We are five weeks into our series on “The Essential Jesus”—Jesus’ 3+ year public ministry as reported by the four New Testament gospels. Matthew summarizes what characterized the early stages of Jesus’ ministry (read Matt. 4:23-25). He taught and preached about the kingdom of God, and he performed miracles of healing and exorcism. Later in the series, we’ll look more closely at his teaching on the kingdom of God. This morning we’ll take a closer look at his miracles.
Mark gives us a rapid-fire sampling of Jesus’ early-ministry miracles in Mk. 1:21-2:12--let’s read straight through it (read). I want to take a closer look at this aspect of Jesus’ public ministry (and the miracles we just read) by asking two questions . . .
Did Jesus really perform miracles?
It’s not surprising that people have trouble believing that Jesus really did this! After all, things like this don’t happen normally. (But it wasn’t normal to Jesus’ audience either--note their amazed reaction.) So we seek more plausible explanations: Aren’t the gospel accounts just like ancient miracle myths/legends? Weren’t Jesus’ “miracles” just like present-day “healer-dealers?” But the gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ miracles are fundamentally different from either of these. Here are some highlights . . .
The gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ miracles are very different from ancient mythical/legendary miracle stories. If you simply read both, you can’t miss the differences.
The gospels are based on eye-witness accounts that are rooted in space and time. Mark’s gospel is the memoir of Peter, so we see vivid details that we would expect from an eye-witness (demoniac in Capernaum synagogue; Peter’s mother-in-law serving a meal; Jesus’ non-verbal response to leper; 4 men digging through roof). Ancient miracle legends, by contrast, were normally placed in the distant past (“once upon a time”) or outside time altogether.
Because the gospels are historical narratives, much of what they report has been corroborated by other (extra-biblical) sources. The synagogue in Capernaum has been excavated. Early Jewish attacks on Christianity implicitly acknowledge Jesus’ miracles, preferring to explain them as acts of sorcery (demonic works).1 Ancient miracle legends (because they are placed outside of history) have no such corroboration.
The gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ miracles are serious accounts of Jesus delivering people from terrible suffering. So Jesus exorcises a demon-possessed man, heals a leper, and restores a paralytic. Ancient miracle legends (including legendary accounts of Jesus’ miracles) are usually silly stories designed to entertain or satisfy people’s curiosity.2
There are also key differences between Jesus’ healing ministry and contemporary “healers.”
Jesus clearly prioritized teaching over miracles (1:37,38). Notice Jesus’ concern that news about his miracles would hinder his teaching ministry (1:44). This is why most of his miracles were performed privately. Contemporary “healers” clearly reverse this order. If they “teach” at all, it is clearly subordinate to the “miracle-show.”
Unlike contemporary healers and exorcists, who often blame all sickness on demons, the gospels differentiate between physical illness and demonic oppression (1:34).
Jesus never tried to benefit financially or politically from his miracles. He never charged, asked for, or accepted money for his healings or exorcisms. He regarded the crowds that resulted as an impediment to his mission (1:45), and he refused the opportunity to gain political power based on his miracles (Jn. 6:15).
Did Jesus perform miracles? Yes. Despite the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ miracles, they cannot be written off. They formed an integral part of his ministry, they are essentially different than what is done in his name today, and there is strong historical evidence for their authenticity.
The more important question is not historical (“Did Jesus perform miracles?”), but rather interpretive (“Why did Jesus perform miracles?”). What was the point of his miracles? Why were they so integral to his ministry? The answer to this question makes Jesus’ miracles relevant to our lives.
Why did Jesus perform miracles?
The key is to remember that Jesus’ miracles accompany his preaching (1:14)—the kingdom of God was imminent because he (King Messiah) had come. The point is that Jesus’ miracles both validate his claim to be God’s King and demonstrate what God’s Kingdom is like. Let’s think about these miracles again—this time asking what they demonstrate about God’s Kingdom.
They demonstrate that God’s kingdom has compassion for human sufferers.
Virtually every one of Jesus’ miracles alleviated human suffering. What is implicit in all of these miracles is made explicit in his healing of the leper. Read 1:40. Explain leprosy. What’s worse, lepers were regarded by the religious leaders as sinful and unclean—and anyone who touched them also became unclean. This is what makes Jesus’ response so significant (read 1:41). Jesus was moved by compassion not only to heal this man, but to “grasp” him as he healed him. Though he could have healed him without touching him, Jesus touched this man to demonstrate his love for him.
Whatever problems you may have with the God of the Bible allowing human suffering, Jesus’ miracles demonstrate that God both cares about human suffering and has the power to alleviate it. Jesus’ miracles are foretastes of the fullness of God’s kingdom, when he will fully heal all suffering of his subjects (Rev. 21:4). In the meantime, it is not a coincidence that the Christian movement has spawned more hospitals, orphanages, etc. than any other religious movement. And in the meantime, whether he removes the cause of your suffering or not, you can experience his compassion and comfort if you open your heart to him. Are you suffering? Have you become hardened and cynical because of people’s lack of concern? Will you open your heart to Jesus’ love?
