Jesus on Trial: An Excerpt

[Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the book entitled Jesus on Trial: The Unique Presentation of Jesus in the Gospel of John by Dr. Eric Wallace.]


The proper setting of testimony is a court of law, in which various and diverse witnesses are called to “tell what happened,” to give their version of what is true. In any trial situation the evidence given by witnesses is a mixed matter of memory, reconstruction, imagination, and wish. The court must then determine, with no other data except testimony, which version is reality. It is on the basis of the testimony that the court reaches what is real.[1]

In each of the four Gospels, Jesus comes into conflict with those who are identified as “the rulers of the Jews,” yet it is only in the Gospel of John that the conflict unfurls like a courtroom trial. John presents a number of witnesses who testify concerning the identity of Jesus. The witness of the prologue, the witness of John the Baptist, and the witness of the disciples comprise the first chapter. Under the scrutiny of the Jewish leadership, Jesus is accused of being a law breaker, a false prophet and, before Pilate, a usurper of Caesar’s authority. As the trial develops, a reversal takes place. Those who are the accusers become the accused. The one who is being judged becomes the judge. The key to understanding this turn of events is found in the story of the healing of the lame man on the Sabbath and the conversation which follows in John 5:31-47. This scene is the catalyst for the trial motif in John.         

In John 5, the Jewish leadership is put on trial. Jesus mentions four witnesses that testify on his behalf:  John the Baptist, the works Jesus does, the Father, and the Scriptures (5:36-37). He then declares that he does not accuse the Jewish leadership, but that Moses does. Moses wrote about Jesus, but because they do not believe what he wrote, they cannot comprehend what Jesus says. The guardians of the faith have not recognized the traditions that would point them to Jesus. In the passion narrative, the trial of Jesus is inverted once again so that Pilate appears to be the one on trial.  John’s trial motif culminates in the acquittal of Jesus demonstrated in the resurrection and announced in the confession of Thomas that Jesus is Lord and God (20:28), as well as the statement of purpose in 20:30. 

The trial motif lays the foundation for the testimony of the Father, the works Jesus does, and the Scriptures. It is the backdrop for identifying Jesus as the Prophet, Messiah, and Son of God.

The motif of trial or “lawsuit,”as it is sometimes called, has been well documented in studies of the Gospel of John.2   It has been noted that the vocabulary in John is atypical of that found in other Gospels.3Notably, the noun “witness” or “testimony,” (14 times) and the verb “to witness or give testimony,” (32 times) occur with great frequency. Regular appearances of the noun “judgment,”(11 times) and the verb “to judge,” (19 times), along with other less frequent legal terms, also give the Fourth Gospel a judicial flavor unlike that of the other Gospels. 

Chapters 1-4 give the reader a glimpse as to who Jesus is and where he is from. Thus, giving the reader an inside scoop on the questions and conversations that arise later in the text. The trial will begin in chapter five with the reader already aware of Jesus’ special relationship with the Father.   

The trial in John unfolds in five principal sections: The Pre-trial (John 1– 4); the Trial (John 5–12); the Deliberation /Sequestration (John 13–17); the Verdict (John 18–19); and the Acquittal (John 20–21)]. For the purpose of this article we will examine only the first section. As the trial motif plays itself out, ultimately, the readers become the jurors. The courtroom is in first century Palestine. The testimony is that of the author of John, who reports the testimony of an eyewitness. The question placed before the reader is: Will you continue to believe that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God?

The Pre-trial Witnesses: John 1–4

A number of witnesses appear in John’s Gospel before the trial actually begins. In the first four chapters of John, the evangelist lays the foundation for the events that unfold during the core of the trial. In this pre-trial phase of the narrative the author gives the reader a glimpse of what is to come.

The Prologue (1:1-18)

Much has been written about the form, function and source of John’s distinctive prologue. Our specific intention is to examine the prologue in terms of its function as a witness within the trial. Attention to structure will assist us in this task. Some scholars have discerned the presence of a chiasm4in John’s prologue. For example, P. Borgen proposes the following structure:    

A. The Word and God (1:1-2)      

          B. All things made by him [the Creator] (3)        

                      C [He] is the light of all men (4-5)

                      C’ The witness of the Light (6-9)   

          B’ The creation rejects the Creator (10-13)          

A’ The Word reveals God in the flesh (14-18).5

The first three divisions of the text (A, B, C) identify the one whom God sent into the world. That “one” is identified as the Word that became flesh.7John claims that the Word was in the beginning, was with God, and was God (1:1-2). The Wordwas the source of creation (v. 3), life (v. 4), and of light for everyone (v. 4). The Wordwas opposed by darkness, but darkness could neither overcome it nor comprehend it (v. 5). 

