What were Jesus’ miracles all about? Remember that the first part of Mk focused on John the Baptist and for good reason. It was to tell us that Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of the coming of YHWH to Zion. Here we must look at the story behind the Story on its own terms without jumping ahead to the Story itself. When we flash ahead to the Story itself before going through the whole story behind the Story, without putting the Story in its proper story behind the Story context, we will sometimes misunderstand things so that we miss the true excitement of the Story itself. That’s something that even some recent scholarship has tended to miss altogether.
For instance, we had the hope of the fulfillment-time Elijah who would come in Ma 3 and 4. So often we know from our scriptures – such as Isaiah with the voice of one crying in the wilderness (Is 40 3 which is about YHWH, not the Messiah) – so often we know that the NT says the fulfillment-time Elijah figure was fulfilled by John the Baptist. We look at that passage in the story behind the Story and we look at Ma and we say, “Oh. The promise of the fulfillment-time Elijah was fulfilled by John the Baptist.” And then we get the idea that he was preparing the way for Jesus. So he was preparing the way for Jesus the Messiah and then we get to Mk 1 and see John the Baptist who is who Malachi talked about. That’s good as far as it goes but that fails to tell the whole story by a long shot. Understanding John the Baptist only in this fashion grossly misses the immense importance of John. His role in God’s plan of salvation was far more important than just preparing the way for Jesus.
Remember that in reading the story behind the Story in its proper context as we see in Ma – sometimes surprising to some – that the fulfillment-time Elijah was not promised to prepare the way for the Messiah. To understand John as preparing the way for the Messiah would be to grossly misunderstand the intertextual connections (intertextuality) we see all through the NT. For instance, Is 40 3 was not about the Messiah at all; it was about YHWH! (Remember always the two streams of expectation.) Therefore, the promise of the fulfillment-time Elijah was to prepare the way for YHWH! Ma 3 1 behold, I am going to send (I am about to send; I will send) my messenger (who will) and he will prepare the way before me (YHWH). … In Ma 3 there is nothing about the Davidic hope. There is nothing about the Messiah. True, the Davidic hope is found in many other passages but it’s not found in Ma 3 1. Instead, the fulfillment-time Elijah of Ma 3 1 was the prophet who would prepare the way for the greatest hope of all, that of the coming of YHWH to Zion which we learn about in Is 40, as well as many other OT Scriptures. All who knew their story behind the Story understood the context in which all of these things were prophesied.
That’s why Mk 1 focused on the John the Baptist and said in every way Mark could say it. That’s why John the Baptist said in every way he could through his praxis (his clothing, etc.) that we saw there – that he was the fulfillment-time Elijah. But, further, it wasn’t just to say Jn was the fulfillment-time Elijah. Instead, it was meant to send a larger, far more important message. If John the Baptist was the fulfillment-time Elijah, then, therefore, Jesus was not only the Davidic Messiah but, and even far more importantly, Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of the coming of YHWH to Zion. Jesus was YHWH come in the flesh! Jesus was God himself!
So now we focus on the story behind the Story by focusing on the John the Baptist figure. Here in Mt 11 Jesus himself was asked about John the Baptist. We’ll also learn more about Jesus’ miracles. Here Jesus will tell us the meaning of his miracles.
Scripture promises us that once God fulfilled his promises, Israel would be restored and renewed. There would be the fulfillment time Israel of God, the renewed and restored Israel. Here, in this text, the twelve disciples represent not the old Israel of the old covenant but the nucleus of the new, restored Israel, this multi-ethic community which God had founded through the gospel. “The Twelve” were to be the foundations of the Church, the foundation of the new Israel of God, this fulfillment time Israel which the Lord had founded and of which his twelve disciples were the nucleus. They were the founders of the Church. In fact, it’s through the apostles’ teaching that the whole Church stands to this day on its foundation.
We saw previously how in the midst of the story John had baptized Jesus. Shortly after that Jn was arrested by Herod the Great and thrown into prison.
But Matthew also assumes that Jn recognized Jesus’ righteousness. For example, Jn had heard the voice from heaven saying this is my beloved son (Mt 3 17). We saw in the baptism of Jesus passage in Mt 3 13-17 between Jesus and John that John seemed very much to know who Jesus was.
