Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Miracles Are Not Made for Believing

There is a theme concerning miracles throughout the Bible that runs contrary to our desire to see them. We want to see miracles, largely, because we want to experience God directly (as I discussed in an earlier post). We want to see either in order to believe or in order to revitalize our faith (i.e., to keep believing). We often view God in the Bible as the ice cream man who hands out miracles left and right to everyone, and wonder why He is doing that now. "Perhaps," we think, "He never gave miracles because the Bible isn't true." This is one of those instances where our false beliefs can easily take us to rejection of the faith. In fact, I think the number one reason people reject the faith is due to their false beliefs and expectations about God and what He should be doing in their lives. If people don't want extraordinary miracles, like a parting of the Red Sea, they do want smaller miracles, like the healing of their sick children, the increase of their cash flow, etc. They don't get these miracles and end up disbelieving a little more than they did before. Whether that disbelief leads to an ultimate rejection isn't the main problem with most Christians. It is the creation of an impotent faith that is. There's no fuel for the fire anymore, since it was a fire fueled on experience, i.e., a fire fueled on sight, rather than faith to begin with.

In contrast to our false theology, miracles in the Bible are rare. We think that they are all over the place because the Bible gives us the divine perspective that He is always moving through the events that take place. But if we were to ignore all the texts from this perspective, we are left with relatively few times that God pours out miracles upon His people. Of course, I'm not saying that miracles are not given throughout the Bible here and there, but that they are not God's normal modus operandi.

In Scripture, the only times we see a massive pouring out of miracles are those times that God is giving revelation to His people. In other words, the miracles are there to verify that God is speaking through an individual rather than some lunatic that thinks God is speaking to him. There is an outpouring of miracles in the giving of the Law, through Elijah and Elisha, who represent all of the prophets in the Bible, in the revelation given by the Lord Jesus Himself, and through the apostles (i.e., the major prophets of the New Testament).

In other words, miracles are given in the establishing of God's Word. They are there to support the claim that God has spoken, so that those who already believe may know where to look. They are not there to get people to believe. If that were the case, then God should have poured out miracles throughout the entire duration of human existence, but Scripture tells us that while seeing we may still not see because we need faith to see.

This is what I call the Sinai Theology of the Bible. The reason why I call it this is due to what occurred on Sinai. From that holy mountain, God speaks directly to the people (in fact, I think this was the only time in the Old Testament where God actually did this). In doing so, He gives to them the Law. This is the law that reveals some of His character. It reveals His justice and love for His people. If the people desire to know Him and follow Him (i.e., which is what the biblical relationship of faith is), they must know what God has spoken and seek to observe it.

A tabernacle/mobile temple is built in which the law will be placed. Temples are places where idols are usually housed. These idols represent the deity. If one is to worship a god, he or she must have an idol. In other words, there must be mediation, since the ancients believed that the divine could not be known directly, but could be experienced through sight of the idol. Instead of an idol, however, the law is placed in a chest (often described as God's seat) that is placed in that position. but in between the narrative describing the instructions to build the tabernacle and the description of the Israelites building it comes a curious narrative of the Israelites worshiping through a golden calf. That golden calf is not a different god, but is meant to represent YHWH, as Aaron says about the calf, "Tomorrow will be a feast to YHWH!" In other words, the Israelites want to worship God through the same old means that the pagans do, i.e., through a physical image. After all, a physical image is more tangible. They can experience it. They were becoming more afraid without seeing one (hence, their irrational push to make one).

