A Witness To The Light
John 1: 6—8 and 20—28
Our reading for reflection this week is an ideal preparation for Christmas. The religious leaders of Israel 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 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.
Some Reflections On the Text
Verses 6 — 8
The Witness of John the Baptist
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, (you could say Preface—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 introductory comment, 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.
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 20 — 28 record the public testimony of the Baptist to Jesus in reply to a deputation from the Sanhedrin. Here, we return to the author’s historical account commenced momentarily in verses 6 — 8.
The evangelist is well qualified to assemble this record. The commentary on the Bible, edited by Dummelow, 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 and 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.
*”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).
In this Gospel the reference to ‘the Jews’ has three special senses:
- The inhabitants of Judea
- Members of the Sanhedrin (the meaning here)
- The enemies of Jesus.
Usually, St. John uses the term for the third group — the enemies of Jesus. When he does so, it is important we remember he is not condemning the rest!
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.
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 message.
“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 the Messiah.”
We know some already believed that he was (Luke 3: 15).
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.
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?”
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, would probably have been accepted. Instead, thoroughly conscious he had been sent to prepare the way for 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 to be only “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!”
This is the secret of his spiritual insight and he passes it on to his listeners. 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 are spiritually blind as well as deaf. But before we get too judgmental, we had better remember we can easily fall into the same trap.
Verse 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?”
The enquirers want to know by what authority John is baptising. They are disturbed by the effect he is having on ordinary people. They are probably unaware of the profound spiritual preparation the Baptist has built up over the years in the desert.
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.”
The Baptist skillfully makes a clear distinction between his role and our Lord’s. His interrogators are puzzled. Their vast knowledge of Sacred Scriptures has somehow failed to alert them to the meaning of the signs of fulfillment.
St. John the Baptist is exceptionally robust in remaining un-phased by his band of inquisitors. He is supremely confident he has a specific role to perform. He acknowledges that he, personally, is totally inferior to the person whose arrival he is proclaiming.
This happened in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
There are interesting and convincing modern theories about the actual location of this place. Dr Reith provides an interesting perspective.
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. 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.
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.
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, ‘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 really earned a share in the exaltation of Christ.
(Saint Gregory The Great)
It will, by now, be evident why meditation on this passage during Advent will be so meaningful. 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 calls us to do exactly the opposite, especially at this time of the year. Christians must make a choice whom they will follow. If we follow Jesus Messiah, He will lead us on the pathway to God. If we follow the increasingly atheistic practices of our culture and the way it is heading, we will become as confused and dissatisfied as many around us.
John the Baptist emphasised the need to make a commitment and stick with it!