Signs And Wonders In The New Testament
by Rowland Moss
The signs and wonders recorded in the New Testament may be studied in a number of different ways. In this consideration of the subject, the following aspects will be examined briefly:
1. the Old Testament background;
2. the miracles of Jesus;
3. the virginal conception and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth;
4. the miracles of the apostles, and those in the apostolic church;
5. the concept of 'miracle'.
The paper concludes with a summary of the main points arising out of the discussion.
1. The Old Testament background
Two elements from the Old Testament background are important in relation to the understanding of the 'miraculous' events reported in the New Testament.
a) In the Old Testament there is no concept of 'natural law', which makes a clear-cut distinction between the operation of the natural world and the activity and actions of Yahweh.
There is certainly no notion of 'laws of nature' in the modem scientific sense to be found in either the Old or the New Testaments. Though nature and man are creatures of Yahweh by his word, and thus distinct from him, in the Old Testament all that happens in nature or history is attributed to his working. Even when the observed regularities of nature are the subject of consideration, and 'natural' explanations are available, accepted, and known, such events are still seen as the work of Yahweh, the Lord of heaven and earth (see Job 38-42, Pss. 104-7, inter alia). This view clearly forms the basis of the New Testament framework within which signs and wonders must be examined. b) Those events, which the Old Testament writers record as constituting 'signs and wonders', occur at well-defined periods in 'salvation-history'.
Signs and wonders occur most frequently at crucial points in the history of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and his chosen people. The periods are:
- i) during the Exodus, including the deliverance from bondage in Egypt, the wanderings in the wilderness, and the establishment of the people in the promised land;
- ii) during the conflict with the pagan religions of Canaan and the surrounding lands under the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha;
- iii) during the exile in Babylon, at the time of the prophet Daniel.
Outside these periods 'miracles' are rare.
Thus, in the Old Testament, 'signs and wonders' may be clearly and definitely related to the purpose of Yahweh in salvation and deliverance: that is, their significance is unequivocally soteriological. They are associated with the establishment of the kingdom of Yahweh on earth through his chosen people, with whom he has established his covenant relationship, sovereignly and freely.
It is also necessary to observe that 'signs and wonders' are not always benevolent. They may be signs of judgment, on both pagan peoples and the chosen people (see the story of Korah and his accomplices [Num. 16, esp. w. 23-35; cf. Num. 26:8-11; Deut. 11:1-7; Ps. 106:16-18; Jude vv. 4-11]). Furthermore, the opponents of the covenant people are also capable of performing some 'miracles' (Exod. 7:6-24; then see Exod. 8:1-19; esp. v.l9).
A note on the words used in the New Testament and Septuagint (LXX) for the English phrase 'signs and wonders'
semeia kai terata This phrase, translated as 'signs and wonders', occurs in classical Greek from the second century BC onwards to denote 'miraculous' acts and events: that is, acts and events which fell outside the normal rational expectation of the observers. Such expectation was clearly based on the world - view of the observers, upon what they considered to be rational and normal. The LXX translates into Greek those Hebrew words which denote the 'marvellous acts' of Yahweh (e.g. 1 Chr. 16:24; Pss, 71:17; 86:10; 96:3; 98:1). These concentrate around the three periods listed earlier.
In the New Testament the phrase occurs sixteen times:
Acts 2:19 (Joel 2:30);
2:43 (cf. 5:12; 14:3);
It is associated with:
a) the miracles of Jesus;
b) the miracles of his disciples;
c) the miracles in the apostolic church;
d) the miracles of the supernatural enemies of Jesus.
semeion In classical Greek the word originates as denoting a sign which is marked out for recognition. In the LXX it is used to indicate an extraordinary event which serves to mark it out as having special significance. The event is not necessarily particularly unusual, still less miraculous in the modem sense of that word. In the New Testament the word occurs seventy-seven times, sixteen in the phrase semeia kai terata. Forty-eight of its occurrences are in the gospels, thirteen in Acts, eight in the writings of Paul, one in Hebrews and seven in Revelation. It denotes a sign, a token, or mark, and not necessarily a 'miracle'.
