On the Book of Signs, Miracles in John, and the First Two Signs in Particular (John 2:1–11 and 4:46–54)

By Eric D. Huntsman

This post is taken from Dr. Huntsman’s blog:  New Testament Thoughts.

Maybe I have missed it, but as I have scanned the Gospel Doctrine New Testament Study Guide and lesson manual, it seems that John 2 did not “make the cut” when the somewhat chronological, somewhat harmonizing approach to Jesus’ ministry was being put together. So in connection with this week’s lesson, which treats John 3-4, I want to share one common schema for the first half of the Gospel of John. I will then provide a simple outline of John 2.

Most of this post, however, will be drawn from some of my published discussions on the role of miraculous signs in John, particularly the sign of changing water to wine. I am then taking the second sign from the end of chapter 4 out of order, because of its connection with the first sign.

I will put some of my notes on chapter 3 and the rest of chapter 4 in a separate post.

The gospel of John begins with a poetic prologue, the Logos Hymn, that sets the ministry and sacrifice of Jesus into a greater, cosmological scheme. Following the approach of the late Father Raymond Brown, a noted Johannine scholar, the body of the Fourth Gospel is divided into two parts: the ministry of Jesus, which reveals the identity of the Word made flesh through discourses, dialogues, and particularly seven important miraculous signs, and the salvific suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lamb of God. It then concludes with an epilogue, seemingly composed later.

Here is the simple outline, expanded only for the first half of the body, which we began to treat in last week’s post and continue with this and the next post:

Prologue (the Logos Hymn; 1:1–18)

The Book of Signs (1:19–12:50)

Initial Days of the Divine Revelation (1:19–2:11)

First to Second Cana Miracle (2:1–4:54, overlaps with initial days)

Jewish Feasts and Their Replacements by Christ (5:1–10:42)

Raising of Lazarus and its aftermath (11:1–12:50)

The Book of Glory (Passion and Resurrection Narratives; 13:1–20:31)

Epilogue (21:1–25)

“Signs” in John

Preferred Johannine term for “miracles”: sēmeia or “signs”

John was very selective in the miracles or signs that he recorded, although he knew of many (John 20:30–31, 21:25)

John as narrator refers to them as sēmeia; Jesus usually refers to them as erga, or “works”

These were selected for what they told about Jesus

On the signs, here is an excerpt from The Miracles of Jesus, 135–36:

As is so often the case, the gospel of John stands apart from the Synoptic gospels.  As discussed in the introduction and in the list of terms for miracles above, John consistently uses the terms sēmeion, “sign,” orergon, “work,” for the miracles of Jesus rather than the regular Synoptic term dynamis, meaning “powerful deed.”[1]  In the case of both terms, this seems to be a result of the high christology of John.  Miracles are not just a personal blessing for the recipients; above all, as signs they signify or point to something about Jesus.  Likewise, just as the Father worked in creation, Jesus works in the act of “re-creation,” whether it be through miracles of healing and restoration or the still greater miracle of overcoming sin and death.  John makes these christological points by being surprisingly selective in the miracles that he chooses to relate: in the first half of his gospel, John features only seven signs, but they so inform and shape the text that the section of John comprising Chapters 2–11 is often known as “The Book of Signs.”  John includes one final miracle in John 21:4–14 in the astonishing catch of 153 fish.

In addition to these eight miracle stories, John includes two references to the power of the clearly divine Jesus: he passes through an hostile mob in the temple unseen (John 8:59) and causes those in the arresting mob to fall over backwards by the simple but powerful words “I am he,” which were possibly illustrative of his true identity as the divine “I Am” or YHWH (John 18:6).  John also includes two summaries mentioning other signs (sēmeia) of Jesus.  Interestingly, in all of these miracle accounts, John includes no exorcisms, perhaps because for him the real and final defeat of Satan was accomplished on the cross and not through individual contests with Satan or his demons.[2]

The Seven Signs in the Gospel of John

1          Water into Wine (2:1–11)

2          Healing of Nobleman’s Son (4:46–54)

3          Healing of the Lame Man at the Pool of Bethesda (5:1–18)

4          Feeding of the 5,000 (6:1–15)

5          Walking on Water (6:16–21)

6          Healing of the Man Born Blind (9:1–41)

7          Raising of Lazarus (11:1–57)

The greatest sign, the resurrection of Jesus!

An astonishing catch of 153 fish after the Resurrection (John 21:14–14)

From Cana to Cana (John 2:1–4:54)

The second section of the Book of Signs, the First to Second Cana Miracle (John 2:1–4:54, overlaps with initial days), can be outlined as follows:

First Sign: Water to Wine at the Wedding at Cana (miracle story, 2:1–11)

Jesus Goes to Capernaum (narrative transition report, 2:12)

Jesus at the First Passover (2:13–25)

Discourse on the New Birth: Dialogue with Nicodemus (3:1–21)

The Baptist’s Final Witness (discourse, 3:22–36)

Jesus Leaves Judea (narrative transition report, 4:1–3)

Discourse on the Water of Life: Dialogue with the Samaritan Woman at the Well (4:4–42)

Jesus Returns to Galilee (narrative transition report, 4:43–45)

Second Sign: Healing the Nobleman’s Son in Cana (miracle story, 4:46–54)

References to Cana at the beginning and ending of this section create a literary inclusio, or frame. My interpretation of the first two signs Jesus performs stresses the power, and purpose, of the Divine Word that has become flesh. With the first sign the evangelist teaches that the Word—which in the first instance created (or organized) and now re-creates (or reorganize)—has become the Incarnate Word. In the second sign the Incarnate Word heals, signifying that Jesus has come to redeem fallen creation; this time the reorganization is seen in the healing of the nobleman’s son, which is a type of returning creation to its correct state.

