John 4:48 NIV
"Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders," Jesus told him, "you will never believe."
People learn in different ways: through listening, through seeing, through doing and touching, and through explaining with words. Some of us like to learn in groups, others would rather learn alone. Some use logic and reason, others use intuition and imagination.
Most of us use all these avenues in some combination for learning as the Bible infers. In Philippians 4:9 Jesus says, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me - put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” But to make a dramatic point, the Bible often refers to wonders, signs, miracles, and works as means for Spirit to move throughout Creation.
…and God verified the message by signs and wonders and various miracles and by giving gifts of the Holy Spirit whenever he chose to do so.
I was not always certain of the difference between these words, and maybe it makes no difference, but the teacher in me wants to explain.
Miracles are pretty self-explanatory from our present day definition. In 100 CE, however, the word meant something just slightly different. The word in the original Greek is dunamis, and is used 119 times in the New Testament. Only seven of those times is it translated as ‘miracle’ in the English Standard Version, which is predominantly a word-for-word translation. It is translated as ‘power’ – 90 times, ‘mighty work’ – 13 times, ‘strength’ twice, ‘means’ twice, and ‘meaning’, ‘mighty’, ‘ability’, ‘powerfully’, and ‘miraculous powers’ each once.
Most often, dunamis translates to ‘power’ in English. The word ‘miracle’ is rarely rendered. Perhaps then, a better translation for dunamis is ‘the ability and power to perform mighty acts’.
What about the word ‘signs’? The modern Greek pronunciation is semeion, [say-may’-yohn], meaning: to give a sign, to signify, to indicate, to make known. In English, a ‘sign’ is usually a visual form of information or direction. And although we can see a sign intended to give us information, sometimes we misinterpret them.
[joke: Parked on the side of the road is a state trooper. Trying to catch speeders, he encounters a car putting along at 22 miles an hour as his radar indicated. He thinks to himself, “This driver is as dangerous as someone is speeding.” So he put on the lights, pulls the car over, finds a car full of elderly ladies. There's two in the front and three in the back, and they look pale and petrified. So, he puts on a calming demeanor and says, “Ma'am, you were going 22 miles an hour.” The driver says, “I don't understand. I was trying to go the speed limit the best that I could. The officer chuckles and says, Ma’am, this is State Route 22; it’s not the speed limit. Then he notices that all the women look frantic and asks the driver, “Is everything OK in the car?” And the woman kind of smiled sheepishly and says, “Oh yes, they'll be alright. We just got off of Hwy 127.”
In a soccer match the goalkeeper of both teams wears a special jersey that is a different color than either team’s jerseys. We could say that their specially colored jersey ‘is a sign that the player is a goal-keeper and are different because they can use their hands in the match.’ In much the same way, Jesus performed many miracles and acts that were a sign to His spiritual power and awareness. So a ‘sign’ authenticates Spirit and God’s eternal purpose, by doing things that mere man cannot replicate or take credit for.
In John 6, the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, the word semeion/sign is used to describe the multiplication of the food. Although the dividing of the bread is definitely a miraculous event and the definition of dunamis/miracle would seem appropriate, still, the author of John used the word semeion instead.
The reason may have been that semeion usually describes a miraculous event when there is an emphasis on a secondary function and not the act itself. When Jesus multiplied the food, this action demonstrated to the five thousand people that he had power and ability to create something out of nothing. It also showed his compassion for the people’s needs, and that He could provide for them beyond natural means.
The act reveals some of the nature and personality of Jesus as well as the power of God expressing through him. Using semeion to describe this event does two things: describes a miraculous happening and reveals something more. It is this indirect message, or secondary purpose, that distinguishes the word semeion/sign from the word dunamis/miracle.
Perhaps the best interpretation of the Greek word semeion, which we read as ‘sign’, is an act, natural or supernatural, that is performed for us to see and secondarily reveals to us aspects of God’s power and nature.
Wonders are slightly different still. The original Greek word is: Teras.Every occurrence of ‘wonders’ in the Bible is used with the word ‘signs’.
In Acts 2:19 we are told that ‘wonders’ take place in the Heavens and ‘signs’ take place on the earth. In contrast to miracles and signs, teras/wonders most often stress God as the creator of the supernatural act. It seems this word meant ‘a miraculous event that was performed by God Himself, along with a sign.’
The last word that describes how spirit moves into Creation is through the word ‘works’. The original Greek word is Ergon. Some people think of ‘work’ as some repetitive meaningless activity, bland and passionless. This is not the meaning of ergon. Ergon is work for a purpose; for life itself. It emphasizes actively working in expectation of return. For example, a farmer planting a crop in expectation of receiving a harvest is ergon/work. In fact, scholars believe that the Greek word originated from a Hebrew word which means ‘to plow’.
