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The Witness Theme in the Gospel of John
Allison A. Trites

In our contemporary, pluralistic world it is fashionable to denounce absolutes, to debunk reasoning and to dispense with argumentation. In modern theology any suggestion of God's wrath is apt to be eschewed, and divine love is greatly preferred to divine judgment. When the critic with such a frame of mind comes to the study of John's Gospel, he is all too prone to read it in terms of his own assumptions and prejudices. This pre-understanding, of which Rudolf Bultmann was so vividly aware, conditions every reader of the Christian message. Commentators and exegetes are no exception. They have a remarkable propensity for studying the biblical texts in a way which reduces them to a mirror image of themselves.

In the case of the Fourth Gospel this subjective tendency has had most unfortunate results. The Fourth Gospel has too often been treated in a sentimental way to harmonize with the prevailing relativistic spirit of our age. To be more specific, John's Gospel has been read simply as "the Gospel of Love," on the basis of isolated texts like John 3:16, without doing justice to the character and structure of the Gospel as a whole. The result has been a distorted picture of the Christian message and an unbalanced view of the nature and character of the book which the early church father, Origen, so appropriately termed "the spiritual Gospel"

A Fresh Look at the Fourth Gospel

We wish to take a fresh look at the Fourth Gospel without uncritically accepting the attitude which delights in the love of God while subtly ignoring the more somber elements in John's message. In particular we shall study the witness theme in John 1-12. Here we see most clearly the legal setting of the Gospel of John.

The book falls naturally into two parts: chapters 1-12 and chapters 13-21. There is a distinct difference in the tone of these two divisions. The first half of the Gospel has a polemical, controversial ring which led F. C. Burkitt of Cambridge to term it "argumentative." The last half is somewhat more contemplative and devotional.

In reflecting on these differences, it becomes clear that the participants in the two sections also tend to be quite different. The "Book of Signs," as Professor C. H. Dodd termed chapters 1-12, has an apologetic thrust. It presents the Son of God in conflict and debate with His enemies. The Upper Room Discourse of chapters 13-17, on the other hand, seems to be directed inward to the Christian community. These chapters are not so much concerned with the evangelistic and missionary task of converting the outsider as with the deepening union and communion of disciples with their Lord and Saviour. The "journey inward," however, is the necessary preparation for the "journey outward." So it is not surprising that John's Gospel should also contain its version of the Great Commission (20:21).

Our stereotyped, simplistic picture of John as "the Gospel of Love" is abruptly challenged in the first twelve chapters by the Evangelist himself. Here we are confronted with a great controversy between God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and the world, represented by "the Jews" (often used in John as a pejorative term to epitomize the world in its stubborn and willful rejection of the Christian message).

The lines of this controversy are not unlike those which appear in Isaiah 4048. There God has a lawsuit or controversy with Israel. He summons His people to take the stand and serve as His witnesses. They can attest the things which God has predicted and subsequently carried out. They can testify to His saving acts in their history. And in the extended use of the controversy theme, they are summoned to do so.

In like manner, in the Fourth Gospel God has a lawsuit or controversy with the world. He is represented preeminently by His Son, Jesus the Messiah. The world is represented by "the Jews," who epitomize the unbelief of fallen humanity in their opposition to God.

This gigantic controversy takes on cosmic dimensions, for it involves the devil ("the prince of this world") and the Spirit of God. It is essential to perceive the fundamental elements in this controversy if one is to accurately assess the structure of John's Gospel.

There are many indications that the opening half of John's Gospel functions as a mission book which seeks to win converts to Christ as the Messiah and Son of God. The sayings of Jesus, which are often termed "discourse," more frequently turn out to be debates. The discussions of Jesus with "the Jews" in the first twelve chapters become a great contest or lawsuit. The Johannine "argumentativeness," of which Professor Burkitt complained, provides the ideal conceptual background for a controversy in which one might reasonably expect witnesses to be called and evidence to be presented to establish a case.

The Fourth Gospel abundantly fulfills this expectation. Witnesses are prominent in this Gospel. One only has to mention John the Baptist, the Old Testament Scriptures, the words and works of Christ and the forensically described activity of both the apostles and the Holy Spirit to see the validity of this remark for the Fourth Gospel

Viewed in this light, John's Gospel has a strongly juridical character. Unlike other early Christian apologists (e.g., Justin Martyr in his famous Dialogue with Trypho the Jew), John does not seek to establish his case by a long list of Old Testament quotations. He is aware that Jewish readers disposed to contest his basic thesis can advance quite different explanations of the same passages. In place of proof texts the Evangelist offers a number of actual eyewitnesses qualified to speak on behalf of Jesus, whose Messianic credentials have been widely questioned and disputed by the Jews. In this delicate situation John presents independent witnesses and offers concrete evidence to defend and bolster the Christian claims for the Messiah-ship and divine Sonship of Jesus (20:31).

