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The sign (sêmeion) in the Gospel of John

The Greek noun “sêmeion” means “sign”, (in French: signe; Vietnamese: dấu chỉ, dấu lạ). In usual meaning, a sign allows to recognize a message that it refers to. For example, fever is a sign of infection. The word “sign” is used in mathematical language or symbols. Generally, a “sign” only has its sense when it is placed in a system.
The “miracles” of Jesus is an important topic in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). Jesus does miracles over nature, miracles of healing, exorcism, especially miracles of raising the dead. These miracles revealed Jesus’ power over nature, disease and death. The Synoptic Gospels use the Greek word “dunamis” (power) to describe “miracle”. In general, the Greek word “dunamis” can be translated into English by “miracle”. For example, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says to his disciples in Mk 9:39b: “No one who does a mighty work (dunamin) in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me.” The biblical citations in this article are taken from Revised Standard Version - Second Catholic Edition (RSV-SCE). The “mighty work (dunamin)” in this verse (Mk 9:39b) has the sense “miracle” as in the translation of the New American Standard Bible (NAS): “There is no one who shall perform a miracle (dunamin) in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me” (Mk 9:39b). Another case appears in Mk 6:2, the narrator reports the surprise of the people on Jesus’ miracle: “On the sabbath he (Jesus) began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works (hai dunameis) are wrought by his hands!” (Mk 6:2, RSV-SCE). The New American Standard Bible (NAS) uses the word “miracles” instead of “mighty works”: “What is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles (hai dunameis) as these performed by His hands?” (Mk 6:2, NAS). 
The Gospel of John relates some miracles included in the Synoptic Gospels and has some others which do not appear in the latter Gospels. It is worth noting that in the Gospel of John, the narrator does not use the word “miracle” (dunamis), but utilizes the word “sign” (sêmeion) to talk about Jesus’ miracle. The word “sign” (sêmeion) has a theological significance in the Gospel of John: Jesus is the doer of signs, and he reveals himself the meanings of the signs. For example, the meaning of the sign: Multiplication of the loaves (Jn 6:1-15) is explained by Jesus in the bread of life discourse (Jn 6:25-59). In Jn 11, Jesus reveals to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25a) before calling Lazarus to come out of the tomb (11:43). How many signs are related in the Gospel of John? How does the narrator use of the word “sign” (sêmeion) in the narrative? What do characters in the story say about the signs of Jesus? This article will answer these questions.
The term “sign” (sêmeion) appears 17 times in the Gospel of John: 2:11,18,23; 3:2; 4:48,54; 6:2,14,26,30; 7:31; 9:16; 10:41; 11:47; 12:18.37; 20:30. Therein, 11 times are as plural noun “sêmeia” (signs): 2:11,23; 3:2; 4:48; 6:2,26; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:37; 20:30; and 6 times are as singular noun “sêmeion” (sign): 2:18; 4:54; 6:14,30; 10:41; 12:18. The theme of “sêmeion” (sign) in the Gospel of John will be treated in three parts: (I) Signs that Jesus performs; (II) Talking about the signs of Jesus; (III) Other uses of the word “sign”.

I. Signs that Jesus performs

The term “sêmeion” (sign) appears 7 times to describe the signs that Jesus performs (2:11; 4:54; 7:31; 6:14,26; 9:16; 12:18). We can consider there are eight signs in John’s Gospel. Therein, six signs are clearly determined with the term: “sêmeion” (sign): (1) Changing water into wine at Cana (2:1-12); (2) Healing the royal official’s son (4:43-54); (3) Healing the paralytic atBethzatha pool (5:1-18); (4) Feeding the multitude (6:1-15); (5) Healing the blind at birth (9:1-41); (6) Calling Lazarus out of his tomb (11:1-46). Then two signs are not determined by “sêmeion” (sign), however they have the characteristic of “sign”, such as the 7th sign: “Walking on the Sea ofTiberias” (6:16-20) and the 8th sign: “Catching 153 fishes in the Sea ofTiberias” (21:1-14). Following are the details of the eight signs in John’s Gospel.

