A miracle is an extraordinary event, perceived to be the result of the direct, purposeful action of a god or the agent of a god. Miracles are a common feature of literature and religious tradition in every culture, from the simplest to the most sophisticated societies, and from earliest historical times to the present. The questions raised by the occurrence of an event that is understood to be a miracle are not only “What happened?” but also “What does it mean?” or more specifically, “What is the divine message imparted through this event?”

It is inappropriate to describe miracle as a violation of natural law, since most societies, including those represented in the Bible, believed in the direct action of God (or gods) in history. What happens in the world and in human experience is seen as the outworking of the divine will rather than an immutable law running its course. Even when among the Stoics there arose the idea of natural law as a fixed, basic process by which the universe operated, allowance was still made for the direct action of the gods. Thus, for example, in the circumstances surrounding the accession to power of Julius Caesar or in the birth and attainment of the imperial authority by Augustus, contemporary accounts by Roman historians describe the miracles that accompanied these historical developments as an indication of the active interest of the gods in human affairs.

In the Hebrew Bible, several types of miracle are reported. Among these are confirmatory miracles, through which God shows his choice and support of certain individuals or groups. Examples are the direct visions of God that are granted to Abraham, Jacob, and especially Moses. Thus, Abraham is given assurance by the appearance of the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that the covenant with Yahweh will be fulfilled (Gen. 15.17–20). Sarah's giving birth to Isaac after years of infertility is a confirming sign that the covenant will be established (Gen. 18). Similarly, the burning bush confirms Moses' call by God to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt (Exod. 3). The confirmation of God's promise to the covenant people is given in their safe passage through the sea (Exod. 14) and in the provision of manna and water for them in the Sinai desert (Exod. 16). Or again, the power of the God whom Elijah serves is confirmed by the fire from Yahweh that consumes the altar and the offering upon it (1 Kings 18.38).

A second type of miracle is judgmental, as in the plagues that befall the Egyptians until the release of the Israelites (Exod. 8–12) or the fall of the walls of Jericho when its inhabitants resist Israel's entry into the Promised Land (Josh. 6; cf. 24.11). Another type is the act of mercy, through which some basic human need is met, as in the healings performed by Elisha (2 Kings 3–4).

Yet another type of miracle is the divine act of deliverance of individuals, as when Daniel and his friends are preserved from the fiery furnace, from starvation, and from the lion's den (Dan. 1; nd6). Of a different sort are the miracles of divine vision, in which God and his purposes for his people are disclosed to certain persons, such as Isaiah (Isa. 6), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1) and Daniel (Dan. 7). In each case, the miracle is described as taking place in order to reveal God's purpose for his people, or to achieve some form of deliverance or punishment in behalf of individuals, of the Israelite nation, of her enemies, or of the minority who remain faithful to God.

In the New Testament, miracle is central to the earliest understanding of who Jesus is and his role in the inauguration of God's rule in the world. In the Q source, for example, when Jesus is asked by the followers of John the Baptist to explain who he is, he replies by pointing to his miracles of healing as evidences of the fulfillment of the prophetic promises of benefits to the needy and the outcasts (Luke 7.18–23; Isa. 29.18–19; 35.5–6; 61.1). He also points to his exorcisms as the major sign of the beginning of the defeat of the evil powers and the establishment of the kingdom of God (Luke 11.20). Indeed, he refers to his own power to heal and to expel demons by the same phrase, “the finger of God,” used of God's action in delivering Israel from Egypt (Exod. 8.19). There are miracle stories in the New Testament that directly parallel those in the Hebrew Bible. For example, the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6.30–44; Matt. 14.13–21; Luke 9.10–17; John 6.1–13) shares details and overall aim with God's miraculous feeding of Israel in the desert. In both cases, a covenant people about to be reconstituted are taken out into a barren territory, where God meets their needs and where they are joined in covenant as his special people; this connection is made explicit in John's version of the story (John 6.31–33). The covenantal significance is underscored by the use within the feeding story of what become technical terms at the Last Supper: he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave (Mark 6.41; 14.22). In the gospel of John, the emphasis of the miracle stories falls on their symbolic significance, as in the story of the healing of the man born blind, who symbolizes the blindness of traditional Jewish piety as to who Jesus is, and the light of understanding that faith brings (John 9). And the raising of Lazarus from the dead is, of course, the symbol of the triumph over death accomplished through Jesus (John 11.25–26). The symbolic significance of Jesus' miracles for John is made explicit in John 20.30–31, where the writer tells us that he has chosen to report these particular signs in order that readers might see Jesus as the anointed one (Messiah) of God, through whom new life is given.

In Paul's letters, his encounter with the risen Lord (Gal. 1.15) and his being taken up into the presence of God (2 Cor. 12.1–4) resemble the miracles of revelation and confirmation in the Hebrew Bible. The ability to heal, to perform miracles, and to prophesy is seen by Paul as the gift that God grants through the Spirit (1 Cor. 12.8–11; Gal. 3.5). Paul's apostolic office is confirmed through “signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor. 12.12). It is surprising, therefore, that Paul makes no reference to the miracles performed by Jesus, though the miracle of his resurrection by God is central to Paul's gospel (1 Cor. 15.12–21).

Miracles of various kinds abound in Acts. Foremost are the confirmatory type, as when the miraculous hearing of those speaking in tongues at the outpouring of the Spirit enables people from many lands to understand in spite of linguistic differences (Acts 2.1–11; see Glossolalia). The healing of the man at the Temple gate by Peter and John (Acts 3) is interpreted by their followers as God's attestation of the gospel (Acts 4.16, 22). Similarly, Philip's evangelization of the Samaritans is confirmed through the many healings that accompany his preaching there (Acts 8.6, 13). And the gentile mission as a whole is acknowledged by the Jerusalem leaders to be of God, by virtue of the signs and wonders that accompanied the work of Paul and his associates (Acts 15.12; 19.11). At the same time, judgmental miracles are also depicted, as in the death of Ananias and Sapphira for their duplicity and failure to meet their obligations to the community (Acts 5.1–16). The deliverance of Paul and his associates from the shipwreck and the viper (Acts 27–28) shows God's care and concern for those doing his work, since by thus preserving Paul, he is enabled to reach with the gospel the center of the world, Rome itself.

Throughout the Bible, therefore, miracles are presented as a means by which God discloses and fulfills his purpose in the world, especially in behalf of his people and for the redemption of those who respond in faith to his activity in their behalf.

Howard Clark Kee