History’s First Courtroom Drama: Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?

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“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”

Lawyers have gotten a bad rap ever since wisecracking bad guy Dick the Butcher uttered his famous line in Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Most of us must admit, however, that we appreciate a good courtroom saga. Did you know the Gospel of John might be histories’ first legal drama?

Writing five or so decades after Jesus, John sought to answer an obvious question: Why should folk place their faith in a religious leader who made astounding self-claims, was executed as an enemy of the state, and whose followers, (with claims Jesus rose from the grave) seemed unhinged? John provides Jesus a gripping defense:

The Prosecution

Jesus had been nabbed by Jewish religious authorities and tried at night for blasphemy (John 10:33). He was then turned over to the governor of the occupying Romans and killed on a different charge (John 18:29-31), insurrection, a charge that allowed the Romans to keep the peace by eliminating Jesus.

The Accused Pleas? Guilty.

John’s Gospel opens with “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God…and the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory of the only begotten of the father full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). John opens his book by equating Jesus with God at the creation of the universe. That is a pretty tall claim. In fact, it is such a stunning claim John can’t really have been serious. Surely, we must have misheard him.

Just to make sure we are picking up what Jesus is laying down, John tells us that Jesus made a habit of equating himself with deity by referring to himself using God’s covenant check-signing name, a name given when God told Moses, “I am who I am” (Ex. 3:14). And this isn’t a one-off. Jesus repeats it at least seven times:

  • I am the bread of life. (6:35)
  • I am the light of the world. (8:12)
  • I am the gate for the sheep. (10:7)
  • I am the good shepherd. (10:11)
  • I am the resurrection and the life. (11:25)
  • I am the way and the truth and the life. (14:6)
  • I am the true vine. (15:1)

For Jews, monotheistic then and now, were so serious about the holiness of God they substitute the generic “God” for “Yahweh” even to this day. Jesus’ “I am” statements were an unmistakable gauntlet thrown. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day, playing their own version of C.S. Lewis’ classic, “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument, vacillated between questioning Jesus’ sanity (“He has a demon, and is insane…” 10:19), and trying to kill him for blasphemous lies (10:33) before they finally grabbed him in a garden and had him executed.

The Defense 

But what of Jesus’ astounding self-claims? John never tries to shrink from the statements or lesson their blow. Instead he seeks to prove Jesus’ claim of divinity with 7 miraculous signs recorded in escalating levels of difficulty:

  • Changing water into wine (2:1-11) – “the first of the signs.”
  • Healing an official’s sick son remotely (4:46-54)
  • Healing a paralyzed man (5:1-15)
  • Feeding 5000 (6:5-14)
  • Walking on water (6:16-24)
  • Healing a man blind from birth (9:1-7)
  • Raising Lazarus from the dead (11:1-45)

Jesus makes 7 Claims to be God. John provides 7 Signs to support Jesus’ claim.

The Witness List: A legal showdown occurs in John chapter 5. Again attacked for his claims to be God in human form (5:18), Jesus lays out his witness list to corroborate his identity: Jesus himself (5:31), John the Baptist (5:33), Jesus’ miracles (5:36), God the Father (5:37), and the Old Testament scriptures (5:39). Jesus calls two more witnesses in later chapters: the Holy Spirit (15:26), and his followers (15:27), giving us a witness list numbering…wait for it…seven.

An airtight Case

 Seven is the number of divine completeness: Seven claims to deity. Seven miracles to support his claim. Seven witnesses. Jesus’ case is perfect. John is arguing that the case for the deity of Jesus is airtight.

A Star Witness

3/4 of the times the verb “witness” (the Greek martureo) occurs in the NT it occurs in the Gospel of John (28 of 39 occurrences). In all its’ forms (witness, witnessing, bearing witness), the word “witness” occurs 90 times in the New Testament. Half of them are in John. This legal emphasis in the Gospel of John gives us different perspectives on biblical characters from the other Gospels. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, is a good example. In the other Gospels John appears as a preacher of repentance and baptizer of multitudes. In John he is witness for the defense. John 1:6-8 introduces John saying, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.He came as a witness, tobear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”  In the Gospel of John, baptizing is mentioned, but barely. His important role is witness. And not any witness, but a key witness, a star character witness. Appearing more frequently in the Gospel of John than in the other Gospels, John the Baptizer shows up in four places in John (ch. 1, 3, 5, 10), each time specifically labelled a “witness.”

Jesus’ well-born cousin makes a particularly credible witness. A big-city kid from an influential priestly family. While Jesus preached to the ordinary, his cousin garnered audiences with the king. And what does this highly regarded witness say? Look at the first chapter of John:

v20 “I’m not the Messiah.” v21 “I’m not Elijah.” And “I’m not Moses.”

v22 Exasperated the religious leaders ask, “Enough of who you aren’t. Who the heck are you?” John answers with scripture, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘get ready for God!’”

In v26 the religious leaders follow up, “Why then are you baptizing?”  John goes from talking about who he is not, to talking about the one who is, “I am”: “Someone so great, so glorious, is coming that I hesitate even to be his foot-washing servant.”

