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Holman Bible Dictionary
Old Testament Oth , the usual Hebrew term for sign, appears in a nontheological sense for a military signal in the fourth Lachish letter and Joshua 2:12 , and for a military standard in Numbers 2:2 and Psalm 74:4 . The other 75 instances of sign carry a theological sense. Three settings predominate: the created order (Genesis 1:14; Genesis 9:12-17; Isaiah 37:30; Isaiah 55:13 ); human history (Exodus 7:3; Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 6:22 ); and religious ritual (Genesis 17:11; Exodus 12:13; Exodus 13:9 ,Exodus 13:9,13:16; Exodus 31:13 ). With signs, the nature of the object or event, whether commonplace, odd, or miraculous, is not the prime focus. Emphasis falls rather on the function of the sign. Old Testament signs may be classed according to seven somewhat overlapping functions: 1. to impart knowledge; 2. to protect; 3. to motivate faith; 4. to recall significant events; 5. to witness to the covenant; 6. to confirm; and 7. to illustrate by means of prophetic action.
1. Signs which impart knowledge typically characterize God as Lord of history and champion of oppressed Israel. The goal of the Exodus signs is the knowledge that “I am the LORD (in the midst of the earth)” (Exodus 7:5; Exodus 8:22; Exodus 10:2 ) and that “the LORD is God; there is no other besides him” (Deuteronomy 4:34-35 NRSV). The punishment to befall Pharaoh Hophra was to serve as a sign promoting the knowledge that God's word of judgment would surely stand up against the Judean refugees in Egypt ( Jeremiah 44:29 ). The knowledge imparted by these signs encouraged acknowledgment of Yahweh as the only God, obedience to God's covenant, and trust in God's word. 2. The mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15 ) and the blood upon the doorposts at Passover (Exodus 12:13 ) protected those under the sign. 3. In addition to revealing God, a second goal of the Exodus signs was to motivate faith and worship. Israel's unbelief in spite of signs is often condemned (Numbers 14:11 ,Numbers 14:11,14:22; Deuteronomy 1:29-33 ). The signs fulfill their goal when they inspire obedience (Deuteronomy 11:3 ,Deuteronomy 11:3,11:8 ), worship (Deuteronomy 26:8 ,Deuteronomy 26:8,26:10 ), and loyalty to the Lord (Joshua 24:16-17 ). The signs of pagan prophets similarly serve as a challenge to trust in Yahweh (Deuteronomy 13:1-4 ). The reality of wonder-working false prophets underscores the truth that signs themselves are ambivalent; the function of the sign, either to evoke or challenge faith in Yahweh, is the deciding factor. 4. Signs serve as reminders of significant events. The eating of unleavened bread at Passover (Exodus 13:9 ) and the redemption of the first-born (Exodus 13:16 ) are reminders of God's liberation of Israel. The stones at Gilgal (Joshua 4:6-7 ) bore similar witness to God's continuing saving presence as Israel embarked on the Conquest. The covering of the altar served as a reminder of the danger of usurping the role of God's priests (Numbers 17:10 ). 5 . Other signs serve as reminders of a covenant or established relationship. The rainbow witnesses God's covenant with Noah, insuring an orderly creation not threatened by flood (Genesis 9:12-17 ). Circumcision served as areminder of God's covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:11 ). The Sabbath, likewise, served as a reminder of God's covenant with Moses (Exodus 31:13 ,Exodus 31:13,31:17; Ezekiel 20:12 ). 6 . Still other signs serve as confirmation. Such signs often authenticated God's special call (of Moses, Exodus 3:12; Exodus 4:8; of Gideon, Judges 6:17; of Saul, 1 Samuel 10:2-9 ). Elsewhere a sign confirms God's word of judgment (1 Samuel 2:34; Jeremiah 44:29-30 ) or promise of healing (2 Kings 20:8 ). 7 . Other signs take the form of prophetic acts. The names of Isaiah (“Yahweh is salvation”) and his sons Shear-jashub (“A remnant shall return”) and Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“The spoil speeds, the prey hastens”) illustrate Israel's fate (Isaiah 7:3; Isaiah 8:3 ). Isaiah's walking naked and barefoot for three years illustrated the coming humiliation of Egypt and Ethiopia (Isaiah 20:3 ). Ezekiel, likewise, illustrated the coming siege of Jerusalem using a brick, earth, and a plate (Ezekiel 4:1-3 ).
