What a question! The reader might regard it as absurd and reply that Jesus routinely performed miracles or, as John has it, signs. One of the evident differences between Jesus and John the Baptist, the greatest of the OT prophets (Mt. 11:11) and a burning and shining light (John 5:35), is that the latter by contrast is said not to have performed any (John 10:41). However, there is more to the question than might initially appear obvious. For it may well be asked how a man who was genuinely human flesh and blood could possibly walk on water and calm storms? (1* I am assuming that Jesus’ incarnation was genuine and that he was truly human and not docetic.) I myself and doubtless the reader would have to admit to a distinct lack of capacity at this point though Jesus did once point out that faith can remove a mountain (Mark 11:22, cf. 1 Cor. 13:2). So how could Jesus as a real man possibly perform miracles?
The OT Prophets
First we must recognize the fact that he was not unique. Some of his miracles were repetitions or rather recapitulations of miracles done in the OT, the feeding of the 5,000, for example (cf. Ex. 16; Ps. 78:19). Various OT prophets had worked wonders among the people to whom they ministered. Moses, Elijah and Elisha stand out in this regard. Despite this they were persecuted by some. Even Moses had his troubles and had to justify himself or rather be vindicated by God himself. The story of Miriam and Aaron’s revolt is a case in point (Num. 12). But it is important to note that the prophets were ordinary flesh and blood like Elijah (James 5:17f.) yet, as prepared and sent by God (e.g, Jeremiah 1:5; James 5:10), they depended on him both for their message and occasional miracles. Was Jesus any different?
Traditionally Jesus is regarded as exceptional because he has been deemed to be not merely an ordinary prophet, even though the one promised by Moses (Dt. 18:15-22), but God in the flesh. While this comment is formally true, it harbours a misconception. In general the church has held to the two-nature (Dyophysite) theory of Chalcedon, to the idea that when the Word became flesh as the Son of God born of woman he retained his divine nature. This notion is deeply suspect since it is a tacit if cryptic denial of the incarnation. For how can a genuine human being have at one and the same time two natures? If it is contended that he can, then he is inevitably docetic, not truly but only apparently man. (2* Here I have to agree with Harold O.J.Brown that conservative Protestantism is implicitly Apollinarian. In confessing Christ as God it finds it difficult to assert that Jesus was really man. As Brown says, the NT presents Jesus as a real man, not a divine being who simply reveals himself in human form, p.170. See further my Jesus the Man.) To overcome this problem it is necessary to point out that the Bible teaches that these natures were consecutive not contemporaneous. The eternal Word (3* It is important to stress this epithet or designation. Jesus is touted by widespread church tradition to be the eternal Son of God. This implicitly denies his original deity and equality with God as taught in John 1 and Philippians 2. See further my Still Docetic.) became flesh and as such, like Adam before him (Luke 3:38), was a genuinely human son of God like the rest of us (cf. Acts 17:28f.; Heb. 2:17). But whereas the first Adam was a created being who stemmed directly from the ground (Gen. 2:7), the second Adam enjoyed pre-existence in heaven as the eternal Word (John 1:1-18). He became man by his birth of a woman who as flesh was dust like Adam himself (Gen. 2:18-25; Ps. 78:39; 103:14; 1 Cor. 15:47-49).
Jesus as God
Docetism is not the only problem that arises at this point. For, if Jesus retained his divine nature when he became a man, why did he fail like the Baptist (John 10:41) to perform miracles while he was still under the law? (4* The very idea that he had a divine nature while he was being tested under the law would seem to render his victory as man deeply suspect, cf. Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f. Moreover, it hardly accords with James’ denial that God as opposed to his incarnate Son could be subject to temptation, James 1:13. It appears to deny the genuineness of Jesus’ trials as a true man and militates against verses like Hebrews 4:15, cf. 2:14,17.) Why in other words did he begin to show his apparent miraculous abilities only after his baptism? The answer must lie in the purpose of God who intended to demonstrate, first, that Jesus uniquely kept the written law as a once-born or natural man in the flesh (Mt. 3:13-17) and, second, that he was enabled to overcome the world, the flesh and the devil (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.; 1 John 4:4f.) as twice-born or born again of the Spirit whom he had received without measure (John 3:34, cf. 1:32). In other words, once Jesus was born from above and was led by the Spirit he meticulously fulfilled all righteousness above and beyond the written law (Mt. 3:15). He always did what was pleasing to his Father who remained constantly with him (John 8:29) as he accomplished the work that he, that is, his Father gave him to do (John 17:4). This leads to the next point.