    1) Changing water into wine at Cana (2:1-12)

After relating the story of changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana (2:1-10), the narrator writes in 2:11: “This, the first of his signs (sêmeiôn), Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The phrase “the first of his signs (sêmeiôn), Jesus did”announces a series of Jesus’ signs reported in the Gospel.

    2) Healing the royal official’s son (4:43-54)
The second sign is reported in 4:43-54: Jesus heals the son of a royal official. The narrator concludes the story in 4:54: “This was now the second sign (sêmeion) that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee.”This second sign which happens at Cana (4:46), refers to the first one: Changing water into wine at Cana (2:1-12).

    3) Healing the paralytic at Bethzatha pool (5:1-18)

In the story of healing the paralytic at Bethzatha pool (5:1-18), the term “sêmeion” (sign) does not appear. Nevertheless, in the discussion with the Jews in 7:14-29, Jesus alludes to the healing of a sick man in 5:1-18; and the crowd qualifies that deed as a sign.
Jesus says to the Jews in 7:23: “If on the sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?” Jesus’ saying: “On the sabbath I made a man’s whole body well” (7:23b) refers to the healing the paralyzed man in 5:1-18 on the sabbath (5:9,10,16). At the end of the discussion in 7:14-29, the narrator talks about the faith of the crowd and their remark on the Jesus’ signs in 7:31: “Many of the people believed in him (Jesus); they said, ‘When the Christ appears, will he do more signs (sêmeia) than this man has done?’” In the context of 7:14-36, the plural noun “signs (sêmeia)” here (7:31b) includes the sign of healing of the sick man in 5:1-18.

    4) Feeding the multitude (6:1-15)

The fourth sign in John’s Gospel is the multiplication of the loaves (6:1-15). The narrator relates in 6:14: “When the people saw the sign (sêmeion) which he (Jesus) had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!’” After that, the crowd seeks Jesus and finds him (6:25a) on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, they say to him in 6:25b: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answers them in 6:26: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs (sêmeia), but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” In this verse, Jesus uses the plural noun “signs” (sêmeia). He refers to the multiplication of the loaves and othersigns. Jesus’ reproach in 6:26 is ironic, because the crowd only sees the wonder of this event; they do not understand the multiplication of the loavesas a sign. The significance of the sign: “multiplication of the loaves” (6:1-15) will be revealed later in the bread of life discourse (6:25-59).
    5) Healing the blind at birth (9:1-41)

The fifth sign is the story of a man born blind received his sight (9:1-41). The word “sign” does not appear in the narrative of the healing (9:6-7), but in the discussion after the healing (9:8-34), the Pharisees consider this case as a sign. The narrator relates in 9:16: “Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man (Jesus) is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner do such signs (sêmeia)?’ There was a division among them.” The term “sign” in this verse is a plural noun “signs” (9:16), including the sign of the man born blind who received his sight (9:1-41).
   6) Calling Lazarus out of his tomb (11:1-46)

The sixth sign is the raising of Lazarus (11:1-46). This story is qualified as a sign when Jesus enters Jerusalem in 12:12-19. The narrator makes known that the people who welcome Jesus’ coming into Jerusalem are the eyewitnesses of the raising of Lazarus in 11:41-45. The narrator reports in 12:17-18: “17 The crowd that had been with him (Jesus) when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign (sêmeion).” This sign of Lazarus’ raising is the last one in Jesus’ ministry and its theological meaning is very important, because with this signJesus presages his death and his resurrection; at the same time, he promises the true life for believers of all time. Indeed, the raising of Lazarus (11:41-45) enlightens Jesus’ revelation to Martha in 11:25-26a: “25 I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26a and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

    7) Walking on the Sea of Galilee (6:16-20)

