The sixth chapter of the Gospel called “John” is where we find the Johannine account of the “feeding of the five thousand.” Just before we find the author delving specifically into the account of the feeding, the reason for the large numbers that are following Jesus is given. Verse two informs us that “A large crowd was following Him because they were observing the miraculous signs He was performing on the sick” (6:2). As we rightly seek to order our lives according to that of the Resurrected One, surely this presentation of Jesus as concerned with the sick is a component of the defining of the way that the love of Jesus is to be on display by, for and through His disciples. At the same time, this use of “miraculous signs” is something in which we can take interest.
As we consider that the Gospel writer has a structure in mind, and that, rather than throwing together stories and sayings haphazardly, we see that structure being carried out across the whole of the Gospel Thinking along those lines, we find that this use of the term “miraculous signs” is something of a “trigger phrase.” When it comes to the Gospels, it is unique to John, and it is encountered on nine occasions. Taken together with the preponderance of the use of “love” in the Johannine corpus, the repeated use of “miraculous signs” becomes significant. Though we do not go so far as to make a direct correlation that says that the miraculous signs are the evidences of “love”, though it would be difficult to disconnect the signs from the conception of the love of God that was on display and being outworked through His Christ, one cannot help but think that the “signs” are somehow closely related to the way that “love” is to be understood, and how it is to be expressed by those seeking to truly understand what it means to be disciples of Jesus.
Let us take a look at the uses of “miraculous signs.” In the second chapter we see its use in conjunction with the changing of the water into wine, as the author writes that “Jesus did this as the first of His miraculous signs” (2:11a). This was said to have been a way in which “He revealed His glory, and His disciples believed in Him” (2:11b). Consequently, the presentation of the signs are often linked to the issue of belief. In the twenty-third verse of the same chapter, we read that “while Jesus was in Jerusalem at the feast of the Passover, many people believed in His name because they saw the miraculous signs He was doing.” Interestingly, this mention of miraculous signs is not connected to any account of the performance of miraculous signs. It is simply an assertion on the part of the author that seems to rely on the knowledge of the Jesus tradition in the community for which this Gospel was composed.
At this point in the record, all that Jesus is said to have done in Jerusalem was the driving out of those changing money and selling animals (2:15), along with making a statement about the Temple being His Father’s house (2:16). In response to His activity in the Temple, unsurprisingly, Jesus is questioned by the Jewish leaders, with a demand to know why, and under what authority, He had done what He had done. In fact, as it relates to our purposes at this point, it is even asked of him “What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?” (2:18b) Here, the use of “miraculous” is not offered. Jesus responds to the query with “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (2:19), but there is certainly nothing in this story that approaches the level of “miraculous sign”. From there, John immediately moves us to the story of an encounter between Jesus and a Jewish leader named Nicodemus. With no chapter breaks in the original composition, and with it most likely designed to be performed orally at a single setting, the listener hears about a direct movement from Jesus speaking to a group of Jewish leaders, to Jesus speaking with one Jewish leader. Presumably then, it is to be understood that Nicodemus is coming to Jesus as a direct result of what took place in the Temple. It is probable, for the purpose of this Gospel and its author, that the listener is supposed to presume that Nicodemus was himself present at the event in the Temple and heard what Jesus said.
In his opening statement to Jesus, Nicodemus says “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with Him” (3:2b). Once again, this talk of “miraculous signs” presumes a shared knowledge within the community, for there is nothing in the Jerusalem-situated narrative, to that point, that could truly be labeled as such. In Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, we have the first use, in John, of the all-important phrase “kingdom of God.” Jesus said to Him, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (3:3). This will go on to tie in quite well with Jesus’ talk, within the same conversation, of perishing and eternal life (which, as we have already established, is linked to conceptions of exile and exodus, both of which speak to the nature of the rule of God over His people, and through them, the whole of creation), and of the salvation and redemption of the world that is part of God’s design and purpose for the Christ. Naturally, Jesus goes on to speak about the need for belief (3:12,16,18), thus relating Nicodemus’ use of “miraculous signs” with belief.