The arrival of a new book by Vern Poythress is always a happy thing. His new The Miracles of Jesus is marked by his usual depth of learning and exegetical insight as well as his usual simplicity and clarity of presentation. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, and I feel pretty confident in saying that you would not want to teach or preach from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles without this excellent new resource. Today we’re pleased to have Dr. Poythress back with us to talk about his new book.
You offer a brief chapter up front on the truth of Jesus’ miracles and the reliability of the Gospel accounts of his miraculous works. We won’t dwell here, but I do think your point is important in beginning the discussion. Trace this question – or, better, its answer – back to basics. Ultimately, we believe the Gospel miracle accounts because of other, more fundamental, beliefs, right?
Yes. It is important to understand that the miracles of Jesus really happened, and that it makes a difference whether they happened. Fundamental beliefs have an influence on this issue.
In the modern Western world, many people no longer believe in the God described in the Bible, the God who continually rules the universe (Ps. 103:19) and can work exceptionally in miracles whenever he chooses (Ps. 115:3; 135:5-12). Instead, people have a kind of God-substitute, in the form of impersonal, mechanical laws that can allow no exceptions. (People may think that the idea of mechanical laws is what “science” teaches, but they have a distorted view of “science.” It is a long story.) People with a commitment to their God-substitute think that they know before reading the Gospels that miracles are impossible. Some of them might still be persuaded as they read, because the Gospels have divine power through the Holy Spirit to overcome resistant assumptions. But we should not ignore that the assumptions are there and have an influence.
The same goes for assumptions about the person of Jesus Christ. If, as some people think, Jesus Christ were just a good religious teacher, the more spectacular miracles would be out of accord with what people picture him to be. If, on the other hand, he really is the divine Son of God, who became incarnate in order to bring God’s salvation to the world, the miracles fit right in. They are rational; they make good sense in the context of God’s purpose and the meaning of Christ’s person and work.
And then there is the question of the authority of the Bible. Many people in the Western world go along with the tides of mainstream culture. They assume, without much personal investigation or critical thinking, that the Bible is merely a quaint religious document from past generations. To them, it has become irrelevant. But in fact, along with the rest of the Bible, the four Gospels offer divine testimony, because they are God’s word, as well as human testimony from the human authors. If we accept the divine testimony, that of course leads to accepting the miracles as real. But the human testimony is also significant, and should not be discounted even by readers who do not accept the divine authority of the Gospels. The Gospel accounts are sober accounts that claim to describe what happened. Some people may become convinced as they focus on the historical claims. Others may be convinced because they find themselves convicted of sin and in need of a savior. Still others may see that the reality of God and of Christ presented in the Bible opens up reality, rather than closing everything down to dust and death and meaninglessness, such as we find spreading in late-modern Western cultures.
Christians have often pointed to Jesus’ miracles as evidences of his deity, and in your book you do the same just briefly. Yet miracles are not unique to Jesus – Elijah, Elisha, and the apostles all performed miracles also. So how can we maintain that miracles are indications of Jesus’ deity and yet acknowledge miracles on the part of others?
Elijah, Elisha, and others were instrumental in working miracles. But they acknowledged that it was God’s power, and not their own, that was at work: “why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, …” (Acts 3:12-13 ESV). Jesus, by contrast, works by his own authority. It is illustrated pointedly when he pronounces forgiveness of sins, and the religious leaders ask, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21 ESV).
Okay, let’s talk about your central thesis – that Jesus’ miracles are “signs of redemption.” Explain this for us. What indications do we have, exegetically, that Jesus’ miracles were actually intended to be understood as symbolic of redemptive truth? And perhaps you can give a brief illustration or two?
There are several wonderful illustrations in the miracles in the Gospel of John. After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus declares, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). He ties his claim both to the preceding miracle and to the Old Testament miracle of manna from heaven. So the feeding of the 5,000 is not just an unusual display of divine power, but a picture, an illustration, of who Jesus is–the bread of life–and what he will do on the cross–provide in his body the spiritual nourishment of salvation. That is to say, the feeding of the 5,000 has rich, definite theological meaning: it is a sign of redemption. It signifies beforehand the meaning of Jesus’ whole life, but especially his death and resurrection. Similarly, the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 anticipates the resurrection of Christ. It is accompanied by Jesus’ statement, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25), which anticipates the life-giving power of his resurrection.
