I love watching magicians.
Whether it is on the street, on the stage, or on TV I am fascinated by the slight of hand and the psychological maneuvering that magicians use to make it seem as though they have accomplished the impossible.
I worked at Starbucks in my early twenties and I remember one night a young guy came in and asked it he could do a card trick on me. I told him yes fully expecting it to be one of those silly tricks that is not that impressive and can be figured out without much effort.
I could not have been more wrong.
He ended up doing two card tricks that left my jaw on the floor. I felt as though was standing with David Blaine himself.
This encounter led me to start learning how to do some of these fascinating tricks and for about 9 months I spent time learning how to mesmerize people with slight of hand tricks.
Suddenly, I became great to have at parties because of the tricks that I could use to wow an audience.
What I learned through the process was that human beings are naturally fascinated with the supernatural. Now, a card trick is hardly supernatural, but the illusion that I was doing the impossible drew people in and excited them. When the card trick was done, it was done, and there was no purpose for the trick other than to leave people in suspense as to how the trick was accomplished.
Magic tricks are not miraculous. There is no redeeming qualities about them and there is always an explanation as to how it was accomplished (the magicians secret). Magic tricks are simply about entertainment and fun.
Miracles are different than magic because miracles are things that happen that alter the course of the natural laws set up by God. When a miracle happens it is a supernatural reversal or change from a natural course. Miracles mean something. Miracles change people. Miracles demonstrate God.
Unlike a magic trick, true miracles are not a deception, they are not an illusion, and there is no tangible, behind the scenes explanation for how it happened.
God is the author of the miraculous.
God is not a magician. He is a miraclician.
There are key places in the Bible where God’s miraculous power is put on display.
God’s process of leading the Israelite people out of slavery from Egypt and to the Promised Land was saturated with miraculous works from God whereby he altered the natural systems of the world to display His glory to Pharaoh, the Egyptians, and the Israelites. Deuteronomy 26:8 says it best, “And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders.”
Other times when the miraculous power of God was put on display was through the lives of Joshua, Elijah and Elisha and the Judges.
In these situations, God worked through individuals to do things that altered the natural for the purpose of displaying His power in a unique way.
It is important to understand, however, that supernatural miracles are not seen on every page of Scripture. Certainly, God is always at work behind the scenes throughout the pages of Scripture, but often God worked through natural processes.
The supernatural and the miraculous were reserved for specific times.
There has been an emphasis on the miraculous recently in Evangelical Christianity, which has led to a desire to see and perform miracles. The messaging from pulpits has enhanced this desire as pastors teach Christians that they carry the miraculous power and presence of God everywhere they go. Mark 16:14-18 is a key Scripture that is used to motivate Christians to believe for and step out to see the miraculous happen.
The issue at hand is not that miracles and supernatural things cannot or do not happen. I believe that God is very involved in the world and still intervenes in miraculous ways. But I do not believe that God’s method of operation always involves the supernatural and miraculous.
Christians who place a strong emphasis on the miraculous and supernatural are in danger of placing miracles in a place of authority that they are not meant to be.
There is nothing wrong with desiring a miracle, there is something wrong with chasing miracles and making them an obsession.
When it comes to supernatural power and miracles I think that Luke 9 offers some insights that will help bring balance to this issue. The remainder of this post will be spent looking at it.
In Luke 9 Jesus empowers the disciples to have authority over all demonic spirits and to cure diseases (Luke 9:1-2). Think about what this must have felt like for the disciples to, for the first time, have the authority to say “Leave in Jesus Name” and have demons who had been oppressing people for years flee. What must it have been like to lay hands on a person who had suffered with a sickness and then see them get up and be whole again.
It certainly must have been an exhilarating and possibly intimidating all at the same time. In addition, to simply performing these supernatural signs, imagine using those as a natural transition into sharing about the Kingdom of Heaven and how God wanted repentance for the forgiveness of sins so that people could have right standing with God again.
It certainly was significant for the disciples and Luke records that when the disciples returned from their journey they were excited and told Jesus all that they had done (Luke 9:10). It is as this point that the disciples were certainly feeling a spiritual high and a rush. “Why should we stop? Let’s keep going.” But Jesus, ever wise, took them aside and withdrew to Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). Perhaps this was for recovery and recuperation or perhaps Jesus had another plan in mind - the Scripture is not clear - nevertheless the crowds heard where they were going and followed them in mass.
Luke says that Jesus did not turn them away but welcomed the group of people and taught them about the Kingdom of God and healed those who were sick. It is at this point that the exhaustion of ministry must have caught up with the disciples. They tell Jesus that it is getting late and that he needs to send the people away so that they can get food and find a place to sleep for the night. The disciples figured that with the people gone they could get some rest and have a chance to debrief a little bit more with their teacher. But Jesus has other plans.