teras In classical Greek, when the word occurs alone, and not in the phrase semeion kai terata, it usually denotes an unpleasant and evil omen. In the LXX it is used to indicate a sign, a token, or a miracle. It is not necessarily an event, it can even be a person (as in Ezek. 24:24-7). It has a wide use (see e.g. 1 Kgs, 13:3-5; Ps. 7:7; Isa. 8:18; 20:3; Ezek. 12: 6-11; inter alia). Where it is used to refer to a 'miracle', it is almost always associated with semeion. In the New Testament it always occurs with semeion in the phrase semeia kai terata. In three instances it retains the evil connotation of classical Greek by referring to the 'miraculous' acts of the agents of Satan (Matt. 24:24; par. Mark, 13:22; 2 Thess. 2:9).
dunamis These words cannot be considered apart from a third word which is translated 'miracle' in the New Testament (as in Mark 9:39; Acts 2:22; Acts 8:13; 19:11; 1 Cor. 12:10, 28, 29; Gal. 3:5; Heb. 2:4). It is most often translated 'power' (seventy-seven times in the AV). It is also translated 'mighty work' or 'mighty deed' or 'wonderful work' (thirteen times in the AV). In classical Greek the root meaning is the ability to achieve, or physical or spiritual strength, and later it attains metaphysical significance. In general the word means power, might, strength, force, ability, capability, deed of power, resource. The LXX uses it to translate two Hebrew words. The meaning in most instances is simply military forces. There is also a specialist usage which denotes the power of Yahweh (eg. in Pss. 102 (103):21; 45(46):7, 11; 47 (48): 8). The proof of the power of Yahweh is to be seen in the creation of the world (Jer. 34(27):5; 39(32):17), and in his mighty acts (Exod. 15:6,13; Deut. 3:24; 9:26, 29). Then the power of Yahweh in the faithful believer is the work of his Spirit (Mic. 3:8).
In the New Testament the word dunamis occurs 118 times. It occurs frequently in the writings of Paul, whilst John does not use the noun but employs related verbs. In the synoptic gospels (Matt., Mark, Luke) and in Acts it denotes the power of God, heavenly powers, miraculous power expressed in mighty deeds (the plural form of the noun), and the power of God which brings salvation to its completion and consummation. In John's writings the miracles are signs which reveal the divine power, and therefore the divine nature of Jesus, and his unity of will with the Father. In Revelation the theme is the ultimate triumph of the power of God in the crucified, raised and exalted Lord. Paul emphasises the present experience of God's power. For him the supreme proof of the power of God is the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ, whereby Christ becomes the power of God in full salvation - past, present, and future. But the resurrection and the cross must not be separated.
semeion, teras and dunamis together. In three places in the New Testament semeion, teras and dunamis are used together in the same sentence. In Acts 2:22 and Hebrews 2:4 they together constitute the vindication and authentication of the power of God manifested in the Lord Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 12:12 they are referred to as the marks of a genuine apostle, that is, one who has seen the Lord and has been chosen by him for that unique foundation ministry. This restricted conjugation of the three words in New Testament usage may be seen as significant.
Thus a 'sign' is intended to appeal to the understanding, a 'wonder' to the imagination, and a 'mighty act' to the supernatural origin of the event. The supernatural origin is not to be set in contradiction to 'natural' events; the ultimate origin of all events is supernatural, but in a 'mighty act' there is seen to be a singular manifestation of that supernatural power, which causes the observer to marvel, and by faith to interpret the event as a 'sign' with special meaning and significance.
It is against this background of Old Testament thought and the usage of significant words that the records of signs and wonders in the New Testament must be examined.
2. The miracles of Jesus
There are five crucial comments to be made about the miracles of Jesus as they are recorded in the four gospels:
a) Jesus' miracles were unique in that they were performed by his own authoritative word. The Word made flesh spoke the word of power and the mighty act occurred.
