Despite DNA testing, smartphones, and security cameras, eyewitness testimony still carries a lot of weight for most of us today. “I saw it with my own eyes!” is a claim we must take seriously. Either the person is lying, telling the truth, or very confused. Two thousand years ago, without the technological advances we now rely on so much, eyewitness testimony was even weightier, and its importance brings us again to John.
Last month, we looked at what the Gospel according to John is and what it consists of. The book is a gospel, an announcement of something important and good. The book is made up of two main parts (1:19-12:50 and 13:1-20:31), with a prologue (1:1-18) and an epilogue (21:1-25). This month, the two questions we confront are “Who wrote the book?” and “Why did he write the book?” Thinking about eyewitness testimony helps us answer both questions.
The first question seems easy. The Apostle John wrote the Gospel of John, right? The answer, however, is more difficult. The titles of the four gospels were added after the books were written. The book itself, moreover, is technically anonymous; that is, the name of the author isn’t in the text. The closest the book comes to giving the author’s name is in John 21:24: “This is the disciple who testifies about these things and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.” Who is this disciple? Various clues in the book give us a good idea. We learn that he was one of the 12 apostles at the last supper (compare John 13:23 with Mark 14:17), and one of the seven disciples fishing in the sea of Galilee (John 21:2). From his place next to Jesus at the last supper, we can assume that he was a disciple who was particularly close to Jesus. The three closest were the two sons of Zebedee — James and John — and Peter. Since James died early and since the disciple was with Peter in the last story, we know it can be neither James nor Peter. The Apostle John is the only other option. (For more information, see Craig Blomberg, “The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel.”)
Why did John write this gospel? John explicitly gives the purpose: “These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). He wrote the book so that readers would believe that Jesus is who He said He was. Why should we think that the book would lead us to believe?
John uses the words of witness and testimony more than any other writer in the New Testament. Jesus bears witness about Himself (8:18), but He tells His opponents that He’s not the only one giving this testimony (5:31). John the Baptist bears witness that Jesus is the light (1:7), the Son of God (1:34) and the truth (5:33). Jesus’ actions bear witness to who He is (5:36, 10:25), and His Father bears witness (5:37 and 8:18) along with previous Scripture (5:39). Jesus’ life and death are themselves a testimony to the truth that will set people free (18:37, 8:32). The book itself is a witness to the truth, and the dead today still hear the Word in this book and, like Lazarus, live (5:25, 11:43-44).