Did Jesus Perform Miracles Or Not?
A gentleman who was struggling with his beliefs in the inerrancy of the Bible recently contacted our offices questioning why Jesus told the scribes and Pharisees that “no sign shall be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12; cf. Matthew 12:39; 16:4; Luke 11:29). Since other scriptures clearly teach that Jesus worked “many signs” (John 12:37; 20:30-31; 3:2; Acts 2:22), how could Jesus truthfully and consistently say, “no sign shall be given to this generation”? According to certain Bible critics, Jesus was a false prophet since His “prediction that no sign would be given to that generation is clearly false” (McKinsey, 1995, p. 114; cf. Wells, 2010). How can a Christian reasonably and biblically respond to such an assertion?
Sadly, Bible critics (and some Christians) are fond of disregarding the context in which biblical statements are found. Yet, no statement can be understood properly without some kind of background or contextual information. Words mean different things depending on how, when, and where they are spoken. Figures of speech abound in all cultures around the world (cf. Lyons, 2010). Truthful people, for example, have been joking, exaggerating, and using sarcasm for millennia (cf. Job 12:2; Psalm 58:3), all the while rightly expecting their listeners to interpret their language accurately, and without accusation of lying. Unfortunately, skeptics of the Bible’s inspiration often ignore much of the necessary information needed to properly understand Scripture.
When Jesus first made the statement, “no sign will be given” to this generation (Matthew 12:39; Luke 11:29), He had just healed a person who was blind, mute, and demon-possessed (Matthew 12:22; Luke 11:14). Notice that, rather than acknowledging that the great miracle Jesus worked was proof of His deity (John 20:30-31), the hard-hearted Pharisees alleged that His power came from the devil (Matthew 12:24). They did not simply turn away from Jesus; they turned 180 degrees away from the direction that such miracles led the honest and good-hearted truth-seekers. And Jesus’ enemies had not simply seen one miracle. Earlier in Matthew 12, Jesus had healed a man with a withered hand (vss. 9-13). How did the Pharisees react then? Rather than acknowledge the power of Christ, they “plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him” (vs. 14). The fact is, by this time in Jesus’ ministry He had already worked a number of miracles (Matthew 11:4-5), and many of the scribes and Pharisees absolutely refused to believe in Him (cf. Matthew 9:32-34). Regardless of what Jesus did or said, some of His enemies would never be convinced (cf. Matthew 12:31-32; see Butt, 2003).
So what did Jesus mean when He said on two different occasions that “no sign” would be given to “this generation” except “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39; 16:4; Mark 8:12; Luke 11:29)? Jesus was responding to the Pharisees’ desire to see a sign. But they had already witnessed and heard about many of Jesus’ miracles. They wanted something “more.” They sought “a sign from heaven” (Luke 11:16; Matthew 16:1; Mark 8:11, emp. added). Exactly what Jesus’ enemies meant by this, we may not know. What we do know is that while on Earth Jesus manifested His power over nature, disease, demon, and death (see Lyons and Butt, 2007), yet the Pharisees said they wanted more. It seems, as Burton Coffman noted, they “meant some spectacular wonder without moral value but which would appeal sensationally to man’s curiosity” (Coffman, 1984, p. 179). Jesus, however, always rejected doing such miracles. He refused to turn stones to bread or to jump from the temple’s pinnacle simply because Satan challenged Him to do so (Matthew 4:1-7). Jesus could have performed any miracle that He wanted—whether when tempted by Satan, prodded by Herod (Luke 23:8-12), or tested by the Pharisees. He could have pulled rabbits from hats for the sole purpose of amusing people. He could have turned His Jewish enemies into stones or given a person three eyes. He could have commanded that it literally rain cats and dogs. He could have lit the robes of the Pharisees on fire with the snap of his fingers and told them that hell would be ten times as hot. He could have done any number of wonders. But the insincere Pharisees would see none of that (i.e., “no sign [like these] will be given”).
What sign would be given? Other than the kinds of miracles that Christ’s enemies had already rejected, the only other sign Jesus prophesied was “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39; 16:4; Luke 11:29)—Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
Most certainly, Jesus performed miracles. And though Jesus “humbled himself...taking the form of a bondservant” (Philippians 1:7-8), He refused to get on the lowly, perpetually defiled spiritual level of His enemies. He worked no miracle of the kind that the Pharisees wished to see. But make no mistake, He worked plenty of the kind that provide honest-hearted people sufficient evidence to come to the conclusion that He is, indeed, “the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:30-31).
Butt, Kyle (2003), “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit—The Unpardonable Sin,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2272.
Coffman, Burton (1984), Matthew (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).
Lyons, Eric (2010), “The ‘Twelve,’” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/240449.
Lyons, Eric and Kyle Butt (2007), “The Very Works that I Do Bear Witness of Me,” Reason & Revelation, 26:17-23, March, http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2857.
McKinsey, Dennis (1995), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Wells, Steve (2010), “Did Jesus Perform Many Signs and Wonders?” http://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/contra/signs.html.