How Could Both Statements Be True?
They sound exactly the opposite. On the surface, they appear to be completely contradictory statements. “We won the game.” “We lost the game.” How could both of these declarations be true? If a person is indeed talking about the same game, how could a team have both won the game and lost the game at the same time?
Admittedly, there are times when such statements are uttered by someone who is simply lying. However, there are occasions when two contrasting statements may both genuinely be true—such as when the claims are made in different senses.
Consider, for example, hearing someone talk about the 1990 Missouri-Colorado college football game. With only about 30 seconds left to go in the game and Missouri winning 31-27, Colorado had the ball, first and goal at the Missouri three yard line. Colorado elected to spike the ball on first down in order to stop the clock. On second down they ran the ball, but failed to score. They ran the ball again on third down. And, to stop the clock, they spiked the ball on fourth down with only two seconds left. They then ran the ball on “fifth down” and scored. The game was over at that point. According to the referees, Colorado had won the game 33-31. But did they really “win”?
As any football fan knows, a team only gets four downs to make a first down (or to score a touchdown if they are inside of the 10 yard line). “Fifth down” does not exist in football. The referees had forgotten to count one of the downs. Subsequently, the only reason Colorado “won” the game was because they were given an extra down in the final three seconds.
Imagine listening to a University of Missouri football player from that 1990 team talk about their game with Colorado. He may talk about their defeat at the hands of Colorado that year. However, he may also tell people that “Missouri actually won the game.” Why could he make both statements and still be telling the truth? Though, technically, the referees awarded Colorado the victory, everyone knew that, in reality, Missouri had won the game. Thus, in one sense Missouri “lost,” and in another sense they “won.”
What does all of this have to do with the Bible? There are times in Scripture where different statements are made, which on the surface sound contradictory, yet when the reader looks more deeply into the text, he realizes that such different statements were made for different reasons and in different senses. For example, why did Jesus say, “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true” (John 5:31, emp. added), but also say, “Even if I bear witness of Myself, My witness is true” (John 8:14, emp. added)? Was He a liar, as some skeptics insist? Or could it be that He was using these words in different senses? The fact is, Jesus had different purposes for why He said what He did. In John 5, Jesus was speaking to a group of hostile Jews regarding God the Father and His own equality with Him (John 5:17-30; cf. 10:30). In this setting, He defended His deity by pointing to several witnesses, including John the Baptizer, the Father in heaven, and the Scriptures (5:33-47).
When Jesus conceded to the Jews the fact that His witness was “not true,” He was not confessing to being a liar. Rather, Jesus was reacting to a well-known law of His day. In Greek, Roman, and Jewish law, the testimony of a witness could not be received in his own case (Robertson, 1997). “Witness to anyone must always be borne by someone else” (Morris, 1995, p. 287). The Law of Moses stated: “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15; cf. Matthew 18:15-17). The Pharisees understood this law well, as is evident by their statement to Jesus: “You bear witness of Yourself; Your witness is not true” (John 8:13). In John 5:31, “Jesus points to the impossibility of anyone’s being accepted on the basis of his own word…. He is asserting that if of himself he were to bear witness to himself, that would make it untrue” in a court of law (Morris, p. 287). If Jesus had no evidence in a trial regarding His deity other than His own testimony about Himself, His testimony would be inconclusive. Jesus understood that His audience had a legal right to expect more evidence than just His word. In accordance with the law, His own testimony apart from other witnesses would be considered invalid (or insufficient to establish truth).
But why is it that Jesus said to the Pharisees at a later time that His “witness is true” (John 8:14)? The difference is that, in this instance, Jesus was stressing the fact that His words were true. Even if in a court of law two witnesses are required for a fact to be established (a law Jesus enunciated a few verses later in John 8:17), that law does not take away the fact that Jesus was telling the truth. Jesus declared His testimony to be true for the simple reason that His testimony revealed the true facts regarding Himself (Lenski, 1961, p. 599). He then followed this pronouncement of truth with the fact that there was another witness—the Father in heaven Who sent Him to Earth (8:16-18). Thus, in actuality, His testimony was true in two senses: (1) it was true because it was indeed factual; and (2) it was valid because it was corroborated by a second, unimpeachable witness—the Father.
Why is it that in the 21st century we can use words and expressions in so many different ways and have little trouble understanding each other, but when Jesus or the Bible writers used words in different senses, so many people want to cry “foul”? Could it be because modern-day skeptics refuse to allow Jesus and the inspired writers the same freedoms to use words and phrases in different ways? Could it be due to unfair bias on the part of Bible critics?
God the Father (John 8:18; 5:37-38), along with John the Baptizer (John 5:33), the miracles of Jesus (5:36), the Scriptures (5:39), and specifically the writings of Moses (5:46), all authenticated the true statements Jesus made regarding His deity. Sadly, many of His listeners rejected the evidence then, just as people reject it today.
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
Morris, Leon (1995), The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), revised edition.
Robertson, A.T. (1997), Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).