This post is back to my teaching notes for my Wednesday evening Bible study at King’s Grant, which should take us through the end of the semester (December 15). The whole series of lessons can be found here.
Previously we looked at some sayings of Jesus in the context of his healing sick and demon-possessed people. Today we look at other types of miracles, one involving power over death, the others involving power over the forces of nature.
At the Heart of the Lesson: As part of his mission to usher in the kingdom of God, Jesus performed miracles over the powers of nature. In so doing he evoked faith in many people, but hostility and skepticism in others. This group of lessons is about signs and skeptics. We will also look at the nature of faith and how it relates to Jesus’ miracles.
Key Verse: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
Key Term: Signs. John refers to miracles as signs that point to a higher reality. They are not done for only material purposes, but to draw out one’s faith. Jesus’ enemies could not see Jesus for who He was.
Conquering Death: (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43)
- Jesus on many occasions healed society’s outcasts, crippled beggars, lepers, the demon-possessed. Here a miracle takes place among the respectable.
- Jairus is a ruler in the local synagogue. The “ruler” of the synagogue was elected by its elders and was in charge of caring for the building and administering the services. He was not what we would call a preacher or minister.
- He treats Jesus as his superior, one of the few cases in the Gospels where any Jewish official showed Jesus respect. Jairus is an establishment figure, not one of the sinners (which Jesus took heat for).
- The Greek word for “daughter” is thugater, but Jairus uses the diminutive, thugatrion, “little daughter.” The girl was twelve; considered of age. The tragedy in the story is not just that a child has died, but that the child was on the verge of womanhood. Luke’s Gospel adds the detail that the girl was the man’s only child.
- Jesus’ words “Don’t be afraid, only believe” is in contrast to the mourners. In the atmosphere of mourning he brought hope and serenity.
- After going inside, the first thing Jesus did was to send out the mourners; the cause for mourning was about to end.
- There were and still are professional “wailing women” in many places around the world. As silly as it sounds to us, one purpose was to create an atmosphere in which people were free to release their own grief. Jesus puts them out, they we no longer needed.
- “The child is not dead but asleep.” Death is sometimes referred to as sleep, like when Jesus spoke of his friend Lazarus falling asleep. Jesus was assuring them that death had no hold on her, that he would awaken her just as if she had fallen asleep. For the believer, death is indeed like sleep, it is not a permanent state.
- The laughter at Jesus’ statement is not the laughter of humor, but mocking. Maybe he was making light of someone just dying.
- Jesus’ words to the child can be translated “get up” or “arise,” but also “wake up.” This is one of very few places in the Bible where we have the actual words Jesus spoke in his native Aramaic: Talitha koum, “little girl, get up.” The little girl “got up,” which is the same Greek verb used in other places to refer to Jesus’ resurrection.
- The people who saw that the child were “completely astonished.” The great Hebrew prophets Elijah and Elisha both restored dead children to life (1 Kings 17: 17-24, 2 Kings 4: 18-37). They understood that someone great had come to town.
The First Sign: (John 2:1-11)
- The miracle of turning water into wine was, according to John’s Gospel, the first of Jesus’ miracles. The story is familiar, yet it is still mysterious. It tells us about the mission of Jesus and about his relationship with his family.
- Jesus addresses his mother as “woman.” This was not rudeness or coarseness, but Jesus was asserting his independence and manhood.
- He is now doing the will of the Father and is no longer subject to human authority. He was a good and obedient son in all ways, but now that he is “about his Father’s business” (the words he spoke in the temple when he was twelve years old), he is no longer subject to her authority.
- Later he honors her request anyway. The Cana incident was, in a sense, Jesus’ coming of age event.
- Mary may have had some position of authority at this wedding, seeing how she addresses the servants.
- Jesus’ words to her, “Why do you involve me?” is puzzling, but the general meaning is probably “Let me do things in my own way.”
- “My time has not yet come” is also puzzling. Some think it refers to his “time” of suffering on the cross. More likely the meaning is that Jesus alone will know when his time to begin doing miracles has arrived. Jesus never did miracles on demand. He and his Father have their own sense of timing.
- The water in the stone jars is mentioned as being for the Jewish rites of purification.
