When we speak of miracles, it is important to realize that not every miracle is miraculous in the same way or to the same degree as every other miracle. Instead, we see a variety of activities throughout the Bible described as a work of God, enacted through a variety of mediums, and with differing levels of his involvement. So while all miracles are performed through the will and power of God, many miracles are done by God himself (Father, Son, or Spirit) and others are performed through human representatives—some demonstrate power over nature, while others power over the supernatural. And, as we have seen, though the Bible uses various terms for these acts (signs, wonders, and mighty works), it does not use them in a technical sense to differentiate the extent to which God is going above and beyond natural forces.
It becomes the responsibility of Christians, then (and especially those who teach), to organize and present these events in a way that reflects their own internal order. For example, Ard Louis divides miracles into two types: “those that are examples of providential timing (type i miracles) and those that can only be viewed as directly violating physical cause-effect relationships (type ii miracles)” (Louis 7). Similarly, C.S. Lewis speaks of miracles of the Old and New Creation: “When [God’s acts] reproduce operations we have already seen [but] on the large scale they are miracles of the Old Creation: when they [bring into] focus those [operations] which are still to come they are miracles of the New” (Miracles 219).
Both approaches have their strengths, but they also have their weaknesses, primarily where providence falls on these spectrums. Taken together, though, if we conflate their four categories and add another type for providential events, we might say there are three ways (or levels) in which God’s acts might be understood:
To see how these categories aid our understanding, we’ll consider the two central miracles in the gospel of Christ—the Incarnation and the Resurrection—and then follow up next week (Lord willing) with some additional thoughts on prayer and providence.
The prophet Isaiah had recorded centuries before Christ that a Chosen One—a Messiah—was coming to deliver God’s people from their oppressors, and as evidence of his coming, the Lord would do something that had never been done before: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” which means God with us (Isa 7:14 ESV). As if his name was not enough indication, Isaiah says he would also be called, “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). But the prophecies of old go back even further: the Messiah would be the Offspring of Eve (Gen 3:15), the son of Judah to whom all would owe their obedience (49:10); he would sit in Moses’ seat (Deu 18:15-20) and would reign from David’s throne (2Sa 7:14).
But when Joseph found out that his fiancee, Mary, was pregnant, the Messiah was not the first thought that came to his mind. Instead, “unwilling to put her to shame” (assuming fornication and its public punishment) “he resolved to divorce her quietly” (Mat 1:19). But Joseph was soon set aright: “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus [from the Hebrew, meaning Yahweh Saves], for he will save his people from their sins’” (1:20-21). And so the couple weds, and Mary and Joseph abstained from sex “until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (1:25).
And so throughout the gospels Jesus is clearly portrayed as a human being like you and me. He has a human body that can hunger, thirst and die (John 19:28-30; Luke 24:36-43); a human mind that can grow in knowledge and wisdom (Luke 2:52; Heb 5:8-9); and he fulfills human responsibilities both at home and in the world (Luke 2:51; 4:1-2, 16; 1Pe 2:22-23). As Paul sings, Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php 2:7-8).
Surprisingly, then, after the virgin birth, God allows nature to resume her course, even “to the point of death.” In the Incarnation, Jesus entered into the Old Creation from outside, dwelling within it according to the same natural laws he had himself created (John 1:1-4, 14). The miracles he performed in his ministry pointed to his divinity (like the Transfiguration and the casting out of demons; Mark 9:3; 16:9), but his physical life itself confirmed his humanity. The Incarnation is therefore best understood as a Level 2 Involvement, or a Miracle of the Old Creation. As Lewis writes, “Once the great glove of Nature was taken off [God’s] hand” (Miracles 225). In Christ, God did something new by becoming man, but man as we were always meant to be.
But the gospel of Christ doesn’t end at the cross; it is the story of a conquest—when the gates of Hades itself were torn asunder. As Paul writes, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, [and] that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1Co 15:3-4). Later, he even writes that to deny the Resurrection is to deny the faith entirely (15:13-14). The Bible, of course, teaches us that others have been brought back from the grave: a widow’s son in Zarephath (1Ki 17:17-24), another widow’s son in Nain (Luke 7:11-17), Jesus’ friend Lazarus (John 11), as well as many others (Mat 11:5; 28:52-53). But with Jesus, something is different, he does not just come back as he was before his Passion; he has been changed.
As Oden points out, “In Jesus’ resurrection . . . the resurrected one lives on. The same body is transformed into a glorified body for which there is no future death.” Christ did not merely rejoin the land of the living as one of “a few resuscitated individuals who were themselves again bound to die;” he would go on living, forever changed (Oden 2.13.5). So while he is the same person with the same scarred body and bodily functions (Luke 24:36-43) he is now somehow unrecognizable to even his closest disciples (Luke 24:16, 31; John 20:14-16; 21:4-12). And though he remains in the flesh, he can now appear and vanish anywhere, despite physical barriers (John 20:5-7, 19; 26). All of which seem to foreshadow further changes after his ascension (20:17).
Nor was the Resurrection without witnesses who could be queried about what happened. The gospel accounts relate each encounter with increasing amazement: The guards are scared stiff as an earthquake announces that Jesus has been raised. Peter, John, and at least four women see the empty tomb. Jesus appears to the women as they cry, believing his body to be stolen. He then walks and eats with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. These all bear witness to the apostles but they don’t believe them, so Jesus appears to ten of the apostles later that night and shares their meal. And when Thomas (who had been absent before) refuses to believe their testimony, Jesus comes back again so Thomas can feel the wounds in his hands and feet. Later, he appears again to seven of the disciples as they fish, preparing breakfast for them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And finally, he appears one last time to promise the Spirit and issue the Great Commission.
As Paul summarizes, “he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1Co 15:5-8). And despite its best efforts, science and historiography have only strengthened the case for Christ’s miraculous return from the grave:
Modern medicine suggests that [John 19:34] is clear evidence that the pericardium, a membrane around the heart, was pierced, confirming that [Jesus] was in fact dead. The more we know about the processes of decay that set in after death, the less likely it appears that Jesus could have risen from the dead by any natural means. Rather, science strengthens the case that if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, the event must have occurred through a direct injection of supernatural power into the web of cause and effect that undergirds our physical world. (Louis 8)
The Resurrection of Christ therefore serves as the best example of a Level 3 Involvement or Miracle of the New Creation. As Lewis writes, “If the story is true [and it is], then a wholly new mode of being has arisen in the universe” (Miracles 241).
It is impossible to understand Christianity, much less accept it without the deity and humanity of Christ: Jesus was begotten from eternity and supernaturally conceived; his growth, birth, life and death were all perfectly natural; and his resurrection and ascension verified supernaturally what was declared from before his birth—that Jesus, the son of Mary was, and is, the Son of the Living God. Though some might wish it otherwise, then, Christianity cannot be divorced from its supernatural elements because miracles are an extension of God’s beneficent rule through Jesus Christ. In fact, as Lewis points out, Christianity “is precisely the story of a great Miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian” (Miracles 107-108). So while Christians at times disagree on whether a biblical act of God constitutes a Level 1, 2 or 3 Involvement, the most important thing to remember is that God is the One working and the One in control, therefore his people have nothing to fear.