BOOK 4: MIRACLES

Invading the Realm of Demons, Disease, and Death:

The Miracles of Jesus-God with Us

 

 

Joel Nickel in my fourth book perceives Jesus as a well-spring of life.

In this study of the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels I begin with a survey of the sciences. I do that because in our present cultural context materialism is the dominant approach to and understanding of our world, of history, and of our very selves. If the materialist’s understanding is true then there are no such such thing as miracles because every event must occur as the result of previous material events. Contemporary scholarship mostly approaches the miracle stories from a materialist point of view. It questions their historicity because they violate, what has now become the entrenched modus operandi in our culture and society, the idea that the universe is a closed nexus of cause and effect. They are understood then as products of the community and not historical reports although, acording to this line of scholarship, they may be based only on some vague recollection of Jesus’ activity that somehow had healing effects. The focus is on their function within the Christian community where they were nurtured. Locating the stories in this way leads to the determination of their form, what kind of stories they are, so that they can be compared to other stories in the contemporary environment. Connected to this process is a second approach which seeks to determine their social and religio-historical and existential function.

Modern science, however, as one scientist has put it, in climbing the mountain of knowledge has reached its peak and found a theologian at the top. The sciences, in other words, have led to the implication that our universe has a creator and that the universe and the human genome have been designed. I also cite studies that reveal the reality of the world of the spirit and the occurrence of events that can only be understood as miraculous. 

With that as the prolegomenon to the miracles I turn my attention to the miracles themselves. I divide them into four categories: exorcisms, healings, raisings from the dead, and theophanies. The latter category  refers to divine manifestations. In my investigation of the miracles attributed to Jesus I find the reports in the gospels to be authentic and historical. The fact that they appear across many unrelated sources, their variation in style and tone, their sober tone with a total lack of any kind of sensationalism, and their differences from the actions of other contemporary, so-called miracle workers, contribute to that judgment and tell against the notion, based on materialistic suppositions, that they are inventions of the early Christian community.

I set this activity of Jesus, as I did with his parables and his sayings in the pronouncements stories, in the context of his contemporary environment. To be possessed of a demon meant to be ostracized by the community in Jesus’ day because it rendered a person ritually unclean. So Jesus’ exorcisms meant not only the healing of an individual but healing of the body politic and the removal of divisions within Israel. Jesus’s exorcisms are not only healing miracles but are part of the struggle between the realm of Satan and God’s kingdom. Satan battles to take the word of God out of the heart of the people. So Jesus’ exorcisms are not merely a matter of casting out the individual demon. They are confrontations between Jesus and the kingdom of God and the whole dominion of Satan (“the ruler of this world” John 12:31).

Jesus’ invasion of Satan’s realm shifted the foundation of Judaism from Torah to kingdom. The kingdom, ala Jeremiah, meant “seeking the welfare” of the political regime under which God had placed them. So casting out demons was a form of ridding the nation of its penchant of violent revolution, its negative disposition toward Rome all of which would only lead to Israel’s destruction. The nation felt it was in exile even while living in their own land because of the Roman occupation. The kingdom, Jesus proclaimed would set things right in God’s own time and in his own way.

But God’s kingdom was already among them revealing God’s plan promising he would lead the people out of their exile as he had done in the past (Luke 11:20). The people had only to accept the kingdom which Jesus proleptically made present and practice seeking the welfare of Rome in spite of the procurators frequent insufferable outrages perpetrated against the people. So Jesus was in line with the prophets of old calling htem to “rend your hearts and not your garments,” after all, the prophet continued, their God was “gracious and merciful abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). This moral demand of the kingdom, required great discipline and, above all, a change of heart! The pervasive presence of anger and hostility toward the Roman overlord opened the way for demons and their work. The desire to “exorcise” Rome from the Holy Land suppressed faith in God to act in his own time and way. So Jesus’ ministry of exorcism was part of his work to rescue and spare the nation of the sure destruction which would come to pass if it did not accept his invitation to enter the kingdom.

