The Eight Signs of John
Out of all the miracles performed by the Lord during His ministry on earth, John gives us only eight. That there were many more is clear (see John 7: 31; 12: 37; 20: 30), though this did not satisfy His Jewish opponents (see John 2: 18; 6: 30)—a position of unbelief that led the Lord to speak of that which would transcend these testimonial acts of power. Thus in John 2 He referred His opposers to His resurrection (see v 21), while in John 6 He spoke of His death (see vs. 33, 51). However, the fact remains that, despite there being “many signs” (John 11: 47), John would have us especially notice only eight. This limited number would suggest that they are chosen with purpose. What then is that purpose?
Now miracles are spoken of in the NT under three names, and all three occur in Acts 2: 22: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus the Nazaraean, a man borne witness to by God to you by works of power and wonders and signs” (my emphasis; see also Heb. 2: 4). A work of power (dunamis) is simply a mighty act. This word is never used in the Gospel of John (although dunamai, the verb from which it is derived, does occur). A wonder (teras), however, refers to the effect produced on those who witnessed the mighty act. Now since the English word miracle is from the Latin miraculum, which also means a wonder, it is clear that miracle should only be used as a translation of teras. John uses teras only once in his Gospel (see John 4: 48). In all the other passages where miracles are referred to John uses the word sign (seemion), and this 17 times. This use of the word sign indicates that the focus is on what meaning should be attached to the work of power. It is not enough for the observers to be filled with wonder. That signs intrinsically have purpose is proved by John 20: 30, 31: “Many other signs therefore also Jesus did before his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God”.
In passing it is worth noting what has just been quoted, namely, that the signs were done “before his disciples” (John 20: 30)—suggesting that it was they, as believing Jews, that were to get the gain of what was conveyed by them. Unbelieving Jews would not (see John 2: 23–25). Elsewhere we learn that signs are what Jews (in contradistinction to Gentiles) particularly ask for (see 1 Cor. 1: 22). It is of significance therefore that John records that the Lord was baptised at the commencement of His public ministry in order “that he might be manifested to Israel” (John 1: 31), and follows this up almost immediately with “This beginning of signs did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested his glory” (John 2: 11). In John 4: 54 we read “This second sign” but none of the later signs are numbered. This may seem an issue, but it probably only reflects the fact that there were other, unnoticed signs in between. That we are expected to count the signs is suggested by the fact that they seem connected in pairs according to a regular pattern. All eight manifest the glory of the Messiah and His ability to meet Israel’s lost condition, but the second of the pair always exhibits a greater depth than the first.
John’s first and the eighth signs are the water into wine at the marriage in Cana (see John 2: 1–11), and the multitude of fishes caught after a night’s abortive fishing by the disciples (see John 21: 1–14). In the first the Lord “manifested forth His glory”, and in the eighth He “manifested” Himself (John 2: 11; 21: 14; note the same word in each passage). The first sign was given in response to the Lord’s mother saying “they have no wine” (John 2: 3). The eighth sign was given after the disciples “took nothing” while fishing, and the bankruptcy of their position is further exposed by the Lord’s question “Children, have ye anything to eat?” (John 21: 3; 5). Both picture the destitution of Israel’s situation without Christ. The first simply states it, the second reinforces it by revealing that despite working hard to remedy the lack, the unbelieving disciples are as empty–handed after all their toil as when they began. Only when Christ enters the situation is there wine produced like none other, and fish in abundance. The fact that the eighth sign is given after the Lord’s resurrection (the other seven occurring during His ministry) is perhaps an indication of His continuing mercy to the nation.
The second and the seventh signs are the healing of the courtier’s son who was about to die (see John 4: 46–54), and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (see John 11: 1–44). Here the sign in each case is connected with death, and, as in all the other pairs, the latter is an advance upon the former, Lazarus being already in the tomb. Here we have pictured Israel’s lifeless condition, a valley full of dry bones (see Ezek. 37: 1, 2). Nicodemus may well say (speaking for the nation) that “we know that thou art come a teacher from God, for none can do these signs that thou doest unless God be with him” but the Lord’s reply is straight and to the point: “It is needful that ye should be born anew” (John 3: 7). This national quickening is yet to happen (see Ezek. 37: 5, 6), and when it does, what will Israel’s reception be “but life from among [the] dead?” (Rom. 11: 15).
The third and the sixth signs are the healing of the impotent man (see John 5: 1–47), and the healing of the man born blind (see John 9: 1–41). In both these two signs there is a condition of long–standing hopelessness that is met by the Lord (see John 5: 5; 9: 1). In the first case, the man dreams of a remedy (however forlorn), but in the latter the hopelessness is absolute for “since time was, it has not been heard that any one opened the eyes of one born blind” (John 9: 32). Interestingly, these two signs are the only two out of the eight that have any reference to sin (see John 5: 14; 9: 2, 24, 25, 34), and sin is the root of both Israel’s spiritual impotence and her spiritual blindness. The solution is to be found in the Man that would die as a sin–offering for the nation (see John 11: 50; 18: 14).
The fourth and the fifth signs are the feeding of the five thousand (see John 6: 1–14), and the Lord walking on the sea (see John 6: 15–21). These are the two central signs in John’s Gospel and they are further connected together by being the only signs which are also recorded in the synoptic Gospels, perhaps implying that all four Gospels are needed in order to give us their full signification. What we have here pictured is Israel’s ignorance: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; Israel doth not know, my people hath no intelligence” (Is. 1: 3). In the first sign Philip asks “Whence shall we buy loaves that these may eat?” (John 6: 5), but such divine beneficence had been long prophesied: “I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her needy ones with bread” (Ps. 132: 15). In the second sign, the ignorance is of a deeper kind for when the disciples “see Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the ship … they were frightened” (John 6: 19), and their fear is only assuaged by the Lord telling them “It is I: be not afraid” (v20). In the one sign they did not recognise the power invested in Christ, in the other, they simply failed to recognise Him at all. Thus “[as to] this [man]” said the Jews, “we know whence he is” (John 7: 27), mistakenly taking Him to be no different from themselves, for “had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2: 8). Yet the Lord is able for even this dire condition of man, for though Israel rejected Him at His first coming, He “shall appear to those that look for him the second time without sin for salvation” (Heb. 9: 28).
What we see then in these eight signs is Israel’s spiritual state in the eyes of God—destitute, lifeless, without hope and ignorant. Yet we also see that Christ is able for their condition, and in a soon–coming day, as the great deliverer, Christ “shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob” (Rom. 11: 26). Then, they will believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20: 31), but what about you and I in the present day? Yes we have already believed what they will one day believe, but what practical force does that belief have in our lives? The One who could step into any situation when here on earth and meet each and every physical need is now in the place of power at the right hand of God. He is more than able for all our spiritual needs, whether we individually or whether we look more widely to what is collective. The purpose in “believing”, is that we “might have life in his name” (John 20: 31, my emphasis).