In Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel (Lexham Press, 2021), Andreas J. Köstenberger—veteran New Testament scholar and expert on the Gospel of John—guides readers through John and highlights its plot and message. John’s Gospel is written to inspire faith in Jesus. By keeping the Gospel’s big picture in view, readers will see Jesus’ mighty signs and choose to trust more fully in the Messiah. Readers will have a deeper grasp of John’s message and intent through this short and accessible introduction. This post features the New Books in Biblical Studies Podcast: Signs of the Messiah.
Note: The following is not a transcript, but notes for this interview. In general, the interview was conducted along the following lines.
How did you become a scholar?
Well, I grew up Roman Catholic in Vienna, Austria, and only became a Christian in my early twenties. Almost immediately after my conversion, I became interested in getting theological training. I had never read the Bible prior to age 23, and I realized I had a lot to learn, a lot to catch up on. So, at age 27, I went to Columbia Biblical Seminary (today Columbia International University), where I got my Master of Divinity degree. That’s where I learned my Greek and Hebrew, and developed some strong convictions about the importance of hermeneutics, studying Scripture, if possible, in the biblical languages and following proper rules of biblical interpretation, and decided to pursue a career in teaching and writing.
I got my Ph.D. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (now Trinity International University), where, I studied under the renowned scholar D. A. Carson and wrote my dissertation there in the 90s on the mission theme in John’s Gospel, esp. John 20:21: “As the Father sent me, I am sending you.” Since then, for the last 25 years, I’ve been teaching New Testament, biblical theology, Greek, hermeneutics, and Johannine literature, at various schools, most recently, as you mentioned, at Midwestern Seminary, where I am also the director of the Center of Biblical Studies.
What led you to write this book?
Yes, well, every book has a story, and this book is no different. The immediate occasion were several chapel addresses and lectures I gave at Midwestern Seminary for a pastor’s workshop. When the last set of lectures were likely to be canceled because of the pandemic, I decided to write those up for publication and to publish all nine lectures in revised form in Signs of the Messiah.
My purpose in preparing these lectures was to equip pastors who are preaching through John’s Gospel with a basic sense of the historical background, literary structure, and theological message of the book. Also, I wanted to provide a simple, accessible introduction to John’s Gospel for believers and even unbelievers who are interested in assessing the claims of Christ for themselves. As you mentioned, I’ve worked on John’s Gospel for over 30 years now, and this book distils my work in a popular, readable format, hopefully without sacrificing scholarly accuracy or academic responsibility.
You begin by establishing authorship. In your view, how does the question of authorship help us understand the Gospel of John?
Yes, I think you’d probably agree that it’s a matter of common sense that generally knowing the author of a given piece of writing is very helpful, if not essential, for interpreting it correctly, and John’s Gospel is no exception. The church has believed for almost two millennia, that the author was John, the son of Zebedee, a member of the twelve apostles and who was also one of three in Jesus’s inner circle along with his brother James and the apostle Peter. But then, in the late 1700s and early 1800s some scholars expressed doubts regarding the apostolic authorship of John’s Gospel, not because of lack of evidence, but due to personal bias and in some cases a general anti-establishment sentiment. Anything the church traditionally believed was suspect and in need of critical review. Today, very few scholars hold to apostolic authorship.
In the book, I spend the better part of chapter 1, about 20 pages, defending the apostolic authorship of John’s Gospel, because I believe it matters a great deal whether the Gospel was written by the person closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry, an eyewitness to all the major events in Jesus’s life, or a group of John’s students subsequent to his death (the so-called “Johannine community”). I take a close look at the internal evidence (the data from the Gospel itself) and show that the author of John’s Gospel, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” consistently joins in ministry with Peter, just as he is in Acts 3-4, Acts 8, and Galatians 2:9. I show conclusively that the internal and external evidence agree that the author is the apostle John.
So, when the question arises as to what John’s theology is (which the rest of the book deals with, esp. his theology of signs), it is important to know what John we are talking about: that of a group of virtual unknowns or the apostle who was closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry and who can give us firsthand information about important events in Jesus’s life, such as the Last Supper, Jesus’s arrest and Jewish and Roman trials, the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and the resurrection appearances. In this way, the question of authorship is vital in assessing the accuracy and credibility of John’s Gospel and what it tells us about the person and work of Jesus.
Then, you cover the “Cana Cycle” in two parts (John 2 & 3–4). What is important to know about this section in John as it relates to Jesus’ signs?
Yes, so let me first tell you a bit about the importance of signs in John’s Gospel in general. You can see this already in John’s purpose statement which says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book, but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31). And at the end of the Book of Signs (chs. 2–12), John writes, “Though [Jesus] had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him …” (John 12:37). So, you can see that Jesus’s messianic signs form the backbone of John’s Gospel, especially in the first half of the Gospel.
Now just briefly, what is a sign? Essentially, a sign is a public act of Jesus that points beyond itself to who Jesus is. For example, his feeding of the multitude shows that Jesus himself is the life-giving bread, he is the bread of life. In the three earlier, synoptic Gospels, the only sign Jesus is prepared to give is the “sign of Jonah,” which relates to Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection after 3 days. But then John comes along, writing a generation after the Synoptics, and transforms the Synoptic notion of a miracle into that of a messianic sign. According to John, what matters most is not the miracle itself (Jesus’s striking display of power) but its messianic significance, the way in which the public act of Jesus reveals his identity as the Messiah and Son of God.
When you think about it, people could be the recipients and beneficiaries of one of Jesus’s miracles and yet fail to grasp their true significance, namely that it showed Jesus to be the Messiah. In that case, the purpose of the sign was not accomplished and people persisted in unbelief. To make this point repeatedly, John selects 7 public acts of Jesus in the first half of his Gospel and designates them as signs.
