20 January 2015
On Miracles and Signs
On Miracles and Signs
From the Essays of Bishop Ignatius (Brianchaninov)
The Holy Gospel tells us that the Pharisees, not satisfied with the miracles performed by our Lord, demanded from Him a particular miracle, a sign from heaven (Mark 8:1). A demand for such a sign, consistent with a strange understanding of miracles and signs, was repeated more than once, as the Lord testified: Why doth this generation seek after a sign (Mark 8:12)? The Sadducees took part in the Pharisees’ demand, though their belief was different from that of the Pharisees. The desire for a sign from heaven was sometimes expressed by the people too; and this after the miraculous multiplying of the five loaves and the feeding of the multitude, when there were five thousand men present, and women and children. Yet the eyewitnesses of this miracle, the participants of this meal, said to the Lord: What sign shewest Thou then, that we may see, and believe Thee?... Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from Heaven to eat (John 6:30 31).
The miraculous multiplication of the loaves in the hands of the Savior seemed insufficient to them. This was done quietly, with the holy humility in which all of the God man’s actions were imbued, but the people needed a spectacle, they needed something which produced an effect. They needed the skies to be covered by dense clouds, for the thunder to roll and the lightning to dazzle, and the loaves to fall from heaven.
The demand for a miracle from the Lord by the chief priests and the elders was characterized by the same spirit, for when the Lord freely willed to be lifted upon the Cross, the chief priests mocking, the Gospel tells us, with the scribes and elders, said He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the Cross, and we will believe Him (Matt. 27:41, 42). They accepted the miracles performed by the Lord as miracles and yet they scorned them and jeeringly denied the miracles bestowed by the Divine philanthropy of God, and demanded a miracle of their own invention and discretion, a miracle which, if it were to occur, would have destroyed the purpose of the coming to earth of the God man, and there would have been no salvation for mankind.
Herod was also among those who wanted to see a miracle from the Lord to amuse their curiosity, their heedless imprudence. Herod wanted a sign as a pleasant diversion, and not receiving what he desired, he rained abuse on the Lord, thus giving himself a moment of distraction.
What did it signify, this common demand for a miracle from the Lord, a demand expressed by people of such different directions, combined with a disdain for the [truly] amazing miracles of our Lord? Such a demand was an expression of human sophistry towards miracles. What is a carnal mind? It is a way of thinking about God and all that is spiritual, based on man’s fallen condition, and not on the Word of God. The nature of defiance and hostility towards God with which this carnal mindedness is filled shows itself with particular clarity in the demand for miracles from the Lord according to an understanding of false wisdom, inattention to the miracles, and a denial and rejection of the miracles accomplished by Christ through His ineffable goodness. He performed them, being the power of God, and the wisdom of God (I Cor. 1:24).
It was a serious sin to demand a miracle from the Lord, a demand inspired by carnal mindedness. Upon hearing this insolent and blasphemous demand, our Lord sighed deeply in His spirit and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? Verily I say unto you, there shall no sign be given unto this generation. And He left them, and entering into the ship again departed... (Mark 8:12,13).
There is joy in heaven over one repenting sinner, and, on the contrary, there is sorrow among the heavenly dwellers over a man falling into sin and his denial of repentance (Luke 15:10). In his blessed contemplation of the infinite goodness of God towards mankind, in his contemplation of the good will of God that all men should be saved, the great Saint Macarius deigned to say that the All holy, dispassionate God experiences divine sorrow at the destruction of man. This sorrow which is beyond our understanding, is not alien to the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of God dwelling in us, Itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (Rom. 8:26). Such sorrow arose in the Son of God by the demand for a miracle, a demand both prideful and unreasonable. He sighed in His Spirit and said, Why doth this generation seek after a sign (Mark 8:12)? The question was our Lord’s reply to the demand, hostile to God, for a sign. What deep sorrow can be heard, a sorrow of God, in this answer! In it we seem to hear an expression of perplexity created by the folly and impertinence of this demand. We hear the loss of hope for the salvation of those who made the request, which was contrary to the Spirit of the One bestowing salvation.
The Lord departs from those who are bound by human sophistry, stubbornly dwelling in it, without the desire to be healed. He leaves them to themselves, leaves them to their choice of destruction, to which they consciously adhere. And He left them (Mark 8:13).
It is natural for the dead not to feel their state, and the carnal understanding does not sense spiritual death. Because of its inability to understand its own ruin, there is no realization of the need for life, and on the basis of a false view of life, the carnal mind has denied and is denying true life God.
Can a sign from heaven have special authority? Those who demanded such a sign, of course, demanded it because they attributed such authority to it. Can we conclude that a sign from heaven is always a sign from God? The Holy Scripture tells us otherwise. The very expression, ‘a sign from heaven’, is imprecise: for people living back then and now. Those not acquainted with the sciences understand “heaven” to be that which happens in the realm of the air and sky. The sun, moon, and stars are declared to be in heaven in that they float in space, and rain, thunder and lightning are called manifestations from heaven although, since they occur in the air, it is more proper to associate them with the earth. The Holy Scripture tells us that by the action of the devil, fire from heaven fell and burnt up the sheep and the servants of Job (Job 1:16). Clearly this fire formed in the air just like lightning. Simon the Magician astounded spiritually blind people with miracles, and the power of satan was mistaken as the great power of God (Acts 8:10). Simon particularly astounded the idol worshipping Romans when, at a large gathering, he declared himself a god and his intention to rise in the air, then suddenly started to rise. This is written about by Simeon Metaphrastes, who took the above description from the earliest Christian writers.
It is a terrible misfortune the lack of true knowledge of God in man when one takes the works of the devil for the works of God. Before the Second Coming of Christ, when Christianity, spiritual knowledge, and discernment will become scarce to an extreme, then there shall arise false Christ’s, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect (Matt. 24:24). The antichrist himself will generously lavish miracles upon men, astounding and satisfying the ignorant and carnal minded. He will give them the signs from heaven for which they seek and thirst. Whose coming, says the Apostle Paul, is after the working of satan with all power and signs and lying wonders, and with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they may be saved (II Thess. 2:19 10). The ignorant and carnal minded, seeing these miracles, will not stop to reason, and because of the affinity of their spirit for the spirit of the miracles, in their blindness will immediately accept the activity of satan as the greatest manifestation of the power of God. The antichrist will be accepted very hastily, without thought. People will not realize that his miracles do not have any blessed, reasonable goal, no definite meaning, that they are alien to truth, play acting deprived of meaning, filled with lies, that they are monstrous, malicious, and meaningless, straining to astonish, deceive and entice by the enchantment of a lavish, empty, silly effect.