            The next three divisions (A’, B’, C’) speak of what happened once the one sent from God entered human history. God sent John to bear witness to the light (vv. 6-9). The world that was created by the Word did not know him or recognize him (v. 10). He came to his own people but they did not receive or associate with him. The Word, that became flesh, is rejected by his own people. But to everyone who understood him, or received him, he gave the authority to become children of God (vv. 11-12). This was God’s will (v. 13).The last division (A’) relates how the Word made God known. The Word became flesh, and dwelt or pitched a tent among us. We beheld his glory as of the only begotten Son of God, “full of grace and truth” (v. 14), and we all “from his fullness received grace upon grace” (v. 16). Through Moses the law was given; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (v. 17). No one has ever seen God. The only begotten Son, God (or God the only Son) who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known (v. 18). These verses clearly testify that the pre-existent Word, the agent of creation, has become flesh in the person of Jesus. The author ties John 1:1-4 to the Genesis creation account. The agent of creation has come to earth. He comes as the Son of God to bear witness about the Father. The prologue thus bears witness to Jesus’ unique relationship to God and humankind. This unique relationship of the Son to the Father thus highlights the Son’s unique testimony about the Father (1:18). He comes like Moses, who bore the law, except his revelation surpasses Moses’, for Jesus brings grace and truth. He also comes as the only one to have seen God, and is thus the only one who can make God known. The prologue also anticipates the rejection of the Son by many, but those who do receive him become beneficiaries of a unique relationship with the Father.

The Testimony of John the Baptist (1:19-34)

Having been told in the prologue, that John the Baptist came to bear witness to Jesus (1:6-9), the reader now encounters his testimony. John the Baptist’s testimony consists of his identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29), as the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (1:32), and as the Son of God (1:34).  John the Baptist’s testimony may also include 3:31-36, in which he states that Jesus: (1) is from above and is above all (v. 31); (2) speaks of what he has seen and heard (v. 32); (3) speaks the words of God (v. 34); (4) has all things in His hands (v. 35) and (5) is to be believed in and obeyed (v. 36).  

The Disciples’ Testimony (1:35-51)

 Immediately following John the Baptist’s testimony, the reader encounters the succinct testimony of the disciples. Jesus’ first two disciples are disciples of John the Baptist (v. 35), who leave John to follow Jesus, as a result of John the Baptist’s testimony (vv. 36-37). Jesus questions the disciples as to what they are looking for (v. 38). In response they call Jesus “Rabbi” and explain that they want to know where he is staying. Jesus replies, “Come see.” While one of the disciples remains anonymous, the other, Andrew, summons his brother Simon and testifies to him that they have found the Messiah (vv. 40-41). Upon meeting him, Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter (v. 42).

 Jesus tells the next disciple who encounters him, Philip, to “follow me” (v. 43). Philip then finds Nathanael and testifies that they have found the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about—Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth (v. 46). Nathanael responds with skepticism, but Philip challenges Nathanael to “come see.” Nathanael accepts the challenge. Once in Jesus’ presence, Nathanael is amazed at Jesus’ recognition of him as a true Israelite, without deceit or cunning.  Nathanael wants to know how Jesus knew him as such, and Jesus replies that he saw him while he was sitting under the fig tree before Philip called him. Nathanael’s reply is “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49).  Jesus responds that they will see greater things than these (v. 50). This encounter with Jesus also establishes his prophetic status. He knows things that only God would know.

The author of John establishes in these verses a pattern that is present throughout the Gospel. Those who encounter Jesus bear witness about him to others, inviting them into relationship with Jesus. This pattern will be repeated in the case of the Samaritan woman (John 4) and in the crowd that witnesses Lazarus’s resurrection (John 12). The disciples themselves will be called upon to continue the pattern they have followed in John 1, to go beyond their immediate friends and family and become witnesses to the world (John 13–17). 

The Testimony of the First Sign (2:1-12)

 The inaugural event of Jesus’ public ministry takes place at the wedding at Cana, where Jesus performs a sign that serves as testimony to him. Here Jesus’ mother asks him to produce more wine to replace the depleted source at a wedding. Jesus says that his “hour has not come yet” (v. 4); nevertheless, he performs the sign. The sign includes “six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (v. 6). Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars to the brim (v. 7), and then to draw some out and take it to the chief steward (v. 8). The new wine turns out to be better than the original wine. The sign is performed with little, if any, fanfare. No one knows about the sign except the servants who drew the water/wine (v. 9) and the disciples who believed (v. 11). This sign is said to have revealed Jesus’ glory (v. 11), and according to John 5:36 is among the works that testify to Jesus’ identity.

