In this May 11, 2021 episode of Iron Sharpens Iron, Chris Arnzen talks with Dr. Andreas Kostenberger about his book Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel.
Note: The following transcript does not include Dr. Kostenberger’s response to listener questions.
Chris Arnzen: Good afternoon! This is Chris Arnzen, host of Iron Sharpens Iron. I’m always thrilled to have my brilliant guest today return to Iron Sharpens Iron for another interview. His name is Andreas Kostenberger, a leading evangelical scholar, prolific author, editor, or translator of close to fifty books including God, Marriage, and Family, A Theology of John’s Gospel, Excellence, and a commentary on 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
He is the editor of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, visiting fellow at St. Edmunds College in Cambridge, England, Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Director of the Center for Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and founder of Biblical Foundations. Today, we are going to be addressing his latest book, published by Lexham Press, Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. It’s my honor and privilege to welcome you back to Iron Sharpens Iron, Dr. Andreas Kostenberger.
Dr. Kostenberger: Hey, Chris. I’m thrilled to join you.
Chris Arnzen: So, why don’t you tell first of all our listeners what you are teaching there at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I know you’re on sabbatical right now and writing, but tell us about Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Dr. Kostenberger: Yes, so I teach biblical theology, hermeneutics, biblical interpretation, Johannine literature, especially John’s Gospel. I teach a class on ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, the so-called Second Temple literature, and I’m also the Director of the Center for Biblical Studies, which publishes a podcast, book notices, and other helpful resources for pastors and really anybody who is interested in the serious study of Scripture.
The Ministry of Biblical Foundations
Chris Arnzen: And tell us about this organization you have founded, Biblical Foundations.
Dr. Kostenberger: Yes, so my wife and I have been married for over thirty years. We have four children, two boys and two girls who are all grown. And we have a passion for the biblical teaching on God’s design for man and woman. And my original book, you mentioned in the introduction, which is God, Marriage, and Family, published over fifteen years ago. Ever since then, we’ve had an increasing burden to call people back to the biblical foundations on marriage and the family. We’ve also written several books on biblical parenting, including one called Equipping for Life.
And so my wife and I often speak at marriage conferences, or we do parenting workshops, because marriage and parenting are such an important part of our lives. And I feel like sometimes people don’t follow our Maker’s blueprint, and a result needlessly suffer. You know, we don’t have to make our own rules or follow our own ideas when Scripture has given us just an incredible amount of revelation on God. Marriage was his idea, and he has given us a blueprint in Scripture on how to live as husband and wife, as parents. And so we have really enjoyed that. And as you know, it’s only grown in relevance, exponentially, over the last five or ten years especially.
Chris Arnzen: Well, if anybody wants to find out more about these two organizations, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to begin with, that website is mbts.edu. And Biblical Foundations can be found at biblicalfoundations.5mt.site. Obviously, from what you’ve just told us, the Gospel of John is something that is very near and dear to your heart, as it should be for every Christian. It has so captivated you that you’ve devoted much of your study as a theologian and occupied much of your heart, mind, and time as a teacher to focus on this Gospel. What about the Gospel does so intrigue you and has captured your heart that you’ve chosen to really focus on this Gospel?
The Appeal of John’s Gospel
Dr. Kostenberger: Well, the simplicity of language and yet the profundity of theology, its high view of Jesus as divine, as God, and as a result, I think it’s just such a wonderful tool to use in evangelism and discipleship. A Church Father said that John’s Gospel is deep enough for an elephant to swim in and for a little child not to drown. I couldn’t have said it any better. It’s just a masterful book that was written, I believe, by the person who was closest to Jesus during his three-and-a-half-year earthly ministry: the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles. Actually, one of three in Jesus’ inner circle, the one who witnessed all the strategic events in Jesus’ life. And so, it’s just so vital for our faith that we can know that we can base our faith in Jesus on reliable eyewitness testimony. And I think John’s Gospel is just incredible authoritative and accurate in relation to our faith.
Chris Arnzen: Amen. And, in fact, as a Reformed Baptist, theologically Calvinistic if you will, I know that the Gospel of John, even as a tract if you were just use the information, the God-breathed information that John wrote in that Gospel, even separate from listening to Scripture, it makes a powerful tract to lead those to see and, by the guiding of the Holy Spirit understand, the doctrines of sovereign grace, would you agree?
Dr. Kostenberger: Absolutely. I think it’s not a coincidence that John’s Gospel was the number one source for the early church councils and the first creeds. Clement of Alexandria, another Church Father, called him “the spiritual Gospel,” and I think he meant that John had some penetrating insights into important doctrinal truths such as the natures of Jesus, human and divine, or the fact that he eternally preexisted with God, his deity I already mentioned, the Trinity, and on and on it goes. So John’s Gospel has just been incredibly influential even in early formulations of the Christian faith.