Turning Water into Wine (John 2:1–11) (excerpt from The Miracles of Jesus, 15–19)

The gospel of John specifically identifies the changing of water to wine as “the beginning of miracles (Greek, sēmeia)” in Jesus’ public ministry (John 2:11a).  Though rendered as “miracles” in the King James Version, the Greek word sēmeia actually means “signs.”  As a sign, this miracle, like other miracles in John’s gospel, is more than simply a powerful or amazing act: it is, above all, a sign or symbol of a greater truth about Jesus and his message.  This truth was understood by his earliest disciples who were present at Cana; the sign “manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him” (John 2:11b).[3]

According to the account preserved only in John 2:1–11, Jesus and some of his early disciples were invited to a wedding feast in a small Galilean town that has been identified with eitherKhirbet Qânâ, nine miles north of Nazareth, or, more traditionally, withKefr Kenna, just under four miles to the northeast of Jesus’ hometown (see Starting Galilee Early with my Family and scroll down below the Nazareth Historical Village to the section of the blog post called “Cana”). [4] During the course of the festivities, the mother of Jesus informed him that the wine for the feast has run out, an occurrence that would cause great embarrassment to the newly married couple and their families.  Mary, who is never directly named in John, did not explicitly ask Jesus to intervene, nor did he immediately act to resolve the problem.  She did, however, instruct the servants to do whatever Jesus asks, and he subsequently directed them to fill six large stone water pots with water.  He then told them to draw from them and give it to the master of ceremonies.  When they did so, the water had inexplicably become wine, finer than any expected.  Jesus’ actions, whether motivated by his mother’s implied request or his own compassion for the newly married couple, reveal his loving concern and willingness to help even though “his hour” had not yet come (John 2:4).

John specifically describes the six large water pots used in the miracle as ones used “after the manner of the purifying of the Jews” (John 2:6).  The number six might be significant because it was one short of seven, the Jewish number of perfection and completeness.  Because stone water pots were necessary for ritual purity (Leviticus 11:33), traditional interpretations of this miracle see these pots as symbols of the larger Mosaic law and its requirements, which was incomplete until Christ came, suggesting that Jewish purification and sacrificial rituals were being replaced by the atoning blood Christ.  Wine was also a prominent element in prophetic descriptions of the future messianic banquet (see Isaiah 25:6; 55:1; Jeremiah 31:12; Joel 2:18–24; 3:18; Amos 9:13–14), so the wine which replaced the water from these pots could symbolize the new, richer blessings of the gospel that Jesus was bringing.[5]  Each of the water pots held between 20 and 30 gallons, which meant that anywhere between 120 and 150 gallons of fine wine were produced by the miracle, underscoring the theme of the abundance that Jesus and his kingdom were providing.  The fact that wine was later used by Jesus as a symbol of his blood at the Last Supper gives the miracle at Cana a particular sacramental character as well.[6]

Latter-day Saint commentators have tended to focus on the miracle itself—that is, the actual transformation of water into wine.  Jesus’ ability to take water and transmute it into a completely different, organic compound demonstrates that he could control matter even on a subatomic level, changing some hydrogen and oxygen, for instance, into carbon and then completely reorganizing these several elements into wine.[7]  As Elder Talmage has written, “The act of transmutation whereby water became wine was plainly a miracle, a phenomenon not susceptible of explanation, far less of demonstration, by what we consider the ordinary operation of natural law . . .  [yet] miracles cannot be in contravention of natural law, but are wrought through the operation of laws not universally or commonly recognized.”[8]]  Accordingly Jesus performed this miracle in accord with higher laws and powers that we cannot understand let alone exercise.  Yet Jesus performed the miracle at Cana with the same knowledge and authority that he had used in creating the world, making this miracle a clear sign that he was, in fact, the Creator.

In the wider context of the gospel of John, however, the changing of water to wine provides yet another symbol of Jesus’ divine identity.  In this gospel, water consistently serves as a symbol of spirit, divinity, and eternal life.  Likewise blood, which is frequently represented by wine, represents mortality and earthly life.  The transformation of water to wine could then symbolize the Incarnation, whereby the Divine Word—the premortal Jehovah—became the man Jesus, as earlier articulated in the gospel’s prologue, “the Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). The divine conception and miraculous birth by which this occurred may help to explain the prominent role of the mother of Jesus at the miracle of Cana.  She was the means, as it were, by which the spiritual Jehovah became the flesh and blood Babe of Bethlehem.[9] Though already divine and the creator of heaven and earth, the Lord could not be complete and fulfill his atoning work until he became man.  So while the disciples clearly would have been impressed by the outward aspects of Jesus’ changing water into wine, the glory which they realized and which caused them to believe in him (John 2:11) may have been manifested in the deeper understanding of his identity symbolized by this miraculous sign.  Likewise, our faith and trust in Jesus deepens when we realize who he really is and what abundant, rich blessings he can bring.

