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I was under the impression that the Greek word 'semeion' as used in Revelation, means "sign". However, I discover that this Greek word is interpreted as either 'event' (in the NLT), 'wonder', or 'miracles' in other translations.

Revelation 12:1 and 3 - sign (ESV & NIV) but wonder in the KJV

Revelation 13:13 and 14 - sign (ESV & NIV) but wonders/miracles in KJV

Revelation 15:1 - sign (ESV & NIV) and also sign in the KJV

Revelation 16:14 - sign (ESV & NIV) but miracles in the KJV

Revelation 19:20 - sign (ESV & NIV) but miracles in the KJV

Thunder is a sign of a storm, but not of a miracle or even a wonder (unless you are flying through the middle of one and the intensity makes you think of Dante's Inferno and you are praying that the pilot will get you safely through it).

Signs are to be observed and acted upon because they forewarn. Revelation forewarns us of God's judgments.

What is the meaning of the Greek word 'semeion' as found in Revelation, and why does the KJV translate this word as sign once, wonder twice and miracles three times?

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    It was a decided policy by the KJV translators to use different English words in passages so as not to be repetitious. We can do this in English since English draws on many other languages and we have, effectively, a wide selection of synonyms to play around with. In my view, it is not a helpful policy, especially in John's gospel where the word σημεῖον semeion Strong 4592 has significant meaning. (As it does in Revelation.) It is noticeable that Young's Literal does not do this and is more reliable in this feature.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 20 at 16:37
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The word seemion occurs 70 times in the Christian Greek scriptures, according to Bagster’s ‘Englishman’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament’. There it is variously rendered as sign / signs; miracle / miracles (19 times); token (once in 2 Thess. 3:17). The vast majority is ‘sign/s’ = 50 times. But you only ask for the meaning in the Book of the Revelation. According to Bagster, it is ‘wonder’ three times, ‘miracles’ three times, and ‘sign’ once (in Rev. 15:1).

According to the book below, the word occurs seven times (as you have noted) and some would see symbolic significance in that number, in and of itself. The Greek word means ‘a sign; mark; or signal’. It is the word from which ‘semaphore’ is derived, indicating signs made with flags held in various positions equivalent to each letter of the English alphabet: sign language. And what is the Book of the Revelation if not revealing God’s sign language to those looking out for spiritual sign-posts and meanings? Now I quote from this book on the point you ask about, why the KJV renders seemion as ‘sign’ once, ‘wonder’ twice and ‘miracles’ three times :

“However, of these seven occurrences – as if a perversity took the translators to confuse the reader – this simple Greek word, having so clear an English equivalent in the word ‘sign’, has been translated ‘miracle’ three times; ‘wonder’ three times; and ‘sign’ but once. Any schoolboy can see that ‘miracle’ and ‘wonder’ are not the same thing as ‘sign’, being far more excessive in description… Returning to the first ‘great sign’, that of Revelation 12:1, it is necessary to state the obvious: this is a sign. It is not the thing signified. It is not the reality; it is an allegory. It is not the substance: it is a visionary shadow. It cannot be over stressed: the rules of interpretation common to the Book of the Revelation apply here just as much as anywhere else. This is so obvious. The great sign of a woman appearing in the heavens? Clothed with the sun; the moon under her feet; twelve stars her diadem? Bearing a child in the visible heaven? If anything is a figure, this is a figure… It is not the first time that certain of these details have appeared in a vision – or at least a visionary dream – before. Something like this occurred some nineteen hundred years before the birth of Christ. And it occurred to Joseph.

