May 13, 2012

Healing & Preaching

Luke 4:38–44

Jesus performed many miraculous healings out of compassion for the suffering. But Christ’s miracles were much more than acts of mercy. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke, showing how Jesus’ miracles attest to the divine authority and truth of His teaching.


We are going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We’re still in chapter 4, and I’ll be reading verses 38 through 44:

Now He arose from the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. But Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a high fever, and they made request of Him concerning her. So He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. And immediately she arose and served them.

When the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying out and saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of God!”

And He, rebuking them, did not allow them to speak, for they knew that He was the Christ.

Now when it was day, He departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowd sought Him and came to Him and tried to keep Him from leaving them; but He said to them, “I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, because for this purpose I have been sent.” And He was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee.

On this Mother’s Day morning, you have just had the unspeakable privilege of hearing a word from God Himself in this sacred text. Please receive it as carrying the full measure and weight of His truth. Let’s pray.

Again, our Father, we ask that You would visit us in this hour. We ask that the Holy Spirit might descend upon this place and accompany the preaching of His Word, carrying that Word not only to our ears but to our hearts and our souls, so that by His Word we would be sanctified. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Peter’s Mother-in-Law’s Fever

Luke has been giving us a chronicle of Jesus’ activity in the early years of His Galilean ministry. We saw what happened when He preached at His home synagogue of Nazareth, when the response of the people was: “We know who You are. You’re Joseph’s son.” Then He went to Capernaum and was confronted by a demon, who said something a little different from the people at Nazareth. They said: “We know who you are. You’re the holy one, the son of God.” He was first identified simply as the son of Joseph and then, not so simply, the Son of Almighty God.

Luke continues the narrative by telling us what happened when Jesus went back to the house of Simon Peter, where presumably He was lodging. When He arrived, Simon’s mother-in-law, his wife’s mother, was sick. Luke the physician tells us that she was ill because of a high fever.

The Roman Catholic Church believes that Peter was the first pope. They also believe in the celibacy of their clergy, but here we must acknowledge that the first pope was married and had a mother-in-law, and subsequent popes didn’t have to deal so much with whatever issues that might bring with the experience. They say that for every great man there is a woman convinced he would never make it: his mother-in-law. I know you hear all the mother-in-law jokes, but this is not the day to repeat them because this is the day when we are called to honor the mothers, not to abase them.

In any case, this was a serious matter for Peter and his wife. In those days, if you ran a high fever, it could indicate a fatal illness. So, they were profoundly concerned. When Jesus came in, we are told that they made request of Him concerning her. I’m interested in how Jesus responded to that beseeching of the family.

Jesus’ Power Over Sickness

We read, “So He stood over her.” He stood beside her and “rebuked the fever.” What? It’s one thing for Jesus to rebuke a demon and have the demon leave the poor soul it had possessed, but we don’t think of fevers as capable of being admonished or rebuked. We might administer aspirin, or put cold compresses on somebody’s forehead, or at least call the doctor, but usually if our child or mother or anybody in the family is running a fever, we don’t stand there and admonish the fever. Whoever heard of such a thing?

I am not a physician, and I don’t always understand the difference between viral infections and bacterial infections, but I know that in some cases a fever may be an indicator of a bacterial infection. This was likely a bacterial infection because bacteria are living organisms subject to the Creator of Life, who is sovereign over all life. Even if it were not bacterial, if it were not a microscopic organism producing this fever in Peter’s mother-in-law, if it were an inert, inorganic, nonliving cause, that is no matter. The same One who can calm the sea and still the storm by the word of rebuke has the power and the authority to command rocks to speak or bacteria to leave a human body.

Jesus’ authority over all power and force of nature is made manifest in this event when He simply heals Peter’s mother-in-law by admonishing the fever, and He does so instantly. It is not only that the fever broke, but the fever left her so completely that all the consequences of the fever and her weakness from the fever also departed. She was so completely, instantly healed that she got up from her sickbed and ministered to those who were there, serving them. That is a remarkable thing, isn’t it?

Luke goes on to say after this that everybody in the town with anyone sick came to Jesus in great crowds and multitudes, beseeching Him to heal their loved ones who were suffering from diseases, demonic oppression and possession, and other matters. We are told that Jesus laid hands on every one of these persons and healed them completely.

The Purpose of Miracles

The earthly ministry of Jesus was accompanied by a blaze of miracles. In the time we have left this morning, I’d like to consider this question: Why all these miracles? What was the point of all these miracles?

