A Witness To The Light
Advent 3 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. John 1: 6 — 8 and 19 — 28
Although we have begun the second year in the three-year liturgical cycle of Scripture readings (called the “Year of Mark”) our Gospel reading this week is from St John. During special seasons such as the present one, i.e. Advent, there tends to be a small number taken from the other Gospels, particularly John.
Our reading for reflection this week is an ideal preparation for Christmas. The religious leaders of Israel (some hostile towards him, some not) had been pressing John the Baptist to declare openly who he was. There was an air of expectancy among the people ready to proclaim the Messiah. John the Baptist, by his life and preaching, heightened this expectation and would only emphasise why he had come: to prepare the way for the Messiah. The Pharisees were preoccupied with finding out who John was; but John only wanted them to know who Jesus was! This is the great gift of the Baptist. Not only does he point to the Messiah; but his life and ministry demonstrate how to see the Light and how to hear the Word. His message is therefore as important for us as it was for those who actually went out into the desert to see him 2000 years ago. With prayer and reflection on the Advent Gospel readings this great gift of spiritual insight can also be ours. Our weekly Reflections aim at helping readers to develop this great skill. Though focussing always on our Blessed Messiah in some way, they are offered in the spirit of John the Baptist’s mission: to identify the true Messiah and the changes we should make in our lives to become His disciples, in fact, to proclaim Him as the One who is coming again! This focus on the ultimate return of our Lord Jesus Christ is an utterly, absolutely, and entirely necessary element of the Good News — the Gospel.
Some Reflections on the text
Verses 6 — 8
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might
believe through him.
He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
These verses are part of what is often referred to as the “Prologue”, meaning Preface, or if it helps, Overture (verses 1 — 18) of the Gospel according to St John. The Prologue is a superb unit of composition. It opens by referring to our Lord as the Logos (Greek for Word) of God, and proclaims that the Word was God, that He was made man, and that He revealed the Father.
Verses 6 — 8 form a brief aside and begin the author’s historic record of the mission of the forerunner of our Lord, St. John the Baptist. The evangelist makes it clear that the Baptist had a true mission from God and that he was not the Light. His mission was to bear witness to it and to reflect it. In doing so, John would not just talk about Jesus, but would convey the powerful testimony of the Messiah personally experienced.
And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from Jerusalem
sent priests and Levites (to him) to ask him, “Who are you?”
Verses 19 — 28 record the public testimony of the Baptist to Jesus in reply to a deputation from the Sanhedrin (Jewish Governing Body). They begin the enquiry as to what sort of person John thought he was.
Here, we return to the author’s historical account commenced momentarily in
verses 6 — 8.
The evangelist (St. John, as distinct from the Baptist) is well qualified to assemble this record. One commentary makes this observation:
The independence and fullness of the account of the Baptist in this
Gospel renders it highly probable that the evangelist had once been
the Baptist’s disciple. He knows, for example, the exact places where
John baptised (1: 28; 3: 23); the exact day and even hour when
certain things were said (1: 29, 35, 39); the contemporary disputes
with the Jews about purifying (3: 25); the relations, not always friendly,
between the disciples of John and those of Christ (3: 26); the exact
time when John was cast into prison (3: 24). His account of the
Baptist’s testimony agrees with that of the Synoptists, but he adds
to it important particulars.
Note: “Synoptists” = writers of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
He mentions, for instance, that John actually saw the dove
descending upon Jesus, and was thus enabled to recognise
Him (1: 32), that he applied to Him the titles Lamb of God (1: 29; 36)
and Son of God (1: 34; 3: 36), the latter clearly in a superhuman
sense, for he declares His pre-existence (1: 15; 30), and says that to
believe in Him is to have eternal life (3: 36).
Commentary On the Bible (Ed. J. Dummelow)
In this Gospel the reference to ‘the Jews’ has four special senses:
• People living in or near Jerusalem whom today we refer to as “Judeans”.
• Casual references to the Jewish people.
• References to the Jewish authorities based in Jerusalem,
(at the Temple in particular).
• Those Jews openly hostile to Jesus —
• See Appendix: The Jews.
