Although English speakers regularly use "miracle" to refer to a broad range of wondrous events, the biblical concept is limited to those not explainable solely by natural processes but which require the direct causal agency of a supernatural being, usually God. These occur throughout all major eras of history but do appear with greater frequency at key periods of God's self-revelation.
Genesis. The Bible begins with one of God's greatest miraclesthe creation of the universe out of nothing. However literally the various details are taken, Genesis 1-2 primarily describes not the "how" but the "who" of creation. Against somewhat similar stories in polytheistic religions, Genesis affirms the complete, cosmic sovereignty of the Lord God. All else is subordinate and never to be worshiped. Humanity is categorically distinct from the rest of creation by virtue of being created in the image of God ( Gen 1:26-28 ). The fall, followed by an increase in evil, begins to thwart God's creative purposes. The next major miracle, the flood, thus affirms both God's judgment on extreme wickedness and his grace in promising never again to destroy humanity so completely ( 6:3 ; 9:15-16 ). The promise does not preclude judgments of a lesser nature, though, such as Babel ( 11:1-9 ) or Sodom and Gomorrah ( 19:1-29 ). Miracles throughout the rest of Genesis deal primarily with God's preservation of his chosen line, when his promises to Abraham ( Gen 12:1-3 ) seem about to be broken, most notably Sarah's conception of Isaac at an advanced age ( 21:1-7 ). A seemingly miraculous provision of water in the desert preserves Hagar and Ishmael ( 21:14-21 ), reminding us of God's care for other peoples as well.
Exodus-Deuteronomy. The first major cluster of biblical miracles surrounds the central Old Testament act of redemptionthe exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Here too appear thirteen of the eighteen Old Testament uses of "signs and wonders, " an expression that focuses on the miracles' redemptive significance. In the burning bush, God reveals his name (Yahweh) to Moses as the eternally existing one and promises his presence with his servant who is terrified of what God is asking him to do ( Exod 3 ). Further signs are promised to encourage him that he can overcome Pharaoh and the Egyptians ( 4:1-17 ). Ten plagues ensue, from which the Israelites are miraculously protected (7:14-11:10). None of the plagues itself is necessarily supernatural; in fact, their sequence is often scientifically logical. But their timing and geographical limitations point to God's sovereign intervention on Israel's behalf. The climactic plague of the death of firstborn sons finally motivates Pharaoh to let Moses and his people go.
Pharaoh quickly changes his mind, though, and it seems that his armies will obliterate Israel. The miraculous crossing of the Sea of Reeds ( 14:21-31 ), therefore, becomes the prototypical Old Testament miracle of the deliverance of God's people and the destruction of his enemies ( 15:1-2 ). It also discloses God's merciful initiatives prior to his giving of the law ( 20:1-2 ); in the Old Testament as in the New Testament, salvation by grace precedes God's demands for good works. The Israelites' wandering in the wilderness is punctuated by various miracles of preservation and judgmentrescue when it seems they will perish (by the ongoing provision of manna and quail chap. 16 and special provisions at key moments, most notably water from the rock 17:1-7 ; Num 10:1-13 ) and destruction of those who disobey God and challenge his appointed leaders (most notably the sudden deaths of Nadab and Abihu Lev 10:1-7 ; and the earthquake that swallows Korah and his fellow rebels Num 16 ). Plagues, too, require divine intervention to be stopped and Aaron's rod buds to authenticate him as the legitimate priest (chap. 17). In short, God's mighty Acts intend to foster dependence of his people on him, that they might not trust in themselves or any other gods. And, as with Hagar, he occasionally reminds them that he can work to and through people outside the chosen line, even in humorous ways (Balaam's donkey Num 22:21-35 ).
Joshua-2 Samuel. With Moses' death, Joshua becomes his appointed successor to lead the Israelites into the promised land. A water crossing (of the Jordan) similar to the exodus initiates this period and authenticates Joshua's privileged role ( Joshua 3:7 ). Subsequent battles are often won or lost despite the relative strengths of the armies, to remind God's people that he alone is in charge (cf. esp. the conquest of Jericho versus the defeat at Aichaps. 6-7). Although no miracle, per se, occurs as Gideon fights the Midianites, the confusion that causes his enemies to slay each other, despite the small number of opposing forces, is equally attributed to the Lord's direct intervention (Judg. 7). The report of sun and moon standing still while Joshua fights the Amorites comes in a poetic passage and is perhaps not meant to be taken as literal cosmic upheaval ( Joshua 10:12-13 ). But it continues the theme of God's sovereign agency as the cause of victory. Subsequent miracles are also "borderline"Samson's superhuman strength when he is "filled with the Spirit" (Judges 13-16) and the ark's "power" over Dagon ( 1 Sam 5 ) and the cattle that return it to Beth Shemesh (chap. 6). These and many other passages highlight how the biblical world's divisions between natural and supernatural were far more fluid than today and how most momentous events were attributed to various divinities.
