The distinctive theme of John’s Gospel is the notion of bearing witness—specifically bearing witness of and to the Son of Man. Given this theme it is intriguing to note that John starts out his Gospel the same way Moses started out the book of Genesis—“in the beginning…”. Assuming that Genesis was directed at overthrowing the pagan mythologies of its day by simply, finally declaring that God created the heavens and the earth, the broader historical context of John’s anti-Gnostic polemic:”(Mainly seen in his epistles, but testified to by such notable patristic witnesses as Irenaeus, who vigorously rebut the Gnostics by means of John’s teachings. See Adversus Haereses, esp. Book 1, Chp. 8-16.)”: is of great interest.
In keeping with the style of Genesis, John simply asserts (1) the existence of God, (2) the identification of the Word with God, and (3) the identification of the Word with the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. His witness begins “presuppositionally” (as it were) and then proceeds to recount numerous reasons why one should believe that Jesus is the Christ. This is not only just like the Old Testament’s witness to God and His truth, but fits well with Christ’s own statements that all the Scriptures speak plainly of Him. John’s purpose is to speak plainly of Christ so that his readers may believe (but also so that those not chosen by God will not believe), and this goal he accomplishes marvelously.
The Witness of God I: Signs of the Times
Whenever God gave new revelation in the Old Testament, His messengers were accompanied by signs. In the Old Testament the manifold signs God gave to testify of Himself were generally rejected by His enemies, whether hardhearted Pharaohs or reprobate Jews. The very multitude that witnessed the parting of the Red Sea and which walked across dry land (Ex.14) quickly forgot God’s mighty works through Moses when their bellies started rumbling or their mouths got parched. For that wicked generation the very things that called them to belief were the things upon which they stumbled. Over and over again in the history of the Jews God gives revelation and confirmed it with signs only to have it temporarily followed and then rejected, necessitating judgment.
This pattern continues in the New Testament, and especially in John’s Gospel. The signs Jesus does to validate His claims are simply not good enough for those who outwardly call themselves His people while yet not possessing the circumcision of the heart (Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11). Although John’s Gospel is full of exhortations to believe because Christ did not come to condemn, the point is emphasized strongly that failure to believe (or at least, persistent failure to believe) is already evidence of judgment (3:18; 5:38; 5:46; 10:26). The Old Testament pattern of revelation / signs / rejection / judgment is followed by John throughout his gospel (e.g., 10:25-26; 12:37-39).
Jesus’ ministry can be summed up as a recapitulation of the Exodus (with an implicit connection to the Exile, as well), but with an ending completely unexpected by the Jews. So intent are they on deliverance that when it comes, their stubborn hearts cannot stop loving captivity long enough to consider what stands before them. They tell Jesus that they are Abraham’s children and have never been slaves to anyone (Jn. 8:33), but Jesus counters with the truth about who is really a child of Abraham’s (Jn. 8:38-40). The Jews make much of their connection to Moses, but Jesus says that if they really believed Moses they would believe Him (Jn. 5:46). Indeed, “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead’” (Lk. 16:31).
John’s Gospel is full of the revelation of Christ for who He is. He exhorts the Jews, “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” (14:11). But He had earlier noted, “You do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent” (5:38). When the Jews demand that He tell them who He is, He simply replies, “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in My Father’s name, these testify of Me. But you do not believe because you are not of My sheep (10:25-26). This theme is reiterated at the end, where it is said that the signs written throughout the Gospel are written “so that you may believe.” Yet, for all the revelation and all the signs, those who are not drawn by the Father do not come (6:44) and are judged by His word (12:48).
The Witness of God II: The Identity of the Son
In part II of this series, I noted that “The testimony to Christ moves from John’s to Christ’s own, for without a word from God man cannot know anything of God at all.” Now the Reformed have always emphasized that the Word of God cannot be “proved” precisely because there is nothing higher than it to which it could appeal. In our modern times, with our Enlightenment-propagandized minds we often find this concept much harder to believe than the ancient Hebrews and those who thought like them did. As I have thought about the classical Reformed doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture over the years, it has occurred to me at various times that the norm (not there are no exceptions) in the Bible is that the people God speaks to simply know His voice when they hear it. Moses does not demand “proof” from the voice in the burning bush and none of the prophets wonder if perhaps their visions are not the product of some lesser god or their own fevered imaginations. As Hilary of Poitiers said seventeen centuries ago, “Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself.”:”(NPNF2: Vol. IX, On the Trinity, Book I, §18)”: Calvin teaches in the opening passages of his Institutes that knowledge of God seems to be coterminous with knowledge of ourselves.
In light of all this, it is striking that in John’s Gospel Jesus simply expects those He encounters to know who He is, and He holds them accountable for their unbelief. On the other hand, He does not simply speak and fideism-like demand assent. Rather, He gives manifold testimony to His unity with the Father through various mighty works that all Old Testament should have immediately recognized as the signs of a prophet. Some do recognize the marks, for they think He is Elijah (e.g., Luke 9:19), but only those called by God see the works and believe the whole truth of the matter – that this prophet is the very Son Himself, the last emissary sent by God to the wicked tenants of the vineyard.
