Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Personal and Honest Witness

Do you harbor some cynicism about the practice of law? Explain.

For the past twenty years, the practice of law has become big business. Not only has it dominated American economic life, it was become entertainment. Notice the number of law enforcement, law practice, and court-reality shows on television. There's even a cable channel dedicated to broadcasting criminal trials. Now, add all the high profile cases in the media. The image of the court seems to haunt us at every turn.

A cynical backlash has arisen in the American public about the legal system. As law gains greater visibility, many tune the law out as so much verbage. The law is just one more voice in the cacophony that chokes the airwaves. The truth gets lost in the rhetoric, the posturing, and the strategy of the court room.

But, when we hear a statement that rings with authenticity, that resonants with sincere truth, we stop in our tracks and strain to listen. Imagine the effect John the Baptist had on his audience as he gave his witness to the Truth.

Popular Translation

6 God sent a man named John. 7 John came to preach, so he could tell everyone about God's Light, and, so they would believe what he preached about the Light. 8 John wasn't the Light. John came so he could tell others about the Light.

19 This is what John preached. At that time, the leaders in the capitol sent representatives to ask him a question. "What sort of person are you?"

20 John gave them a clear and direct answer, "I am not the Messiah."

21 "Who are you, then?" they pressed John. "Are you Elijah?"

"I am not," John answered.

"Are you the Prophet we've been waiting for?" they asked.

"No," John said.

22 "Tell us what sort of person you are," they continued. "We need an answer for the people who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"

23 John answered them in the words of Isaiah the prophet. "I am a voice shouting in the desert, 'Make it easy for the Lord to arrive!'" 24 Some people from the Pharisees 25 asked John, "Why do you always baptize if you are not the Messiah, or Elijah, or the Prophet we've been waiting for?"

26 "I just baptize with water," John answered. "But someone has stood among you who you don't recognize. 27 He will come after me. And I am not good enough to loosen the strap of his sandal."

28 All this happened in Bethany across the Jordan river where John always baptized.

Literal Translation:

1:6 A man appeared, having been sent from God. His name was John. 7 This (man) came for witness, so he might witness about the LIGHT, so all might believe through him. 8 That (man) was not the LIGHT, but, so he might witness about the LIGHT.

1:19 And this is the witness of John. At that time, the Jewish leaders out of Jerusalem sent priests and Levites [to him] so they might ask him, "Who are you?" 20 And, he confessed, and did not deny it, and he confessed that "I am not the Christ."

21 And they asked him, "Who, then? Are you Elijah?"

He said, "I am not."

"Are you the Prophet?"

He answered, "No."

22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? That answer we will give to the ones sending us. What do you say about yourself?"

23 He said, "I am a voice crying out in the desert; make straight the way of the Lord!" (Just as the prophet Isaiah stated.) 24 Some of those having been sent were out of the Pharisees. 25 And they asked him, and said to him, "Why, then, do you baptize, if you are not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet?" 26 John answered them, saying, "I baptize with water. Among you ONE has stood who you do not know. 27 ONE is coming after me of whom I am not worthy that I might the strap of his sandal." 28 These (events) happened in Bethany across the Jordan (river) where John was baptizing.

1:7-8 "LIGHT" is capitalized for clarity since John obvious referred to Jesus as the light. The Greek noun-verb ("martyrios-matyreo"in 1:7) means witness. (An interesting side note: this noun-verb combination is the root word for martyr, the ultimate Christian witness). John doubles the reference about John the Baptist's witness in verses 7 & 8 to make a point. For John the Evangelist, the life purpose of John the Baptist was witness.

1:19 "At that time, . . . " is literally "When . . . " The word acts as a temporal adverb, but does not introduce a relative clause. "...the Jewish leaders . . . " is literally " . . . the Jews . . . " In the context of the gospel, John referred to the Jewish leaders in such short hand. [to him] is an addition some manuscripts give for clarity.

1:20 " . . . he confessed . . . " is listed twice for emphasis. John the Baptist was clear in his denial and his denial was truthful.

Last week, Mark introduced John the Baptist. The evangelist emphasized the proclamation of Good News. This week, the gospel writer, John, viewed the Baptist as a witness to the coming Messiah.

What is the difference between proclamation and witness? As we saw last week, proclamation was tied to the notion of the herald, the crier who announced official news. Witness, however, had personal and legal overtones. A witness usually had a personal connection to the events he or she related. And, in legal proceedings, a witness was bound to tell the entire truth; he or she could not withhold information.

These two qualities of witness had profound implications in ancient culture. Since most people lived in extended families and in the same neighborhood or hamlet generation after generation, they lived in close quarters without the right to or luxury of privacy. Family members and neighbors knew each other intimately, sometimes too intimately. To inflate a sense of honor and hide any details that shamed, most people learned the subtle art of evasion, half truths, and denials. Ancient societies received news of a personal nature with suspicion and disbelief.

John the Evangelist presented the Baptist as God's witness, the one who spoke eternal truth in a transient world. Since John wrote in contrasting images (light and dark, life and death, good and evil), he would not surprise his readers comparing God's unchanging will to our changing world. Notice the verbs in verses 6 and 7. "John . . . having been sent by God . . . " The passive participle in 1:6 referred to a time in the indefinite past. In other words, John was sent by God in a time unknown (better known as eternity). "This man came for witness . . . " The verb in the simple past (1:7) referred to a definite time, the historic preaching of the Baptist to his audience. [1:6-7a]

Why did John preach? Two reasons are listed in verse 7. First, John witnessed about God's Light, the one who would bring truth to a darkened, dishonest world. Notice again the evangelist's world view. The Baptist's role was to prepare people to receive the Light that would turn them to the light, the good, the life, etc.

