Christ’s Signs, Our Faith
The present conversation features the installment of an ongoing interview series with contributing First Things editor Mark Bauerlein. Andreas J. Köstenberger joins the podcast to discuss his recent book, Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel.
The conversation is embedded below.
Mark Bauerlein: Hello, this is Mark Bauerlein with another one of our conversations on the First Things Podcast. We have with us today Andreas J. Köstenberger. He is Professor and Director of the Center for Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include A Theology of John’s Gospel and The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. He has a recent book out, entitled Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. That is our topic for today. Welcome, Professor Köstenberger.
Andreas Kostenberger: Hey, great to be with you, Mark, thank you.
Mark Bauerlein: Now you say you love, L-O-V-E, John’s Gospel. What in particular appeals to you about John?
Andreas Kostenberger: Well, I just love the intimacy that really jumps out at me from the pages of his Gospel. You know, the intimacy with which he knew Jesus. I think he was the person who was closest to Jesus during his three years of public ministry. So he was in a unique position, you know, kind of like a chief of staff of an American president, or a close confidant, to tell us who Jesus truly was. So I just love his theological profundity, his spiritual depth, and I just couldn’t think of a better Gospel both for a new Christian, or even for somebody who is really interested in getting to know Jesus more deeply.
Mark Bauerlein: Yeah, yeah. You’ve been talking about signs, I mean, right there in your title. Why are signs so important? I mean, what does it suggest of understanding reality in a certain way when signs of something else become so important?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, it’s really fascinating. You know, I’ve thought a lot about that. And I think what got me onto those signs is simply John’s statement about his own purpose. At the end of his Gospel, he tells us, he writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31). So, you know, there it is, he tells us himself in his purpose statement, that the Gospel very deliberately and selectively features certain signs of Jesus that were written for the purpose of instilling faith in his readers, both the original recipients of those signs of Jesus and then also anyone who reads the Gospel.
So they are not an end in itself. You know, they are a means toward the end of revealing both God and then also Jesus as the Messiah to those who see those signs. And yet, tragically, many who saw those signs originally, and still many today, they see the signs, but they don’t understand that they’re pointing to Jesus. So, in the end of John’s Gospel, which many call the Book of Signs, because that’s where you find those seven signs of Jesus, John writes in John 12:37, “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.” And so, in their case, the purpose of Jesus’s signs was not accomplished. And yet, in God’s sovereign providence, their rejection of Jesus opened up the opportunity for salvation to everyone who does see these signs and who does believe.
Mark Bauerlein: What do we know about John? Just beyond some very basic facts about him. I mean, do we know much about him?
Andreas Kostenberger: We know a great deal about him. In the first chapter of the book, I spend a significant amount of time talking about him. Because, you know, as probably many who are listening may or may not realize, many critical scholars today don’t believe that the apostle John, the son of Zebedee who is listed as one of the twelve apostles in those apostolic lists in the Gospels and Acts, many don’t believe that he wrote the Gospel.
But I think that’s a serious mistake, because both the internal evidence, right in the Gospel itself, and then also the early church, the external evidence, strongly suggests that it was in fact the apostle John who wrote the Gospel. And so I talk about the fact, fascinating, that he is usually featured alongside Peter in John’s Gospel. He is there at the table in the Upper Room, right alongside Peter. He is there, in the high priest’s courtyard, in chapter 18; again, he allows Peter to enter. He is there at the empty tomb alongside Peter. And then, again, he is there at the resurrection appearance in the last chapter.
And so, when you look at the other Gospels, and even the book of Acts, who is it who is consistently paired with Peter in ministry? Again and again, the answer is, it was in fact John the apostle. And like with any literary work, the credibility of the work hinges largely on the credibility of the author and his identity. And this is why it’s so important to affirm that a historical eyewitness to all of the major events in Jesus’ life wrote that Gospel. Because that is why it is so credible and so authoritative.
Mark Bauerlein: You like the phrase “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” What is special about that phrase?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, so, it’s really an intriguing label that is only found in the Gospel of John. It’s first used in John 13, verse 23, the narrative of the Last Supper, where the so-called “disciple whom Jesus loved” is right by Jesus’ side, so clearly one of the Twelve in a place of honor. And then he is featured again and again in the second half of the Gospel. I think, of course scholars have debated, you know, who is that mysterious figure? And I think most likely it is simply a self-reference by the author, the apostle John, in order not to confuse the two Johns. Because already in the prologue, in chapter 1, verse 6, the author tells us that, “There was a man who was sent from God, and his name was John.” But that John, of course, is John the Baptist.
