52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #7. Reading the Signs

by Travis Bookout

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The Gospel is John is a collection of signs. This is most obviously true in the first 12 chapters. The exact number of signs is debated but the greatest sign, and the culmination of all the others is the death and resurrection of Jesus. But in addition to the resurrection, there were “many other signs Jesus also performed…which are not written in this book; but these have been written so 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). John carefully chose a collection of signs intended to persuade the reader to believe. When you read through John, remember to associate the word “sign” with the word “believe.” That is their stated purpose.

Some of the signs are specifically detailed in the story (John 2:11, 18-20; 4:54; 6:14; etc.), while others are briefly referenced in passing: “a large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick” (John 6:2), and “many believed in His name, observing the signs which He was doing” (John 2:23). These signs caused Nicodemus to come up to Jesus at night saying, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). What signs did Nicodemus see? We don’t know exactly what they were, but in addition to cleansing the temple, apparently Jesus was doing a bunch at Passover in Jerusalem (John 2:18, 23). Nicodemus saw these and started to come to some conclusions about Jesus. But we’re not told what they were and they aren’t recorded, but every sign was recorded, “the world itself could not contain the books” (John 21:25).

At this point, let us step back and talk about what a sign actually is. If you think “It’s a miracle,” there’s a good chance you are missing the point.  The King James Version does not help us when it translates the word “sign” as “miracle” in the Gospel of John. I put this post after the last two about Misunderstanding Jesus, because I think they serve as a good introduction to it. Jesus would often say physical things, but the true meaning was found on a deeper, heavenly level. To only hear the physical was to miss it entirely. To think Jesus was talking only about the physical temple (John 2:19-21), or physical birth (John 3:4), or physical water from a well (John 4:10-15), or physical bread (John 6:27), or physical sleep (John 11:11-13) is to miss His true point. I believe the same can be said about the signs.

A sign is a physical display that points to something else. A sign pointing to California is not California. It’s a sign. But following it leads you to California. That’s why it’s important to distinguish between a sign and a miracle. The word sign does not fit our modern definition of a miracle. In fact, no word in the New Testament means “a suspension of natural law” or “a supernatural act from God.” The words translated as “miracle” in your Bible are literally the words for “sign” and “power” and “wonder.” Each of these words sometimes refers to things that we would call miracles. But, they also refer to things we wouldn’t call miracles. The New Testament doesn’t really use a word that exactly correlates to the modern English word “miracle.”

A “sign” is a symbolic display which might or might not be miraculous. In John it usually is miraculous, but the miracle is supposed to serve as a teaching point. There is a rich history of “signs” in the Old Testament. The rainbow after the flood was a “sign” (Genesis 9:12, 13). It has a meaning outside of itself. Circumcision was a “sign” (Genesis 17:11). Sabbath observance was a “sign” (Ezekiel 20:20). Isaiah walked naked for three years as a “sign” (Isaiah 20:3). Ezekiel reclined on his left side for 390 days and on his right side 40 days as a “sign” (Ezekiel 4:1-8). Signs are an important part of the Hebrew Scriptures and to say that Jesus performed “signs” puts Him right within this great prophetic tradition. When Jesus cleansed the temple, He was asked what the meaning of that sign was (John 2:18). They saw the physical demonstration, but they wanted to know what it meant. That’s like seeing Isaiah walk around naked and wondering why. What does it mean? Jesus’ signs mean something.

Remember the question that was asked, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (John 7:31). When they saw the signs they realized Jesus was a prophet, perhaps like Elijah. But He did so many that they started questioning if even the Christ (Messiah) would do so many. It hadn’t quite donned on many of them that Jesus was the Christ. But that came shortly after, “Some of the people…were saying, ‘This certainly is the Prophet.’ Others were saying, ‘This is the Christ’” (John 7:40-41). The signs were teaching people the true identity of Jesus.

So when you are reading the signs, you should not just be looking at the physical action of Jesus. Don’t just marvel at the miracle. But search for the spiritual meaning of it. Where is the sign pointing? What does it tell you about the identity of Jesus? This is where things get interesting and fun. Sometimes the text will indicate very strongly what the spiritual meaning of the sign is. Healing the blind man was clearly illustrating how Jesus, as the Light of the World, gives spiritual sight, but those who reject Jesus, even though they may see physically, are blind to the things of God (John 9).

But some signs do not explicitly tell you what the spiritual meaning is. They leave textual clues that make you wonder. It is in those times that I think we are called to dig a little deeper. To use our Scriptural imaginations and try to find what God has left buried for us. It is admittedly a little more subjective, but I think it can be a good exercise in “seeing the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). When you read the signs in John, don’t miss the spiritual substance. Think about them, pray about them, ponder them, meditate on them, and look for clues. Read them over and over again, and see what you find. That’s what we’ll start doing in the next few posts.