As we read in I Kings, the widow already had been the recipient of a miracle through Elijah when her supply of flour and oil was regularly replenished. Her response to the raising of her son, acknowledging Elijah as a “man of God” who spoke the truth, has its parallel in the crowd at Nain acclaiming Jesus as “a great prophet” through Whom “God has visited His people.” Both of these widows would have affirmed what we read in our psalm, “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (30:5), and, “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; You have loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may sing praise to You and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever” (30:11, 12).
No doubt most of the persons in the crowd at Nain who saw Jesus raise the widow’s son were well acquainted with the story about Elijah, and in Luke’s gospel Jesus Himself had recently referred to it when He said, “I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow” (Luke 4:25, 26). Once again we are reminded of the old hymn text, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”
It is unlikely that any of us actually has witnessed a verifiable raising from the dead despite the periodic appearance of best-selling books and television series recounting tales of persons who have experienced a taste of the afterlife and returned to tell about it. Apparently there is an insatiable fascination with these stories despite our innate disinclination to believe them. Part of it lies in our desire to know more about what lies ahead. We would love to be able to connect with those who may have a bonafide story to tell. It is instructive, I think, that there is not one of the stories of raisings in Scripture that contains a testimony from the raised person about what the interval was like. Surely Lazarus could have made shekels hand over fist in first-century Israel had he been able to find a ghost-writing scribe, a publisher and a film producer.
But we have not a single such story. When Elijah and Moses appear with Jesus at the Transfiguration, there is no story-swapping with Peter, James and John about the afterlife. And not even the incarnate Christ Who is the eternal Word of God tells us anything more than an assortment of Kingdom parables that give only the vaguest hints of what heaven holds for us. What we know is that it’s all good. Beyond that we are left with analogies and pictures.
So, practically speaking, what are the lessons we should learn from such accounts as these? They certainly stand outside our experience. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, was instrumental in the raising of the Shunammite woman’s son (II Kings 4). Peter was blessed to be the agent in the raising of Tabitha recorded in Acts 9, an event that has striking parallels to the raising of Jairus’ daughter by Jesus in Luke 8. Paul may have raised a young man named Eutychus from the dead when he nodded off and fell out a window during Paul’s long sermon, a story that is the bane of every long-winded preacher (Acts 20).
In other words, a variety of human intermediaries in Biblical times were used by God to effect raisings from the dead. Inevitably this raises the question, why does God not use human intermediaries to do the same in our time? Could He? Of course He could; He’s God, He can do anything. Why does He choose not to do it? Wouldn’t the raising of people from the dead have incredible evidentiary value in bringing people to faith?
Apparently not. We learn in John 12 that when Lazarus acquired a following after being raised from the dead, “the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well,” though we do read that this was the result of too many people believing in Jesus because of Lazarus. Bottom line: the reaction of some may have been faith, but the reaction of others was heightened hostility. And a few chapters later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus Himself says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead."
Yes, great miracles have the value of attestation, which is precisely why John’s word for the miracles of Jesus is “signs.” But, as we recently quoted from St. Thomas Aquinas, “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” As attestations, miracles may have evidentiary value. But they will not drag people into the Kingdom apart from the exercise of faith. They have an attention-getting level of sensationalism, but they generally lack apologetic punch.
Exercising faith in true conversion is quite different from being awestruck by observing the miraculous. The incarnate Jesus knew that, when he said of his own contemporaries, “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29, 30).
Just imagine how many thousands of people observed the miracles of Jesus or even were first-hand beneficiaries of them? Well over 5,000 at a time were fed by Jesus. But how many faithful followers were there at the Cross? How many crowded into the Upper Room at Pentecost to receive the Holy Spirit? Where were the multitudes of persons who were healed by Jesus? From the record of the New Testament, many more people became followers of Jesus through the preaching of the apostles than ever followed Him faithfully during His earthly ministry. Therein lies the basis of Jesus’ promise to His disciples, “Whoever believes in Me will do... greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). The greatest work that can be done by us is not raising someone from the dead, but bringing someone to faith in Jesus Christ so that death no longer holds any terror.
God does perform miracles through human intermediaries in order to reward faith, in order to strengthen faith, in order to demonstrate His power, in order to bring glory to Himself, in order to remind us of our finiteness and of His incomparable majesty. We still find such stories as these of the raising of the widows’ sons by Elijah and Jesus to be inspiring and reassuring. We would love to see such signs and wonders in our own day, and we have many assurances in Scripture that there will be a day when signs and wonders are once again abundant. But for whatever reasons known to Him alone, in this age, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong; God has chosen what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (I Corinthians 1:27-29). And, writes Paul, “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (I Cor. 1:21).
I would love to have been there when these miracles occurred. I would love to have watched Lazarus step out of his tomb wrapped in his grave clothes. I would love to have eaten the bread and fish that Jesus distributed and to have come back the next day to hear His Bread of Life discourse. But I stand here today because of those who faithfully preached the message of the Cross that Paul said “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18). That very preaching is itself “divine dynamite,” to translate the Greek words literally. Using the very same words, Paul later wrote to the church at Rome, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God (the “divine dynamite”) for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
In the ways of man and the ways of God, the proclamation of the Word of faith, the message of the Cross, is more powerful than the miracles of Elijah and Elisha and Jesus and Peter and Paul all rolled together. The message we proclaim is indeed the sign of Jonah: that the One Who died on the Cross for our sins is the one Who, after three days in the tomb, rose triumphantly to conquer sin and the grave so that we might have eternal life by faith in Him. Therein is the power we seek, not in miracles and not in amazing acts or powerful demonstrations, but in the transforming message of the Gospel that we hold daily in our hands and hearts and that we are to proclaim to a world that desperately needs to be raised from its spiritual deadness. By the grace and enablement of God, may all of us be partners in that great proclamation.
In the Name of Him Who loved us and gave Himself for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God, Amen