated in the early days of that disease. He tells the story of one AIDS patient who traveled eleven hundred miles to be with his family in Michigan for Thanksgiving dinner. He had not seen them in seven years. The parents welcomed him warily, and when dinner was served everyone got a heaping portion of turkey and all the trimmings on the best Wedgwood china plates—except for their son the AIDS patient, who was served on Chinette, with plastic utensils. (Ibid, p. 172)

At least he got into the house. A leprosy sufferer wouldn’t even be allowed that far. So imagine the commotion that must have accompanied this scene from Matthew 8:

1When he came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. 2A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Imagine the startled crowd falling over itself as this leper comes right through the middle of them. Everybody wants to get close to Jesus, and simultaneously everyone wants to get as far from this man as possible.

The story is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke with varying degrees of detail. But all three contain the next line:

3Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.

The crowd must have gasped. The man probably flinched. How many years had he gone without the touch of another human being? The rest of the verse:

“I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cured of his leprosy.

Jesus cared. He had compassion on those who were suffering. He was willing to touch those that everybody else rejected and avoided.

So that is one of the reasons Jesus did miracles. But it’s only a partial explanation.

For every sick person Jesus healed and every funeral He broke up, there must have been hundreds, even thousands of similar cases in Israel that He never did a thing about. Even today, all around us, we see people that God surely loves suffering and in pain. God could do a miracle to relieve their hurt, but He rarely does. If compassion were the sole reason for miracles you’d think we’d see a lot more.

That You May Know…
So, I second reason Jesus did miracles was for confirmation. He did miracles to prove that He was God.

The story I think of here is the story of the paralytic brought by his four friends to Jesus in Mark 2.

This has always been a favorite story of mine, at least in part, because I like to imagine myself digging through a roof to get to Jesus. This paralyzed man, who, by necessity, must rely on others for food, for bathing, even help with sanitation, now needed assistance getting to Jesus. He talks four friends into cooperating in getting him where Jesus is, only to find that the crowd is too large for them to get close.

So, they improvise. Jesus is teaching in a house with a thatch and tile roof. So the four friends grab some rope, carry their friend up, and proceed to knock a hole right above Jesus’ head. You can imagine the homeowner’s consternation as he suddenly receives a skylight he didn’t want. I imagine Jesus laughing with delight as this mat lowered to his feet. Mark 2:5 says:

5When Jesus saw their faith, [notice it says “their” faith, emphasis on the plural, the friends’ faith is important in what comes next] he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

That wasn’t what the four friends were looking for. Probably wasn’t what the paralytic wanted either. He wanted to walk. He wasn’t worried about his sins. But “when it comes to miracles, Jesus has a different set of priorities than most of his followers.” (Yancey, p. 175)

It didn’t escape the attention of those who were in the crowd, though. The teachers of the law who were sitting there—that is, the self-appointed watchdogs of all that was good and holy in Israel—immediately began thinking to themselves:

7”Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

They’re not wrong, at least as far as who is able to forgive sins. That’s God’s business, and God’s alone. For you or I to presume to step into God’s place as the forgiver of sin would be the most outrageous of blasphemies. But, of course, there’s something different about Jesus. He says in Verse 10:

10But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” He said to the paralytic, 11”I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12He 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.”

Jesus did miracles to confirm that He really was the Son of God. The unexplainable things that He did were meant to demonstrate that He was sent from above. How do you explain the miraculous feeding of 5,000, if Jesus isn’t God?

And yet, the faith that the miracles produced was rarely the faith Jesus was looking for. That same crowd of 5,000, when Jesus refused their attempts to make Him king, quickly became disillusioned and wandered away (John 6:66). In fact, for those who were reluctant to believe in Jesus to begin with, His miracles did little to change their minds. Sometimes they denied the facts right in front of them, sometimes they claimed it was magic or the Devil’s power, sometimes (as in the case of poor Lazarus) they sought to cover up the evidence. Miracles in Jesus’ day seemed as peculiar as they would in our own. “Then, as now, miracles aroused suspicion, contempt, and only occasionally faith.” (Yancey, p. 166)

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote:

The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Faith does not…spring from the miracle, but the miracle from faith. (quoted by Yancey, p. 163)

So Jesus used miracles to confirm His identity. But He doesn’t want you to follow Him just because He can do miracles. He wants you to look deeper than that.

Even the Winds and the Waves Obey Him…
A third reason Jesus did miracles was to protect His own. Jesus did miracles to protect His followers from danger.

The story I think of here is the calming of the storm in Mark 4.

Jesus and his disciple were crossing the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had been teaching large crowds and He needed a break. He was tired (and it is worth noting that Jesus did get tired: He may have been God in human flesh, but He was still in human flesh.) So they got into several fishing boats and started making their way across the Lake. Jesus set up a cushion in the back of His boat and promptly went to sleep.

Now the geography of the Sea of Galilee is such that it is susceptible to unexpected and exceptionally strong storms. The lake sits in a sort of bowl, surrounded by mountains, and when weather comes in it has a tendency to pile up behind the mountains before coming in all in a rush. The storms can be so sudden and violent that even seasoned fishermen on the lake, like Jesus’ disciples, could be taken unaware.

So, on this occasion, that’s exactly what happened. A “furious squall came up” and the waves were breaking over the boats so that they were nearly swamped. The disciples were in a panic, using all of their seamanship skills just to stay afloat. Jesus, remarkably, continued to sleep in the back of the boat.

