In our examination of the witnesses of Jesus the Messiah, there is a group of people who are regarded as the human testimony of Jesus. All of these made specific statements in this gospel about Jesus. The first person to testify in this section is surely the most surprising witness from a cultural perspective and considering her personal history, which borders on the notorious. Despite these hindrances, John includes the witness of this unnamed Samaritan woman, whereas many others who possessed stature have fallen in the dustbin of history. Her testimony was simple, yet sufficiently powerful to bring an entire Samaritan village to the Sychar well to see the man of whom she spoke.
The history of the Samaritans goes back to the division of the kingdom of David into the Southern Kingdom and the Northern Kingdom. While the Northern Kingdom began as a nation devoted to God, the first king of the Northern Kingdom, Jeroboam, introduced pagan worship and established worship centers at Dan and Bethel with golden calves. This supposedly enabled his people to worship God in their country and not have to travel to Jerusalem, which was then in the Southern Kingdom. Pagan worship flourished and influenced the religious life of the inhabitants. This continued through the reigns of successive kings of the Northern Kingdom including Omri and Ahab. When the Assyrians began to expand their empire, the Northern Kingdom became a natural target of their attention. Through a series of battles, the Assyrians conquered portions of the Northern Kingdom. Their customary method of reducing or eliminating rebellion among the peoples they conquered was to move forcibly people around their kingdom, usually to locations far away from their homeland, to make them focus on basic survival rather than insurrection. Accordingly, they deported those Jews who were in the Northern Kingdom and brought in peoples from other parts of the empire. This continued until the northern and Trans-Jordan portion of the Northern Kingdom became predominately Gentile.
The occasion of the Samaritan woman’s witness was when Jesus and His disciples were on their way to Galilee from Judea. The region of Samaria was between the two predominately Jewish regions. Jesus chose the direct route through Samaria. Having travelled through the morning, His group arrived at Sychar in Samaria. There at Sychar was Jacob’s well, which was apparently some distance away from the nearby village so that the women of the village drew their water from other sources closer to home. When Jesus arrived with His disciples, He chose to remain to rest and sent the disciples to the village to obtain food. While the disciples were gone, a woman came to the well to draw water. To her shock, Jesus initiated a conversation asking for a drink of water. Her considerable surprise was two-fold. First, Jews customarily did not share vessels or utensils with Samaritans, and second, it was forbidden for a rabbi to talk to a woman in public, much less a strange woman, and surely not a Samaritan woman. Jewish teaching stipulated a man should not talk with a woman in the street, not even his wife. In the course of the conversation, the woman was led by Jesus’ knowledge about her history to ask whether He was the Messiah (5:25). In one of the very few times recorded in all the Gospels, Jesus replied, “Yes,” He was the promised Messiah (5:26). This prompted the woman, as we read in John 4:28-30, to abandon the task for which she had come to Jacob’s well and return to her village with the news.
Her words of testimony are amazing since she was a woman with the reputation of being an adulteress who had been married numerous times. The revelation of Jesus, however, led her to put aside whatever fear she might have had of sharing the news with others of the village whom she previously sought to avoid; her retrieving water from this distant well revealed how she tried to avoid her neighbors and how they avoided her. She told the news to her village more as a question than a statement, expecting a hostile or negative reaction but hoping for a positive reaction. If this stranger knew this about her past, how much more could he know, and who could know all this but the Messiah? In a sense, this Samaritan woman was like Andrew and Philip, who did not try to convince through persuasive argument. Instead, they invited the other person to come and see Jesus. “And so, on the basis of this woman’s witness, despite or perhaps precisely because of her notorious past, they went out of the city.”  The response of the villagers was both surprising and overwhelming; the passage notes that the inhabitants of the villager kept coming to where Jesus was, prompting His comment to the disciples that the fields were white for harvest (5:35), likely referring to the villagers’ traditional light-colored clothing as they came towards Him. To understand and appreciate the testimony of this Samaritan woman, it is essential to understand the history and relationship between the Samaritans and Jews, as this made her witness, even more, astounding and equally galling to the Jews who had chosen to reject Jesus and His messianic claims.
