Subtle and Oblique by Design

Saturday, November 13, 2021

What did Jesus indicate? 

Shop talk. Get ready for some theological shop talk. I must necessarily get detailed and somewhat technical in this post.  

A single word will examined. I want to make a case for translating and interpreting an old Greek word in a very particular way. How this one rather inconspicuous word gets translated does indeed matter. It matters because this one word informs readers of the Book of Revelation as how they should approach and understand the entire book. 

The old Greek word is σημαίνω, which may be indecipherable to you. It is pronounced “say-mah-ee-no.” It is a verb. The most generic way to translate this verb into English is the word indicate. And as far as translations go, indicate works well enough. But the word σημαίνω needs to nuanced according to how it is used in a particular sentence, in a particular context. The context I have in mind is the very first verse of Revelation, in which Jesus indicated something.

For those of you who know a bit of New Testament Greek, you will notice that the word σημαίνω has shape-shifted a bit in Revelation 1:1. That is to say, it appears as a cognate in verse one, as ἐσήμανεν (“es-ay-mah-nen”). The reason the word looks a bit different is because the word has shifted into what we would call the past tense. In case you’re interested in grammatical exactness, in Revelation 1:1 the word ἐσήμανεν should be parsed as follows: It is the aorist – indicative – active – third person – singular. And it can be translated as he indicated

At this point, you might ask, “Okay, the most generic translation of this word from New Testament Greek into English is he indicated; so what? Why should I care?”

Well, there is a problem here, actually. The problem is that John, the writer of the Book of Revelation, uses the word ἐσήμανεν with a slight nuance. And it matters that his slight nuance is recognized. When John uses ἐσήμανεν, he means that something is not stated directly but indirectly. Something is being alluded to or hinted at or even encrypted.   

At this point, I imagine a good friend of mine saying, “But why should anyone believe you rather than the learned Bible translators?” A good question, good friend. What my good friend knows is that most Bible translators do not translate ἐσήμανεν with any sense of indirectness or opaqueness. 

That’s too bad, though. The translators should have caught the particular nuance in usage in Revelation 1:1. But because their semantic range of reference was too broad, they didn’t. They should have narrowed their focus to just how John uses the word. But for whatever reason, they didn’t. If they had focused just upon John’s usage, they would have noticed that John consistently uses the word σημαίνω and its cognates to convey indirectness, as communication that is not immediately apparent, but which needs to be examined carefully and figured out.

And now my friend is saying, “Okay, prove it.”

Okay, I will. It is not that hard. Just do a selective word study of σημαίνω and its cognates. Look at how John consistently uses the word.

The place to start is The Gospel of John, Chapter 12, verse 33. Here is how the verse is translated in the New International Version: “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” The NIV translators used the words “to show” to translate σημαίνων, which is an obvious cognate of σημαίνω. As far as translations go, it is good enough. But notice what the verse means in context. Jesus had indicated or shown how he was going to die. Jesus had not just said, “I am going to be crucified.” Instead, what Jesus had just said was, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men/people to myself.” Jesus had indicated his manner of death obliquely, indirectly. The observant only caught his oblique allusion/reference after the fact, after his death by crucifixion.

John uses the word σημαίνω indirectly again in John 18:32. As with John 12:33, the word is used in its cognate form: σημαίνων. And as with John 12:33, the word references Jesus’ opaque allusion to his manner of death, that is, by crucifixion. The only significant contextual difference is that the crucifixion is now immediately forthcoming.

John uses the word σημαίνων a third time in John 21:19. This time the allusion is not to Jesus’ forthcoming crucifixion, but to the manner of Peter’s eventual death. But all the same, it is an allusion, and not a direct indication. Jesus does not tell Peter, “Someday you are going to die in a way that you would rather not die.” Instead, Jesus is more subtle and indirect — a bit more opaque and oblique. But he makes his point to Peter all the same.

Therefore, in the Gospel of John, we have not one, not two, but three instances of how John uses the word σημαίνω. Every single time, he uses the word to convey a sense of subtlety and indirectness. Jesus indicates what he wants to indicate opaquely. Only the observant (eventually) catch his drift.

My suggestion, or rather, assertion is that John uses the same word the same way in the Book of Revelation. Jesus did indicate something in Revelation 1:1. He indicated the entire vision — all the content of Revelation — opaquely, indirectly, cryptically. Jesus used allusions and references to say what he wanted conveyed. We do well to keep that in mind as we read and interpret the book. 

To summarize, if my assertion is correct, we are told from the very first verse of Revelation that the book’s content is opaque and cryptic by divine design. The implication is that it requires careful observation, frequent reflection, and protracted study.     

3 thoughts on “Subtle and Oblique by Design

  1. Thanks, David. You are probably not surprised to have me say this one is a little over my head. The summary paragraph is my takeaway…


  2. I did a little digging (likely not as much as you), and can see that this word is used in a similar way in John 12:33, 18:32, 21:19; Acts 11:28; Rev 1:1. How you read this word in one of these passages informs the others, and I see that it comes from the word “sign.” (As in, circumcision is a ‘sign’ of the covenant, Pharisees were asking for a ‘sign’, etc.) I can see good argument for interpreting “sign” as either a clear indication, or a cryptic one as you suggest, in these passages.

    However, based on this verb’s one other use in Acts 25:27, I am inclined to read it as “make very clear.” It is used in a legal setting, and Festus is arguing that “it seems unreasonable to send a prisoner without *clearly indicating* the charges against him.” I am not sure how to read this as “it seems unreasonable to send a prisoner without *cryptically indicating* the charges against him.”
    That said, I have not spent much time on this, and am interested to hear your thoughts on this passage.


    1. Hi Jacob, thank you for your well-researched response. I’m arguing that John nuances the verb (as well as the noun form) differently than the other New Testament writers. There is a distinct Johannine “spin” on the word that will get diluted and lost if you depend on the usage of the other NT writers. For the sake of brevity, I did not say anything about the noun form in my post. Perhaps I should have, as it would have strengthened my case. In English, the best way to translate the noun is probably “sign” or perhaps “symbol.” Thus the verb form would be translated as “signify” or “symbolize.” If you consider how the use of a symbol can either clarify or alternatively “cryptify” a message, it helps explain the seeming contradiction.


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