John 1: 1:6-9, 15, 19-28: John the Baptist, Witness to the Light.
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on October 22, 2006
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It was a busy week for me. We’re getting ready for the Emerging Church Conference at Wake Forest on Tuesday, and we were frankly overwhelmed by the response. We expected about 150 registrations and got over 200. If you would like to hear one of the most prominent interpreters of Christianity in the digital age, come hear Brian McLaren preach at Wake on Tuesday. My daughter’s class had a fire drill this week. There is nothing unusual about that, but her class was in the middle of watching Romeo and Juliet. They were all upset that they didn’t get to see the end of the movie. I find that encouraging.
Beginning of the Gospel: In our lesson today, we will focus on the figure of John the Baptist in the Gospel of John. The Prologue that we have been discussing has verses about John the Baptist that were inserted into the original hymn to the Word of God. Some scholars think that these parentheses in the prologue were the original opening lines of the gospel itself (Brown, Gospel of John I:27-28). If we take them out and read them together with the other verses about John, it does flow smoothly. Keep in mind, though, that some of these verses were intentionally placed in the prologue to emphasize the relationship of John to the logos.
John the Baptist: Near the beginning of all four gospels we have the curious figure of John who preached in the region known as the Transjordan in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. John was a significant figure in Palestine in the days before the Jewish War, as we learn from the Josephus in his book Antiquities (XVIII:2). Josephus was a Jew, but he cooperated with the Romans during the Jewish rebellion and was rewarded with Roman citizenship. After the war, he wrote a number of works on Jewish history and culture. It is from Josephus that we learn that the Romans executed many people in Palestine for insurrection around the time of Jesus. Hundreds of Pharisees were once crucified by the Romans. Interestingly, Josephus says nothing about Jesus of Nazareth, but he does mention Jesus’ brother James, who was head of the church in Jerusalem.
Josephus wrote, “For John was a pious man, and he was bidding the Jews who practiced virtue and exercised righteousness toward each other and piety toward God, to come together for baptism. … Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising.” Herod Antipas, the king of Galilee, had John killed. Josephus tells us where the prison was where John was murdered, but he leaves out some of the more exotic features of the baptizer’s life, such as wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey, which delight children in Sunday School. Those of you at home can’t see that I’m wearing my camel-hair jacket and leather belt in honor of John today. On the whole, Josephus’ account agrees with the substance of the New Testament’s portrayal of John as a preacher of righteousness who immersed people in the Jordan River in a symbolic washing away of sin and a crossing through the waters to a new life.
Rivalry with Jesus? We get strong indications in the New Testament that there was conflict between the followers of John and the followers of Jesus (the Baptists and the Christians, we can call them) that was so significant that all four canonical gospels and the Book of Acts include statements from John to indicate that he was not the messiah. The rivalry between the Baptists and Christians seems most intense in the Gospel of John. It is likely that the church founded by the Beloved Disciple included many people who had been baptized by John the Baptist. It is only John’s gospel, for example, that lists followers of the Baptist among the twelve disciples. It is also likely that the Evangelist was still trying to win over John’s disciples. Another reason for the focus on John the Baptist is that John’s Gospel has to deal with the historical fact that there was a close connection between John and Jesus. All four gospels agree that Jesus began his own ministry after an encounter with John. One of the reasons we can assert with confidence that Jesus was indeed baptized in the Jordan River is that this caused so many problems for the church later. If John was preaching repentance, what did Jesus need to repent of? If baptism was a washing away of sin, why did Jesus need to be washed? If Jesus was the Messiah, why should he kneel in the water before John? The synoptic gospels handle these disturbing questions by narrating a conversation between John and Jesus where Jesus’ superiority if acknowledged before he is baptized.
Witness: One of the unique features of the Gospel of John is that there is no story of John baptizing Jesus. In fact, John is not even called the Baptist in John’s gospel. I have to call him the Baptist in our lessons because it would be too confusing to call him just plain John when we are also talking about the John the evangelist, the gospel of John, the Apocalypse of John. The significance of John the Baptist for John the Evangelist is not that the Baptist baptized but that he was the first witness to Jesus. We could call him John the Witness. This idea of John as the faithful and true witness to Jesus was so important that the final editor of John’s Gospel inserted statements about John in the original hymn to the Word made flesh.
Thus the Baptist becomes a key part of the story of redemption. He was sent by God as a witness to the light. The word witness here in the Greek is where we get our word “martyr.” A martyr was a witness, one who gave testimony in a legal proceeding. In the Early Church it came to mean one who witnessed to Jesus Christ by facing death for his sake. A martyr witnesses with words and with his or her life. This passage does raise a question: Why would anyone have to be a witness to the light? Light is generally self-evident. This verse indicates that John was a witness to the Word of God before Jesus appeared. The Baptist was sent by God with the message that the true light would soon appear. Later in the gospel we will see that John recognized Jesus for who he was. A second reason why John witnessed to the light was that the world still did not recognize Jesus as the light of the world. The evangelist is telling the church to follow the example of the Baptist and be a witness to the light.
John not the Messiah: The Gospel of John tries to make it clear from the beginning that the Baptist was not the Messiah. He was a holy man sent by God whose words and life was a witness to the light of God, but he was not the incarnate light himself. He pointed to the path of salvation, but was not the savior. Though he was a prophet, like the prophets of old, his words were not passed down by his disciples for later centuries. For the Christians, he was a sign-post, a witness in the wilderness, a guide to the path, but Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. For Jews, he was one of many prophets killed by the Romans.
