August 6, 2014 Broadcast

Are Miracles for Today?

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Many people are quick to designate any unexpected or awe-inspiring event a miracle, while others deny the very possibility of miracles occurring at all.  So who’s right?  Should we still anticipate miracles from God?  And what’s at stake in this discussion?  Dr. R.C. Sproul carefully explores some of the issues on this controversial topic.

From the series: Foundations: An Overview of Systematic Theology

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. article

    Jesus’ Healing Ministry

  2. question and answer

    What can Christians expect from God in regard to healing?

  3. devotional

    Are Miracles for Today?

Jesus’ Healing Ministry

Jerry Bridges

The ninth chapter of Matthew is largely an account of the miracle-working ministry of Jesus. Five miracles are recorded, four of them physical healings, and the fifth, a restoring to life of a dead girl. But these are only representative of the many miracles Jesus performed. In fact, toward the end of the chapter Matthew seems to sum it all up by writing: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and affliction” (v. 35). 

Several years later when Peter was preaching to the household of Cornelius, he said that “[Jesus] went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). Of all Peter could have said about Jesus’ ministry he focused on His doing good and healing people. The ultimate purpose of Jesus’ incarnation of course was to give His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28), but His three years of public ministry were characterized by doing good and healing people.

What was the purpose of Jesus’ healing miracles? John in his gospel calls the miracles “signs,” (2:11; 2:23; 4:54; 20:30–31). That is, they displayed the divine power of Jesus and attested that He was indeed the Son of God. In fact, John specifically states that the miracles he included in his gospel were for the purpose that his reader “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name” (20:31). Jesus Himself used His miraculous healing of the paralytic man as a proof that He had authority to forgive sins — an obvious reference to His divine Sonship (Matt. 9:2–6).

There was another motive, however, in Jesus’ healing ministry. He was moved by compassion for those in need. Matthew records that as He went throughout the cities and villages, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). On another occasion when Jesus saw the only son of a widow being carried out for burial, He had compassion on the woman and raised her son to life (Luke 7:11–14). 

Jesus’ acts of healing, then, had a two-fold purpose. Clearly, they were needed as an authentication of His divine Sonship. But in the process Jesus wanted to respond to true human needs. We should not overlook the application to us. While the spiritual needs of people are paramount, we must not ignore their physical needs. After all, according to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31–46, the final judgment will certainly take into account our ministries to the physical needs of people.

On an institutional level we evangelicals are doing a fairly good job of ministering to the physical needs of people. But as individuals, do we have compassion for the poor, the homeless, the elderly, and the disabled? We cannot perform miracles, but we can minister in many ordinary ways. Each of us needs to prayerfully consider how we might follow the example of Jesus’ compassion in meeting the physical needs of needy people.

Returning to the miracles recorded in Matthew 9, it is instructive to note the part faith plays in them. In the healing of the paralytic man, Matthew says that Jesus saw his faith (v. 2). To the woman who was healed, Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well” (v. 22). And to the two blind men whom He healed, He said, “According to your faith be it done to you” (v. 29). And as for the ruler whose daughter Jesus restored to life, his faith is certainly implied in his request to Jesus: “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live” (v. 18). Only of the demon-oppressed man who was mute is there no mention of faith on his part.

In all four of the instances where faith is mentioned, the object of faith was in Jesus’ ability to heal, not His will to heal. Today as we pray for the healing of friends or loved ones who suffer severe illness or disease, we too should believe that God is able to heal, either directly or through conventional means. To say I have faith that God will heal is presumptuous since we do not know the mind of God, but to say God is able to heal is to exercise faith.

Is God limited to our faith? No, for there are several instances in the Gospels where faith is not mentioned. Today we sometimes struggle with the faith to believe that Jesus is able to heal because we see so little healing accomplished. When we struggle this way, we should follow the example of the father who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). There is a vast difference between a struggling faith such as the father had, and the stubborn unbelief of the people in Jesus’ hometown, which did prevent Him from doing any mighty works there (Mark 6:3–6). Let’s be sure we have a struggling faith and not a stubborn unbelief.  

What can Christians expect from God in regard to healing?

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen on the walls of pastors’ studies or in Christian homes the little sign, Expect a Miracle. If a miracle is something we can expect, like we expect the postman every morning, it ceases to be miraculous—it’s no longer extraordinary, and it no longer does the job that miracles were designed to do, namely, to call attention in an astonishing way to the intervention of God. On the other hand, the New Testament tells us to bring our prayers before God, particularly for those who are sick. So I expect God to be merciful because he promises to be merciful, and I expect God to be present in times of trouble because he promises to be present in every time of trouble. I expect that God will take our prayers seriously when we pray on behalf of the sick. I do not expect that God is going to heal everybody we pray for because I don’t know that God has ever promised to do that. And I have no right to expect something from God that he has not categorically promised in every situation.

In the New Testament we see that Jesus, as far as we know, had a perfect healing record. When Jesus asked the Father to heal somebody, they were healed. But even the apostles were not that consistent. There were times when they prayed for the healing of people and those people were healed, and there were times when they prayed for people and they were not healed. I think that in those situations, practically speaking, what we should do is bring our requests before God in fear and trembling, in passionate intercession, and then let God be God. We do expect the presence of his Holy Spirit.

The Bible tells us that in the world we have tribulation, the world is full of suffering, we are going to suffer, and God promises to go with us: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.” I have never ceased to be amazed at how some Christians I know have testified to the overwhelming sense of the presence of Christ that comes to them in those situations. That’s when we can most expect God to be with us.

Are Miracles for Today?

Before we finish our brief look at the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we need to consider one more gift associated with His ministry—miracles. Do miracles still occur in our day, and is it possible for Satan to perform them? Without a doubt, the majority of professing Christians would answer yes to both questions.

According to Scripture, however, we have to disagree with this assessment. We do not mean by this that God does not answer prayers today or that His supernatural work does not continue. We see people healed in response to prayer and converted by His Spirit. Yet we also need to think about the proper distinction between miracles and His ongoing supernatural works. Theologians have a strict definition of miracles, as Dr. R. C. Sproul explains. A miracle, properly speaking, is an "extraordinary work performed by the immediate power of God in the external perceivable world, which is an act against nature that only God can do" (for example, resurrections and floating axe heads). Considered this way, it seems clear that miracles are not occurring in the present.

The first line of evidence for this is the fact that, despite all claims to the contrary, we do not see miracles in the strict sense happening today. Some claim to be resurrecting the dead or causing amputees to grow brand-new limbs, but no person making such claims has been able to provide confirmation. Second and more important, Scripture's presentation of the purpose of miracles indicates that they are not occurring in our day. Hebrews 2:1–4 says that miracles were given to confirm that the message of the gospel was from God. In other words, miracles in the narrow sense are granted by the Lord to demonstrate that a messenger has been sent by Him with His Word. Special revelation has ceased, for the foundation of the Apostles and prophets for the church has been laid, and once laid, the foundation cannot be laid again (Eph. 2:19–22). The Lord said to Moses that He would confirm His Word by miracles (Ex. 4:1–9). If we were to see genuine miracles today, we would have to receive the miracle worker's words as being from the Creator; otherwise, the miracles would not be serving the purpose God has for them.

This point is key in answering the question as to Satan's ability to do miracles. If the devil could perform true miracles, he would be a teacher from the Lord. He can perform lying signs and wonders, but not true miracles, for he is not a teacher from God.

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