Topical Scripture: Acts 9:36–43
You’ve made it to Spring. Not officially, of course—the first day of spring is March 20, which is when the sun crosses our equator (the Vernal Equinox) and the day contains twelve hours of sunlight and twelve hours of darkness.
But most of us think of March as the first month of Spring. You may not know that all is not goodness and light with this month. It is named for Mars, the Roman god of war. Wars in Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen all started in March.
Not all March military events are planned. On March 1, 2007, a detachment of Swiss infantrymen got lost on a training mission and accidentally invaded neighboring Liechtenstein, a country approximately the size of McKinney, Texas. Its 37,000 residents were not aware that they had been invaded. Since they have no army, they chose not to retaliate.
Wars are just one symptom of our fallen planet. A zookeeper in Florida was training a rhinoceros named Archie when it struck her with its horn, sending her to the hospital. In worse news, a woman in South Carolina was wrestling with her dogs in her front yard when they attacked and killed her.
The world reminds us every day that we live in a fallen world. Where do you need God to intervene in your life? What miracle do you need from him? It could be physical, financial, emotional, or relational.
Does he still do miracles? If so, how do we pray for them? What should we do when he doesn’t do what we want him to do?
These are pressing, practical questions we’ll ask Peter this week.
A miraculous story
Our story begins in Joppa, which has been called the oldest seaport in the world. A suburb of Tel Aviv today, it is still a popular tourist attraction. Jonah sailed from here to Tarshish to avoid God’s call to Nineveh (Jonah 1:3). Logs for building the temple were sailed to this port before being transported to Solomon in Jerusalem.
A disciple named Tabitha lived there. Her name is Aramaic and means “gazelle”; Luke translates her name into the Greek Dorcas, a hint that his reader(s) did not understand Aramaic and thus may have been Gentiles and/or Romans (cf. the dedication to “Theophilus,” perhaps a Roman official, Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1).
Her mercy ministry was widely known and received, so that her untimely death was mourned by all. The disciples heard that Peter was nearby in Lydda and summoned him to come urgently (Jewish custom gave those living outside Jerusalem only three days to bury the corpse).
Peter found the deceased girl and her mourners “upstairs” (v. 39), the typical “upper room” used by families as a kind of den. The apostle had been present each time Jesus raised the dead (Matthew 9:25, Luke 7:11–17, John 11:1–44), so he knew that his Lord possessed such power. Unlike Jesus, he knelt and prayed, making clear the fact that this miracle would come from God or it would not come at all. “Prayed” translates the Greek aorist tense, indicating a one-time action.
He then called the girl by name, an indication that he believed God intended to raise her. And he did.
The result of this physical miracle was an even more important spiritual miracle: “many people believed in the Lord” (v. 42). As in Lydda earlier (v. 35), this is always God’s ultimate purpose in healing our bodies. They will die again, but souls which turn to him in response to such grace will live forever in his paradise.
If Jesus can raise the dead, what can’t he do? Think back to all the ways the Lord has revealed his powerful grace to you. He gave you physical life, then spiritual salvation. He has given you health, the freedoms we enjoy, and a wonderful church family. When we remember all he has done, we will more readily trust him for all he will do. When we see his power, we can trust his providence.
Are miracles plausible today?
As C. S. Lewis observed, the man who denies the sunrise does not harm the sun—he only proves himself foolish. What can we learn about our culture from its views of the miraculous? And about ourselves?
Mad at miracles
Most dictionaries consider a “miracle” to be an event or action which apparently contradicts scientific laws as we understand them. Sometimes we experience a miracle of coincidence, where highly improbable but not impossible events occur (a friend calls you unexpectedly, just when you most needed to hear from her). Other miracles are actual violation of physical laws (a friend calls you on a telephone which is disconnected).
Both kinds occurred often in the biblical record. Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul all experienced and initiated them. And Jesus’ miracles were crucial to his ministry. They validated his Messiahship (Matthew 11:4–5), showed that he was from God (John 5:36; 14:11), and were intended to lead to saving faith (John 20:30–31).