First Kings-Nehemiah. The next major cluster of miracles involves the prophets Elijah and Elisha. The faithful remnant of Israel is locked in a mortal, spiritual battle with idolatry, especially Baal worship. The predominant purpose behind the miracles of these two prophets is to demonstrate Yahweh's superiority over Baal and to call God's people back to worship him. The classic expression of this combat comes at Carmel, as fire from heaven consumes Elijah's sacrifice and the prophets of Baal are destroyed ( 1 Kings 18:16-40 ). But other mighty deeds also demonstrate the Lord's supremacy over the pagan god of water, fertility, and life: Elijah alone can predict drought and rain (chaps. 17-18), and God will nourish his people ( 17:1-6 ) and others (vv. 7-16) during the former. Elisha purifies poisoned water and causes an axhead sunk in the river to float ( 2 Kings 2:19-22 ; 6:1-7 ). Both prophets, too, work Scripture's first miraculous resuscitations ( 1 Kings 17:17-24 ; 2 Kings 4:8-37 ). Elijah appropriately becomes the second person in history never to die but to be taken directly to heaven ( 2 Kings 2:1-18 ; cf. Enoch in Gen 5:24 ).
Elijah's successor certifies his prophetic role with closely parallel miracles. In addition to those already noted, Elisha provides unfailing oil for a needy widow ( 2 Kings 4:1-7 ), purifies a pot of food, feeds a hundred men with twenty small loaves, and again demonstrates God's concern for foreigners in healing Naaman's leprosy (4:38- 5:27). The latter two miracles closely resemble Jesus' later feeding of the multitudes, cures of lepers, and concern for Gentiles. Indeed Jesus himself will liken parts of his ministry to God's choice in the days of Elijah and Elisha to favor those outside Israel ( Luke 4:25-27 ). Although Elisha dies a normal death, even his bones cause a corpse thrown into his grave to be resuscitated ( 2 Kings 13:20-21 ). The two other major miracles that occur in the Old Testament historical books involve the leprosy with which faithless Uzziah is afflicted and the sundial shadow's retreat as a sign to portend Hezekiah's recovery from illness ( 2 Kings 15:1-8 ; 20:1-11 ).
Job-Malachi. Two books whose genre is disputed contain major miracles: Job with his remarkable collection of afflictions and subsequent recovery and Jonah with his preservation by and expulsion from the great fish. Both teach of God's judgment and salvation, and of how even affliction is under his sovereign control for ultimately good purposes. The psalms frequently recount and reflect on God's past signs and wonders. The prophets speak of present and future signs, some more supernatural than others, to corroborate their message. Most famous is the prophecy of the virginal conception in Isaiah 7:14. The only other major cluster of Old Testament miracles centers on the life of Daniel and his friends in exile in Babylon. Once again Yahweh proves his supremacy over foreign gods and rulers. Thrown into the fiery furnace for refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar's image, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are miraculously spared, while the great heat burns up their captors (Dan. 3). Thrown into the lion's den for praying to the Lord, Daniel too escapes harm (chap. 6). Other miracles give Daniel the ability to interpret Nebuchadnezzar's dream (chap. 2), and the miraculous writing on Belshazzar's wall (chap. 5).
Matthew-John. The greatest of all biblical miracles is the incarnationGod becoming human ( John 1:1-18 ). Foreshadowed by the birth of John the Baptist to the previously barren Elizabeth ( Luke 1:5-25 ), the virginal conception of Jesus, the God-man, fulfills prophecy (Matt. 1-2) and demonstrates the Spirit's parentage ( Luke 1:26-38 ). Jesus' adult ministry regularly features miracles for a variety of purposes. Sometimes they respond to individuals' faith in Christ (e.g., Jairus Matt 9:18 ; and the hemorrhaging woman 9:22 ) or are hindered by their lack thereof (the disbelief in Nazareth Mark 6:4-6a ). On other occasions they seem more designed to instill faith where it has been lacking (e.g., the stilling of the storm Mark 4:40 ; or the healing of the nobleman's son John 4:48 ).