Chapters l-4: The Unfolding Controversy

Let us examine this witness theme more closely, for it assumes major importance in John's Gospel.1 The Gospel opens with an incomparable prologue. In its very midst is placed the testimony of John the Baptist, a man "sent from God" on a definite assignment: "He came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him" (1:6, 7). John's testimony is not to be confused with much of the modern, self-centered, egotistical showmanship that often goes by that name. His witness is presented in a distinctly Christocentric light: "He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light" (1:8).

The nature of the Baptist's witness is defined more fully in John 1:15, where John recognizes his own inferior position and probably asserts the Messiah's preexistence (cf. 1:30). His apologetic value as a witness is also apparent in his encounter with the Jerusalem establishment, who sent a delegation of priests and Levites to investigate John's credentials. In the Fourth Gospel he is explicitly a witness—no more and no less. "He confessed, and he did not deny, and he confessed, 'I am not the Christ"' (1:20). John sees himself in the much more modest role of a loudspeaker or witness for the Messiah, precisely along the lines suggested in Isaiah 40:3: "I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' as Isaiah the prophet said" (1:23). A few verses later John's forensic role appears again in his dramatic encounter with Jesus, whom he acclaims as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29; cf. 1:36). Once again John asserts the superiority and preexistence of the One who comes after him. This time the Baptist's testimony serves as a commentary on the baptism of Jesus (though the event itself is not described by the Fourth Evangelist): "And I have seen and have borne witness, that this is the Son of God" (1:34).

The witness of the first disciples closely follows the witness of John the Baptist (1:35-51). It is made clear that it is appropriate and fitting for the first disciples of the Baptist to turn from the forerunner to the One whose coming he announced—the Messiah. On the basis of their personal encounter, these disciples can offer their own testimonies. "We have found the Messiah," Andrew affirms (1:41). "We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph," declares Philip (1:45). Finally the guileless but skeptical Nathaniel bursts out with a magnificent confession of faith: "Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel" (1:49).

If chapter 1 is rich in its use of the testimony theme, so is chapter 2. Here we have the testimony of the first sign (2:1-11) and the testimony of Christ concerning the resurrection, which is related to the cleansing of the temple (2:13-25). Here too is presented a striking evidential challenge. "Destroy this temple," Christ says, "and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19).

This prediction is one of many in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus predicts His death and resurrection, the betrayal of Judas, the defections of Peter, His own return to the Father and the coming of the Spirit, not to mention the trials and persecutions His disciples will have to face in the future. Here, as in Isaiah 40-48, there is an apologetic purpose in view. Both John and the Old Testament writer want their readers to know, understand and believe the arguments they are presenting. For this reason they are keen to bring forward "the evidence of fulfilled prophecy" (John 20:31; Isa. 43:9-13; 44:7, 8; 46:8-11).

In chapter 3 we are introduced to Christ's testimony before Nicodemus, the representative teacher in Israel (3:1-21). Then the final testimony of John the Baptist is presented with its self-effacing winsomeness: "He [Jesus] must increase but I must decrease" (3:22-30). John is simply the best man, charged with the responsibility of bringing the bride (Israel) and the Bridegroom (Jesus) together. When he has fulfilled that mission, his work is done and his joy is complete (3:29). John is not a rival but rather a witness to Jesus. The chapter closes with the corroborative testimony of the Evangelist himself, attesting that Jesus genuinely speaks "the words of God" (3:31-36).

Chapter 4 proves to be no less interesting. Here we are confronted with the testimony of the Samaritans (4:1-42) and the testimony of the second sign (4:46-54). In the former incident the development in the woman of Samaria's testimony is striking. At first she despises Jesus as a hated "Jew," a member of a detested nationality (4:9). A little later she replies with the respectful title, "Sir" (4:11), and opens the question of the status of her conversationalist: "Are You greater than our father Jacob?" (4:12). As she grows more confident and comfortable, she makes a direct request of the stranger (4:15). As the interview progresses, she perceives that her visitor is "a prophet" (4:19). And eventually she declares to her Samaritan acquaintances, "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?" (4:29; the question is clearly left open in the Greek by the use of meti). Here the Fourth Evangelist has presented us with a beautiful picture of the gradual growth and development of a vital witness to the Christian faith, and that on the part of a woman who by reason of race and nationality might be presumed to be quite prejudiced against the claims of a Jewish Messiah. The case for the Messiahship of Jesus is definitely taking shape. The chapter closes with the second sign. While "signs and wonders" are not overvalued (cf. 4:48), they do have a place in providing factual evidence for the Messiah's claims. Jesus later remarks in the Fourth Gospel, "If I am not doing the works of My Father, then do not believe Me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me and I am in the Father" (10:37, 38). This is the apologetic significance of Jesus' mighty works. They are evidential demonstrations that His Messianic claims are true.

