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The Witness of Works and Signs for Jesus the Messiah

By Edited May 30, 2016 0 0

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In our examination of the witnesses of Jesus the Messiah, we shall examine an unusual witness: that being His works or signs. These tell of Him because they prove His messianic claim, for no other person could do the things He did. “If they are acknowledged to be real at all, they are acknowledged as ‘word of God’; and since they are in fact performed by Jesus, they make His claim self-evident.” [1] There are several passages in the gospel of John in which Jesus spoke in John 10:24-26 of how His works testified to His identity. These verses contain a statement by Jesus referring to His signs or works and how they testified of Him. The signs were symbols or pointers drawing attention to the unique character or ability of the one performing the work. Interestingly, in the fourth gospel, the term “sign” is found seventeen times, and the word “works” is found twenty-seven times. Of this number, eighteen times the word “works” refers to the action of Jesus.

Prior to this confrontation in the tenth chapter of John, Jesus and His disciples had come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Dedication to celebrate the restoration of the Temple in 165 BCE by Judas Maccabaeus. It had been defiled when Antiochus Epiphanes sacrificed a pig on the altar to the god Zeus. The Jews “were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days.” [2] The celebration is known today as Hanukah. It is also known as the Festival of Lights because Jews light lamps and candles in their homes to celebrate the feast. The occasion commemorates “the last great deliverance that the Jews had known and therefore it must have been in people’s minds a symbol of their hope that God would again deliver his people.” [3] When the Jews asked Jesus if He was the Messiah, they showed that Jewish hopes had been rekindled by the celebration of how God had rescued the Chosen People.

It was this setting in which the group of Jews came to Jesus. Just before this incident Jesus and His disciples were walking in the colonnade, a 45-foot structure with a roof and pillars on both sides along the east side of the Court of the Gentiles. This older part of the complex offered some protection from the elements. It was the rainy season, and everyone sought to escape the inclement weather. This area was not considered part of the Temple proper, and Gentiles could access this area, which was also called Solomon’s Colonnade. It was a popular meeting place for both Jews and Christians. Acts 3:2-8 records how Peter healed a lame man in the same colonnade, and Acts 5:12 explain that early Christians later gathered there. As Jesus walked between the pillars, the Jews apparently approached and encircled Him, demanding to know whether He was the Messiah. We should not perceive this as a friendly encounter. Instead, it was one of tension and anger. They were seeking a plain answer from Jesus rather than His earlier use of images and word pictures of the good shepherd to explain who He was. Jesus had also compared the Jews, by inference, to thieves and killers (10:1-18), which likely contributed to their reaction. Jesus had told them how the good shepherd would lay down His life for the sheep, how He had authority to lay down His life and to take it up again, and that His authority came from the Father. The meaning of such imagery would have been understood by the Jews because this type of teaching was common to the rabbis, and both they and Jesus taught using similar analogies, illustrations, and parables.

The question “How long will You keep us in suspense?” implies anger and frustration and suggests they believed Jesus had not been forthcoming. Other translations of this statement could be “Why do You plague us?” or “Why do You annoy us?” and both convey their animosity toward Jesus. Another way this could be taken is “Why are You taking away our lives?” which could refer to His statements that the Jews would die in their sins unless they received Him. The Jews were also suspicious that Jesus was reaching outside of Judaism for followers, as seen by His statement in 10:16 of His having other sheep not of this fold that He must also bring to become one flock with one shepherd, which implied other people beside the Jews being in God’s favor. In other words, we could interpret the question of the Jews several ways. But whatever their specific intent was, they were seeking the identity of Jesus.

To the frustration of the inquisitors, “neither here nor in the Synoptics, however, does Jesus answer without qualification a direct question about his messiahship. Too often for the questioners, the word ‘Messiah’ had nationalistic and political overtones which Jesus would not wish to encourage.” [4] Instead of a direct reply, the response of Jesus was, again, somewhat cryptic, in that He explained that had already told them who He was and they did not believe. It is true He never publically announced or declared Himself to be the Messiah, although He did reveal His true identity to the Samaritan woman at the Sychar well and to the man born blind. He would, before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion, tell His disciples. Even if Jesus had, then and there, said to the Jews He was the Messiah they had long sought, they would have reacted in disbelief. But, in fact, He did tell them, for if they had put His words, witnesses, and works together, His identity would have been clear. His many hints or remez to Old Testament passages concerning Himself, the way He referred to Himself, and His statements of how He and the Father were united, all revealed His identity. However, they were not seeking a Messiah who would suffer and die or inaugurate a spiritual kingdom not of this world. All of His works were done in the name of the Father, and He had explained that He acted upon the will of the Father. When Jesus said “they do not believe,” He spoke in the present tense, meaning they had seen His works yet did not believe.

Jesus chose to respond in this manner because the Jews had an erroneous understanding of the Messiah, and a simple “Yes, I am the Messiah” or “No, I am not the Messiah” would have caused even more problems. Also, any claim to be a Messiah or king would have raised political and military connotations bringing unwelcome Roman scrutiny. In the years both before and after Jesus, various individuals rose up among the Jews proclaiming to be the Messiah, gathering a following, and causing mayhem only to have the Romans snuff them out. Refer to my second book, Jesus and His Teachings, for a more in-depth discussion of the kingdom of heaven. In this situation, Jesus was in a no-win situation which precluded a simple affirmative or negative response. If He answered in the affirmative, the Jews, much like the 5,000 when He fed them and they attempted to make Him king, would likely have understood Him to mean the beginning of the rebellion was at hand and He would soon throw out the Romans and establish the physical Davidic kingdom with Jerusalem as the capital. If He had answered negatively, the Jews would likely have tried to kill Him for raising false hopes or simply abandoned Him in search for the Messiah they sought.

Jesus then pointed to His works He did in His Father’s name because they should have been sufficient to reveal His identity. He did not point to His works as the reason to believe; rather, they served as supporting evidence of His identity. At the time of Jesus, the legal system accepted what one did, or “works,” as a credible witness because the character and quality of the witness carried more legal weight than the testimony of the accused. At this point, Jesus had performed six works or signs, and most, if not all, were known by the Jews. To enumerate, He turned water into wine (2:1-11), healed the nobleman’s son (4:46-54), healed the man infirm for thirty-eight years (5:1-18), fed the 5,000 (6:1-15), walked on water (6:16-21), and healed the man born blind (9:1-41). Each of these signs, ever increasing in power, validated His role, yet the Jews still demanded to know if He was the Messiah. Notice that only those for whom Jesus was the Messiah were able to recognize Him as such, for they belonged to Him. Those who were not of His flock did not, indeed could not, recognize Jesus as the Messiah because they were spiritually blind.

Jesus next mentioned His works as a witness later in the same conversation between Himself and the Jews. In this portion of the discussion, the witness of works played an even more important role. Jesus explained how the sheep of His flock heard His voice and responded to Him, and no one could snatch them out of His hand. In response to the question of the Jews whether He was the Messiah, He said He and the Father were one. Upon hearing these words, the Jews took up stones to kill Him for the blasphemy of claiming to be the Son of God. In John 10:37-38, He verbally thwarted this charge and again cited His works as testimony. The works of Jesus again played a crucial role in the debate. The reliance on works as a legitimate witness only confirmed the importance of the testimony of works at the time of Jesus. Here, He was literally facing death by stoning, and the punishment would have been seen as legal by both Judaic and Roman law because of the charges, yet He was confident enough to cite His works. It is also interesting that even though Jesus earlier said the Jews who were demanding answers from Him were not of His flock and therefore would not be saved, He still attempted to bring them to belief. Perhaps one or two of those Jews present later came to believe and became part of His flock.

The construction of the text in this passage indicates that Jesus was not asking the Jews to believe in Him based only on His Messianic claims but also because of His works. “When Jesus acts, God speaks. No one can do what Jesus does without the approval of the Father.” [5] His works proved He was in the Father and the Father was in Jesus, and it was this relationship which enabled Jesus to perform the works that validated His messianic claims. “Jesus’ shift from his own person to his works is in keeping with the principle that a tree is judged by the quality of its fruit, and a prophet by his deeds.” [6] If the works Jesus did were not what the Father would do, then the Jews would have been correct in their charges. “God authorizes his ‘works.’ But if Jesus does not do them, he disobeys God, becomes a sinner, and deserves death. But the ‘works,’ both miracles and powers, are authorized by God and prove God’s favorable relationship with Jesus and that of Jesus with God.” [7] However, if His works were of God, then they were rock-solid support of His claims. The works of Jesus and God were identical in purpose and power; to see one perform a work or sign was to see the other. “There is an identity of works; for there is one essence; and the persons exist in and through each other as moments in one divine, self-conscious life. The Father is not subordinate to the Son, and the Son is not subordinate to the Father.” [8] Through belief (aorist tense) in His works, the Jews would come to believe (present tense) in Him who did the works. Study of Scripture can be difficult at times. In these verses, the same word appears twice with different tenses and thus different meaning or inference. The first time it appears, the tense is aorist, the second time the tense is present, and each conveys a different meaning. Jesus intended for the Jews to evaluate His works from the proper perspective—a manifestation of the love of the Father—and to recognize and accept His Messianic claim. Surely a mere man could not have healed a man infirm thirty-eight years. Surely a mere man could not have healed a man born blind. How else could these works have occurred except the man had come from God?

The next time Jesus spoke of works as a witness, He again commented that His works were sufficient to lead to belief. The occasion was the last Passover before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, and a few minutes before He said these words we read in John 14:10-12, Judas left on his mission to betray Him. Only Jesus and the eleven disciples remained. What precipitated this diatribe was a request from Philip, one of the disciples, to show them the Father (10:8). We can discern a sense of sadness or even despair in the reply of Jesus. It is unclear what Philip was asking, but he may have been seeking a physical manifestation of the Father as the Old Testament several times records in Exodus 24:9-10, Exodus 33:20-23, and Isaiah 6:1-3, and he may have thought such a revelation would settle all question about Jesus. He rebuked Philip and commented how, even though he had been a disciple from the beginning, Philip really did not know Him. It was one thing for the Jews and other opponents of Jesus to fail to recognize Him for who He was, but if such ignorance was seen in a disciple, it revealed that person’s significant spiritual blindness. Philip, one of the very first disciples, had ample opportunity, more than some, to recognize Jesus. However, he was spiritually blind.

Jesus then revealed to the group of disciples that anyone who had seen Him had seen the Father because He was in the Father and the Father was in Him. “To see Jesus is to see the Father, not as if Father and Son are the same person but because they are one, and here because they dwell in one another so thoroughly, and Jesus remains so utterly dependent on the Father’s will that their character is indistinguishable as His works demonstrate.” [9] This was likely His clearest statement explaining His relationship to the Father. He presented the Father, not merely represented Him. This degree of dependence on the Father proved the Father was the source of Jesus’ words and actions. It did not mean the two were one, for the Father gave the words Jesus spoke, but there was no reciprocal action of Jesus to God. The relationship between Jesus and the Father allows us to see the Father. Jesus’ words were not from Himself, and that is what Jesus meant when He spoke of the Father abiding in Him and doing His work. The signs and the words were both God in action. The signs were physical manifestations of God’s work. Jesus explained in this passage that His words also revealed God in action.

In verse eleven, Jesus continued defining His relationship between Himself and the Father. The statement, “Believe me…” is significant because Jesus was telling Philip to believe and trust a living person, namely Himself. It is true that there is faith in Jesus Himself. There is also belief that what Jesus said is trustworthy. If there is belief in Jesus, there is belief in the Father as the Father abides in Jesus, and Jesus is in the will of the Father. Jesus then turned to the evidence of His works as another basis for belief. If Philip could not believe the words of Jesus, then he could see the works of Jesus and believe. While it is entirely possible to question or debate words spoken or written, it is not possible to argue against actions or deeds. In this context, the mention of works pointed to the signs or miracles. Jesus was not urging the disciples to view the works as acts of power and wonder, but to look beyond them and recognize the different aspects of Jesus which the works revealed. This is similar to what Jesus said in John 5:36 and 10:37-38 concerning His works just prior to this conversation with Philip and the other disciples. At this point, Jesus had performed six of the seven signs, the last of which was the healing of the man born blind (9:1-41), which clearly revealed the divine nature and Messiahship of Jesus, for no man born blind had ever been given sight.  “The argument is very cogent; for the works He did were the works of His Father, which the Father only could do, and which could not be done, in the ordinary course of nature, but only by the sovereign over-ruling power of the God of nature.” [10] In these works, “Jesus showed himself to be the Son of God. These works were summed up in the achievement of the world’s salvation, the prime purpose of his coming into the world.” [11]

