Greatness of the Miracles
The Gospels record dozens of miracles that took place at Christ's behest. An impostor might try to fake miracles, but many that Jesus did were of a kind that cannot be faked. He healed a man born blind (John 9) and a man with a withered hand (Mark 3:1). Obviously, then, He was in a class apart from the healers who appear in tent meetings or on TV shows. All such healers are charlatans, and their healings illusions. The supposed beneficiary either imagines that he is healed when he is not, or gains temporary relief from a psychosomatic or psychological disorder, or cooperates in a deception.
The requirement to do miracles has made it impossible for any false Messiah to fulfill prophecy. All the other requirements are stringent enough, but to do miracles also is beyond human cleverness. You, dear reader, may think yourself very shrewd and capable. But do you think that you could fool multitudes into accepting you as a miracle worker?
Three of Jesus' greatest miracles will demonstrate that He commanded supernatural power.
- One of the miracles recorded in all four Gospels is Jesus' feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13). Before a throng of witnesses, He multiplied a few loaves and fishes into a great quantity of food. That is, He created material substance that previously did not exist. Recently, the Pharisees had accused Him of being a magician in league with Beelzebub (Matt. 12:24). But His feeding of the five thousand proved them wrong, for although the devil can imitate the miraculous, he cannot create something out of nothing, as Jesus did. The miracle showed that Jesus is the Creator of all things.
- Two of the Synoptics as well as the Gospel of John recall Jesus' walking on the water (Matt. 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-51; John 6:15-21). This miracle revealed that He was neither subject to the elemental forces of nature nor bound by the laws of the physical universe. The very next miracle that He performed established that He was also not limited by time and space.
16 And when even was now come, his disciples went down unto the sea,
17 And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.
18 And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.
19 So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid.
20 But he saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid.
21 Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.
- The raising of Lazarus from the dead after he had lain in a sealed tomb for four days was dramatic proof that Jesus is the Master of life (John 11:1-46). Jesus waited four days and commanded Lazarus to come forth under his own power to remove any possibility that he had not really died. Jesus raised two others also. One was the daughter of Jairus, whose dead body had been seen by a crowd of mourners (Matt. 9:18-26; Mark 5:22-43; Luke 8:41-56). Another was the young son of a widow in Nain. Jesus restored him to life when He met the funeral procession taking his body for burial (Luke 7:11-17). The witnesses included many of the townspeople.
From time to time in the course of Jewish history, someone has come forward trumpeting that he was the Messiah. The most famous was a certain Simeon ben Kosiba, who, in A.D. 132-135, led the Jews in a mass uprising against Roman rule (1). Akiba, leading rabbi of that day, hailed Simeon as the "Star out of Jacob" (Num. 24:17) and renamed him Bar Kokhba, which means "son of the star" (2). Yet no one, not even the most avid followers of Bar Kokhba, said that he could do miracles. Likewise, no other Messianic pretender has gained a reputation as a miracle worker.
Yet look at Jesus. Miracles fill the story of His ministry. Even those who rejected Him acknowledged that He had unusual powers.
- Rather than deny Jesus' miracles, His enemies accounted for them by saying that He did them with the aid of the devil (Matt. 12:24).
- Josephus's Antiquities, written about A.D. 90, contains the following tribute to Jesus.
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (3).Since Josephus was not a Christian, or even a sympathizer with Christianity, the consensus of scholars, both liberal and conservative, is that this passage, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, does not preserve his original words (4). The pious sentiments we find here are not those of Josephus, but of a Christian copyist. Yet many scholars agree that we need not reject the entire Testimonium as a late insertion (5). Two considerations support the view that the present Testimonium is a broadly edited version of comments that Josephus himself made concerning Jesus.
- Later in Antiquities, when narrating the death of James the Just, Josephus identifies James simply as "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ" (6). The terseness of the statement presumes that the reader has met Jesus earlier (7). Yet the only earlier reference to Jesus is in the Testimonium.
- Louis Feldman, translator of the Loeb edition of Antiquities, judges that the style and vocabulary of the Testimonium generally accord well with Josephus's language elsewhere (8).
- Of special interest is the following passage in the Babylonian Talmud.
On the eve of Passover, Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf." But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover (11).This tradition, stemming from the religious authorities who conspired against Jesus, confirms that they viewed Him as a sorcerer—as a magician in league with the devil. By so slandering Him, they conceded that His miracles were real.
Answers to Objections
First objection. The skeptic has always treated the miracle stories as legendary accretions to raw history. At one time it was fashionable to say that they arose long after Jesus' lifetime from imaginations overheated by religious fervor. Now that the early date of the Gospels has been established, the skeptic must find another way of belittling their accounts of the miraculous.
