Sign

SIGN (Heb. ’ôth, a signal, môphēth, a miracle, omen, Gr. sēmeion, an indication). In Scripture this word generally refers to something addressed to the senses to attest the existence of a divine power. Miracles in the OT were often signs (Exod.4.8; Exod.8.23). Several specific things were given as signs, such as the rainbow (Gen.9.12-Gen.9.13), some of the feasts (Exod.13.9), the Sabbath (Exod.31.13), and circumcision (Rom.4.11). Often extraordinary events were given as a sign to insure faith or demonstrate authority. When Moses would not believe God, his rod was turned into a serpent and his hand became leprous as signs of God’s divine commission (Exod.4.1-Exod.4.8). Sometimes future events were given as signs, as in the case of Ahaz (Isa.7.14). When Christ was born, the place of his birth and his dress were to be signs of his identity to the shepherds. When the scribes and the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign, he assured them that no sign was to be given them except the sign of Jonah, whose experience in the fish portrayed Christ’s burial and resurrection. Revelation tells that before Christ returns there will be signs in the heavens, in the stars, moon, and sun. See also Circumcision; Covenant; Miracle; Rainbow.


SIGN (אוֹת, H253, token, miracle, portent; σημει̂ον, G4956, identifying mark, wonder, miracle, portent). In the OT, LXX, and NT the term and its synonyms indicate variously an unusual phenomenon interpreted as of supernatural origin and designed to provide instruction, give warning, or encourage faith. The context is usually the clue to the shade of meaning intended. See Miracles.

Synonyms

Old Testament.


Another synonym is נֵס, H5812, “ensign,” “sign,” or “warning”; the victims of the plague became a “warning” to the others (Num 26:10). Similar in meaning is מַשְׂאֵ֑ת, a signal or torch by which a warning is transmitted (Jer 6:1). Noteworthy also is the term צִיּוּן, H7483, “monument,” “sign,” or “marker,” such as was used to mark a gravesite (Ezek 39:15). It also means “mark” or “token.” Usually this term, as used in the OT, indicates an event so unusual that it can be explained only as a direct “act of God,” designed to win acceptance, to convince men.

Septuagint.


New Testament.


Meanings

Portents, prodigies

In pagan sources.

Even the sophisticated Romans and Greeks were superstitious and were often awed by supernatural portents or prodigies which were believed to foretell coming events. Caesar is reported to have seen certain of these on the morning of his assassination. Josephus reports similar omens preceding the destruction of Jerusalem, a.d. 70. These people for the most part were God-fearers, at least they feared the supernatural and looked eagerly for indications of the divine will and of future events in a prescientific age. Many natural phenomena were explained on the basis of supernatural agencies which priests, soothsayers, or ordinary citizens sought to interpret. Plutarch, for example, speaks of a monstrous birth as a “sign and a wonder” (Sept. Sap. Con. 3). It is applied to a freak of nature rather than to a supernatural event with religious significance.

In the OT.


In the NT.

The same connotation of portent or omen is seen in NT usage as when the Jews sought for a sign (Matt 12:38) and the Master attributed their request to lack of real faith (12:39; cf. 16:1-4; 24:3). Sometimes it may indicate simply a means of identification (26:48). Repeatedly a demand for evidence of this kind is discouraged in the NT. It is regarded as an alibi to justify unbelief and was seldom, if ever, gratified. Paul declared this desire for a “sign” to be characteristic of the Jews (1 Cor 1:22; cf. 14:22). The story of Lazarus and the rich man teaches that more impressive “signs” are not a cure for unbelief; that even if one returned from the dead he could not effectively preach repentance (Luke 16:31).

Supernatural acts

Of God.

Both in the OT and NT the significance of miracles is that they indicate God’s activity, and thus are a mode of divine revelation. Commonly a sign indicates God’s power (Neh 9:10; Ps 78:43) and is often linked with the miracles attending the Exodus (Jer 32:21). At other times it represents something linked with a covenant (Gen 1:14). These signs were regarded by the writers of the Bible as interventions by the Creator into the sphere of creation for the purposes of revelation and redemption. As such, they were an encouragement to faith and many times they provided a basis for faith. They were also the basis for hope. A supernatural act as a sign both from and for Yahweh would help remedy the existing situation with which the Israelites found themselves confronted (Isa 55:13; 66:19). Often the “sign” or “signal” to the Israelites was for the benefit of the non-Israelites. The ensign or signal of the Lord would be a rallying point or marshaling ground for the armies being recruited to crush Babylon (Isa 13:2).

Of other than God.


b. Demons. Paul speaks of certain signs and wonders as originating in Satan, but being permitted by God as punishment (2 Thess 2:9). Even more pronounced is a picture of the future, in which a profusion of so-called miracles is performed by which the majority of the people on earth are deceived. The healing of the beast is regarded as miraculous (Rev 13:3) and results in worship of the beast. That apparent miracles can have demonic origin is implied also in 1 John 2:26. Their purpose is deception. That deception can be a basis for divine punishment is also indicated in Romans 1:28-32. Rejection of the true light may lead one to mistake evil for good. Jesus accused the Pharisees of this when they were unwilling to regard His miracles as of divine origin but instead attributed them to Satan (Mark 3:21-27). This spiritual blindness exposes one to the danger of an eternal sin (Mark 3:28, 29). Thus the Scriptures warn, on one hand, against that nondiscrimination which fails to distinguish between the spurious and genuine miracles, and on the other hand, against spiritual blindness which refuses to acknowledge God as the source of supernatural acts.

A basis for faith

In the OT.

