authentication, confirmation, illustration, identification, motivation of faith, protection, revelation, witness
Also see Times - Astronomical

SIGNS in scriptures [BibleGateway Search]

Cross Reference Bible links:
Signs of the times: Matthew 16:3-4 (appearance vs interpretation)

SIGNS [Holman Bible Dictionary]

That which points to something else; an object, occurrence, or person through which one recognizes, remembers, or validates something.

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 Psalms 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 13:16; 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 14:22; Deuteronomy 1:29-33). The signs fulfill their goal when they inspire obedience (Deuteronomy 11:3,Deuteronomy 11:8), worship (Deuteronomy 26:8,Deuteronomy 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 31:17; 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 “that 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 4:21. 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 2:22; 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.

Chris Church

SIGNS [King James Dictionary]

SIGN, n. L. signum; Gr. deicnumt.

1. A token; something by which another thing is shown or represented; any visible thing, any motion, appearance or event which indicates the existence or approach of something else. Thus we speak of signs of fair weather or of a storm, and of external marks which are signs of a good constitution.

2. A motion, action, nod or gesture indicating a wish or command. They made signs to his father, how he would have him called. Luke 1.

3. A wonder; a miracle; a prodigy; a remarkable transaction, event or phenomenon. Through mighty signs and wonders. Rom 15. Luke 11.

4. Some visible transaction, event or appearance intended as proof or evidence of something else; hence; proof; evidence by sight. Show me a sign that thou talkest with me. Judges 6.

5. Something hung or set near a house or over a door, to give notice of the tenant's occupation, or what is made or sold within; as a trader's sign; a tailor;s sign; the sign of the eagle.

6. A memorial or monument; something to preserve the memory of a thing. What time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men, and they became a sign. Num. 16.

7. Visible mark or representation; as an outward sign of and inward and spiritual grace.

8. A mark of distinction.

9. Typical representation. The holy symbols or signs are not barely significative.

10. In astronomy, the twelfth part of the ecliptic. The signs are reckoned from the point of intersection of the ecliptic and equator at the vernal equinox, and are named respectively, Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorns, Aquarius, Pisces. These names are borrowed from the constellations of the zodiac of the same denomination, which were respectively comprehended within the foregoing equal divisions of the ecliptic of the same name, but are considerably in advance of them. Thus the constellation Aries, is now in that part of the ecliptic called Taurus.

11. In algebra, a character indicating the relation of quantities, or an operation performed by them; as the sign + plus prefixed to a quantity, indicates that the quantity is to be added; the sign - minus, denotes that the quantity to which it is prefixed is to subtracted. The former is prefixed to quantities called affirmative or positive; the latter to quantities called negative.

12. The subscription of one's name; signature; as a sign manual.

13. Among physicians, an appearance or symptom in the human body, which indicate its condition as to health or disease.

14. In music, any character, as a flat, sharp, dot, &c.

SIGN, v. t. sine.

1. To mark with characters or one's name. To sign a paper, note, deed, &c. is to write one's name at the foot, or underneath the declaration, promise, covenant, grant, &c., by which the person makes it his own act, To sign one's name, is to write or subscribe it on the paper Signing does not now include sealing

2. To signify; to represent typically. Not in use.

3. To mark.

SIGN, v. i. To be a sign or omen.


sin ('oth "a sign" "mark" mopheth, "wonder"' semeion, "a sign," "signal," "mark"):

A mark by which persons or things are distinguished and made known. In Scripture used generally of an address to the senses to attest the existence of supersensible and therefore divine power. Thus the plagues of Egypt were "signs" of divine displeasure against the Egyptians (Exodus 4:8; Joshua 24:17, and often); and the miracles of Jesus were "signs" to attest His unique relationship with God (Matthew 12:38; John 2:18; Acts 2:22). Naturally, therefore, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, "signs" are assimilated to the miraculous, and prevailingly associated with immediate divine interference. The popular belief in this manner of communication between the visible and the invisible worlds has always been, and is now, widespread. So-called "natural" explanations, however ingenious or cogent, fail with the great majority of people to explain anything. Wesley and Spurgeon were as firm believers in the validity of such methods of intercourse between man and God as were Moses and Gideon, Peter and John.

The faith that walks by signs is not by any means to be lightly esteemed. It has been allied with the highest nobility of character and with the most signal achievement. Moses accepted the leadership of his people in response to a succession of signs: e.g. the burning bush, the rod which became a serpent, the leprous hand, etc. (481/A>); so, too, did Gideon, who was not above making proof of God in the sign of the fleece of wool (Judges 6:36-40). In the training of the Twelve, Jesus did not disdain the use of signs (Luke 5:1-11, and often); and the visions by which Peter and Paul were led to the evangelization of the Gentiles were interpreted by them as signs of the divine purpose (1681/A>).

The sacramental use of the sign dates from the earliest period, and the character of the sign is as diverse as the occasion. The rainbow furnishes radiant suggestion of God's overarching love and assurance that the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy the earth (Genesis 9:13; compare Genesis 4:15); the Feast of Unleavened Bread is a reminder of God's care in bringing His people out of bondage (Exodus 13:3); the Sabbath is an oft-recurring proclamation of God's gracious thought for the well-being of man (Exodus 31:13; Ezekiel 20:12); the brazen serpent, an early foreshadowing of the cross, perpetuates the imperishable promise of forgiveness and redemption (Numbers 21:9); circumcision is made the seal of the special covenant under which Israel became a people set apart (Genesis 17:11); baptism, the Christian equivalent of circumcision, becomes the sign and seal of the dedicated life and the mark of those avowedly seeking to share in the blessedness of the Kingdom of God (Luke 3:12-14; Acts 2:41, and often); bread and wine, a symbol of the spiritual manna by which soul and body are preserved unto everlasting life, is the hallowed memorial of the Lord's death until His coming again (Luke 22:14-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-28). Most common of all were the local altars and mounds consecrated in simple and sincere fashion to a belief in God's ruling and overruling providence (Joshua 4:1-10).

Signs were offered in proof of the divine commission of prophet (Isaiah 20:3) and apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12), and of the Messiah Himself (John 20:30; Acts 2:22); and they were submitted in demonstration of the divine character of their message (2 Kings 20:9; Isaiah 38:1; Acts 3:1-16). By anticipation the child to be born of a young woman (Isaiah 7:10-16; compare Luke 2:12) is to certify the prophet's pledge of a deliverer for a captive people.


With increase of faith the necessity for signs will gradually decrease. Jesus hints at this (John 4:48), as does also Paul (1 Corinthians 1:22). Nevertheless "signs," in the sense of displays of miraculous powers, are to accompany the faith of believers (Mark 16:17), usher in and forthwith characterize the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, and mark the consummation of the ages (Revelation 15:1).

See also MIRACLE.

For "sign" of a ship (parasemos, "ensign," Acts 28:11).

Charles M. Stuart

SIGNS [Nave's Topical Bible]
# A miracle to confirm faith
      Matthew 12:38; 16:4; 24:3,30; Mark 8:11,12; 13:4; John 2:11; 3:2; 4:48

# Asked for by, and given to

    * Abraham
      Genesis 15:8-17
    * Moses
      Exodus 4:1-9
    * Gideon
      Judges 6:17,36-40
    * Hezekiah
      2 Kings 20:8
    * Zacharias
      Luke 1:18 

# Given to Jeroboam
      1 Kings 13:3-5

# A token of coming events
      Matthew 16:3,4; 24:3 

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