The next recorded public witness of Jesus came about in the days following the seventh sign, the resurrection of Lazarus. Less than a week before, Jesus had been in Bethany at the home of His friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Following a short illness, Lazarus died even though Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus of their brother’s condition. Jesus deliberately remained where He was for several days and by the time He and the disciples arrived at Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. This delay was because of the Jewish belief that the spirit of the deceased person could return to the corpse within three days of the person dying, so by waiting as Jesus did, it would be obvious the spirit of Lazarus had departed. Once Jesus came to Bethany, in the presence of those who had come to mourn the death of Lazarus, Jesus commanded him to come forth from the tomb. This sign is the most powerful of all the signs.
The resurrection of Lazarus occurred less than a week before Passover. The tense of the verbs in this passage indicates that the residents of Bethany, those who had come to mourn with Martha and Mary, those who participated in the dinner to honor Jesus (John 12:2), as well as those who had come to the funeral of Lazarus (likely from Jerusalem), went back to Jerusalem and told whoever would listen what had happened to Lazarus. Since the village of Bethany was a fairly short distance from the capital city, it is not surprising that the news of the resurrection of Lazarus spread to Jerusalem with incredible speed. When Jesus and His disciples arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover, probably with many from Bethany, the celebration began as John 12:16-18 explains. Jesus rode into town on a young donkey. Pilgrims who had come to the holy city for the Passover and heard the news of the resurrection gathered along the route of Jesus proclaiming “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel” and waving palm fronds, a symbol of the nation. This event was not lost on the Pharisees as we see in John 12:19, who had been struggling to deal with Jesus and His threats to their way of life and religion.
Hendriksen commented that it was likely the more radical Pharisees, who expressed these thoughts to their more moderate companions, indicated their dismay. While interesting and likely true, his comments are possibly a little too speculative. This verse is a classic example of the irony found throughout this gospel. The Pharisees spoke hyperbole that exactly illustrated the redemptive plans of God. In a sense, it was not so much the resurrection of Lazarus, although that was an essential component, but more so the large crowds who were learning of Jesus firsthand and celebrating His arrival in Jerusalem that compelled the Pharisees and religious leaders to seek what they were confident would be the final solution. Here, as John notes several times in his gospel, the disciples experienced things that were beyond their understanding, such as the aforementioned arrival of Jesus on a colt into Jerusalem and the crowds celebrating His presence, the arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It was not until later, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, that the disciples fully comprehended the events, the words were spoken, and prophecies from the Old Testament foretelling the events of the last week.
The last witnesses to Jesus were the disciples. There are several passages that specifically refer to the disciples as witnesses. In John 15:26-27, near the end of His ministry, Jesus explained how the Holy Spirit would testify to them of Him and also how the disciples would testify because they had been with Him since the beginning of His ministry. These verses are part of a longer discourse in which Jesus explained to the disciples how the world would hate and reject them just as they hated and rejected Him. Jesus told them how they would be persecuted just as He was persecuted. This hatred toward the disciples would continue after His death because they would be sharing their testimony about Jesus and spreading His message, and they would also be empowered by the Holy Spirit. It is unclear in verse twenty-seven whether the tense is present indicative (the disciples continue to testify for Him) or present imperative (in the future, they will testify on His behalf). The present imperative interpretation, the disciples “will” be testifying for Jesus, is understandable in the light of the events at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples. This interpretation also ties in with the previous verse of Jesus sending the Holy Spirit to them who would bear witness. The importance and credibility the Jews placed on testimony, and the legal system should be evident from the material in this chapter and the critical importance of the words of the disciples concerning their experiences with Jesus. “Because the gospel is not just an abstract message, but an account of what God himself has done and said as he was incarnate, history matters enormously, and the role of eyewitnesses is crucial.”  The testimony of the eleven disciples would be crucial for the growth of the new Christian faith and the establishment of the early church.
The second mention of a disciple as a witness was after the crucifixion of Jesus as we read in John 19:34-35. Even though the Gospel does not name the person, most scholars believe the individual to have been the Apostle John. Others think it may have been someone unknown to us but known to John, whose testimony was accepted without question. The identity of the narrator is unknown. There are several possibilities as to who this could have been. “First, the writer may be referring to himself as an eyewitness of the events he describes. Second, he may be distinguishing between himself as the author and a second party who is the witness. In that case, he would be saying that the testimony of the witness is authentic or genuine and that he, the author, can confirm that it is true. The third possibility is that the author is calling God to witness, presumably because the fact which he is recording was observed by only one individual.”  It is likely that the person was, in fact, John; he was there, as indicated by Jesus’ request of him to take care of His mother, Mary. Also, it would be of character for John to deprecate his actual presence as he often referred to himself in ambiguous terms throughout this gospel.
