Miracles and the Revelation of God
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
Many people have an entirely false impression about the frequency of miraculous activity throughout human history. No doubt, such people would be surprised to learn that, according to scripture, there have been relatively few periods when supernatural works were performed by divinely empowered men.
Prior to Moses
Although the early period of human history witnessed dramatic and unique instances of God’s intervention (notably the great flood1 and the tower of Babel2), as far as we know, no miraculous powers were exercised by anybody before Moses.
From the creation through to the days of Moses, the biblical narrative was dominated by characters such as Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Yet there is no suggestion that any one of these possessed miracle-working powers.
For example, with his 318 trained men, together with his allies (Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre), Abraham (‘Abram’ as he was at the time) defeated the combined forces of King Chedorlaomer and his three royal confederates.3 Although Abraham would have readily endorsed the statement of Melchizedek that ultimately it was the Most High God who had delivered his enemies into his hand,4 the evidence is that he enjoyed no direct and dramatic supernatural help, such as Joshua and the men of Israel later enjoyed when warring against Amalek – supernatural help which came as a result of Moses holding high ‘the rod of God’.5
Again, there was neither angel nor earthquake to set godly Joseph free from his dungeon in the prison where Pharaoh’s prisoners were confined.6 And, to that extent, Joseph’s experience can be contrasted with the experiences of the apostles, who, a millennium and a half later, were delivered as a result either of angelic intervention or of a timely earthquake.7
Moses and his successor
But, in marked contrast to the experiences of those who lived previously, there was a flurry of supernatural activity in the days of Moses. Stephen later summarized the miracles performed through Moses: ‘he brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years’.8
And such supernatural happenings continued into the days of Moses’ successor – Joshua.9 We have only to think of the occasion when ‘all Israel crossed over on dry ground, until all the people had crossed completely over the Jordan’, or of the remarkable defeat and destruction of the walled and fortified city of Jericho, or of the instance when the Lord miraculously lengthened the hours of daylight to enable Israel to avenge itself upon its enemies.10
From Joshua to Elijah
But for six centuries or so thereafter, although there continued to be cases of spectacular divine intervention, extraordinary signs and wonders performed by miracle-working men ceased. Ceased, that is, until the days of Elijah and his immediate successor – Elisha. So that, by way of example, although the Book of Judges records instances of divine interventions11 and of supernatural empowerment,12 we read of no judge exercising any miraculous powers.13 Again, David clearly possessed no miracle-working power to enable him to inflict blindness on Goliath,14 judgement as Elisha and Paul were later able to do on the army of Syria and on Elymas the magician respectively.15
Elijah and his successor
Yet many indeed were the miracles which were clustered around the ministries of Elijah and Elisha.16 We read of instances in their days when dead men were raised,17 when an iron axe head floated,18 when fire was brought down from heaven – on one occasion to consume an animal sacrifice,19 and on another to consume two companies of men20 – and so on.
From Elisha to the public ministry of the Lord Jesus
But, following the days of Elijah and his successor, no men with miraculous powers appeared until our Lord Himself came some 900 years later.21 So that, again by way of example, when Sanballat and Tobiah, Nehemiah’s enemies, jeered at the remnant’s efforts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,22 Nehemiah was not in the position to curse them in the name of the Lord and to wait for two she-bears to rend them, as had once happened to forty-two lads who had jeered at the prophet Elisha.23
We read of no miracles being performed by Jeremiah, Josiah, Malachi, or even by John the Baptist.24 For, although John was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb,25 and not only stood at the end of the line of ‘Old Testament type’ prophets, but was the greatest of the prophets in that he alone was the one sent to prepare the way for the Lord,26 we are explicitly told that ‘many’ who came to our Lord ‘beyond the Jordan’ testified that ‘John performed no sign’.27
The Lord Jesus and His ‘successors’28
But, as we would expect, the miracles performed by the Lord Jesus entirely eclipsed those performed by all others who had come before Him, both in magnitude and in number.
Our Lord’s miracles were many and they were frequent. Almost half of the Gospel according to Mark prior to the account of Passion Week focuses on His miracles. Also we find frequent references in the gospels to large numbers of sick people being healed and of demon-possessed people being delivered.