In his healings Jesus emphasizes the faith of the individual and it is that faith that makes them well. In this way he deemphasized his reputation as a miracle worker and emphasized  the independence of the individual refusing to make of himself some kind of guru seeking a following that was dependent on him. He preserved human autonomy. When he healed he brought also the forgiveness of sins. so he was a kind of mobile temple. So sacrifices were not required only the word of Jesus. His healing also restored people to society for the ill person was marginalized as ritually unclean. It was thought that only uncleanness could be transmitted from person to person. In his healings Jesus brings about ritual purity. And he is cognizant and respectful of society in calling on the healed person to receive official declaration of having been cleansed by going to the priests in Jerusalem to be officially declared clean and to be re-integrated into society.

The authenticity of the stories of the raising of the dead by Jesus are even more suspect by the scientistic world view of our present age because it is reasoned that there is no known way to bring back a person from the dead. However, my examination of the three incidents reported by the gospels demonstrates their historicity. His raisings proclaim God as the God of the living and that death was, along with Satanic forces, an evil realm that had to be conquered. The raisings clearly declare that God was active in and through Jesus. As the man born blind and whose sight was restored by Jesus declared, “Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (John 9:32).

My interpretation of the miracles usually called “nature miracles,” is to describe them more aptly as “theophanies.” So when Jesus, for example,  calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee he’s embodying a theophany, that is, manifesting the divine because God is depicted as calming the sea (e.g., Ps 106:9). So Jesus is the agent of a theophany pointing to God and he is revealed as his “beloved son” through whom God is active in establishing his kingdom. Jesus as agent of a theophany, however, is only revealed to his disciples, not the nation. So these theophanies are closely aligned with those in the Old Testament. For example, Gideon who is called by God to rescue the nation from the Midianites is the sole recipient of the manifestation of God (Judges 6:11-26). Jesus is called to rescue the nation from itself and the disaster which threatens if it does not turn from its present path of rebellion against Rome and lack of trust and reliance on God to save his people from their internal exile.

I want to mention particularly here the miracle of the coin in a fish’s mouth (Matt 17:24–7) because of its peculiarity and qualitative difference from all the miracles attributed to Jesus. It should be called a teaching miracle: Jesus asserts the essential freedom of the children of the kingdom. So it enacts the ethics of the kingdom. This freedom enables those who possess the kingdom to live as capable of making the concerns and respecting the conscience of one’s fellow member of the kingdom as primary rather than one’s own. Because the sons of the kingdom are free they can freely acquiesce to one another and be more concerned with the brother than with one’s own desires (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). This is true love and true freedom. 

In these theophanic miracles God is disclosing his presence in his son Jesus with whom he was “well pleased” (Mark 1:11). This disclosure by God demonstrates and puts his stamp of approval on Jesus. Jesus is at the turning point of holy history and of God’s dealing with his people and the world. These disclosures reach their apex in the pre-resurrection event of the transfiguration and in the post-resurrection event of Jesus walking on the water. The transfiguration witnesses to the glory of the coming kingdom and the walking on the water God’s triumph over the forces of chaos which embody sin and death by the sacrifice of his “beloved son.”

Here I remind the reader again that the miracles, as all of Jesus’ words and activities, have to be set within the context of first century Jewish society. The society was saturated and fragmented with competition, the struggle for survival, focus on ridding themselves of Roman hegemony, distinguishing themselves from Gentiles and their paganism, and both internal and external economic exploitation. The society was turned inward in its struggle against Rome, in its competitiveness, in its struggle for existence, in its preservation of its faith and life, and its concern to live as the people of God and to comply with its revealed law, the Torah. Not that there was not judtification for thier animosity against Rome (see the history in my first book What was the World of Jesus). It seems that what got lost was its vision to be the “light of the nations.” Turmoil may be too mild of a word to characterize first century Israel. Again, I have described all of this in great detail in my first book What was the World of Jesus?