The Seven Signs of John’s Gospel

Introduction

Within the Gospel of John, there are seven or eight – depending on one’s outline – major miracles recorded. This paper will take the position that the healing of Lazarus, and not the resurrection itself, was the seventh sign. That being said, they are as follows: (1) Turning water into wine, (2) healing an official’s son, (3) healing at the pool of Bethesda (4) feeding of the five-thousand, (5) walking on water, (6) healing of the man born blind, (7) raising Lazarus from the dead. The Resurrection of Jesus will be treated as an eighth miracle and not examined here since this miracle is the one in which a person puts his faith, and so is different in quality to the seven previous miracles that attest to the eighth. These seven miracles are all recorded for a singular purpose, which John states near the end of his Gospel. “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.” Each of these miracles will, in turn, be described in detail and all of the implications regarding the historical context will be given. After that, it will be explained how each miracle lends support to John’s overall purpose, as recorded in 20:31.

Turning water into wine 2:1-12

Description of Miracle

While all of the miracles recorded in John reveal the divine authority of Jesus, this miracle in particular stands out as his first. Even more interesting, it occurred prior to the beginning of his public ministry, as the only witnesses of the event were the servants, his disciples, and his mother. Apparently, the rest of the guests and the master of the feast had no idea that the miracle even took place; as Carson notes, “this first sign might better be labeled ‘semi-public’, since apparently only the servants and the disciples gained any knowledge of the source of the wine.”[1] This must play a role in our hermeneutics as the audience present for the miracle often gives us a better understanding of why a miracle was performed. Not only that, but, “no discourse is tightly tied to it to explain its significance.”[2] This makes it easier for hermeneuticians to go off track with their interpretation and find things that simply aren’t in the text.

The encounter is a simple one: a wedding is taking place in Cana that Jesus, an unknown number of his disciples, and Mary, his mother, were invited to. When the wine ran out, Mary told Jesus of the problem, and though he gave a non-committal response she tells the servants to follow Jesus’ instructions. He instructs them to fill six jars with water, jars meant for Jewish rites of purification. Once this is done he instructs the servants to draw some out of the jar and take it to the master of the feast to drink. When he tasted, the water had become wine and he was so impressed with the quality of the wine that he praises the groom for saving the best wine for last instead of using it up first. John then specifies this as the first of Jesus’ signs, that it manifested his glory, and that His disciples believed in Him.

Historical Context of Miracle

The important historical context for the 21st century reader to remember is that weddings in first century Cana were different than weddings are now. “Such a festal occasion might be prolonged for a week.”[3] This means that the resources for the wedding – i.e. the wine – needed to be much more plentiful than for current day weddings, and, “for the wine to run short before it was due to end was a serious blow, particularly damaging to the reputation of the host.”[4] Other important historical contexts to be familiar with would be the Jewish rites of purification, and the expected custom of using the best wine first at a wedding so as not to go broke providing good wine that wasn’t particularly necessary to keep the guests satisfied.

The Jewish rites of purification were laws put forward in the Talmud and Midrash that required extra washing beyond what the Law of Moses actually required.[5] Jesus makes this clear in his altercation with the scribes in Matthew 15:1-2. Calvin comments, “They [the Jews] had the ceremony of washing, indeed, prescribed to them by the Law of God; but as the world is prone to excess in outward matters, the Jews, not satisfied with the simplicity which God had enjoined, amused themselves with continual washings; and as superstition is ambitious, they undoubtedly served the purpose of display.”[6] The pomp and circumstance of Pharisees is well documented throughout the gospels, and here is just another example of their showy nature. They were not going to simply wash to be clean, they were going to wash over and over again to be known as being clean, whether they truly were, or not.

It may safely be said that a loose parallel is being drawn by Jesus between the ways of the Pharisees, Scribes, and Sadducees, which are inferior and pretty much worthless to the purpose at hand, and the superior work of Christ. The water being contained in jars for the Jewish rites of purification that later receives an upgrade to the “best” wine may suggest such a parallel.[7]

John’s Purpose

Some conservative commentators abandon their literal hermeneutics on this passage, simply because it is ripe for allegorization. We cannot succumb to this temptation. While it may be impressive rhetoric to compare the “apparent age” of the wine with the “apparent age” of creation, or to draw important significance from the fact that there were only six jars and not seven, we must stay true to the text, and the text tells us exactly why this miracle was performed and what we can learn from it.