By way of example only, I cite (from Matthew alone): ‘they brought to Him many who were demon–possessed. And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick’, ‘Jesus went about all the cities and villages . . . healing every sickness and every disease among the people’, ‘great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all’, ‘when the men of that place recognized Him, they sent out into all that surrounding region, brought to Him all who were sick, and begged Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched it were made perfectly well’, ‘great multitudes came to Him, having with them the lame, blind, mute, maimed, and many others; and they laid them down at Jesus’ feet, and He healed them. So the multitude marvelled when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed made whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing’, ‘the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them’.29
If Moses turned water into blood, our Lord turned water into wine.30 If Elijah raised the son of a widow (but raised none others as far as we know), our Lord raised the dead on three recorded occasions.31 If Elisha fed one hundred men with twenty barley loaves – and with some to spare – our Lord fed five thousand men (‘besides women and children’) with just five barley loaves — and with ‘twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained’.32
Similar miracles continued in impressive numbers during the days of those we might (with due reverence) describe as the Lord’s ‘successors’ – of the apostles and their contemporaries.
Again, the miracles were many and they were frequent. With reference to apostles, we read, for example, that: ‘many wonders and signs were done through the apostles’; ‘through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people . . . so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches . . . Also a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed’; and ‘all the multitude kept silence and listened to Barnabas and Paul relating what signs and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles’.33
There can be no doubt that Paul’s work for the Lord in general was characterized by miraculous events. When writing to the churches of Rome, he summarized his ministry by informing them of ‘those things which Christ’ had accomplished through him ‘to make the Gentiles obedient – in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God’.34 And in his second letter to the church at Corinth, he claimed, ‘Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds’.35
On occasions, exceptional miracles were performed by the apostles Peter and Paul. In the case of Peter, we read of the inhabitants of Jerusalem that ‘they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them’,36 and in the case of Paul that ‘God worked unusual [extraordinary] miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them’.37
And it is important to recognize that the performing of miracles was not confined to the apostles. Far from it! It is beyond question that ‘the working of miracles’ featured largely in the life of the first generation Christians.
The apostle Paul’s exposition of ‘spiritual gifts’ in 1 Corinthians 12 includes that of ‘gifts of healings’ and ‘the working of miracles’,38 implying that these gifts played no small part in the ordinary function of the church of God at Corinth. And we should note especially that ‘miraculous powers’39 and ‘gifts of healing’ are carefully distinguished from ‘apostles’,40 so that ‘the working of miracles’ cannot be regarded exclusively as the ‘signs of an apostle’.41
Again, Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia refers to God as ‘He who . . . works miracles among you’.42 And we read on several occasions in the Book of Acts of miracles being performed by those who were not apostles. We note Luke’s specific mention of miraculous powers being exercised by Stephen, Philip, and Ananias.43 The evidence points therefore to the churches of apostolic days as being characteristically miracle-working churches.
I emphasize ‘the churches of apostolic days’ because, although it is clear that the working of miracles cannot be viewed as the exclusive province of the apostles, nevertheless each of the examples I have cited above relate to individuals or churches which were closely associated with the apostles.44
I accept, of course, the point which has been made, that ‘the story of the New Testament Church is the story of what was done through the apostles and those closely associated with them. A similar argument might be made about evangelism or founding of churches: “In the New Testament, churches were only founded by the apostles or their close associates; therefore, we should not found churches today”’.45
I recognize also that there is no evidence that the gift of miracle-working began to die out during the period covered by Luke in the Book of the Acts. The closing chapter reports several remarkable events which took place at Malta following the great shipwreck of chapter 27. There Paul not only shook a venomous snake from his hand into a fire and continued unharmed,46 but went on to heal the father of the chief man of the island.47 Following this single healing-miracle, Luke (himself an eyewitness of all these events) reports, ‘the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were healed’.48 Indeed, there is no firm evidence that miracle-working powers gradually waned or diminished during the lifetime of the apostles.49
But then we must also take account of what the writer to the Hebrews says in verses 3 and 4 of chapter 2. Speaking of the ‘great salvation’ enjoyed by believers, he assures those to whom he wrote, not only that this salvation ‘began to be spoken by the Lord’, but that it ‘was confirmed to us by those who heard Him,50 God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit’. By his use of the past tense (‘those who heard Him’), I understand the writer to be referring to an earlier generation of believers who had enjoyed experiences which no longer took place.
Dan Wallace rightly argues that, if the miraculous sign gifts had still continued, ‘the author missed a great opportunity to seal his argument against defection. He could have simply said: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was . . . confirmed to us by those who heard, and is still confirmed among us while God bears witness with signs. . . . All in all, Hebrews 2. 3–4 seems to involve some solid inferences that the sign gifts had for the most part ceased”’.51
It is also worth noting that, as had been true of the miracles performed by Moses and Elijah and their respective successors, the miracles of both the Lord Jesus and those of apostolic days were often spectacular – and were certainly not open to denial.52 As far as I know, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, no attempt to heal ever failed. The recorded miraculous healings were always complete and they were always instantaneous.
