Open Matthew 12:9-13.
Why did Jesus do miracles? Was he showing off his divinity? That’s what many people think, but it’s not what the Gospel writers say.
Sure, Jesus was God-with-us (Matthew 1:23), but the incarnation meant God laying aside his divine powers to live as a true human. The miracles are not evidence of his uniqueness; they are the practical expressions of a human being appointed by God and functioning under divine authority.
If the miracles were just God showing off during his human phase, imagine what he might have got up to during the first 30 years of his life! That mindset did fuel some pretty bizarre speculation in the centuries after Christ:
In the ‘Orthodox’ Apocryphal Gospels pious imagination is given full rein. We are met with an infant Jesus who performs miracles, usually through the intercession of his mother. We read of a child whose miraculous powers are sometimes used in a capricious manner. For example, Jesus humiliates his teacher, kills then resurrects the schoolyard bully, claps his hands and brings to life clay pigeons, kills a poisonous viper by breathing on it (and at the same time restores to health his younger brother James), saves the lives of various ill and injured, and saves Joseph’s reputation as a carpenter by stretching a plank of expensive cedar that had been cut too short.
— Craig A. Evans, “Images of Christ in the Canonical and Apocryphal Gospels” in Images of Christ: Ancient and Modern edited by Stanley Porter et al, (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 71.
In the canonical Gospels, Jesus’ miracles are signs that God is working through him, that he is the anointed servant of the Lord, that he is the chosen king of Israel, that kingly authority has been entrusted to him. He is the human (the son of man) who is bringing the earth back under the reign of heaven (the kingdom of heaven).
The claim that Jesus’ miracles prove he was God just doesn’t work:
- Moses did miracles, but he wasn’t God. The miracles showed that Moses was God’s appointed servant, called to save his people from evil rule and form them into a kingdom under God.
- Elijah did miracles, but he wasn’t God. The miracles demonstrated that Elijah was God’s spokesman, called to confront Israel’s rulers and lead the people back under God’s kingship.
That’s how the Law and the Prophets work. It’s also how the New Testament works. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these” (John 14:12). God gives miraculous power to his servants not to show that we’re God but to show his authority at work setting things right through us.
No, Jesus did not do random miracles to show off his divinity. He did miracles as the servant of the heavenly sovereign on earth, miracles that enact his divine appointment to restore creation under God’s reign.
Here’s an example:
Matthew 12:9-13 (my translation)
9 Leaving there, he went to their synagogue, 10 where there was a person with a disfigured hand. They asked him if it was permissible to heal on the Sabbath, so they could bring charges against him.
11 He replied, “If you have a sheep, and on a Sabbath it falls in a drain, which person among you wouldn’t take hold of it and lift it up? 12 How much more should a person be elevated over a sheep! It is permissible on Sabbaths to act beneficially.”
13 Then he said to the person, “Extend your hand.” He extended it, and it was restored, as healthy as his other one.
Note the emphasis here on humanity, not divinity. The highlighted word above is anthrōpos. It means person, human being, man or woman. Anyone who’s human understands that if you have an animal in your care and it falls, you’re responsible to lift it up it. God gave humans authority (dominion) over the animals, to care for them just as God cares for us. That’s how the kingdom of God was originally established in Genesis 1: heaven reigns over us, and we (as his agents/images) reign over the other creatures (not over each other).
So what happens when humanity falls in a pit? It’s God’s responsibility, and he is working to rescue us and restore rest to his realm. Jesus is his appointed agent, so Jesus has authority to restore a person to wholeness, even on rest day.
Jesus is the son of man (anthrōpos again). He’s in charge of restoring God’s creation, giving it rest. That was the point of the miracle in the synagogue: “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (12:8).
The Galilean rulers understood the miracle as Jesus’ claim to be God’s anointed agent, the Messiah. That’s why they conspired to discredit him. The conflict was — and still is — all about his kingship.
What others are saying
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (London: SPCK, 1996), 196:
Within the public career of Jesus, therefore, the mighty works were not simply showy magic, nor the attempt to win support from crowds, and certainly not in themselves indications or hints that Jesus was ‘divine’ (whatever that might be deemed to mean). They were signs which were intended as, and would have been perceived as, the physical inauguration of the kingdom of Israel’s god, the putting into action of the welcome and the warning which were the central message of the kingdom and its redefinition.
[previous: Giving God’s world rest]