There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Translation: A man sent from God happened, his name John. He came to witness so that he might bear witness to the light so that all might faith through him. He himself was not the light, but so that he might witness to the light.
This is the witness of John when the Judeans sent priests and Levites out of Jerusalem so that they might question him, "Who are you?" He declared without any qualification, avowing, "I am not the Christ." And they questioned him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" And he said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" And he answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? so that we might give an answer for the ones who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He declared, "I am a voice crying out in the wilderness: 'Make straight the path of the Lord," just as Isaiah the prophet said.
And they had been sent from the pharisees. They asked him and said to him, "Then why are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them saying, "I baptize in water. Among you stands one you do not know, the one coming after me. I am surely not worthy so that I might loose the thong of a sandal."
This happened in Bethany on the other side of the Jordan where John was baptizing.
Background and situation: The themes of the four Sundays in Advent are usually second coming, two John the Baptists, and one Mary. This is the third Sunday in Advent so, therefore, we are on our second Adventian emphasis on John the Baptist, this one from the fourth gospel.
The opening verses of the text are from the famous prologue. Anything in the prologue is of great importance, and these three verses (6-8), inserted right after the spectacular opening--Word, being, life, light, all things!--accent the witness of John.
John in the fourth gospel: "Witness" is an important concept all through the fourth gospel, and that is how John is presented. He is a "witness to the light." The Greek word is martureo, from which we get our word "martyr." The connection is obvious: Witnessing can lead to martyrdom. John himself is a good example.
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), John the Baptist is linked with repentance--"a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," says Mark. That is not so in the fourth gospel. In the fourth gospel, John's only mission is to point to Christ.
Verse six, in Greek, begins with egeneto--"it happened." The use of egeneto subtly underlines the importance of the statement. Literally speaking, John "happened," or even John "began to exist." Then, he "was sent"--apostalmenos. (The noun "apostle" never appears in the fourth gospel, but the verb form occurs many times. The author of the fourth gospel prefers active mission over sedentary titles.)
John was sent "from--para--God." Prepositions can be tricky in Greek, but of the options available to the author of the fourth gospel, it is interesting that he chose para here instead of ek or apo. Ek means "out of," apo "away from." Para, however, means "from the side of." Its use here indicates that the witness of John has its source or origin in God. John may not be the light, but his witness to the light comes from God.
John bears witness to the light so that "all might faith through him." In Greek, the word for "faith" is pisteuein, which is a verb. "Faith" used as a verb sounds funny in English so we usually translate pisteuein as "believe" instead.
This is unfortunate because the biblical concept of "faith" is not the same thing as "believe." Faith is "radical trust," an orientation of one's entire being. "Believe" usually means intellectual assent--(like putting a check mark beside every phrase of the Apostles' Creed, then faxing it to heaven so you can be "saved.") The author of the fourth gospel could care less about "intellectual assent." He's not into head games. He's after commitment.
"Jews" vs. "Judeans": Notice, too, that while John was sent by God, and his witness comes from God, the "priests and Levites" were sent from the Judeans, who came out of Jerusalem. (The NRSV translation of ioudaioi as "Jews" is mistaken. The word was not translated as "Jews" until after the Bar Kochva Revolt which began in AD 132--forty years after the writing of the fourth gospel.)
This has been a costly mistake. The overwhelming majority of uses of ioudaioi in the New Testament occur in the fourth gospel. When the word is translated as "the Jews," it sounds like the indictment of an entire people.
That is clearly not the author of the fourth gospel's intent, as anyone with any familiarity with the fourth gospel and the world of its time would surely know. It is absurd to suggest that "the Jews" as a people opposed Jesus. How, then, would you explain his overwhelming popularity with the people, nearly all of them Jews? "The Jews" loved Jesus but they hated him too? The author of the fourth gospel was not schizophrenic.
The fourth gospel is not an argument between Christians and Jews. It's an argument between Jews and Jews--specifically, "Judean" Jews and Galilean Jews. The former opposed the Jesus movement, and the latter supported it. For the author of the fourth gospel, "Judean" stands for an entire mindset and worldview. "Judeans" support heirarchy, division between "the chosen" and everyone else, the financial and religious "establishment," and collaboration with Rome.
Note well: John "was sent" from God. The "priests and Levites" "were sent" only from the Judeans. Right off the bat, the author of the fourth gospel gives us a preview of a theme that will resound all through the book. (Curious, too, that the "Judeans" were audacious enough to send representatives "across the Jordan," which was outside their territory.)
The "voice": John denies that he is the Christ. The denial is even more pronounced in Greek. The fourth gospel has many instances where Jesus says ego eimi--literally, "I am." This is the Greek equivalent of God's Holy Name in Hebrew, YHWH.
When John says he is not the Christ, the Greek construction is ego ouk eimi--I am not. Given the point of view of the whole fourth gospel, this is an emphatic denial.
Neither is John the prophet Elijah or any other prophet. The gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, says that John was Elijah. That's because Matthew's agenda was different than that of the author of the fourth gospel. For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. He is the culmination of the tradition.
For the author of the fourth gospel, however, Jesus needs no established authority for any kind of validation, and neither does John. Jesus the Word was "in the beginning," after all, which precedes all tradition, and John was sent by God. He is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a prophet, and he doesn't care. Sent by God, he does not need to present credentials. Outside the traditional channels, he is a "voice."
The pharisees enter the picture, which ratchets up the tension. Although the fourth gospel gives an impression that Jesus had at least some support among the pharisees, they would also prove to be some of his primary opponents.
This would be even more true at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel. By AD 80 or so, after the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70, the pharisees were the only major Jewish tradition left standing. After AD 70, the pharisees, for the first time in their history, were a majority of the Sanhedrin. (Rather like the old Soviets, they re-wrote their history to say that they were really in charge all along.)
John responds to the interrogations of the pharisees by telling them they do not "know" the one coming after. The fourth gospel will consistently portray the enemies of Jesus as not "knowing." This is not surprising since "the world" did not "know" Jesus either (1:10). That said, the author of the fourth gospel felt it necessary to assert, at the first mention of the word "pharisee," that they do not "know."
John then asserts his own unworthiness in relationship to the one "coming after." All four gospels are careful to put the Baptist in an inferior position to Jesus.
John was baptizing in water. Water is one of the richest symbols in humanity. Virtually every culture and religion in the world has a primal water rite of some kind. Symbolically, water is feminine. (There's a reason women are more comfortable with bodily fluids than are men.)
Water is powerful. Water can sweep over the land and wash it away. Set something in water long enough, and the water will break it down. Water is a dissolving element. (There's a reason we refer to baptism as a death.)
While John baptizes in water, Jesus "will baptize with the holy spirit. (1:33)" Water brings death, spirit brings new life. Both are essential aspects of re-birth. "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit," said Jesus (3:5).
Image: St. John the Baptist, Donatello