Sunday, April 11, 2021

Everywhere a Sign

The apostle John has a thing about signs. You might say it’s one of the dominant themes of his gospel.

Every gospel mentions that the Lord Jesus performed signs (or miracles, depending on your translation), but John leaves the rest of them in the dust. In connection with the earthly ministry of the Lord, he references the word on sixteen separate occasions. Compare that to Matthew (three), Mark (one) or Luke (four) and you’ll see what I’m saying.

Unlike the old song, in John, signs don’t block out the scenery. They are the scenery.

Glory at the Wedding

It doesn’t take the apostle long to warm to his subject. Drafted into service by his mother at a wedding, the Lord Jesus turns water into wine. From his response to Mary’s request we might wrongly conclude that what the Lord is doing here is grudgingly addressing a beverage shortage, a mere inconvenience: “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour is not yet come.” John records his Master’s words, but with the benefit of years of hindsight he is undistracted by the apparent brush-off. He editorializes, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”

It is unfortunate that the KJV, among others, often translates “sign” as “miracle”. Most were miracles, true, but it seems to me John’s emphasis is not on the act itself — not, say, in the case of a healing, on the benefit to the person healed — but rather on what it means. The Greek sēmeîon means “token”, “mark” or “indication”. A sign is intended to draw attention to something else. If some of the wedding guests missed the real point of the exercise, John does not.

I find it immensely interesting that Mary instinctively took the servants fussing about their wine problem to her son. There were obviously earlier signs of which we have no record.

Bad for Business

That’s only chapter 2, and already it’s clear that something important is going on.
Shortly after, Jesus leaves Galilee and heads for Jerusalem, where he cleanses the temple. That must have come as a bit of a shock for the money-changers and the pigeon sales reps. Accustomed to plying their trades in the temple courts with the full cooperation of the religious authorities, they are suddenly confronted with a young rabbi from Nazareth carrying a whip. Distinctly bad for business.

So the authorities naturally inquire “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” and the Lord responds, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Understandably, they didn’t grasp the metaphor.

This is the last of John’s sixteen signs if we go chronologically, as Jesus didn’t actually perform it until after his crucifixion and burial.

Trust Issues

Later in chapter 2, John makes reference to a number of miraculous signs done in Jerusalem during the same visit. During the Passover Feast, “many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing”. John doesn’t bother to tell us what Jesus was doing, just that it resulted in a lot of shallow belief. Jesus never took such temporary enthusiasm seriously. He “did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people.”

Here we get our first indication that the signs Jesus performed were not really intended to transform unbelievers into true disciples. No mere display of power could do that. Jews who were only attracted by the bells and whistles turned out to possess no lasting faith. No, the signs were primarily intended to confirm and strengthen existing faith. At the wedding in Cana, it was his disciples that believed in him, though others undoubtedly knew a miracle had been performed. Secondarily, the signs stood as a witness against those who saw them but ultimately rejected the Lord as the Messiah of Israel.

Signs and Being Born Again

This point is quickly reinforced at the very beginning of the next chapter, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and shows evidence of faith. The signs have done their work in a believing heart, and so he wants to know more. But he starts with “We know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Correct. Message received. And so the Lord takes Nicodemus on from the initial signs to the necessity for new birth and to the penultimate sign, the lifting up of the Son of Man “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness”, so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”.

This is the objective, you see: not healing for healing’s sake or the eviction of demons to improve the earthly lot of the possessed. This is not just for the very temporary benefit of a lucky few. No, Jesus healed, drove out demons and even resurrected some, all as evidence that eternal life is available to everyone who desires it always and only through him.

They Still Did Not Believe

I can’t take you through them all, but there’s a sign reference in almost every chapter of John’s gospel up until we come to chapter 12, when, at least from John’s perspective, we come to the time in the Lord’s ministry when there seems little point in further public displays. He makes this rather sad comment:
“Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.”
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign. And of course John tells us the final purpose of the signs: that their rejection would confirm Old Testament prophecy:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
The question is rhetorical, and the answer here is either “very few” or “not enough”.

The Final Two Signs

From chapter 13 on, the Lord is concerned only with his own, with those for whom the signs were merely confirmation, with those who were after “the words of eternal life” rather than mere displays of power. We have chapter after chapter of intimate, personal teaching in the upper room. If there are any signs or symbols in these chapters, it is only bread and wine, reminding his friends of the body he would soon give and the great Body he would build with them from Pentecost on.

I suppose you could count Judas’ kiss, by which he betrayed him, which Matthew tells us was a “sign” for the men who arrested him. But we’d just be grafting that in if we did: John doesn’t mention the kiss at all.

Then we have the final two signs: the lifting up of the Lord Jesus of which he had previously spoken, and the glorious fulfillment of the sign he gave to the unbelieving Jews, the temple of his body destroyed and raised up again in three days, just as he promised.

Nothing has been the same since, has it?

Many Other Signs

John closes his gospel with this thought:
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 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.”
The signs were everywhere, and for anyone who missed them, the Lord’s disciples carried them on for a generation afterward, doing exactly what their Master did.

If we’re amazed by John’s record of what Jesus did, imagine what isn’t recorded.

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