“What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” John 6:30
What would it mean if it was said that we were “looking for signs”? It suggests that we might be prepared to believe something was true, or we might not.
When we look at Saint John’s Gospel, John seventeen times uses the word semeion. The word may be translated as “miracle” or it may be translated as “sign.” When we translate it as “sign,” we get an understanding of what Jesus was trying to do—and a sense of how hard it is for people to be convinced.
“What sign are you going to give us then?” ask the people in today’s Gospel reading, and Jesus must have felt weary at their questions, how many more signs did they need?
The first miracle at the wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned the water into wine, had been a sign for the disciples, John writes (in Chapter 2 Verse 11), “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” The second miracle, the healing of the boy at Capernaum, is described by John in a similar way, (in Chapter 4 Verse 54), “This was the second sign Jesus performed after coming from Judea to Galilee.”
Miracles are not performed for their own sake, Jesus is not a wonder-worker trying to impress the crowd. The miracles are performed as a sign that God is among them.
The religious leaders recognize that being able to perform such signs is a mark of God’s authority. Jesus throws the traders and the money changers out of the Temple and they want an explanation for what he has done, (in Chapter 2 Verse 18), they ask, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” There were people in Jerusalem more willing than the religious leaders to believe, (Verse 23 says), “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.”
It is Nicodemus, (in Chapter 3 Verse 2), who puts into words what other people felt, that the signs pointed to God’s presence. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus is under no illusion about what impresses people, “Unless you people see signs and wonders . . . you will never believe,” he says (in Chapter 4 Verse 48) and, if we were reading the Gospel for the first time without knowing what was going to happen, we might think that people really were going to see the signs. “And a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick,” we are told (in Chapter 6 Verse 2). The Five Thousand are fed and the crowd are convinced that Jesus has come from God, (Chapter 6 Verse 14) “After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.'”
When we come to today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is clear that seeing is not necessarily believing, (in Chapter 6 Verse 26) he says, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” It is hard to imagine the sense of frustration he must have felt at their questions, (in Verse 30), “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?”
The debate about the signs continues through the Gospel, we are told (in Chapter 7 Verse 31) Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?” Some of the Pharisees reject Jesus, but the signs are used by others to challenge that rejection, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” it is asked (in Chapter 9 Verse 16).
Following the raising of Lazarus, the religious leaders are determined to rid themselves of Jesus, but the signs trouble them, “What are we accomplishing? they asked. Here is this man performing many signs.” (Chapter 11 Verse 47).
Even as Jesus rides into Jerusalem to face the days that would follow, the curiosity aroused by Lazarus being called back from the dead still prompts people to look for Jesus, John writes (in Chapter 12 Verse 18) “Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him.”
Seeing is not believing, though. Seeing signs mean people might believe, or that they might not, and there is a deep sense of disappointment in John’s words when he notes (in Chapter 12 Verse 37), “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.”
In college days, our lecturer would always urge us to read Saint John’s Gospel at two levels, to ask two questions when we read each story. The first question to be asked was “What is taking place?” It dealt with the facts of the situation, those things that were apparent. The second question was, “What is going on?” What meaning was there in the things that could be seen? How did these things fit into the bigger story?
Saint John is a skilful writer. If he uses particular words, he does so for a reason. He uses semeion, “signs” so many times because his concern is about more than what it taking place, it is about pointing us to what is going on—if people see the signs, then they should see Jesus as he is.
“What is going on?” and “What is taking place?” are questions that still need to be asked. Most people can agree that we have the story of Jesus, where people disagree is what this story means.
Believing is about looking at the story and seeing what is going on. Saint John explains why he has written about these signs (in Chapter 20 Verse 30-31). “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Whether to see the signs, whether to believe, is a choice that one can only make for oneself.