Faith and Signs

Two characteristic Johannine words related to believing are “signs” (sēmeia) and “works” (erga). Both words are used with reference to miracles. This idiom is different from the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus’ miracles are usually called “acts of power” (dynameis)—a word that does not occur in John. The Synoptics sometimes refer to Jesus’ miracles as “works” (Mt. 11:2; Lk. 24:19), and they use the word sēmeion for miracles (Mt. 12:38–39; 16:1–4; Lk. 23:8). However, miracles have a different role in the Synoptics than in John. In the Synoptics dynameis are acts of power manifesting the inbreaking of the reign of God into history. The miracles of Jesus are not external proofs of his claims, but more fundamentally acts by which he establishes God’s reign and defeats the reign of Satan.  In John miracles are mighty works that authenticate the person and mission of Jesus and demonstrate the miracle-working presence of God in his words and deeds. In the Synoptics exorcism of demons is the most notable evidence of the presence of God’s kingly rule (Mt. 12:28). In John there are no exorcisms, and John does not connect miracles with the destruction of the power of Satan, even though this motif is present (Jn. 12:31).
The “works” of Jesus are his deeds, primarily his miraculous deeds (5:20; 9:3). Although the word erga is not used clearly with reference to non-miraculous works, it is likely that such non-miraculous deeds are included, because erga is used of good or bad deeds of the Jews that show them to be either children of Abraham or children of the devil (8:39, 41). In such a passage, erga designates the basic quality of one’s life manifested by his or her conduct. So Jesus’ deeds reflect the fact that the Father is present in them (10:32). They are in fact the works of God himself (10:37–38), for God is present and active in Jesus (14:10). These works bear witness to the fact that Jesus is the one sent by God (5:36; 10:25). Such works should lead those who witness them to faith in Jesus (10:38; 14:11).
That erga designates all Jesus’ activity and not merely his miracles is suggested by the fact that the singular, ergon, can be used with reference to the entire life mission of Jesus. His real food is to accomplish the work of God (4:34). At the end, he is conscious of having accomplished his work (17:4).
Some of the works of Jesus are designated signs (sēmeia) and refer clearly to his miraculous deeds. A “sign” is a mighty work wrought by Jesus that represents the revelatory and redemptive event happening in him. John records far fewer miracles than do the Synoptics—seven in fact:

  1. the changing of the water into wine at Cana (2:1–11),
  2. the healing of the ruler’s son (4:46–54),
  3. the healing at the pool of Bethesda (5:2–9),
  4. the multiplication of the loaves (6:4–13),
  5. the walking on the water (6:16–21),
  6. the cure of a blind man (9:1–7),
  7. and the raising of Lazarus (11:1–44).

Most of these are designated by the word sēmeion (2:11; 4:54; 6:2, 14, 26; 9:16; 11:47; 12:18). That this is a deliberate selection from many miracles is clear from the fact that John asserts that Jesus did many other signs (20:30; 2:23; 11:47; 12:37). The theological significance of these signs is given in John’s own words: “These [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31). Signs, like works, witness to the presence and power of God in the person of Jesus (3:2). There can be no question but that the Evangelist believed the signs really happened in history; but they are not ends in themselves. Their meaning is in the revealing of the redemptive action of God in Jesus that they represent. The turning of water into wine at Cana symbolizes the sterility of Judaism (the empty water pots) and the new wine of the messianic era (Mk. 2:22; Joel 2:24; Amos 9:13; Zech. 10:7). The feeding of the five thousand represents the messianic banquet to which the Old Testament frequently refers, and which has parallels in the Synoptics. John sees the actual multiplying of the loaves as a symbol of the bread of life that alone can satisfy the deepest human hunger. The raising of Lazarus only illustrates the fact that the eternal life that is present in Jesus is, in fact, the life of the eschatological resurrection realized on the spiritual level in history (11:25). These miracles as a whole are the kind of miracles expected by the Jews with the dawn of the messianic age. This is analogous to Jesus’ answer in the Synoptics to the question of John’s disciples, In his works the prophecies of the messianic Kingdom were being fulfilled (Mt. 11:2ff.).
The question of the relationship of the signs to faith is not easy, because the data seem to look in two different directions. Sometimes signs are designed to lead to faith in Jesus (2:23; 6:14; 7:31; 10:42). On the other hand, there were those who beheld the signs and did not believe (6:27; 11:47; 12:37). Furthermore, on occasion Jesus rebukes the Jews because they will not believe unless they see signs (4:48; 6:30). The answer must be found in a sort of tension between signs and faith. It requires faith to recognize the true meaning of the signs and their witness to Jesus; to those who had no faith, the signs are merely meaningless prodigies. To those who are responsive, the signs are the means of confirming and deepening faith. It is clear that Jesus’ signs were not designed to compel faith. On the other hand, the works of Jesus are sufficient testimony to those able to see what is happening in his mission, Jesus’ works will serve as a means of condemnation and confirming blind people in their sinfulness. “If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father” (15:24).
This leads to the conclusion that John does not use his idiom about believing in a uniform way but recognizes levels of faith. While the signs evoke no faith at all in some people, in others they evoke a superficial kind of faith that recognizes in Jesus a man sent by God but falls short of the total commitment of full-fledged faith. The signs Jesus did in Jerusalem at the passover led many to “believe in his name” (2:23), but Jesus “did not trust himself to them, because he knew all men … he himself knew what was in man” (2:24–25). Nicodemus recognized Jesus as a man sent from God because of his signs (3:2); but this was not enough. Nicodemus needed to be born from above. After the healing of the sick man, many “followed” Jesus because of his signs (6:2). After the multiplication of the loaves, many confessed that he was the prophet who was to come into the world (6:14). However, while such a statement reflects a measure of faith, it is inadequate; for after Jesus explained that the reality behind the loaves pointed not to a victorious messianic King (6:15) but to a broken human body (6:51), “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (6:66). The Gospel seems to indicate that a certain acceptance of signs is not real belief. It is not sufficient to be impressed by the miracles as wonders wrought by the power of God; they must also be seen as a revelation of who Jesus is, and his oneness with the Father.
This is supported by the fact that Jesus reserves his warmest commendation for those who will have no signs whatsoever but still believe (20:29). Such faith without signs will not be mere credibility but a believing response to the disciples’ word of witness, both spoken (17:20) and written (20:31). Faith is always the human response to witness, whether it be the witness of John the Baptist (1:7, 15, 34), of Jesus’ words (3:11; 8:14, 18), of Jesus’ works (5:36; 10:25), of the Scriptures (5:39), of other people (4:39), of the Paraclete (15:26), or of the disciples (15:27; 19:35).

George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 308–311.