The significance of the term “Sign” in the Gospel of John

(Rev. Mangapul Sagala)
First of all, I would like to assert that it is very important to study the concept of the miracles/signs of Jesus in the Gospel of John. The main reason is because in John, the miracles reveal its Christology. This can be seen clearly from John’s comment after John turns water into wine: “…He thus revealed his glory and his disciples put their faith in him” (2:11).

The Gospel of John reports that Jesus performs seven miracles. These miracles are commonly designated as shmeia in the Fourth Gospel. However, if we observe carefully, we will find that only two of them are termed explicitly as signs.[1] And if we compare the presentation of these miracles of Jesus in this Gospel with the Synoptic Gospels, we find some obvious differences.

First, there is a difference in number of the miracles. John has fewer miracles compared to the Synoptic Gospels.[2] In the Gospel of Mark, miracle stories fill up almost half of the Marcan narrative of the public ministry of Jesus. John however, as we have seen above, describes only seven miracles, each carefully selected to encourage the faith of the reader (20:30-31).

Secondly, there is a difference in the circumstances accompanying the miracles. In the Synoptic tradition there is much more attention to the marvelous aspect of the miracles and the enthusiasm they produce –the crowds pressing around Jesus with their sick and pleading for help; the awe at the sight of the miracle; the excited reports of what has been done, passing from town to town. This vivid coloring of the miracle has faded in John. The miracles here are narrated with discretion (2:8-9), and detailed descriptions of the marvelous are avoided. Thus, John does not share some of the features that the Synoptic narratives have in common with pagan stories of miracles.

Thirdly, there is a difference in function. Talking about the function of the miracles, we find a major difference between the Synoptics and John. In the Synoptic Gospels, the miracles are primarily acts of power (dunameiV) accompanying the breaking in of the reign of God into time. Hence, the function of miracles as acts of power accompanying the reign of God dominates the Synoptic outlook. In John’s Gospel, however, although we see that the sense of power is included, the emphasis of the miracles seems to be one of symbolism[3]

John writes that the miracle in Cana is the first of all signs.[4] The term “shmeion” occurs 17 times in John[5], which appears for the first time in John 2:11. It is in this sense of “sign”, it appears finally in the comment of the evangelist in John 20:31. This term which is deliberately chosen by John is a theological one, with a meaning which must be assessed in relation to the whole Gospel. This shmeion can be understood as, first, the distinguishing mark by which something is known. Secondly it also means a miracle, either of divine or demonic nature. And thirdly it can be understood as a portent of an impending catastrophe.[6]

The word shmeion is used in the New Testament, especially in the Gospels[7] and Acts. In the Gospel narratives this word seems to carry the connotation of divine communication[8]. This can be a warning of events that were going to happen,[9] or a special intervention in history.[10] There are thirteen instances where the word shmeia is coupled with the word terata (wonders).[11] However the shmeion emphasizes the significance and purpose of these unusual occurrences, while terata refer to the marvel or wonder they excite.[12]

Perhaps we can ask what John means by the word “first”? And how does this first sign make Jesus’ glory manifest before Jesus’ disciples? To answer the first question, Barrett’s observations are helpful. He points to the works of Isocrates and John. Both of them understand the word more than just informing the order as the first of the series. Therefore, Barrett contends that it can be taken as referring to a “primary sign”.[13] As to the second question, we may notice that some of the symbols at Cana are familiar and meaningful scriptural symbols that would have been known to the disciples. We will discuss four things below.

a. John presents this first sign in the context of a wedding.

It is noteworthy that this picture is used in the Old Testament to symbolize the messianic days. Hence we read in the book of Isaiah, “For your Maker is your husband – the Lord Almighty is his name- the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (54:5; See also, Isa.54:4-8; 62:4-5).) Moreover, it is interesting to notice that in the Synoptic Gospels, both the wedding and the banquet are symbols on which Jesus drew (Mat.8:11; 22:1-14; Luke 22:16-18). And then, if we search in other Johannine literature, such as the book of Revelation, we will find that the wedding appears as a symbol of messianic fulfillment (Rev.19:9).

b. In this first sign it demonstrates the replacement of water with choice wine, which is better than the wine the guests had been drinking.

