Signs of the Messiah: An Interview
On April 17, 2021, Andreas Kostenberger talked with Dale Moreau on the Understand the God Who Speaks podcast about his book Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. You can read a description of the salient points here.
Dale Moreau: Hello, my name is Dale Moreau. I’m founder of Understand the God Who Speaks. Today we have Dr. Andreas J. Kostenberger. He has a PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the Director of the Center for Biblical Studies and Research Professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a prolific author and distinguished evangelical scholar as well as speaker and served as the editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society for twenty-two years. He also founded Biblical Foundations, which is a ministry devoted to restoring the biblical foundations of the home and the church. Dr. Kostenberger and his wife have four children.
And one of the new books he has come out with recently is Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. I have read that. I really suggest you get it. Also, he has done other books, but three three I have really enjoyed were Encountering John, Father, Son, and Spirit (with Scott Swain), and A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. I really suggest you get all those books by him. In fact, he is a prolific evangelical writer. And so, today, Dr. Kostenberger is going to bless us with his wisdom on John, especially the signs that you find in the first twelve chapters of John’s Gospel. So, Dr. Kostenberger, I’ll turn it over to you.
Dr. Kostenberger: Well, thank you very much. It’s a wonderful opportunity to share some of my love for God’s Word and specifically John’s Gospel. It’s a wonderful Gospel, and one of the Church Fathers said that it is deep enough for an elephant to swim in and shallow enough for a child not to drown. And so, I just love the fact that John really is very simple in his presentation and his language but so profound theologically. And I think as you mentioned, focusing on the seven signs of Jesus today as an entryway into John’s theology, we’ll see that simplicity and yet great profundity at work. So, today, I want to raise and answer a few very important questions about John’s Gospel.
First, who is the author? I’m going to spend a little bit of time on that.
Second, what is John’s purpose? Why did he write his Gospel?
And then, third, what are signs? What is the idea behind that? You think of a road sign; it points to the next exit, or it points to a highway. What do the signs in John point to? And then specifically, what are the seven signs that John carefully curated and selected to convince his readers that Jesus is in fact the Messiah.
Who Wrote John’s Gospel?
So, first, let’s take a look at the authorship of John’s Gospel. So today, as you probably know, there are many scholars, critical scholars, who dispute and deny that the apostle John, he son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve, was the author of John’s Gospel. And, you know, some say, well, we still have the text of John’s Gospel, it doesn’t really matter so much who wrote it. And so, I respectfully disagree with that. I think it is very important. The credibility and accuracy of a given piece of writing depends to a great deal on the credibility of the author himself. And so we talk about, you mentioned I wrote a book about this, John’s theology. And so, the important question is, whose theology are we talking about? You know, so we need to spend a little bit of time on that.
As a matter of fact, in the book, Signs of the Messiah, I have about twenty pages just on that question. Because, I feel like, before you talk about anything else, you first need to conclusively address, and hopefully settle compellingly, the question, who wrote John’s Gospel in the first place? And I sometimes feel like a voice crying in the wilderness among my scholarly colleagues today because, like I said, very few still believe that the apostle John wrote the Gospel. I think there is abundant evidence that he did. And I think the reason why many have rejected it is not because of lack of evidence but for other, illegitimate reasons such as some sort of a general rejection of traditional viewpoints out of a suspicion toward anything the church has traditionally affirmed. You know, there is this kind of conspiracy theory that the church has just kind of kept the truth down and suppressed the evidence.
Well, we’ll look at the evidence right now, and we’ll see for ourselves, what does the internal evidence suggest? Meaning, looking at the Gospel itself, and the claims established in the text of John’s Gospel itself, and then we’ll take a quick look at the external evidence. Often people start with the external evidence, meaning what the Church Fathers have said about the Gospel, and then only secondly look at the internal evidence. But, I think the internal evidence is actually the more important one, because it’s grounded actually in the text of Scripture, so we’re going to start there and spend the majority of our time there.
