The Baptist and the Pharisees. 1:6-8, 19-28
In our passage for study the author of the fourth gospel affirms the preparatory work of John the Baptist. The Baptist is the one crying in the wilderness in preparation for the coming of the light of the world, a light that brings life. Yet, although the Baptist has a prestigious role, he is not even worthy to untie the sandals of the one who follows.
v6. John the Baptist, the forerunner, although a "man", is sent from God.
v7. The Baptist's task is to bear witness, to give testimony concerning the light of the world, in order that all might believe. Christ (the anointed one, Messiah) is that light, and this because he is the incarnate Word/revelation of God. God's truth enlightens and so enlivens. The Baptist bears witness that this light is coming into the world in the Christ who is even now in the midst of the people.
v8. In the face of the coming one, the greater one, the Baptist's greatness is subsumed.
v19. The authorities in Jerusalem send a delegation to find out what the Baptist is up to. The delegation is made up of members from some of the different religious parties. Our author calls them "the Jews", a term he often uses to describe the religious elite of Jerusalem.
v20. The Baptist states, in emphatic terms, that he is not the Christ. The authorities have not asked this question, but it is obviously on their mind.
v21. In line with prophetic expectation, the delegation asks the Baptist whether he is the new Elijah, or the new prophet who will precede the coming Messiah. The Baptist emphatically denies either designation. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus actually says that the Baptist was the Elijah, but obviously he does not realize this, or possibly has difficulty with such a prestigious title. The "prophet" is the prophet like Moses. In Christian tradition the prophet is Jesus.
v22. The delegation finds itself faced with a preacher who is gathering crowds to himself out in the wilderness, but is without authority. So, they ask him to explain himself.
v23. He goes on to quote Isaiah 40:3 to define his role, while making no claims for himself. He is just "a voice" in the wilderness. His role is to make a straight pathway for the coming Messiah, that is, to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord by preaching the gospel, 1:15-18, 29.
v24. Some Pharisees in the delegation take the questioning further.
v25. Water baptism, as a sign of spiritual cleansing, was performed on Gentile families who had converted to Judaism. There was also an expectation that with the coming of the messiah, Israel itself would undergo a water rite, Ezk.36:25, Zech.13:1. So, the Pharisees want to know why the Baptist is performing this right if he is not the expected Christ, Elijah or the prophet.
v26-27. The Baptist emphatically states that all he does is baptize (immerse) people in water. He points away from himself to the one who is coming, who even now stands among the people, but is not recognized at the present moment. The Son is the one to focus on, he is the great one, whereas John the Baptist feels he is not worthy to undertake the most menial task for the one who is "among" his people. We expect to hear him say that the coming one will baptize with the Spirit, but he says nothing; his focus is on the person and not his work.
v28. Our author identifies where the Baptist is doing his baptizing and notes that "Bethany" is not the Bethany near Jerusalem. This locality cannot be identified.
The testimony of John the Baptist
The fourth gospel assembles a range of testimonies, in word and sign, to Jesus. They all point to the person of Jesus, "the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth", and all expand the Old Testament image of this coming one, this divine messiah. In the prologue of John's gospel we are told that Jesus is the embodiment of God's creative Word; he is light, a light that gives life.
In John's gospel the first testimony to the life-giving light is given by John the Baptist. He bears witness to the light so that people might believe and therefore possess life. To drive home the difference between the witness and the light, the person and work of the Baptist is downplayed - he is a mere "man". The Baptist may have a divine mission, but unlike the Son, he does not have a divine nature. Also, in preparation for the coming Son, the Baptist serves as nothing more than a voice crying in the wilderness. He is not the light, he comes only to witness to the Son. Finally, although in tradition there is no human greater than John the Baptist, we are told that he is a mere nothing in comparison to the Son; he is not even worthy to untie the straps of the Son's sandals.
Although we are tempted to look at the Baptist and draw some conclusions about his faith, the author of John's gospel does not allow us to take our eyes off the Son. This "coming" one is light and in this light there is life. The passage forces us to recognize the glory of Jesus, bathe in his light and so possess his life.
In John's gospel we are invited to move our eyes from the immediate struggle of life to the one who is "full of grace and truth." When we do this, then like the Baptist, our status, standing, problems, dreams, loss...... seem like nothing. The troubles of life lose their power in the presence of the one who is everything.
Some commentators suggest that the evangelist is downplaying the Baptist to counter the influence of his followers in the early church. Why is this unlikely?
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