Reviewing the opening four chapters, we observe the unfolding of a controversy concerning the grandiose claims of Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. The evidence is introduced in the self-revelatory testimony of Christ, in the testimony of His followers and in the testimony of the miracles performed. All the material is offered to advance the purpose the author has stated near the end of his book: "These are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (20:31). The apologetic and witnessing elements are not antagonistic to, but rather contribute toward, the evangelistic purpose John is pursuing in his writing.

Chapters 5-12: The Great Controversy

The debate over the person and work of the Galilean prophet intensifies in chapters 5-12. In a dramatic way the opposition builds, and faith and unbelief are evoked in response to the miracles singled out in chapters 5, 9 and 11. Chapters 5 and 6 prepare the way for what Bishop Westcott described as the "Great Controversy" of chapters 7-12.

Chapter 5 records the healing of the lame man on the Sabbath (5:1-18). It is followed by an explanation of Jesus' relation to God (5:19-29) and is buttressed by evidence of Jesus' relation to God (5:30-40). Here the debate is fully underway. An apologetic note is sounded in 5:33-40, where God witnesses to Jesus through the ministry of John the Baptist, the works of Jesus and the Scriptures. The chapter closes with Jesus' condemning the Jews for their stubborn persistence in unbelief (5:41-47). Moses, they are reminded, will function in the great day of judgment not as their advocate, but as their accuser. He will bear incriminating evidence which will secure their condemnation (5:45-47).

The testimony of the fourth and fifth signs is given in chapter 6. Jesus feeds the five thousand (6:1-15) and then walks on the water (6:16-21), for He is Lord of the elements (cf. Ps. 107:29, 30). But His miracles can be misinterpreted (6:14, 15) and His claims debated. The crowd murmurs at what it regards as the repulsive assertion that Christ is the true manna (6:31-41), attacks His parentage (6:42) and engages in disputes over His deity (6:52). On His part He solemnly presents His case (note the use of the double amen, "verity" or "truly," in 6:26, 32, 47). "I am the bread . . . I have come down from heaven. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life" (6:35, 38, 47). In the end even some of Christ's former disciples withdraw their allegiance, rejecting His self-testimony as intolerable (6:61). Simon Peter, on the other hand, voices the sentiments of the disciples who remain loyal: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God" (6:68, 69).

The controversy moves into high gear in chapter 7. Now the hostility between Jesus and the Jewish leaders becomes more ominous and foreboding, and the courtroom atmosphere comes to the foreground. The case to be decided is the Messianic pretensions of Jesus of Nazareth. Is He the Son of God or an impostor? Public opinion is plainly divided on this issue (7:12). The forces antagonistic to the Son of Man in chapters 5 and 6 now crystallize their opposition and prepare to put Him to death (7:1). On His part He knows that He has incurred the world's hatred "because I testify of it that its works are evil" (7:7). The lawsuit of the claims of Jesus thus moves tragically toward its climax in the crucifixion, when the despised Son of Man is glorified and the results of the Holy Spirit's work are made available to believers.

The advent of Christ in the temple precincts prepares the way for three debates on His self-testimony with three different groups of people—"the Jews" (7:14-24), "some of the inhabitants of Jerusalem" (7:25-31) and the representatives of "the chief priests and the Pharisees" (7:32-36). The chapter ends with the Sanhedrin's conference with the temple police (7:45-52), where Nicodemus reminds the chief priests and the Pharisees that a proper legal hearing is required by Jewish law. His timid remarks, however, are rudely brushed aside (7:50-52).

