In John 20:30–31, the Gospel’s author explains that his account of Jesus’ life and works was “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.” In saying this, John makes it clear that the wondrous signs that he recorded are there to elicit belief from his readers (or hearers). Jesus’ miracles authenticate His claim to be the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
As we think about the place of signs and wonders in the church today, it’s important to recognize that it is the Holy Spirit working through God’s revealed Word that creates faith in human hearts. Miracles are simply not meant to do what the Word of God alone does—and we cannot expect them to.
There is an inherent danger in looking to signs and wonders to authenticate our faith. Rather than pointing away from themselves and to the Savior, miracles can become ends in themselves, giving us a false sense of salvation through temporary benefits. In the pages of John’s Gospel, we see religious crowds fall into this very error on multiple occasions. But when we examine the Scriptures, we’re reminded that even the effects of miracles pale in comparison to the effects of the faithful proclamation of God’s Word.
“What Sign Will You Perform?”
Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel records a moment in Jesus’ ministry when the crowds’ desire for miracles came to a head. Earlier in the chapter, we read of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand (vv. 1–15) and walking on water (vv. 15–21). The next day, the crowd follows in His wake across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, where they eventually confront Him with a telling question:
They said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (John 6:30–31)
In 1 Corinthians 1:22, Paul (himself a Jew) writes that “Jews demand signs.” The evidence of that is here in John’s Gospel. In John 2:18, a Jewish crowd had asked the same question. When Jesus cleared the temple, they demanded, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” In both chapter 2 and chapter 6, the Jews are essentially saying, “You’re stepping on toes here. If you’re going to act this way and if you’re going to make these big claims, then let’s have your credentials.”
The question in chapter 6 is all the more incredible in light of the signs that Jesus had already performed and that they had already seen. Jesus had changed the water into wine. He had healed the official’s son. A man crippled for thirty-eight years was running all around Jerusalem thanks to Him. And, of course, He had fed the five thousand. The very Jews asking for a miracle now had been there, and they knew that He had somehow crossed the lake ahead of them without a boat.
There is an inherent danger in looking to signs and wonders to authenticate our faith.
In fact, only a few verses earlier, in John 6:26, Jesus says to them that the reason they had come to Him was “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” In other words, they had seen the miracle of multiplied loaves, but they had little interest in what it signified. As one commentator puts it, “Instead of seeing in the bread the sign, they had seen in the sign only the bread.”1 Far from helping them to believe, the miracle had merely revealed that their understanding was darkened by worldly thinking.
These first-century crowds are not so different from us. We often deceive ourselves with the idea that what we need is more evidence: “If only I had the answer to this or that question, I would believe. If only God would do this or that for me, then I would trust Him.” But the answers to our prayers could descend from heaven on a divine tablet, and it would make no difference at all. It is not want of evidence but want of heart that keeps people back from Christ. It is only when we see Him for who He is that we will have faith to believe in His signs.
“They Have Moses and the Prophets”
In recent times, there has been a significant movement within the church telling us that unless there are signs and wonders authenticating the proclamation of the Gospel, no one will ever come to faith in Christ. Those who make that argument point to the miracles in Acts and insist that they are normative for us today—that they should be the common experience of anyone who exercises faith. The apostles who performed those miracles, though, would have found this way of thinking to be a mockery of the faith they proclaimed.
As Mark Ashton puts it, “The word of God does the work of God through the Spirit of God in the people of God.”2 The apostles, like Jesus Himself, did perform miracles to help authenticate the Gospel in a generation for which that proclamation was new. Yet it is the proclamation of the Gospel as the Holy Spirit testifies in the hearts of the hearers that brings about faith. When the believers spoke in tongues on the day of Pentecost, they were accused of drunkenness (Acts 2:13). But when some had the faith to see in the miracle a sign, asking, “What does this mean?” (v. 12), it was Peter’s Spirit-filled preaching that “cut to the heart” (v. 37) and brought them to Jesus for salvation.
It is only when we see Jesus for who He is that we will have faith to believe in His signs.
The Lord Jesus spoke to this question in a different context, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16. In this story, a rich man dies and enters into eternal punishment while his poor neighbor, Lazarus, sits in paradise with Abraham. So the rich man begs Abraham to send a message to his living relatives:
He said, “… I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:27–31)
In other words, the most astounding miracles will not bring life to dead hearts. Even the resurrection, on its own, is not enough to create faith. Great works of God may encourage us and spur us on, but they will not save us. We need the greatest work of all, though it is the least spectacular—that is, the Holy Spirit of God bringing about a new birth.
The confidence of heaven is in the Word of God. Whatever else may happen or not, all the knowledge that is required for men and women to come to faith in Jesus Christ has been revealed for us in the Book.
The True Bread from Heaven
Jesus’ response to the crowd’s question in John 6 is as striking today as it was then:
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32–33)
Many people today seek Christ hoping for material gain and physical satisfaction. The sad truth is that many have indeed heard a half-baked gospel message that implies that those are indeed the gifts that Jesus came to bring. Worse still, many hear a false gospel that says outright that this is so. Indeed, some miraculous works are intentionally deceitful, as Jesus warned: “False christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt. 24:24). There is a very real sense in which many come to the Lord for the fruit of miracles, but they have no real interest in Christ.
Whatever our views on the exercise of miraculous gifts today—and there are some reasonable disagreements about such things among God’s people—we cannot turn our eyes away from the main and plain thing: the Gospel of Jesus Christ revealed in the Word of God. “Jews demand signs,” Paul said, “but we preach Christ crucified, … the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22–24). He is “the true bread from heaven” that brings life, and He is proclaimed in the Word. No sign or wonder can replace that Word. Our calling is to proclaim it and to live in light of it.