Posted by: Billy Marsh | December 6, 2008

The Eyewitness Testimony of Jesus

In recent New Testament scholarship the Gospel of John has received special attention due to its part to play in supporting the historical reliability of not only the Gospel witnesses, but also the entire biblical-canonical testimony. Two works, both by the same author, have become standards and pillars in the fight for the historical validity of the personal accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the NT. They are:

Often, apologetic discussions against attacks of the Bible respond with text critical answers such as manuscript evidence and extra-biblical testimonies to the canon. Although these are valid arguments and carry incredible weight and should not be ignored, it seems to me that the fact that the Gospels were the fruit of historical accounts from eyewitnesses to Jesus and his ministry has not been emphasized as much as needed in the past. Now that I’m more familiar with this position, especially with respect to John’s Gospel, to me the eyewitness outlook on the Gospels could possibly be the most powerful.

Take for instance our own court system. Lawyers bring in evidence, exhibit A, and a plethora of rhetorical devices to argue their cases, but if someone cannot supply a witness in support of or against the accused party, then the case loses its force. The argument that is devoid of eyewitnesses works off of secondary or impersonal elements.

I think, though, that we can find an even deeper level of eyewitness account within the Gospels in the testimony of Jesus himself. In John 8:38 he tells the Jews, “I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” The two words that are traditionally tagged to the discussion of eyewitness testimony (i.e. “seen” and “heard“) are juxtaposed in Jesus’ distinction between his identity and the Jews’. Note the interesting parallels in this verse:

  • Jesus » Speak → Seen
  • Jews » Do → Heard

When called into question, Jesus contrasts the nature of his testimony and the Jews’ actions. This entire passage is steeped in “court” language, especially regarding the Law’s requirement for a valid witness. Issues of judging, bearing witness, evidence, and even the pursuit of truth dominate this debate. So it is of great importance to see that the exchange transitions to a more serious and personal tone on 8:38. This verse serves as a summary statement for the content of both parties’ accusations, and leads into a darker setting as Jesus reveals that the “father” of those accusing him is the devil.

Resisting the temptation to embark upon a lengthy exposition of this chapter, I want to return to the idea of eyewitness testimony. The Jews attack Jesus’ teachings as false because supposedly he does not have any credible witnesses. Jesus, however, invokes the Father as his witness, and goes as far as to say that the Father had both sent him and told him what to say (8:16, 28). Being sent by God to say what God has told you to say sounds more like a prophet than a claim to divine identity. That’s what, in my mind, makes 8:38 such a radical statement. This not to say that Christ has not made any claims to deity up until 8:38. In fact, he has already made many, but with respect to the language he uses to support his teachings as God-approved, 8:38 reveals an even deeper relationship between Jesus and the Father than simply his prophetic office.

Instead of repeating the assertion that he is teaching what he has “heard” from the Father, Jesus changes the language. He charges that he “speaks” of what he has “seen” with his Father. Here is where the eyewitness testimony appears. Jesus’ claims are the fruit both of what he has “seen” and “heard“. There is a trinitarian perspective to be understood in this element. Jesus is “from above” and has come into the world proclaiming what he has seen to be true from his relationship with the Father. He knows that his words are true because the Father loves him and he loves the Father. The Father has sent him from the realm of glory and has told him what to say. There is fellowship and communication in the Trinity. Thus, Jesus is able to claim that his ministry is the product of both of what he has “seen” and “heard” with his Father. There is an inter-trinitarian dynamic at work that shows the community of the Godhead.

Jesus says in John 10:30 that, “I and the Father are one” and also back in 8:58, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Thus, 8:38 contributes to the unity and diversity in the Trinity. The Father is God and Jesus is God. In fact, the entirety of John Chapter 8 leads up to this point. Jesus, however, highlights the distinction of his identity as the Son. Jesus is an eyewitness to the truth of his identity as the Christ and the Son of God in his heavenly, personal communion with the Father. He has personally experienced and seen the affirmation of God the Father over his personhood as God the Son from eternity past, as well as when the time was right, his being sent into the world to be the Word made flesh. In other words, in 8:38, Jesus reveals that he is not simply repeating what he has been told by God, but that he is also teaching what he has “seen” in person to be true with his Father, namely that, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (8:12).”

What a wonderful truth! It is a powerful reality to know that not only our Gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus are the fruit of eyewitness testimony, but even more so, that within the narratives themselves, Jesus reveals that his own account of himself is the result of eyewitness testimony from his trinitarian relationship with the Father. Hence, in the spirit of John’s Gospel account, when you believe the Beloved Disciple’s testimony that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” you are also believing Jesus’ very own testimony of himself. I pray that you will believe in what you have “seen” and “heard” in the canonical witness to Christ, and that with John, “by believing you may have life in his name.”

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