The sign that Jesus performed “manifested his glory.” In other words, it showed that He had divine authority, the power to do miracles. The result of this manifestation is that His disciples believed in Him. While some broad symbolism may be permitted, it is not encouraged, and direct allegories should be expressly discouraged. This was the purpose of the miracle and the only purpose that can be stated for certain.

Interestingly enough, this purpose fits in perfectly with John’s overarching purpose for his gospel, “that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in His name.”

Some might wonder what it means when it says that “his disciples believed in Him,” when it is obvious that the twelve go through different stages of belief in Jesus throughout John’s Gospel. A few explanations present themselves. (1) “His disciples” here only refer to the four that we know are following Jesus at this point: Andrew, Peter, Philip, and Nathanael. It might be that these four trusted Jesus entirely at this point and later references to the ‘disciples believing’ involves a larger group of followers. (2) Believing in him in this context may not be complete conviction that he is the Son of God and is co-equal with Him, but only belief that he is a powerful prophet, like John the Baptist or Elijah who could perform miracles but wasn’t necessarily God incarnate. The later references to their belief, then, indicate a deepening and better understanding of his position as ‘The God-Man’. Either of these explanations is acceptable, but the second is preferable.

Healing an Official’s son 4:46-54

Description of Miracle

This miracle takes place in the same geographic area as the first miracle. Whether in Cana or another nearby town around the Sea of Galilee, it makes little difference. While in the area, a man from Capernaum, some sort of official, heard that Jesus was there and came to ask Jesus to heal his son, who was sick in Capernaum, another town on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus at first seems to dismiss his request by saying that the man needs miracles in order to believe. After the man persists, Jesus tells him to go back home, his son would live. In faith the man returns to Capernaum and on the way his servant meets him to tell the man that his recovered at the moment Jesus had sent the man away. As a result, the official and his entire household believed.

Historical Context of Miracle

Not much historical context is needed in order to understand the performance and purpose of this miracle. Perhaps information on what sort of official the man was would be helpful, but certainty can be reached on his position. “He could have been a Gentile or a Jew, a centurion, or a minor official in Herod’s court,”[8] we simply don’t know. Some geographic context is helpful. Jesus is returning to the area around the Sea of Galilee. This is where the majority of his miracles and ministry happen, and it is in this region that he is most widely rejected. We learn this fact from Matthew 11. Given this context, it is particularly interesting that Jesus initially refuses his request on the grounds that unless they (‘you’ is plural in the Greek) see signs and wonders, they will not believe. Perhaps his use of the plural is an indication that he is speaking of the people in the area around the Sea of Galilee and not just the man currently petitioning him.

John’s Purpose

John again makes it painfully clear what conclusions are safe to draw from this miracle. The man’s faith in Jesus had immediate physical results. It is interesting to note that, in this healing in particular, it was both faith that produced the miracle and the miracle that produced faith. Jesus undoubtedly healed the man’s son because of his confidence that Jesus could heal his son, but John seems to suggest that it was because of this miraculous healing that he and his household believed. It may be safely assumed that the belief John refers to is belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. While not specifically stated, this is an obvious conclusion to reach.

Healing at the Pool of Bethesda 5:1-17

Description of Miracle

In this, the third miracle of Jesus in the book of John, Jesus has returned to Jerusalem. Jesus goes to the pool of Bethesda, a pool by the Sheep gate where invalids would lay. Later added to the manuscripts for explanation, we find that the reason they laid there is because tradition held that an angel would periodically stir up the pool and the first person to touch the water would be healed of his infirmity. Jesus approaches a certain man who had been unable to walk for 38 years. When he asks if the man wants to be healed, the man explains that he can’t get down into the pool quick enough when the water is stirred. Jesus then tells the man to stand up, pick up his bed, and walk. The man does so and is chastised by the Jewish religious leaders for breaking their customs and additions to the Law of Moses. Jesus later finds the man and tells him to sin no more. When confronted about this healing by the Jews, Jesus replies that His father is working until now, and so He is working.

