Once upon sometime, I asked a regular commentor who does not believe in God, what would convince him that the Biblical God is real.
An instantaneous appearance to everyone on earth and healing all the amputees and terminally ill people would do it for me.
To which I replied:
Keep on asking, and ye shall receive. Even the bad guys?
Now that’s all good and well, and I continue to believe that if it is in accordance with God’s perfect wisdom to do so, He will bring forth a planet-wide appearance accompanied by healing.
But between that time and now, I have come to realize something: Signs and wonders cannot ever be a substitute for faith.
We’ll begin our study today with the most well known passage regarding signs being withheld.
JESUS – SHOW US A SIGN FROM HEAVEN
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. – Matthew 16:1-4
When one reads this passage, one cannot help but to wonder: Why didn’t Jesus just show them a miracle then and there, and thereby convince them that He is Messiah?
For that matter, why not show them His power at any time during His arrest, trial, torture or crucifixion? (Apart from the fact that it would defeat His purpose to cleanse away our sins – see The Devil Did Not Want Jesus to Die on the Cross and Be Thankful For Jesus’ Incredible Self-Control for more on that.)
If you think back, the Pharisees and Sadduccees and other skeptics had already been witness to many of Jesus miracles, healings and cleansings of demons! What Jesus responded to the questioners shows that He had already been showing everyone plenty of signs and marks of the Messiah (see Luke 7:18-23 where He answers the followers of John the Baptist by citing the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 5:5-6). The questioners could observe the sky and predict the weather, but they – the most well versed in Scripture – could not even recognize the signs of Messiah staring them in the face!
Two particular instances are particularly telling:
Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” – Matthew 12;22-24
The Pharisees’ response to healing of demon possession? Jesus must have used demonic power to do it!
His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” Some claimed that he was. Others said, “No, he only looks like him.” But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”
…They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.
…They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?” “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind.
…Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? – Excerpts from John chapter 9
Jesus healed a man who was blind since birth – his former affliction was testified to by himself under oath (‘Give glory to God’ in verse 24 is a solemn oath to tell the truth), his neighbors, and his own parents.
Yet despite his repeated insistence on what had transpired, the Pharisees refused to believe or accept that Jesus had healed him – simply because in their stubborn arrogance, they considered one who healed on a Sabbath to be a sinner!
So no matter how many miracles or signs or fulfilled prophecies Jesus demonstrated, the end result would still be the same – the wicked and adulterous critics would dismiss it as a lie, a trick, or the work of the devil!
And on the matter of belief and hardened hearts, compare several other instances of Jesus’ work:
But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. – Matthew 13:57-58
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” – Matthew 17:19-20
And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. … He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” – Mark 5:25-29, 34
While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” … He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. – Mark 5:35-36, 41-42
“But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the impure spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. – Mark 9:22-27
By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. – Hebrews 11:7-8
As you can see, faith is a prerequisite of miracles.
This is a hard teaching to accept, particularly for a postmodern world that says “Show me, and then I will believe.” For the God of the Bible replies, “Believe, and then I will show you.”
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. – Hebrews 11:1
This is not to say that Jesus or God cannot perform miracles if the people do not have faith. Rather, just as salvation cannot be forced on an unwilling recipient, one must have faith in order to receive the miracle.
THE EXODUS ISRAELITES – A GOD WHO WILL GO BEFORE THEM
Now the story of Exodus is well known. The Israelites had just seen God strike Egypt with ten plagues, go before them in a pillar of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:21-22), part the Red Sea, and destroy every one of their pursuers along with Pharaoh.
Yet despite all of what God had just done, their faith in the Almighty God who had shown such favor upon them was so weak that they had to make their own visible, physical ‘god’ to lead them on their journey!
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” – Exodus 32:1
The Israelites would continue on in this pattern – witnessing miracle after miracle, receiving manna and quail and water, witnessing firsthand the supernatural destruction of both enemies and rebellious Israelite alike – yet till the very last, when they finally reached the Promised Land, in Numbers chapters 13 and 14 they despaired that God could not help them overcome the inhabitants of the Land He had Promised to them!
That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” – Numbers 14:1-4
In fact, over and over again the Israelites fell back on what is seen (2nd Corinthians 4:18) instead of the unseen source:
He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) – 2nd Kings 18:4
This refers to the bronze snake God used as a test of faith and tool of healing in Numbers 21.
Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family. – Judges 8:27
After achieving great works in God’s name in Judges 6 & 7, Gideon too fell into the sin of idolatry. But after all, Gideon himself was not convinced by the very presence of God meeting him face to face and had to ask for such mundane signs as condensation – he needed a physical object to rely on, before and after his great victory in God’s name.
So again, what did signs and wonders and miracles accomplish? The recipients and witnesses of such magnificent power slid into idolatry and apostasy. They had no lasting faith.
PAUL AND BARNABAS – WHEN MIRACLES DON’T FIT YOUR NARRATIVE
In Lystra there sat a man who was lame. He had been that way from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. – Exceprts from Acts 14:8-20
What an about-face! From being ready to worship and make expensive sacrifices, to angrily stoning Paul to attempted death – just because the two apostles did refused to conform their truth to the crowd’s expectations.
What about the miracle they had worked, the man they had healed? As the example of the Pharisees and the blind man in John chapter 9 showed, signs and wonders count for naught to convince when the heart is hardened. Although it is not noted in the passage, one can surmise that the Jews may have ‘won the crowd over’ by declaring Paul and Barnabas to be frauds, tricksters or even evil sorcerors.
And note why Paul chose to heal the lame man – Paul saw that the man had faith to be healed.
Again, faith leads to miracles – and miracles cannot create faith.
Let me leave you with two illustrative stories:
The first story:
THE UNBELIEVING MAN WHO SAW GOD
There was a man who absolutely, decidedly did not believe in God.
One day, God appeared to him in lightning and fire and earthquake.
“Do you believe in me now, o arrogant one?” God thundered.
“No, of course not,” the man replied. “Obviously, I am having a hallucination. In the morning, I shall look back at this occurrence and remind myself to go to bed earlier.”
And with that, the man went home to get some sleep.
The second story:
THE MAN WHO WAS CONVINCED HE WAS DEAD
There was a man who was convinced that he was dead. No matter what argument his wife used to convince him, he still stubbornly refused to change his conclusion. Finally his wife brought him to a doctor.
“All right sir, come with me. We’re going to take a look at a dead body in the morgue,” the doctor said.
Despite their trepidations, the man and his wife followed the doctor to where a dead body lay, cold and still. The doctor took a needle, and pricked the corpse’s skin repeatedly.
“Do you notice? A dead man does not hurt, nor does he bleed,” said the doctor. The man nodded in understanding.
Then the doctor took a fresh needle and pricked the man’s finger. The man recoiled in shock at the sharp pain, and his finger immediately began to bleed. Slowly, the man’s eyes widened with newfound understanding.
“Do you get it now?” the doctor and the man’s wife asked excitedly.
“Yes… Yes, I do!” the man exclaimed.
“Dead men do bleed!”
And that is the way it will be. If God were to appear in the skies, burning bright with glory and awesome power… More than half the world would probably dismiss His manifestation as a hallucination, a trick, aliens with advanced technology, the devil himself… Anything but the correct conclusion that God is real!
(The above stories are paraphrased from as found in Josh McDowell’s and Lee Strobel’s books – both of them are former disbelievers who turned to Christ after studying the evidence. Their stories are at Christianity – The Faith of Famously Intellectual, Logical, Reasonable Thinkers.)
In fact, one wonders if even after death, when the souls of all people – believers and unbelievers – are judged before the throne of God, the latter will still stubbornly refuse to believe He exists! Thus not acknowledging that God is real, how can they accept Jesus’ free offer of salvation? How can they spend eternity in a non-existent heaven praising a non-existent God?
C.S. Lewis included such types of people in The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia series, as explained by Sun and Shield:
In The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis, some dwarves have an interesting role. They refuse to believe in a false Aslan, and also refuse to believe in a real one. When the Calormenes throw them into a dark stable, they refuse to see anything but what you would expect to find in such a building, even though other characters in the book can see that the stable, in reality, is not dark, and has no walls — just a door.
Lucy Pevensie, who has a soft heart, tries to get the Lion, Aslan, to make things better for the dwarves, Aslan produces a banquet for them. They eat, but they think they are eating old cattle food, or drinking from a trough for animals. When a dwarf is picked up and carried toward the outside, he experiences being slammed into the wall, even though there is no wall. Aslan says that they have chosen not to believe, and there is nothing he can do for them.
Belief because of signs is no substitute for true faith. When Abraham believed he and Sara would have a child, when David slung a stone at Goliath, when the woman with bleeding touched Jesus’ garment – none of them had any evidence, proof or sign that told them for certain IT WILL BE DONE.
They first believed, and thus they received.