It is not strange that the miracles of the antichrist will be accepted without question and with delight by apostates from Christianity—enemies of the truth, and of God. They prepared themselves for an open, active acceptance of the messenger and the instrument of satan, of his teachings and all his actions, having entered into spiritual contact with him at the right moment. It is worthy of thoughtful attention and sorrow to note that the miracles and acts of the antichrist will create difficulty even for the chosen of God. The reason for the strong influence of the antichrist on men will be centered in his hellish corruption and hypocrisy, an artful covering up of the most horrendous evil, in its unrestrained and shameless insolence, in the prolific cooperation of the fallen spirits, and finally in the ability to create miracles that will be false, but astonishing. The human mind is unable to imagine such an evil man, which the antichrist will be. It is not possible for a human heart, even a sinful one, to believe that evil could reach such a level, as it will with the antichrist. He will boast loudly about himself, as his forerunners and his prototypes did, he will call himself a preacher and restorer of the true knowledge of God. The non-discerning Christians will see in him a representative and a supporter of true religion and will thus join him. He will proclaim and call himself the promised Messiah, and the children of carnal wisdom will rush to meet him, proclaim his glory, power, and genius,—will proclaim him a god, become his supporters.
The antichrist will show himself to be meek, merciful, filled with love, filled with all virtue. Those who will acclaim him as such, and will submit to him as the highest good, are they who accept the truth of fallen mankind and will not deny it for the truth of the Gospel.
The antichrist will offer to mankind the most exalted earthly organization of well being and prosperity. He will offer honor, riches, luxury, enjoyment, physical comfort, and delight. Seekers of earthly things will accept the antichrist and will call him their master. The antichrist will reveal before mankind by means of cunning artifice, as in a theatre, a show of astonishing miracles, unexplainable by contemporary science. He will instill fear by the storm and wonderment of his miracles, and will satisfy the [worldly wise], he will satisfy the superstitious, and he will confound human learning. All men, led by the light of fallen nature, alienated from the guidance of God’s Light, will be enticed into submission to the seducer (Rev. 13:8).
The signs of the antichrist will be primarily in the air for it is in this realm that satan mainly rules (Eph. 2:2; 6:12). The signs will act upon the sense of sight, charming and deceiving it. Saint John the Theologian, contemplating events in the world before the end, says in the book of Revelation that the antichrist will perform great deeds so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men (Rev. 13:13). The Holy Scriptures point to this phenomenon as the highest of the signs of the antichrist, and the place for this sign is in the aerial realm it will be a magnificent and awesome spectacle. The signs of the antichrist will complement the actions of his cunning conduct; they will seduce the majority of men to follow him. The opponents of the antichrist will be considered as rebels, enemies of the common good and order, and will be subject to covert and open persecution, to torture and execution.
The false spirits, sent throughout the world, will incite in men a generally high opinion of the antichrist, universal ecstasy, irresistible attraction to him. The Holy Scriptures have depicted in numerous ways the forcefulness of the last persecution of Christians and the cruelty of this persecution. A decisive and definite characteristic serves as the name given by the Scriptures to this frightening person he is called the beast (Rev. 13:1), just as the fallen archangel is called a dragon (Gen. 3:1; Rev. 12:3). These names correctly depict both enemies of God. One acts secretly, the other more openly, but the beast, who is similar to all beasts, unites in himself a wide variety of cruelty, and the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion (Rev. 13:2), the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority (Rev. 13:2).
A frightening trial will descend upon the holy saints of God: cunning, hypocrisy, and the awesomeness of the persecutor will increase in order to deceive and seduce them. Refined, inventive, concealed by cunning, the persecutions, constraints, and unlimited power of the tormentor will place them in a most difficult situation. Their small number will seem insignificant before mankind, and their opinion will be viewed as weak and feeble; they will endure general disdain, hatred, slander, and oppression. Violent death will be their lot. Only with the special help of Divine Grace and under its guidance, will the elect of God be able to stand against the enemy of God, to confess the Lord Jesus before him and before men.
The reason for discussing the above is the fact that the Pharisees and the Sadducees, demanding a sign from heaven from the Lord, demanded a miracle similar in character to the [future] antichrist’s miracles. The fact that they demanded this particular miracle explains our Lord’s reaction to their demand. On hearing such a demand, the God man expressed a deep concern, decisively refused the demand, and did not wish to remain any longer with those who allowed themselves to make such a demand, He departed from them. At another time, He gave the following most stern response, saying A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas (Matt. 16:4). By the words “this generation” are named all who demanded a sign similar in spirit to those described above. They are called “an adulterous generation”, because they have entered in spirit into union with satan, breaking their union with God. They are called an adulterous generation because, while recognizing the miracles of the God man, they pretended not to see them; demeaning and blaspheming the miracles of God, they asked for a miracle conforming with their sad state of mind and spirit. The request for a sign from heaven was not so much a request for a miracle, but a mockery of the miracles of the God man, and an expression of an ignorant, perverted understanding of miracles. The signs of Jonas the prophet, as explained by the Savior Himself (Matt. 12:40), were the signs which accompanied His death and resurrection. Then, at the death of Christ, was given God’s sign from heaven! Then the sun, seeing the Lord crucified, darkened at precisely noon, an all encompassing darkness fell, which lasted for three hours, the veil of the Temple was rent apart by itself from top to bottom, an earthquake occurred, stones were shattered, graves opened, and many saints were resurrected and appeared in the holy city (Luke 23:45; Matt. 27:45, 51 53).
At the Resurrection, again an earthquake occurred. A light bearing angel came down from heaven to the Lord’s sepulcher as a witness to the Resurrection, striking with awe the soldiers who were placed at the tomb by those who sought signs from heaven (Matt. 28:2, 3, 11 15). The soldiers told about the Resurrection of the Lord to the Jewish Sanhedrin. Having received a sign from heaven, the Sanhedrin expressed disdain and hatred towards it, as it had expressed towards all the preceding miracles of the God man, proceeding to bribe the soldiers and taking care to cover God’s miracle with the darkness of deceit.
Let us turn now to an examination of the miracles done by our Lord Jesus Christ. They are a divine gift to humanity. The gift was not given out of necessity, but solely out of good will and mercy. Men should have approached the gift with the greatest reverence and prudence, for the Bestower of the gift declared Himself God, Who became man for their salvation. The gift was His witness, and had an indisputable value.
The acceptance of salvation is left to man’s free will; so also it was left to men to assess the miracles of Christ, to discuss their authenticity and quality, and to draw conclusions from the miracles concerning the One Who did them. The recognition and acceptance of the Redeemer was the result of a free, positive conclusion, not a hurried, light minded action, as if it were a forced attraction. The miracles of Christ had a definite purpose. It can be said concerning all the miracles that which the Lord said to the Apostle Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold My hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into My side: and be not faithless, but believing (John 20:27). The miracles of Christ were tangible, they were clear to the simplest of people, there was nothing mysterious about them, there was no room for doubt or perplexity as to whether it was a miracle or only an effect. The dead were resurrected, the incurably sick were cured, the lepers were cleansed, the blind from birth could see, the dumb could speak, food was multiplied immediately for the needy, the waves of the sea and the wind calmed at a command, those who were threatened by death from the storm were saved, the nets of the fishermen, who labored in vain for a long time at their task, suddenly filled with fish, obedient to the silent voice of the Lord. The miracles of the God man had many witnesses, among whom were many either hostile to Him or inattentive, or sought from Him only physical help. The miracles were undeniable. The most spiteful enemies of the Lord did not deny them and tried only to demean them by a blasphemous misinterpretation and all means suggested to them by cunning and malice. The miracles of the Lord contained no vanity, no pretense. Not one miracle was done as a display before man; all miracles were covered by the cloak of divine humility. They comprised a chain of blessed benefits for suffering humanity, and at the same time, they expressed totally the power of the Creator over earthly creation and created spirits. They expressed and gave proof to the worthiness of God, Who had taken humanity upon Himself, appearing as a man amid mankind.