Other important motifs include Jesus' compassion for the needy (e.g., in feeding the five thousand Mark 6:34 ; or in restoring the two blind men's sight Matt 20:34 ) and breaking down social barriers in preparation for the universal offer of the gospel (e.g., in cleansing the ritually impure lepers Mark 1:40-45 ; Luke 17:11-19 ; [where the thankful one is explicitly a Samaritan] healing the Syrophoenician woman's daughter Mark 7:24-30 ; or feeding the four thousand in Gentile territory Matt 15:29-39 ). Frequently Jesus challenges the prevailing sabbath traditions (e.g., the man with the withered hand Mark 3:1-6 ; or the closely parallel healings of cripples in Luke 13:10-17 ; 14:1-6 ) and exposes Israel's predominant faithlessness (e.g., in praising the great faith of the centurion whose servant was sick Matt 8:5-13 ), including the periodic lack of faith of his own disciples (e.g., with the epileptic they could not cure Matt 17:14-21 ). In still other instances, Jesus wants to teach a lesson about sin. Sickness may be the result of one's own wickedness; its healing, therefore, an incentive to repent ( John 5:1-15 ). In other cases, though, it is wrong to blame anyone; God's greater glory is what is involved ( John 9:1-5 ).
But none of these themes proves as prominent as the most central one: Jesus works miracles to demonstrate that the kingdom of God has been inaugurated, the messianic age has arrived, and he is the Christ who will fulfill all of God's previous Scriptures. In explaining the significance of his exorcisms, Jesus makes this claim explicit ( Matt 12:28 ). In replying to John the Baptist about his identity, the claim is more implicit but equally clear ( Matt 11:4-5 ). Once he heals a paralytic to demonstrate his authority to forgive sins ( Mark 2:9-10 ). His transfiguration is introduced as God's kingly reign come in power ( Mark 9:1 ). Lazarus' revivification grounds Jesus' subsequent claim to be the resurrection and the life ( John 11:25 ). And the evangelists' summaries regularly link his mighty deeds with his teachings so that the former legitimate the latter.
These direct statements give clues how to interpret some of the more unusual of Jesus' miracles that often have parabolic or symbolic elements. Turning water into wine probably demonstrates the joy attached to the arrival of the new age ( John 2:1-11 ). Cursing the fig tree symbolizes the impending destruction of Israel just as much as the temple cleansing it sandwiches ( Mark 11:12-25 ). Feeding the five thousand recalls the manna in the wilderness and sets up Jesus' bread of life discourse ( John 6:1-15 John 6:25-59 ). Walking on the water is a theophany; Jesus' words of self-revelation echo Exodus 3:14literally, "I am" ( Mark 6:50 ). Healing the deaf-mute effects a rare miracle predicted to herald the messianic age ( Mark 7:31-37 ; cf. Isa 35:6 ). Raising the son of the Nain widow closely resembles the reanimations by Elijah and Elisha ( Luke 7:11-17 ) and occurs on virtually the identical site as one of them (Old Testament Shunem). The two great fish catches point to the disciples' call to be spiritual fishers of people and to Peter's reinstatement after his denial for this continued ministry ( Luke 5:1-11 ; John 21:1-14 ).
The greatest miracle of Jesus' life, of course, is his resurrection. Immediately following his death, nature heralds its unusual significance with an earthquake, the rending of the temple veil, and the opening of tombs of certain Old Testament saints, who would then be raised following Jesus' resurrection ( Matt 27:51-54 ). God's resurrection of Jesus vindicates his claims, gives atoning meaning to his death, serves as a prelude to his ascension and exaltation, and makes eternal life and bodily resurrection available to all who trust in him. The best theological commentary on this event is 1 Corinthians 15.
Each evangelist has his own thematic emphases concerning Jesus' miracles. Mark sharply contrasts the glory of Jesus' public ministry and its preponderance of wonders with the road to the cross and his teaching on suffering (1:1-8:30; 8:31-16:8). Mark, too, introduces the so-called messianic secret motif following several miracles (e.g., 1:34 ; 3:12 ; 5:43 ). Matthew's miracle-stories fit his overall narrative progression from Jesus' particularism to universalism (with chap. 13 as the hinge) and his stress on the fulfillment of Scripture ( 8:17 ; 11:4-5 ). Luke highlights Jesus' compassion for the outcasts of society ( 4:18 ; 17:11-19 ) and his role as a new Moses ( 9:28-36 ) and Elijah/Elisha ( 7:1-28 ). John's views prove the most distinctive. Whereas the Synoptics use "signs" in a negative sense as that which unbelieving skeptics demand but do not receive save for the resurrection as the "sign of Jonah" ( Matt 12:38-42 ), John consistently speaks of Jesus' miracles as "signs" meant to lead people to faith in Christ ( 2:11 ; 4:54 ; cf. 20:31 ). But he encourages a maturity that does not require dependence on miraculous proofs ( 4:48 ; 20:29 ). John also pairs seven signs with seven discourses to form the first major half of his Gospel (1:19-11:57). The signs require interpretive teaching even as they legitimate Jesus' claims.
