Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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 (John 1:6-8 and 19-28 – NRSV).
Our text begins with three verses from the Prologue of John’s Gospel. Those verses are followed by a further nine verses taken from after the Prologue.
Francis Moloney writes of the Prologue: “The first page of the Fourth Gospel is one of the most dense passages in the New Testament, a synthesis of the author’s christology and theology. …. The product of a Christian experience that looks back with respect to its Jewish origins, the Prologue has to be understood in the light of the traditional understanding of the God of Genesis and the God of Sinai. The obvious link between Genesis 1 and the opening of the Prologue sets the stage. Before there was anything, there was God. John 1:1 affirms that there was also the Word. The role of the Word, as with any word, is to be uttered. The Word that was turned toward God makes God known, and this revelation has consequences for creation and the darkness of the human situation. It is now possible to become children of God. It is not as if God has never shown any concern for the ambiguity of the human situation. In former times he made himself known; he revealed his glory (Exod 19:16–25) through the gift of the Law on Sinai, through Moses (Exod 20:1–26). The Prologue affirms that Christians have access to the perfection of this former gift. They can see the revelation of the glory of God in his Son, Jesus Christ. God has gifted us twice. His former gift of the Law through Moses has been perfected in the fullness of his gifts in and through Jesus Christ. Only the Son has ever seen God, and the story of his life will tell the story of God’s loving action within the human story.” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 34 & 41.)
Our text has a further nine verses after the Prologue.
All four Gospels speak of John the Bpatist announcing the Messiah – see Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:1–8 and Luke 3:1–20. All of them refer to Isaiah – see 40:3. The Gospel of John alone does not add the descriptor, “the Baptist”.
sent from God: In 1:33 John the Baptist will speak of ‘the one who sent me to baptize’; in 3:28 he says, ‘I am sent before him’. Then in 3:34 John speaks of “he whom God has sent”. In 4:34 we hear Jesus says to his disciples: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work”. A similar statement is found in 5:30: “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me”. Again, even more definitely in 5:36-38: “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent”. The Greek word used here is apostellō. Although John does not use the Greek word apostolos to describe John – translated as “apostle” meaning “one who is sent” – there is abundant evidence that just as John the Baptizer is “sent” and Jesus is “sent” so too the disciples of Jesus are “sent”.
“The forerunner’s significance to the story is grounded in the fact that he was sent from God, assigned to this specific task. That he was commissioned by the Almighty places him in the same category as Moses (Ex. 3:10–15) and the prophets (e.g. Is. 6:8; Je. 1:4ff.)—indeed, in this respect, he is like Jesus himself, who was also sent from God (3:17; a frequent theme in the Fourth Gospel). Obedient to his commission, he came as a witness to testify concerning the light. The courtroom language of ‘witness’ and ‘testimony’ is common in the New Testament but especially in this Gospel. A fuller description of the Baptist’s witness appears in vv. 19–34; 3:27–30; 5:35, with a marvellous summary in 10:40–42. But other witness to the truth of God’s self-disclosure in the Word abounds: there is the witness of the Samaritan woman (4:39), of the works of Jesus (5:36; 10:25), of the Father (5:32, 37; 8:18), of the Old Testament (5:39–40), of the crowd (12:17), and of the Holy Spirit and the apostles (15:26–27). All these bear witness to Jesus, who himself bears witness to the truth (18:37), in conjunction with the Father (8:13–18).
“The purpose of John the Baptist’s witness, though of course not its result, was so that through him all men might believe. John 1:35–37 provides an instance where John’s witness was not only effective but particularly fruitful in its result. Derivatively, because the Baptist’s witness has been bound up in all four canonical Gospels with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, like Abel ‘he still speaks, even though he is dead’ (Heb. 11:4). All who have ever come to faith are indirectly dependent on his opening proclamation of the identity and saving purpose of Jesus Messiah” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 120-121).
There is some irony in the use of the verb “send” in our text. Whilst the focus is on God as the one who sends and John and Jesus as those who are sent, the reader cannot help notice the contrasting situation with “the Jews” who send people to trap those who have been sent by God: “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.’”
light: In 5:35 Jesus calls John a lamp. In later passages he refers explicitly to Jesus as the light – see 3:19, 8:12, 9:5. The theme of light is in fact present throughout the Bible. The separation of light and darkness is mentioned at the beginning of the Bible, it was the first act of the Creator – see Genesis 1:3-4. At the end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God is identified with light (21:23). John says our destiny is to pass over into unending light (1 John 1:5). Matthew cites Isaiah to introduce the preaching and teaching of Jesus: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (4:16).
so that all might believe through him: In 1:31 John testifies that he came “to reveal him to Israel”. It seems likely, however, that the Greek word pantes here – translated variously as “everyone” or “all” – does literally refer to the rest of humanity.
believe: The Greek verb pisteuō is used more than 100 times in the Gospel of John. And it is always used as a verb, invariably with Jesus as the object. It is relational rather than informational. In John’s Gospel, believing is a growing relationship with Jesus whom the Father has sent.
The American short story writer, Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), writes: “Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story” (Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal: Flannery O’Connor, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, 11). Flannery O’Connor’s little prayer expresses very simply the most fundamental human reality: The deepest truth of who we are emerges through union with God. The truth of who and what we are – our greatest gift to the world – is discovered, not invented.
This is exemplified in today’s Gospel – see John 1:6-8 and 19-28: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light.” He is not the Messiah, nor Elijah. He is John. His unique existence is an expression of God’s existence. And that very word “existence” implies perhaps the greatest of all paradoxes. The word comes from the Latin, ex – meaning “outside” – and stare – meaning “to stand”. If we are to truly “exist”, we must go out of ourselves. We are, after all, made in the image and likeness of the self-emptying God – see Philippians 2:6-7.
Pope Francis sums this up nicely in his recent encyclical: “In the depths of every heart, love creates bonds and expands existence, for it draws people out of themselves and towards others. Since we were made for love, in each one of us ‘a law of ekstasis’ seems to operate: ‘the lover “goes outside” the self to find a fuller existence in another’ [Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, London, 1982, 126]. For this reason, ‘we always have to take up the challenge of moving beyond ourselves’ [Karl Rahner, Kleines Kirchenjahr. Ein Gang durch den Festkreis, Herderbücherei 901, Freiburg, 1981, 30]” (Fratelli Tutti, #88). These words actually give us the key to the whole of that encyclical. They also give us a key to human existence in general and today’s Gospel in particular.
Human existence, that is more than just another expression of the prevailing culture or our own peculiar anxieties and wishes, witnesses to our best possibilities. Australia’s finest poet, Les Murray, reminded us forty years ago: “By now liberal humanism is as badly fragmented by dissension as our witness ever was, and its fiercest adherents are often covertly uneasy at its lack of gentleness, its readiness to force the facts and its desolate this-worldliness. …. (A)nd often when people who subscribe to it relax for a moment, their eyes are seen to contain an almost desperate appeal: please prove us wrong, make us believe there is more to it than this, show us your God and that Grace you talk about. We are more widely judged on our own best terms than we think, and more insistently expected to be the keepers of the dimension of depth than we find comfortable” (Les Murray, “Some Religious Stuff I know About Australia” in D. Harris et al, eds., The Shape of Belief: Christianity in Australia Today, Lancer, 1982, pp. 25-26 of pp. 13-28).