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The Christian Understanding of Miracles

During the gospel readings of the Sundays of Great Lent, the reference to miracles is repeated. There are some miracles, which our Lord Jesus Christ performed, and others He refused to perform. Our Lord did some miracles, without being asked, while others were a result of someone’s request. Also, Satan himself asked our Lord Jesus Christ to do miracles.

We hear in the gospel reading of the second Sunday of Great Lent (Matt. 4:1-11) Satan asking our Lord Jesus Christ to turn the stones to bread, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” (Matt. 4:3). He also asked our Lord to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: He shall give His angels charge over you, and in their hands they shall bear you up lest you dash Your foot against a stone.” (Matt. 4:6) Satan asked our Lord to perform these two acts to prove His divinity and even used the Book of Psalms as a reference. But our Lord refused to change the stones to bread and answered Satan saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4), and refused to throw Himself down saying, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” (Matt. 4:7)

In the gospel reading of the fifth Sunday (Jn. 5:1-18), we hear how our Lord Jesus Christ on the Sabbath performed the great miracle of healing the man, who was a paralytic for 38 years. When the Jews were angry because the miracle was performed on the Sabbath and wanted to kill Him, He answered them, “My Fr. has been working until now and I have been working.” (Jn. 5:17) Thus, He defended the reason for performing the miracle, even on the Sabbath, and showed them that this was God’s work.

In the sixth Sunday, we hear in the gospel reading (Jn. 9:1-41) how our Lord healed the man born blind without being asked by anyone. This great miracle led the blind man to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. When our Lord met him later and asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” the man’s answer in the end was, “Lord, I believe!” and he worshipped Him (Jn. 9:38).

On “Lazarus Saturday”, the Church presents to us the miracle of miracles in which Lazarus is raised from the dead after being in the tomb for four days. This miracle led many to believe in Christ so that the Jews plotted to kill not only our Lord but also Lazarus, “because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus.” (Jn. 12:11)

There are many other miracles, which our Lord performed and led many to believe in Him. However, on other occasions the multitudes asked our Lord to perform miracles so they can believe and He refused, e.g. at the time of the crucifixion, “And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross…If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.” (Matt. 27:39-42)

Also, when Pilate sent Christ to Herod, Herod was exceedingly glad when he saw Christ, for he had desired for a long time to see Him and hoped to see some miracles done by Him (Lk. 23:8). But our Lord Jesus Christ refused to do a miracle!

The question is: Why did our Lord Jesus Christ perform miracles at certain times and refused on other occasions, although the people asked Him so they can believe in Him?

To answer this question, we will address the subject of miracles, especially that we often hear of miracles and people often wonder about the Church’s opinion regarding this subject.

What is a Miracle?
A miracle is so called, because it is an extraordinary phenomenon, which the human mind cannot comprehend or explain. Let us explain this further. Let us say that a person suffers from colic pain, and he goes to the doctor. Upon examination, he is diagnosed with a kidney stone. Following a surgical operation, the person is relieved of the pain and is healed. In this case, the human mind can explain why the person was healed. Therefore, this is not a miracle. However, if we see a person congenitally born blind, and then he receives sight, then this is a miracle, because there is no human explanation.

God is the Performer of the Miracles
God is the One, Who does miracles, as it is written in Psalm 77, “Who is so great a God as our God? You are the God who does wonders.” (Ps. 77:13-14) In the Second Canticle (Hoos) of the Midnight Praises, Psalm 136 (135), we praise God “Who alone does great wonders,” because:

1. He is the Creator of the universe and set all its natural laws. He is the One, “Who by wisdom made the heavens, for His mercy endures forever; …Who made great lights…the sun to rule by day…the moon and the stars to rule by night…” All of nature and its laws are a miraculous wonder. Despite all the scientific discoveries made, yet our human minds still fail to understand everything.

2. God, the Creator of the laws of nature, sometimes, for the sake of man’s benefit, does things not according to these laws. This is what the second part of the Second Canticle talks about: God’s miraculous work in which the laws of nature are broken. “To Him Who divided the Red Sea in two…And made Israel pass through the midst of it…but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea…Who led His people through the wilderness…Who brought water forth out of a rock.”

We see that God, Who does wonders, did the great miracle of creating the heavens, the earth, the human being, and every living creature. He did it all with wisdom, which is beyond human comprehension. But because of His love for man, God sometimes breaks the laws of nature, e.g. bringing forth water out of a rock, dividing the Red Sea in two to save His people, and leading the people through the wilderness by a pillar of fire at night. God, Who created the laws of nature, keeps these laws and does not break them unless it is necessary for the sake of man’s goodness.

