Miracles in the 21st Century

Miracles.logoI have been preaching and teaching on Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus.  It is clear that the New Testament holds that Jesus did many miracles.

Matthew 9:35ff has a summary of Jesus life – miracles were an integral part. It is hard to separate the teacher from the miracle worker in the Gospel accounts:

35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

In fact, without the miracle of Jesus being raised from the dead, there would be no Christian message.

I Corithians 15:9ff

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”

For 250 years people have quoted a Scottish philosopher David Hume who said that is not reasonable to believe that something contrary to the very regular rules of nature could ever happen.  This was even the substance of a lecture by a philosopher at the University of Wisconsin.  He said it is just as logical to believe in space aliens.

Why should we believe that Jesus was raised?

We have written accounts of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his crucifixion – and this was in fact the central message of the first believers:

Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.  (Acts 2:22-24)

We have the additional evidence that the resurrection of Jesus was predicted before it happened, by hundreds of years.  We have the evidence and testimony of the church through the ages of the power of the Gospel. We have the attraction of Jesus himself across time and geography.

One final piece of evidence is “fit”.  How well does your theory of life fit all of the evidence:

  • Is the world impersonal, self-creating and limited to the laws of matter and energy so that when we die out there will be nothing at all?
  • Or, is the world the work of a personal Creator who brought life into existence and brought Jesus to life and can bring new life to all?


“Go” or “Going” in the Great Commission?

The great commission is found in Matthew 28

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

SermonizerMuch has been made that the “go” is in the form of a participle (that is, ending in “ing”)  so it literally could be translated “as you are going, make disciples.”  The idea is that it is less bout being sent and more about making disciples.  sort of like this: So wherever the winds of fortune take you, make disciples.

Others say that the participle works as a command grammatically, so so the force remains to “GO”.  That is to say, “Don’t just hang around here, but  go over there, to where the gentiles are, and make disciples of them.”

In a previous passage to the 12 Apostles in Matthew 10, there is a similar form, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6 Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’

v. 7 has has a similar participial form of the verb, but the context makes it clear that the 12 were being sent on a specific mission.   The active form of the command is in verse 6 – same verb in all locations.

To answer the question of “Go” or “Going” in Matthew 28, we have to look at Matthew 10.

More to come.

Jesus on Ministry – Matthew 10

the twelveThe second major discourse in Matthew is to the Apostles, who are called and sent with this challenge in Matthew 10.  The connection to ministry today is interesting.  Craig Blomberg makes the suggestion that v. 16 marks a pivot between the immediate calling the 12 had to go to the “lost sheep of Israel (v. 6), and their later ministry.  Note that v. 17 refers to local councils, synagogues and also governors and kings (i.e. Gentiles).  It makes sense that v. 1-15 is an initial ministry directed to the children of Israel, but the second half is more general.

One result of that is the mission to the “lost children of Israel” appears in both parts (v. 6 and v. 23) – so that will continue to the end.  The ministry of signs and wonders is found in the first part (v. 1, 7), so it is a good question what role healing might have in our time.

Can we pull out applications to ministry today?  Why not, every one else writes church leadership books, why not Jesus by way of Matthew?

  1. Christian ministry is a call to continue Jesus’ work (compare 9:35-38 to 10:1, 7,8).  One is called by Christ, and is not self-appointed to this role.  Note v. 8 calls them to do works he as done in chapters 8 and 9:  Healing 8:16; 9:35; Raising the Dead 9:18ff; Leprosy 8:1; Demonic 8:16, 28ff.
  2. Ministry is free – v. 8b – the “blessing” freely received is freely passed on, to be received or to be rejected.  So what about giving, tithing, salaries and budgets?  I guess that we in paid ministry should be glad of the gifts we receive, not proud of the salary we deserve.  I once saw a signboard with a list of prices for services offered by the church – like the one behind the counter at McDonald’s!
  3. Expect opposition – v 16-23 shows opposition from religious and  civil authorities and family.  We face this with shrewdness and innocence.  Most of the church in history experienced this as reality not mere theory.
  4. As with Jesus, so with us v. 24, 25. How Jesus is treated, so we will be treated.  In the NT, he was crucified and the church was persecuted.  In a post-Christian culture, this will be challenging.  We will need to be heavenly minded to endure – see v. 28.
  5. Choose well –
    1. to Confess or Reject v. 32, 33 – Letting your light shine has high stakes.
    2. Whom to love most. v. 34-39 – family, self or the Lord.
    3. Whom to Receive. v. 40-42 – in a hostile environment, we need to receive both Jesus and his people, prophets, leaders and little ones.”

“You are preaching on Matthew?”

MatthewCallI got that question recently: “You are preaching on Matthew?”

The idea seemed to be: ” That is odd.”  I am not sure why.  John is probably the most popular gospel among Evangelical Christians, and Luke has more with human interest and social compassion, Mark is very action oriented.  Matthew seems to be the “eh” gospel these days.

From my reading it appears that Matthew was for a long time the most read gospel.  It is the most complete of the synoptics – it has both discourse and narrative.  Yet, while Mark is shorter overall, what Mark includes is given more detail.  Matthew does not mention the lowering of the paralytic through the roof (9:1-9), nor does he mention the fuller sequence of events when the synagogue ruler approaches Jesus about his daughter (10:18ff).  So Matthew was a thorough-going editor who left a lot of snips on the floor by his desk.

Also, Matthew is very missional.  I noted this here.  The thread of Mission is woven though the whole book.  So with all the talk of the missional church, we would well to re-read Matthew to follow his story line and emphasis.

