Where Did All the Miracles Go: Jesus, the Supernatural, & the Empty Tomb

The western preoccupation with the supernatural leads modern men and women to prioritize accounts of healing and of spectacular alterations within the physical world. Even in the imaginary worlds of comic book heroes which often mimic societal norms, the heroes validate their uniqueness through displays of self-healing and superhuman strength that defy the limits of nature. When modern readers encounter the Jesus of the New Testament, many somewhat predictably demand that Jesus prove his divinity through the manipulation of scientific laws within the modern context. They want to see Jesus heal someone today.

Why Jesus Did Miracles

While Jesus certainly carried out hundreds of miracles throughout his lifetime as attested to by the first four books of the New Testament and by secular authors such as Josephus and Tacitus who labeled Jesus “a miracle worker,” Jesus never saw the miracles associated with his teaching ministry as the ultimate proof of his divinity. He performed healings, led exorcisms, and calmed storms to prepare his audiences and the modern reader for the greatest act of all, the resurrection.

In Matthew 9:1-8, the Pharisees take issue with Jesus when he tells a disabled young man, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” They complain that Jesus’s sentiment while nice is completely unprovable. Anyone can promise the remission of sin. Only God can grant it. To prove that he has the power to forgive sins, Jesus responds to his critics and says,

“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home.

In other words, Jesus heals the man to establish that he can do something even greater. He can forgive sins. The means of accomplishing this forgiveness proves to be the ultimate miracle of all, the theological telos of all miracles past and present.

Just One More

When the Pharisees come back to Jesus in Matthew 12:38-40, asking for one more proof of his divinity, Jesus responds to their demand with a cryptic allusion to the prophet Jonah whose ministry prefigures Jesus’s death and resurrection. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (40).” The implication remains clear. The greatest sign of Jesus’s divinity is the cross and the empty tomb.

Men and women who walk about with contempt for Jesus because he has not performed a miracle in the last decade fundamentally misunderstand the point of Jesus’s miracles. They do not stand in isolation. Yes, they affirm his Messiahship, but they do something more. They point to the cross. If that does not convince someone that Jesus is the Messiah, nothing will. Nothing proves harder than overcoming sin and liberating sinners from death. Abraham failed, Moses failed, and King David failed at this. For all their greatness, they all fell victim to sin. Only Jesus was able to resists the temptations of the devil and conquer death. He alone can heal sinners. In other words, Jesus does not have to perform additional miracles today for nothing is greater, mightier, or more significant than living a sinless life, dying unjustly, and then rising from the dead. The forgiveness of sins depends exclusively upon this miracle. Nothing can top it.

Jesus concluded in Matthew 12:41:

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold something greater than Jonah is here.

Those who demand that Jesus must do one more miracle so they can believe devalue the empty tomb, the vary apex of Jesus’s ministry on earth. If the greatest earthly miracle cannot convince a person to believe, the miraculous curing a quadriplegic will undoubtedly prove ineffective. Even if God where to raise someone from the dead, the skeptical modern soul still would not believe (Lk 16:29-31). The problem facing modern men and women is not one of a lack of miracles but one of a lack of faith. The empty tomb is more than enough. Will you believe?

The Kingdom is Real: Understanding the Promises of Jesus

Even the youngest of souls grasps the difference between making a promise and the fulfilling of that promise. Any parent can promise their toddler a trip to Disney World or to Lego Land. But only those with the means and ability to take their child to a theme park and to pay the price of admission can make their children’s dreams come true. Ability is found not in words but in action.

Do Jesus’s Dreams Come True?

The writer of the gospel of Matthew grasps this reality. He anticipates the concerns of both his ancient and modern readers who observe the great beauty the Sermon on the Mount. While all people long for a world in which hate is overcome by love, most assume that it cannot be achieved by the fickle and relationally clumsy souls that make up our cultures and churches. In one sense, the writer of Matthew shares in the readers pessimism, noting that human religion falls short of Jesus’s grand vision. Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard it said…but I say to you (Matt 5:21-22; 27-28; 31-32; 33-34; 38-39; 43-44).” But unlike Matthew’s many readers who wonder how the next generation of religious ne’er-do-wells can do any better, Matthew directs the reader’s attention not towards humanity but towards Christ. If the kingdom of God is to arrive and if selfish, hateful, and malicious people are to become selfless, peaceful, and kind, Jesus must do it.

