Thought for the day
In the words of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist came as a witness, to speak for the light, the true light who was coming into the world. In this season of Advent, the Baptist points us towards the coming one and he invites us to reflect on our need of the light of Jesus in the darkness of our lives. Darkness means many things: a sense of being lost, a lack of direction, helplessness, sin or indeed lack of faith. This Christmas, may the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” shine in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).
We come before you in the darkness of our lives, aware of our need of Christ, the light of the world. Let us receive him in faith so that we may become witnesses to that light which has truly come into the world. Through Christ our Lord. Amen
John 1:6 A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that everyone might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify about the light.
John 1:19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed—he did not deny but confessed—“I am not the Christ!” 21 So they asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not!” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No!” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Tell us so that we can give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
John 1:23 John said, “I am the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” 24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. ) 25 So they asked John, “Why then are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”
John 1:26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not recognize, 27 who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal!” 28 These things happened in Bethany across the Jordan River where John was baptizing. ”
The community of the Fourth Gospel came from different backgrounds: followers of John the Baptist, Pharisees, Samaritans and Gentiles. Because of the continuing existence of disciples of John, the anxiety vis-à-vis the Baptist is even more heightened here than elsewhere.
Four examples may suffice: the poetry of the Prologue is interrupted by prose (today’s first paragraph), designed to put John in the second division; John is then made himself to quote the Old Testament citation at the start of Mark’s account; the baptism of Jesus by John is not recounted, although associated phenomena are; the death of John is not presented to prevent any comparisons with the unique “lifting up” of the Son of Man.
Kind of writing
There are three moments in the text.
(i) Vv. 6-8 are prose commentary by the writer on the identity of John.
(ii) Vv. 19-23 constitute technically a chreia, that is an anecdote or scene with a point, developed in the form of questions and answers and concluding conclusively with a citation of God’s word from the prophet Isaiah.
(iii) Vv. 24-28 go back to the theme of comparison and make explicit the distinction between John and Jesus.
Old Testament background
There is clear reference to the first reading of last Sunday’s mass:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3) As in Mark’s version, this text is adjusted to read as follows: A voice cried out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The shift in punctuation mirrors the new application to the Baptist. From a practical point of view, a voice crying out the wilderness doesn’t make a lot of sense.
New Testament foreground
Mark implies that John was Elijah and Matthew makes it explicit. In this Gospel, however, John himself denies he was the anticipated Elijah figure. Furthermore, in this Gospel there is a nuanced appreciation of who he was: the voice in relation to the word, the best man (“the friend”) in relation to the bridegroom.
He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. (John 3:29)
At this point in John 3, it is apparently the Baptist who is speaking. The picture of John the Baptist in the gospel of John is very clearly focused, and it may be summed up in one of the gospel’s pungent statements: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light” (1:8).
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14) Cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15-5:11.
Much of the comment is already present in the remarks above.
Verse 6 The first statement is positive: John was sent by God. “Send” is an important word in the Fourth Gospel, being almost a name for God who sends Jesus, John and eventually Jesus’ disciples.
Verse 7 Witness is also a key category in the Gospel: John 1:7; 3:28; 8:17.
Verse 8 Naturally, it is Jesus himself who is the light. “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”” (John 8:12) “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”” (John 9:5) “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (John 12:46)
Verse 19 This is a real question, already asked by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” (Mark 11:30)
Verse 20 Notice the triple insistence: he confessed, did not deny, confessed. The expectation of a Messiah as such is not attested in the Hebrew Bible but it is in the later non-biblical books of Judaism, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Psalms of Solomon. It is not without significance that the first things John says are denials of mistaken identity. Lest there should be any lack of clarity, the writer makes him repeat the denial later in the story: “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’” (John 3:28)
Verse 21 There was an expectation that Elijah would be part of the final unfolding, based on Malachi 4:5. Likewise, there was an expectation that a prophet like Moses would be part of the end, based on Deuteronomy 18:15.
Verse 22 After all the denials, this is a good question.
Verse 23 Here the author plays his trump card—he makes John himself cite the Isaiah text, which allocates to him a preparatory role and nothing more.
Verse 24 All religions use water symbolism and Judaism is no exception. However, the once-off baptism of John was exceptional and required interpretation. The questioners also summarise the denials, a technique of emphasis and insistence.
Verse 25 John uses the opportunity not to explain his baptism but to point to Jesus. We expect a line such as “but he will baptism with the Spirit” but instead we are offered “whom you do not know”, a resonant theme in this Gospel.
Verses 26-27 An explicit echo of the synoptic traditions: “He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (Mark 1:7; see also Luke 3:16; Acts 13:25).
Verse 28 In this Gospel, Jesus is also shown baptising: “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptised. John also was baptising at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptised” (John 3:22-23; see also John 3:26; 4:1-2; 10:40). In chapter 4, it says Jesus did not baptise.
Pointers for prayer
1. John the Baptist came to bear witness to Jesus. Who have been the people who have borne witness to you of the good news of the gospel that God loves you— a friend, a parent, a teacher, for example? To whom have you borne that witness?
2. John appears in the story as one who had the courage to be himself in the face of loud and aggressive people. He was also a person who knew his own value, did not make exaggerated claims and was content with his mission. Can you recall times when you have been able to be yourself, even in the face of criticism from others?
3. John was “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”—announcing confidently to those in the wilderness that they must not despair because God’s grace will come to them at any moment. Have you had the experience of being in the wilderness, feeling lost? From whom did you hear a voice that gave you hope? Have you been able to give hope to other people when they were in the wilderness?
4. The priests and Levites challenged John the Baptist on his authority for speaking as he did and tried to put a label on him so that they could more easily dismiss what he had to say. When were you open to accept a truth from a person whom you had previously dismissed as having nothing to say to you?
O God, most high and most near, you send glad tidings to the lowly, you hide not your face from the poor; those who dwell in darkness you call into the light.
Take away our blindness, remove the hardness of our hearts, and form us into a humble people, that, at the advent of your Son, we may recognise him in our midst and find joy in his saving presence.
This prayer we make through him whose coming is certain, whose day draws near, your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, forever and ever. Amen.