Primary Audience of Signs of the Messiah
Chris Arnzen: Now who would you say your primary intended audience, your readership, is for Signs of the Messiah? I think it may be somewhat misleading when people read the subtitle and think this is only an introduction to John’s Gospel. The only reason I say that is because this book will have great benefit, not only for a new believer, but also for seasoned Christians that may have overlooked some of the insights that you have in this Gospel, even if they’ve been saved for many decades.
Dr. Kostenberger: Yes, that’s a great question. And obviously, I’ve devoted almost thirty years of my scholarship to studying the Gospel of John. And so, writing this book is almost like to replicate what John has done. He uses simple language, but still conveys some profound theological truths in it. Originally, all of those chapters were presentations I gave at church workshops, either for pastors who were planning to preach on John’s Gospel, to equip them to have a good sense of the structure of the book, or some of the major theological themes, especially the seven signs of Jesus, and other serious students of Scripture.
But at the same time, I generally wanted this also to be a first introduction for someone maybe who is a seeker or who wants to have a book that helps them assess the claims of Jesus, because I think that is why John wrote his book, to persuade people that Jesus in fact was the Messiah because it was proven by some of the things he did, especially those various manifestations of his power in the various signs that he performed. And so, it is written really to anyone who loves theology, who loves Jesus, or who simply wants to assess the claims of Christ for themselves.
Part 1: Authorship, Prologue, and Cana Cycle
Chris Arnzen: Now you have this book broken up into three parts, so if you could, explain part one, which has under that heading authorship, prologue, and Cana Cycle.
Dr. Kostenberger: Yes, so, you know, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on establishing who the author was. And I think I do that in part because the authority of the book rests in no small degree on the credibility of the author, the apostle John, and also because today, there are many scholars, Chris, as you know, who deny that the apostle John actually wrote the Gospel of John. That may come as a surprise to some of our listeners, but if you’ve been at all exposed to scholarship on the Gospel, there are many today who claim the book was written by maybe a group of later Christians, sometimes called the “Johannine community,” after John had long died. And so, they would have received the Gospel second-hand, and sometimes things might change in a half-century of passing on some of the stories. And so I think it’s very vital to understand that the so-called “beloved disciple” as he calls himself in the Gospel, “the disciple Jesus loved,” was in fact none other than the apostle John.
So I spend about twenty pages or so to show that that disciple is in the Gospel paired with the apostle Peter again and again and again, at all the strategic junctures of Jesus’s ministry: in the Upper Room, at the high priest’s courtyard, at the cross, at the empty tomb, later at the resurrection appearances. And so, when you look at the historical evidence, who was that disciple who was closely aligned with the apostle Peter, clearly, it was the apostle John. Then, in Acts chapters 3 and 4, chapter 8. They are even mentioned side by side in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 2, verse 9. And so, I think it’s very important to establish, against the majority of Johannine scholarship, that the apostle John actually wrote the Gospel. So that’s where I start, and then I also spend quite a bit of time on the prologue, because, again, the prologue gives us all the major themes in the Gospel, introduces Jesus as divine, and it kind of sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel. So that’s what I focus in the first part, and then I get people started on the so-called “Book of Signs,” which is where all of Jesus’ signs are actually found in chapters 1 through 12 in John’s Gospel.
Chris Arnzen: And so, let’s stick our toes in the water, as it were, when it comes to the Cana wedding and the temple clearing, two primary texts that contain signs of Christ. I want to revisit the cleansing of the temple, or the clearing of the temple. Now I know it can’t be technically described as a miracle that Jesus did, but it is quite astounding that this one man, there is nothing in Scripture that says that Jesus Christ looked like the incredible hulk. But this one man with a whip drove out the entire temple of moneychangers. That is quite an astounding feat, is it not? Why do you think it is that these men did nothing to overpower him? What made them scatter like children?
Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, we see that repeatedly in John’s Gospel, there was a presence of Jesus, you think of his arrest, and the arresting officers basically, you know, fall facedown to the ground. So there is some spiritual power emanating from him that really transcends human explanation. And that’s part of John’s point there, that Jesus has messianic authority. And that’s important, because who had authority over the temple area? Well, it was the Sadducees, the temple authorities. So, by cleansing the temple, Jesus, implicitly and explicitly, challenged the powers that be. And so as a result, you see in John 2:18 that the people, and the Jewish authorities, are saying, “What sign will you show us for doing these things?” And, of course, this is thick Johannine irony, because as Jesus goes on to explain, he just performed a sign. And by asking for a sign, the authorities show that they missed the sign Jesus had just performed. And so rather than perform another sign, Jesus goes on to explain the significance of the temple cleansing. And he relates it to the destruction of the temple, which, we are told, is actually not the physical temple. Of course, the physical temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and this is very interesting, because John probably write after 70 AD, and so his readers would have known that Jesus could not have just been talking about the destruction of the physical temple. But he is talking about his own body. And so I believe that the occasion of John for writing this Gospel is to show the Jewish people that Jesus was the new temple. He was the replacement of the old temple that had already been destroyed. And so this is a classic case of apologetic and evangelism that exploits this void that arose from the destruction of the physical sanctuary and points people to Jesus, the spiritual temple.
