In 1983, David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear and reappear on live TV. The illusion was impressive, perhaps astounding, and I think most of us who saw it gazed on in amazement.
In contrast, consider the religious miracle of Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. At the wedding, Jesus’ mother told him, “They have no wine.” Jesus replied, “Oh Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother then said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:3-5). Jesus ordered the servants to fill containers with water and to draw out some and take it to the chief steward (waiter). After tasting it, without knowing where it came from, the steward remarked to the bridegroom that he had departed from the custom of serving the best wine first by serving it last (John 2:6-10). John adds that: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and it revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).
What makes the Wedding at Cana a religious miracle and not a magical act, like a Copperfield illusion?
One difference must be that some people who witnessed the event immediately understood it as divine expression – “it revealed his glory” – as a result, they “believed in him”. Without noticing this, the event would be astonishing, perhaps strange, but not a religious miracle. Conceived as a magical act, like Copperfield’s Statue of Liberty illusion, people would respond out of incredulity or astonishment, but such responses need not be religious.
The religious significance of the person who commits the miracle is what the event communicates; the significance of the actor is what witnesses are supposed to understand, from a religious perspective, and not everyone will understand. Without this understanding, the Wedding at Cana remains an impressive illusion.