In his keynote address (5:19-30) Jesus claims to be equal with God. But why should anyone believe him? What evidence could back up such a claim? In one sense it is tragic that these folk need evidence when truth incarnate is standing before them. But such is our blindness after the Fall. Such also is God's overwhelming grace that he provides what we need.
In 5:31-47 Jesus begins by calling attention to several witnesses who should confirm his identity to these Jewish opponents (vv. 31-40). He is aware, however, that his opponents do not receive these witnesses. So he goes on to explain why they are not attending to the evidence. He accuses them of seeking human praise (doxa, "glory") rather than God's praise (vv. 41-47). This section reveals more about the nature of belief and unbelief and provides insight into the witness that God gives to himself.
Jesus speaks as if he were on trial. The calling of witnesses is crucial because "Jewish legal procedure was not based on the interrogation of the accused but on the examination of witnesses" (Schnackenburg 1980b:120). According to the law there had to be at least two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15), and it was later specified that "no one can bear witness for himself" (m. Ketubot 2:9), though in some circumstances this was unavoidable. More specifically, these opponents wish to kill Jesus, but according to Deuteronomy 17:6, "no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness." In situations where there was only one witness, "the court would simply have to make up its mind whether to take his word for it" (Harvey 1976:48). They might require an oath on the ground that God would then punish the person if he were guilty (cf. Gen 31:50). Because Jesus appeals to his Father's testimony, he is in essence providing such an oath (Harvey 1976:58). In doing so he goes on the offensive, since "it was as dangerous to disbelieve a statement made on oath as to make a statement on oath that was not true" (cf. Harvey 1976:58, cf. 49). The informal nature of Jewish legal procedure in such settings and the focus on witnesses meant it was not always clear who was judging whom. So it was not unusual for the accused to turn the tables, as Jesus does here with increasing clarity (5:41-47; also 8:15; cf. Harvey 1976:57).
The main focus was on the reliability of the witnesses. According to Josephus it is the previous life of the witnesses that will accredit (alethe poiesei, "make true") their testimony (Antiquities of the Jews 4.219). "The question was not so much, How can he prove it? as, Whose word can we trust? . . . The all-important question was the character of the witnesses" (Harvey 1976:20).
Such were the expectations, but whom could Jesus call as a witness to his deity? Only the Father, the Spirit and he himself really knew who he was. The Spirit is the Spirit of truth (16:13) and does indeed bear witness (see 16:8-11; 1 Jn 5:6), but he had not yet been given (Jn 7:39). The Son is truth (14:6), and his testimony about himself is true (8:14), but testimony about himself would not be valid (alethes, "true").
It would not be valid in the eyes of Jewish legal procedure, but on a deeper level it would not be valid if Jesus were acting on his own. The Son only speaks what he hears from the Father, and thus his testimony of himself is only true as it is in conjunction with the Father's bearing witness (8:14, 18). If his testimony were "self-prompted" (Westcott 1908:1:197) it would not be valid. Jesus is equal with God, but again we see that the Father is distinct from the Son, for the Father is another (5:32; cf. comment on 1:1). So really there is only one witness who is qualified, namely the Father. And it is only the testimony of this witness that Jesus cares about (5:32, 34, 37). He points his opponents to several witnesses but, as we will see, these are all really expressions of the one valid witness, the Father (cf. Brown 1966:227). Only God, and those whom he uses, can testify to God.
If the witness of the Father is fundamental (5:32; cf. 1 Jn 5:9-12), what access do the Jewish opponents have to this testimony? There are four expressions of the Father's witness: the Baptist, Jesus' works, Jesus' words and the Scripture. Each of these has been acknowledged earlier (1:35—2:22) as the basis of the disciples' faith (cf. von Wahlde 1981), and most of them will be developed further in later material: Jesus' works in 8:12-59, Jesus' words in 10:22-39 and the Scriptures in 6:30-59. The witness of John the Baptist is not developed further, but it is drawn upon again (10:40-41).
John the Baptist (5:33-35), like Jesus, spoke what he heard from the Father (1:31-34). What he heard concerned Jesus, and so he bore witness to the truth; the truth is Christ (14:6). Not that Jesus had need of John's testimony (5:34). Jesus is one with the Father, so he has no need of human testimony for confirmation or help in knowing who he is. But the rest of us do have need of witnesses if we are to recognize him, so for our benefit he points out authentic witnesses.
