The Sum of the Parts: Not only did Jesus DO miracles, he WAS the miracle.
It has been said that the test of a person’s greatness is their use or abuse of power. On this score how did Jesus fair, we may ask?
The four gospels’ collective portrait of Jesus is not just that he was a doer of miracles, but that he was himself a miracle. In all of world history, never has there been any other historical figure to whom so many miracles have been attributed, from birth to death—nay, beyond death. Never another historical figure to whom so much other-worldly power has been ascribed—power over disease and disability, power over nature, power over demonic forces, power over discourse, and power over death itself. In conjunction, never has there been an historical figure to whom so much humanitarian goodness has been attributed. Not that there haven’t been myriad other humanitarians before and after Jesus, but none that have also had such supernatural power ascribed to them. With that amount of power Jesus could have been a self-serving sorcerer, or power-hungry despot, or glory-seeking warrior-conqueror, or irresistible womanizer (or all of the above), as so many other powerful men of history have been. But he was none of those. Indeed, the temptation accounts found in Matthew and Luke chapter 4 agree that he he was offered all the kingdoms of the world but he rejected it. Did Jesus even need such an offer from the devil to acquire that kind of dominion? No. According to his chroniclers he was already the sole-possessor of limitless power and dominion plus humility and self-denial combined. With a word of command he could have forced the masses to serve him. And by calling down legions of angels he could have vanquished all his enemies (Matt. 26:53), but instead he laid down his life and became its loving savior. That’s why the Jesus we encounter in the canonical gospels is the supreme exemplar to humanity, the most astounding miracle personified the world has ever known. Although he lived a mere 33 years, his legacy has been faithfully recorded by the authors of the four gospels and other New Testament documents. None before them had invented a historical figure equal to Jesus, nor any since then. And why not? Because apparently such a real figure cannot be invented, only captured by historiography. This is the conclusion of the Stonehouse approach and my own.
A brief word on the incarnation—the notion that Jesus was God who entered humanity as a man. Only Matthew and Luke give accounts of his miraculous virgin birth. In my view they each provide unique details with essential harmony. John in his prologue (1:1-14) captures the incarnation of Jesus in poetical language but not his birth, while Mark omits any narratives before the start of his ministry. The essential harmony of the three gospels (Matthew, Luke and John) put forth that Jesus’s arrival in the world was divinely orchestrated for a divine purpose in accordance with prophecies. The details of his arrival can be and have been thoroughly scrutinized, but the thrust of the four gospels collectively puts forth Jesus as God’s instrument of world salvation. He himself was the miracle that God performed to restore people to his eternal love.
Next let’s focus on Jesus’s practice and the nature of his miracles. According to all the gospel writers his regular practice was one of probably daily miracles—hundreds if not thousands of them. They all agree that with usually a mere touch or just a word he healed people of whatever ailments afflicted them. These healings were so numerous that we do not even have descriptions of all of them, such as this reference in Luke 4:40:
“Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them.”
This is corroborated by Mark in chapter 1:32-34 and by Matthew in chapter 4:23-24. Clearly, Jesus had power over physical maladies. How rich he could have become! But Jesus was not about earthly profit. He was the ultimate humanitarian healer. Directly connected with the accounts of these mass healings are his powers of exorcism. Yes, the chroniclers all agree that Jesus had power over demons and he delivered all the possessed who came to him. And in two cases, at least—the account of the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5, Matt. 8 and Luke 8)—it would seem that Jesus sought out people who needed deliverance, or whose kin needed it (in the case of the Canaanite woman in Mark 7 and Matt. 15). Nowhere in the history of Israel do we read of a man with such power over demons, much less the rest of the world. With these dual powers of healing and exorcism, it’s no wonder that he could hardly contain his reputation from reaching “rock star” proportions. But by all indications Jesus was not trying to be a rock star; he was not in it for the fame. He was in it for the sake of love and compassion, helping people who desperately needed help for no gain at all. Of course, he well knew that he was arousing envy and jealousy, and that his selfless humanitarianism would ultimately lead him to his death. But he was undaunted. He was driven by love and by his messianic mission of Isaiah 61 that he declared publicly in the hearing of the whole synagogue (Luke chapter 4).
In specific, Jesus made the blind see and the lame walk, kinds of miracles that none of the miracle-working prophets before him ever did. Take for example his healing of the blind beggar/s recorded in Mark 10, Matt. 20 and Luke 18. John does not record this particular account but captures a similar one in chapter 9. All the gospelers agree that restoring people’s sight was easy for him (even if there were a few unusual cases such as John 9 and one in Mark 8:22-25). He also healed people of dreadful diseases such as flesh-rotting leprosy, hemorrhaging and symptoms like epilepsy which would ostracize otherwise decent people from participation in community and for which there was no cure. The synoptic writers all report the same healing of a man “full of leprosy” in Matthew 8:2, Mark 1:40, and Luke 5:12, but only Mark says Jesus was moved with pity. Shall we assume that he redacted that in to make Jesus look better, or was pity actually consistent with his character? It was, of course, one of his most defining qualities. John says nothing about Jesus’s healings of leprosy. But shall we suppose that John omitted them because it might bring reproach to his high Christology? I think not. If John were concerned about that he would not have reported Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4.
