Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Witnesses to Jesus (John 5:31-47)

We’ve all watched enough courtroom television shows, or perhaps had some personal experiences, to know that when a person is put on trial for something, the defendant is allowed to give his defense to the charges, and then witnesses are summoned to provide supporting evidence for each side. In the end, the judge and jury have to determine which side has the most supporting evidence, and cast a final verdict on the matter. Well, the Lord Jesus is not in a courtroom in this passage, but He has been accused of a terrible crime. Going back to the beginning of Chapter 5, when He healed the lame and helpless man by the pool, He was accused of violating the Sabbath. His defense, in response to that charge, was that it is impossible for God to violate the Sabbath, therefore it is impossible for Him to violate the Sabbath since God is His Father, and He is the Son, and therefore also God. This entire section of John’s Gospel is rich in Trinitarian teaching about how the one true God of the universe exists in the person of Father, of Son, and (less explicit here), of Holy Spirit; not three gods, but one God, eternally existent in three persons of equal deity. Of course, this hardly got Jesus off the hook of the allegations of Sabbath breaking. It merely added another charge against Him, namely that of blasphemy, for the Jewish officials understood clearly that by claiming God as His Father, and claiming to be the Son of God, He was making Himself out to be equal with God. In response to this charge, Jesus spoke of how He did nothing on His own accord, but only and exclusively the will of His Father, who had given Him the power to have life in Himself and to bestow it as He so desired, and the authority to act as judge of entire human race. They say Jesus blasphemed, and it would be blasphemy indeed, if it wasn’t true. But is it true? That is the question. And you are the jury. You must decide, based on the evidence supplied by the witnesses, if Jesus truly is who He claims to be. And if He is, then we are compelled to make a personal response of faith, devotion, worship, obedience, and service to Him as Lord. If He isn’t, then we can just write Him off as a lunatic lawbreaker. So, which will it be?

The Law that God had given to Israel through Moses specified that a fact has to be established on the basis of multiple witnesses. Concerning capital offenses, of which both Sabbath breaking and blasphemy both were, Deuteronomy 17:6 said that the conviction must be based “on the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses” (cf. Numbers 35:30). But even on any other charge, Deuteronomy 19:15 said, “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.” Jesus does not violate God’s Law in any point at any time, and this is no exception. He admits in verse 31, “If I testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” Well, Jesus is testifying about Himself, so does that mean He is lying? And if He is lying, then can we claim Him to be the sinless Son of God? Actually, what Jesus is saying here is that, if He alone testifies about Himself, the people have no reason to believe Him. His testimony about Himself is not valid unless it is corroborated by other evidence from other witnesses. He is saying that He would not expect anyone to regard His claims as true simply on the basis of His own testimony about Himself. So, He says matter-of-factly, “There is another who testifies of Me, and I know that the testimony which He gives about Me is true.” Who is this other witness? Well, Jesus goes on to describe the witnesses who testify to to His claims and His identity, and we will hear the testimony of each of them as we examine this text.

I. The witness of John the Baptist

When Jesus speaks of this “other witness,” undoubtedly the minds of His accusers went immediately to John the Baptist. Perhaps some of us thought that is who He had in mind as well. After all, we read in John 1:7 that John the Baptist “came as a witness, to testify about the Light (Jesus), so that all might believe through him.” And these religious officials have “sent to John.” Jesus is referring to the events described in John 1:19-28 when the Pharisees had sent a delegation of priests and Levites from Jerusalem to inquire about his identity and his ministry. And when they sent this delegation to John, Jesus says that “he has testified to the truth.” John had told the delegation that he was not the Christ, but was the one that Isaiah had foretold of as the voice that cried out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. He told them of another One, whom they did not know, “the thong of whose sandal,” John said that he was “not worthy to untie.”

John’s ministry was unique. He was the first prophet to come announcing God’s Word to Israel in 400 years. John 1:8 says of him, “He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light.” Of course, that Light is Jesus. John 1:4-5 says of the Lord Jesus, “In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” No, John was not the Light, but Jesus says that he was “the lamp.” Lamps do not create light, but they bear light. They hold up light so that all can see it. And John did that in his ministry. The light that others saw in John’s ministry was not his own, it was the Light of Jesus, that John was lifting up for all to see. Jesus says that John was the lamp that was burning and shining.” The Greek wording here might be translated, “He was the lamp that was ignited and gave light.[1] He was a man on fire, and he had been set on fire by God Himself, to burn and shine as a witness for Christ. When God sets a man on fire, the world will come to watch him burn. They did that by the multitude as John burned and shined. But Jesus expresses the sad reality of their interest in John: they were “willing to rejoice” in his light, but it was only “for a while.” Sometimes when a preacher’s message starts stepping on too many toes, we say that he’s “gone from preachin’ to meddlin’.” And John had done that. He was calling the Jews to repent and be baptized, but Jews did not believe they needed baptism or that they needed to be made right with God. Jews only practiced baptism on Gentiles who converted to Judaism. But here was John saying that everyone, including the Jews, needed to get right with God. He denounced the hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders, and even called out King Herod for his immorality (which ultimately led to his execution). And when John went from preachin’ to meddlin’, the interest of the people began to wane and they turned away from the light that burned and shined in this lamp set ablaze by God. If they had heeded John’s testimony, then they might have been saved. And it was not too late! In verse 34 Jesus reminds them of John’s testimony, not because He needs the testimony of John to validate him, but because they need to hear and heed what they heard John saying in order to be saved!

