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Leon L. Combs, Ph.D.

General and Specific Miracles

Some people allow for two categories of miracles: broad and specific miracles. I suppose if we keep some accepted terminology we can call them general and specific miracles.  We are used to thinking in terms of general revelation and specific revelation and in general mercy and specific mercy so I want to keep the same terminology.  In such terminology, “general” means that the item under consideration  reaches out to everyone and “specific” means that it reaches out only to specific people.  God gives a general revelation of Himself to everyone in the world so that nobody is without excuse concerning the existence of God (Romans One).  Specific revelations are given to God’s chosen children as part of His process of regeneration of those people.  General mercies go out from God to everyone such as rain that falls on eveyone but the specific mercy of God’s saving works is only for His chosen children.  So in the same sense of “general” and “specific”, God works general miracles in the world for everyone and specific miracles in the world for His specific purposes such as to glorify Himself and to validate His people such as the apostles.  God also chooses to work specific miracles in the lives of His children, again to glorify Himself but there is no way for us to understand why He will physically or emotionally heal some of His children and not all of His children.  There are people like Joni Erikson Tada that He choses to leave physically impared for His glory.  

There is a very real sense in which God is keeping the universe running and such actions are supernatural and so not included in our definition of a natural law that we will state below.  This type of miracle is a general miracle because it affects everyone.  Since the natural laws are not “violated” or the keeping of the universe does not occur beyond the order commonly observed in nature, general miracles are not included in the discussion below.  Jesus was involved in all of creation and He continues to hold it together as an act of general miracles.

Col 1:16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him.
Col:17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

So there are general supernatural events being continually involved in keeping the universe operating and there are specific miracles that occur at the times chosen by God and for His specific purposes.  Why bother with such a distinction?  We make the distinction because we want to be able to dicern when God specifically interacts with the world in a miraculous fashion such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If the resurrection was just part of God’s common or general pattern then we would not recognize the resurrection as a specific event worthy of our attention.

Specific Miracles

What I am specifically discussing in this paper is specific miracles (pun intended!).
It is not an easy matter to define a specific miracle.  Aquinas (Summa Contra Gentiles, III) says "those things are properly called miracles which are done by divine agency beyond the order commonly observed in nature."  A miracle has also been defined as "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent" (Hume, 123n).  The Hume definition has caused some problems for philosophers because if the law is broken then it was not really a valid law.  We do not want to fall into such a logic trap.  One could also say that the “miracle” occurred because we just do not know all the laws of the universe and so the event was just a “natural” occurrence that punctuated our incomplete knowledge of science.  So, let’s start by defining a natural law.  Since a natural law is one that is defined according to what we can observe, measure, and correlate we certainly do not want to allow for supernatural events in our definition.

We define a law of nature as “a true description of both the physically and logically possible occurrences within the law’s scope in the world only if it is assumed that no nonnatural forces could exist or interfere”.  In other words a law of nature only applies to the natural world in which there are no nonnatural interactions expected.  The law’s scope refers to the particular application of the law (gravitation, motion, etc.).  In developing the laws of nature, scientists do not allow for nonnatural interactions so they only describe the physically possible events.  We Christians might say that the laws of nature are then regarded as non-universal or incomplete in the sense that while they cover natural events, they do not cover, and are not intended to cover, nonnatural events such as supernaturally caused events.  However if we made the “natural” laws of nature to allow for supernatural events then there would be no supernatural events!!  We Christians also want to understand that the natural laws of nature are established only for naturally-occuring events so that we can discern when God intervenes in a situation. 

We are now ready to define a specific miracle and the basic definition by Aquinas is still valid.  A miracle is an event that occurs beyond the order commonly observed in nature as defined by the above law of nature.  A miracle does not violate the law of nature because the law of nature does not allow for supernatural causes.  There is always the possibility that we just do not properly understand “natural” nature so that what we call a miracle could just be a natural event that showed us a new aspect to the natural order of nature that we previously did not know.  However if such were to happen we would then be able to categorize the new event and use the new understanding in our future interpretations of events.  I know of no such event that has ever occurred.  The floating of the ax head violated and violates all know understandings of liquids an no new aspect of liquid structure can account for this occurrence so we still call such a miracle.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ did not reveal a new understanding of life to us so that we can now bring back anyone from the dead.  Therefore the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a miracle.

There are only 50 recorded miracles in all of the Old Testament period covering a time of about 4000 years.  Except for the case of the multitudes healed by looking at the brazen serpent there are only three miracles in these 4000 years that concerned a healing of a human body.  In the New Testament we can divide the miracles performed into two classes: those done by Jesus while He lived here and those done by Jesus through others after His ascension.  The purpose of miracles in all time periods were to show the power and presence of God and to verify His God-nature.  The miracles done by Jesus while He lived on earth were to prove that He was the Messiah.  The miracles done by Jesus through His apostles were to prove that they were indeed apostles of Jesus, the Messiah.