The Gospel of John is more explicit in explaining the theological significance of the miracles, and in showing how the miracles point forward to the great climax of redemption in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, once we have seen these connections in John, it becomes natural to notice the same connections in the other Gospels. For example, in the story of the healing of the paralytic (Matt. 9:1-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26), Jesus makes the connection between physical healing and forgiveness of sins. In each of the Gospels, the rest of the story leads to the cross, which achieves forgiveness of our sins through Jesus’ sacrificial death. The healing of the paralytic is thus a picture beforehand of Jesus’ power to heal us from the spiritual paralysis of sin.
Explain for us how Jesus miracles signify redemption both as accomplished and applied. First, maybe it would be helpful to explain what these terms mean and then how this is reflected in Jesus’ miracles.
Redemption was accomplished 2,000 years ago when Jesus suffered, died, and rose from the dead, in the time of Pontius Pilate. “It is finished” (John 19:30). The application of redemption refers to the work of the Holy Spirit, who unites believers to Christ and who applies to them all the benefits of Christ’s accomplished work–justification, forgiveness of sins, sanctification, and finally the resurrection of the body. This application takes place in each individual believer and corporately in the church as a body. This pattern of redemption is foreshadowed in Jesus’ miracles, which are miracles of the kingdom of God, the saving reign of God. The miracles of Jesus signify the meaning of redemption. Redemption itself is accomplished climactically in the crucifixion and resurrection, and then applied throughout this age until the second coming of Christ. It is the same redemption all the way through, because there is only one way of salvation in Christ (John 14:6). So the miracles, by providing pictures of redemption, provides pictures relevant for understanding both the accomplishment and the application of redemption. For example, the healing of the paralytic shows that Jesus has power to forgive sins. In a climactic way, Jesus works out the basis for forgiving sins when he bears the punishment for sins on the cross. That is accomplished redemption. But then in addition, this forgiveness is applied to each believer when he comes to have faith in Christ. The healing of the paralytic depicts both the once-for-all work of forgiveness on the cross and the continuing forgiveness that Christ brings to each of us, day by day.
What do you mean when you say that Jesus’ miracles also have implications “for the larger vistas of the history of redemption”?
Once we have seen that the Gospels present us with a consistent pattern of redemption in the stories concerning Jesus’ miracles, it is only a short step to ask how this pattern presents itself in the Old Testament and in Acts as well as in the Gospels. Old Testament miracles, and more broadly all Old Testament instances of redemption, follow the same pattern. Old Testament miracles are “types,” that is, shadows and images and anticipations of the climactic redemption that Jesus accomplished in his crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus himself implied as much when he indicated that the Old Testament as a whole is fulfilled in his suffering and resurrection (Luke 24:46).
Preaching the accounts of Jesus’ miracles has often been more “personal” oriented than Christ-redemption-oriented, and I think your book will be a great help for preachers on this score. Yet you demonstrate that these accounts still have very legitimate “personalized” kinds of applications. Can you address this question for us just briefly? How are Jesus’ miracles important for us today?
It is easy for preachers to fall into a pattern where they focus wholly on personal application. Or, alternatively, they may focus wholly on Christ and his redemption, as accomplished realities in history, with no attention to modern personal needs. But, when properly understood, redemption and personal application are not antagonistic to one another, but rather reinforce each other and harmonize with each other. Meaningful application to individuals and to the church today exists only because Christ is alive and reigning, and he is applying to us the redemption that he accomplished once and for all. Conversely, the redemption he accomplished was accomplished long ago in order that it might be actually applied. We learn from the miracles of Jesus about Jesus himself and his redemptive work on the cross and in his resurrection. Everything we learn is designed by God to have implications and applications, because believers are united to Christ who died and rose and reigns. The deepest and most robust applications press home the reality of Christ and his victory—his is a victory that actually impacts our lives. I hope that my book encourages a unified approach.
If we understand the Christ-centered character of the Gospels, and indeed of the Bible as a whole, it empowers rich application rather than suppressing it. For example, we begin to see the relevance of the story of the paralytic to someone today who feels paralyzed by guilt, or the relevance of the story of the resurrection of Lazarus to someone grieving over the death of a loved one, or the relevance of the story of the leper to someone who feels “dirty” because of a sordid past. We see that relevance not as just an analogy between two human beings with similar difficulties, but an analogy that corresponds to the comprehensive redemption that Christ accomplished. His redemption includes an answer and a healing for every human suffering and every human failure. The miracles in the Gospels help to alert us to this comprehensive redemption and to appreciate anew the glory of Christ as the savior of each individual in the midst of his particular struggles.