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Did Jesus do miracles as a man by the power of the Spirit?

One of the more frequent questions that I receive from students in my class on the person and work of Christ centers on whether or not the God-man performed miracles by His own divine nature or as a man working only by the power of the Holy Spirit. The passage that is usually referenced alongside this question is Matthew 12:28, in which Jesus states quite explicitly that He casts out demons “by the Spirit of God.” Some students will even on occasion make reference to the great 17th century theologian John Owen who appears to support this idea when he argues that “[t]he only singular immediate act of the person of the Son on the human nature was the assumption of it into subsistence with himself.” For Owen, the humiliation of Christ necessarily involves Him subjecting Himself to the very same limitations that every other human being faces in this world (sin excepted). And that means that everything Jesus did—including His miracles—He did as a man by the power of the Holy Spirit, just like you and I would be able to do. But is this really what the Bible teaches?

Let’s start to answer this question by looking at Matthew 12:28. At first glance, this passage does seem to be teaching that Jesus performed His miracles as a man by the power of the Holy Spirit. But when we look a little closer, I don’t think it is actually saying this at all. I think it is actually teaching that Jesus performed His miracles by way of His own divine nature. We see this especially when we look at the parallel passage in Luke 11. Verse 20 doesn’t mention the “Spirit of God” as Matthew 12:28 does. It says, instead, that Jesus casts out demons “by the finger of God.” In other words, the parallel passage in Luke seems to be telling us that Jesus is casting out demons not by the Holy Spirit but by the very power of God that He Himself possesses as God.

Jonathan Edwards in his treatment of Matthew 12:28 appeals to Luke 13:11 as further evidence supporting this interpretation. In that passage, Jesus heals “a woman who had had a disabling spirit [pneuma astheneias] for eighteen years.” As Edwards points out, this “spirit” is obviously not the Holy Spirit, because it is, literally, a “spirit of weakness” or “disability” which requires the healing that Jesus will soon provide. It also cannot be an evil spirit, because Jesus is nowhere said to cast out a demon on this occasion and is twice said to have “healed” her of her disability. Edwards then concludes that the “spirit of weakness” here is simply a reference to the woman herself. She has some kind of weakness, and has for 18 years, and, for that reason, she is said to have a “spirit of weakness.” In the same way, Edwards says, Jesus isn’t talking about the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12:28 when He speaks of the “Spirit of God [en pneumati theou].” He is speaking of Himself. Jesus is testifying that His own divine spirit is the means by which He casts out demons and does many extraordinary things.

This interpretation is not only in keeping with the parallel passage in Luke 11:20, but it also makes better sense of the whole verse, which reads: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The parallel passage in Luke 11 is exactly the same except that it substitutes “by the finger of God” for “by the Spirit of God.” The point in both passages would seem to be that the miracles of Christ are proof positive that the kingdom of God has in fact arrived. This makes more sense if Jesus is speaking about His own divinity as evidenced in His miraculous works than if He is referring to the power of the Holy Spirit. Many people in redemptive history performed miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit. Moses did; Elijah and Elisha did; and the apostles did as well. If Jesus did His miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit, then His miracles were no different from Elijah’s or the apostles’s. And if Jesus’s miracles were no different from Elijah’s or the apostles’s, can they really be said to be evidence that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” any more than Elijah’s or the apostles’s would have been? The whole point in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 is that Jesus’s miracles are different than anything that has been done before or since, and that’s why they are indicators of the coming of the kingdom of God.

What is more, there are many other passages in the Bible that confirm this interpretation of Matthew 12 and Luke 11. And they do so in two main ways: (1) by teaching that Jesus performed miracles by His own power; and (2) by demonstrating that He performed them as signs of His own inherent divinity. Passages like Matthew 9:27-28, in the first place, indicate that Jesus did His miracles by way of His own power and according to His own abilities. In response to two blind men who plead for Jesus to be merciful and to heal them, Jesus asks, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” He doesn’t say, “Do you believe that God is able to do this?” After the blind men answer, “Yes, Lord,” Jesus touches their eyes and heals them. His question, coupled with the way that He heals them, certainly implies that He has the power in and of Himself to do what He does. He doesn’t need to appeal to the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t call upon God to heal these men. He does it all by Himself.