In John 6:28-29, we read “Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works [ergon] of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work [ergon] of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
An amazed crowd had just witnessed with their own eyes Christ multiplying the food and feeding the multitude. They wanted to know how to do these acts, and Jesus’ answer is to believe in the Christ, to have faith in God. He goes on to reference the manna that was provided for the Israelites when they left the oppression of Pharaoh saying that it was not Moses who provided it, but God. God is the provider, God is the Source of all, and it is His power that performs these works, not man’s.
The question arises: are there signs, and wonders, and miracles, and works going on today? My answer would be ‘yes, definitely’, but not always as the Bible indicated.
Within the definition and context of dunamis, ‘the ability and power to perform mighty acts’, have we not seen mighty acts in recent times? – The fall of the Berlin Wall, the mitigation of Small Pox, the invention of electricity, or penicillin. We have seen acts of heroism during catastrophic times, such as that by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, France, in 1940 who issued thousands of visas to Jews fleeing the Nazis; or Giorgio Perlasca, a meat importer from Padua who posed as a Spanish diplomat in Nazi-controlled Hungary in 1944, to save nearly 5,000 Jews from the gas chambers.
Over the last 100 years we have seen acts that display the power of God, such as Gandhi’s passive overthrow of British imperialism in India or Mother Theresa’s willingness to work among the poor.
We have experienced powerful creations that help people. Jesus said that we would do ‘these things and even greater things would we do’. He fed 5,000. Today we have disease resistant grains that feed millions of people, medications that heal millions, energy sources that heat millions of homes, and water purification systems that keep millions healthy.
We have heard of or personally experienced events that are inexplicable like the story of a little girl who was raised in a household devoid of religion. One night when the little girl was five, the parents had a fight. The husband shot his wife and then himself, all in front of the girl. She was placed in foster care and on the first day of Sunday school at the church her new family attended, the teacher held up a picture of Jesus and asked the children, “Does anyone know who this is?” The little girl said, “I do. That is the man that held me the night my parents died.”
A young man was training to be an Olympic diver. The only religious influence in his life came from his outspoken Christian friend. The young diver never really paid much attention to his friend’s sermons, but he heard them often. One night the diver went to the indoor pool at the college he attended. The lights were all off, but the pool had big skylights and the moon was bright, there was plenty of light to practice by. The young man climbed up to the highest diving board and as he turned his back to the pool on the edge of the board and extended out his arms, his silhouette produced the shape of a cross on the wall.
Seeing that image triggered an emotional and spiritual response that struck his soul. Instead of diving, he knelt down and opened his heart to God. As the young man stood, a maintenance man walked in and turned the lights on revealing the horrific truth: The pool had been drained for repairs.
On March 2015, Lynn Jennifer Groesbeck, 25, lost control of her car and landed in the icy Spanish Fork River in Utah. Fourteen hours later, first responders found her 18-month-old daughter, Lily, in her car seat hanging upside down just above frigid river water. Prior to finding Lily, both police officers and firefighters report that they heard an adult voice yell "Help me!" from inside the car. They discovered that the voice could not have come from the young mother, who likely died from the impact. The rescuers still can’t explain the voice or how the girl survived hanging upside-down for 14 hours in freezing temperatures without being dressed for the cold.
So yes, I would say that signs, wonders, and miracles are present even today… because Spirit is ever-present.
Jesus was not big on miracles and signs. He performed them when appropriate or necessary, but did not usually make a big deal about them. In fact, he was critical of people who relied on signs and miracles. In John 4:48 Jesus asked, “Must I do miraculous signs and wonders before you people will believe in me?”
His teachings are clear…we are to believe in God, not signs; to rely on faith and prayer to build our relationship and not on miracles. For even a powerful ego can create signs and wonders. Matthew 24:24 clearly states: For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
As we live our life in faith, trusting in God, making the inner connection with Spirit, we will experience personal signs along the way; we will see miracles and wonders, and they will seem as normal and natural as breathing. Through the power of Christ within, each of us has the power and ability to perform mighty acts. It is what we are called to do. When we are attuned to Spirit, everything we do has purpose; it is God’s ergon, God’s work. We are the vessels God uses to do much of His work.
While signs, miracles and wonders can open our minds and eyes to the power of Spirit, my prayer is that we do not obsess over them. Instead, let us open our hearts to God, as the in-dwelling power of Christ reveals itself as love, joy, peace, harmony, and abundance. When we change our focus, we literally ‘begin living again’; the past is gone, and we are renewed.