A Critically assessment of the meaning of the ‘signs’ of the Fourth Gospel, and their function within the theology of the Gospel as a whole


By way of background, the Fourth Gospel differs significantly from the other gospels in terms of content and character. It is a gospel in its own right, written to a particular community, perhaps to be used as part of their liturgy, fellowship, worship, meditation, and exhortation.

Bruce (1994) divides the Fourth Gospel into the following main sections: a prologue (1:1–18), (a.) Jesus’ ministry begins (1:19- 2:12); (b.) Jesus reveals the father in the world (2:13–12:50); (c.) Jesus reveals the father to his disciples (13:1–17:26); (d.) Passion and triumph (18:1–20:31); and an epilogue (pp. 25–27).

Most scholars estimate that the Fourth Gospel is the last of the four gospels, and it was written between 70 -100 AD, a long while after the death of Christ. It is written in classical Greek, giving the notion that it was written by a highly educated person, with a good understanding of: the Old Testament, classical literature of that era, and an in-depth understanding of the Jewish tradition. This raises questions about authorship, which would be superfluous for me to delve into in this piece. However in-passing, I would like to note that there are doubts in some quarters with the traditional view of the author being John the son of Zebedee, especially if we go with the common view that he was a Galilean fisherman. Most scholars and historians agree that in that era fishermen do not write or speak in classical Greek, on the other hand, one cannot dismiss the possibility of a scribe writing on his behalf.

With regards to authorial intent, Cullmann (1959) noted that “we are not dependent upon a hypothesis in order to answer this question, for, in the following verse of the same passage, he gives us the answer himself: ‘These signs are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God…” (p. 38), alluding to John 20:31.


The signs, their meanings and functions within the theology of the Fourth Gospel

Most scholars agree that there are seven signs in the Fourth Gospel, which are carefully embedded within the text in Chapters 2–11, popularly referred to as the Book of Signs in Christian tradition. They include: Water into Wine; the healing of the Officer’s son; the cure of the Bethesda Cripple; the Feeding of the five Thousand; the Walking on the Water; the healing of the Man born Blind; and the raising of Lazarus.

In Chapters 1–12, we can clearly deduce that Jesus’ miracles were aimed at manifesting God’s glory (2:11), a key facet of his earthly ministry (11:40). While on this point, it is important to note that with reference to the Walking on the Water, Hunter (1968) stated that the phrase used “would naturally mean ‘walking by the sea’” (p. 66). Hunter noted further that the centre of the story could well be the recognition of Jesus by his disciples in their moment of need.

That aside, when we look at the signs linearly or sequentially, we notice that the five signs between the first and last signs are not too dissimilar from those in the earlier gospels, however the first and the last signs are unique to the Fourth Gospel. For this reason I will give greater focus to them.

For the evangelist, the term signs are used instead of miracles, giving the notion of events coded with meaning, pointing the believer or pilgrim to a direction or destination — this destination being Christ himself (John 14:6). Strengthening this argument, in Jesus’ discourse with the royal official in Capernaum whose son was gravely ill, Jesus challenged their unhealthy appetite for miracles, saying “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (John 4:48)

Interestingly, Bakers Dictionary of Theology defines biblical signs as “a mark by which persons or things are distinguished and made known. In Scripture used generally of an address to the senses to attest the existence of super sensible and therefore divine power. Thus the plagues of Egypt were “signs” of divine displeasure against the Egyptians (Exodus 4:8; Joshua 24:17, and often); and the miracles of Jesus were “signs” to attest His unique relationship with God (Matthew 12:38; John 2:18; Acts 2:22).” On this point Hunter (1968) noted, “different also is John’s vocabulary for miracle. In the synoptic miracles are dunameis, ‘acts of power’, ‘mighty works’. In St John they are erga, ‘works’, when Jesus is speaking, and when the evangelist or others are speaking, semeia, ‘signs’, i.e. acts symbolic of spiritual truth” (p. 67).

