Volume 43 - Issue 3

John’s Appropriation of Isaiah’s Signs Theology: Implications for the Structure of John’s Gospel

By Andreas J. Köstenberger


The present article explores John’s distinct use of “signs” as part of his “theological transposition” of the Synoptic Gospels by which John transforms the Synoptic concept of “miracle” into that of “signs” pointing to Jesus’s messianic identity. The article proposes that Isaiah was the source for John’s signs theology by demonstrating significant links between Isaiah’s and John’s use of signs. In addition, the article proposes that John was led by Isaiah to structure his Gospel according to Jesus’s signs: the first half containing “The Book of Signs,” and the second half conveying the reality to which the signs point.

1. Introduction

In a previous article, I have sketched the OT 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).1 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.

1.1. John’s Transposition of Synoptic Material

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).2 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.

John Reference to Sign(s) Brief Description
2:1–11 Jesus turns water into wine at Cana wedding Jesus is the Messiah who came to restore spiritually barren Israel
2:13–23 Jesus clears the Jerusalem temple Jesus’s body will be “destroyed” and on the third day be raised as a portent of the temple’s destruction
4:46–54 Jesus heal the centurion’s servant Jesus came to bring not only physical but also spiritual healing
5:1–15 Jesus heals the lame man Jesus came to bring not only physical but also spiritual healing
6:1–15 Jesus feeds the five thousand Jesus is the bread of life
9:1–41 Jesus opens the eyes of the man born blind Jesus can help spiritually blind people see
11:1–44 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead Jesus is the resurrection and the life

In the Synoptics, the prediction of the temple’s destruction serves as the occasion of Jesus’s end-time discourse (the Olivet Discourse).3 In John, who does not feature this discourse—presumably to propagate a more fully realized eschatology—the account of an earlier temple clearing than that included in the Synoptics similarly forecasts the future destruction of the temple. However, this temple is symbolically recast as Jesus’s body, to be “destroyed” at his crucifixion and raised three days later at the resurrection.4

In this way, John presents Jesus as the new temple and means of spiritual worship. Jesus the Messiah is replacing the temple cult in Jerusalem that—from the vantage point of the earthly Jesus—was soon going to be obsolete. Similar to the dynamic at work in the feeding of the multitudes, therefore, Jesus performs the sign of the temple clearing, and the Jewish leaders promptly demand a sign—which, it turns out, Jesus has just performed! Tragically, however, the authorities have entirely missed its significance (2:18). The Johannine irony and misunderstanding—not to mention symbolism and double entendre—are profound.5 The sign serves to authenticate Jesus as Messiah who has authority over the temple and whose body—the new temple—will be destroyed and raised up to serve as the new center and object of spiritual worship.

This new reality is also forecast by Jesus in his words to the woman at Samaria: “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21–24).

In this way, John engages in what I have previously called “theological transposition” of Synoptic material, that is, the reworking of Synoptic material in distinctive Johannine fashion to probe the deeper theological significance of a given event or theme.6 In his transposition of Synoptic material, as well as in his extensive appropriation of Isaianic theology, John proves to be a formidable biblical theologian, if not one of the greatest theologians of all time.

1.2. John’s Transposition of Isaianic Material

When it comes to Isaiah, akin to John’s use of the Synoptics, there are numerous points of contact.7 Similar to the Synoptic Gospels, John identifies the nature of the Baptist’s calling in Isaianic terms: He is a “voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the LORD’” (John 1:23; cf. Isa 40:3).

At three strategic junctures in his Gospel (3:13; 8:28; 12:32), John appropriates Isaiah’s “lifting up” language, showing that Jesus’s crucifixion did not merely involve a literal physical elevation but also a figurative spiritual exaltation (cf. Isa 6:1; 52:13).8 In this way, (Synoptic) shame turns into (Johannine) honor, and suffering ensues in glory. Speaking of glory, while John does not record the Synoptic account of the transfiguration, he contends that Jesus’s glory was visible throughout his ministry, not merely at certain events (1:14). Properly conceived, all of Jesus’s ministry was characterized by divine, heavenly glory from beginning to end, and the cross constituted the climax of the glorification of the Son, the place where Jesus was exalted both physically and spiritually.