The question remains: can he? Can Jesus turn his words into actions? Can he get us to the amazing world of the kingdom of God?

While ever pessimistic about the human condition, Matthew remains ever hopeful in the abilities of Jesus (Matt 5:18-19). According to the Gospel writer, Jesus can and will establish the kingdom of God for he makes the unclean clean. In short, the answer is an emphatic “yes!”

Making the Unclean Clean

To prove that the Sermon on the Mount is not just another somewhat inspirational and yet totally unfeasible mandate for souls exhausted by a lifetime of failed promises, Matthew recounts how Jesus miraculously healed a leper.   

In Jesus’s day, the term leprosy covered a wide range of skin diseases that could cause everything from the discoloration of the skin to the losing of fingers and toes (Lev. 13-14). If a person did not recover from their disease by the end of seven days, they would be exiled from their community and from the temple. Leviticus 13:45-46 prescribed the following:

The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean. He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Though the possibility of healing existed, the law and the priestly system could only diagnosis and condemn. Such actions prevented others from contracting the disease but essentially condemned the leper to a humiliating death shrouded in uncleanness. As an old Israelite king noted when the Syrian general Naaman asked from permission to visit Israel in the hopes of finding a cure for his leprosy, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy (2 Kg 5:7)?” Men and women could not make the unclean clean. Leprosy proved fatal.

But, Jesus can. When the leper approaches Jesus in Matthew 8:1-2, modern readers can grasp the shock value of this moment having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. Where the text to be updated into today’s context, the leper’s actions could be equated to a man profusely sweating, coughing, and stumbling about with all the demonstrative signs of the coronavirus raging through his body. Undoubtedly many in the crowd would openly question the leper’s actions for he has put all kinds of people at risk. But unlike the crowds of his day and those of us afraid of diseases, Jesus does not recoil from the leper. When the leper says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” the text reports that “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleaned.” Jesus triumphs over uncleanness. When sickness touches Jesus, he does not become unclean, the uncleanness becomes whole. He restores that which is broken.

Jesus is Better

In that moment, Jesus does something that no other human being can do. Even the youngest of children know that when you pour dirty water into clean, the clean does not purify the dirty. For this reason, Paul reminds Christians that, “Bad company ruins good morals (1 Cor. 15:33).” When Christians embrace and touch abuse, sexual immorality, gossip, greed, or any other number of sins in their midst, the sinners do not become pure, the healthy Christians become sick. The human condition remains as it was when that when the old Israelite king encountered Naaman’s request. We cannot make the unclean clean.

Only Jesus can. His ability to heal the sick reveals that he is the Messiah. Matthew notes in 8:17 that this miracle and the others that follow were done “to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illness and bore our diseases.” Jesus can bring the kingdom of God to bear. He can promise greatness and achieve it.

Jesus can heal the sick and overcome both physical and spiritual uncleanness for he has dealt with the world’s fundamental problem: sin. The apostle Peter following the lead of Matthew and Isaiah concludes that Jesus, “bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wound you have been healed (1 Pt 2:24).” In other words, the healings that Jesus accomplished in Matthew 8 point to his death and resurrection in Matthew 27-28. Because Jesus makes the unclean clean, the reader knows that Jesus can truly absolve us from all sin and guilt and empower us to live the ethic of the Kingdom of heaven both today on earth and tomorrow in the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus can do it.

Final Thoughts

The knowledge of Jesus’s ability to make the unclean clean should cause hope to burst forth in every soul. No soul proves too dirty for the saving grace of God. No stain of sin proves permanent. If we will but ask Jesus to heal us, he will make our spots as white as snow.

The Sermon on the Mount proves not to be a philosophical daydream of what could be. It is what is. Jesus possesses the ability to fulfill his promises. Lepers are healed. Sinners are saved and sanctified. The kingdom of God is real.

