With that said, and at risk of overstatement, we can never let ourselves drift too far from the fact that Jesus’ hearers, along with those for whom the account recorded in John is prepared (again, relying on both oral and written components of the Jesus tradition that became relatively fixed at a very early stage), would have been thoroughly immersed in a worldview that had the entire history of Israel that stretched back to Abraham (including the creation narrative in which Israel’s God orders the cosmos) in view, as the story was told and re-told (much like we see in the book of Acts). This would have been true even of Gentile members of the church, as the story of Jesus would not have been presented without instruction related to proper background.
Without this immersion, and without this critical historical framework, Jesus would not have been able to be understood by His contemporaries. If we do not make every attempt to immerse ourselves in much the same way, so as to be able to hear Jesus and the stories of Jesus with the same mental construct as that which was possessed by first century Jews and those who made up the early Christian communities, hearing the story of God’s redemptive plan as presented through Israel, we will fail to understand Jesus. If we fail to understand Jesus, then we fail to understand the God whom Jesus shows forth; and, at least for the purposes of this author, if we fail in those things, we will fail to understand what is truly meant by the operative ethic of love.
So, getting back to miraculous signs and the Moses/exodus motif that is prevalent in this Gospel, let us consider the previously referenced signs provided by Moses before Pharaoh. In the second chapter of John, after Jesus performs an action in the Temple, “the Jewish leaders responded, ‘What sign can you show us, since you are doing these things?’” (2:18) In the sixth chapter, after we see Jesus feeding the multitude, walking on water, and speaking about Himself as the bread of life, we have the inquiry of “what miraculous sign will your perform, so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?” (6:30) What do we see in Exodus? In the seventh chapter, when God commands Moses to go before Pharaoh to demand the release of His people, He tells Moses that Pharaoh will say “Do a miracle” (7:9). The miraculous signs come forth, but Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. We can see this same type of thing being played out in John.
Early on, Moses signs are mildly effective, but they are said to be matched by Pharaoh’s servants that are practiced in the secret arts. Indeed, the signs aren’t quite good enough, which we see in John. Moses begins with the signs for Pharaoh, but then come the plagues. Though these are meant to convince Pharaoh to set Israel free, while also demonstrating the supremacy of Israel’s God and the impotency of Egypt’s gods (much like the creation narrative in Genesis is meant to show forth the supremacy of Israel’s God over the gods of the other nations, answering their various creation mythologies with that which is presented as the creative action of the one true God), they have the greater role of proving to Israel that Moses is the deliverer that God has provided, and that their God is acting on their behalf in faithfulness to His covenant. We can imagine that faith in this fact---in Moses as God’s appointed deliverer---grew over time, as the miraculous signs came forth. With the signs, there is a growing tension between Moses and Pharaoh, and the final plague results in the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh in which the freedom of the people is granted. The people are given their freedom, though Pharaoh quickly attempts to rise up and re-assert himself, to no avail, and though there will be a long and difficult journey to their land of promise.
In John, we see that Jesus signs are mildly effective, gaining him a following in which people begin to express their loyalty to him. He even has John the Baptist as something of a mouthpiece, as Moses had Aaron. Within John’s narrative world, these miraculous signs culminate in the raising of Lazarus from the dead. In that story, it is Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his family that prompts Him to act to raise him---to give him an exodus from the exile of death. This point does not go un-noticed in our attempt to comprehend the Johannine conception of love. In the end, we find that “the chief priests and the Pharisees,” quite alarmed by what has happened, “called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation” (11:47-48).
In this, do we not hear echoes of Exodus, and of Pharaoh’s decision to pursue Israel? It was said, “What in the world have we done? For we have released the people of Israel from serving us!” (14:6b) For the author of John, this miraculous sign of raising Lazarus from the dead is a turning point, as it is responsible for the crowds gathering to hail Jesus in His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, “because they had heard that Jesus had performed this miraculous sign, the crowd when out to meet Him” (12:18). It is what ultimately leads to His death on the cross. This, of course, leads to the Resurrection, which is Jesus exodus to the long-awaited promised land of God’s redeemed creation.