Last but not least, John quotes Isaiah explicitly at the end of the “Book of Signs” in 12:38–40 to highlight Jewish obduracy. Intriguingly, John’s quotations come from both the first and the second half of the book of Isaiah (Isa 53:1 and 6:9–10, respectively).9

1.3. The Purpose of This Essay

As I have briefly sketched above, therefore, John appropriates previous scriptural material in both Testaments—whether Old (Isaiah) or New (the Synoptics)—with creative imagination, imparting penetrating spiritual insight to the readers of Scripture. My aim in this paper, then, is to build on my previous work on the Johannine signs and on John’s theological method of transposition of previous material and to argue that John does not merely engage in Synoptic transposition but in Isaianic transposition as well. Specifically, I will take one aspect one step further and argue that John consciously observes the string of references to “signs” in the book of Isaiah and perceives in these not only theological but also structural significance.

I propose that not only was John led by Isaiah to expand the Synoptic definition of “miracle” to include non-miraculous prophetic signs of Jesus (or at least one such sign, the temple clearing), he was further led to make Jesus’s signs a foundational structural component of his Gospel. That is, John clustered references to Jesus’s signs in the first half of his book (fittingly called “The Book of Signs” by many commentators) while focusing in the second half on the exaltation of the Son as the reality to which the signs pointed. To demonstrate this thesis, I will engage in a closer study of the references to “signs” in the book of Isaiah to see if and in what ways Isaiah serves as the source for John’s signs structure and theology.

2. “Signs” in Isaiah

T. Desmond Alexander helpfully sets the framework for the book of Isaiah as follows:

Whereas chapters 1–39 are set against historical events associated with the eighth century BC Judean kings, Uzziah (767/766–736/735; coregent from 785; not active after 750 BC); J(eh)otham (752/751–732/731 BC); Ahaz (732/731–716 BC; coregent from 736/35 BC); and Hezekiah (716–687/686 BC; coregent from 729 BC), chapters 40–66 reflect events that will take place after the sacking of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC. In its final form, the contents of the book of Isaiah describe events that not only span several centuries but also look forward to the eschaton.10

It is within this framework that we explore the teaching on “signs” in the two major portions of the book of Isaiah.

2.1. Isaiah 1–39

The first sign in the book of Isaiah is found in 7:11–14, the famous passage regarding a virgin (or young woman) who will conceive a child. Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a ‘sign’ (אות). Ahaz refuses, yet Isaiah tells him and the whole house of David that they will be given a sign: a virgin will be with child and bear a son and call his name “Immanuel.” Matthew, of course, makes this passage a strategic plank in his string of fulfillment quotations in the first four chapters of his Gospel, indicating fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in and through the virgin birth of Jesus through Mary (Matt 1:18–25). Intriguingly, however, despite John’s heavy dependence on Isaianic theology including his signs, he bypasses the first Isaianic sign, perhaps because it had already found a home in a preceding Gospel.

The second sign or portent in Isaiah is mentioned in 8:18. Isaiah of Jerusalem himself bears two sons who are said to be “signs” for Israel. The first of Isaiah’s children is named Shear-Jashub, “A remnant will return” (7:3). After judgment will be brought upon the king of Assyria, Isaiah prophesies that “Shear-Jashub”: “A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God” (10:21). Thus, Shear-Jashub is given to Isaiah as a sign that Israel will one day be restored following the fall of Assyria. The second of Isaiah’s sons is named Maher-shalal-hash-baz, “The spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (8:1–4). This son is given to Isaiah as a sign that Damascus and Samaria will be carried into exile by the king of Assyria: “The wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria” (8:4). Both of Isaiah’s sons, therefore, function as Yahweh’s signs to Israel regarding the destruction of their enemies and their eventual restoration from exile.

