What Are the Mighty Works of God’s Kingdom? (A Study in the Gospel of Matthew with Ben Witherington)

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Key Observation: Jesus’ miracles are visible signs that God’s saving reign (otherwise known as the kingdom) was truly breaking into history in the ministry of Jesus.

Matthew has arranged his Gospel such that large blocks of teaching like Matthew 5–7 alternate with accounts of Jesus and the disciples’ activities. Matthew 8–9 is the first large block of Jesus’ miracle stories. If we ask why the crowds kept following Jesus around, it was not primarily because of his teaching, but rather because so many people needed healing in an age before modern medicine. Matthew presents Jesus as one who proclaims the kingdom in word (5–7) and deed (8–9).

What are we to say about miracles? They are, by definition, things only God and his power can accomplish. There is a difference between the ordinary providence of God, working mundane events together for good, and a miracle. And it’s important to distinguish miracles from human attempts at magic. Magic is a human attempt to get hold of some remarkable or divine power and make something happen. It’s a bottom-up operation. Miracles are top-down things that are in the hands of God.

Humans cannot make God an offer he can’t refuse. It is true, however, that God responds to some human activities with healing and help, for example, genuine prayer and faith. Lack of faith can impede a healing or miracle from happening, but there are plenty of examples in the Gospels, including in Matthew 8–9, where Jesus heals without faith being a prerequisite. The Gadarene demoniacs story is a good example (see Matthew 8:28–34).

And lastly, there is a mystery to all this. Why are some healed and others not? There is not always a one-to-one correlation between genuine faith and healing. Remember the famous story of Paul’s earnest request to have God remove his thorn in the flesh (the Greek literally says “a stake in the flesh”). God answered that request with a no, because “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7–10, specifically v. 9).

There are different kinds of miracles—exorcisms, physical healings from things like leprosy, nature miracles (calming of storm, water into wine, fig tree shriveled, walking on water), and the raising of the dead (the widow of Nain’s son, the synagogue ruler’s daughter). Jesus can perform all of these sorts of miracles, and he does so by the Spirit of God. In fact, he even says at one point that he casts out demons by the Spirit of God (see Matthew 12:28), which fully and richly dwelled in and on Jesus since his baptism. In other words, if we are wondering how the disciples could perform the same mighty works as Jesus, it is because it is the work of the Spirit through Jesus and then through his disciples. The miracles in themselves do not prove Jesus’ divinity, for he chose to do them by the power of the Spirit. He operated during his earthly ministry by the power of the Word and the power of the Spirit, just as his disciples can do; the difference being Jesus did not have to deal with the hindrances of sin. Jesus was fully human like us, yet without sin, and at the same time fully divine. Jesus did not draw on his divine capacities (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence) while on this earth so that he could indeed be a model that we, by God’s power, can emulate and approximate in terms of trust in God, behavior, and ministry. We are called to do Christlike things; indeed, Jesus even says we will do greater mighty works than he has done (John 14:12–14).

The reason Jesus didn’t make miracles his main focus is that propping up this fallen flesh is not God’s ultimate aim, because this life is not all there is. There is also the life to come, everlasting life, and more to the point, there is the resurrection of believers yet to come, when we will be fully conformed to Christ’s image and have a body immune to disease, decay, death, suffering, sin, and sorrow. Even when Jesus raised the synagogue ruler’s daughter (see Matthew 9:18–26), she went on to die again because she was brought back to this life in a mortal body. Temporary miracles are not permanent solutions to our fallen condition. This is why the message of salvation and eternal life was Jesus’ main priority, and not the temporary healing of all-too-mortal persons.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What counts as a miracle from the biblical perspective, and how should we view them? Will they solve all our problems?
  2. Why did Jesus prioritize preaching and teaching over miracle working?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. In this Bible study on the Gospel of Matthew with Dr. Ben Witherington III, we discover Jesus as Matthew presents him—the incarnate wisdom of God that brings the kingdom of heaven to earth. Following the text through the stories, parables, and noting the special miracles, God’s people are presented with the mission and ministry of Jesus the Messiah who fulfills the Jewish Law. At times he raises the standard, other times he authoritatively reinterprets its meaning, and finally, he fulfills its requirements through his life, death, and resurrection. All of this is to widen and deepen the reach of God’s heavenly kingdom, which we discover extends to all people at the end of the Gospel. Get the Bible Study, plus the DVD or streaming portion, in our store here.

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Dr. Witherington joined the Asbury Seminary faculty in 1995. A prolific author, Dr. Witherington has written more than 40 books and six commentaries. He is a John Wesley Fellow for Life, a research fellow at Cambridge University and a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Society of Biblical Literature, Society for the Study of the New Testament and the Institute for Biblical Research. In his leisure time, Dr. Witherington appreciates both music and sports. It is hard to say which sound he prefers: the sophisticated sonance of jazz sensation Pat Metheny or the incessant tomahawk chant of the Atlanta Braves faithful. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he is a dedicated Tar Heels basketball and football fan. He and his wife, Ann, have two children.

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