Having written books with titles like Where Is God When It Hurts and Disappointment with God, I hear from a lot of people who recount their unanswered prayers for physical healing. When I wrote Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? I interviewed several dozen physicians and always asked, “Have you ever seen a bona fide supernatural healing of one of your patients?  Most would think for a moment and come up with one, or maybe two, but none said, “Sure, all the time.”

Then a physician friend of mine told me about  Miracles: the Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, a meticulous two-volume study by theologian Craig Keener. This is what my friend wrote:

I was ready to “see through” yet another theologian who didn’t know much about psychosomatic illnesses, temporary improvements with no long-term follow up, incorrect medical diagnoses, conversion disorders, faked cures, self-deception, and the like. Keener’s book would no doubt be instructive, would add more information to my pool of learning, would refine a bit this world view I had been working on for so many decades. So I opened the book, plowed through the philosophical chapters, and came to the chapters of case studies.

I was blind-sided.Book cover on Miracles

Keener reports literally thousands of cases in these two volumes. I read them with the critical eye of a skeptic having many years of medical practice under the belt. I found many reports to be unreliable. In most other cases where reporting seemed accurate, I could see alternative, naturalistic explanations for the cures.

But “most” cases is not the same thing as “all.” Not by a long shot. And it was the minority (still numbering in the hundreds) that I found to be stunning. They couldn’t just be dismissed with a knowing answer and a cheery wave of the hand. With respect to my world view, I had had the chair pulled out from underneath me.

Around the same time, I had a close-up encounter with an apparent healing with no easy medical explanation.  Another friend was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, with liver involvement—an almost certain death sentence.  She went through chemotherapy and, to the doctors’ amazement, five months after the treatment had stopped, the tumor started shrinking.  Two years out from the diagnosis, she has regained full strength and energy, and doctors can find no sign of active tumor cells.  She credits her visits to the Christian Healing Ministries founded by Francis and Judith MacNutt.

After reading Keener’s book, I too find it impossible to dismiss that remarkable healings take place, often in response to prayer.  Having watched my friend virtually resurrect from skin-and-bones and 10 percent of normal energy, I celebrate her recovery with joy.  I’m sure I’ll continue to hear from people who lost a child or other loved one despite fervent prayers.  Yet, like my physician friend, I’ve become less skeptical of miraculous healing.

Sorting through all this, I went back to a study I once did of Jesus’ miracles.  The following observations do not constitute a “philosophy of miracles” by any means, but this is what I found:

1) The Gospels record about three dozen incidents of miracle, some of them group healings.  Although very impressive to the afflicted people and to eyewitnesses, the miracles affected a relatively small number of people who lived in one tiny corner of the world.  For example, no Europeans or Chinese felt Jesus’ healing touch.  Clearly, he did not come to solve “the problem of pain” while on earth.

2) Jesus resisted miracles “on demand,” to prove himself, even when he had splendid opportunities to do so: before Herod, with Satan in the wilderness, in response to the religious authorities.  He rebuked those who asked for a miraculous sign, calling them “a wicked and adulterous generation.”

3) Jesus often hushed up his miracles, ordering people to “Tell no one” about them.  He seemed wary of the kind of faith that miracles may produce: an attraction for show or for magic, not the kind of lifelong commitment he required.

4) In the Gospel accounts, spectacular miracles usually create distance, not intimacy.  For instance, when Jesus calmed the storm on a lake, his own disciples drew away from him, terrified.  Could this help explain why he interfered with nature so rarely?

5) People in Jesus’ day found it no easier to believe in miracles than do people in our modern, skeptical age.  The Pharisees in John 9 held a formal inquiry in order to disprove the blind man’s report of healing.  Similarly, they responded to Lazarus’s resurrection by seeking another opportunity to finish him off.  Most astonishingly, the Roman soldiers who witnessed the greatest miracle, the Resurrection, experienced no great change of heart; instead, they changed their story in return for a payoff.

6) Most miracles of healing came as a result of Jesus’ compassion—the sight of a suffering person moved him deeply.  Yet several times Jesus fled from crowds who were pressing him for ever more miracles.

7) “Spiritual” miracles tended to excite Jesus more than physical ones.  The scene with the paralytic lowered through the roof makes this point well.  “Which is easier,” Jesus asked, “to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?”  Jesus’ entire ministry provides an answer: physical healing was far easier.  Forgiveness of sins requires an act of will on the receiver’s part.  Jesus never met a disease he could not cure, a birth defect he could not reverse, a demon he could not exorcize.  But he did meet skeptics he could not convince and sinners he could not convert.  (Why is it, I wonder, that many ministries are founded that focus on physical miracles, but I know of few organized to combat sins like legalism, pride, gluttony, lust, or greed.)

