Question: Where are the old-fashioned miracles, like the Red Sea splitting, manna in the wilderness, Elijah’s chariot of fire or a that Donkey talks? I’ve heard that the more developed a civilization becomes, the more miracles decline, and that they are much more prevalent in primitive areas. Don’t you think that if the Red Sea parted today that the skeptics would be silenced? What if fire came down and consumed a very wet sacrifice as it did for Elijah? Would people be convinced about God then? I do not understand God! Why doesn’t he do something big? Why are our altars still wet?
Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for such a probing question. Before I begin, let me add a miracle to your list: Creation! God’s creation of the universe was the single most empirical event in history…yet we don’t find ourselves asking, why doesn’t God create the universe anymore? God created the universe at the only moment when it would have made sense—at the very beginning of time and space, and with a more careful analysis, we shall see why some of the other in-your-face miracles should not be repeated, and perhaps even why those showy miracles have not occurred for thousands of years.
The parting of the Red Sea is a good example of a miracle that was appropriate in time, but one that would not be appropriate today. Why not today? Because the Jew’s escape from Egypt prefigures our redemption from the world, and it is important to maintain, even in the foreshadowing, that Jesus died only once for our sins. (Hebrews 10:10; cf. Exodus 20:10-12, Moses second trip to Horeb).
Historically, only that flight from Egypt could have provided the proper backdrop for that miracle. Understand that this was the end of the Passover drama, and that the Israelites were caught in a death trap between the army and the shore. If the Red Sea had not parted, then God’s redemption would have failed. But the sea did part! And not only did the Israelites escape with their eldest sons alive, but God defeated their oppressors. That is a pretty complete picture of redemption. Now, I agree that it would be quite a show if God were to part the Red Sea again next week, but without that precise typological moment in time, he’d just be David Copperfield on steroids. Miracles do not have meaning in themselves as much as they point to a greater truth, and the introduction of these greater truths (as biblical types) occurred progressively and at God-appointed times.
Since God meted out his revelation over time, it is by time constrained. It unfolds in an order, and we who live very near the end of this age (Jesus may return any second now) enjoy the collected wisdom of the miracles rather than their sound and fury. Fortunately, God has arranged that we collect that wisdom in a book we call the Bible, and any earnest seeker may not only enjoy the historical account of his miracles, but (and unlike the persons who lived them) they can see how their greater truths have been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. So, it is a little insulting for us to ask God step it back a bit. But you might protest that you are talking about the effect of miracles on unbelievers—and not so much upon us. Wouldn’t a little sound and fury wake them up to God? History tells us, no. You mentioned the manna. Let us examine that.
“…Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food [the manna].” (Numbers 21:5, ESV)
The manna from heaven was not only a quintessential miracle, it was also a type of Christ. But even in the heyday of miracles, the wilderness wanderings, how did God’s people respond to this one? They loathed it! And God sent fiery serpents among them as punishment. As you can see, neither the largeness of nor the proximity to the miracle changes the heart. This is the reason that I believe that one more miracle would not improve Gods’ status among today’s people. If it did not change the heart of a people who were close enough to tug on his shirtsleeves, what affect would it have on today’s skeptics? Therefore, unless you are assuming that God has somehow blown this particular ministry, you should rest in the fact that the historical miracles stand as testimony enough for today’s people.
Let us look at a more recent history. Jesus worked countless miracles in his brief ministry, and he performed these miracles so people would see that God the Father had sent him. How did that work out?
“But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.”
(John 5:36, ESV).
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30–31, ESV).
“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23, ESV)
Did the world flock to Christ when he performed miracles in their midst? Many individuals did (and some still do), but not the world as a whole, and certainly not the culture. In fact, the embedded religionists sought to kill him—and this they did in spite of their knowledge that he was sent from God. Remember Nicodemus’s opening remark to Jesus? “…we know [we=the Pharisees and rulers] that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2, ESV). Neither the miracles themselves nor the knowledge of miracles changed the hearts that would not be changed.
Let me ask again. If the people who walked and talked with Jesus (and some who witnessed his miracles first hand, like Judas) did not respond to him, how much less so would they respond today, 2000 years later? Even if God did re-part the Red Sea today as a display of his power, there are several top illusionists who could make it appear as if they performed the same miracle…and be assured that they’d get better press! No friend, we are beyond the day of big showy miracles. Miracles encourage those who belong to God, but they do not force every knee to bow.
So, as much as I’d like to be able to call down fire from the sky, I know in my heart that although a few people would respond for the right reason, many would respond for the wrong reason, and the majority of people would just go on about their lives. The Apostle Paul knew this very well. In fact, he said not only do people-of-the-world miss the whole point of the biggest miracle, creation, they take the empirical evidence, the things plainly seen, and fabricate abominable lies out of God’s stuff. And if that is where their heads are, then having a few more asses talk will not advance God’s Kingdom appreciably, nor has it yet.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” (Romans 1:18–23, ESV)
Concerning miracles in more primitive cultures, the late pastor and Bible teacher Adrian Rogers told about one of his experiences as a young Christian in college. He had determined to make a chair move by the power of his faith, so he placed one in the middle of the room and concentrated all his faith upon it. It did not move, of course, but his retrospective conclusion was very telling. Rogers was thankful that the devil did not move that chair! Yes, the devil could have, but why might he have? With that one simple movement, the devil could have sent young Adrian off with wrong ideas about faith and wrong ideas about miracles, but God (in my opinion) stayed the demon’s hand. This story illustrates my response to your comment that the more overt physical miracles occur in and among people that are more primitive. I have heard this anecdote before, although I have never seen any hard data. But either way, God is not the only one in the “miracle” business. With all this in view, I believe that reported miracles must be either lies, false interpretations of natural phenomena, demonic activity or true miracles from God. Therefore, I hold any reports of miracles as suspect, and I’ll have to rely on the Holy Spirit to sort them out for me if I am ever in their presence.
“The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14, ESV)
In my opinion, contemporary and showy miracles would chafe against the Gospel, since their primary purposes have already been satisfied. Such miracles would be cantilevered out in time—a godly-looking edifice connecting the dubious to the nothing. By way of contrast, the Old Testament miracles helped to galvanize a people, the Jews. These people became the prophets, they carried the oracles (the word) of God, and they were witnesses to the symbols (the types) that would be fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Later, the New Testament miracles were performed to give godly credibility to Jesus and his disciples, to launch the Kingdom of God and to secure the embryonic Church. Since Jesus has already fulfilled most of the OT types, and since the Church has proven its vital link to the written word of God, the time of those miracles has passed; God had a new way of doing business. After Jesus’ ascension, believers were to spread the Gospel through the agency of preaching, teaching, baptizing and making disciples—and these are mundane activities when compared to miracles—yet they are still God’s methods for our current age. Yes, the early church workers continued to perform miracles for a season, but the intensity was unique to their time, and it was unique to a brand new work.
I am not prepared to say categorically that God will not allow an old-fashioned miracle today. However, if he did perform one, he’d require an old-fashioned reason: to connect a person or a teaching with the glory of God. But today’s Christians are, primarily, people of the Book—and not people of the fire, clouds or chariots. Then why are our altars still wet? Because we are looking up into the heavens when we should be looking down upon the pages. Since we live in a time of God’s completed revelation, a time when the big showy miracles are no longer needed, do not despair in their absence. They would not be as effective as you suppose.