In 6:16-20, Jesus walks on the Sea of ​​ Galilee to come to his disciples who go across the sea by boat in a strong wind. Only the disciples witness this scene. The word “sign” does not appear in this story. However, it has two characteristics of Johannine sign: (1) Jesus walks on the water. The narrator reports in 6:19-20: “19 When they (disciples) had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat. They were frightened, 20 but he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’” This action reveals the power of Jesus over the nature’s law. (2) The boat marvelously arrives at shore, because the narrator relate in 6:21: “They (disciples) were glad to take him (Jesus) into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.” Through these extraordinary details, we can consider this “walking on the Sea” (6:16-20) as a sign.

    8) Catching 153 fishes in the Sea of Tiberias (21:1-14)

Similarly to the story of walking on the water (6:16-20), the narrative of catching 153 fishes in the Sea of Tiberias (21:1-14) is not qualified as a sign in the text. However, this is a wonderful event. The group of disciples is going fishing, “but that night they caught nothing” (21:3d). In the morning,Jesus stands on the beach and says to them: “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some” (21:6a). The narrator relates the astonishing result in 21:6b: “They cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, for the quantity of fish.” This manifestation of Jesus after his death and resurrection can be considered as the 8th sign.
In short, the Gospel of John uses 7 times the word “sêmeion” (2:11; 4:54; 7:31; 6:14.26; 9:16; 12:18) to determine 6 signs of Jesus. With two other signs in 6:16-20 and 21:1-14, eight signs are recorded in total in the Gospel of John.

II. Talking about Jesus’ signs

The people uses 6 times the term “sêmeion” (3:2; 11:47; 2:23; 6:2; 12:37; 20:30) to talk about Jesus’ signs. We will develop three points: (1)Nicodemus talks about Jesus’ signs (3:2); (2) The Jewish council talks about Jesus’ signs (11:47); (3) The narrator talks about the signs in 4 times (2:23; 6:2; 12:37; 20:30).

    1) Nicodemus talks about Jesus’ signs (3:2)

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and says to him in 3:2: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs (sêmeia) that you do, unless God is with him.” At the beginning of the Gospel (ch. 3), Nicodemus who is one of the Pharisees and a ruler of the Jews recognizes Jesus as “the doer of sign”. Therefore, the topic of “signs” is important in John’s Gospel. During his public ministry Jesus performsmany signs, and because of them, the Jewish council decides to kill Jesus (11:47-53).
  2) The Jewish council talks about Jesus’ signs (11:47)

When the chief priests and the Pharisees know that Jesus realized an important sign: Calling Lazarus out of his tomb (11:1-46), they gather the council (the Sanhedrin) and say in 11,47b-48: “47b What are we to do? For this man (Jesus) performs many signs (polla sêmeia). 48 If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” By saying this, the Jewish authorities confirm that Jesus did many signs.
One of them, Caiaphas, who is a high priest proposed a solution to the Sanhedrin in 11:49b-50: “49b You know nothing at all; 50 you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” The final decision of the Sanhedrin is reported in 11:53: “From that day on they took counsel how to put him (Jesus) to death.” Thus, Jesus dies because of the signs he performed during his ministry. In the first part of the Gospel (ch. 1–12), the latest sign: the resurrection of Lazarus (11:1-46) leads Jesus to death.

