“Do you believe in miracles?” has to be one of the silliest questions ever posed by people who presume to pass judgment on one another’s “faithfulness” or “intelligence” (or lack of either!) by their replies to simplistic, programmed doctrinal examinations. Nowhere in the New Testament is anyone asked to profess such a “belief” (see W.S.#1).
Miracles are the gracious acts of God which are designed to enable ordinary citizens of Earth to perceive his grace, his power, his love, and his glory, in order that they might choose to become faithful citizens of the Kingdom of his beloved Son! They are intended to draw attention, not to some spectacular “wow” factor, but beyond any specific event – beyond the limits of time or space or normal human expectation – to the realm of life as its Creator originally intended for it to be lived.
There are three primary words which are used to speak of such events: dunamis, rendered 8x “miracle” and 77x “power”; semeion, 22x “miracle” and 51x “sign”; and teras, consistently rendered “wonders”, 16x. This last only appears in the plural, terata, and is always accompanied by at least one of the other two words. Trench speculates that this may be because teras was so frequently used in pagan contexts of omens and portents, that Christian writers took care that the term not be interpreted magically. The ancients frequently assumed that unusual appearances in the sky or creatures behaving strangely were messages from the gods, so this would have been a valid concern.
Trench further suggests, “These different words do not so much represent different kinds of miracles, as they do miracles contemplated from different points of view.”
Both dunamis and semeion may refer to healing, to exorcism, to the credentials or identification of Jesus or his representatives, or simply generically to his activities among people of all descriptions.
As noted in W.S.#31, dunamis generally refers to the power or ability to do something. Lexically, it also described any natural capacity that could be cultivated, for either good or ill, as well as a manifestation of divine power. I share the lament expressed by Trench that traditional translators, seemingly at random, chose to use “miracles” 8x (Mk.9:39, Ac.2:22, 8:13, 19:11; I Cor.12:10,28; Gal.3:5, Heb.2:4), and “mighty works” 12x (Mt.11:20,21,23; 13:54,58; 14:2; Mk.6:2,5,24; Lk.10:13, 19:37; II Cor.12:12), instead of opting for consistency. Surely they did not consider the deeds of Jesus himself less “miraculous” than similar activities which he enabled Philip, Paul, and other brethren to perform!
The same question could/should be raised regarding the traditional treatment of semeion. This, too, had classical uses that were related to the activity of pagan gods and heroes, as well as to the proof of an argument, an instance or example, or an indication of the future. In the New Testament, it usually includes the ethical end and purpose of an event, the prime object of which is to lead observers to something beyond their experience. “It must go beyond nature, valuable, not so much for what is accomplished, but for what it indicates of the grace and power of the doer, or his connection to a higher, spiritual world” (Trench). In order to be a “sign”, an event must be something that could not have “just happened” – the raising of Lazarus who had been dead for four days (Jn.11:47), the healing with a simple word of a man lame from birth (Ac.4:16), or the feeding of a large crowd with a very small amount of food (Jn.6:14).
Please note, that confining the term “miracle” to occurrences that are clearly beyond nature, IN NO WAY needs to diminish our appreciation of divine activity in the natural course of life. It is no more necessary or appropriate to label all of God’s creation as “miraculous” than it is to declare that “all the children are above average!” Nature also bears testimony to the power and glory of God (Rom.1:19,20) but it is not all “miraculous.” Neither are the birth of a child (unless under unusual circumstances like those of Sarah, Elizabeth, and Mary), gradual (even if astonishing) recovery from illness or accident, or provision for various needs through normal human channels. All of these can – and should – be recognized as gracious gifts of God (see James 1:17). But everything designated a “miracle” in the New Testament was immediate, and also immediately and clearly recognized by participants and spectators alike as completely out-of-the-ordinary.
John takes special care to explain how certain ones of Jesus’ acts became “signs” (2:11, 2:23, 4:54, 6:2, 6:14), and even notes Jesus’ complaint (6:26) that for the vast majority, the real intent of the “sign” was missed completely. (All of these use semeion.)
The demands of skeptical authorities for a “sign” from Jesus (Mt.12:38-39, 16:4; Mk.8:11-12, Lk.11:16,29,30; Jn.2:18, 4:48, 6:30) seem to carry more of the pagan, “magical” flavor, as do the warnings against the performance of impostors and false prophets (Mt.24:24, Mk.13:22, IIThes.2:9, Jn.4:48, Rv.13:14, 16:14), but genuine demonstrations of the power of God do serve as validation of the message, not only carried by Jesus,but also his delegated representatives (Mk.16:17,20; Jn.20:30, Ac.2:22,43; 5:12, 14:3, Rom.15:19, II Cor.12:12, Heb.2:4).
That the true import of these can be seriously misunderstood is evident in the episode with Simon the magician in Samaria (Ac.8), as well as in those who attributed Jesus’ acts as empowered by “the prince of demons” (Mt.9:34, 12:24). Therefore, it is absolutely essential that true disciples who are assigned and empowered to mediate the touch of the Lord, acknowledge plainly, as did the early apostles, that “God did these things by the hands of” various ones of their number (Ac.2:43, 4:22, 6:8, 14:3, 15:12, 19:11). Here, as so frequently in other situations, careful discernment on the part of the brotherhood is absolutely essential, to distinguish between genuine signs and dangerous deception (Mt.24, Mk.13, Lk.21).
Conspicuous by its absence is any suggestion of a requirement that anyone “believe” that a miracle of any kind had occurred in the absence of evidence. To the contrary, when any reaction on the part of either the beneficiary or the spectators is mentioned, it is one of amazement at the unexpected graciousness of what they had seen or experienced.
There is absolutely no Scriptural precedent for the practice of “blaming the victim” that is common among some flamboyant, self-styled “healers”. Remember that in the only recorded incident where disciples’ attempts at healing had “failed”, Jesus attributed the failure to the “faith/faithfulness” of the disciples, not that of the supplicant father or his son (Mt.17:14-18 and parallels).
We may much more appropriately join in the prayer of some of our earliest brethren (Ac.4:30) as they faced persecution and prison: “And now, Lord ….Reach out with your hand for healings and signs and wonders to happen, through the name of your holy child [servant] Jesus!” His gracious answer enabled their confident propagation of his message (v.31).
Amen, Lord! Let it continually be so!