Saturday of Trinity 21: The Signs of John

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This again is the second sign Jesus did when He had come out of Judea into Galilee.

One of the theories of the Gospel of John is that it is divided into four parts, a prologue, the book of signs, the book of glory, and an epilogue. The book of signs is the bulk of the first half, while the book of glory is the bulk of the second half, encompassing his last supper and passion.

The book of signs has seven signs, so the theory goes, according to the seven days of creation. The resurrection, then, would be with the eighth sign, pointing forward to a new creation.

Here are the seven signs:

1. Changing water into wine
2. Healing the nobleman’s son
3. Healing of the paralytic
4. Feeding the 5,000
5. Walking on water
6. Healing of the blind man
7. Raising of Lazarus

There is no consensus about this numbering. Some argue for six signs; others couple signs together. For my money, the structure may be a bit contrived. Only two miracles are listed as actual signs, the changing of water into wine and the healing of the nobleman’s son. But looking at the actual word “sign” in the Gospel, there seem to be only six signs.

Here is a listing of the verses:

1. This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. (Changing water into wine.)

2. This again is the second sign Jesus did when He had come out of Judea into Galilee. (Healing of the nobleman’s son.)

3. Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased. (General healing of the diseased.)

4. Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” (Feeding the 5,000.)

5. How can a man who is a sinner do such signs? (Healing of the blind man.)

6. For this reason the people also met Him, because they heard that He had done this sign. (Raising of Lazarus.)

Most people add the walking on water to this list, and specify the healing of the paralytic. Neither is listed as a sign. However, the general healing of the diseased is listed as “signs.”

On one hand I’m skeptical of structures imposed on the Gospel that can lead to finding things where nothing exists. On the other hand, John begins to number the “signs” but then ends after two, as if he got bored with the device, or the device could no longer contain the wonders he was testifying to. As he said at the end of the Gospel, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His 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.”

Also, if the creation typology is driving the seven signs, they certainly don’t pair up with the days, something we’d expect John to do were he working that theme. This doesn’t take away, however, from the fact that creation theology dominates the Gospel of John. Clearly it’s a major theme. Also, there’s no doubt that there is an “eighth day typology” going on with the Gospel, that Jesus is inaugurating a new creation.

Another way to look at the issue is to list merely the miracles, the specified ones (not the general statement of Jesus healing the “diseased”), which produces the seven signs listed above.

Lots of raw data, all of it eluding an attempt to formulate it according to a structure. John begins numbering the signs, then drops the numbering, while different themes carry the freight forward. The book of Revelation runs this way too, with seven this and seven that popping up here and embedded in that. It too eludes structure.

Perhaps that’s the point, and the reason why some claim John’s is a Gnostic Gospel. Gnosticism often runs with the idea that the grace of God bursts all our attempts to formulate it. But there is a way to talk in this way without being Gnostic, as St. Paul does when he talks of the width and breadth and depth of Christ’s love and about a God who will give us exceedingly above all that we can ask for or think of.

Whatever the numbering and reasons for the miracles reported, we can most certainly settle with John’s words at the end of the Gospel, quoted above and several times with this Gospel: “these [signs] 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.”

The purpose of the signs is get us to baptism, to receiving life in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and to confess the Apostles’ Creed. Whatever miracles you pick from John reveal this in some way.

The wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000, and the walking on water reveal Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. The healing of the nobleman’s son, blind man, and paralytic, and the raising of Lazarus reveal that there is life in Jesus’ name. Of course there is crossover on each of these, and subtle details to explore. These details keep us gloriously busy diving into the depths of the mystery, the glories of God’s grace.

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