Signs and wonders: miracles with purpose


For the week of January 24, 2015 / 4 Shevat 5775
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

Signs and Wonders

Sings and Wonders

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go in to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, that I may show these signs of mine among them, and that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the LORD." (Shemot/Exodus 10:1-3)

The Torah reading portions from these past two weeks contain an extensive display of God's power, commonly known as the ten plagues. You might be surprised to learn that the word "plague" is hardly used to describe these events. Throughout the Bible the more common description of these events are "Signs" and "wonders" (see Shemot/Exodus 7:3, Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:2, Nehemiah 9:10, Tehillim/Psalm 135:9, and Jeremiah 32:20).

Signs are intentionally designed to communicate something. A traffic sign informs drivers and pedestrians of crucial information in order to control their behavior. Responding properly to a sign brings great benefit to those for whom they are intended. Failure to respect signs causes great trouble to self and others.

Wonders are extraordinary events, commonly called miracles. But the way we normally understand miracles may not reflect the biblical concept of wonders. If miracles are a way to describe God's working in the world as opposed to when he is not, then we are not thinking biblically. According to the Bible, God not only created the universe, he sustains it. God is at work in and through every aspect of life. There's a well-known miracle story about George Müller, who established orphanages in Great Britain in the nineteenth century. It is said that one day there was no food for the approximately 300 orphans in his care. So Müller gathered everyone at mealtime as usual and thanked God for his provision anyway. Not long afterwards a baker and a milkman, each for unusual reasons, came by with offers of bread and milk. If by calling this a miracle, you mean that God wasn't involved when food was provided in more usual ways, then you are distorting the reality of God's ongoing role of provider.

But if God is always the provider whatever the mean of provision he uses, then would it not be better to call every act of provision a miracle? This misses the point regarding signs and wonders. Even though God is involved in either case, there is a difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Recognizing God at work in life in general is essential, but not everything is a sign and a wonder. I have attended more births than most non-medical people, having been present at the births of all ten of our children. My wife and I tend to refer to these events as miracles as we have been so struck by the wonder of it all. But in spite of how precious each baby is, births are ordinary, not extraordinary, events - as is the growth of a flower, the roar of ocean waves, or the twinkling of a star.

This is not to diminish the awe we should have towards the ordinary. We should be in ongoing awe of the glory of creation. Every aspect of physics, chemistry, biology, and every way they work together is worthy of God's praise. It's that if we think of everything that God does as a miracle, then we will miss the significance of his signs and wonders.

Following the Exodus, the people of Israel faced many conflicts with other nations. Of the battles they won, it was always because God was with them. Most of the time, Israel used ordinary means of fighting. But on a few occasions, God used extraordinary methods that don't normally produce the results they did, such as the fall of Jericho under Joshua, the defeat of the Midianites under Gideon, or the routing of the Philistines under Jonathan, son of King Saul. It's the same with provision of food. Usually God used the ordinary means of farming to feed his people. On occasion he uses extraordinary means through signs and wonders.

Many people get excited about miracles as if they are proof of God's existence. But that is not the purpose of signs and wonders. According to Scripture, creation is the evidence for God (see Tehillim/Psalm 19:2 [English: 19:1]; Romans 1:20). Signs and wonders have their own purpose. As signs, they bring a message. The ten plagues, for example, reveal God's supremacy over the Egyptian false gods, his distinction between his people and others, and his affirmation of Moses' leadership. As wonders, they help make signs significant. Ordinary events by their nature are not going to communicate anything special. Extraordinary events get attention. And when they are accompanied by God's Word, as was the case through Moses, they powerfully and effectively reveal God's truth.

Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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