Faithfulness > Fame: Understanding Salvation

Faithfulness in the minutia of life within the context of suffering reveals far more about the eternal essence of our souls than anything that happens on a stage, screen, or social media platform. Many church goers assume the opposite to be true. They think that the great preacher with a massive congregation and an even more massive online following has been granted a direct line to heaven. Potentially he has. But according to Jesus, the massive public platform is not the main evidence of his faith. The primary evidence of faith consists of simply of doing the “will of my Father who is in heaven.” If a pastor can hold the attention of thousands for 50 minutes while spending the remaining 10,030 minutes of his week in a crumbling fortress of self-centered fear that produces frequent outburst of anger, greedy demands for more money, and a never-ending stream of insults, Jesus will have nothing to do with him come eternity. He will tell the pastor, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness (Matt 7:23).”

The same response will also greet exorcists and miracle workers who supposedly do great works for God while living lawless lives at odds with the salvation of the Lord that trains “us to renounce all ungodliness and evil passions (Ti. 2:12).” The great threat to the church is not the absence of the supernatural or the absence of human gifts. The great threat to the church proves to be the presence of the supernatural and grand gifts within hypocritical leaders. In other words, false teachers will gain entrance into the church precisely because they possess the supernatural or natural gifting needed to wow the masses. God tells Moses in Deuteronomy 13:1-4, that the false prophets will perform true signs and wonders, because

“God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

Those who make either supernatural or natural ability the measure of their spirituality or of the spirituality of their leaders will be sorely disappointed. God cares far more about whether or not we love our neighbor than whether or not we can impress our neighbor.

In other words, what matters first and foremost is not someone’s ability to expand this church or that denomination. What matters most of all is the person’s faithfulness in the minutia of life within the context of suffering.

Storms and Floods > Platforms

Jesus doubles down on the importance of faithfulness when he tells the famous story of the two builders: one who builds his house upon the rock and the other who builds his house upon the sand (Matt 7:24-27). At first, both seemingly build the same structure. Both go to church, attend Bible studies, discuss the latest evangelical twitter controversy, spend a week or two on a mission trip, and read their Bible. The wolf and the sheep appear to be quintessentially the same from a distance for few can see whether they habitually lie to their neighbors or if they always speak harshly to their kids at home.

But then their circumstances change. Adversity comes in the form of everything from cancer to seeing the deacons smoking behind the shed. The foundation begins to feel the weight of physical pain, emotional anguish, and institutional hypocrisy. Though the believer may deeply feel the spiritual weight of the adversity, he or she will not turn their back on Christ as the storm rages around them. As the Apostle Peter did in John 6:68, they will declare,

“Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

They may shift their memberships from a dying church to a living church. They may shed tears and mourn the profound brokenness of this world as Jesus did when he encountered Lazarus’s death. True believers can be pushed to the brink of collapse by the intensity of their suffering, but their house will not fall. They will remain patient at the dinner table, speak kind words to their coworkers, and faithfully commune with God through prayer. As Jesus promises us in Matthew 12:20, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Jesus will never abandon those who have trusted in him for salvation. The righteous will withstand the storms affliction.

Conversely, the false believer, the wolf, or the hypocritical Christian will crumble when the storms beat against his home. The intensity of the storm can be as simple as a poorly timed sermon or as profound as the tragic loss of a child. But those who forsake the faith when life becomes difficult reveal that their peacetime faith was insincere. To cope with adversity, the wolf will return to its vomit for comfort, a vomit than can consist of alcohol, pornography, divorce, angry outbursts, and a host of other foul things that lead them away from worship, the local church, and Jesus.

Before the storm, the fake sheep often appear genuine. For this reason, a false Christian’s deconstruction can profoundly wound vast swaths of Christendom. As Jesus says, “the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (v27).” Of this we can be certain, those who build their lives on the sands of lawlessness will fall and at times with a loud bang. The hypocrites will be exposed. The storms will come.

The Danger of Living in the Past

Though the discussion above can be applied posthumously to a whole host of situations, Jesus’s concern and our concern should not be for the past. We should not spend an inordinate amount of time conducting autopsies of dead churches and deconstructed believers. Rather, we should examine our own lives and the lives of today’s leaders in light of Jesus’s warning in Matthew 7. We should seek to preserve the living.

How are we doing? Are our leaders faithful in the midst of suffering? Are we faithful in the minutia of life in the midst of suffering?