The Gospel of John reveals a Savior who confirmed his identity through seven messianic signs. But what does it say about humankind that so many refused to accept the Lord Jesus Christ? Dr. Andreas Kostenberger joins Janet Mefferd to discuss this and other topics related to his book, Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel.
Janet Mefferd: Thank you so much for joining us again. We all know those first wonderful words in the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1–3 ESV). Now this is not just an introduction to Jesus Christ the baby in a manger. It’s a declaration that he was present and active at creation and preexisting eternally with God the Father as the second person of the Trinity. And that’s just the opening of a magnificent book of the Bible that also focuses on the signs that Jesus gave to people who wanted them in order to know who he was. But what did those people do with those signs?
We’re going to talk about it today with Dr. Andreas Kostenberger. He is Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Director of the Center for Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the founder of Biblical Foundations, an organization devoted to encouraging a return to the biblical foundations in the home, the church, and society. And today we’ll be discussing his book Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. Dr. Kostenberger, great to have you with us, how are you?
Andreas Kostenberger: Very well. Thanks you very much for having me, Janet. I’m thrilled to be with you today.
Janet Mefferd: Well, I’m thrilled to have you here. I really have been enjoying your book. You say the Gospel of John is about the signs. It’s all about these signs people ask Jesus for and then the signs he gave them and what they did with them. Why is that a key component and a key theme in the Gospel of John, the issue of signs?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, it seems like John is strategically focusing on the evidence that Jesus gave that he was in fact the Messiah that was promised long ago by the prophets in the Old Testament. And so the idea was that when Jesus came, he provided more than sufficient evidence for people to believe in him. You know, he healed the sick, he even raised the dead, he opened the eyes of the blind. And all those things were what was predicted in Isaiah and the other prophets. And so it has the effect of what sometimes is called a theodicy, meaning that the fault for not believing didn’t lie with God for lack of evidence. It was squarely on people who were too caught up in their own world and in their own preconceived notions of who the Messiah was supposedly going to be.
Janet Mefferd: Yes, you’re right about that. And, of course, John is a very interesting Gospel. Because unlike the Synoptic Gospels, you don’t have a reference to Christ in the manger, you don’t have a Sermon on the Mount, you don’t have any parables. The signs are really the feature here. Why is John’s Gospel so different from the Synoptic Gospels when you compare it to the other three?
Andreas Kostenberger: Oh, another great question. You know, I think that most believe that he wrote about a generation after the earlier three and that he most likely knew them. And so there was no point in kind of reinventing the wheel. So he pretty much presupposed that people know the gospel story. You know, one of the Church Fathers called John “the spiritual Gospel.” And I think by that he meant that John goes even deeper than the first three Gospels in trying to help people understand who Jesus was and what it takes to believe in him.
So the earlier three Gospels focus primarily on the miracles, you know, the authoritative displays of Jesus’ power. And then John comes along. And he wants to show that somebody could benefit from the miracles, like the five thousand. You know, they ate the bread, and they ate the fish, but if they didn’t believe in him, then the purpose of the sign was thwarted, because the very purpose was not just for people to be awed by Jesus’ power. The purpose was that they would actually place their trust in him.
Janet Mefferd: Right. So when you’re talking about John chapter 1 as a chiasm, where the central information there is that all who believe in Jesus, who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, why focus on that one verse? Why is that the central affirmation, going back to John 1?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, so the prologue that introduces the Gospel for eighteen verses, I think anybody reading that sees how carefully crafted it is, this beautiful cadence when you read verse 1. And so scholars commonly believe that the heart of that chiasm, which is basically kind of an ABCBA structure, kind of like a staircase, you go up to the top and then you go back down. And so on the very top is the affirmation that you mentioned that to anyone who believes in Jesus, he gave them the right to become God’s children. Right, and so that addresses our need. We’re not just primarily here to simply acknowledge who Jesus is, you know, he is God, as important as that is, but in the end, he came to meet our deepest need, which is that of salvation from sin and to be able to be reconciled to God and to spend eternity with him in heaven.
Janet Mefferd: Right. That is so central. So when you’re talking about the Cana Cycle, that is, chapters 2 through 4, you reference the fact that Jesus performed several signs there in Cana. People will recall, of course, the Lord’s turning water into wine there at the wedding. Talk about the significance of that, what those signs in the Cana Cycle were really revealing about the Lord.
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, so the total is seven signs, and as you mentioned, the first three are in that Cana Cycle, where Jesus is shown to perform this turning water into wine at a wedding. And then later on, he heals a royal official’s son long-distance, which is a very hard miracle to perform, I’m sure. I think it’s intriguing that that little village of Cana isn’t even mentioned in the other Gospels. So John doesn’t reinvent the wheel; he basically supplements the earlier three and shows that Jesus’ earlier signs were in many ways very inconspicuous. The first one, the turning water into wine, was almost done behind the scenes. And yet, for Jewish people weddings were a time of celebration and of joy. And there is even messianic references in the Old Testament related to the end-time messianic banquet where the Messiah would come as the bridegroom and the church would be his bride. So there is this overtone where Jesus, by performing this amazing miracle that for some reason the earlier Gospels bypassed, presented himself as the messianic bridegroom.