Chris Arnzen: Now I have heard a very well-known Christian whom I actually view as a modern-day hero. I’m not going to say his name, because you may be in disagreement with him, maybe you won’t be. But despite of me viewing him as a hero, I really paused and wondered if he was correct on this. He said that Jesus, when he chased the moneychangers out of the temple, never actually struck anyone with the whip. His cracking of the whip, his waving of it, and his commanding voice were frightening enough to make them leave and that actually whipping would have outside of his character. Is that a correct assessment, in your opinion?
Dr. Kostenberger: Well, looking here, and, of course, I believe that John recorded is an earlier temple cleansing, because it’s in John 2, it’s at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. I think John’s Gospel is roughly chronological, while in the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the so-called “Synoptic Gospels,” those three evangelists actually record a later temple cleansing.
So I happen to believe, as quite a few scholars do, that Jesus cleansed the temple both at the beginning and at the end of his messianic ministry, at least twice. And so, to me, that tells me that Jesus pretty much every time he set foot into that temple area, something in him was just deeply perturbed by the, you know, the corruption of temple worship that, you know, the sale of sacrificial animals and the merchants making a profit out of the sale of those animals. And so, I think, in John he is simply saying in verse 15 of chapter 2, “Making a whip of cords he drove them all out of the temple area.” So, in context, I think that refers, not just to the animals, but also to the moneychangers, because they are mentioned at the end of verse 14.
So whether or not he directly whipped them out, or they got scared and ran at the moment he started wielding the whip, you know, it’s a little hard to know, but it’s in any case a powerful display on Jesus’ part of his messianic authority. In other words, he did not want the house of God to be corrupted, you know, into just a bazaar, if you will.
Chris Arnzen: Now, having said what you just said, there being a mystery behind whether he actually made physical contact with the whip and the moneychangers, you’re still open to the idea that he did actually whip some human beings?
Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, well, it’s ultimately an argument from silence. As a scholar, I’m always careful to draw inferences beyond what the text is actually saying. I think the emphasis is clearly there on the messianic authority that Jesus displays there and that he literally cleanses the temple of all that defiles the true worship of God. It says in verse 17, “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” So I think that’s John’s own commentary in that passage, just that Jesus’ passion and his zeal is just what he was struck by. And so this is not a miracle in a narrow sense as we talked about, but it is a striking display of Jesus’ messianic authority. So it is, I believe, a Johannine sign.
Part 2: The Festival Cycle
Chris Arnzen: What else do you have to share that is key to the Festival Cycle?
Dr. Kostenberger: Yes, definitely, so here we have three more signs. There is a nice symmetry to John’s presentation of signs. As I mentioned, the first three are in the Cana Cycle, and signs four through six, three more, are in the Festival Cycle, which are: the healing of the invalid who had been unable to walk for thirty-eight years; John features a lot of hard miracles. Clearly, that would a hard miracle.
Also, Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, men plus women and children, and so probably well over twenty-thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fish in chapter 6. That’s the only sign of Jesus in John’s Gospel that is also recorded in the other three Gospels, by the way. And then the sixth sign, and the third in the Festival Cycle, Jesus opens the eyes of a man who had been born blind. Now that was virtually unheard of in the ancient world.
And all of that, you know, Jesus’ healing of the sick, his opening of the eyes of the man who had been born blind, or even his raising of people from the dead fulfilled the Old Testament portrait of the coming Messiah. And so John features such a variety of messianic signs of Jesus just for people to understand that Jesus fulfilled all the varied expectations that the Old Testament prophets raised about the coming Messiah.
Chris Arnzen: Yes, and the imagery of healing when it comes to blindness, when it comes to the raising of the dead and other miracles that Jesus performed, they have such a vividly clear picture of salvation, don’t they?
Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, and, you know, John doesn’t feature any parables, which is really stunning when you think about it, you know, especially since they are so prominent in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But I think John’s point is that Jesus, in real life, opened the eyes of blind people, and so at the end of chapter 9 the Pharisees are quoted as saying, “So are we blind, too?” And so John shows the deeper spiritual meaning of Jesus’ healing of blind people.
And there is this irony that for people who know themselves to be blind, there is hope for them. And there is healing. At the same time, people who deny their spiritual blindness, there is no hope for them. And so he shows that the Jewish authorities who claim to be seeing spiritually they actually are falling short while the man who was born blind is healed by Jesus and becomes an ardent disciple, even worshipper, of Jesus, really the only one who worships Jesus prior to the resurrection in John’s Gospel.
