2017 December Issue
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Commentary: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Through the poetic words of comfort and hope of Isaiah 40:1-11, the people of Israel are assured that God has not forsaken them. In John 1:6-8 and 19-28, the lesson for the third Sunday of Advent, the writer of the Fourth Gospel (hereafter known as John) sets forth his understanding of how this promise has been fulfilled. In this passage in which John describes the role John will play in preparing the world for the incarnation, he shows that even though God works through a human being to bring this event to pass, it is solely by virtue of John's testimony about Christ that the way for his coming is prepared. An examination of the context, structure and key concepts begins to shed light on this very rich and multi-faceted text.

Context

The subject text emerges from both John 1:1-18, commonly referred to as the prologue, and John 1:19-34, which address John's testimony, or witness to the Christ and precedes Jesus' public ministry. Out of the ethereal language through which John shows that God, who is the creator of all things, is also God who would come to earth as savior, the witness named John comes to the fore in verses 6-8. In this alternative to the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, John sets forth John's task, which is, "so that all might believe through him" (v.7). This suggests that even while God chooses to prepare the world for "the light" through a human being, it is the testimony, and not the historic circumstance of the individual, which is instrumental in achieving this end.

Upon examination of John's confrontation by the priests and Levites in verses 19-28, this becomes more evident. While in the prologue the writer attributes to John no divine status, here John claims for himself no elevated status among his people.

In so doing he disassociates himself from the political or religious agenda of others. From the context, then, emerges a character who has a great deal to say, but who is neither given, nor seizes, personal credit for his indispensable role.

Exactly what is this somewhat elusive character's purpose, and how does he go about fulfilling it? This will be considered through an examination of the structure and key concepts of the passage.

Structure and Key Concepts

Because this passage can be neatly divided into three parts according to respective key concepts, structure and concepts will be considered together. In Part I (verses 6-8) the writer sets forth John's purpose, which is defined by the word "witness," or "testimony." Part II (verses 19-23) has to do with John's identity defined by his function, which is to be "the voice" (v.23). Part III addresses John's method of preparing people for the coming of Christ, which he does through baptism, and so the key word in verses 24-28 is the verb "to baptize."

For the present day reader, John's credibility as a witness rests in verse 6: "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John." How John's testimony concerning the Word was revealed to him is not told. Buttressed by the fact that John's gospel arose from the first-hand experience of the early Christian community, though, any doubts about John's credibility as a witness are assuaged. His task was not to convince people of his point of view, but to pass along that which was given to him by God, "so that all might believe through him" (v.7). The post-resurrection experience of John's community validates the reliability of the witness.

While in Part 1 John describes the instrument by which God chose to let humankind participate in his coming, Part II reveals the identity of the one through whom God has worked. Based on verses 6-8, one can safely conclude that John is a faithful servant of God. In verses 19-23, though, his personality becomes increasingly obscure. When his interrogators try to categorize John through a process of elimination, all questions are met with an emphatic "no." Finally, in response to a straightforward query from the priests and Levites, he simply says, "I am the voice..." (v.23). Notable here is the fact that in this instance John claims this identity for himself, whereas previously this has been set forth by the narrator. Confident of who he is, John is not an unwitting participant in the story. He knows that by his voice he is to, "make straight the way of the Lord" (v.23). Note, though, that while in the Isaiah 40 passage which John quotes, Israel is called to proclaim good tidings about Yahweh to her people, John is to bear witness to the light for the sake of all people. On the other hand, as clear as John is about his identity as "the voice," he is aware that while his role is significant, it is also limited. Thus, when later in John he is told that Jesus is now attracting the followers, John indicates no vexation in his reply, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:30).

While John will prepare the way through speech, he will also do so through action, as set forth in Part III, verses 24 through 28. Here John shows us that the validity of John's witness rests in the integrity of his words and action. Even in baptizing others, he makes no attempt to move beyond his prescribed role. So, when those who were sent from the Pharisees challenge John's authority to baptize, he answers, "I baptize with water," at the same time making an oblique reference to Jesus as, "one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me" (vv.26-27).

Clearly, John's baptism is meant to prepare his followers for the completion of their baptism, which is to be born of the Spirit, as set forth in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus, rather than water alone. John makes no pretense that his baptism is other than symbolic purification according to the ritual of the day. He confirms this when he testifies regarding Christ, "He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit" (v.33). Deftly using the verb "to baptize" to urge those to whom John witnessed toward the Christ, John adroitly focuses the modern readers' attention on the Light to which we are called to bear witness during this Advent season.

Holly D. Hayes

SOURCES

George R. Beasley-Murray. JOHN: World Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1987). Raymond E. Brown. The Gospel According to John I-XII: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966). Leander Keck, ed., The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995). John. Gail R. O'Day. Gerard Sloyan. John, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988).