And so, rather than having two Johns and always having to explain which one he is talking about, the apostle John graciously steps aside and allows John to be John the Baptist. And then he refers to himself using that different name, if you will. And I think the “disciple whom Jesus loved” tells the reader something about what John thought was important about Jesus. And of course the signature verse of the Gospel, John 3:16, talks all about God’s love for the world. And so the author includes himself in that orbit of God’s love. He says, what’s most important that you need to know about me, your Twitter tagline, is I am the disciple whom Jesus loved. I was the recipient of the love of Jesus, which was ultimately demonstrated when Jesus died on the cross for my sins. So he draws the readers in to identify with himself and to agree that, yes, what’s most important is that Jesus demonstrated his love for us when he gave his life for us on the cross.
Mark Bauerlein: The opening of John’s Gospel, is there any precedent in the other Gospels or elsewhere for the conception of “In the beginning was the Word”? Or is this the first time we encounter anything like this?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, I think, clearly, in many ways, that opening is unique. It links Jesus with creation, because it alludes to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And so, it immediately signals that now in Jesus something has happened that is on the same level of momentous significance as creation itself. It’s basically Jesus came to bring a new creation. He is the agent through whom original creation came into being. Now, his coming, “the Word became flesh,” signals that Jesus identified with humanity in our need for salvation, and he provided that salvation. So in many ways, John really takes our understanding, like he does in so many other ways, to a whole new level, a whole new depth and profundity, like we talked about in your opening question. So, he really deepens our understanding of Jesus immensely;. He wasn’t merely the baby in the manger who first came into existence there at the nativity in Bethlehem, but he already preexisted with God before he created all there is.
Mark Bauerlein: You say, however, that the real center in the introduction is not really the incarnation but the children of God. What do you mean by that?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, you know, that’s interesting. Actually, in my work on the book, I kind of slightly shifted my understanding. I always kind of intuitively thought, what can be more momentous in the prologue than the declaration that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory? But then I read through the prologue very carefully and read some of the scholarly literature, and found that there is what literary scholars call a chiasm, of a kind of ABCBA structure. The prologue begins and ends with an affirmation that Jesus is God. Then he talks about John the Baptist, both on the front end and the back end. This leaves the section verses 9 to 14 in the middle.
And right smack dab in the middle is verse 12, “But to all who did believe and received him he gave the right to become children of God.” And so it occurred to me that what is most central is our need for salvation. And essentially what resonates most profoundly is that those of us who believe in Jesus, who receive the free gift of salvation that God offers is given the right to become God’s child. So what could be more powerful? In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people were the people of Israel. But now we learn that Israel is still included, but now the orbit of salvation is no longer limited. Now anyone can become a child of God simply by believing that Jesus was who he said he was.
Mark Bauerlein: Your whole section 1 is entitled “The Cana Cycle.” What is the definition of the Cana cycle, that term?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, so we see that John was a great storyteller who arranged his material very carefully. Remember, we talked about the purpose statement where he says that he selected certain signs and not others for inclusion in his Gospel. And so, it is quite apparent that the first unit early in the Gospel, chapters 2 through 4, are bracketed on the front end and the back end is by what scholars call an inclusion, an inclusio, both in chapter 2 and again at the end of chapter 4 where Jesus did his first sign in Cana and where Jesus did his second sign in Cana.
And so, this is John’s way of saying that in the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, he already performed signs that were in some ways maybe a little bit less conspicuous. He performs the first sign, he turns water into wine at the wedding at Cana, almost behind the scenes, as it were, but still, he already he reveals his glory to his followers through those signs. And we see here that John supplements the other Gospels, because none of them even mentions Cana, an insignificant village in the Galilean north, but it became very significant by Jesus performing those two signs, those two miracles there.
Mark Bauerlein: Now, you note also that there also are a couple of important things in the other Gospels that are missing in John. For example, the virgin birth and the Sermon on the Mount. What’s the significance of that?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, so we see that John wrote about a generation after the other Gospels had already been written. So, quite clearly, he himself knew those other Gospels. And he presupposed, and we have certain indirect clues in his Gospel, he presupposed that his readers knew some or several of the other written Gospels, or at least the Gospel story. So rather than reinventing the wheel, as it were, he presupposes a basic knowledge of the Gospel story, and he includes events not already included. The most striking example is the raising of Lazarus, which is probably the greatest miracle Jesus ever performed, but which almost inexplicably is not found in the other Gospels. So this is a great example of how John, as an eyewitness, was able to draw on his recollection and also his experience, to include events that the other Gospels for whatever reason chose not to include.
