John . . . Witness

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 21:24-25, 20:30-31

Can we really trust the stories the gospels tell us about Jesus? The answer is yes.


The Beloved Disciple

The final scene in the fourth Gospel describes the restoration of Peter to his
apostolic office by the risen Lord Jesus. After questioning Peter about his love and
commissioning him to care for the church, Jesus then prophesied that Peter would die a
martyr’s death. One day Peter would seal his witness to the truth of the gospel by going
to his own cross. Peter then turned to another disciple who was following them and asked
what would happen to him. But Jesus gently told Peter that really wasn’t his business, and
then he said something that implied that this disciple would live a long life on earth.

And then comes a postscript added to the very end of the Gospel, which identifies that
other disciple as the man who wrote the Gospel.

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things and we know that his
testimony is true.

But the disciple is never named. In fact, throughout the Gospel he is identified only
as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” But the evidence of both the Gospel itself and of
ancient Christian tradition has always pointed to John, the son of Zebedee and brother of
James, a member with Peter and his brother of the inmost circle of Jesus’ disciples, as
“the beloved disciple.” For that reason the fourth Gospel has been called “the Gospel
according to John” ever since its earliest circulation among the ancient churches. In
fact, if you visit the city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey, you can see near the city the
magnificent ruins of an ancient church called the Basilica of St. John. A simple stone in
the apse marks the grave where John’s body is believed to rest. There is a generally
accepted tradition from the early church that the apostle John did live to an old age
– almost to the end of the first century. Apart from some years that he spent in
exile on the small island of Patmos, John carried out his apostolic ministry in the great
city of Ephesus, and it was there, near the end of his life, that he wrote his gospel as
his final and greatest act of witness to Jesus Christ. John is a witness.

How John Believed

His witness to the resurrection begins with an account of how he himself came to
believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. He starts by telling his own Easter story,
where he was and what he did on that most momentous of days. When the women who went out
to the tomb early on Sunday morning found it empty, they hurried back into the city to
tell the other disciples. But they weren’t believed. The male disciples refused to take
their report seriously. After all, they were just women, right? If the resurrection story
was invented by the apostolic leaders of the church to support a new Jesus movement as
critics sometimes suggest, then they certainly wrote in an odd part for themselves to
play. They were skeptics, while it was women who bore witness.

But then when John, with Peter, decided to check out the tomb for themselves, this is
what they saw. John writes:

So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both
of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb
first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.
Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths
lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen
cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the
tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the
Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

John 20:3-9

So that’s John’s testimony. He was the first of the eleven apostles to be convinced
that Christ had risen from the dead. He was the only one who believed in the fact of the
resurrection before he actually saw the risen Christ. And what convinced him was the sight
in the tomb of Jesus’ graveclothes lying on the slab of stone where his body had been
hurriedly laid to rest on Friday afternoon. If you find an empty grave where you know a
dead body had been buried a short while before, then the logical inference is that someone
has taken the body away – which is exactly what Mary Magdalene had thought. But what
kind of grave robbers would steal a dead body and leave the shroud behind? Who would break
into a tomb and stop to strip the corpse before carrying it off? Moreover, notice what
John reports. He says “he saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had
been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.”

This description of the scene inside Jesus’ tomb implies that the graveclothes were
still lying neatly in place on the slab where his body had been. They weren’t strewn
about, as they would have been had they been stripped off the body. John says when he saw
this – that is, the sight of Jesus’ burial clothes lying just that way – he
believed. And he implies a sort of rebuke against himself and the others because he says
they still didn’t understand the scriptures that prophesied Jesus would rise.

So John came to faith when he thought his way through to the only possible explanation
for the physical evidence of the tomb. Jesus had been buried according to ancient
near-Eastern custom. That would mean that his body had been wrapped tightly with strips of
linen cloth, with preserving spices interspersed among the layers. John Chrysostom, the
great preacher of the ancient Eastern church who was well acquainted with the burial
customs of that culture, said that the amount of myrrh and aloes used on the body of Jesus
would have glued the linen to the body like lead. So the fact that the graveclothes were
lying in place in the empty tomb as though the body were still encased in them could only
mean one thing. Jesus’ body had not been removed by some unknown party, nor had it come
back to life gradually by means of resuscitation, as though he were regaining
consciousness after falling into a coma. No. At the moment of resurrection Jesus’ body was
completely transformed. He passed through the graveclothes, and then out of the grave
itself, as though they weren’t there.

So That You May Believe

John has shared his testimony with us, and he did it as he himself explains, so that we
too may believe. Here’s what he says at the end of chapter 20. “Now Jesus did many other
signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book but these are
written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that be
believing you may have life in his name.” John doesn’t want us just to believe in the
resurrection as a mere fact. It is that, but what the fact of it means is much more
important. John’s purpose in writing is “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, God in the flesh, and that by believing you may
have life in his name.” John isn’t a biographer. He’s not a novelist. He’s a preacher. You
know, stories can entertain, and lectures instruct, but a sermon is meant to convince.
John wants to persuade us to accept his witness, because he knows that eternal
consequences hang on that result.

There is one last note added to the very end of the fourth Gospel as a sort of
postscript. “This is the disciple [referring to the beloved disciple] who is bearing
witness about these things, and who has written these things,” we read. And then come
these words, “And we know that his testimony is true.” That’s interesting, isn’t it? Who
wrote that last sentence? To whom does the “we” refer? Is this John? It would be an odd
way for him to say, “I’m telling the truth in what I have written here about Jesus.” Or is
the “we” in that sentence the Christians of Ephesus, adding their own personal testimony
to the witness of John at the very end of the Gospel. Are they saying, “We know John. He’s
been our pastor and teacher for years. We know he’s honest, we’ve learned what his
character is like, we’ve seen how he has backed up his beliefs with his whole life, we can
bear witness to his integrity. We trust him. We believe that what he has told us about
Jesus, the Son of God, is true, even though we haven’t seen we accept his eye witness, and
you can believe it too.” I think that is what the conclusion of John’s Gospel is saying.

How do we really know if anything is true? Well, we hardly ever prove things directly
ourselves, by our own personal investigation. The normal way of determining the truth is
by accepting the believable testimony of trustworthy witnesses. Recently somebody
challenged me about the exclusive claims of the Christian faith. He suggested to me that
there are many people who don’t believe that Christianity is the only way to God. But I
don’t think I would quite put it that way. What I would want to say is this: Christ is the
only way to God and we know that because he alone rose from the dead, and we know that
because the apostles, Christ’s chosen witnesses, testified to what they saw. And I would
want to say, faith is the only way to Christ. We know that because the same trustworthy
witnesses whose testimony confirms the resurrection also tell us of the necessity of
faith. “These are written” – not just the words of the fourth Gospel, but every word
in the Bible – “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and
that by believing you may have life in his name.”

May it be so.