John 5:31-47, The Old Testament’s Witness to Christ

[December 12, 2010] Last week we considered the eternal existence of Christ. Today, the third Sunday of Advent, I will discuss the witness that the Old Testament Scriptures bears to Christ. Moses and the prophets wrote concerning Christ. Before He became incarnate in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, Christ was already “incarnate” in the words of the Old Testament Scriptures. For the purpose of considering this, we will consider the last portion of John 5.


The chapter is self-enclosed and easily divides into three sections: the narrative in which Jesus heals a crippled man on the Sabbath (verses 1-16) and two teaching sections: the first section in which Jesus describes how the Father, having given to the Son to have life in Himself, to give life to whom He will, has given Him the authority to raise all people from the dead and as the “Son of Man” to execute judgment on them (verses 17-30); and the second section in which He speaks of how not only does John the Baptist bear witness to Him but the Father Himself bears witness to Him through His works, testifying concerning Him—and His works—through the Scriptures.

Chapter 5 seems to mark a new departure in John’s gospel. Miracles are called “signs” in chapters 2—4 but “works” in 5—10; in 2—4 the miracles are requested by others but in 5—10 Jesus performs them on His own initiative; in 2—4 the miracles are not followed by a discourse or dialogue but in 5—10 they are; before 5:18 we do not find the strong opposition to Jesus that we find afterwards; and 5—10 centers around four Jewish Feast Days or Holy Days, a phenomenon not in 2—4.

Last week, we spoke of how chapters 7—10 form a unit, beginning with Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and ending with His departure. Chapter 5 also takes place in Jerusalem (Jesus journeys to Jerusalem from Galilee in verse 1) but outside the Temple precincts. Its emphasis on the resurrection corresponds to chapter 11 where Jesus performs the last and greatest of the seven signs when He raises Lazarus from the dead. That scene takes place in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem.

The language of Jesus in chapter 5 also corresponds to His language in the Hanukah scene in 10:22-42 (along with the attempt to kill Him), as does chapters 7—8. This suggests that more than one overlaying chiasm is taking place.

Chapter 6—which takes place in Galilee and in which Jesus presents Himself as the Bread of Life—intervenes between chapter 5 and His return to Jerusalem in 7. It contrasts with chapter 5, not only in terms of location but also in tone, which can suggest that we might read them in connection to one another, the way we can compare the Nicodemus scene to the story of the Samaritan woman.

There are also interesting correlations between the Gospel according to John and the Book of the Revelation. In chapter 2 of John’s gospel, in Cana, a wedding takes place, reminding us of the nuptial theme in Revelation. This is followed by a scene in Jerusalem where Jesus casts out the merchants from the Temple (the Court of the Gentiles). Implicit is God’s judgment on the Temple: He will drive His people out of the Temple—referring to the destruction of the earthly sanctuary in 70 AD twenty or so years prior to the writing of the gospel. The story of the Pharisee Nicodemus in chapter 3 alludes to the quest of the rabbis to understand and come to terms with the Jesus. Many Jews and Jewish Proselytes (possibly the majority of them) became Christians. The nuptial imagery reappears in 3:22-36. In that context, the following story of the Samaritan woman becomes very allusive (especially in view of correlations in Revelation). As a Samaritan she is half-Jewish, half-Gentile, suggesting the make-up of the church. She corresponds in many ways to unfaithful Israel who finds the Messiah (as well as the unfaithful in the churches—say Thyatira—in the letters of Revelation 2—3). The story that follows returns us to Cana of Galilee. The dying son is healed through the word of Jesus, also suggestive.

In chapter 5 a “multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame and withered” lay by the pool of Bethesda which was just outside the Temple precincts. No one with a defect could approach the altar (Leviticus 21:21-23; see Deuteronomy 23:1). This is suggestive of the Jews being expelled from the Temple by God’s judgment (John 2:12-22). When Jesus heals the man on the Sabbath, it is suggestive of the restoration of Israel at the Lord’s Coming in glory. If this is the case, it would explain why the monologue that follows is about the judgment of the Son of Man (the Coming One in Daniel 7:13-14) and the resurrection of the dead. It would also explain why Jesus speaks of their failure to believe Moses (“for if you believed Moses, you would believe Me”). The man’s healing represents the restoration of Israel when the Messiah returns, when, that is, they will know who the Messiah is. It is the first miracle that takes place in Jerusalem.

Chapter 6, then, which takes place around the time of the Passover, alludes to the people on their journey in the wilderness enjoying the manna from heaven. This speaks of the time of the church, before the Son of Man comes in glory, enjoying Christ as the Bread of Life. The Bread of Life, which we enjoy as spirit and life through the Word, is Christ in His life, death, resurrection and ascension. In chapter 6, we return to Galilee where the special wedding took place where water was turned to wine and where the dying son found healing through the Word. Here is also where the people are fed in the wilderness and where Jesus walks on the troubled waters.

