How Does Jesus Know He Is Right? (jn.5.31-38)

31 If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true.

As we continue to journey together through his ancient world with Jesus, we will continue to compare and pay special attention to obvious differences between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John. When we do not spend most of our time attempting to harmonize the Gospel accounts, surprising insights sometimes emerge (See Cleansing the Temple: Why is John so different from Synoptics and Was Galilee Jesus’ real home?). Moreover, it is by highlighting the sometimes sharp differences between the accounts of Jesus’ life we encounter what otherwise has proven to be an enigmatic enterprise – discovering John’s original intention, context, and purpose for composing this Gospel.

This time I would like to highlight a very important difference – the almost complete absence of the courtroom motif in the Synoptic Gospels and its dominance in the Gospel of John. The words “to witness” or “to testify” appear very few times in the synoptics, while they are used repeatedly throughout John. Everything and everyone seem to be testifying on behalf of Jesus.

What is interesting and even intriguing, however, given Jesus’ critique of hoi Ioudaioi, is that the language of testimony in John is generally strictly defensive of Jesus (positive) and not accusative of hoi Ioudaioi (negative). The Gospel reads as a courtroom defense of Jesus’ person, words, and deeds against those who had put him on trial.

In John 5.31 Jesus is reminding his accusers of how the witness’ testimony was to function according to Mosaic legislation in Ancient Israel. Jesus appeals to Mosaic Law summarized in Deuteronomy:

Deut. 17.6-7: “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.”

Deut. 19.15: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

There are others examples in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament that do not carry exclusively negative (prosecuting) connotations when it comes to using the principle of two or more witnesses. In Exodus 32.15 Moses calls the two stones upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved – the stones of testimony. In the temple above the mercy seat there were also two supreme witnesses – cherubim who covered the ark of testimony with their wings. The Gospel of John’s use of witness and testimony language seems largely supporting (positive and justifying) of Jesus and does not at all read like his prosecution of hoi Ioudaioi.

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32 There is another who bears witness about me, and I know that the testimony that he bears about me is true. 33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth. 34 Not that the testimony that I receive is from man, but I say these things so that you may be saved. 35 He was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.

Jesus in this passage makes a case that he has at least two witnesses to establish the veracity of his claims regarding his person, and therefore, his deeds and teachings.

First, is the lesser testimony of John the Baptist. Jesus continues to talk with hoi Ioudaioi recalling, in vs.33, the Jerusalem formal inquiry into the ministry of John the Baptist. There we read: “…hoi Ioudaioi sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?!’” (33 You sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth.)  We can clearly see Jesus is not debating with the Jewish people as such, but with the Temple authorities and those who worked for them outside the temple.

We are introduced to the interesting fact that John’s ministry was not rejected from the start (vs.35) by hoi Ioudaioi, perheps, even enjoying their initial support.  In several ways, John (Yochanan) looked like many other aspiring Jewish prophets who inspired followings and in the end were not themselves important.  It is only when John’s activity began to gain momentum that the investigation from Jerusalem was commissioned (Read about it here – Who was checking on John the Baptist? and John, who do you think you are?!).

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36 But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent.

Second, the stronger witness to the person, deeds, and words of Jesus, was the Lord – Covenant God of Israel Himself. Jesus’ argument was made up of two to supporting ideas.

1)      Consider the incredible miracle-working power I have. That power is God’s seal of approval.  God’s testimony is that the message that accompanies the manifestations is indeed also true.

2)      Remember the Baptismal event (I realize that I am using here Christianized translation, but I do not know of a better way to say it) when the heavens were uponed up and God’s voice thundered from above echoing the words of Psalm 2.

We read in related to passage in Luke 7:18-22 that:

“The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.

We read in another related passage incidentally also in Luke 3.21-22

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

We will see more of Jesus as we continue next week with our study of this intense and intensifying story. Make sure to read ahead of time and ponder deeply the message of John 5.39-47.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. Kristine Holland

    When one realises along life’s journey of faith as a Christian there comes a point in time when the character of Christ and the Holy Spirit so fill us that the words “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” become our truly amazing grace. It is in this way, each Christian bears witness to Christ. Undoubtedly we comprise ‘clouds of witnesses’ redeemed and faithful followers…before the throne in of G_D, worshipping in spirit and truth.

