After we read the definitive Christian origin (creation) story of John 1:1-5, John’s Gospel turns our attention to John the Baptist and what an extraordinary character he must have been. We read in Matthew’s Gospel that he was a pretty wild looking man – wearing a cloak of camel’s hair (I suspect that would have been itchy!), a leather belt, and feeding on wild locusts (bugs) and honey (Matthew 3:4). John’s mission was a simple and clear one: to “testify to the light” (John 1:7), something he’d been doing since before the time he was born (Luke 1:41-45).
John the Baptist ends the era of the prophets – a tremendous group of men & women whose stories help set the stage for what Jesus comes to do. The work that was done throughout the period of the Old Testament and ending with John’s preaching & Baptism ministry sets the stage for God to make good on the promise He made us in Genesis 3:15: to crush the serpent (to conquer sin and death) once and for all.
I imagine that John would be the sort who would stand out in a crowd both because of his appearance and because of his message. In the section we’re examining, John 1:6-34, the religious leaders had not only noticed him, but also sent messengers his way essentially wondering “who do you think you are anyway, John?” John replies that he is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” to “make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23), echoing Isaiah 40:3. We hear that passage and many others from Isaiah during the season of Advent since we, too, are meant to be preparing the way of the Lord in our hearts, in our Church, and in the whole world.
In this Gospel’s account of John’s ministry, two moments stand out. First, when John spots Jesus, he declares “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Calling Jesus the ‘Lamb of God’ would call to mind biblical images of lambs. What I think of first are the ways in which lambs and goats were used to reconcile man to God – both the passover lamb sacrificed under the direction of Moses (Exodus 12) as well as the tradition of scapegoating (found in Leviticus). In both cases, what stands out is the idea that a lamb would carry the burden of responsibility for sin and slavery, and that by the sacrifice of these lambs we would find forgiveness and reconciliation to God. If Jesus is the Lamb of God, John’s audience should recognize that something – someone -bigger and more important is coming, and that what the Lamb of God will do should have a more profound impact than the passover lambs and scapegoats.
The second moment that stands out is Jesus submitting himself to John’s ritual of baptism. It’s important to remember that this isn’t the same thing as the Sacrament of Baptism! Jewish faith had various washing rituals which were for them, an act of repentance. Also, Jesus didn’t need baptism as He is without sin, original or otherwise. Still, He went in to the water not only setting an example for us but also foreshadowing the Baptism that was to come. At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, John recounts seeing the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus ‘like a dove’ (John 1:33) – in Matthew’s account of this, the dove is accompanied by the voice of the Father. In this moment John had an encounter not only with the Son, but with the entire Holy Trinity!
We’ve already seen John the Baptist’s mission was to ‘testify to the light’ (John 1:6). In defining that light, John the Evangelist (who wrote the Gospel) made statements that are worth some consideration. John the Evangelist said that Jesus was the true light who had come into the world (John 1:9), even though the world didn’t know Him (1:10); and that Jesus would come to his own people, but they would not recognize Him (1:11).
In a lot of ways, you might compare the work of John and the prophets to a farmer preparing his field. All of humanity – all of us – are that field. Much work was done to make things straight, to help get the soil ready in order that Jesus, the Word made flesh (John 1:14) could be sown here. But the metaphor falls short here because we have a choice to respond (or not) to that word. As John the evangelist writes: “To all received him, who believed in him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” This is the reason for the ministry of John and the prophets before him; it is the reason for the ministry of the apostles and Christians who’ve come afterwards. It is also the reason all of us are here: to receive Christ, to believe in His name, and to embrace our call to become children of God.
(This is the second part of a Bible study I’m hosting with students at St. Peter the Apostle CHS in Spruce Grove during the 2017-18 school year.)