Chris Arnzen: You know, I’ve heard, and you’ve probably heard as well, I’ve heard from non-Calvinist people who are non-Reformed and even anti-Reformed, that it would have been cruel for Jesus, in fact, it still is, in their opinion, cruel if Jesus were commanding people to do something that they were incapable of doing. And in discussions between Calvinists and Arminians there would, of course, be the issue of believing and repenting. And we who are Reformed believe in the total depravity of man, we believe that although an unregenerate person can have an intellectual belief or understanding, he cannot have a saving faith in Christ apart from the miracle of regeneration first occurring in that man’s heart.
Because the Bible is clear that no man can please God in the flesh and therefore if believing in Christ savingly and repenting are pleasing to God, you can’t do those in the flesh. But perhaps you could correct me if I’m wrong, but I have retorted to that idea of cruelty, first of all, the classic passage of Lazarus being raised from the dead. He had no choice in that matter. But even if you go to the healing of the lame man, to say to a lame man, “Take up your bed and walk,” would have been cruel, other than the fact that Jesus healed him, just as he does with an unregenerate person with regard to regenerating his heart when he tells him to repent and believe. Am I making sense here?
Dr. Kostenberger: Yeah, absolutely. And I think John talks repeatedly about God drawing people, and, you know, people are not able to come to God unless he draws them. And so, I think John puts God first. He says that God is the one who sovereignly draws people to himself. And he said even people’s unbelief confirms Scripture. I think that is the primary intent of John chapter 12, where John writes that “though Jesus had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.” So they chose not to believe. But then he says, that fulfilled the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “Lord, who has believed our message?”
And then John adds something really striking. He says, “Therefore they could not believe.” Not just that they would not believe, but they could not believe. And so I think there is a sense in which they are held responsible for something that ultimately was impossible for them. And I know my friend Don Carson wrote his dissertation on this very tricky subject of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. And ultimately, I think it’s beyond human understanding. It’s a paradox. It’s two sides of one coin. The Bible affirms both. We’re responsible, and ultimately God is sovereign.
Part 3: Conclusion to the Book of Signs and Book of Exaltation
Chris Arnzen: Let us know about the importance of the third part of the book, referring to the conclusion of the Book of Signs and the Book of Exaltation.
Dr. Kostenberger: Yes, thank you, and I really appreciate being on your show. It’s just a bit of a taste for our listeners. I’d love for them to read and get a copy of the book, Signs of the Messiah and to read for themselves. But the first two parts have three signs each, and the last part, as you mentioned, only has one sign, but what a sign it is! It’s utterly unique, the raising of Lazarus. It is the climax, it is a resurrection, which foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection. It’s not included in the three earlier Gospels. And so this is just a striking demonstration of Jesus’ messianic authority. As you know, Lazarus had been dead for four days already. His body is already emitting an odor of death. And Jesus, as he is talking to his sisters, they have given up all hope of seeing their brother alive again.
And yet, there is this long buildup in chapter 11. That’s what I love about John’s Gospel, he has those lengthy narratives. And it builds up to Jesus finally arriving at the tomb. And he tells the bystanders to take away the stone, which again makes you think of Jesus’ own empty tomb. And then he prays, and then very succinctly just commands Lazarus. He says, “Lazarus, come out!” And then, my favorite verse in all of John’s Gospel. It says, literally, “The dead man came out.” The dead man came out! And it says his hands and feet are bound with linen strips, and his face was wrapped with a cloth, so you can hardly imagine how Lazarus was able to come out. But somehow he must just have kind of like stumbled out. And Jesus tells the bystanders to unbind him and to let him go. And then the scene abruptly shifts.
And so in John’s Gospel, this is, you know, the number seven. The seventh sign, it’s the number of perfection or completion. And so after this it’s clear that there is no sign Jesus could do. If people don’t believe after seeing that sign, nothing will induce them to put their faith in Jesus. And so this is some sort of a final push to get people to come face to face with Jesus’ claims. And the one thing about John is, he is very black and white, in a good way. And so, for him, it’s all about, to believe or not to believe in Jesus. That’s ultimately the only question that matters.
And so the purpose statement says, “Jesus did many other signs that not written in this book. But these are written 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). In the other Gospels, we hear a lot about salvation. Now John distinctly uses the word “life.” Jesus is the Life-giver, just like God is the Creator and Life-giver. And so for all of us who are interested in life, even abundant life, remember that it says in John 10 that Jesus says, “I have come to give life, and to give it abundantly.” Jesus is the source of that life.
Chris Arnzen: Amen. Well, I want to thank you so much for being such an excellent guest, and I look forward to your return to this program. And I want to remind all of you that Jesus is a far greater Savior than you are a sinner.
Dr. Kostenberger: Amen. Thank you.