“Jesus once said: ‘If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true’ (Jn. 5:31). If that statement is true, how can we believe that Jesus told the truth when he claimed to be the Son of God?”
This question exhibits a classic example of extracting a passage from its biblical context and attaching a meaning to it that is totally foreign to the intention of the speaker. Let us frame the larger picture in which this statement was made, beginning with John 5:1ff.
Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem to attend one of the Jewish feasts (presumably the Passover). While there, he encountered a crippled man. The Savior healed the gentleman and instructed him to take up his pallet and walk.
But some of the Hebrew leaders, ever anxious to enforce their humanly-crafted views of sabbath regulations, charged that transporting a bed roll was a breach of sabbath law. (It has been a source of amazement to me that they could so focus upon the pallet, but not be impressed with the man’s strong legs — legs that had been immobile for thirty-eight years!)
When the Jews discovered that Jesus was credited with healing the unfortunate man, they began to persecute the Master. The persecution intensified when Christ claimed that the sign had been performed because of his unique relationship with his heavenly Father (v. 18).
Beginning in verse 19ff, the Lord laid down an elaborate argument, affirming his oneness with God Almighty. The Father and the Son were operating in a marvelously united fashion in the implementation of the sacred plan of human redemption, which plan would be consummated on the last day of earth’s history when all the dead are brought forth from the grave (vv. 19-29).
In the subsequent narrative (vv. 30ff), Jesus argued the case for his divine identity — from a legal vantage point. He begins, though, by revealing that he is aware of their perception as to what constitutes a formidable legal case.
Under Old Testament law, a man could not be executed for a crime upon the testimony of a solitary witness (Dt. 19:15). The Jewish rabbis extrapolated from that statute, and contended that no one could be believed who had no testimony regarding himself save that which he alone provided (Mishnah, Ketuboth 2.9).
Within this context — a response to the Jews’ misguided perception — Jesus says: “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (v. 31).
The sense of the Lord’s statement is this: “I know that from your traditional vantage point, my solitary testimony regarding my identity will not suffice; very well, I will give you additional witnesses.” The recently-published English Standard Version catches the spirit of this challenge quite well.
“If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true.”
Christ then proceeds to argue his case — that he was operating hand-in-hand with his heavenly Father — in an air-tight, legal fashion. He introduces four witnesses to corroborate his identity.
- John the Baptist had borne witness of him (v. 33).
- The miraculous works he had been doing confirmed his testimony of unity with the Father (v. 36).
- The Father himself had personally testified on his Son’s behalf (v. 37).
- Finally, the Old Testament Scriptures had eloquently previewed his coming (vv. 39-47).
These are the facts surrounding John 5:31. This passage does not represent Jesus as confessing that his claim of deity was unreliable. Rather, it is a part of his response to their misconception of what it takes to constitute a valid evidential argument.