The third sign is found in 19:20, Isaiah’s oracle presaging God’s judgment and restoration of Egypt. The oracle predicts judgment upon the Egyptians in a similar fashion to the judgment predicted against Israel in Deuteronomy 29. Isaiah prophesies that the Egyptians will be delivered into the hands of a cruel master while also being afraid of the land of Judah. Not only this, but “in that day five cities in the land of Egypt will be speaking the language of Canaan and swearing allegiance to the Lord of hosts; one will be called the City of Destruction” (19:18). Moreover, “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord near its border. It will become a ‘sign’ (אות) and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt” (19:19–20). The oracle predicts that in that day, perhaps the last days building off 2:2, the Egyptians will swear allegiance to Yahweh and build an alter to him that will function as a sign in the land of Egypt. More astonishingly, the oracle ends in 19:24–25 by saying, “In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’”

Isaiah 20, predicting the destruction of Egypt and Cush by Assyria, picks up immediately after the oracle of judgment and restoration of Egypt by recounting the narrative of Isaiah going barefoot and naked for three years. According to Yahweh, “As my servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot three years as a ‘sign’ and token against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away the captives of Egypt and the exiles of Cush, young and old, naked and barefoot with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt” (20:3–4).

This is now the fourth sign featured in Isaiah. Just as Isaiah the prophet moved about (virtually) naked for three years as a sign against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away the captives of Egypt and Cush to exile naked and barefoot in shame. Concerning Egypt, then, the sign in chapter 20 functions to predict the conquest and exile of Egypt at the hands of Assyria while the sign in chapter 19 is said to be given after their exile during a time of restoration when Egypt swears allegiance to Yahweh. Altogether, within the book of Isaiah the signs that are given before the narrative of Hezekiah’s sickness seem to function as witnesses and memorials for the events that will take place in the future, which plays into the importance of Hezekiah’s question: “What will be the sign that I will go up to the house of the Lord?”

Note that there is nothing miraculous in Isaiah’s actions here. Rather, they serve as a visible sign and portent of God’s coming judgment upon the people of Israel. In this sense, the sign does involve a supernatural element—prophecy of future events—but in a sense different from an actual exemplar of the “signs and wonders” performed especially at the occasion of Israel’s exodus from Egypt under Moses.

The fifth sign is featured in 37:30. Because of the arrogance of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, Yahweh is going to deliver Israel from him and send him back to Assyria. This is the sign for Israel concerning this: They shall “eat this year what grows of itself, in the second year what springs from the same, and in the third year sow, reap, plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” Thus, “the surviving remnant of the house of Judah will again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem will go forth a remnant and out of Mount Zion survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.” This sign, therefore, serves as a portent of Yahweh’s future restoration of Israel and deliverance from their enemies.

The sixth sign is found in 38:7. The sign that Hezekiah will be healed is that the sun will go back on the stairway. This truly is an astonishing feat by which Yahweh will underscore the truthfulness of his prediction to the king.

The seventh signs reference is found in 38:22 where Hezekiah inquires: “What will the sign be that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?” Intriguingly, the question is never answered in the following chapter, and thus provides sort of a cliff hanger for the second major portion of Isaiah’s book. The reader is thus led to ponder: What will be the sign of Yahweh’s future intervention?