This is not, however, the time to discuss John 5:1-30 or John 6, nor perhaps am I ready to. However, having gotten somewhat of a hold on the broader context, we can consider what Jesus is saying in 5:31-47. For though there is Jesus’ own Word which we can enjoy (John 6), there was already a prior Word given to Israel which is inseparable from it.

The Prophetic Witness

Jesus faults Israel with not hearing the testimony concerning Him. First of all, they sent to John the Baptist but they did not listen to him. He was “the lamp that was burning and shining, and you were willing to exult for a while in his light.” He was not, however, the light but testified concerning the light (John 1:6-8). One who testifies does not point to themselves but to another (5:31). The problem is that we get hung up on the testimony and do not see beyond it to the reality to which it bears witness. It is not enough to believe in John the Baptist or to simply agree with his words. Our spiritual eyes must go where he is pointing. We must look ourselves and see.

John the Baptist was archetypical of all the prophets of Israel. They all pointed to Christ. If we do not, however, see what they are pointing at, if we get stuck along the way and only pay attention to what is immediately in front of them, we will miss the real target. John, for example, preached repentance. But the repentance that he preached was for the purpose of preparing people for Christ. The prophets “testified beforehand of the sufferings of Christ and the glories after these” (1 Peter 1:11). They spoke of the judgment of God, the judgment that we all live under, not only Israel but all the nations, but they also spoke of how the coming of the Messiah would deliver us from this judgment, through mercy—not only Israel but the nations too. They usually blended the two comings of Christ together, for when they were looking into the future, they saw the fullness of Christ not linearly the way we do but overlaid on itself, His suffering and His glory at once. They saw both His judgment and also His salvation which overcomes that judgment. It was no different for John the Baptist, though He was the final voice and saw its fulfillment (and experienced some of the confusion of it).

The Witness of Jesus’ Works

Jesus, however, speaks of a witness greater than that of John or the prophets. This is the witness of His works. The works bear witness, for Jesus does not do them on His own. The Father performs them through Him, and thus they are the Father’s testimony to Jesus. The works, since they do not originate in Jesus but come, as it were, from outside of Him, are proof that the Father has sent Him.

The Son empties Himself of glory, so that the works He performs in His incarnation, He performs as a human being. As a human being, He has no “supernatural powers” to perform these works; at least He never makes use of such. Such works would have been performed by His soul and would have originated from there. But Jesus lives by denying His soul. He refuses to glorify Himself. All the works that He performs, He performs by denying Himself. It is the transcendent Father who performs the works through Him. They originate in Christ’s own spirit. His soul, choosing to act in obedience to the spirit, becomes transparent to His spirit, and performs the works through the anointing of the Holy Spirit that He has received, not through His own power. His “self”—even though sinless—never initiates His works. He does His works in obedience to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. His soul is fully engaged, then, but it is instrumental; it is not the source of His action.

The reason that people cannot hear the Father’s witness to Jesus is because they cannot hear beyond their own soul. They seek to glorify themselves by seeking glory from one another (that is, from the world). But they are dead to their own spirit and therefore deaf to the Word that God speaks to them. Though they hear the witness that God bears, they cannot see past the testimony itself to that to which it refers. The testimony is not itself the truth. It points to the truth. One has to get out of themselves, out of their souls, in order to really hear this testimony, to actually see that to which it refers. Because of this, they are not willing to come to Christ that they might have life; they are not willing to believe Him or His words.

“I have come in the name of My Father, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that is from the only God?” It is as if the human soul is on a particular level, and we are stuck on that level. We can interact with other souls and exchange soul-stuff—the symbols that we attach value to—but we are blind to anything existing outside of this. We are blind to the Father, just as we are blind to the created world around us. All we see are our own symbols. We are fixated on them. So when Jesus comes from the Father, we can only interpret Him in terms of what we already know. We categorize Him according to our symbols. We cannot see Him for who He is, for our souls are dead to our spirit.

The Witness of the Father by Means of the Scriptures

The witness of the Father is not just the works that the Father gives to Jesus to perform, it is the Scriptural attestation to those works, and to that which He accomplishes. When the Scriptures attest to Jesus, it is not from man that He receives His testimony” (5:34), for in the Scriptures, “there is Another who testifies concerning [Him],” and, Jesus says, “I know that the testimony which He testifies concerning Me is true” (5:32). The Scriptures testify to the works of Jesus—not just His miracles but all His works—but as they do, it is the Father who testifies through them.

