Two weeks after I turned fifteen, my grandmother died of stomach cancer and was buried within the wall of a beautiful stone mausoleum in Memphis, TN. Losing her was emotionally devastating, as I practically grew up at her house, spending as many nights at her house as I had at my own – nights filled with playing board games, watching 70s sitcoms, and enjoying home-cooked dinners followed by all the chocolate ice-cream with whipped cream I could eat.
I grieved her loss deeply then and still miss her today. I would do anything to bring Granny back. But regardless of how loudly I could call out by her grave or whatever I might say to woo her awake, she does not have the physical ability to hear and respond.
If I were to call from outside of the mausoleum wall and hear her voice respond from within, we would call that unequivocally a miracle of the highest order.
Recently, one of my seminary students shared a story about a group of Christians who had converted to Christ from Islam. Being gathered at gunpoint, they were commanded to renounce Jesus under threat of immediate execution. As their leader reaffirmed his profession of Jesus as the crucified and risen Christ, venomous sand vipers appeared out of nowhere and struck the assailants, leaving the believers unharmed.
There are plenty of accounts from missionaries serving on the front lines of the Kingdom’s advance into places where Jesus is not known – stories of dramatic healings of the sick and lame that resemble the accounts in the New where there is a tremendous amount of visible demonic opposition to the message of the gospel.
However we deal with stories of modern-day miracles, according to the apostle Paul’s testimony to the Ephesians, we may affirm that “God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” The God who created and manages over four-hundred billion galaxies is not limited in his ability to perform the miraculous. To heal the sick and even raise the dead would be nothing for him.
Can he perform modern-day miracles? Of course! Yet even when we look in the Bible, we note that there are constellations of the miraculous, usually at critical points where the redemptive work of God is being confirmed with undeniable manifestations of supernatural power, such as the ministry of Moses in the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and the ministry of Jesus in delivering sinners from imprisonment under the law. Miracles are like billboards in history demanding our attention, saying, “Don’t miss this!”
In view of the clustering of miracles around the two primary redemptive figures in biblical history, we should expect that future constellations would not be necessary, as the testimony about the most important intervention of God in the world has already been attested to with outward, supernatural demonstrations.
Consequently, we should not expect dramatic healings in our context to be normative. Can God heal? Yes. Does he heal miraculously? Sometimes. But we should not expect those type of interventions to be normative.
Why? Because the believer’s testimony is not that we will be protected from physical suffering and death. It is that we have hope when facing suffering and death. This means that the miracle the world needs is not a physical healing as much as to witness a believer facing the brevity of this life with faith that this is not all that there is. For the believer, death is the doorway into eternal joy. Passages like Romans 8:17-18 reinforce this hope, where Paul writes, “17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 18 [But] I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.”
Is it right to pray for the healing of our loved ones? Absolutely. God heals. He prolongs life. But at some point, we all die. So, the greater prayer for our loved-ones and friends is not physical healing, but that they would be sustained in and through suffering with faith unto death, manifesting the hopeful joy of those who believe they are about to see Jesus face to face.
Expecting the Miraculous
However, for dramatic physical healing not to be normative today does not mean that we should not expect modern-day miracles. In fact, if you are a disciple of Jesus, you have already, personally experienced a modern-day miracle wherein the power of the Holy Spirit has accomplished the most dramatic, supernatural event you could imagine.
We read about it in Ephesians 2:1-10.
1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The Walking Dead
In the opening verses of this passage, Paul teaches that what was true about my grandmother’s physical condition is true about our spiritual condition. Just like she does not have ears to hear and respond to my call, neither do we have the capacity to hear and respond to God’s call. We are the true walking dead. Physically alive but spiritually dead.
This sets up the dramatic miracle that is described in verse 4, where Paul describes the supernatural intervention of God, who “makes us alive even when we were dead.” This is nothing less than a spiritual resurrection. Talk about miraculous!
While Paul is not explicit about the Spirit’s role in this process, he is explicit in other places such as Titus 3:5, where he writes, “[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
The Greek word for “rebirth” in this verse is paligenesia, which in some English versions is properly translated regeneration. Jesus described this theological concept with an analogy in John 3 when speaking to Nicodemus, saying that those who enter the Kingdom of God must be “reborn.”
While Paul does not use the word palingenesia in Ephesians 2, the concept of regeneration by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit is unmistakable. The phrase in verse 4, “made alive,” is translated from the Greek word synezōopoiēsen, which is the combination of three words, syn (meaning, with), zōos (meaning, to animate or quicken to life), andpoiéō (meaning, to make). You may recognize zōos as being the word from which we get “zoo” as a place where animal life is gathered for display.
Synezōopoiēsen is such a rich, amazingly pregnant word as it pertains to the miraculous, especially when we observe the three other words used in conjunction with it. These words are grace, mercy, and love, which like animals in the zoo, are on display for us to observe, savor, and enjoy. Like a strong, three-strand cord, these words reinforce the heart of God in his purpose to rescue us from the sentence of eternal death that Ephesians 2:1-3 reveals we deserve as “objects of wrath.”
“But God…” With that simple phrase, Paul transitions in verse 4 from the wrath we deserve to the mercy we receive. In the Greek text, the verse begins with those two words, saying, “But God, being rich in mercy…” Rich in mercy. If grace is being given what we do not deserve, mercy is not being given what we do deserve.