In connection with “self-attestation,” the Jews attempt to accuse Christ of violating the law of Moses by bearing witness to Himself (8:13). In reality, however, it is they who are guilty of violating Moses because not only Moses, but indeed, all of the Scriptures witness to Christ. Indeed, Christ and the Father and the Spirit are all three witnessing of Him throughout His entire ministry. Although in a very real sense Christ was testifying of Himself (as only God can do), He had far more than the two witnesses that the Law required to validate His claims! It is no wonder, then, that the Apostle John can preface his work by noting that Jesus is the true light that enlightens every man (1:9), and that he can later report Jesus telling the Jews that they do not believe because He speaks the truth (8:45) and because they are not of His sheep (10:26).
The Witness of God III: What Does God Require of His People?
Christians have always had the problem of vacillating between two serious distortions of the biblical truth of God’s covenant with His people. One pole tends to rigorously separate the two administrations of the covenant such that Old and New are like watertight compartments. Communication between the two is impossible – or at least can only result in the odious “dead faith” and “traditions of men” of “legalism.” Fearing obedience, this error embraces anarchy. The other pole gravitates to continuity of the administrations but really does issue forth in legalism by its failure to understand that both administrations were about Law and both are about Gospel. Fearing liberty, this error embraces slavery. Against these distortions it must be stated that the correct view is a carefully qualified continuity – a harmony that neither confuses nor separates Law and Gospel. Acceptance before God in both aspects of the covenant occurs by the same means – by faith alone, but never faith that is alone. The consistent witness of God Himself throughout the writings He inspired can be nicely summed up by St. Augustine’s prayer “Lord, command what you will and grant what you command.”
In this connection it is natural to bring up John 8:39, where Jesus rebukes the Jews for their pretensions of true descent from Abraham, noting that “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.” The age-old question of the relationship of faith and works which has exercised so many great minds throughout the history of the Church arises even in John’s “simple” Gospel. Considering all the ink (and blood) that has been spilled over this question, it is amazing how simple John’s answer to the question is. Whereas the Old Testament prophets consistently rebuke Israel for genealogical hubris and demand a heart religion – as with Jer. 4:4, “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord and remove the foreskins of your heart…lest My wrath go forth like fire…because of your evil deeds” – the Apostle John reports Jesus telling the Jews of his day that “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” God’s witness to His own truth is not that working is believing or that believing is working, but rather, “to the one not working but believing righteousness is reckoned” (Rom. 4:5) / “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). God requires obedience, not sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22), but this obedience is “by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17).
How fitting it seems, then, to observe that John shows us Christ commanding those who would be Abraham’s children to do the work that Abraham did – believe. Paul later tells us that the Gospel itself was preached to Abraham in advance (Gal. 3:8), and focuses on Abraham’s simple faith in the promise of God (Gen. 15:6) as the means by which he came into the favor of God. Thus Christ turns against the Jews the very thing they were most trusting in—their adherence to Moses: “”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. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (Jn. 5:45-46).
John’s Gospel continues the Old Testament theme of God bearing witness to Himself (with signs following) and subsequently judging those whom He has not chosen for His own. As the Gospel draws to a close we see this theme yet once again (18:36-37). Although Christ did not come into the world for the purpose of judging the world, but to save it, it is nonetheless true that He did not come into the world to save every particular person. He came into the world to save His sheep (10:11) who will inevitably hear His voice (10:27). Although in conversation with members of other traditions I would not put this so baldly, to a Reformed reader of this paper I think it is not without justice that I say John’s Gospel reads like an elementary primer in all the central aspects of Reformed theology. Indeed, the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession of Faith both quote from John numerous times, at all the critical points the Reformed dispute with other traditions.
Given the enormous continuity between John and the Old Testament, then, I will close with the words of John Chrysostom about the noble and clear character of John’s Gospel:
For this reason too, he did not hide his teaching in mist and darkness, as they did who threw obscurity of speech, like a kind of veil, around the mischiefs laid up within. But this man’s doctrines are clearer than the sunbeams, wherefore they have been unfolded to all men throughout the world. For he did not teach as Pythagoras did, commanding those who came to him to be silent for five years, or to sit like senseless stones; neither did he invent fables defining the universe to consist of numbers; but casting away all this devilish trash and mischief, he diffused such simplicity through his words, that all he said was plain, not only to wise men, but also to women and youths. For he was persuaded that the words were true and profitable to all that should hearken to them. And all time after him is his witness; since he has drawn to him all the world, and has freed our life when we have listened to these words from all monstrous display of wisdom; wherefore we who hear them would prefer rather to give up our lives, than the doctrines by him delivered to.:”(NPNF1: Vol. XIV, Homilies on the Gospel According to St. John, Homily 2.5.)”: