“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:
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.
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?