[Then quotes Genesis 37:9-11, Jacob depicted as the sun; Joseph’s mother as the moon; his eleven brethren as the eleven stars, of which he himself therefore – a figure of Christ – was the twelfth.] pp276 – 279

He goes on to point out that the virgin Mary bore the Son in a manger in Bethlehem, not in the visible heavens. Her child was not immediately caught up to God’s throne in heaven, but taken down the road to Egypt. Mary did not retire to the wilderness until the coming again of Christ. She did not live there, bearing generation upon generation of “the remnant of her seed” (Rev. 12:14-17). Yet the sign of that heavenly woman assuredly “includes Mary, just as it does Eve, but the graphic imagery of the mysterious vision vastly transcends the individual.” And, because Christ preceded the church, that heavenly woman could not have borne him when she, the Church, did not so much exist until the ascension. The Church in Rev. chapter 12 appears as ‘the remnant of her seed’. But if the ecclesia be the remnant of her seed, then she, the mother of that seed, cannot possibly be the same as that ecclesia which she bears. Texts such as Gen. 3:15, 1 Cor. 15:23, Gal. 4:22-28, Col. 1:15 and Heb. 1:6 are used to work out the meaning of this great sign, thus scripture interprets scripture (pp281-283).

“She is the concept that bore Christ and his seed, called heavenly Jerusalem and spiritual Zion – Psalm 87:5-6 (p288).

There is no need to go into more such details for the other six occurrences of this word seemion in Revelation. Examination shows the difference between a sign and a miracle. What needs to be stressed is how misleading it is for us to muddle a heavenly sign up with a miracle, for miracles may – or may not – be from God. But the language of the Revelation gives us the signs from heaven that spell out the danger of thinking the evil one’s agents are performing miracles of God, when they are actually misleading and deceiving the whole world. They perform signs and not miracles, because they are not visible entities on earth. They are agencies, not individuals. Those who pay attention to the sign-language of God will spot the difference between his signs and the counterfeit signs of the red dragon’s agencies at work amongst humanity in the build-up to Christ’s sudden appearing. Learn the ‘semaphore’ language of the signs of the Book of Revelation, which identify God’s plan and flag up who the real enemies of God are in this world scene prior to Christ’s appearing.


Source: The Revelation of Jesus Christ by John Metcalfe (The Publishing Trust 1998 ISBN 1 870039 77 7) – various pages as detailed

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  • Very interesting - especially about the origin of our word semaphore. Thanks for explaining the use of this word as it is used in Revelation.
    – Lesley
    Apr 4 at 8:32
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The Greek word 'semeion' is one of John's favorite words.

Mark used it 6 times.   
Matthew      9 
Luke         9
John        17 times in his gospel, and 
             7 times in Revelations.

Thayer's Greek Lexicon

a sign, mark, token;

  1. universally, that by which a person or a thing is distinguished from others and known
  2. a sign, prodigy, portent, i. e. an unusual occurrence, transcending the common course of nature; a. of signs portending remarkable events soon to happen
    b. of miracles and wonders by which God authenticates the men sent by him, or by which men prove that the cause they are pleading is God's

For John, a semeion sign is more than just a miracle. There are only seven signs according to John in his gospel. Many other miracles are described by Mark, Matthew, and Luke. To John, a sign is a miracle that proves a spiritual reality. A good case in point is in John 6. Jesus fed the multitude by multiplying the loaves.

26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.

The multitude was physically gratified but they failed to realize the spiritual reality that Jesus was the bread of life. The purpose of feeding them was to prove this spiritual reality.

In translating the manuscript of Revelations, ESV & NIV consistently use the word sign in John's sense to mean both miracle and the associated spiritual reality. KJV fails to recognize the dual aspect of this word, even when it did translate semeion as "sign" in Rev 15:1.

John used the word semeion to mean a supernatural event that reflects a spiritual reality. The spiritual reality comes first before it is exhibited physically as a miracle.

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IMHO, the best translation of the word σημεῖον (sémeion) is "portent" or "omen", or in more vernacular, "sign". Note the two main meanings as listed in BDAG:

  1. a sign or distinguishing mark whereby something is known, sign token, indication, eg, Luke 1:12, Matt 26:48, etc.
  2. an event that is an indication of confirmation of intervention by transcendent powers, miracle, portent, eg, Matt 12:38, 16:1, 4, Mark 8:11, etc.

