February 2, 2015

Miracles and receptivity

My current seminary course raises the question of the power of miracles. Some Christians believe that if their loved ones could see a miracle, then they would believe in Jesus. Others say that even a miracle will not convince a skeptic.

As I read the verses from Exodus this morning, I noticed the sections about the miraculous. God told Moses to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt, but he worried that no one would listen to him or believe that God sent him. God gave him two signs to show them, then He said, “If they will not believe you, or listen to the first sign, they may believe the latter sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or listen to your voice, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.” (Exodus 4:8–9)

Later, Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 4:29–31)

These people already knew God and had called out to Him. They were His children and they saw and believed the miracles. This is generally true of Christians today. We are sometimes skeptical because the enemy can also perform “lying wonders” and Hollywood can do just about anything, so we do not want to be tricked. However, if we see a mighty work of God, we do not first think of Steven Spielberg or the devil and his cohorts.

Nor did the miracles performed through Moses and Aaron convince everyone. Before God sent them to Egypt to deliver His people, the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.” (Exodus 4:21)

This seems oddly unfair. Why would God harden anyone’s heart? Yet a careful reading of Exodus shows that Pharaoh did not respect God at all. He said to Moses, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:2) His heart was already hard toward God, so when the miracles happened, he dismissed them by having his magicians duplicate some of them. This suggests that miracles are not to convince the ungodly, but God uses them to build up and assure those who already believe.

Second reading: Song of Solomon is a love poem. On the surface, it describes the passion of two lovers, but to those looking for Jesus (who said all the Scriptures speak of Him), it describes His life. In 1:6, the bride says her brothers were angry with her. It might be a stretch to compare this with the anger of the Jews toward Jesus, or the anger of His brothers (James and Jude) before they became believers. It also might be a stretch to compare this with the anger of family members who hate Christians. However, that reading suggests again that following Jesus is incredibly lovely, even if it is not all roses and sweetness.

The third reading is about John the Baptist who came after a four-hundred year absence of a prophet in Israel. He was welcomed by many and some even wondered if he was the Messiah . . .

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1:19–23)

John came to prepare people for a great deliverance from sin. In a way, he was like the miracles that Moses did to prepare God’s people for their deliverance from physical slavery. Unless they accepted what he said, they would not experience the wonder of what God was going to do for them. In Moses’ case, they needed to trust God to use Moses to lead them out. In John’s case, they need to confess their sin and repent (turn from it) so they could experience a greater deliverance.

The next day (John) saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ (John 1:29–30)

Like miracles point God’s people to God, John pointed those who would listen to Jesus Christ, God the Son. He was not the star of the show, just as miracles are not supposed to be the star of the show. Both are sign posts, pointers to the Savior.

Maybe that is why many people reject miracles. They will insist such things do not happen or are impossible, but the greater issue might be a deep unwillingness to face the reality that there is a holy God for whom nothing is impossible. 

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