In this it is difficult to miss the parallel with the mighty acts of Yahweh in the Old Testament; he is pre-eminently the God who speaks, and it is. This is true of creation, as it is true of deliverance and salvation. Even when the covenant people persist in faithlessness and are sent into exile from the land given to them by Yahweh, it is the word of Yahweh which will speak the word of deliverance, and the promise of restoration will become a fact of history. Jesus' miracles thus speak not so much of a power he possessed, but of the person he was - God made man. The emphasis is not so much upon what happened as on the manner of its happening. It is that which speaks most eloquently of his claim to be God come in the flesh. It is that which causes his mighty acts to become 'signs and wonders'. They are a demonstration of the power of the Word, and therefore of the authority of the person speaking that Word.
b) Jesus' miracles were thus not performed with the purpose of demonstrating that he possessed a particular, even a unique, power. They were the inevitable consequences of who he was.
The healing miracles were performed in direct response to human need; they were not public performances designed to draw attention to himself. This he had already rejected in the temptations at the outset of his ministry (Matt. 4:1-7; Mark 1:9-12; Luke 4:1-4 and 9-12); he commands a healed leper to tell no-one (Matt. 8:4; Mark 1:43-5; Luke 5:14-16); he refuses to perform miracles at the command of Herod (Luke 23:8-9). The signs, wonders and mighty acts were the natural consequence of his response as a whole person to the situations which confronted him in the normal course of his ministry.
c) Jesus' miracles were not all acts of mercy, or acts of healing; some were acts of judgement and others were designed to teach his disciples. Perhaps all had a didactic (teaching) purpose.
The cursing of the fig tree (Matt. 21:18-22; Mark 11:20-5), and the casting of the demons into the herd of swine (Mark 5:1-20; Luke 8:26-39), are instances of the first; the stilling of the storm (Matt. 8:23-7; Luke 8:22-5), and the walking on the water (Matt. 14:22-36; Mark 6:45-52; John 6:16-21), are instances of the second. Other miracles had a didactic purpose, such as the feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21 with 16:5-12; Mark 6:30-44 with 8:14-21; Luke 9:10-17), of the four thousand (Matt. 15:29-39 with 16:5-12;
Mark 8:1-10 with 8:14-21; note also 8:11-13), and all the 'signs' in the gospel of John, each of which is made to relate to Jesus' teaching. It might be contended that both Jesus' words and his mighty acts were aspects of the same Word which he both spoke and was.
d) Jesus' miracles all have an eschatological reference, and must be understood in that context; they are tokens of the future kingdom, which Christ will come to establish.
The miracles are not isolated interventions in the normal order of nature, but a vital part of the forward-moving total purpose of God, of which the 'normal' working of nature is also a part. They signal something fundamentally new brought by the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, God made flesh, the eternal Son of God made Son of man.
To quote Karl Barth:
- When the biblical miracle stories excite serious and reverent wonderment, they intend to do this as signals of something fundamentally new, not as a violation of the natural order which is generally known and acknowledged. ... Though these changes were isolated and temporary, they were nevertheless radically helpful and saving. What took place were promises and intimations, anticipations of redeemed nature, of a state of freedom, of a kind of life in which there will be no more sorrow, tears, and crying, where death as the last enemy will be no more. (Evangelical Theology; an Introduction. 1963 pp. 68ff.)
There is nothing arbitrary or capricious about the miracles of Jesus. They are all fully part of the eternal purpose of God-concrete events which are experiential promises and foretastes of the new heavens and the new earth, and the new humanity which will inhabit them.
e) Jesus' miracles are in a fundamentally different category from all others, including those reported from Old Testament times, and those reported in the New Testament and since, because they are inextricably linked with his person.
If Jesus was in fact God incarnate, as he claimed to be, then it would be more remarkable if there were no miracles associated with his life on earth. The crucial 'miracles' associated with him are the mighty acts of God in the virginal conception and the bodily resurrection and exaltation. The miracles, which he performed during his life, authenticate his status and authority, but no more and no less than his teaching and, indeed, the entirety of his life. What he was determined what he did and also what he said, and it was the totality that convinced the early disciples that he was in fact who he claimed to be. They were divinely appointed witnesses, not simply to Jesus' words, nor to his mighty acts, but to the totality of his person. As the apostle John puts it:
- That ... which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched - this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).
The emphasis of the apostle could hardly make clearer the totality of the impact of Jesus Christ upon him - sight, hearing and touch are all involved. It is the person who is experienced, and convinces of his uniqueness as the Son of God.
