Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

19. The Witness of John (John 1: 19-28)*

“There was a man sent from God whose name was John.”

This first mention of John the Baptist is a decided inconvenience to those with whom the personal pre-existence of Jesus is a dogma; for, translated literally, the phrase is: “There was a man sent from beside God” (para with genitive). Yet is there one serious student of the gospels who would maintain the personal pre-existence of John, even in the face of such an emphatic expression: “from beside God”? This is an excellent example of the distinctive idiom of the apostle John’s writing. Such examples should warn his readers that they must be careful to let John be his own interpreter, rather than attempt unsympathetically to impose a literal twentieth century meaning on some of his terms.

The present section is entitled: “The Witness of John” (v. 19), but in a later discourse (ch. 5) the Lord makes it clear that John was only one of five witnesses:

v. 31:
His own witness,
v. 32-35:
John the Baptist,
v. 36:
His works (miracles),
v. 37:
The Father (how?),
v. 39:
The Scriptures.

And later the witness is taken up by the other John and the Holy Spirit (19: 35; 1 Jn. 5: 6-11).

An Official Investigation

Whenever a prophet arose in Israel it was plainly the duty of the religious leaders to investigate whether the new teacher’s claims were valid or not, and then to make some suitable pronouncement regarding him, for the guidance of the people. Accordingly, when John’s mission had lasted some time, “the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?”(Jn. 1: 19). This is the first of many examples in the fourth gospel where “the Jews” means the leaders of the nation. It is a point to be borne in mind for the more exact interpretation of other passages. When this gospel refers to the common people, the word “multitude” is generally used.

Very tactfully the official deputation (v. 22; cp. Lk 5: 17) was not made up of scribes and Pharisees. Instead, priests were sent, for John himself was a priest, and would therefore be less likely to receive their enquiries with the brusqueness he had earlier shown to critical Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt.3: 7). But with them came also Levites (Mal. 3: 3) - members of the temple guard, probably, to arrest John if he failed to satisfy his priestly interrogators. Pharisees were also included in the deputation - probably milder men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who may well have had their first introduction to Jesus through John.

Messiah? - Elijah? -Who?

The first and most obvious thing was to check John’s claims regarding himself: “Who art thou?” To this the first answer was an explicit negative: “I am not the Messiah” (cf. Lk. 3: 15). This was needful, since from time to time false claimants to this divine role had risen up, creating considerable disturbance (e.g. Acts 5: 36,37); and even now some of the people were inclined to regard John in this light (Lk. 3: 15). So “he confessed, and denied not, but confessed .” The expression is a strange one (cp. v. 3). Perhaps it is the evangelist’s emphatic way of saying that John did not prevaricate in his answer. Beating about the bush was not his way. It may mean that John’s answers were explicit and free from any symbolism. For, when asked: “Art thou Elias?” he answered: “I am not”, yet, on the basis of all that had been foretold concerning him by the angel Gabriel (Lk. 1: 17), the opposite answer might have seemed more appropriate. Or if may be that there is a certain bitter disappointment behind this reply: ‘That was to have been my work, to fulfil Malachi’s Elijah prophecy, but already it is evident that only to a limited extent is the nation willing to listen to my message.’

The next question, not too clear to the modern reader, but evidently explicit to John, was: “Art thou the prophet?” This might mean the Elijah prophet, foretold by Malachi, or “the prophet like unto Moses” foretold in Deuteronomy 18: 15-18, or “his (Elijah’s) prophet”, meaning Elisha who succeeded Elijah. The second of these is most likely, although not free from difficulty, since many Jews regarded the prophet like unto Moses as identical with the Messiah (Jn. 6: 14,15). Regarding both John gave a categorical “No”.

The effect of these repeated negatives almost certainly was a slump in John’s popularity, for two or three years later a similar situation (6: 14,15,66) had precisely that effect on the standing of Jesus with the multitude.

An Easy Test

These investigators must have known that John, being a priest, could make no Messianic claims for himself. Then why did they repeatedly press questions about this? Had they hopes, or fears, of hearing him assert a new Maccabee leadership?