One of the Lord’s miracles, having a mystical meaning, was not accompanied by a visible benefit for any particular person, but signified a benefit to be poured out on all mankind. The miracle was the withering of the barren fig tree, rich only in leaves (Mark 11:13,14,20). This tree is mentioned in the Scriptures (Gen. 3:7), in the narrative of the fall of our forefathers, as one of the trees of Paradise. It served to cover their nakedness with its leaves, which the forefathers did not notice before falling into sin, a nakedness which sin revealed to them. It may be that the fruit of the fig tree in Paradise was the forbidden fruit. The Lord did not find any fruit on the fig tree. He sought the fruit before its time, letting His flesh seek an untimely desire for food, which mirrors the wrongfulness of the desire of the forefathers; which, as with all the weaknesses of man, the Lord carried upon Himself and destroyed by Himself. Not finding fruit, the Lord rejected the leaves, destroyed the very existence of the tree, at the same time that another tree, the tree of the Cross, was already being prepared as the instrument for the salvation of mankind. The tree, an instrument for the destruction of man, is slain by the command of the Savior of men. The mystical miracle is accomplished in the presence of only the holy Apostles, the disciples of the mystical teaching. It is accomplished before the very entry of the God man upon the struggle of His atoning suffering for mankind, before being lifting up on the Cross.
The miracles of the Lord had a holy meaning, a holy goal. Although they in themselves were a great benefit in the dispensation of God’s plan, they served as witness and proof of an immensely higher benevolence. In becoming man, the Lord brought to humanity an eternal, spiritual, priceless gift salvation, healing from sin, resurrection from eternal death.
The word of the Lord and His life were the realization of this all-encompassing gift, in His life the Lord was without sin, all holy (John 8:46); His word was filled with power (Mark 1:42). Men had fallen deeply into the darkness and gloom of carnal mindedness [versus spiritual mindedness]; their hearts and minds were blinded. It was necessary for special condescension towards the ailing condition of men, it became necessary to give the most clear witness to their physical senses, it became necessary by means of physical senses to impart a life giving knowledge to minds and hearts, which through their natural death died an eternal death. Miracles are given to support the Word of God. For man to understand and accept the spiritual gift, seen only by spiritual eyes, the Lord added to the spiritual, eternal gift one similar to it, a gift which was temporal, bodily the healing of man’s bodily illnesses. Sin is the cause of all illnesses in man, both spiritual and bodily, it serves as the cause of temporary and eternal death. In showing His power over the consequences of sin in the body of man, the Lord shows His power over sin itself. The carnal understanding does not perceive illnesses of the spirit, nor eternal death, but it sees and accepts bodily illnesses; they impress and concern it very much. The Lord healed all the sick with one word, one command, resurrected the dead, expelled unclean spirits, showed His Power. He showed the power of God over man, over sin, over fallen spirits, and He showed this openly to our physical senses, to the carnal mind. This carnal mind, seeing and touching this power, could and should have logically acknowledged the power of the Lord over sin not only in relation to sin of body, but in the relation to sin of the soul, and acknowledge the power of the Lord over the soul itself. In some miracles of the Lord, as in the resurrection of the dead, the unlimited divine power was shown over the body and the soul. The body quickened, the soul was called back into it, having already departed to the world of spirits. It was called from that world and united with the body, from which it had separated forever. Man received signs within himself, not out of himself. Man was given proof of salvation in himself, not from a distance. The witness for eternal salvation of soul and body was given through a temporal salvation of the body from bodily ills and bodily death. With correct and devout observation of the miracles of the Lord, they prove to be filled with divine reason. A demand for a sign from heaven is shown to be devoid of sense. Although it was rare that the power of the Lord extended beyond man onto the matter of created nature, these occurrences did take place. They witness to the fact that the power of the Lord over all of nature is the unlimited power of God. The miracles over nature serve to complement those miracles which were performed for mankind, so that the significance that mankind was wont to give to the One Who redeemed our sins was accurately defined. Since the reason for our Lord’s coming to earth was the salvation of man, the care of the Lord was concentrated on man, the most perfect creation His image, His rational temple. The earth, the land of exile, suffering, and our journeying, all material creation, despite its immensity, is left by Him without attention. Even if certain miracles are performed on matter, they are done for the satisfaction of man’s needs.
Such is the significance of the miracles performed by the Lord and His Apostles. This was made clear by the Lord to the Apostles. Once, a multitude gathered in the house where the Lord was present. The house was filled and the crowd was pressing, it was impossible to enter. At this time, a paralytic was brought, who could not leave his bed. Those who brought him, seeing the multitude and the pressing of the crowd, took the sick man up onto the roof, made an opening in the ceiling, and let him down on his bed before the Lord. Seeing their act of faith, the merciful Lord said to the paralytic, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. Here sat some of the scribes, who knew the law to the letter, but infected by envy towards the God man, immediately thought that blasphemy was uttered. Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only? The One to Whom all hearts are open, said to them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (He saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house (Mark 2:2 11). To say without proof that “your sins are forgiven” can be done by a hypocrite and a deceiver. The paralytic was healed immediately and became strong, took up the bed and walked before all present. The miracle is filled with divine wisdom and goodness. Initially the Lord grants the ailing, suffering being, a spiritual gift, unseen by physical eyes the remission of sins.
The granting of this gift gave rise to an involuntary confession by the learned Jewish men, that such a gift can be granted only by God. The Lord, answering the thought in their hearts, gives them a new testimony of Himself, that He is God. Finally, the spiritual gift and spiritual proof are sealed with a material gift and proof the immediate and full recovery of the sick man. The holy Evangelist Mark, concluding his Gospel, says that the Apostles, upon the Ascension of the Lord, preached the Word everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the message by signs (Mark 16:20).
This thought was expressed by all the Apostles in the prayer through which they had recourse to God after the threats by the Sanhedrin, which forbade them to teach and act in the name of Jesus: And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto Thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak Thy word, by stretching forth Thine hand to heal; and that signs and wonders may be done by the name of Thy holy child Jesus (Acts 4:29 30).
The signs of God were given to assist the word of God. They were a witness to the power and significance of the word (Luke 4:36). The essential agent is the Word. Signs are not needed where the word is accepted, because the worthiness of the word is understood. Signs are a condescension to human weakness.
The word acts in one manner, the signs act in another. The words act directly on the mind and heart, the signs on the mind and heart through the senses. The consequences of the action of the word are stronger, more powerful, more definite than the consequences from the action of the signs.
