Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity
John 4:46-54 (Translation from Weinrich, John 1:1-7:1, pg. 530)
October 16, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO


In the name of + Jesus.


The conclusion of the episode of Jesus with the royal official states that it was Jesus’ second miracle. Actually, miracle is not the best word. The Holy Spirit inspired John to write σημεῖον, which means, “sign.” Some signs are miraculous, but not all of them. But every sign does the same thing, whether it’s miraculous or not. Signs point to something. Like driving down the highway—signs tell you what direction certain things can be found; they tell you how far away something is; they inform you of certain rules for safe travel.

John makes extra certain that we know that the signs of Jesus point to one thing, because he introduces the story by saying, And so he [Jesus] came again to Cana of Galilee, where he had made the water wine (v 46a). This was the beginning of Jesus’s signs. Again, it was a miraculous thing, that is, it was an act that defied any kind of reasonable explanation. But the sign is more than Jesus can do amazing and cool things if He wants. In the Scriptures, and especially in John’s Gospel, Jesus is not interested in showing that He is the Son of God by His power, but by something else. So what is it that John wants us to know about Jesus by writing down this particular act of Jesus and calling it a sign?

Let’s listen in. And there was a certain royal official whose son was sick in Capernaum. Having heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went to him and pleaded that [Jesus] would come down and heal his son, for he was about to die. Therefore, Jesus said to him, “Unless you [people] see signs and wonders, you will in no way believe” (vv 46b-48). Jesus offers a chastisement. Faith that believes because of wonders and miracles is no faith at all. The other evangelists report Jesus’ even harsher rebuke of those who seek after signs: A wicked and unfaithful generation demands a sign, and the only sign they’ll get is that of Jonah.” Then He left them and went away (Mt 16:4 AAT).

But in the royal official is a kernel of faith that looks beyond the outward wonder of the things that attracted everyone else to Him. This is, after all, a life and death situation for his son. The official said to him, “Lord, come down before my small child dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go! Your son lives.” The man trusted the word that Jesus spoke to him and began his journey homeward (vv 49-50).

If you’re looking for a miracle, there’s a hidden one right here. To give a little context, Capernaum, where the official was from and where he had left his dying son, was a twenty-mile trip through the Galilean hill country. The narrative soon reveals that it was an overnight trip for the officer, which means that for nearly a whole day, the only thing he had to trust was the word that Jesus had spoken. Imagine the thoughts that accompanied him with every step through the hills. It must have been like Shrödinger’s cat. Every rational part of the official knew that his son was dead. But at the same time the word of Jesus said something different, something contrary to all reason. Your son lives. Faith drove every footstep, faith that had no sign, only a Word.

But then the next day something happens. As he was still on his way down, his servants met him and reported that his child lived. He therefore inquired of them concerning the hour when his health began to improve. They said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” Then the father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to them, “Your son lives,” and he believed and also his whole household. Jesus did this as the second sign when he had come from Judea into Galilee (vv 51-54).

Notice that the royal official comes to faith twice. First, He trusts the Word and the Word alone, but then he also receives a sign. And he believed. He and his whole household. The official is an icon of faith. Faith rests on God’s Word alone—not on outward words or wonders or miracles. But the signs give direction to faith. Jesus spoken in Cana, but in Capernaum, the little boy was delivered from death to life. This is the sign on the highway that points us to what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. He is the One who will be delivered from death into life. The sign of this miraculous act is that the Son of God became flesh in order to die.

After Jesus rises from the dead, John summarizes the point of these signs: His disciples saw Jesus do many other [signs] that are not written in this book. But these things are written so that you believe Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and by believing have life in His name (Jn 20:30-31 AAT, alt.). The signs show you that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and awaken faith in His death and resurrection, so that you will have life in his name.


But not all signs are in the past and part of a biblical narrative involving people you’ll never get the chance to meet. There are signs to you as well. Unfortunately, like the Galileans who saw the signs Jesus did, too many look for miraculous, outward signs and refuse to believe unless God would rip open the heavens and start to do inexplicable wonders on earth. But even if He did, faith that rests on a miraculous sign is no faith at all.

The signs that Jesus gives to you are much more mundane. Our churches teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among men, but even more, to be signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us. They were instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them. Therefore, we must use the Sacraments in such a way that faith, which believes the promises offered and set forth through the Sacraments, is increased. Therefore, they condemn those who teach that the Sacraments justify simply by the act of doing them. They condemn those who do not teach that faith, which believes that sins are forgiven, is required in the use of the Sacraments (Augsburg Confession, Article XIII).

The Sacraments do not have value because they are some sort of special work to perform, but because they are works that have God’s Word attached to them. Baptism puts the name of Father, Son, and Spirit on you and makes you a disciple—Matthew 28. It saves you—Mark 16 and 1 Peter 3. It renews you—Titus 3. It buries you with Christ and raises you to new life—Romans 6. The Supper is Christ’s true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, as our Lord’s own words declare.

Like the royal official, who went those twenty long miles with nothing but a Word driving him on in faith, it is the Word that is attached to the Sacraments that accomplishes what they promise. But that does not mean that the signs are unnecessary. If you reject or refuse the signs that Jesus gives, you have also rejected and refused the Word that He has attached to them.

The signs are not the object of faith, but they give shape and direction to faith. They awake and confirm faith in those who use them. That’s why instruction always goes with the Sacraments. Jesus says that a disciple is made by baptizing and teaching; the Lord’s Supper is preceded by catechesis and examination. Jesus’ Word and teaching drives you to the signs.

That the Sacraments are signs does not mean that they are merely symbolic. The royal official’s son didn’t symbolically rise from the dead, but was really and bodily delivered from death into life. Likewise, the Sacraments accomplish what they say they do. They’re not just symbols. Both Baptism and the Supper are given as signs that point to the same thing as the signs in John’s Gospel. These things are given so that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and by believing have life in His name.

The signs give a cruciform shape to faith. Baptism and Supper proclaim that faith in Jesus is faith directed to His cross and empty tomb. Baptism unites you with Christ’s death and resurrection, and as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again.

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. The signs of Cana and Capernaum, the signs in the font and on the altar, direct you to believe in the One who died and rose again, that He is God’s Son, the Christ, and in that faith, you find your life.

See Jesus’ Death and Resurrection in This Healing, and in the Signs Given to You

In the name of + Jesus.

Jacob W Ehrhard