Three distinct New Testament Greek words represent miracles: seemeion, "a sign"; teras, "a prodigy"; dunamis, "a mighty work." Septuagint uses seemeion and teras for Hebrew 'owt and mopheth (Exodus 7:9). Seemeion, "sign," views the miracle as evidence of a divine commission: John 3:2, "no man can do these signs (Greek) which Thou doest except God be with him" (John 9:30; John 9:33; John 15:24; Luke 7:19-22); teras, "prodigy" or "wonder," expresses the effect on the spectator; dunamis, "mighty work," marks its performance by a superhuman power (Acts 2:22; 2 Corinthians 12:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:9). The "sign" is God's seal, attestation, or proof of a revelation being genuine. Jesus' miracles were not merely wonders but signs; signs not merely of His power, but of the nature of His ministry and of His divine person.
A grand distinction peculiar to Christianity is, it won the world to it in an age of high civilization, through a few preachers of humble position, on the evidence of miracles. Basing its claim on miracles the creed of the slave became eventually the faith of the Caesars. Muhammed on the contrary, even in a half-enlightened age and country, pretended no miracle. Christ and His apostles still less than Mahomet among friends would have dared to allege miracles, in the midst of hostile Jews and skeptical Romans, unless they were true. This claim is the more striking, since John the Baptist, though coming "in the spirit and power of Elias," the great miracle worker of the Old Testament, never claimed miraculous power; so far is Scripture from indiscriminately gratifying men's love of the marvelous at the cost of truth.
Similarly, Abraham, David, and other Old Testament heroes never appear as miracle workers. Early Christian writers, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen, occasionally appeal to miracles in proof of Christianity; but state that their pagan opponents, admitting the facts, attributed them to magic; which accounts for the fewness of their references to miracles. The Jewish writings, as the Sepher Toldoth Jeshu, also the extant fragments of Celsus, Porphyry, and Julian, admit the fact of the miracles, though ascribing them to magic and evil spirits. In the case of the resurrection (Matthew 28:11-15) and the cure of the blind man (John 9) the Jews made a self confuted charge of fraud. The early Christian apologists allege in support of Christianity:
(1) the greatness, number, completeness, and publicity of the miracles;
(2) the beneficial tendency of the doctrine;
(3) the connection of the miracles with prophecy and the whole scheme of redemption from Adam to Christ. The miracles must have been altogether different from the wonders of exorcists, magicians, etc.; else they would not have gained for the gospel so wide and permanent an acceptance. The effect of Philip's ministry on the Samaritans, in opposition to Simon Magus (Acts 8), proves this. The holy character of Christ and His apostles, and the tendency of Christianity to promote truth and virtue, are against the origination of the miracles from evil spirits or jugglery. In the fourth century miracles had ceased (Chrysostom on 1 Corinthians 11-13); in the third, miracles are alleged, but are suspicious, as wrought among those already believing and predisposed to accept prodigies credulously. The ecclesiastical miracles are not attested by inspired writers. The apostles alone could transmit the power of working miracles to others. Cornelius was an exception, being the firstfruit of the Gentiles.
But Philip could not impart it; Peter and John must come to confer on his Samaritan converts miraculous gifts, by laying on of hands (Acts 8:15-20; Acts 10:44-46; Acts 19:6; Mark 16:17-18). Christianity being once proved and attested to us, the analogy of God's dealings leads us to expect He would leave it to make its way by ordinary means; the edifice being erected, the scaffolding is taken down; perpetual miracle is contrary to His ways. The ecclesiastical miracles alleged are ambiguous, or tentative, or legendary, i.e. resembling known products of human credulity and imposture. Many are childish, and palpably framed for superstitious believers, rather than as evidences capable of bearing critical scrutiny. Most of them are not told until long after their presumed occurrence. Herein the New Testament miracles wholly differ from them. The Christian miracles are:
(1) Recorded by contemporaries.
(2) In the same country.
(3) Not based on transient rumor, but confirmed by subsequent investigation, and recorded in independent accounts.
(4) Not naked history, but the history combined with the institution and with the religion of our day, as also with the time and place of the miracle recorded and of Christianity's origin.
(5) With particular specification of names, places, dates, and circumstances.
(6) Not requiring merely otiose assent, as the popular superstitions on which nothing depends, but claiming to regulate the opinions and acts of people.