The first literary unit in the first half of John’s Gospel is the Cana Cycle, which shows Jesus engage in a cycle of ministry beginning and ending in the little village of Cana in northern Galilee. There, he turns water into wine at a wedding (ch. 2) and later heals a royal official’s son (end of ch. 4). In between, he cleanses the Jerusalem temple, one of his Jerusalem signs (end of ch. 2; cf. 2:23; 3:2).
People sometimes wonder if the temple cleansing is a Johannine sign because it is not miraculous and also because it intervenes between the first and the second sign in Cana. But I would argue that we see in the Old Testament that there are not only the signs and wonders performed by Moses during the exodus from Egypt but also prophetic signs such as those performed by the prophet Isaiah. At one time, Isaiah walked about stripped down to his undergarments to convey the message of God’s future judgment on Israel in form of the Babylonian exile (Isa. 20:3).
So you see, a sign can be a symbolic public act that need not necessarily be miraculous in nature, and I believe the temple cleansing is just such an act. By clearing the temple, Jesus shows symbolically that the temple will be destroyed and rebuilt – ultimately not the physical temple but the temple of his body: He will be crucified and after three days rise again (2:20).
Tackling the “Festival Cycle” (John 5–10) in three parts, what characterizes this section of John’s presentation of Jesus and his signs?
Yes, so scholars customarily refer to the second major literary unit in John’s Gospel following the Cana Cycle customarily as the Festival Cycle, because here John shows Jesus attend a series of Jewish festivals such as an unnamed feast (ch. 5), Passover (ch. 6), Tabernacles (chs. 7-8), and then Dedication (ch. 10; also known as Hanukkah).
And just like the Cana Cycle, the Festival Cycle contains 3 signs: the healing of the lame man who had an invalid for 38 years (ch. 5), the feeding of the 5,000 (ch. 6), the only sign included in all 4 Gospels (so even though John typically does not repeat information in the earlier 3 Gospels, here he adds the extended bread of life discourse, where Jesus elaborates on the significance of the miracle he performed, namely that Jesus is the life-giving bread) and the striking healing of the man born blind (ch. 9).
Now what is interesting here, and what I discuss at some length in the book, is that John contrasts the healed men in chs. 5 and 9 to illustrate the importance of a proper response to Jesus’s signs. While the lame man in ch. 5 shows no sign of repentance (as a matter of fact, he reports Jesus to the authorities and walks off in utter disbelief despite the healing he received), the man in ch. 9 gradually warms up to Jesus’s claims and even becomes his disciple and worships him – a remarkable transformation.
As a result, he pays a price: The authorities cast him out of the synagogue, and his parents distance themselves from him out of fear of the Jewish authorities. And so the man epitomizes a proper response to Jesus’s signs while the invalid epitomizes an unbelieving response. In this way John uses the various beneficiaries as representative characters that model a proper or improper response to Jesus’s messianic signs.
The final part of this book includes the “Conclusion to the Book of Signs” (John 11–12) as well as the “Book of Exaltation” (John 13–21). How are Jesus’ signs important for understanding these chapters?
Yes, that’s a great question, and I believe there is no additional sign in John 13-21, because the crucifixion and resurrection are the reality to which all of Jesus’s signs point. John 11-12 fulfill a bridge function between the Book of Signs and the Book of Exaltation. In this third and final section of the first half of John’s Gospel we only find one more sign, the climactic seventh sign of the raising of Lazarus. This sign is unique in that it is the only raising from the dead in John’s Gospel (and one of only 3 in any of the Gospels), which prefigures and anticipates Jesus’s own resurrection.
In this way, John shows that Jesus is the resurrection and the life (sometimes “I am” sayings are linked with Jesus’s messianic signs). John takes great care in arranging Jesus’s messianic signs. He features 3 signs each in the Cana and Festival Cycles and then concludes the book of Signs with Jesus’s seventh and final sign, which stands on its own and is climactic also in the signs that if people don’t believe in a Messiah who can raise a man who has been dead for 4 days, nothing will likely convince them, not to mention that 7 is the perfect number of completeness.
Taken together, these signs furnish abundant and compelling evidence that Jesus is the Messiah. Just as prophets such as Isaiah predicted, the Messiah would heal the lame, open the eyes of the blind, and even raise the dead. John shows that Jesus did all of that, so this proves conclusively and compellingly that he is the Messiah. Just like the author of Hebrews says, how can anyone neglect such a great salvation, so John asks, how can anyone disregard such compelling evidence that Jesus is the Messiah? And the way he makes this point is by parading in front of the reader’s eyes a series of messianic signs of Jesus.
On the whole, therefore, we see that Jesus’s 7 messianic signs are all found in John 2-12, the first half of John’s Gospel. The reason is that these signs were primarily for the Jews to prove to them that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Once they’ve resolved to reject Jesus’s messianic signs at the end of chapter 12, Jesus focuses on preparing his new messianic community, a believing remnant, for their mission to the world. What is fascinating is that the passion narrative starts already in chapter 13 where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet as a demonstration of his perfect love for them.
He also instructs them about the coming Holy Spirit and prepares them for a time when he will no longer be physically with them. It’s interesting that John focuses not so much on Jesus’s actual suffering as on the glory that is on display when he gives his life for us on the cross. So, altogether, we see how the 7 signs of Jesus all contribute to open up salvation for all, just as John writes in his well-known verse, “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
What is your next publishing project?
I’m on sabbatical this year, and am currently working on a biblical theology for Crossway with an OT collaborator, Gregory Goswell, who teaches at Christ College in Sidney, Australia. After this, I am planning to write a major commentary on John’s Gospel for Lexham’s Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series of which I also serve as the New Testament editor.
Note: For a related post, see “Why Did John Write His Gospel?”