This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series: Do miracles happen today? (Chester)
Introducing a short series based on sections of Tim Chester’s book, Do Miracles Happen Today? And other questions about signs, wonders and mighty works. The Good Book Company.
In chapter two, Chester discusses the definition of ‘miracle’.
An unusual feat? The success of Leicester City football team in winning the Premier League in 2016 was an extraordinary achievement (they had odds of 5,000 to 1 against them at the start of the season). But it was not a miracle.
A supernatural act? Human beings do not have the ability to walk on water. So, if they were to do so, it would be a miracle. But the problem with defining miracles in this way is that it assumes that the God who is involved in miracles is a God who is involved in everyday phenomena. Biblical thinking will not permit this dichotomy. In Scripture some events that might be (and sometimes are) called ‘miracles’ are events which can be ascribed to ‘natural’ causes, although with unusual intensity or amazing timing.
A direct act of God? Miracles, under this definition, represent God’s direct, immediate intervention in the world. The Virgin Birth would be a good example. But, in the Bible, there are other events which are referred to as miracles where God clearly does use means. The parting of the Red Sea, for example, was a miracle (Ex 15:11) which was facilitated by ‘a strong east wind’ (Ex 14:21f).
The definitions just mentioned are not so much wrong, as insufficient, from a biblical point of view. In fact, the Scripture are less interested in defining miracles, as in talking about their purpose. (see Ex 3:19f; 7:4f; 9:16; Jn 2:11, for example).
The Bible uses three words in particular to describe miracles:
- ‘Sign‘ – an event that points to something else.
- ‘Wonder‘ – an event that provokes amazement.
- ‘Miracle‘ (‘mighty deed’) – an act of unusual power.
Sometimes, these terms are combined, as in Acts 2:22; 2 Cor 12:12; Heb 2:4.
In the light of all this, we can define miracles as amazing acts of power through which God reveals his glory and rescues his people.
But the line between miraculous and non-miraculous events is blurred. The truth is,
God is actively involved in both the extraordinary and ordinary. He’s involved in supernatural events and natural events. He’s involved immediately and intermediately—he intervenes in our world directly and he intervenes indirectly through other means. He answers prayer through supernatural interventions and through natural causes.
Psalm 136 gives praise to God for a number of ‘wonders’ – creation of the cosmos (vv5-9); the miracles of Exodus (vv10-16); and the defeat of mighty kings during the conquest of Canaan (vv17-24). But the psalm ends with praise for the provision of food for every creature (v25).
There is no sharp dividing line with God’s miraculous provision and his daily providential care.
One danger is seeing the world as if it is closed to God. If, in the medieval world, everything was traced back to supernatural causes, then in today’s naturalistic world nothing is. Christians can buy into this, and so become ‘functional deists’. Alternatively, they become ‘functional dualists’, believing that God can impact people’s ‘souls’ (in conversion, say), but not the natural realm.
Another danger is seeing miracles as God’s usual way of working. But this is to assume that God is not involved in the world apart from occasional miraculous interventions. But, from the biblical perspective, God is involved in the repeated patterns of nature (Gen 8:22) as well as in unusual events.
According to Joshua 5:10-12, God’s miraculous provision of manna ceased on the very day that they could feed themselves from the produce of the land.
Miracles are, by definition, exceptional.
It is important that we see that God is continuously at work in the world. God’s purposes can be fulfilled by giving us what we want through miraculous means, by giving us what we want through non-miraculous means, and by not giving us what we want at all.
God is constantly showing us with good gifts: life, breath, food, sunshine, health, family, beauty, laughter, and so on (see Psa 107:8f).
But we need also need to see that the bad things that happen in our lives are also gifts from God. In this case, we can trust that he has a bigger purpose in mind – he is fulfilling his promise to make us more like his Son (Rom 8:28f).