In Scripture there are only two recorded miracles by Jesus during His first year of ministry and in the latter part of His ministry 35 miracles are recorded.  Most of those miracles of Jesus had to do with the bodies of people and none of His miracles had to do with judgment.  Jesus performed 35 miracles in about three and one-half years and His 12 apostles performed about ten miracles in about 30 years.  The number of reported miracles performed in all of Biblical time so far is pretty small! 

Only Jesus performed miracles related to natural events such as calming of the waters.  His healings were only for diseases common to the era, and the healings were all for cases beyond the capacity of medicine at that time.

The ministry of Jesus as the Christ was verified by miracles:

John 3:2 “this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."”
Acts 2:22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know—“

God used miracles to verify the authority of His apostles:

Acts 5:12 “And at the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon's portico.”
Acts 6:8 “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people.”

Do miracles occur today?  First we have to stipulate that the supernatural causes to which we refer are those due to actions by God.  No miracles performed in the Old Testament and New Testament times had as their purpose the glorification of a human.  According to Biblical guidelines, all Christian miracles must have as their purpose either the glorification of God or the validation of a person as a true messanger of God (also as a glorification of God).  This second possiblity is a bit tricky as people being validated can become “carried away” and point the honor to themselves so we have to be very careful in our categorization of a miracle associated with the validation of a person as God’s messanger.  Since the Apostolic era is over and there are no prophets now, I am not sure that the second validation has any merit now.  There are people now who say that they are Christian “healers”, but the honor goes primarily to those people.  To be absolutely safe, I would prefer to say that since the Apostolic times a true miracle must have as its only purpose the glorification of God.

Just as in times past, people will try to convince others that miracles have occurred and sometimes they do that by setting their own definitions of miracles and that is one reason that we have to be very careful with our definitions.

Psalms 74:4 “Thine adversaries have roared in the midst of Thy meeting place; They have set up their own standards for signs.”

Using the frequency of miracles in the Testament times – about 85 miracles in about 6000 years – we have to deduce that miracles are very infrequent.  The occurrence of miracles peaked during times when God was doing a very special work (such as the work of Jesus) so there have been times when there were a cluster of miracles and then periods of either no miracles or very few miracles.  I would think that if we now start seeing a cluster of real Christian miracles then we can expect to see a special work of God begin to occur.  According to most interpretations of the book of Revelation, we can expect to see a cluster of miracles at the End Times.  We can rougly sketch miracular clusters as seen in the following sketch.

When Jesus sent out His disciples He gave them the power to do signs and wonders for verification of their authority.

Mark 16:17 “And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues;”
Mark 16:20 “And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.][And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus Himself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.]”

Do healing miracles occur now?  I expect that many people would say “yes” but we have to be very careful.  An article in the Atlanta Constitution (1/15/2005) reported a survey conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary.  In that survey about 55 % of physicians reported that they would report having seen people being healed in a way that they would have to declare as miraculous.  Seventy-two percent said that they believe that religion provides a necessary and reliable guide to life.  Fifty nine percent said that they prayed for individual patients.  The report does not categorize the physicians as to their religion.  We have to always remember that the practice of medicine is still very much an art as we know very little about our physiological system and we have incomplete understandings of the overall effect of medicines and the work of the brain in non-supernatural healings.

God is Sovereign, omnicient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.  Obviously God can do whatever He so desires.  However even a regenerated person is still sinful in this world and pride is one of the strongest driving forces for him to sin.  Man also tends to be very emotionally driven and so must be very careful in reacting to situations.  Our prayers NEVER change God’s mind for to change His mind God must have either made a mistake or He must not have known all of the facts about our prayer request.  So our prayers will not cause God to heal someone, but our vocalized prayers give us a platform so that after God heals someone we can then give Him all the glory.

There will be numerous attempts to convince God’s people that others are doing miracles in attempts to reduce the effectiveness of God’s people.

Matt 24:24 “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.”
Mark 13:22 “for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order, if possible, to lead the elect astray.”

Rev 13:13 “And he performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down out of heaven to the earth in the presence of men.”
Rev 13:14 “And he deceives those who dwell on the earth because of the signs which it was given him to perform in the presence of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who had the wound of the sword and has come to life.”
Rev16:14 “for they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them together for the war of the great day of God, the Almighty.”

Rev 19:20 “And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.”

So be very slow to categorize an event as a real Christian specific miracle, but be very quick to always give God the glory for His work in the lifes of His children.


1. Henry W. Frost, “Miraculous Healing”, Zondervan Publishing House, 1979.

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