Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (April 1975) 145-60.

          Copyright © 1975 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                 Topics from the Gospel of John

                Part II: The Meaning of the Signs


                                                  Merrill C. Tenney



            One of the peculiarities of the Fourth Gospel is the fact that

its author chose to hang its key by the back door. The purpose of

the Gospel of John is not stated in the opening paragraph as in

Luke's Gospel, but rather at the end. At the conclusion of chapter

20 John explains his motive and method of writing in these words:

"Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence

of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have

been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the

Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name"

(John 20:30-31).

            The first prominent word in this short summary is signs

(shmei?a).1 This word (shmei?on) means (1) the sign or distinguish-

ing mark by which something is known; (2) a miracle, either of

divine or demonic nature; (3) a portent of an impending catas-

trophe.2 It is used throughout the New Testament, chiefly in the

Gospels and Acts. In the Gospel narratives shmei?on seems to carry

the connotation of divine communication, usually a warning of

events yet to come (Matt. 16:1, 3, 4; 24:3, 24, 30; Mark 13:4, 22;


1 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. " shmei?on," by Karl

Heinrich Rengstorf.

2 William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of

the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University

of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 755-56.


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of four articles, first de-

livered by the author as the Louis S. Bauman Memorial Lectures at Grace

Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana, February 12-15, 1974.




146 / Bibliotheca Sacra — April 1975


Luke 2:12; 21:7, 11, 25), or a special manifestation of divine

intervention in history (Acts 2:22, 43; 4:16, 22, 30; 7:36). In

thirteen instances, the larger number of which appear in Acts, the

word shmei?on is coupled with te<rata, "wonders." Both refer to

miracles, but shmei?on emphasizes the significance or purpose of

these unusual occurrences, while te<rata refers to the marvel or

wonder they excite. Both imply some sort of supernatural event,

presumably of great importance.

            Shmei?on appears frequently in the Septuagint as the translation

of tOx "sign," "pledge," or "token." It conveys the idea of a land-

mark (Gen. 1:14), a protecting identification (4:15), a pledge

(17:11), a miracle (Exod. 7:3, 9), a memorial (13:9), a sample

of divine power (Isa. 7:11), and a signal (Jer. 6:1). The mean-

ing of the two terms is almost identical, and the concept is used

equally in both the Old and New Testaments.

            Within the Gospel of John shmei?on is used seventeen times

and in the American Standard Version is uniformly translated "sign."

It does not occur in the Johannine Epistles, but in Revelation it seems

to have much the same meaning as in John. Its use in the Gospel is

closely connected with the structure of the book, for the entire

narrative section from John 1:20 to 12:50, comprising the public

ministry of Jesus, is built around the signs. The author states

explicitly that the purpose of his writing is expressed through these

signs and that he has selected seven from a much larger number

known to him as the core of the discussion of Jesus' words and

works. They may be understood as the divine endorsement of His

authority (2:18, 23), or as illustrations of the varied nature of His

word (4:54; 20:30).


                        THE OCCURRENCES OF THE SIGNS


            The distribution of the signs with their related context is as





            The first meeting of Jesus with His future disciples took place

in Bethany east of the Jordan, where John the Baptist was con-

ducting his campaign. The narrative ends with a promise included in

the dialogue with Philip that the disciples would see a revelation of

God in Christ superior to that of the Old Testament. The figure of

the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man

recalls vividly the dream of Jacob, who saw angels ascending and

descending on a ladder extending up to heaven (Gen. 28:12).


                                                          The Meaning of the Signs / 147


The Son, greater than angels, would become the new Mediator of

the revelation of God.


THE SIGNS (2:1-11:53)

            1. The transformation of water into wine (2:1-11). John ob-

served that this was the first of Jesus' miracles performed after He

had returned to Galilee from the occasion of the baptism and ac-

knowledgement by John the Baptist. He seemed reluctant to accede

to His mother's suggestion and indicated that His action from that

time onward would be regulated by His "hour" (2:4). He implied

that He was living by a divine schedule that fixed the timing of all

His activities and that He could not do something merely to fulfill a

request. The fact that He performed the miracle indicated that it

accorded with the purpose of God in sending Him into the world.

