Saturday, September 3, 2016

Faith in the miraculous Jesus (some thoughts on Jesus, miracles and faith)

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John 4:46 "Therefore He came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine. And there was a royal official whose son was sick at Capernaum."

As one begins to study John's Gospel, the main purpose of the writing is found in John 20:31. As we approach this particular account of Jesus' healing of the nobleman's son in John 4:46-54, we note how much space is devoted to not only the miracle itself, but in the authentication and testimony of it. John's goal is to demonstrate that this Jesus is indeed the eternal Son of God in human flesh. He does so by a variety of means: personal recorded conversations, sermons preached or teachings taught by Jesus, testimonies by others and by what he calls "signs" (i.e miracles). John 20:30-31 attaches this latter method of miraculous attestation to the overall purpose of the book: "Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name."

What is a miracle?
So then, what is a miracle? A miracle is an infrequently occurring, direct act of God that is performed in a religiously significant setting to confirm God's messenger and message. In John's Gospel we find seven particular signs or miracles mentioned:

1. Water to wine at Cana. 2:1-12
2. Healing of Nobleman's son. 4:46-54
3. Healing of man at Pool of Bethesda. 5:1-17
4. Feeding of 5,000 6:1-14
5. Walking on Water 6:15-21
6. Healing of man born blind. 9:1-34
7. Raising of Lazarus. 11:1-46

Each of these miracles communicate something particular about Jesus, whether it be His ministry, His majestic Deity, His marvelous identity or His manhood of humanity. Concerning the first miracle at Cana and this second one, we find Jesus' identity as the Mediator is the focus of the first (water into wine). The second miracle or "sign" demonstrates to us His majestic Deity. In this particular account we come to understand the relationship between miracles and faith. 

Contrary to popular opinion, miracles are not  "violations of the law of nature". 18th century Scottish skeptic David Hume had coined this infamous definition about miracles being violations of the laws of nature. Hume's project included denial of not only God's direct intervention in the world, but also the impossibility of being able to identify one. In effect, Hume's work influenced many agnostic and atheistic conceptions as to how our world works exclusively by natural laws and forces. Even though the last half-century of philosophical thought and mathematical inquiry has shown Hume's theories about miracles to be inadequate and inaccurate, a good number of people still find them convincing. 

The problem with Hume's ideas and objections against miracles is several-fold. For one thing, C.S Lewis notes that with respect to nature and the place of miracles: "In calling them miracles we do not mean that they are contradictions or outrages; we mean that, left to her own resources, she could never produce them." Lewis shows that the laws of nature are not opposed to the possibility of miracles. The problem with Hume's definition is that it makes the laws of nature "prescriptive" rather than "descriptive". In other words, on Hume's definition, the laws of nature necessarily prescribe how things ought to behave in nature, as if they were in a closed system. 

Again, Lewis illustrates this problem by having us imagine a dresser drawer with six pennies placed in it on a Monday. Then on Tuesday, we would place six additional pennies in the same drawers. When we would open the drawer on Wednesday, we ought to expect to find twelve pennies, since the laws of mathematics describes 6 plus 6 equals twelve. Lewis then describes a person coming into the room and taking some pennies between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. If we open the drawer on Wednesday, expecting to find twelve cents, and instead find a different amount, what are we to conclude? Have the laws of mathematics been "violated". No. Instead, an agent has intervened, changing the expected resulted. 

So we come back once more to our definition of a miracle: A miracle is an infrequently occurring, direct act of God that is performed in a religiously significant setting to confirm God's messenger and message. 

How does Jesus' "signs" compare to our suggested definition of a miracle?
Jesus' nearly four-year ministry saw a total of 35 miracles recorded in our four gospels, 7 of which are listed in John's Gospel. Miracles in scripture did occur relatively infrequently, clustering in three major time-frames: Moses, Elijah/Elisha and Jesus/the apostles. Although Jesus did perform quite a few miracles, His ministry emphasized mainly His teaching and preaching. 

Concerning God's direct activity, we can say this fits Jesus' ministry. John's point is to show that Jesus is the incarnation of the Divine Son, hence His performing of miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit means that strictly speaking - God is directly doing the miracles (whether we credit the Son or the Spirit, both Persons share in the one, undivided, Divine nature).  

So what about religiously significant contexts? Certainly the setting of Jesus' miracle was in and around the place He had performed His first miracle, which was to prove that He was the Mediator of the New Covenant. The point of Jesus' healing of the royal official's son was to attest His message and Himself. So we can say that what we see happening is a miracle. But what about the testimony of it?

How John demonstrates the reality of Jesus' miracle
When we find the royal official inquiring about the day and hour when his son was healed, we may wonder why John would include such a detail? Dr. Timothy McGrew, Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Western Michigan University and a prominent Christian apologist, has noted that when a testimony of a miracle is used as a way of screening whether or not a miracle has occurred, the probability for us to identify a miracle increases. It seems here at least, John is purposefully using this nobleman's series of questions to show the reader that Jesus' miracle was undoubtedly real, and thus Jesus' power as God in human flesh was truly attested. 

How we see the Nobleman exercising true faith in the miraculous Jesus
We read in John 4:53-54 "So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives”; and he himself believed and his whole household. 54 This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee." The man's faith in Jesus was due to Jesus, with the miracle functioning as a way of attesting Jesus' identity. When we first meet this man, we find him only focusing on the need and Jesus' miracle working power. 

Indeed, this man's need was great and he recognized Jesus' as a miracle worker, but so did Nicodemas in John 3. Although miracles can attest to the message and the messenger, they cannot confer faith in the observer. The Holy Spirit working in the heart by the Word of God is the only way in which anyone will believe in Jesus. Jesus had spoken the word for the man to "go". That word had the Spirit's signature power attached to it, opening the man's eyes to behold Jesus not as merely some "miracle worker", but as God-incarnate, Savior, Lord. 

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