John uses the term “Semeia” meaning signs, to describe the miracles Jesus performed. The synoptics however chose to use the term, “Dunameis” meaning mighty works. This shows that John wanted to emphasise that it was not the actual event that was most important but the significance behind it. In Jesus’ miracles, the truth that he is the Son of God is pointed out . These signs however caused controversy, conflict and condemnation. This is mainly because what Jesus was saying was controversial to the conventional Jewish belief at the time.
Jesus described his signs as “Erga” meaning works. He told the people, “My father is working and I am working too” (John 5:17) He was working to show the people that he was the Son of God and was offering eternal life and forgiveness to those who believed. To the Jews, this was blasphemy, as they did not believe that he was the Son of God. They found it hard to believe he was the messiah because they thought the messiah would be someone who would free them from the Romans; a strong, brave warrior. So therefore in all of Jesus’ signs this was a common controversial factor that made it hard for the Jews to believe.
Another controversial element to the signs is that, in all of the signs, Jesus is demonstrating that Christianity has come to supersede Judaism. Of course to Jews this would have been very difficult to accept, but nonetheless this message is put across many times in all the signs. In the wedding in Cana, Jesus’ mother Mary was present. She told Jesus “They have no more wine” (John 2:3). These words symbolise the fact that Judaism no longer had the “Wine” of salvation. No one could enter a wedding without being purified and this was done with water filled stone jars. When Jesus turned the water into wine, the wine from the stone jars was the best wine, which once again symbolises that Jesus is superseding Judaism.
In Jesus’ time seven was supposed to be the perfect number and therefore the six cleansing stone jars show that Judaism is imperfect and that Christianity is overruling. According to Marsh, Mary represents Judaism and when Jesus says to Mary “What have you got to do with me”, he is showing that he is leaving behind his Jewish routes and following what his Father wants. In the Old Testament the relationship with God was described as a marriage where God is the bridegroom and we are the unfaithful bride. In this sign Jesus is shown to be the bridegroom, and he has come back to Israel to restore our relationship with God. This was controversial for Jews because Jesus was saying that the only way to be in a relationship with God was through him, saying that Judaism was ineffective.
This controversial point is also seen in the healing of the Official’s son. An Official would have collaborated with the Romans and therefore, to not only perform a miracle on an Official’s son but to offer him eternal life was challenging to Jews. Jesus was showing in this sign that he had come to offer salvation to anyone, including Gentiles. The Jews thought that they were God’s chosen people and so therefore to say that salvation was for anyone was very controversial. Jesus was saying once again that Judaism was wrong and Christianity was here to overrule. The laws were very important to the Jews and in the cripple at the pool sign, this is what Jesus is emphasising. John writes about the fact that there were five covered colonnades, which “John intended to signify the five books of Moses which were ineffective for salvation” (Marsh).
In the sign John also writes about how the crippled could only be healed if they touched the water when it stirred. The man was never able to get to the water and was therefore never healed. But John puts across, as Marsh describes, that “Jesus has made it plain that he provides a ‘water’ that quenched the deepest thirst once and for all”. This is hard for the Jews to accept because the sign is saying that it is through Jesus that eternal life is given and that Judaism cannot offer salvation.
Another point in the sign that Jews would have immediately recognised and found controversial is that the cripple had been at the pool for thirty-eight years. Glasson says, “In John, Exodus motifs abound”. This is proved true because this is how long the Israelites were in the desert waiting for God’s law to save them. Jesus is showing that he has come to set them free without the law that they have been living under. This is going against all that Jews believe in. The last part of the sign also shows controversy as Jesus tells the cripple to “Get up and walk”. It was a Sabbath day and so to walk with a mat was against the law. Jesus said “Sabbath is made for man, not man for Sabbath”, showing how the Sabbath is there to help so that the man can pick up his mat and walk. Again here Jesus is showing that he has come to rule over the laws that Judaism takes so seriously.
When Jesus fed the five thousand, he was preaching on a mountain, which is symbolic of Moses. He was showing that he was a new Moses, and like Moses, he fed his people. This was the forerunner to the messianic banquet and the bread that Jesus offered would lead to eternal life. This would have been offensive to the Jews who thought that Moses was the most important human, and that the only way to God was through the law.
The sign when the man who was born blind was healed again was controversial to Jews. In this sign Jesus was showing that, like with the cripple at the pool, he was healing on the Sabbath, and therefore breaking the law. He says that the man was sent blind, by God the Father so that he could perform the miracle so others would believe. This is mirrored in Isaiah 35:5 “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped”. This was blasphemy to Jews and was controversial as in this sign he was simply saying that he was the Son of God and that, in him the Old Testament was fulfilled.
In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus marks the end of the old Israel, and the birth of the new: Lazarus died as a member of the old Israel and came back to life through Jesus. In the same way, the death and resurrection of Jesus would enable readers and watchers to rise from death to eternal life. This, like in the other signs, was controversial for Jews because it went against all they believed in and meant that effectively God’s laws, and therefore Judaism itself was ineffective.