The evidence suggests that there were three periods (and only three periods) of human history when there were God-empowered miracle-working men.53
- Gen. 6-8
- Gen. 11. 1-9.
- Gen. 14. 9-24.
- Gen. 14. 20.
- Exod. 17. 8-13.
- Gen. 39. 20-41. 14.
- Acts 5. 19; 12. 7-10; 16. 26.
- Acts 7. 36. See Exod. 4-12; Exod. 14; and Exod. 16 to Num. 21 respectively.
- I speak of Joshua as the ‘successor’ of Moses on the basis of Num. 27. 18-23 and Deut. 34. 9.
- Josh. 3. 7-17; 6. 2-21; 10. 12-14.
- I instance the miraculous sign of the fleece and the dew in Judges 6, and the miraculous provision of water at Lehi in Judges 15. The birth of Samson was also clearly miraculous, Judg. 13. 2-24.
- I need only cite the remarkable exploits of Samson, Judg. 14-16; of which his killing a thousand Philistines when armed with nothing but the jawbone of an ass is a notable example, Judg. 15. 15.
- It is noteworthy that the divine interventions in chapters 6 and 15 came in response to the prayers of Gideon and Samson respectively, and not to any miracle-working powers possessed by the two men, Judg. 6. 36-40; Judg. 15. 18-19.
- 1 Sam. 17. 40-50. Although David recognized that it would be the Lord who would deliver him from the hand of the Philistine champion, 1 Sam. 17. 36-37. According to scripture, God’s hand can be seen in directing, not only a stone from a brook, 1 Sam. 17. 40, 49, but a piece of a millstone, Judg. 9. 53, a royal spear, 1 Sam. 18. 10, a randomly fired arrow, 2 Chr. 18. 33, and a lightning strike, Job 36. 32 JND.
- 2 Kgs. 6.18; Acts 13. 9-11.
- I speak of Elisha as the ‘successor’ of Elijah on the basis of 1 Kgs. 19. 16 and 2 Kgs. 2. 9-10, 15.
- 1 Kgs. 17. 17-24; 2 Kgs. 4. 18-37. Compare 2 Kgs. 13. 21.
- 2 Kgs. 6. 5-6.
- 1 Kgs. 18. 38.
- 2 Kgs. 1. 10-12.
- Although, again, there were unmistakable demonstrations of God’s direct activity. I need only refer to the shadow turning back on the ‘sun dial’ (possibly ‘staircase’) of Ahaz in the days of Hezekiah, 2 Kgs. 20. 11; Isa. 38. 7-8, or to the miraculous deliverances of Daniel and his three companions, Dan 3. 23-28; 6. 20-23.
- Neh. 4. 1-3.
- 2 Kgs. 2. 23-24. ‘Baldhead’ was a term of disrespect. The challenge ‘go up’ may have been a scoffing reference to the report of Elijah’s ascension ‘by a whirlwind’; the Hebrew word used twice in 2 Kings chapter 2 verse 23 is the same as that used of Elijah in verse 11 (‘went up’).
- ‘The great prophets, Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, work no miracles’, A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, pg. 242. (The complete work can be downloaded from http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books%20II/Strong%20-%20Systematic%20Theology.pdf.)
- Luke 1. 15.
- Matt. 11. 9-11.
- John 10. 41.
- The word ‘successor’ is defined by Cambridge Dictionaries Online as ‘someone or something that comes after another person or thing’. The word is often used of a person who succeeds another in an office. I speak of the apostles as the ‘successors’ of our Lord only in terms of His and their earthly and special ministry and mission. I do so on the basis of John 17. 18 (noting that verse 20 distinguishes them from believers in later generations), and 20. 21.
- Matt. 8. 16; 9. 35; 12. 15; 14. 35–36; 15. 30-31; 21. 14.
- Exod. 7. 20-21; John 2. 6-11.
- 1 Kgs. 17. 17-24; Mark 5. 22-24, 35-43; Luke 7. 11-17; John 11. 39-45. Our Lord’s summary of His works includes the words, ‘the dead are raised up’, Matt. 11. 5. He also gave the twelve apostles the commission (and with it the power) to ‘raise the dead’, Matt. 10. 8.