Historical Context of Miracle

There are many important historical aspects of this miracle to consider, about which much could be said, and so they will merely be summarized in short and not fully exposited here. First, there is the cultural custom to lie by the pool and wait to be healed. Also of extreme importance is an understanding that an invalid carrying his mat on the Sabbath was prohibited by the Law of Moses, but by the additions to the Law of Moses found in the Mishnah.[9] These extra laws were not divinely authoritative and Jesus makes this clear on many occasions.

John’s Purpose

John makes it clear through the narrative that belief in Him as the Son of God was of importance in this instance, however, no clear declaration of faith was made on the part of the invalid who was healed. It seems interesting that John took this opportunity not to emphasize that a man who saw one of his miracles believed unto eternal life, but instead that a group of Jews specifically disbelieved unto Jesus’ death. The speeches that Jesus gives following this healing and revelation make John’s overall purpose clear however. In his rebuke of the Jews who had set their minds to kill Him because of this interaction, Jesus states that, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” John’s overall purpose could not be anymore clear than it is in this statement. Believe!

Feeding of the Five Thousand 6:1-14

Description of the Miracle

This, perhaps Jesus’ most famous miracle, also took place in the area surrounding Galilee, just as the first two did. This miracle occurred right on the lake. “The ‘other side’ of the sea where the feeding occurred would likely be the more barren hillsides to east of the lake, directly across from Tiberius, and not the traditional site visited by pilgrims at Tabgha on the northwest shore.”[10]A large crowd had begun to follow Him because of the miracles He was performing and he sat the crowd down to be fed. After asking his disciples where to buy bread for everyone, to test their faith in Him, he learns from Andrew that boy has five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus took the loaves and the fish, gave thanks, and distributed them to everyone. When all was said and done, twelve baskets of leftover food were gathered.

Historical Context of the Miracle

Not much historical context is needed to understand this miracle. The reference to Passover and the Sea of Galilee are merely for reference points and do not affect the interpretation of this passage of scripture.

John’s Purpose

John’s purpose in sharing this miracle, like his purpose in all the others, is to get his reader to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing might experience eternal life. The belief in this instance takes on a curious quality and elicits an interesting response from Jesus. The people who witness this miracle begin to proclaim that Jesus is “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” because of the miracle and Jesus, wary of their response, withdraws into the mountain by himself. We understand this reaction slightly better in later passages when they seek out Jesus and he explains that they need to not put their faith in his ability to provide physical sustenance, but spiritual sustenance. Jesus draws parallels between the bread he fed them with and Himself as the bread of life. In the end, John makes his purpose clear to the people, this miracle was performed so that you would believe and have eternal life.

Walking on Water 6:15-21

Description of the Miracle

This miracle is the one debated as to whether or not it belongs separate on the list, or should be included in the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand. It is very short, occurs only for the disciples, and has no exposition explaining the intent of the miracle. Nonetheless, it is a separate miracle and will be treated as one of the “Seven Signs” recorded by John. The Resurrection will not be treated as one, for reasons stated in the introduction. It is, in part, the object of faith, not an evidence for the faith.

Jesus’ miracle to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee is one of intimacy where we do not get to see the disciples’ reactions to the miracle. As the disciples load up in a boat to cross the lake, a mighty wind causes the waters to become rough. After rowing three or four miles, they see Jesus walking on the water and are frightened. Jesus tells them not to be afraid and joins them in the boat. Instantly, the boat is back transported to their destination, making this a two-in-one miracle.

Historical Context of Miracle

The only important thing to know historically is actually a bit of geography. Due to the mountains between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean Sea, warm winds and sea storms would often blow off the Mediterranean and collide with the cool winds over the Sea of Galilee. The mountains also obstructed any view of these storms until they were right on top of the Sea of Galilee. This made it very dangerous to be in the middle of the lake of Galilee, even though it isn’t very large. Rough storms could cause the most knowledgeable sailors to capsize and drown. It makes the disciples fear more understandable and Jesus’ walking on the water more powerful as the waves were probably very large and the wind very strong, strong enough to capsize a boat.

