(Adapted from chapter 21 of The Spirit.)
Jesus deliberately played down the miraculous. Then why did he do so many miracles -- if they weren’t really necessary? Now, we never said they weren’t necessary! For one, the word of God had to be brought to men, and we see the valuable role miracles played, both in inspiring and in confirming the Word. Also, the miracles were a demonstration of God’s character and will. Furthermore, they had to be performed to fulfill what the Scriptures had predicted about Christ, so that we would have a solid basis for our faith. Do remember, however, that once the miracles were recorded, there was no need for an encore (Luke 16:31).
Some are discouraged with this conclusion. “Wouldn’t it be more exciting if we had miracles? Wouldn’t we be able to get more visitors to church? Wouldn’t it advance the kingdom more in the long run if we had the supernatural gifts?”
There is no denying that things would be more sensational if we could perform miracles, especially considering present trends in church growth. And it would be foolish to deny that attendance numbers might increase. But is that what it’s all about? Normal Christianity is quite exciting in itself, and attendance numbers are not the only indicator of how a congregation is doing, important as they are. Conversions, long-range retention, spiritual maturity and the multiplication of leaders are surely more important considerations.
Think about it: How many loyal followers did Jesus have at the end of his own ministry? One hundred and twenty in the area of Jerusalem and five hundred in Galilee. How many had seen his miracles? Many of the crowds that assembled to hear his teaching numbered in the thousands (Luke 12:1). How many people did Jesus preach to in his lifetime? A few hundred thousand? Or several million? Let’s be realistic! The deciding factor in the effectiveness of a ministry could never be miracles; it is the hearts of the lost and the zeal of the laborers.
We mustn’t look for shortcuts to numerical growth. What happened in the fourth century when the Roman Empire decided Christianity was to be the official religion (381 AD)? The pagans streamed into the church! “Attendances” were at an all-time high, as the heathen temples emptied in favor of the Christian churches. But there was a heavy price to pay: All the worldliness of the pagans was imported wholesale into the church; the whole situation became very political. The church never recovered from the blow.
No, there are no shortcuts. The only way to build a dynamic and expanding ministry is hard work! Yet how easy it is to be unrealistic about the whole thing, to think that miracles would really advance our evangelistic thrust! We can end up reasoning as Jesus’ brothers did:
Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him (John 7:3–5).
If Jesus really knew what he was doing, so they reasoned, he would use the miracles to build up his image, to gain notoriety for his work. But the point of the ministry is not publicity; it is to save souls. His brothers’ philosophy was worldly, unrealistic and selfish. Jesus would have nothing to do with it! But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Often we read of his refusal to grant a sign, for he knew the hearts of men. It is abundantly clear that Jesus discouraged the sign-seeking mentality. Let’s look at seven reasons why he was so reluctant to play to the crowds:
1. People would follow him from wrong motives.
Jesus knew that it is much easier to get caught up in the excitement of miracles than in the business of repentance. When the crowds followed him in John 6, Jesus challenged their motives:
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that en- dures to eternal life” (John 6:26–27a).
Whereas the miracles should have convicted them of their need to become committed disciples, instead self-interest was why they were following Jesus. Even after this stiff challenge they remained unrepentant:
So they asked him,“What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?” (John 6:30).
And this was after he had miraculously fed many of them! (John 6:1–15). Things come to a head later in the chapter, after they realize what sort of commitment Jesus is expecting. Their response?
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it? ” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?” ...From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him (John 6:60–61, 66).
Their motivation was sinful from the beginning. Such people can be persuaded to associate themselves with Jesus as long as there is something they think they can get out of it, but as the saying goes, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
2. Miracles don’t guarantee faithfulness.
Experiencing great miracles is no guarantee of long-term fidelity. It’s like a close brush with death—how many people are significantly changed by it? When I was younger I had two “close calls”: Once I nearly drowned in the ocean, and the other time my bicycle was snapped in two when a car struck me. When things like this happen, it is easy to become “religious” for a time, but how quickly the effect wears off! Jesus knew there is no comparison between a momentary conviction based on circumstances or feelings and the lasting commitment of a solid decision. Jesus saw this in his ministry over and over again.
Sadly, even the people of God are not innocent of such selfish forgetfulness of what the Lord has done (2 Peter 1:9). Is this not a lesson taught us time and time again throughout the wilderness period of Israel?
11 They forgot what he had done,
the wonders he had shown them.
12 He did miracles in the sight of their fathers
in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan.
13 He divided the sea and led them through; he made the water stand firm like a wall.
14 He guided them with the cloud by day and with light from the fire all night.
15 He split the rocks in the desert
and gave them water as abundant as the seas;
16 he brought streams out of a rocky crag and made water flow down like rivers.
17 But they continued to sin against him,
rebelling in the desert against the Most High.
18 They willfully put God to the test
by demanding the food they craved (Psalm 78:11–18).
Jesus knew that the hearts of men and women needed to be won to him not on the basis of unusual events they had witnessed, but on the basis of an appreciation of God’s love for them in sending himself to die for their sins (John 12:32).
3. The Scriptures are sufficient.
As we have repeatedly discussed already, the Scriptures are all we need to have a solid faith in God. Abraham tried to enlighten the rich man on this point, who had a difficult time grasping how a stunning miracle would not create moral change in the hearts of his family members. How much more does this apply when the Scriptures record miracles! If we want to be impressed, all we have to do is read the Bible. If that does not impress us, it is not too likely witnessing a bona fide miracle will bring about a profound change in our heart and conduct.
