If you do not believe Moses’ writings how will you believe me? (John 5:47)
Jesus has just been speaking about “accepting” praise from “peers” as opposed to “seeking” it from God. These peers were those who were assigned with “policing religious orthodoxy.” Jesus’ curing of a man’s impairment has taken place on a day that had been designated by them (according to their rules of religious observance) as a period of time when “such things” are not permitted.
Taken out of context, this question might well be understood as indicating how important “adherence to normative Scriptural tradition” is to belief in Christ. (“You’d better read and believe the Bible if you wanna get right with God!”)
But stop for a minute. Those to whom Jesus is posing this question are rock-solid certain not only that they do believe Moses’ writings, but that they are (and are eminently qualified to be) the foremost interpreters of these writings to all the “people of the land,” who are certainly not up to the task of applying these writings to life for themselves.
He is asking this question to people who are making a living out of being “believers in Moses’ writings”! It’s like asking a Supreme Court justice why he doesn’t believe the Constitution!
It’s really more of an indictment: You guys say that you believe… but do you really? What does “believing in the writings” actually mean to you? It’s not a matter of articulating adherence or allegiance to a particular book, or even to a particular tradition ABOUT that book. It’s not just a matter of signing the right “statement of faith.” (Uh oh.) It’s about having the spirit of those writings, the spirit that inspired these writings, come to life within you. Without such living faith you will not be able to “believe” in the one to whom these writings point, the very reason for which these writings were given.
Jesus mentions that these people are very devoted to the “study” of the Scriptures. For centuries (since the destruction of the temple of Solomon) they had actually seen “study of the Law” as the substitute, if not replacement, for the observance of all the temple’s rituals and sacrifices. But he also understands that the true subject, the prophetic focus of the writings of Moses, which they so assiduously studied, dissected and catalogued, was Himself and the Kingdom he was inaugurating. Since they were not able to see that, his assessment was, not that their logic, hermeneutics or exegesis was faulty… but that they DID NOT TRULY, actually BELIEVE.
So diligent application to study is, it seems, no guarantee that one will not miss the chief subject of the text being studied. How can that be? And what does that mean for a person like me, who feels he was MADE to study?
Consistency – not logical consistency but authenticity and INTEGRITY are demanded. This is a heart issue, not an intellectual issue. My belief is not, ultimately, to be validated intellectually… If it were, how could my faith make me a “member of one body” along with the faith of a brother with intellectual disabilities, which I know must be the case… It is identified by a heart that is open to the biblically described activity of the Spirit of God as revealed in (and which glorifies) Jesus. If I truly believe Scripture, I will recognize and acknowledge God’s glory not just when I read the Book, but when I put it down. Because I see Jesus IN it – and see him when I look at the world around me through it.
This question isn’t asked to elicit a denial of its premise, “We do TOO believe!” It’s designed to make them question what it is that actually constitutes belief. Is it simply assent to tradition, however noble? Jesus isn’t saying “you’d better believe Moses” in order to get to “belief in me”… he was saying that “if your belief in the Scriptures does not permit you to see that what I am doing here (doing good by alleviating pain and extending shalom, even on your precious Sabbath) indicates the presence of the divine among you…, then your so-called belief is functionally the same as unbelief.
To put it another way (more bluntly) – If your belief in “the Bible” is such that it inclines you to be CLOSED to what God might be doing in the world to draw people to His reign of justice and truth, to glorify himself by building one body with many members, all of which are equal in Jesus… are you really a “believer” or might Jesus be asking you about your “functional atheism”?
Maybe true belief is best tested not by checking off boxes affirming propositions, but by asking (as Eugene Cho did) “how are we as revolutionary followers of Jesus – who debunked the systemic structures during his life – working, living, ministering, writing, speaking and creating to work towards that end?”