Isaiah Reference to Sign(s) Brief Description
7:11–14 The virgin will be with child Sign given to Ahaz, child will be called “Immanuel”
8:18 Isaiah’s two sons, Shear-Jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz A remnant will return; Assyria will conquer Syria and Samaria
19:20 Erection of an altar to Yahweh in Egypt Sign of God’s judgment and restoration of Egypt
20:3–4 Isaiah the prophet walks around naked for 3 years Conquest and exile of Egypt by Assyria
37:30 By third year, Israel will plant crops and harvest them, tend vineyards and eat their fruit Yahweh will deliver Israel from Sennacherib, king of Assyria
38:7 Backward movement of sun on the stairway Hezekiah’s healing
38:22 Hezekiah asks what will be the sign that he will go up to the house of the Lord The question is never answered

2.2. Isaiah 40–66

Barry Webb describes the movement from the first to the second major portion of the book of Isaiah as follows:

The vision of the book moves, in fact, from the historical Jerusalem of the eighth century (under judgment) to New Jerusalem of the eschaton, which is the centre of the new cosmos and symbol of the new age. To this new Jerusalem the nations come (66.18–21; cf. 60:1–22) so that ultimately the nations find their salvation in Zion.11

The second major section of Isaiah features only three explicit references to signs. These pertain, respectively, to a polemic against givers of alleged signs other than Yahweh; the future outpouring of the Spirit; and the commissioning of survivors of God’s judgment on Israel to be Yahweh’s messengers to the nations.

In the first passage, Yahweh mocks pagan signs. He alone is the Creator, “the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth” by himself (44:24). He, too, is the one “who frustrates the signs of liars and makes fools of diviners, who turns wise men back and makes their knowledge foolish” but “who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,” predicting that Jerusalem will once again be inhabited and the cities of Judah will be raised back up and be rebuilt (vv. 25–26). This polemic establishes Yahweh as the only one who can give true signs because he alone has the power to create and to bring about what he predicts will happen. He alone is the Sovereign Lord of the universe who providentially orders the course of history of entire nations.

The second passage presages the future restoration of Israel. Chapter 55, in its entirety depicts Yahweh beckoning his people to return to him, and he promises that when they do, he will restore them and have compassion on them. As proof that he will keep his word, Yahweh promises that “instead of the thorn bush, the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle, the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the Lord, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off” (55:13), the point being that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit will function as the permanent sign of restoration.

Third, in the concluding chapter of the book, Isaiah affirms that Yahweh will look with favor on the humble and contrite while crushing the wicked. The chapter ends as follows: “For I know their works and their thoughts [i.e., the works and thoughts of the wicked]; the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and see my glory. I will set a sign among them and will send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, … to the distant coastlands that have neither heard my fame nor seen my glory. And they will declare my glory among the nations” (66:19). The passage seems to indicate that Yahweh will send survivors (cf. 37:30) of God’s burning judgment against Israel as a sign among the nations. And these survivors will bring “all your brethren from all nations as a grain offering to the Lord on houses, in chariots, in litters, on mules and on camels, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, just as the sons of Israel bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the House of the Lord.” In other words, these survivors will gather God’s people from the nations to which they were scattered.12

Isaiah Reference to Sign(s) Brief Description
44:25 Yahweh frustrates the signs of liars but confirms the words of his servant Polemic against pagan diviners
55:13 Cypress and myrtle will sprout rather than thorn bush and nettle Restoration of Israel and outpouring of God’s Spirit
66:19 Yahweh will send survivors as a sign among the nations Messenger will gather God’s people from the nations

3. Isaiah as a Possible Antecedent of John’s Signs Theology and Structure

Having surveyed John’s signs theology and structure in a previous publication, and having now surveyed Isaiah’s signs theology and structure above, several intriguing points of possible connectivity emerge. I will first list several observations and then register a number of points of interpretation.

