The Fact and Significance of Miracles

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 11 November 1987, the Holy Father began a series of considerations on the miracles of Christ, their historicity and importance.

On the day of Pentecost, after receiving the light and power of the Holy Spirit, Peter bore clear and courageous witness to Christ crucified and risen. "Men of Israel," he proclaimed, "hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and crucified...and killed. But God raised him up, releasing him from the pangs of death" (Acts 2:22-24).

This testimony includes a synthesis of the whole messianic activity of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God had commended by "mighty deeds, wonders and signs." It also constitutes an outline of the first Christian catechesis, which is offered to us by the head of the apostolic college, Peter.

After nearly two thousand years the present successor of Peter, in developing his reflections on Jesus Christ, must now deal with the content of that first apostolic catechesis on the day of Pentecost. Until now we have spoken of the Son of Man, who by his teaching made it known that he was the true Son of God, that he and the Father "are one" (cf. Jn 10:30). His word was accompanied by "mighty works, wonders and signs." These deeds accompanied the words, not only following them by way of confirming their authenticity, but frequently preceding them, as the Acts of the Apostles gives us to understand when speaking "of all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning" (Acts 1:1). It was those same works and particularly "the marvels and signs" that testified that "the kingdom of God was at hand" (cf. Mk 1:15), that with Jesus it had entered into the earthly history of humanity and was eager to enter into every human spirit. At the same time they were a witness that he who performed them was truly the Son of God. For this reason it is necessary to link these present reflections on Christ's mighty deeds and signs with the previous ones on his divine sonship.

1.  Eyewitness testimonies to Christ

Before proceeding step by step in analyzing the significance of these "wonders and signs" (as Peter had specifically defined them on the day of Pentecost), one must note that they (the wonders and signs) certainly pertain to the integral content of the Gospels as eyewitness testimonies to Christ. It is not possible to exclude the mighty deeds from the Gospel text and context. The analysis not only of the text but also of the context speaks in favor of their "historical" character. It attests that they are facts which actually happened, and that they were really performed by Christ. Whoever approaches the matter with intellectual honesty and scientific expertise cannot dispose of them in a few words as simply later inventions.

In this regard it is well to observe that these facts are not only attested to and narrated by the apostles and disciples of Jesus, but in many cases they are admitted by his opponents. For example, it is significant that they did not deny the reality of the miracles performed by Jesus, but they attributed them to the power of Satan. For they said, "He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he drives out demons" (Mk 3:22; cf. also Mt 8:32, 12:24; Lk 11:14-15). But Jesus clearly pointed out the contradiction in these remarks. He said, "If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end" (Mk 3:26). But the most important thing for us at the moment is the fact that even Jesus' opponents could not deny his "mighty deeds, wonders and signs" as reality—as facts which had actually taken place.

It is also a notable fact that his opponents watched Jesus to see whether he would heal on the sabbath, and thus they would be in position to accuse him of transgressing the Old Testament law. This was stated in the case of the man with the withered hand (cf. Mk 3:1-2).

Also to be considered is Jesus' reply, not to his opponents, but to the messengers sent by John the Baptist to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" (Mt 11:3). Jesus replied, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them" (Mt 11:4-5; cf. also Lk 7:22). Jesus' reply refers to Isaiah's prophecy about the future Messiah (cf. Is 35:5-6), which could undoubtedly be understood in the sense of a renewal and of a spiritual healing of Israel and of humanity. But in the Gospel context, in the mouth of Jesus, it indicates facts commonly known and which the Baptist's disciples can report to him as signs of Christ's messiahship.

All the evangelists record the facts to which Peter referred on the day of Pentecost, "mighty deeds, wonders and signs" (cf. Acts 2:22). The Synoptics narrate many individual events, but at times they also use generalized expressions. For example, Mark's Gospel states, "He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons" (1:34). Likewise Matthew and Luke state, "...curing every disease and illness among the people" (Mt 4:23); "...power came forth from him and healed them all" (Lk 6:19). These expressions give us to understand the great number of miracles performed by Jesus. In John's Gospel we do not find such expressions, but rather the detailed description of seven events which the evangelist calls "signs" (and not miracles). Thereby he wished to indicate the most essential element of those facts, namely, the revelation of God's action in Jesus. The word "miracle" indicates rather the extraordinary aspect of those events in the eyes of those who saw them or who heard them spoken of.

However, before concluding his Gospel, John also considered it important to mention that "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book" (Jn 20:30). He then gave the reason for the choice he had made. "These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name" (Jn 20:31). This is the aim of both the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel—to show by means of the miracles the truth of the Son of God and to lead to the faith which is the beginning of salvation.

When on the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter bore witness to the entire mission of Jesus of Nazareth, attested to by God with "mighty deeds, wonders and signs," he could not but recall that the same Jesus was crucified and risen (cf. Acts 2:22-24). He thus indicated the paschal event in which is offered the most complete sign of God's saving and redemptive action in human history. One might say that this sign encloses the "anti-miracle" of the death on the cross and the "miracle" of the resurrection (miracle of miracles) which are rooted in a single mystery. In it the human person can read to the very depths God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and by adhering to it by faith enter on the way of salvation.