3. The virginal conception and bodily resurrection of Jesus
Thus the descriptions of signs and wonders, of mighty acts, of 'miracles' in the gospel narratives of the life of Jesus do not carry any necessary connotation which involves contravention of, or intervention in, the course of the natural order of things. They may or may not do so and, on the basis of the accounts, it is often not possible to reach any conclusion as to whether a particular event does in fact represent a contravention of 'natural law' as it is understood by modern science. Indeed such an element in the event is only of secondary importance. The fact was that the events elicited the appropriate response and reflection in those who witnessed them. Some believed, others were convicted but refused to believe, and still others were simply little affected by the events, or saw them solely as spectacular acts of purely entertainment value (e.g. Herod, Luke 23: 8-9). The responses of men today are not dissimilar. Jesus' mighty acts were performed by the power of the Holy Spirit of God, who wakened faith in the hearts and minds of his chosen witnesses.
With the virginal conception and the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a different category of event is involved. They were performed by the same power - that of God by his Holy Spirit - but they are crucial to faith in a different sense. They are different in the following ways:
a) They explicitly contradict the 'natural' order of things, and are specifically said to do so by the writers of the New Testament.
The virginal conception is stated clearly to be a direct work of the power of God by his Holy Spirit, and not the power of God working through the natural means of procreation (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38; 41-5). It is therefore 'miraculous' in the very fullest sense, a direct intervention of the Creator in the ordered working of his creation. It is thus crucial to the apostolic theological understanding of Jesus, and it is unique, with no other parallel or remotely similar event to compare with it. This is emphasised by the juxtaposition and the interweaving of the accounts of the birth of Jesus and of the John the Baptiser in Luke 1.
The bodily resurrection of Jesus is similarly unique and 'miraculous'. This is hinted at in the gospel accounts, where the contrast between the pre- and post-resurrection bodies of Jesus is clearly pointed out in the simple narratives: e.g. the risen Jesus could appear in closed and barred rooms (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-31); he was not always immediately recognisable to his disciples; his post-resurrection teaching was consistent with that prior to his death, and was received with equal or greater authority (Matt. 28:16-20; cf. Mark 16:16-20; Luke.24: 17-32; John 20:21-3; 21:15-23); and there is the repeated emphasis on the empty tomb (Matt. 28:1-15; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-18).
The significance of the empty tomb is not so much that, in a 'historical' sense, it 'proves' the bodily resurrection, but that it demonstrates the continuity of the 'physical' body of Jesus with his 'spiritual' body, which is the core fact upon which the apostle Paul builds his exposition of the significance of the resurrection of the body for Christian faith (1 Cor. 15, esp. 35-7). In relation to this, it is pertinent to remark that the ability of the risen Lord to pass in, out of, and through, the reality in which we live must not be seen as relegating the risen presence of the Lord to the category of 'ghost', a presence less 'real' than the 'reality' in which we live. On the contrary, it is this reality experienced by our senses which is the shadow. The risen Christ is the reality, and he passes through the world of our sense experience as we pass through the projection of a colour picture on a screen.
b) They are eschatological in a unique sense: they not only point to the coming kingdom, but are in fact the basic element in its establishment.
- They are the essential keys to the purpose of God in both revelation and redemption. God had to become man, part of his created reality, if he was to reveal himself personally in a way men could understand and appreciate, and establish his authority demonstrably over his created order in a way man could comprehend. His victory over all evil had to be accomplished as a man, and the reality of that victory and its working out in human history necessitated a resurrection, from which exaltation had inevitably to follow. But in so working, this reality is itself transformed, and that has to be worked through in time to its glorious consummation - which we await (Rom. 8:18-25; Eph. 3:3-14; Col. 1:15-20).
- It does not seem to be biblical to see the work of Christ in redemption as simply effecting a restoration of a pre-Fall 'paradise'. This is not the place to argue that idea through, but the general tenor of the teaching in Scripture concerning the sovereign purpose of God is surely that by using sin, evil and the devil himself, the Lord God works out an even better climactic consummation - through the incarnation of the eternal Son, his mighty death, glorious resurrection and exaltation as acts of redemption of both man and nature - than would have been brought about by the mere continuation of the Edenic paradise.
c) They alone give meaning and significance to the other reported signs and wonders associated with the Lord Jesus Christ, and to those performed by the apostles subsequent to his exaltation.
