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The Sign Miracles in John’s Gospel (2)

W Ferguson, Antrim

Feeding the 5,000: Chapter 6

Crowds were following the Saviour. Some no doubt followed to hear His teaching, many to see the miracles performed (v.2). Controversy has been mounting, especially since He healed the cripple on the sabbath. His divine claims are beginning to be realised by His critics. Now the crowds need to be fed. This will be the setting for a further sign. First, the inadequacy of human resources must be made clear. Even a level of funding far above what could be provided would give each person only a morsel, said Philip.

In feeding the huge crowd the Saviour provides a parable of His salvation. Human resources cannot ever adequately meet our spiritual need. Without food people die; without His salvation people die eternally. To bring us eternal salvation He must die for us. This is the background to His alarming expression, "…my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (v.51). Equally alarming are His words, "that a man may eat thereof and not die" (v.50).

In the debate which follows the miracle another strand of the episode emerges. The crowd has raised the fact that their fathers ate manna in the wilderness: "He gave them bread from heaven to eat" (v.31). God fed the Israelites in the wilderness, "bread from heaven", literal food for their bodies. Jesus takes the phrase, "from heaven", and begins to develop the teaching that He has come down from heaven to give spiritual food to save people from eternal death. We notice first that the manna in the wilderness was for Israel, while our Lord provides for the whole world. This is "bread from heaven". Incidentally, in v.33, the RV is surely correct to translate: "For the bread from heaven is that which cometh down out of heaven, and giveth life unto the world". In the context this makes the development of thought much clearer, for the people reply, "Lord, evermore give us this bread". The people had said, "Our fathers did eat..."; the Christ replies, "…if any man eat of this bread". Just as the Father fed Israel in the wilderness with manna, so the Son provides for the deeper need of the whole world. The feeding of the 5,000 is a "sign" of this provision and of the authority of the Son to provide.

But a further important lesson must be learnt. "He gave them bread from heaven." God’s almighty power was put forth to feed Israelites who were the objects of His care and compassion as His covenant people. But now the Saviour adds, "My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven". It is significant that He also says, "The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world". The same divine power is at work, whether we think of the Father sending the Son or the Son coming down. As in ch.5, He offended His critics by claims which implied His deity, so here His feeding of the 5,000 has become the focus for a claim to sovereign saving power. The miracle is a "sign" of this. The same miraculous power which sustained the Israelites in the wilderness is seen in the signs performed by Jesus of Nazareth in His own right as Son of God.

Sight for the man born blind: Chapter 9

Just after the incident of the woman "taken in adultery" the Lord said, "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness" (8.12). He had shone His light into the consciences of those cynical men, her accusers; He had also made the woman aware of her sin, for He said, "Go, and sin no more". He followed this by a debate with His critics on truth, knowledge, and freedom. All of this seems to be in the context of His being the light of the world. The "light" theme picks up the statement in 1.4: "…the life was the light of men".

In ch.9 His sign miracle deals with the same theme. None of those present had ever heard of a person who was born blind receiving sight. The commanding word of God in Genesis 1 brought light into the world. This same authority brought light for the first time into the experience of this man on that day.

We notice, in 9.3, that the Lord says the purpose of the blindness is "that the works of God might be made manifest in him". Then He follows this immediately with, "I must work the works of Him that sent me...". Once again He links God’s works with His own. Compare, "My Father worketh hitherto, and I work" (5.17).

Great care is taken in the narrative to establish the evidence that this man was born blind, that he was the same man as people had seen begging because he was blind, and that merely natural explanations could not account for what had happened. The man was not an accomplice in a sleight of hand, for he confessed ignorance about how he was healed by merely washing his eyes, and also about who the healer was. A crisis arose because the Jews had already made up their minds to reject Jesus, but there was evidence of the power He had to perform unprecedented healings. Their panic reaction was to excommunicate the man who had been healed. This is the clear import of the words, "cast him out" (v.34). Compare this with v.22, where the technical term for excommunication is used in relation to any who confessed that Jesus was the Christ.

The whole episode becomes a parable of the blindness of rejecting Christ, and the double blindness of refusing evidence because of a warped logic based on no factual evidence. Verse 16 distinguishes those blind in this way from those who were open to being persuaded by the sign miracle.

At this stage in John’s Gospel the lines are being clearly drawn between belief and unbelief, between spiritual life and death, between spiritual insight and blindness. "And there was a division among them" (v.16). The refrain of "know" and "know not" in the chapter adds a special flavour to the narrative. With each sign rejected, rejection of Christ is hardening. Excommunication will harden quickly to "execution", or rather murder. In ch.10 Christ is found walking in Solomon’s court; "and it was winter" (v.22), the winter of Christ’s rejection by His own people.

Lazarus raised from the dead: Chapter 11

We have seen that in ch.9 the blindness of the man healed was to provide a setting in which the works of God and Him whom God sent should be displayed. In 11.4 Lazarus’ sickness, the Lord says, has two purposes: to display the glory of God, and that the Son of God should also be glorified. The glory of Father and Son are inextricably linked.

When Lazarus is dead, the plight of Mary and Martha is, humanly speaking, hopeless. We notice the expressions which depict their plight: "Lord, if thou hadst been here" (vv.21,32); "Jesus was not yet come" (v.30); "Lord, by this time he stinketh" (v.39). At the same time there is a slight gleam of hope: "But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee" (v.22). That "even now" is very telling.

But it is not simply a matter of whatever He asks of God: He can say, "I am the resurrection, and the life (v.25). For the sake of the bystanders (v.42) He has prayed, so that they may believe that the Father sent Him. His voice in v.43 is authoritative: "Lazarus, come forth". He is completely in control: "Loose him, and let him go" (v.44). "Many of the Jews, which came to Mary, and had seen the things that Jesus did, believed on him" (v.45).

But belief was not the only response elicited by the sign miracles. The chief priests and the Pharisees decided that their survival depended on getting rid of Jesus. "So from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death" (v.53). The word went out that anyone who knew where Jesus was should tell the chief priests and Pharisees "that they might take him" (v.57). The signs open the eyes of those whose minds are willing to be convinced, but they harden the resolve of those with closed minds to resist Christ to the death. It is not surprising, therefore, that early in ch.12 we find Mary anointing Jesus in view of the coming day of His burial. Not only that, but the chief priests also took counsel to put Lazarus to death.

This is the last sign before the Lord’s crucifixion. It deals with the ultimate challenge to His power - death itself. But He triumphs, Lazarus is raised, God and His Son are glorified. It is fitting that we look next at His own resurrection as a sign to demonstrate that He is indeed the Christ.

To be continued.

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