The answer to that question is not so simple, and it can’t be answered with one basic factor in mind. Certainly, one of the strongest motivations for Jesus’ miraculous ministry was His compassion for people who were suffering. We are told again and again before Jesus heals people that He feels compassion for them. He demonstrates His concern and His care. He has the power to relieve the suffering, and so He does it out of compassion. There is, however, a larger question about the function of miracles altogether in sacred Scripture.

When thinking about the larger question of the function of miracles, we find a lot of confusion even in churches today. For example, I hear people say frequently that the miracles of the Bible are there to prove the existence of God. I don’t know a single place in sacred Scripture where the Bible says that the function of a miracle is to prove the existence of God. God doesn’t need to perform miracles to prove His existence. The creation proves the existence of God.

Paul tells us in Romans 1 that God’s general revelation, the revelation He gives of Himself externally in nature and internally in the conscience of every human being, reveals God clearly, plainly, manifestly, and convincingly to every human being that walks on the face of the earth. General revelation does this to such a degree, the Apostle tells us, that every person in this world knows that God exists.

We know there are people who deny the existence of God. We know there are people who protest God’s existence, but we know they’re not telling the truth. They say they don’t believe in the existence of God, but they can’t avoid believing in the existence of God. They can bury it, repress it, deny it, hate it, despise it—they can do all those things—but they can’t destroy the knowledge of God that He has planted in them and shown to them through the creation.

So, the function of a miracle is not to prove the existence of God or even to give corroborative evidence of the existence of God. If that is not the point of the miracle, then beyond compassion, what is the primary point of the miracle?

Miracles Signify beyond Themselves

There is no word directly corresponding to the word miracle in the New Testament. That word is in our vocabulary, and you may find it some of your English translations, but it is not there in the Greek. There is no single Greek word that means “miracle.”

We have three words used for miracles: “signs,” “wonders,” and “powers.” We look at those three words and extrapolate from them the common essence of the three, then articulate our concept of the miraculous. You might take, for example, the word “sign” in John’s gospel. When Jesus changes the water into wine and does other miracles, John will say, “And this sign Jesus did at Cana.” It’s called a sign because it’s significant. The point of the work that we call a miracle and that John calls a sign is, as a signpost ordinarily does, pointing beyond itself to something else; that is, the miracles of Jesus and of the Apostles are signs that point beyond the immediate action to something else. What is this something else? What is it that the miracles point to? If they are not pointing to the existence of God, what are they pointing to?

Miracles point to the attestation of God Himself to the person performing the miracle. They are God’s certification of His agents who speak and proclaim His Word. To illustrate this, let’s look in the book of Exodus, where we see the first outbreak of plenteous miracles recorded in the Old Testament during the ministry of Moses. We see miracles in preparation for, and after, the Exodus out of Egypt.

Moses Attested to by Miracles

God appeared to Moses in the burning bush in the Midianite wilderness. God gave Moses the task, the “Mission Impossible” of the day, to go to the most powerful monarch in all of the world, Pharaoh, and say: “God says that you are to let My people go. I’ve heard the cries and the groanings of these people that you have enslaved. I want you, Pharaoh, to set them free so that they can come out and worship Me at my mountain.”

After giving him this task, God said: “Moses, you have to go tell the people to be involved in the greatest walkout and mass labor movement in the history of the world against all this power. You have to persuade the people to revolt against the power of Pharaoh, get up, and leave.”

These were not small tasks. Moses was puzzled. He said: “I’m supposed to go to Pharaoh and say, ‘Let these people go’? Pharaoh will say, ‘Why should I do that?’ And I am going to say to him, ‘I was talking to this bush out in the desert and this voice came out of the bush and told me that I was supposed to come to you and say, “Let these people go.”’ How is that going to work? And if I go to the people and say: ‘Stop making bricks. We’re out of here. Follow me.’ They are going to say, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ How is anybody going to believe that You are sending me, and I am speaking Your Word?” That’s the question Moses brought to God.

Listen to how God answered it in Exodus 4:1: “Then Moses answered and said, ‘But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The LORD has not appeared to you.’” That is the question. Here is the answer:

Then the LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
He said, “A rod.”
And He said, “Cast it on the ground.” So, he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it.

Moses was terrified of this snake. Then God said to Moses: “Go on, Moses. Reach out your hand and grab a hold of that snake.” How would you like to do that? I don’t like snakes, and they don’t like me. The text says that Moses reached out, caught the snake, and it became a rod in his hand “that they may believe that the LORD God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”

Furthermore, the Lord said to Moses: “Put your hand in your bosom. Put your hand in your shirt.” Moses put his hand in his bosom, and when he took it out, his hand was leprous. Then God said, “Put your hand in your bosom again.” So Moses put it back in, brought it out again, and it was clean. What is happening here?

