If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony cannot be verified. - Jesus (from the most criminally neglected chapter of John)
Wait! What? Really? I watched CSI. People testify all the time on their own behalf and then Grissom (Am I showing how long I haven't watched?) and the team go out and they do a bunch of real cool science that no county in the USA can possibly afford to have done, and they come back with the result. They either verify or find evidence that says it cannot have happened that way.
Didn’t all of our cop shows do it that way? If not a bunch of science then at least Hercule Pierrot has found otherwise trivial clues that, coupled with clever questions asked of the right people, lead to the same place: It has to have happened this way. Even Chesterton’s Fr. Brown verified or disproved what everyone believed, though he did it by seeing what everyone else was blind to: original sin, and therefore he was able to suspect the virtuous along with the scoundrels and see the obvious clues.
In Jesus’ world accusation had to come from eye witnesses and not merely one but multiple eye witnesses. (Dt 19:15, Dt 17:6, Nu 35:30, Jn 8:17, 2 Co 13:1) It seems that fact finding missions were not what followed the accusation. Rather, the accusing and accused parties “contended at the gate.” In other words, they each made the case that what they were saying was true. Blessed is the one with many sons who help him face his enemy to contend at the gate. He will not be put to shame. (Ps 127) Judges had the task to decide who was more believable. Whose reputation was superior to whose? Whose status was superior to whose?
“True” was what was contended for in the most believable case, supported by the testimony of the most believable witnesses. CSI be damned, once the judge heard the eyewitnesses and determined who made the best testimony the matter was settled and “truth” had been determined. Deuteronomy suggests that there was a cost to the accuser for loosing the contest at the gate: “You shall do to the false witness just as that false witness planned to do to the other.” (Dt 19:19) In other words: If Billy-Bob accuses Billy-John of 15 Shekels worth of fraud, at the end of the hearing someone is paying 15 Shekels to someone. If one accuses the other of murder, thereby demanding his execution by the avenger of blood, somebody is being buried before sunset. The question in both cases is: “Who,” not “if.” A neat way to keep down frivolous lawsuits, no?
In the Gospel of John giving testimony or testifying seems to be an important element of the writing of the book. The other Gospels use the concept sparingly and mainly in the trial of Jesus. (Mt 4x, Mark 5x, Luke 3x) John, on the other hand, has testimony and testifying occur 17 times, and the Johannine epistles use the concept 10 times in 1st and 3rd John. I note as a sideline that Acts uses the concept 14 times. The term “witness” occurs 28 times in John, by the way, 21 occurrences in the first 10 chapters alone. (Other Gospels: 7, 5, 4 respectively)
John the Baptist is tapped early on for his testimony. The scribes come to him to get his testimony for the baptism he is performing. At that occasion he gives testimony to the one who is to come. Later in the same chapter, chapter 1, in the very place we are reading, he now gives testimony to Jesus being the one of whom he had spoken. He goes further and testifies that Jesus is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. But do they believe John? John’s disciples certainly do. Two of them go to follow Jesus. Andrew and “another,” maybe a code word for John the Evangelist himself. The scribes seem to have ignored John’s witness that Jesus was the very Son of God.
Yet, according to Jesus, they seem to have held John in high esteem, high enough to have decided the case for Faith in favor of John’s testimony. (Jn 5:35) If John is a respected, credible witness; an estimated prophet (keep on trucking Grateful Dead fans); then Jesus is the Christ, the only son of God. (Jn 20:31) After all, John testified that the Holy Ghost descend on Jesus and rest on him. In a way, John is acting as the voice of God, as in the other Gospels, where it is an apparition of God’s voice saying: “This is my son . . .“ In this Gospel, John does the attestation. If you trust the witness, then it has happened. To not believe is to be obstinate.
But will you? Who can testify about heavenly things? This is really the question of all of chapter 3 of John where, surprise, the Baptist appears again. He is evasive in his testimony in those verses but precise. He was given his testimony from heaven because it is the only place to receive it from. In other words he claims his own identity of prophet. He is now happy because his prophecy from heaven has been proven and in his famous words acknowledging the Christ end his testimony with: “He must increase, I decrease.” (Jn 3:27-30) He is a worthy prophet who knows well his place and purpose.
At trial, Jesus did not seek the quiver full of witnesses or supporters to testify for him. Who can possibly witness to Jesus being the Christ? The Father. Jesus has come to do as the Father does. The Father has deferred judgement to the Son, Jesus. The Father vouches for the Son and that Father’s will is found in the scriptures. Moses witnesses to Jesus (Jn 5:46) and will become the accuser at the gate to those who do not receive Jesus, perhaps the heavenly gate where Jesus will sit as judge. (Jn 5: 22, 30) Why are they refusing to acknowledge Jesus? They seek glory for themselves and they have no love for God. (Jn 5:41, Jn 5:44)
My, I have gone far afield. Let’s, for a moment return to Billy-Bob and Billy-John. When the crowds, egged on by their leaders, accuses Jesus before Pilate and demand his crucifixion, knowing what I have said above, what would be the “proper” outcome? Yes, yes, yes, we are in a Roman government proceeding not at a Mediterranean Gate, bear with me. What should be the outcome? Someone was going to die. Pilate makes it clear, that he finds no fault in Jesus therefore the earthly judge has said: You accuser who wants this man killed have accused this man falsely. The fate you desire for him, let it be on your head.
And when [the counselor] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. (Jn 12:8-11)
The devil and his children; remember that Jesus called the rulers of the people children of the devil (Jn 8:44); have contended at the gate. On earthly terms they have “won” until the resurrection vindicated Jesus. In the heavenly courts, they have been found as false witnesses who sought to bring innocence to judgement of death. Theirs is eternal death.
It is all about Faith, says John Pilch. The evidence you accept gives hint to where your faith is or is not. Will it be in science? Will it be in pure reason? Will it be in knowledge of human nature? Will it be Moses and the law? Will it be the word of the prophet?
Faith is difficult. The story of St. Thomas reminds us of this. There is no good rational explanation why Andrew and John take John’s cue to follow Jesus. That may also not be the important moment of the story. The important part is that they stayed, though they all run in the end. They came and saw. There was enough evidence, enough witness and testimony, that spoke to them though they knew not how. Some will place their faith in him at Cana. Some come to see his connection to the Old Testament at the cleansing of the temple.
Some become secret disciples. Nicodemus is an example though others are hinted at. (Jn 12:44) But they all struggle. Nicodemus is so honest to try to seek a rational earthly explanation but chapter 3 makes it clear: Such an explanation does not exist. You can see Jesus. You can “get it” that there is “Messiah things” here. But then how do you explain it? And there things fail to the point that the secret disciples will cooperate with their old associations and hand Jesus to Pilate. They were afraid. Afraid to trade the known of this world with the life that is promised.
That is the test of Faith. Faith is loyalty, after all. Will you be loyal to Jesus and contend on his side, before the world, at the gate? This Faith has to be received from above. (Jn 3:3, 3:27) For some reason, that Faith is received but not necessarily in a flash. Andrew and John must “come and see,” for a while. But slowly Faith arises and they, unlike the rest of the populous, begin to see the works of Jesus as testimony that he is the Son of God. It is a difficult journey, Faith is, and at all times there will be testimony that don’t make sense and witness that makes sense but is of the ways of this world and will only pull back from Faith and into self. For this Sunday the question really is: Will you set foot on the path there? Will you come and see?