God does not have to prove Himself to mankind. He is not answerable to our limited minds and does not have to conform to man-made religious rules and beliefs about what He should or shouldn’t do. But neither does He demand blind or unsubstantiated “faith” in anything outside of His declared character. He has always provided proof of His existence, both in creation (Psalm 19:1) and in the truths He is able to reveal/impart to any open heart and mind, which lead to true faith. He gave power to many of His prophets to perform undeniable miracles to back up their messages.
But there is a difference between “can’t believe” and “won’t believe, no matter what the evidence”. This is especially true in the coming of Jesus, both as the Son of God and also as the Messiah. In sending His Son, as the most supremely important action of all time, God took care to ensure a fair choice for both the “common people” and the religious leaders to either to believe in Jesus, or to reject Him. The Gospels record many miracles that Jesus did in full view of the people. But God was also well aware that the Jewish religious leaders had devised specific tests to use in measuring the claims of any “messiah”. They had identified four physical conditions in mankind that could only be corrected by God Himself - therefore only the promised Messiah would be able to perform the specific miracles these conditions required. These were:
1 Cleansing a leper
2 Casting out a deaf and dumb spirit
3 The healing of birth defects
4 Raising the dead after three days (i.e. four or more days)
Each of these conditions also necessitated a special spiritual offering under the Law:
1 For cleansing from leprosy – linked to the curse upon man’s fallen nature – a guilt/trespass offering (Lev 6)
2 For a deaf and dumb spirit – linked to the sin of individuals - a sin offering Lev 4,5)
3 For healing of birth defects – linked to man’s inherited sin nature - a burnt offering (Lev 3)
4 For raising the dead – arising from man’s lost fellowship with God – a peace offering (Lev 3)
The rationale for their choice of these four categories of miracles, which could only be performed by God or His Messiah (called the “messianic miracles”) is summarised below.
Cleansing a leper
Leprosy was believed to be inflicted by God as punishment – they called it The Finger of God:
• Moses was given a leprous hand (Ex 4:6) as a sign to the people that God had appeared to him – God removed it in Ex 4:7.
• Miriam was afflicted as punishment for speaking against God’s anointed – Num 12. Moses prayed and God removed it in Num 12:14,15.
• King Uzziah entered the holy place to unlawfully burn incense on the golden altar and was inflicted with leprosy by God until the day of his death – 2 Chron 26:16-21.
• Naaman, a gentile who had leprosy, was cleansed by God via Elisha – 2 Kings 5:1-8.
There is no biblical record of an Israelite being otherwise cleaned of leprosy – they were condemned to live in shame outside the camp. However, just in case a leper was actually cleansed, he had to bring a guilt/trespass offering to the priest to make atonement for his defilement.
So, when Jesus healed the leper (Mark 1:40-44, Matt 8:2-4, Luke 5:12-14), He instructed him to show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifice commanded by Moses (Lev 14) as a testimony to them. When He healed the ten lepers in Luke 17:12-14, He again told them to show themselves to the priests.
Deaf and dumb spirit
The Jews practised exorcism by a formula involving three steps –
1 They spoke to the demon asking its name
2 The demon would reply using the voice of the possessed individual
3 The exorcist then cast out the demon by its name.
Jesus once used this method on the Gadarene demoniac. He later referred to the Pharisees’ practice in Matthew 12:27 – “And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? Therefore, they shall be your judges. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” However, He usually cast out devils by His authority alone and not by formula – e.g. Mark 1:21-28 where He cast out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue (!) Verse 27 shows the people’s reaction – “And they were all amazed insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? What new doctrine is this? For with authority he commands even the unclean spirits and they do obey him.”
However, deaf and dumb spirits were in a “special” category. It was believed that a deaf and dumb spirit couldn’t be cast out because the demon could not hear the request to identify itself and could not reply with its name. Therefore, only the Messiah would be able to cast it out.
In Mark 9:14-29, the disciples brought the boy possessed with the deaf and dumb spirit from whom the demon could not be cast out by them. Jesus told his disciples that this kind could not be cast out by the usual means, and said that it required prayer and faith (relationship with God) – not a formula.
These were believed to be a punishment from God for the sins of a child or his ancestors – (Ex 34:7). (This was later changed in the law in Deut 24:16 and Jer 31:29-30 so that each was responsible for their own sin). But as they were thought to be a “punishment from God”, only God could then correct birth defects.