Moses was asking God, “How is anybody going to listen to me?” God answered by telling him to throw his rod on the ground and to hide his hand that it might become leprous. God was saying to Moses: “This is how they’re going to listen to you. You are going to perform miracles. When you perform those miracles, it won’t be to the end that these people will know that I exist; it will be for the purpose of letting them know that I sent you and that you are speaking My word.”

Speaking God’s word is exactly what Moses did. He went to Pharaoh and made the demands that God had made. Pharaoh brought out all his magicians and they played their games, throwing their sticks on the ground to become snakes, but then Moses’ snake ate up their snakes.

The whole point is that the court magicians of Pharaoh were just that, magicians. Collapsible boxes that concealed snakes was a kind of trick known in antiquity. The magicians pulled out all their tricks, but it didn’t take long for their tricks to end and the miracles of God to stay and to prevail.

Christ Confirmed by Miracles

Fast forward, now, to Hebrews 2 in the New Testament:

Therefore, we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us [how?] by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will? (Heb. 2:1–4, emphasis added)

Do you see that? The author of Hebrews says that we heard the word from God and from Christ, and God confirmed that it was His word through miracles.

The higher point of the miracles we find in the New Testament was to authenticate the spokesmen for God, that they were sent from God. Nicodemus understood when he came to Jesus by night and said, “Teacher, we know that Thou art a teacher sent from God, or You would not be able to do the things that You do.”

The Tight Definition of Miracles

I get this question all the time: “R.C., do you believe miracles happen today?” I hate it when people ask me that because they’re not hearing what I’m saying. If you want me to give the simple answer, the answer is “No.”

You go into the pastor’s office and the sign says, “Expect a miracle.” If you expect a miracle, if miracles are expectable, there is nothing miraculous about them. If they’re ordinary, they carry no certifiable weight. It’s by their extraordinary character that they have sign power, sign-nificance.

When people ask me, “Do you believe in miracles?” they’re asking one question, and I’m answering a different one. They are usually wanting to find out, “Do you believe that God is still working in the world supernaturally?” Of course, I do. “Do you believe that God answers prayers?” Of course, I do. “Do you believe that God heals people in response to prayers?” Of course, I do.

All miracles are supernatural, but not all supernatural acts are miracles. Theologians get tight in their making of distinctions. When I say I don’t believe in miracles today, I don’t believe in the tight kind of miracle, in the very narrow sense where a miracle is defined as a work that occurs in the external, perceivable world.

An extraordinary work in the external perceivable world, against the laws of nature, by the immediate power of God, a work that only God can do, such as bringing life out of death, such as restoring a limb that has been cut off by command, such as walking on the water, such as turning water into wine. Some of the marvelous signs in the New Testament wouldn’t even qualify as a miracle in this tight definition.

God’s Miraculous Authority

Why do we labor so hard for the tight definition of a miracle? For this reason: if anybody can perform miracles, particularly a person who is not an agent of divine revelation, then a miracle cannot certify an agent of revelation. This is the crux of it, so let me say it again: if a non-agent of revelation can perform a miracle, then a miracle cannot authenticate or certify a bona fide agent of revelation. If this were the case, then the New Testament’s claim that it carries the authority of God Himself because God has certified Christ and the Apostles by miracles, would be a false claim and a false argument.

What is at stake is the authority, authenticity, and truthfulness of the Bible itself. That is why I have this tight definition and why I don’t expect miracles, because I don’t expect to find Apostles running around today. The narrow miracles stopped at the end of the Apostolic age.

God is still alive. He is still working. He is still answering prayers in an amazing way. I have seen marvelous answers to prayers, and I have seen people healed of so-called terminal illnesses. However, I have never seen anybody raised out of the cemetery, or an arm that is severed growing back, or a preacher walking on the water. If you find one who can turn water into wine, give him my phone number.

The Lord Jesus did these miracles not only in the broad sense but also in the narrow sense. It is these miracles of the New Testament that are so important to us because they are God’s attestation of Jesus and of the Apostles, to whose authority we submit. Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, we thank You that You have certified the Apostolic Word by the manifestation of incontrovertible proofs of the miracles that were performed by Jesus and His Apostles. Thank You for that foundation of our faith that has been so viciously attacked in our day, yet nevertheless stands as Your Word because You have so plainly, clearly, and in manifold ways certified it to be Your Word. We thank You for that, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.