Home Moravian Church Adult Bible Class. Originally aired on February 4, 2007.
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you and that the late arrival of winter did not cause you problems. Arbor Acres provided lunch for the Divinity School this past week, which was a very kind thing to do. The chaplains from Arbor Acres let me know that several people listen to this broadcast every Sunday, and so today I want to give a special greeting to them. One of the things that I have had to get used to over the past year is that there are people listening to these lessons whom I may never meet, so I need to be careful what I say. I am sure that right now, someone out there is thinking, “If this is what Craig is like when he is careful, what is he like when he lets his hair down?” The answer is that you need to have hair to let it down.
The big event coming up this week is the visit of George Carey, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury to Winston-Salem. He will be speaking at Wake Forest on Friday and at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Saturday and Sunday. No other Protestant Church has a position quite like that of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop sits in the House of Lords in Parliament and answers directly to the monarch, but he is responsible for Anglicans in every country. Bishop Carey has seen the challenges of globalization and post-colonialism close up. Another distinguished guest coming to the Divinity School is Bart Ehrman who will talk about two gospels that were rejected by the church. Speaking of other gospels, you may be interested in the fact that in 1935 two scholars published Fragments of an Unknown Gospel that was written on a papyrus dated to the middle of the 2nd century. One of the sayings in that unknown Gospel is found almost word for word in chapter 5 in the Gospel of John, which we are studying today.
Read: John 5:31-47
Language of Love: One of the things that make John unique among the gospels is that the author used a few words over and over. This repetition of words makes the gospel a bit boring for the modern reader, but it also makes it relatively easy to read. Unlike Paul’s letters that are filled with long sentences and technical words, John tends to use terms such as Father (pater), Son (huios), judge, light, and darkness. At times, John sounds like a book written for young readers, a primer in the gospel so to speak. But the simplicity of John’s vocabulary and its repetition masks the complexity of the thought in the Gospel. That is true of the passage for today.
Last week I mentioned that this chapter appears to have been assembled from statements Jesus made at different times in his ministry, but it also reflects the experience of the church after the resurrection of Jesus. From John’s perspective, this is indeed “Jesus’ answer” to the religious authorities who challenged his healing on the Sabbath, but that does not mean that John thought Jesus spoke exactly these words at that moment. The story provided an opportunity to address an important controversy John’s church was facing. Chapter 5 addresses the meaning of Jesus for the worshiping community, many of whom were Jewish. Based upon what the church founded by the Beloved Disciple knew about Jesus’ teaching, works, and living presence with them, what was the answer to the charges brought by leaders in the synagogue? Raymond Brown concludes, “What we have in John is the product of the apologetic of the Christian Church against the Jewish objections to Christ, an apologetic grounded in Jesus’ own arguments, but now systematized. The whole of ch. V fits in well with the purpose of the Gospel to persuade Jewish Christians to leave the Synagogue and openly to profess their faith in Jesus.” (Brown, Gospel of John, 1:228)
The Witnesses to Jesus: This passage focuses on those who “witness” to Jesus. The Greek words that John uses are martyreo (verb) or martyria (noun). This is, as you’ve probably already figured out, the word martyr in modern English. Over time “martyr” came to mean someone who sacrifices him or herself for a cause because the many Christian saints were martyrs who witnessed to their faith in Jesus even when it meant that they would be killed in brutal ways. The first Christian to be a martyr through his death was Stephen in the book of Acts, but all of the followers of Jesus are martyrs according to the use of the word in John. The disciples were martyrs who sacrificed their homes, careers, and lifestyles in order to serve and follow him. We are martyrs when we witness to the goodness of Jesus in the face of hatred in the world.
In the first century, the word martyr had a legal sense. John appears to be using this idea of the martyr as the witness in a court of law, and John also draws upon Hebrew legal tradition in this passage. He reminds the Jewish religious authorities that in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 17:6 and Numbers 35:30), it states that a person could not be convicted of a serious crime based on the evidence of a single witness. This was in the days before cameras, DNA testing, and other tools of modern forensics that you know all about from CSI. We know all too well that an eye-witness can make a mistake. It could be an honest error or it could be a malicious act against the accused. So, the Israelites said that more than one witness is needed for a conviction.