Raymond Brown argues that in relation to the theme of replacement of Jewish institutions and religious views, it can be observed that in the Gospel of John we find that Jesus is the real Temple.[14] Besides this, the Gospel of John also shows that the presence of the Spirit is necessary in bringing someone to be born again such as Nicodemus[15], and the Spirit’s presence will replace the necessity of worshiping at Jerusalem[16]. We find in John that Jesus’ flesh and blood will give life to those who believe in him, in a way that the manna associated with the exodus from Egypt did not. Carson also finds this theme of replacement in John as showing Jesus’ identity. Hence Carson states: “One of the features of these allusions (to the Old Testament) is the manner in which Jesus is assumed to replace Old Testament figures and institutions. He is the new temple, the one whom Moses wrote, the true bread from heaven, the true Son, the genuine vine, the tabernacle, the serpent in the wilderness, the Passover”.[17] Therefore, in view of this consistent theme of replacement we may contend that in introducing Cana as the first in a series of signs to follow, John intends to call attention to the replacement of the water prescribed for Jewish purification by the choicest of wines. This indicates the superiority of Jesus over the old Law.[18] Brown contends that “best wine” in place of the waters for Jewish purification could stand for the true cleansing agent of the Christian dispensation – “the blood of Jesus, His Son, cleanses us from all sins” (1 Jn.1:7). Hence, this replacement reveals Jesus, and this is a sign that he was the one sent by the Father[19] who is now the only way to the Father. Its nature revealed Jesus as the Creator and disclosed his power over the chemical process of nature. The significance of the wine is that it is Jesus’ gift, a sign which comes from him and points to him. John’s narrative emphasizes on the revelation of the divine “glory” of Jesus. Therefore, Schnackenburg asserts that any interpretation of the miracle in Cana which departs from the Christological perspective loses sight of the central issue. He argues that revelation in John is the self-revelation of Jesus; all the rest stems from this.[20] In other words, the purpose of John is not merely to relate a miracle, but to set forth a sign of the fact that with the coming of Jesus, the religion of the Law, which is symbolized by water[21] was transformed into the religion of the Gospel, which is symbolized by the wine[22]. And this is better than any wine previously available.[23] All previous religious institutions, customs and feasts lose meaning in his presence.[24] Having said that, when John writes that the Cana miracle is the first sign, he calls attention to the beginning of Jesus’ self- revelation before the world, which is to be fully public (cf.7:4). At the Cana miracle, it is his origin from God and his union with the Father that must be believed and recognized (cf. 5:17, 19; 9:31f; 10:38; 11:40f; 14:11f). Later on, Jesus declares that he is the true vine, the giver of the true wine (John 15). In the Synoptic Gospels, we find the mention that the new wine should not be put into old vessels (Mark 2:22 parallel). This teaching is certainly associated with the thought of the new thing which came with Jesus’ person and work. The metaphor was given by Jesus in order to compare his new teaching with the customs of the Pharisees. We notice that the incident occurs at the beginning of the Synoptic Gospels of the ministry just as it is the case for John’s Gospel, in Cana. However, we find in John that this is more strongly Christological. This notion can also be seen from the way that the logion on the temple was understood as referring to the body of Jesus (2:20f; cf. 7:38). Indeed, we need to pay attention to the statement of the headwaiter: “… but you have saved the best wine until now” (2:10). Perhaps Brown is correct when he contends that this statement can be understood as the proclamation of the coming of the messianic days.[25] He goes even further and understands the statement of Mary: “They have no wine” as becoming a poignant reflection on the barrenness of Jewish purifications, much in the vein of Mark 7:1-24.[26]

