How Many Signs?

Posted by on Sep 28, 2007 in Blog | 5 comments

When I wrote my BECNT commentary on John, I surveyed a considerable amount of literature on John’s Gospel in general and on people’s views on Jesus’ messianic “signs” in John in particular. I found that commentators widely agree on six Johannine “signs” but beyond this the consensus crumbles. The six undisputed Johannine “signs” are:

(1) The turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1–11)

(2) The healing of the official’s son (4:46–54)

(3) The healing of the lame man (5:1–15)

(4) The feeding of the multitude (6:1–15)

(5) The healing of the man born blind (chap. 9)

(6) The raising of Lazarus (chap. 11)

I also noticed that if there is any consensus as to an additional, seventh, sign in John, it is that this seventh sign is Jesus’ walking on the water (6:16–21).

In a detailed scholarly article published several years ago in the Bulletin of Biblical Research, I have sought to get to the bottom of the matter by taking a careful look at the six undisputed signs; seeking to identify common characteristics of these signs; and developing a profile of a Johannine “sign” that could then be used to evaluate any other possible signs in John (such as the walking on the water).

The definition that emerged was this: “A sign [in John] is a symbol-laden, but not necessarily ‘miraculous,’ public work of Jesus selected and explicitly identified as such by John for the reason that it displays God’s glory in Jesus who is thus shown to be God’s true representative (cf. 20:30–31).” The criteria for evaluating any further signs were stated as follows:

(1) Is a given work performed by Jesus as part of his public ministry?

(2) Is an event explicitly identified as a “sign” in John’s Gospel?

(3) Does the event, with its concomitant symbolism, point to God’s glory displayed in Jesus, thus revealing Jesus as God’s true representative?

A few explanatory comments are in order here. First, you will notice that all six undisputed signs (and even the walking on the water) occur in chapters 1–12 of John’s Gospel, which is concerned with Jesus’ mission to the Jews. The statement in 12:37 that, “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him,” effectively closes the book on this chapter in Jesus’ ministry, and the final reference to the “signs” in the purpose statement (20:30–31) merely reiterates this without adding any new signs in the interim between chapters 12 and 20 (hence neither the crucifixion nor the resurrection or any other related events are Johannine signs).

Second, it appears that every one of the signs is identified as such at least somewhere in John’s Gospel (notice that often this is somewhat indirect and sometimes not until several chapters later; see below). Here is the list of the six undisputed signs in John again, this time with the reference in John’s Gospel where this event is identified explicitly as a “sign”:


Identified as a “sign”

The turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana (2:1–11)


The healing of the official’s son (4:46–54)


The healing of the lame man (5:1–15)

7:21, 31

The feeding of the multitude (6:1–15)

6:14, 26, 30

The healing of the man born blind (chap. 9)


The raising of Lazarus (chap. 11)

11:47; 12:18

Importantly, however, this criterion rules out Jesus’ walking on the water, since it is nowhere explicitly (or implicitly) identified as a sign in John. Notice in this context that a sign is more than merely a symbolic act or the use of symbolism (though it includes symbolism by virtue of being a “sign,” signifying something about Jesus the Messiah).

Third, as John 20:30–31 makes clear, John selected certain events in Jesus’ public ministry to the Jews (see point #1 above) as signs because they all demonstrated that Jesus was the Christ and Son of God. This, of course, would fit the walking on the water and perhaps other elements in John’s Gospel, but any candidate for “sign” (like the six undisputed signs) must fit all three criteria, not merely one or two.

Hence, I concluded, with the walking on the water ruled out as sign (though it includes an “I am” saying and certainly manifests Jesus’ supernatural origin in form of a theophany), we are left either with only six signs—certainly a possibility in that six may be a number of incompletion—or we should look for a seventh, and eight, etc., sign elsewhere.

