In my previous post, I claimed that the concept of ‘sign’ in John’s gospel has a specific, intentional meaning. I suggested that part of this meaning is a miraculous activity by Jesus. However, in the interim I found this excellent essay by New Testament scholar Andreas Kostenberger. In it, Kostenberger points out that the Old Testament tradition of ‘signs’ moves away from the miraculous toward the non-miraculous. For instance, in the Book of Exodus, Moses is given the ability to perform miraculous deeds to authenticate the authority given to him by God (see Exodus 4:8-9). However, as the prophetic tradition develops, ‘signs’ take on a more symbolic function while still authenticating the prophets ministry (see Ezekiel 4:1-3 as a clear instance of this).

Identifying the signs in John’s Gospel hinges upon whether the miraculous is necessary for the event to be a ‘sign’ or not. Kostenberger contends that it is not, arguing that signs are public actions that reveal Jesus’s participation in God’s glory and are all pre-resurrection actions that point to the resurrection. Kostenberger’s paper is persuasive and it has caused me to re-evaluate my own understanding of the number of signs in John’s Gospel. The fruit of this labor is below.

There are six undisputed signs in the Gospel of John.

  1. Chapter 2:1-12: Jesus turns water into wine (a sequence of events that will figure prominently below).
  2. Chapter 4:46-54: Jesus heals the official’s son (see verse 54)
  3. Chapter 5:2-17: Jesus heals the man at the Pool of Bethesda (for justification that this is a ‘sign,’ see Jesus’s reference to it in 7:21-24 and the subsequent question by the people in 7:31).
  4. Chapter 6:1-15: Jesus feeds the 5000 (referred to as a sign in 14 and 26)
  5. Chapter 9: Jesus heals the man born blind (see 9:16)
  6. Chapter 11:1-44: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (see verse 46)

The fact that there are six undisputed signs lends itself to the natural inquiry about what the seventh sign is. Kostenberger contends that Jesus’s cleansing of the temple in 2:13-21 is the seventh sign. While the actions are clearly not miraculous (contra my previous post), they certainly authenticate Jesus’s authority and engender belief amongst those who witness them (see 2:23). Additionally, if this is actually a sign, then the seventh sign is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead–an action that obviously prefigures his own resurrection. Additionally, the inclusion of the cleansing of the temple makes a neat symmetry in the geographical locations of the first six signs: Galilee/Jerusalem/Galilee, Jerusalem/Galilee/Jerusalem. The seventh sign happens in Bethany.

While this seems immensely persuasive to me, there are questions that I have. For instance, the point of signs in John seems to engender present belief in those who witness them. Additionally, Jesus tells the Pharisees that the sign he will perform will be his death and resurrection. While this indicates that they have missed the symbolic nature of his cleansing the temple (as did the disciples), it also indicates that the resurrection is itself a ‘sign.’ Additionally, the placement of 20:30 (just after the appearance narratives) indicates that the resurrection is a sign (this is obviously pushing it, but 20:30-31 seems to textually echo 2:23-25).

Could there be eight signs in the Gospel of John? The question matters. John is working out of a thoroughly Jewish mindset. To play numerologist for a minute, seven signifies something like completion or fulfillment in the Jewish framework. On the seventh day of creation in Genesis, God rested from his labors (i.e. they were completed). This concept of ‘completion’ and its association with the number ‘seven’ is not absent from John. Most famously, there are seven “I am” statements by Jesus in John’s Gospel. Less noticeable, yet absolutely crucial, is that Jesus’s first sign in John (water into wine) is performed on the ‘seventh’ day.

After the prologue (1:1-18), John turns to the testimony of John the Baptist. I reference only the chronology for this point. 1:19-28 seems to occur on one day. In 1:29, John (the disciple) mentions that it is now ‘the next day’ (which is the second day). He does the same in 1:35 (day three) and 1:43 (day four). However, at 2:1, John specifically mentions that it is ‘the third day.’ Unless John has returned to the day that occurs on 1:35-42, which seems unlikely given that he has his disciples with him at the wedding, that makes the day of the wedding day seven in the Gospel of John.

That the wedding happens on the seventh day is significant from the sign itself. Jesus turns water into wine. However, the water was contained in ‘six stone water jars set aside for Jewish purification.’ The wine that Jesus makes is considered superior to the wine that had been previously served. In other words, on the seventh day, Jesus uses six Jewish water-pots to make new wine to replace old wine. The symbolism is fairly obvious: John seems to be suggesting that the Old Testament covenant is, on its own, incomplete or imperfect. It is this covenant that is fulfilled by Jesus–the new wine–on the seventh day, the day of completion. However, he works out of and through the Old Covenant. Rather than breaking the water pots, he uses them for a different purpose–to manifest his own glory (see 4:11). As he says in John 4:22, ‘salvation is from the Jews.’

I take it, then, that ‘seven’ is a significant number in the Gospel of John and signifies completion or fulfillment. This has obvious implications for the nature of the seventh sign. Originally, this made me consider the resurrection the ‘seventh sign.’ Jesus offers his final authentication of his authority through the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenant was my thought. Now I am in a textual quandry, as I remain persuaded that the resurrection is a sign while also persuaded by Dr. Kostenberger. If Dr. Kostenberger is correct, then the seventh sign is still a fulfillment or completion–it is simply the completion of the signs themselves (and the penultimate prophetic symbol of Jesus’s own resurrection).

Hence, I have further reflection to do about the number of signs in John. The implications are significant. If there are actually eight verifiable signs, then that raises the question of why John would depart from what I think is an obvious numerological pattern in John. I have guesses as to why he might do this, but few clear answers.

Part of my project has been to demonstrate some of the subtleties of John’s Gospel. In this, I think I have succeeded.

*Kostenberger claims that the resurrection cannot be a sign because the “resurrection is the reality to which the signs point.” However, this conflates the nature of ‘signs’ and ‘symbols.’ While some of the signs in John’s gospel are ‘symbolic,’ they do not all seem to meet this requirement. Whereas the feeding of the 5000 might be viewed as symbolic of his death and resurrection, the healing of the officials’ son does not fit this qualification. In identifying ‘signs’ in John’s Gospel, it seems crucial to identify a criterion that extends across all six (or seven). ‘Symbolic’ fails to meet this requirement.

Secondly, Kostenberger’s contention that the ‘signs’ in John are preliminary in nature rests upon the concept that signs are ‘symbol laden.’ However, the healing of the official’s son does not seem (to this untrained eye) symbol laden. This means that the criterion ‘public action to authenticate authority’ (which includes symbol laden and miraculous events) opens the door for post-resurrection ‘signs’ (since they are overtly public, authenticating actions).

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

3 Comments

  1. Have you read D.A. Carson’s late response (took him fifteen years!) to Fee’s argument that the Gospel of John isn’t apologetic in purpose? “Syntactical and text-crtical observations on the John 20:30-31: One more round on the purpose of the Fourth Gospel.” In the Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 2005. (I have a PDF if you don’t have easy access.)

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  2. Jim,

    I haven’t read it and (in fact) wasn’t aware of the discussion. I’ll find it later this week and try to read through it. I have JSTOR access and I think JBL is on there…I’ll let you know if I don’t get it.

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  3. If the assumption that John uses a numeric formula can support the weight often placed on that, then finding eight miracles, for example, does not need to be addressed in terms of why it is not seven.

    Eight may simply be taken to be the first of the next seven, the light of the New Creation. Such an interpretation holds the mystical and the symbolic attributed to John.

    Sorry, just stumbled in here (about five years too late).

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