So John was suffering and yet he knew he himself was the fulfillment-time Elijah as we saw in Mk 1. For instance, John had said in Mk 1 7-8 that the one who comes after him was the one who was greater than he and I baptize you with water but he himself is the one who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
So John the Baptist himself knew who Jesus was. Still, he appeared to be wondering what’s going on here because, just like every devout Jew, he knew his Scriptures and, therefore, he knew that this Jesus was supposed to be God becoming king. This was supposed to be the time long-promised when God would judge and defeat evil. This was supposed to be the time when God would do away with evil, sin, suffering and death. Jesus was supposed to be the true king, and yet this evil King Herod had thrown him, John, into prison. And, evil, sin, suffering and death still stalked the world.
So Jn had this question. Since God had become king through the Incarnation and Jesus was doing these wonderful miracles, why was evil still rampant in the world? Jn’s question in v 3 came from this deep, existential soul-searching question. John didn’t know of the two stage character of the kingdom of God – that it would first be inaugurated and later consummated. He, like all of the Jews, thought it was all going to happen with one snap of the fingers. Therefore, he asked in v 3 …
Jn’s question was a sincere question coming from faith. It were as if Jn was asking, “Is this truly the kingdom of God? Is God becoming king?” He wanted to know Jesus’ own answer. Jesus responded to him and announced to Jn his true identity but in doing so Jesus pointed to his works.
Notice, first of all, that Jesus didn’t say “YES!!!” to John’s question. He didn’t just come out with a simple “Of course!” Still, in Jesus’ answer he responded to John’s question in a way that was far more powerful and enlightening than he could have by responding in any other way. Let me explain.
Jesus’ answer to the messengers in vv 4-6 was very much the same as we see in the synoptic parallel in Lk 7 22-23. Both Matthew and Luke agree with Jesus’ precise wording – as they most often do. When it comes to the words of Jesus, the synoptics are very precise. Matthew or Luke did not say ‘well, I can chop off half of this and that’s OK. People with get the gist.’ Instead, they think the precise wording is very important. And again, Jesus, in answering the question concerning his identity, pointed to his praxis, specifically to miracles – to what they had heard and seen.
This was one of the core places within the gospels where Jesus described the significance of the praxis of his miracles. We have previously discussed some various elements to Jesus’ praxis, as well as their meaning and significance theologically within Jesus’ ministry, but we’ve never directly discussed the theological significance of this element of his praxis, his works – his miracles!
In line with that we have previously discussed the surprising fact that among modern historians there is agreement that Jesus did miracles. By way of qualification, someone like the scholar Wright (a third quest scholar) believes Jesus actually did the miracles while someone like Borg (a second quest scholar) does not believe in miracles in the same sense that a third quest scholar would and so he doesn’t think they actually happened in the same sense that third quest scholars do.
This is different from the old, first quest scholars who said that the miracles were legends made up by the gospel authors or that the miracles were really natural events so that when Jesus fed the multitudes it was by getting everyone to share their food. To first quest scholars, miracles didn’t happen.
On the other hand, second quest scholars and third quest scholars both agree that Jesus did these miracles, and that it happened, and everyone thought they were miracles. But when push came to shove, second quest scholars say they don’t really believe it was a miracle done by God. Maybe it was psychosomatic healing or something else. But God didn’t actually do miracles per se in the understanding of second quest scholars. Third quest scholars, however, all agree the miracles happened and they were done by God himself. We all here are third quest scholars. At least, I hope all of us are!
In other words, all scholars believed that something miraculously happened in Jesus miracles. For example, when Jesus healed the man born blind, it appeared to everyone – Jesus, the disciples, the crowds – that a person who was once blind could now see. So everyone believed that the miracles as they were recorded by Jesus actually did happen. In our own time we don’t have the naturalistic explanations anymore though there still are those who say maybe there was some explanation but we just don’t know what it is. They don’t believe they are legends or that they simply were natural events like the first quest scholars once did.
We’ve also discussed the uniqueness of Jesus’ miracles, that the type and number of miracles that he did was really unique in antiquity.
This passage is especially exciting theologically and historically because in it Jesus himself revealed his own understanding of the significance of his miracles. The praxis of Jesus’ miracles was all about promise and fulfillment. When the evangelists get to Jesus’ precise answer about why Jesus did miracles, their accounts are very similar. Miracles were a part of Jesus’ ministry in order to teach us who he was. He had come to inaugurate the kingdom and reign of God, something only God could do. He was, therefore, God come in the flesh. The Incarnation.
Jesus here described what was going on in his miracles – giving of sight to the blind, giving the ability to walk of the lame, the cleansing of lepers, giving hearing to the deaf, raising of the dead and telling the good news. So how did these miracles answer Jn’s question? When Jesus recounted the miracles he had done as recorded in the synoptic gospels, he was actually at the same time echoing the OT.