But Jesus says here that John was not His only witness. He says here that there is a testimony that is greater than the witness of John.

II. The Witness of God the Father

If you’ve ever had to apply for a job and were required to supply a list of references, you know that most of the time they tell you not to include your family members. The assumption is that, of course, your family members are only going to say good things about you even if they aren’t true, because they want you to get the job. You have to supply impartial references, who will tell the truth about you, even if the truth means that you won’t get the job. Now, here Jesus says, “There is another who testifies about Me, and I know that the testimony which He gives about Me is true” (v32). But this “another” is not John the Baptist. He is greater than John. So who could it be? After all Jesus said, “Among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). “Those born of women” seems to pretty accurately describe the entire human race, with the exception of Adam and Eve. So if John is the greatest human, but Jesus has a witness, a testifier, a reference (if you will) who is greater than John, then this witness must not be human. And He is not. In verse 37, Jesus says that “the Father who sent Me Has testified of Me.” Now, we might protest and say, “You can’t list your Dad as a reference!” But here’s the thing: what is the charge? The charge is blasphemy because Jesus has claimed God as His Father, thus equating Himself with God. Now, if that is not true, then God is most certainly not going to add His testimony to that. God has declared, “I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11). We are told in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a man, that He should lie;” and in Titus 1:2 we read that God “cannot lie;” and Hebrews 6:18 says that it is “impossible for God to lie.” So if God validates the testimony of Jesus, then that testimony is true. So, how is it that God the Father has testified to the claims of God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ?

First and foremost, there was a direct testimony given at the baptism of Jesus. In one of the great Trinitarian texts of Scripture, in Matthew 3, as God the Son emerged from the baptismal waters, God the Holy Spirit descended visibly upon Him in the form of a dove, and God the Father spoke from heaven audibly declaring, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” So, there, that one scene, the entire Triune Godhead is on display as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are manifested publicly. Again, later at the Mount of Transfiguration, the Father will speak from heaven and declare, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him” (Matt 17:15; Mk 9:7; cf. 2 Peter 1:17). But this particular group of Jewish leaders to whom Jesus is speaking now could plead, “We were not there! We never heard such an utterance from heaven!” And so Jesus speaks of other ways that the Father has testified of Him.

He speaks first of the works which He does (v36b). Jesus says that these works were given to Him by the Father to accomplish. So, in the doing of them, the Father is testifying through Him. The works proclaim that Jesus has been sent by His Father to do His will. This was obvious to those who could suspend their prejudice against Jesus. Even Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee and in party with these leaders who are opposing Jesus in the present context, could say as he came to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). In John 7:31, we read that a large crowd of people were saying, “When the Christ comes, He will not perform more signs that those which this man has, will He?” Jesus spoke of the testimony of these works repeatedly, saying in John 10, “The works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. … If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (10:25, 37-38). Everything that Jesus did was evidence of the Father’s testimony of His as the divine Son of God. The Gospels record at least three dozen supernatural miracles performed by Jesus, and John tells us that there were “many other signs Jesus also performed … which are not written” (20:30). Of course, the ultimate work that the Father gave to Jesus to accomplish was the work of redemption which was finalized in His substitutionary death on the cross for our sins, and His glorious resurrection. But until that event occurred, all of Jesus’ other miracles were signs pointing to this ultimate work that He would do on behalf of all humanity.[2] When John the Baptist wondered if Jesus was truly the Promised One who was to come, Jesus said to take word back to him that “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matt 11:3-5); and all of these were fulfillments of the prophecies that had been made about the Messiah, as well as signposts pointing to the glorious salvation that He would make available to all humanity through His death and resurrection. The Father was testifying of Jesus Christ through these works that He performed.

But notice that Jesus also says that the Father testified of Him through His word. Jesus says in verse 39 that the Scriptures testify of Him. Now, no one in history has ever more fastidious about the study of the Scriptures than the Pharisees and their peers in ancient Israel. They devoted vast portions of their waking hours every day to the study of the Scriptures, and Jesus acknowledges that they “search the Scriptures.” But their approach to the Scriptures was all wrong. They believed that by their effort in reading, studying, and memorizing the Scriptures, that they were earning favor with God and eternal life, merely by the physical exercise of it. The esteemed Rabbi Hillel claimed that the more one studied the Law, the more life one would have, and that if a man gains for himself the words of the Law, he will gain for himself life in the world to come.[3] But Jesus says here that they were missing the point. For all their study of the Scriptures, they completely missed the fact that they were pointing to Him all along in the words of prophecy, in the typological images, in the events of redemptive history, and in the provisions for salvation found within the Law. If they would only come to Him, as the Scriptures testified of Him, then they would find life in Him. But He says “you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.”