The Sanhedrin was the chief ecclesiastical court of the Jews, wielding authority over Jews everywhere. It consisted of seventy men (as the name signifies in Aramaic), and in origin reached back to the seventy elders on whom the Spirit of God rested at Moses’ request, though formally only to the times, probably, of Ezra. The president was the High Priest for the time. (Reith)
Sadler has a helpful comment here:
Commentator upon commentator speaks disparagingly of this
mission of the Jews, as prompted by exclusiveness, bigotry, hostile
feeling, &c. But, surely, if there was then existing any ecclesiastical
authority whatsoever as distinguished from the Roman rule, it was
the plain duty of those who exercised it, when such a person as the
Baptist appeared and so moved the religious world of the day, to
ask him plainly who he was. If they had not done so their
indifference would have been as wicked as their rejection of his
“Who art thou?” This can only mean, What message or what
commission hast thou from God? It cannot have been a mere
personal question, because they must have known perfectly that
he was the son of one of the heads of the courses of priests. And
by his answer, “I am not the Christ,” he showed that he understood
that the question was put with reference to his claims as one
“sent of God.”
he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not
We know some already believed that he was the Messiah (Luke 3: 15). It is interesting to note how John answers in two forms: one negative and one positive. This is a Jewish manner of “straight talking”. The Evangelist writing the Gospel uses the technique to demonstrate the complete openness of the Baptist and his sheer integrity.
So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?”
And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.”
On the basis of Malachi 4: 5, many Jews also believed that Elijah would appear before the end time to prepare the way for the day of the Lord. Note how the Baptist denied that he was literally Elijah, though his coming fulfilled Malachi’s prophecy.
When John was asked, “Are you the Prophet?” this was a reference to Deuteronomy 18: 15 and the people questioning him regarded that person to be not the Messiah, but one of his forerunners. John, however, regarded the Prophet of Deuteronomy 18: 15 as actually the Messiah, and therefore denied that he was the one. It is interesting to observe how the Scriptural reference was not understood uniformally even then.
In summary, they were asking John, “Is your work the work of Elijah? Are you the same as Elijah? By his answer John the Baptist declared openly that he did not understand himself to be even a lesser prophet.
So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to
those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?”
You can tell by this that the deputation is getting a little confused! Their question gets close to an exasperated demand, “For goodness’ sake tell us who you think you are. Stop talking in riddles! Who do you really claim to be?” They are not seeking his name or family connections — they know all of that. They are pressing (quite sincerely, actually) — “Tell us who you think you are. Who do you really claim to be?”
The real problem for the deputation is that John the Baptist didn’t claim to be anyone but John the Baptist! He emphatically denied being any of the famous names which, given the great impact he was making, they would probably have accepted if that was what he wanted. Instead, thoroughly conscious he had been sent to prepare the way for the Anointed One (the Messiah, the Christ whom he believed to be close at hand), John chose a “label” which merged the messenger and his message as no other could.
He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make
straight the way of the Lord,”‘ as Isaiah the prophet said.”
John the Baptist claimed only to be “a voice”. Thus he could not have said less about himself consistent with his complete faithfulness to the One who sent him.
John here quotes Isaiah 40: 3. If you look up this reference you will notice, since most Bibles in English (but not all) are based on the Hebrew text, that John has not quoted the Hebrew text. He has quoted from the Greek Septuagint, which is mostly known these days by those who read the Latin Vulgate or translations of it (e.g. Knox version). These are based on the Greek Old Testament. The Septuagint connects the phrase “in the desert” with “the voice of one calling”; and thus we have John the Baptist, proclaiming from his desert abode, “Make a straight path for the Lord to travel.”
The spiritual meaning is very significant. John calls us to the desert place, a place of quiet, uncrowded, uncluttered simplicity, where his message will etch itself in the depths of our being: “Go forth and jettison everything in your life which gets in the way of the Lord’s coming!” St. John the Baptist has, spiritually, “hit the nail on the head”.
This is the secret of his spiritual insight. This is the way to see and to hear in the spiritual domain. But, as is so often the case with those who quote Scripture at the drop of a hat and think they know it all, the deputation in front of John miss the point. They do not know how to hear the word of God. They have gone the way of so many religious people who think they have Scripture all neatly tied up in little packages to dump on people without truly caring for them: they have become spiritually blind as well as deaf.
Verses 24 and 25
Some Pharisees were also sent.
They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the
Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet?”
These members of the Pharisee community were very familiar with the Jewish Mikvah, the washing for ritual cleansing: a beautiful and venerable tradition. That was not the problem. They wanted to know on what grounds John was immersing people under the water in the Jordon River. They mistook his action as an attempt by him to make a statement about himself and his authority. They missed the intrinsic spiritual linking of all relevant prophecies which drew the curtain back and laid before the viewers the whole Biblical scenario awaiting the entrance of the Messiah Himself.