When the word and the signs act together, then the action of the signs is left as if unnoticed, by reason of the abundant action of the word. This is clear from the narrative in the Gospel. Nicodemus was influenced by the signs, and he recognized in the Lord only a teacher sent by God (John 3:2). The Apostle Peter was influenced by the word and he confessed the Lord as the Christ, the Son of God. Thou hast the words of eternal life, he said to the God man, and we believe and are sure that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the Living God (John 6:68 69). The holy Peter was an eyewitness of the many miracles of the Lord. The multiplication of the five loaves and the feeding of a large gathering of people had just been performed by the Lord, but the Apostle at his confession is silent about the miracles and speaks only of the power and the action of the words. The same happened with the two disciples, who conversed with the Lord on the way to Emmaus without recognizing Him. Upon coming to the town, already in the house, at the breaking of the bread, they recognized Him. Just as they recognized the Lord, He became invisible. They did not say anything about the amazing miracle, they turned all their attention to the action of the word: Did not our heart burn within us, they said to each other, while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the scriptures (Luke 24:32)?
The God man blessed the ones who did not see the signs, and who believed (John 20:29). He expressed sympathy towards those who, not satisfied with the word, needed miracles: Except ye see signs and wonders ye will not believe, He said to the nobleman of Capernaum (John 4:48).
It is so! Worthy of sympathy are those who forsake the word, who seek affirmation from miracles. This need is derived from the predominance of the carnal mind, a coarse ignorance, a way of life brought as an offering to corruption and sin, a lack of exercise in the study of the Law of God and in God pleasing virtues, an inability of the soul to feel the Holy Spirit, to perceive the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Word. Signs were designated most of all for convincing and bringing to faith those who were still of a carnal mind, occupied by the sentient cares of the world. Immersed in the concerns of life, always attached with their soul to earth and its affairs, and little able to value the merit of the word, the merciful Word drew them to salvation given through the word, by means of visible signs, which contained a material affirmation acting through the senses, bringing a weak soul to the almighty, saving word. Those who believed on account of signs made up a lower category of believers in Christ. When they were offered a spiritual most elevated, all holy teaching, then many understood it according to their own interpretation (John 6:60), and did not wish to ask for an explanation of God’s word, which was spirit and life. They were convicted by the superficial witness of their heart, and many fell away (John 6:66).
Neither the signs, nor the word of the God man acted beneficially on the Jewish high priests, scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, though, with the exception of the latter, they knew precisely to the letter, the law of God. They were not only alien to God and full of enmity towards God on account of a sinful ailment common to all mankind, but became thus confirmed and sealed themselves in such a state on account of their own willfulness, on account of self conceit, on account of a desire to lead that life and be successful in that life which was forbidden by the Gospel.
They would not hear the Son of God speaking to them. They did not hear His words as they should. They did not hearken to Him, but only caught those words which seemed to them necessary for misinterpreting and accusing the Lord. So hate is developed for the words of the one who is hated. Why do ye not understand My speech? Even because ye cannot hear My word (John 8:43), the Savior would say to His enemies, who denied stubbornly and with obstinacy the salvation offered to them. Why do you not understand My teaching? Why do you not accept My healing Word? Because you cannot even hear My words, it is unbearable to you. Being the children of lies and acting in this manner, you do not believe Me. And because I tell you the truth, ye believe Me not (John 8:45). He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not from God (John 8:47). If I do not the works of My Father, believe Me not. But if I do, though ye believe not Me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in Me, and I am in Him (John 10:37 38). In vain were those words, which being the truth of God, comprised a full witness (John 8:14). In vain the miracles, which were in themselves a full witness, so tangible and obvious, that the enemies of the God man, in all their desire and effort to deny them, could not help but recognize them (John 9:24).
The means which acted upon those who did not know the law of God, who were not well acquainted with it, who spent their lives in earthly occupations and concerns, but did not willfully deny the law of God, this same means had no influence on those who knew the law of God in detail and to the letter, but denied it in their lives and their willfulness (John 5:46 47; 7:19). All that could be done for the salvation of men was done by the ineffable mercy of God. The Savior makes clear, If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloak for their sin. He that hateth Me hateth My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both Me and My Father (John 15: 22 24).
Christianity was brought to us so perfectly that there is no justification for those who do not know it. The reason for lack of knowledge is only willfulness. As the sun shines from the heavens, so shines Christianity. One who willfully closes one’s eyes, must credit his lack of sight to his own willfulness and not to the lack of light.
The reason for mankind’s denial of the God man is in men. Also in man is the reason for the acceptance of antichrist. I am come in My Father’s name, and ye receive Me not: if another shall come in his own name, him ye will receive (John 5:43). They are both named as denying Christ and accepting the antichrist, though the antichrist is spoken of as one who is to come. The denial of Christ comes from man’s spirit, and the same spirit accepts the antichrist. They [those who denied Christ then] were added to those who accepted antichrist, though they completed their earthly journey many centuries before his coming. They accomplished his [the antichrist’s] greatest misdeed the killing of God. A crime similar to deicide was not left for the time of antichrist. As their spirit was in a state of enmity towards Christ, so it was in the state of union with the antichrist, though separated from him by a great span of time, now reaching to the end of the second millennium.
And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world (I John 4:3), says the Theologian. Those led by the spirit of the antichrist deny Christ, they have accepted the antichrist in their spirit, entered into union with him, subordinated and worshipped him in spirit, confessing him as their god. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, (that is, God will allow it), that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the Truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness (II Thess. 2:11 12). In this judgement God is just. This will satisfy as well as accuse and judge the human spirit. The antichrist will come in his own, foreordained time. His coming will be preceded by a universal apostasy in most men from the Christian faith. Through apostasy from Christ, mankind will prepare itself for the acceptance of the antichrist, it will accept him in its spirit. In the very mood of the human spirit there will arise a demand, an invitation for the antichrist, a sympathy for him, as in a serious illness there arises a thirst for a poisonous draught. The invitation is pronounced! A beckoning voice is heard in society, expressing an insistent need for the genius of geniuses, who would raise material development and success to the highest degree, who would usher on earth such material well being, that heaven and earth will become superfluous for man. The antichrist will be a logical, equitable, natural result of the common moral and spiritual direction of man.
The miracles of the incarnate God comprised the greatest material blessings which mankind could imagine. What blessing could be more precious than a return to life of one who died? What blessing could be more precious than the healing of an incurable illness, which was taking away one’s life, making life a slow dying rather than living? However, despite the beneficence, holiness, spiritual significance of the miracles of Christ, these miracles were only temporal gifts. To define them exactly, they should be called signs. They were signs of the word for eternal salvation. Those who were resurrected by the God man died in their time, for they were granted only an extension to their earthly life and were not given this life forever. Healed by the God man, they again became ill and died; health was given to them only for a time, but not forever. The temporal and material benefits were poured out as a sign of eternal and spiritual benefits, so that they would believe in the existence of unseen gifts and would accept them. The signs delivered them from the abyss of ignorance and sensuality and led them to faith; faith imparted knowledge of eternal blessings and taught the desire to acquire them. With the help of wondrous signs the Apostles swiftly spread Christianity throughout the world: the signs were a clear and powerful witness of Christianity for the educated nations, for those who still dwelt in spiritual ignorance and barbarism. When faith was planted everywhere, the word was planted, then the signs were taken away, having completed their service. They ceased to act everywhere. They were performed sometimes by the elect holy ones of God. Saint John Chrysostom, church father and writer of the fourth and fifth centuries, says that already in his time, the action of the signs of Grace had ceased, although they still occurred in some places, especially among the monastics, the standard bearers of signs. In the course of time, these standard bearers became fewer. The holy Fathers foretold about the last times, when standard bearing men will be no more.