In Jesus, the believer never gets what he or she deserves. Praise God for that! Instead, we receive the undeserved love of God. As Paul continues in verse 4, saying, “because of the great love of him with which he loved us.”
Yes, love actually is mentioned twice in that one verse. The NIV condenses the two uses of love into one in its translation. But the ESV retains both, helping us feel the impact, that the miracle of regeneration is grounded not in any obedience on our part, but wholly on the excessive degree of God’s affection for those whom he has chosen to adopt as his own children. This new life is the result of what Paul calls grace, a word he uses three times in verses 5-8 – grace wed to love and mercy – three words that provide a deep understanding for God’s motive in awakening sinners to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of the cross.
A Means to an End
It is regeneration to new life that enables us to have eyes to see our need for Jesus and ears to hear and respond to the good news of the cross. In this sense, regeneration is a means to an end. The goal is not just to possess spiritual faculties, but to use them for abiding in Jesus as one’s justifier and sanctifier, where we learn to live, as Paul says in Romans 6:4, in “newness of life.”
The idea is that when we are born again to spiritual life, we begin to live differently. Like a seed that sprouts and is raised from death in the ground, the new life miracle of regeneration continues to produce evidence of miraculous life within the reborn believer – miracles like humility, kindness, patience, joy, generosity, forgiveness, reconciliation and unity where there once was division and strife.
There are times in amarriage when it feels like it will take a miracle to save your relationship. That miracle is possible.
For others, coming to a place of forgiving an abuser and being set free from an emotional prison feels like it will take a miracle. That miracle is possible.
In a season of grief, it feels as if experiencing joy again will take a miracle. That miracle is possible.
Miracles just may be far more common that we expected. Concerning the miracle of regeneration, there are at least three implications that we would do well to remember.
Every Christian is a living, modern-day miracle.
Those who profess and follow Jesus as Savior and Lord have experienced the miracle of spiritual resurrection. We are not saved because of superior intellect or spiritual sensitivity or moral fiber. Christians are saved by grace alone. This leads to the second implication, which is that… Christians should be the kindest and most humble people on earth.
Having received the unmerited and unmeasurable kindness of God, it just makes sense that we would take what we have been given and give it to others – even those who, while dead in their sin have “followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” Because that is exactly who we were before the glorious “but God” in verse 4. We were dead. But God made us alive. This leads to the third implication, which is that…
The overarching motivation of our lives should be magnifying the greatness and glory of God’s grace in Jesus.
As we have said and will say again ten thousand times, who we are and what we have is purely and entirely the result of grace. As Paul says in verse 8, “[This is] not of your own doing, it is the gift of God.” Oh, that the world would know that Christianity is not a moralistic performance religion but is a faith-love relationship with a living Savior who has performed in our place. Pastor and author Scotty Smith wrote a prayer called “Leave Being Awesome to Jesus” in which he makes the glorious confession, “[Jesus], you inhabit our weakness like a Michelangelo in a picture-frame of straw; like the Hope Diamond mounted in a necklace of paperclips. You get the attention and honor, and we get the privilege of showcasing your beauty and bounty.”
I love that.
Our great privilege is not to showcase our goodness but to showcase the beauty and bounty of God’s grace in Jesus. That is the mission of the church and should be at the epicenter of our deepest desire as we live this life as ambassadors of Jesus to the world. As the apostle Peter exhorts us in the second chapter of his first letter, “9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
The Flood We Need
The gospel tells the disciple of Jesus that while you deserved to be the object of wrath Jesus became the object of wrath in your place as a substitute sinner. Upon a cross, he received the justice of the law so that you could receive the mercy of the Father. Because wrath was poured out upon him, love may be poured out upon you and me.
Over the past several weeks, many regions in the south have experienced an unusual amount of rain that has caused rivers and creeks to flow up and over their banks, causing flash floods, road closures, and home evacuations. In the Old Testament, there was a massive, global flood that was released as a curse of judgment. But in the New Testament, there has been released a global flood, not for judgment but for blessing. Romans 5:5 tells us that “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
This is the kind of flood we need. Not the swelling of a river out of its banks, but a deluge from heaven as floodgates of mercy are opened wide.
Can you imagine what this would look like in your life? To be flooded with the love of God to such a capacity that it began to overflow with worship, generosity, devotion, gratitude, and a desire to share the glory of God’s grace with other people. That the name of Jesus would be the sweetest sound to your ears, replacing despair and fear with joy and peace. This newness of life is what is possible for those with ears to hear and with eyes to see and a heart to feel and hands to raise and a voice to sing – those who have been made alive by the resurrecting power of the Spirit by the grace of God and for his glory.
1. What comes to mind when you think of “modern-day miracles?”
2. How does Paul’s teaching on spiritual resurrection widen your expectations of modern-day miracles?
3. Why do we speak of regeneration as a miracle?
4. Why are the two words in verse 4, “But God,” so critical and instructive?
5. Why should Christians “be the kindest and most humble people on earth?” Can you think of any practical, real-world examples of what this might look like?
6. What might it look like in your life to magnify the greatness and glory of God’s grace in Jesus?