Essay / Theology

WWJD: How Could Jesus Do Miracles?

My conversion to Christianity occurred in November 1968. I was a junior at the University of Missouri, chaos was violently spreading across American college campuses, and it was in the early stages of the Jesus Movement. I came to Christ through the ministry of Campus Crusade and, upon my conversion, I became a pretty radical evangelist. There was a belief widely held throughout the Jesus Movement of the 60s and I used that belief regularly in my evangelism and discipleship: Jesus performed miracles because he was God and, thus, the miracles, if they actually happened, demonstrated his deity.

It never occurred to me that this belief was false, nor did I see any problems for the life of discipleship brought about because of the belief. But false it was. And it was harmful in a subtle sort of way. Because I believed that most of what Jesus did in the Gospels, especially the supernatural works of the Kingdom he wrought, were done from Jesus’ Deity, much of his actions and life were simply irrelevant for me–a mere mortal–and my life. So I ended up with a Jesus whose teachings I followed and whose “ordinary” actions of loving the needy, praying, living a holy, sacrificial life and so forth I sought to imitate, but that was it. I never really tried to heal someone in the authority of the Kingdom as he did, to cast our demons as he did, and to be a vehicle for the Spirit to use to speak prophetically to someone else. I really had to fiddle with John 14:12 which promises that Jesus’ followers would do greater works than he because he was leaving. In truth, I didn’t know what to do with it.

But things are different now. I have changed. More importantly, the weight of New Testament scholarship is speaking with a univocal voice, a voice that points in a very different direction and opens up some really exciting possibilities for apprenticeship under the Lord Jesus and for ambassadorship on behalf of his Kingdom. It has become clear that Jesus’ public ministry was done as he, a perfect man, did what he saw his father doing in dependence on the filling of the Holy Spirit. As theologian Thomas Oden notes,

“As a man, Jesus walked day by day in radical dependence upon God the Spirit, prayed, and spoke by the power of the Spirit. In portraying Jesus as constantly dependent upon the Spirit, the Gospels were not challenging or questioning his deity or divine Sonship. Rather, as eternal Son the theandric [divine-human] person already was truly God, while as a man, Jesus was truly human, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, seed of Abraham, whose humanity was continually replenished by the Spirit (Luke 4:14; Heb. 2:14-17). He did not walk or speak by his own independent human power, but by the power of the Spirit. Every gift requisite to the Son’s mission was provided by the Spirit. (brackets mine)”

The implications of this understanding of Jesus ministry are remarkable: “Jesus is living proof of how those who are his followers may exceed the limitations of their humanness in order that they, like him, might carry to completion against all odds their God-given mission in life–by the Holy Spirit.”

It is becoming clear that when Jesus said, “greater works than these shall he do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12), he meant it in the ordinary way these words would be interpreted. As New Testament scholar Graham Twelftree notes, in imitation of Jesus’ ministry, the church is invited to exercise the miraculous power of the Spirit in the service of the Kingdom:

“[I]t seems to me that nothing less than a revolution will need to take place in our understanding of what constitutes a Christianity that proposes to be on a trajectory with or that is faithful to what is disclosed about Jesus in the Gospels. What I mean is that what is now seen as Christianity, at least in Western traditional churches, as primarily words and propositions to which we are expected to give assent and then further propagate will surely have to be replaced by a Christianity that involves and—I would go so far as to say—is dominated by understanding God’s numinous power not only to be born uniquely in Jesus but also expected and experienced in his followers in the performing of miracles, certainly a lot more frequently than is presently reported. Put simply, Christian ministry that is faithful to the perspective of Jesus and the Gospels will be a show and tell activity that involves not [merely] the news that God was reconciling us to himself in what Jesus said and did in the Easter event but that reconciliation is God’s being powerfully present to forgive, heal, win over the demonic and deliver from danger so that he can have an intimate and whole relationship with his people.”

I have taken to time to provide these citations because they come from mainline, well-known, trusted Evangelical New Testament scholars and theologians. Acceptance of this shift in understanding Jesus’ ministry is pervasive and we—the followers of Jesus—must work together to draw out the implications of the Bible’s teaching about this matter. Space forbids me from doing that here. I am so convinced, however, of the importance of this shift that I have published a manifesto to the Evangelical church to be released by Zondervan late this April entitled The Kingdom Triangle. My main objective in this article is to stimulate you to engage each other about this topic. But let me close with three practical suggestions.

First, we need wisely to take risks. Indeed, John Wimber used to say that faith was spelled R-I-S-K. Using wisdom and humility, we should want the impact of our lives to require the existence of the Christian God to be adequately explained. For example, each year I set goals for the next year that are a bit out of my comfort zone—not so far that I am traumatized by them (e.g., giving 80% of my money to the poor), but far enough such that God will need to show up for them to happen. It may be giving goals, evangelistic goals, facing past pain, praying for the sick more regularly. Whatever the case, we want to continue to stretch our faith without breaking it or harming ourselves.

Second, we need to be more vocal about sharing with each other answers to prayer or other miracles we have seen. Not long ago I was invited to address the staff of a large church in southern California on the topic of nurturing and strengthening the faith of their church. Among other things, I noted that faith grows as people share with one another how God had intervened in their lives. I also urged them to find ways to encourage such sharing.

As we were taking a coffee break, a young man on the church staff approached me rather sheepishly and began to share something from his own journey. As he shared, it became obvious that this was something he usually kept to himself. Four years earlier, he told me, he was in a machine shop when heavy machinery fell on him and fractured his chest and hands. He was rushed to the doctor, x-rayed, and sent home that evening with pain medication. He was scheduled to come back the next morning for further examination and surgery. That evening, some Christian friends came to his house and prayed for his healing. Even though he was on pain medication, he could still feel pain and as the people prayed, the pain vanished and the swelling in his hands left. He was startled. The next morning, the surgeons took new x-rays before the surgery and the new x-rays indicated that the fractures were completely healed. The doctors also noted that the swelling was gone, something that just does not happen so quickly on its own. When the doctors compared the two sets of x-rays, it was clear that he had been miraculously healed! The fracture-lines were gone!

Needless to say, I was deeply moved by his story. But I was shocked when I asked him if he had ever shared this story with anyone. He responded that he had kept the story to himself and not shared it because he didn’t want to talk about himself or appear weird to people. This must stop. With honesty and humility, we must bear witness to each other about what we see God do.

Finally, an essential component for following Jesus into a broader supernatural ministry is grasping Jesus teaching about the Kingdom of God and its relationship to the gospel itself, a topic which I investigated in my post titled “How Did Jesus Train“.

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