XI. THE THEOLOGY OF THE SIGNS IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
Subjects reviewed in this chapter:
The Central Role of the Signs – The Central Theology in John – The Signs as the Route to Faith: John and the Synoptics, Signs of Faith – When the Signs Fail – Conclusions
Much attention in recent years has been directed to the significance and function of signs in the Gospel of John. The focus on signs has resulted from studies in the redaction, structure and theology of the gospel.1 We wish to concentrate on the theological role of the signs, with reference to structure or redaction insofar as these impinge on the theology.
The Central Role of the Signs
In John 20:30-31, the signs are clearly assigned a fundamental role in respect to the purpose of the gospel. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
These verses are universally recognized as the purpose of the gospel in its present form.2
Identifying the purpose has become complicated because of revised understandings of the structure of the gospel. Rudolf Bultmann argued that three sources lie embedded in the gospel: a signs source, a discourse source, and a passion narrative.3 J. Louis Martyn, building on Bultmann, contended that the signs source was basic, to which was added and interlaced the discourse material.4 Robert Fortna argued that the signs source was a proto-gospel and influenced the canonical gospel throughout.5 That the gospel was constructed from sources and has undergone redaction is now commonly accepted by critical scholars.6 John 20:30-31, accordingly is the purpose of the signs source, but may not reflect the purpose of the whole gospel.
In our perspective the gospel is a literary unity, and John 20:30-31 does indeed set forth the purpose of the gospel, which in turn highlights the theology of the signs.7 Certain features noted by scholars are therefore not so much interlaced sources, but the result of the manner in which the gospel reached its canonical form,8 a position similar to that of Raymond Brown, Rudolf Schnackenburg, and C.K. Barrett.9
The Central Theology in John
According to John 20:30-31, the signs which Jesus performed were many.10 It is our judgment, despite a popular view that the specific signs number seven, the author, in fact, did not intend a catalog comprised of any specific number.11 What is significant about the first two signs is that they occurred in Cana of Galilee.12 The RSV translates 2:11 “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee . . .” Though he is not arguing my point, Barrett translates it, “Jesus did this as the first of his signs [in Cana of Galilee].”13 While scholars freely substitute among the specific signs, they seldom challenge the number as seven. The reason is that seven serves as a wedge for championing a non-consensus entry.14 A better ground, we contend, is frank recognition that the seven framework is a scholarly construct.15
Many incidents in addition to the detailed miracle stories at minimum possess the same stages of faith as signs and perhaps therefore qualify as signs, for example, Jesus’ encounter with Nathanael, his remarks to Nicodemus regarding being born from above (John 3:1-13), Jesus’ statements to the woman at the well (John 4:10-19),16 and most importantly the death and resurrection of Jesus (John 20:10-29) which immediately preceded the signs statement.17 We will argue this conclusion again in discussing Nathanael and the woman at the well. The signs were legion, suggesting accumulative proof, but John was not interested in numbers for numbers’ sake. Faith building, for him, involved recounting certain powerful signs from among the myriads which occurred. We conclude that neither the structure nor the theology of John is dependent on the elsewhere significant number “seven.”18
The purpose for the signs was either to bring people to belief, to confirm beliefs already held, or both.19 We are inclined to think John had in mind first of all deepening the faith of believers, but he was also concerned with bringing others to faith, aroused by those who single mindedly believed in Jesus. The signs lead to a faith which specifically affirms Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God.”20 In the language of the gospel this means concretely that Jesus was sent from God (John 5:36) and therefore possessed the very nature of God (1:1-3).21 This faith results in life for the believer. In the context of the gospel, “life” no doubt connotes “eternal life” (John 3:15-16; 4:13-14) which begins here and now, though death occurs even for the believer.22
These then are the central theological seams running through the gospel. The question remains as to the manner in which John perceives the signs as. bringing about deepened faith. Do the signs automatically and without misappropriation or failure lead to faith?