Mark Bauerlein: The seven messianic signs that you single out are the wedding, the clearing of the temple, healing the centurion’s son, healing the lame man, feeding the five thousand, healing the blind man, and then Lazarus. What stands out to me most in the second one, we move to that one, the clearing out of the temple?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, you know, I’ve done a lot of thinking especially about the second one. It’s really the only one of the seven signs that is narrowly miraculous as such. The other Gospels define miracle as a powerful sign of Jesus where he heals the sick or even raises the dead. It is basically a prophetic-style act of Jesus that signifies divine judgment. In this case, Jesus, you might say, destroyed the temple. He overthrew the tables of the moneychangers and he scattered the doves, and so forth. So he “destroyed” the temple to signify that the temple itself would be destroyed, which is a sign of divine judgment on Israel, because the temple was their central sanctuary. And, of course, we know that happened historically in 70 AD.
So I believe, though, that John wrote after that event. So he knew that, literally, the temple had already been destroyed, so at one level, Jesus’ prediction already had been fulfilled in that regard. Because Jesus made that prediction about thirty years before it actually happened, in 33 AD. But then, that’s not enough, John explains that it was in fact Jesus who was that temple, in a spiritual sense, so the sign pointed to the destruction of Jesus’ body and his resurrection after three days. So it’s just a fascinating layer where you have the sign itself, the temple cleansing, as it’s commonly called. And then you have to ask, What does the sign point to? And I think in that case it points to the crucifixion and resurrection after three days.
Mark Bauerlein: You turn to two characters, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. What roles do they play in John’s Gospel?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, so I think that John deliberately juxtaposes those two accounts. Because Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman are contrasting characters. So what John does through the Gospel is that he has those representative figures. And in each case they represent either faith in Jesus or lack thereof. So in many ways Nicodemus represents the failure to understand the significance of Jesus’ sign, especially in Jerusalem. Because most people start reading the Nicodemus narrative in chapter 3, verse 1, but in the book I’m arguing it’s actually better to start in the previous chapter, in chapter 2, verse 23, which talks about the fact that Jesus performed many signs in Jerusalem, but people didn’t really understand and so Jesus didn’t really entrust himself to them.
And then, seamlessly, Nicodemus is brought into this narrative as somebody who basically epitomizes that failure to understand Jesus’ true significance. He tells Jesus, you must be a man who came from God, because nobody could do those signs unless God were with them, and then Jesus immediately pivots in this conversation to the fact that Nicodemus must be born again. Jesus discerned that he lacked true spiritual understanding of who he was.
And then, moving to the Samaritan woman, you see that kind of by contrast, she seems to be engaged in this lively conversation with Jesus. And then, other than Nicodemus who gradually has less and less and then fades from view, the Samaritan woman stands her ground and in the end says, “Could this be the Messiah?” And she brings the other people from her village to Jesus, as an evangelist for Jesus, as you will. And then they come to Jesus and say, “It’s no longer because of what the woman told us. We believe that you are truly the Savior of the world.”
So Nicodemus, the Teacher of Israel, ironically represents unbelief in Jesus’ messianic signs, while the Samaritan woman represents a growing understanding of who Jesus truly is, the Messiah. So she serves as a representative character. And John wants his readers, you and me and anyone who reads the Gospel, to come to the same conclusion that the Samaritans do, that Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior of the world.
Mark Bauerlein: Let’s turn to the healing of the lame man. What are the details that you would highlight in that story?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, so, this is the first miracle in the “Festival Cycle,” which spans from chapter 5 to chapter 10, that second unit. And, incidentally, both the Cana and the Festival Cycle include three signs each, so we see how carefully John structured his Gospel with the signs as the primary building block and then the final sign, the raising of Lazarus, is in a section that is unique in and of itself. So, the healing of the man in chapter 5 who has been unable to walk for thirty-eight years, and there is often some significance as to the numbers. I mean, that’s a long time for someone not to be able to walk, and it makes an even greater messianic sign that Jesus restored the man’s ability to walk. But, as a representative character, what you see here is that even though that man was the recipient of a remarkable sign of Jesus in his ability to be able to walk, it didn’t lead to understanding on his part of who Jesus truly was.
We see in the remaining narrative that he reports Jesus to the authorities. He is very indifferent to Jesus’ spiritual claims. So this would be almost some sort of a foil to Jesus’ spiritual message. So it is possible for someone, as in the next narrative, the five thousand who ate the loaves of bread and ate the fish, and yet it didn’t lead to a true spiritual understanding of who Jesus was. And then, we see that, just like as with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, the lame man is contrasted with blind man in the third and final sign in the Festival Cycle in chapter 9, who does end up worshipping Jesus. So the listeners may want to read chapters 5 and 9, the lame man and the blind man, and see how they are similar in many ways, both happen on a Sabbath. But the key difference is that the lame man didn’t understand who Jesus was, and the blind man did.