Jesus is not really on trial for healing on the Sabbath, and so this dialog about legal witnesses may seem a bit overblown, but John uses this incident on the Sabbath to present the church’s testimony about Jesus. There was a need in the early church to justify why Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. They used Jewish sources in support. One of the signs that John’s gospel was written by a Jew, perhaps even a rabbi, is this statement that “If I am my own witness, my testimony cannot be verified.” The Talmud states that no one can bear witness on his own behalf because he is biased (Kethuboth 2:9; Brown, I:223).
Self-testimony: Let us ponder this idea of self-verification. After class last week, someone raised the very good question about the differences between John’s Gospel and the Gospel of Mark. In John, Jesus boldly proclaims himself the Son of God, and as the gospel advances, he uses all kinds of metaphors to describe his unique relationship with the Father. But in Mark, Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples not to spread the news that he is the Messiah. This so-called “messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel is one of the most striking features of the gospel because it seems to be contrary to the whole purpose in writing the gospel, which was to tell the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). I remember taking Introduction to New Testament at Carolina in the summer of 1981 and learning about this Messianic Secret. It was a thrilling discovery that captivated me so much, I even wrote a paper on messianic ideas in rabbinic Judaism and early Islam. That class helped launch me on my career as a theologian.
We are not studying Mark’s Gospel, but let me point out that Mark’s Gospel was shaped by the experience and theology of the early church, just as John’s was. It is possible, believe it or not, that Jesus of Nazareth rejected the title of Messiah during his life and was only proclaimed the Christ after the resurrection. It is interesting that even in John, Jesus does not proclaim himself the Messiah; others do so. The messianic secret may have because Jesus himself did not want to be associated with the numerous political messiahs who had led failed rebellions against Rome. We also should remember that Mark was probably written around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, a time when people were looking for a messiah to save them from the Roman legions. There were enough failed messiahs for a lifetime.
More importantly, Mark’s community was struggling with the historical fact that most of the people who saw Jesus did not become believers. The church was a small community living in a hostile environment. The idea that Jesus did not proclaim publicly that he was the Messiah helped explain many things. The church would take the world by conquest, but would be a leaven working in secret. There is a third, intriguing possibility. Perhaps Jesus knew that only a false Messiah would claim the status of being the Messiah. The true Messiah would not bear witness to himself. Despite the amusing way this idea is presented in a Monty Python movie, there is something to ponder here.
John’s Messianic Secret? This brings us back to John’s gospel. John’s portrait of Jesus includes bold statements that Jesus is the Son of the Father and does the work of the Father. These statements are such a contrast to the humility of the messianic secret in Mark that many scholars reject John as being far removed from the historical Jesus. This is often overstated. First of all, as we discussed last week, there is no reason to doubt the tradition that Jesus told some things to his disciples that he did not speak in public. It is likely that John took these teachings said in private and about put them into a debate with the religious authorities. We should also note that the Gospel of John acknowledges that there are problems with the idea that Jesus testified on his own behalf. We see that here in chapter 5.
Though quite different in style, Mark and John agree that Jesus’ ministry was not designed to draw attention to his own unique status. Instead, it was focused on leading people to God. The glory of Jesus was not his own; it was the glory of God. The works of Jesus were the works of God. Much modern Christianity often misses the point Jesus himself repeatedly made. Jesus is the mediator between God and humankind and not an end in himself. In this passage, John mentions messiahs who come in their own name claiming to be sent by God. He may have had in mind “messiahs” who arose before the first Jewish war, or he may have been thinking specifically of Simon bar Kosiba who began the second Jewish war in 132 AD. It does not really matter. They were not the one who was to come.
This issue is still with us. Just think of David Korech in Texas. He testified on his own behalf that he was the Son of God. The surest sign that anyone is not the Messiah is if he claims to be the Messiah. What, then do we do with Jesus’ statements in John that he is the Son of God? Before reading them out of context, we need to take seriously that in the first discourse of Jesus he instructs that we should not believe in him because of his own testimony. He calls upon several witnesses that testify on his behalf.
The Five Witnesses: The first witness was John the Baptist, who is described as a burning lamp. This image of the lamp may have been a reference to Elijah in the apocrypha (Sirach 48:1), by the way. John was recognized by many Jews as a prophet of the Lord who spoke the truth, and John asserts that those who trusted John should trust his statements about Jesus. It was John the Baptist who identified Jesus as the one sent by God. All four of the canonical gospels make this claim, and it appears to go back to the earliest memories of the church. We have already noted that it appears that followers of the Baptist were in the community of the Beloved Disciple that wrote the Gospel of John.
