Gospel: John 1:29-34

A Humble Witness

Which of your friends demonstrates the virtue of humility? How important is that person to you? To your family and community?

There's an old joke among religious educators. When a teacher broaches the subject of humility, he or she begins by stating a simple, but self-defeating command: "Raise you hand if you are humble!"

The truly humble deny they have obtained the virtue. Indeed, humility is a virtue measured by the degrees into which people grow. It is a virtue of process, lived experience. It is the virtue of constantly realizing one's place before God.

By deferring to One that was greater, John showed the world he knew his place before his Maker. He showed true humility.

Popular Translation

John the Baptist told the Jewish leaders he was not the Messiah. 29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him. "Look!" John told the people. "There is God's Lamb! He will forgive the world's sins! 30 This is the person I was talking about when I said, 'A man will show up after me. He has far more important than me because he was first in God's eyes even before I was born.' 31 I didn't know who the man was at first. But I came to baptize people with water so everyone in Israel could realize who he really was."

32-33 Then John told everyone, "God sent me to baptize the people in water. I didn't know who I was looking for until God told me, 'You will see my Spirit come down on and stay with a certain person. He will baptize people in the same Spirit.' Well, I saw God's Spirit come down like a dove from heaven. And it stayed with him. 34 So, I have seen what happened and I tell you now. This is God's Son!"

John's humility was rooted in his vision and his witness. He saw the Spirit descent upon and dwell in Jesus. And he pointed to Jesus as the "Lamb of God," the Father's true Son.

Literal Translation

29 On the following day, (John) saw Jesus come toward him and said, "Look! The Lamb of God, the (one) taking away the sin of the world! 30 This is (the person) of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who was begotten before me, because he was first (before) me.' 31 I did not know him, but, so that he might be revealed to Israel, I came baptizing with water." 32 John witnessed, saying, "I saw (and still see) the Spirit coming down out of heaven as a dove (flies) and stay with him. 33 I did not know him, but the One having sent me to baptize with water, that One said to me: 'On whom you see the Spirit come down, and on (whom the Spirit) stays, this is the (man) baptizing with the Holy Spirit.' 34 I have seen (the descent and indwelling of the Spirit) and have witnessed that this (man) is the Son of God!"

1:29 "The Lamb of God" has two viewpoints: the Baptist's or the gospel writer. The Baptist saw the "Lamb" as an end time image, the victorious Lamb who would bring God's judgement upon the earth (as in Revelations 17:14). But the evangelist saw the "Lamb" as the sacrificial offering for the "sin of the world." After all, the evangelist recorded the death of Jesus on Preparation Day, the time when the lambs were slaughtered and prepared for the Passover in Jerusalem (see John 19:14).

1:30 John's statement was translated as literally as possible. The statement appears confusing because he mixed two senses of comparison, one of time and one of rank. The Baptist recognized that One would follow his ministry. And his deeds would be greater than John's ("After me comes a man..."). Why did he know this? Here is where time and rank are mixed. The One existed before John was born ("...who was begotten before me"). And this One was God's leader ("he was first of me" where the word "first" implied rank). So, the phrase can be translated: "A man will come after me who existed before I was born, because he is my greater." Notice John saw rank through God's eyes, not a human point of view.

1:32 "I saw (and still see)" The verb "saw" inferred a past action that last into the present. In other words, John witnessed to the descent and indwelling of the Spirit as a continual event. The descent of the Spirit referred to the self giving of the Father to his Son. And the indwelling of the Spirit referred to the power of God Jesus would reveal in his ministry. So, John witnessed to relationship and ministry.

1:34 John's vision of the Spirit's action and his witness are continuous. In other words, in the evangelist's eyes, he kept seeing the activity of the Spirit and he kept commenting on the status of Jesus as the Son of God.

Humility is defined as "the virtue that expresses a spirit of deference." In the gospel, John showed humility through his witness to the Greater One. In our culture, a good witness gives first-hand information. We are consumed with the "facts." But, in Jesus' culture, a good witness had a good reputation. The quality of their witness depended upon the quality of their character. John placed his reputation, his character, and his very life at the service of his witness. His willingness to defer, to be humble, made John's witness all the more powerful.