Before we move on, we must make a few remarks on the woman taken in adultery (7:53-8:11). While our case for the juridical character of the Fourth Gospel in no way depends upon this celebrated passage, it is nevertheless very interesting to observe its use of law-court imagery and terminology. References are made to placing the accused "in the midst" (8:3), her "accusers" are singled out, and Jesus acts as her advocate. There is mention of stoning, which was the traditional method of carrying out the death sentence in cases of adultery (Ezek. 16:38-40; cf. Lev. 20:10: Deut. 22:21, 22). While the story of the woman taken in adultery is highly questionable on textual grounds, in all fairness one must say that it offers no special problems to the notion of a controversy or lawsuit which we have seen unfolding elsewhere in John 1-12.2

The "Great Controversy" continues in chapter 8 after Christ's declaration, "I am the light of the world" (8:12). The Pharisees are incensed that Jesus is bearing witness to Himself and therefore reject His testimony as inadmissible (8:13). Jesus responds by reminding them of the Jewish law of evidence (Deut. 19:15; 17:6; Matt. 18:16), which is satisfied by the multiple witness of Himself and His Father (8:18). In fact, however, the testimony of these Two is one (cf. 5:36, 37). The Pharisees maliciously charge Him with bastard ancestry (8:41; cf. 8:48) but are solemnly charged with lacking the proper moral qualifications to assess the evidence (8:44). Jesus also challenges them to contest His sinlessness: "Which one of you convicts Me of sin?" (8:46). The chapter closes with an unmistakable claim to preexistence: "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am" (8:58). This is so offensive to Christ's opponents that they pick up stones to attack Him (8:59).

In chapter 9 the lawsuit of the public ministry continues. When the blind man is healed by Jesus, another dispute develops. While the miracle is undeniable, the Pharisees accuse the miracle worker of Sabbath breaking, and others attempt to dismiss the cure on theological grounds (9:16). On the other side is the blind man himself, who shows remarkable perception. Like the Samaritan woman, he speaks of what he knows and bears witness to what he has seen, and his testimony shows a growing appreciation for both the person and work of Jesus. The debate seesaws back and forth and is reminiscent of the speech and counterspeech of the Old Testament legal assembly so effectively illustrated in the three cycles of speeches in the book of Job.

The controversy which John outlines implies that Jesus presents His contemporaries with a choice (9:39; cf. 3:19). When testimony is given in support of Jesus as the Son of God, men must make up their minds and come to a decision. Paradoxically, by deciding for or against Him they are really judging themselves. The chapter also points to the costliness which true witnessing may entail. In this instance the healed man is reviled and cast out of the synagogue (9:28, 34, 35). The persecution theme is developed at greater length in John 15:18-16:4.

In chapter 10 the lawsuit of the ministry moves inexorably forward toward its consummation. Christ offers Himself as the Good Shepherd, once again employing an "I am" saying which links Him unquestionably with God (10:7, 11, 14). Earlier His words had produced a division among His hearers (6:52; 9:16); now they do so again. He is charged with demon possession and madness (10:20; cf. 7:20; 8:48, 52), and the Jews take up stones again to stone Him (10:31). He is accused of blasphemy (10:33), an offense punishable in the Pentateuch by stoning (Lev. 24:16). In reply Christ defends Himself by a searching counter-appeal to the Old Testament and another reminder that His miracles serve as evidence of the truth of His claims (10:34-38). His opponents stubbornly persist in unbelief, even trying to apprehend Him (10:39; cf. 7:30). He is again compelled to flee across the Jordan to the area where John had performed his first baptisms (10:40). There Jesus' ministry is attended by greater success: "Many believed in Him there" (10:42), noting the agreement between the Baptist's testimony and the facts of the life and work of Jesus (10:41).

Chapter 11 introduces the death of Lazarus, which sets the stage for the testimony of the seventh sign. Besides serving as the backdrop for the famous "I am the resurrection and the life" saying, this stupendous miracle appears as powerful evidence for the claims of the miracle worker. This sign is attested by Mary, Martha and the disciples of Jesus, not to mention the Jewish neighbors who travel with Mary to the tomb. Some of Mary's companions, however, are not favorably impressed. They display their hostility in reporting the incident to the Pharisees (11:46). The miracle affects people in different ways. For Mary, Martha, the disciples and "many of the Jews," the sign helps to deepen and solidify faith in Jesus' person and work (11:45; cf. 11:15). On the other hand, it strengthens the resolve of Jesus' enemies and so hastens the crucifixion: "So from that day on they took counsel how to put Him to death" (11:53). As someone has said, "The case against Christ is being prepared, and his opponents are anxious to obtain any information which will secure his conviction" (11:56, 57).

