October 19, 1997 PM
By Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Luke returns now to Peter for three and a half more chapters before Paul takes center stage for the remainder of the book. Very different men used in different ways by the King of the Church.
Apparently, Peter had an itinerant ministry in these early days both for the purpose of evangelism and of the nurture of young believers and their churches.
Aeneas is, of course, a Greek Name, made famous in Virgil's epic poem about the survivors of the Trojan War, but that in itself is no proof that this man was not a Jew.
Once more, "Acts" is the account of the "acts" not first of the apostles but of the risen Jesus Christ himself working through them.
Sharon is the coastal plain stretching northward to Carmel. Once more, the characteristic of biblical miracles -- their self-attestation to such an extent that they were not doubted for what they were -- supernatural works of power -- such that they were persuasive to folk who were not predisposed to accept them. They knew this man, they knew his condition, and they saw the effect of the miracle.
Joppa, modern Jaffa, was 12 miles from Lydda on the coast.
The request indicates that they were so aware of Peter's miracle working that they felt it reasonable to entertain some hope of Dorcas' being raised from the dead.
Perhaps they thought that if they demonstrated this woman's charity and generosity to the poor, Peter would be more inclined to work a miracle on their behalf.
Why did Peter send everyone out of the room? I don't know, but in doing so he was imitating his master who did exactly the same thing, and that in the case of the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue, as we read in Mark 5:50. Indeed, in that case the Lord Jesus said, "Talitha cumi," Aramaic for "little girl, get up" which is just one letter different from "Tabitha cumi" which is what Peter would have said on this occasion.
Again, the nature of the miracle was such as to have convinced many people.
Peter stayed in Joppa for some time, no doubt to organize and establish the new converts. He stayed with a tanner, a detail that will be returned to in the following chapter (10:6), where we learn that his home was by the seashore. "Tanner" was an unclean occupation, and the detail may be Luke's way of telling us that Peter was being increasingly emancipated from ceremonial laws, or, perhaps better, ceremonial prejudices, for a godly Jew could have been a tanner according to the Law of Moses, however unclean his work might have left him on occasion.
Now we have already considered miracles in our studies in Acts to date. There is the specific record of certain supernatural events and the mention of many others that go unrecorded, and there will be more as the narrative proceeds.
And we have said certain things about these miracles.
- We have said that the Scripture seems most interested in these miracles for the authority they convey to those who perform them; they accredit certain men as bearing authority from God (this is said specifically of Jesus in Acts 2, that he was accredited by miracles, and of his apostles, and that even by their enemies in the Sanhedrin).
This explains the striking fact -- a fact from which all discussions about biblical miracles should begin, I think -- that in the Bible miracles are not promiscuous, but are found only rarely and almost exclusively in three great but quite short periods, each of which is an important juncture in the history of revelation, of the disclosure of God's word and will to mankind. Moses/exodus/wilderness/early conquest; Elijah/Elisha at the headwaters of the OT prophetic succession (Elijah is the Prophet); and Christ/apostles through at least the middle years of the apostolic period (there is evidence that miracles were disappearing by the end of that period or had disappeared altogether -- "Trophimus I left ill at Miletus" by the one whose handkerchief would heal years before!). There are some exceptions, most notably Daniel's life and the shadow reversing for Hezekiah. Further, there are angelic appearances elsewhere and, certainly, communications to prophets. But, the acts we associate with the word miracles -- healings, resurrections, nature miracles, etc. -- are found in these few places. John the Baptist worked no miracle the Bible explicitly says. There is a connection, then between miracles and the great stages of revelation. This lies beneath the general Protestant doctrine of the cessation of miracles after the close of the canon. We won't have miracles again -- or won't until the consummation -- because we do not have prophets or apostles to accredit with miracles.
- We have also said that miracles served further as pictures of the salvation Christ has brought to the world: life from the dead, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, control over the world of evil spirits, over the forces of nature that threaten us, food for the hungry, deliverance from prison, etc. All these are pictures of salvation from sin and its effects. This was true of all biblical miracles to one degree or another and is certainly true of these two miracles of Peter. They are pictures of deliverance through Christ and so arguments for believing in him. This point is often made in the Bible. Jesus used his healing of the man let down through the roof as a demonstration of his power to forgive sins.
And, therefore, miracles not primarily for getting the sick well or you would find them everywhere.
- And, we have often said of Biblical miracles, and have said again regarding the miracles reported in Acts, that they are characterized by self-attestation, that characteristic of all of them was that no one doubted that a supernatural event had occurred, even if different people interpreted the meaning of that event in wildly different ways (e.g. the Pharisees did not deny that Jesus performed miracles, but held that he did so by the power and authority of the devil). I have often insisted on this to you as a means of evaluating the claims that miracles are being performed today. To me, the fact that those making such claims cannot even convince the largest part of the believing church, much less the unbelieving world, is virtual proof that no miracle has in fact occurred. This was never a problem in the case of biblical miracles. And, I tell you again, you do not need to worry about missing out on the miraculous because you haven't faith to believe in them as some charge. You will know that miracles are occurring again because you will read about it on the front page of the New York Times, even if, as might be expected, the Times' editors find some other explanation for these supernatural events than the one Christians would offer. Divine power when it is unleashed is never missed by anyone present!