8) Though they did not solve all problems on earth, Jesus’ miracles were a sign of how the world should be, and someday will be.  They were at once a reminder of a broken world and a preview of the future.  In the words of R. C. Trench, “The healing of the sick can in no way be termed against nature, seeing that the sickness which was healed was against the true nature of man, that it is sickness which is abnormal, and not health.  The healing is the restoration of the primitive order.”

9) Jesus did no miracles for the purposes of fundraising, fame, or self-protection.  Unlike other miracle-workers, he did not try to encourage mystery or wonder, or appeal to a sense of magic.  And, denying his disciples’ requests, he never did miracles of retaliation.

10) Jesus also performed miracles to establish his credentials─so that when he declared who he was, he would have some evidence to back up the claim.  “Even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”  (John 10:38)

Healing words and hands on rustic parchmentI pray for miracles all the time—an instinctive human response when things go wrong.  And, as Craig Keener’s book impressively shows, miracles in our own time have been a key factor in the growth of the church in many places.  Edward Gibbon listed “The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church” as one of five reasons for the phenomenal growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

As I study the life of Jesus, I try to pray for miracles in the way that Jesus modeled.  I recognize that, in Paul’s words, “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22) and will continue to do so until its final restoration.  In the meantime, I celebrate every miraculous healing as a powerful clue to what God intends for each of us who suffer—physically, mentally, or spiritually.

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11 responses to “Jesus and Miracles”

  1. gary says:

    Think about this folks: In the first gospel written, the Gospel of Mark, Jesus spends the overwhelming majority of his ministry in Galilee, never mentions or at least goes out of his way to hide his identity as the Son of God, talks about “the Kingdom of God” repeatedly, speaks mostly in parables, and the time period between his baptism and his death is one year.

    Yet in the Gospel of John, written several decades later, Jesus’ ministry is largely set in Jerusalem, Jesus is very open about his divinity, never or rarely refers to the “Kingdom of God”, never speaks in parables but in long discourses, and the time period from his baptism to his death spans three years. In the Synoptics, Jesus seems to cast out (exorcise) demons in practically every town he passes through, yet not one exorcism is mentioned in the Gospel of John. Not one.

    And conservative Christians want us to accept the historical reliability of these ancient texts???

    Get serious.

  2. Ed Stone says:

    I enjoyed reading this post and you bring up some really important points. In my family, I have witnessed a miraculous physical healing of a daughter in the hospital which left the doctors scratching their heads (except for those who are Christ followers). I continue to praise God for His miraculous touch on her. On the other hand, I have suffered all my life with a neurological disorder causing muscle weakness. I pray for healing constantly of course but have come to realize God has used my personal journey of non physical healing to teach me some powerful spiritual truths mostly centered around dependance on him and not my own strength. My point is faith in God means trusting Him with the way He chooses to direct your paths.

    Hebrews 11:6 says, ““And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” I believe this verse wholeheartedly but I must trust God’s definition of “reward” instead of my own. In my daughter’s case, reward involved a miraculous physical healing. In my case, God’s reward results in learning to depend on God in my weakness; equally miraculous if you knew me well.

    Thank you for your post!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Yes, and as I like to say, “Pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed.” Your family has been “blessed” with both.
      Philip

  3. John says:

    Like Matt in his message, I too am struck by the seeming conflict between the Lord’s desire for faith without signs and the obvious compassion he exhibited in the face of pain and suffering during His earthly ministry. This is the essence of the so-called problem of pain you address in your book Where is God When it Hurts. As already noted, Jesus – so far as we know from the Bible – never denied a request for healing, whether for the individual asking for someone else as in the case of the Roman officer’s servant. So the question that perplexes me is why so many people with faith in the centuries since the death of Jesus are not healed despite their prayers and the prayers of their family and friends. The faithful alive since the time of Jesus brief public life all must believe without having physically seen Jesus perform miracles and yet seemingly only a relatively few of them are accorded miraculous healing. Like Matt too, I know there is an answer, even though I don’t know what it is because the simple fact is only God knows. Because of a series of health issues I sometimes have trouble accepting this, but as a wise and holy woman I visit for spiritual guidance periodically reminds me, we have to be accepting of and even comfortable with mystery if we want to be a disciple of Jesus.

  4. gary says:

    According to the Bible, how many Old Testament prophets raised people from the dead? Answer: Two. Elijah and Elisha.

    That’s it. And they only did it three times. So the act of raising someone from the dead would have been seen as a very, very big deal. It was not like healing someone of a disease or casting out demons. Lots of people, it seems, could do those miracles. Nope, raising someone from the dead was the big kahuna of all miracles! Is there any instance in the Bible of a false prophet or a prophet of another god raising the dead?

    In the Gospel of John chapter 11, we are told that Lazarus had been dead for four days. His body was decomposing to the point that he stunk. Lazarus death and burial were very public events. His tomb was a known location. Many Jews had come to mourn with Mary and Martha and some of them were wondering why the great miracle worker, Jesus, had not come and healed his friend Lazarus; essentially blaming Jesus for letting Lazarus die.

