Grace - fresh vital worship since 1993

From Jeffrey John - introduction

A summary of Jeffrey John's book "The Meaning in the Miracles".

The Guardian Editor section used to include summaries of books "condensed in the style of the original", and that is what I have tried to do here.


The author starts by referring to two Scripture teachers from his school. One of them believed the Bible in the most literal possible sense, and considered the meaning of each miracle story was to prove the supernatural nature of Jesus. The other teacher, in the interests of being relevant, dismissed anything that sounded supernatural. Her explanation of the miracles was therefore naturalistic (e.g. the calming of the storm was a convenient coincidence) or moralistic (e.g. the feeding of the five thousand was achieved by inspiring everyone to share the food they had). Both teachers assumed that the only interesting thing about the miracles was the question of what did or did not happen, and both therefore missed the point. What we need to do is look for the meaning.

"Let us ask the miracles themselves what they tell us about Christ, for they have a tongue of their own, if it can only be understood. Because Christ is the Word of God, all the acts of the Words become words to us. The miracle which we admire on the outside also has something inside which must be understood. If we see a piece of beautiful handwriting, we are not satisfied simply to note the letters are formed evenly, equally and elegantly: we also want to know the meaning the letters convey. In the same way a miracle is not like a picture, something merely to look out and admire, and to be left at that. It is much more like a piece of writing which we must learn to read and understand." -- St Augustine

a) Each miracle story is a literary creation with a theological purpose. The gospel writers were steeped in Old Testament Scripture, and constantly use threads of prophecy-fulfilment, symbolism, or allegory to create a new story which reapplies the truths, hopes, patterns and meanings of the scriptural past to the present.

Therefore the key to unlocking the theological meaning of a miracle story requires knowledge of the Old Testament. The author therefore recommends following up the cross-references in the Bible, and using a good commentary.

b) The stories must be understood in their own religious, historical, social and political context. A story such as the healing of a woman with a haemorrhage shows Jesus overturning a taboo which subjugated and oppressed women, and was nothing less than revolutionary. Read properly, it challenges the Church to assess its own treatment of women today as powerfully as Jesus challenged the gynophobic conventions of his own time.

A similar point can be made about most, if not all, of the healing miracles. They seem to have been deliberately selected by the evangelist to show Jesus healing at least one of every category of persons who, according to the purity laws of Jesus' society, were specifically excluded and labeled unclean, or who was set at varying degrees of distance from worshipping in a temple. They are demonstrations of Jesus' healing power and compassion for the individual, but that is not the main point. Far more relevant to us is the miracles' universal significance: the overturning of social and religious barriers, the abolition of taboos, and Jesus' declaration of God's love and compassion for everyone, expressed in a systematic inclusion of each class of the previous excluded and marginalised. How often has the Church failed to follow this inclusiveness and, and preferred instead to create and cling to its own taboos?

c) Principalities and powers. The gospels continually refer to demonic powers, and we must avoid the pitfalls of literalism and reductionism. We are not required to believe in the existence of demons with forked tails, nor even, necessarily, in the powers as being entirely distinct, self existent entities, but nor should we simply dismiss them as if they were merely outdated dramatic trappings which no longer mean anything in a "scientific" age. The New Testament uses the same terms to mean both supernatural forces and the very real powers which represent them on earth. (They are not inherently bad.)

Just as the healing miracles often imply reinclusion of a whole class of excluded persons, the power of sin and rebellion against God, and the healing that they require, must be understood as operating corporately as well as individually.

d) Faith. One of the many paradoxes in the gospels is that at first sight the miracles seem to be intended as straightforward demonstrations of Jesus' divine power, but at the same time the gospels contain strong warnings about the dangers of being impressed by signs and miracles, and Jesus himself appears to be extremely wary of being known simply as a wonder-worker, and is scathing about those who seek signs for their own sake. A personal belief in Jesus that goes deeper than self-interest and the mere worship of power is at least part of what the gospels mean by "faith".

e) Eyes to see (and ears to hear). When the disciples fail to understand the significance of the miracles, they seem to incarnate both the particular spiritual blindness of Israel and the general spiritual blindness of all humanity. Mark in particular appears to believe that God had willed a temporary spiritual blindness to come upon the people which actually prevented them from understanding. The hope, prophesied by Isaiah, remains that one day all the blind eyes will be opened. All the gospel miracles of Jesus healing the blind are to be interpreted in terms of this theology of revelation: their point is not medical but spiritual and theological.

Summary: the background knowledge of a miracle is indispensable if we are to get the spiritual meaning. All the miracle stories contain profound teaching which is of indispensable relevance today, teaching that all too often gets passed over because we do not get past the "miraculous" packaging and the endless issue of "did it happen?" We should aim to share the same perception of the truth that impelled the evangelists to write the miracle stories in the first place.

That covers the introduction -- the rest of the book consists of analysis, from the above perspectives, of almost all the miracles. Each chapter also has some devotional materials.

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