- 2 Kgs. 4. 42-44; Matt. 14. 16-21.
- Acts 2. 43; 5. 12–16; 15. 12 (literal translation). See also Acts 14. 3; 19. 12; 28. 9.
- Rom. 15. 18-19.
- 2 Cor. 12. 12.
- Acts 5. 15. Separately, it seems that the disciples at Joppa were convinced that Peter possessed exceptional miraculous power, or they would not have sent for him to come to them, presumably with the purpose of raising up Dorcas, Acts 9. 36-42.
- Acts 19. 11-12.
- 1 Cor. 12. 9-10.
- 1 Cor. 12. 28 JND. The Greek word used is dunameis, literally ‘powers’.
- 1 Cor. 12. 28-30.
- 2 Cor. 12. 12. Although, undoubtedly, there were occasions when special powers and spiritual gifts were imparted to others through the laying on of the hands of the apostles. See Acts 8. 14-19; 19. 6; and 2 Tim. 1. 6.
- Gal. 3. 5.
- Acts 6. 8; 8. 6–7; 9. 17-18 (cf. Acts 22. 13).
- Compare D. A. Carson’s comments in paragraph 8 of his article, ‘The Purpose of Signs and Wonders in the New Testament’. The article, which forms chapter 4 in Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church? (edited by Charles W. Colson and Michael Scott Horton, Moody, 1992), is freely available at http://s3.amazonaws.com/tgc-documents/carson/1992_purpose_of_signs_and_wonders.pdf.
- The quote comes from Wayne Grudem in his article ‘Should Christians Expect Miracles Today?’ from the Winter 2000 issue of the Pneuma Review.
- Acts 28. 5.
- Acts 28. 8.
- Acts 28. 9.
- References to the illnesses of Epaphroditus, Phil. 2. 26-27, Timothy, 1 Tim. 5. 23, and Trophimus, 2 Tim. 4. 20, following the end of the period covered by the Book of Acts do not prove that, in Paul’s later days, he was no longer able to perform healing miracles. That is one possible explanation, but it certainly does not amount to proof. We must bear in mind that the apostle had made no attempt to heal himself of his own ‘thorn in the flesh’ many years before the close of the period covered by Luke, 2 Cor. 12. 7-8.
- It is possible that the description ‘those who heard Him’ refers to a wider circle of early Christians than the apostles. But it is also possible that the writer deliberately avoided referring to the ‘apostles’ by that title, so that he might restrict the application of the word to our Lord Jesus – who is ‘the Apostle’, Heb. 3. 1. In much the way that he appears to studiously avoid speaking of believers as ‘priests’, so as to restrict the application of the word to our Lord Jesus – who is the ‘High Priest’, Heb. 3. 1.
- Professor D. B. Wallace, ‘Hebrews 2:3–4 and the Sign Gifts’. In context, the quote from Professor Wallace runs as follows: ‘The eyewitnesses seem to be the only ones implied here who exercised such gifts . . . The aorist indicative loses much of its punch if the author intends to mean that these gifts continue. He so links the confirmation to the eyewitnesses—and the proof of such confirmation by the sign gifts—that to argue the continued use of such gifts seems to fly in the face of the whole context. If such gifts continued, the author missed a great opportunity to seal his argument against defection. He could have simply said: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which was . . . confirmed to us by those who heard and is still confirmed among us while God bears witness with signs . . . ” By way of contrast, note Gal. 3. 5 (written when the miraculous was still taking place . . .): “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (RSV) This contrast is significant: The author of Hebrews, who is so articulate a defender of his position, lost a perfect opportunity to remind his audience of the reality of their salvation by not mentioning the current manifestation of the sign gifts. That is, unless such were no longer taking place. Though an argument from silence, I think the silence is fairly deafening . . . All in all, Hebrews 2. 3–4 seems to involve some solid inferences that the sign gifts had for the most part ceased”’. The full article can be accessed at https://bible.org/article/hebrews-23-4-and-sign-gifts. We might say, therefore, that our Lord foretold that miraculous signs would be performed (Mark 16. 17-18), that the Book of Acts recorded that they were performed, and Hebrews 2. 3-4 testified that they had been performed.
- See, for example, Luke 11. 14-16; John 9. 16; 11. 47; Acts 4. 14-16.
- This description would include the person of our Lord Jesus, of whom the apostle Peter declared that ‘God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him’, Acts 10. 38. Compare Acts 2. 22.