Saturday, March 31, 2012

Miraculous Signs (part 2 of 3)

To this point, we have limited our look at “miraculous signs” to the plural.  However, we must not overlook its usage in the singular as well.  It cannot be said that the singular phrase is limited to the Gospel of John alone, as a singular use is also to be found in Luke’s Gospel.  However, as it is a single instance, it does not appear to play a role in the overall structure and movement of Luke, and this most certainly cannot be said of John.  If we add the uses of the singular “miraculous sign” to that of the plural, we have an additional five instances of its role in the Gospel, bringing the total number of “miraculous sign” language to fourteen.  Clearly, it is a key component of what is being communicated.  This makes sense, especially as we reflect on the fact that the pre-supposition of this Gospel is a very high Christology, operating on the premise that Jesus is the incarnation of Israel’s God.  The hearers then, are not going to be surprised that miraculous signs follow Him. 

“Miraculous sign” makes its first appearance in the fourth chapter, following the healing of the son of a royal official.  This is recorded as “His second miraculous sign when He returned from Judea to Galilee” (4:54).  It makes two of its five appearances in the sixth chapter, which is heavy with “sign” language.  All told, between the singular and the plural, the listener and the reader encounter this language four times in this chapter.  Considering the fact that the chapter contains both the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walk on the water, along with His discourse related to bread (which ultimately springs from the feeding), this is unsurprising.  Does the key Christ-follower activity of love play a role in any of this?  In this chapter that is filled with miraculous signs, and references to the same, are we able to make any additions to our understanding of what “love” may means on John’s terms?  As is almost always the case, the qualifying answer is “perhaps.” 

In the fourteenth verse, we read “Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, ‘This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”  This is an allusion to a statement from the book of Deuteronomy---a component of the Hebrew Scriptures that weighed heavily on Jewish self-understanding in the second Temple period.  In the eighteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, as Moses continues to address Israel, we find him saying that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you---from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him” (18:15).  Because Moses, of course, was understood as the man that God had raised up to lead Israel out from under Egyptian oppression, we must hear these words, as reported by John, in that light.  The people were affirming Jesus as the new Moses.  Therefore, He must be the one that is going to lead them out from under Roman oppression and occupation.  For the crowds, this is confirmed by the fact that Jesus has miraculously provided bread to a multitude of people there on the mountainside, just as Moses (though it was Israel’s God at work---we can say the same for Jesus from the perspective on offer by John) miraculously provided bread to the nation of Israel in the wilderness.

This is not simply conjecture on our part, because it is obvious that this is the way that these things are meant to be understood.  To this point, later on in the sixth chapter we hear Jesus saying “I tell you the solemn truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but My Father is giving you true bread from heaven” (6:32).  This explicit mention of Moses (in the wake of the implicit mention of Moses in the fourteenth verse), in the midst of a section of the Gospel full of references to miraculous signs, calls our attention to the single use of the plural “miraculous signs” that is to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  That use is in the one hundred fifth Psalm.  There we read, within a context of the Psalmist speaking about Moses and Aaron and the display of divine power that precipitated God’s delivery of Israel from Egypt, that “they executed His miraculous signs among them” (105:27a).  Thus, we can surmise that John’s “miraculous sign” structure, especially here in the sixth chapter, plays on the exile and exodus motif that John effectively established in the third chapter. 

When it comes to the question of love on display, we return to the fifteenth verse and find it written that “Jesus, because He knew they were going to come and seize Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone” (6:15).  How does this show love?  This self-restraint on the part of Jesus, as He refuses to succumb to the people’s desire to make Him king, and perhaps even the temptation to receive the acclimation, must at least partially stem from the fact that an acclimation of Him as king is going to come with a declaration of war against Rome.  Of course, the author writes from a position of the knowledge of what happened when the Jews rebelled against Rome a few decades preceding the time of the written composition of this work (though we do admit that it is a possibility that the oral tradition that eventually took this written form preceded the written work by a number of years), whereas Jesus is implicitly presented as having knowledge of what will happen if He allows Himself and His people to travel the path that will follow from their desire to make Him king.  Not only will destruction come to Israel, but the plans for the kingdom of God, and how it is to be brought about, will be nullified.  Here, by this withdrawal, Jesus preserves His disciples, these people, and His nation, in a way that does not derail the purposes of the kingdom.  So yes, this could be looked upon as an example of love to be worked out, understood, and manifested by the community of those that claim allegiance to Jesus.   

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