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DESCRIPTION: Jack explores the question of whether any or all of the Bible-times miracles still exist on Earth today—and more importantly, why it is that so many Christians today don’t seem to really want the question to be settled. He looks into why many would want more of a mystical religion than a straight-forward, fact-based one.
[The following are the notes from which I recorded this episode, but surely, the actual episode will contain material that I extemporized during recording, and that is not reflected herein.]
I have friends who believe that the miracles of Bible times have ceased, and I have friends who believe they’re still going on as before. I also have friends who believe that miracles still happen, but that they don’t happen with the same degree of regularity with which happened in Bible times. And I also have friends who don’t seem to want to look into the matter—as if it were better to have it unsettled than settled. Some will consider this their laziness, and some will think it a matter of wisdom to leave the matter open to further information.
As if this weren’t enough disagreement on how to look at the matter, the waters are further muddied by the common construing of certain events as miracles, although they fall outside the normal definition of miracle. One common example is childbirth, which, amazing as it is, is not normally considered to be a special working of divine power outside the normal rules of the physical world. Indeed, childbirth is one of the most common events of our species. Another example of non-miraculous things being labeled as miracles is when someone gets over a particularly bad disease. Oftentimes, the natural will be overlooked—that the person’s body does have an immune system, after all, and that interventions were being made by way of medicine, nutritional supplementation, and other therapeutic treatments—and there’s a palpable motivation to describe the healing as miraculous, even though we know, or should know, that it doesn’t meat the standard definition of the term.
So, all together, this is the cultural backdrop against which any discussion of miracles is to be had. And there’s a great amount of inconsistency going on. For instance, even in cessationist camps who will flat-out tell you that prophecy and healing and tongues and such have ceased, it’s very common to hear someone pray before a sermon, “Father, we ask that you give Brother Thomas the words we need to hear this morning.” Well, that’s pretty much how biblical prophecy worked—that God himself somehow managed to have a human prophet say the words that God himself wanted said in a particular time and place. But when we pray for such today, many would be surprised to learn that they are praying for prophecy to happen, since they generally believe that the gift of prophecy has passed. And this kind of wishy-washy use of language is problematic.
Another example of inconsistency that bears mentioning also involves the definition of Bible terms; it’s that of speaking in tongues, which for many today means something different from what it seems to have meant in that First-Century period in the Mediterranean Sea region where the Bible events were taking place. In that time period, speaking in tongues seems to have been an exercise of a divinely-granted super-human power—to speak fluently in real-world language one has not yet learned himself. Today, however, it is often reported to be speaking in such fashion as is not recognizable as any real-world language at all, such that if it were to be understood by anybody, it would have to be by way of further miraculous (divine) empowerment. This definitionally-messy practice, then, muddies the waters a great deal, as many will tell you they believe in “speaking in tongues” who would think this follow-up question is nonsensical: “Oh? What language was he speaking in?” They’ve simply redefined terms, it seems, just as I have already discussed about how the definition of miracle itself has been altered by some.
It’s messy business.
So, why don’t we clean this up? Why don’t we appoint some commission to look into the matter? Why don’t we set out to study it anew and to settle some of these questions once and for all?
Well, slow down there, Jack! What makes you think that people want to have matters of religion cleared up? What makes you think that they want the culture of mystery and wonder settled any more than it is? After all, this is a society that seems to value highly certain ideals such as “the magic and wonder of Christmas” And this society would get a little upset if someone were to go about telling the actual truth about certain Christmas traditions too loudly, for they have a great deal invested in keeping the lore as it currently is, more or less. Sure, they might be open for an occasional whispered conversation about it all, out of the earshot of their children, but you’re not going to find much in the way of any consensus of concern over the state of our religious traditions when it comes to how we celebrate Christmas—not even on cold matters of fact, such as whether 25 December is the actual day of Jesus’ birth.
And why is that? In a religion dedicated to a man who called himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life, why wouldn’t there be much concern over verifying which date is his actual birthday? And why wouldn’t we really want to know whether Jesus is actually giving Brother Thomas the words he is speaking in the sermon this morning—or whether Jesus is the actual person behind Granny Bess getting over her pneumonia? Why would we rather assume such things than to actually know them? What is it about us that prefers to live this way?