3.1. Observations

  1. John’s Gospel is divided into two major parts (chaps. 1–12 and 13–20, respectively). The book of Isaiah is similarly divided into two major parts (chaps. 1–39 and 40–66, respectively).
  2. Signs—in John’s case, pointing to Jesus the Messiah, in Isaiah’s case, pointing to Yahweh, Creator and Israel’s covenant-keeping God—are a major theological and structural component of these two respective books.
  3. John displays an evident affinity to Isaiah’s theology, citing Isaiah explicitly several times, most strategically regarding signs at the end of his “Book of Signs” at 12:38–40.
  4. John’s Gospel features seven signs, all in part 1 of his Gospel. The book of Isaiah, likewise, features seven signs references in part 1.
  5. John does not include any references to signs in part 2 of his Gospel (except for the purpose statement in 20:30–31), while Isaiah features three additional references to signs in part 2 of his book.
Observation Isaiah John
Basic structure of book Two major parts (chaps. 1–39, 40–66) Two major parts (1–12, 13–20)
First major portion 7 signs 7 signs (“Book of Signs”)
Second major portion 3 signs No signs (“Book of Exaltation”)
Strategic reference to signs at end of book 1 38:22 (forward-looking: What will the sign be?) 12:38–40 citing Isa 53:1 and 6:9–10 (backward-looking: Even though Jesus performed all these signs in their presence)
Signs pointing to Yahweh, Creator and covenant-keeping God of Israel Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God

3.2. Interpretation

In light of my previous work on John’s transposition of material in the Synoptics, and John’s demonstrable affinity for Isaiah’s theology, there is considerable likelihood that similarities in signs theology and structure between John and Isaiah are no mere coincidence. Rather, John likely took his cue from Isaiah not only in his theology of signs—pointing to Yahweh and Jesus, respectively—but also in the way in which he structured and laid out his Gospel.

In Isaiah, God provided Israel with various signs to authenticate his role as Sovereign Lord over the nations and their course of history. This ties in with the themes of revelation and witness and Yahweh’s uniqueness vis-à-vis the gods of other nations which are shown to be nothing but idols and false gods.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus provides Israel (note that the signs have the same recipient; cf. John 12:38 citing Isa 53:1) with various signs to authenticate his role as Messiah and Son of God. In both cases, the intent underlying those signs is to instill trust in Yahweh or Jesus as uniquely powerful in bringing out what they purpose and as the only true God and his agent in bringing about both salvation and judgment.

Isaiah and John are placed at different junctures of salvation history. Isaiah prophecies prior to the Babylonian exile, which he accurately predicts and beyond which he foresees a restoration of a believing remnant, pivoting on the strategic intervention of God’s Servant. Remarkably, therefore, his prophetic vision extends all the way to a new heaven and a new earth at the end of time, citing as signs God’s outpouring of his Spirit and his sending of survivors as a sign to the nations.

As a Gospel, John centers on the coming of Jesus the Messiah and his dual “lifting up” in crucifixion and resurrection. At 12:38–40, John shows that the Messiah’s coming brought judgment on the nation of Israel because its leaders rejected Jesus and the messianic signs authenticating his identity and mission. This opened, salvation-historically, a way for Gentiles to be included among God’s people (10:16; 11:51–52), as the result of a believing Jewish remnant—the Twelve—being commissioned by the Messiah to serve as his Spirit-infused representatives (20:21–22; cf. 17:18).13

Why are John’s signs limited to the “Book of Signs,” that is, the first major portion of his Gospel? I believe the reason is that John wanted to stress that the Messiah’s signs were uniquely addressed to Israel as part of his messianic mission to Israel.14 Following Jesus’s rejection by the people of Israel, his “lifting up” fulfilled Israel’s true destiny of serving a mediatorial role between Yahweh and the nations, providing salvation not only for Israel but also for the Gentiles. As John 3:16 (written, I believe, by the evangelist) says, “For God so loved the world.”15 Thus, the second half of John’s Gospel presents the vicarious exaltation of Jesus’s body as the fulfillment and realization of his messianic signs (the last and climactic of which is Jesus’s raising of Lazarus, authenticating Jesus as “the resurrection and the life”). Thus, there are no more signs in the “Book of Exaltation,” only the actual historical fulfillment of the reality to which the signs pointed—Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God.

