Posted by: mattcolvin | February 21, 2012

You say you’re the Messiah? QED, You’re Lying!

Tuesday of Quinquagesima: John 5:30-end.

If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. 32 There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true. 33 You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth.

On first sight, this utterance is bizarre. Why should the fact that testimony about Jesus comes from Jesus’ own mouth mean that it is false? Some commentators resort to a fudging gambit: they say it doesn’t mean “false,” precisely, but only “not legally admissible” or “invalid.” On such a reading, Jesus may be telling the truth, but no one is bound to acknowledge it because His testimony doesn’t count.

But in the context of the gospel of John, “testimony” has a narrower meaning. It is used of the accreditation of Jesus’ messianic identity. Thus, John’s disciples say to him:

“Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified — behold, He is baptizing…” (John 3:26)

John “testified” to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah. He did so when “he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ'” and when he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John denied that he himself was the Messiah, and attested that Jesus was.

The goal of the Messiah is not to glorify Himself by asserting His own station, but to glorify God and to receive glory from Him. False messiahs, on the other hand, are about self-aggrandizement, not about glorifying God:

“I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive.” (John 5:42)

Thus, Jesus is speaking quite precisely when He says that “If I testify about myself, my testimony is not true.” That is, if I come right out and say, “I’m the Messiah,” and gain a following by self-promotion, I thereby prove that I am not the Messiah. The behavior of the true Messiah is to do the Father’s works and let them testify of Him. Messiahship (= equality with God) is not a “thing to be snatched” (ἁρπαγμός, Philippians 2:6 — yes, I go with the res rapienda meaning, for those of you who have read NT Wright’s Climax of the Covenant), but a thing to be received from God.

This is also why Jesus does not, in Matthew’s gospel, assert His own messiahship in answer to Pilate’s questions, but uses a Jewish idiom that embodies the logic of an Alford plea in a court of law: “Thou sayest.” That is, “I can’t refute what you’re saying. But it’s your statement, not mine.” But the “thou sayest” idiom is stronger than an Alford plea, in that it concedes the truth of the statement. (I’ve blogged about this idiom before.)

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