"And straightway there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit." MARK 1:23 (R.V.)
WE have just read that Christ's teaching astonished the hearers. He was about to astonish them yet more, for we have now reached the first miracle which St. Mark records. With what sentiments should such a narrative be approached? The evangelist connects it emphatically with Christ's assertion of authority. Immediately upon the impression which His manner of teaching produced, straightway, there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And upon its expulsion, what most impressed the people was, that as He taught with authority, so "with authority He commandeth even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him."
Let us try whether this may not be a providential clue, to guide us amid the embarrassments which beset, in our day, the whole subject of miracles.
A miracle, we are told, is an interference with the laws of nature; and it is impossible, because they are fixed and their operation is uniform. But these bold words need not disconcert any one who has learned to ask, In what sense are the operations of nature uniform? Is the operation of the laws which govern the wind uniform, whether my helm is to port or starboard? Can I not modify the operation of sanitary laws by deodorization, by drainage, by a thousand resources of civilization? The truth is, that while natural laws remain fixed, human intelligence profoundly modifies their operation. How then will the objector prove that no higher Being can as naturally do the same? He answers, Because the sum total of the forces of nature is a fixed quantity: nothing can be added to that sum, nothing taken from it: the energy of all our machinery existed ages ago in the heat of tropical suns, then in vegetation, and ever since, though latent, in our coal beds; and the claim to add anything to that total is subversive of modern science. But again we ask, If the physician adds nothing to the sum of forces when he banishes one disease by inoculation, and another by draining a marsh, why must Jesus have added to the sum of forces in order to expel a demon or to cool a fever? It will not suffice to answer, because His methods are contrary to experience. Beyond experience they are. But so were the marvels of electricity to our parents and of steam to theirs. The chemistry which analyses the stars is not incredible, although thirty years ago its methods were "contrary" to the universal experience of humanity. Man is now doing what he never did before, because he is a more skillful and better informed agent than he ever was. Perhaps at this moment, in the laboratory of some unknown student, some new force is preparing to amaze the world. But the sum of the forces of nature will remain unchanged. Why is it assumed that a miracle must change them? Simply because men have already denied God, or at least denied that He is present within His world, as truly as the chemist is within it. If we think of Him as interrupting its processes from without, laying upon the vast machine so powerful a grasp as to arrest its working, then indeed the sum of forces is disturbed, and the complaints of science are justified. This may, or it may not, have been the case in creative epochs, of which science knows no more than of the beginning of life and of consciousness. But it has nothing to say against the doctrine of the miracles of Jesus. For this doctrine assumes that God is ever present in His universe; that by Him all things consist; that He is not far from any one of us, for in Him we live and move and have our being, although men may be as unconscious of Him as of gravitation and electricity. When these became known to man, the stability of law was unaffected. And it is a wild assumption that if a supreme and vital force exist, a living God, He cannot make His energies visible without affecting the stability of law.
Now Christ Himself appeals expressly and repeatedly to this immanent presence of God as the explanation of His "works."
"My Father worketh hitherto, and I work." "The Father loveth the Son, and showeth Him all things that Himself doeth." "I, by the finger of God, cast out devils."
Thus a miracle, even in the Old Testament, is not an interruption of law by God, but a manifestation of God who is within nature always; to common events it is as the lightning to the cloud, a revelation of the electricity which was already there. God was made known, when invoked by His agents, in signs from heaven, in fire and tempest, in drought and pestilence, a God who judgeth. These are the miracles of God interposing for His people against their foes. But the miracles of Christ are those of God carrying forward to the uttermost His presence in the world, God manifest in the flesh. They are the works of Him in Whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.
And this explains what would otherwise be so perplexing, the essentially different nature of His miracles from those of the Old Testament. Infidelity pretends that those are the models on which myth or legend formed the miracles of Jesus, but the plain answer is that they are built on no model of the kind. The difference is so great as to be startling.
Tremendous convulsions and visitations of wrath are now unknown, because God is now reconciling the world unto Himself, and exhibiting in miracles the presence of Him Who is not far from every one of us, His presence in love to redeem the common life of man, and to bless, by sharing it. Therefore his gifts are homely, they deal with average life and its necessities, bread and wine and fish are more to the purpose than that man should eat angels' food, the rescue of storm-tossed fishermen than the engulfment of pursuing armies, the healing of prevalent disease than the plaguing of Egypt or the destruction of Sennacherib.
Such a Presence thus manifested is the consistent doctrine of the Church. It is a theory which men may reject at their own peril if they please. But they must not pretend to refute it by any appeal to either the uniformity of law or the stability of force.
Men tell us that the divinity of Jesus was an afterthought; what shall we say then to this fact, that men observed from the very first a difference between the manner of His miracles and all that was recorded in their Scriptures, or that they could have deemed fit? It is exactly the same peculiarity, carried to the highest pitch, as they already felt in His discourses. They are wrought without any reference whatever to a superior will. Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, What shall I do? Elijah said, Hear me, O Lord, hear me. But Jesus said, I will . . . I charge thee come out . . . I am able to do this. And so marked is the change, that even His followers cast out devils in His name, and say not, Where is the Lord God of Israel? but, In the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. His power is inherent, it is self-possessed, and His acts in the synoptics are only explained by His words in St. John, "What things soever the father doeth, these the Son also doeth in like manner." No wonder that St. Mark adds to His very first record of a miracle, that the people were amazed, and asked, What is this? a new teaching! with authority He commandeth even the unclean spirits and they do obey Him! It was divinity which, without recognizing, they felt, implicit in His bearing. No wonder also that His enemies strove hard to make Him say, Who gave Thee this authority? Nor could they succeed in drawing from Him any sign from heaven. The center and source of the supernatural, for human apprehension, has shifted itself, and the vision of Jesus is the vision of the Father also.