John the Baptist was certainly making a strong statement — but it was not about himself — it was to signal the moment so long prophesied and awaited: the arrival of the One anointed to carry out the Father’s Will in every detail: the One who would be (and proclaim Himself to be) the Way of Truth to Life.
(For further reading on “Sadducees, Scribes and Pharisees“)
Verses 26 and 27
John answered them, “I baptize with water; but there is one
among you whom you do not recognize,
the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not
worthy to untie.”
To paraphrase: “You do not recognise him for what He is. He will come into prominence when I am no longer prominent“.
And John, in reply, again passes over himself as of no consequence,
— not disparaging his office, but pointing to and exalting the person
of Christ, thus answering their question indirectly. I, (emphatic), with
water only, “which is the mere outward symbol of the real baptism
that is not in my power.” The relation of John’s baptism to Christ’s is
that of type to antitype #. The “water” represents the whole cleansing
efficacy of Christ, as the sacrament of baptism in the Church does;
the cleansing away of sin from the penitent, and the bestowal of the
Holy Ghost.” (J. Reith)
# type to antitype — (i.e. prefiguring leading to “fulfilment“).
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was
There are interesting and convincing modern theories about the actual location of this place.
“The site was probably near Jericho; on the route travellers would
take going eastward. A Roman road led through Jericho, and was
continued on the farther side of Jordan by Heshbon. The road possibly,
which our Lord took when going and returning from the wilderness
where He was tempted.
The choice of the spot may have been determined on this account;
perhaps also with some reference to the crossing, about the same
place (if not the very same), of the Israelites under Joshua. There
may have been in John’s mind the idea of a new repentant nation
again passing through the river to possess the land, and so prepare
for the Messiah-King. What the result of this testimony on the minds
of the deputies, or those who sent them, was, we are not told (See 3: 25).
They were at least warned of the actual presence among them of One
greater than the speaker, whom they could not but take to be the
Messiah.” (J. Reith)
Before closing let’s read from a sermon about this text preached by St Gregory the Great (5th Century) around the time he sent the first missionaries to Britain from his monastery overlooking the ancient Roman Forum..
The words just read to us, dear brothers, pay tribute to the humility
of John. Though his virtue was so eminent that he could have been
taken for the Christ, he chose to remain solidly himself. He did not
lose his self-possession to the empty vanity of human opinion. Rather,
“he acknowledged and did not deny; he acknowledged, ‘I am not the
Christ’.” But in saying “I am not,” John clearly denied being what he was
not, yet without denying what he was. Thus, by speaking truthfully,
he became a member of Him whose name he refused to arrogate falsely.
Since he had no desire to appropriate the name of the Christ, he
became Christ’s member. For when he took pains humbly to
acknowledge his own lowliness, he truly earned a share in the
exaltation of Christ. (Saint Gregory The Great)
The choice of this text as one for Advent can now be seen as well made. If we are to prepare the way for our Lord to come more fully into our lives, then we have some unfinished business to get on with. This applies to us individually as well as collectively in the Church. The Baptist’s call needs to echo “loud and clear” throughout the Church. Unless we improve our performance we could well find ourselves as mystified and lost as were the members of the deputation pressing John.
They didn’t recognise the Messiah when he came, and there is every chance we will miss Him too, unless we take the Baptist’s call to heart. In these times of great spiritual turmoil and danger, John’s proclamation from the desert place is desperately needed. Jesus went often to a desert place for silent prayer and recollection. Our culture keeps calling us to do exactly the opposite, especially at this time of the year. Christians must make a choice whom they will follow, and be ready for the consequences. It is a simple choice to affirm our belief in our Lord Jesus Christ — and to make space for Him in our busy lives — quiet space where we can turn to Him within, and learn from the Sacred Scriptures how to see and hear spiritually.
“Blessed be God who calls us to stillness and quiet, that
He might enjoy our company and share His love.”
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Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature
(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
A Witness To The Light
Advent 3 Year B St. John 1: 6 — 8 and 19 — 28
1. John the Baptist never gave any sign that he needed to be some distinguished
2. John the Baptist’s life was an example of sheer simplicity, “making do” with
3. We too can retire to the desert and allow ourselves to turn heart and mind
“At the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
Let us pray for one another to respond to the message proclaimed by John the Baptist — to observe closely what it means to testify to the “Light of the World”: and for us to reflect that Light wherever we are.
