John— What’s in a Sign ?
I just finished reading a novel entitled AGINCOURT by Bernard Cornwell. It is about one of the most famous battles of all time, which Shakespeare immortalized with his play, “Henry V”. The battle was an English victory during the Hundred Years War in 1415 in northern France. King Henry V of England had claimed the throne of France through his great grandfather Edward III, but the French would not acknowledge him. Henry landed an army at the French port of Harfleur in August of 1415, and laid siege to the fortress. The siege took almost six weeks, but even worse, a large part of Henry’s army was lost to various diseases. Henry decided to move his army to the port of Calais, which at that time was an English stronghold. After a long march, Henry was down to about 5900 fighting men. A very large French army was assembled to block his escape to Calais. Most estimates of the French army range from 30,000 to 50,000. Henry had only about 900 “men at arms” (knights in armor), but he had a secret weapon that the French did not have, the Long Bowmen. Henry had brought about 5000 archers with the English invention—the longbow. It was much more accurate at long distances than the French crossbow, and could be fired much faster.
As the tired and sick English army marched, it was shadowed by the massive French army. The French feared the English archers so they tried to intimidate them by sending constant messages that they intended to cut off the forefinger and middle finger of all the archers. This served to only anger the English archers who earned their living using those two fingers to pull back the heavy stiff bows. On October 24th, the French blocked the English march at a field next to the town of Agincourt. It rained all day, leaving the plowed field a mess of deep mud. Early on the 25th, Henry deployed his army to attack the French. He put his men at arms in the middle with the archers on each flank. Henry rode back and forth giving a rousing speech to his men that convinced them they could defeat the much larger French army. Initially the French did not attack, but offered to negotiate. Henry ordered his army to advance to within 200-300 yards of the French. They then began raining arrows down on the French so that they had no choice but to attack the English across the muddy field. The heavily armored French had a very hard time walking 300 yards in the mud. With their heavy armor they were sinking down to their knees with every step, and the lightly clad archers were pounding them with thousands of arrows. By the time the French reached the English lines they were exhausted and decimated by arrows. The English men at arms simply stepped up and began to slaughter them. The archers had run out of arrows so they picked up swords and axes and attacked the French knights who had been so arrogant and threatening during the march. Without any armor the English archers could move much better, so they also slaughtered the French.
Historians studying eyewitness accounts say the English lost about 100 men, but the French lost between 7000-10,000, and had 1500 of their aristocratic nobles taken prisoner. As the French retreated, the English archers all gave them what would become a famous SIGN. They held up their two fingers that the French had threatened to cut off. From that time on, whenever an Englishman would want to humiliate a Frenchmen, he just held up those two fingers as a sign of victory. Even during the Napoleonic wars in the early nineteenth century, the English soldiers still used this sign of expected victory. During WW II, Churchill made the sign famous to that generation. In fact, many actually claim Agincourt was the origin of the more vulgar sign of just holding up your middle finger to the enemy. What began as a victory sign evolved into a sign of contempt, or of an insult. It pointed to the historical contempt between England and France.
What’s in a sign? A sign usually points to something like a sought after destination, or a truth that someone is seeking. It may point out something that we all need to know (like the speed limit). The Apostle John used seven signs in his gospel to point out who Jesus is, and why He came into the world. The Greek word for miracles used in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is usually “ergon”, but John used the Greek word for sign to designate the seven miracles in John 1-11. These “simeons” pointed to the deity of Christ. John wrote his gospel about 25- 30 years after the other three gospels. He saw an important need to write to the churches about the nature of Christ. John revealed that Jesus pre-existed the creation, in fact Jesus was the creative agent as God. Jesus didn’t just speak the words of God and do the works of God, He was God in the flesh.
In the first eleven chapters of his gospel, John used two unique tools to prove the deity of Christ—the “I AM” statements and the seven signs (miracles). A sign points to something, and these signs pointed to the deity of Christ. Who can turn water into wine, has power over disease, gives life to withered legs, creates food to feed 20,000 people, and the next day walks on water? Who can give sight to the blind, and then the ultimate—raise the dead? Only God Himself rules over nature and can create by His own Word.
The Gospel of John
John is not a book of do’s and don’ts. He doesn’t talk about any social issues, no politics, nothing about drinking or gambling, and nothing about sexual activity. There is no teaching about the Kingdom of God or its virtues. There are no parables, no transfiguration, and no casting out demons. John is a book about evangelism with the central key issue of– Who Jesus is, and why He came. The most repetitive word is “believe”, it is used over 98 times. Why should we believe? John supplies the answers. We seek light, truth, life, spiritual food and water, healing, empowerment, love, and we need hope. Jesus not only supplies these things, He said “I AM truth, life, living water, bread from heaven, hope, and love.” John proves this by recording the Seven Signs (miracles), followed by interviews and discourses dominated by Jesus revealing who He is. Who Jesus is lies at the heart of all that is distinctive in this Gospel.
Why was revealing the true nature of Christ so important to John as late as 90 AD? Several cults and heresies were being developed about this time such as:
- Doceticism—this taught that Jesus looked like a man but was not. He had no physical body, and He didn’t actually die. Of course this is very problematic, if Jesus was not a man and did not die for our sins then we are not forgiven.
- Gnostics—Jesus was either a phantom or a man whom a spirit came upon at his baptism and left before his crucifixion.
- Ebionites—denied the deity of Christ
The Seven Signs that John used proved that Jesus had power over nature, power over illness, and power over life and death. Therefore these “signs” pointed to the deity of Christ. The other Gospels contain a greater quantity of miracles, but John stresses the quality of these miracles as supernatural acts that prove who Jesus is. Jesus is the self expression of God, and the self disclosure of God, as John wrote, “No one has seen God at anytime; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” (Jn.1:18)
Authorship of John’s Gospel
The author of the Gospel of John does not name himself, but according to all the records of the early church, the Apostle John wrote it, and the early churches universally accepted it as the inspired work of John. In his work, “Against Heresies” (about 175 AD), Irenaeus said, “Much after the other Gospels were written, John, the disciple of the Lord Jesus, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” This is especially valuable since Irenaeus was a close disciple of Polycarp who was a close disciple of the Apostle John. The Muratorian Canon, which was a second century list of New Testament books, also cited John as the author. All manuscripts that have ever been found are titled “According to John”.
The internal evidence is equally compelling. By process of elimination, it had to be written by John. The Gospel of John claims to have been written by, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in 21:20-24. Only the 12 disciples were present at the Lord’s Supper, and the author was there. His closeness to Jesus at the Lord’s Supper and throughout the book tells us that he was one of the inner circle of Peter, James, and John. He cannot be Peter because Peter is named both at the Last Supper and at the scene in ch.21. The author could not be James because he was the first to be martyred, too early to have written it. The other Gospels repeatedly name John, but in his Gospel he did not name himself, because he was well known by his audience.
John’s purpose in writing was to prove Jesus’ true identity as God incarnate, the promised Messiah (Christ), and the only One who can save us from our sins. To accomplish this, John used the miraculous SIGNS of Jesus. If we believe in the One who put up those signs pointing us to His true identity, we will “have life in His name.” (Jn.20:31)