In my previous post, I pointed out that there is some debate about the number of ‘signs’ Jesus does in the Gospel–while I began this series convinced that there are seven signs in John, I am no longer as sure as I once was. What we do know is that specific signs are written ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of God” (20:31). In other words, they authenticate Jesus’s divinne authority.

It is this ‘divine authority’ that is the issue of the book of John. While the ‘signs’ authenticate his authority, the concept of ‘bearing witness’ in John seems to refer to a spoken testimony about Jesus’s authority. It is to this concept of ‘witness’ that I’ll turn next.

John the Baptist occupies a curious position in John’s Gospel. While many scholars think that John is writing for a primarily greek audience, John seems insistent in the first chapter to deny that John the Baptist is ‘the Christ’ (see 1:8, 20). This, combined with the pervasive presence of other Jewish imagery, traditions, and interaction suggest that John might have a more Jewish audience in mind than most scholars think (such an audience would still need to see Jesus interacting with Gentiles, as in John 4, in order to understand the inclusive nature of the covenant). Regardless, John emphasizes that John the Baptist’s purpose is to “bear witness of the light.”

The credibility of John’s witness rests on the fact that he is an eye-witness of Jesus. When he sees Jesus, he says, “I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” His testimony is not simply eye-witness, but also includes the prophetic word that he received about Jesus. His credibility hinges upon the fact that he is “sent from God” (1:6) to bear witness of the light.

The credibility of Jesus’s witness, in fact, rests upon a similar foundation. In one of our two hotly debated passages, Jesus claims, “If I alone bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (5:31). The Old Testament law demanded two or three witnesses for a testimony to be considered valid (Deuternomy 19:15). The question is a legal question, not an epistemic question–the testimony of the individual might be true or not, but unless it could be corroborated by other testimony, it would be considered inadmissable (hence it is translated ‘deemed true’ in the ESV). Jesus grants the principle, pointing back to the witness of John the Baptist (see verse 33). Jesus’s testimony, however, is “greater than that of John.” Presumably, this is for the three additional sources of authority that confirm Jesus’s own testimony: the works that he does (5:36), the witness of the Father (5:37), and the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures (5:39).

In Chapter eight, however, Jesus makes the (mildly) confusing claim, “Even if I do bear witness of myself, my testimony is true.” This is an alleged contradiction to what he had said previously. The claim is a response to a dodge by the Pharisees–rather than interact with the substance of Jesus’s claim to be “the light of the world,” they hung their hat on a technicality: the validity of his witness. Jesus’s reply undercuts their dodge: the eye-witness testimony of Jesus is, in fact, a special sort of testimony because “[he] know[s] where [he] came from and where [he is] going.” The Pharisees, on the other hand, are limited in their judgment. Jesus has still fulfilled the obligations of the law–he bears witness of himself and His Father bears witness about him (18), but he doesn’t in fact have to. The credibility of his witness to the Jews rests upon his own knowledge of the Father.

Jesus’s witness to his own authority and position as the Son of God is an eye-witness testimony, but it is credible because of who is giving the testimony. In a typically dense passage, Jesus says,

Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to udge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment–what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father told me (12:44-50).

Jesus’s testimony rests upon his one-ness with the Father. While he is not shy about submitting it to the criterion of two or three witnesses (he always supplies such additional witnesses), he carries in his testimony the presence of the Father, since he speaks the words of the Father and has been sent from the Father to manifest the Father’s love.

The series isn’t done–I still have to explain how this has bearing on the Gospel itself. This should come in my next post.

The Key to the Gospel of John

The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Two

The Key to the Gospel of John: Part Three

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. I find it interesting that John made an effort to authenticate Jesus’ authority in the two ways you mentioned–first by showing he fulfilled the legal requirements of the Jews, and second by showing the authority that comes from one who is unified with the Father, who is God.

    By taking this two-pronged approach, John addresses a worldwide audience so that no one can find a loophole to discount the words that Jesus spoke. To the Jews He answered as a Jew and cited His fulfillment of their laws, and to the Gentiles He answered in a manner to sufficiently address their challenges to His authority and leave them without excuse.


  2. […] In my last post, pointed out that Jesus’s authority as witness of the Father is unique in that He and the Father are one.  In this case, the thing being witnessed about (the Father) and the one who witnesses (Jesus) are ‘in’ each other.  When Phillip asks Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replies, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves” (14:9-11). […]


  3. […] If anything is clear in the Gospel of John, the thought that Jesus is both sign and thing signified is (see here, where I argue that Jesus’ special authority as “witness” to the Father comes from his unity with the Father). Is Scripture a sign only, or also a substance? […]


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