Is the Old Testament Irrelevant? Let’s See What Jesus Thinks (The Gospel of John)

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The point of this short blog series is simple. (Read Part 1: Mark and Part 2: Matthew.) Some Christians, whether they be theologically conservative or liberal, don’t see the Old Testament (OT) as important or relevant. So, we decided to see how Jesus thought of the OT.

If you read the first two parts of this series on Mark and Matthew, I think you’re beginning to see a pattern here: throughout the Gospels, the OT is referred to constantly, and much of those references are made by Jesus himself.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN: THE DATA

  • 21 Chapters

  • 52 References to OT

  • 24 References to OT made by Jesus

  • 46% of OT references are made by Jesus

Keep in mind this a quick count done in one reading of John’s Gospel and does not include the numerous times Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” which is an OT reference to Daniel 7 (which he does 12 times in John’s Gospel).

Compared to the other two Gospels we looked at so far, John has the smallest percentage of OT references made by Jesus of the OT references. In Mark, Jesus makes 83% of the OT references, and in Matthew, Jesus makes 68% of the OT references. Yet, Jesus’ 24 references compared to 21 chapters gives us a rough idea that Jesus made such references regularly in John’s Gospel. And, with this, as you’ll see below, quantity does not effect quality.

SOME HIGHLIGHTS

As most know, John includes a lot of material the other three Gospels do not. Yet, in John, we find more of the same that we found in Mark and Matthew. As in the other Gospels, in John there are many OT references made by both the writer of the Gospel (John) and Jesus himself (and even by other people who appear in the narratives).

And, as in the other Gospels, there are many statements about how the events recorded of in the Gospel fulfill OT Scripture. In John, these statements certainly increase in the later chapters surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, such as:

Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (John 20:8–9)

Some other interesting highlights where Jesus alludes to the OT include:

39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life… There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”… 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 5:39–6:14). 

Here, Jesus plainly states that the OT bears witness about him and that Moses wrote of him. Some of the people listening to him understand Jesus to be “the Prophet who is to come,” which could only be a reference to Deuteronomy 18:15-22, where God promises to Moses to rise up in Israel another prophet.

In 10:35, Jesus makes an interested argument based on one word in Psalm 82 and then states, “Scripture cannot be broken.”

“I AM”

A much more subtle allusion to the OT that many may miss is Jesus’ constant use of the phrase “I am.” In Exodus 3, when God first appears to Moses (as a burning bush), Moses asks for God’s name. Scripture tells us, “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: ”’I AM has sent me to you”” (Exodus 3:14).  So, “I AM” is God’s name, which is pronounced “Yahweh” in Hebrew (often pronounced incorrectly as “Jehovah.”). In the Greek of the New Testament, “I AM” is “Ego Eimi.”

Jesus makes “I AM” statements throughout John to subtly imply to those with ears to hear that he is God in the flesh, and John uses these to not-so-subtly show his readers of that exact idea:

John begins his Gospel with a prologue that tells us right away that Jesus is God (1:1) and became a man (1:14). After the prologue, John goes on to show this with the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. One way John does this is giving us many times Jesus refers to himself as “I AM.” Some of these in English are translated as “I am he” or even “it is I,” which are acceptable translations, but if you look at the original Greek, they are all written in the same way: “Ego Eimi” (“I AM”).

In 6:20, when the disciples are on a boat in the storm and see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says, “I AM. Do not be afraid.” In 13:19, Jesus says to his disciples, “I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I AM.”

But this is most clearly seen throughout John 8. Jesus states, “…unless you believe that I AM you will die in your sins” (8:24). He goes on to say that when he is “lifted up” (which may be a reference to him being lifted up on the cross, his ascension into heaven, or him being lifted up in glory, or all of them – which is how I understand it because they are all related) that his audience “will then know that I AM” (8:28).

And if you think I’m stretching it here to prove my point, the people listening to Jesus in his day don’t think so because in 8:58, Jesus makes the grammatically-odd statement “before Abraham was, I AM.” Jesus’ listeners finally get it: This guy is calling himself the God who appeared to Moses! And that’s blasphemy! So, they pick up stones to stone him to death (8:59).

John brings this theme to its climax by concluding his Gospel in Chapter 20 with “doubting Thomas,” upon meeting the resurrected Jesus, declaring “My Lord and my God!” (20:28). (For those of you following closely, Chapter 21 is John’s epilogue. Just as he started with a prologue, he closes his Gospel with an epilogue.)

Thus, one of the ways Jesus communicated to his fellow Jews that he was God-in-the-flesh was by referring to their holy writings – what we call the OT.

TWO LAST (TRINITARIAN) PASSAGES WORTH NOTING

In the same vein – and in another subtle reference to the OT – Jesus says in John 7,

38 [Jesus said,] Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ ” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:38–39).

It’s interesting that John tells us that Jesus is speaking of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, here when he speaks from Scripture of “living water.” When we turn to Jeremiah 17:13, we read this:

“for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.”

So, John 1:1 establishes that the Father and Son are both God, and here we find that the Holy Spirit is also God. Thus, we find the Trinity – three unique personalities sharing one divine identity.

All of this is good stuff to point our to Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny the Trinity.

Let me point out one last interesting passage; though we are primarily concerned with the OT references made by Jesus himself in John’s Gospel, this last one – made by the author, John, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, is worth noting.

In John 12:37-40, John quotes from Isaiah twice to show that what is happening during Jesus’ ministry is fulfilling Scripture. He then states, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him (12:41).”

Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory? What an intriguing thing to say! So, we turn to Isaiah and search through it. Where could have Isaiah possibly seen Jesus’ glory? The only option is found in Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (6:1–5).

Thus, in this vision of God – Yahweh, I AM, the Lord of hosts – Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory.

NEXT: Final of the series: LUKE’S GOSPEL.

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