Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel: Meaning, Mystery, Community

By Craig R. Koester | Go to book overview

3 Symbolic Actions

THE JOHANNINE ACCOUNT OF JESUS’ MINISTRY IS STRUCTURED AROUND A series of symbolic actions. The most important are the seven miracles or “signs” that Jesus performed during his public ministry. The term signs (sēmeia) is appropriate for these miracles, since a sign is not an end in itself but a visible indication of something else. Several nonmiraculous actions also contribute to the Gospel’s symbolism. Although the signs have a privileged place, both types of symbolic actions are woven together in the narrative and reveal facets of Jesus’ identity in a manner perceptible to the senses. Jesus’ ministry began at Cana, when the steward of a wedding feast savored the wine Jesus produced from ordinary water to reveal his divine glory (2:11). Afterward, the bellowing of the animals Jesus drove from the temple and the clatter of coins he strewed upon the pavement presaged his death and resurrection (2:21). His ministry culminated when he manifested the glory of God by calling the dead man Lazarus to leave the stench of the tomb (11:39–44), and then reclined at supper as the aroma from the perfume on his feet portended his own burial (12:3, 7).

The stories of Jesus’ deeds were an integral part of early Christian preaching, and some of the accounts of his miracles may have been collected to enhance the church’s missionary work.1 According to John’s statement of purpose, the signs were written down in order that people might believe “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (20:31). The problem, however, which is clearly reflected in John’s Gospel itself, is that miracles were so easily misconstrued. A crowd wanted to make Jesus king after he

1. Many interpreters think that one of the literary sources used by the fourth evangelist was a collection of Jesus’ signs that had been formed as an aid to proclamation. On the proposals see van Belle, Signs Source; Fortna and Thatcher, eds., Jesus in Johannine Tradition. On the Gospel’s complex use of traditions see Labahn, Jesus als Lebensspender, 52–77, 473–86. Our study does not assume or preclude the existence of a signs source.

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