One of the better known verses in the New Testament is John 20:31. In this verse, John explains precisely why he chose to include the specific signs of Jesus that he chose, telling us he included them so we might believe Jesus is the Son of God, and that by believing, we might have life in his name. That’s good stuff! It allows us to read with purpose.
I have always found it interesting that John opted to use the term “signs” rather than “miracles.” The other gospel writers refer to the works of Jesus as miracles. But not John. To John they are signs.
Signs tell us things. Signs convey ideas, instruction, information. Sometimes signs are straightforward – unambiguous. “DANGER! Electrical Hazard!” Other signs seem to be subtly saying something more than what the literal message on the sign includes.
Take the sign in the photograph for example. This is a speed limit sign at a refinery near where I live and work. The literal message of the sign is that the speed limit is 9 3/4 miles per hour, but I really do not believe the refinery administration’s desire is that I keep my speedometer at 9 3/4 mph. The message is, “We are serious about safety. Drive slowly!”
Three times in scripture we are told that something related to the incarnation of Christ is a “sign.” This is a curious thing to me, because Jesus himself said that it is an evil and adulterous generation that seeks after a sign. Paul also seems to denigrate this practice of seeking signs.
I take it there is a world of difference between God granting us signs, with us looking for and understanding those signs, and the mentality that needs to have signs in order to be convinced. Sadly, that practice continues even today.
The Signs of Christmas
To further confuse the issue, there are times when God instructs the asking of a sign. Take this exchange with Ahaz, king of Judah, for example:
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” – Isaiah 7:10-12, ESV
The First Sign
Despite the objection offered by Ahaz, God gives him the sign:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14, ESV
If we continue reading, we exit the passage with three prophetic expectations with which to deal: 1) The boy will be born of a virgin, 2) he will be reared during a time of national calamity, and 3) while he is still young, the Aram-Israel alliance will be broken.
Several inferences can be drawn from this sign. This entire birth is God’s doing, for his purposes, and it has his stamp of approval. The boy will be called “Immanuel,” with means, “God with us.” The child, however, will be “like his brothers in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17). Though “God with us,” he is truly human, will nurse at his mother’s breast, will eat curds and honey, and will have to learn to choose between evil and good.
The Second Sign
Considering all the fanfare and hoopla we expect at the arrival of royalty, how much more could we expect at the arrival of divinity?
In May of 2016, my small hometown of Lynden, Washington (about 10,000) was visited by then candidate Donald Trump while on the campaign trail. The original plan was for Trump to land in Seattle and hold a rally at Boeing Field, but something went wrong with that plan and the team had to scramble to find an alternate location for the rally. Lynden is home to the Northwest Washington Fairground so, though two hours to the north of Seattle, the event was moved there.
Regardless of one’s political alignments, there is no denying the impression left by this event. The U.S. Secret Service detail, the security aircraft over the city, (I cannot tell you how many security helicopters were hovering overhead) the protesters standing on Washington State Route 539, blocking traffic into town, the more than doubling of the town’s population in just a matter of hours – It was indeed a spectacle to behold.
All of that was for a human political candidate for an office in one country. What could we expect when God Almighty comes for a visit?
And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. – Luke 2:12, ESV
noun – a box or trough in a stable or barn from which horses or cattle eat.
Jesus did not arrive at a hospital, an emperor’s palace, or even a human home. The contrast between Trump’s arrival and God’s arrival could not possibly be more pronounced! Not only is Jesus born and laid in an animal food box, the spectators for the event are local shepherds, held, at that time, as one of the lesser forms of employment. (The magi did not arrive until Jesus was about two years old.) The most powerful, authoritative, and sovereign entity in existence arrives in the humblest (dare I say, “most humiliating”) circumstances. And this is called “a sign.”
The Third Sign
When Jesus was brought to the temple, he was brought as the first-born and, as such, was “holy to the Lord,” meaning set apart unto God. His parents are at the temple to pay the five-shekel price of redemption.
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’ – Luke 2:34-35, ESV
Already, we are getting glimpses of the persecution and ultimate crucifixion of God in the flesh. Simeon has made it clear that Jesus will face opposition, and that at some point, Mary will hurt so deeply and profoundly that it will be as a sword continually piercing her soul.
Simeon had been told that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. This sounds like a glorious, joy-filled truth, and from the proper perspective, it is. But that joy comes at a tremendous cost. Anguish, rejection, and ultimately a brutal torture and death. Our reaction to Jesus reveals the state of our hearts, and that heart condition determines our destiny – rising or falling.
There were other signs as well, for example the star that led the Magi, but these three are specifically referenced as “signs.”
What we celebrate this week is the introduction to the greatest hinge-point in history. It is no exaggeration to say that life and death hang in the balance.
What will you do with Jesus?