Now, when I say this, however, I don't mean to say that we know, in every case, what to do with every anecdote we hear or that has been handed down through church history. If you read B.B. Warfield's, Counterfeit Miracles, you will learn how and why to practice a healthy skepticism regarding the claims that Christians sometimes make for the miraculous.
You may have read in last week's Tacoma News Tribune (Oct. 14, 1997 A6) that the woman in Conyers, GA, who has claimed to receive visions from the Virgin Mary, told 30,000 people who came to her farm last Monday, that next year's message would be the last. Nancy Fowler claims that Mary's image appeared inside her home at 1:20 p.m. and remained for 8 minutes. Fowler then told the assembled throng what Mary had told her, viz. that people should pray and mend their ways. Initially Fowler claimed to receive a vision on the 13th of every month, but in 1994, the Virgin told her that she would appear with a public message only once a year, on Oct. 13th. Next year's message will be the last according to the most recent revelation.
Now, perhaps we are not inclined to take any of that too seriously, whether we assign it to an extreme credulity on the part of this woman or outright fraud. We don't accept that the teaching that lies beneath these visions and is supposedly confirmed by them is biblical. And, of course, Christians aren't the only ones who claim to see or speak to luminaries from the past. We know all about that living near Yelm as we do. And we have other explanations of supposed appearances of Mary, having seen the backs of road signs near Yakima.
But, it is not so easy in other cases to know exactly what to say and think. For example, there is the case of Pascal's niece, Marguerite Perrier, who had long suffered from a serious, disfiguring "lachrymal fistula" in the corner of her eye. On March 24, 1656 she was healed through being touched by a Holy Thorn that had recently been presented to the Sisters of Port-Royal. The healing of Mlle. Perrier was substantiated by medical evidence and because Port-Royal was a center of Jansenist influence -- a movement that sought to return Catholic practice to the theology of Augustine -- and which was, at that time, being persecuted by the Roman authorities, it was natural for them to see the Lord authenticating their cause with this miracle and others that followed it, a cause we Calvinist Presbyterians would like to think had been accredited by God. This miracle caused Pascal to begin collecting materials for his Defense of Christianity, which was to be entitled Apology for the Christian Religion, but which was never published. His notes for it which he had collected before his premature death at the age of 39 were later published under the title Pensees, or "Thoughts."
Now Pascal was a scientific man. One of the inventors of the calculator, a major contributor to the development of modern mathematics -- to geometry, probability, and number theory --, the man whose experiments demonstrated the existence of the vacuum, one of the founders of modern physics, here is a man who firmly believed that someone he knew had been miraculously healed and that the evidence proved it to anyone who cared to look.
I don't claim to know what to do with this. Perhaps if we were there we would think differently in one way or another, but we must stay with the Bible and take our view of miracles from it alone. Anecdotes are no substitute.
Now, it is clear that miracles are essential to the Christian faith. It was, as you know, claimed in the later 19th century and through the 20th century that if you got rid of the miraculous you would have pure Christianity and in a form everyone, even the most scientifically minded, could embrace. But, of course, what you had was not Christianity at all.
C.S. Lewis put it this way: "All the essentials of Hinduism would, I think, remain unimpaired if you subtracted the miraculous, and the same is almost true of Mohammedanism. But you cannot do that with Christianity. It is precisely the story of a great miracle. A naturalistic Christianity leaves out all that is specifically Christian." [Miracles, 68]
J. Gresham Machen said it still better in Christianity and Liberalism (pp. 103-104):
The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy man.... But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked his failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain to it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin.... Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Saviour.
"But how can we know that the miracles are true? The secular elite scorn the very idea of the miraculous and attribute the biblical reports of the miraculous to a credulous people prepared to believe on the slenderest of evidence reports that defy all human experience. Following David Hume, the skeptical 18th century empiricist philosopher, our professional thinkers have by and large argued that to believe that a miracle occurred -- violating as it would all the known laws of nature -- the evidence must be such as simply cannot possibly be disbelieved. Under that rule, they argue, it is much easier to believe that the miracle stories of the Bible are fabricated in one way or another, for one purpose or another, than that they report real history.
And this, they argue, is all the more the case, given the fact that such prominent Christian thinkers as Warfield, using a not dissimilar form of argument, have raised a very powerful case against the miracles that have been claimed in the centuries since the NT until the present. If Warfield argues that we should not believe these reports for the various reasons he puts forward, why should we not simply apply the same arguments to the miracles of the NT and doubt them as well?
