Gospel of John – Where Did the Term Sign Come From?

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I ran across an interesting tidbit in The Gospel According to John I-XII (Anchor Bible Series, Vol. 29) studying John 3 today. John 3:14 says, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” In Numbers 21 we learn that as God’s people traveled through the wilderness they grumbled so badly that God sent poisonous snakes among them. Many people were dying so they cried out to God to be rescued. God told Moses to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole and all who looked at it would live and be healed from their snake bites.

If you go to that story in Numbers 21:5-8, verse 8 reads “The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live…”

Raymond Brown mentions an interesting connection. The word for “pole” in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek Old Testament (LXX) both can also be translated “sign.” John highlight’s Jesus’ signs over and over again in the Gospel of John as has been mentioned on the blog before. It is an integral concept to the structure of his Gospel, that Jesus did miraculous signs in his ministry that culminate in the sign of him lifted up on the cross to bring life to the world. It is interesting then that John could have gotten this concept from Jesus’ reference to the bronze snake Moses lifted in the wilderness here in John 3. So Jesus comes to be lifted up so that we might look on him and live.

If you look at the other Gospels, all of which were written before the Gospel of John, you see the word “sign” used. It is used in a way that shows the people believed the Messiah would come with signs and wonders because they repeatedly ask for a sign so Jesus can show them he is the Messiah. So it isn’t entirely from this story in Numbers that John draws the idea from. However, it might have played a role in John’s specific use of signs, highlighting Jesus’ ministry the way he does and how John intends for Jesus’ signs to point people to “things above”, which is why Jesus being “raised up” as a sign is so important and fits in nicely with the snake on a pole (or sign).

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