c. Thirdly, the wine is a symbol of the eschatological gift of the Messiah. In the Old Testament and in Judaism, wine in abundance is a sign of the age of salvation (Amos 9:13; Hos.2:24; Joel 4:18; Isa.29:17; Jer.31:5; see also Enoch 10:19; Apoc Bar Syr 29:5; or Sib II.317f; III.620-4, 744f). In the book of Genesis we find that in the blessing of Jacob to his descendants, this wine was also mentioned as a characteristic of the coming king that would come from Judah (Gen.49:10-11). Besides this book of Genesis, this allusion to “wine” can also be found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah and Jeremiah. It is written in the book of Isaiah, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined… He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken (Isa.25:6,8). Like Isaiah, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine,… “(31:12). It is noteworthy that the feast of wine in the quotation from Isaiah’s book above is related to the eschatological terms.

d. According to the Jewish tradition, the new wine of the New Age is provided only on the table of the eschatological meal. The Johannine Jesus however provides the best wine now. Therefore, H.C. Kee comments on this and writes that Jesus brings the best wine now, which he associates with eschatological joy. Hence, his people do not need to wait until the end of the Age to experience this. In other words, the goal of history is being present in Jesus.[27] Thus, when John writes about the first sign, namely water is being turned into wine, it fulfils above all the traditional notion of the New Age. This means that the trumpet sounds already to announce the beginning of the New Age.

Finally, we need to refer to Irenaeus who also relates the Cana miracle with eschatology. He argues that by turning water into wine, John here announces that the same God who created the world has also commanded it to bear fruit. And the same God who put the waters in order and provided springs, likewise, here gives to mankind in these last days, through his Son the blessing of food and the gift of drink. Irenaeus even goes further and contends that the miracle points beyond itself to the gift of the Eucharist in the last days. And the miraculous, creational event is not an end in itself or simply an evidence of power. Rather, at the same time it points to the eschatological gift of Christ in the Eucharist, which becomes an actuality through the death of Jesus.[28]

In short, since the Jewish people believed that only God is able to bring the New Age into the Future, we learn the very important lesson here. That is, in this first sign, John shows very clearly that Jesus takes the role of God, and initiates the New Age in the present.

[1] All seven miracles can be seen in the following chapters of John: Jn.2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-18; 6:1-15; 6:16-21; 9:1-12; 11:38-44. Out of these miracles John gives the number explicitly as “first” and “second” to the miracle (Jn.2:11; 4:54). When we compare these sigs with what we find in the Synoptic Gospels, we will find that it has no parallel of the changing water into wine (2:1-11). However, there are three of them also found in the Synoptic, namely: The curing of the royal official’s son (4:46-54), the multiplication of the loaves (6:1-15), the walking on the sea (6:16-21). The other three of the Johannine miracles are of the same type of miracle found in the Synoptic Gospels, namely, the curing of the paralytic (5:1-15), the curing of the blind man (9), the raising of the dead (11). Stephen S. Kim, The Relationship of the Seven-Sign Miracles of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel to the Old Testament, Ph.D Dissertation, (Dallas Theological Seminary, 2001).

[2] We can find that some 200 of 425 verses of Mark, namely chapter 1-10 deal directly or indirectly with miracles.

[3] R.E. Brown, John, I, 525-6. We notice in the Synoptic Gospels that the miracles worked by Jesus are not simply external proofs of his claims. It is more than that, since it is more fundamentally functioned as the acts by which he establishes God’s reign and defeats the reign of Satan. Besides this, we see more heal sickness which is associated with sin and evil; the raising of men to life is an assault on death which is Satan’s peculiar realm. The Synoptic Gospels make it clearly that even the very strong storm is seen as the attack of Satan into nature. Brown argues that the difference of the emphasis between the Synoptic Gospels and John can be seen in the fact that John makes no apparent connection between the miracles and the destruction of the power of Satan. It is noteworthy to find the fact of the complete absence of exorcisms is John, even though we do find of a hostility between Jesus and Satan (14:30, 16:33). Therefore, Brown contends that Johannine thought is more dualistic than that of the Synoptics, but the miracles are not seen as weapons in the struggle. Brown, John, I, 526.