(7) Not like popish miracles in Roman Catholic countries, in affirmation of opinions already formed, but performed amidst enemies, converting men from their most cherished prejudices; there was no anterior persuasion to lay hold of, Jesus' miracles gave birth to the sect; frauds might mix with the progress, but could not have place in the commencement of the religion.
(8) Not an imaginary perception, as Socrates' demon; the giving sight to the blind leaves a lasting effect; in those of a mixed nature the principal miracle is momentary, but some circumstance combined with it is permanent; Peter's vision might be a dream, but the message of Cornelius could not have been; the concurrence could only be supernatural.
(9) Not tentative, where out of many trials some succeed, as the ancient oracles, cures wrought by relics, etc.
(10) Not doubtful miracles, as the liquefaction of Januarius' blood, cures of nervous ailments.
(11) Not stories which can be resolved into exaggerations.
(12) Not gradual, but instantaneous for the most part (Luke 18:43); not incomplete; not merely temporary, but complete and lasting.
(13) Witnessed to at the cost of suffering and death. (Paley, Evidences of Christianity.)
A miracle is not a "violation of the laws of nature" (Hume), but the introduction of a new agent. Such introduction accords with human experience, for we see an intelligent agent often modifying the otherwise uniform laws of nature. "Experience" informs us of human free will counteracting the lower law of gravitation. Infinitely more can the divine will introduce a new element, counteracting, without destroying, lower physical law; the higher law for a time controls and suspends the action of the lower. Or, "law" being simply the expression of God's will, in miracles God's will intervenes, for certain moral ends, to suspend His ordinary mode of working. The wise men following the star, and then receiving further guidance from the Scripture word, illustrate the twofold revelation, God's works, and God's word, the highest guide. Both meet in the Incarnate Word (Matthew 2; 2 Peter 1:19-21). As disturbance has entered the world by sin, as nature visibly attests, God must needs miraculously interfere to nullify that disturbance.
Hume alleged against miracles their contrariety to "experience," and that experience shows testimony to be often false. But "experience" is not to be limited to our time and knowledge. The "experience" of the witnesses for Christianity attests the truth of miracles. However improbable miracles are under ordinary circumstances, they are probable, nay necessary, to attest a religious revelation and a divine commission. "In whatever degree it is probable that a revelation should be communicated to mankind at all, in the same degree is it probable that miracles should be wrought" (Paley, Evidences of Christianity). That they are out of the ordinary course of nature, so far from being an objection, is just what they need to be in order to be fit signs to attest a revelation. It is as easy to God to continue the ordinary course of the rest of nature, with the change of one part, as of all the phenomena without any change. It is objected, miracles "interrupt the course of nature."
But as that course really comprises the whole series of God's government of the universe, moral as well as physical, miracles are doubtless included in it. In this point of view Butler remarks, nothing less than another world, placed in circumstances similar to our own, can furnish an argument from analogy against the credibility of miracles. They have some known general laws, e.g. they are infrequent, they are signs attesting a revelation; and probably have other laws as yet unknown. The testimony to Christian miracles is that of concurrent and contemporaneous witnesses. The religion so attested specifically differs from the false religions which false miracles have been alleged to support. To draw from the latter a reason against the former is utterly illogical. The argument is the other way, namely, since palpably false religions were propped up by false miracles a pure religion like Christianity is not likely to rest on false miracles.
In estimating the value of the testimony to Christ's miracles it is to be remembered there is no counter testimony. The unbelieving Jews admitted them, but attributed them to Satan. Jesus replied, Satan would never help to overthrow his own kingdom. Besides the evidential value of miracles, they are intimately and internally connected with Christianity as a new creation springing from God manifest in the flesh. That the new creating powers brought into the world in Christ should manifest themselves in miraculous agencies was a necessary consequence of His own manifestation or epiphany. The redemption of mankind from sin was typified, and its earnest given, in the redemption of individuals from the ailments which are sin's consequences. Christ's "bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows" in His own assumed manhood guaranteed His healing human sicknesses and infirmities.