The Signs as the Route to Faith
John and the Synoptics In the Gospel of John the signs are pointers. It is appropriate first of all to ascertain that to which they point. By contrasting John with the synoptics the object of faith becomes clear. In John the miracles are focused upon who Jesus is, that is the preexistent one sent from God. This purpose is unmistakable in John 12:37: “Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him.” For John, what is at stake is the recognition and confession of Jesus as divine son.
In the synoptics the miracles of Jesus are primarily acts of power through which the reign of God is established in a world of opposition and evil. They also serve as indicators that the prophecies in regard to the Messianic age are being fulfilled.23 The word most typically used is dynamis, commonly translated either “mighty work” or “miracle” but most frequently “power” or “powers.”24 In contrast with the synoptics, John reports no miracles which serve to counteract the power of Satan including even exorcisms, though hostility exists between Satan and Jesus (13:27; 14:30; 16:33).25
In John, the divinely empowered actions of Jesus are normally called “works” or “signs.”26 “Works” as a description of Jesus’ activities, equates what Jesus did with the prior work of God. “My Father is working still, and I am working,” (5:17). “Works” has a larger field of meaning than either sign or miracle, but it includes both. Jesus’ work encompasses his words as well as his action. “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works,” (14:10). The manner in which the works of Jesus are paralleled with those of God make it clear that his works identify him as sent from God. “The works which the Father has granted me to accomplish, these very works which I am doing, bear me witness that the Father has sent me,” (5:36).
In John, signs are divinely empowered acts or words which demand a decision for or against who Jesus is, that is, the preexistent one sent from God. In the synoptics, in contrast, the heavenly signs are either eschatological clues heralding the inbreaking of the kingdom, or a proof demanded by unbelievers. In Acts, signs and wonders are the miracles of Jesus and the apostles.27 Signs do not occur in John to adumbrate the coming kingdom (that is eschatological) perhaps because for John the incarnation of Jesus means that the kingdom is now present. “Signs” occur in John as a demand (2:18; 6:30), but more characteristically signify the decisive works or miracles of Jesus. They are a stage on the way to belief, and ultimately to sonship (1:12) and life for those who epitomize true faith. They point beyond themselves. As Brown stated, “If Jesus gives life to Lazarus, the remarks of Jesus (xi 24-26) show that the restoration of physical life is important only as a sign of the gift of eternal life.”28 But the signs obviously do not always attain their intended end.
Signs of Faith
We are now ready to address the question of how it is that signs bring about faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (20:31).29 It is helpful to identify five stages on the road to faith. The sign at the wedding in Cana may function as a paradigm.
As the text now stands, Andrew affirmed that Jesus is Messiah, though earlier he had called him Rabbi. Other disciples attached themselves to Jesus; one unnamed (1:35-41), as well as Peter, Philip and Nathanael. It is these disciples and perhaps others who were invited to the wedding in Cana. Since the disciples are the ones singled out, we need to focus on them.
1) The first stage of faith is the inclination or predisposition to believe that Jesus possesses unusual powers.30 These followers are already predisposed to expect the extraordinary from Jesus. A second factor now enters, the confidence or faith of Mary who preceded both Jesus and the disciples to the wedding (2:1-5). Mary is committed to the power of Jesus’ word, “Do whatever he tells you,” (2:5).31
2) The faith of another (or others) is a catalyst for a chain reaction of faith in the presence of a sign.
The sign now occurs. Six stone jars for Jewish rites of purification were filled to the brim. Jesus asked the servant to draw some out and take it to the steward. The steward after tasting it declared the water now wine superior to that served earlier.