Without the virginal conception and bodily, though transcendent, resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, all the other mighty acts are meaningless magical performances, of no more importance than any other phenomena which appear to be inexplicable or to excite amazement.
d) They are truly supernatural, in that they are events in history where eternity actually penetrates time and space in a public way.
All other such penetrations are ultimately dependent upon these two actual events, and even then these two events are quite unique in that they are direct acts of God designed to achieve that which could be accomplished in no other way. They are crucial to Christian faith and belief and are, in a real sense, the only two full, independent, and self-validating miracles.
e) While as events in history they are crucial to the Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact God incarnate, in another sense they are inevitable if God was truly to become man.
Christian belief is not that God became a man, or that in some special way God as Spirit came upon a man, but that all the fulness of God became man in a unique person, so as to take upon himself our full humanity (Col. 1:19-20; Heb. 2:14-18; with John 1:1-5, 10-14 and 1 John 1:1-4). He entered into created nature, into the human race, that he might redeem and renew it, taking his glorified humanity back to the Father. He thus set in train within the created universe the process of redemption and renewal of which his glorified humanity is the actual 'firstfruit' or guarantee, and of which his redeemed and renewed children are the constant token throughout history until the time appointed for the consummation of that redemption and renewal at the return of the man Christ Jesus in glory and victory (Rom. 8:18-25, inter alia). The inevitable uniqueness of the virginal conception, bodily resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ is therefore further emphasized.
The virginal conception and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as events in history are therefore utterly unique, crucial to all Christian belief, and the only indubitable fully supernatural and independent miracles. On them all the other mighty acts of God depend. They are not therefore to be classed as signs and wonders amongst other signs and wonders. They are the signs that God has in fact become man, the wonders which should command our astonished worship, the miracles which fully and completely demonstrate the sovereign supernatural power of God.
- This is why the only way in which their validity can be attacked is to doubt their occurrence. Most other 'miracles' can be 'explained' in natural terms, if sceptics are ingenious enough. And no doubt many recorded biblical miracles may be explained quite validly in such terms, without in any way detracting from their status as signs, wonders, or mighty acts.
4. The miracles of the apostles and in the apostolic church
Signs, wonders and mighty acts are also reported in Scripture as being performed by the apostles and disciples, both during Jesus' own ministry and in the post-Pentecost church (see Matt. 10:1; Mark 6:60-13; Luke 9:1-2,6; 10:1-4, 17-20; Acts 2:43, 3:1-10; 4:24-30; 5:1-11, 12-16; 6:8; 8:4-8, 13,40; 9:17-19, 32-43; 12:6-11; 13:6-12; 14:8-18; 16:16-18, 25-8; 19:11-20; 20:7-12). It is noticeable that the reports of signs and wonders in Acts become less and less important as the narrative in Acts proceeds, and more and more emphasis is laid on the preaching of Paul and his planting of churches in Asia and Europe. Whether this indicates an actual decrease in their occurrence, or simply a deliberate development in emphasis on the part of Luke as narrator, is a matter for conjecture, but it is a fact which is significant for those who would seek to build a theology of signs and wonders on the material found in Luke's account. So, too, is the fact that Luke, as a physician, would have had a special interest in miracles of healing, and yet their importance in the narrative seems to lessen in those passages where Luke was apparently Paul's companion (generally from ch. 16 onwards), and it is Paul's preaching, teaching and personal testimony which occupy the attention, in the context of the events of his journeys from town to town, both of his own free will and as a prisoner. The following observations are significant:
a) The signs and wonders performed by the apostles are effected by the power of the risen Lord Jesus through the work of God the Holy Spirit.
They are not acts of the apostles performed on their own authority, but acts of the Lord Christ through his apostles, by his Spirit. The apostles and disciples do not command his power: he commands them to use his power, by his Spirit and by his specific and direct authority.
b) The authoritative preaching of the Word by the apostles, in the power of the same Spirit, is itself proof of the operation of the same 'supernatural' power of the risen Christ, whether or not it is accompanied by 'signs and wonders'.
