QUESTION: How come God isn’t speaking through prophets now, updating his words for us today? Why do you think God played such a clear and visible role in people’s lives in biblical times, speaking to them and instructing them; however, an active and interventionist God seems much more silent today?
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY – THE PROGRESSIVE REVELATION OF GOD
(I’ve covered biblical theology before on my blog, so if you’re familiar with it, skip ahead to “The Purpose of Miracles.”)
First, we must start with a general understanding of biblical theology, the study of the story of the Bible as a whole. The Bible is not a collection of random, disconnected episodes; it tells the story of God’s progressive revelation throughout history.
Christians believe the Bible (and history) moves through 4 major events/eras:
Creation – Fall – Redemption – Restoration.
At The Creation, God made the world good, but man (because he was given freewill) sinned and rebelled against God (The Fall), and all creation was affected, and humankind was forever separated from an eternally good, holy God by their sin. God chose Israel as his special people and prepared them for the coming of Christ (the Messiah). Christians believe the whole Old Testament (OT) is preparing the world for the coming of Christ. (Most Jewish theologians would agree with this but disagree that Jesus is the Christ.) Then, Jesus the Christ came, lived the sinless life that none of us can, and died for the sins of the world in our place (The Redemption).
This puts into action The Restoration; people will be redeemed through Jesus Christ. This is where we are now in history, but the Restoration won’t reach fulfillment until Jesus’ 2nd Coming, at which time there will be the Final Judgment and creation will be made right again. The phrase already/not yet is often used to speak of the time period we now live in within biblical history; Jesus Christ has already started the Restoration, but the completion of the Restoration has not yet arrived.
Since the Creation and the Fall happened all within only the first 3 chapters of Genesis, and the Redemption doesn’t happen until Jesus’ life, the majority of the OT tells of the period between the Fall and Redemption, covering about 2,000 years once God appears to Abraham. (It’s unclear how much time passes during the earlier events recorded in Genesis to Abraham.) During these 2,000 years, God prepared the world for the Redemption, the coming of the Christ, by choosing Israel as the people through whom he will bless the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3).
THE PURPOSE OF MIRACLES
So, the Bible tells the story of God’s good creation falling into sin and God’s acts to redeem his creation. This is often called the Redemptive History of the Bible. And just as the Bible is not an arbitrary collection of stories, true miracles are not random events either.
Understanding the purpose of the miracles God displays in his progressive revelation/redemptive history will help to answer your question. Simply put, miracles are to confirm a new message (revelation) and a new messenger – to confirm the truth of their message and to show explicitly that the messenger and message is from God.
Often we make the mistake of thinking miracles happened regularly in biblical times; we often forget that the Old Testament (OT) covers a time period of about 2,000 years from Abraham to Jesus and no one knows how much time elapsed from the Creation, the days of Noah, or other events early in Genesis until Abraham. Within these time periods, there are long periods where God is silent. For example, the Israelites who received God’s new revelations and witnessed these unique events are told to pass on this information to their children. But, inevitably, later generations begin to “forget,” some as quickly as just one generation later (which is a failure on the older generation’s part to teach them).
Sometimes centuries passed before God acted again within history. For instance, the Israelites were enslaved for four hundred years in Egypt, and God was silent all that time until he appeared to Moses in the burning bush. Moreover, about four hundred years passed between the last book of the OT (about 435 BC) and the coming of Jesus. Ancient Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD) wrote: “From Artaxerxes [464-423 BC] to our times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets” (from Against Apion 1.41). Here is non-biblical evidence that the Jews did not consider anything written after about 435-420 BC to be equal to the accounts in their scripture, our modern OT, because the prophets had disappeared.
God was silent all those years, and the Jews recognized that no new prophets had come to give them God’s Word. This is why when John the Baptist appears, proclaiming that Israel must repent from their sins and speaking of one coming who will be far greater than him, it’s a big deal.
The majority of miracles in the Bible fall within the lifetime of 3 major people and the events surrounding them: Moses, Elijah (and Elisha), and Jesus (and the apostles). Why? Because these men were God’s spokesmen (and one was God himself), and God was doing something major in the redemptive history of his fallen creation.
DO MIRACLES HAPPEN TODAY?
As Christians today, there are those who believe miracles have passed away with the last of Jesus’ apostles and they have ceased. Most Christians believe miracles still happen today. I believe both are correct in a sense.
First, many Christians throw around the word miracle too easily. Miracles are unique events that are undoubtedly the work of God. Today, often when someone knows that God has intervened in some way, such as answering prayer, this is in theological terms God’s providence, not a miracle. God’s providence is God’s everyday working and interaction with his creation. And though we may know through the Holy Spirit that God was at work, it would be hard to prove it to be so to anyone else. A miracle, on the other hand, would be hard to deny (though the Bible clearly shows people will deny them).
Secondly, within God’s progressive revelation/redemptive history, there’s no need for miracles any more. We are in the Restoration era – the already/not yet era. There is no new revelation coming; no new scriptures will be written – and there is no new revelation or scripture needed. God accomplished all he wanted to do (for our benefit) by dying for our sins on the cross and making sure these events (and the significance of these events) were recorded in his new scripture, the New Testament (NT). The miracles Jesus performed weren’t arbitrary works of magic to impress his audience; each miracle was a sign of who he truly was, and these signs continued on with his chosen apostles to confirm that what we find in the NT is God’s Word.
In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul writes:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we [Paul and the other apostles] or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”
Thus, no new revelation is coming until Jesus Christ’s return, and any addition or subtraction from God’s Word is not God’s Word. So, even if an angel appears to you, if what he says contradicts scripture, it’s not from God.
With Jesus Christ’s death, he ushered in the Restoration, the already/not yet era. As Christians are led by the Holy Spirit, we’re to continue our Lord and Savior’s redemptive work by telling people of him in truth and love so they can be resolved of their sins and not eternally separated from our good and holy Creator. And we also wait, wait for Christ to return to complete his work and end sin and death once and for all.