EVIDENCE FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD FROM EXPERIENCE: MIRACLES, PART 2
The Miracles of Jesus
Regarding the miracles of Jesus, we have more than one written record, and those records are much more recent than anything from the Old Testament. The Gospel stories of Jesus healing the sick are too many to list here. Many of Jesus’ miracles were public miracles (feeding the multitude, healing the paralytic), while others were private (walking on water). Regardless, there would be little historical record of them outside of the Gospels. There are not many written records, secular or religious, of first century Palestine that have survived the centuries, and few first century historians and journalists would care terribly much about the “tricks” of an itinerant rabbi and his small following. Nevertheless, there is the testimony of the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of rabbinical writings compiled between AD 70 and 500. In the section of writings that represents the earliest collection (AD 70-200), there is a reference to Jesus:
“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald … cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.” Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 43a
“Yeshu” or “Yeshua,” of course, is the Hebrew or Aramaic name for “Jesus.” The reference to His being hanged is not a problem, since even the New Testament refers to Jesus’ executioners “hanging him on a tree” (Acts 5:30). Here we see that Jesus was executed for two reasons: sorcery and apostasy. In the Gospels, Jesus is accused of being in cahoots with Beelzebub (the devil), which explains His being able to perform wondrous deeds. This is essentially the accusation of sorcery leveled against Him as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud. Does this prove that Jesus performed miracles? No. But, it does demonstrate from a non-biblical source that Jesus had a reputation for performing amazing, wondrous deeds. The Jews who confronted Jesus during His ministry, unwilling to attribute Jesus’ power to God, accused Him of working with the devil. The Jews who compiled the Babylonian Talmud, also unwilling to attribute Jesus’ power to God, accused Him of being a sorcerer.
We trust the testimony of the canonical Gospels because they’ve been shown to be reliable witnesses to the details of geography and the political/religious realities of first century Palestine. So, we trust them regarding the story of Jesus, as well, His teachings, His actions and His sufferings. The accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry are consistent in the various manuscript copies of the Gospels, transcribed decades or centuries apart from each other. This means that copiers of the Gospels were dedicated to transcribing the material faithfully. The contemporary, extra-biblical references to Jesus number fewer than a half dozen. That one of these few would confirm His reputation as a wonder-worker gives weight to the testimony of the canonical Gospels of Jesus as one who performed miracles.
God’s purposes in performing miracles are to reveal His glory, and to protect, rescue or comfort His people. Miracles certainly demonstrate God’s power and authority (Exodus 7:4-5; Mark 2:10-12; John 9:1-7; John 11:14-15). Miracles, as well, provide help and comfort to God’s people, to those who already believe (Matthew 14:14; Luke 8:22-25; Luke 14:1-6; John 2:1-11; John 11:32-36; Acts 3:1-10). More often than not, no motive is given for Jesus’ miracle, especially His healing miracles. He is simply told of one who is sick or dying, and He takes action. In the healing of the woman with the hemorrhage, Jesus took no action at all in the miracle. The woman was healed by her faith, Jesus told her, because she knew that if she only reached out and touched His garment, she would be healed (Luke 8:43-48). This is what we would expect of a God Who cares for His people. Miracles also are for the purpose of encouraging others, especially toward putting their faith in God, or at least in giving Jesus’ teachings a hearing (Exodus 14:31; John 10:37-38; John 11:14-15). Jesus rebukes those who persist in their lack of faith despite witnessing His great works (Matthew 11:23), and the Gospels recount at least one episode where Jesus would not or could not perform many miracles because of the people’s lack of faith (Matthew 11:23; Mark 6:5-6).
When it comes to miracles, much lies in the eyes of the beholder. The Gospels record that some of those who witnessed Jesus’ miracles first hand were not convinced. It’s not surprising, then, that those viewing the testimony of Jesus’ miracles from a distance of two millennia would have among their number the doubtful and incredulous. The Gospel According to Matthew ends with the Great Commission Jesus gave to the disciples to go to all nations, teaching them His commands and baptizing them. The Gospel says, “The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. Then they saw him, they worshipped, but they doubted” (Matthew 28:16-17). They doubted? Here were those who were closest to Jesus during His earthly ministry, who witnessed His many healings and amazing miracles, and who knew that Jesus had been crucified, had died, had been buried, and now was standing before them, raised from the dead. And, yet, even still, they doubted! What can we learn from this testimony? That miracles, no matter how wondrous, and no matter how close our proximity to them, don’t necessarily relieve all of our doubts and questions about God’s presence and action in our lives. In fact, God Himself seems to have little faith in the power of miracles to transform the thoughts and minds of those who aren’t first moved by the power of His revelation. The Gospel According to Luke records a parable Jesus told about a poor man and a rich man who die and encounter Father Abraham on the other side. In a reversal of their earthly fortunes, the poor man, Lazarus, finds comfort at the bosom of Abraham, while the rich man (the Gospel doesn’t name him, but tradition gives him the name “Dives,” which is simply Latin for “rich”) finds only torment. Seeing Abraham afar, Dives begs him to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water to ease his suffering. Abraham refuses, insisting that the chasm that separates them cannot be breached. Dives then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his still living brothers, to warn them so they won’t end up like their condemned sibling. Abraham recommends that they listen to Moses and the prophets. Dives protests that, if someone should rise from the dead, his brothers couldn’t ignore that. Abraham replies, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:19-31).
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.