“Jesus once said: ‘If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true’ (John 5:31). This is puzzling. What does it mean?”
Let us first reflect upon what the text does not mean. It cannot indicate that Christ was questioning the integrity of his own testimony concerning his identity as the Son of God. That would yield no sense whatsoever. In this very context the Lord said that John the Baptizer bore witness regarding him, and that John’s testimony was “true” (vv. 32-33). He then declared that his own witness was “greater than that of John” (v. 36), and that it was not “from man” (v. 34). One must necessarily conclude, therefore, that Jesus’ testimony was absolutely true.
There are two points that must be noted to bring John 5:31 into clear focus. One of these has to do with grammatical format; the other relates to the cultural legal background from which the language was borrowed.
- The sentence is constructed in a format that is commonly recognized as elliptical. By that we mean certain words have been omitted and must be supplied mentally by the reader. The lacking words are called “elliptical expressions.” One authority defines this construction as follows.
“An ellipsis is an omission of words necessary to the grammatical completeness of an expression but assumed in the context. The omitted words in elliptical expressions may be supplied by the reader or hearer” (Leggett, et al., p. 464).
The New Testament contains many examples of this construction format. For instance, the Lord later says to his disciples: “Work not for the food which perishes, but for the food which abides unto eternal life” (John 6:27). The Savior was not discouraging physical labor for one’s food. Rather, he was suggesting this: “Do not work for your material food alone; work also for that spiritual food which will result in eternal life.”
Note another example, this time from Paul’s writings. In the first Corinthian epistle, the apostle affirmed: “For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power” (4:20). Some might read this and draw the conclusion that the “words” of the gospel are not necessary for kingdom citizenship; God’s direct “power” by itself is sufficient. But such a deduction would contradict scores of passages on the same theme. The truth is, the sentence is elliptical. What words must be supplied? Let the apostle himself answer in a parallel text.
To Christians in Thessalonica Paul wrote: “. . . our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit?” (1 Thessalonians 1:5).
The exhortation in the Corinthian letter was elliptical; in the Thessalonian epistle, the full sense is conveyed by the words “only” and “also.”
- The language of John 5:31 must be understood in the context of the legal imagery Christ here employs to illustrate his credibility, e.g. “testimony,” “witness.” It was a credibility that would conform to the standard they demanded.
First, it should be recognized that Jesus knew that the Jews were determined to take his life no matter what he said. Accordingly, his argumentation was precisely designed to pass the strictest legal test.
The Old Testament law made provision for multiple witnesses in criminal procedures (see Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). Of course in Christ’s eventual “trial,” legal procedure would be flaunted disgracefully (see Jackson, pp. 403-414).
In addition, in the Jewish Mishnah (a segment of the Talmud), a collection of Hebrew explanations of the scriptures, there is a passage that says: “None may be believed when he testifies of himself.” Again, “no individual can be deemed trustworthy in himself” (Kostengerger, p. 60).
The Jewish historian Josephus also warned: “But let not a single witness be credited, but three, or at the least two, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives” (Antiquities, 4.8.15).
Accordingly, Christ intended to argue the case for his divine identity in accordance with the legal standard of the day. Indeed, he would provide them with far more “testimony” than the law required.
Thus, as his witnesses, Jesus introduced the following: John the Baptizer (v. 33), his own “works” (miracles) which had been empowered by the Father (v. 36), the Father personally had borne witness at the baptismal event (v. 37; cf. Matthew 3:17), the scriptures in general (v. 39 — more than 300 prophecies), and Moses in particular (v. 46). The law required a minimum of two; the Lord provided five!
John 5:31, therefore, must be viewed in light of the surrounding context and the background out of which the passage arises. The Lord, in effect, was saying this in the text under consideration:
“According to your standard, my testimony alone would not be compelling; very well, I will provide you with what you require — and much more. There is no excuse, therefore, for your rejection of my claim of being your Messiah”
To interpret the text in any way so as to cast the Savior in an awkward light is a travesty.