When Jesus told the people that they do not have the Father’s words abiding in them (5:38), He meant that they do not have the words of the Scriptures. For though they read the Scriptures, they have not heard the Father’s voice in them at any time. They have not heard the Father’s voice because they have not heard their testimony to Jesus. He Himself, Jesus, is revealed in the Scriptures. If they cannot hear the Father’s testimony to Jesus, this only shows that they do not have the love of God in themselves, and therefore they cannot satisfy any requirements of the Law.

The Witness of Moses

How do the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus? When we think of prophecies, such as those in Isaiah (for example chapter 53), it seems fairly straightforward. However, it seems as though Jesus, and the apostles and evangelists of the New Testament, saw much more than that. The five books of Moses, after all, contain relatively few direct prophecies. However, Jesus speaks specifically of Moses. Moreover, Paul says that Jesus rose from the dead “according to the Scriptures” yet there are few explicit references to the Messiah’s resurrection. Even some of the prophecies that we naturally think of are more obscure than we might like to admit.

Jesus and the apostles and evangelists have in mind something else. For them all of the Scriptures bear witness to Christ. Sometimes this witness surfaces in something that is very explicit—Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem (though He probably chose to do that because it was written thus)—but the witness is in the narrative itself, and in the symbols and structure. The tabernacle and Temple bear witness to Jesus, the priesthood and all its duties and the paraphernalia, testify to Him. The kingdom of Israel testifies to Him. The phenomenon of prophecy testifies to Him. The persons in the stories testify to Him. They all bear witness as types, figures and analogies. The manna in the wilderness depicts the Bread of Life.

It is as if the Spirit and the Providence of God working through the history of the patriarchs and people of Israel and through the scribes who wrote the letter of the Scriptures, shaped everything for this purpose. Everything written there points to Jesus as its target—He is the point that they are driving at. Every word of Scripture, every iota and serif (Matthew 5:18), bears witness to Jesus. They are the Word of God, not because they point to themselves but because they direct our eye to Him. He is the one who gives meaning to every portion, every word, and every letter.

We make a mistake if we think that Scripture simply refers to itself as truth. “If I testify concerning Myself, My testimony is not true,” Jesus says. Scripture points to the One whom it reveals. Behind the Scriptures is a Person. It is not the textbook meaning of Scripture that matters, but the Person to whom it bears witness. So do not confuse this with “Bibliolotry.”

However, if we understand that, and if we are given the grace to perceive Him, then we can see that the Scriptures indeed embody Him inasmuch as they embody His revelation, as the body of Jesus of Nazareth embodied the Son of God. When the Scriptures reveal Christ, they are the Word of God, and cannot be separated from the Person of the Word. They participate in His divine nature by the mystery of God’s election.

God speaks to us through the Word of Scripture, using it as a vehicle for His revelation. That Word, when God speaks through it, is inseparable from the One whom it reveals, just as the humanity of Jesus is inseparable from His divine nature. The Person is what is real and that “owns” the natures. If the Person is one, the natures, while distinct, are inseparable from each other. The humanity of the Scriptures is obvious. But when it serves the revelation of Christ, it is inseparable from it, for the revelation of Christ is Christ. It is His Person as He addresses us as such. The Word, when it reveals Christ, is no longer just text. It becomes something living and life-giving. It becomes the “body,” as it were, of the Holy Spirit.

Hence when the Word is proclaimed in the assembly of the church, Christ is really present through His revelation, present in the Supper and present in our prayers. He is present in reality.

So when those who call themselves Christians dismiss the Law or minimize the Old Testament Scriptures, or deny the authority of the Scriptures, we need to hear the warning of Jesus: “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote concerning Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words.” 

The Work of God’s Grace

In the Gospel according to John, everything depends on whether we believe in Jesus (verses 38, 44, 46, 47). Jesus does not think that we are capable of freeing ourselves from our prisons, the prisons of our own making, which we made without even realizing it. He does not think that if we are deaf we can unstop our own ears, or if we are blind we can open our own eyes. All who come to Jesus are given to Him by the Father. If we believe, it is because God has given us the grace to do so. To believe Him is to receive Him (verse 43), and all who receive Him are only able to do so because they are born of God (John 1:12-13).

If we are drawn to Jesus, if we are stirred in our hearts with love for Him, this indicates the grace of God working in us. When we turn to Him, it is only because of His grace. The apostle Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” This, however, did not mean that he was passive about it. Rather, he goes on to say, “His grace unto me did not turn out to be in vain, but on the contrary, I labored more abundantly than all of them, yet not I but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Just as the humanity of Jesus, though distinguishable from His divinity is nevertheless inseparable from it, so the grace of God working in us is inseparable from our own efforts, even though it makes our efforts possible. When we strive towards our Lord Jesus, this only shows that the grace of God is working in us. Let us strive then all the more, so that in our striving we can rest from our own works and enter God’s rest (Hebrews 4:10-11).

Leave a Reply