Of course there is the danger that Jesus might walk into your life and point the finger and say, “I mean this mission is for you!”  the painting above is “The Calling of Matthew” by Caravaggio, 1600.  Notice how Matthew (in the beard) seems to be pointing to the left and saying “You must mean him.”

Nope, Jesus meant Matthew.  Keep reading and he may call after you!

Matthew’s Threads

Matthew Threads

I have developed an overall structure that combines the narrative ascent to Peter’s confession of Christ and down from there to the Cross and Resurrection.  This is combined with sections of Narrative paired with Discourse on the themes of

  • Fulfillment (chapters 1-4);
  • Authority (chapters 5-9);
  • Mission (chapters 10-12);
  • Opposition – (chapters 13-16);
  • Discipleship – (chapters 16-18);
  • Judgments (chapters 19-25);
  • Passion and Mission (chapters 26-28).

I have found Craig Blomberg helpful for this.  Now what I am noticing in the text is the overlap of the threads.  While concluding his authoritative teaching (Sermon on the Mount)  for example, the text  moves towards decision, and in the miracle stories on Matthew 8 and 9 there are sections on discipleship (8:18-22; 9:9-13; 9:14-17) which points to the section on Mission in the following chapters.

I find this overlapping of the “threads” typical of Matthew so far.

On Books, March Madness and Biblical Study

isaiah-scroll-lThe Emerging Scholars Network blog is running a Sweet Sixteen topics tournament  for the topics of most interest to believers in academia.  Bracket

I submitted a topic that got listed as #15 seed, so the chances are weak of beating @2, but we live in hope.

The suggestion I made was how can we make use of academic biblical studies, who often are technical in nature and also may have nothing theological in their content, or the theological content is far afield from an evangelical’s set of beliefs.

An example of this is in the book of Proverbs.  There are a large number of books at a popular level who deal with this book. Some take each proverb as a law that must be literally kept – which in my view does not take into account the literary nature of Wisdom Literature or of proverbs.  An example of this approach suggests that not spanking is a denial of biblical authority.  (Pv 13:24).

A good number of evangelical commentaries will have a discussion in them about the literary value of a proverb and it’s “rule of thumb” quality.  That is, it is a general saying that generally is true, but it is not absolute.  An example are the twin proverbs in Pv 26:5,6 which seem to contradict at first glance.

I like Duane Garret’s commentary in the NAC series (Vol 14) who went so far as to cluster proverbs in the more random chapters starting at chapter 10.  I also like Bruce Waltke (NICOT series) who does a lot of literary outlining.

Then there are works like Michael Fox’s Proverbs 1-9 in the Anchor Bible series.  He is a well respected academic. I find that his analysis of the shape of the text in chapters 1-9 is very helpful.  However he has very little that is theological or pastoral in nature. That is not his interest.

So what I try to do as a preacher is this. I will buy or find books from the second and third categories. I can skip the popular level books that do not even consider scholarship.  I try to balance the works with evangelical conviction, such as Garrett and Waltke with more academic works such as Fox.  Sometimes I find the second category at the main library at the University of Wisconsin.  This saves me lots of money on books and lets me sit at an oak table in a large room where cell phones are prohibited.

If interested, I have a bibliography on Wisdom Literate here.  Bibliographic Notes on Wisdom Literature

Listening to Outsiders – Matthew 8:1-17

romanThe Romans were outsiders.  They worshiped other gods – such as Jupiter and  Mercury.  The Romans were also conquerors.  Israel did not have its freedom. Instead the armies of Rome held them as captives.  Citizens of Israel did not have a say in their government.  They were told what to do. They were told what taxes to pay. This was enforced by soldiers.

Another time, when Jesus went to the town of Capernaum he met another outsider.  This man was a Roman soldier.  He was a man in charge of a group of about 100 soldiers.  This centurion was an outsider.  Normally, a Jewish man would have nothing to do with a Roman Soldier.

Jesus was approached by such a man. He said, “My servant is sick and suffering.”                      

 Jesus said, “Shall I come and heal him?”

This is the first amazing thing.  Jesus was willing to go to outsiders.  He was willing to help this Roman soldier who had a sick servant.  He could have said, “I will not do anything for you!” but he was willing to go.

Do you remember what Jesus taught us about our enemies?  In Matthew 5:43 he taught:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’.  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you might be called Children of your Father in heaven…”

Then a second thing happened.  The Roman soldier said that Jesus did not need to come.  He took a lesson from his own life and applied it to Jesus.  He said that as a soldier he understood authority.  When he commanded something to be done, it was done.  If I say ‘do this’ it will be done.  So if Jesus simply commanded it, his servant would be healed.

This was amazing even to Jesus. He said that he never saw faith like that among his own people. His people had the bible and the history of God’s mighty acts. They knew about Abraham, Moses and David. They knew about the Exodus from Egypt. They knew about the power of Elijah to bring fire from heaven.  But they did not believe the way this Roman soldier believed.

Sometimes outsiders do the Lord’s work.  He took the persecutor of the church, Saul, and made him the planter of churches, and changed his name to Paul.  He used Jethro to give some leadership advice to Moses.  He used Cyrus to restore Israel to its land.

Jesus said, to the man, “Go, let it be done just as you believed it would” and at that moment the servant was healed.

The Outsider was right.  I sometimes see people think that they need to use special words or rituals to have power in prayer. I have seen people say that you have to express a lot of emotions and you have to shout.  Jesus simply commanded, and it was done.

One time a woman in New York told me that she lost her keys in her house.  She wanted me to go into each room in the house and pray that God would find them.  I said to her that I was glad to pray. But we could stay where we were, and pray for god to help her find what was lost.  God did not need us to walk into every room. God already know where the keys were.  She called me the next day and said, “Praise the Lord! I found my keys.”