    Let’s step back and look at the facts asserted in this passage: Only two OT prophets had raised people from the dead, and these two prophets were considered probably the two greatest Jewish prophets of all time: Elijah and Elisha. If this story is true, the supernatural powers of Jesus were on par with the supernatural powers of the greatest Jewish prophets of all time! If this event really did occur, it should have shocked the Jewish people to their very core—a new Elijah was among them! This event must have been the most shocking event to have occurred in the lives of every living Jewish man and woman on the planet. The news of this event would have spread to every Jewish community across the globe.

    And yet…Paul, a devout and highly educated Jew, says not one word about it. Not one. Not in his epistles; not in the Book of Acts. Think about that. What would be the most powerful sign to the Jews living in Asia Minor and Greece—the very people to whom Paul was preaching and attempting to convert—to support the claim that Jesus of Nazareth himself had been raised from the dead? Answer: The very public, very well documented raising from the dead of Lazarus of Bethany by Jesus!

    But nope. No mention of this great miracle by Paul. (A review of Paul’s epistles indicates that Paul seems to have known very little if anything about the historical Jesus. Read here.)

    And there is one more very, very odd thing about the Raising-of-Lazarus-from-the-Dead Miracle: the author of the Gospel of John, the very last gospel to be written, is the only gospel author to mention this amazing miracle! The authors of Mark, Matthew, and Luke say NOTHING about the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Nothing…

    [link removed]

  5. Joseph says:

    Miracles that reverse disease are not uncommon but neither are they overly common. In truth we experience the miracles when we are given time to spend with loved ones before they go to sleep. Indeed, life itself is a miracle. Not by random chance but by the word of God.

    We know much about the mechanics of the world (hard sciences and life sciences offer much insight into things which remained a mystery since the dawn of human history), yet we still can not explain precisely how ANYTHING actually is. In short, it’s because what we see is the creation of God. God who told reluctant Moses to refer to Him simply as I AM.

    But that may not be much comfort to people who endure hardship and loss, for whom each day is a struggle and the testament of faith is by the very act of living and hoping for that which is yet unseen.

    For all of us who know of the scorn that comes from a world that is satisfied only with the here and now, and the sorrow of loss, Paul’s words of encouragement to the Hebrews is the best summary of what we can expect as Christians:

    Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning;[a] they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

    These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. – Hebrews 11: 35-40

    May we be given the grace of God and the blessing of patience. Wait on God, because He does not forget those who love Him.

  6. hari says:

    Hello Sir,
    God, as c.s.lewis puts it is not our tame lion and His ways are out of the world and beyond our thinking!!! But Jesus said ask and you shall receive, you will do greater works than these and he said go out into the world and these signs will accompany you and gospel of mark says “and they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs”-mark 16:20.
    So why doesn’t God fulfil His promise??? I would follow God even when everything fails and I am in lions cage for its dinner but when I witness to others if all these words don’t ring true , what am I supposed to believe or what’s the real meaning of these promises

  7. Matt says:

    Great blog…I love your honest, deep thinking. The lack of massive amounts of amazing miracles in our day does seem to call into question much of what is recorded in the New Testament. At the same time, Jesus said “Woe” to those cities where most of his miracles were performed because of their continued unbelief…so there seems to be an increase of judgment with an increase of miracles. Even after seeing many of the recorded miracles firsthand, the disciples found it hard to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, with Thomas asserting that he would not believe until he felt the wounds of the risen Jesus firsthand…I guess he wanted to make sure this guy that liked like Jesus was really the one that he saw on the cross. Jesus’ response was to invite him to touch his wounds, but he also said, ” “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” So it would seem, that Jesus is looking for faith that springs from a heart that is willing to believe on very little evidence. With that being said, Jesus also heals out of compassion for those who are suffering, so it would seem that there are competing purposes at play. I can’t explain how it works, but I believe there is an explanation. It could be as simple as the fact that there are a lot of hearings in our day, but people are just obeying Jesus’ command not to tell anyone… 🙂 Thanks for the blog.

  8. Paul Morris says:

    Insightful article, Philip. Thank you. I’ve done a bit of study on the life and ministry of Jesus myself, and find myself in close agreement with your conclusions.

  9. Dale Sigler says:

    Having suffered from Fibromyalgia, gout and osteoarthritis for a long time-30 years with fibro-I have found that my physical limitations have worked to slow down my franticness, causing an interior healing far more important. My faith falters at times, especially when exhausted, but grows stronger in time. Now I’m in a church that is spiritually sick from stagnation and I’m called to help in God’s movement to revive it. So prayers not for healing but for strength and wisdom to help all of us to move forward and to grow into Christlikeness!

    As I like to say, pain redeemed impresses me more than pain removed. You’re a good example. –Philip

  10. Silas says:

    Interesting that Paul said that he had shown the credential of an apostle by “the persistence of manifestation of power, signs and miracles in the Spirit”

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