So, looking at the internal evidence then, first, we’ll want to point out that John’s Gospel is, of course, a Gospel, a universal document written to anyone who would examine the claims of Jesus himself. So, it doesn’t start with, “I, John, write this Gospel.” Of course, none of the Gospels does, which wasn’t expected. We have a title, “The Gospel according to John,” and so I would argue that there is only one person in the biblical material where you could just mention the name “John” without any further description and you could say, “Well, which John are we talking about?” And then the only person people legitimately could have thought of is John the son of Zebedee the member of the Twelve. And the titles were very early, so they are not technically part of the biblical text, but they are very important evidence as to what the church has believed. So, the first major piece of information that we learn about the author in the Gospel of John is that the author calls himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Sometimes people abbreviate it and say, “the beloved disciple.”
The Beloved Disciple
And let me give you some of the key places where the author puts himself in the narrative of the story of Jesus. He is in the Upper Room at the Last Supper on Jesus’s side in John 13:23. He is in high priest’s courtyard after Jesus’s arrest in 18:15–16. He is at the scene of the crucifixion (19:35). He is at the empty tomb (20:2, 8–9). He is at the Sea of Galilee with the risen Jesus (21:7). And finally, he is conversing with Jesus and Peter about his own and Peter’s respective callings (21:20–23). So we see that, according to the author, he was with Jesus at all the strategic junctures of his ministry. He was an insider. He was part of the action, and he observed it first-hand.
Paired with Peter
Now another interesting piece of evidence that’s very closely related and fascinating is that the beloved disciple is consistently praised with the apostle Peter. In the Upper Room, as you might recall, Peter asks the beloved disciple who betrayer is, because the beloved disciple was sitting closer to Jesus than Peter was. In the high priest’s courtyard, Peter is asking the beloved disciple to gain him access because the beloved disciple knows the high priest. At the empty tomb, the beloved disciple outruns Peter but waits for him out of respect, presumably because he was older and had more respect among the disciples. The beloved disciple, according to tradition, was probably one of the youngest members of the Twelve. Some of the early drawings depict him as a teenager.
So, in any case, he outruns Peter, he is faster than Peter, but he waits for him as at the empty tomb. At the Sea of Galilee, again, the beloved disciple and Peter both are among those seven who go fishing there. But it’s the beloved disciple who recognizes Jesus first. Then, you may remember, he says, “It’s the Lord!” And at that moment then Peter jumps into the lake and swims toward Jesus. And I already mentioned, finally, Jesus has that closing conversation with Peter and the beloved disciple as to their respective callings. Peter would die a martyr’s death, Jesus predicts, while he beloved disciple will bear witness to him. And so, really strikingly, you see the juxtaposition of the beloved disciple and Peter, especially in the second half of John’s Gospel.
And so you ask yourself, who was it who, according to Scripture, was consistently paired with Peter in ministry? And so you look at, say, Acts chapters 3 and 4, or chapter 8, where you see Peter and John paired up going to the temple at the hour of prayer and then the healing takes place, and then they witness before the Sanhedrin. And later, both are called to verify the coming of the Spirit on the Samaritans. And so you see them paired together. In Galatians chapter 2, verse 9, Paul refers to Peter, John, and James as “the pillars.” So you have to ask yourself, who else but the apostle John would have been consistently featured alongside Peter in John’s Gospel? So, of course, all of this perfectly fits with the apostle John being the author of John’s Gospel.
Now at this time, somebody may ask, why did the author not just call himself by the name of John? Why this indirect reference referring to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved”? And I think the answer, in short, as far as I’ve been able to determine, is that the name “John” is reserved in the Gospel for John the Baptist. Remember that in the Prologue, chapter 1, verse 6, it says, “There was a man sent from God; his name was John”: John the Baptist. And so I think to avoid confusion, and so as not to always having to say which John he is talking about, John just removes any possibility of confusion and just creates this epithet for himself, “the disciple Jesus loved.”