Second, those who heard the Baptist's witness would believe in the Light. The Baptist's testimony (not the man himself) was the conduit of faith for the listener. (The phrase "though him" in 1:7b referred to John's testimony; only Jesus could be the personal mediator of faith to the Father, as 1:8 clearly stated.) [1:7b-8]

The balance of the gospel reading was John's witness to the Jewish leaders. Followers from the major Jewish parties questioned the Baptist: Sadducees (priests and Levites in 1:19) and Pharisees (in 1:24). They reacted to the activity and ministry of Baptist. Their question "Who are you?" was not a one of personal identity, but one of meaning. What did the activity of the Baptist mean to the leaders and Judaism as a whole? Their questions reflected the effect John's ministry had on the populace, an effect over which the leaders had no control. [1:19, 22]

The leaders could have asked the question in another way. Where did John's ministry fit in the greater scheme of Judaism? John preached an apocalyptic message. Was he a figure of the end times? Popular belief in Judaism held out for three possibilities: the Messiah, Elijah, or a coming Prophet. The Messiah would be a king and high priest, who would restore God's Kingdom with pure worship in the Lord's Temple. Since Elijah, the first of the prophets, was swept into heaven before death (see 2 Kings 2:2-12), the prophet would return to prepare Israel for the coming Messiah (see Malachi 4:5).

Finally, the "Prophet" referred to a figure mentioned in Deuteronomy 18:15-18:

15 "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren--him you shall heed-- 16 just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, 'Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die.' 17 And the Lord said to me, 'They have rightly said all that they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (RSV)

At the time Exodus was written, the Prophet referred to God himself; he would find a way to communicate with his people. But, in the time of Jesus, the Prophet referred to an eschatological figure who would prepare the people for the Messiah. John made a distinction between the Messiah and the "Prophet" in 7:40-41. We can only assume the contemporaries of the evangelist made a distinction between Elijah and the "Prophet." (I have not found the reason for such a distinction so far in my studies.) [1:21, 25]

The Baptist answered their questions in a short, emphatic way, like a witness responding to direct questioning. No, the Baptist was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. [1:21] His direct answer, although in the negative, did not answer the question: Where did John fit in? John's affirmative answer was enigmatic and scriptural. He was a lone voice in the desert proclaiming preparation for the Lord's coming (the quote used is a loose translation of Isaiah 40:3). John dressed and lived like the desert prophet (Elijah). Yet, he had a ministry that invited the populace into a river to seek freedom from the slavery of evil (like Moses who prophesied the coming "Prophet"). And he preached the Lord's coming (which pointed to the Messiah). While he denied identity with any of the apocalyptic figures, his message, ministry, and demeanor mirrored all three. [1:23]

If he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, why did he baptize? While there might not be an apparent connection between the figures of the end times and a cleansing ritual, the persona, message, and locale of the Baptist filled the gap. As a cleansing ritual, baptism was popular in the ancient world. Many pagan cults had water purification rituals. Judaism had water purification rituals in noted in scripture (see Leviticus 16:4, 24 for an example) and in groups contemporary with Jesus (i.e., the Qumran community that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls). John changed the meaning of the water purification ritual, however. He baptized in a river that flowed in the desert (Elijah cured Naaman in the Jordan; the "Prophet" reflected the leadership of Moses in the desert). He baptized as a preparation for the Messiah. In context, the Baptist made baptism a ritual that prepared the repentant for the end of the world. Baptism was now a sign for Day of Yahweh. [1:26a, 28]

John's addition to his answer finished the circle. John answered the question of the leaders with his words, his location, and his activity. Now, he would witness to the leaders. Yes, he baptized with water (activity within time). But, there was one who was already in their midst (in unspecified time, that is, from all eternity), who came after him (in the definite future). [1:26-27b] Notice the evangelist again contrasted the eternal with the temporal. The ONE who is to come was the LIGHT who existed from the beginning of creation. He was God's WORD, always present, always calling to his people. This ONE would take on flesh and enter time in a new way. (See John1:1-18) The evangelist did not just define the eternal as that which existed outside (and exclusive of) time and space. He focused upon the constant activity of the divine (always calling, always present, always faithful) within the ever-changing affairs of humanity. That which was beyond became close. God visited his people. But now he would come in a new way. Like Mark 1:7, the thought of such a visit caused the Baptist to feel unworthy. [1:27b]

Catechism Theme: John, precursor, prophet, and Baptist. (CCC 717-720)

John the Baptist stood alone against the hypocrisy of his time and all time. He told the truth, because he witnessed to God's Truth, the Christ.

John was the Elijah figure, filled with the fire of the Spirit. His ministry fulfilled the cycle of prophets, for John prepared his audience for coming of the Messiah. No Spirit-filled prophets were necessary in the time of the Messiah, because he would offer the Spirit to everyone.

John's message and ministry of a repentant baptism prefigured Christ's. John baptized in the spirit of hope. The baptism of Jesus realized that hope. Those baptized by John looked forward to a life with God. Those baptized by the Christ lived in God.

We are now half way through Advent. The closer Christmas comes, the stronger the pull to God and the crazier the season becomes. Anticipation became proclamation which is now witness. It's time to take stock. How strong was your witness this week? Was it personal? Was it honest?

Through his ministry, John the Baptist opened the way for Jesus of Nazareth. As Christians, we, too, prepare the way of the Lord for others. Our words, our example, our character need to be transparent, like John's. While the world may not understand us, it will never be able to charge us with duplicity or diversion. Our witness will be true and from the heart. And everyone will know who we follow, who we expect to soon arrive.

How can you be a little more honest (and authentic) this week? Reflect on your words, your actions, and your character. Pray and plan for this coming week.