[4] The second miracle according to this Gospel is the healing of the son of the official in Capernaum from afar (4:46-54). However there are “signs” done in the meantime in Jerusalem (2:23; cf.3:2; 4:45). Schnackenburg argues that perhaps the reason for this due to the fact that John follows a shmeia source, John,I, Introduction, ch.4:3). Some however argues that this story is pure allegory (The Fourth Gospel in Recent Criticism and Interpretation. London: 1931, 192). Bultmann on the other hand referring to John 2:10, namely, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now” comments that it appears strange. It has no analogies in the world tradition of Jesus-narratives. For this reason Bultmann sees in the reported event only a “symbol” of that which occurs in the total work of Jesus, in the revelation of the glory of Jesus. Hence he contends that the epiphany story could only be a “bild” (picture) for it. R. Bultmann. The Gospel of John. A Commentary. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971. However, Irenaeus contends that the report as an actual historical event. Moreover, he is not satisfied with simply setting forth the facticity of the wedding and of the miracle, that the Lord made use of an existing substance, namely turning water into wine and providing drink for all the guests is simply a point of reference. Irenaeus asserts that the Lord could have provided the wine out of nothing, without the medium of water. Adv. Haer.3.11.5.

[5] W.Nicol, The Semeia, 113. There are seventeen occurences of the word “shmeia” in the Gospel of John that can be divided to four groups. First, seven times from the lips of Jews: 2:18; 3:2; 6:30; 7:31; 9:16; 10:41; 11:47. Secondly, five times as object of the Jews’ perception: 2:23; 4:48; 6:2,14; 12:18. Thirdly, four times in the commentary of the narrator: 2:11; 4:54; 12:37; 20:30. And fourthly, once in the mouth of Jesus: 6:26.

[6] William F. Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd edition of BAGD revised by F.W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 755-56.

[7] Johan Ferreira however point out that comparing to the Synoptic Gospels, the signs in John are extraordinary. He points to the healing of the nobleman’s son where it can be healed even without the presence of Jesus (4:46-54), the paralyzed man who had been sick for thirty eight years (5:1-15) as well as other miracles. Johannine Ecclesiology, 153.

[8] Merrill C. Tenney, “Topics from the Gospel of John”, Bibliotheca Sacra, 132, 1975, 145.

[9] Matt.16:1,3,4; 24:3,24,30; Mark 13:4,22; Luke 2:12;21:7,11,25).

[10] Acts 2:22,43; 4:16,22,30;7:36).

[11] Merrill C. Tenney, BibSac, 132, 146.

[12] Merrill C. Tenney, BibSac, 132, 146.

[13] C.K. Barrett, John, 161. R.E. Schnackenburg, John, I, 335.

[14] In John 2:18f when Jesus was asked by the Jews to prove his authority, we read Jesus answers to them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days”. Even though the Jews understood it as referring to the actual temple in Jerusalem, but John tells us that Jesus refers to his body. The raising of the temple here is pointing to the coming event when Jesus rose from the dead. Here Davies argues that when Jesus here spoke of his resurrection, Jesus was also suggesting the coming of the Church into being, namely through his resurrection. Hence, like the story of the water turning into wine, Davis contends that the cleansing of the Temple is a sign that in the coming of Jesus a new order has begun. He asserts that Judaism has given place to the Gospel; the Old Israel has given way to the New Israel, namely the Church as indicated by the old order of purification to a new. “The Johannine ‘signs’ of Jesus, A Companion, 96.

[15] We find from Jesus words in John 3:5-8 that the main idea here is that the entry into the kingdom of God, or the new order, is only possible by the invasive dynamic energy of God himself, in the presence of the Spirit. And that cannot be controlled at all by human being. Human effort alone will not avail to gain entrance into the kingdom, but a radical activity of God, which is symbolized by the water of baptism.