Do you see the general attitude of “fuzzy math” that I’m getting at here? Do you see this disposition of not wanting matters settled, but of just letting the lore and tradition ride as-is? Well, I think that such a way of looking at things is novel to the spirit of that special generation that happened in the First Century. I think that when Jesus, and his apostles after him, were teaching on the Earth, they were investing a lot of energy and time into clearing things up and setting the record straight. And since then, many have worked hard actually to reverse the clarity—to blur the lines again—to change the religion back from one in which many mysteries were being revealed and explained into one that is filled with mystery—a religion that is more often mystical, as opposed to:
I think that modern Christianity has gotten so far down the road of mysticism that many of us would be shocked if we were to conduct a survey of statements from the New Testament writers regarding just how much they were in the business of revealing mysteries and setting forth things plainly. Here are a few one-liner excerpts from New Testament writings that I put forth as examples of what I’m talking about. You’ll need to study the contexts of these to be diligent, but for now, just ask yourself whether these sound like the writings of people who consider their own religion to be one that is heavy on the mysterious:
- ESV Romans 11:25 Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery,
- ESV Romans 16:25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—
- CEV 1 Corinthians 15:51 I will explain a mystery to you. Not every one of us will die, but we will all be changed.
- ESV Ephesians 1:7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ
- ESV Ephesians 3:3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly.
- ESV Ephesians 3:4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ
- ESV Ephesians 3:6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
- ESV Ephesians 3:9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things,
- ESV Ephesians 5:32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
- Colossians 1:26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.
- ESV Colossians 1:27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
- ESV Colossians 2:2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ,
- CEV Colossians 4:3 Be sure to pray that God will make a way for us to spread his message and the mystery about Christ, even though I am in jail for doing this.
- ESV Revelation 1:20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Now, if you’ve read the 14 excerpts above, you’ve just done a lot more work than most will ever do to take a fair stab at surveying that New Testament culture to see how they talked about various things. Based on what you have just studied here, which sounds like the fairer statement?:
A. The New Testament culture was deeply enshrouded in mystery.
B. The New Testament culture seems to have been considerably about the business of explaining at least some mysteries.
To me, the obviously-better answer is B. The First-Century apostles and prophets of Jesus were busy explaining mysteries that had long puzzled the world—things that even angels had longed to look into!
It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.NIV 1 Peter 1:12
Great labors were undertaken, and much blood was spilled in order to explain these mysteries to the world, and I don’t think that I’m exaggerating when I complain that there is a palpable pushback today, in so many of the churches not wanting things to be quite so clear. For whatever the reasons might be, there’s a lot of “Don’t ask that!” going on. And I’m going to submit that “Don’t ask that!” is not an intellectually-healthy paradigm for any church to have.
The late Michael Heiser was fairly famous for saying that he saw no need to “protect people from their Bibles”! He would talk about how, when it comes to Bible passages, “If it’s weird, it’s important.” That is, if it raises questions—if it’s surprising—if it’s confusing—if it seems to contradict something we think we already know or understand—if it seems to be new information to us—if it uses words other than what we would use to explain the thing in question—then it’s worth looking into.
But those are scary words for many, because looking into things generally means discovering things. And discovering things generally means shedding new light on the status quo of what we already think we know—and of what we believe and teach and do. And the next thing you know, we’re talking about making changes in the church! And change in the church—Ooh, boy! For many, that’s about as troubling a notion as they come! Many simply do not want a religion of finding out and knowing and studying and researching and making sound judgments on matters of fact and doctrine and such. No, that’s just not the kind of religion they have in mind as ideal, and they want something else—probably something less intellectually challenging and rigorous. And I do believe that if the First-Century apostles and prophets themselves were to visit our modern churches, preaching boldly about the very things they were so busy revealing in the First Century, they would be asked in many of today’s churches to sit down—or even to leave!
It seems to me that modern-day Christianity has taken on quite a lot of mysticism, where a vague-but-strong belief in fuzzy concepts that cannot be clearly defined has become the standard—and where asking questions about the particulars has become anathema to the tenuous “peace” that the churches try to maintain. But it’s a house of cards, isn’t it? Trying to keep the various “mysteries” stacked up just so, and unmolested by either questions or new information, or any insistence that things ought to be looked into?
