In the synoptic gospels Jesus’ healings and exorcisms are called dúnamis. English versions translate this term as “wonder”, “virtue”, “miracle”. The Greek word means “strength”, “power”. The words “dynamo” and “dynamite” are derived from it.
In According to Mark we also read that the Pharisees, wishing to test Jesus, asked him for a “sign from heaven”. Finding himself under attack, Jesus quite disturbed said: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation” (8: 11). Apparently, his visit to Dalmanutha consisted of this brief and terse encounter. On the other side of the Sea of Galilee Jesus had fed four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few fishes. We do not know whether the people of Dalmanutha knew about the miracle. Of course, the fact that the Pharisees were “testing” or “tempting” Jesus by asking for a sign from heaven may explain Jesus’ sharp negation. That they sought a sign, a semeia, and not a dúnamis, does tell us something. It would seem that a distinction is being made between a demonstration of power and a sign.
This saying of Jesus is also recorded, under different circumstances, in According to Matthew 12: 39 – 40 and in According to Luke 11:29. In these versions of the saying Jesus makes an exception: “but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Johan” (Mt. 12: 39). In According to Luke the context gives the impression that the sign of Jonah is that of the preacher who announces judgment to Gentiles. According to Matthew points out that Jonah survived three days in the sea protected by a great fish used by God for this purpose. Of course, the sea is the source and the power of evil and death. In the apocalyptic literature the powers that rise against God come from the sea. Here it says that, like Jonah in the belly of the great fish in the midst of the sea, the Son of Man is to spend three days protected by God “in the heart of the earth”. The sign of Jonah, evidently, has to do with his death and resurrection.
In the gospel According to John the miracles of Jesus are not called dúnamis, but semeia. They are signs. We already noticed in a previous column that the transformation of water into wine is identified as the first sign. In the second half of this chapter (2: 13 – 22), Jesus makes a great demonstration of power expelling from the temple the merchants and money changers. The reaction of “the Jews” is to ask, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” Jesus’ answer is: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Another Johannine saying with double meaning that is misunderstood. The narrator explains, “But he spoke of the temple of his body.” He then says that the disciples remembered this saying when he was raised from the dead. This would seem to be a different version of what in According to Matthew is presented as the sign of Jonah. In this case, the details show that by asking for a sign “the Jews” were revealing their blindness before the sign they had witnessed. But in both cases the request for a sign is answered by a reference to his passage through the realm of death.
In According to Mark the miracles (dúnamis) are demonstrations of power that cause the witnesses to recognize that their doer has a special connection with God. In the Old Testament there are prophets who distinguished themselves more for their miracles than for their oracles. The best example is Elisha. Jesus is recognized as a prophet because he performs miracles in the tradition of Elijah and Elisha. The Jewish literature of Jesus’ times tells of contemporaneous thaumaturges who also actualized this tradition.
In According to John, however, the whole narrative is an argument that Jesus is not a prophet, a human being with a double portion of the Spirit and a special connection with God. He does not perform miracles. He gives signs. The difference is to be noticed. The miracle has significance in itself. The sign points to what is important. In According to Mark the expulsion of the merchants from the temple causes the chief priests to decide to kill Jesus. The story is framed by the cursing of the fig tree, the symbol of Israel (11: 12 – 22). In According to John the expulsion of the merchants has nothing to do with the decision to kill him. It signals to a change of the cosmic center (the temple) from a building in Jerusalem to the body of the Risen One. It is a sign that points to the new life of the one who will spend three days “in the heart of the earth”. It is the sign of Jonah.
As the transformation of water into wine means the transformation of the religion of rites to the religion of life, the expulsion of the merchants means the transformation of a material cosmos into a spiritual one. A new temple is a new cosmos. The relationship of human beings with God from now on takes place in a structure different from the temple of Jerusalem. Both signs point to the radical transformation of the universe in which human beings live thanks to the glorification of the Son of Man.
In According to John the signs are not intended to cause the witnesses to believe that Jesus is a prophet with supernatural powers that allow him to communicate the word of God or to do things that break the limits of nature. He is not a wonder worker. He gives signs, and their function is to bring about the recognition of the crucified as the glorified, the only one who has ascended to heaven because he is also the only one who descended from heaven. Informing his Father that he has fulfilled his mission, Jesus declares that his disciples “know in truth that I came from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me” (17: 8).
The signs point to THE SIGN. The crucifixion and the resurrection, the events of the three days, comprise the object needed by faith, and as such the way by which the Son returns to the Father, and the way in which those of faith live in the presence of God. On this account the narrator, conscious that the cross and the life of the Risen One change the cosmic reality, explains: “When therefore he was raised from the dead, the disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed” (2: 22). Was it impossible to believe in Him before the resurrection? -- that is, to believe that he was the one sent by the Father, the one who descended from heaven.
We are told that the signs were meant to produce faith, even if indirectly. The transformation of water into wine, identified as the first sign, caused the disciples to believe (2: 11). The expulsion of the merchants from the temple, when later remembered, caused the disciples to believe (2: 22). The healing of the Roman official from Capernaum, identified as the second sign, caused the official and his household to believe (4: 53). At the end of the gospel the narrator affirms that he provided enough signs to cause the readers to believe (20: 30). For the members of the Johannine community, surely, the signs were arrows that pointed to “the third day”. Those who see the “sign of Jonah” are true disciples.