[16] In John 4:19-26 we find Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritans woman. Jesus asserts to the Samaritans woman that he himself has become the “place” where God and man meet in spirit and truth. Hence, as John has declared in the Prologue that Jesus tabernacles among his people, here in this chapter, Jesus has replaced both Gerizim and Jerusalem, the supreme holy places for both the Samaritans and Jews, as the place for worship. This new order of worship in and through him is already a present fact. Notice the words, “ Yet a time is coming and now is…” ( kai nun estin) in verse 23.

[17] Carson, John, 98.

[18] Lindars, John, 131. Bernard, John, 1, 81. Hoskyns points out that purification was also the theme of John the Baptist, as it was of the law of Moses under which the wedding feast lived. Therefore, Hoskyns asserts that to do this sign was very relevant and effective for Jesus’ disciples in directing their faith. The Fourth, 186.

[19] So Merrill C. Tenney, BibSac 132, 147.

[20] The question as to whether Jesus is the hoped-for Messiah is a lively one (1:41, 45; 7:26f, 31, 41f; 10: 24f; 11:27; 12:34). But Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah in a special and unique sense, as the Son of Man come down from heaven, as the Son of God sent by the Father and united to him, bringing revelation and light. Schnackenburg, 337.

[21] In line with this view, scholars refer to John 2:6 “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons”.

[22] For the use of wine as a symbol for the new order of the Gospel, see Mt.9:17; Mk.2:22; Lk.5:37.

[23] So W.D. Davies, “The Johannine ‘Signs’ of Jesus”, in Michael J. Taylor S.J. (ed), A Companion to John. Readings in Johannine Theology (John’s Gospel and Epistles), 95.

[24] The text lends most support to the frequently expressed view that the story represents Jesus’ break with Judaism and the superiority of the New Testament to the Old. The precious wine of the Gospel is contrasted with the water of Jewish rites of purification, the order of grace with that of the law (cf.1:17). Commentators appeal to the intrinsic connection with the purging of the temple which follows (2:13-22) and even with the dialogue with Nicodemus (chp.3), all which constitute a clash with Judaism. However we need to ask whether John is really hostile to Jewish purifications, since he also mentions ritual customs without disparagement (cf. 7:22; 111:55; 18:28; 19:40). The encounter with the Jews gives rise above all to the question of faith, as is particularly clear in the Nicodemus episode, where the representative of legalistic Judaism is displayed in no unsympathetic light.

[25] R.E. Brown, John, I, 105. Further, Brown links John 2 with the previous chapter. The reason is that he finds the presence of the Wisdom motif in the call of the disciples. The book of Proverbs describes how Wisdom prepares a banquet for men, inviting them to eat of her bread and drink of her wine.[25] “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed” (Prov.9:5). The act of dining at Wisdom’s table and drinking her wine is a symbol for accepting her message. The Wisdom motif will be clear in John 6 where Jesus is the bread of life who feeds men with doctrine – a scene set in Galilee just before Passover (6:4). Here, at Cana in Galilee just before Passover (2:13), we are informed that Jesus gives men wine abundance to drink, and this leads his disciples to believe in him. It seems, on a comparative basis we can find the Wisdom motif is intended at Cana. This may also tie in with the replacement motif. In Sirach, Wisdom is in many ways equivalent to the Law. It is not the bread and wine of the Law that feeds men, but Jesus himself, the incarnation of divine Wisdom.

[26] Brown writes that the abundance of wine (120 gallons) now becomes intelligible. It is interesting to notice that one of the consistent OT figures for the joy of the final days is an abundance of wine (Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jer.31:12). Enoch 10:19 predicts that the vine shall yield wine in abundance; and in II Bar. 29:5 (a Jewish apocryphon almost contemporary with the Fourth Gospel) we find an exuberantly fantastic description of this abundance: the earth shall yield its fruit then thousandfold: each vine shall have 1000 branches; each branch 1000 cluster; each cluster 1000 grapes; and each grape about 120 gallons of wine. John, I, 105.

[27] H.C. Kee, Jesus in History. An Approach to the Study of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, 1977), 22f.

[28] Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.16.7