Miracles in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel lived away from God and mingled with other pagan nations, which had their own gods. Each nation boasted of its god, whom they thought protected them and granted them many things. Therefore, it was necessary to have clear miracles, which would lead the people to believe in the One True God. When God made a covenant with the children of Israel, He told Moses, “Behold, I make a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation; and all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord. For it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.” (Ex. 34:10)

Indeed, when the children of Israel went out to meet God on the mountain, it is written, “In the morning, that there were thunderings and lightenings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” (Ex. 19:16-18) All majesty and glory is due to God’s presence! Therefore, the people, who were just beginners in their knowledge about God, could not comprehend the awe of the divine presence, except in a miraculous way.

When God asked Moses to go to Egypt to deliver the people of Israel, Moses told Him that they might not believe that the Lord had appeared to hi
m. So the Lord gave him two signs: changing his rod to a serpent and then back to a rod and changing his hand into a leprous one and then restoring it back like the rest of his flesh. Then God told Moses, “Then it will be if they do not believe you, nor heed the message of the first sign, that they may believe the message of the latter sign. And it shall be, if they do not believe even these two signs, or listen to your voice, that you shall take water from the river and pour it on the dry land. The water which you take from the river will become blood on the dry land.” (Ex. 4:8-9) Moses did many other signs infront of Pharaoh to prove that God sent him, but Pharaoh refused to let the people go. Only after the tenth plague did he let them go.

The people of Israel needed constant miracles and signs to remind them that God was with them so they may believe in Him.

Miracles in the New Testament
1. The greatest miracle in the New Testament is the Incarnation of God the Word. Isaiah said about this miracle, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” (Is. 7:14) The Incarnation is a divine mystery, which is incomprehensible to the human mind.

2. Our Lord Jesus Christ performed many miracles, which St. John referred to at the end of his gospel and said, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (Jn. 21:25) However, we see clearly that all of our Lord’s miracles had a definite and clear goal. Again, St. John mentioned that, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written hat you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn. 20:30-31) Our Lord Jesus Christ performed miracles so He may lead the people to believe that He is the Christ the Son of God so that they may have life in Him, because “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (Jn. 3:18) Also, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life, and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (Jn. 3:36) Our Lord told His disciples, “Believe Me that I am in the Fr. and the Fr. in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.” (Jn. 14:11)

Our Lord Jesus Christ did not do miracles just for the sake of entertaining or dazzling the people. In fact, we find that once when they asked Him to perform a miracle, He said, “An evil and adulterous generation seek after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matt. 12:39) In the wilderness, our Lord refused to turn the stones to bread or to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. He also refused to perform a miracle infront of Herod or to come down from the cross. He refused to do the miracles that will not lead to the salvation of the people or that contradicted His main mission, which was saving man through His life-giving death on the cross.

Additionally, He corrected the understanding of people in regards to some miracles, e.g. in the miracle of feeding the multitudes, the people were amazed at His ability to feed them from five loaves and two fish, and they considered Him to be the ideal Person to be their King. But when He perceived that they were about to make Him king, He departed to the mountain alone by Himself (Jn. 6:15). When the multitudes insisted on seeking Him, He told them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life.” (Jn. 6:26-27) Our Lord wanted to lift up their eyes to see the true meaning of the miracle: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” (Jn. 6:51)

3. Our Lord Jesus Christ attracted many not only by His miracles, but also by His love, without the need for miracles. In the gospel readings of the Sundays of Great Lent, we hear the story of the Samaritan woman, who was changed from a sinner to an evangelist (Jn. 4:1-42) and the parable of the Prodigal Son, who was dead and became alive again and was lost then was found (Lk. 15:32). There are other examples, e.g. Zacchaeus the chief tax collector, the adulterous, who was caught in the act itself, the sinner who anointed our Lord’s feet with fragrant oil, Matthew the tax collector, and many other souls, who were attracted to the loving heart of our Lord Jesus Christ, believed in Him, and followed Him without a physical miracle occurring.

4. Although our Lord Jesus Christ performed many miracles, yet He did not live by miracles. We see that in His childhood, He fled to Egypt from Herod. Also, in the beginning of His earthly ministry, He refused to turn the stones to bread. We find our Lord using a boat to cross the sea or lake although He is capable of walking on water. When He went to meet the Samaritan woman, He became weary from the journey and sat by the well although He could have gone from one place to another miraculously, e.g. flying on a cloud.

5. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not make performing miracles a sign of discipleship to Him. It is true that our Lord gave His disciples the power to perform miracles and told them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Fr..” (Jn. 14:12) He also told them, “And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (Mk. 16:17-18) Indeed, the disciples performed many miracles. Yet, our Lord said that the sign of discipleship to Him is love, “A new commandment I give to you, that you also love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn. 13:34-35) St. Paul follows the mind of Christ and in the famous chapter about love, the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, he places love superior to performing miracles, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:1-2)

6. Our Lord Jesus Christ did not make performing miracles the only sign of holiness. God honors His saints by having miracles happen through them, and we have countless examples of that. But a person can perform a true miracle in the name of Christ, yet God will refuse him, because his goal was incorrect. Let us listen to the words of our Lord, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Fr. in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21-23) Although they cast out demons and perfor
med many wonders in the name of Christ, yet our Lord will tell them to depart from Him, because they did not lead pure and holy lives.

Miracles can happen because of the faith of the person in need and not necessarily because of the holiness of the person performing the miracle. This is clearly seen in the story of the blind nun, who washed her eyes from the water used to wash the feet of the thief, posing as Abba Daniel. He entered the convent disguised as Abba Daniel and was received by the nuns as such. Obviously the blind nun received her sight because of her faith and not because of the thief’s holiness!

7. Our Lord Jesus Christ warned us that Satan and his followers will deceive many through working miracles. When our Lord talked to His disciples about the end of ages, He said, “For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.” (Matt. 24:24) As our Lord performed miracles to lead people to believe in Him, Satan and his followers will show great signs and wonders to deceive people and lead them to deny Christ, the Incarnation, and His saving acts for our redemption. Therefore, Christ warned us about the great tribulation of the last days and said, “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it.” (Matt. 24:23)

The Anti-Christ will come claiming to be Christ and will deny that Christ is the Messiah. Both the spirit of the Anti-Christ and the essence of his teachings are to deny that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ and to deny the Incarnation, for “Who is a liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is anti-christ who denies the Fr. and the Son.” (1 Jn. 2:22) In the 13th chapter of the Book of Revelation, we read about the beast (the Anti-Christ) to whom the dragon (Satan) gives his power, his throne, and great authority (Rev. 13:2). This beast is granted to make war with the saints and to overcome them (Rev. 13:7). Another beast is granted to perform “great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on earth in the sight of men. And he deceives those who dwell on earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. He was granted power to give breath to the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak and cause as many as would not worship the image of the beast to be killed.” (Rev. 13:13-15)

If Satan and his followers can perform miracles, then how can we differentiate between the miracles that are from God and those that are from Satan?

Some people when they look at a miracle, they concentrate on its validity, e.g. if they hear of oil coming down from a picture or from a person’s hand, they want to know if oil indeed came down or not. The truth of the matter is that this aspect is not sufficient in evaluating a miracle, since Satan can perform true miracles; he can make fire come down from heaven and can make an image speak and move as mentioned in the Book of Revelation about the authority given to the beast (Rev. 13:13-15)

Even if the miracle is true, the essential point to concentrate on is: is it from God or Satan?

The miracle that is from God has two essential aspects:
1. It supports the true faith. Many teach strange beliefs and support their teachings with miracles to dazzle people. This is the main role of the Anti-Christ: to introduce new teachings that contradict the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, and he uses true miracles to support his false teachings. Therefore, if one concentrates on the factuality of the miracle, then it is easy for him to accept new teachings, since he will see the miracle as a fact, e.g. fire coming down from heaven or an image moving and speaking. However, if one concentrates on faith, then he will reject the teachings that contradict the true faith, even if they were supported by tens of miracles.

2. The miracle, which is from God, has a primary goal: to lead people to the true faith. The secondary goal of a miracle is an act of mercy towards a needy person, whether it is a sick person or someone in trouble, and God may save such a person in a miraculous way. As for the miracles that are for exhibition and dazzling people, they are not from God.

Therefore, when we hear of a miracle, we should examine not only the factuality of it, but also more importantly whether it is from God or Satan.

May our Lord keep us in the true and straight faith, strengthen everyone’s faith, and keep us from the deceptions of Satan and his followers.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

April 9, 2009