Miracles, signs, and wonders produce two simultaneous but contrary effects: They attract and repel. They attract us because they are rare and amazing, and in the case of Jesus’ miracles, they are also beneficial. People who had not walked for many years caper like goats. The blind can read the sacred scrolls at the local synagogue. The chronically ill regain their health and strength. Lepers, their skin pink and whole, can once again mingle with crowds and rejoin their families. And how many dead men, women, and children does Jesus raise to life? Jesus’ miracles are events that make us want to stand up and cheer.
But, at the same time, these same stupendous miracles repel us. We draw back in uncertainty and fear—perhaps doubtful of their authenticity, certainly terrified of the power of the Miracle Worker. Not only can He raise the dead, but He can also still a raging storm, stroll across a tossing sea, and with a word topple a whole company of soldiers. Demons—even Satan the Devil himself—leave the scene at His command. He feeds four and five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, and without breaking a sweat, produces dozens of gallons of wine for a wedding party. Perhaps most personally terrifying of all, He knows what is in people’s hearts, almost as if He can read their thoughts.
So is Jesus of Nazareth to be praised or feared for His powerful miracles? Both, of course, for Scripture declares, “O LORD, how great are your works!” (Psalm 92:5), yet also, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). In the miraculous demonstrations of the power of God in Jesus Christ, we see “the goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22). Far from being some mere sideshow, His miracles were an integral part of His ministry, and their implications still resound to our day.
Some people consider the miracles of the gospel accounts as a kind of advertizing. The idea is that Jesus would blow into town, heal some well-known leper or cripple or maybe cast out a troublesome demon, and the crowds would gather, hoping to witness more wonders performed before their very eyes. Then, having caught them in His net, Jesus would preach the gospel to them, and many would believe in Him. While they made for an effective marketing technique—and the gospel narratives admit that crowds did gather to see Him perform miracles—there is an element of cynicism in this conjecture, as if Jesus healed the sick or cast out demons callously, calculatingly, just to draw an audience to hear His pitch. In it, He becomes merely a religious huckster, the original Elmer Gantry.
However, this is not the case in the least. Matthew, Mark, and Luke often bring out the fact that, upon seeing the sick and troubled folk brought before Him, “He was moved with compassion” (Matthew 9:36; see, for instance, Matthew 14:14; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 6:34; Luke 7:13). John is the only one who tells us that, at Lazarus’ resurrection, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) over the people’s grief, as well as over their ignorance and hopelessness. As the prophecy of Isaiah 53 informs us, He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), our Savior who cared for humanity so deeply that He offered Himself to redeem every last person from sin and death. Such a merciful and loving Person does not use parlor tricks, as it were, to gain a following. His concern and desire to help were real.
John’s gospel clues us in to the divine purpose for Jesus’ miracles. After narrating the miracle of the wine at the wedding feast, the apostle adds, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). This verse gives us three purposes for the miracles Jesus did: 1) that they are signs; 2) that they “manifested His glory”; and 3) they helped His disciples to believe in Him. They did attract attention to Him, but ultimately, God had deeper, spiritual purposes for them.
John calls this and other miracles a “sign.” A sign is something that identifies or indicates. The Greek word he uses is semeíon, “a sign or distinguishing mark whereby something is known; an event that is an indication or confirmation of intervention by transcendent powers,” according to a leading Greek-English lexicon. Jesus performed this first miracle to identify or indicate something, and the most obvious answer to what that something was centers on who Jesus is. In turning water to wine, Jesus contrasts Himself to Moses, whose first plague turned water to blood (Exodus 7:14-25). In effect, the miracle indicates “a greater than Moses is here,” and that greater One could be none other than the promised Messiah.
This sign “manifested His glory.” In other words, the miracle declared or made known Christ’s special status. Through this wonder, certain people became aware that Jesus was no ordinary man but a higher Being, worthy of all honor and praise. We could go so far as to say that these people, whose eyes had been opened, could conclude that He was indeed God in the flesh, for only the Creator God had enough power over nature to change one substance into another and with such perfect results. The same could be said of His other miracles: No one but God could do what He did.
Finally, the apostle tells us that the miracle at Cana confirmed or strengthened His disciples’ faith. Turning water into wine was a proof that erased any doubt that they may still have had about His own or John the Baptist’s claims about Him. They not only believed who He was, but they could now fully believe what He said. They could trust Him to reveal the deep spiritual truths of God because they experienced His power in action producing excellence and good. If He would go to such lengths to make a wedding feast joyous and save the couple from embarrassment, what would He not do to save us and give us eternal life?
John does not say it, but mingled with this boosting of their faith must have been at least a twinge of the fear of the Lord. When we walk with God, He will certainly help us and bless us through the working of His power. But what form would His power take if we should cross Him and become His enemy? That sword has two edges, as Hebrews 4:12 attests.
Far more than some kind of “magic,” the miracles of Jesus Christ teach us profound lessons about Jesus, His mission, His message, and our responses to Him. We scoff at them or ignore them to our peril.