Any discussion of the topics in the previous three studies, sooner or later, comes around, as did many of Jesus’ first audiences, to the subject of “signs.” His opponents demanded a “sign” to authenticate Jesus’ claims about his identity and his mission, but faithful disciples also pressed for “signs of his coming”, which they, (not Jesus), equated with “the end of the age”. These requests uniformly use “age” – aion – and not “world” – kosmos, although some translators ignore this. Frequently, especially in John’s writing, “sign” – semeion – is used to describe what other writers termed “miracles” (see #113), “mighty deeds” (see #31), or “wonders” (also treated in #113).
Classically, semeion is even more versatile than those few examples. L/S lists “a sign of the future (Herodotus), the trace or tracks of an animal (Hippocrates), a sign from the gods (Antiphones), a wonder or portent (Plato), a sign or signal to do something – usually indicated by flags – such as to put to sea, to begin or end a battle, or to commence work; a landmark, boundary, or limit; a signet on a ring, a watchword or war cry, a birthmark or other distinguishing feature, a logical or mathematical proof, evidence or example, a medical symptom, or a unit of time in music.” Bauer adds “marks in the landscape showing direction, a signal previously agreed upon, a warning, a mark of genuineness or authenticity.” Both Bauer and Thayer note “an unusual occurrence, transcending the usual course of nature,” the origin of which can be either divine or demonic.
So how is a responsible translator or interpreter to sort through all these possibilities? Very carefully tentatively, and humbly. Try out some of these ideas wherever you are accustomed to reading “signs”.
It is interesting that in the synoptic gospels, the majority of the uses of semeion are in conversations with the Pharisees or scribes, who are disputing Jesus’ authority. And this is after he has just given evidence, by his merciful use of power, of his godly provenance! (Mt.12:38-39, 16:1-4; Mk.8:11-12, Lk.11:16, 29-30). His retort (Mt.16:3), “Can’t you see?” bears witness that the evidence they are demanding has already been supplied.
It is also significant that when his disciples asked about indications of his return (Mt.24:3, Mk.13:4, Lk.21:7), his response began with “Watch out lest anyone lead you astray!” (Mt.24:4, Mk.13:22). That is still excellent advice! Jesus attributes some “signs and wonders” to “false Christs and false prophets” (Mt.24:24). One may well wonder, then, if the “sign of the Son of Man” appearing in the heaven [sky] (v.30) may not refer simply to his actual arrival (#164) there described, which would be possible, considering the L/S reference to the “standard” of a commanding officer. Mark’s parallel passage does not refer to a “sign”, but simply to Jesus’ appearance (13:26), although Luke 21:10, 25 are closer to Matthew’s version.
But notice, please, that none of these are intended to cause fear to the faithful! Trial, prison, even death, all end in triumph! Notice also, however, that nowhere are the Lord’s people promised escape – whether by “rapture” (another word which does not exist in the New Testament) or in any other form – but rather endurance.
Inexplicably, in John’s gospel, traditional translators almost exclusively substituted the word “miracles” for “signs”, although the word is uniformly “semeion” in Jn.2:11, 23; 3:2, 4:54, 6:2,14,26; 7:31, 9:16, 10:41, 11:47, 12:18,37. They did use “sign” in 2:18, 4:48, 6:30, and 20:30 for the same word. It is hard to imagine that such translators would, like the Pharisees, refuse to see all of those events as “signs” – evidence – of Jesus’ true identity!
Evidence is also clearly the intent, in Jesus’ own prediction (Mk.16:17,20) about “signs” as authentication of his representatives’ connection with him, and accounts of its fulfillment in Ac.2:22,43; 4:16, 22,30; 5:12, 6:8, 7:36, 8:6,13; 14:3, 15:12, where semeion is used consistently, although here, too, the traditional translations are not uniform. Frequently paired with dunamis or terata (see #113), there is no question that these “signs” were miraculous demonstrations of the power of God, intended to authenticate both the message and its bearers. The critical point that needs to be understood, is that the purpose of any and all signs was/is to point beyond the event itself, or its effect upon the individuals concerned, to the King and the Kingdom that they represent.
I heard someone point out, in reference to both Jesus’ promise mentioned above (Mk.16) and the account in Ac.8 of Philip’s encounter with Simon, the Samaritan magician, (who was so impressed with the “signs” accompanying Philip’s ministry, that he tried to buy into the program), that he had simply misread the grammar. Jesus spoke of signs “following” or accompanying the faithful – it is impostors who “follow” signs. Subject and object do make a difference!
It is precisely such error against which Paul warns in II Thes.2:9 (also noted in Rv.13:14, 16:14, 19:20). A flamboyant demonstration of power may not be from the Lord. It is only a sign of his involvement when the accompanying message is clearly his (Mt.24:3, Mk.13:22).
Do you notice anything missing here? There are NO New Testament parallels to the Old Testament stories of individual heroes like Moses, Gideon, Saul, and others, asking God for a “sign” regarding action to be taken or information to be believed. In Jesus’ Kingdom, there are no individual heroes! Jesus himself is the only superior, and he expects his people to be guided by his Holy Spirit and the discernment of the brotherhood (see “Following Instructions” #55).
In the New Testament, any “signs” are provided at God’s initiative and discretion – Lk.2:12, Jn.20:30, Ac.4:16, 15:12 – not on the demand of any individual.
Perhaps Paul summarized it best, in his observation recorded in I Cor.1:22
“Although the Jews demand a sign, and the Greeks are seeking wisdom, we are preaching [announcing, heralding] CHRIST!”
May we as his followers learn to do likewise!