In John’s Gospel, signs are everywhere. Jesus performs seven acts, or miracles, that are classified as signs. John calls them signs because their purpose is to reveal Jesus’s identity as the Word become flesh. However, more often than not it seems they just confuse or distract those who witness them. It calls to mind the lyrics from the song “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band:
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?
I am not sure that the Canadian rock group was intending to wax theological, but the overall point that the song makes is not too far off from what we see taking place in John. While the song reflects on the way signs hinder self-expression, curtail freedom, and even create barriers, the signs in the Gospel are meant to point the way to Jesus. Yet, to echo the lyrics of the 1971 song, it seems all they end up doing is “blockin’ out the scenery.”
A great example of this is when Jesus speaks to the crowd of followers that has resulted from his feeding of the 5,000: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26 ESV). According to Jesus the problem is not the sign itself–it is that they missed the sign entirely. They are governed by their physical appetites rather than a realization of Jesus’s identity. Matthew Lange writes, “Instead of seeing in the bread the sign, they had seen in the sign only the bread.”  It begs the question, how often do we allow the blessings that are ours in Christ to become barriers, blocking our ability to see him for who he truly is? To put it simply, do we see Jesus as the giver or the gift?
When we lose sight of Jesus as our reward, it is usually because we have not been as precise with our thinking and speaking as we ought to be. Eternal life begins to mean life that never ends, rather than life with God. Forgiveness of sins is equated with being cleared of guilt, rather than meaning reconciliation with a perfect and holy God. In essence we begin speaking half-truths. Does eternal life mean life that never ends? Absolutely! But never-ending life is only worth having if it’s life with God. We see this truth reflected later in Jesus’s discourse when he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). Has is present tense, not because we will never die, but because our relationship with God will never be severed, not even by death, and that is the defining characteristic of eternal life.
This means that as ministers, pastors, or simply disciples of Jesus, our job is twofold. First, it is to draw people to Jesus using the signs that he has left us. Second, it is to make sure that the signs remain guideposts, and not destinations in and of themselves. If we do that, then maybe the last verse of Five Man Electrical Band’s song will become more than simply lyrics. Maybe it will become lived and not only sung. Maybe our response to the signs that reveal Jesus’s glory will be to create signs of our own–signs of gratitude not only for what Christ gives us, but for Christ himself as the greatest gift of all.
And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray”
But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a
penny to pay
So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign
I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine.”
 As quoted in Leon Morris’s commentary on John in the New International Commentary on the New Testament, p. 317. Morris quoted from F. L. Godet’s Commentary on the Gospel of John.
Justin Simmons has served as minister for the Glenmora Church of Christ in central Louisiana since 2011. Previously he studied at the University of South Carolina (BA, MA), and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (MDiv). He is blessed to call Melissa his wife, and has three wonderful step-children. He enjoys reading about history and practical theology, listening to Gregorian chants, and passionately following Braves baseball and Gamecock sports.