This is clear from Acts 4:33 compared with 6:8-10. The preaching of the Word and the performing of signs and wonders are thus operations of the same supernatural power, and we separate them at our peril. The preacher preaches in the power of Christ (2 Tim. 1:8ff; 4:17); it is the Word of God with power which brings salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18). As good news of the reconciliation effected by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Gospel itself becomes the power which brings salvation and breaks the power of sin and evil. It is the Spirit of the risen Christ which realises the power of the heavenly Lord in the earthly community; bringing salvation from sin and the power of evil, with new birth in Christ, and authenticating the Word with signs and wonders. All are intended to point to Christ in glory. The preached Word unaccompanied by 'signs and wonders' is not necessarily a Gospel without power, but its being associated with such manifestations of the glory and power of Christ ought never to be ruled out.
c) As with the miracles of Jesus, the signs and wonders performed by the apostles were not all works of blessing and healing; they were occasionally works of judgement.
The cases of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:6-12) illustrate this. Thus, if we expect the power of God to perform works of healing today, we should also expect him to perform works of judgement of a similar particularity by the same power. If we pray for healing in response to the discernment given by God's Spirit, then we should also be prepared to pray for specific acts of judgement in response to the same discernment. This points up very clearly the solemn responsibility we have in this matter and, for that matter, in the preaching of the Word.
d) The signs and wonders are always related to the preaching of the Word, either in pointing to it, or proceeding from it; they are never events-in-themselves.
Without the Word, the signs and wonders have no significance for the Gospel; they are merely unusual or remarkable events which have no obvious explanation to the observers. The Word of God is thus primary and fundamental. The Holy Spirit takes the written Word, makes it a living Word, and aims it as a specific and transforming Word at a particular individual with a unique need, and thus meets the need. That need may be a spiritual one, in which case the healing is permanent and eternal; or a natural one, when the healing is temporary in that the individual has yet to die - unless the Lord comes in glory first, in which case the healing is still temporary. The regenerating and renewing power of the Word effects an eternal transformation; the natural healing which may result from the power of the same Spirit is at best for this life alone. This provides a necessary perspective on signs and wonders and a much-needed balance to their evaluation.
e) The signs and wonders performed by the apostles and in the apostolic church are always clearly distinguished from those performed by other agencies.
Peter attributes the healing of the beggar at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple to faith in the name of Jesus (Acts 3:16). The works of Simon the sorcerer are clearly separated from the miracles of Philip and Peter as being 'magic' which 'amazed all the people of Samaria', so that they called him 'the Great Power' (Acts 8:9-24). But it is by the Holy Spirit that Peter and Philip performed 'great signs and miracles'. Paul and Barnabas strenuously resist the attempt by the people of Lystra to treat them as gods from the Greek pantheon (Acts 13:6-12). The case of Elymas is also pertinent (Acts 13:6-12), as is that of the clairvoyant slave girl (Acts 16:16-18). The reality of the signs and wonders performed by the magic arts is nowhere denied, but they are always distinguished clearly from those performed by the power of the Holy Spirit. All signs and wonders are not of God, as the Apocalypse makes clear (Rev. 13:13; 16:14; 19:20; see also 2 Thess. 2:9).
Thus the signs and wonders performed by the apostles and in the apostolic church are not wrought by their exercising some supernatural power given to them; they are wrought by the sovereign power of the risen Lord Jesus, exalted in glory, by his Spirit working through obedient, willing agents. They are always associated with the preaching of the Word, the proclamation of the Gospel, which may, or may not, be accompanied by their occurrence. The transforming power of the Word preached is the same as that which produces the temporal phenomena called signs and wonders; that transformation is eternal and permanent.
5. The notion of 'miracle’
Singular confusion surrounds the use of the term 'miracles'. Much modem thought, both Christian and secular, assumes that the miraculous necessarily involves the direct intervention of God in such a way as to suspend or contradict supposedly immutable 'natural laws'. This, in its present form, is a relatively modern concept, born of the philosophical extension of modern science, mixed with the philosophies which were born in the Enlightenment. It is not a notion which either the Jews or the Greeks of New Testament times would have fully appreciated.