Its nature revealed Him as the Creator and disclosed His power

over the chemical processes of nature. By one word of command

He accomplished the transformation that a vine requires several

months to produce. The miracle was witnessed by a sufficient

number of people to establish its reality.

            2. The healing of the nobleman's son (4:46-54). The second

sign also took place in Cana. Upon Jesus' return from His trip to

Jerusalem and Samaria, recorded in John 2:13-4:42, He began a

ministry in Galilee. There He was approached by a nobleman, pos-

sibly a courtier of Herod Antipas, who petitioned Him to intervene

on behalf of his son, who lay seriously ill about twenty miles distant

in Capernaum. Again Jesus demurred, saying, "Unless you people

see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe" (4:48). He

virtually accused the nobleman of being an idle curiosity-seeker.

The genuine concern of the latter prompted Jesus' reply: "Go your

way; your son lives" (4:50). Responding in faith, the nobleman

retraced his steps to Capernaum to learn en route that his son had

been healed. Jesus had transcended the nobleman's highest expecta-

tion; for although He did not visit the sick child, He gave ample

proof that distance was no obstacle to His power.

            3. The healing of the man at Bethesda (5:1-10). The third

sign in John's narrative occurred in Jerusalem. Jesus must have

performed miracles in Jerusalem on His former visit since Nico-

demus referred to "these signs that You do" (3:2). The language

implies that Jesus had maintained a ministry of healing that was well

publicized. In this instance, however, Jesus took the initiative and


148 / Bibliotheca Sacra — April 1975


approached a man who had been waiting at the Pool of Bethesda

for thirty-eight years. Because of the belief that the first person who

stepped into the pool as the water was troubled would receive heal-

ing, he had remained there year after year, but there were always

others better able than he to take advantage of the opportunity. Jesus

questioned him gently in order to ascertain whether he really desired

healing. It was a test of the man's will; and at Jesus' command he

stood and walked. Despite the long period of helplessness, during

which his muscles would have become atrophied, he was so com-

pletely healed that he put his bedroll on his shoulder and walked

away. Jesus demonstrated His power over the ravages of time; for

a paralytic of thirty-eight years would normally be incurable.

            This sign, however, had other overtones as well. Because the

healing occurred on the Sabbath, Jesus was instantly accused of

breaking the law of Moses. John recounts that hostility between

Jesus and the Jewish hierarchy had already begun because of His

boldness in expelling the commercial concessions from the Temple

courts. Although the issue probably died down, it still smoldered

in the minds of the Jewish officials, and according to Mark's account

it became a tool of the false witnesses at Jesus' trial before the San-

hedrin (Mark 14:55-58). Controversy over the Sabbath arose

frequently and from the very first was a main point of contention.

Jesus took the occasion to assert His authority not only over the

power of disease, but also over the ceremonial law.

            The ensuing argument with the religious leaders of Jerusalem.

evoked from Jesus a defense in which He claimed unmistakably

His relation to the Father and His functions in that relation.  On the

basis of His competence to heal He asserted His spiritual authority.

The third sign was performed in public and began the lengthy

period of controversy that extended until the time of His death.

            4. The feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-15). The fourth

sign chosen by John was the feeding of the five thousand. This

miracle, mentioned in all four Gospels, was the watershed of

Jesus' career. It marked the height of His popularity and, as far

as the evidence of the Gospels goes, brought to Him the largest

audience to which He ever spoke. Matthew states that those who

partook of the food Jesus provided included five thousand men, to

say nothing of women and children (Matt. 14:21). To assume that

He had the responsibility for feeding ten thousand people would

not strain one's imagination too greatly. Using a small boy's lunch


                               The Meaning of the Signs / 149


which one of the disciples located, Jesus multiplied the simple fare

of unleavened barley cakes and pickled fish until everyone in the

vast crowd was satisfied. Apparently Jesus simply kept breaking

the bread and fish and distributing it through His disciples without

any dramatic ceremony or ostentatious announcement. Quietly but

effectively He enlisted the aid of the disciples in the enterprise so

that they might realize the full extent of His powers.