“Why, say some, are there no signs now? My answer to that is, listen with special attention, because the question asked here I hear from many, and often, and always. Why at that time all who accepted baptism, started to speak in foreign tongues and now this does not happen? Why now is the Grace of miracles taken away from men? God accomplishes this not to subject us to dishonor but gives us an even greater honor. In what manner? I will explain. People of those times were slower of mind, as they were only just turned away from idols. Their minds were carnal and dull, they were immersed in the material and given over to it, they could not realize the existence of immaterial gifts. Neither did they know the meaning of spiritual Grace, that all is accepted by faith alone, and for this reason they were given signs. Of the spiritual gifts some are unseen and are accepted only by faith, others are conjoined with some sign, subject to the senses, for the arousal of belief in the unbelieving. For example, the remission of sins is a spiritual gift and it is unseen we do not see by our bodily eyes how our sins are being cleansed. The soul is being cleansed, but the soul is invisible to the eyes of the body. And thus the cleansing of sins is a spiritual gift, which cannot be visible by the eyes of the body; the ability to speak in foreign tongues, although part of the action of the Spirit, serves with It as a sign, subject to the senses, and thus can be easily observed by the unbelievers an unseen action which is accomplished in the soul become seen and is shown by means of external language, which we hear. For this same reason, Paul says: But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal (I Cor. 12:7).
And thus, I do not have need of signs. Why is it? Because I have learnt to believe in the Grace of God without the signs. An unbeliever is in need of proof, but I am a believer, and have no need whatsoever in proof or a sign. Although I do not speak in tongues, but I know that I am cleansed of sin. The former did not believe until they received a sign. Signs were given to them as a proof of faith, which they were accepting. And so signs were given not to believers, but to the unbelieving so that they would be made believers, in the words of Paul, for a sign not to them that believe, but to them that believe not (I Cor. 14:22). (First Homily of Saint John Chrysostom at Pentecost)
If signs were absolutely necessary, they would have remained. The word remained and signs were part of its installation. The word spread, came to reign, encompassed the universe. It is fully explained by the Fathers of the Church, made available and easy to understand. It is absolutely necessary, it grants eternal blessings, it accomplishes man’s salvation. It brings the heavenly kingdom, it preserves the spiritual, most elevated signs of God (Ps. 118:18), But the word of the Lord endureth forever (I Peter 1:25). In the Word is life, and It is life (John 1:4). It gives birth to eternal life for those who died, granting to them from within Itself Its all holy life: the hearers and doers of the Word are those being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever (I Peter 1:23). To understand the significance of the word, we must fulfill it. The commandments of the Gospel which are being fulfilled immediately start to transform, change, enliven man, his mode of thought, the feelings of his heart, his very body. For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Heb. 4:12).
The word of God contains in itself its [own] witness. Similar to healing signs, it acts in the man himself, and by this action witnesses of itself. It is the highest sign. It is a spiritual sign, which being granted to man, satisfies all needs for his salvation and makes the concurrence from material signs unnecessary. A Christian who does not know the attributes of the word, denounces himself as being cold towards the word, ignorant of the word of God, or only possessing dead knowledge according to the letter alone.
The desire of contemporary Christian society to see miracles and even to perform miracles must not be ignored. This desire must be thoroughly scrutinized since the desire to perform miracles is severely condemned by the Holy Fathers. Through such a desire, self delusion, which is based on conceit and vanity and which lives in and possesses the soul, manifests itself. The great instructor of monks, Saint Isaac of Syria, discusses this matter: “The Lord is a close defender of His saints at all times; but, without need, He does not manifest His power through a visible act or a sensory sign, in order that His defense not become commonplace for us and that we should not lose proper reverence towards Him. This loss of reverence would cause harm to us. Thus He acts through His Providence for the saints. In every circumstance He allows them to struggle in conformance to their strength and to their labour in prayers. He also shows them that His secret care for them does not cease for even a moment. If the circumstance by its difficulty surpasses their reason, if they will lose strength and will not be able to act within their natural limitations, then He Himself will accomplish that which is needed for their help, in the majesty of His power, and as He deems right. He strengthens them when possible in secret, giving them the strength to overcome their sorrow. He resolves a complex sorrow with wisdom which He imparts, and the knowledge of His Providence leads to praise, beneficial in all respects. When the circumstance demands visible help, then by necessity He does this too. His means and manner of assistance are most wise. They help in poverty, in necessity, and do not act without reason. One who dares and asks God to accomplish something unusual, while not being pressed by necessity, one who desires that miracles and signs would be accomplished by his hands, is tempted in his mind by the devil, who is mocking him, and that person is seen as vain and ailing in his conscience. It is right in one’s sorrow to ask for Divine help, but to tempt God without need is disastrous. Most unrighteous is the one who wishes it. In the lives of the saints we find examples where the Lord, expressing His disapproval would fulfil such desires. One who wants and desires this on his own, not being pressed, falls from the condition of spiritual self-preservation and in this state departs from the mind of truth. If the one who asks is heard, then the Evil One finds a place in him, like in a person who walks before God without reverence, with insolence. The devil then plunges him into greater audacity. The truly righteous ones not only do not desire to be miracle workers, but even when they are given the gift of miracle-working, decline it. Not only do they not wish it before the eyes of men, but also in the secret chambers of their heart. One of the holy fathers, because of his purity, received by the Grace of God a divine gift to discern the thoughts of those who came to him. He asked God and begged his friends to pray that this gift would be taken from him. If some saints accepted the gift, they accepted it out of necessity, or by reason of their simplicity; others accepted it never without reason through the instruction of the divine Spirit acting in them. Truly righteous ones constantly consider themselves to be unworthy before God. The fact that they consider themselves accursed and not worthy of the care of God, witnesses to their truth” (Homily 36, according to the translation by Elder Paisius).
From these holy reflections the conclusion can be drawn that those who wish to perform signs, wish to do so due to the excitement of the flesh, attracted by the passions which they misunderstand, although it may seem to them that they are led by zeal for God’s work. Those who seek signs are in a similar condition of excitement and self delusion. It is forbidden in all circumstances to tempt God and to cease revering Him. It is permitted to ask for God’s help in extreme need, when we have no means of our own to be delivered from it, but determining the means of assistance we must leave to God, committing ourselves to His will and mercy. The Lord always sends means for assistance which will be helpful to the soul. The means offer the help we are in need of, and in that very assistance He grants us a holy taste of humility.
Divine help does not occur with outward brilliance, as our carnal mind might wish, so that the soul will not be harmed from the vainglory of being satisfied with this brilliance. In the works of God, in the very service to the Church, one should always ask for the blessing of God and the help of God. One must believe that only divine, spiritual means can be beneficial for faith and devotion, but never the means suggested by the carnal mind.