Truly, Jesus’s most prominent quality was selfless compassion powered by miracles, or perhaps the other way around. And the whole world remembers him for it. From the start of his ministry he was devoted to helping people and teaching them about the kingdom of God. Since he personified that kingdom then it was clearly one of unselfish power that was never turned against people. It reminds me of the feeding of the thousands (5) that all of the gospels contain (Matt. 14 and 15, Mark 6 and 8, Luke 9, John 6). Although there are some variants in the micro-details, so what. The macro-details are stamped with agreement: Twice Jesus had huge crowds drinking in his teaching in the countryside because they loved his wisdom, and twice he replicated food for them so they would not grow faint. But he never, ever did that for himself and his disciples. That’s why he said “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 and Matt. 20:28)
Then there’s the account in Luke 9 where Jesus was following his disciples on a speaking tour through Samaria (consistent with John 4 but these Samaritans rejected him). Apparently, James and John were so offended that they wanted to rain down fire from heaven on them, fully believing that Jesus could do that. Not a few other other world leaders if they had Jesus’s kind of power might have consented. But for Jesus it was unacceptable, and he turned and rebuked them.
(Some manuscripts add, “…for the son of man came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Now, that statement was either added or removed from the original autograph, and we know that by virtue of textual criticism. But either way it is entirely consistent with Jesus and demonstrated by him in numerous ways. Its omission from newer translations such as the ESV in no way detracts from the clear portrait of Jesus—the selfless, non-violent miracle-man.)
The crucifixion was the pre-climax of the whole Jesus story, covered by all four of the gospel writers. (This is not really my subject but nobody else has it, and I mean only to touch on it). Was it a miracle? Well, yes and no. In each his own way they all say that Jesus knew it was coming because he verbally said so (plus his resurrection). It was the plan all along. This was exactly why he came, the narratives convey, and all the activities of his last three years ramped up to it. The collective macro-details of all four accounts establish its essential harmony: First there was a last supper, then the arrest, and then the trial. (With respect to the trial, there are many micro-details from the writers that contribute to the account, and some seem discrepant. But they clearly agree that there was a trial, and Jesus was condemned to death, that much is certain. They also agree that he had committed no crimes, yet he accepted it. He embraced it. His plea was effectively “no contest”. Then there was a fascinating interrogation by Pontius Pilate during which he found him innocent but reluctantly caved under the pressure from the Jewish power-brokers. There was also a flogging, followed by ignoble treatment and the crucifixion itself. Again, there are some variants between the four accounts, and micro-details that might appear discrepant. But the macro-details resound in macro-harmony, that Jesus was crucified by the Romans alongside two other victims. He spoke to one of them, and said some other important things from the cross. There were many people there to witness it including his mother and John. He died on that cross, was removed by Joseph of Arimathea by special permission, and placed in his tomb. (Matt. 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).
Was any of this a miracle? Well, no, but there was still a miracle. The fact that Jesus knew it was coming and was propelled forward to his demise out of utter selflessness, to give his life a ransom for many—that was the miracle. Who would do that? Who would let himself be humiliated and crucified when he knew he was innocent and had the power to call angels and his own servants to deliver him (John 18:36). No one. Jesus was a man of power with an utterly selfless resolve to surrender it for the greater good.
And what of the resurrection? Again, this is not my subject, but it does qualify. Yes, it was the miracle of miracles, the one that proved Jesus was invincible in the last analysis. Here again, all four gospels record this event, with Mark’s providing the least amount of detail (even with vs, 9-20 which is disputed because it is not found in some of the earliest manuscripts). They all agree that Jesus rose from the dead as he predicted and the women were the first to discover it. Then, even if we exclude Mark 16:9-20, the others all agree that he appeared to his disciples on multiple occasions. There are micro-details that some find perplexing, but I do not. There are reasonable explanations for all of them. But it’s the macro-details that capture my attention. With such an “underdog victory” in-hand over his Jewish and Roman enemies, and over death itself, he still did not re-emerge in revenge and retribution over them. With that kind of power he could certainly have claimed the throne of Israel and of Rome itself. But that is not why he came, or died, or rose from the grave. He did all that to secure eternal salvation for all those who would believe in history, the greatest miracle-life of all time.
2000 years later people still wrestle with his resurrection. Some doubt it, some flatly reject it, and some believe it. Of the latter group, some believe it with “blind faith” as it were, and some believe it in the full light of history. Simply put, what could have convinced the dejected disciples to launch the Christian movement besides the actual, historical resurrection of this miracle-man?