            The multitude whom He had been teaching and whom He had

fed realized that He possessed unusual resources. Their initial

reaction was to make Him their king, for they assumed that He

could utilize His supernatural abilities to free them from Roman

rule and to feed them. Jesus, of course, would not accept any such

proposal, since it would be founded on an allegiance prompted by

material rather than by spiritual motives. His refusal alienated the

people, and the explanation of His mission that He gave immediately

afterward in the synagogue at Capernaum disenchanted them com-

pletely. The discourse on the Bread of Life spoke of spiritual not

material sustenance, and His emphasis on the resurrection at the

last day (John 6:54) must have seemed totally irrelevant to them.

Furthermore, His declaration, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son

of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in yourselves" (6:53),

mystified them. Even many of His disciples left Him because they

could not understand the meaning of His words. The interpretation

of the sign which had been given to demonstrate His sufficiency

for human need proved to be an insurmountable obstacle to their


            Some glimmering of His meaning must have penetrated the

consciousness of the Twelve, however. When Jesus challenged them

by saying, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" (6:67),

Simon Peter answered, "Lord, to whom shall we go?' You have

words of eternal life" (6:68). "Life" or "live" occur five times

in the short paragraph which closes Jesus' preceding discourse, and

evidently Peter's mention of eternal life refers to this context. Having

participated in the action at the miracle, and having listened to the

explanation of Jesus afterward, he was ready to stake his future on

Jesus' mysterious promise rather than to abandon Him completely.

For him and for his colleagues this sign became a turning point in

their decision. They were unsure of the road ahead, but they would

follow Jesus anyway.


150 / Bibliotheca Sacra — April 1975


            5. The walking on the water (John 6:16-21). Closely con-

nected with the feeding of the five thousand was the sign of walking

on the water. It is not labeled as a sign but was equally as miraculous

as those that preceded it. In this event only the disciples were in-

volved; it was not witnessed by the multitude. Jesus had dismissed

the disciples and had sent them back to Capernaum by boat across

the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. As the air cools in the

evening, the winds pour down from the western heights to the sur-

face of the lake, which is about six hundred feet below sea level,

and create a rough sea, rolling from west to east. The disciples

were struggling to maintain headway on their homeward voyage

and were making little if any progress. As they rowed with their

backs to the wind, they suddenly noticed a human figure approach-

ing them across the lake. As it gained on them they were terrified

and cried out in fear, thinking that they were pursued by a ghost.

When Jesus approached them, He said, "It is I; do not be afraid"

(6:20). Their fears were allayed, and they were shortly at the land.

            Although little explanation accompanies this episode, it seems

to have been given as a reassurance to the disciples who were facing

danger. Ahead of them loomed greater dangers than that of the

storm: the rising enmity of the Jewish hierarchy; the doubts and

fears engendered by misunderstanding; the collapse of their expecta-

tions of an immediate kingdom; and the bewilderment that would

accompany Jesus' departure from them. He wanted them to learn

that He was Master of the forces of nature and that He could avert

what seemed to be inevitable peril. His presence would be the

permanent guarantee of their safety.

            6. The healing of the blind man (John 9:1-41). The afflic-

tion of the man born blind was not a casual illness that suddenly

became acute, nor an ailment contracted in youth after some years

of good health. He was congenitally blind, which rendered his

condition hopeless. The real import of this sign, however, does not

concern his physical condition so much as it does his inward spiri-

tual consciousness. John devotes a larger amount of text to the

episode than to any other of the signs except the raising of Lazarus.

The healing took place in Jerusalem, where the hostility to Jesus

still lingered because of His previous healing on the Sabbath — an

offense which the healing of the blind man repeated. There was

direct conflict between Jesus and the ecclesiastical authorities on this

question, and Jesus' entire work was challenged. The Pharisees


                                The Meaning of the Signs / 151


questioned the identity of the Healer, His authority, His method,

His ethics, and His origin. Their attitude is the perfect illustration of

a closed mind that can accept nothing that does not coincide with

its own presuppositions.