The Royal Official’s Son (John 4:46–54; cf. The Centurion’s Servant, Matthew 8:5–13; parallel Luke 7:1–10) (excerpt from The Miracles of Jesus, 42–44)

 According to John, the second miraculous “sign” (sēmeion) that Jesus performed was the healing of the son of a royal official (John 4:46–54; Greek basilikos; KJV, “nobleman”).  Returning from Jerusalem via Samaria, Jesus came again to Cana, where the royal official met him.  Because this was in Galilee, the “nobleman” was probably an official of Herod Antipas and thus probably Jewish.  When the official  met Jesus and asked that he heal his son, who was close to death, Jesus warned him against seeking “signs and wonders” (sēmeia kai terata), meaning portents or impressive manifestations designed to cause belief.  The royal official did not ask for such a sign; rather he simply asked that Jesus come down to his home to see what he could do for his son.  The man’s persistence led Jesus not only to agree to help him but also to announce that his son was alive—that is, that he had been healed.  Returning to his home at  Capernaum, which was not far from Herod Antipas’ new capital at Tiberias, the father found that the boy’s fever had broken at the very moment that Jesus had told him that his son would live, which led the nobleman and his entire household to believe in him. 

         The fact that the nobleman came to Jesus already believing that he could heal his son suggests that this was not actually the secondmiracle that Jesus had performed in his ministry.  Clearly the man had either witnessed or heard about other mighty works that Jesus had done.  Rather, in this gospel it is simply the second sign that John has elected to narrate in some detail.[10] Because Johannine signs are more about revealing something about Jesus than they are accounts of the miraculous acts themselves, with this second “sign” John moves us from the understanding of Jesus given by the first sign to a further understanding of the Lord’s identity.  The first sign taught that Jesus was both the Creator and the Incarnate Word.  To this the second sign adds the understanding that Jesus was also the ultimate Healer.  John underscores the connection between these two signs by beginning the story of the royal official by noting that he met Jesus in “Cana of Galilee, where he made the water wine” (4:46).

With the connections between creation and healing in mind, sickness can viewed as a type of the fall, by which the original, perfect creation became subject to all kinds of imperfection, especially mortality with its attendant problems of illness, age, disability, and eventually death.  As a result, the Divine Word who originally created, or organized, the world is also the one who can, as the Incarnate Word, “re-organize” or set it back in order.  This symbolism makes such healing miracles powerful symbols of the atoning mission of Jesus Christ.  Accordingly, when Jesus responded to the official by saying, “Go thy way; thy son liveth (Greek, zē)” (John 4:50, emphasis added), the use of the word “liveth” rather than “is healed” may be significant.  It may, in fact, intimate that this miracle is about something much greater than simply restoring good health: having “life” in the gospel of John is frequently a reference to obtaining the eternal life that Jesus came to bring.[11]


[1] Brown, “Gospel Miracles,” 180–81; Gerhardsson, Mighty Acts of Jesus, 16; Leon Morris, Gospel according to John, 607–13;  Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 224–28.

[2] Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 222–24.

[3] Brown, Gospel according to John, 1.103, “Then John tells us what the sign accomplished: through it Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed on him.  Thus, the first sign had the same purpose as all the subsequent signs will have, namely, revelation about the person of Jesus” (emphasis original). While this story is recorded only by John, some of its elements, such as a wedding feast (Mark 2:19; Matthew 22:1–14; 25:1–13; Luke 12:36) and importance of new wine (Luke 5:37–39), appear in the other gospels.  See Moloney, The Gospel of John, 155.

[4] Brown, Gospel according to John, 1.6; Walker, In the Steps of Jesus, 37.

[5] Moloney, The Gospel of John, 160–61; Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 191–92.

[6] Brown, Gospel according to John, 103–110, 112–118; Bruce, The Gospel of John, 68–72; Morris, The Gospel according to John, 153–64; Huntsman, “And the Word Was Made Flesh,” 55–56.

[7] Brown, Gospel according to John, 103–110, 112–118; Bruce, The Gospel of John, 68–72; Morris, The Gospel according to John, 153–64; Huntsman, “And the Word Was Made Flesh,” 55–56.

[8] Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 148.

[9] Huntsman, Behold the Lamb of God, 3–4, and “And the Word Was Made Flesh,” 56–57.

[10] The narrative of John is, of course, difficult to harmonize with the basic storyline told by Mark, which is largely followed by Matthew and Luke.  As a result, it is possible that many of the miracles that the Synoptics tell of the early Galilean ministry had already been performed and were well-known throughout the area.  John himself notes that many in Jerusalem had begun to believe in Jesus “when they saw the miracles (sēmeia) which he did” (2:23; cf. 3:2).

[11] Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker, 198–99.