John and Witnesses
by Matthew W. Bassford
Most Christians probably appreciate the significance of Habakkuk 2:4 (“The righteous one will live by his faith.”) to understanding the New Testament, but the significance of Deuteronomy 19:15 often escapes us. It reads, “One witness cannot establish any iniquity or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” In other words, before you accept something, you need to have multiple pieces of evidence that support it.
We see this principle at work in many, if not most, of the books of the New Testament. In Matthew and Mark, the legal case against Jesus falls apart because the Sanhedrin can’t find witnesses to agree on a single crime that Jesus has committed. In Acts, the tripartite structure of the first gospel sermon in Acts 2 is based on Deuteronomy 19:15. In 2 Corinthians 13, Paul describes his multiple visits to the Corinthian church as multiple witnesses. In 1 Timothy 5, we learn that we should not accept a charge against an elder except on the testimony of two or three witnesses. And so on. Indeed, the more we look for multiple witnesses at work in the Scriptures, the more we will find them.
However, in no book of the Bible is Deuteronomy 19:15 more important than in the gospel of John. Some commentators have compared John to a cosmic trial, a proceeding meant to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. Naturally, in such a trial, witnesses are very significant. In John 8:13-18, the Pharisees insist that they can ignore Jesus’ words because He is only bearing witness about Himself. Jesus retorts that even though His word alone is sufficient, the Father also bears witness to Him.
Indeed, this confirmatory structure is repeated throughout the entire gospel. Jesus will make a claim about Himself (“I am the light of the world”) and establish the truth of His claim with a relevant miracle (healing the man born blind). Sometimes, the order is reversed, as in John 6, when Jesus first feeds the 5000, then announces that He is the bread of life.
The fullest elaboration of this idea, though, appears in John 5:31-47. There, Jesus acknowledges that legally, His testimony by itself is insufficient. However, there are three other witnesses who confirm Him: John the Baptist, the Father, and the Scriptures. Thus, the Jews’ failure to accept Him is inexcusable and reveals their rotten hearts.
Even though we are 2000 years removed from the religious disputes of Jesus’ ministry, this methodology remains extremely important for us. Anybody can say that He is the Son of God. Lunatics do all the time. However, Jesus didn’t merely say. He backed it up by working miracles that His enemies tried to discredit (“He casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul prince of demons!”) but could not deny. John the Baptist, who could have been a competitor, acknowledged His deity. Prophecies written hundreds of years before His coming describe His ministry and death in such specific terms that they confirm His divine origin as well as their own. When we put it all together, we too can have confidence that Jesus truly was — and is — the Son of God.