(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense.)
Over the last two weeks we worked our way through Israel’s defining story, seeing their hope for a true return from exile in which all of God’s promises would be fulfilled, and they would experience God’s righteous rule. (Rather than this half-way house of being back in the land, still finding it impossible to follow God from the heart, and being ruled by foreigners who didn’t know God.)
Yesterday, we saw how Jesus symbolically reenacted Israel’s wilderness-wandering history, and how his first words in each of the Gospels declared that he was bringing about (at long last) the end to the exile and the beginning of God’s reign. But was he just another madman who’d drunk too much Messiah-juice? Or was he, finally, the real deal? Today, we see how he backs up his outrageous claims with equally outrageous actions.
The popular view of Jesus’ miracles is that they were proof – or, at least, a sign – that Jesus was God. And they certainly point us in that direction. But not in a simplistic Don’t-think-I’m-God?-Well-then-let-me-just-shrivel-that-fig-tree-over-there kind of way. For a start, most of the time Jesus refuses to perform signs to people who are sceptical:Matt 16:1-4 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then dropped the microphone and walked off stage <sound of feedback>.
That last bit may be a more controversial translation, but this encounter shows us something: to a group of people (the Jewish leadership) who should have recognised God’s anointed one when he turned up, Jesus isn’t going to perform miracles on demand. They’re going to get what (the wicked Gentile city of) Nineveh got: no signs or miracles from Jonah, just a sermon proclaiming judgement. They’re not seeking God, so they won’t find him.
Instead – particularly in the case of healings – he waits for people to trust in who he is, and then he performs miracles as a blessing that comes from trusting.
And those healings are particularly symbolic. You might recall from last week, Israel was expecting a fair bit from the return from exile that you could categorise under “wellness”:Isa 35:3-6a Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Isa 26:1,19 In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah… But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise — let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy — your dew is like the dew of the morning; you will make it fall on the spirits of the dead.
In Matthew’s Gospel, straight after Jesus finishes the Sermon on the Mount – he’s barely had time to run back into his office for a quick coffee and some introvert-time (I know, I’m projecting here) – and already he’s off on a healing tour. In chapters 8 and 9 we find the eyes of the blind opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame – well, not quite leaping like a deer, but picking up their mat and going home. And… drumroll for the grand finale… a dead girl raised to life! After claiming to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies about the return from exile he goes around fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecies about the return from exile.
And in case we missed, it it’s made explicit in chapter 11:Matt 11:2-6 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
Am I the Messiah, you ask? Um, look up Isaiah, check out my diary, then you’ll have the answer.
But it’s not just healing miracles. There are also miracles about casting out demons, demonstrating that God’s reign has broken in, kicking out the previous rulers – see Matt 12:28-29). There are miracles about Jesus’ power over nature, demonstrating his role as God’s true image-bearer. There are miracles of miraculous feeding (and winemaking!) symbolising the abundance promised at the return from exile. And there are miracles of judgement (like the fig-tree), which prefigure the judgement about to come upon Israel’s leadership for failing to do their job – and their failure to recognise God’s kingdom when it arrived.
Jesus’ miracles aren’t just cool party tricks that prove he’s God. (After all, there were plenty of miracles performed by human beings in the OT, including some that were not from God – see Exodus 7:10-12.) They are deliberate statements about a turning point in Israel’s history: they tell us that something big was happening in the story of God’s people that would take the story to the next phase.
And Jesus had his own way of telling that story. They were called “parables.” But that’s for tomorrow.
To think about
Has this changed the way you view Jesus’ miracles? If so, how?
Since we’re not first-century Jews longing for the true return from exile, what do his miracles teach us today?