Jesus the Miracle Man?
Jesus strongly asserts that he always does what he sees the Father doing and that of himself he can do nothing (John 5:19,30, cf. 5:20; 9:33; 15:5). What does he mean? Surely he intends us to draw the conclusion that as a genuine human being he does not generate and depend on his own natural strength. After all, he himself taught that the flesh is weak (Mt. 26:41, cf. 2 Cor. 13:4) and even that it is unprofitable (John 6:63, cf. Rom. 7:18). Rather he relies totally on his Father in unbroken fellowship (cf. Heb. 5:7f.). Even while he is being arrested, far from using his putative inherent ability to resist, he asserts that he can call on his Father to send twelve legions of angels to rescue him (Mt. 26:53, cf. Luke 22:43). And his failure to come down from the cross when challenged to do so (Mt. 27:40-44) is rich in irony for the simple reason that Jesus was intent on fulfilling his Father’s will. Furthermore, it is noticeable that when he performs a miracle like that of raising Lazarus he prays believing in faith that his Father always hears him (John 11:41f.) and that his capability comes from him. But even before this he has already recognized that fact that Lazarus’ death is for the glory of God (John 11:4). So after a delay pregnant with significance (John 11:6), he eventually performs a remarkable miracle which in reality is a work of God through his instrumentality. (5* We might compare this with his own baptism by John. After all, John was merely the greatest of those born of woman, Mt. 11:11, the human instrument in what was plainly a divine action, Mt. 3:13-17. At this point the Baptist did indeed perform his one and only miracle.) This inference is confirmed by his comment in 5:36 where he states that his works are those that his Father has given him to complete. They provided the evidence on which his hearers should base their faith (John 10:38; 14:11). Denial of this seems to suggest that Jesus was a magician, a mere wonder-worker of whom tall stories were told.
Jesus the True Prophet
This line of thought may be pursued further for Jesus not only claims to do the works of God for which he is acknowledged by Nicodemus (John 3:2, cf. 9:16,33) but to speak the very words of God. (6* Cf. the ‘thus says the Lord’ of the OT prophets). In John 8:28 he says that he not only does nothing of his own accord but also that he speaks only as his Father has instructed him. In endorsement of this he asserts that the Father who sent him gave him a commandment about what to say and to speak (John 12:49f.). The importance of this is that just as he was a true, even the prophet (Dt. 18:18, cf. John 1:49), and was given his Father’s authority (cf. John 14:10; 17:8), so would those who followed him (cf. Eph. 2:20) and were led by the Spirit after his ascension (John 7:39; 16:13-15). (7* Paul, for example, was adamant that his gospel had been revealed to him by God, Gal. 1:12,16. Earlier, when Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, Jesus himself tells him that flesh and blood has not revealed this to him but his, that is, Jesus’ Father in heaven, Mt. 16:17.) Jesus did as the Father commanded him so that the world would know by both his works and words that he loved the Father (John 14:31) and was loved by him in return (John 5:20; 15:9; 17:23,26). In light of this, it is hardly surprising that in the NT Jesus does and says what God does and says. Thus, just as God’s word endures, so will his (Mt. 24:35) for the simple reason that they are one and the same. Jesus and his Father are one (John 10:30).
The Resurrection of Jesus
Writers in general usually acknowledge the fact that it was God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead. After all, it is extremely difficult to conceive of a dead man doing anything. However, in John 10:17f. (cf. 2:19-21) Jesus appears to imply that he has the personal power to raise his body. So, does this give the lie to my contention that he divested himself of his divine nature during the period of his incarnation not to say permanently? Hardly! On the assumption that John has faithfully recorded his words Jesus is careful to insist not that he has natural independent power but that he has divine authority for his resurrection. As Carson, for example, indicates the stress here is on command and obedience (p.389). Jesus will rise again because the Father has ordained it. It is intrinsic to his plan.