Janet Mefferd: Yeah, which is so neat when you tie it all together, but he is emphasizing that his time has not yet come. And it’s kind of a theme, isn’t it, where the Lord is kind of pulling back the expectations of people who were trying to figure out who he really is.
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, you’re exactly right. It’s partly a matter of people having their own kinds of expectations, you see that all the way through. And then Jesus turns out to be somebody other than who people expect him to be. And I think that for us today, that same is true as well, right, that sometimes we expect Jesus, we expect God to be different that he turns out to be. And so, he challenges us to be open to the Lord’s leading in our lives, to answering prayer maybe either differently or at times, you know, with a delay. But I think there are some very perennial lessons that we can learn even today about the way Jesus is portrayed in the Gospel of John.
Janet Mefferd: Absolutely. And another theme involving signs in John 2 involves Jesus’ cleansing the temple, which is such a fascinating passage. He says, “Don’t make my Father’s house a house of trade.” But his disciples remembered, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” And the authorities asked him, “What sign will you show us for doing these things?” What is the purpose, why do they ask him that question?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yes, I think John tries to show that there was a misunderstanding. People wanted some sign of authority in the first place, because the Jewish authorities, they were really in charge of the temple area. So they were basically confronting him, saying, “What right do you have to overthrow the tables of the moneychangers and to scatter the doves and sacrificial animals?” So there is a little bit of a double meaning in that. They’re demanding a sign from Jesus, but Jesus had already given them a sign.
So Jesus, rather than giving them a sign, explains the significance of what he has just done, which is act prophetically and portrayed by his action of overthrowing those tables the fact that God would judge the temple. The temple would be destroyed. And then, the evangelist tells us, Jesus is going to be that temple, you know, that spiritual house, if you will, in and through which God’s people would render worship. And so, in the end, that temple cleansing, John tells us, points to the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection after three days.
Janet Mefferd: One of the signs we were talking about was Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. And you made a really good point, when the Jews were asking him what kind of sign are you showing us for doing these things they were kind of questioning his authority, but Jesus’ explanation was the significance of what he had done. But I think a lot of modern readers will read some of the explanations that Jesus gives to some of those same questions and say, Why was Jesus so oblique sometimes, why did he not really tell them flat-out more often, “This is what is going on, this is who I am, this is what’s coming”? Why did he answer in the way that he often did?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, that’s a mystery to some extent. And I think that one reason might be that Jesus knew that his opponents, the Jewish authorities, had already determined to reject him, partly out of turf protection, partly out of jealousy, or, you know, just lack of spiritual understanding. So he knew he couldn’t talk to them directly. Sometimes he does in the Gospel of John, and he says, “If you don’t believe in me, believe in the miracles, believe in the works I am doing.” Judge for yourselves if an ordinary man could do some of the things I’m doing. They are intelligible only to those who have a certain amount of understanding.
In John’s Gospel, there are no parables. In the other Gospels you have parables, of course, that are intelligible to those who have at least a certain amount of spiritual understanding, but, intriguingly, in John’s Gospel there are no parables. And the reason is that I think John wants to make this point that there is enough to be learned spiritually from real-life events in Jesus’ life. So, even without parables, you can just see the hidden meaning that’s accessible only to people who are open-minded to revelation and who are seekers for spiritual truth. And I think it’s still the same today.
Janet Mefferd: Well, I agree with you, and I am thinking in particular of Matthew 13, the Parable of the Sower and the Soils. Jesus explains what he means to the multitudes. And his disciples are asking, “Why are you talking in parables?” And his answer is basically, “I’m telling parables because they don’t understand. But you do.” Well, it’s interesting. That ties right into what what you were saying that he is not going to go into all kinds of detail with those who won’t believe in him. Going back to what you originally said, which is demanding signs and not accepting them is on us. That’s not on God whatsoever.
Andreas Kostenberger: Exactly. And you see that same dynamic again in the feeding of the multitude where again. They say to Jesus, “Moses brought down the manna from heaven. What are you going to do?” He had just fed the multitude. And they’re demanding for a sign, and by that reveal that they missed the sign that he just performed.
Janet Mefferd: Good point. Yes! So what do you make of Nicodemus in John 3 and his response where he says, “Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher come from God,” now this is on the heels of the signs he demonstrated in Cana, “For no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” And of course this is part of the famous passage where Jesus says, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God.” That particular passage is very interesting. How do you see that in the context of the signs of the Messiah?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think the fact that Nicodemus acknowledges those signs in Jerusalem, in the capital, suggests that the cleansing of the temple was one of the signs that Jesus performed in Jerusalem. So, then, John talks about the first sign, the turning of water into wine at Cana at the beginning of chapter 2, and then the second sign in Cana at the end of chapter 4, the healing of the centurion’s son. Those are just the enveloping, the bookends of the Cana Cycle, as it were. But then in between you have wedged several signs in Jerusalem, the temple cleansing being the main one that John chooses. Nicodemus here shows that he has some understanding that Jesus was performing those signs, but he is open, but not sufficiently spiritually attuned to figure it all out, at least at this point. We know that he returns later a couple times in the Gospel, and the third and last time he is actually burying Jesus’ body and is maybe what you might call a bit of a covert disciple” at that point. So there seems to be a certain amount of a progression when you look at the Gospel.
