Reading the Signs: Jesus in the Gospel of John

Friday, 01 Mar 2019

In 2002, M. Night Shyamalan released his film Signs, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. It told the story of a former Episcopal priest turned farmer who one morning discovers a crop circle in his cornfield. The film eventually reveals that similar crop circles have appeared throughout the world, ultimately proving to be signs of an alien invasion of Earth.

Although not quite as dramatically, we encounter signs regularly in our daily lives. In fact, it would be difficult to function without them. They help us to drive safely, to find the right elevators in the hospital, and to navigate our way through the motor vehicle department. Signs perform a useful and helpful function in our daily lives: they convey important information and point beyond themselves to an ultimate destination.

Signs also play a significant role in the Bible. As with the signs we encounter in our daily lives, the signs we find in Scripture are meant to convey information to us and to point beyond themselves. In the case of the biblical signs, however, the information conveyed is not merely how to find the right elevator or to locate the proper exit on the expressway. Instead, the biblical signs convey vital spiritual truths about the nature of God and, in the case of the signs found in John’s Gospel, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The focus of this article will be on understanding the purpose of the signs in John’s Gospel, but in order to do that we need to first step back into the Old Testament and explore how signs functioned in that context.

The Purpose of Signs in the Old Testament

The reason we need to start in the Old Testament is because that is the theological milieu of the mindset of the human author of John’s Gospel. We can witness the apostle John’s deep connection to the Old Testament in the very first verse of his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John begins his Gospel by echoing the opening verse of Genesis. A careful reader of his Gospel will note that John makes many other connections to the Old Testament, including references to the liturgical festivals and ceremonial laws of Israel. Thus, when John uses the motif of signs in his Gospel we can rightly assume his understanding is built upon what is revealed to us in the Old Testament.

There are two areas in the Old Testament where signs figure prominently: the book of Exodus and the prophets. While signs are operative in both of these areas, they function somewhat differently in each of them. When one studies the signs in Exodus, it becomes immediately apparent that they have a “shock and awe” nature to them. These signs, such as the plagues upon Egypt, represent miraculous displays of God’s power and demonstrate that God is more powerful than all the false gods of Egypt. These signs have a threefold purpose: to authenticate Moses as God’s appointed human leader (both to Israel and to Pharaoh), to scare the Egyptian adversaries, and to comfort the frightened Israelites. These signs are similar to a modern big-budget, special-effects laden blockbuster movie. The “wow” factor of the signs in Exodus is emphasized by the use of the phrase “signs and wonders” to describe them (see Exod. 4:28–30; 7:3; 10:1–2; 14:11, 22).

When we turn to the prophets, however, we notice that they serve a more focused and narrow purpose. Instead of the big-budget special effects of the signs and wonders of Exodus, we encounter relatively low-budget and mundane signs. For example, the prophet Isaiah walked naked and barefoot for three years as a “sign” of judgment against the nations of Egypt and Ethiopia (Isa. 20:3). Similarly, in Ezekiel’s prophecy, an iron pan is used as a sign to Israel (4:1–3). It is hard to argue that a naked old prophet and a common cooking vessel could qualify as miraculous or serve to create a “shock and awe” effect. So what is their purpose? They serve to authenticate the prophet in question as God’s appointed and sent messenger to his people. Even the big-budget “signs and wonders” of the Exodus perform this function as they authenticate Moses’ role as God’s human servant to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt.

Signs in the Old Testament could be miraculous or mundane, but the common thread is that they were used by God to authenticate his human messengers whom he appointed to advance the story of redemptive history and to provide salvation to his people. It is very likely that John had this understanding in mind when, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he authored his Gospel. Let’s turn now to discerning the purpose of the signs in the Gospel of John.

The Signs of John’s Gospel

Even a casual reader of the New Testament will quickly recognize how different John’s Gospel is from those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic Gospels”). The content, literary structure, vocabulary, chronology, and theological emphases of John’s Gospel are all unique in comparison with the Synoptics. The Gospel of John lacks many things that the Synoptic Gospels include, such as the nativity story, the temptation by Satan in the wilderness, the narrative parables, extensive teaching on the kingdom of God, the Sermon on the Mount, the Olivet Discourse, and a detailed account of the Lord’s Supper. On the other hand, John includes things that the Synoptic Gospels lack, including the “I am” sayings of Jesus, the Farewell Discourse and—the one that pertains most to our discussion—the signs of Jesus. The signs of Jesus play a prominent role in the argument, theology, and structure of the Gospel of John. In order to understand these signs better, we will first identify the specific signs found in John’s Gospel and then we will turn to understanding their purpose.

The Seven (?) Signs of John’s Gospel

Andreas J. Köstenberger (who currently serves as research professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri) is perhaps the finest living conservative evangelical scholar working in the area of Johannine studies. Most of what I know about John’s Gospel, and particularly the signs in it, is derived from Dr. Köstenberger’s work.1 As he begins his discussion of these signs in his wonderful work A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters,2 he notes an oddity about the scholarship pertaining to them. He points out that while studies on the signs are “legion,” there is “no treatment of the exact number and identity of the Johannine signs.”3 In other words, while there is a vast amount of extant academic literature on the Johannine signs, there is no consensus on how many there are!

While there is no consensus on the exact number, there is broad consensus regarding the identification of six particular signs. It is nearly universally accepted that the following qualify as Johannine signs:

  1. Turning water into wine (2:1–11)
  2. Healing the nobleman’s son (4:46–54)
  3. Healing the lame man (5:1–15)
  4. Feeding the multitude (6:1–15)
  5. Healing the blind man (9)
  6. The raising of Lazarus (11)

Since scholars agree on these six signs, why don’t we just stop there with this consensus position and say there are six signs in John’s Gospel? Well, there is certainly a pattern in the Bible regarding the completeness and perfection of the number seven, and when one looks at that list it is one shy of the mark. It would be wrong, however, to simply suggest that those seeking a seventh sign are misguided by a wrong-headed biblical quest for this magic number of seven. There are sound exegetical reasons to seek a seventh sign in John’s Gospel based on the revelation of the Gospel itself. Most prominent among these reasons, as Köstenberger notes, is the importance John places on the number seven, particularly in his purposeful recording of seven of Jesus’ “I am” sayings.4 Accordingly, there is good evidence to think that a seventh sign is present in the Gospel of John. But how do we identify this mysterious seventh sign?

The best way to identify the seventh sign of John’s Gospel is to act like a detective attempting to determine whether the same killer is responsible for a series of murders. This detective will look at the series of individual murders and then identify the common themes among them. We can use a similar methodology to identify the seventh sign of John’s Gospel: all we need to do is to ascertain what the six consensus signs have in common. Köstenberger employed this methodology in his research and concluded that the six signs have the following three things in common:5

  1. All six of the consensus signs represent public actions of Jesus;
  2. All six of the consensus signs are explicitly referred to as “signs” in the text; and
  3. All six of the consensus signs direct the reader’s attention to the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ and serve to publicly authenticate Jesus as God’s chosen representative.

If we take these three criteria and use them to examine the “line-up” of potential suspects for the seventh sign, the one that best fits the profile is Jesus’ cleansing of the temple in John 2:13–22.6

Clearly, the cleansing of the temple was a public act of Jesus, and it is also referred to as a sign in the account as recorded by John. Admittedly, this occurs indirectly in the text, but nonetheless the designation of the event as a sign is there, particularly in Jesus’ exchange with the temple officials in 2:18–19, “So the Jews said to him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’” (emphasis mine). Finally, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple and his words symbolically connecting the temple to his own body both point to his own death and resurrection. In John’s Gospel, the glory of Jesus Christ is seen most vividly in his crucifixion. Thus the cleansing of the temple, like the other six signs, ultimately points to Jesus’ glory and authenticates him as one who has authority over God’s house. John even intrudes into the account as the narrator to remind us that, after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples grasped the true meaning of this sign: “When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (2:22).

The other main contender for the seventh sign among biblical scholars is the resurrection of Jesus. I remain unpersuaded by the arguments offered for this position, particularly because the resurrection is not a sign that points beyond itself, but rather is the destination to which all the other signs direct the reader. In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is not a means to an end, like the other signs, but is the end in itself.

If we accept the cleansing of the temple as the seventh sign, then this results in the raising of Lazarus being the final and culminating sign. That seems theologically and exegetically appropriate. First, this sign occurs in John 11 at the end of the first section of the Gospel (John 1–12), which many scholars refer to as the “book of signs.” Essentially, the pivot of John’s Gospel, from a structural perspective, occurs in John 12 as Jesus ends his public ministry and enters Jerusalem for his trial, crucifixion, and ultimate resurrection. Second, Jesus’ raising of Lazarus unequivocally points to Jesus’ own resurrection. Thus the culminating sign (the raising of Lazarus) points to the culminating event in John’s Gospel and all redemptive history (the resurrection of Jesus).

The Two Main Purposes of the Seven Signs

Having identified the seven signs, let’s move to the more important question: What is the significance of these seven signs of John’s Gospel? Why did John include them and make them central? What spiritual truths do we glean from them? What is their purpose? I am convinced that the seven signs serve two main purposes.