Obviously, however, before his glorification on the cross (I can’t think of a greater oxymoron), the signs were ambiguous. They did not automatically produce faith. The narrative of this gospel is characterized, among other things, by not introducing the reader to the story little by little, opening up the plot and its meaning in a way that the reader can reasonably follow to the desired conclusion. The way the material is here presented, from the very beginning the reader must have full knowledge of the symbolic universe of the plot if understanding of the story is to be gained at all. Only those who believe that the crucified has been glorified by the Father can see the signs for what they are.
The consequence of the expulsion of the merchants from the temple was that “many believed in his name when they saw the signs which he did” (2: 23). The narrator warns us, however, that Jesus did not trust their faith (2: 24 – 25), and Nicodemus, who comes to Jesus attracted by the signs but in the night so as not to be seen by “the Jews”, is their representative. He recognizes that only one who has a special connection with God can perform them (3: 2). When Jesus instructs him not to give importance to earthly things (miracles), however, Nicodemus becomes disoriented, asks “How can this be?” (3: 9), and disappears into the night from whence he came. “Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe” (6: 64).
Later in the story we read that a multitude was following Jesus because they had seen signs and healings, and therefore declared him to be “a prophet” (6: 2 -4). This reaction, undoubtedly, is not sufficient. After the raising of Lazarus, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council concerned by the fact that “this man performs many signs” (11: 47). Their decision, of course, was not to believe. Rather, they decided to kill him.
Those who joyously receive him in Jerusalem, while the authorities are seeking to kill him, have been influenced by the sign of the raising of Lazarus (12: 18). They had heard of his resurrection and wished to see him as he was coming to Jerusalem with Jesus (12: 9). The chief priests now planned to put Lazarus also to death (12: 10). The curiosity of the multitude, for sure, was not faith.
As in chapter six so also in chapter twelve we read that the signs do not produce faith. Chapter six begins reporting that “a multitude followed him because they saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased” (6: 2). Jesus reproves those who ate of the bread and the fish on the other side of the Sea of Galilee and followed him to Capernaum, declaring, “You seek me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (6: 26). Their reaction to the miraculous feeding was to wish to make him king (6: 14 – 15), a misguided endeavor. Of those who know of Lazarus’ resurrection and receive Jesus triumphantly into Jerusalem, the narrator comments that even though Jesus had done “so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him” (12: 37).
To give the picture another twist, According to John says that Jesus told those who did not believe in him that at least they should believe in his “works” (erga), again avoiding the word miracle, or wonder (dúnamis). His works give testimony of who he is. In his heated polemic with “the Jews”, Jesus affirms, “The works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me” (10: 25). “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?” (10: 32). “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, . . . believe the works” (10: 37 – 38). It would seem, then, that the works, like the signs, produce the opposite of what is intended.
In his Farewell Discourse, Jesus explains to his disciples that the reason why “the Jews” hate both him and his Father is because they have seen his works. If they had not seen his works, they would be without sin, but because they have seen the works he does in his Father’s name, they are condemned (15: 24). This judgment, however, leaves us somewhat perplexed because in this gospel it is made clear that only those whom the Father has delivered into his hand can come to him. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (6: 44). And those who have been delivered to him by his Father cannot be snatched out of his hand (10: 28 – 29). The narrator also tells us that those who saw the signs did not believe so that the Scripture might be fulfilled (15: 25). If this is the case, how can those who do not believe be held responsible?
When “the Jews” accuse him of breaking the Sabbath by ordering the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda to carry home his bed after having been healed, Jesus informs them that the Father shows the Son everything he does, “and greater works than these will he show him, that you may marvel” (5: 20). The greater works he does perform is that of giving life and of judging, two exclusive divine prerogatives (5: 21 – 30). Both works are accomplished by Jesus when he provides on the cross the object of faith.
The ministry of Jesus reaches its climax in his final prayer. In it Jesus affirms, “I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do” (17: 4). He had long before announced to his disciples by the well of Jacob, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (4: 34)). That he did accomplish the will of the Father who sent him is confirmed by the last word pronounced by Jesus on the cross, “Tetélestai” (“It is finished”, 19: 30). That is, it has been accomplished. His signs do not make prominent the virtues, the powers of a thaumaturge. They signal the consummation of his work, which he described as his food, what sustained his life. His work was consummated when Jesus was lifted up, on the third day, on the cross.
It is, therefore, somewhat disconcerting to read the promise Jesus makes to those who believe in him: “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and even greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (14: 12). The work of Jesus was to enact the sign of Jonah by living to do the will of God, something that Jonah had much difficulty in understanding and accepting. At the end he was able to truthfully say “It is finished”. What greater work can be done by the one who believes in him? I don’t think the members of the Johannine community supposed that they would be performing greater miracles (dúnamis). Aparently, they saw themselves as witnesses to The Truth whose hour would also come. At that time they would have to work out the sign that points to the work of the one glorified on the cross. Their food, what sustained their lives, was the determination to transpose the words that Jesus had spoken to them into life giving works. For them, his words were “spirit and life” (6: 63) when incarnated into their lives. They were to give signs that called attention to the one who was for three days in “the heart of the earth”. In the lives of the faithful the connection of their works to the sign of Jonah was not to be ambiguous.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3739