Crucifixion was the typical manner in which the Romans carried out capital punishment. The entire process typically took several days, and after the death of the individual, the Romans left the corpse for the vultures to devour. Were there some reason to speed the dying process, the legs of the crucified were broken, hastening death because the person was unable to lift himself up on the cross to obtain air, thus dying of asphyxiation. Deuteronomy 21:22-23, however, did not allow the body to remain on the cross overnight for it would desecrate the land. To leave three corpses on three crosses, especially with the approaching Passover, would be offensive to the Jews. For this reason, the religious leaders asked Pilate to break the legs of Jesus and the other two men to enable a faster death and to expedite their removal from the crosses before sundown. Pilate apparently agreed and issued the appropriate orders. However, when the Roman soldiers came to Jesus, they found Him already dead. It is unclear why the Roman soldier thrust his spear into the side of Jesus. It could have been simply to verify the death, as it was unusual for a person crucified to die so quickly, or the soldier may have been acting maliciously. Regardless, when the solder pulled the spear from the body, blood and water immediately flowed from the wound and the disciple who witnessed the event remembered and included it in his account. It is unclear whether the spear pierced the heart and blood from the heart and fluid from the pericardial sac flowed or if the spear penetrated the lower part of the chest cavity, which would produce the same flow. There is disagreement over the significance of the spear thrust. This graphic description by the witness may have been to counter those who would claim that Jesus never died; rather, He only appeared to be dead and was later revived after being taken down from the cross. It could have also been in response to Docetic teaching, which had become popular in the late first century, claiming that Jesus was a phantom rather than a real person. A similar suggestion was that the Jews believed the body contained blood and water in equal parts. The statement referring to water and blood coming from the body may have been another attempt by John to prove Jesus was fully man, which is a topic of this gospel.
The last mention of a witness by a disciple is in John 21:24-25. In this short passage, there are two: the life of Jesus and the individual writing his testimony. These two closing verses of the Gospel strongly suggest these words were written by someone other than the author, John the Apostle. Some scholars, however, suggest it could have been the beloved disciple bearing witness to himself. This is questionable given the tense of the verbs and the construction of the sentence. It is obvious the disciple in question was John, and the scholars certify his witness was true. The reference to “we” in verse twenty-four could have been the elders and leaders of the Church of which John was a member. This was probably the church at Ephesus; however, it could refer to the group of churches in the region named the Johannine community. These verses also imply a strong and active group of Christians with the necessary authority to support the author of the gospel. Another possibility is that the “we” refers to the various individuals who assisted John in the writing of the gospel. This does have some merit if John spoke of the events of his experience with Jesus and a scribe both wrote and organized the material. Neyrey expresses his doubt that a disciple—a peasant laborer—had the education necessary to produce such a work as the fourth gospel. He further comments that to say one wrote something may simply mean the Apostle John spoke of his experiences and a scribe wrote and prepared the gospel account. One tradition of the early church was that a man named Prochorus was the scribe for this gospel. The concluding verse is thought to have been written by the author because of the singular “I.” The present tense of the wording suggests the author was alive. The wording is similar to the implication earlier in John 19:35 which refers to the person at the crucifixion of Jesus as having been a witness and that he was telling the truth. The similarity of the wording in these two verses is, of course, intentional, and refers to the Apostle John. Mark had written his gospel, and in his account, the other disciples were minor figures. Matthew and Luke were writing their gospels or had recently completed their accounts while John was writing the fourth Gospel. No other person could have written a gospel from the perspective of a witness other than the Apostle John.
The concluding verse of the gospel pronounces a final testimony to Jesus by telling how the author chose the contents of his gospel from a large quantity of available material. This statement is surely hyperbolic. It does, however, convey the point of the magnificence of Jesus. This statement reinforces the limitation of our knowledge of Him and the work of the Holy Spirit in this gospel as well as in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.