We can reply, of course, that many believed as a result of the biblical miracles, but, even if doubters accept that the biblical report of that fact is to be taken seriously, fact is many believe that Mary appeared to children at Lourdes and again at Fatima and we do not accept that these reports are factual. What is more, we do not have the events themselves before us, we have only reports, now some 2,000 years old.
You are I will meet more and more people for whom the biblical reports of miracles such as these performed by Peter -- quite as much as the resurrection of Jesus Christ -- are simply not credible. What are we to say to them? How are we to argue our case that such events really happened, and that, having happened, they are a window on the world, on the existence of God, on the truth of the Christian story, that they confirm the biblical claim that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?
Now, there is a great deal to be said in answer to that question. Huge volumes have been written on the theme. I read, this past week, a substantial portion of an excellent modern study by Colin Brown entitled Miracles and the Critical Mind. Brown is a theologian and a philosopher and in his excellent book evaluates the arguments that have been made both for and against the biblical miracles through the ages. He is in no doubt that belief in biblical miracles is reasonable, even in a scientific age such as ours.
He points out, for example, that miracles are rare in the Bible and were, in fact, wonders to ancient man just as they would be to us today. The miraculous was miraculous to ancient man. If it were not there would be no point in the miracles, for people would have accepted them merely as a part of life. If people were as credulous back then as many seem today to think they were, then miracles would not have been nearly so miraculous. But they were. The basic difference between the skeptic and the believer was the same in the ancient world as it is today, a difference between frames of reference and frameworks of belief (p. 281). That is, people come to these reports inclined for other reasons to believe or to reject them. The miracles themselves are not the evidence -- nor, interestingly, were they, taken by themselves, when they first occurred. True, here we read that because of Peter's miracles many believed. But the unspoken assumption here in Acts 9 and the explicit teaching of the Gospels and other parts of Acts is that many who had the evidence of these miracles before their eyes did not believe. So powerful is the frame of reference with which any human being considers various facts -- to one man they prove the Christian faith, to another they prove nothing of the kind. The Scribes and Pharisees knew that Lazarus was raised from the dead but they did not confess Jesus as Lord. Peter and Paul performed miracles and were persecuted for doing so. The modern Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide accepts that the evidence is conclusive that Jesus did rise from the dead, but he remains aloof to Jesus as the only Savior of sinners.
What is more, argues Brown, following many others, the problem of extracting the miracles is much more difficult than is often alleged. The alternative to the miracle working Jesus and apostles of Jesus is not the ethical teacher and teaching of liberal Christianity, but sheer historical skepticism. There is no way we can detach the miraculous from this history and find some non-miracle-working Jesus behind the Gospel accounts.
But that is to say that the entire biblical history stands or falls as a whole. But, if that is true, then the arguments for Christianity, many and powerful as they are, all are arguments for the miracles as they are for the rest of biblical history, doctrine, and ethics.
Remember, always remember, that the skepticism of modern unbelief is credible, really credible, only as part of an entirely naturalist worldview. If any existence of God is admitted, then the possibility of the Christian claims must be seriously considered. But the complete naturalism of modern thinking depends absolutely on accepting evolution as a satisfactory explanation of the origin of life. Once that position is surrendered at all -- and there is increasing evidence that it will finally have to be surrendered -- the door is opened not only for the entire weight of the Christian criticism of naturalism to be brought to bear against it -- such as was done brilliantly in our century by Lewis and Schaeffer -- but the philosophical, historical, and ethical case for Christianity can be made with all the vigor that it deserves.
It is clear that the Bible itself teaches us to believe that miracles in and of themselves convince no one. Faith is required to accept miracles as a demonstration of the authority of Jesus Christ. No one can confess Jesus as Lord without the Spirit of God. No one at Joppa or Lydda did either.
Here is how Colin Brown puts it.
"For many of those who have come to believe in miracles, the question is not a three-step process, one that begins by establishing the existence and character of God on general grounds, then seeks to identify the God of the Bible with such a being, and finally fits Jesus and the miracles into this framework. It is more a matter of finding the miracle-working God of the Bible as the One who answers our deepest human needs in Jesus Christ. In such a case, the question of the existence of God is not logically prior to that of Jesus who works miracles. It is a matter of a growing apprehension of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit."
I think that is right and also the way in which, by and large, people do come to believe in accounts of miracles that they would have thought completely incredible before. The met God and Christ, and having met them, suddenly the fact of the miracles of the Bible is not only no longer a problem, it is exactly what they might expect of the God they have come to know.
And that should be our approach in most cases as well. Remind them, in many ways, of course, if we have the opportunity or necessity, that our belief in miracles is entirely reasonable because we do not believe that the universe or the human race it contains is a closed system that can be accounted for by time and chance alone. But, primarily, urge upon them faith in Jesus Christ and pray that the Holy Spirit might grant it. Which, granted, resolves all questions.