It is difficult for man to endure glory without harm to his soul (Saint Isaac of Syria, Homily 1). It is difficult not only for the passionate or those struggling with passions, but also for those who have conquered the passions and for saints. Although victory over sin has been granted to them, changeability has not been taken from them, that is, the possibility of returning to sin and falling under the yoke of the passions. This has happened to some who were not attentive enough to themselves, who allowed self assurance to slip in concerning their spiritual condition. As the blessed Macarius the Great (Conversation VII, ch. 4) noted, an inclination to pride dwells in even the most cleansed souls. This very inclination acts as the beginning of going astray and attraction [to passion]. Because of this, the gift of healing and other visible gifts are very dangerous for those to whom they are given, as they are highly valued by carnal and sensuous people, and are glorified by them. The unseen, blessed gifts, incomparably higher than the ones seen, such as the gift to lead souls to salvation and to heal them from the passions, are not understood or seen by the world. The world not only does not glorify the servants of God who have these gifts, but persecutes them as ones acting against the powers of the world, as casting aspersions on the dominion of the prince of the world (Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, Vol.15, letter 103. sect. 4). The merciful God grants men that which is essential and useful, although they do not understand or value it. He does not grant that which is of little use, and often may be quite harmful, although carnal understanding and ignorance insatiably thirst for it and seek it.
“Many,” says Isaac of Syria, “performed signs, resurrected the dead, labored in the conversion of the lost, performed great miracles, and after this, they themselves, who had given life to others, fell into evil and the abomination of passions and gave themselves over to death” (Homily 56). Blessed Macarius the Great tells us that a certain ascetic who lived near him received the gift of healing in such abundance that he would heal the sick with just the laying on of hands, but being glorified by men, he became proud and fell into the very depth of sin (Conversation XXVII, ch.16). In the Life of the venerable Anthony the Great, a certain young monk is mentioned who ruled over wild beasts in the desert. When the great one heard of this miracle he expressed distrust in the spiritual condition of the miracle worker. Not long after word came of the grievous fall of the monk (Alphabetical Patericon). In the fourth century there lived in Egypt a certain elder who had the special gift of miracles, and because of it, great glory among men. Soon he noticed that pride started to possess him and that he was not able to vanquish it through his own efforts. The elder turned to God with the warmest of prayers beseeching Him that he would be allowed to become possessed in order to achieve humility. God fulfilled this humble request of His servant and allowed satan to enter him. The elder submitted to all the attacks of possession for over five months; he had to be chained. The people who came to him in multitudes, who glorified him as a great saint, left him, making it known that he had lost his mind. The elder, who was now freed from the glory of men and from his pride, which had started to grow in him because of this glory, thanked God Who saved him from destruction. His salvation was accomplished by means of a short term difficulty and dishonor before carnal men, who did not understand that because of the sign, the devil inflicted a trial on the elder, and that by means of visible possession the elder was returned to the safe path by the wondrous mercy of God (Patrologiae L. LXXIII. De vitis patrum, lib. IV, ch. XIII). Thus it becomes clear why the great fathers such as Sisoes, Pimen and others, having the most generous gift of healing, tried to hide it. They did not trust themselves, they realized man’s capacity to easily change, and instead through humility kept themselves from spiritual misfortune (Alphabetical Patericon). The holy Apostles, who were given the gift of miracles to accompany their preaching, were allowed by the Providence of God to bear heavy sorrows and persecutions, with the aim of keeping them from pride. Saint Isaac of Syria says, “A gift without temptation is the destruction of the soul for those who accept it. If your deed is acceptable to God, and He grants you a gift, then beg Him to grant you the knowledge of how to be humble with such a gift, or that you might have protection with this gift (the misfortunes permitted were just such a guard of the gift for the holy Apostles), or that the gift might be taken away from you if it becomes the cause of your ruin, for not all can keep riches without harm to themselves” (Homily 34).
The attitude of the spiritually minded with respect to the ills of the body and the miraculous healing of them is completely different from the view of a carnally minded person. The carnal mind considers illnesses a misfortune and their healing, especially a miraculous one, as the greatest good, little caring whether the healing is joined with benefit to the soul or its harm. The spiritual mind even sees in illness sent by divine Providence the mercy of God towards man. Enlightened by the light of God’s Word spiritual reason teaches conduct pleasing to God and salvific for the soul. It teaches that it is possible to seek and ask God for the healing of an illness, with the firm intent to use the return of good health and strength to serve God, but not to the service of vanity and sin. In the latter case the miraculous healing will lead only to greater condemnation and will bring a more severe punishment in the present and for all eternity. This was witnessed by the Lord. Having healed the paralytic He told him, Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee (John 5:14). Man is weak and easily inclined towards sin. If some saints who had the blessed gift of healing and were abundantly endowed with spiritual reasoning succumbed to temptation from sin and fell, how much easier is it for carnal people, lacking a proper understanding of spiritual gifts, to abuse the divine gift. And many did abuse it! Having received healing from an illness in a miraculous way, they did not pay attention to the divine Grace of God and their obligation to be thankful for that Grace. They started to lead a sinful life, turning the gift of God into harm for themselves, alienating themselves from God and losing their salvation. Because of this, miraculous healings of physical illnesses occur rarely, although the carnal mind very much respects and desires them. Ye ask, and receive not, says the Apostle, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts (James 4:3). A spiritual mind learns that ailments and other sorrows, which God allows for men, can be sent by a particular divine mercy; as bitter medicines for the ill, they help us work towards our salvation, our eternal happiness, far more surely than miraculous healings. Often, quite often, the ailment is a greater Grace than would be a healing if it were to come; the ailment can be a favor so essential that its removal through healing would be the taking away of a great good, incomparable with that temporal benefit which is given by the healing of a bodily ailment. The ailing beggar Lazarus, spoken of in the Gospel, was not healed from a burdensome illness, nor freed from poverty, ending his years in those circumstances in which he suffered for a long time but for his patience he was taken by the angels to the bosom of Abraham (see Luke 16:22).
The Holy Scriptures affirm that without exception all the saints of God completed their earthly journey along a narrow and thorny path, filled with various sorrows and deprivations (Hebrews 12). Based on such understanding of sorrows, true servants of God, in their attitude towards the sorrows which befell them, conducted themselves with great wisdom and self denial. They met the sorrow which came, whatever it was, as something that belonged to them (Saint Mark the Ascetic, 226 Chapters on Those Who Think to be Justified by Deeds, ch. 6). They believed with all their soul that such sorrow would not come if it were not allowed by the just and all good God, according to man’s needs. Their first act when sorrow came was to acknowledge that they deserved it. They sought and always found in themselves the reason for sorrow. Then if they noted that their sorrow was an impediment for them in pleasing God, they would turn with prayer to God for the deliverance from this sorrow, leaving the fulfillment or non fulfillment of their request to the will of God, never considering their own understanding of the sorrow to be correct. One’s judgement cannot be totally correct, for the judgement of a limited, though holy person, does not encompass and perceive all the reasons for the sorrow as it is encompassed and perceived by the all seeing eye of God, Who allows sorrows to befall His servants and His beloved. The holy Apostle Paul thrice turned with prayer to God, asking that the messenger of satan, who impeded the Apostle in the preaching of Christianity, would be removed. Paul was not hearkened to, the judgement of God on this matter was other than that of the God inspired Apostle (II Cor. 12:7 10). The surrender of oneself to the will of God, a sincere, reverent desire that it might be manifested in us, is the necessary, natural consequence of true, spiritual reasoning. Holy monks, when they were subject to illness, accepted it as the greatest Grace of God, and tried to remain in a state of glorifying and giving thanks to God, not seeking healing. Miraculous healings, however, happen most often among holy monks. They desired to patiently and humbly suffer that which God allowed, believing and confessing that it is better for the soul than all self willed ascetic acts. Blessed Pimen the Great said, “Three monastic deeds are equal in worth when one remains truly silent, when one is ill and thanks God, and when one goes through obedience with pure thoughts” (Alphabetical Patericon).
