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Want to Understand Jesus’s Signs? Study Isaiah.

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Editors’ note: 

The new December 2018 issue of Themelios has 203 pages of editorials, articles, and book reviews. It is freely available in three formats: (1) PDF, (2) web version, and (3) Logos Bible Software.

In a previous article, I have sketched the Old Testament background for John’s use of “sign” (σημεῖον) in his Gospel as essentially twofold: (1) the “signs and wonders” performed by Moses at the exodus; and (2) prophetic signs predicting Yahweh’s future judgment on the people of Israel (see, e.g., Isa. 20:3). Importantly, while the former manifestations were miraculous, the latter were not. The Synoptic Gospels present Jesus’s mighty works as “miracles” (δυνάμεις); John discourages faith in “signs and wonders” (John 4:48) and replaces “miracle” with “signs” terminology. Transparently, this is done to recast the function of Jesus’s works beyond their miraculous nature to point to Jesus’s messianic identity.

While in the Synoptics Jesus’s works, as miracles, attest him as the divine Son of God who has authority over nature, sickness, death, and the evil supernatural, in John Jesus’s works, as signs, have a deeper significance as signposts to Jesus’s messianic identity. This is predicated upon the belief that it was possible, even common, for Jesus’s contemporaries to witness his miracles and yet to miss the signs (i.e., the miracle’s deeper, messianic significance). The crowds ate the loaves and the fishes and had their stomachs filled but their hearts remained empty. The Jewish leaders, tragically, pressed for another sign, failing to observe the significance of the feat they had just witnessed (6:30; cf. 2:18; 12:36b–37).

In my previous article, I argued that John’s “signs” theology was thus broader than that of “miracle” and included not only miraculous works but at least one manifestation that is non-miraculous as well—the clearing of the Jerusalem temple by Jesus (2:13–22). Yet, while non-miraculous, this act serves as a Johannine sign nonetheless in that it conveys prophetically, in Isaianic style, God’s future judgment on the people of Israel, in the present case the destruction of the central national sanctuary in the Jewish capital.

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