Yet miracles themselves may not convince those who witness them (cf. John 15:24; Luke 16:31). At issue is our worldview. As J. S. Mill said in 1843, “If we do not already believe in supernatural agencies, no miracle can prove to us their existence.” Either we didn’t see what we thought we saw, or there’s another explanation than the miraculous. Many have taken such skeptical positions.
Benedict Spinoza (died 1677) argued that it is impossible for natural laws to be changed. If an event appears to be a miracle, this is only because we have not yet found the natural explanation. Isaac Newton agreed that time and space have an absolute fixed character, so that miracles by definition are impossible.
David Hume added that we cannot prove any cause and effect, much less the cause of so-called miracles. He believed that we should test all reported events in the light of our personal experience. If you have not experienced the miraculous, you cannot trust the testimony of another to its veracity.
Ernst Troelsch, the famous historian, took Hume’s position a step further: no writer of history should include a reported experience which does not occur today. If people no longer walk on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus didn’t, either. Karl Marx added the conviction that miracles are supernaturalistic wishes, nothing more.
You may be surprised to find that some Christians are likewise skeptical of the miraculous, though for different reasons. Some believe that miracles ended with the early church. Others maintain that miracles no longer occur, as the need for them in establishing revelation is now past.
The logic of the miraculous
Are there answers to the above skeptics? Absolutely. Most critics decide that the miraculous is by definition impossible, though they have no empirical or rational reasons to do so. Many point to their own lack of experience with miracles as reason to debunk the category itself. But could a man living in a warm climate believe in ice? Should we trust the experience of a person who denies that such experience is possible?
Science works with probability, not absolute logical proof. Those who seek incontrovertible evidence for the miraculous demand a standard they could not fulfill with their own truth claims. For instance, when experimenters measure light in one way, they determine that it travels as waves; measured in other ways, it appears to travel as particles. Both cannot be true, but neither can be disproved or proved. Niels Bohr called this phenomenon the “principle of complementarity.” Aristotle would call it a contradiction.
Newton saw the universe as a machine incapable of behavior outside the parameters of natural laws. After Einstein, this analytical era in science has come to an end. We now know that to observe or measure something is to alter it. Predictability is less possible, and antisupernaturalistic presuppositions are less defensible. Even Einstein stated, “I think of the comprehensibility of the world as a miracle.”
It all comes to worldview. If God created and designed the universe, he possesses the freedom to alter it as he wishes. He may act according to “laws” we discern within its operations, or he may not. What is a miracle to us is not to him. The laptop on which I am writing these words obeys none of the laws within which my father’s manual typewriter operated. But its “miraculous” abilities are nonetheless obvious.
When you need a miracle, what should you do?
One: Ask God.
In this case, Peter “knelt down and prayed” (v. 40). He did not assume that God could not or would not answer his prayer. He knelt, showing that the answer would come not from him, but from God.
Two: Expect God to answer your prayer.
Peter turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, arise.” He believed that God had heard him and would do what he asked God to do. In this case, the Lord did.
Three: Trust him to do what is best.
Here, it was best for him to raise Dorcas back to life, since “it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord” (v. 42). Since Joppa was such a significant seaport, this story could quickly travel all over the world.
However, this was not best for Dorcas. She had to come from heaven back to earth, from God’s perfect paradise to our fallen planet. Then she had to do her dying all over again. She was a missionary by the call and purpose of God.
At other times, God does not heal as we ask. When Paul pled three times with God to remove his “thorn in the flesh,” the Lord responded: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a). Paul learned: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). His ability to live with his “thorn” was a greater miracle than if God had removed it.
A dear friend of mine in Midland was dying from breast cancer. Our entire congregation prayed fervently for God to heal her. I have witnessed other such miracles—people healed of cancer, heart disease, and other terminal illnesses. But God did not heal my friend physically.
Instead, he gave her the grace to withstand her suffering with such grace and joy that she marked every person who knew her. She glorified God far more by her faith than she would have by her healing. And then the Lord healed her eternally when he took her to paradise.
Pray for a miracle and trust your Father for what is best. This is the invitation of God.