And it’s just a perfect description of John’s theology, because he has been called “the apostle of love.” His focus is on “God so loved the world,” the signature verse in John’s Gospel, John 3:16. And so, for him to say if I can only say one thing about God and my relationship with the Lord it’s that God loves me. And so, it’s just a perfect shorthand to refer to himself in an unequivocal way as the author of John’s Gospel without using his name.
And, by the way, there is something similar going on with Mary, which is a very common name in the first century. Richard Bauckham did an extensive study of names in first-century Palestine, and he concluded that, incredibly, about thirty percent of all women in first-century Palestine were named Mary. And so you always had to say, “Mary the sister of so-and-so, and Mary from Magdala, or some other description.” So, again, John had his hands full. We know that there were several Marys in the Gospels mentioned at different times, most notably Mary the mother of Jesus and also Mary Magdalene, who was the first one to see the risen Jesus. And so what John does in her case is, he never mentions the name Mary in conjunction with Jesus’s mother; he just refers to her as “the mother of Jesus,” like in chapter 2 at the wedding at Cana. Well, pretty much all his readers knew what the name of Jesus’s mother was anyway.
So when John refers to Mary Magdalene in John 20, he simply calls her “Mary.” And so, again, there is no confusion in the Gospel. Just as the name John is reserved for the Baptist, the name Mary is reserved for Mary Magdalene. And, just like in the case of Jesus’ mother, whom he simply calls “the mother of Jesus,” in his own case he refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
To conclude my argument on authorship, I would say there is just nobody better to give an intimate account of who Jesus was including his deity. Not only was John one of the Twelve, he was also one of only three in Jesus’ inner circle, together with Peter and John’s brother James. And it’s only those three, not only the remaining members of the Twelve, who witnessed key events in Jesus’ ministry, such as the Transfiguration, Jesus’ final prayer in Gethsemane, or the raising of Jairus’s daughter, one of only three raisings. And so, you see that John was uniquely positioned to report as an eyewitness on these events.
And this is not even just me saying that, John himself in the Gospel indirectly stakes the claim that he was uniquely qualified to write the story of Jesus. And that verbal parallel is this. In John chapter 1, verse 18, John writes that Jesus was “at God the Father’s side.” He says, “No one has ever seen God. The only God who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Meaning Jesus was in a unique position, because he was himself God, eternally linked with God the Father. There was nobody better than Jesus to report to us who God the Father is. And later, Jesus would say to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
And so then, moving on to John 13, verse 23, the beloved disciple, and this is the first time that the beloved disciple is mentioned in the Gospel, it says there, “One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’s side.” And again, in the original Greek it’s even more obvious. It’s the exact same Greek phrase, “at his side,” and so you see there that both at the beginning of the first part of John’s Gospel, and now at the beginning of the second part of John’s Gospel, there is this verbal parallel between Jesus’ closeness to the Father and his ability to reveal the Father uniquely like nobody else could. And then here in chapter 13, you see the reference to the beloved disciple being closer to Jesus than anyone else and as a result him being able to reveal the true identity and messianic calling of Jesus.
Dale Moreau: Dr. Kostenberger, let me ask you this. We have the internal evidence in John’s Gospel that it was the apostle John. I agree. Does this also mean that since he uses words like, “God is love, light, etc.,” and since he uses that also in 1, 2, and 3 John, and Revelation, that means that, too, he was the author of those books as well? Would that be a fair assessment?