But God wants them to believe through what He has spoken, not through experiencing Him through sight. Hence, He states to them in Deuteronomy:

"[Remember] the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, `Assemble the people to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.' "You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the [very] heart of the heavens: darkness, cloud and thick gloom."Then the Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but you saw no form--only a voice. "So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, [that is], the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. "The Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might perform them in the land where you are going over to possess it.  "So watch yourselves carefully, since you did not see any form on the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb from the midst of the fire, so that you do not act corruptly and make a graven image for yourselves in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water below the earth. "And [beware] not to lift up your eyes to heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, and be drawn away and worship them and serve them, those which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. (4:11-19)

Notice that the Hebrew simply says that "you saw no form, only a voice." This is a figure of speech that is meant to call attention to what is said. It should normally say, "you saw no form, you only heard a voice," but instead says, "you saw no form, [you saw] only a voice." How does one see a voice? But the point is that God must be experienced through the mediation of His Word. He must be know through what is revealed. He cannot be known through sight. In other words, we cannot experience Him through what we see. A true relationship with God, then, must be gained through faith in what is said, not faith in what we see. The phrase, "so watch yourselves carefully" does not capture the Hebrew in English well. The Hebrew is emphatic here: "BE EXTREMELY CONSCIENTIOUS OF YOURSELVES!" It tells us that this is no minor point that God is making. It is a vital component to our faith relationship with God.

Ergo, when John, in his Gospel, speaks of people believing through miracles, it is always to show us that they do not really yet believe. True belief is in Christ's words, not in the miracles people have witnessed. In other words, miracles don't give people true faith. We see this even in the exodus and wilderness narratives, as the people who saw the greatest miracles did not believe. But why did they not believe? Because miracles don't give faith to anyone. They only point the way for those who already believe.

Hence, in John 4, Christ meets the woman at the well (yet on another mountain), and tells her things about her that He would not have known otherwise. He shows her something miraculous. He tells her about her life when He has never met her before. She runs back and tells others in the village, and through this miracle, the text says that they were coming out to meet Him. However, in verses 39-42, the superficial belief they had turns into genuine belief:

And from that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, "He told me all the things that I [have] done." So when the Samaritans came to Him, they were asking Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days.And many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world." 

In other words, their faith needed to shift from the superficial belief in miracles to a real faith in what Christ has spoken. Unfortunately, this shift often goes the other way, as I said before. In John 6, Christ tells the crowd, likely of 5,000 people that He just miraculously fed, that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood in order for them to live through Him (thus referring to their need to trust in His crucifixion). In verse 60, it says that "Many therefore of His disciples, when they heard [this] said, 'This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?' and in verse 66, it says, "As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore." Before they do this, however, Christ tells us why they are going to reject Him. In verse 64, Christ says, "But there are some of you who do not believe." In other words, they're only there for the food. They're there for the miracles. They don't know and trust God because they do not believe through His Word. They wanted the experiential. They wanted the miracles. But they didn't want Christ, because Christ is revealed through what He has spoken, and when He spoke it, they all went away.

In contrast to these, however, we are told that the disciples response is that of those who have true faith. Christ asks them in verse 67, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" Peter responds with the response of true faith in verse 68, "Lord, to whom shall we go, for you alone have words of eternal life."

Whether a person has a faith because of miracles that will transfer to true faith in God's Word is not the point. Sometimes he or she will and sometimes he or she won't. The point is that faith is not real until it is in what God has spoken. A faith founded on miracles, on experiencing God through them, no matter how big or small one expects those miracles to be, is too superficial of a faith to be sustained. In fact, it is a false faith altogether, since it cannot bring one to know God. And, as we have been discussing, miracles do not bring faith. Hence, experience through sight does not bring faith. Nor do superficial miracles bring faith. You know, the kind that seeker sensitive churches try to muster up through music and drama. We cannot create the right experience for everyone to believe because belief is a supernatural event, where the Holy Spirit draws one to God the Father through Christ by means of the Word of God. We cannot expect belief to come without the Word of God, since true belief cannot happen without it.

So miracles have pointed to the place we can find God's Word in the Bible, but they do not create faith in us. To expect that they will, and embitter ourselves toward God for Him not producing them for us, is the sure road for a superficial and false faith to take toward total unbelief. I believe we have set our eyes on the wrong religion when we look to miracles as some sort of creating or sustaining power toward true belief. Instead, we need to go back to seeing no form, but only a voice. It is then that we will truly see God, and it is only then that our faith, or lack thereof, will be revealed to us.

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