Specifically, he does so for the sake of these Jewish opponents' salvation (5:34), for divine grace motivates and characterizes all that he does. God desires that these opponents be saved, and so Jesus affirms the testimony of one whom the Jews themselves highly honored. John the Baptist was not the light (1:8), but he was at least a lamp (5:35). They rejoiced in his light but did not heed his teaching concerning Jesus. They failed to benefit from John.
The witness of the Baptist is valid, but it is the least significant of the four. The testimony of the very work (ta erga, "works") the Father has given Jesus to finish is weightier (5:36), for here we have not merely a voice (1:23) directing our attention to Jesus as the Christ, but the divine activity itself. As Jesus says in Matthew, a false prophet, like a tree, is known by his or her fruit (Mt 7:15-20). The important point is that Jesus' works are given to him by God and are in keeping with God's own character (cf. Jn 5:16-18). One who knows God through his previous revelation will recognize the family resemblance in Jesus.
Jesus then speaks of the Father's own testimony (5:37). It is not clear what he is referring to, but most likely he is continuing to develop the Father's testimony evident in his own activity. Now his words, as well as his works, are in view (8:37-38; cf. von Wahlde 1981:386-94). Jesus does the works of God and speaks only what he hears from God, so those who have seen him have seen the Father (14:8-11). If one can see and hear Jesus and not recognize him as God's Son, then it is evident that this person has never seen nor heard the true God (5:38).
Jesus' condemnation of the opponents cuts to the heart of their own identity (5:37). Both rabbinic and mystical strands of Judaism are judged at this point. Whatever they have heard or seen, whether in Scripture or in visions, it has not been revelation of the true God, or at least has not really benefited them, for they do not recognize the truth himself when he stands before them. By saying that they do not have God's word dwelling in them Jesus is denying they have a relationship with God. They need to come to him to have life, yet they are refusing to do so (5:40). Their problem is a matter of their own will. They are being given a chance to enter into life, but by rejecting it they condemn themselves. Here is an affirmation of Jesus' earlier claim to be the giver of life (5:21) as well as an example of his judgment (5:22). In their rejection of Jesus they stand self-condemned; they are not on the side of truth (cf. 18:37).
Both rabbinic and mystical strands of Judaism focused on the Scripture. But they missed its testimony to the Christ and thus missed its main point. In Jesus' reference to this fourth witness we have the clearest expression of the Christian view of the Old Testament (5:39). This Christ-centered understanding of the Scriptures is affirmed throughout the New Testament and throughout the history of the church. Jesus is the Word, the point of reference for all the words of Scripture. The importance of the Scripture is here affirmed, but Scripture is presented as a means to an end, as a witness to Jesus the Christ. For the New Testament authors, Jesus is the key to the interpretation of the Old Testament, and our passage affirms they got this view from Jesus himself (cf. Lk 24:25-27, 44-45; Dodd 1952:109-10).
Assuming that verse 37 alludes to Jesus' words, we have here four witnesses. The opponents had respected Jesus' words and works earlier, but they reject him after he heals on the sabbath and makes a disturbing interpretation of his activity. They fail to hear the witness of those they still respect—the Baptist and the Scriptures.
What is their problem? The Great Physician goes on to diagnose their disease. It has to do with their hearts (5:41-44). Jesus accuses them of caring about one another's praise instead of seeking to obtain praise from God. In a word, they lack love for God in their hearts. In this portrait we see them as opposites to Jesus himself. He is completely centered in God, caring only for God's glory. He even states at this point that he does not accept praise from men (v. 41). This does not mean that he does not accept praise and honor from his followers, as if Christian worship were against Christ's will! He is to be honored as the Father is honored (5:23; cf. 16:14). But he is not looking for our praise as a petty king or politician would do. Our praise of Jesus does not add to the glory he already has from the Father. The witnesses he has mentioned are "the means by which men are enabled to recognize His glory; they in no wise add to it" (Hoskyns 1940a:305). The point here is his union with the Father. As he has no need of human testimony (5:34), neither does he need human praise.
The metaphor Jesus uses to describe himself is that of a faithful agent, for coming "in the name" refers to being sent with a commission (Bietenhard 1967:260-61; see note on 5:21). They not only fail to recognize the one sent from God, they actually accept folk who come with no authority outside themselves, those who come in their own name (5:43). So they not only reject the true, they embrace the false. If they took to heart what Jesus is saying about them they would have to question their own ability to discern the things of God, which would require great humility.
After diagnosing their problem Jesus concludes with a warning (5:45-47). Rejecting the words of God's ultimate messenger puts them in grave danger. Jesus is the prophet like Moses (Deut 18:18; cf. Friedrich 1968:845-48; Boismard 1993:1-68), regarding whom God said, "If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account" (Deut 18:19). Jesus accuses them of lacking the love of God and of failing to accept the agent who has come in his name, yet Jesus does so to give them a chance to come to their senses. The judgment he passes is itself an aspect of the grace of God intended for their salvation (see comment on 3:17).
But he will not be their accuser before God. They will be judged in the end by the light they have embraced, Moses, on whom your hopes are set (5:45). Here again is a great blow to their identity. Jesus has undercut the views they hold of themselves as zealous for God and loyal to his revelation. Now he says Moses will be their accuser, though they have believed that Moses would be their intercessor, as he had in the past (Ex 32:30-32; Num 21:7). God had used Moses as a witness against the people in the past (Deut 31:19-29), and this role will be fulfilled and expanded. In his witness to the Christ, Moses is a witness against the Jewish opponents' rejection of Jesus (5:46). Indeed, John makes a point of countering every Scripture-based argument made against Jesus with counterarguments from Scripture (cf. Whitacre 1982:25-39). Thus, despite their claims, they do not really believe Moses. If they are not open to Moses, whom they desire to honor, how much less will they be able to put faith in Jesus (5:47)! Here it is clearly taught that an understanding of the Old Testament which is not centered in Jesus Christ is a deficient understanding (vv. 46-47). Once again, we see people honor someone as a teacher yet reject his teaching (cf. comments on 3:2, 26).
Jesus' condemnation of the Jewish opponents plays a key role in the Gospel's message in its original setting. These opponents viewed themselves as the true children of God (8:41), an identity based on their being disciples of Moses (9:28) and children of Abraham (8:39). Some Jewish sources go so far as to say that having faith in Moses "is the same as having faith in Him who spoke and the world came into being" (Mekilta 7.126 on Ex 14:31). Thus, the issue of who really understands Moses and receives his teaching is part of the deeper issue of who is truly a child of God. This is the issue at stake between the Christians and their Jewish opponents late in the first century.
The implications of our text for today are both comforting and challenging. That Jesus is the final and ultimate revelation of God by which we may judge all other revelation gives Christians confidence. The witnesses to Jesus mentioned in this text are all still available to us: The witness of the Old Testament is obviously still present, but so is the witness of the Baptist and the words and works of Jesus. The latter three come to us in the New Testament, not least in the Gospel of John. In addition, Christians have the witness of the Holy Spirit, who has enabled the church to understand the revelation of God in Jesus (cf. 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15). Faith in Jesus gives confidence, joy and peace because of who he is—the unique Son of God, equal with God.
Such a teaching also challenges us in several ways. In our ecumenical environment some would challenge the exclusiveness of Jesus' claims. They would attribute the strong language to the polemical setting of his confrontations with the Jewish opponents or to John's similar confrontations later in the first century. Certainly hatred between Jews and Christians is to be denounced. But the claims of Jesus' divinity, his unique primacy as the Son of God, continues to divide us. This is not a secondary matter; it is the heart of the Gospel.
This text is also challenging to Christians on another level. For those who accept the primacy and uniqueness of Jesus there is no place for smugness. The New Testament, especially 1 John, bears abundant witness that those who claim to believe in Jesus may themselves be alienated from God. Our great need is for God himself. We should rejoice in all that God gives us in Scripture, in the church and in natural revelation. But to benefit from these gifts of God, we must be humble before God. We should pray constantly that God would correct our personal misperceptions and enable us to see ever more correctly and directly the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, for the one immovable rock is Jesus Christ. He will be either one's cornerstone or one's stumbling block. He can only be accepted on his own terms or rejected.
What are the witnesses in our lives that have pointed us to Jesus as the Christ of God, the Son of the living God? Have we made the effort to hear and grasp the message of these four witnesses to Jesus, understanding the true significance of the Old Testament, John the Baptist and Jesus' own words and works? Indeed, in this Gospel itself we have one of the greatest witnesses to Jesus (cf. 15:27; 1 Jn 1:1-4). May we receive the grace to benefit from his witness.
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