Commentary: John 1:29-34
The Ancient Writer And Reader
Several writers from the community shaped the Fourth Gospel over many years. Evidences of layers of tradition, namely, discourses, signs, sayings, passion narrative, point to a long process of composition by more than one author. The various literary strata not only tell the story of literary composition, they also provide data for sociological studies of the community. For as the Johannine community relates the story of Jesus, they also tell their own story. While reading the Gospel of John, we discover clues that uncover both the writer and the reader, the shapers of the tradition and the tradition that shaped them.
The writers and the readers had a shared language. Sprinkled throughout the Fourth Gospel are allusions, irony, metaphors, aphorisms not found in the synoptic gospels. To make these literary genres communicable, a common understanding of language and symbols had to be present. For example, when John the Baptist proclaims Jesus to be the Lamb of God, the listener must understand the symbol of Lamb in order to understand this particular description of Jesus (Jn 1:29).
The ancient reader would have understood the symbol of Lamb from Jewish traditions. The symbol of Lamb of God as Jesus Christ communicated because of the paschal lamb tradition known to this traditional, Jewish community. The community knew about the Passover, the meaning of hyssop (19:29, Ex 12:22), the unblemished lamb (19:36, Ex 12:46). Johannine christology took an old, familiar symbol of Passover sacrifice and then added universal meaning for the community: Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
The pericope takes place after Jesus' baptism. Jesus' baptism is not recorded by the Fourth Evangelist, although found in synoptics (Mt 3:13-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21). John the Baptist reflects on the baptism in past tense (Jn 1:32).
The Prologue introduces the Fourth Gospel with a certain, poetic quality that focuses on the pre-existent Christ. John 1:19-34, seen as another type of introduction, introduces Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in a practical, earthy manner. Lacking the hymnic quality of the prologue, the second introduction relates the story of the beginning of Jesus' ministry through the lips of the rough and raw prophet, John the Baptist.
The historical recollection of John the Baptist is important for the Johannine community. To see Jesus as the continuation of the Baptist tradition was helpful. To understand Jesus as distinct from the Baptist tradition, however, was even more instructive for new initiates into the community.
No doubt, a group of John the Baptist disciples lived in the Johannine community (1:35-42). They were former followers of the Baptist. That this passage (1:29-34) is a polemic against those who would elevate the Baptist over the importance of Christ cannot be denied. John the Baptist is an important figure for the community; but he is the one who says without reservation that "after me comes a man who ranks before me" (1:30).
Jesus is the Lamb of God, so says John the Baptist. The testimony (1:6-9, 19), however, continues with a second point. Not only is Jesus the Lamb, John the Baptist also humbly confesses the pre-existence of Christ (1:30). The community continues to learn from the earthy voice of the Baptist what the prologue said with heavenly poetry (1:1-4).
John the Baptist, the pre-existent Lamb of God, is baptized with the Holy Spirit (1:32-34). This third witness to Jesus Christ from the lips of John the Baptist gives further testimony for the Johannine community to hear. The dove descended, as witnessed by the Baptist, announcing that the Spirit was on the baptized one. This symbol of dove and Spirit is the climax of John's testimony. For these witnesses—the Lamb, the pre-existent one, the dove—all present proof for one important fact, namely, that Jesus is the Son of God (1:34).
An interesting textual variant appears in 1:34. Some manuscripts, such as Codex Sinaiticus, Oxyrhynchus Papyrus, and others, do not have the words, "the Son of God." Rather, these manuscripts read, "God's chosen one." Although the textual evidence is weak for this reading, the theological consistency must be considered with the variant, "God's chosen one." Raymond Brown reasons that it would have been easier for Christian scribes to change the reading, "God's chosen one" to "the Son of God" than the other way around.1
With either reading, the zenith of christological reflection is reached in 1:34. The titular designations seen in verses 29-34 give rise to a Christ who is the Son of God and who is God's chosen one. John the Baptist connects Jesus to the Old Testament traditions with the title, the Lamb of God (1:29). A philosophical dimension is added with the pre-existent image of Christ in 1:30. It is interesting to note, however, that even with the pre-existent motif Jesus is still called a man (aner). Both dimensions of humanity and divinity rest in Jesus Christ. John the Baptist also refers to Jesus as "the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit," giving further attestation to his identity.
The climax to the witness, however, rests in verse 34. All of these symbols point to one great Symbol—Jesus is the Son of God, the chosen one (1:34).
The Contemporary Reader
Like the ancient reader, we need to hear the symbols in their ancient context in order to translate them into our understanding. Lamb, pre-existent one, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit are foreign concepts to the vocabulary of many moderns and need translations. Like the ancient Johannine writers, the contemporary preacher must make meaningful associations between text and local reader. What speaks directly (without complex translations) for your particular congregation may not speak to another group of people living in another area with different life experiences. For example, if your congregation is located in a rural area, the concept of Lamb will be much easier to establish than for those congregations in the inner city, where sheep are rarely ever seen.
John the Baptist, using symbols from ancient religious and societal traditions, communicated Jesus Christ to the listener. On another level, the Johannine community also works hard to communicate, using the voice of the Baptist as a clear testimony to the identity of God's chosen Son. Likewise, the contemporary preacher, using these ancient stories as communication links to the present, communicates the message of Jesus Christ.
Words are symbols that point to Christ. Personal lives are also symbols that give testimony, according to Paul's prayer for the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:4-9). May your mouth be like a sharp sword, and your life a polished arrow (Is 49:2) as you give witness to Christ from the pulpit on Sunday.
Linda McKinnish Bridges
1. Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John 1-9, The Anchor Bible Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1966), p. 57.
John 1:29-34 lends itself readily to several themes. There is the manner in which the Old Covenant, the person of John the Baptist, points toward the New Covenant embodied in Jesus Christ. There is a wealth of christological detail. There is the portrait of faith during a time of transition. We can save the christological angle for another time, and focus on themes one and three, seeing John as a representative of the Old Covenant pointing to the New, and treating this as an illustration of faith during a time of change.
Churches are not always kind to present-day change agents. Part of the problem is that change agents of an earlier time are often recast as pillars of stability and defenders of the status quo. Thus, as the church confronts a moment of uncertainty and promise, lessons from an earlier day are hard to retrieve. We will be in much better shape if we recognize faith's pioneers as simply that: Pioneers.
This is what John was. Yes, he stood in continuity with Israel's long line of prophetic figures. But that line was broken off more than four hundred years earlier. There have been no prophets since Malachi. Thus, John was a novelty, a threat, a challenge to business-as-usual. He was a change agent.
More than this, John is the figure by virtue of which the Old Testament spills over into the New. The relation between the two Testaments is complicated. Many different interpretations have surfaced over the centuries. We can summarize the issues by considering the continuity and discontinuity between the Covenants as they surface in the text at hand.
We see the continuity between the two Testaments in all that John knows and affirms about Jesus. He is God's Lamb and God's Son (1:29-34). He ranks above John by virtue of coming "before" him (1:30). The reason for John's ministry is that he might be clearly recognized for who he is (1:31). He fulfills the condition John was given, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (1:33).
As John is to Jesus, so is the Old Testament to the New. The former spells out the conditions which the New is to fulfill, so much so, in fact, that we could say that the reason the Old Covenant came into being was so that the New could be clearly recognized for what it is. The latter Covenant ranks above the former and precedes it, logically if not chronologically. Just as John points to Jesus as God's Lamb and Son, so the Old Testament points toward the Savior and Lord disclosed in the New.
There is continuity but also discontinuity. John says twice with emphasis, "I myself did not know him" (1:31, 33). Despite everything he knew and could bear witness to, he was still in the dark as to the identity of the one who followed him. In the dark, that is, until the light began to shine. When Jesus appeared to be baptized, everything suddenly came together for John, even as the Old Covenant gave way to the New.
But even if John represents God's Old Covenant, he is also a person of faith in his own right. And it is always worth asking if we know what faith really is. Paul Tillich asks us to expand our understanding of this crucial concept. Instead of seeing it as a circle with a single focal point, Tillich views it as an ellipse, which has two focal points. This definition corresponds rather well with the faith of John the Baptist. There is what he does know and what he doesn't know. He is committed to what he does understand, but this extends further to include what he doesn't understand.
If faith is a circle, and if it centers around a single point, there will be problems. We can make our circle very large, and pretend that we know more than we really do. Or we can make our circle very small and try to convince ourselves that we can be happy confined to the few things we can comprehend. The first approach is unrealistic about the limits of the mind; the second about the needs of the heart. Much better to have an elliptical faith. Much better to commit to God with a full awareness of what we understand and of what we cannot understand.
John illustrates this for us. In this he makes a stark contrast to the religious elite who opposed Jesus. Their faith was coterminous with what they believed to be true, and as a consequence, there was no readiness to change. When Jesus arrived preaching a message of change ("repent and believe"), they could only reject it.
When seasons are changing, when paradigms are shifting, when worldviews are replacing one another, it is better to leave room for change by freely admitting both what we understand and what we don't.