One of the core beliefs of Christianity is the belief in the miracles, signs, and wonders done at the command of Jesus. These supernatural experiences were varied in scope with some miracles done in private and others done in public. Jesus cast our demons, healed the sick, raised people from the dead, and controlled the forces of nature. The stories of Jesus miraculous powers were shared among the early church. The miracles were and are an integral part of the Christian Church.
The miracles of Jesus even drew the attention of people outside the Christian community. The Roman historian, Josephus, wrote, “Now 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 teach of such men as received truth with pleasure.” Josephus’ first mention of Jesus is that as a “doer of wonderful works.” Jesus’ miracles caught the attention of the ancient Romans.
Jesus and his supernatural acts were written about in the writings of the ancient Jews in the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud claimed that Jesus was stoned to death because Jesus had “practiced sorcery, incited people to idol worship, and led the Jewish people astray” (Sanhedrin 43a). The ancient Jews we know were hypercritical of Jews and the early Christians. But apparently, even Jesus’ antagonists had to acknowledge that Jesus did some supernatural works but they then dismissed these works as sorcery, magic, or black magic.
There seems to be ample evidence in the Bible, Roman histories, and Jewish teachings that Jesus engaged in supernatural works. And yet a growing segment of people today do not believe Jesus ever performed miracles. In the United States, people were asked whether the Bible was the literal word of God, or God inspired words, or myths and legends. About 20% of those polled believed the Bible was literally the word of God, 30% believed the Bible to be myths, and about 50% believed the Bible was inspired by God. There are some groups within the Christian circles who never speak of miracles because they do not believe the miracles occurred and talking about miracles are the source of embarrassment.
It seems impossible though it is impossible to speak about Jesus without referring to his miracles, signs, and wonders. And so it seems we might profit from exploring miracles described for us in the Bible that were so important to the early church, important to be captured in the history books, and important enough to be refuted by Jesus’ adversaries. What can we learn about the miracles of Jesus and what do those insights suggest to us today?
Let’s begin by acknowledging that the primary sources for the descriptions of the miracles of Jesus come from the gospels. Since historians tend to regard the Gospel of Mark as the earliest of the gospels, let’s look at the first miracle recorded by Mark as found in Chapter 1. As we enter the scene offered by Mark, it would be important for us to know that Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist. Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness by Satan. And Jesus had called his first disciples, Peter and his brother, Andrew, James and his brother, John, all of whom were fisherman. Mark wrote, “21 They [Jesus, Peter, Andrew, James, and John] went to Capernaum” (Mark 1:21a). Capernaum was a small city on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee and was the hometown of Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
Mark continued that while in Capernaum, “The Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:21b-22). How might we think about the observation by Mark that Jesus taught with authority not as the teachers of the law?
We might think about it by example from our own nation’s history. On November 19, 1863, a ceremony was held to dedicate the Gettysburg Battlefield. There were two speakers that day, an orator named Edward Everett and the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Edward Everett spoke first. His address was 13,607 words and took him 2 hours to deliver it. Abraham Lincoln then gave his dedication. Lincoln’s statement was 271 words, and it took Lincoln only a few minutes to deliver it. Lincoln’s words of “Four score and seven years ago…” instantly became enduring words of authority, history, and hope and they had tremendous impact upon the nation Lincoln governed and still have impact today. Edward Everett’s words are unmemorable and largely lost to history.
I think that illustration gives us some insight into how Jesus spoke to the people at the synagogue. We do not know what Jesus said but it seems likely that Jesus spoke only for a few minutes and only a few words. But there was power in each word about God and about God’s kingdom that impacted each person and caused people to consider sit up and think that something marvelous was happening in that moment. Jesus words caused people to question the arrogance of their own thinking.
Consider an example where we do have Jesus’ words from a synagogue teaching offered by Jesus. Luke wrote, “14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. 16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: 18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 20 Then he [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He [Jesus] began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed” (Luke 4:14-22a). Jesus spoke just eight words in the synagogue of Nazareth and the people were amazed because Jesus had something important to say. Namely, Jesus said he was God’s long promised Messiah. Jesus’ words were impactful because his words meant that God had decided the time was right to act to redeem Israel and to begin the process of bringing about the end of time. Now that is an astounding message that the kingdom of God is near. This was the essential message Jesus first preached as recorded for us by Mark in verses 15, “15 ‘The time has come,’ he [Jesus] said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:15).
So it seems likely that when Mark wrote that the people were amazed at Jesus’ teachings in the synagogue of Capernaum we can safely conclude that Jesus shared something profound, new, and fresh about the fulfillment of God’s promises and about God coming into the world. We know that Jesus’ words were immediately profound and deeply spiritual because as Jesus finished, “23 A man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!’” (Mark 1:23-24).
We have this picture that Jesus had spoken and what he said, the authority of his words, astounded the people and then from those in attendance one man stood up and began shouting back at Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?” We can imagine everyone turned to see who was shouting back at Jesus. We might imagine the astonished looks on the faces of Peter, Andrew, James, and John that this opening worship service with Jesus might turn into a shouting match. What on earth was going on?