The point is that it is an error to condition the biblical concept of 'miracles' by our twentieth century presuppositions based on contemporary scientific understanding. In the Scriptures, 'miracles' are distinctive acts of God, which, by the fact that they occur contrary to normal expectation in the situation in which they happen, excite wonderment and speak in a special way of the activity of God. This is a 'common-sense' rather than a 'scientific' idea of miracles and mighty acts. The emphasis is upon the general perception rather than the mechanism. Clearly the concept implies an expectation of the normal and the ordinary, but it is a general expectation shared by ordinary people rather than an expectation which can be shared by the small elite group alone. This needs to be born in mind in relation to 'signs and wonders' today. For an event to be 'miraculous' in a biblical sense, it is not necessary to demonstrate incontrovertibly that it suspends or contradicts the postulated 'laws of nature' of modem science. It may, or it may not. The point is that, in the circumstances in which it occurs, it is sufficiently unexpected to excite wonder and speak in a special way of the activity of God, who is in fact active in all events.
Furthermore, it is relevant to emphasise that in the Scriptures it is not only works of God which are seen as 'miraculous'. They may refer to the activity of alien powers, as in the case of Pharaoh's magicians (Exod. 7:8-8:14). The New Testament also speaks of such 'signs and wonders' (Matt. 7:21-3, 24:24; Mark 13:22; 2 Thess. 2:9) and to the works of magicians and sorcerers (Acts 13:6-11; 16:16-18). Furthermore, in first-century Palestine there were apparently 'healers' and 'exorcists' who achieved some success (Matt. 12:22-9). In response to the accusation that he cast out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, Jesus' reply included the question, 'By whom do your sons cast them out?' (v.27). He does not question the fact of the casting out - only its source.
The distinctiveness of the miracles of Jesus is to be found in the nature of his person. His mighty acts were an expression of who he was, rather than of a power he possessed, and it is false and dangerous to divorce what he did from who he was. As has already been pointed out, the miracles derive their significance from the two supreme miracles of the virginal conception and transcendent bodily resurrection of the Lord. Without these the other recorded miracles have no significance beyond those performed by any other miracle-workers - then, before, or since.
Summary of the main points
a) Signs and wonders in the New Testament are always associated with the Word of the Lord: either the Word of the Lord Jesus while here on earth, or his Word through his apostles after his resurrection and exaltation. They are never 'events-in-themselves'. Without the Word they have no significance or importance, and their purpose is to authenticate the power of the Word preached or spoken - the power inherent in it because it is God's Word.
b) The virginal conception by the Holy Spirit, and the transcendent bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, are unique and crucial. They are not 'miracles' amongst 'miracles', but they give meaning, significance and authenticity to all the other 'signs and wonders'. It is the power of the risen Christ through his Word which both works signs and wonders by the apostles, and the supreme work of the new birth through the proclamation of the same Word by the same apostles and their associates and successors. The agent of both is the Holy Spirit of Jesus, the risen and exalted 'proper man'.
c) Signs and wonders are eschatological in that they point to that which is yet to be - the new creation: the new heavens, the new earth, the new Jerusalem, where God in Christ is all in all, and where sin, death, crying, and misery are no more, since by then evil and Satan will have been completely judged, and the judgement will have been executed.
d) All signs and wonders are in the sovereign purpose and disposition of the almighty Lord, including the new birth. The agent of that purpose is the Holy Spirit of God. The power and Lord of that purpose is Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man.
e) The emphasis in the New Testament concept of 'signs and wonders is not on the process or mechanism of the event, or that it 'contravenes' or 'suspends' what we now call, in our scientistic age, 'natural law', but upon the activity of God and the meaning and impact of the events termed 'miraculous' in relation to him and to his purpose.
The Revd Professor Rowland Moss is research professor in human ecology at the University of Salford and diocesan environmental officer for the diocese of Chester.
Rowland Moss 1986
First published by Fellowship of Word and Spirit in 1987