Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Love On John's Terms (part 12)

To this point, the observation of “miraculous signs” has been limited to the plural.  However, its usage in the singular must not be overlooked.  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, but this most certainly cannot be said of its role in the Gospel of John. 

Adding the uses of the singular “miraculous sign” to that of the plural, one finds an additional five instances of its role in the Gospel, thus bringing the total number of “miraculous sign” language to fourteen instances.  Clearly, it is a key component of what is being communicated by this author.  This makes sense, especially when reflecting 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 covenant God.  The hearers then, especially with this presupposition at play in their own community, 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 the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus making His walk on the water, and His discourse related to bread (which ultimately springs from the feeding), this is unsurprising.  Does love play a role in any of this?  In this chapter that is filled with miraculous signs, and references to the same, is it possible to make any additions to an understanding of what “love” means on John’s terms?  As is almost always the case, the qualifying answer is “perhaps.” 

In the fourteenth verse the author writes “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 key 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, he can be heard 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 the Creator God had raised up to lead Israel out from under Egyptian oppression, these words, as reported by John, must be seen and heard in that light and context.  The people were affirming Jesus as the new Moses.  Therefore, He must also be the one that is going to lead them out from under Roman oppression and occupation.  For the crowds, this Moses-like leadership 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---one can say the same for Jesus from the perspective on offer by John) miraculously provided bread to the nation of Israel in the wilderness following their exodus.

This is not simply conjecture, because it is rather obvious that this is the way these things are meant to be understood.  To this point, later on in the sixth chapter Jesus is heard to say “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 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, within a context of the Psalmist speaking about Moses and Aaron and the display of divine power that precipitated the Creator God’s delivery of Israel from Egypt, the Psalmist writes “they executed His miraculous signs among them” (105:27a).  Thus, one can surmise that John’s “miraculous sign” structure, especially here in the sixth chapter, plays on the exile and exodus motif (perishing and eternal life) that was established in the third chapter during the conversation with Nicodemus. 

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