In the Egyptian Skete, where the greatest of holy monks lived, there lived the blessed Benjamin. For his virtuous life God granted him a rich gift of healing. Having the gift he himself submitted to a burdensome and lengthy illness of dropsy. He became heavy in body and they had to take him out of his cell to another, more spacious one. To do that they had to remove the doors and door jambs. In his new cell a special seat was made for him because he could not lie on a bed. In this position the ailing monk continued to heal others, and those who saw his suffering sympathized with him. He taught them that they should pray for his soul, and not be concerned about his body. “For when my body is well,” he said, “then I do not have much benefit from it. Now, enduring an illness, it does not bring me any harm.” (Alphabetical Patericon)
Abba Peter said that he once visited the venerable Isaiah the Recluse and found him suffering from a painful illness. As he expressed sympathy, the venerable one said, “I am overwhelmed by illness, yet I can barely preserve the memory of the awesome time (of death and the judgement of God). If my body were healthy, then the remembrance of this would be totally alien to me. When the body is healthy, then it is inclined to hostile acts against God. Sorrows serve us as an aid in keeping God’s commandments (Venerable Isaiah the Recluse, Homily 27). The holy fathers, when overtaken by illness or some other sorrow, at first tried to show patience, which depended on them. They had recourse to self reproach and self-judgement, thus forcing their heart and compelling it to patience (Abba Dorotheos, Instruction 7). They remembered death, the judgement of God, and eternal torment; such remembrance weakens the significance and feeling of earthly sorrows (Matt. 10:28 31). They raised their minds to God’s Providence, reminding themselves of the promise of the Son of God to always be with His followers and preserve them. With this in mind they summoned their hearts to blessed peacefulness and courage (Matt. 28:20). They compelled themselves to glorify and thank God for the sorrow, and forced themselves to be conscious of their sinfulness, which demanded punishment and proper understanding, because of God’s justice, and His goodness. While forcing themselves to labour for patience, they increased their diligent prayers to God to grant a spiritual gift blessed patience, inseparable from another spiritual gift—blessed humility, which together serve the faithful as a pledge of salvation and eternal blessedness. The great standard bearing fathers did not grant healing, as much as it was possible for them, to their disciples who were subjected by the will or Providence of God to illness, so as not to deprive them of spiritual profit, which would without fail be given, according to the moral tradition of the Church, through the bearing of illness and suffering. The abbot of a monastery in Gaza, blessed Serid, the disciple of the great Barsanuphius, who was a hermit living in silence in the same monastery, was ill for a long time. Some of the elder brothers asked the great one for the healing of the abbot. The holy Barsanuphius answered, “Some of the holy ones living here could pray for the health of my son, and I advised him of it, and he would not be ill for one day, but then he would not receive the fruits of patience. This illness is beneficial to him for patience and thanksgiving” (Answer 130). Explaining the necessity of sorrows for an ascetic of Christ, Saint Isaac of Syria says, “Temptation is beneficial for every man. If it is beneficial to Paul, then every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God (Rom. 3:19). The ascetics are subject to temptations so that they might increase their wealth; weak ones to keep themselves from that which is harmful for them; sleeping ones so that they would awake; those standing afar, to come closer to God; His own, to become more of His own. An untaught son does not come to manage his father’s wealth, for he will not be able to manage it well. Because of this, God allows temptation at first and wearies one, and then grants the gift. Glory to the Master, Who with bitter medicines gives us the delight of health. There is no man who does not grieve during his instruction, no man, to whom the time does not appear bitter when he drinks the draught of temptations. But without them it is impossible to become spiritually strong. And to endure is not in our power. How can a clay vessel carry fine water if beforehand it is not strengthened by Divine fire? If, with reverence and an unceasing desire for patience, we will humbly ask God for it, then we will receive all from Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Homily 37).
Part III (Conclusion)
Before the Second Coming of Christ there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars (Luke 21:25), the sea will roar and be tossed. How are we to discern these signs from the signs of the Antichrist, as he also will give signs in the sun and moon, the stars and air (Commentary on the Gospel of Mark by Blessed Theophylact, 8:11 12)? The first signs will be true and thus they will be completely different from the signs of the Antichrist, which will be comprised of manifestations deceiving the senses. The performers of the signs of the Antichrist will be the Antichrist and his apostles; the signs in the sun, moon and stars, these signs heralds of the coming of Christ, will appear by themselves, without any intermediary. The heavenly lights will have fulfilled their designation for which, by the command of their Creator, they came to shine in the heavens (Gen. 1:14). They fulfilled their assignment (significance) at the Birth of Christ, through a miraculous star (Matt. 2:2), they fulfilled it at the crucifixion of the God man, when the sun was covered by a thick cover of darkness at noon-time (Matt. 27:45). The Holy Evangelist Matthew tells us that upon the cessation of sorrows, produced by the reign of the Antichrist, the coming of Christ will occur immediately and it will begin with [the signs when] the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven (Matt. 24:29). These celestial bodies will remain in their places, notes the blessed Theophylact of Bulgaria, but they will dim and will appear to one’s eyes as having disappeared from the vault of heaven, because of the abundance of heavenly light, filling the world in preparation for the acceptance of the Lord in His glory.
We are emboldened to call our teaching on miracles and signs the expression of the Holy Fathers. The necessity of presenting this teaching in an exact and detailed exposition is obvious.
True signs were to assist true knowledge of God, and the salvation it granted. False signs assisted error and the destruction it produced. In particular, the action of the signs produced by the Antichrist will be vast and powerful, it will carry unfortunate mankind to the recognition of the messenger of satan as god. A devout contemplation of the miracles accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ is edifying and consoling, and acts for the salvation of our souls. What holy simplicity there is in them! These miracles made it so easy to know God. What blessed goodness, what humility, what indisputable force of conviction! The contemplation of Christ’s miracles leads us to the Word, Who is God. In order to restore fallen mankind to communion with Him, God blessedly willed that His Word become incarnate and live among men, enter into the closest relation with them, making them His own, and lift them to heaven. Having put on humanity, the Word remains the Word of God, and acts as the Word of God according to Its Divine essence. He sits at the right hand of the Father in His adopted humanity and dwells everywhere as God. It [the Word] is inscribed on paper. It is clothed in on sounds, but being Spirit and Life (John 6:63) It enters minds and hearts, re-establishing those who unite with Him in spirit, and draws the body also to a spiritual life. Contemplating the miracles of Christ, we rise to the knowledge of the awesome significance which is contained in the Word of God. The one thing needful (Luke 10:42) for our salvation is the Word which serves salvation and accomplishes salvation with all perfection. Knowing the Word of God from the Holy Scriptures, uttered by the Holy Spirit and explained by the Holy Spirit united with knowledge received from this activity, directed according to the Word of God, blessed by the knowledge given by Divine Grace, grants to the Christian purity of mind and heart. In this purity comes to shine spiritual reasoning, like the sun on a clear, cloudless sky. At the dawn of day after the night’s darkness, the images of sensory objects change: some, until then invisible, become visible; others which were seen unclearly, blending with other objects, are now separated from them and become defined. This occurs not because the objects change, but because the relation of human sight towards them changes with the change of the darkness to the light of day. Exactly the same occurs in the relation of the human mind to objects moral and spiritual, when the mind is enlightened by spiritual knowledge proceeding from the Holy Spirit. Only with the light of spiritual reasoning can the soul see the holy way to God! Only with the light of spiritual reasoning can the unseen procession of the mind and heart to God be accomplished without sin. Only with the light of spiritual reasoning can we escape error, the thickets and abyss of destruction. There, where this light is not, there is no sight of truth; there, where this light is not, there is no God pleasing virtue which saves man and leads him into the mansions of paradise (Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homilies 25, 26, 27, & 28).