Intertextuality. Always, intertextuality! Know your intertextual connections or you’ll miss the beauty of what Scripture is telling you. It’s that simple, and it’s that important!
At first Jesus’ answer does not seem to be very direct. In fact, in order to unpack Jesus’ answer we need to follow the echoes and allusions the text provides. We must read Jesus’ answer to the question of the disciples of John in light of its intertextual links to the OT, especially to Is 35.
Jesus’ brief reply echoes more than 6 passages, another important example for us that the key to the gospels is the story behind the Story. In other words, when Jesus wanted to explain the praxis of his miracles, he answered with 6 echoes of scripture. While it wasn’t clear what Jesus was actually saying apart from the echoes, when you know he was echoing scripture – as John’s disciples and John would have known Jesus was doing, then it would all become more clear to John.
In other words, Jn was wondering about this because although he believed the kingdom of God had now come, he saw that evil was still triumphant. And, of course, there was this small detail. He was in prison. So Jn had this very natural question, “Are you the coming one or should be await another?” It were as if John was also asking, “Is this truly the kingdom of God? It sure doesn’t seem like it is. Is God really becoming king?” Jesus answered Jn by connecting up his miracles with these numerous biblical allusions to the OT. The key passage around which the echoes clustered was Is 35 1-10. Therefore, the context of that chapter in Is will be very important here in this pericope here in Mt and in Lk. See notes in Is 35 and then come back.
Returning now from, and in light of Is 35, what were Jesus’ miracles doing? What was their function? The praxis of Jesus’ miracles was to show us promise and fulfillment. Jesus’ miracles heralded and were the fulfillment of the OT promises of the renewal and restoration of all Creation. By echoing Isaiah’s words Jesus was saying something far more than what he could have otherwise said. [Still, one is only going to understand that if they understand the intertextuality of the NT with the OT. To not get the drift of the intertextuality is to miss much, if not most, of what the NT wants us to know.]
In other words, Jesus was saying all these promises of the old covenant were now coming true in his ministry. Jesus’ miracles were a demonstration of the breaking in of God’s new order. [Remember, everything is a process in Scripture. Everything is happening in an ongoing, continuous action. Everything is “breaking in” and will continue into the consummation of the age.] As such, Jesus’ miracles were another way of saying, just as Jesus did in the other praxis (application, doing, living, practice, ethics) of his ministry, that the kingdom of God was here.
[Christian praxis includes worship, sacraments, OT exegesis, ethics, mission, martyrdom, church / community, Rule of Faith].
Jesus’ miracles were the signs of the new Exodus. [John actually calls them signs in his gospel.] Jesus’ miracles were the signs and markers of the coming of YHWH to Zion. Jesus’ miracles were signs that God was becoming king – just as had been promised and foretold in Scripture!
Hence, Jesus’ miracles were not just signs of the kingdom of God but they were part of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God, the inbreaking of this new order in which God would make all things new. Jesus’ miracles were like little pictures of the renewal of Creation and the restoration of humanity. Those who were lame would become healed; the blind would be made to see; the deaf would be made to hear and the dead would be raised to life. Jesus’ miracles were vital ingredients in the inauguration of the kingdom. In his miracles Jesus was revealing to humanity who God was, and is. So all of this was saying that the kingdom of God was here, that the time of fulfillment was here. Jesus was saying that all the promises of God as we know from our OT were now being fulfilled. That was what his miracles were all about. Clearly, Jesus was saying this was the time of fulfillment when all of this was taking place.
But there was an even larger teaching to be found in Jesus’ miracles than the fact that the time of fulfillment was finally taking place, as humongous as that reality was. We have been talking about Jesus’ miracles as the fulfillment of the coming kingdom and reign of God. But the question from John’s disciples was not about that. Jesus had not answered their question directly. Jesus had seemingly answered a question about one matter with a response about another matter. In fact, at the core of their question was the identity of Jesus. Who was he? Who was Jesus?
As such, as we read Jesus’ answers in light of Is 35, we see also that Jesus was giving us a more veiled message. Jesus was giving them, and us, a more veiled message that when truly understood should “hit us upside the head.” In other words, and very importantly, Jesus was also saying something about his own identity. Remember that that was the key to the question of John (v 3): Are you the one who is to come or are we to look for another? In light of that question, how did Jesus’ words about his miracles address who he was? What were his miracles saying about his identity?