            The narrative is given in detail because it concerns a problem

deeper than the blindness. The inability of the man to enjoy the

external world and to participate in the ordinary activities of life

raised the question of purpose. Why should this calamity have

happened to him? Why was he cut off from the joys and achieve-

ments which might otherwise have been his? The disciples of Jesus

implied this by their question, "Who sinned, this man, or his parents,

that he should be born blind?" (9:2) .

            Jesus pointed out that the blindness was not a punitive judg-

ment for any particular sin by the man or by his parents. He did

not explain what caused it but rather asserted that it provided an

opportunity for God to intervene with creative power. His state-

ment, "We must work the works of Him who sent Me, as long as

it is day; night is coming, when no man can work" (9:4), parallels

the utterance recorded in John 5: "My Father is working until now,

and I Myself am working" (5:17). The divine attitude toward men

is positive, not negative; human misery is divine opportunity. Jesus

proceeded immediately to cure the man, using such means as He

had to evoke the man's cooperation in faith.

            Jesus' contact in this fashion illustrates a second principle:

that He wanted to produce not only an instant faith adequate for

response to His immediate challenge, but also a progressive faith

that would lead to acceptance of Himself. The application of this

principle may be seen in the blind man's reaction to Jesus. When

the blind man was questioned by Jesus' incredulous enemies con-

cerning the manner of the healing, which was undeniable, he replied,

"The man who is called Jesus made clay, and anointed my eyes,

and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam, and wash’; so I went away and

washed, and I received sight" (9:11). The use of the definite

article with the name of Jesus (o[   ]Ihsou?j) implies that Jesus was

already well known in Jerusalem although the blind man regarded

Him as only one of the general multitude. Perhaps the blind man

thought of Him as a healer whose reputation was widespread and

who had happened to visit the city.

            Further argument and probing by his interrogators elicited the

opinion that Jesus must be a prophet. There had been numerous

prophets in the history of Israel, all of whom had claimed divine


152 / Bibliotheca Sacra — April 1975


authority, and some of whom, like Elijah and Elisha, had performed,

miracles of healing (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:8-37). By analogy,

therefore, he reasoned that Jesus must be a prophet, or else He

would be unable to perform such a deed.

            The opposition, however, were not satisfied. Adhering firmly

to the principle that anyone who worked on the Sabbath had trans-

gressed the Law, they declared that Jesus was a sinner and called

on the blind man to repudiate Him by giving glory to God alone.

Exasperated by this obstinacy, the man strengthened his previous

confession by affirming that Jesus must come from God because

otherwise He could accomplish nothing (9:33). In disgust the eccle-

siastical authorities excommunicated him and thus cut him off

from the fellowship of his friends and from the hope that his faith

could give him. Excommunication from the synagogue was a serious

matter, for expulsion from the covenant people meant the loss of

salvation to a Jew and consequent despair.

            Learning of this misfortune, Jesus undertook to find the man,

presumably to comfort him. His challenge, "Do you believe in the

Son of Man?" (9:35),3 was designed to bring his growing belief

to a final focus. The immediate affirmative reaction indicates that

there had been a dawning realization of Jesus' divine authority which

brought him to an ultimate confession of belief. This "sign" is thus

a pattern of growing faith and illustrates Jesus' power to change

human destiny as He continues the Father's work. Not only could

He restore sight to the body, but He could also evoke spiritual per-

ception within a man who seemed to be the victim of an unjust fate.

