What is Truth? Pilate’s question in John 18:38 reveals the tragic irony of a judge appointed to find the truth while denying even the existence of such a concept. Yet, Truth (with a capital T) stood before him in the flesh and he was blind to it. Pilate, however, was not looking for His coming.
The nation of Israel was burdened under the yoke of the Roman occupation and the air in the land had become electric with anticipation for the one who would deliver God’s people from their oppressor. Zealous Jews hung on Roman crosses in the middle of Jerusalem for their refusal to submit to their new lords as they waited for the coming of the Messiah.
It is into this environment that the God of the universe entered as a humble man, ready to present His Gospel to a people over-ripe for saving. They were looking intently for His coming, and, amazingly, He showed up. Those witnessing Jesus’ arrival had a unique opportunity. Jesus says “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Mt. 13:16-17 ESV).
But something truly tragic occurred as this man, Jesus, stepped in among His own. John 1:11 tells us, “He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.” Just as Jesus’ testimony to Pilate had fallen on deaf ears, so too His words of truth died on the ears of a people who only claimed to long for His coming.
John lamented the fact that his own people could not see “the true light, which enlightens everyone” (Jn. 1:9), who had come into the world to gather His people to Himself, a lament reflected as Jesus Himself cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt. 23:37).
John’s distress over the faithlessness of God’s people is a major feature of his gospel. John does not want anyone else to miss the greatness of the Truth who came to His own. He tells us plainly at the end of his Gospel that he has 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” (Jn. 20:31).
This is the purpose for which John wrote his Gospel – that we may believe where others failed. This is why he has recorded for us the example of the Jewish rejection of the long-awaited Messiah, and why he has given us a record of the horrible injustice of Jesus’ trial before Pilate where truth would not be heard. For this reason, John gives us the Seven Signs as evidence. Now, let’s take a closer look at these signs.
Purpose of the Signs
What are these signs, and why does John call them ‘signs’? They are demonstrations of who Jesus is, and opportunities for His people to believe or reject Him.
What does this tell us about John’s purpose in writing his gospel? At least three purposes can be identified as to what these signs are doing in this text:
- They teach something about the nature of Christ.
- They provide opportunities for the Jewish witnesses to believe.
- They provide witness to the rejection of the Messiah by His people.
So given the role of signs in the gospel of John, we might rightfully ask how they are distinct from so many other miracles recorded in the other gospels. There are a great many differences, as well as similarities, between the specific “signs” and the more common miracles of Christ. A “sign” is not essentially a miraculous act, though it may be miraculous. A “sign” is a significant act that, when properly understood, symbolizes eternal realities proving Jesus’ identity. That is to say, a sign may not necessarily be a miracle, but it must point to some eternal truth beyond itself.
Concerning this last point, there is some debate. Many scholars equate John’s use of the Greek word σημεῖον with the word miracle. As we will see, there are seven signs, and six of them are unanimously included in the list. Differing opinions concerning the criteria for naming the signs leads to disagreement over what the final sign should be. So, let’s look at what makes something a sign.
What Makes a Sign a Sign?
Signs have a certain ‘criteria’ which they must meet in order for them to be considered signs, and these are related to the purposes already mentioned.
- Each sign must point to some eternal truth regarding the identity of Christ.
- Each sign must be performed in the presence of Jesus’ disciples.
- Each sign must also be performed in the presence of a Jewish audience.
Jesus performed many miracles but not all were signs. John includes these seven signs each for a specific reason. Each of the signs points to a different aspect of Christ’s identity and serves to teach both the disciples and now the modern reader about who Jesus really is. Notice that none of these requirements mentions that it must be miraculous in nature.
The Seven Signs
So then, what are the seven signs included in John’s gospel? All seven come from the first half of the book, between chapters 2 and 11.
- Jesus changes water into wine. (2:1-11)
- The cleansing of the Temple. (2:13-22)
- The healing of the nobleman’s son. (4:46-54)
- The healing of the lame man. (5:1-15)
- The feeding of the multitude. (6:1-15)
- The healing of the blind man. (9:1-41)
- The raising of Lazarus from death. (11:1-44)
Each of these is deserving of its own article showing exactly how they each fulfill their purpose as signs, but that will have to wait for another time. Now, take some time to read through each of these with a new perspective.
The sign that stands out among the rest is #2, the cleansing of the Temple. There is no miracle involved, yet it meets all the criteria. It demonstrates that Jesus is the ultimate Temple, the Holy One of Israel. The sign that is most commonly included in the list in its place is Jesus walking on water. However, while it is a significant miraculous event, it does not meet the criteria of a sign as there is no audience apart from the disciples. For further reading, Andreas Köstenberger does an excellent job explaining why this distinction is important.
This blog began with the famous question, “What is Truth?” Jesus is the Truth, John answers. Through a multitude of signs and evidence, Jesus proved to be the Truth. That was one of the most important reasons for the incarnation – as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, God was revealing Himself to His creation like never before. Amazingly, nearly everyone Jesus encountered refused to accept God’s truth even when presented with exactly the sort of evidence they would need in order to believe. These signs stand as testimony of God’s faithfulness and of human unfaithfulness.