Chapter 5 acknowledges that this is not the strongest witness to the sonship of Jesus. Indeed, there is no evidence outside of the New Testament that John acknowledged the superiority of Jesus. So, John provides other witnesses that come from God the Father. The first is the witness of the works that Jesus did, which are the works of God. These works include the signs and miracles that are narrated in John’s Gospel, but I think the word “works” includes more than supernatural deeds. All of the works of Jesus point to his intimate connection with God. He forgave sins and reconciled outcasts to the human community. He spoke out against injustices and challenged the oppression of religious authorities. He was Lord of the Sabbath and the interpreter of the Law of Moses. He washed the disciples’ feet and fed the hungry. As the prologue of John indicated, he was full of grace and truth at all times. We believe in Jesus not because we believe in miracles but because the things he did were filled with the goodness of God.
Es ist mir so! The next witness John offers is the Father himself. It is not clear what John had in mind here since there was no story of the testimony of the Father at the Baptism of Jesus in John’s gospel as in the others. This passage even says that Jesus’ opponents never heard the voice of the Father. It could be that a distinction was being made between those who heard the voice at the Baptism and those who did not. The main point, though, seems to be that the testimony of the Father is not external to the believer; it is internal. The word of the Father is not something we hear with our physical ears; it is something that “abides” in a person. This inner voice of God allows someone to recognize the Son. In other words, we believe because God reveals Jesus to us and we accept this internal testimony as true. This is hardly evidence that will stand up in a court of law, but it is important in the spiritual life. Zinzendorf based much of his work on this idea that the truth is verified in your heart as well as your head. You believe in Jesus because the story of Jesus touches deep chords in your soul. Yes, this is a subjective view of spiritual truth. There are some truths that are beyond proof.
Scripture: If this was the only witness to Jesus, we might accuse John of endorsing what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” but John also tells us that Scripture witnesses to the Son even though not everyone sees it. Protestants in particular need to remember that the scribes, priests, and Pharisees read the Scriptures. We tend to think that simply reading the Bible makes someone a Christian. Jesus is here quoted as saying that people thought eternal life was found in Scripture, but even though they counted every word, they failed to recognize eternal life when it appeared before them. Scripture witnesses to Jesus, but we can miss that by focusing too hard on Scripture.
I think we can safely say that people were so caught up in the literal reading and analysis of the text of the Bible that they missed the most significant revelation of God in the world. According to John 5, the problem was that people studied Scripture without the love of God. It is love that opens the Word of God for our hearts. It is love that makes the Scripture live in our lives. It is the love of God that is the true witness to Jesus, witnessing that he could bring us to God. It may be deliberately ambiguous that the “love of God” could refer to our love for God or God’s love for us. Interpreters may disagree on how many witnesses there are in this passage. Clearly there are John the Baptist and the Father, the works of Jesus and Scripture. I would say that the love of God is the final witness; others would say that Moses is.
Moses: Moses is mentioned last in this discourse, but I think his witness is included in the witness of Scripture. It is that important, really. What is important is that this discourse ends with a clear statement that Jesus is not opposed to Moses or the Torah. This is often obscured in studies of John’s Gospel where Law and Grace appear to be opposing terms. Like Matthew, John’s gospel asserts in its own way that Jesus is the fulfillment and completion of the Law, not the rejection of it. Paul argued that the Law was a preparation for the coming of Christ. John expresses this in different terms. The Law of Moses, with its commandments to care for the poor, the widow, and the sojourner witnesses to the work of Christ. The Law of Moses, with its commands to love God and love neighbor points to the work of Christ.
According to John, Moses will accuse those who reject the witness of Jesus. Even though the Gospel of John has the harshest anti-semetic statements in Scriptures, it also strongly affirms that the God who gave the Law to Moses is the Father of the One who brings eternal life. There is no justification in John’s Gospel for the idea that there is a different God in the Old Testament than the New. Moses and the Pentateuch point to Jesus, according to John. Keep this in mind as you prepare for next week’s lesson which will recall the story of the manna in the wilderness.