- One meaning of the miracle is that the water represents the old covenant, the Jewish law with its many regulations, while the wine represents the new covenant, the gospel.
- The ceremonial cleansing water was nothing compared with the wine of the new age.
- The Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day spoke of the Law of Moses as “water,” in the sense of purifying, quenching thirst, promoting life and health. But of course, the wine is better.
- The “master of the banquet” would have been a friend of the wedding party or family; an honorary position. He seems surprised: The best wine has been saved for so late in the festivities, the time when the guests (perhaps mildly intoxicated at this point) could expect the inferior wine to be brought out.
- “This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. Jesus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him” (John 2:11).
- Signs, the Greek word is semeia, are important in John as pointers to a higher reality. A miracle is not done for purely material reasons, but to elicit faith, to draw men nearer to God.
- Turning water into wine is not done to dazzle people with an act of magic but to make them see the divine glory of the man who performed it. The guests at the wedding may not see the significance of the miracle, but Jesus’ disciples do, and at this point they put their faith in him.
The Heavenly Picnic: (John 6:1-15)
- The miracle of feeding the five thousand must have made a deep impression on the first believers, because it is one of the few miracles that is recorded in all four Gospels.
- To understand why, we need to remember that the Jews of Jesus’ day expected their Messiah to spread a great banquet for all Israel to enjoy.
- They also expected that there would again be manna. In a sense this miracle is both a kind of preview of the messianic banquet and also the giving of bread from heaven.
- The people followed Jesus a long way on foot. This indicates there was already a deep spiritual hunger.
- Jesus had withdrawn for a time after he heard of the death of John the Baptist. He wanted to be alone, but the crowds would not let him-and instead of rejecting them, he fed them.
- People with spiritual hunger are not a nuisance or an encumbrance, but an opportunity.
- Jesus’ reaction to the people’s hunger is: “Feed them” but the disciples doubt their ability to do it. When Jesus says to Philip “Where shall we buy bread?” he is likely testing the disciples. Philip says it simply can’t be done, but Andrew mentions the boy with the loaves and fishes. This is one of the few miracles in which the disciples themselves are involved (Jesus performed the miracle, but the disciples gave the food to the people).
- The bread at the feeding of the five thousand was barley bread, the bread of the poor, considered to be food for animals, not people.
- The “loaves” were not what we would consider full loaves of bread, but more like rolls.
- The fish, opsarion, was a small fish of the lake, roughly equivalent to a sardine.
- The baskets were the common wickerwork baskets of the poor.
- Fun Fact: The miracle of feeding the five thousand was a common subject in the earliest Christian art, even found in the Roman catacombs.
- The Messiah’s “banquet” was not bountiful, but it fed the hungry crowd and displayed the power of God.
- The people received “as much as they wanted,” and there are even leftovers.
- The miracle is not exhausted, for others can be fed. God will continue to provide for his people with leftovers.
- There were five loaves, with twelve baskets of leftovers–coincidence, perhaps, yet the number five for Jews brought to mind the Pentateuch, and twelve the tribes of Israel.
- One obvious lesson of this episode is that a little goes further with God than we might expect, maybe an enacted version of the mustard seed parable.
- In assuming he is “the Prophet,” the people connect him with Moses and the supply of manna in the wilderness, and also with the prophet Elisha, who multiplied bread for a hundred men (2 Kings 4:42-44). In both cases there were leftovers.
- The great prophet John the Baptist was dead, and the people were hungry for another prophet to follow.
- Muslims teach that this is a reference to Muhammad.
- The people’s hunger, both physical and spiritual, causes them to want to make Jesus king. Although they are sheep without a shepherd, he withdraws from them. He was at the peak of his popularity, but he knew he was not the type of Messiah (or king) the people expected.
Rebuking the Elements: (Mark 4:36-41)
- The Sea of Galilee’s storms could appear out of the blue, with some uncertainty and risk in setting out in the water. Most of the time the lake (which lies 695 feet below sea level) is calm, but the hills around the lake at times act as funnels for sudden gusts of wind.
- Matthew’s version of the story refers to the storm as a seismos, meaning an earthquake or something violent. At least four of Jesus’ disciples, the fishermen who were familiar with storms. The fact that this storm had them so frightened tells us it was no ordinary storm.
