One of the things I enjoy the most about having four Gospels is that we get four diverse accounts of Jesus. That is not only helpful, it is realistic. For example, take four people to watch a film and they’ll have differing impressions. Having four Gospels gives us a realism and vantage that stays true to life’s diversity. Because it is so different from the other three, John’s Gospel has received its fair share of commentary over the centuries. In John, we get a later perspective of Jesus (John was written after Matthew, Mark and Luke whom together we call the “Synoptic Gospels” from the words in Latin and Greek that translate to “synopsis” because these three Gospels share greater commonality with each other than any do with John).
John’s Gospel is the miracle Gospel. John tells more miracle stories than any other Gospel, he even has accounts, (like the wedding at Cana) that the other Synoptics don’t tell. John’s Gospel is predominately interested in having us (the readers) see Jesus as the Revealer. From his famous prologue where light comes into darkness in chapter one, to the expansive miracle stories, John shows us a Jesus who reveals the Father and the Father’s gift of salvation. Jesus is the Light revealing all the secrets of the darkness (John 3:20). The miracle stories serve this greater point about revelation, supporting the argument that Jesus is the one who brings truth and salvation to the world.
You might think then, at least it is not hard to infer, that John’s stress on miracles implies that miracles make it easier to believe. And in one sense you would be right. John says as much, “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing(2:23b).” But immediately after this we get these strange words:
“But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew the people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for himself knew what was in man. (2:24-25)”
These words follow immediately after Jesus’ righteous anger in cleansing the Temple. Part of the meaning is obvious—Jesus knows that humanity is sinful, that essentially what is in our hearts is a selfish desire to be in control, to put God under our judgment and under our power. But Jesus will not have it. He does not entrust himself to us. We will not stand over him in judgment. We are in no position to reveal his character, instead he will reveal ours. The irony also becomes clear: humanity is duplicitous and evil, crouching in darkness and the shadowy depths of sin but believing they can reveal the Light. Jesus will not have it. He, “need[s] no one to bear witness about him.” In other words, the darkness will not reveal light, light will reveal the darkness. Jesus takes responsibility to reveal his own character and he will not acquiesce to our demands to judge him.
But notice one other nuance. This statement about Jesus’ self-revelatory responsibility flows from the earlier statement about, “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing. (2:23b)” In other words, John is telling us something about the nature of belief that stems from miracles.
While it is true that miracles can produce faith, the quality of the faith is poor. Later, in chapter six, Jesus makes a highly controversial claim, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all (6:63).” This comment is so offensive that some of those who believed because of the miracles in chapter two, now leave him, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him (6:66).” The offense comes because by attacking the flesh and affirming the Spirit, Jesus essentially is telling them that they can’t save themselves. Miracles, for all their wonder and encouragement rely on the dazzling of our senses to work. Our flesh must be satisfied. Our doubts must be answered. Because miracle-faith produces sensory-faith, it is of a poor quality. As scholar Leon Morris has said, “Jesus calls people to trust him for what he is, not because he passes the tests we set.”
This point is made emphatically clear in one of John’s other unique stories (not found in the Synoptics) the story of “Doubting Thomas.” If we were under any impression that John’s use of miracles was to seek them out in our lives we would be gravely mistaken. For Thomas’ problem is that he is too empirical. This is John’s way of demonstrating the poor quality of miracle-faith. By demanding Jesus meet his test, Thomas puts his own salvation in peril, it is only by the graciousness of God that Christ meets the challenge, but by then Thomas learns his lesson. There Jesus has words that are important for all of us to take to heart today. I’ve italicized the part I wish you to pay particular attention to:
“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”
The “blessed” Jesus says are those who have not experienced miracles as a requirement of belief. Whether it be the charismatic movement or our lonely and sad hearts, the Church today looks for miracles. Perhaps it assumes that if it had these miracles in more abundance it would be better off? Certainly on a personal level many of us feel a miracle would boost our faith. But we need to take seriously Jesus’ revelation that it is better to trust in Jesus because of his Word, because of who he is, than because we seek signs (something the Apostle Paul warned about in I Corinthians 1:22).
One more observation: John follows the Thomas story with this famous comment:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:30-31).
We appear to be back where we started! But in fact, we’ve not gone round a circle. John’s point is simple—He has chosen to use so many miracle stories because miracles, as fleshly, empirical, sensatory acts of God can jettison unbelievers into belief. But this miracle-faith is like the caffeine in an espresso—it wakes you up but then quickly fades, leaving you tired and still in need of rest. It’s also addicting. That’s why those who followed him in chapter two were leaving him in chapter 6. Miracles aren’t bad things, but they aren’t the best things. Their primary purpose is to help unbelievers, believe. But when a believer like Thomas demands a miracle he misses the point: faith in Jesus must come from a heart that loves him despite what we experience in the form of sensory data. In other words, faith is not grounded on what we can prove or objectify, but on God’s Word. And this doesn’t mean that our faith is irrational or independent of our experiences. If that were true, why make the claim miracles add any faith at all? Rather, John wants us to know that the faith that can weather storms is the faith firmly planted in and on God’s Word and not on our experience of God in our lives—even though that remains important.
I am not a total Cessationist (someone who believes the Spirit no longer works in the world and the Church), and I, as you likely do pray for miracles sometimes. Please to not misunderstand me, I’m not saying this is wrong. God is a God of miracles. We hope in that. But if we are praying for miracles because we want a boost to our faith, because we want our doubts to be answered or because we want our sufferings to be eliminated when God may want otherwise, we make the mistake of trading the “blessed” faith of the Word for the cheap faith of miracles.
John’s Jesus is a revealer. He discloses to us the truth about God, Jesus and ourselves. Our hearts secretly want God to meet our standards, pass our tests and love us as we demand. Miracles offer promise to all those desires. But they also reveal our hearts as smug factories of self-worship and independence. The only way out is to be a disciple, a follower. And for that to work we must listen to the Master’s voice. That voice says, “blessed are those who do not see and yet believe.”
Bruce Hillman is Lead Pastor at Hillside Lutheran Brethren Church (www.hillsidelbc.org) in Succasunna New Jersey. He Holds a BA in History and Political Science from Quinnipiac University, (Hamden, CT), an MDiv. from the Lutheran Brethren Seminary (Fergus Falls, MN) and an STM in Patristics from Drew University (Madison, NJ); his research involves Augustinian studies and Early Christianity. He is former pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Henning MN. He is co-founder of Fifth Act Church Planting, having served on their board (www.fifthactchurchplanting.com) Bruce enjoys cooking, reading, all things British, exploring the world of wine, and conversations with good friends.