            7. The raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). The last of the

signs in the sevenfold series is the raising of Lazarus. It occurred

shortly before Jesus' death; in fact, it was one of the contributing

factors to His arrest and subsequent condemnation. It involved

many factors which do not appear in the other signs: the seriousness

of the occasion, for death is normally final and irreversible; the

emotional interest of Jesus in a personal friend; the seemingly ir-

rational delay; the remarkable prayer at the graveside; and its rela-

tion to the faith of Lazarus' sisters, Mary and Martha, who present


3 Reading a]nqrw<pou with P66,75, x, B, D, W, Syrs, et al., Metzger com-

ments that "the external support for a]nqrw<pou is so weighty, and the

improbability of qeou? being altered to a]nqrw<pou is so great, that the Com-

mittee regarded the reading adopted . . . as virtually certain" (Bruce M.

Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [London:

United Bible Societies, 1971], pp. 228-29).


                            The Meaning of the Signs / 153


two different types of human reaction to the last great critical

problem that confronts mankind.

            The opening statement in the narrative of Lazarus' resuscita-

tion is that "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus"

(11:5). Jesus had shown compassion to the blind man, who was

presumably an utter stranger to Him, because He was doing His

Father's work and so shared God's attitude to men. In this case

He had a personal attachment for the family, who had on previous

occasions entertained Him and whose fellowship He prized. The

death of Lazarus was unquestionably a personal grief to Him.

            Because of this fact His delay in returning to Bethany seems

inexplicable. To be sure, the Jewish priesthood had already set a

price on His head (7:30; 10:39; 11:53), and He knew that if He

appeared in the environs of Jerusalem He might be seized and

executed. This threat, however, does not seem to have been the

reason for His delay although the disciples recognized the peril

(11:8). As on a previous occasion, He was awaiting the time God

had set for Him to complete the purpose of the divine will. The enig-

matic statement, "Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone

walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of

this world" (11:9), indicates that Jesus felt assured of safety while

pursuing the course defined for Him by the will of God.

            The avowed purpose of the apparently unreasonable delay

was the development of the faith of the disciples, including Mary

and Martha. To witness another healing would be no novelty; they

had undoubtedly seen many such miracles. There had also been two

occasions on which Jesus had restored the dead to life: Jairus'

daughter, who had been dead only a short time (Matt. 9:18-26;

Mark 5:22-43; Luke 8:40-42, 49-56); and the son of a widow at

Nain (Luke 7:1-17). Both of these were persons who had expired

only hours before Jesus came; Lazarus had been dead for four days

when the miracle occurred. The raising of Lazarus would, therefore,

have been much more convincing to those who observed it.

            The reactions of the two sisters to this calamity are diametri-

cally opposed. Martha was aggressive, angry, and reproachful. She

rebuked Jesus by saying, "Lord, if You had been here, my brother

would not have died" (John 11:21). Mary used the same words,

but with a different emphasis. She was paralyzed with grief and

reluctant to leave the house. Martha was defensive; Mary was



154 / Bibliotheca Sacra — April 1975


            Nevertheless both had retained faith in Jesus. Martha had

qualified her reproach by saying, "Even now I know that whatever

You ask of God, God will give You" (11:22). They had summoned

Him because they were sure that He could avert death; now they

await His command.

            Jesus' reaction is summed up in the well-known words, "Jesus

wept" (11:35). He risked His life by returning to Bethany; He was

distressed by the sorrow which death had caused (11:50); and

He shared in the grief of the family. His tears may seem incongru-

ous with His obvious intention to raise Lazarus, but He could not

suppress His human feelings even though He exercised divine power.

John makes plain throughout the Gospel that Jesus was truly man

and also truly God.

            The prayer at the graveside was revelatory of Jesus' relation

to the Father. He did not frantically implore divine intervention but

rather calmly offered thanks for what He considered to be a com-

pleted fact. He took for granted that God had already done what

He had requested and so commanded Lazarus to come out of the

tomb. His demand that the disciples believe (11:15, 25-26, 40) was

reinforced by the example of His own assurance that God had

already answered prayer in spite of contrary appearances. That faith

was justified by the sudden appearance of Lazarus from the under-

ground tomb, brought back to life by the dynamic energy of

divine power.