With chapter 12 we arrive at the climax of the lawsuit of the public ministry. The touching anointing of Jesus while at supper in Bethany opens the chapter (12:1-8) and leads to a plot to kill Lazarus (12:9-11). Plainly, there are some risks involved in taking the side of Jesus! Then follows the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The Palm Sunday procession was important to John, for it was one of many examples of fulfilled prophecy. The Fourth Evangelist was convinced that such cases of predictions which were subsequently fulfilled served as evidence for the establishment of his legal case (cf. 12:37-40; 13:10, 11; 14:28, 29; 16:1-4).

The third incident is the arrival of the Greeks with the request to see Jesus (12:21, 22). The response of Christ is striking. He declares unequivocally that His "hour" has come (12:23, 24; cf. 7:30; 8:20; 13:1; 17:1). This means that the Son of Man must be glorified (12:23). The process whereby this will be made possible is the Son's death (12:24-27). When the Son is glorified (12:28-30), the world will undergo judgment (12:31-36). Thus "the lawsuit of the public ministry is won by the uplifting of the Son of Man to suffer and die (12:32-34). Paradoxically, this uplifting is also his exaltation to glory; it is the 'hour' when the Son of Man is 'glorified' (12:23, 27-28)."

The chapter closes with a tragic reminder of the widespread Jewish failure to respond to the Christian message (12:37). Yet John sees even this stubborn rejection as an evidence of the truthfulness of the gospel (see Isa. 53:1). It is for this reason that he mentions Isaiah's witness, for as a member of the Council of the Lord Isaiah "saw His [Christ's] glory and spoke about Him" (12:41; cf. Isa. 6:1, 9, 10). But John wishes to make it clear that "at the same time many even among the leaders believed in Him" (12:42). The evidence was ample and convincing. But "because of the Pharisees" many of the secret disciples stopped short of "confessing" Christ, for "they loved praise from men more than praise from God" (12:42, 43). John unmistakably rebukes any faith which falls short of full confession (cf. Matt. 10:32, 33; Luke 12:8, 9; Rom. 10:9, 10; 1 Tim. 6:12, 13; 1 John 2:23). The chapter closes by a solemn reminder that genuine faith has its object in Christ, leads one out of darkness and brings eternal life (12:44-50). Those who reject the testimony of Jesus will have those same words function as accusing witnesses on the day of judgment (12:48; cf. Matt. 12:41, 42; Luke 11:31, 32).


To sum up, in chapters 1-12 John uses forensic language to describe a cosmic lawsuit between God and the world. In their pleading the Jews base their arguments on the Law, while Jesus appeals to the witness borne to Him by John the Baptist, His own works, and the Scriptures, and refers also to precedents in Old Testament history and fulfilled predictions. The lawsuit reaches its climax in the proceedings before Pontius Pilate in which Christ is sentenced to death. Paradoxically, however, Christ's death is the means whereby He is glorified and draws all men to Himself (12:28, 32). By His apparent defeat at Golgotha Christ wins His case and overcomes the world" (cf. 16:33 where the perfect tense of nikan is used). Instead of the cross being His judgment, it is really the judgment of the world; by it every mouth is stopped and the whole world is found guilty before God (12:31; cf. Rom. 3:19).

But the cross not only implies the legal defeat of Satan. The "ruler of this world," mentioned in 12:31, 14:30 and 16:11 is "cast out" of the heavenly law court, so that he can no longer accuse those who follow Christ; he has been vanquished by the uplifting of the Son of Man (12:31-32; cf. Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Zech. 3:1-2; Rev. 12:9-12). The charges of the world and of the Jews against Jesus have been proven untrue—a point suggested apocalyptically by the ejection of the heavenly prosecutor (ekblethesetai, 12:31). "The ruler of this world is judged not to have any just claim upon God's people." Conversely, by winning the lawsuit, Jesus acquired a legal claim upon all men. . . . The first phase of the lawsuit is completed when the first Advocate "ascends" to the Father (20:17) to plead, according to I John, the cause of sinful believers in the heavenly law court (I John 2:1; cf. John 17:9 ff.). The second phase begins when the Holy Spirit comes to function as the Paraclete on earth (14:16, 26; 16:8-11). This post-resurrection phase of the lawsuit is developed in chapters 13-21.3

Now, as then, the controversy continues, and men and women must weigh the evidence and make their decisions. In this situation the ancient words of Joshua to the Israelites sound a striking contemporary note: "Choose for yourselves today whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Joshua 24:15).



1 For a fuller, more technical development of this theme, see Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
2 On the special problems of John 7:53-5:11 see Allison A. Trites, "The Woman Taken in Adultery," Bibliotheca Sacra 131 (1974): 137-46.
3 Ibid., pp. 143-44.



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