And yet, John, later, in the book of Revelation, again features several signs. The first is found in chapter 12: “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (v. 1). This woman is pregnant and in agony of childbirth (v. 2). Then, “Another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems” (v. 3). That dragon is poised to devour the woman’s offspring as soon as she has given birth (v. 4). The male child is born but translated to heaven, and the woman flees into the wilderness (vv. 5–6) while war breaks out in heaven (v. 7). In the next chapter, “another beast” is said to perform “great signs, even making fire come down from heaven,” as Elijah did (13:13), in the presence of the “first beast.” It deceives the inhabitants of the earth, telling them to build an image to the beast that survived a fatal wound (v. 14). In chapter 15, the seer beholds “another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues,” symbolizing the final outpouring of God’s wrath on the unbelieving world (v. 1). He also sees “a sea of glass mingled with fire” and those who had conquered the beast singing the song of Moses and of the Lamb (vv. 2–4). Yet another sign featured in Revelation relates to the “unholy trinity” of the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet: three unclean spirits, demonic spirits who perform signs prior to the final great end-time battle (16:14). The concluding reference to signs in the book relates to the final confinement of the signs-working false prophet (the “other beast”) and of the beast to the lake of fire (19:20). Depending on the way one counts, there are five or six signs featured in Revelation. In any case, there probably are not seven signs, thus falling short of the perfect number (7), and most of these signs relate to God’s judgment of Satan and his demons. This is in keeping with prophetic OT signs which were regularly given in the context of the obduracy of Israel and other nations.

As Beale observes,

In Jesus and John’s day, Israel becomes like Pharaoh, who repeatedly received God’s warning signs, but repeatedly rejected them because of his hardened heart. Now, the church, the continuation of the true eschatological Israel, had already become spiritually like Israel of old and were in the same danger. In fact, both in the gospel of John and in Revelation the plague signs of the Exodus are repeatedly alluded to in order to show that both Israel and then later many in the church were spiritually destitute and were beginning to undergo judgment.16

Revelation Reference to Sign(s) Brief Description
12:1 Great sign in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun Symbolizing the people of God
12:3 A great red dragon with seven heads and ten horns Symbolizing Satan

Another beast performing great signs, including making fire come down from heaven (Elijah) Symbolizing the imperial cult
15:1 Another sign in heaven, seven angels with seven plagues Symbolizing final outpouring of God’s wrath
16:14 Three unclean spirits from the unholy trinity performing signs prior to great end-time battle Symbolizing final end-time rebellion against God by the spirit world
19:20 Confinement of signs-working false prophet and of the beast to the lake of fire Symbolizing final judgment of Satan and demons

But in the Gospel, seven signs—seven, as mentioned, being the number of perfection—in part 1 are enough. As John points out at the end of the “Festival Cycle” in 10:40–42, John (the Baptist) performed no signs—and yet everything he said about Jesus was true. Neither are the disciples shown to perform any signs in John’s Gospel. For John, therefore, signs are uniquely performed by Jesus and singularly addressed to the people of Israel as proofs that Jesus is the Messiah.

While Isaiah presents the outpouring of the Spirit and the commissioning of emissaries to the nations as signs, therefore, John presents the giving of the Spirit as yet future from the vantage point of the earthly Jesus (7:39), and the disciples’ reception of the Spirit at their commissioning is most likely to be understood as an acted-out parable infused with new-creation symbolism. Not even the commissioning qualifies as a Johannine sign, as, by definition, in John the only person who performs signs is Jesus, and his signs are directed exclusively to the Jews. In this way, John exhibits a discerning appropriation of Isaiah’s signs terminology, not following him slavishly but placing his narrative strategically within the Isaianic narrative. The story of Jesus is thus shown to be part of the larger story of God’s dealings with Israel and with the world (cf. John 1:1).