John 1: 6 — 8 and 19 — 28
Advent 3 Year B
6 5 A man named John was sent from God.
7 He came for testimony, 6 to testify to the light, so that all might
8 He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.
- – – – – – – -
19 13 14 And this is the testimony of John. When the Jews from
20 15 he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the
21 So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” 16 And
22 So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to
23 He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make
24 Some Pharisees 18 were also sent.
25 They asked him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the
26 John answered them, “I baptize with water; 19 but there is one
27 the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not
28 This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, 20 where John
5  John was sent just as Jesus was “sent” (⇒ John 4:34) in divine mission. Other references to John the Baptist in this gospel emphasize the differences between them and John’s subordinate role.
6  Testimony: the testimony theme of John is introduced, which portrays Jesus as if on trial throughout his ministry. All testify to Jesus: John the Baptist, the Samaritan woman, scripture, his works, the crowds, the Spirit, and his disciples.
- – – – – – – -
13 [19-51] The testimony of John the Baptist about the Messiah and Jesus’ self-revelation to the first disciples. This section constitutes the introduction to the gospel proper and is connected with the prose inserts in the prologue. It develops the major theme of testimony in four scenes: John’s negative testimony about himself; his positive testimony about Jesus; the revelation of Jesus to Andrew and Peter; the revelation of Jesus to Philip and Nathanael.
14  The Jews: throughout most of the gospel, the “Jews” does not refer to the Jewish people as such but to the hostile authorities, both Pharisees and Sadducees, particularly in Jerusalem, who refuse to believe in Jesus. The usage reflects the atmosphere, at the end of the first century, of polemics between church and synagogue, or possibly it refers to Jews as representative of a hostile world (⇒ John 1:10-11).
15  Messiah: the anointed agent of Yahweh, usually considered to be of Davidic descent. See further the note on ⇒ John 1:41.
16  Elijah: the Baptist did not claim to be Elijah returned to earth (cf ⇒ Malachi 3:23; ⇒ Matthew 11:14). The Prophet: probably the prophet like Moses (⇒ Deut 18:15; cf ⇒ Acts 3:22).
17  This is a repunctuation and reinterpretation (as in the synoptic gospels and Septuagint) of the Hebrew text of ⇒ Isaiah 40:3 which reads, “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.”
18  Some Pharisees: other translations, such as “Now they had been sent from the Pharisees,” misunderstand the grammatical construction. This is a different group from that in ⇒ John 1:19; the priests and Levites would have been Sadducees, not Pharisees.
19  I baptize with water: the synoptics add “but he will baptize you with the holy Spirit” (⇒ Mark 1:8) or “. . . holy Spirit and fire” (⇒ Matthew 3:11; ⇒ Luke 3:16). John’s emphasis is on purification and preparation for a better baptism.
20  Bethany across the Jordan: site unknown. Another reading is “Bethabara.”
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised
Appendix — “The Jews”
This phrase occurs frequently in the Gospels and particularly in the account of St. John the Evangelist. We need to remember that he was a loyal, practising Jew who followed the Messiah — Jeshua, as he called Him. Contrary to the common opinion, St. John did not use the term in a derogatory way, but in particular contexts which were understood by the people of the time (second half of the first century C. E.); even though by this time Christians often wrote in ways which demonstrated growing antagonism between Judaism and Christianity.
As a general guideline only, we could arrange the Christian references to “the Jews” in St. John’s Gospel in four groups.
1. People living in or near Jerusalem whom today we refer to as “Judeans”:
11: 8, 19, 31, 33, 36, 45, 54. 12: 9, 11. 19: 20.
2. Casual references to the Jewish people:
2: 6, 13. 3: 1, 25. 4: 9, 22. 5: 1. 6: 4. 7: 2.
3. References to the Jewish authorities based in Jerusalem,
1: 19. 2: 18, 20. 5: 10, 15, 16, 18. 7: 1, 11, 13, 15, 35. 8: 22.
4. Those Jews openly hostile to Jesus. Usually they were senior authorities
6: 41, 52. 8: 48, 52, 57. 10: 19, 24, 31, 33.
The purpose of this appendix is to discourage thoughtless and disparaging applications of the above term for a people whom the Church bids us to look upon as our “Elder Brothers”.
(Based on “The Jews” In The Gospel of John by Robert G. Bratcher among other references.)