John’s Purpose

John’s purpose is not made clearly here in words, but in actions we have all we need to understand his intent. The disciples are glad to take Jesus into the boat and we assume trust Jesus to protect them from the fierce waves and wind. It is also likely that the instantaneous transportation from one place to another was cause for their faith to be kindled and ultimately contributed to their belief in Jesus as the Son of God, which is John’s stated purpose for the book.

Healing of the Man Born Blind 9:1-41

Description of Miracle

This miracle has most of the emphasis placed on the discourse following instead of the actual miracle. Jesus comes upon a man who was blind from birth and heals the man by making a mud of spit and clay and rubbing it in the man’s eyes. When the man is healed, the Pharisees badger him with questions about his healing, but not to give glory to God for the miracle, but to find a reason to kill Jesus because of his actions. They eventually cast out the blind man because he refuses to renounce Jesus as a heretic, and Jesus finds the man later. The man states that he believes in Jesus and worships Him. This causes Jesus to get into a verbal crossfire with the Pharisees who overhear the conversation and the praise that the man was giving to Jesus, and through the conversation Jesus asserts Himself as the Son of God.

Historical Context of Miracle

The Historical context necessary to understand this miracle has been covered in previous miracles. The Pharisees wrongly accuse Jesus of breaking the Laws regarding the Sabbath, but Jesus does no such thing. He merely refuses to follow the Pharisees’ extra laws about the Sabbath.

John’s Purpose

John’s purpose with this miracle is made crystal clear in the conversation between the healed man and Jesus after the man’s defense before the Pharisees. Jesus tells the man that He is the one who healed him and the man replies, “Lord I believe.” No more clearly can we see John calling attention to the fact that this miracle was recorded that the reader might do likewise.

Raising Lazarus from the Dead 11:1-46

Description of Miracle

This is probably the longest of the miracles recorded by John. In it, Jesus’ good friend Lazarus falls ill. His sisters, Martha and Mary, send word to Jesus that he is ill, but Jesus delays two days in coming to heal him, so that the Son of God could be glorified through the illness. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha and Mary tell him that Lazarus has died. Martha then proclaims that she believes Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Mary weeps with Jesus over Lazarus’ death and Jesus, to show the people watching that He was sent by God, commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb. Lazarus does so, still bound by the linen strips of his burial.

John’s Purpose

John’s purpose is made clear in the words spoken by Martha. John’s purpose in including this as the seventh miracle also shows a progression of power. There is no greater power than the ability to bring a dead man back to life, except the ability to do it permanently. This seventh miracle is the final miracle that bears witness to Jesus’ ultimate resurrection. John wants the reader to realize that these seven miracles pale in comparison to the eighth miracle, and these seven were strong enough to merit belief in Jesus on many separate occasions. He constructs an implied a fortiori argument, by leading the reader to the conclusion, “If these people believed because of these lesser miracles, how much more should we believe because of the greatest miracle, the resurrection?” John’s purpose comes to full fruition in these miracles.

Conclusion

These seven miracles were used by John to show the power of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. As stated in 20:31, John wrote these seven miracles down 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.” Undoubtedly, John succeeded in his purpose, as countless believers through the ages have come to faith in Christ because of the Gospel of John.

Bibliography

Borchert, G. L. John 1–11 (Vol. 25A). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.

Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994.

Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. Commentary on the Gospel according to John (Vol. 1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. Leicester, England: APOLLOS, 1991.

Walvoord, John F ed., Roy B Zuck, ed. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 1983.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England: APOLLOS, 1991), 166.

[2] Carson, 166.

[3] F.F. Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition and Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 69.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Carson, 173.

[6]  J. Calvin, and W. Pringle, Commentary on the Gospel according to John Vol 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 87.

[7] Carson, 173.

[8] John F Walvoord, ed., Roy B Zuck, ed., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 1983), 288.

[9] Carson, 244.

[10] G. L. Borchert, John 1–11: Vol 25A (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 251.

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