We see the same thing in Matthew 8:2-3. In this account, a leper approaches Jesus and says to Him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus touches the leper and responds, “I will; be clean.” Here, we see that Jesus obviously has the power to make this leper clean when and where He wishes. Once again, He doesn’t need to appeal to the power of the Holy Spirit or to call upon the name of God. He decides to heal; and He does so.

In the second place, passages like John 10:22-38, indicate that the miracles of Christ are done in His own power as attesting signs to prove that He is God in and of Himself. The whole encounter in this passage between Jesus and the Jewish leaders who are gathered at the temple during the Feast of Dedication is worth exploring in more detail. As Jesus is walking in the colonnade of Solomon on this occasion, the Jews confront Him and say to Him, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (v. 24). Jesus responds by saying: “I told you, and you do not believe” (v. 25). Then He points to the works that He has done as proof of who He is, and when He does so, the Jews seek to stone Him for daring to “make [Himself] God” (v. 33). And it is in response to these things that Jesus makes the following proclamation:


do you say…“You are blaspheming,” because I said, “I am the Son of God”? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father (vv. 36-38).


John 2:11 is a similar passage. It states unequivocally that the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee is done by Jesus specifically to “manifest…his glory.” John 20:30-31, moreover, clearly specifies that Jesus’s miraculous signs are all done “so that you may believe that [He] is the Christ, the Son of God.”

All of these verses suggest that Jesus’s miraculous works are different than those that were done before and after. His works point to Himself and are proofs of His divinity. But the signs that were done by Elijah and by the apostles point away from themselves to God. If Jesus did His miracles as a man by the power of the Holy Spirit, then it is hard to see how they could be signs attesting to His divinity, because they would then be exactly like the miracles done by Elijah and by the apostles. At most, they would point to the power of God resting upon Him as God’s divinely appointed messenger. But they wouldn’t point to His own inherent divinity.  

This is precisely what John Calvin says in the Institutes (1.13.13):


How plainly and clearly is [Christ’s] deity shown in miracles! Even though I confess that both the prophets and the apostles performed miracles equal to and similar to his, yet in this respect there is the greatest of differences: they distributed the gifts of God by their ministry, but he showed forth his own power.


It is also what Thomas Goodwin says a century or so after Calvin: “And so when [Jesus] wrought miracles…[they] were the immediate demonstration that he was the Son of God, dwelling in the human nature personally, as himself argues, throughout that Gospel [i.e., the Gospel of John], against the Jews.” The point in both cases is that Christ’s miracles are unique. They are not like those done by the prophets and the apostles. Christ’s miracles are done by His own power and, as such, they point to His own divinity. The miracles that are done by the prophets and apostles are done by the power of the Holy Spirit and, as such, they point away from the prophets and apostles themselves to God.

Thomas Goodwin reminds us that Christ’s mediatorial work does not depend upon His miracles. As the second and final Adam, Jesus perfectly obeys the law as a man by the power of the Holy Spirit. His divine nature does not enable this obedience or empower it in any way. If Christ’s mediatorial work is anything other than the work of a human being done by the power of the Holy Spirit, then you and I are still in our sins. But Jesus’s miracles are not part of His mediatorial work. They are, instead, signs attesting to who He is. Goodwin puts it like this:


All [Christ’s] extraordinary works, as miracles and the like, are not to be included [in the righteousness that Jesus secures as the second and final Adam]. They rather transcend the predicaments of the ten commandments than are parts of the righteousness of the law. They were proofs of his divinity, and the signs and badges, rather than the duties, of his office. He indeed by them shewed himself to be the only mediator, but he did not act the mediator in them. 


John Owen is right to a degree. Christ’s humiliation certainly does involve Him being made subject to the very same limitations that every other human being faces in this world (other than sin). But, as Goodwin says, Christ’s “extraordinary works…are not included” in this, because He is at the same time both God and man. Christ’s extraordinary works are, as he argues elsewhere, “the glory of his person, that of God dwelling in human nature…breaking forth” for all to see. They are the “beams” and “emanation” of His divinity that shine forth on occasion just as clearly as it did at the transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-2). They call attention to the fact that this is no ordinary man. He is God in the flesh. Praise God that it is so!




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