Dr. Kostenberger: I think that’s very fair. There is such a stylistic similarity, very seamless transition between the Gospel and letters, especially 1 John, which I think was likely written to address any challenges to the central claim in John’s Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God. There were some people who were denying that, and so John writes that letter to refute that false teaching. And even in Revelation, which obviously is a different type of book, but you still have some remarkable similarities, such as that Jesus is presented as the Word of God, you know, or as the one who was pierced, people were looking on the one who was pierced. There is an allusion to that both in John’s passion narrative in John 19 and then in Revelation 1. It opens with that description and, you know, there are many other commonalities, such as the simplicity of style. And in Revelation you specifically have a reference to John, by name, as being the recipient of those visions. I think sometimes people are confused because, you know, John is functioning as an apostle in the Gospel, he is functioning as the elder in the letters, and he is functioning as a seer in Revelation. But, clearly, he is the same person. He just has different roles. Yeah, so that’s a great question. We have this body of writings in Scripture where we have one Gospel, three letters, and one apocalypse. So, John made just a massive contribution even beyond John’s Gospel. I’m very glad you brought that out. But, you know, as I mentioned, the bottom line is, there was just nobody better who could witness to Jesus and reveal his true identity than the beloved disciple, who was none other than the apostle John, who was closer to Jesus during his earthly ministry than anyone else. Even Peter, and that tells you something, because he was the spokesman and the one to whom were given the keys to the kingdom. But when it comes to insight into Jesus’ true identity, John was second to none, including Peter.
I mentioned earlier the external evidence we can use as some sort of a seconding of the motion that was made by the internal evidence. And, you know, to give you just one or two of the most pertinent quotes, Irenaeus of Lyons (AD 130-200), who was one of the most notable early Church Fathers, he wrote this famous book Against Heresies, where he talks about the fact that there are four Gospels just like there are four winds and four corners of the earth.
And he wrote, “John the disciple of the Lord, who leaned back on his chest (which is an unmistakable allusion to John’s first mention in the Upper Room), published the Gospel while he was a resident at Ephesus in Asia” (Heresies 3.1.2). And what’s so important about that witness is that Irenaeus was student of Polycarp, who was student of John himself. So you have this direct connection that he had with John. So this is not just hearsay, but he heard it from John’s own student.
And Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215) also wrote, “Last of all, John … composed a spiritual Gospel” (cited by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.7), again, the apostle John. I think the idea of “spiritual Gospel” is kind of a nice segue to what we are going to talk about next. I think what he meant by that John is a theologically unusually profound Gospel, that John had some penetrating insights about who Jesus was, especially in relation to God, that he was God himself, and that he performed seven striking, startling signs that unmistakably revealed his identity as the Messiah.
So, let’s maybe now turn to the contents of the Gospel written by John the apostle and particularly to the signs of the Messiah. And, really, there is no better place to start than the purpose statement, right. And John has blessed us with a clear, explicit statement as to his purpose at the end of chapter 20, where he writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs.” So, again, you see, that’s my warrant for giving priority to the signs in John’s Gospel. “Now Jesus did many other signs,” so, again, the seven are just a small selection, “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 not only that, also the conclusion to the Book of Signs at the end of chapter 12 mentions the signs prominently as well. It says there, “Though Jesus had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him …” (John 12:37). And so, clearly, the signs were kind of like the primary mode of revelation for Jesus, even though, of course, he also taught very eloquently in the Johannine discourses. John writes about him being the good shepherd, about him being the vine, and so forth, but first and foremost John points to those signs that Jesus did.
What Is a Sign?
Now, that raises the obvious question: What is a sign? And I already mentioned earlier, today, you think of a road sign. I once was driving down a highway and there was this billboard up on the right side I saw it out of the corner of my eye. And it said to potential advertisers: Looking for a sign? Here it is! And I was laughing, because it’s just a great wordplay, if you will, right? You’re looking for a sign? Well, literally, here is a sign you can take and use to advertise your product. But in John’s case, what he is saying is, so there is the actual sign, but the sign points to something else beyond itself, right? If you’re driving down the highway and it says, you know, whatever the next exit is, you don’t take the sign off or just look at it, you’re following the directions.
Dale Moreau: Would that be like a typology, a sign? A typology, in my definition, would be a wordless prophetic event, I guess.
Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, it is, well, it’s close to a typology in the sense that it is a, what some might call sign-ificance, if you will, that points beyond itself. So in that sense, yes, it’s similar to a type, to convey who Jesus truly is. I think that’s just so important to understand. You know, scholars talk a lot about why is John so different from the other Gospels? And I think that one thing you see there is that in the other Gospels, Jesus’s works are essentially presented as miracles. The Greek word there would be dynamis. And again, we talk about “dynamic” and “dynamite,” and so you see the idea of power behind that, and so they focus primarily on the fact that Jesus was very powerful. He could overturn actual laws, he had authority over nature, calm a storm miraculously by his mere word. He could heal the sick, he could even raise the dead on occasion.
So John does not deny that. To the contrary, he fully agrees and he recognizes that. But in addition, and that’s why John is the spiritual Gospel, he has this penetrating insight into the nature of a miracle, which means that if people are only the physical, material benefits of a miracle, then the full purpose of the sign hasn’t yet been accomplished in them. In other words, the multitudes who ate the loaves and the fish, right, but didn’t believe in Jesus, the Bread of Life, they benefitted for a day, but then they got hungry again, right?
Or, you have this fascinating comparison in John between the lame man in chapter 5 who was healed by Jesus. He was lame for thirty-eight years. And then the man in chapter 9, who was also healed by Jesus, both on a Sabbath, by the way, so John purposely wants us to compare the two, and so, as I mentioned, there are a lot of similarities between the healings, but the critical difference is that the lame man did not believe in Jesus. To the contrary, he reports Jesus to the authorities and in the end just kind of walks off and is never heard from again.
The man born blind, on the other hand, after the healing is gradually becoming a spokesman for Jesus and is getting into trouble with the authorities. He is expelled from the synagogue, you know, his parents distance themselves from him, and in the end he falls down and worships Jesus, the only person prior to Thomas after the resurrection in John’s Gospel who worships Jesus. Remarkable! So the contrast between both recipients of the healing, right, the lame man and the man born blind, couldn’t be more striking. So it all comes down, not to the healing, but to how people respond to it.
And so that is just a fascinating study in contrasts. And so based on that premise John is basically transforming the Synoptic miracles into messianic signs. It’s a different Greek word, semeion rather than dynamis. And so he is selecting seven particularly striking signs to make his case. And, again, probably many of our listeners will know what those signs are. So I can maybe briefly mention them (I have a chart on page 35 of the Signs of the Messiah).
The Seven Messianic Signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel
Cana Cycle (2–4)
1. Turns water into wine at a wedding (2:1–11)
2. Clears the Jerusalem temple (2:13–22)
3. Heals royal official’s son long-distance (4:46–54)
Festival Cycle (5–10)
4. Heals man who had been unable to walk for thirty-eight years (5:1–15)
5. Feeds five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish (6)
6. Opens the eyes of a man who had been born blind (9)
Lazarus Cycle (11–12)
7. Raise a man, Lazarus, back to life who had been dead for four days (11)
Note: At this point in the interview, Dr. Kostenberger provides a running commentary of the seven signs that is not reproduced in this transcript. Dr. Kostenberger here also fields several questions by Dale Moreau. The podcast ends as follows:
Dale Moreau: The signs show Jesus to be the Messiah.
Dr. Kostenberger: The seven signs of the Messiah were given especially for the Jewish people, because Jesus came to offer the kingdom, he came to bring salvation first and foremost to the Jewish people. But then, beyond that, remember the Greeks are on the horizon already in John 12:20, they want to see Jesus. And he says, “Well, when I’m lifted up, I will draw all people, Jews as well as non-Jews, to myself.” Of course, that’s referring to the cross.
Dale Moreau: Thank you so much, Dr. Kostenberger. I’d love to have you back. To my listeners, I recommend you read Dr. Köstenberger’s Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. Have this book beside you as you read through John’s Gospel. The book can serve as a companion illuminating John’s core message. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that you might believe and have eternal life. Signs of the Messiah in John’s Gospel make it come alive.
You can listen to the entire hour-long podcast, including Dr. Kostenberger’s responses to several of Dale Moreau’s questions toward the end of the podcast, Christ’s Signs, Our Faith Signs of the Messiah Conversation New Books: Signs of the Messiah Exploring Signs of the Messiah