Finally, in desperation, they woke him up. “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?!” Mark 4:39:

39He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

Jesus awoke and, as calmly as you or I might reach out to silence our alarm clocks, He told the wind and the waves to be still. The disciples were flabbergasted. Here’s how the story ends:

41They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

There seems to be no other explanation for this miracle other than a desire to protect the disciples (unless Jesus was annoyed at being awakened from His nap). Sometimes we think that if we belong to God then He should be always prepared to intervene to protect us from danger. Whether it is keeping us safe in the midst of a storm or making sure that out of control car doesn’t swerve into us, we look for God’s miraculous power to protect us. And sometimes He does.

But of the 11 disciples in the boat with Jesus that night excluding Judas, 10 went on to die martyr’s deaths at the hands of those who opposed Christianity. The 11th, John, died of natural causes while imprisoned at the penal colony of Patmos. They weren’t always protected.

And as anybody who has walked with Jesus for a while will tell you, faith in Him is not a bulletproof vest against any and all tragedy. Christians will still experience their share of suffering. God won’t always cut off the cancer cells or divert the storm. But faith does provide an insurance policy: insurance does not prevent accidents, but does give a secure base from which to face their consequences.

Jesus Wept
So Jesus did miracles out of compassion. He did miracles to confirm His identity. And He did miracles to protect His own. But none of those things completely explain what miracles were about. I have a fourth suggestion: miracles were signs of things to come. Jesus did miracles to give us a glimpse of how things should be.

The story I think of here is Jesus’ final miracle before His own resurrection: the raising of Lazarus, as told in John 11.

The story of Lazarus has an almost “staged” quality about. Usually when Jesus got word of a sick person He responded immediately, sometimes changing His own plans to give help. But with Lazarus—who, significantly, was a close friend of Jesus, identified by his sisters Mary and Martha as “the one you love” in the note telling Jesus He was sick—with Lazarus, Jesus waited around a full two days before moving.

He did so on purpose. He knew Lazarus would be dead by the time He got there. He even said to His disciples:

14 “Lazarus is dead, 15and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”

He deliberately let Lazarus die and his family grieve.

By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Both Martha and Mary are beside themselves with grief. Martha rushes out to meet Jesus and says “If you had been here, my brother would not have died (John 11:21).” Mary is more restrained, but when Jesus reaches her, she says the exact same thing: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32)

There’s a hint of accusation. Clearly Jesus had the ability to heal. If He was really Lazarus’ friend, couldn’t He have protected him?

Martha was crying. Mary was crying. All the mourners were crying. Finally, Jesus himself, “deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” broke into tears. John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.”

John doesn’t explain exactly why Jesus was weeping, but I think I know. Partly He wept because everyone around Him was weeping. It was a situation ripe for tears. Partly He wept because He was sad for Lazarus. A friend had died. But Jesus knew what He was about to do. He knew the sobs of the sisters would soon turn to the laughter of joy. He knew Lazarus was about to walk back out of that grave.

So I don’t think Jesus cried because He was sad. I think He cried because He was mad. When John says that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit” he uses a Greek word which describes the sound a horse makes when it is angry. It’s almost a snort of indignation. It’s a release of air from the body in such a way that expresses extreme outrage and emotion.

In other words, Jesus was angry. Angry, not at Mary and Martha and the others for crying, but angry that they needed to cry at all. Jesus was rip-snorting mad about death.

That's why He burst into tears in v. 35. Jesus hates death. He sees it and He is deeply moved in His spirit. He hates how it leads to grief and a sense of loss. He hates how it rips apart families. It makes him cry and shake to see death.

You and I, we were made to live. This world is fallen, death is something we are all going to experience. We’ll all know the pain and loss of losing loved ones. But that’s not the way it is supposed to be.

So as Jesus stood there that day in the midst of that funeral He knew that His friend Lazarus was going to live again, but He also knew that death is an aberration in God's good creation and He was outraged by it. It made him shake and tremble and weep.

He was mad. And I think as He stood there that day He was deciding that it was time for somebody to stand up to death.

So He did. He stood before the grave of His friend, stinking of death, and He called for Lazarus to come out. And Lazarus came out, wrapped in the clothes of the grave, but very much alive.

And this miracle, along with all the others, I think is meant to be a sign of things to come. Jesus did not heal every sickness in Israel while He was on earth. He didn’t restore the legs of every paralytic. He didn’t calm every storm. He didn’t break up every funeral.

But each time He did those things He was pointing to a time when things would be different. A time predicted in Revelation 21 where there would be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Jesus was, if only momentarily, reversing the curse. An early glimpse of the eternal kingdom.

Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I Never Knew concludes his chapter on miracles like this:

I readily concede that Jesus, with a few dozen healings and a handful of resurrections from the dead, did little to solve the problem of pain on this planet. That is not why he came. Nevertheless, it was in Jesus’ nature to counteract the effects of the fallen world during his time on earth. As he strode through life Jesus used supernatural power to set right what was wrong. Every physical healing pointed back to a time in Eden when physical bodies did not go blind, get crippled, or bleed nonstop for twelve years—and also pointed forward to a time of re-creation to come. The miracles he did perform, breaking as they did the chains of sickness and death, give me a glimpse of what the world was meant to be and instill hope that one day God will right its wrongs. To put it mildly, God is no more satisfied with this earth than we are; Jesus’ miracles offer a hint of what God intends to do about it.

Some see miracles as an implausible suspension of the laws of the physical universe. As signs, though, they serve just the opposite function. Death, decay, entropy, and destruction are the true suspensions of God’s laws; miracles are the early glimpses of the restoration. (p. 182-183)

And so, when we think about the miracles of Jesus, this is what we should think of: we should long for the day when miracles will be ordinary, when fallenness will be no more, and the healing and wholeness of Jesus will be the norm.

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