Mark Bauerlein: John brings up a remarkable point. How in the world could “unbelief” linger in Jesus’ own household?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, in chapter 7, I think it comes on the heels of the end of chapter 6 where Jesus talks about being the Bread of Life. And then he says, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can understand it?’” And they stop following Jesus. They turn back and no longer walk with him. So this is kind of a watershed moment in the Gospel, that many even of Jesus’ closer followers turned away. And really only the Twelve are left.
And then chapter 7 opens, the second half of the book of Signs, and there you see Jesus in his own household with his own brothers. And even they clearly don’t believe. They tell him, you go on up to Judea, so that everyone may see the signs you are doing. Don’t keep it a secret that you’re the messiah, if you really are. And so John shows that unbelief in Jesus is very wide-spread. There is only this small believing remnant that stays with Jesus. And then, in the second half of the book, you see that it is those twelve disciples whom Jesus trains, whom he prepares for their mission to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Mark Bauerlein: Next, the healing of the blind man, the man born blind. What counts the most there, would you say?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, so what fascinates me most that is that there is that it’s almost a parable the way John tells this story. Because at the end of chapter 9, after you have the lengthy narrative of the man born blind, which is really an incredible miracle when you think about it. But at the end, you have this vignette where the Pharisees come to Jesus and say, “Are we blind?” And Jesus says to them, “Well, if you were to say, we are blind you would have no guilt. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”
It’s almost like, John is using this messianic sign for is that people who persist in their unbelief toward Jesus, they are spiritually blind, just like the man was literally blind. But he is showing that literal blindness can be cured, like in the case of that man born blind whose eyes Jesus opened, but spiritual blindness, like in the case for the Jewish authorities who rejected Jesus, there is really no cure for that. So even though John does not feature any literal parables, like the other three Gospels, he uses this account of the healing of the blind man as some sort of a real-life parable, if you will, that illustrates the perils of spiritual blindness.
Mark Bauerlein: You devote many, many pages to the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Is this the ultimate miracle? Is this the greatest, at least in terms of signs, the greatest proof, the strongest evidence?
Andreas Kostenberger: Absolutely. I think John saves the best for last, as it were. And you see that, it’s kind of fascinating. People have tried to find some common denominator in all those signs, but I don’t think there is. They’re all very diverse: turning water into wine, or clearing the temple, healings, feeding the multitudes. But then here you have the only raising, the man back to life who has been dead for four days. It is the only raising, it anticipates the resurrection of Jesus himself at the end of the Gospel. And so it epitomizes his ability to raise the dead. And so, the sign is the raising of Lazarus. The reality to which that sign points is the resurrection of Jesus himself, which is, of course, the climax of the entire narrative of John’s Gospel.
Mark Bauerlein: What is the significance of the footwashing, which you get to in the section headed “The Farewell Discourse”?
Andreas Kostenberger: In the other Gospels, the introduction to the passion narrative, to the account of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, is really towards the end. But in John’s Gospel, the introduction to the passion narrative, it’s about halfway through the Gospel. And so, at the footwashing, what you see is that it is already there that Jesus reveals the very love that caused him to give his life on the cross for humanity. He was motivated, not just when dying on the cross, but throughout his entire ministry, by love for people, especially those who followed him closely.
And so it says there, “Now before the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And I think “to the end” has this double entendre, double meaning: He loved them to the very end, you might say, to the bitter end, but he also loved them completely, you know, perfectly, with the very love that John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.”
Mark Bauerlein: When all is concluded, Andreas, what will be the “messianic community”?
Andreas Kostenberger: So we see in chapter 13, as you alluded to, you have a different group of people than in the prologue who are called Jesus’ “own.” I just quoted John 13, verse 1, where it says that Jesus loved “his own” who were in the world. Now, in the prologue, it says that the Word, Jesus, came to that which was his own, but “his own people” did not receive him. The Jewish people are represented by the authorities. You know, there were individual Jews who believed, but the nation of Israel rejected Jesus at his first coming as the Messiah.
And so God’s chosen people Israel rejected their Messiah. Jesus came to offer the kingdom to them. He came to demonstrate his love. They had the promises, like Paul wrote in Romans, but that God would send the Messiah, but tragically they failed to recognize that Jesus was that Messiah. So Jesus then starts out with this messianic remnant. They were still all Jews, right, the Twelve, but they were now people who placed their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
So I refer to them as Jesus’ new messianic community. They were the representatives of the church. They were the recipients of the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, including, but not limited, to the Jewish people. And so, they were the ones to whom the commissioning was given at the end of the Gospel, “As the Father sent me,” Jesus said, “so I am sending you.”
Mark Bauerlein: The book is Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. Professor Kostenberger, thank you for joining us.
Andreas Kostenberger: You’re so welcome, Mark. Thank you very much.