Word of the Week
May 28, 2022
Sēmeion: Watching for Signs
For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom.
1 Corinthians 1:22
We just spent a day driving the 500-mile route from Indianapolis to Birmingham, Alabama, and we spent a lot of time looking at signs. Some were easily-ignored ads for motels or BBQ. Others were more important. One sign gives you the speed limit (for those few who take traffic laws seriously). Another warns of construction delays ahead. Then there is the constant scrutiny of gas stations signs as you look for the lowest price per gallon.
All of us go through life watching for other kinds of signs: the robin’s appearance as a sign of spring, a raised eyebrow as a sign of disbelief, a telltale odor as a sign that a diaper needs to be changed.
As you travel through the world of the New Testament, you’ll find that people are looking for signs there as well. It’s fascinating to see the variety of signs that are wrapped up in the Greek word for sign.
“Sign” in Greek is the word sēmeion, which occurs over 75 times. As in English, a sign is something that points to something else. The highway sign that says “Exit” lets you know that a turnoff is coming up soon. Similarly, a semeion in the New Testament is an act or event that draws your attention to a reality more important than the sign itself.
A semeion can be an ordinary action or event.
- Judas gave Jesus a kiss as a sign to the guards who had come to arrest Him (Matthew 26:48).
- Paul ended his epistle to the Thessalonians with a paragraph in his own handwriting as a sign that it was a genuine missive from him (2 Thessalonians 3:17).
- The angels told the shepherds that they would know the newborn Messiah by the sign of finding Him wrapped in swaddling clothes (Luke 2:12).
- Abraham received circumcision as a sign of his covenant relationship with God (Romans 4:11).
Sēmeion often refers to a miracle that validates a person or confirms a message as supernatural.
The apostle Paul observed that Jews looked for miraculous signs (1 Corinthians 1:22) and you can see the truth of this statement when you look at the Gospels. The Old Testament told the stories of a God who parted the Red Sea, demolished the walls of Jericho, and rained fire from heaven on Mount Carmel. Surely the Messiah would do as much!
The Jews came to Jesus demanding a sign from heaven, but He rebuked them for ignoring the signs that God had already provided. “You know how to read the signs for an impending storm or fair weather, but you are missing the signs of the times” (Matthew 16:1-3).
He never said that miraculous signs were irrelevant. In fact, the Gospel of John is structured around a series of “signs” that demonstrated who Jesus actually was.
Changing water to wine was the “beginning of the signs Jesus did . . . and His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11). The healing of a royal official’s son is described as “a second sign that Jesus performed” (John 4:54). As you move through John’s Gospel, you read of one sign after another until the writer summarizes the entire account:
Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these [signs] have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name (John 20:30-31).
It is important to pay attention to the signs that God provides, whether they are as routine as a handwritten conclusion to a letter or as spectacular as the “wonders and mighty deeds” that Paul identified as the “signs of an apostle” in 2 Corinthians 12:12. Follow the signs and you will find what you’re looking for!
The word sēmeion appears in one other cluster of verses that serve as caution signs. 2 Thessalonians 2:9 predicts that the Antichrist will come with the activity of Satan, including all power and signs and false wonders. Similarly, Revelation 16:14 describes evil spirits which perform signs. This reminds us of a basic principle of spiritual reality: miracle show that you’re dealing with a supernatural source, but God is not the only source of miracles. Just as the Egyptian magicians had a limited ability to mimic the first plagues, Satan has power to produce supernatural effects. That’s why 1 John 4:1 urges us to test every spirit to ensure that it is from God.
Q – In Titus 2:4 it says that the older women are supposed to teach the younger women, but I have heard that the Greek there is not the usual word for “teach.” What is the idea in the Greek?
A – You’re right. The typical word for “teach” in Greek is didaskō, but this verse uses the word sōphronizō, which comes from the word sōphrōn which means “sensible, sane, balanced, well-controlled.” I like to think of the verb form here as a way of saying, “Pass your sophron character on to the younger women” – not merely by talking about it, but by demonstrating it and encouraging others to do the same.
Typewriters fall in the category of antiques these days, but they provide a good illustration of the meaning of an important Greek word. Join us next week to find out more.
©Ezra Project 2022