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All about miracles

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 14:22-33

A friend recently sent me this story. An Amish boy and his mother were in a shopping mall. They were amazed by almost everything they saw, but especially by two shiny, silver walls that could move apart and then slide back together again.

The boy asked, “What is it, mother?” The mother, having never witnessed an elevator, responded, “Son, I have never seen anything like this in my life. I don’t know what it is.”

While the boy and his mother watched with amazement, an overweight elderly man in a wheelchair rolled up to the moving walls and pressed a button. The walls opened and the man rolled between them into a small room. The walls closed and the man disappeared. The boy and his mother watched for a while, then the walls opened again, and out stepped a 24-year-old body builder. The mother said quietly to her son, “Go get your father.”

Amazing things happen with some regularity. But what about true miracles? That which C. S. Lewis defines as “an interference with Nature by a supernatural power”? Help from above, engagement of the divine with the human, strength and power beyond ourselves?

Where do you most need God’s help today? If you could experience one miracle this morning, what would you want it to be? How can you believe that it’s really possible for God to do that miracle in your life?

This week we come to my favorite story in Matthew’s gospel. Let’s join the disciples, and learn how to experience God’s miraculous power for ourselves.

Witnessing the miraculous

It is late at night, around 3:00 in the morning. We’re on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus has sent us off in our boat while he climbs one of the nearby hills to pray. Suddenly a catastrophic storm attacks us. Matthew got it right: we are “buffeted” by the waves (v. 24), a Greek word which means to be “tortured.” And our boat is very small. Archaeologists recently discovered one like it, measuring 27 feet by 7 1/2 feet, with sides just over an inch thick. It’s no help in a storm. Water is stinging our faces and drenching our clothes. The wind is howling in our ears. We are fighting for our lives.

And Jesus sees our crisis. He walks on the water, three or four miles. It is a sailor’s superstition that just before we drown, we’ll see the ghosts of others who have died in our spot on the lake. So some of us think he’s a ghost, and we’re even more sure we’re doomed.

But then he cries out over the storm, “Take courage! It is I”–literally “I Am,” God’s own name for himself. “Don’t be afraid”–literally, “Stop being frightened.”

And Peter takes him at his word: “Lord, if it is you, tell me to come to you on the water” (v. 28). Jesus calls, and to our astonishment, Peter goes. He’s actually walking on the waves, until he sees them. Then, taking his eyes from the Lord in fear, he begins to drown.

So he cries the shortest prayer in the Bible, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus does. And we all worship him: “Truly, you are the Son of God” (v. 33).

It’s an amazing story. But does it describe the way God works today? Do you believe that Jesus still walks on water? Are you willing to get out of your boat of security and safety, and trust his miraculous power with your life?

Many are not. I talked recently with a guest in our services who was honest enough to admit that he couldn’t reconcile his commitment to science with the miracles Christians claim. He was speaking for thousands of people who live all around us but didn’t join us for worship. To them, our belief in a miracle-working God is myth and superstition, a worldview they’ve outgrown and categorize with fairy tales and Greek mythology. What can we say to them?

And what about many of us who are here for worship?

You’d vote for miracles. You pray for miracles–for people to be healed and helped, souls to be saved and lives changed. But do you really believe that God intervenes in supernatural ways today? I remember praying for a woman in my first pastorate who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given only months to live. She came back the next week to report that the cancer was gone. And I will confess that my first, instinctive reaction was: I’m so glad the doctors were wrong.

Isn’t there a shadow of doubt in your minds? I know a man whose heart stopped beating during an operation; then, after the doctors had given up, it started again and the man is now fine. But are we sure it was a miracle? A Romanian pastor I know tells of a girl who had been dead four days when she was raised to life in response to the church’s prayers. But do we really believe it’s true?

Subconsciously, do we really expect God to do miracles when we pray for them? Do you assume that God will grant you the miracle you need or something better? Or if something unexplainable does happen, are you shocked or at least surprised?

The Bible says that Jesus could not do many miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:58). How can we be sure our faith isn’t limiting God’s power, that our anti-supernatural, materialistic culture isn’t affecting our souls?

Let’s spend a moment working on the intellectual issues before us. I’d like to offer you four reasons to believe in miracles, then show you how to put your faith into action today.

Arguing for the miraculous

Reason one: the contemporary, scientific bias against the supernatural: science and faith are separate methods of inquiry, neither of which is qualified to judge the other.

Our culture tells us that the scientific worldview makes miracles impossible. It’s either science or belief in the miraculous, either the natural or the supernatural. And we must choose. But that’s not so.