Acts. Jesus' ascension ends his resurrection appearances, marks his return to the Father, and enables him to bestow the Spirit permanently on all believers ( Acts 1:1-11 ). The Spirit comes with miraculous confirmation at Pentecost ( 2:1-3 ). Apostolic preaching picks up the Old Testament phrase "signs and wonders" to stress the redemptive significance of Christ's ministry ( 2:22 ) and to describe how the first Christians continued that work ( 4:30 ; 5:12 ), as commissioned earlier by Jesus himself. Many different believers perform miracles, not just the twelve (Stephen and Philip in Acts 6:8 and Acts 8:13 ), and they continue with about the same frequency throughout the book. Peter and Paul, as the two protagonists of the two halves of Acts (chaps. 1-12, 13-28), each work a specially large number, several pairs of which are remarkably parallel (earthquakes to get out of jail 12:5-10 ; 16:22-34 ; healings of the lame 3:1-10 ; 14:8-10 ; raising the dead 9:36-43 ; 20:7-12 ). The apostolic miracles often closely parallel Jesus' mighty works, too (cf. 9:32-35 ; and Mark 2:1-12 ; 9:36-42 ; and Mark 5:35-42 ). Luke thus stresses that the disciples are the authorized successors of Jesus, and that Peter's Jewish-oriented ministry and Paul's Gentile-centered work equally fulfill Christ's commission. As in other periods, occasional miracles also reflect God's judgment on his enemies ( 13:6-12 ) or his rebellious children ( 5:1-11 ).
Romans-Revelation. For Paul, healings and miracles are spiritual gifts ( 1 Cor 12:9-10 ) God gives to those whom he chooses (vv. 29-30) throughout the entire period of history until Christ's return ( 1:7 ; 13:10-12 ). But he often withholds miraculous healing because of the remedial value of suffering ( 2 Cor 12:8-9 ). Miracles further certify apostolic credentials ( 12:12 ), characterize Paul's ministry ( Rom 15:19 ), and attest the truth of Christian life in the Spirit ( Gal 3:5 ). Counterfeit miracles will proliferate in the end times ( 2 Thess 2:9 ), as Jesus himself had prophesied ( Matt 24:24 ), and as Revelation will describe in greater detail (e.g., 13:13-14a ). James attributes a ministry of anointing with oil and prayer for healing to the eldership of the local church ( 5:14-16 ).
Conclusion. Throughout the Bible, miracles consistently serve to point people to the one true God, ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. Their primary purpose is not to meet human need, although that is an important spinoff blessing. But they are first of all theocentric and Christocentric, demonstrating the God of Israel and of Jesus to be supreme over all rivals. Contemporary experience suggests that this pattern continues; miracles today seem most frequent in regions where Satan has long held sway and where people require "power evangelism" to be converted. But God's sovereignty warns against trying to predict when they may occur and refutes the "name it and claim it" heresy that tries to force God to work miracles upon demand, if only one exercises adequate faith.
Craig L. Blomberg
Bibliography. B. Blackburn, Theios Aner and the Markan Miracle Traditions; L. Bronner, The Stories of Elijah and Elisha; C. Brown, Miracles and the Critical Mind; R. T. Fortna, The Fourth Gospel and Its Predecessor; B. Gerhardsson, The Mighty Acts of Jesus according to Matthew; J. Green, S. McKnight, and I. H. Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, pp. 299-307, 549-60; M. J. Harris, From Grave to Glory; C. Hyers, The Meaning of Creation; R. Latourelle, The Miracles of Jesus and the Theology of Miracles; ISBE, 3:371-81; 4:505-8, 1100-1101; H. Lockyer, All the Miracles of the Bible; L. O'Reilly, Word and Sign in the Acts iof the Apostles; L. Sabourin, The Divine Miracles Discussed and Defended; G. Theissen, Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition; H. van der Loos, The Miracles of Jesus; D. Wenham and C. Blomberg, eds., Gospel Perspectives, vol. 6.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Miracle'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".