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Gospel of John--High Christology

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1:19 - 28--Who John is Not


The author of the Gospel moves from the prologue to a more detailed narrative centered upon John the Baptist. The careful reader gets the sense that the author felt the need to clear the air, if you will, about John the Baptist--and so the narrative begins with the Baptist saying, in no uncertain terms, that he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet.


The Gospels are unanimous in conveying that John the Baptist pointed away from himself and to the coming Christ with his classic line about "one more powerful than I" whose sandals he was not fit to touch (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:7, Luke 3:15 - 16). However, Acts 18:24 - 25 shares with us a brief comment that may allude to a growing historical situation:


"Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John."


We find a similar situation in Acts 19, in which Paul finds Ephesian disciples who only know John's baptism. Though John clearly pointed to Jesus as the Messiah (and will do so in the verses to come), he still continued his own ministry, and it seems clear said ministry continued--and spread--after his death. Perhaps in the intervening years between John the Baptist's death and the composition of John's Gospel, some began to exalt John as Messiah. If so, the author of the Gospel wishes to state, in no uncertain terms, that John was neither the Messiah, nor did he ever fail to confess this point.


His answer to the next question, however, is odd. Since he is not the Christ, is he Elijah? The Baptist's answer here is "no"--however, this seems to be at odds with the Synoptic accounts. Matthew and Mark both have Jesus telling His disciples that John the Baptist was the Elijah figure, and Matthew has it twice (Matthew 11:14, 17:10 - 13). Is this Gospel at odds with the others?


It is better on this point not to think of John's Gospel as being at odds with the Synoptics, but to think of John's Gospel as a clarification of the Synoptics. This is the first of many times that the Gospel of John gives us unique details and testimony that seek to make clear statements which had previously been published in the other Gospels. Similarly, because the Gospel of John was likely written several years after the Synoptics, the author finds it necessary to address a different audience and context. If, as we speculate above, a following of John the Baptist has exaggerated his status, then this Gospel will correct it. And if a following of John the Baptist has misunderstood his nature, then this Gospel will clarify it.


To wit: Messianic expectations of the day included a prophecy from Micah 4:5, in which God promises to send the prophet Elijah before the day of the Lord. When John denies being the Christ, the next question goes to this expectation: is he, then, Elijah? The same speculation was directed towards Jesus (Matthew 16:14, Mark 8:28, Luke 9:19). In regards to the Baptist, he himself says no; Jesus says yes. Did John the Baptist underestimate his ministry? Or was the author of this Gospel trying to dispel another exalted status?


The latter seems the more likely explanation. Jewish expectations of the time were for a literal, bodily Elijah to return. Luke clarifies John's role in 1:17 by stating that John came in the "spirit and power" of Elijah, not as Elijah himself. Whereas earlier testimony about John the Baptist identified him as an Elijah figure, the Gospel of John must make clear that John is "an Elijah," so to speak, not "the Elijah."


The third refutation of John the Baptist's identity is that of "the Prophet." It is generally accepted that this refers to a prophecy made by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 - 19, in which it is foretold that another prophet--another Moses, essentially--will come. Once again, the Baptist is clear: he is not that prophet.


The Gospel then goes to present the Baptist in his traditional role: the precursor to Jesus Christ. He takes for himself the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3, "the voice of one calling" (in the desert). When asks why he baptizes (after all, he is not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet), the Baptizer again points to his role as one who prepares the way for Christ.


See you next week!


In Christ,


--Pastor Dan


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January 1, 2018