            This sign concludes the series intended to demonstrate the

divine attitude and power manifested in Jesus. It declares Him to

be the Master of man's last and most implacable enemy, death. By

presenting Jesus' readiness to intervene on behalf of man at His

own peril, by unveiling His unfeigned emotion evoked by sympathy

with the bereaved family, and by illustrating the meaning of His

declaration, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes

in Me shall live even if he dies" (John 11:25), it creates new hope

for men who must face the inevitable terminus which death brings

to all their present hopes and achievements.




            These signs which John has listed possess major importance for


            From the literary standpoint, they are regarded by some as

vestiges of a source or sources that the hypothetical editor used in

composing the Gospel. Brown regards John 1:19-12:50 as "The


                              The Meaning of the Signs / 155


Book of Signs,"4 and quotes Bultmann as suggesting that these signs

were excerpted from a larger collection attributed to John.5 The in-

dication of borrowing is from a source found in the allusion to various

signs in 12:37 and 20:30. The latter passage states that Jesus

performed many signs not written in the Gospel. Bultmann thinks

that the story of the call of the disciples in John 1:35-49 may have

constituted the introduction to the "sign source."

            This thesis has been developed in detail by a number of others,

most fully in recent years by Fortna6 and Nicol.7 Both agree that

the Fourth Gospel incorporated a large segment of material con-

sisting of these signs, to which the Johannine comments, discourses,

and account of the Passion and Resurrection were later added.

Fortna attempts a reconstruction of the text of the "source," in

which he includes John 1:6, 7, 19-34 (with some lacunae), 3:23,

24; 1:35-50, and the accounts of the miracles with the excision of

what he considers to be Johannine comments. He indulges in

considerable reorganization of the text, such as inserting the inter-

view with the Samaritan woman into the narrative of the raising

of Lazarus. Despite his meticulous labor and thorough documenta-

tion, one feels that his effort is more ingenious than convincing.

            Nicol, while relying equally on criteria of style for his identifi-

cation of the "source," does not attempt a reconstruction but isolates

the sign-segments as "sources" by a relative absence of the "Johan-

nine characteristics" appearing in them. He is somewhat less dog-

matic about the precise content of the hypothetical source or

sources. Both of these authors have done a service in tabulating

and analyzing literary phenomena in the Fourth Gospel related

to these signs, but the speculative character of their hypotheses

makes their conclusions very uncertain.

            It is, of course, not impossible that sources of one kind or

another may have been used by the writer of this Gospel. Luke

states plainly in his introduction that "many have undertaken to


4 Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29, The Anchor

Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966), pp. cxxxviii, xxix.

5 Ibid., p. xxxix. See R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary,

trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray, R. W. N. Hoare, and J. K. Ricker (Phila-

delphia: Westminster Press, 1971), pp. 6-7, 113-15.

6 Robert Tomson Fortna, The Gospel of Signs: A Reconstruction of the

Narrative Source Underlying the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-

versity Press, 1970), pp. xiii, 275, esp. 235-45.

7 W. Nicol, The Sources in the Fourth Gospel: Tradition and Reaction

(London: E. T. Brill, 1972), pp. x, 155.


156 / Bibliotheca Sacra — April 1975


compile an account of the things accomplished among us" (Luke

1:1) and implies that he had read them, but he continues by

stating that they were derived from eyewitnesses who became

ministers of what they knew. The contention that the Book of John,

or any other Gospel for that matter, is simply a random mosaic of

more or less legendary tales fitted together to give authority to the

opinions current at some stage of the subapostolic church does not

do justice to the facts. Brown, who himself is not averse to some

free exercise of biblical criticism, quotes Pierson Parker as saying,

"It looks as though, if the author of the Fourth Gospel used docu-

mentary sources, he wrote them all himself," and adds, "There are

really no convincing parallels in antiquity for the types of sources

that Bultmann has postulated. . .."8

            The best explanation is the simplest: that the author was

himself a witness of these events and that from his memories of

Jesus' works he selected those which would best illustrate Jesus'

career and character. There are no stylistic idiosyncracies in any

of these "signs" that would mark them as borrowed from other

sources, and each of them could have been witnessed by John the

son of Zebedee.