  2. Drs, Charles van den Berg

    For a complete understanding I think we have to read John 5, 31 -47 as a unit, because I personally think there can be a chiasm in it. Jesus had His witness something greater than that of John. It is a tree-fold testimony in the centre (C) : the works, the Father, the scriptures.

    (A) (31-32) The testimony of the Father (another).
    (B) (33-35) The testimony of the Baptist.
    (C) (36-40) The testimony of (1) the works, (2) the Father, (3) and the scriptures .
    (B) (41-44) Jesus condemns the Jews who receive the Baptist but not him to whom the Baptist testifies.
    (A) (45-47) Moses and the scriptures accuse the Jews (another).

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks, Charles. I still prefer to use hoi Ioudaioi for the Jews, however. I like the chiasm.

      1. Drs, Charles van den Berg

        I prefer to use hoi Ioudaunoi for the Jews also. The chiasm is needed to see the wonderful principe of two or three witnesses.
        The the testimony is real true.

  3. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    Dear Ramon, as always I find your comments very meaningful and thought provoking. Thank you.

  4. RamonAntonio

    It is significant for me that Jesus let happen the ending of his ministry (and life also) through a public trial and not through violence or a killing as the Gospels tell various attempts happened. Then Dr. Eli’s remark becomes crucial, why the language of trial is almost absent in the Sinoptics but central in John.
    Some authors have suggested that John, albeit being young, had a certain transcendence, for lack of a better world, in relation to Roman authorities. This stems from the fact that he was present in the trial (he was permited to come inside along with Jesus) and his Gospel is almost a “courtroom report” that seems almost made by a trained legal reporter. That is why the subtleties that we are analyzing today come directly from the text and not from exegesis.
    This raises a question for me: Can it be possible that John had some kind of legal training and thus be recognized and accepted to come with Jesus as a qualified companion? Doesn’t this seem against the supposed youthfulness of John? Maybe Dr. Eli’s comment raise a more profound issue, why the youngest witness during the Gospels time writes decades latter the most legally technical Gospel that preserve important testimonies by Jesus Himself about Himself? The testimony by Jesus Himself about the witnesses that testify for Him (only two, but WHICH TWO: God and the Precursor) is only found in the Gospel written by the oldest one when wrote but the youngest one when he was witness.

  5. Peter LoGiudice

    Very interesting Topic! I look forward to the next part. I will read ahead, and I would also like to know if David Daube had any opinion on this topic of which you may be aware?


    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Please, enlighten us! It would be interesting to know what he thought, if anything. Thanks, Peter.

  6. Michelle

    From time to time, I have wondered why there were four gospels. Why not more? Or why didn’t the disciples get together, and write only one? (even though John says in John 21:25 that the world couldn’t hold all the books containing the stories of what Jesus did) Then one day while reading Acts 1:8, I wondered if Jesus’ words in that verse might have a lot to do with why there are four gospels. He says, “you shall be witnesses to Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in all Samaria, and in the uttermost parts of the earth.” Could it be that the four gospels relate to the four areas: Matthew to Jerusalem (or to the ruling Jews in Jerusalem), Mark to Judea, John to Samaria, and Luke to the “uttermost parts”?

    Also, in Exodus 29, God instructs Moses that Aaron and the other priests were to be washed before they entered into formal service as priests. Could John’s baptism, which was a baptism of repentance, equate to this washing of the priests, since both were public testimonies of a life dedicated to God’s service? God also said in Exodus 19:6 that He wanted the children of Israel to be a “kingdom of priests.” Could it be that John’s baptism of repentance was how he interpreted Exodus 19:6 and Exodus 29, and he was calling the children of Israel back to being a kingdom of priests, pure and holy before the Lord God?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I am inclined to say no to number 1, and yes to number 2. 🙂 Wonderful ways to think about it, though.