If you were on trial, who would you want to call as a character witness?
How about God?
The theme of witness crops up repeatedly in the gospel of John, much more so than in the other three gospels. John the Baptist is described several times as a witness to Jesus, even by Jesus himself (5:33-35). That statement by Jesus comes in the midst of an argument with the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, who took issue with his healing a lame man in violation of the Sabbath. At that time, Jesus called not only the Baptist as a witness to his true identity, but his miraculous works: “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me” (vs. 36, NRSV). And even more important is the Father’s own testimony on Jesus’ behalf (vs. 37), though we are not told what form that testimony took.
A similar argument takes place in chapter 8. Jesus has declared that he is the light of the world, and the Pharisees respond by trying to nullify his testimony on legal grounds (vs. 13). Jesus insists that his testimony is valid, because…well, because he’s from God. The Father himself is his star witness (vs. 18).
But the Pharisees respond, “Where is your Father?” (vs. 19). Surely, they should know the answer to the question, or at the very least, they should know what answer Jesus would give, even if they don’t believe it. In the argument that followed his first “I Am” statement — “I am the bread of life” — Jesus made clear that he was sent by his Father from heaven (John 5:32-35). He’s made no secret of the fact.
Here, however, he declines to answer the question, probably because it’s not an honest request for information anyway. Instead, he cuts straight to the chase, with words that essentially say that they would know the answer to their own question if they knew God.
But they don’t. So they…don’t.
Nevertheless, they understood enough to know that they had just been insulted, for John observes that “no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come” (vs. 20). Apparently, someone wanted to try arresting Jesus again. But it still wasn’t God’s time.
“As God is my witness…” People use the phrase as a kind of oath formula, as in “I swear to God” or “God knows I’m telling the truth.” We’re right to be skeptical when we hear this. Jesus himself suggests that his followers should eschew oaths in favor of letting their reputation and character speak for themselves (Matt 5:33-37).
Jesus needs no oath. He is simply stating the facts: his Father is his witness. And those who truly seek to know what God says would already know.