Thus, there is a fourfold indictment against the unbelieving religious leaders in verse 37: (1) They have not heard the voice of God at any time. They did not hear His voice announcing His approval of the Lord Jesus at His baptism; nor have they heard His voice speaking through the Scriptures. (2) They have not seen His form. They might protest and say that no one could see the form of God. That had been true for the most part through all of history, but it all changed when Jesus came on the scene. John 1:18 says, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” When Jesus spoke with His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion, He said, “If you had known Me, you have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him. … He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:7-9). But when these religious leaders looked at Jesus, they didn’t see God in Him. Therefore, they never saw the form of God at all, because the only place He can be seen is in Jesus. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6 that God has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. (3) They do not have His word abiding in them. For all their time spent studying the Scriptures, the word has not taken root in their hearts. If it had, they would have seen the Scriptures pointing to Christ as the divine, promised Messiah who had come to save them. But they didn’t. (4) Jesus says in v42, “You do not have the love of God in yourselves.” They would claim to love God more devoutly than anyone in the world, but it is lip service, because Jesus has come, not in His own name, but in the name of His Father, and they have not received Him. Ironic, considering that multitudes turned in belief to any one of dozens of false Messiahs who came to Israel in their own name and making boastful claims of themselves, telling the people only what they wanted to hear. So the tables are turned. It began as an indictment against Jesus for Sabbath-breaking and blasphemy, but He has responded with testimony to vindicate Himself. Now, He has now turned the incident into an indictment against unbelieving Israel, which could be broadened to include the entire unbelieving world. The evidence of these indictments is simple: “You do not believe Him whom He sent.” If they would hear the voice of God testifying through the words and works of Jesus, and see God in Christ, and allow the Scriptures to take root in their hearts, they would turn to Him in faith and repentance and be saved.

Jesus has already announced that there is coming a day of judgment, when He will exercise the authority given to Him by His Father to judge the entire human race. And He warns here, “Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope.” They had set their hope on Moses as the deliverer of the Law and the mediator of the covenant God established with Israel. But Jesus says that Moses will testify against them, and he will be their chief accuser on that day of judgment, because ultimately, though they claimed to regard the writings of Moses, they did not truly believe them. The entire Old Testament was pointing the way forward to Jesus, and He says, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”

What then is the verdict on the matter? Is Jesus who He claims to be? Well, we have seen in this text that it is not He alone who testifies of Himself. John the Baptist has testified of Him, but even more significantly, God the Father has testified of Jesus through His word, through the works of Jesus, and in the words of Hebrews 1:1, “in many portions and in many ways.” So who is He? He is God-incarnate, the supreme and almighty God of the universe, who became a man and lived a life of perfect righteousness, died to redeem us from sin by bearing our sins in His body on the cross, and conquering sin, death, and hell through His resurrection from the dead, which provided additional testimony to His identity and His mission of redemption. The question for every human being therefore is: Do you believe in Him? Not just in a historical, intellectual sense, but have you received Him? Have you come to Him? These are the words that Jesus uses in His indictment of His critics in this passage: believe, receive, come to. To believe in Jesus, or receive Him, or come to Him, means to turn to Him in faith as your only hope of life eternal and abundant. It is to receive Him as the life-giving Savior who rescues you from your sin. It is to come to Him in total abandon of all your other beliefs and practices in which you trust to make you right before God. Hope is found in Him and in Him alone.

If you do not believe in Him in this way, then you are like these who opposed Him in our text today. The indictments fall on you as well. You have not heard the voice of God, nor beheld His form in the person of Christ, nor do His word or His love abide in you. And yet, you will stand before Him as your righteous judge when you step into eternity. What hope will you have? You have not only rejected Him, but you have rejected the testimony of Moses, of John the Baptist, and even that of God the Father Himself. And the outcome will be condemnation and eternal separation from God, when the offer of life, free, abundant, and eternal was extended to you by Jesus Christ. There is still hope while you have life and breath, but the hope is found only in Jesus, so come to Him; receive Him; believe in Him. Trust Him as Lord and Savior by faith, not blind faith mind you, but faith that rests confidently on His own word, that of His Father, and that of a multitude of witnesses, including those of us here whose lives have been transformed by His grace.

And remember, if you have turned to Jesus and received Him as Lord and Savior, that you too are called to be His witness. You are the living proof of His power to save sinners. May His love and His word abide in you as you walk through this fallen world, pointing the way to Christ that others may know the joy of His salvation.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 261.
[2] F. F. Bruce, The Gospels and Epistles of John (1-volume edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1:135.
[3] Carson, 263. 

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