The Cleansing of the Temple (2:13-25)

 On the heels of the sign at Cana, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and runs the moneychangers out of the temple area (v. 15). The Jews then ask him for a sign of his authority to do so (v. 18). In response, Jesus states that they will put him to death (they will destroy “this temple”—his body) and in three days he will raise it up (v. 19). They fail to understand his meaning and thus the motif of misunderstanding makes its first appearance. In 1:5 the reader was told that “darkness” cannot comprehend what the Word says. This becomes evident for the first time when the Jews are unable to comprehend Jesus’ testimony about himself. This motif is amplified in the encounter with Nicodemus, but it does not hinder people from believing. Verse 23 indicates that many believed because of the signs Jesus was doing; however, Jesus knows their faith is suspect (vv. 24-25). The testimony of the temple cleansing is rooted in Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection. The fulfillment of this prophecy is a pivotal piece in John’s portrayal of Jesus. It proves that Jesus is a true prophet. It vindicates Jesus and confirms that he is the prophet like Moses who comes as God’s representative; that every word that Jesus spoke came from the Father, including his own testimony. It proves that the testimony Jesus gives about himself that he is the Messiah, Son of God, is true.

Nicodemus and Jesus (3:1-21)

  The motif of misunderstanding is enhanced by Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel. Nicodemus, like others who have seen signs but cannot grasp what is really happening, concludes from the signs that Jesus is from God and that God is with him (3:2). However, Nicodemus does not comprehend how it is that Jesus is from God. Nor does he understand when Jesus tells him that he must be “born from above” in order to see (v. 3), or enter (v. 5), the kingdom of God. Jesus rebukes Nicodemus (v. 10) because, as a teacher of Israel, he should be able to grasp this concept. Jesus states that “we testify of what we have seen but you [pl.] do not receive our testimony,” echoing 1:11: “He came unto his own and his own did not receive him.” 

 Jesus then gives testimony about his special status and mission as the only one who has ascended into heaven and has come down (v. 13). In 3:14-16 he predicts his salvific atoning death; declaring that the Son of Man must be lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness so that those who look to him in faith will be saved. Verse 14 looks forward to the crucifixion, which is motivated by God’s love for the world (v. 16). God’s purpose in sending “the Son of Man” is that those who believe should not perish, but have eternal life (v. 16). 

The words that follow bear special import for the trial motif in John. Here the reader learns that the Son has not come to condemn the world but to save it (3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 12:47). Judgment is brought upon those who do not believe. Rejection of the testimony about Jesus is equivalent to not believing. Unbelief brings judgment (3:17-18; 12:47-48). When people encounter Jesus or testimony about him, they are forced to make a judgment themselves. In this sense everyone is a judge or a juror. Will they believe this testimony or not? However, at the same time, those who encounter Jesus find themselves on trial. Those who believe Jesus’ testimony enter into eternal life. Those who reject his testimony, and therefore do not believe, are judged or condemned already.

  Jesus also conveys the reason many refuse to come to him: their deeds are evil; therefore, they shun the light and hide in the darkness, afraid of being exposed (vv. 19-20). Those who do the truth, however, come to the light and reveal that their works have been done in God (v. 21).  

These verses set the foundation for what will follow in the trial motif of John. Testimony will be given via a number of sources. Those who hear that testimony must make up their minds whether they receive that testimony (i.e., believe), or whether they reject that testimony and hence do not believe. Their judgment, based on the evidence presented before them, will determine whether they have life or death. From this point on the trial plays itself out with this bifurcation in mind.

The Final Testimony of John the Baptist (3:22-36)

 John the Baptist makes a final appearance in 3:22-36, where he finds himself in a discussion about purification with his disciples. They complain that Jesus, the one “about whom he testified,” is baptizing and “all are going to him” (v. 26). In response, John then explains his own role: (1) he is not the Messiah; (2) he was sent ahead of the Messiah (v. 28); (3) he is the friend of the bridegroom; (4) he stands and hears him; (5) he rejoices at the bridegroom’s voice; (6) his joy is full (v. 29); and (7) he must decrease (v. 30).  John thus conveys Jesus’ superiority in status: Jesus is above all (v. 31).  Hence, John the Baptist is a model witness to the truth, a true witness, for he points beyond himself to Jesus and does what the Father sent him to do.  John the Baptist gives testimony in order that those who hear may believe (cf. 1:6-8).

John the Baptist then speaks of the superiority of Jesus’ testimony. He notes that Jesus’ testimony is from above and that he testifies of what he has seen and heard (v. 32a), but no one heeds his testimony (v. 32b). Yet those who accept his testimony prove that God is true (v. 33). Jesus speaks the words of God and has been given the Spirit without measure (v. 34). The Father loves the Son, placing all things in his hands (v. 35).  John then concludes: “[therefore] whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath” (v. 36).7

The Samaritan Woman (4:1-42)