Is this not a fair description of what’s going on in thousands upon thousands of congregations this very day?
As for me, I’m just not going to be satisfied with a mystery pageant when I’ve got a Bible that reveals a great amount of what so many churches try to keep mystical today. I’ve studied enough math and science not to be easily mystified by things in nature, but to expect that there’s a real and sensible explanation to be found somewhere. I’ve studied enough music to know that high achievement in artistry is not the result of some mystical process, but of the effective study of certain skills that almost anybody can attain with practice. I’ve had enough experience (in my younger years) doing table and stage “magic” that I’m not mystified by a great “magician”, even if I’m intrigued by the cleverness of the illusions he has managed to perform excellently. And I’ve invested enough hours in studying how Jesus and his prophets have revealed and explained mysteries that ran from “the beginning” (and in some cases, even before!) that I’m hardly impressed with lightweight preachers who have no idea what a long and rich discussion there is in the record of the scriptures about such matters—and who tackle every passage of scripture that intrigues them personally as if it were a new mystery, never before discovered or studied by any other human.
I think that’s what’s going on today—that sort of ignorant and clueless outlook on the scriptures and the questions they raise. And I think that the answer that most of the churches adopt for this situation goes something like this:
“Sit down, hush the questions, and just embrace the mystery, while we go on with the business of whatever we do here at First Mystical. Learn to still your soul and to be at peace; don’t let your heart be troubled with such things, for it’s beyond your reach, and not for you to know. Farther along, we’ll know all about it, but for now, just keep yourself busy with the authorized church activities, and God will be happy with you. And learn to embrace the mystery. It makes sense if you don’t think about it!”
What if it had been God’s plan to bring the miracles to an end at some point? Well, I can certainly see how some wouldn’t want it to end. And we do indeed have at least one slam-dunk prophecy that they were going to come to an end. Here it is:
1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
This passage does not directly describe every kind of miracle that was going on in the New Testament period in the First Century, but it sure does describe a lot of it. And people will debate all day long about the particulars—just as they’ll debate pretty much everything. And I’ve certainly brought some of this up before, such as in Episode 21: What All Has Changed in the Experience of Believers from the First Century Until Now?
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a cessationist. I believe that all the miracles have ceased, and that it simply wasn’t God’s plan that they should continue until now. And I’m either going to be right about that, or wrong about that—or possibly, right or wrong about parts of that. But it does raise a very interesting question about our motivations and desires and dispositions. And I cover that pretty thoroughly in Episode 35: Would You Approve of How Jesus Would Run His Kingdom?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately—and you can read a lot of material about this in my recent blog posts at jackpelham.com if you like—I’ve been thinking a lot about the human will—about what we are like deep down—about what we like and love and dislike and hate—about what we are willing to merely do, vs. what we are actually willing to fall in love with. And I’ll certainly be addressing this in future episodes here. But about this question of the miracles, I think that there are a lot of Christians who simply wouldn’t be interested in Jesus’ religion if it didn’t include the mystery and the mysticism and the miracles, or any chance of miracles. I think they love it as much as they love the idea of a Santa Claus, and they’ve got themselves so far out on a limb that they simply would not put up with a Christianity without miracles—if that’s the way Jesus wanted to run it.
So there’s a question for your consideration—whether you think I’m right about the miracles or not. And if you think I’m wrong—and you press me on it, it’s not going to be long until I ask you where I can see one of these miracles. And if you’re like everyone else who assures me they exist, you’re not going to be able to give me the name and address of some church where I can regularly see them in action. Most like to blame this on a supposed “lack of faith” here in the United States, and many will point me to Africa, where they assure me that I should surely see it if I were to visit. But this raises an amazingly good question about why it would seem impossible for American Christians to have a viable faith.
And I’m going to submit, of course, that it’s not legitimate faith if you believe that God is going to do something he has not promised to do! And I discuss this, in part, at least—or so say the show notes—under the heading “When Faith Was Rational” in Episode 19: Hebrews 11, Faith, and What In The World Is Going On In America–Part B.