A century ago, the fashionable view among critics was that Jesus performed real healings which he induced not by supernatural but by psychological means (12). This and similar attempts to eliminate the miraculous are most naive. In fact, virtually no physical, psychosomatic, or emotional disorder is susceptible to cure by mere psychological suggestion. Besides, many of the miraculous healings that Jesus performed—providing immediate and total recovery from such conditions as blindness and leprosy—are plainly impossible, so far as modern science is concerned.
Second objection. The skeptic has one more dodge from the imperative to believe. He can say or insinuate that the Gospel writers are not trustworthy. In The Passover Plot, Hugh J. Schonfield says that the author of Luke is an inventive story teller who takes pagan materials and refashions them for Christian readers (13). He lays similar charges against the other writers.
We have previously pointed out that nothing wrong was seen in inventing sayings and speeches for individuals in the interests of doctrine or propaganda (14).
What our Gospel stories so engagingly offer is a tribute typical of the thinking and literary expression of the world of nineteen centuries ago, couched in language which Christianity had derived from its Jewish inspiration. This is what the advent of Jesus had come to mean to those who came after him and believed in him; and this is how they suitably adorned and compensated for the meagre facts at their disposal (15).
The arguments we have adduced in the lessons on Gospel reliability brush away this web of spidery skepticism. The Gospel writers were not so late or so impoverished of facts as Schonfield would have us believe. Moreover, he implies that the standard of honesty among early Christians was lower than ours. But on what evidence does he regard them as by nature untrustworthy? People in Jesus' day understood the difference between truth and fiction as well as we do, and like us they were forced to respect truth by the real consequences of error. As Paul said,
And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.
1 Corinthians 15:17
If after the manner of men I have fought with beasts at Ephesus, what advantageth it me, if the dead rise not? let us eat and drink; for to morrow we die.
1 Corinthians 15:32
False history, such as we find in many religious cults and extremist ideologies, is generally the invention not of doctrinaire enthusiasts, but of unscrupulous schemers seeking self-justification, power, money, or acclaim. So, if the apostles and other Christian sources of the miracle stories did not speak the truth to the best of their knowledge, they should not be whitewashed with cultural excuses. They should be called what they are, liars.
Yet the apostles amply demonstrated that they were men of high character. We know Peter best because he was the leader of the early church. What emerges from the various Gospel references to Peter is a clear picture of a humble, honest man. Mark, under Peter's direct influence, surprisingly does not record the dialogue in which Jesus called Peter a foundation stone of the church (Matt. 16:18). Yet, almost compulsively, Mark tells us as much as the other writers do about those three times when Peter gravely disappointed Jesus—when Jesus rebuked him for speaking the words of Satan (Mark 8:33), when he fell asleep at the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:37), and when he repeatedly and vehemently insisted that he was not Jesus' disciple (Mark 14:66-72). Peter himself must have been the primary source of information about these incidents, for certain details seem to depend on his testimony. Who else in the brotherhood was present when he denied Jesus or afterward when he cried bitterly in regret?
Peter's lapses into folly are prominent not only in the Gospel of Mark, but also in the first and third Gospels. Yet these three writings, the Synoptics, generally refrain from criticizing other people. Since Peter was probably the most influential and beloved leader of the early church, the rough handling dealt him by the Synoptics must be the result of his own insistence that his failures were an integral and indispensable part of the Gospel story. Notice that kindhearted John, writing his Gospel as an addendum to the already well-known Synoptics, gives a more balanced treatment of Peter. He records not only Peter's three denials of the Lord, but also the sequel some days later, when Peter met the risen Lord beside the Sea of Galilee and offered Him three declarations of love (John 21:15-19).
Peter was foremost among the apostles when they decided to let others supervise the finances of the early church so that they could devote as much time as possible to praying and preaching (Acts 6:1-7). In his first epistle, he speaks movingly about enduring suffering and persecution (1 Pet. 2:19-23; 3:13-18; 4:12-19). He himself underwent imprisonments (Acts 4:3; 5:18; 12:3), flogging (Acts 5:40), and many other hardships, culminating in martyrdom (John 21:18-19), all for the sake of giving testimony to the risen Christ. Yet Schonfield's estimate of Peter and the other apostles is that they freely molded facts to fit the needs of a sermon (16). Believe it if you want, but believe it at your peril.
The steadfast loyalty of the apostles to the early church strongly affirms their veracity. So far as we know, the only defector from their ranks was Judas. History and tradition indicate that the rest stood firm in the faith of the church until death. Yet being a Christian was no easy matter. It meant to live righteously in a milieu of moral laxity and riotous pleasure, to give generously of time and money to Christian work, and to suffer barbaric persecution.
In A.D. 64, when many apostles and many eyewitnesses of the risen Christ were still alive, a great fire devastated the city of Rome. To quash public suspicion that he himself had started it, the emperor Nero cast blame upon the Christians (17). He then took diabolical revenge upon them, killing some by using them as torches or as bait for his dogs (18). But despite the terrible distresses that their preaching brought on themselves and others, the founders of the new faith did not recant. They evidently had no doubt that they were preaching the truth.