The symbols of worship in the Old Testament such as festivals, the Temple, animals, clothing, Sabbaths, the Ark, etc., were confined to structures, locations, space and time. For example, when the exiles returned and rebuilt the temple, the Day of Atonement could not be re-instituted as a result of the absence of the Ark of the Covenant. But the signs in the Fourth Gospel are not subject to these limitations, instead, they open up a transcendental dimension, and new opportunities for theology and worship.

To this end, the first sign introduces this paradigm, and the last sign crystallises or seals it. Therefore, in terms of Theology and Christology, the evangelist uses these seven signs to emphasise a pre-existent logos, not limited by race, space and time, thereby establishing an incarnational, and universal Christology for salvation. In the words of Cullmann (1959), “the divine presence is no longer bound to the Temple, but to the Person of Christ. For that reason worship is no longer geographically limited, but all worship becomes worship in the ‘Spirit’; even the Sabbath is abolished” (p. 117)

In reference to semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation), Aichele (1997) noted that, “no signs ever actually appears that is not all or part of some message” (p. 23) For the evangelist and his audience, the meaning and functions of these signs would have been common knowledge, only to have been lost centuries after Christianity and Judaism went their separate ways. Not long after this happened, the Church reached its gentile age, and a lack of cultural intelligence led to a different reading and understanding of the Fourth Gospel. In view of this Cohen (1988) stated that “the separation of Christianity from Judaism was a process, not an event. The essential part of this process was that the church was becoming more and more gentile, and less and less Jewish, but the separation manifested itself in different ways in each local community where Jews and Christians dwelt together. In some places, the Jews expelled the Christians; in other, the Christians left of their own accord.” (p. 228)

Now to the first sign (the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee), chapter 2:1–12. This event follows two sequences of the use of the words ‘on the next day’ (1:29, 35), almost as if the author was writing a diary of Jesus’ daily activity, then he introduces this episode with the opening line: ‘On the third day’ (2:1). For Spong (2014), “one cannot be mystical in one’s approach to God and still be literal about the symbols ones uses for God (p. 63), however Bruce (1994) argues strongly against a literal interpretation, noting for instance that “attempts have been made to make her [the mother of Jesus] allegorically in this gospel — as personifying Israel or the Church for example — but their validity is very doubtful” (p. 68). With regards to the water and wine, Cullmann (1959) notes that Jesus’ “refusal was directed against the fact that the mother saw the changing of water into wine as a self-sufficient miracle, while Jesus saw in it a pointer to a far greater miracle which he would not yet fulfil, since ‘the hour for it is not yet come” (p. 67). The hour being his crucifixion which is the high point of the evangelist’s gospel. It symbolises Jesus’ vindication, and perhaps most importantly, his lifting (John 8:28). For the evangelist the cross means victory, it is the hour, it is the completion of Jesus’ work, hence the statement: “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Most scholars agree that the wine signifies the blood of Jesus, shared among the faithful during Eucharist, while some see the water as the water of purification in the Old Testament context. Therefore with regards to the new wine which tastes better than the old one, it encodes “the Christian message: the good wine has come in Jesus” (Fuller 1963:93).

On the seventh sign (John 11:1–14), we are introduced to Lazarus, who like the Beloved Disciple was dearly loved by Jesus. In fact Jesus began to weep enroute to Lazarus’ tomb (11:35). His commitment to his friends (in the wider sense) would ultimately lead to his fate on the cross (John 11:45–57). And just as he alluded in an earlier discourse with Nicodemus (John 3:14–16), this sign points readers to the pre-existence logos who would ultimately fulfil his hour on the cross, so that his friends may have life (John 15:12–13).For Fuller (1963), “the story proclaims Christ’s triumph over the powers that hold man in thrall” (p. 96).