In light of these echoes in Is 35 (and which would not be clear here in Mt 11 apart from these echoes), Jesus was here saying vis-á-vis his identity that he was YHWH. Is 35 was not a passage about the Messiah; it was a passage about YHWH. Is 35 is about YHWH. Is 35 is not a messianic oracle such as is Is 11 which talks about the messianic king. [For example, the four messianic oracles of Is are 9, 11, 16 and 32. They have to do with the promise of the coming Messiah, NOT the coming of God (YHWH) himself!] But Is 35 has to do with YHWH!!![Of course, you could say that Jesus was making at least an implicit messianic claim in claiming that the kingdom was coming through his work. At the very least this was also a messianic claim. It was claiming that the kingdom of God was coming, as prophesied, in Jesus’ own works, in Jesus’ own miracles. This was fulfilling the promise of the lame walking and the blind receiving their sight. But, in the Jewish context, Jesus was really making, veiled as it wais, a much stronger claim – that he was the coming of YHWH to Zion himself. [Remember always the distinction between the two major streams of expectation in the OT, that of:
the promised messianic (human) Davidic king and
the more important stream of the coming of (divine) YHWH to Zion.
We must keep these two streams separate in our thoughts when reading the OT because in the time of promise (during OT times) the people of God kept them distinct. These two streams of expectation were never understood to be confluent in the OT. These two separate streams of expectation were truly separate. These two streams of expectation were always understood to be distinct from one another in the OT. Have I made my point!
In fact, they were not understood to be both the same thing until the coming of Jesus himself, the God-man, who would very unexpectedly fulfill both streams of expectation. And even at that, they were not understood to be both the same thing until after Jesus’ resurrection!!!]
However, as we see here in Mt 11 4-6, when Jesus echoed OT text, he did not go to, he did not echo a messianic passage such as a messianic oracle or a royal psalm. No. Instead, in order to explain his miracles Jesus went to Is 35 in which the key theme concerns the coming of YHWH to Zion. Therefore, instead of talking about the coming messianic Davidic king, Jesus, when echoing Is 35, was echoing something even greater than the Messiah himself, as great and as important as the Messiah is. Therefore, in Mt 11 when Jesus told us about his miracles and did so by echoing Is 35, it was to show us in no uncertain terms that he, Jesus, was none other than YHWH himself. It was to tell us that he was none other than God himself. That’s what the readers of Scripture were to understand from these echoes!!!
Therefore, Jesus was more even than the messianic Davidic king – the human Davidic stream of expectation as we see in other Scriptures. In fact, Jesus was God himself come to Zion – the divine stream of expectation. And, thereby, Jesus was fulfilling both streams of expectation.
In other words, as astounding as it may seem, in echoing Is 35, a passage which was all about the coming of YHWH to Zion, Jesus here in Mt 11 was making a veiled, yet powerful, claim to be Israel’s God come to his people, YHWH in the flesh, YHWH in person and in divinity. We’ve also seen that same point being made elsewhere in Jesus’ praxis, for instance, in his saying about the bride and the bridegroom etc. Here, too, Jesus was making this incredible claim to be fulfilling this promise of the coming of Israel’s God. Jesus was answering John’s question asked in v 3. This claim to be YHWH himself having come in the flesh was at the heart of his answer to John concerning the praxis of his miracles.
We now look to Jesus’ teaching as he turns to address the crowds in vv 7-15. Already Jesus had made a veiled response about his identity. Jesus did this in various veiled ways. Here he did it by talking about his miracles in response to a question about his identity. And, by having echoed Is 35 he actually responded to their question about his identity, albeit in this veiled manner.
Now Jesus next turned to address the crowds – but not about his miracles or his own identity. He turned to address the crowds about John the Baptist who had just sent his messengers. Vv 7-15.
The people were in Exile beginning in 597/587 BC until 538 BC. YHWH prepared the salvation of his exiled people. The context here in Isaiah was that the prophet was looking prophetically forward, envisioning great events yet to come.
These verses in Is 35 arose as a word of hope to the exiles in Babylon. Is 34 had portrayed God’s vengeance on Edom, Israel’s age-old enemy. That vengeance would make the path from Babylon to Zion safe for the return of the exiles. In Is 34 the prophet Isaiah had described God’s judgment on Edom as the turning of a garden into a wasteland. In contrast to that imagery, the prophet here in Is 35 will use the image of the wasteland becoming a garden in order to describe the restoration of the exiled people of Judah to their homeland. ¶ In Is 35 the prophet employs picture after picture in order to portray the perfect joy and peace the LORD will bring to his redeemed children in this renewing and restoring of God’s kingdom. Is 35 concludes with a description of the highway home, the Holy Way of God’s people, blossoming with God’s glory. Not only will the wasteland be renewed, but so also would God’s people – as a part of the ongoing renewal and restoration of all Creation [something, which if we allow ourselves to jump forward into the NT, has already begun in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth].