4. Conclusion

John’s Gospel thus functions as an amplification of Isaiah’s book, zooming in on the coming of Yahweh’s messianic Servant, a representative of Israel and yet rejected by the nation. In this regard, the signs serve a vital role, showing that Yahweh, and Jesus, provided a more than sufficient number of signs to prove their authority (theodicy). In the face of ample divine revelation, the burden rests squarely on God’s people for rejecting such light. The challenge remains for people to discern in the events around them manifestations and evidences of God’s providential ordering of events as he moves human history ever closer to its climactic fulfillment and establishes God’s kingdom under the supreme authority and lordship of the Lord Jesus Christ.17

[1] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “The Seventh Johannine Sign: A Study in John’s Christology,” BBR 5 (1995): 87–103.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Matthew 23; Mark 13; Luke 22.

[4] See Andreas J. Köstenberger, Alexander E. Stewart, and Apollo Makara, Jesus and the Future: What He Taught about the End Times (Wooster, OH: Weaver, 2017).

[5] The classic article is D. A. Carson, “Understanding Misunderstandings in the Fourth Gospel,” TynBul 33 (1982): 59–91. More recently, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters, BTNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 141–45.

[6] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “John’s Transposition Theology: Retelling the Story of Jesus in a Different Key,” in Earliest Christian History, ed. Michael F. Bird and Jason Maston, WUNT 2/320 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 191–226.

[7] See Joshua J. F. Coutts, The Divine Name in the Gospel of John: Significance and Impetus, WUNT 2/447 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017), who argues for John’s use of Isaiah through his emphasis on the divine name as well as the “I am” sayings and the theme of “glory.”

[8] Isaiah prophesied of the Servant, Jesus, being high and lifted up (Isa 52:13) just as Yahweh is high and lifted up (Isa 6:1). The Servant is elevated to the glorified status of Yahweh.

[9] Regarding the use of Isaiah 52–53 in John 12, see Daniel J. Brendsel, Isaiah Saw His Glory: The Use of Isaiah 52–53 in John 12, BZNW 208 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014), who discusses John’s citations of Isa 53:1 and 6:10 in John 12:38 and 40 in the context of Isaiah 40–55 and 1–6, respectively.

[10] T. Desmond Alexander, The City of God and the Goal of Creation, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 88. For a discussion of alternate scenarios surrounding the book’s composition, see ibid. 88n5.

[11] Barry G. Webb, “Zion in Transformation: A Literary Approach to Isaiah,” in The Bible in Three Dimensions, ed. D. J. A. Clines, S. E. Fowl, and S. E. Porter, JSOTSup 87 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1990), 71, cited in Alexander, City of God, 92.

[12] Cf. Deuteronomy 29.

[13] On the Johannine mission theme, see my published dissertation, The Missions of Jesus and the Disciples according to the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). See also chap. 8 in my book, co-authored with Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel, NSBT 24 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008).

[14] This is consistent with the missiological teaching of all four Gospels. See my book, co-authored with Peter T. O’Brien, Salvation to the Ends of the Earth, NSBT 11 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), chs. 3–6; I am currently preparing a second edition of this work.

[15] See my essay, “Lifting Up the Son of Man and God’s Love for the World: John 3:16 in Its Historical, Literary, and Theological Contexts,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century: Essays in Honor of D. A. Carson on the Occasion of His 65th Birthday, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 141–59.

[16] Gregory K. Beale, “The Purpose of Symbolism in the Book of Revelation,” CTJ 41 (2006): 61. I am grateful to Rita Cefalu for bringing this article to my attention.

[17] I am grateful to my student Caleb Fordham for several helpful in-class and outside-of-class discussions that have sparked my interest in this topic in further development of my own research, in particular with regard to the Isaianic background to John’s Gospel.

Andreas J. Köstenberger

Andreas Köstenberger is theologian in residence at Fellowship Raleigh, cofounder of Biblical Foundations, and author, editor, or translator of over sixty books.

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