Purpose #1: To Authenticate the Ministry of Jesus and Reveal His Glory

This purpose brings us full circle to the purpose of signs in the Old Testament. Like the signs of the Old Testament, the signs of John’s Gospel serve to authenticate the divine messianic ministry and message of Jesus. Earlier in this article, we briefly surveyed the signs in the Old Testament and learned that one major concentration occurred during the Exodus, the time of Moses. Moses was, of course, the mediator of the old covenant, and God used signs to authenticate his ministry. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that signs would play a significant role to authenticate Jesus, the mediator of a new and better covenant. Jesus is the promised prophet who is like Moses, but who surpasses Moses in glory and greatness (Deut. 18:18).7

While the seven signs of John’s Gospel share a similar purpose to the signs of the Old Testament, there is one stark and important difference between them: unlike the signs performed by Moses and the prophets, the signs Jesus performed not only testify to the divine authenticity of his message, but they also testify to the reality that Jesus is the divine message. The seven signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel serve not only to verify that Jesus’ spoken words are the very word of God but also to authenticate that Jesus is, ontologically and personally, the very divine Word of God (John 1:1). Thus, when Jesus performed his seven signs, he declared something about himself that Moses could never claim. By means of these signs, Jesus claimed his rightful title: the Son of God. Jesus used signs to authenticate his ministry and to reveal his glory.

When Jesus performed his signs, he consistently directed people not to focus on the sign itself but rather on what the sign signified. At Cana of Galilee, where he turned water into wine, the point wasn’t to enjoy a good glass of wine but rather to see Jesus as the promised messiah—the one who brings joy and who will host his own wedding banquet with his bride. Jesus used these signs to signify who he is, what he had come to accomplish, and to demonstrate to the people their desperate need of him as their Savior. Therefore, each of the seven signs serves the purpose of signifying something about the reality of who Jesus is and what he came to do. The chart below summarizes the relationship between the things signified by each of the seven signs in the Gospel of John.8

THE SIGN THE THING SIGNIFIED
Turning water into wine (2:1–11) Jesus is the Messiah who inaugurates the new covenant order and brings joy.
Cleansing the temple (2:12–17) Jesus is the Suffering Servant who builds the new temple
of the church through his death and resurrection.
Healing the nobleman’s son (4:46–54) Jesus is the Son of God who grants life by the word
of his power.
Healing the lame man (5:1–15) Jesus is the Son of God who renders people spiritually whole.
Feeding the multitude (6:1–15) Jesus is the bread of life who is sovereign over the gift
of eternal life.
Healing the blind man (9) Jesus is the light of the world who gives sight to the
spiritually blind.
The raising of Lazarus (11) Jesus is the Son of God who rules over death and gives
life to the spiritually dead.

One of the purposes of these seven signs is to authenticate the ministry of Jesus and to reveal his glory. Through these signs, Jesus Christ demonstrated who he is and what he came to do.

Purpose #2: To Persuade People to Believe in Jesus Christ

The second purpose of these seven signs relates to the field of apologetics. They have a persuasive purpose, which John explicitly acknowledges near the end. In 20:30, John reveals to his readers that he purposely selected a limited number of signs: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book.” Then, in the very next verse (20:31), John says, “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John explicitly declares that he included “these” particular seven signs of Jesus so that the readers of his Gospel would “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” and “have life in his name.”

When Jesus performed these seven signs during his public ministry, he was making the case regarding the authenticity of his identity; and John, by recording these signs in the manner he did, makes a similar case to all who pick up and read his Gospel. Many scholars have noted the forensic and legal characteristics of this Gospel, which is replete with discourses that are meant to persuade the reader. In some ways, the Gospel of John is akin to a legal brief that sets forth an argument regarding why the reader should believe in Jesus Christ; at the center of that argument reside the seven signs. Like an able trial lawyer, John, under the inspiration of the Spirit, sifts through all the extant evidence (that is, all the many signs performed by Jesus) and selects for his argument those most persuasive for proving his case (these seven signs).

Carrying on with the legal analogy, John uses the seven signs as evidentiary building blocks with each subsequent sign adding to the cumulative weight of the evidence. The probative persuasiveness of these seven signs finds a crescendo in the final and seventh sign: the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This last sign serves as John’s closing argument to the case he is making: that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

The Continuing Challenge of the Seven Signs

Although Jesus performed his seven signs over two millennia ago, they remain powerfully relevant and contemporary. Every time people read the Gospel of John, they are confronted anew with the power of these signs. Every time a preacher proclaims them from the pulpit, those in the pew are challenged by their enduring testimony. Even in our current age, whenever these signs are encountered water is again turned to wine, thousands are fed with the bread of life, and those dead in their trespasses and sins are raised to new life. The seven signs of Jesus memorialized in John’s Gospel continue to serve as credible and persuasive witnesses, authenticating who Jesus is, revealing his glory, and challenging the reader (or hearer) to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

It is my hope that this article has deepened your appreciation for the seven signs and for the One to whom they point so powerfully. Most of all, I hope that the signs of John’s Gospel will achieve their intended purpose in your life: “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

 

Anthony T. Selvaggio (JD, University at Buffalo School of Law; MDiv, Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary) is an author, lecturer, pastor, and former practicing attorney. He currently serves as the senior pastor of the Rochester Christian Reformed Church in Rochester, New York. Most recent among his published works is Meet Martin Luther: A Sketch of the Reformer’s Life (Reformation Heritage, 2017).

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