Sunday, September 28, 2008

Did Jesus testify as to his identity?

'Where did Jesus say, "I am God"?' is a common argument of Muslims arguing against Christians (though it reflects a half-truth or half-understanding about what Christ said and what Christians teach about Jesus).

'Where did Jesus say, "I am the Messiah"? is a common argument of those who argue against Jesus being the Messiah (Christ) in reality rather than merely in the veneration of the church.

While we're on the subject, Jesus did not even say "I am a prophet". Why not?

The Gospel of John: Extended discourse on testimony to Jesus

Actually, the question "Why not?" was covered at some length in the fourth gospel.
If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid. (John 5:31)
Jesus was citing the common legal practice of the people among whom he lived: testifying on your own behalf was considered meaningless. The Talmud records this legal principle:
No one may testify concerning himself. (Kethuboth 27b, Mishnah)
This is even today considered somewhat common sense: it is foolish to believe everything that a man may say about himself. If Jesus had said "I am the Messiah" or "I am God" or even "I am a prophet" or "I am the messenger of God", it would provide no real reason for believing it. What someone says about himself may be merely self-serving to glorify himself. Jesus, continuing the earlier conversation, provides several lines of witnesses that testify about him:
  1. John the Baptist (John 5:33-35)
  2. The works Jesus is doing (John 5:36)
  3. The Father's own testimony (John 5:37-38)
  4. Scripture (John 5:39-40);
  5. Moses (John 5:45-47).
In fact, when Jesus proclaimed his role in the world, he was challenged on exactly the point of whether he was then testifying on his own behalf. When Jesus proclaimed, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12), the immediate challenge back from the Pharisees was this:
Here you are, appearing as your own witness. Your testimony is not valid. (John 8:13)
Jesus' reply covered reasons why his self-testimony is valid, beginning with how they were judging by human standards and how his Father's witness adds to his own to establish matters on the testimony of two witnesses according to rules set forth by the Torah. He continues with the point that he is speaking only what the Father has taught him to speak. This thread continues for some length on the topic as Jesus rebuts the charge that he is a glory-seeker and that his testimony would be dismissed by a judge.
I am not seeking glory for myself, but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. (John 8:50)
The series of exchanges comes to a climax when Jesus is asked whether he is the Messiah and ups the stakes, saying words that the hearers understand as a claim to equality with God. Again, follow the thread of where the testimony comes from and what witnesses speak on his behalf:
The Jews gathered around him, saying, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly."

Jesus answered, "I did tell you, but you do not believe. The miracles I do in my Father's name speak for me, but you do not believe me because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand. I and the Father are one."

Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to him, "I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?"

"We are not stoning you for any of these," replied the Jews, "but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God."

Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'? If he called them 'gods' to whom the Word of God came -- and the Scripture cannot be broken -- what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, 'I am God's Son'? Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." (John 10:24-38, emphasis added)

Sign as testimony: Is Jesus the one, or should we expect another?

The Gospel of John is not the only gospel to show Jesus using this same logic. John the Baptist, in prison, sought confirmation beyond what he had from seeing God's sign at Jesus' Baptism. He sent messengers to Jesus:
"Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Jesus replied: Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." (Matthew 11:3-6; see also Luke 7:18-35)
Again Jesus lets his signs testify for him: we should not expect another to come after him; the prophecies are fulfilled in him.

Sign as testimony: Who can forgive sins but God alone?

Jesus uses the same line of argument when he is challenged for claiming authority reserved for God when he forgave the sins of a paralytic man, an account which is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke:

He said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, "your sins are forgiven', or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'? But that you may know that the Sonof Man has authority on earth to forgive sins ..." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying "We have never seen anything like this." (Mark 2:5-12, see also Matt 9 and Luke 5).

Witnesses and credibility

When it comes to credibility, what do we think? Is it possible for a human to serve as a second witness to corroborate a claim as to whether another person is a prophet, or the Messiah, or the Son of God? How would they know? Jesus performed miracles to testify for him. His miracles were blessings for the people who received them and signs for the world proclaiming God's goodness, foretastes of the blessings God has promised in the world to come. Many have proclaimed a role for themselves in the world. As for Jesus being the one who was to come, it is hard to imagine a more credible or powerful testimony to Jesus' place in the kingdom of heaven than when God raised him from the dead. For those who do not believe that miracles are possible, belief in Jesus will always be a mystery. For those who do believe that God performs miracles, the miracles are testifying and are the witnesses Jesus called as to the truthfulness of his words.


Tony said...

Excellent point that while some claim Jesus never said, "I am God," neither did He outright say, "I am the Messiah," or "I am a prophet." I'll need to remember that for future debates.

Weekend Fisher said...

There are a couple of other things that might help too:

1) Saying "I am a prophet" and insisting that everyone call you a prophet -- doesn't make you a prophet.

2) Miracles testify louder than words, especially self-promoting words. If a certain person claiming to be a prophet never, say, performed a miracle but still claims, say, that he's greater than Jesus, then it's not me testifying that the other guy is wrong; the miracles testify it.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Tony said...

In a recent post on my blog I made this case:

If a man made racist remarks about minorities and called them subhuman, and said that his race was better, and you said, "This man is racist," and I replied, "I won't believe he's racist until he says the words 'I am racist.'"...what would you think of me? You'd probably think I was delusional.

But as you said, saying, "I'm a prophet" or any other title doesn't make you what you say you are. I wish more people would realize that.

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm trying to make as many of my points as I can to do double-work. That is to say:

1) Jesus had more going for him than a claim about himself; he had miracles to testify to him. There are debates in which the other side, wondering why Jesus didn't blow his own horn, is speaking for someone who did blow his own horn but had no miracles. So that's a line of argument that makes two points at once, even if one is only made implicitly.

2) One of the times when Jesus called miracles as his witness was when he was asked whether someone else was coming after him; Jesus' answer made plain that the one expected from the prophets was among them, and they weren't to expect another. Again, in some debates, the people on the other side are those claiming Jesus wasn't the one and another was coming after. Without the miracles, Jesus was and no one else was. So again this line of testimony answers two points at one time.

Some of the opponents' weaker points, they may never invite us to address and for obvious reasons. It's up to us to do the work there as to why we follow Jesus.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF