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2. The Witness of John the Baptist

John 1:19-34

ARCHIPPUS AND LEANDROS have now returned from the harbour where they have bought freshly-caught bream. They place it, carefully wrapped in vine leaves, on a slab in the cool recesses of John’s house, while Ezra and Barnabas, now back from the wine-seller’s, gently lower the amphora of wine into its frame in the corner of the room. Ezra and Barnabas are sweating profusely from carrying the amphora between them up the winding path from the city to John’s house on the hillside. The Apostle himself, awakened from his hour or so’s sleep, is splashing some water on his face.

‘Are you baptising yourself again, John?’ quips Archippus.

‘As you well know, there is only one baptism,’ replies John, with a smile.

‘But, seriously,’ asks Leandros. ‘What was so special about the Baptiser’s baptism? I thought you Jews were always baptising yourselves.’

‘It’s true that, before we became followers of the Lord Jesus, many of us did, as Jews, baptise ourselves,’ says John. ‘For purification and so on. But that’s exactly what made the Baptiser’s baptism so special, you see. He was the first to baptise others rather than himself. He offered a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And although his baptism was personal, it also had a strongly communal dimension. He baptised so that those so baptised would take up afresh their call to be the people of God and be ready to welcome (so he believed) God’s chosen one once he arrived. The Baptiser’s choice of the wilderness and the river Jordan as the place to carry out his ministry was very deliberate. It was hard for anyone to miss the point that, just as the Children of Israel had entered the promised land from the wilderness through the waters of the Jordan, so now those who wanted to enter the promised land of the new creation were being invited to take the same rite of passage taken by their forefathers 1,400 years before.’

‘Are you going to be saying more about that in your Gospel?’ asks Barnabas.

‘Well, I certainly need to say more about the Baptiser and his witness to Jesus,’ says John. ‘So, if you’ve finished dealing with the fish and the wine, perhaps you’ll help me back into the courtyard and then I can dictate a little more to the Elder.’

When John the Apostle is once again settled in the shade and John the Elder is ready to write, the Apostle says, ‘Yesterday, you’ll recall, I mentioned the Baptiser’s testimony but I didn’t really spell out what that testimony was; so let me expand on that a little by saying this: “Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”’

‘Is that what the Jewish leaders suspected he might be?’ asks Ezra.

‘I think “were worried” would be nearer the mark than “suspected,”’ replies John. ‘The Jerusalem priesthood had achieved quite a cosy and lucrative accommodation with the Roman government and the last thing they wanted was a “Messiah” arriving on the scene to upset it.’

Leandros, a recent convert to the Christian faith, is looking somewhat puzzled. ‘Can you explain to me exactly what a “Messiah” or “Christ” is, please?’ he asks. ‘I’m still very new to all this stuff and I get a bit lost when you use words like christos.’

‘Barnabas,’ says John. “How would you reply to that?’
‘Well,’ says Barnabas. ‘I suppose I’d say that every king of Israel was a christos, an anointed one. That’s what our Hebrew word mashiach means too. They were called that because, at their coronations, oil was poured on their heads; that’s what “anointed” means. It was the outward sign that God’s Spirit was poured out on them to give them the spiritual resources they would need if they were to be good and wise kings who could truly govern God’s people on God’s behalf. One such king – the greatest of them – was David; but, sadly, unlike him, most of our kings failed to draw on those resources. All through the centuries, though, we Jews consoled ourselves with the promise God had given us that a king greater than David would one day come to us [2 Samuel 7:12-16] and would truly usher in God’s reign on earth. He would be the Christ, the Messiah – someone truly filled with God’s Holy Spirit. And it was that Christ that the Jerusalem priesthood feared the Baptiser might be. But, of course, he wasn’t.’

‘Indeed not,’ says Ezra, ‘but, if the Baptiser emphasised the “I,” in “I am not the Christ” (as you say he did, John) then he was sending back a clear message to the priests that the Christ was about to take the stage – it just didn’t happen to be him, the Baptiser.’

‘So. what did they do then?’ asks Leandros.

‘They continued to question him,’ says John. He turns to the Elder. ‘And you can write this down, please. “They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’”’

‘There are two more emphatic “I”s there,’ says Ezra. ‘“Ego, ego … I am not, I am not”. Why the emphasis?’

John’s eyes twinkle. ‘What’s the opposite of ego ouk eimi – I am not?’ he replies.

Ezra thinks for a moment, then jumps as if he’s just been stung. ‘Oh my! It’s ego eimi, isn’t it? “I Am” The name that God told Moses [Exodus 3:14] he was to be known by – Yahweh, Jehovah, Ego eimi, I Am – all the same name.’

‘So?’ asks John.

‘So … the Baptiser is saying he is not the “I Am” but he is presumably suggesting that the Messiah, the one who is coming, is.’

‘Absolutely,’ says John. ‘And as we shall see, Jesus over and over again referred to himself in that way: “I am the bread of life [John 6:35], I am the light of the world [John 8:12], I am the door [John 10:9], I am the good shepherd [John 10:11], I am the resurrection and the life [John 11:25], I am the way, the truth and the life [John 14:6], I am the vine [John 15:5].” And, of course, he had a perfect right to do so, for “I Am” is his rightful name. Jesus was Yahweh made flesh.’

Ezra pulls a worried face. ‘Do you think people who read your Gospel are going to “get” all this stuff that you’re hiding just under the surface?’ he asks. ‘It’s all a bit cryptic, isn’t it – the emphatic “I am” in “I am not Elijah” and in “I am not the prophet” and so on?’

‘Well,’ replies John, ‘the Lord Jesus once talked about his kingdom being like treasure hidden in a field, and the thing about treasure hidden in a field is that you don’t find it unless you go digging for it. I believe that the Holy Spirit will help anyone who goes digging for treasure in these words of mine to find it,’ replies John.

For a while now, young Leandros has been following the conversation with growing bewilderment. At this point he says with some hesitancy, ‘I’m sorry, but why Elijah anyway?’

‘Oh, that’s easy,’ answers Ezra. ‘It’s because of what the prophet Malachi once said. Speaking from God, Malachi told the Jews who had returned from Exile [Malachi 4:5], “I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.” And let’s face it, John, from what you’ve told us, the Baptiser looked very like Elijah. In the Second Book of Kings [2 Kings 1:8], it’s said that Elijah “had a garment of hair and a leather belt round his waist.”’

‘And what about “the Prophet?”’ asks Leandros. ‘Who was he?’

‘Way back,’ answers Ezra, ‘when Moses was about to die, and the Children of Israel were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses promised them that God would one day raise up a prophet like himself and speak to them through that prophet [Deuteronomy 18:18-18]. The delegation from Jerusalem obviously wondered if the Baptiser was that “second Moses.”’

‘Just so,’ says the Apostle. ‘But John the Baptiser rejected every such suggestion. So finally, they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” Then John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet [Isaiah 40:3], “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”’ The Apostle glances at the Elder again. ‘Have you got that, my dear brother?’

‘Yes, I’ve got it,’ replies the Elder. ‘But tell me, my friend; are you finding in those words from Isaiah the same significance that I am finding?’

‘Go on,’ says the Apostle.

‘Well, in their original context, Isaiah is hearing God calling for a pathway to be got ready in the desert so that God himself might lead his exiled people down it, back from Babylon to their rightful home in their Promised Land. Might not the Baptiser have been suggesting that he now needed to repeat that call because Jesus – God-become-flesh – was about to lead his people – still in a spiritual exile because of their sin and failure – into their true home of the new age which was about to dawn.’

‘Perhaps so,’ replies the Apostle. ‘But if so, that meaning was lost on the delegates from the Council in Jerusalem. They couldn’t fathom what the Baptiser thought he was doing. If he was not one of the great end-time figures stepping out from the pages of prophecy, then why was he acting in such an end-time kind of way? So, some Pharisees who were in the deputation pressed him to explain himself. “Why then do you baptise if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” they asked him.’

John pauses and looks at Leandros. ‘And before you ask me, Leandros, the Pharisees were – still are – a Jewish sect who practise strict adherence to the most minute details of the law as their scribes have interpreted it over the centuries. Their name means “the Separated Ones” because they believe in separating themselves from anything or anyone they think might contaminate them. They’ll crop up again and again in my story of Jesus, so you might as well understand something about them now.’

‘But I thought you said earlier that the people who’d sent the deputation were collaborators with the Romans,’ says Leandros. ‘That doesn’t sound much like separation.’

‘I wasn’t talking about the Pharisees when I made that earlier comment,’ explains John. ‘They were only a minority in the deputation and didn’t share the values and beliefs of the majority who were mainly Sadducees. Most of the priests were Sadducees and had a very pragmatic approach to Israel’s occupation by Rome and wanted to keep on the right side of the Romans.’

‘So, what was the Baptiser’s reply to the Pharisees’ question?’ asks Ezra.

John nods to the Elder to start writing again. ‘“I baptise with water,” the Baptiser replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”’

Barnabas looks at his own sandals: dusty, caked with donkey dung (at least he hopes it’s only donkey dung) and bits of garbage from his recent walk to the wine-seller’s and back. ‘We Jews have a saying about a rabbi’s disciples,’ he says. ‘It is this: “Every service a slave performs for his master, a disciple will perform for his rabbi, except to untie his sandal strap.” It just shows how greatly the Baptiser revered the One who was coming that he saw even the unfastening of his sandal straps as a privilege beyond anything he might aspire to.’

‘Indeed,’ says the Apostle. ‘The Baptiser’s greatness lay in his utter lack of self-regard, his utter commitment to the Christ that was about to be revealed out there in the wilderness.’

Ezra watches a column of tiny ants marching across the courtyard and disappearing down a tiny hole in the wall. ‘I wonder how the Baptiser knew that the Messiah was actually somewhere there in the crowd?’ he says. ‘One ant among so many.’

‘As I’ll explain in a moment,’ replies John, ‘by then, the Baptiser knew perfectly well who the Messiah was, and he knew it because God had made his identity clear to the Baptiser by both word and sign; but that had happened about six weeks before the Council of Jerusalem’s deputation turned up. Now, the Messiah was no longer in the crowd; he had gone deeper into the wilderness and was still there.’

‘Ah, so everything you’re saying about the Baptiser in your Gospel is about what happened after the Baptiser had baptised Jesus, is it?’ asks Ezra.

‘Yes, it is,’ says John.

‘But why?’ asks Ezra. ‘I mean, isn’t it important that Jesus himself got baptised by the Baptiser?’

‘It is,’ replies John. ‘But the very fact that the Baptiser baptised Jesus can be (and still is being) used by those who want to exalt the Baptiser and give him a status far beyond any that he ever possessed or claimed; whereas I am at pains to show that the Baptiser himself was one who helped prepare the way for Jesus – nothing more – and, for that reason, I shall be making no direct reference to the baptism itself.’

There is silence for a while as the little group around John digest what he has said. Then Barnabas speaks up. ‘Going back to the “I baptise with water” reply that the Baptiser made to the Pharisees,’ he says. ‘It seems pretty clear from the way you’ve emphasised the “I” that the Baptiser had been told the Messiah would baptise not with water but with something else.’

‘You’re quite right,’ answers John. ‘But that belongs to the story of the following day.’

Ezra turns his attention from the ants who are now trying to drag a dead grasshopper down the hole in the wall and suddenly asks, ‘So, where did all this happen, John? You said the deputation came from Jerusalem; but where did they come to?’

‘Bethany,’ replies the Apostle. ‘But not the Bethany that lies to the east of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives. John the Baptiser chose as his place of ministry the Bethany in the Jordan Valley, on the eastern bank of the river, a few miles north of the Dead Sea – which is, of course, where the Children of Israel made their crossing into the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua.’ He looks at the Elder. ‘And which does, of course, make the symbolism of John’s baptism that you pointed out earlier, all the more pointed, my dear friend. So perhaps you had better add to what you have written: “This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptising.”’

‘So,’ asks Barnabas, ‘What is the “story of the following day,” as you put it a moment ago?’

‘Well,’ replies John, ‘the next day the Baptiser saw Jesus coming towards him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Then, so as to leave me and his other disciples in no doubt as to whom he was talking about, he added, “This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” We talked about that just after lunch, if you remember.’

‘Was this when Jesus returned from his time of temptation in the wilderness,’ asks Ezra.

‘It was,’ replies John.

‘And you’re not going to tell about the temptations either?’

‘No,’ says John. ‘There is no need. Jesus told us about them, of course – later, when we had become his disciples – but that episode doesn’t really form part of the story as I feel I must tell it.’

A pair of rock doves have perched on the roof of John’s house and are cooing gently. John has closed his eyes, and some are wondering if he has nodded off, but Leandros hasn’t noticed; he is watching the doves. He clears his throat then asks timidly, ‘What did the Baptiser mean by calling Jesus the amnos – the Lamb – of God, who takes away the sin of the world?’

‘Now that,’ says John, sitting up and opening his eyes, ‘is a very good question; a very good question indeed. What do you think he meant, Barnabas?’

‘Did he mean that Jesus would be a kind of Passover lamb?’ Barnabas replies. Then, seeing the puzzled look on Leandros’s face again, he added: ‘At twilight, you see, on the evening before God rescued our Jewish forefathers from their slavery in Egypt, God commanded the members of each household to take an unblemished lamb, kill it, and smear its blood on the lintel and doorposts of the house. They had then to roast the flesh and eat it with unleavened bread. During the night, the angel of death would pass through the land, killing all the firstborns, but he would “pass over” the houses with the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel, and …’

‘Whoa!’ interrupts Ezra. ‘That can’t be what the Baptiser was referring to; the Passover lambs were never sin offerings, neither were the lambs offered daily in the temple. My guess is that he was thinking back to what the prophet Isaiah had said about the “Servant” who would come – about the Messiah, that is. Isaiah said [Isaiah 53:7,12] he would be “like an amnos – a lamb – that is led to the slaughter” and would be spoken of as the one who “bore the sins of many.”’

‘I think it very likely that the Baptiser did indeed have that in his mind,’ says John, ‘but I suspect that was not his uppermost thought. You must remember, you see, that John was what I call a “fire and brimstone” man, and one who had, it is said, strong links with the Essene Community near the Dead Sea. He would have been very familiar with the First Book of Enoch – a strange book and one in which it is written that, when the Messiah came, he would be like a horned lamb who would lead the faithful people of God to a mighty victory over their enemies [1 Enoch 90:9-12]. And the same conquering lamb appears in the Testament of Joseph [19:8]. I think the Baptiser was seeing Jesus as that “horned lamb,” but one whose mighty victory would be over sin and through sacrifice, as Isaiah had suggested.’

‘If the Baptiser did have Isaiah’s amnos – lamb – in mind,’ says Ezra, ‘might that not explain why the Baptiser used the verb airo – to take away or bear – rather than aphiemi – to forgive?’

‘That’s an interesting point,’ replies John; ‘and I think it links with the fact that the Baptiser was talking about the sin (singular) of the world, rather than the sins (plural) of the world.’

‘But what is “the sin of the world?”’ asks Barnabas.

‘The “I” in the middle of it,’ replies John. ‘The kosmos – the world, or rather the world order, that the Baptiser was referring to – is built on the centrality of the self. It is a world order in which the ego rules and demands our service, requiring us to put it, rather than God, before all else; a world order in which ego fights ego. All sins (which need forgiveness) are spawned by that one sin (which needs taking away). In a way, we’re back to the ego eimi – “I AM” – again. At the heart of every human being, every creature, there is an “I AM” but it rightly belonged at the heart of only one man on the planet – the one who the Baptiser saw coming out of the wilderness and walking towards him – Jesus, the Christ. Only Jesus, to whom “I AM” rightly belonged, could, and would, pick up the world’s “I AM” and take it to the cross that it might be crucified with him, dethroned and transformed.’

Again, there is silence, save for the cooing of the doves, as the little group take in the enormity of what John has just said. Then Barnabas speaks. ‘You said earlier that the Baptiser was only able to identify Jesus as the Christ because of a word and a sign from God before Jesus headed into the wilderness,’ says Barnabas. ‘Are you going to tell us how that came about?’

‘I am,’ says John, ‘and I’ve saved it until now because it was only after the Baptiser had spoken of Jesus being the Lamb of God that he told us about the revelation he’d been given. He said, “I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptising with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.” Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptise with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”’ John glanced at the Elder. ‘Have you written that down, my friend?’

The Elder nods. ‘But I’ve always understood that the Baptiser and Jesus were cousins,’ he says. ‘Why then did the Baptiser say he didn’t know Jesus?’

‘The word I used was eidein – “knew the truth about” – not egnokein – “knew personally,”’ says John. ‘It is true that Elizabeth, the Baptiser’s mother, was a kinswoman of Mary, the mother of Jesus [Luke 1:36] so there was a blood relationship between the two; but neither of them had met since they were small boys and the Baptiser didn’t recognise Jesus as one of his relatives. But it was not his ignorance of that familial bond that the Baptiser had in mind; rather he was talking about his ignorance concerning Jesus’ identity as the Christ. Until Jesus came up from the Jordan onto the west bank and something in the form of a dove – like one of those on the rooftop – came fluttering out of the sun, out of nowhere, and seemed to settle on Jesus’ head, the Baptiser had no idea that he, Jesus, was the Chosen One. But at that point (so the Baptiser told us later) that truth was revealed to him by God. According to the Baptiser, the voice of God within his head told him that the dove was a sign of Jesus’ anointing. The Holy Spirit was now indwelling Jesus in all his fulness, confirming him to be the Promised One, the Christ, the Messiah.’

‘Why a dove?’ asks Leandros. ‘Why not … I don’t know … an eagle?’

Ezra is the first to respond. ‘Was it,’ he says,’ because the Holy Spirit is thought to have taken the form of a dove when he hovered over the waters of creation, bringing everything to life [Genesis 1:2]? If Jesus was inaugurating the new creation, that would seem entirely appropriate.’

‘What do others think?’ asks John.

‘It was a dove, was it not, that brought an olive leaf back to Noah in the ark,’ says Archippus. ‘And it showed Noah that the flood was over and that new life was already springing up from the earth [Genesis 8:11]. As Ezra says, maybe the dove signifies the start of new life, new creation.’

‘Yes, perhaps,’ says Barnabas. ‘But I’m intrigued by the fact that the Hebrew word for dove is yonah – which was, of course, the name of the one and only prophet who, in olden days, was sent by God to the gentiles rather than to his own people, the Jews. Maybe the dove was meant to signify that, through Jesus, the Spirit would open up the kingdom of heaven to all people – just as we now see it happening here in Ephesus and everywhere.’

Phoebe, the widow in whose house the Elder is lodging, now ventures a comment. ‘Wasn’t a dove the kind of sin offering you Jews made to God if you were too poor to afford a lamb [Leviticus 12:6]? I remember Mary, Jesus’ mother, telling me not long after you brought her here, John – just before she died – that she offered just such a sacrifice for her purification when she took Jesus to the temple six weeks after his birth [Luke 2:22-23], and I remember her telling me too that the dove is the only sacrifice that offers its own neck to the knife. If that’s true, might it not be that that’s why the Spirit took the form of a dove as he descended and remained on Jesus; so as to empower him to be a willing sacrifice for sin?’

‘Oh, Phoebe, dear sister, I like that!’ exclaims John.

‘Yes … but is she right?’ asks Leandros. ‘And if not, which of them is?’

John laughs. ‘I have no idea,’ he says. ‘Maybe they all are. The Baptiser never explained to us what he understood its significance to be; but whatever it was, it marked out Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. When the Baptiser underlined the fact that the Spirit, having descended upon Jesus, then remained on him without departing, he was making the identification certain, for that is what had been prophesied by Isaiah. “The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him,” the prophet had said [Isaiah 1:2]. The Hebrew verb is nuach – to settle down and remain. Jesus was baptised with the Spirit – soaked, saturated by the Spirit’s presence and power – so that he, Jesus, could in turn baptise others with the Holy Spirit. It was all of this that enabled the Baptiser to say with certainty – “I have seen” – the verb is horao, to perceive, to see with understanding, rather than blepo, which is merely to observe – “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s chosen one.” Clearly the Baptiser had in mind another prophesy of Isaiah concerning the Messiah [Isaiah 42:1]: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my Chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him.”’

John sits back and yawns. ‘And that, I think is enough for today. I’m going to close my eyes for a while; and while I do, maybe some of you could prepare those lovely breams and then, at dusk, we’ll have our supper here together …

1. The Prologue | 3. Jesus and his First Disciples

 

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