This belief is shown in the healing of the man born blind in John 9:2-3 – “Who did sin, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, Neither has this man sinned nor his parents but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
The whole story in John 9 of the healing of the man born blind is a remarkable account, showing a variety of reactions from those involved:
• The man showed faith by having to walk, while still blind, down to the pool, washing his eyes, and then receiving sight (which is why he couldn’t initially identify who had done the miracle);
• His parents disassociated themselves from involvement for fear of being put out of the synagogue for speaking the truth;
• The Pharisees showed extreme reluctance to believe it had happened (because of the significance of the miracle);
• The man showed great courage in standing up to the Pharisees, and great spiritual insight to go with his new natural sight in confounding their teaching with irrefutable logic even though he was cast out for this;
• Jesus sought him out and revealed His identity to him personally; and
• Jesus made it clear to the Pharisees that their spiritual blindness was wilful rather than in ignorance.
Raising the dead after 3 days
It was believed that after 3 days the spirit departed and corruption of the flesh set in. Except in the case of the Sadducees (whom Jesus corrected on the subject), resurrection was both taught and believed. Martha told Jesus that she believed in the resurrection at the last day, and so did Job. There are several accounts of people being raised from the dead before 3 days – e.g. Elijah and the widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:17-24, and the dead man raised after contacting Elisha’s bones in 2 Kings 13:21. It was therefore associated with the power/sign of a prophet. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter and the widow of Nain’s son, etc. All accounts of resurrection occurred either on the same day the deceased had died or very shortly thereafter.
Therefore, in the raising of Lazarus in John 11, Jesus purposely waited until four days had passed before he went to heal him. He said, “This sickness is not going to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the son of God might be glorified by it." Verse 14: “Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, for the reason that you may believe …” By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, Lazarus had been in the grave for four days already, and when Jesus asked for the tomb-stone to be taken away, Martha protested that by that time Lazarus would be stinking/decaying (and well past the time when he could be revived).
The raising of Lazarus is also significant in that it also pointed to Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead after three days, as He said would happen (Mark 8:31, John 2:19 etc). Therefore, after His death the Pharisees sought from Pilate (Matt 27:63-66) to secure His tomb so that the disciples wouldn’t steal his body and claim He had risen after three days – “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night and steal him away and say unto the people He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first …”
Because of its great significance, the raising of Lazarus was a public miracle. Jesus prayed aloud, making it clear that He was doing this by the power and authority of God who was His Father – “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. And I know that you always hear me, but because of the people who stand by I said it, so that they may believe that you have sent me. And when He had so spoken, He cried with a loud voice, Lazarus come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with grave clothes …” (so he couldn’t have walked out, but was literally drawn out by the power of the voice of God – a forerunner to Jesus’ prophecy in John 5:28-29 regarding the method of the last day resurrection).
After Lazarus’ resurrection, many believed and the Sanhedrin became seriously upset – “What shall we do? For this man does many miracles. If we let him alone, all men will believe on him …” From that day forth, they took counsel to kill him. They also sought to kill Lazarus as he represented the proof that the fourth Messianic miracle had been performed.
The process of proof
Anyone said to be the Messiah was reported to the Sanhedrin for investigation – an individual couldn’t be declared to be the Messiah without its approval.
The first stage of the process was to observe – follow them around and listen - no questions could be asked or comments made. Jesus’ performance of many miracles at the beginning of His ministry sparked the beginning of the investigation and observation process. By the time of the healing of the man with the palsy (Mark 2:5-12) the scribes and Pharisees were already following him around but not openly challenging him. Their thoughts were already betraying their unbelief – see Mark 2:6-8, Matt 9:4-6 – “… reasoning in their hearts, Why does this man speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only”, Matt 12:9-14 (after which they were plotting to kill Him), Luke 15:1. Jesus frequently answered aloud the unspoken thoughts of their heart.
Second stage – interrogation – the claims would be questioned or challenged. Jesus began to be frequently challenged and tested, but was so effective in answering their challenges, and sometimes issuing a challenge of His own, that eventually (Matt 22:46) “no one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question.”
When a possibly discouraged John the Baptist queried whether Jesus was in fact the One (Luke 7:19-22) Jesus said: “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (this last was remarkable at that time as the Pharisees had always implied that the poor were under a curse from God, so why would He bother to speak to them? – ref Matt 19:23-26).
Jesus showed the nature and integrity of God in everything He did, and the Gospels record this. As John puts it in John 20:31 – “But these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have Life through His Name.”