Here’s the logic of that position. The scientific method begins with a theory which is tested empirically. If the data supports the theory, the experiment is repeated. Only if repeatable evidence supports the theory, is it considered valid. And a miracle is by definition unrepeatable. My friend who was healed of pancreatic cancer didn’t get it again, and experiencing healing again, to verify the data. If you cannot walk on water, Peter did not walk on water. If you have not seen the dead raised, Lazarus was not raised. Science makes the miraculous impossible.

How do we respond? With the fact that proper science uses the right method for the subject under study. Researchers don’t use test tubes for quantum physics. They don’t use telescopes for microbiology. Science itself, the study of the natural world, cannot by definition investigate the “supernatural,” any more than you can measure a marriage by a microscope or tell me how much love weighs.

The fact that the scientific method cannot verify the supernatural is the fault of neither. You don’t use a cookbook to repair a car or play tennis with a football. You don’t use the “natural” to verify or falsify the “supernatural.” It’s simply the wrong tool for the job.

Reason two: the argument that miracles are outdated myths, with the fact that miracles are essential to the Christian faith, not extraneous superstitions.

It’s common today to hear that miracles are leftover first-century myths which must be removed from the faith before thinking people will accept it. So Peter’s walking on water is simply the principle that God will help us with the storms of life.

How do we respond? With the fact that miracles are essential to the Christian faith, not mythology which can be removed from its message.

The very heart of the gospel is a miracle: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised, either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15:16-19).

Miracles are not outdated–they are the essence and foundation of our faith. If Jesus cannot walk on water, the Bible is wrong and our God is not real. We cannot abandon miracles without abandoning the very God we have come to worship today.

Reason three: those who have never experienced miracles are by definition unqualified to pass judgment on their existence or nature.

It is impossible for a blind person to experience “red.” We can explain color spectra all we like, but the person may continue to reject the existence of color.

Growing up in Houston, my experience would require me to reject completely the possibility of an ice storm. A spiritual skeptic is less qualified to discuss the miraculous than one who has experienced personally the supernatural God.

Reason four: the origins of the Christian faith demonstrate its miraculous nature. Look at the beginnings of this spiritual movement. Is it more or less probable that something miraculous sparked it? Is it likely that men who were too afraid of the authorities to stand at Jesus’ cross would soon die as martyrs rather than abandon their belief in his resurrection?

That a scattered, frightened group of fugitives would lead a movement which would replace the Roman Empire as the dominant force in the Western hemisphere? That a faith held by just a few hundred would today be cherished by a third of the world’s population? Is it more probable that this movement is founded on the lie that Jesus rose from the dead, or on the truth of his resurrection and divinity?

Conclusion

So, to experience the miraculous power of Jesus today, wherever you most need to walk on the storms of your life, first believe in that power. Believe that he can walk on the waves you are facing and calm the storm you are fighting. Believe that the God who created the universe can do whatever he wants with it. Believe Hebrews 13:8, that Jesus Christ is still the same yesterday, today, and forever. If he could ever walk on the waves, he can walk on yours.

Next, surrender to his will, whatever it may be. Get out of your boat. Put your security in his hands. Trust your future, your plans, your problems to him. Pray first, not last. He’d rather guide you than fix you. He’d rather drive your car than repair it. When he says, “Come,” then come. When the waves are too high, call for help. Call him “Lord,” your Master and King. Ask him to “save,” to rescue and help. Ask him to save “me,” personally and urgently. And keep asking until his perfect will is done.

Last, seek the temporal for the eternal, the spiritual within the material.

Jesus performed 35 recorded miracles: nine times he changed nature; six times he exorcised demons; three times he raised the dead; and 17 times he healed the sick.

Nearly always, he performed a physical miracle for a larger spiritual purpose. He raised Lazarus so that more people would believe in him, and they did. He healed the man born blind (John 9) so the man would trust in his saving love, and he did. Here he saved Peter and the disciples so they would worship him.

I’ve learned to pray for the sick to be healed, so that God will be glorified and more people will trust more fully in him. To pray for the Lord to intervene so that we will exalt him. To ask him to provide so that we will trust and serve him. Every one of the men saved from this storm died eventually. But the spiritual purpose of this physical miracle endures still today.

And know that you have already experienced the greatest miracle of all. Augustine said it well: “I never have any difficulty believing in miracles, since I experienced the miracle of a change in my own heart.” If Jesus is your Lord, you have been saved from hell for heaven, your old person changed for the new, your life transformed by his grace. That’s an eternal miracle, one which will endure long after a healed body or raised corpse is returned to dust. If he has saved your soul, he can save you in a storm.

But only if you’ll get out of the boat. The next step is yours.