John the Prophet: As we saw from the quotation from Josephus, John was quite a controversial figure. Like many prophets who challenge corruption and abuse, John lost his head. Prophets do have a tendency to anger people with political power and wealth. Prophets tend to die violently. We say that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never kill me,” but if that is true, why do repressive regimes worry so much about the words of the prophets? Why do repressive regimes try to control the press and intimidate them into not speaking the truth? Why do tyrants want to listen in on our private conversations in order to intimidate us from sharing our thoughts with our friends and families? Why are tyrants afraid of criticism?
It is because words are dangerous, and the truth is dangerous. Those whose eyes are accustomed to the darkness, who work in secret and spin webs of deceit, are frightened when the light appears. John the Baptist was beheaded because a tyrant feared his words. The darkness feared the witness to the light.
Interrogation: Unlike the other gospels, John’s gospel begins with an investigation of John the Baptist by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. This shifts the focus from Herod, who had John executed, to the Temple and the Jewish priesthood. We should keep in mind that this shift is not as great as you might think. The Temple was the political center of Judea as well as the religious center, and the high priests were more like our senators than like our clergy. They were the ones who ruled under the umbrella of Roman authority. In the ancient world religion and politics were closely intertwined. By attacking the priests, John the Baptist was also challenging the social order. Thus, it is quite likely that the Gospel of John is relating something that actually happened. We would expect that the religious authorities would investigate a popular preacher like John, just as the pope sent people to investigate John Hus and Martin Luther when their voices grew a little too loud and their preaching starting affecting church revenues.
The investigators ask whether John was the Messiah or Elijah or one of the prophets. This is one of those passages that show us that the concerns of Christians in the first century were different from ours. What are the ideas behind these questions? I won’t bore you with all of the detail that scholars have gleaned from the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Talmud, but we do know that many people in the time Jesus expected that Elijah would return from heaven to prepare for the coming of the divine deliverer, the messiah. Elijah, you may recall from Sunday School, was the most powerful of the Old Testament prophets who had been taken up into heaven by a fiery chariot while he was still alive.
Essenes: I mentioned the Essenes last week. They were a rigorous Jewish sect that had rejected the Temple and the priesthood as corrupt. They built their own communities in the desert where they tried to live according to a strict understanding of the purity laws of the Old Testament. It is interesting that John was baptizing in the wilderness near Qumran. The Essenes used large tubs of water for ritual washing and purification, much like what John was doing in the Jordan River. The Essenes expected Elijah to prepare the way for the divine deliverer who would purify the Temple and restore the kingdom of David.
John fit the description of Elijah well. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus told his disciples that John was Elijah, but it appears that some of John’s followers said that John himself was the Messiah not Jesus. Therefore it was important for John the Evangelist to have John the Baptist proclaim distinctly and repeatedly that he was not the Messiah. What is odd is that in our passage for this morning John also explicitly denies being Elijah. He himself “the voice of one calling in the wilderness,” quoting from the prophet Isaiah. In the other three canonical gospels, it is the narrator who says this of John, but here it is John identifies himself as the narrator. Raymond Brown points out that the Essenes used this phrase to describe themselves (Brown, I:50), therefore it is plausible that John the Baptist described himself this way.
There is another curious aspect about this section about John the Baptist. The Pharisees also questioned John. It could be that the Evangelist is confusing the Sadducees and Pharisees here, but it makes sense that the Pharisees would also be concerned about his preaching. They shared the Essenes’ concerns over the Temple and the need to restore righteousness. They would have agreed with much of John’s preaching. It appears that they went to John because they were confused over baptism itself. If John was not Elijah, then how did he have the authority to wash away sins? The reason the Evangelist places this discussion before the appearance of Jesus was to press home his point that the Pharisees and the priests and the crowds should have been aware that the Messiah was about to appear. They should have been looking for the coming of the dawn with hope. Instead, they reacted with fear.
Looking for Another: In all four gospels and in Acts, John refers to one who was coming after him, whose sandals he was not worthy to untie or carry. There is just enough variation in these five quotations in the New Testament to indicate that this was part of an oral tradition that went back to John himself. In other words, the writers of the New Testament were not quoting from a literary source. It makes perfect sense, based on what we know from Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Talmud that John the Baptist viewed himself as a prophet sent to prepare Jews for the coming of the Messiah just as he is portrayed in the opening of John’s Gospel.
The Hidden Messiah: Before we end, there is one other thing that John says that will be important for the Gospel and for our faith. The Baptist says “among you stands one you do know. He is the one who comes after me.” This idea of the Hidden Messiah was important to the Essenes, and it is a major theme of the Gospel of Mark. The Messiah comes into the world secretly. This idea influenced the Shi’ite belief in the Hidden Imam who will appear before the judgment day. In John’s Gospel, Jesus was the true light and true Messiah from the beginning of his ministry, but the world did not recognize him. I think we can push John’s thought a little further and say that the world still does not recognize the Light.
Conclusion: It is not just the world out there that does not recognize the One who has come after John. Has the Christian church, with its long history of bloodshed and oppression, always recognized the Prince of Peace who brings redemption and forgiveness? As we debate obtuse questions of salvation, do we recognize the One who brings healing? Is the Messiah still hidden among those of us who sings hymns of praise?