Reading the Signs of the Fourth Gospel

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from John Through Old Testament Eyes
by Karen H. Jobes

The more we understand about the imagery and traditions of ancient Israel, the richer the significance of the signs in the gospel of John and their interrelationships become. As Richard Bauckham notes, this sign illustrates “John’s frequently rich pattern of allusion to Scripture. . . . The quantity and the quality of the wine that he provides are far in excess of need. . . . The miracle points to the greater enhancement of life to which Jesus refers” in John 10:10.[1] The wedding feast at Cana anticipates the eschatological banquet, when the Lord will provide “a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wines” (Isa 25:6). With Isaiah as a context, the miracle links the banquet to the universal abolition of death (Isa 25:7–8), connecting the first sign to the seventh, the raising of Lazarus and subsequently to Jesus’ own resurrection.

And so the first sign teaches us that the signs in John’s gospel can be read on three levels:

  1. the surface reading of the unknowledgeable reader who may be reading the fourth gospel for the first time;
  2. a biblical-theological reading, recognizing and appreciating the significance of the symbolism of the signs with respect to the Old Testament and the first-century Jewish traditions that developed from it; and
  3. an eschatological-soteriological reading of the sign as explaining the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Following the introduction of Jesus and a few of his disciples, John structures the telling of Jesus’ life around several signs, traditionally numbered as seven, though the number seven is not found in the text. Only four of Jesus’ miraculous actions are designated as “signs” (Gk. sēmeia [σημεῖα]) in the text: changing water to wine (2:1–11); healing of the official’s son (4:46–54); feeding the five thousand (6:1–15); and the raising of Lazarus (11:38–44; 12:18). Two other miracles, the healing of the invalid (5:1–9) and the healing of the man born blind (9:1–7) are referred to as signs by those who witnessed them (7:31 and 9:16 respectively). Since only the first and second are numbered (2:11; 4:54), interpreters disagree about how to count them. Some include the cleansing of the temple (2:13–22), though the incident does not involve a miracle. Others combine the feeding of the five thousand (6:1–15) and Jesus walking on water (6:16–24). A further question is whether Jesus’ resurrection should be counted as the seventh sign. Because the signs are only pointers and not the reality to which they point, it seems best to count the bringing of Lazarus back to mortal life as the final sign in John’s gospel, pointing to the resurrection of Jesus himself into an immortal life, the first moment of new creation on the eighth day.[2]

John admits of knowing many more signs that Jesus did (Jn 20:30), but he chooses to include only seven miracles in his gospel. This number may symbolize the full, complete, and perfect revelation of the significance of Jesus’ life, as the numeral seven bore that special significance in the ancient world.

First sign:             The changing of water into wine (Jn 2:1–11)
Second sign:        Jesus heals the official’s son from a distance (Jn 4:43–54)
Third sign:           The healing at the pool of Bethesda (Jn 5:1–15)
Fourth sign:         Feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6:1–15)
Fifth sign:            Jesus walks on the stormy sea (Jn 6:16–24)
Sixth sign:            Healing of the man born blind (Jn 9:1–41)
Seventh sign:       The raising of Lazarus (Jn 11:1–44)

The changing of water into wine at Cana is the first of these seven, with the seventh being the raising of Lazarus from the dead in John 11. This section of the gospel from chapter 2 through 12 is often referred to as the Signs Source, or Book of Signs, explaining how God the Son revealed God the Father in his words and deeds.

The nature of the “outward fact” of the sign is used to reveal something of the nature of the Word who became flesh and revealed his messianic glory to the world. Each sign that John has chosen to include is significant because of its nature, even though Jesus apparently did many others (Jn 20:30).