            If, then, these are actual occurrences related from personal

memory, they would be vivid pictures of Jesus' response to human

situations that typify various aspects of need. If their "sources"

originate in the author's own experience directly or indirectly, they

would have peculiar meaning for him and would be especially con-

vincing as he narrated them.

            The fact that two are numbered, the miracle at Cana as "the

beginning of His signs" (2:11) and the healing of the nobleman's

son as the "second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out

of Judea into Galilee" (4:54), may mean simply that John was

impressed by Jesus' works in His own home territory. He performed

miracles in Jerusalem, subsequent to the first miracle in Cana and

prior to the second, which are mentioned in John 2:23. After

mentioning the second, John does not indicate any particular

numbered order for each one, probably because he has little to say

of the Galilean ministry recorded by the Synoptics. In that ministry

was included the feeding of the five thousand, which was climactic


8 Brown, The Gospel According to John, pp. xxxi-xxxii.


                               The Meaning of the Signs / 157


in Jesus' career and recorded for that reason. It was preceded and

followed by numerous healings and other miracles that would make

it difficult to number.

            Coincident with each of these "signs" was a personal interview

of some sort, sometimes brief, sometimes protracted, sometimes with

an individual, sometimes with a group. The first sign involved a

conversation with Jesus' mother (2:4); the second, with the father

of the boy who was healed (4:48-49); the third, by a challenge to

the paralytic and a subsequent warning (5:6-8, 14), and a longer

discourse to His opponents who challenged His right to heal on the

Sabbath (5:10-47); the fourth, a consultation with Andrew and

Philip about the best method of feeding the crowd (6:5-9) and a

long discourse the next day in the synagogue of Capernaum (6:41-

59); the fifth, a word of encouragement to the frightened disciples

(6:20); the sixth, the instruction of the disciples and the blind man

(9:2-5, 35-38); and the seventh, the word of teaching to the dis-

ciples (11:8-16, 20-27, 39-43). The disciples are mentioned in

all of these instances except the second and third, and it is possible

that they were present on these occasions. Where they are men-

tioned, it is evident that Jesus was endeavoring to develop their

faith by testing it and by using the situation for teaching.

            The miracle at Cana confirmed the impression that Jesus had

created by the initial interview recorded in the first chapter of John.

It cemented the disciples' attachment to Jesus after they had joined

Him on recommendation of John the Baptist (1:35-37). As noted

above, no conclusions can be drawn directly from the second and

third signs, but at the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus challenged

His followers directly. The differing responses from Andrew and

Philip revealed not only the minds of the men, but also the opposing

attitudes current among them. Philip's was negative; he produced

statistics to prove what they could not do because they did not have

enough money to buy bread. Andrew's response was positive, but

tentative. He could obtain a boy's lunch, but that seemed ridicu-

lously small in comparison with the crowd. Both men needed to

realize the sufficiency of Jesus for the emergency. The outcome

evidently brought a positive response from the disciples as a group,

when, after the discourse on the Bread of Life and the ensuing

bewilderment of many in the audience, Peter declared Jesus to be

"the Holy One of God" (6:69).


158 / Bibliotheca Sacra — April 1975


            The last three signs taught the disciples Jesus' power over.

danger, despair, and death. He rescued them from the storm; He

demonstrated His power to reverse the fate of the blind man; and

He was able to restore Lazarus to his grieving family. By these

miracles He increased their confidence in Him.

            The signs, then, were revelatory in character. Each one dis-

closed some new interest and power on the part of Jesus. They illus-

trated successively His mastery of quality, distance, time, quantity,

natural law, fate, and death    the very things that human beings

cannot change or create. He is superior to accident and misfortune

and can use them to further His own purpose. John presents these

signs as an introduction to the Passion that he may prepare his

readers for the last great sign, Jesus' own resurrection, which He

announced in the very beginning of the narrative: "Destroy this

temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19). John adds

that when the prediction was fulfilled, "His disciples remembered

that He said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word

which Jesus had spoken" (2:22).