The miracle of active compassion necessarily flowed from His divine power and human sympathy combined in His incarnation, of which the atonement is the crown (Matthew 8:17; Isaiah 53:4). The history and separate existence of the Israelite church (the sole instance of a pure theism in the ancient world) it is impossible to explain without accepting the miracles which the same Scripture records; so Christianity and Christendom can only be explained by accepting the miracles which introduced them. Both dispensations were inaugurated by miracles, and then mainly left to ordinary providence; only that the Old Testament church, at times when surrounding paganism, as in Elijah's times, threatened to swamp it, was vindicated by miracles. Its miracles are miracles of power, to impress a rude age; the New Testament miracles were miracles of love.
The Old Testament miracles were for the foe's destruction; Christ's were miracles of mercy, except the withering of the fig tree and the sending the demons into the swine to perish, both symbolical lessons of warning to man. Many miracles were typical; as the "tongues" manifested the universality of the Christian dispensation designed for every tongue, so counterworking the division of man from man through the confusion of tongues at Babel; the casting out of demons symbolizes Christ's coming "to destroy the works of the devil." Miracles thus were manifestations of the Holy Spirit's presence and operation in the church. The Old Testament miracles attested God's presence as King of the theocracy; though this involved a continual series of miracles, yet as the theocracy was temporary and local those miracles did not violate God's ordinary government of the world by the laws of nature. The Christian miracles on the contrary, as attesting a permanent and universal dispensation, were properly limited to its commencement.
Christ performed His miracles more for others' preservation than His own. Christ's mission, doctrine, and life, and Christ's miracles mutually depend on one another. Those were worthy objects for which to suspend the so-called (lower) laws of nature, and they illustrate the new spiritual and material creation which He introduces into our fallen world. Therefore that His miracles were false would be far harder to believe than that the testimony which supports them is true. Pritchard observes, Christ's miracles, as His parables, go on the principle of the law of continuity of the human with the divine. So the ten Egyptian plagues have a demonstrable connection with Egyptian phenomena, in most cases not reversing, but developing, nature's forces for a foretold particular end and at a defined time. (See EGYPT; EXODUS.)
Thus the first plague turning the Nile to blood answers to the natural phenomenon of the water becoming, before the rise, first green, then clear yellow about the 25th of June, and gradually ochre red through microscopic cryptogams and infusoria, at times smelling offensively (Exodus 7:17-21). The supernatural element was the sudden change at Moses' word and act, killing the fish and making the water unfit for use, results not following the ordinary discoloration. So the frogs, accordant with natural phenomena usual in September, but miraculous in extent, intensity, and connection with Moses' word and act. So the dust, or black fertile soil of the Nile basin, called "chemi," from whence Egypt's ancient name was derived, producing "lice" or tick.
So the dogflies or else beetles; and the murrain, an epidemic often in December succeeding the inundation; and the boils, hail, locusts, and "darkness which might be felt," arising from masses of fine sand filling the atmosphere, the S.W. wind blowing it from the desert. That miracles harmonize with nature in some degree is what we might expect, since the God of revelation is the God of nature. The style of the same author in a new book will resemble his style in former books, only with such changes as the subject requires. The book of nature and the book of redemption are from the same God, written in different characters, but mutually analogous. Leslie (Short Method with the Deists) observes four notes of truth in the Mosaic miracles:
1. They were such as men's senses can clearly judge of.
2. Publicly wrought; two nations, Israel and Egypt, were affected by them, and above two million Israelites for 40 years witnessed them.
3. Public monuments and, what is more convincing, outward observances continually were retained in commemoration of the facts.
4. These monuments and observances were set up at the time the events took place, and continued without interruption afterward. (Compare Deuteronomy 8:4; Exodus 20:18; Exodus 40:38; Exodus 8:10; Exodus 8:23; Exodus 8:22; Exodus 9:5; Exodus 9:18; Exodus 9:25-26; Exodus 10:4-5; Exodus 10:14; Exodus 10:22-23; Exodus 12:29; Exodus 16:17, etc.; Exodus 19:10, etc.; Joshua 3:16; Numbers 16; Deuteronomy 5:22-23; Numbers 21; 2 Kings 18).
Graves (Pentat. 6) observes we have two histories of Moses and his miracles, one in his book, the other in Israel's laws and ceremonies which are a living witness, not only of the Pentateuch history in general, but also of the miracles it records (Exodus 13:1; compare Numbers 3:11; Numbers 3:46); its facts are inseparably connected with the miraculous. However indifferent nations become as to religion, they never are so as to property; now miracles were the foundation of the Hebrew polity and of the tenure and regulations of property, e.g. the Jubilee restoration. And the religion and government were so closely connected as to presuppose a peculiar providence rewarding or punishing temporally obedience or disobedience. The effect of the miracles under Joshua kept all his generation faithful to Jehovah, so real and convincing were they (Joshua 24:31; Judges 2:7).