4. Not even “doubters” need signs.
Some try to use Gideon or Thomas as justification for their own weak faith and commitment. The astute reader will notice that Gideon was not commended for his procrastination, nor was Thomas commended for his skeptical attitude concerning Christ. He had no excuse for his doubts, for he had seen countless miracles at the hands of Jesus, and Thomas was present on several occasions when Jesus prophesied his resurrection. How did Jesus deal with “doubting Thomas”?
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (John 20:27).
No, Thomas is not commended for his “scientific” attitude; he is rebuked! Nor is it suggested that he work through his doubts; he is commanded to stop doubting. Now are we becoming irrational? No, because for Thomas this did not even come close to a “leap in the dark.” He had seen plenty of evidence!
A friend of mine was studying the Bible with a non-Christian. Things seemed to be going well, until what appeared to be a total impasse. Despite all the evidence Joyce had shown her in the Scriptures, she said she wasn’t sure she could accept the whole Bible after all, since she had never really believed in the devil and wasn’t sure sin was “sin.” Joyce’s response? She challenged her to be reasonable—to stop doubting and believe. “How superficial of her,” I thought at the time; “Joyce should have given her a book on evidences and suggested a few useful passages to read.” (God has shown me many things about the ministry since then!) The woman became a Christian just days later!
Most of the would-be Thomases of today have no need of miracles. What they need is a good challenge to repent! However, when someone’s faith is weak, undeveloped and legitimately needs time to grow, what is the biblical solution? Look into the Word. The Word produces faith (Romans 10:17). My Bible doesn’t say anything about miracles in that passage!
5. The hard-hearted are not changed by the miracles anyway.
The human mind is capable of the most incredible rationalizations. As with Pharaoh (Exodus 7:13), Jeroboam (1 Kings 13:4–6, 33), and the Nazi Goering,1 we find a significant hardness of heart among the people of Jesus’ day. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, the leaders of the Jews saw the truth; they did not deny the miracles. But they had no effect on them at all, except to accelerate their murderous hatred of Jesus:
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (John 11:47–48).
Not all the leaders were this way, fortunately. Some, like Nicodemus (John 3:lff, 7:51), had the integrity to acknowledge the truth when they saw it. But for the most part the Jewish people remained obstinate:
Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him (John 12:37).
The point: Miracles today would not make one whit of difference for people whose minds are already made up.
6. Jesus does not want to short-circuit our free will.
What would happen if, every time we were about to make a wrong decision, God himself appeared to us, coaxed us into doing what was right and then disappeared until our next moment of weakness? Personal responsibility and free will would go out the window! God respects our own decision-making ability, even if we misuse that faculty for selfish ends. That is why Jesus said,
“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:17).
Having experienced a miracle is not the fundamental requirement for finding out whether Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Nor is it having God work in your life in some mystical, uncanny way. The fundamental requirement is a willingness to follow the truth. That is the only way to decide correctly whether Christianity is true.
(No, this is not a “Catch-22,” since Jesus is not asking for blind faith, only for reasonableness. My challenge to non-Christians is never to “make believe” Christianity is true, but rather to be willing to follow the truth, wherever that may lead.)
Like the parable, which does not force its truth on the hearer, the ministry without miracles avoids the extremes of sensationalism, emotionalism and quick, but shallow, decisions. (Not to say miracles would be a hindrance—only that they are not as helpful as many would have us believe.)
7. Jesus wants us to base our faith on reason.
In the gospels we see Jesus calling people to reason again and again (Luke 20:17, 27–40, 41–44, etc.). We too must teach people to think. If Jesus granted every request for a sign, what would that teach the people? It would teach them to insist on a sign whenever faced with an important decision. It would teach them not to think for themselves, but to ask the Lord to give them the answer, and then give the praise (or the blame) to God. The charismatic approach sounds so spiritual, doesn’t it? This would be the death of personal Bible study, for why put in the hours when God can speak the truth directly to your heart? This would be the death of Christianity!
Jesus discouraged the miracle-seeking mentality, and so should we. One of the most illuminating passages on the subject is Luke 11:29–32:
29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said,“This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.
The Ninevites repented because Jonah preached the Word to them. They had no need of a miraculous sign—and yet how much it might have been appreciated: Jonah was a foreigner, he was all alone in his appeal, they had probably never heard of him, his religion was different from theirs. Jonah performed no miracle, and yet the entire city repented! (Jonah 3:5).
Over a century earlier, the Queen of the South (1 Kings 10:1–13) had responded favorably to Solomon, even though he performed no miracles at all for her. She listened to his wisdom and was moved to praise the God of Israel (1 Kings 10:9).
In both cases the response was not effected through or conditioned by miracles. Neither the people of Nineveh nor the Queen of Sheba received a miraculous sign—and yet they were moved by God’s word. How little excuse Jesus’ generation had compared with these believing foreigners!
And “the sign of Jonah?” The resurrection is a central miracle (1 Corinthians 15:12–19). Does God re-enact the resurrection every time a non-Christian gets to the appropriate stage in his search for God? No, like everyone else, the one seeking God must read about the resurrection. And there is just as much reason to believe in Jesus because of the resurrection today as there was two thousand years ago—no more, no less.
For all intents and purposes, Jesus’ response to his generation fits our own perfectly: No sign will be given!