            Each of these signs had a definite connection with faith. After

the first, Jesus' disciples "believed in Him" (2:11). The second

produced a working faith in the nobleman, who committed himself

to Jesus with his entire household (4:53). The third caused the

man who was healed to walk when he had not attempted to do so

for thirty-eight years. The fourth illustrated the power of a tentative

faith. Jesus accepted Andrew's timorous suggestion, and more than

justified his hopes. When the disciples welcomed Jesus into the

boat, although they had first feared that He was a ghost, they found

themselves at land. The healing of the blind man answered their

theological dilemma, as well as brought the man himself to a

genuine commitment. Finally, the raising of Lazarus transformed the

sisters' theoretical belief in a resurrection into a practical trust

in the Lord who is the resurrection and the life. The signs make a

tremendous contribution to the growth of belief as depicted in the

Gospel of John.

            The signs, however, are not cited merely as wonders to arouse

a temporary and superficial faith. At the beginning of the Gospel

the author indicates that Jesus performed numerous signs in Jeru-

salem which induced belief, but that Jesus did not reciprocate by

trusting Himself to the "believers" (2:23-24). He hesitated to grant

the nobleman's petition because He did not want a faith founded

only on "signs and wonders" (4:48). He openly criticized the


                            The Meaning of the Signs / 159


crowd at Capernaum after the miracle of the loaves and fishes by

saying, "You seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because ye

ate of the loaves, and were filled" (6:26), and added later in the

synagogue discourse, "You have seen Me, and yet do not believe"

(6:36). The emphasis which He gave to the healing of the blind

man was not so much a reaction to the miracle itself as to the

man's relation to Him (9:35-38). He told the Pharisees that they

were blind, not only because they had denied the miracle, which

was understandable, but because they had failed to apprehend His

identity (9:41). Even at the raising of Lazarus, where the family

were predisposed in His favor, Jesus endeavored to fix Martha's

faith not on an abstract concept of resurrection, but on Himself

(11:25-27). These signs, like the interviews which were frequently

connected with them, are intended to evoke a personal belief in

Christ which will link the believer to His person rather than merely

an assent to the actuality of the miracles.

            Another emphasis in the signs connects them with the concept

of glory. The first personal footnote in the Gospel says, "We beheld

His glory, glory as of the only begotten [Son] from the Father, full

of grace and truth" (1:14). The effect of the first sign, according

to the author, is that Jesus "manifested His glory, and His disciples

believed in Him" (2:11). The sign manifested His glory because

it revealed His power, His attitude of compassion, and His accredi-

tation by the Father. The last sign, the raising of Lazarus, is likewise

interpreted: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of

God, that the Son of God may be glorified by it" (11:4). After this

event Jesus said, "Did I not say to you, if you believe, you will see

the glory of God?" (11:40). The "glory" of which He spoke was

the honor and dignity that pertained to His deity. Although He

appeared as a human being and lived subject to human limitations,

His works revealed His real nature and were a foretaste of the ulti-

mate glory to which He expected to attain when His work was

completed (17:5). Jesus' final prayer included the petition that the

manifestation which had been partial and imperfectly apprehended

might in the future become clear to the disciples whom He had

destined for eternal life.




            The signs are thus an integral part of John's Gospel. They con-

tribute illustrative evidence concerning Jesus' person and position

as the Incarnate Word. They prepare the mind of the reader for the


160 / Bibliotheca Sacra — April 1975


final section on the Passion by showing that Jesus has shared every

aspect of human life: its joys in the wedding, its anguish when

disease strikes a life, its helplessness when paralysis immobilizes

action, its hunger when food is scarce, its fears when exposed to the

uncontrolled elements of nature, its hopelessness when facing a

future of poverty and frustration, and its confusion when con-

fronted by the irrationality and sorrow of death. Jesus suffered all

of these, and His final victory over them was the greatest sign of

all — the resurrection. These signs are samples of what He can do

for those who trust Him and of the life that He confers on those

who believe on His name.







This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204  

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: