Maybe it’s just me, but do you ever read about the miracles in the Old Testament and wonder, “Why haven’t I experienced God like that?” The miracles God performs in the Old Testament just seem so much greater, more spectacular, and more extreme than the miracles He performs today.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the miracles that God performs today are wonderful, awe-inspiring, and great. If you’re Protestant, you’ve probably seen someone give their life to God by praying the Sinner’s Prayer; giving one’s life to God is a miracle in itself. If you’re Catholic, you witness the miracle of Transubstantiation every Sunday at Mass. These instances of God’s grace in our everyday (or every-week) experience are not something to overlook.
More Real, More Corporate
With that said, however, it does seem that the miracles of the Bible were a bit more grandiose, a bit larger in scale, and a bit more in-your-face, so to speak. We can cite our daily miracles, to be sure; but, to a Hebrew, a “daily miracle” looked like receiving bread from Heaven that would appear each morning (Exodus 16:4-35), or being guided by the Lord Himself in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night—for forty years (Exodus 13:21-22). These physical manifestations of God’s presence were consistently there in the lives of the Hebrews in a way that many Christians today do not experience. (Of course, if you are Catholic, you probably would object here and say that you do get to encounter Christ on a daily basis by going to Mass, which is valid, but I’m just generalizing here to make a point.) Old Testament miracles seem more real, raw, and extreme than most of what we see today.
These miracles were also much more corporate. By that, I mean that they involved the entire Hebrew people together at once. Each Hebrew person went out to collect that day’s portion of manna (his daily bread, if you will). Each person could see the pillars of cloud and fire. Each person too could hear the voice of God thundering from Mt. Sinai when God spoke the Ten Commandments to them (Exodus 20:18-22). They experienced God together rather than individually. (Except for Moses, because he chose to walk into the “thick darkness where God was” Exodus 20:21 ESV.)
Today, we tend to experience God individually. (While you may experience God at your church service or at Mass, it is still considered an important part of a life of faith to seek God on your own as well and cultivate a personal relationship with Him.) It is rare that a miracle is experienced by a large number of people all at once when the miracle takes place. (This is one of the reasons why the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima was so unique—it was experienced by thousands of people all at once. Most other miracles manifest on a much smaller, more private scale when they happen, even if the physical evidence of their occurrence—like the Tilma of Juan Diego or the various Eucharistic miracles—have now been seen by many thousands of people.)
The way miracles present themselves most commonly today is in a personal way: maybe a family member recovers from an illness, or you find your keys right when you need to, or you happen to have just enough money to get you through to your next paycheck. These sorts of miracles increase our faith on an individual basis. Talking about our experiences of these minor miracles may increase the faith of those around us, but they are not presented in as public a manner as the miracles of ancient times.
Why the Change?
The big question now that probably comes to mind is: why the change? Why did the manifestations of God’s presence, care, and provision shift from corporate to individual? Did God’s personality change? Did He get tired of the showiness? We know that God does not change and we know that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament, but we also observe this disparity in experience in front of our very eyes. Why did he stop performing as many grandiose miracles and opt rather to perform smaller-scale, personal miracles?
As I meditated on this question, the first thoughts that came to mind were self-criticizing. I realized that I had a subconscious belief that the change was due to a lack of faith on the part of modern-day Christians. We don’t follow God as well as the Hebrews did. He liked them better; He only tolerates us as His second choice. Our faith is so measly and weak that He has to play hide-and-seek games with us to get us to come looking for Him. He didn’t have to do that with the Hebrews because they already believed in Him. They were his chosen people.
Wait––was I hearing myself? The Hebrews were not more faithful! The Hebrews were constantly breaking faith with God. The book of Jeremiah is full of God’s lamentations regarding their lack of faith. Even Jesus chided their descendants, the Israelites, for this very lack, saying, “Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matthew 11:21 ESV). Later too, Jesus praised those who believe without seeing God, saying to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29 ESV). The Hebrew people were just as unfaithful and unbelieving as we are today, and possibly more so because they did see God work so clearly. God did not pour out spectacular miracles to them on account of their great faith.
I then thought that maybe God extended more favor to them because they were His chosen people. That reason fell flat too, however, because He chose us as well! In the New Testament, Peter calls us “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pe. 2:9 ESV). Just because we were adopted into God’s family later does not make us any less chosen than the Hebrews were originally. (See the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard—specifically Matthew 20:14-16 ESV).
Neither Favoritism nor Deference
What is the answer then? As with most things that pertain to life and godliness, the answer to the question can be found by turning our focus from ourselves—our sin and our faithlessness—to God. The answer does not lie in who we are, but rather in who God is.
God is first and foremost a Good Father. Jesus compares His Fatherhood to our experience of human fathers saying, “Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9-11 ESV). Understanding this parallel between human fatherhood and God’s Fatherhood, I meditated on what other parallels I could find that might illuminate this question.
Then I got it! As fathers (or mothers), when our children are young, we don’t just let them wander about without any help or direction; we lead them by the hand—literally. We go with them everywhere they go. When they are learning to walk, we are not far behind with our arms outstretched to catch them. We give them clear, unambiguous instructions because that is all they can handle at their age. We lead them by the hand, as does God for His children.
The manna in the desert, the pillars of cloud and fire, the Ten Commandments—all of these were God’s way of leading and guiding His newly born children. (Thinking of the Crossing of the Red Sea as a sort of birth or re-birth makes sense given its association with Baptism for Catholics and other Christian denominations.) The Bible uses this very language in Jeremiah when God says “I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt” (Jeremiah 31:32 ESV). The Hebrews had just left the bondage of Egypt and didn’t know the first thing about a life of freedom; so, God led them with a much stronger and apparent presentation of His presence because that is what they needed at the time. That is what the miracles served to do.
With that understanding, then, we can see that it is neither favoritism nor deference that God had toward the Hebrews and the Israelites that caused them to be privileged to witness such great miracles. It was what they needed so God could raise them up as his people. He raised the Hebrew people as a father raises his children. He led them by the hand in the beginning; and, as time went on, He could walk further and further away as they got their feet under them.
The New Covenant
This same passage also describes the difference between how God views this dynamic shift between Himself and His chosen people:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest…Jeremiah 31:31-34 ESV
That new covenant was the one ratified in Christ’s blood. That covenant gives us an access that the Hebrews could only dream of. We are now part of His chosen family, and He speaks directly to each of us through the Holy Spirit. Our Good Father has taught us so much about Himself through His Spirit, such that we are no longer children who must be led by the hand. (This is not meant to make us feel like we are better than our Hebrew and Israelite brothers and sisters. We are no better than they—we are just further along the path of faith because they came before. We should be grateful and humbled to be able to learn from their experience and keep growing the faith more and more.)
Just like we do with our children, God presents knowledge to us only once we can handle it. You would not teach a child calculus at the age of four; rather, you would teach them numbers, then mathematics, then algebra, and on up through the subjects until finally they are ready for calculus. We build step by step upon the foundation that has been laid. God laid the foundation with the Hebrew people that He would be their God and they would be His people. Then He added to that foundation “precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (Is. 28:9-10 ESV), until finally He built up a Church filled with people who know Him personally and follow Him as their Good Father.
Today, we still know that God is with us to protect and lead us, but that presence looks more like inexplicable peace during a hard time or the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance rather than pillars of cloud and fire. He is with us as Emmanuel—as Christ living and working in and through us. He can now allow us to act under His direction because we have matured and grown close to Him as His people. Of course, He can still work great miracles and still does sometimes; but, He prefers to do so through our hands and feet because He wants us to participate in the work that He is doing for our sake and for the sake of the whole world.