Do you have a favourite author, or speaker, or even a song writer? I think that one of the best things about the way in which God works is that he uses people. Do you have any people perhaps some who have since died that you think; (and I’m taking a risk here!) “Man when I get to heaven, I really want meet em.”
I would love to meet Paul, tell Jeremiah how much I respect his courage, shake hands with John Calvin and thank Henri Nouwen for his devotional writings. I want to meet whoever wrote the songs ‘Breathe’ and ‘Mighty to Save’, and I’d love to thank Rembrandt for his paintings that have sometimes reduced me to tears. God uses people to do amazing things and, to facilitate his ministry to us.
But every now and then over the centuries of church history, I wonder if we go too far. We have seen people do such special and amazing things in the name of God that sometimes the distinction can get blurred between source and servant. And then sometimes the church reacts and goes completely the other way until no one feels thanked or appreciated.
That is why I find it really interesting that in this grand prologue of the Fourth Gospel, John stops, takes a breath and in the background of the pre-incarnate Logos become flesh says; “There was also this other guy.”
John 1:6-9 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
(For the ease of reference, I am going to call him simply ‘the Baptist’ so as to differentiate from the author of the Gospel.)
Who is the John the Baptist?
I suppose we have to remember that John is writing his Gospel long after all these events have happened. John’s original audience, at the very least, the newborn Christian community, would have heard about the mysterious and yet famous prophet of the wilderness who was executed by Herod.
The problem that you have when you execute someone, especially when they are mentioned in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, is that they can become even more famous and influential! Look at;
Acts 19:1-5 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2 He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Texts like these have caused some to assert that a few of the original readers of the Gospel were placing too much emphasis on the importance of John the Baptist and that John was aiming to rectify any misunderstandings right at the outset of his gospel.
The problem is, John also wanted to show the importance of the Baptist by virtue of the message that he carried, while not giving people the wrong idea. This may seem silly or pointless, but there are about a billion people around the world who alongside Jesus worship a young Jewish virgin by the name of Mary. Before we protestants get too cocky, most of us worship in denominations stated by differing interpretations of one person or one group. Amazingly, God still works through us.
So, the verses about the Baptist which intrude so noticeable are there for a purpose. By standing out so much they draw attention to an issue: the problem of the relation between revelation and the witness to revelation. The Baptist is the witness.”
What is a witness?
John 1:7 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him
One of the real buzzwords that John uses in his Gospel is the word for ‘witness’ or ‘to eyewitness’ John uses it 46 times in his gospel which comprises almost half of its uses in the entire New Testament! The concept of a “Witness” was especially a legal concept in the Greco-Roman world and in Jewish circles. John especially borrows from the imagery of Isaiah.
Isaiah 43:10 10 You are my witnesses, says the LORD, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. Isaiah 44:8 8 Do not fear, or be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? You are my witnesses! Is there any god besides me? There is no other rock; I know not one.
Therefore, the readers of this Gospel are at the same time assured that he is not on equal terms with the Word, While also stressing the importance of the Baptist’s ministry by virtue its divine appointment, which is expanded upon in John 1:6; There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
It is really important that we know that for John, the Baptist is first and foremost a witness to the truth because in the Gospel of John, ‘the Baptist’ functions as the ‘prototype’ for disciples of Jesus Christ.
John is literally reaching out of the page, shaking the shoulders of his audience and saying “hey if you are reading this and you believe already in the light, then you are a…light/witness, and this is what it means to be one! This is quite challenging when you think that John was willing to have his head lopped off for the message he proclaimed.
That’s an enormous challenge for the church because if God was invisible till Jesus revealed him, then Jesus now remains ‘invisible’ apart form the believing community who model their lives upon his character. That’s what we call incarnational ministry. A fancy way of saying ‘down to earth’.
Lots of people I know, know of God just fine, but far less know him as father, companion and friend.Jesus did not say “no one comes to God but through me,” but “no one comes to the Father, but through me.” In other words, everyone will ‘get to God’ one day, the question is how will people experience him, redeeming father or the wrath of judgement?
The witnesses to Christ are there specifically to reveal God as he really is, one who matches the fundamental human yearning for relationship with him and if necessary, use words to do so. This is exactly what prefigures the final verse of this section;
Reason for the testimony
John 1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
It’s interesting that here; time has intersected once again. Here John is essentially standing next to us and us to him, grammatically ‘collapsing’ our experience of time. THe point: Some things never change.
A person that I respect a lot once said in the middle of a conversation concerning the movie; the passion of the Christ; “I can’t stand that movie.” When I asked him why, he said “such is the portrayal of the physical suffering of Christ that it blinds the viewer to the far greater Spiritual reality of the event described.” I now think that is an incredibly insightful comment.
I must admit that I own it and find it powerful, but I suddenly realized “of course I find it powerful, because I know the Spiritual realities that it implies,” while thousands have seen and thought, “gee that’s awful I can’t believe that happened to an innocent great guy.” Without ever thinking “hey; let’s just stop for a minute and take a look around, why did this happen? And what does it mean?”
John wrote this so that people might believe that Jesus was not just some son of a Jewish carpenter born in a manger who grew up to be a great teacher who was crucified tragically as a common criminal. John wrote so that people might believe that he was….God, reaching out to his broken and hurting people, and therefore charged those who did already believe to get and proclaim the same message, to proclaim the truth. But not just a truth but the truth of a loving Father willing to forgive, which John summarises as the Light.
Because it is only the truth, that which is common to all human existence regardless of race, creed, colour or background that can truly fulfil all meaning and unite a race that since the fall has been fundamentally devoid of that light.
Christ literally reveals what God is on about, his very presence literally publicised God’s character, and his desire for relationship, reconciliation and recreation. Likewise, although at first glance, these verses seem to be about the Baptist, notice how john opens the section with John 1:6 There was a man sent from God. We can tell stories about ‘heroes of the bible’ when the whole point behind those stories is that they’re not heroes at all, but just everyday people, God is the hero.
Everyone (but the dude in power) loves a revolution. People want to hear about hope, because deep down everyone knows that if you’re not excited about the future, you ‘lose’ both the future and the present.
The coming of Christ is the greatest revolution in history, big enough to split the ages of the earth from BC to AD. John is proclaiming the revolution; the Baptist proclaimed the revolution, God invented the church to include people in the revolution.
When you look at the baby in the manger, do you feel like a part of the revolution?
Till next time:)