3) The sign commences with a common, ordinary physical entity. But something occurs to that entity as the result of Jesus’ word, which points beyond the physical, demanding explanation. The sign therefore elicits wonder, a puzzle, and to some looking on a misapprehension. The steward could not fathom the quality of the wine.32 The revision in the physical entity itself points to a caring, helping God. A crisis was averted at the wedding by the abundant supply of wine.33 The sign is not a marvel for its own sake. In the words of Barrett, it is “. . . a symbolic anticipation or showing forth of a greater reality of which the semeion is nevertheless itself a part.”34
An explanation for a sign is more often than not endemic to the context, rather than an overt verbal explication. In this case the water turned to wine not only demands powers from beyond, but also prefigures a radical change in the grounds of purification for all humankind.35 The sign therefore points beyond itself with twofold or even multifold meanings.36
4) With people for whom signs create belief one discovers a curiosity, an openness to the prospect that there is more to the specific word or action than meets the eye. Behind and beyond this physical event are powers reaching in from God himself. The steward had cause for wonderment, but he knew little about the chain of events. The servants knew from where the liquid in the jars came, but they knew little about Jesus. The disciples, however, were primed with expectancy. They were open. “His disciples believed in him,” (2:11). Their faith had now reached a higher plateau. This was not yet the apex, but they were launched.37 Even after the resurrection, signs from earlier moments etched indelibly on the memory, additionally deepened faith (2:18-21).
But what is the faith of the disciples when they believed in him? It was, of course, commitment to Jesus as a person.38 The sign was not the reality. It pointed to the reality – Jesus sent from God – and demanded faith.
5) In the context already established in John, the events at the wedding established with additional clarity that Jesus was the “Word become flesh,” the “only Son from the Father,” (1:14). His glory was manifested (2:11), that is, his divinity, the same as when God tented among his people in the past, pinpointed by the presence of his glory (Exodus 40:34-38).
It is now appropriate to isolate the five stages of faith and ascertain, first of all, whether these characterize the traditional catalog. The five stages are: (1) a predisposition to believe that Jesus possesses extraordinary powers, (2) a person or group of strong faith providing a catalyst, (3) the sign, involving both event and contextual interpretation, (4) an openness to perceive the transcendent dimension to which the sign points, and (5) a profound conviction that Jesus is Son of God, was sent to reveal God, and to die for the sins of humankind. Examining the other six traditional signs with the five stages in mind, these difficulties accrue: no predisposition on the part of the man born blind is suggested in the text; no catalyst is identified in the healing of the lame man and the feeding of the five thousand, though the disciples presumed to be present likely serve this function; in the case of Jesus walking on the water stages 1 and 2 are obscure, and 4 and 5 missing;39 and finally, it is not clear in the case of the lame man that he came to faith. Despite these few difficulties, however, the succeeding six traditional signs confirm, in an amazing manner, the stages of faith in our paradigm – the water changed to wine at Cana.
We now turn to the surprising presence of these stages in the encounters of Jesus with Nathanael, Nicodemus, and the Samaritan woman at the well, but developing at length only the latter. On John's grounds, extraordinary statements during the encounters qualify at minimum as faith inciters, but we are justified, we think, in perceiving them as signs even though scholars with empirical predilections locate the signs in action rather than in words.40 Kysar paves the way by noting that the path to faith involves hearing as well as seeing,41 but he fails to follow through, identifying as signs only actions which may be seen.
We would like now to notice briefly how the encounters with Nathanael and Nicodemus involve the characteristics of a sign. The sign in each case is an extraordinary – necessitating power from beyond – statement. In the Nathanael story Jesus’ statement, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you,” (1:48) has these features, as also does Jesus’ declaration to Nicodemus, “You must be born anew,” (3:7). In regard to the other steps: (1) the predisposition of each is obvious (1:47; 3:2); (2) others of faith are present in the case of Nathanael (1:45), and perhaps the disciples with Nicodemus though the text does not so state; (3) the sign, i.e., the statement creates wonderment; (4) the openness to Jesus as God is clear with Nathanael (1:49), and perhaps later with Nicodemus (19:39), and (5) both begin the road to faith that Jesus is Son of God, Messiah (1:49). So whether signs, and we think in John’s sense they qualify, these astounding statements replicate the same path to faith.42
The account of the woman at the well exhibits the same characteristics. She is not predisposed to sense anything unusual about Jesus, but her puzzlement grows until she rushes home in astonishment. She is first struck by the fact that he, a Jew, speaks with her (4:9). Then she is puzzled by his comments on living water (4:10-15). But what really triggered the numinous was Jesus' remarks about her husbands (4:28-29). Because of what he described in regard to her private life, she sensed divine presence. The Samaritan woman's excitement was catalytic. The people were predisposed to hear Jesus out (4:39). Jesus spent two days with the Samaritans, who believed because they heard for themselves (4:42). Notice that belief resulted from what the woman and and her fellow inhabitants heard! According to Kysar, “Belief in the word (logos) of Christ is for John more mature and authentic than faith in his works.”43 The word creating faith had a divine aura; it was not an ordinary word. The word sired the same progeny as the sign, and just perhaps qualified as a sign. At their optimum efficacy signs point to Jesus as sent from God, and lead ultimately to faith in Jesus as disclosing the true reality both here and beyond.
