The Eighth Sign
So we have seen what the scars of the resurrected Jesus tell us about scars in general and about the significance of our own scars, but Jesus’ scars tell us other things, too – surprising things about his own identity and even about the nature of God. In our text today, why is it that Thomas wants to see the scars before he will believe? What is it that the scars will do for him? The initial reason Thomas insists on seeing the scars is that he feels they will prove that the resurrected Jesus is the real deal rather than a fraud, a real physical presence rather than either a hallucination or a disembodied spirit. But upon seeing the resurrected Jesus with his scars, the effect on Thomas actually goes beyond this. Seeing the scars triggers an awareness of a truth that he didn’t even realize he was looking for.
To understand what it is that Thomas perceives in the scars, we need to zoom out a bit and look at one of the many recurring themes in the Gospel of John. (In what follows, I owe a great deal to N. T. Wright’s marvelous little book Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship.) At the beginning of the second chapter of John’s Gospel, we see the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. The conclusion of this story in verse 11 says this in a very literal translation: “Jesus did this, the first of the signs, in Cana of Galilee and manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him.” The word “signs” is an interesting choice. While it is not unique to John, if the meaning of verse 11 were simply that turning water into wine in Cana was the first miracle Jesus ever performed, we might expect a different Greek word, such as dunamis (“miracle”) or teras (“wonder”). Instead, John chooses the word semeion, which means a sign or an identifying mark. In other words, this word focuses more on the fact that what Jesus did signified or identified something or someone than it does on the act’s supernatural nature. Of course it is supernatural, but it actually signifies something more. It points to something beyond itself. It is a sign, the effect of which is to instill his followers with faith.
This word semeion or “sign” occurs again in 4:46-54, a story where Jesus heals a man’s son from a distance just by saying the word. Again, this story concludes, “Jesus did this, again a second sign, coming from Judaea into Galilee.” So we might expect to see a series of “signs” in John, miracles that signify something, but the word essentially disappears at this point. Nevertheless, if we keep counting the miracles in the Gospel of John as “signs”, something interesting happens. In chapter 5, a lame man is healed at the pool of Bethesda. In chapter 6, Jesus feeds the 5,000 and walks on the water, a pair of miracles that always occur as a pair in the Gospels and that serve as a single sign. In chapter 9, Jesus heals a man blind from birth. In chapter 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. How many is that? (1) Water into wine; (2) healing the little boy; (3) healing the lame man; (4) feeding the 5,000/walking on water; (5) healing the blind man; (6) raising Lazarus, which precipitates the conspiracy to kill Jesus.
Now, considering the symbolic nature of numbers, we would expect to find not six signs, but seven. We could count feeding the 5,000 and walking on the water as two separate signs, but if we count them together, where else might another sign be lurking? Moreover, what could all these signs be pointing to? If we were to identify a central question in the Gospel of John that the narrative is working to answer, what might that question be? Who is Jesus? And the reality that all of these signs are pointing to is becoming gradually clearer over the course of the narrative, not only through these signs but through the famous “I am” statements and through Jesus’ other teaching – Jesus and the Father are one. He is the Word made flesh. We are his own, but his own don’t recognize him. As Jesus says in John 4:48, “Unless you all see signs and wonders, you just won’t believe.”
So he gives us these signs, but so far we only count six. Where is the seventh? Jesus tells us in John 12:32 – “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself.” Do you understand? The seventh sign is Jesus on the cross. It is in the face of the crucified Jesus that we behold most perfectly the glory of God. In a Gospel that begins by recalling the opening of Genesis, these seven signs correspond to the days of creation. Like God looking over all he had made and saying, “It is very good”, in John 19:30, just before he breathes his final breath, Jesus says, “It is finished”. And then like God resting on the seventh day, Jesus is buried in a tomb.
But not everything is accomplished, yet, is it? While we might behold the glorious, self-sacrificial love of God in the crucified Jesus, if that is where the story stops, his disciples are still left alone, confused, and defeated. Most importantly, I don’t think they or we really understand who Jesus is just yet. We have seen him on the cross, but we still haven’t recognized him.
The moment of recognition comes when Thomas sees the resurrected Jesus and is shown his scars. What does Thomas say? “My Lord and my God.” Thomas isn’t saying this as a meaningless expression of surprise, as in “OMG! It is you!” When Thomas says “My Lord and my God” he is addressing Jesus. He is stating Jesus’ full identity, an identity which, it seems, had not fully occurred to him until that moment. In other words, after all the miracles, after all of Jesus’ teachings and I am statements, the scars were the thing that finally revealed to Thomas who Jesus really was. The scars are, in fact, the eighth sign. If seven is the number that represents completion of the old order, eight represents the beginning of the new order, the more complete completion. The scars represent everything about Jesus. They are the proof that Jesus was crucified, but they are also the proof that the crucifixion was not the end. Both death and resurrection, the two sides of the coin that is our glorious salvation in Jesus, are written into the resurrected body of Jesus via his scars. Without the scars, we don’t really know who Jesus is, but through his scars we at last see the full death-defeating glory of the Son of God.