The new Exodus goes through the wilderness to get to Zion. The wilderness is going to blossom and be made majestic. This text is about YHWH (the personal name of God) whose divine name is “God”. This text is not about the Messiah. Here the Greek word kri,sij (from the Septuagint version) means both justice for the oppressed but it also means judgment which will be the defeat of evil and the defeat of those who cling to evil. So it’s a two-pronged thing. It’s bringing justice and judgment at the same time.
He will come and save us. This is the central hope and promise of all the texts, the coming of YHWH to Zion. God himself will come to his people.
Pause for a moment and do as those of our Jewish matrix did. Try to immerse yourselves in our Jewish matrix and in the context of the time when Isaiah was prophesying. Think about how these people would have imagined that to come about. How would God himself one day and finally come to be with his people forever. How would God do this? This question and more the faithful remnant asked.
It’s from vv 5-6 that many of Jesus’ echoes in Mt 11 5 came. Jesus was quoting these in Mt 11 as having been fulfilled. This was where the miracles came from but it was in this context of the whole chapter of Is 35. Isaiah tells us that once again that the wilderness will become this place of fertility, beauty and creational wonder. highway is one of many images that describe the wilderness turning into a garden and bringing the return of the exiles. See also Is 41 18 and 42 15. This is a highway coming into the land of promise, but it was the highway of holiness. The unholy will not travel on it but it will be for him who is upright. Fools will not wander on it and so on. Notice there is a path going through the wilderness. the redeemed are coming through this path.
As had happened in the Exodus, there will be those – but not all – who will be redeemed from the Exile. Free will.
Typology [Type / antitype. Partial reality / full reality. Foreshadow / fulfillment].
Those redeemed will once again dwell in Jerusalem; but they will “still be in Exile” and the new Exodus will still be underway.
With the word everlasting Isaiah pointed to the eternal city and rest of God’s people that we learn of in Re 7 9 and Re 21 1-3.
Notice the majestic conclusion to Is 35 in which those who were redeemed by the Lord would walk in this path. This chapter is filled with themes and promises from the promises made in the story behind the Story. For instance, they were coming through the wilderness; they were being gathered by God; they were returning. Why was Isaiah talking about the redeemed of the LORD returning? They were coming with everlasting joy and gladness to Zion. sorrow and sighing will be far away. Isaiah was describing the new Exodus, this ultimate salvation event which itself was patterned after the old Exodus and which used the language of the old Exodus. But this would be a new Exodus far greater than the old and one which would involve all the nations of the earth. Isaiah was looking back to the old Exodus (as the Jewish people always did), the great act of God’s redemption for his people, and Isaiah was using that imagery to describe something far greater, the ultimate salvation event, the new Exodus in which all redeemed of YHWH would return and come with joy to Zion. Is 35 was all about the new Exodus.
Another concept that comes out in many NT passages is that of the faithful, righteous remnant. Those who will be saved in this new Exodus will not be Israel as a whole but only the righteous, faithful remnant – those who truly trust in the Lord and so on.
We also have all these waters breaking out where there was dryness. We have glory breaking out where there was wilderness and so on. The Creation was in the process of being renewed and restored. In light of other Isaianic passages this text resonates with the promise of the renewal / restoration of all Creation. It won’t be the same old wilderness. It will be a renewed created order.
Further, they were coming to Zion, not just to Jerusalem but to Zion. Remember that “Zion” is how you talk about Jerusalem when God is there. The wilderness was blooming (v 2) as they came into Zion because this was the coming of YHWH to Zion (v 2).
All sorts of promises are cascading in here in Is 35. This passage is about the new Exodus and the renewal and restoration of all Creation. Still, at the center of this all was salvation itself, that our God would come to save us v 4 – the coming of YHWH to Zion. All the great hopes of the Jewish people would eventually come to fulfillment.
It was within this context that we have these passages that Jesus echoed in Mt 11 4-6 (and Lk 7) when he was answering John’s messengers. All of this was part of God’s plan for the renewal of all things.
No matter what foolishness or fear has ensnared us, we are to confess our sins in the confidence that the LORD has redeemed us by grace alone and the LORD has also prepared for us a new way of life. We are to take the hand of God and let God lead us to the comforts of the long-promised Zion.