When the Signs Fail
The signs do not automatically produce faith. They by no means exhibit ex opera operato. The offspring of Bultmann’s source theory locate a tension in the text regarding signs and faith. The assertion is that the signs source regarded the signs as maximizing faith, whereas the later redactor (for conve nience designated John) mitigated, if not repudiated those who believed because of the signs.44 It is appropriate to ask whether Bultmann has not inadvertently distracted scholars from the tension in humankind to a so-called tension in the text. The gospel makes it clear that faith travels a rocky road. An intense moment of faith may be followed by a groping in the dark. Faith lifts the believer out of the chasm only to stand by as he sinks back into the abyss for rescuing anew (6:6, 18, 66, 68-69; 14:5; 18:17). No single ground of faith settles the plight of man once for all, whether action or word. The vicissitudes of faith are more than a pedestrian tension in the text. They are the ultimate reality of humanness. For John it takes the full action of God and the Counselor (15:26-16:11) in sign and word to overcome the human failure to recognize (1:10) the savior of the world (4:42). Tensions do exist in the text and we are indebted to those who call them to our attention. Can it be that the tensions are theological rather than literary?
We will scrutinize 6:25-34 as a paradigm for the failure of signs, with reference to other texts.45 This pericope follows the feeding of the five thousand and refers back to it. The feeding was explicitly identified as a sign (6:14). To those who crossed the sea, Jesus declared “. . . you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” (1:26). Those so accused are called the people (ochlos). Most typically in John those who fail to believe are the Jews,46 but also the world (7:7; 16:9), and Judas (6:64). Unbelief therefore does not commence from closure to transcendent reality or to divine activity in human history. Unbelievers in John confess the God of Israel and his mighty deeds, past and present. Belief fails, the signs collapse, rather because these descendants of Abraham do not perceive divine Sonship in Jesus. Jesus exhorts the crowd to labor for a different food supplied by the son of man (6:27).47 The word “labor” caused them to ask what they must do so as to do the works of God. By his answer Jesus made it clear that to see the sign is to recognize transcendence in his ministry. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” (6:29).
Despite the fact that they had experienced the multiplication of the loaves and fishes they did not perceive the power of God. They were so closed off, they unwittingly proposed as an example of a sign Moses’ manna, oblivious to the food Jesus miraculously supplied. Jesus pointed out that it was God who supplied the bread; furthermore, he provides the true bread which is Jesus himself (6:35). Belief, a human manifestation of the work of God (6:29), results in believers who are given the Son by God (6:37). Those who believe in the Son will have eternal life and will be raised up in the last day (6:40).48 Contrariwise, those who fail to believe are condemned now and forever (3:18). Clearly, therefore, when the signs become an end in themselves and do not point to the reality, that is, the power of God in Jesus, they fail. Signs produce genuine faith when they bring those observing them to a single-hearted conviction that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” (20:31).
John makes it clear that people believe when circumstances or a community of faith empowered by the Holy Spirit attest to Jesus’ Sonship. It is then that signs may direct the believer to the transcendent reality, that is, God himself. Signs contribute to the stages of faith; but they are never an end in themselves. A community of faith which relishes miracles above the God who gives them is on the wrong track. The signs they see dazzle and blind them to the God who loves and extends eternal life (17:20-26). Faith is not a once-for-all intense possession. Faith grows and flourishes through a willingness to see and hear the continuous activity of God, in his church (the sheepfold 10:27-29; the vine and branches 15:1-11), and in the nexus of the life, light, truth, love and glory authenticated by the Son.