Bob Dylan and the Gospel

Published 8:16 pm Monday, January 18, 2021

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“Yes, but I know in my head

That we’re all so misled

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And it’s that ol’ sign on the cross

That worries me”

— Bob Dylan “Sign On The Cross”

Lyrics of songs by Nobel Prize winning singer-songwriter Bob Dylan have interested me for many years — beginning when I first heard Peter, Paul, & Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963. I discovered Dylan’s song “Sign On The Cross” a few years ago. The lyrics continue to intrigue me.

This is a haunting song written and sung by a young Jewish man about the impact of the sign Pontus Pilate ordered to be written in three languages and nailed to Jesus’ cross: “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.” In its style, the song echoes the sound of Hank Williams Sr.’s Luke the Drifter songs, even including a section of spoken poetry and a sermon-like exhortation.

Dylan and the band recorded the song in 1967 during the famous “basement tapes” sessions. These were not professional recordings but “jam” sessions in which Dylan and his friends recorded both new and old songs, mostly impromptu — a sort of retrospective on the past in search of a future.

Figuring out what was in Dylan’s mind and the meaning of his songs is iffy business. Dylan, however, has talked about the impact traditional black gospel and folk gospel music has had on him. His first album in 1962 included some of these songs. I think the gospel message was sown like seed into the soil of Dylan’s soul as he listened, and that the living word was at work to produce fruit in his life (Luke 8:4-8, 11-15).

“Sign On The Cross” suggests that Dylan was grappling with the message of the Christian gospel even in those early years of his long career. If the song had been written and sung 13  years later during Dylan’s so-called “gospel years,” it would have been one of many. But ’67 was a different time altogether.

Dylan got to the core of the gospel message.

“Well, it’s that old sign on the cross

Well, it’s that old key to the kingdom

… it’s still that sign on the cross

That worries me”

Then follows the spoken section which ends,

ININS Humbler

How was the sign on Jesus’ cross the key to the kingdom? Dylan knows the Bible well and frequently includes biblical quotations and allusions in his lyrics. This time he connected the key to the kingdom (alluding to Matthew 18:19) with the key of David (Isaiah 22:22). That key is in the hands of Jesus, the one who is holy and true (Revelation 3:7).

Dylan’s song suggests that Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish King (the Messiah), is the Door (John 10:9) and holds the Key into God’s kingdom. When the good news about Jesus is proclaimed, if anyone will hear it, receive it with faith and confess Jesus to be his or her King, Jesus will turn the key and open the door for that person to enter.

Several years later, Paul identified himself as an apostle (a messenger) “sent out to preach [God’s] Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:1-4 NLT).

Paul goes on, “this Good News about Christ … is the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes — the Jew first and also the Gentile (Romans 1:16 NLT).

What Pilate meant when he ordered that sign to be hung on the cross, we can’t know for sure.

To what degree Dylan was actually wrestling with the gospel message, capsulized on that sign, only he and God know.

The fact is, that “‘ol sign on the cross” ought to worry each of us until we respond to the good news about Jesus!

Will you ignore it, continuing to live in the same old way producing nothing that will last — and in the end lose everything, even your soul?

Or will you receive the good news, put your trust in King Jesus, and be saved to live a new kind of life, producing fruit that remains forever?