by Ed Gallagher
This man came to him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him.”John 3:2
Why did Jesus perform miracles? In Mark 5:21–43, Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead (or, from sleep, as Jesus insists) and he heals a woman’s flow of blood. In both cases, the miracle of healing seems to be a blessing based on prior faith. In the case of the woman, it appears to have been an unconscious miracle on the part of Jesus, who only realized he had healed someone as it was happening. The miracle was completely dependent on the woman’s faith (v. 34; cf. 10:52; Luke 17:19). The healing of the little girl was, of course, not based on the little girl’s faith but on her parents’ faith, who, nevertheless, seemed not completely convinced of what was going to happen (cf. vv. 36, 42). Jesus certainly did not perform this miracle in order to convince multitudes of his true identity. Just the opposite (v. 43). Later in Mark (9:14–27), Jesus performed a healing miracle for a young boy, linking the miracle to the faith of the boy’s father, but, as in the case of Jairus’ parents, it is not clear how much faith the boy’s father actually had (9:21–24). In Nazareth, Jesus performed few miracles because the people did not believe (Matt 13:58; cf. Mark 6:5–6). In all these cases, the miracle seems to require prior belief on the part of those receiving the miracle.
On the other hand, sometimes Jesus (or others) performs miracles in order to generate faith, as a demonstration that the message he proclaims is from God. At Iconium, Paul and Barnabas performed “signs and wonders” by which the Lord “testified to the message of his grace” (Acts 14:3). Paul mentions that he had performed “the signs of an apostle” among the Corinthians (2 Cor 12:12). The long ending of Mark says that “the Lord worked with [the apostles] and confirmed the word by the accompanying signs” (Mark 16:20).
Who was the first miracle worker in the Bible? If you don’t count Joseph (interpretation of dreams), then probably Moses is the first miracle worker. His initial miracles are called “signs” (Exod 4:8–9) and are supposed to establish Moses’ credibility, providing evidence that God has called him (cf. Exod 4:1). It worked for the Israelites (4:30–31), but not for Pharaoh (7:8–13).
Like Moses, Jesus performed miracles that are called signs. As Peter later said, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs” (Acts 2:22). Sometimes his opponents demanded a sign (Matt 12:38; 16:1). On such occasions Jesus refused to provide a sign, even declaring the request to be “evil and adulterous” (Matt 12:39). But the Gospel of John highlights several “signs” that Jesus performed for the purpose of instilling belief in observers. Indeed, one of the main purposes of John’s Gospel is to narrate these signs in order to instill belief in readers (John 20:31). The normal word used for “miracle” in the Synoptic Gospels—dynameis, “works of power” (Matt 11:20–23; etc.)—never appears in the Gospel of John. Instead, the word “sign” (sēmeion) appears more here than in any other New Testament book. Whereas this word is never used in the Synoptic Gospels in regard to a miracle that Jesus performs to establish his credentials, such a meaning dominates usage of the term in John.
How many signs of Jesus does this Gospel narrate? The Gospel enumerates only the first two signs: first, water to wine (2:11), and second, healing the royal official’s son (4:54). It is not clear how many signs the Gospel narrates, though scholars usually count seven, as follows:
- Water to wine (2:1–11)
- Healing a royal official’s son (4:46–54)
- Healing a paralytic (5:1–15)
- Feeding 5000 (6:5–14)
- Walking on water (6:16–24)
- Healing a blind man (9:1–7)
- Raising Lazarus (11:1–45)
All seven miracles appear in the first half of the Gospel, the “Book of Signs” (as named by modern scholars). Not all scholars agree that “walking on water” should count as a “sign” since the crowd doesn’t witness it. Also, this list of seven omits the greatest sign, the Resurrection (called a sign at 2:18–19), and it omits the catch of fish after the resurrection (21:1–11). Jesus clearly did more signs than these (2:23; 3:2; 6:2; 7:31; 11:47; 12:37; 20:30; 21:25).
What do these signs indicate? What are they signs of? At their core, these signs attest to the credibility of Jesus’ message, just as the signs that Moses (and other prophets) performed testified to his credibility. The types of miracles this Gospel highlights are not wholly dissimilar to other miracle stories in the Bible, including accounts of water from a rock (Exod 17:1–7) and axe heads floating (2 Kings 6:5–7) and prophets raising the dead (1 Kings 17:17–22; 2 Kings 4:32–35). Healing a blind man was a new one (9:32). But the sign that really stands out is the Resurrection of Jesus, which involved no prophet calling him forth. Ironically, the blind man clearly sees the implications of these signs: Jesus is from God (9:33). The signs point to the truth of Jesus (5:36; 10:25), who claimed to be one with the Father (10:30, 37–38; 14:10–11).
Of course, sometimes false prophets can also perform wonders; see Deut 13:1–5; Matt 24:24; Rev 13:13; 19:20; cf. Matt 7:21–23. Jesus was accused of being a false prophet (Matt 12:24).
The signs sometimes generated faith in observers (2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:53; 6:2)…
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.John 2:11
but not always…
Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.John 12:37
Sometimes the signs led to misunderstanding (6:14–15) or hostility (9:40; 11:47).
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.”John 11:47
Jesus also criticized his audience at times for needing signs in order to believe (4:48). Nicodemus arrived at some form of faith through the signs (3:2), but he needed to grow in his understanding (3:9–10). Jesus indicates that a more mature faith would result not from observing further signs but from accepting scriptural testimony.
Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?John 5:45–47
As it happens, we ourselves are necessarily in this position, since we have observed no signs, but we can only read the scriptural testimony about the signs, which itself is intended to produce faith in us (20:31). Indeed, Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who, unlike Thomas, “have not seen and yet believe” (20:29).
The seven (or so) signs in John’s Gospel demonstrate the veracity of Jesus’ claims to be united with the Father. The faith-generating nature of Jesus’ miracles is a special emphasis in John’s Gospel, though the Gospel also encourages us to move beyond a need for signs for our faith.
Questions for Discussion
The first two of Jesus’ signs are explicitly numbered as his first and second in the Gospel of John (2:11; 4:54), though clearly he had done other signs as well, as Nicodemus attests (3:1–2). Why does John pick out these two particular signs—turning water into wine and healing the royal official’s son—to narrate about Jesus? What do these signs tell us about Jesus?
The only miracle (sign) that occurs in all four Gospels—aside from Jesus’ resurrection—is the feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1–15). What point does John want to make about this miracle in the way that he narrates it in conjunction with Jesus’ words in ch. 6?
Is faith based on signs an inferior sort of faith? See John 4:48; 6:26; 20:29–31.
What do people come to believe about Jesus as a result of these signs? See 3:2; 6:14; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:18; 12:37.
What should people believe about Jesus as a result of the Resurrection? See 2:18–22; ch. 20.
Below is a brief video on the signs, and here is a 7-week series of lessons on the topic.