- Jews believed that the entire creation was in a sense hostile to mankind since Adam’s fall, backed up by Paul in Romans 8:20. Jesus calming the storm showed that he could rebuke and control all that was hostile to man: disease, demons, even storms. Jesus spoke to the storm just as he spoke to the demons, with authority and with the full expectation that it would obey.
- Jesus’ command to the storm is literally, “Be silent! Be muzzled!” The one Greek word he speaks to the storm, phimao, is the same word he speaks to the demon in Mark 1:25. After the storm dies down and Jesus questions their faith: and they are even more afraid . They literally “feared a great fear.”
- This story is about “discipleship under stress.” It is easy to talk about faith when things are calm, but not when your life seems to be in danger. In
- Mark’s Gospel, the stilling of the storm follows Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32), in which he spoke of how powerful just a small amount of faith can be.
- The disciples have seen him cast out a demon and heal the sick, yet they still cannot trust him, as they question Jesus, “Don’t you care if we drown?”
- Under duress, they do not have this mustard seed faith, but “no faith.” The disciples’ question, “Who can this be?” is not faith, but perhaps it is the beginning of faith.
- An Historical Note:
- In the period between the Old and New Testaments, the tyrannical Syrian ruler Antiochus Epiphanes, who believed himself to be a god and persecuted the Jews, claimed he could command the waves of the sea.
- The Egyptian pharaohs boasted they caused the annual flooding of the Nile River.
- Worldly rulers have frequently made such proud (and false) claims, but the humble carpenter from Galilee could actually do such amazing things.
You of Little Faith: (Matthew 14:22-32)
- This is not a repeat of his earlier stilling of the storm. The disciples in the boat are not in danger, but the “wind was against” the boat. Jesus comes to their rescue when life goes against them.
- Peter was the one to take the plunge, walking out to meet Jesus on the water. While he overestimated his own faith, his faith was deep enough to say the words, “Lord, save me!”
- Peter’s life was filled with good intentions and poor follow-through. His story tells us that he was truly human, a fallible man.
- Matthew’s Gospel is often accused of whitewashing the disciples, omitting some of the down sides that Mark records, but obviously in this case Peter is displayed warts and all.
- This is one of five places in Matthew where Jesus refers to someone or a group as “little-faiths,” holigopistoi. The disciples have some faith, but it is small.
- Peter attempts to walk on water. Often in the Old Testament God has to assure his people he will rescue them from the deep waters.
- “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you” (Isaiah 43:1).
- “Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea-the Lord on high is mighty” (Psalm 93:4).
- Jesus’ disciples would have known these passages by heart, and it must have strengthened their faith to know their Master was Lord over the waters.
Spiritually Blind Galileans: (Matthew 11:20-24)
- This passage catches many readers off-guard, because Capernaum was one of the most blessed cities in the world. Jesus left Nazareth to live there and many of his miracles were performed there. Reading only about the miracles and the people’s response to them, we might get the impression that Capernaum was full of Jesus’ devoted followers. The statement here corrects that: Apparently most of the people did not respond to Jesus in faith and repentance.
- Jesus’ frustration is not a matter of selfish concern for his own reputation, but of the people’s stubborn resistance when the Son of God is walking their streets, healing people, and reaching out to them with compassion. Jesus’ response fits in well with a theme of the Old Testament prophet: privilege demands responsibility.
- The Jews were the chosen people of God, yet rather than responding with obedience and love, they were more often disobedient and faithless.
- So the harshest words of the prophets are not for foreign nations, but for God’s chosen ones, the supreme ingrates.
- The people of Capernaum and Bethsaida were not really hostile to the Son of God, but, worse, they were indifferent to him.
- In the time of his ministry, they had come to take his miracles for granted.
- According to Jesus, pagan cities like Tyre and Sidon would have been more responsive.
- These were two Phoenician port cities on Israel’s western border. Jesus spent some time in the region and performed at least one miracle there, healing the demon-possessed daughter of the Syro- Phoenician woman.
- According to Luke 6:17, people came to that region to hear Jesus teach. There were Jews in the region, but most of the people were pagans, though many were eager to hear him. Both cities had a long and mostly unpleasant history with their neighbor Israel.