Messiah's miracles were foretold (Isaiah 35:5-6; Isaiah 42:7), and so were asked for by John Baptist (Matthew 11:2-4), and made the ground by the people of calling Him "Son of David" (Matthew 12:23; John 7:31). Their aim was not merely to astonish, for many were wrought in behalf of and before obscure persons. When asked for a startling "sign from heaven" He refused (Luke 11:16). The 40 miracles of Christ recorded are but samples out of a greater number (John 2:23; John 20:30-31; Matthew 4:23; Matthew 8:16; Matthew 9:35; Matthew 12:15; Matthew 14:14; Matthew 14:35-36; Matthew 15:30; Matthew 19:2; Matthew 21:14). Three He restored to life in an ascending gradation: Jairus' daughter just dead, the Nain widow's son being carried to burial, Lazarus four days dead and decomposing (Matthew 9:18; Luke 7:11-12; John 11).
Six demons He cast out, two of which witnessed He is "the Holy One ... the Son of the Most High God" (Mark 1:24; Mark 5:2; Matthew 9:32; Matthew 15:22; Matthew 17:15; Luke 11:15). Seventeen He cured of sicknesses, fever, leprosy, palsy, infirmity, withered hand, issue of blood, dropsy, blindness, deafness, muteness (John 4:47; John 5:5; John 9:1; Matthew 8:2; Matthew 8:5; Matthew 8:14; Matthew 9:2; Matthew 9:20; Matthew 9:27; Matthew 12:10; Mark 8:22; Luke 13:11; Luke 17:12; Luke 18:35; Luke 22:51); this class is that of miracles bringing in love relief to suffering man. Another class shows His control over nature: creating wine out of water (John 2); feeding 5,000 and 4,000 with bread multiplied manifold (Matthew 14:16; Matthew 15:36); passing unseen through a crowd, setting aside natural laws (Luke 4:30); giving draughts of fish when the fishermen had caught none (Luke 5:4; John 21:6); stilling the storm (Matthew 8:26); walking on the sea (Matthew 14:25), God's attribute, Job 9:8; transfiguring His countenance (Matthew 17:1); directing the fish with the tribute shekel to Peter, and Peter to the fish (Matthew 17:27).
Another class is: His overawing men; twice turning out of the temple the sellers and moneychangers (Matthew 21:12; John 2:13); alone dud unarmed striking fear into the officers sent to take Him twice (John 7:45-46; John 18:6). He justified His healing on the Sabbath on the same ground as God is above the Sabbath law, working on it as on other days for the sustenance of all life and being (John 5:17), "My Father worketh hereto and I work," thus as the Jews truly alleged calling "God His own (in an exclusive sense, idion) Father," and "making Himself equal with God." Love to man, unweariedly active, is as conspicuous in His miracles as power. The connection of His miracles with His redeeming work is the reason why faith was the needed preliminary on the part of the recipients of healing (Mark 6:5-6; Mark 7:29; Matthew 9:28-29). If miracles were mere wonders anyone would have been a fit witness of their performance.
But the miracles were designed to attract the witnesses to His kingdom. They were symbolical of spiritual needs met by the Redeemer; vehicles of instruction as well as signs of His divine commission. Performed in His own name and in the first person, "I say unto thee" (Luke 7:14); but the apostles' miracles were in His name (Acts 3:6; Acts 4:10-12). Faith in His power to heal the body prepared the way for faith in His power to heal the soul. Disbelief disqualified for appreciating miracles. To work miracles before hardened unbelievers would only aggravate their opposition, sin, and condemnation (John 15:24; John 9:39-41). They crowned their enmity by attributing His casting out of demons to Beelzebub. The "sign" of Jonah in his virtual burial and resurrection, and the sign of their destroying the temple of His body and His raising it in three days (John 2:18-21; Matthew 16:4), were the only sign which remained to convince them.