Enter the temple clearing (my preferred term for what is more commonly called the temple “cleansing”; for an explanation see my BECNT commentary). It seems to fit the three criteria: (1) it is a symbol-laden, public work of Jesus; (2) it may be explicitly identified as such in 2:18 (though some may disagree; see further below); and (3) it shows Jesus to be God’s true representative.

Some may say that the reference in 2:18 is somewhat indirect in that the Pharisees are merely asking Jesus for a sign (other than the temple clearing). I point to the later identical dynamic at 6:30, however, where the Jews ask Jesus, “What sign then will you give …?” and where, as in 2:19, Jesus proceeds, not to perform another sign—he just fed the multitudes, an undisputed Johannine sign—but rather explicates the significance of the feat he had just performed, thus unpacking the significance of the sign in terms of how it pointed to him as God’s Messiah. The same, I argue, is the case with 2:18, where, rather than performing the sign the Jews demanded, Jesus explicates the significance of what he had just done, showing how the temple clearing was a prophetic, symbolic act conveying the notion of the imminent destruction of the temple and its raising—though, as the evangelist points out subsequently, the “temple” of which Jesus was speaking was not the literal temple (though it would be destroyed, too) but Jesus’ body, which would be “destroyed” (crucified) and “raised again in three days” (2:19). Thus I concluded that the temple clearing is Johannine sign #7.

You may disagree. Why? The most common objections are:

(1) The fact that the first two signs in John are numbered (2:11: #1; 4:54: #2). If the temple clearing is #2, then 4:54 would be #3, not #2. Answer: the numbered signs mark these two signs as having both been performed in Cana of Galilee, a literary inclusio, constituting John 2–4 as the “Cana Cycle.” This does not rule out additional signs, say, in Jerusalem, as the references to just these kinds of signs in 2:23 and 3:2 demonstrates. In fact, the temple clearing is precisely this kind of sign: one of the many signs Jesus performed in Jerusalem during his visit at that juncture in his ministry, selected by the evangelist for its messianic significiance.

(2) The fact that the temple clearing, other than the six undisputed Johannine signs, is non-miraculous. This is clearly the most commonly raised objection. However, as I have attempted to show in the above-mentioned article, the miraculous, while usually found, is not a necessary component of the Johannine conception of sign, as is usually (erroneously, in my opinion) assumed. Look at the Old Testament: there are two clusters of references involving the Greek word for “sign,” sēmeion: (1) the “signs and wonders” performed by Moses at the exodus (but note how Jesus disparages the seeking of such at 4:48); and (2) prophetic “signs” which are non-miraculous but involve prophetic symbolism, usually conveying the notion of judgment. We do not need to give an example of (1), since no one disputes this, but as an example of (2) we offer Isaiah’s walking about stripped and barefoot as a sign of God’s judgment for Egypt and Cush (Isa 20:30). Note that the word sēmeion is used in this passage in the LXX, but, as I usually say in my classes, there surely is nothing that is miraculous at the sight of Isaiah in his underwear!

Now, then, while Jesus’ temple clearing may not fit the “signs and wonders” category, it fits category (2), that of a prophetic sign, perfectly: Jesus acts as a prophet who prophesies the coming doom on the Jerusalem sanctuary and on old-style Judaism through their rejection of the Messiah.

I find it ironic, therefore, that so many people identify “sign” with “miracle” when John has switched from “miracle” (dynamis in the Synoptics) to “sign” precisely to downplay the miraculous and to focus instead on the significance of these acts in terms of messianic symbolism (note that “sign” in its very essence points beyond itself to some underlying meaning). By reinterpreting “miracles,” John has given us a deeper, more profound understanding of the way in which they point to Jesus as the Messiah.

Convinced? Good. Still not convinced? Please read the full article.


  1. Hi Paul, Thank you for your comments. In my first post, I have shown how six generally undisputed “signs” each confirm a specific metaphorical “I am” statement. Since there are seven metaphorical “I am” statements, we have one left over. It is “I am the good shepherd.” On my Good Shepherd web page, I explain why Jesus entering a room when the door is locked is actually a “sign” that confirms that Jesus is the good shepherd. This discovery completes the matching of seven “signs” with seven metaphorical “I am” statements. It does not take into account non-metaphorical “I am” statements, such as “I am one with the father,” or “I am; don’t be afraid.” It also doesn’t take into account a couple of “left over” potential “signs,” which include walking on water and the catch of 153 fish. Matching these up is a separate excercise.