Then we realize that the shouting match was not about earthly things, it was about spiritual and supernatural things. For this interrupter of the worship service shouted an astounding message of authority shout at Jesus, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” At those words Jesus shouted back, “25 ‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.” Jesus’ first miracle recorded by Mark was a spiritual battle in which God’s authority was exercised over the forces of Satan and the forces of Satan were vanquished. At Jesus’ command, the impure spirit obeyed by being silent and then by removing itself from this man. The oppression of evil was removed from this one man in the presence of many witnesses. This first miracle of Jesus made it impossible for people to think of Jesus as just a teacher of righteous thought and behavior, or a teacher of a new ethic about love, or a great prophet from God. This first miracle of Jesus made clear that God kingdom was near, and that evil would have no part in it. The miracle of exorcism, the removal of an impure spirit, had less to do with authenticating Jesus’ credentials but had more to do with the fact that evil must flee from the presence of God. Evil cannot hide or remain silent in God’s presence. Evil must speak out and must come out and will not be found God’s kingdom.
When it comes to miracles of Jesus, we should care less about how the miracle occurred or where it occurred or who benefited from the miracle and instead, care more about the meaning of the miracle. We see this emphasis on the meaning of the miracle in what Mark shared after the impure spirit was gone. “27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits, and they obey him.’ 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee” (Mark 1:27-28). The people were beginning to show an understanding of what God was doing in their presence and its meaning to their life. We call this evidence of faith. The significance of the miracle or any miracle has less to do with the change in the human physical condition and more to do with the faith of the believer.
Look at the reaction again. Those who were receptive to the message of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus, saw the miracle as a faith building experience that must be shared with astonishment and hope. The kingdom of God is indeed near and in that kingdom the presence of evil must flee. And to those who had closed themselves off to the teachings of Jesus, as expressed in the writings of the ancient Jews, saw this very same event not as a work within the kingdom but as an act of black magic and sorcery. The same event was seen in two completely different ways. One way was the way of salvation. The other way was the way of sorcery. The difference rested in the faith of the witness.
Four of the witnesses to this miracle were Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Of the eventual 12 apostles, these four would form the inner core of the Twelve. Whenever the list of apostles is given, these four names always appear first on those lists. What about these witnesses to this supernatural worship service? There was for them a deeper understanding of the kingdom upon which they had entered.
Mark had recorded for us earlier in this same chapter that when Jesus met these four men Jesus said to them, “17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17). Jesus was calling these men to be intimately part of the kingdom and the work of the kingdom. When Jesus encountered the impure spirit, Jesus said, “25 ‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’” (Mark 1:25). Jesus was expelling the impurities from the kingdom. It seems likely that the contrast of Jesus’ behavior was not lost on his disciples. Within the kingdom of God, those of faith are drawn closer and the impure spirits are expelled. This is the meaning of the miracle in Capernaum. We must consider that a miracle involves a visual indication of a deeper reality.
So what do we learn about miracles and this specific miracle that is useful and helpful for our daily living? I would suggest two things. First, the miracles of Jesus were done for specific reasons and that those reasons and second, the telling of the story of those miracles were intended to help us see a deeper reality. When we look at the opening to the gospel of Mark, we hear three things from Jesus.
- To all Jesus announced, “15 “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (15) Many were invited.
- To the faithful Jesus said, “Come follow me.” (17) Few were chosen.
- To the impure Jesus said, “Be quiet! Come out of him!” (25) Some were thrown out.
The deeper reality then for us is that all are invited to the kingdom but only some come into faithfulness with Jesus with the words, “Come, follow me.” Peter, Andrew, James, and John followed Jesus in faith and so we should also answer Jesus’ call. For the call to follow Jesus is not that he is offering us some alternative among the many love-inspired thought teachings around the world. Instead, Jesus is offering something supernatural. Jesus is offering salvation and entry to God’s kingdom to those with faith in God. To those who reject the invitation and are either passively or actively opposed to God, there shall be expulsion from God’s presence. This is the deeper reality of the miracle of Capernaum.
Jesus explained these points in a parable. He spoke about a king who hosted a wedding for his son. The king invited everyone from the highest to the lowest in the land. But only the humble came at the king’s invitation. The arrogant stayed away from the wedding banquet. When the wedding hall was full, “The king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He [The King] asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. 13 Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are invited, but few are chosen” (Matthew 22:11-14). The message is clear. We must come into the kingdom fully in faith. Otherwise, we will be expelled.
You have been chosen to receive the message the Jesus described as “good news,” that you may enter the kingdom of God, into the wedding banquet of the king, dressed in the garment of Christ, appropriate for the occasion. In that place, in the kingdom of God, we will not be overwhelmed by evil for evil will be removed at the command of Christ. We can know that this picture of salvation is true because Jesus showed us this picture through a miracle at worship service in a little village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the town called Capernaum. May we be blessed in believing in the miracle of faith. Amen and Amen.