To avoid the misfortunes into which the viewing of signs and miracles by the carnal mind can entice us, the sight of the spiritual eye should be enlightened with the light of spiritual reasoning. We saw the essence of the miracles accomplished by the God man. We saw what their goal was. The signs, having accomplished their service, departed, leaving now the essential doer the Word to act, Who remains and will remain the doer until the end of the world, as He Himself said of Himself: I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:20).
When the universal signs had ceased, accomplishing the sowing of Christianity by the preaching of the Apostles and those who were Equal to the Apostles, signs were performed in places by the elect vessels of the Holy Spirit. In the course of time, with the gradual weakening of Christianity and the corruption of morality, miracle working men grew fewer (see The Ladder, Homily 26, chap. 52). Finally, they ceased completely. In the meantime, men, while losing reverence and respect for all that is sacred, losing humility, acknowledging themselves unworthy not only to accomplish signs, but even to see them, thirst for miracles more than ever before. Humanity, intoxicated with self conceit, presumption and ignorance, strives without discernment, rashly and boldly, towards all that seems miraculous and does not refuse to be a participant in performing miracles, but is determined to do it, without a second thought. Such a thoughtless movement is fraught with more danger than ever before. We are gradually approaching that time when a vast spectacle of numerous and amazing false miracles will be revealed, enticing into destruction those unfortunate children of carnal reasoning, who will be seduced and tricked by these miracles.
The quickening of the soul by the Word of God results in a living faith in Christ. A living faith, as it were, sees Christ (Heb. 11:27). Christianity is revealed before its eyes, while remaining a mystery; while remaining unknowable it is clear and understandable; it is no longer covered by that thick, impenetrable curtain, as when faith is dead. A living faith is spiritual reasoning (Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 28). It has no need of signs, being wholly satisfied by the signs of Christ, and the greatest of His signs, the crown of signs His Word. The desire to see signs serves as an indication of unbelief, and the signs were given to unbelievers to turn them to belief. Let us cling to the Word of God with all our soul, let us unite with Him into one spirit, and the signs of the Antichrist will not even attract our attention. With disdain and revulsion we will turn our eyes away from them, as from a demonic spectacle, as from an act of fanatical enemies of God, as from a mocking of God, and as from deathly poison and infection. Let us remember the following especially important note taken from the experience of the ascetics all demonic manifestations are of such a nature that even minute attention to them is dangerous, for such attention [even if] allowed without any special sympathy to the manifestation, can make a most harmful impression, and result in a serious temptation.
Humility in reasoning is inseparable from spiritual reasoning. Saint Isaac the Syrian tells us that “only the one who has humility can be acknowledged as reasonable; the one who has not humility, will never achieve wise reasoning (Homily 28). A living faith reveals God to the eyes of the soul; the Word of God unites the soul with God. One who comes to see God in this way, who has felt God in this way, realizes his unworthiness and is filled with unutterable reverence toward God, toward all His acts, toward all His ordinances, toward all His teaching, and gains humility in reasoning. The humble in reasoning will not be emboldened even to be curious about that which is performed outside the Will of God, that which has been condemned in proper time by the Word of God; the signs of the Antichrist will be alien to one humble in reasoning, since he has no relation to them. The recognition of one’s own unworthiness and weakness, and the seeing of God, His majesty, power and eternal goodness, give rise in the soul to a striving with prayer to God. The hope of such a soul is concentrated on God, and that is why it is not distracted at prayer; the soul prays, uniting into one all its strength, and strives towards God with all its being. The soul resorts to prayer as often as possible, it prays unceasingly. At the arrival of the great sorrows at the time of the Antichrist, all who truly believe in God will cry out with a magnified prayer to God (Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Homily 106). They will cry out for help, for defense, for the sending of Divine Grace to strengthen them and to lead them. Their own strength, although they are faithful to God, is insufficient to stand against the united powers of fallen angels and men, who will act with rage and despair, sensing their own imminent destruction (Rev. 12:12).
Divine Grace, over-shadowing the elect of God, will make them immune to the wiles of the seducer and fearless before his threats, casting a disdainful eye on his miracles. Divine Grace will give the elect courage to confess the Savior, Who has accomplished the salvation of mankind, and it will denounce the false messiah, who came to destroy mankind. It will lead the elect to places of execution as if to a royal throne, or a wedding feast. The experience of love for God is sweeter than the experience of life (A thought echoed by the holy martyr James the Persian. See his Life, November 26). As death and the suffering accompanying death comprise the beginning of eternal torment for a sinner, so the suffering for Christ and a martyric death for Him comprise the beginning of the eternal joys of paradise. This we see from the action of Divine Grace on the martyrs of the first centuries of Christianity. At first they were allowed to demonstrate their inclination; upon the acceptance of the first sufferings, help from on high came upon them, making their suffering and death for Christ most desirable. The Lord, prophesying the sorrows which must be before His Second Coming, commanded His disciples to watch and pray: Take ye heed, watch and pray (Mark 13:33). Prayer is always needful and beneficial for man; it keeps him in communion with God and under God’s protection; it keeps him from self confidence, from seduction by vanity and pride, both from that which comes from his own fallen state, and from that arising in thoughts and dreams from the realm of the fallen spirits. In times of sorrows and dangers, seen and unseen, prayer is especially needful, being an expression of denial of self confidence, an expression of hope in God, drawing to us God’s assistance. The All powerful God becomes the active agent for the one who prays in difficult circumstances, and He leads His servant out of them by His miraculous Providence.
Knowledge of God, living faith, blessed humility of mind, and pure prayer are attributes of spiritual reasoning, they are essential parts of it. On the contrary, ignorance of God, unbelief, blindness of spirit, pride, self confidence and self conceit are elements of a carnal mind. Such a mind does not know God, does not accept and does not understand the means offered by God for receiving knowledge of God, and thus creates for itself a mistaken, soul destructing means for the acquisition of the knowledge of God, in accordance with its own state it asks for a sign from heaven. Amen.
from Orthodox Life, Vol. 45, Nos 2-4 (March-August) 1995