Miracles, Signs and Magic

The relationship of Christianity to miracles has been ambivalent from the time of Jesus.  Though Jesus did miracles, they often did not have the intended effects on the population.  For example in John 6, as a result of Christ’s miracles, He perceives they want to want to make him their king, so he escapes both their misunderstanding of His miraculous signs and also their ill-conceived intent to declare Him king.  Later Jesus upbraids them:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”  (John 6:26-27)

John in His Gospel is very clear that miracles were done only as signs to the people to lead them to seek the Kingdom of God.  Unfortunately, the people were often more interested in the power of magic than in signs of the Kingdom.   They wanted comfort on earth not a path to life in the world to come.

Some of the early church fathers also feared that people were far more interested in the miracles than in God, the source and giver of miracles.  They expressed a thought from time to time that miracles can actually distract us from God.  In Acts 8, Simon is so desirous of having the power to bestow the Holy Spirit on others that he offers the apostles money to give him that same power.  He is severely rebuked by St. Peter for this.  Simon did not understand the nature of miraculous power in Christianity.  He saw it as power in this world, not as a sign of the Kingdom beyond this world.

In Acts 14:7-18, we encounter another story where performing a miracle creates a misunderstanding with seriously wrong consequences.  St. Paul was traveling with St. Barnabas preaching the Gospel in various cities.  In one city as they are preaching, Paul sees a crippled man who has deep faith and Paul works a miracle with this man, healing him.

Now at Lystra there was a man sitting, who could not use his feet; he was a cripple from birth, who had never walked. He listened to Paul speaking; and Paul, looking intently at him and seeing that he had faith to be made well, said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And he sprang up and walked.

In the midst of Paul’s preaching, this great miracle occurs.  Had the people been listening to Paul’s message they might have connected the miracle to Christ.  Instead, the people ignore Paul’s teaching and see only a great act of magic.

And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the people.

The  people were far more interested in the magic/miracle than in whom St. Paul was claiming responsible for  the miracle/sign.  Baranabas and Paul are taken by complete surprise at the crowd’s reaction and interpretation of events.

Triumph of Dionysius

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their garments and rushed out among the multitude, crying, “Men, why are you doing this? We also are men, of like nature with you, and bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.” With these words they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.

The miracle does not work to convert the crowd to Christianity and nearly results in proving to the people the power of pagan gods.  Barely are Paul and Barnabas able to stave the misunderstanding.  The text does not say whether even one person converted from paganism to Christianity despite the great miracle Paul performed.

Miracles in and of themselves don’t necessarily lead to faith or a knowledge of God.  They have to be interpreted or contextualized by those who experience them.  It is possible to miss the sign from God and to instead seek only power or magic in this world which can actually lead people away from the Kingdom.

Something for us to think about today.  Whenever serious illness occurs, many people run off looking for miracles from whatever power source can be found.  Wonder-working places or relics are sought.  But if they are not seen as signs of the Kingdom, they actually can draw us away from life in the world to come.  They can even become ways to seek life in this world because we don’t really believe in or care about life in the world to come.  Seeking God’s will is a more certain way to seek for God’s Kingdom.  If it is God’s will that a miracle or healing takes place, we are blessed.  If we are seeking God’s will, we are blessed whether the Lord gives or takes away (Job 1:21).    Miracles as signs of the Kingdom are most helpful when we are seeking to do God’s will rather than seeking to  have God do our will.

“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”  (Matthew 16:26)