    Walking on water may be a “sign” for “I and the father are one.” This is because in Job it says that “the Almighty” treads upon the waves of the sea. So when Jesus walked on water, he was doing what we would expect “the Almighty” to do, suggesting that he and “the Almighty” might even be the same person. The catch of 153 fish appears to confirm that Jesus is the source of “living water.” This is explained on my new web page on the Living Water.

    When everything is properly matched up and analyzed, the result is a seven branch menorah structure, in which the seven “I am” metaphorical statements and their corresponding “signs” form the seven branches, and walking on water appears to be part of the base of the menorah, while the catch of 153 fish appears to light the flames on top of it. The menorah structure is shown and explained on my Menorah page.

    There is also more information about the story of the 153 fish which is not on my web site yet, which is that the way the seven disciples are identified and described forms a little menorah structure in addition to the menorah structure described on my menorah page.

    So, to address your original concern, I didn’t say that walking on water wasn’t miraculous, or that the catch of 153 fish wasn’t miraculous, I simply couldn’t get them to match a metaphorical “I am” statement.

  2. Hi Arlene, I am impressed upon by your exposition of Johannine Theology within the context of John’s mulitple “signs”. It appears that you believe that there’s not enough evidence to purport a “seventh sign” in the gospel and that Jesus walking on water wsa just an act and not explicitly a miraculous sign.

    I beg to differ on the ground that whether the act was done to someone or not Jesus was demonstrating that He has power over creation which includes water on water. Let’s remember the storm that was calmed in Mark 7. I would like to here you comment in John 21 when the disciples came ashore and Jesus fed them. The question is, where did he catch the fish to feed? May be this act could then be taken as the “seventh sign”. Thank you, God bless.

  3. I, also, have “sought to get to the bottom of the matter” as to whether there is a seventh sign that should be included with the generally undisputed six, and discovered that the six undisputed signs have one most significant characteristic in common — each serves to confirm one of the seven metaphorical ‘I am’ statements of Jesus. Here is how this works:
    (1) Turning water into wine – this is what a grape vine is supposed to do, and Jesus is the true vine.
    (2) Healing of the official’s son – on his way, his servants confirmed the truth, that his son would live, because Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
    (3) Healing of the lame man – this happened near Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate, because Jesus is the door of the sheep.
    (4) Feeding of the multitude – the miraculous provision of bread occurred because Jesus is the bread of life.
    (5) Healing of the man born blind – the blind man was able to see the light because Jesus is the light of the world.
    (6) Raising of Lazarus – this happened because Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
    Now there is only one of the seven metaphorical ‘I am’ statements of Jesus which is still lacking a confirming sign – it is ‘I am the good shepherd.’ Our task at this point is to find a sign that corresponds to ‘I am the good shepherd.’ Although it certainly is not immediately obvious, this turns out to be Jesus entering a room when the door is locked. This is explained on my web page on the Good Shepherd.
    Arlene Sheldon

  4. I noticed that while the NIV has “miraculous sign” as a translation for the Greek word for “sign” in John’s Gospel, the TNIV corrected it to just “sign”. Maybe the Bible translation committee’s are listening?!

  5. Dr. Köstenberger,

    You made a believer out of me at SEBTS. I present these criteria for identifying a Johannine sign in my Gospel of John classes. The reviews have been mixed. Most students get hung up on the miraculous angle, although John uses the phrase “signs and wonders” only once (4:48), and then in a negative light. Anyway, I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.


  1. This Week In Blogs « Sets ‘n’ Service - [...] Andreas Kostenberger answers the question How Many Signs? of Jesus where in John’s Gospel. [...]

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