Jesus’ response to the disciples is unique. “You feed them.” Now, this seems harsh unless you consider it in the context of what was happening. Think about what the disciples were doing right before this. They were casting out demons and healing people. They were doing great spiritual works. They were heroes. People were following them. The perfect formula for the development of a seed of pride. Perhaps a little pride had already started to creep in. So Jesus presents them with an opportunity, “Alright, you have been doing some pretty impressive things in my name. How about you feed these people.” They could not. They did not even know where to begin. So Jesus has them assist by finding whatever food is available. Jesus multiplies the food and feeds thousands.
Could it be that Jesus did this as a way to remind the disciples that any power and authority that they had was derived from him? Could it be that Jesus was trying to gently humble them? Could Jesus have been subtly saying, “I am proud of you for driving out demons and healing people, but do not forget where this power came from and to whom the glory is due.” Shortly after this Luke records that Jesus speaks about the cost of following him. Whoever would follow after Jesus had to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow (Luke 9:23). This is the path of little glory. In fact, it is the path to no glory. This path is what Jesus requires - regardless of the authority that he vests in them.
Shortly after this event a young boy is brought to the disciples by a father desperate to have him healed from a demon that throws him down and convulses him. But something happens - the disciples cannot cast it out (Luke 9:40). Jesus steps in and says something significant, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” (Luke 9:41). This is clearly directed at the disciples and challenges their faith. But why would he do this? Only a few verses earlier the disciples were casting out demons and healing. Could it be that the disciples were riding on the thrill and that faith and humility took a back seat? Could it be that they had become too confident in their own flesh?
If this is the case it could explain why in Luke 9:46-48 the disciples are seen arguing with each other as to who is the greatest. Sometimes authority and power in ministry can breed pride. Could a seed of pride also be the reason that the disciples were thrown off by others casting out demons? Luke records that John came to Jesus and told him that he and disciples saw someone casting out demons (like they had been empowered to do) and they tried to stop them because they were not part of them. Jesus tells them to not stop them - for anyone who is not against them is for them.
When I look at the pattern and progression in Luke 9 what I see is Jesus tempering the supernatural. Jesus empowers his disciples for great works, but he is more concerned with the humility with which the power is used (i.e. the spiritual maturity of their heart). More important than this, Jesus was more concerned with the spiritual state of the individuals that he healed than the physical state. The physical healing was always the door to the spiritual.
I believe that God empowers people through the Holy Spirit in various ways. A plain reading of 1 Corinthians 12-14 indicates this and it is very hard to describe away the gifts of the Spirit. However, any work that God would allow through individuals is ultimately not about the works, the miracle, or the power. Rather, it is about pointing people to Jesus and bringing glory to Him. In other words, a miracle simply for the sake of a miracle is useless.
I have seen the obsession with spiritual power and the miraculous become a driving impulse in some. I believe that this is dangerous. When the Christian faith becomes all about the power, the healing, the supernatural, and the mystical I believe that we have gotten off course. The Christian life has always been about salvation by grace through faith in Jesus.
I have seen a growing interest in the supernatural in Evangelical Christianity recently and while I do not want to be the bucket of cold water on the fire, I want to be a voice of tempering and balance. I want to remind my brothers and sisters that miracles in Scripture were used to demonstrate the power of God, served as an initiating point for relationship with Jesus, verified the message of the disciples, and always were intended to point back to Jesus.
Those who received miracles in the New Testament were not guaranteed salvation. They still had a choice as to whether they would follow Jesus or not. Additionally, it is important to understand that even in the midst of the miraculous there was still sickness, death, hardship, and persecution. Even Paul had a “thorn in the flesh” that God would not remove from him (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
If Christians become overly consumed with the supernatural they begin to focus on the miraculous at the expense of the more important issues of salvation and sanctification. On healing in particular, an un-balanced obsession can lead to a strongly implied theology that communicates God’s will in this life for complete and total health. While this sounds good, it is actually not the message of Scripture. That theology aligns with the toxic prosperity gospel. The reality is in this world there will be trials, sickness, pain, and suffering. The good news is that even in these challenges God providentially uses them as opportunities for spiritual growth. Oftentimes it is in our suffering that we experience the greatest growth (Romans 5:3-5).
So should Christians believe for, look for, and pray for miracles? I believe that the answer is yes. But they should do this in balance focusing on salvation and spiritual maturity.
In closing, Christians must live their lives in full submission to Jesus, and within this submission God will use individuals to impact people for His kingdom. God has empowered believers with gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:6). These gifts are given for the common good and the building up of the church (1 Corinthians 12:7) and all should be done in decency and order (1 Corinthians 14:40). These gifts should be carried out with the understanding that it is Jesus (not the individual) who should receive glory for the work. Moreover, an unbalanced obsession with the supernatural and the miraculous is detrimental.
I think that the words of Jesus are the most fitting to end on. When the disciples returned to Jesus after being sent out to perform miracles they were rejoicing and excited at what they were able to do. Jesus’ response to them is a powerful reminder that our excitement with power should never supersed the main thing. Jesus said to them, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).