The signs are not direct fulfillments of Old Testament promises, but point to Jesus as the One who does fulfill the promises ultimately and fully. Nevertheless, the sign actually does embody what it symbolizes. We can consider a kiss a sign of love because it actually embodies or realizes the emotion it symbolizes. But a kiss is not to be identified with love. In the case of John’s gospel, when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, it is a sign of his power to give life. The sign points to Jesus’ ability to give life after death and embodies that point because Jesus actually does raise Lazarus from death to life. (The fact that this led to the Jewish plot to kill the one who can raise the dead is one of John’s profound ironies [Jn 12:10].) The signs embody and actualize what they symbolize. However, Lazarus died again. He did not remain alive forever. And so, the eternal life that Jesus Christ gives was merely symbolized, albeit spectacularly, in the sign of the raising of Lazarus. Even though this was the most spectacular of signs in John’s gospel, it was not the ultimate and final giving of life. Jesus came not simply to resuscitate us from death and restore us to this life, but to give us eternal life after death.

The Book of Signs builds the case for Jesus’ identity and is the preface to the passion narrative in chapters 13–20. Each of the signs (1) reveals the presence of God in Jesus, (2) accredits Jesus as having been sent by God, and (3) explains the crucifixion by connecting it to the Old Testament promises. By the time the reader encounters the death and resurrection of Jesus, the signs have prepared for an understanding of why Jesus had to go to the cross, and that the cross is the way the Son ascends back to the Father and is, therefore, the ultimate glorification (“lifting up”) of Jesus Christ. The Book of Signs makes the cross more poignant and the rejection of Jesus more ironically tragic. This structure to the gospel leads readers to either believe or to reject by the end of the story, with a powerful nudge to believe because of the inner coherence and revelation of God’s love in sending Jesus (Jn 3:16).

Cana was the location of the first sign Jesus performed, as well as of the second sign (Jn 4:46–54). Jesus performed a miraculous healing in Cana that John labels as the second sign, inviting the reader to consider these miracles as a sequence of signs even though only the first two are numbered in the text. The material from John 2:1–4:54 is therefore often referred to as the Cana cycle (see table 2.1).

Table 2.1. The Cana Cycle
Cana—First Sign: Changing Water to Wine (2:1–12)
Jerusalem/Judea (2:13–3:36)
Cleansing of Temple at Passover (2:13–25)
First Discourse: The New Birth (3:1–21)
John the Baptist’s Final Testimony (3:22–36)
Samaria (4:1–42)
Second Discourse: Living Water and True Worship (4:1–26)
Cana—Second Sign: Healing of Official’s Son (4:46–54)

Within the Book of Signs there are also several extended discourses and “I am” statements that work with the signs to reveal the identity and nature of God in Christ. These will be discussed further as we encounter them.

[1]   Bauckham, Gospel of Glory, 72.

[2]   Jeannine K. Brown, The Gospels as Stories: A Narrative Approach to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 141; idem., “Creation’s Renewal in the Gospel of John,” CBQ 72 (2010): 287.

This post is adapted from John Through Old Testament Eyes by Karen H. Jobes. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

“Karen Jobes provides a beautiful portrait of the powerful impact of the Old Testament on John’s Gospel. Jobes’ writing is both personal and academic, pastoral and historical. This book joins Jobes’ depth and richness cultivated by a lifetime of scholarship with her heart that cares for her readers’ spiritual growth. Whether a scholar, a pastor, a student, or simply an interested reader, everyone will find something of deep value in this book for years to come!”
—Beth M. Stovell, Associate Professor of Old Testament, Ambrose University

“Karen Jobes skillfully explores John’s reliance on the Jewish Scriptures, whether in citation, allusion, or echo. She brings to her analysis a keen understanding of John within the Second Temple Jewish context and shares her insights in compelling prose. Accessible, clearly written, incisive. I heartily recommend this book.”
—Jeannine K. Brown, Bethel Seminary


About Author

Karen H. Jobes (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is the Gerald F. Hawthorne Professor Emerita of New Testament Greek and Exegesis at Wheaton College and Graduate School. She is the author of several books and commentaries including Discovering the Septuagint and the award-winning 1, 2, and 3 John in Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary Series.

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