His resurrection is the central miracle toward which all the rest converge. He would give them no such sign as they craved, a startling phenomenon in the sky visible and indisputable to all. He would still give such signs of unobtrusive mercy as hereto; if they not only still reject them but also His resurrection, there only remains the last condemning sign, the Son of man coming with the clouds of heaven (Revelation 1:7; Daniel 7:9-13). His name is "Wonderful" or "miracle" (Isaiah 9:6; Judges 13:18-19). He is an embodied miracle, the Miracle of miracles. His incarnation and His resurrection include all between, and involve the wonders of Pentecost. Christ's charge that the eye witnesses should not report His miracles (Matthew 9:30; Mark 5:43; Mark 7:36) was in order that men should not dissociate the wonder from His redeeming work.
To John the Baptist on the contrary He sent a report of His miracles, because John was not likely to dissever His miracles from His person and His work. His gestures, laying hands on the patient, anointing the blind eyes with clay, putting His finger into the deaf ear and touching the dumb tongue, creating much bread out of little not out of nothing, condescending to use means though in themselves wholly inadequate, all are tokens of His identifying Himself with us men, signs of His person at once human and divine and of His redeeming and sympathizing work for us. If the incarnation be denied, Christianity's existence is an effect without an adequate cause; grant the incarnation, and miracles are its necessary concomitant and natural consequence. To deny testimony because of the improbability of the facts attested would involve the denial of the Napoleonic history and other facts notoriously true.
The truth of the miracles is confirmed incidentally by the fact that in no nation but Israel have the knowledge and worship of the one true God, the Creator, been maintained by the mere light of nature, and Israel was far from overtopping other nations in mental power and civilization. A divine power alone could have so elevated Israel by an extraordinary call, confirmed by miracles. The prophecies, the morality, the structure of the Bible, and Christianity's conquest of the Roman world and its public establishment about 300 years after the execution of its Founder as a malefactor, similarly confirm the miracles which attest to its divinity. The improbability of the Christian religion being established WITH miracles is not nearly so great as the improbability of its being established WITHOUT miracles. Strauss' mythic theory, namely, that the story of Jesus embodies the nation's cherished idea of what the Messiah was expected to do, and therefore was believed to have done, is counter to the fact that the Jews expected a reigning Messiah, who should not die but deliver them from their Roman masters.
The gravity, simplicity, and historical consistency of the New Testament incidents with the otherwise known circumstances of the times, and the internal marks of the date of writing being soon after the occurrence of the facts, are all against the mythic theory, especially in a non-legendary but historical age. How unlike they are to the really mythic apocryphal Gospels, e.g. that of Nicodemus, the Ebionites, etc. No miracles of Jesus' youth are mentioned; there is no description of His personal appearance, nor of His doings in the world of spirits; no miracles of the Virgin Mary: omissions sure to be supplied in a legendary story. The hostility of the Jewish nation to Christianity confirms the gospel miracles. Had the Jews been generally converted by them, the septic might argue with plausibility that the facts had been invented or exaggerated to gratify the national propensity, credited without examination or proof, and all inquiry checked at the only period when inquiry could have detected imposition.
But now we are certain that the gospel miracles were wrought in the presence of enemies, and so subjected to the severest scrutiny. Joel (Joel 2:28-29-31) apparently foretells a fuller outpouring of the Spirit accompanied with "prophesying," "dreams," and "wonders," in connection with and before "the great and terrible day of the Lord" (compare Zechariah 12:10). Also Matthew 24:24; Matthew 24:29, "false Christs and prophets shall show great signs and wonders, inasmuch that if it were possible they shall deceive the very elect ... immediately after ... the sun shall be darkened." So 2 Thessalonians 2:9, "the coining of that wicked one, the man of sin, shall be after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders."
The same three terms occur for Jesus' miracles (Acts 2:22; Hebrews 2:4); for as the Egyptian magicians imitated Moses (2 Timothy 3:1-8), so antichrist imitates Christ's works as a "sign" of divinity, real but demoniac. The test of miracles is their being wrought, or not, in support of doctrine in accordance with God's known word and revelation; for God cannot by subsequent revelation contradict Himself (Deuteronomy 13:1-5; Galatians 1:8-9; Revelation 13:11-15; Revelation 19:20; 1 Kings 13:11-26).
Fausset, Andrew Robert M.A., D.D., "Definition for 'miracles' Fausset's Bible Dictionary".