- Hiram, the king of Tyre, was on good terms with Israel’s kings David and Solomon, but Sidon was also home to one of the great villains of the Bible, the wicked Queen Jezebel, who married King Ahab of Israel and did her best to stamp out worship of God while promoting Sidon’s gods, Baal and Ashtoreth (1 Kings 17-22).
- Both cities were famously wealthy and corrupt, and Israel’s prophets frequently spoke out against their immorality.
- When Jesus spoke out against Capemaum and Bethsaida and compared them to Tyre and Sidon, his listeners would have understood what he was driving at, that the Jewish towns of Galilee were as spiritually empty as the notorious pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon—or as the city of Sodom in Genesis, destroyed by God for its wickedness.
Signs on Demand: (Matthew 12:38-42)
- The Pharisees are asking for a miracle “on demand,” but Jesus consistently refuses the request, which is a repetition of the temptation by Satan.
- Occasionally a false prophet or false Messiah would promise to perform an awesome miracle. What the Jews were hoping for was a “biggy” miracle, for the public, that would remove all doubt that the man was sent by God.
- But the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were not convinced by any of Jesus’ miracles.
- Those who saw the raising of Lazarus, the greatest of Jesus’ miracles, reported back to the priests in Jerusalem, who then determined that Jesus must die (John 12:46-53). This “wicked generation” was not convinced by a miracle that Jesus was from God.
- The phrase “adulterous generation” echoed the familiar biblical theme of spiritual adultery. The prophet Hosea was ordered to marry an adulterous woman so that his own life would be a living parable of Israel’s faithlessness. All the other prophets lamented the “adultery” of Israel. In the time of Jesus, nothing had changed.
- As so often in Matthew’s Gospel, the hostility of the Jews is contrasted with Gentile believers, in this case the repentance of the people of Nineveh when the prophet Jonah preached to them, and the long journey of the Queen of Sheba (“the queen of the South”) to pay homage to, and learn from, the wise Solomon.
- As Jonah came to Nineveh from a distant land, so Jesus comes from heaven to earth.
- The pagan queen journeyed far to hear the words of a wise Jewish teacher.
- Fun Fact: The Jews read the entire Book of Jonah aloud on the annual Day of Atonement, appropriately so, since the day was the yearly honoring of divine mercy.
- Solomon and Jonah were both flawed figures.
- Solomon, though blessed with exceptional wisdom, catered to his many wives’ desire to have temples set up for their own gods (1 Kings 11).
- Jonah, though he did preach repentance to Nineveh, did so with great reluctance, and after Nineveh repented, instead of rejoicing, he went and pouted like a bratty child. Yet the people of Nineveh were saved because of the preaching of the reluctant prophet.
- The queen of Sheba praised Israel’s God after being overwhelmed by the great wisdom of Solomon, but whose pagan temples showed he was not fully devoted to the Lord. Jesus was a far greater figure than these two, yet most of the people rejected him.
- Jesus saw clearly that the spiritually blind would not be changed by seeing a sign (John 12:37,42-43). This was the effect of Jesus’ miraculous signs: some believed, others did not, and others kept their belief to themselves for fear of what their friends would say.
Putting it into Practice:
- “Signs” is a key theme. What were some signs in your own life, occurrences that, seen through the eye of faith, taught you something important about God and his plan for you?
- “Don’t be afraid, just believe” is a key verse in the story of raising Jairus’ daughter. As you go through the day, repeat this verse to yourself several times. Make it a point to counter fear with faith.
- When the storm strikes their boat, the disciples lose faith, asking Jesus, “Don’t you care if we drown?” Today, and in the days ahead, resolve to respond to difficulties with trust, not doubt.
- In the episode of Peter trying to walk on the water, his faith fails him, and Jesus calls him “you little-faith.” Think of some times in your own life when your faith was almost, but not quite, adequate.
- Imagine yourself living in Capemaum or one of the other cities where Jesus performed miracles. How do you think you would have reacted? With faith? Puzzlement? Hostility? Be honest with yourself and keep in mind that many good people of Jesus’ day were hostile to him.