In v. 29 and 30, John literally points to Jesus: “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is the one I was talking about.”  John the Baptist provides our case with unambiguous testimony.

Will the real John the Baptist please stand up?

John the Baptist has a very different emphasis in John’s Gospel. He is not the bug-eater in a hair-suit. Nor the man of influence speaking truth to power. Nor the powerful preacher waist deep in the waters of baptism immersing an adoring public. Nor the prophet whose end gave us the expression, “getting your head served on a platter.” This John is a simple witness.

-Not the light, but bearing witness to the one who enlightens the world.

-Not the promised deliverer, but crying out to the one who is.

-Not the lamb of God, sacrificed for the world, but pointing to one who would be.

John’s job might have been preaching and baptizing. But John’s vocation was witness. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, “Call.” John’s paying gig was one thing, his call was to witness. That makes John a great model for Advent. While the world follows Santa to the mall and bows at the altar of Amazon Prime, the church follows Advent: a time of preparation, of listening, of remembering that what we need isn’t socks or a sweater, but a savior.

We may have a lot of different jobs: Lawyer or landman, teacher or tradespeople, parent or pediatric nurse, student or stockbroker. But followers of Jesus have a higher calling: Witness. We are sent to testify, as John writes in another place, to “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have touched with our hands.”

You Have Been Summoned to Appear

Regardless our business, our true calling is to witness to God’s visitation and redemption of the world in Jesus. In our various roles we are but witnesses, cleverly disguised as lawyers and nurses, stockbrokers and students. We have a high and holy calling: “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” (15:27)

John bore witness not to his own gifts and abilities, but God’s. He cried out not of his own power, but God’s. He pointed not to himself, but to the Lamb of God already among them.

That is our call, friends: To bear witness, to cry out, to point others to the savior. We are the final witness Jesus spoke of in John, the ones who believe without seeing (John 20:29). Our task is to continue to bear witness, “thatJesus is the Christ, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

Like John in his fractured time, we too live in fractured days – days desperate for the hope of God…desperate for a witness to the light, a cry of hope, to be pointed to Jesus.

Can I get a witness?

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This matters. Stay on your pace.

USLYF00Z

 

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Does your ministry lose steam at the end of the year? We all know that finishing well is important, but like a fatigued runner, we often lose our stride a bit at the end of the program calendar.

Now we have a fabulous group of youth workers. They love God, one another, and they really care for our students, most of whom are the entry point to the church for their families. But it is the end of the year and…

  • Games become a little less purposeful…and a few kids stop coming.
  • Instead of carefully planning the meeting so that all things work together to build Christian community and take kids deeper in their faith, the various components begin to stand alone…and a few more kids drop off.
  • Bibles aren’t opened and read by students quite as much.
  • Leaders start doing more – more sharing, more preaching. Students start doing less – and passive kids quickly become disengaged kids.

This happens every year in youth groups all across the country.

For us, this came to a head at our end of the year badminton tournament last week. The kid across the street, a young man we have been inviting to youth group for three years, showed up. O, he joins us occasionally for games and food, but he skips out when students go inside for worship through song and scripture…after eating, of course. Last week he handed me a badminton racquet and asked if I would be his partner for the tournament. I am not a youth leader and had a bunch of stuff to do, but one look at his insistent face and I heard myself saying, “I would love to. But if I do, you stay for Bible study.”

“Deal!” He said, sticking his hand out to shake.

Two leaders were standing behind me. The older one had missed the planning meeting. He whispered to the younger one, “What is the Bible study?”

“We are just having fun tonight.” She said.

His reply, “Hey, our core values include ‘don’t waste kid’s time’ and ‘have fun with a purpose.’ A kid we have been inviting for three years just said he would stay for Bible study. You get a song. I’ll do a message.”

In a highly unlikely turn of events, the neighbor and I won the tournament. As the mob tromped from backyard to living room, the neighbor kid proudly paraded the trophy inside over his head.

When the song finished we passed out Bibles and students read the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). The older leader retold the story of Jesus angering his home town to the point that they took him to the edge of a cliff to toss him off when he turned around and walked away through the silenced mob. He concluded with Jesus, the God of the universe in human form, whose life, death, and resurrection offering us the opportunity to be a Kingdom bringer (a Luke 4:18 life of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free“). He asked if anyone who hadn’t yet was ready to have “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19) by allowing the Lord, Jesus, to become their savior (John 1:12). Three hands shot up. One of them was the neighbor kid’s. He was waving and pointing to himself. The same young man who ignored three dozen invitations…who snuck home early another two dozen times…who had told us repeatedly, “I’m not into God.” That kid, with tears in his eyes, was smiling ear to ear, waving, and saying, “Me! I’m ready.”

And by letting our core values slip in end of the year fatigue we almost missed it.

“how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him?                                                                      And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?”    -Romans 10:14, NLT

So stay on your pace!

Three students had what they experienced as their first God moment Wednesday night. And we darn near dropped the baton in the relay between them and our God.

In track and field finishing well is called having a strong “kick.” Races are won or lost on the final straightaway. Most runners fade. Champions find another gear and shift into it, pulling away from the pack.

The baton we pass is nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus. So end strong friends. Find your kick. Because this race really does matter.

 

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