What was John's witness? A command and a statement. The command was "LOOK!" The statement described the object of the command: the "Lamb of God," the one taking away the sin of the world. [1:29] In early Christian communities, the Lamb had two symbolic meanings. For those who saw darkness in the end times (like John the Baptist), the Lamb of God symbolized the victorious Warrior-Judge who would destroy the evil in the world (see Revelations 17:14). But for others (like John the Evangelist), the Lamb of God was the instrument (the Passover sacrifice) through which God would forgive the world's transgressions (see John 19:14,33,36). The tension between these two meanings has become part of tradition. Even today, some see Christ as the Judge who condemns the world at the end of time. Others focus upon the loving mercy the risen Christ shows to sinners.

Sin, too, has two shades of meanings in this passage. The "sin of the world" referred to the sum total of individual immoral acts and the sorry state of the world (what we would call "Original Sin").

Why did John point to Jesus? John gave his followers two reasons to view Jesus as the Lamb. First, Jesus existed before John. [1:30] John realized Jesus was God's Word, the instrument through which God created the world and would now save it (see John 1:1-3). But, as the Word, Jesus was God's living wisdom, whom one needed to live an ethical life and to worship with a pure heart (see John 1:4-5). God used his Word, his Wisdom, throughout time to create and to save, to give everyone the means to live according to His Will. When John realized Jesus was God's Word, he experienced the divine. John saw he was only tiny part of God's plan. But, Jesus WAS God's plan. Jesus existed before John and would exist after John.

Second, John saw the God's Spirit rest and remain upon Jesus. With the gift of the Spirit, Jesus would baptize others with that Spirit. [1:33] As God's dynamic power, the Spirit changed the person and the situation. The Spirit changed Jesus from a private citizen into a public minister. And through his public ministry, Jesus gave the Spirit to others so they could change and become children of God. Since the Spirit led God's initiative in the world, it was directly responsible for Jesus' ministry and the faith it caused.

How did John know Jesus was the "Lamb of God?" God revealed the it to John. Twice, John declared his prior ignorance. Twice, John pointed Jesus out. The first time, John stated that he baptized in order to prepare the people for the Greater One. [1:31] The second time, John said the "One who sent him to baptize" told him to watch for "He upon whom the Spirit remained." [1:33] Only when God opened his eyes to the truth could John see his purpose in the world: to prepare and declare Jesus as God's Son. [1:34]

Catechism Themes: Original Sin (CCC 407-412) and Baptism (CCC 1226-1228)

"Look! The Lamb of God, the (one) taking away the sin of the world!"

The Church teaches that everyone suffers from the effects of "Original Sin." According to Genesis 2-3, the first people (Adam and Eve) chose their own self interest over God's will. Their selfishness resulted in ignorance of other's needs and the greater good, blindness to the consequences of moral actions, and the decline in good relations between people. Like a cancer, selfishness infected human nature and society to the extent that it passed from generation to generation. No time, no culture, no people has ever proven to be truly oriented towards others' needs and God's will.

That situation changed with the life of Christ. Christ is the "New Adam," the model of a God-oriented life and means to live that life. Christ took upon himself all the effects of Original Sin (the world's self-centered nature) through his suffering and death. Through his resurrection, he conquered the world's sinful condition. With his gift of God's Spirit, we, too, can overcome the world's selfishness and its consequences. The Spirit empowers us to live like Christ, a life oriented towards God and others.

"This is the (man) baptizing with the Holy Spirit"

As the Sacrament of Christ's death and resurrection, Baptism is the primary means to receive God's Spirit. In Baptism, we enter the water. In doing so, we take part in Christ's death and our death to the self (Original Sin). When we rise from the water, we partake in Christ's resurrection and his new life (the Spirit). Sharing in his Spirit enables us to live out God's will. Because we take part in Christ's death and resurrection in Baptism, this sacrament not only takes away our individual transgressions, but also "washes away" the effects of the world's selfishness, Original Sin. In Baptism, we become one with the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

Baptism is the sacrament of life in the Spirit, a life of deference to God. Who has shown you a live lived in deference to God's will? How has that person inspired you to do the same?

John lived his life in deference to the One God would point out. He lived most of that life in ignorance of the final outcome, but in hope God would make that outcome plain. His life gives us a primary example of Christian humility, living in deference to God's will. John was truly the humble witness.

This gospel shows us the two dimensions of humble witness, the sight of faith and the witness to God's power. Where do you see God working in your life this week? Who have you told about God's activity?