    3) The narrator talks about the signs of Jesus

The narrator uses the term “sêmeion” (sign) 4 times (2:23; 6:2; 12:37; 20:30) to talk about the signs of Jesus. First, the narrator summarizes Jesus’ activities in 2:23-25: “23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs (sêmeia) which he did; 24 but Jesus did not trust himself to them, 25 because he knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man.” Many people believe in Jesus through seeing his signs (sêmeia), but Jesus does not trust in their faith. This is the case of believing through signs but it is not the true faith yet. It needs to be strengthened by listening to Jesus’ teachings. (See the article: “Believe (pisteuô) in the Gospel of John”).
The second use of “sêmeion” (sign) appears in 6:2. The narrator introduces the story of multiplication of the loaves in 6:1-3: “1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberi-as. 2 And a multitude followed him, because they saw the signs (sêmeia) which he did on those who were diseased. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there sat down with his disciples.” So, before relating the sign of multiplication of the loaves (6:4-15), the narrator refers to two signs of healing in 4:43-54 (Healing the royal official’s son) and in 5:1-18 (Healing a paralyzed man atBethzatha pool).
The third time is in 12:37, the narrator uses the word “sign” to summarize Jesus’ ministry. The sign of Jesus in the Gospel of John does not absolutely lead the witnesses to believing in Jesus. The narrator comments in 12:37: “Though he (Jesus) had done so many signs (sêmeia) before them, yet they did not believe in him.” This saying highlights the conflict in John’s Gospel, because this Gospel is presented as a process between the light and the darkness, between Jesus and his adversaries; at the same time, by saying that, the narrator introduces the second part of the Gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus (Jn 13–21). Jesus died because of doing signs, but the hour of his death is interpreted as the hour of his glorification (12,23; 13,31-32; 17,1).
The fourth use of the word “signs” finds itself in the first conclusion of the Gospel (20:30-31). The narrator imparts to readers about the goal of the Gospel in 20:30-31: “30 Now Jesus did many other signs (sêmeia) in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 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.
In brief, the Gospel of John opens with signs (2:11), the content of the Gospel narrates many signs (ch. 4–9), the public ministry of Jesus also ends with a sign (ch. 11), and finally, the conclusion of the Gospel refers to signs (20:30). Thus, the “Johannine signs” are one of the main topics of the Gospel of John. There are also some other uses of the word “sign” in John’s Gospel.

III. Other uses of the word “sign”

The term “sêmeion” (sign) in the Gospel of John is also used in other sense. We can mention it in three points: (1) People demands Jesus to do a sign (2:18; 6:30); (2) John Baptist does no sign (10:41). (3) Expression: “Signs and wonders (sêmeia kai terata)” in 4:48a.

    1) Asking Jesus to do a sign (2:18; 6:30)

In 2:18 and 6:30, the audience demands Jesus to do a sign. After seeing Jesus drives all of traders out of the Temple (2:13-17), the Jews say to him in 2:18: “What sign (sêmeion) have you to show us for doing this?” In the bread of life discourse (6:25-59), the crowd asks Jesus in 6:30: “What sign(sêmeion) do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?” Both of these cases (2:18; 6:30) are placed in a context of opposition and conflict, so Jesus does not make any sign for them.
  2) John the Baptist does no sign (10:41)

During the last debate between Jesus and the Jews in Jn 10:22-38, the Jews try to arrest Jesus, but the narrator writes in 10:39b-40: “39b He (Jesus) escaped from their hands. 40 He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized, and there he remained.” In the next verses, the narrator relates in 10,41-42: “41 And many came to him (Jésus); and they said, ‘John did no sign (sêmeion), but everything that John said about this man was true.’ 42 And many believed in him there.” This explanation suggests that John the Baptist does no sign, on the contrary Jesus does many signs.
   3) Expression: “S
igns and wonders” (4:48)

In the Gospel of John, the word “sign” (sêmeion) appears one time in the expression “signs and wonders” (sêmeia kai terata) in 4:48. When the royal official begs Jesus to come and heal his son (4:46-47), Jesus says to him in 4:48: “Unless you see signs and wonders (sêmeia kai terata) you will not believe.” However, after that, Jesus healed the royal official’s son by his words. The narrator relates in 4:50: “Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went his way.
In the Synoptic Gospels, the phrase “signs and wonders (sêmeia kai terata)” appears in eschatological discourse (Mk 13:22 // Mt 24:24). Jesus says to his disciples in Mk 13:22: “False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders (sêmeia kai terata), to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” The word “sign” (sêmeion) in “signs and wonders (sêmeia kai terata)” has a different meaning with “Johannine signs”.