They demonstrate that God’s kingdom has the power to defeat demonic evil.
The Bible doesn’t view the broken human condition as normal or as something that God did. It views it as the symptom of a world occupied evil supernatural rulers. That’s why the coming of Messiah had to involve direct (and often violent) encounters with those evil rulers. Read Matt. 12:28,29 - Jesus came to invade Satan’s kingdom and bind him so he could deliver his captives.
This is why Jesus’ exorcisms often highlight both the defiance of the demons and Jesus’ clear superiority over them. Re-read 1:24-26. The demon knows that Jesus has come to destroy them, and he defiantly attempts to gain control over Jesus by using his name.3 Jesus needs no ritual or incantation (like other “exorcists”)--he silences him and drives him out by the authority of his word.
I don’t know what you think about the reality of demons. 30 years ago, there was a lot more skepticism about them than there is today. All I can say is that I have experienced their reality first-hand, both in my own life and in working with other people. And I have seen scores of people delivered from various forms of demonic bondage by the authority of Jesus’ word. Do you live in bondage to demonic oppression? Jesus can liberate you if you come to him.
They demonstrate that God’s kingdom has the authority to forgive our sins.
On one level, Jesus performed miracles to meet specific people’s physical needs. But they were also far more than that. They were “signs” (sumeia)—miracles that pointed beyond themselves to Jesus’ unique authority to meet humanity’s spiritual needs. This is why Jesus’ miracles are often linked with related claims about himself. Briefly explain Jn. 6,9,11.
This is also what Jesus is doing when he heals the paralytic in Mk. 2. On one level, Jesus physically heals a paralyzed man. But the point of the miracle goes beyond healing paralysis. He diagnoses a deeper, spiritual need in the man (the guilt of his sins), he links the man’s paralysis and guilt—so that his healing demonstrates and validates Jesus’ authority to forgive all people’s sins.
On a personal level, the man got more than hoped for from Jesus. His most obvious problem was his paralysis, but his deepest problem was his guilt before God. He was probably perplexed (even disappointed) when Jesus said “Your sins are forgiven”--but Jesus’ forgiveness was a greater healing because it healed his soul. I know people who have recovered from serious illnesses but never experienced forgiveness, and I know people who have experienced forgiveness but never been healed from serious illness--and there is no comparison.
This should be instructive to us. You may be inclined to diagnose your deepest problems as physical (ugliness; sickness) or social (no romance, bad friends) or circumstantial (boring job; mediocre house; live in Ohio). You may even pray, asking God to fix these problems--and then be disappointed with him if he doesn’t fulfill your request. Why--because he doesn’t care? No, because he knows that you’re focusing with symptoms rather than root problems. We come to him asking “Will you fix my circumstances?”--but he responds with “I can forgive your sins.” We think “Whoa, what does that have to do with my problems?” But God is saying “It has everything to do with your problems. I could change your circumstances and you’d still be fundamentally messed up because you’d still be alienated from me because of your guilt. Why don’t you let me forgive your sins?” It is a wonderful thing to be forgiven by God. You get reconciled to God, you have a basis for forgiving others, etc.
Jesus has the authority to forgive your sins. This because he went to the Cross to pay for them. And just as he announced to this man “Your sins are forgiven” the moment he saw the man’s faith (2:5), he will do the same for you. Don’t make faith in Jesus complicated--it just means choosing to put your trust in him. You don’t have to convince him to be willing to forgive you. He is already willing, and waiting for you to come to him in simple trust and ask him. You could leave here this morning with more than you expected!
1 “Yeshu of Nazareth was hanged on the day of preparation for the Passover because he practiced sorcery and led the people astray.” (TB Sanhedrin 43a [Baraitha]) “A master has said, ‘Yeshu the Nazarene practiced magic and led Israel astray.” (Sotah 47a; TJ Hagiga II. 2). Cited in Mark Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eermans Publishing Co., 1974), p. 142.
2 The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (middle 3rd century) records various alleged incidents in Jesus' early childhood. For example, Jesus molds clay pigeons on the Sabbath. When people object to this, he claps his hands and the pigeons fly away. When another child disperses a pool of water Jesus made, Jesus calls him an “insolent, godless dunderhead” and paralyzes him. When another child bumps into his shoulder, Jesus becomes exasperated and kills the child by cursing him. When his parents complain about this to Joseph, Jesus smites them blind.
3 “The recognition-formula is not a confession (of faith), but a defensive attempt to gain control of Jesus in accordance with the (occultic belief) that the use of the precise name of the individual or spirit could secure mastery over him.” Mark Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 42.
Copyright 2005 Gary DeLashmutt