It is true that John in Revelation uses this word in an almost technical sense, exactly seven times (Rev 12:1, 3, 13:13, 14, 15:1, 16:14, 19:20) which can be classified as follows:

Signs from God

  • Rev 12:1 - Woman clothed with the sun appears in the sky
  • Rev 12:3 - great red dragon appears in the sky
  • Rev 15:1 - seven angels with seven bowls appears appears in the sky

Signs from the two horned beast or false prophet

  • Rev 13:3 - beast performs signs (= miracles) to deceive the inhabitants of the earth
  • Rev 13:4 - beast performs signs (= miracles) to deceive the inhabitants of the earth
  • Rev 16:14 demonic spirits (like frogs) that perform signs (= miracles) to deceive the kings of earth to gather them to the battle of Armageddon
  • Rev 19:20 - false prophet who performed signs to deceive the inhabitants of the earth

This is part of the general pattern elsewhere in the NT where great signs (miracles) are used to demonstrate either genuine divine identity of fake supernatural powers attempting to deceive:

The genuine signs and wonders attest their divine origin and serve to strengthen faith.

  • John 2:11, 3:2, 4:54, 6:2, 10:41, 20:30 are all references to Jesus’ miracles.
  • Acts 2:22, Mark 16:20 also refer to Jesus’ miracles.
  • Matt 10:8, Mark 16:17, 20, Acts 2:22, 43, 4:30, 5:12, 6:8, 8:6, 13, 14:3, 15:12, 19:11, Rom 15:18, 19, 2 Cor 12:12, Heb 2:4 speak of the signs and wonders accompanying the apostles’ ministry.
  • Ex 7:3, Num 14:11, Deut 6:22, 7:19, 10:21, 26:8, 29:3, 34:11, Neh 9:10, Job 5:8-11, Ps 105:27, 135:9, Isa 8:18, Jer 32:20, 21, Dan 6:27 recall the miracles done for ancient Israel, eg, to free them from Egypt.
  • Dan 4:2, 34 records Nebuchadnezzar’s hymn of praise for God’s signs and wonders.
  • In Luke 7:18-23, Jesus’ only answer to John the Baptist about Jesus’ identity (as Messiah) is to list His miracles: “the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are given the good tidings…”

Pseudo (false) signs and wonders are invariably produced in order to deceive the wicked.

  • Matt 24:24, Mark 13:22 predict false signs and wonders performed by false Christs and false prophets
  • 2 Thess 2:9 predicts the rise of the lawless one accompanied by false signs and wonders

It should be remembered that Deut 13:1-5 contains a stern warning about the veracity of signs and wonders to see if they are genuine. Similarly, Matt 24:24 contains Jesus’ warning not to base one’s faith purely on Signs and wonders. See also 1 John 4:1-3.

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In pagan Greek culture, σημεῖον had a wide range of meanings. They're all related semantically to the idea of a mark or a sign, but they're as varied as things like inscriptions on tombstones, flags, animal tracks, and mathematical proofs. Therefore it makes sense that its English translations can vary a lot.

One of the standard, common meanings was a sign from the gods. Given what Revelation is about, and specifically what these verses are about, it's pretty clear that all of these usages of the word are about miraculous signs from God, such as things appearing in the sky. Therefore it makes sense for translators to pick from a range of meanings that indicate that kind of thing.

In Revelation 15:1, we have "I saw another great and marvelous sign." It would be gilding the lily to say "great and marvelous marvel," "great and marvelous wonder," etc., since the adjective "marvelous" already makes it clear that this is an impressive miracle, not some kind of non-obvious or subtle sign.

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    Could the downvoter explain their reason? If I'm wrong, I'd like to learn from my mistake.
    – user39728
    Mar 20 at 16:53
  • I don't know who down-voted you. I found examples in my ESV of "over the top" interpretations of 'semeion' e.g., 'astounding miracles, marvelous event, mighty miracles' and also 'significant event'.
    – Lesley
    Mar 21 at 8:11

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