Have you ever been so excited you could hardly sleep? That’s what happened to me the night I noticed something amazing in John’s Gospel. Toward the end of writing my post on the seven signs in John’s Gospel, I saw there was yet another chiastic structure. The more I thought about it, the more I was blown away by both John’s message and his literary genius.
Take a look at the signs in order:
A and A’ -- Sin and death
The first and last signs are connected by the concepts of sin and death, which is the consequence of sin. In Jesus we find freedom from both. Romans 3:23 puts these two ideas together: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In the first sign, Jesus turns the purification water into wine, symbolizing his blood which is what purifies us from sin once for all. This is what Hebrews 10:19-22 says:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, … let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
In the second sign, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, symbolizing his power over death, sin’s penalty. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explains that God has put everything in subjection to Jesus, including death. In raising Lazarus who is so dead he has started to decompose, Jesus shows that neither sin nor death are too strong for him.
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:56-57)
B and B’ – The Creator
The next pair of signs—Jesus healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum when he was a day’s journey away in Cana, and Jesus restoring the vision of a man born blind—both show, very simply, he is our Re-Creator.
How does Jesus heal the royal official’s son? He speaks a promise of healing. And what does the man do in response? “He believed the word Jesus had spoken to him and went on his way.” (John 4:50) Compare this with Genesis 1. How does God create the world? He speaks it into existence.
But how does Jesus heal the blind beggar in John 9? He spits on the ground, makes mud and spreads it on the man’s eyes. Compare this with Genesis 2, where we zoom in on the creation of Adam. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground.” (Genesis 2:7). Later on, Jesus invites the man to believe in him, restoring not only the man’s physical body but his relationship to God.
Paul echoes this in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”
C and C’ – Of walking and water
The obvious connection between these two signs is that they are both about water and walking. The invalid believes that he just has to get into the water and then he’ll be able to walk. Jesus supernaturally walks on water. But there’s something else going on here.
The third pair of signs is the one I am most excited about because it was only after puzzling over it that I saw the deeper connection. It wasn’t until I looked at Jesus’ discussion of the healing with the outraged Jewish leaders that I saw this had nothing to do with the healing per se. This pair is all about Jesus’ perfect obedience, in contrast to the rebellion of humanity.
What I’ve always found funny about the healing at the pool of Bethesda is that the invalid has gotten so used to his condition he doesn’t even say yes when Jesus asks him if he wants to get well. He just points the finger at others and sulks. “I don’t have anyone to help me get into the pool, so everyone else gets there first.” Has he given up hope of ever getting well? No matter, Jesus heals him anyway, without helping him into the water.
When he is confronted by the Jewish leaders about breaking the Sabbath (healing was work, apparently), Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19). In other words, “It may look like disobedience to you, but I am doing just what my Father God is telling me.”
The second sign of the pair is Jesus walking on water, and not just any water, the sea. Many Bible scholars agree that John uses the sea to symbolize humanity in rebellion against God both in his Gospel and in Revelation: the beast comes out of the sea, and in the new heaven and new earth there is no longer any sea. Jesus walking on the sea is a picture of his authority over rebellious humanity, and also of his perfect obedience. He doesn’t sink into the rebellious attitude of the people around him; he stays above. When the disciples are naturally totally freaked out by the sight of Jesus coming toward them on the water, he calls out to them, “It is I, don’t be afraid.” He’s telling us not be afraid of the hostile, anti-Christ culture we live in since he is over and above it.
D -- The Good Shepherd feeds his flock
And now we see John’s genius. Remember the fourth of the “I am” metaphors? “I am the Good Shepherd”, repeated twice (John 10:11, 14). Are you ready for this? The fourth, and central, sign is Jesus feeding the five thousand. See how the signs and metaphors intersect? (See me jumping up and down with excitement?) John tells us “There was plenty of grass in that place.” (John 6:10a) He’s telling us that the Good Shepherd is feeding his sheep. Jesus has them “sit down” (ἀναπεσεῖν), which is the same word for reclining at table. Echoes of Psalm 23:1, “The Lord is my Shepherd... He makes me lie down in green pastures.”
What is so amazing to me is that the central sign is not like the great theological truths we find in the other three pairs of the chiasm. While it is very important that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice, and the victor over death, and the perfectly obedient Son, and the re-Creator, the heart of the Gospel is that Jesus is the one who leads and feeds and protects us every day. It is grand and glorious that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, as John has shown us through these signs, but the central thing, John is telling us, is to know Jesus as your Good Shepherd day by day.
Following the Good Shepherd, we lack nothing. I hope this truth and its beautiful packaging in a chiastic structure is an encouragement to you.
For a lot of people, the Bible is either art or truth. For me, it's both, and I hope to persuade readers in both camps to see the other perspective.