Miracle or Sign?

Paraphrasing a question from Susan Ramos:

In Luke 23:8, Herod is hoping Jesus will do something impressive so he can see it. Sometimes this is translated that he wanted Jesus to do a “sign” and other times that he wanted Jesus to do a “miracle”. You said that many recent translations are using the word “sign”. Could you explain please?

In the Bible, the Greek word sēmeíon is usually translated these days as sign or wonder. Jesus was doing signs that pointed to the his identity as God. Herod wanted to see something spectacular – what we would call a miracle, even though Luke is careful to use the word “sign”. I’m not a Greek scholar and should let others handle explaining translation issues, but the reason I pointed this out was that I heard one translation in our reading use the “miracle” language and others use “sign”.

There are some significant ideas tied up in the choice of translation. In modern times, say, since the scientific revolution, nature has often been conceived as a big machine with regular workings. Atoms and molecules interact, chemical reactions take place, physical bodies move, and these workings take a regular order that can be described and predicted (if one knows enough). So, for example, it was predicted in advance that the today sun would shine directly on the equator of the earth (vernal equinox) and that there would be a solar eclipse visible over parts of northern Europe. There wasn’t anything miraculous about it even though a solar eclipse is very rare.

The concept of miracle came to be that sometimes God reaches into this big natural machine and does things which are not explained by the workings of nature and that cannot be predicted from natural knowledge no matter how much one knows. In this context, a miracle has no natural explanation. God has interrupted the regular working of nature and inserted a cause of events from outside of nature: God Himself. That is a technical definition of “miracle”. Sometimes people mean this when they say “miracle” today and sometimes they mean something less precise.

This division of things into “natural” and “miraculous” can be misleading from a biblical standpoint. In biblical teaching, God is responsible for creating and maintaining (upholding) the regular working of nature. For example, see Colossians 1:17. From a Christian perspective, it is because God is a powerful, intelligent, orderly god that nature has its order and can be studied and its working understood and even predicted. Nature and its regular working is an act of God. Every day; every moment. If God chooses to act in a way that is not his regular pattern then this would be what we might call a “miracle”, but it would not be any more or less that God was responsible for it than he is responsible for the regular working of the world.

OK, so what makes something a sign? It means something in God’s revelation of himself to us. For example, God could do what we would call a “miracle” down deep in the depths of the earth – say moving a rock that he intends to have some effect far in the future. It wouldn’t be a sign for us because we don’t know anything about it. God could cause the events of nature to coincide so that the eclipse today took place just as a Christian saint was passing away and by his Spirit speak to those attending the death of the saint and it be a sign for them. Nothing miraculous took place, in the sense that the working of nature was not interrupted and the eclipse took place exactly and for the physical reasons that humans understand, but the timing of events could make it a sign for those who trust God and hear from his Spirit.

For another example, what if God caused a strong wind to blow and divide the sea so that Israel could escape from Egyptian chariots? What if the wind could be explained by the weather patterns of the day and a low pressure system in the right place at the right time with the force of the resulting wind so strong that it made a dry passage appear in a way that has a natural explanation? Does that make it any less a sign that God has acted to save Israel? I think not. But we don’t know the explanation for the wind except to say that it was from God. And we thank God for it.

Finally, some might use the word “miracle” in a different way to mean that something unexpected happened. They might say that God’s timing of a naturally-explained wind or eclipse was a miracle. I get what they mean. It might not be a miracle in this technical sense, but I get what they mean. God did something that impressed then and that was perhaps even a sign for them.

When God provides for you, you may decide to call it a miracle if you want to. We know where the credit goes, don’t we? Whether there is a natural explanation or something happened that interrupted the natural flow of cause and effect, God gets the credit for blessing us. It comes as a sign of his goodness. Many people use the word “miracle” in this way. However, it is good to understand the more technical usage and why modern Bible translations use the word “sign” when that is more appropriate. God is behind natural events and miracles. There is nothing without the great “I am”.

Follow up… Is it a miracle when God answers prayer? I would say it is not necessarily a miracle in the technical sense. I believe God is outside of time as humans experience it and can see all of time at once in his perspective. If that is true, then God could hear your prayer today and act at the creation of the world to bring about the answer to your prayer through natural events with no need for any miracle; because God is outside of time and Lord over it. At least that’s what I think – that God can see all times at once in His knowledge of everything, also known as omniscience.

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