The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. (John 5:36)
The striking work done by Jesus set him apart. The Gospels list a range of things done by Jesus, but all his individual deeds can be grouped under three main aspects of his work, which are summarized by the following headings: powerful works; forming God’s new people; transforming death into life. This week's lesson focuses on Jesus' works under the first heading.
Miracles? or Powerful Works?
The attempt to define “miracle” has tangled philosophers, scientists, and theologians for centuries, and this is not the place to resolve the issue. Rather, we bypass the tangle by avoiding the term miracle and employing in its place the labels applied by those who experienced the powerful works of Jesus firsthandthey called them “works” (Greek erga), “signs” (semeia) or “outpourings of divine power” (dynameis), which brought spectacular results reported in the Gospels. Luke summarized them well in the words “Jesus of Nazareth who by deeds and words of power, proved himself a prophet in the sight of God and the whole people” (Luke 24:29), and “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Because God was with him he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the Devil. And we can bear witness to all that he did in the Jewish countryside and in Jerusalem” (Acts 10:3839).
These powerful works belong to the following categories: dramatic healings (leprosy, blindness, lameness, deafness, haemorrhage, perhaps epilepsy, physical deformity, dropsy, sword wound); exorcisms of evil spirits; raisings of the dead; and dramatic occurrences in the natural world (stilling the storm, feeding the multitude, walking on water, withered fig tree, coin in fish’s mouth, huge catch of fish, water to wine).
Did they really happen, as recorded in the Gospels? In answer to this question, note that the accounts are integrated into the very fabric of all four Gospels, giving the impression that they belonged, from the beginning, to the story of Jesus. They were not added to the story at some later date to enhance Jesus’ authority. To tell his story without them does injustice to the message. The Gospel accounts of Jesus' powerful works were not optional or peripheral. They were part and parcel of his ministry. Even his opponents were forced to acknowledge his powerful works, which they attempted to discredit as black magic or demonic (see Luke 11:1520).
Such powerful works were not as common in the times of Jesus as some recent critics of the Gospels sweepingly declare. If the street corners and marketplaces of ancient cities were occupied by doers of the sorts of powerful works recorded in the Gospels, and if their everydayness as well as their genuineness were taken for granted by the ancients, there would be no point in attributing them to Jesussuch would not have made him to stand out from any other street corner wonderworker, and thus would not have gained support for his mission.
Why did Jesus do these powerful works? A widely held answer to this question among previous generations of Christians was that the miracles of Jesus provided evidence of his divine nature. Miracles “proved” the divinity of Jesus. This is clearly the point made, for example, in John chapter 5. But this very chapter also indicates that not everyone was convinced of Jesus' divinity. Jesus' focus went well beyond his own personal identity. He pointed the people, by word and deed, to the dawning kingdom of his heavenly Father.
How does Jesus himself explain his powerful works? On occasions, he refused to perform them, particularly upon demand, refusing to use them as evidence of his divine nature (Matt. 4:5; 12:38). Similarly, he refused to rescue himself by performing a powerful work (Matt. 4:1; Luke 23:25). Whereas some works were done in public, such as the healing of a withered arm (Mark 3) and the feeding of the multitudes, he commanded secrecy in connection with others (Mark 8:26).
The powerful works of Jesus provided dramatic confirmation of his message of God’s kingdom. He challenged his listeners to observe the powerful work, then to draw their own conclusions about the source of the power. This is seen in his reply to messengers John the Baptist sent from prison to ask if Jesus was really the promised one. After having them witness a “typical day” in his ministry, which included healings, he sent them back to John the Baptist after telling them “blessed are those who do not find me an obstacle to faith”in other words “the things the prophet Isaiah prophesied for the time of restoration are actually happening in my ministry. Draw your own conclusion, based on the eyewitness testimony of your followers.”
The powerful works pointed forward to the sort of world God intended, with humans and nature redeemed from the interference of evil with its consequent disease and suffering. His powerful works brought glimpses of that new world to many individuals, their families and villages. This is the point of chapter 9 of Matthew, from which this week's memory text has been taken.
Finally, powerful works rewarded faith. Jesus expected faith on the part of the beneficiaries of his works: “daughter, your faith has made you well” (Mark 5:34); “Fear not; only believe” (Mark 5:36); “all things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23); “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29). The eyes of faith, observing the powerful works of Jesus, realized what God intended for his children, and saw the beginnings of that new reality in the ministry of Jesus. This is why the Gospels place powerful works squarely in the center of the pictureJesus would not have been Jesus without them, nor would God be God. Jesus' mighty works direct us to God's plan for a restored universe, free from the shadow of suffering and death.
Steve Thompson is senior lecturer in the Faculty of Theology at Avondale College, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/540