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Doing the (Miraculous) Works of Jesus: Reflections on John 14:12

Is it ok to pray for a miracle? To hope for a miracle? To seek God for a miracle? For many years I thought it was unspiritual to desire or seek for any spiritual gifts, especially those of a more overt miraculous nature. Continue reading . . . 

Is it ok to pray for a miracle? To hope for a miracle? To seek God for a miracle? For many years I thought it was unspiritual to desire or seek for any spiritual gifts, especially those of a more overt miraculous nature. I had been taught it was an indication of immaturity to seek signs in any sense, that it was a weak faith, born of theological ignorance, that it was only the biblically illiterate and emotionally unstable people who prayed for healing or a demonstration of divine power. One author I read actually said that to desire miracles is sinful and unbelieving! But then I noticed Acts 4:29-31, which records this prayer of the church in Jerusalem:

“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bondservants may speak Thy word with all confidence, while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders takes place through the name of Thy holy servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29-31).

I trust that no one would accuse these believers of emotionalism or mental imbalance! Evidently they didn’t believe there was any inconsistency between miracles and the message of the gospel, between the wonders for which they prayed and the word of the cross they so fervently preached.

People have often responded to that by directing our attention to the text where Jesus rebuked as wicked and adulterous those who “crave” and “seek” after signs (Matt. 12:39; 16:4; cf. 1 Cor. 1:22). But we must remember that the people he denounces are unbelieving scribes and Pharisees, not Christians. These people were desperate for a way to justify their unbelief and rationalize their refusal to follow Jesus. There’s no reason why their motivation for seeking signs should be yours or mine.

If our prayers for supernatural power are the fruit of a desire to see God glorified and his people healed, I hardly think Jesus would respond to us as he did the hypocritical religious leaders of his day. When a passion for miraculous gifts is prompted, not by a selfish hankering for the sensational, but by compassion for diseased and despairing souls, God cannot help but be pleased.

All of that brings us to one of the most amazing things Jesus ever said. It’s found in John 14:12, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to my Father." Virtually everyone is confused, to some degree, by this text. The question is: How do you respond to your confusion?

Before I tell you what I think Jesus means and how we should respond to him, let me set before you the spectrum of beliefs about miracles. Be aware that each of these views is embraced by professing Christians. I’m not talking about atheists, but people who claim to know Jesus as Savior and claim to believe the Bible is the Word of God.

(1) At one far end of the spectrum are those who argue that miracles no longer occur. They once did, in biblical times, during the OT, during the life and ministry of Jesus, and during the early church as seen in the book of Acts. But God no longer works miracles. Anything that appears to be miraculous can be explained scientifically given enough time and analysis. God always and only operates through normal cause and effect. These people don’t deny the reality of the supernatural realm, but they might as well, because anything that anyone might suggest is a miracle often evokes from them condescending scorn. Thus their response to claims for the miraculous is cynicism.

(2) Moving a bit farther down the spectrum are those who believe that miracles might still occur today, but they are extremely, and I cannot emphasize strongly enough the word extremely, rare. Even if miracles might occur today, you should not seek them; you should not pray for them; and your response should be one of heightened skepticism. There is a difference between cynicism and skepticism. Cynics are snide and snarky and often treat with scorn anyone who believes in modern day miracles. Skeptics are simply, well, skeptical. They aren’t necessarily mean or nasty and they don’t typically mock those who believe in miracles.

(3) The third perspective is one that affirms that miracles still happen, but when they do happen they occur independently of any human involvement. In other words, God sovereignly works miracles but without the agency of any human being. These are people who believe in miracles but deny that the spiritual gift of working miracles is still operative in our day. There are no miracle workers. These people aren’t cynical, nor are they skeptical, but they are doubtful. It takes a great deal to convince them that a miracle has occurred. This is the view that I embraced for the first 35 years of my life.

(4) The fourth option is the one I embrace today. I believe that miracles still happen. I believe that the spiritual gift of miracles is still operative in the church. I believe that this gift is what I call a circumstantial or occasional gift. That is to say, no Christian can work miracles at will, whenever they please, at any time. Any Christian might be given the power to work a miracle at any time, dependent on God’s sovereign will and his purpose. Miracles are therefore to be prayed for. The spiritual gift of working miracles is one that we should all seek. Whether or not it is given is entirely up to God. And simply because you receive a gift of working miracles on one occasion does not mean you will always operate or minister at that level of supernatural power. This view is not cynical, not skeptical, or doubtful, but hopeful (and prayerful).

(5) The fifth and final option is at the far end of the spectrum from the first view. The first view is that miracles never occur. God never wills to perform supernatural displays of power. This final option argues that God always wills to perform miracles in our midst. Not only does God always will to perform them, he always will perform them, and if he doesn’t, the fault is always ours. How do these people respond to the claim for the occurrence of a miracle? They are not cynical or skeptical or doubtful or even just hopeful. They are often gullible. They tend to be naïve and accept without question any and all claims to the miraculous.

Of course, I assume there may well be other options, lying somewhere in between the options I’ve listed, or perhaps as a mixture of two or more of these views. But our concern is with how Christians interpret, apply, and respond to John 14:12. I typically come across four interpretations. I will take up each of these in the next installment in this short series.

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