New Testament The New Testament employs sign in the full range of Old Testament functions. 1. Signs function simply to identify. Judas' kiss clearly designated Jesus as the One the mob was seeking (Matthew 26:48 ). The sign of Jesus' coming and the end of the age which the disciples requested is, likewise, an identifying mark (Matthew 24:3; Mark 13:4; Luke 21:7 ); it is not a matter of evoking faith in Christ's coming but of identifying that event when it occurs. The difficult “sign of the Son of Man” is probably an identifying sign as well (Matthew 24:30 ). The above uses approximate the nontheological use of sign by the Old Testament. Other uses of sign are distinctly theological. 2. John's signs generally impart knowledge about Jesus and His relation to the Father. Jesus' first sign, the changing of water into wine at Cana, points to Jesus as the source of the abundant, joyful life which characterizes the anticipated Messianic Age (John 2:1-11 ). The three-fold repetition of the phrase “your son lives” in the healing of the official's son (John 4:46-54 ) points to Jesus as the life-giver. The healing of the sick man at the Sheep Gate Pool (John 5:2-9 ) points to Jesus as the One through whom God is still working (John 5:17 ). Though the just-fed crowd saw Jesus' feeding of the five thousand (John 6:2-13 ) as a sign that Jesus was a prophet (John 6:14 ), the sign points to Jesus as the life-giving bread which alone can satisfy (John 6:35 ). The sign of the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-7 ) illustrates the ambiguity of signs: some took the sign to mean that Jesus was not from God; others, that God was with Him (John 9:16 ). John's conclusion (John 9:35-41 ) points to Jesus as both giver of spiritual insight and judge of spiritual blindness. Finally, the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1 ) points to Jesus as the resurrection and the life (John 11:25 ). 3 . Though the term sign is not used, the seal of God upon the foreheads of the redeemed (Revelation 9:4 ) is a sign of protection. 4. Some signs serve to motivate faith. The signs in the Fourth Gospel were recounted so “tha you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31 ). John previously noted signs leading to faith (John 2:11; John 4:53; John 9:38 ). The sign of the healing of a lame man led to the praise of God in Acts 4:16 ,Acts 4:16,4:21 . Philip's signs, likewise, evoked the Samaritans' faith (Acts 8:6 ). 5 . Other signs serve to recall God's past saving acts. The paired expression “signs and wonders” (Acts 2:19 ,Acts 2:19,2:22; Acts 4:30; Acts 7:36-37; Acts 14:3 ) recalls the foundational saving events of the Exodus. The “signs and wonders” which Jesus and the apostles performed designate the inauguration of God's new saving event. 6. Paul spoke of circumcision as a witness to the covenant (Romans 4:11 ). 7 . Signs often serve as confirmation or authentication. The humble circumstances of the Christ-child in the manger confirmed the angel's announcement of a Savior to outcast shepherds (Luke 2:12 ). Jesus offered the difficult “sign of Jonah” as His authentication (Matthew 12:39-43; Luke 11:29-32 ). God was at work in Jesus' preaching of repentance as God had worked in Jonah. The New Testament often rebukes the demand for a sign to confirm God's work (Matthew 16:1; John 2:18; John 4:48; 1 Corinthians 1:22 ). A sign may evoke faith in a receptive heart, but no sign will convince the hard-hearted. 8. Though the term sign is not used, Agabus' action in binding Paul with his belt (Acts 21:11 ) parallels the acts of the Old Testament prophets.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Sign'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/s/sign.html. 1991.