The writers of the Bible accepted the reported miracles at face value. They attributed them to the activity of Yahweh. They used them as a basis for their own faith and as a means of convincing others that their God was the true God and was all-powerful. They sang of the mighty acts of God; their creed consisted largely in reciting these acts of God. This factor in their heritage stood them in good stead in times when they were hard-pressed and when evil seemed to overwhelm them. At such times they would look to God in faith and expect Him to deliver them again. This was the germinal seed of their expectation in the apocalypses in which they were convinced that God would dramatically intervene for the redemption of His people (Pss 85; 95; Hab 3). The memory of such “mighty acts” was the basis of their optimism.

In the NT (other than John).

There is a paradoxical quality in the signs as reported in the gospels. On the one hand, the desire for signs was discouraged and rebuked because it indicated a lack of faith (Mark 8; 11; 12). On the other hand, Jesus Himself was a sign. In His message in the synagogue of Nazareth it is obvious that Jesus regarded His previous acts of healing as a fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy (Isa 61:1-9) and thus as the basis of faith which recognized Him as the Messiah. In a similar manner Paul appealed to the apostolic signs which accompanied his ministry as evidence of divine endorsement (2 Cor 12:12). Repeatedly these signs or miracles were regarded as evidences of the authenticity of the Gospel (Heb 2:4). The miracle par excellence was the resurrection; again and again it was made the basis for belief in the veracity of the Gospel. Apart from the divine intervention which resulted in Jesus’ resurrection, Paul argues, faith is groundless (1 Cor 15:14).

In John’s gospel.

The relationship between miracle and unbelief is nowhere so clearly expressed as in the fourth gospel. John does not use any word except σημει̂ον, G4956. The few miracles chosen for inclusion in this gospel are those in which the reaction of the people is the important thing. John is interested not only in the event but also in its meaning or significance. In this gospel, among the Pharisees and everyone else, a miracle or a work of God has only one explanation. It indicates God’s power and approval. Nicodemus accepted this as a basis for belief in Jesus (John 3:2). The Pharisees’ arguments with the restored blind man were powerless to resist his logic, the same logic which Nicodemus used; namely, that such things as divine healing had no other explanation than the energy of God. Jesus used this argument repeatedly in His dialogues with the Jews as evidence that God favored His message and His person (ch. 5). At the same time a clamor for mere evidence received little encouragement (6:26; 20:29). In the gospel of John the greatest miracle is the one incarnate in the man Jesus, as when He said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25).

Significance

The relationship between myth, fact, and faith is always a live issue. There are those who argue that the validity of faith does not depend upon fact, a view popular since the days of Ritschl and never more so than now. Religious “myth” is often understood as a religious interpretation of an event. Sometimes it is assumed that the important thing is the interpretation, that it is more important than the event it interprets. This sophistication was quite unknown to the writers of the Bible. In both OT and NT the authors were sober historians endeavoring to provide a basis for faith by citing the facts; this is esp. true of the gospels. In the epistles also the authors were confident that God’s endorsement of the message is to be seen in the lives transformed as well as in the intrinsic merit of the proclamation. This is quite different from credulously accepting an alleged vision or apparition as a substitute for evidence verifiable by ordinary means of discerning truth. The Biblical authors needed no vision.

It is often said that one can believe the miracles because of the miracle of Jesus Christ, rather than in Christ because of the miracles. Today, it is true, the miracle of Jesus’ character makes other miracles seem inferior by contrast. In the Biblical record itself the “signs and wonders” are either the basis for belief in Jesus’ authenticity (John 5:36) or an important source of confirmation of apostolic testimony (Heb 2:4).

Bibliography

A. Richardson, Miracle Stories of the Gospels (1941), ch. 3; P. Minear, Eyes of Faith (1946), 143-145, 183-187; H. Knight, “The Old Testament Conception of Miracle,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 5 (1952), 355-361.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

A mark by which persons or things are distinguished and made known. In Scripture used generally of an address to the senses to attest the existence of supersensible and therefore divine power. Thus the plagues of Egypt were "signs" of divine displeasure against the Egyptians (Ex 4:8 ff; Jos 24:17, and often); and the miracles of Jesus were "signs" to attest His unique relationship with God (Mt 12:38; Joh 2:18; Ac 2:22). Naturally, therefore, both in the nodetitle and the nodetitle, "signs" are assimilated to the miraculous, and prevailingly associated with immediate divine interference. The popular belief in this manner of communication between the visible and the invisible worlds has always been, and is now, widespread. So-called "natural" explanations, however ingenious or cogent, fail with the great majority of people to explain anything. Wesley and Spurgeon were as firm believers in the validity of such methods of intercourse between man and God as were Moses and Gideon, Peter and John.

The faith that walks by signs is not by any means to be lightly esteemed. It has been allied with the highest nobility of character and with the most signal achievement. Moses accepted the leadership of his people in response to a succession of signs: e.g. the burning bush, the rod which became a serpent, the leprous hand, etc. (Ex 3; 4); so, too, did Gideon, who was not above making proof of God in the sign of the fleece of wool (Jud 6:36-40). In the training of the Twelve, Jesus did not disdain the use of signs (Lu 5:1-11, and often); and the visions by which Peter and Paul were led to the evangelization of the Gentiles were interpreted by them as signs of the divine purpose (Ac 10; 16).



See Immanuel.

With increase of faith the necessity for signs will gradually decrease. Jesus hints at this (Joh 4:48), as does also Paul (1Co 1:22). Nevertheless "signs," in the sense of displays of miraculous powers, are to accompany the faith of believers (Mr 16:17 f), usher in and forthwith characterize the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, and mark the consummation of the ages (Re 15:1).

See also MIRACLE.

For "sign" of a ship (parasemos, "ensign," Ac 28:11).

See Dioscuri; SHIPS AND BOATS, III, 2.

Charles M. Stuart