It means that God is faithful. He came through Jesus that we might have abundant life (John 10:10). He came to lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13), like in the words of Proverbs: “some friends play at friendship but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (Proverbs 18:24). Spong (2014) links the evangelist’s seventh signs to Luke’s version of the story, noting that “the insight Luke had developed in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is that ‘they will not be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’ (Luke 16:31)”, he further stressed that “their response to Lazarus was identical with their response to Jesus” (pp.157–158).

On this point, Cassidy (1992), noted that Jesus’ opponents within this text include: “the Pharisees, the chief priests, Annas, Caiaphas, the authorities, the Jews, the Council (Sanhedrin), Judas, Satan, and the world” (p. 40). Apart from Satan, these groups and individuals were referred to as ‘the Jews’ in the Fourth Gospel, linking seamlessly with verses in John 1:11–13. While on Chapter 1, we need to also note that John 1:12–13 connects with developments within Judaism and Christianity at the end of the first century. In relation to this Barrett (1975) stated that “a century of parallelism can be established. There was a mutual assimilation; there were even men for whom there were two religions, Judaism and Christianity, but only one Jewish Christianity” (p. 68).

As a seal on the signs, Jesus has this beautiful dialogue with Martha which led to the revelation, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (25–26), to this claim, Martha responded: “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (27). So, in an era of persecution, in which martyrdom serves as the ultimate sign of worship, the assurance of resurrection is a really powerful motif. It brings to mind a lament of the prophet: “Do not rejoice over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8). And when we link this to Luke’s Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1–8), we hear a call to the community, a call to love, patience, perseverance, persistence and steadfastness.



So, casting our minds back to John 20:30–31, we deduce that the signs recorded in the Fourth Gospel were carefully selected and woven into the fabrics of the story by the evangelist, with a view to create a tapestry rich in meaning and functionality, imaginably like those of the curtains in the Sistine Chapel.

Just as Paul noted in his letter to the Church in Corinth, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22), and the evangelist himself in John 4:48; signs and wonders should naturally emanate from believers into the world. But these signs are means to an end, and not the end in of itself, therefore they fit firmly within the overarching framework of the gospel and it’s Theology.

Barrett (1975) noted that the evangelist combines Gnosis and anti-Gnosticism, so “salvation comes through knowing, yet salvation consists not of knowledge but love” (p. 72), that the evangelist “combines deep interest in apostolic foundation of the church with an indifference toward it as an institution dispensing salvation” (p. 74), and he “combines apocalyptic with non-apocalyptic material” (p. 73). For the evangelist “there is no historical moment which is self-explanatory — not the present moment of mystical or churchly experience, not even the historical moment of the activity of Jesus” (Barrett 1975:73).

The stories, signs, and their meaning provides the faithful with insight into the life of Christ; addresses pertinent issues they were facing at the time; provided inspiration and comfort for their spiritual journey; preserved their faith through the passing on of knowledge and wisdom as in traditions in Judaism to new converts and their offspring (Deuteronomy 11:9); expanded the kingdom through missionary efforts; and it provided a reference point for doctrinal and theological matters



Barrett, C. K. and Smith, D. M. (1975) The Gospel of John and Judaism. London: S.P.C.K

Brown, R. E. E. (1987) The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist Press International, U.S

Bruce, F. F. (1959) The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company

Cohen, S. J. . J. D. (1987) From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Vol. 7. Philadelphia: Westminster/John Knox Press, U.S

Cullmann, O. and O, C. (1953) Early Christian worship / Oscar Cullman ; translated by A. Stewart Todd and James B. Torrance. London: SCM Press

Culpepper, A. R. (1983) Anatomy of the fourth gospel: A study in literary design. Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress Publishing

Fuller, R. H. (1966) Interpreting the miracles. United Kingdom: SCM-Canterbury Press.

Spong, J. S. (2014) The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish mystic. United States: Harper Collins Publishers

Bakers Dictionary of Theology, Bible Study Tools: http://www.biblestudytools.com/ last accessed 22/1/16



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