Janet Mefferd: Well, right, and then there is another section that you call the “Festival Cycle,” that is, chapters 5 through 10. And again, this involves healing the lame man in Jerusalem and, as you mentioned before, the feeding of the five thousand. How do these signs differ, if at all, from those in the Cana Cycle? Or how would you differentiate this period of the Festival Cycle in a different context than the Cycle Cycle?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, it’s interesting that John is such a careful author who structures the material. When you think about it, there are so many things in the three and the half years that he walked the earth in his public ministry, and John says as much at the very end of the Gospel, not even the books in the world could write everything down, and so he has to be selective. So he structures the Cycle from Cana to Cana. And then, for some reason he structures the signs in chapters 5 through 10, the second half of that “Book of Signs,” focusing on Jesus attending certain Jewish festivals: Passover, Tabernacles, and then at the end the feast of Dedication. And I think by that he shows that Jesus is really the replacement, if you will, of the Jewish festival calendar. Not that today it couldn’t be meaningful for Jews or even Christians to maybe celebrate Passover, but Jesus, of course, fulfilled the very meaning of the Passover when he gave his life on the cross for our sins as the lamb of God. So that’s the message John wants to convey.
Janet Mefferd: That’s so neat. That’s really neat. So going on chapters 11 and 12, this is the Lazarus Cycle. And one of the most amazing miracles Jesus ever performed was raising Lazarus from the dead, but that also foreshadowing his own resurrection. And we also have the anointing of Jesus, which is an interesting passage as well. What are those telling us, those particular signs that we are seeing here?
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, it’s fascinating. Lazarus is not mentioned in the first three Gospels. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, that’s a different Lazarus, as far as we know. So, Lazarus, clearly a man who had been dead for four days, and, you know, his sisters mentioned that his body is already emitting an odor. So clearly, the most stunning miracle Jesus ever performed, for whatever reason, you know, it’s only John uses that. And he is using it so strategically. He is making it the very climax, as you mentioned, the seventh and final sign, which is foreshadowing Jesus’ own resurrection, which, of course, is utterly unique. And, so, yes, this is the seventh and climactic sign. And the point is, if people still don’t believe, after that seventh, greatest sign, then they’re just so hardened in their unbelief that Jesus might as well stop performing any more messianic signs because if that doesn’t convince them, you know, nothing will.
Janet Mefferd: Right. Well, that’s interesting, and it’s funny when you look at what the chief priests and the Pharisees when they gather the Council together, said, “What are we going to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. And the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” I mean, that’s pretty transparent what their motivation is. But then you have Caiaphas, the high priest, who says, “You know nothing at all!” So that’s an interesting contrast right there.
Andreas Kostenberger: Yeah, I mean, there is that division between the people. They’re like, listen, what more will the Messiah do? But then it’s mostly the authorities who are dead set against him. And so John shows that it’s not necessarily, you know, some people accuse John of anti-Semitism, but I think that’s just totally missing the point. Because the point is not that every Jew rejected him, the twelve apostles were all Jews, right, but the fact that the Jewish leaders tragically rejected the very Messiah whom God sent to them. And so, I think, that is, at the end of chapter 12, the conclusion of what people have called the “Book of Signs.”
Janet Mefferd: Wow! Well, speaking of Caiaphas, it’s interesting and I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this, when he said that he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation only but also to gather into one the children of God who were scattered abroad, do you see this tying in to the central affirmation in the prologue?
Andreas Kostenberger: I do, and I also think this is the signal that because the Jewish authorities have determined to reject the Messiah, the result is going to be that Gentiles, non-Jews, will then also be able to be brought into the fold. In John 10, Jesus says, “I have other sheep also that I must bring. And there will be one flock and one shepherd.” And then Greeks come to Jesus, non-Jews, and they want to see him. In chapter 12, verse 20ff, Jesus responds kind of evasively, and you never know if they get to see him or not. And the idea is, I think, Jesus says, “And I, when I’m lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” Meaning all kinds of people, both Jews and Gentiles. So, you’re right, there is a movement that opens up the scope of salvation beyond the originally intended recipients of salvation to the Jewish people but then also to everyone. So that’s where the banner verse in John 3:16 comes in that “whoever” believes in Jesus can be saved.
Janet Mefferd: Yeah, that’s right. And I think you make such an excellent point that the problem ultimately is not that the Lord didn’t give people signs that he was the Messiah. Ultimately, it was that there were so many who didn’t like the signs that they were given. And that really points back to the central problem of sin that we all have that our sin and our unbelief in the Messiah ultimately is on us, not on God or his ability to give evidence for Jesus as his promised Messiah. But, what a wonderful book, Signs of the Messiah. Dr. Andreas Kostenberger, thank you so much for being with us. God bless you!