It’s easy to read through the four Gospels and be amazed by the numerous miracles performed by Jesus. He healed the sick and the lame, exorcised demons, calmed storms, changed water into wine, multiplied bread and fish, walked on water, and even raised the dead. For some people, though, these stories are a source of tremendous skepticism. They seem the stuff of myth and legend, rather than fact. For these folks, it can be hard to differentiate between stories about Jesus and stories about Hawkman, Harry Potter, or Houdini. I have to admit that I find this line of thinking difficult to understand, though this is not because I see miracles every day, nor is it because I lack a healthy streak of skepticism in my DNA. I get that miracles seem far-fetched—that the miracles themselves can be hard to swallow—especially when we’re just taking someone else’s word for it, but would a Jesus sans signs and wonders be more convincing?
Somewhat early on in Jesus’ earthly ministry, when He was traveling around, performing miracles and causing quite a stir, a messenger came to Him from His cousin, John the Baptist. John was a prophet whom God had set apart to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. He was a strange guy, living out in the desert, about the business of eating locusts and baptizing people. He was also into camel-hair clothing and leather belts. And like all the great prophets of Israel before him, he spoke out against corruption in powerful places. On one occasion, he blasted Herod Antipas for marrying his brother’s wife (who was also his niece). Herod, of course, didn’t like this, and it landed John in jail. It was during this imprisonment that John sent word to Jesus, asking “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:19).
John had anticipated the overturn of the status quo once the Messiah was revealed. He expected peace and justice, an end to the abuse of power, freedom for those in bondage, and a new kingdom where God would reign. Instead, he found himself sitting in Herod’s dungeon, wasting away. Life for John went on just as it had before Jesus went public, and this was very disconcerting to him. So he sent a messenger to ask Jesus if He was the One he had been waiting for. It was an honest question. After all, John had been serving God when most others were not; he felt like he had a right to know.
However, rather than just giving his cousin a simple “yes” or “no,” Jesus said this to the messenger: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Luke 7:22). This recount of Jesus’ miracles was cited as evidence that He was the Messiah that John and others had been waiting for. The prophet Isaiah had predicted that when the Messiah came, He would “preach good news to the poor,” “bind up the brokenhearted,” proclaim “freedom for the captives” and “release from darkness” the blind (see Isaiah 61:1-2). Jesus Himself had said that this passage from the book of Isaiah was about Him when He began His ministry in His hometown of Nazareth (see Luke 4:16-30). And so, these miracles were evidence that God’s promises were being fulfilled in Jesus.
However, I think that Jesus’ response to John the Baptist shows that He had a somewhat dry sense of humor. There’s one missing element from Jesus’ list of miracles. He conspicuously left out part of Isaiah’s declaration—the part about proclaiming freedom for prisoners. It was as if Jesus was saying, “I am that guy—the guy you’ve been waiting for—there are all these miracles to attest to that fact, but sorry, it’s not part of the plan to bust you out of jail!”
It’s not clear if John was expecting Jesus to get him out of prison, but it would be understandable if he was. After all, I think that’s how most of us live our lives. We want miracles; we want good things to happen to us. I have yet to meet someone, be they Christian, Muslim or atheist, who would object to being miraculously healed if they found out they had cancer. No one has a problem being blessed. For some, it’s the Jesus part that gets in the way. Maybe that’s why Jesus closed out his statement to John’s messengers with this final word: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Luke 7:23). Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, but things wouldn’t happen exactly as the Jewish people thought. There would be no sudden changing of the order. The kingdom of God would invade for sure, but slowly and behind the scenes (like a mustard seed or yeast). The miracles of Jesus were evidence of the kingdom, but those miracles weren’t universal. With this final comment to John and John’s disciples, Jesus was warning them that if they got too caught up in the miracles themselves—who’s getting them, and who’s not getting them—they run the risk of shipwrecking their faith.
The signs and wonders point to Jesus because Jesus is the point. Focusing on the signs themselves will always lead us off track. For now, life goes on. Bad things happen, but sometimes so do miracles. Our job is not to get caught up in trying to figure God out. Sometimes He allows us to go through heartbreaking and extremely difficult situations. Other times, He saves us from them. Sometimes we’re healed, but sometimes were left in prison to suffer an unjust death. There’s a bit of mystery to this, but both fates can glorify God. Our hope is not in being rescued from what we’re facing. Our hope is Jesus Himself.