Many commentators and students of John have noted that the book is organized around miraculous signs and “I AM” statements. This becomes an important key that unlocks the structure of the book and illuminates how we read it. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain a litany of healings, exorcisms and other miracles, John only includes a handful. And, he labels them “signs.” For John, the supernatural works of Jesus are indicators of His divine identity. Each miracle reveals something about the character of Jesus and serves as evidence of His divine status. Traditionally, commentators have identified seven signs. However, it is probably appropriate to also include the notable miracle of the catch of 153 fish by the disciples in John 21. Even though the word “sign” is not used, the miracle is significant enough to warrant consideration alongside the other signs.
1. Changing Water to Wine at the Wedding Feast in Cana (Ch. 2)
2. Healing the Official’s Son on the Way to Capernaum (Ch. 4)
3. Healing the Invalid at the Pool of Bethesda (Ch. 5)
4. Feeding the 5,000 at the Sea of Galilee (Ch. 6)
5. Walking on the Sea of Galilee (Ch. 6)
6. Restoring the Sight of a Man Born Blind (Ch. 9)
7. Raising Lazarus from the Dead at Bethany (Ch. 11)
8. The Miraculous Catch of 153 Fish (Ch. 21)
The signs reveal the character and divine nature of Jesus through actions, while the “I Am” statements reveal the character and divine nature of Jesus through words. When Jesus made these “I Am” statements, He was very clearly identifying Himself as God. The origins of the saying stems back to God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus. When God told Moses that he would rescue 2 million Hebrew slaves from Egypt, Moses wasn’t sure he was capable: “But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11) God ignored Moses’ questions “Who Am I?” and redirected the conversation. God’s response didn’t affirm who Moses was but revealed who He was: “And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14). If you feel inadequate or overwhelmed in this strange cultural moment, remember that you can do anything because of He who is, not because of who you are! God made Himself known as YHWH, which means I AM that I AM. Jesus’ “I AM” statements rocked His Jewish listeners because He was clearly identifying Himself as God in the flesh. In Greek, the ending of the verb lets us know who is doing the action. So the Greek verb, εἰμι, on its own means “I Am.” However, Jesus added the pronoun ἐγώ, which means “I” in front of the verb. The result is emphatic. Jesus does not want to leave any room for misunderstanding. If you want to know who God is then look no further than Jesus. Similar to the situation with the signs mentioned above, there are 7 traditional “I Am” statements with an 8th often overlooked statement that deserves to be included. Jesus often refers to Himself as “I Am” without any immediate object. For example, in John 8:58, Jesus says “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
1. “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35)
2. “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12; 9:5)
3. “I am the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:7, 9)
4. “I am the good shepherd… [who] sacrifices his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11, 14)
5. “I am the resurrection and the life.”(John 11:25)
6. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
7. “I am the true vine.” (John 15:1, 5)
8. “I am (the one known as ‘I AM’).” (John 6:20, 8:28, 8:58)
Now that we have explored the function of the signs and the “I Am” statements, let’s see how they work together in John’s Gospel. John explicitly states his purpose for writing his Gospel: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:21). John should therefore be read as a persuasive story rather than a theological tract or biographical essay. He structured his story about Jesus to persuade readers that Jesus was both the Jewish Messiah and the Divine Son of God. John’s end goal was not imparting information, but enacting transformation. He did not want his readers to walk away “understanding” Jesus; his aim was that they would “believe” in Jesus. Stories possess a dramatic structure inherently characterized by flow, change, and conflict. The story line progresses and develops from one event or speech to another. The author of the Fourth Gospel is a master storyteller and the influence of the story-line as a clue to understanding a particular passage can not be overstated. John’s Gospel is not a recording of loosely related occurrences but a carefully composed account that moves toward the fulfillment of a broader purpose. Thus, it is possible to detect parallels and echoes within the text itself. Early accounts prepare readers for later events, and later events reflect back on earlier accounts. This same John wrote the epistles, and instructed his readers to love in both “word and deed (1 John 3:18).” Words and actions work together to present a holistic account of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. If Jesus only spoke words, we would have no way to verify the truthfulness of those words. We all know someone who says the right things but is then unable to produce results that lineup with the words spoken. On the other hand, if Jesus only did signs, we would find it possible to misinterpret the miracles. We would have the “signs,” but no verbal confirmation to what the signs were pointing towards. However, Jesus came with both truth and action. The sayings and the signs are inextricably connected.
1. The first sign matches up with the final “I Am” saying. Jesus’ turning the water to wine anticipates the statement: “I am the true vine.”
2. The sign of Healing of the Official’s Son (who is near death) on the way to Cana corresponds to the statement: “I am the way, the truth, the life.”
3. The sign of healing the Iame man at the Pool of Bethesda (situated directly next to Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate), prepares for the statement: “I am the gate for the sheep.”
4. The sign of the feeding of the 5,000 men plus women and children in chapter 6 gives occasion to His statement later in the same chapter: “I am the bread of life.”
5. The sign of the healing of the man who had been born blind gives meaning to Jesus’ statement: “I am the light of the world.” Jesus brought light and vision where there had only been darkness and blindness.
6. The penultimate sign of the resuscitation of Lazarus leads to Jesus’ declaration: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
7. The first time Jesus spoke the powerful statement, “I am” (implicating Himself directly with the most sacred name known to any Jewish person), He was walking across the Sea of Galilee.
8. In Jesus’ post-resurrection appearance to the disciples, where He provides the miraculous catch of 153 fish and then calls Peter to tend to His “sheep” — calls to mind the saying: “I am the good shepherd… [who] sacrifices his life for the sheep.” The resurrected Jesus who had just sacrificed His life for His sheep is now entrusting them to another shepherd.
The character of Jesus is not revealed only in words, nor only in deeds, but in word and deed. John wanted us to be convinced that Jesus was both Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son, thus he tells us a story where we can both hear and see true Jesus. All these years later, we still believe and we still have life in His name.