In short, the term “sêmeion” appears 17 times in the Gospel of John in three following cases:

(1) The signs that Jesus performs (7 times).
Changing water into wine at Cana, 1 time: 2:11.
- Healing the son of a royal official, 1 time: 4:54.
- Healing the paralyzed man at Bethzatha pool, 1 time: 7:31.
- Feeding the multitude, 2 times: 6:14,26.
- Healing the blind at birth, 1 time: 9:16.
- Calling Lazarus out of his tomb, 1 time: 12:18.

(2) Others talk about signs of Jesus (6 times).
Nicodemus talks about Jesus’ signs, 1 time: 3:2.
The Jewish council talks about Jesus’ signs, 1 time: 11:47.
- The narrator talks about signs, 4 times: 2:23; 6:2; 12:37; 20:30.

(3) Other uses of the word “sign” (4 times).
Asking Jesus to do a sign, 2 times: 2:18; 6:30.
- John the Baptist does no sign, 1 time: 10:41.
-  Expression: “Signs and wonders”, 1 time: 4:48.

Different uses and meanings of the word “sign” show the complexity of “signs” in John’s Gospel. The readers need to put the term “sign” in the context of narrative to understand its sense. The characters in John’s Gospel talk about “signs” with different meanings. For example, the chief priests and the Pharisees talk about Jesus’ signs in 11:47, but they do not understand them in the sense of Jesus. If they had really understood the meaning of Jesus’ signs, they would have believed in him.
In the first conclusion of John’s Gospel (20:30-31), the author wants the readers to recognize the importance of the signs. In the Gospel, the narrator often reports Jesus’ signs following by his revelations about their significances. For example, after healing the paralyzed man at Bethzathapool (5:1-18) and feeding the multitude (6:1-15), Jesus gives his discourse. In ch. 9, giving the sight to a man born blind occurs before a long discussion. In the sign of Lazarus (11:1-46), Jesus reveals its sense in 11:25-26 before performing it (11:43). This style of narration “sign – discourse” helps readers to apprehend the true meaning of the signs. So with such specific characteristics of the term “sign” in John’s Gospel, it is necessary to clearly define “Johannine signs” to distinguish them from the other meanings of this word in the New Testament.
The Gospel of John recounts seven signs in the first part (ch. 1–12) and one sign in the second part (ch. 13–21). By this characteristic, the Gospel is divided in two parts: “The Book of Signs” (Jn 1–12) and “The Book of Glory” (Jn 13–21). The second part (Jn 13–21) reports the passion and resurrection of Jesus. These two parts of the Gospel closely linked and enlighten each other. Some authors want to consider the events: “Purification of the Temple” (2:13-22) and “Washing the disciples’ feet” (13:1-19) as signs. However, the narrative of the Gospel does not qualify these stories as “sêmeion” (sign). In general, John’s Gospel uses the term “signs” to describe the mighty works of Jesus.
Each Johannine sign reveals some aspects of the revelation related to three important questions: Where does Jesus come from? Who is he? What is his mission? In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ signs are closely associated with the event of his death and resurrection. The signs that Jesus does lead him to death. The Sanhedrin decides to kill Jesus because he performs many signs (polla sêmeia) (11:47-53). In other words, the hour that Jesus is glorified on the cross helps the readers to understand the true meaning of Jesus’ signs. By this way the Johannine signs lead readers to believe in Jesus, that is the purpose of the Gospel related in 20:30-31.
From the theological point of view, we can say that the Gospel of John manifests “signs”, not “miracles”. In John’s Gospel, the narrator deliberately does not use the word “miracle” (dunamis), instead he uses the word “sign” (sêmeion). So if we use the word “miracles” to talk about the “Johannine signs” we do not pay attention to the theological meaning of Jesus’ signs in the Fourth Gospel./.