Forgiveness of Sins
Again it might be argued that when Jesus forgave sins, the Jews’ contention that only God has that prerogative was correct. Therefore Jesus was God. He was indeed, that is precisely who he was, but that does not warrant the inference that he still retained his divine nature while he was incarnate any more than it warrants the inference that I shall cease to be human without my flesh and blood in heaven (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50). If he did not change his nature as Paul says (Phil. 2:5-7), he was not a true human being and man’s salvation has not been gained in the manner planned from eternity, that is, first by law-keeping and second by redemption. As both Genesis and Hebrews in particular show, the promise of human salvation was by way of the law (Gen. 2:17, cf. Lev. 18:5; Mt. 19:17). It was Jesus the man in the flesh who uniquely kept the commandment/law (Rom. 8:3), gained (eternal) life and opened up the gate of heaven for the rest of us by freely offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins. In contrast with all others, as God’s regenerate Son he was personally free and therefore had something to give (cf. Mt. 17:26b). In the event he gave himself, his very own flesh and blood (cf. Eph. 1:7). But this was all for the glory of God in fulfillment of his eternal plan of redemption (cf. Rev. 13:8).
Jesus and Power
But this prompts another thought. Rather than exhibiting divine power while he was still in the flesh, Jesus is portrayed as achieving it or being granted it by his Father (John 5:26; 6:57; 17:2). It is only after he has conquered in the weakness of his flesh and been vindicated by his resurrection from the dead that he is able to say that all power in heaven and earth has been given to him (Mt. 28:18, cf. 11:27; Rom. 1:4; 1 Pet. 3:22, etc.). Clearly, it is as man that this is the case (cf. Heb. 1:4) and it is as man that he regains the glory that he had before the foundation of the world (John 17:5,24).
If he really was God the Word who changed his nature and became incarnate, how did he achieve this? The answer is that he relied totally on his Father with whom his relationship was never disrupted (Mt. 3:17, cf. Heb. 5:7f.). Thus he was empowered (John 1:32; 3:34; 6:27b) to accomplish what for the rest of us has proved impossible because we have all in contrast with Jesus (1 Pet. 2:22) committed sins. Sinners are disqualified since they come short of the glory of God. If they cannot gain their own salvation, how can they accomplish that of others? But Jesus though initially God the Word who shared the nature of God, in the flesh becomes not God but the exact image and likeness of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). And it is as man, having attained to the likeness of God and received his generic nature that he exercises all the powers of his Father.
So, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this essay, I maintain that Jesus’ miracles were acts of God performed through him. (8* This may be compared with the so-called Acts of the Apostles which followed Jesus’ own ministry. A.J.Thompson rightly in my view claims that the apostles’ acts were really the acts of the risen Lord Jesus and he entitles his fine book accordingly.) No mere wonder-worker could have done what he did as Nicodemus and others realized. All who were willing to allow the evidence of both his works and his words were bound to recognize that he was the man sent by God to be the one mediator between God and man. The same remains true today. Believers are not blind but people who respond to the evidence presented to them. They exercise their faith on the basis of the evidence not against it. Indeed, the evidence is such that disbelievers have a great deal to contend with. Little wonder that so many simply try to ignore it. However, they are in dire danger of making a liar of the God who testified so extravagantly to his Son and set his seal on him (John 6:27). And it is on this basis that they will be condemned if they persist in their rejection (cf. John 5:42-46). What we think of Jesus is a question that all rational people must face (Mt. 22:42, cf. 16:13,15). If he was not God in the flesh, who was he?
It is not without significance that we are told that it was God who kept Jesus hidden from general view after his resurrection (Acts 10:41, cf. John 14:21). In other words, there is no need to think of Jesus as performing miracles when he appeared to his disciples but remained hidden from others (John 20:29, cf. Luke 24:13-34).
Harold.O.J.Brown, Heresies, New York, 1984.
D.A.Carson, The Gospel According to John, Leicester/Michigan, 1991.
A.J.Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, Nottingham/Downers Grove, 2011.