Jesus then emphasized the next point with “truly, truly” or “I tell you the truth” and explained how anyone who believed in Him would go on to do greater works than those He performed. The reason, according to Jesus, was because He was soon to return to the Father and the greater works would be accomplished through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. On the very day of Pentecost, the preaching of the disciples brought more people to believe in Jesus than His entire ministry. Some suggest the exponential growth of the early church should be seen also as a sign or manifestation of the works as Jesus foretold in this passage.

The last time Jesus spoke of works as a witness was to His disciples, John 15:22-24, near the end of His ministry. This statement, which comes after His marvelous illustration of the vine and the branches, seems almost regretful in that, if He had not done works, His opponents would not be in sin. Because He did the works, they were in sin because they had witnessed the works and consequently hated both Him and the Father.

Some have questioned the placement of chapters fifteen through seventeen in the gospel of John. The closing verse of chapter fourteen speaks of Jesus and His disciples getting up and departing after the Passover. Chapter eighteen begins with a reference to Jesus having spoken these words and going with the disciples to the ravine of the Kidron where there was a garden. According to the first verse of chapter eighteen, the small group entered the garden. There He was taken into custody. While true, chapters fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen rightly belong near the end of His ministry because of the content and overall tone of the material; the proper placement of these chapters, which seem almost a separate entity from the surrounding material, is open to debate. It is likely Jesus spoke these words to the disciples at some point in the Passover commemoration. For example, if the last five verses of chapter fourteen (14:27-31) were moved to the end of chapter seventeen, it would pull chapters fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen into the flow of the Passover observance. Picking up at verse 14:27, now in a different place and after He told the disciples to not let their hearts be troubled or fearful, the group then went to the ravine of Kidron and the garden for the ensuing arrest. This simple solution, and there are surely countless other suggestions, allows the verses and chapters to flow and eliminates the almost jarring interlude of chapters fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen, even though they are some of the most beautiful in this gospel.

In these verses, Jesus spoke of those who rejected Him. Because the Jews who lived at the time of Jesus had both seen and heard Him, they had something none of their forefathers could experience—the revelation of Himself and the Father. Because of His presence in their midst, they had no excuse and were incapable of hiding their sin, the refusal to believe in Him as the Messiah. Those who hated Jesus, by definition hated the Father. Jesus so closely identified Himself with the Father that any thought or act toward Jesus was also a thought or act toward the Father. This insistence of the unity of the Father and Son directly contradicted His critics, who insisted they could claim God as their spiritual Father through the patriarch Abraham and still reject Jesus as demon-possessed.

Jesus then said His works were evidentiary testimony of Him and the Father. This statement was similar to others Jesus made concerning the sinfulness of those villages that rejected Him, which would face worse punishment than Tyre, Sidon, and Gomorrah. Jesus placed considerable significance on His works by saying that, had His works not been revealed, those villages would not have been held accountable as sinners. Barclay observed that “when John speaks of the works of Jesus; he was thinking of Jesus’ whole life. He was thinking not only of the great outstanding moments, but of the life Jesus lived every minute of the day. No man could have done the mighty works that Jesus did unless he was closer to God than any other man ever was; but, equally, no man could have lived that life of love and pity, compassion and forgiveness, services and help in the life of the everyday unless he had been in God and God in him.” [12] This is not saying that if He had not come or had not done His works, His detractors would have been sinless. Rather, the works of Jesus prompt hatred and rebellion against the grace and love of God. The way the statement was spoken, the emphasis was on the divide between Jesus and the world and the resulting divide between the Father and the world. Because this grace and love of God was shown in both the words and works of Jesus, their sin was without excuse.

3crosses

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Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.

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