  The Samaritan woman is called “the model of the female disciple.” The Samaritan woman progresses in her faith as she talks with the stranger she encounters at the well. Jesus’ testimony about himself to her is that he has living water (v. 10); it leads to eternal life and the one who drinks it will never thirst again (v. 14); and he is the Messiah (vv. 26-27). Upon the revelation of her private life, the Samaritan woman, like Nathanael, realizes that Jesus is out of the ordinary. Nathanael’s confession is greater, recognizing Jesus as the Son of God and the King of Israel, while she acknowledges that Jesus is a prophet (v. 19). Upon the revelation that Jesus is the Messiah, she leaves her water jar (v. 28) and departs in haste, like the disciples (1:35-51), to tell others that she has met the Messiah (vv. 39-40). As a result, many Samaritans come to see Jesus and believe (vv. 41-42). They then make their own confession of faith in Jesus as truly the Savior of the world.  The witness of one lone Samaritan woman thus leads to the conversion of a whole village.

The Testimony of the Second Sign (4:43-54)

  The second sign Jesus performs is occasioned by a desperate illness. An official of the king approaches Jesus in Galilee to plead for the life of his son, who lies ill at the point of death in Capernaum (4:46-47). Jesus responds with a statement that has been often misunderstood: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will never believe” (v. 48).8The official asks Jesus to come to his home (v. 49), but Jesus has no need to do so. He says, “Go, your son will live” (v. 50). The timing of the event and also the healing of the boy from a distance by a spoken word make it miraculous. The official’s servant meets him and tells him that his son is alive (v. 51). The official asks what time the miracle occurred and realizes that it was about the time Jesus said, “Your son will live” (vv. 52-53). Without the time element, it might be said the boy recovered on his own. The miracle or sign is that it occurred simultaneously with Jesus’ proclamation. Hence, we are told again that the official believed, as did his entire household. Why did they believe? Because they saw a sign performed in their presence. This sign testifies to the fact that Jesus has power over life and death. This will be more pronounced at the resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11.


 In sum, in the first four chapters of John’s Gospel a host of witnesses offer a preview of what will follow. The prologue testifies to the fact that Jesus is divine and the agent of creation. In addition, it predicts his rejection by his own people. Other witnesses testify that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God about whom Moses and the prophets wrote (or gave testimony). The signs that Jesus performs also show that he is from God, as Nicodemus recognizes. The signs, supernatural knowledge, and declaration that he speaks God’s words are clear indications of Jesus Prophetic ministry. These events set the stage for a confrontation with the Jewish leadership over Sabbath healings. How can he heal on the Sabbath (thus breaking the law) and still be from God? This controversy revolves around Jesus’ identity. Is he, or is he not, the Messiah? Is he, or is he not, the Prophet? Is he, or is he not, the Son of God? Their decision will seal their fate.

[1]Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 120-21. Brueggemann attends to the notion of “witness” or “testimony” as a motif in the OT. He traces the theme of testimony throughout the OT, establishing Israel’s confession of Yahweh as its testimony to the world about God. The Pentateuch and the Prophet Isaiah are prime examples of testimony and advocacy, which Johannine scholars have noted as foundational for the trial motif in the Fourth Gospel.

          2Théo Preiss, Life in Christ,trans. Harold Knight (Chicago: Alec R. Allenson, 1954), 9-31; A. E. Harvey, Jesus on Trial: A Study in the Fourth Gospel(London: SPCK, 1976); Urban C. Von Wahlde, “The Witness to Jesus in John 5:31-40 and Belief in the Fourth Gospel,” CBQ43 (1981): 385-404. A more recent study is that of Andrew Lincoln, “Trials, Plots and the Narrative of the Fourth Gospel,” JSNT56 (1994): 3-30. Regarding witness in the NT, see Johannes Beutler, Martyria(Frankfurt: J. Knecht, 1972) and Allison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

          3See Trites,The New Testament Concept of Witness,67-77. J. Beutler traces the background of martyria,examining Hellenistic Jewish literature, Qumran literature, rabbinic literature and, like Trites, the New Testament corpus (Martyria, 43-204).

4Chiasm is a literary devise used to show relationship between to clauses which are related to each other through a reversal of structures in order to make a greater point; in other words, the two clauses display inverted parallelism.

5M. Endo, Creation and Christology, 182-205; John W. WelshChiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981), esp. 239-42; Peder Borgen, “Observations on the Targumic Character of the Prologue of John,” NTS16 (1970): 288-95.

7The literal translation is that the “wrath of God remains on him,” which is a judgment upon those who do not believe because the word of God does not remain in them (5:38).

8This verse has been touted as a negative statement about signs faith, but in fact it is not. Jesus is saying that signs faith is important or necessary for believing. Loren L. Johns and Douglas B. Miller argue this point in “Signs as Witness in the Fourth Gospel: Reexamining the Evidence,”CBQ56 (1994): 519-35. See also Paul W. Meyer, The Word in This World: Essays in the New Testament Exegesis andTheology, ed. John T. Carroll, NTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 240-53.

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