Today the dividing line between those who believe in miracles and those who don’t is often the same line that divides religious from secular thinking. But in Jesus’ day the controversy surrounding His miracles was primarily among those who regarded themselves as people of faith.
The Religious Legalists’ Objection
A group of religious leaders known as Pharisees focused on the letter of the law. For them, the most important expression of faith in God was strict obedience to the laws that Moses had given them. And, believing they had the authority of Moses, they added more and more rules that they expected the people to obey.
One of the reasons the miracles of Jesus created so much controversy is that with them He exposed the deep flaw in the Pharisees’ thinking—not simply about obedience to the law but about the law itself.
John’s gospel describes what happened when, on a Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth:
Now it was a Sabbath when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also asked him again how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Therefore some of the Pharisees said, “This Man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them (9:14-16).
The irony is that a man who was born blind had his physical sight restored while the spiritually blind Pharisees could not see beyond their own traditions. By focusing on the letter of the law rather than its intent, they had missed God’s purpose for the Sabbath and the significance of what Jesus had done.
Other conflicts grew out of similar miracles. Luke 13:10-16 records the plight of an elderly woman crippled by a chronic back ailment. She too met Jesus on a Sabbath. The Pharisees watched to see if Jesus would heal on their day of rest. He did, and the ruler of the synagogue stepped forward and indignantly said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.” But Jesus replied,
Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound—think of it—for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? (vv. 15-16).
The Pharisees were indignant because Jesus didn’t follow the law as they understood it. They misunderstood a miracle that brought healing because they misunderstood the Sabbath—a day originally intended to bring renewal to the people of God. Their loyalty to a code of conduct caused them to miss God’s most basic life lessons. In the process, the virtues of Judaism—faith, justice, and mercy—were lost (matthew 23:23-24).
The Religious Skeptics’ Objection
In our day, it’s not difficult to find church leaders who deny certain miracles of the Bible. Interestingly, in first-century Israel a group of religious leaders called the Sadducees were known for their skepticism of miracles. These Sadducees were an aristocratic priestly class who, while emphasizing moral and religious law, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead or the existence of angels.
In Matthew 22:23-33, the Sadducees’ skepticism put them at odds with Jesus. In an attempt to question the future resurrection, they confronted Him with a hypothetical situation in which a woman was married and widowed seven times before she herself died.
The Sadducees’ question was this: “Therefore, in the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had her” (v. 28). The Sadducees were trying to make the resurrection appear ridiculous. Jesus answered them:
“You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the multitudes heard this, they were astonished at His teaching (vv. 29-33).
Jesus’ words silenced them (v. 34). But in time, the skeptical Sadducees would have to confront more than Jesus’ explanation.
In John 11:1-44, we read about a man named Lazarus who had fallen ill. Because Jesus was a special friend of the family, Lazarus’ sisters sent for Jesus to come, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick” (v. 3).
What happened next was surprising: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was” (vv. 5-6).
Jesus loved the family of Lazarus, but He delayed His response to the sisters’ urgent request. When Jesus finally arrived, two brokenhearted sisters who couldn’t understand why Jesus didn’t come right away confronted Him . . . Lazarus had died.
Although John tells us that Jesus cried when He saw the grief of His friends (vv. 33-35), it is just as clear that Jesus always intended to show His power over death. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (vv. 25-26).
Then Jesus went to Lazarus’ grave: “‘Lazarus, come forth!’ And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’ Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him” (vv. 43-45).
Jesus had answered the skepticism of the Sadducees with more than words. He did a miracle that supported His claim to be the source of life and showed their denial of resurrection to be baseless.