There was a rabbinic teaching that there would be no more spirit of prophecy in Israel after Malachi, until Messiah came, and then the prophets would rise from the dead to fulfil Isaiah 52: 8: “Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing.”

So these interrogators now sought a positive answer. What claims did John make for himself? In reply he gave the answer he had always given: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight (s.w. Josh. 24: 23) the way of the Lord.”

There was no ambiguity about this. One of the tests of a true prophet propounded by the Law of Moses was: “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously” (Dt. 18: 22). Accordingly, in the writings of practically every prophet in the Old Testament there is included some prophecy of speedy fulfilment to which this test might be applied (see Notes).

In the same way, John presented his credentials-a prophecy that he would soon be followed by one much greater than himself: “There standeth among you (as though ready for action), one whom ye know not (a double meaning here!)... he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Spirit”, that is, he is the Messiah.

This was a test easy to apply. They had only to be alert for the appearance of one whose every word and action was a constant (and not intermittent) manifestation of divine power, and they would not only know John to be a true prophet, but by that same token would also know that it was now time to turn away from John and give heed to one much greater. “His shoe latchet I am not worthy to unloose.” In the presence of the Glory of the Lord, Moses and Joshua must remove their sandals (Ex. 3: 5; Josh. 5: 15). But not this Man, for he is the Glory of the Lord; Isaiah’s prophecy about John and his message said so (Is. 40: 5; hence this detail in Acts 7: 33; 13: 25).

Why This Baptism?

Further enquiry was now pressed upon John. He had introduced a completely new rite, sanction for which was not to be found in the Law of Moses; and he required all, without exception, to accept it. What was his authority for this, and what did it signify? The anxiety of these enquirers is readily understood. The birth of the nation of Israel had been through baptism (1 Cor. 10: 1,2). Then did this new birth required by John mean a new law also?

The comprehensive reply of John was, in effect, Yes. His authority was a direct personal revelation from heaven. This baptism assured men of the forgiveness of sins through the Lamb of God. It revealed to Israel a vital part of Messiah’s work (v. 31). But its acceptance by the people was necessary if the Messiah was to be revealed in all his power.

Biblical Allusions

Always John pointed away from himself to One who was greater, the next day especially when he saw Jesus “coming to him”-the phrase seems to imply “for the purpose of being baptized”. It was very appropriate that at such a time John should announce him as “The Lamb of God which beareth the sin of the world”, with explicit allusion to the great Isaiah 53 prophecy which no less than twelve times asserts the Messiah to be a sin-bearing Suffering Servant of the Lord. And three times out of those twelve, “sin” is singular (v. 6,8,12), as in John’s phrase-one peerless sacrifice for all the vast appalling weight of human sin.

John’s choice of phrases was probably designed also to steer the minds of his hearers to another great prototype-the offering of Isaac: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold, behind him one (all-sufficient) ram caught in a thicket by his horns” (Gen. 22: 13). This is not unlike: “Behold, the Lamb of God which beareth (as Isaac did the wood) the sin of the world ... after me cometh a man which is preferred to me.” “God will provide himself a lamb (my son)”, faithful Abraham had said.

In this saying the word which John used for “man” is not the one which might be expected. Instead it is the word which very often means “husband”. In this gospel it always carries that meaning. So probably John had in mind the figure of the bridegroom which he was to use later, the man preferred before himself whilst he remained well content with the status of friend of the bridegroom, or best man, as modern speech would put it (Jn. 3: 29; Is. 61: 10,11).

There is probably more meaning even than this in John’s assertion: “he was before me”. The Greek here-literally: “he has become before me, for he was first of me”, or “he was my First”-is doubly puzzling. “First” implies “the first of more than two”, and may look back to Isaiah 41: 27, in a chapter which seems to be full of links with the Baptist; thus:

v. 15:
thresh, mountains, hills, chaff.
v. 16:
fan; glory in the Holy One of Israel.
v. 17:
the poor and needy seek water.
v. 18:
the wilderness a pool of water
v. 25:
he that cometh... from the north from the sunrising.
v. 27:
the First... behold, good tidings to Jerusalem.
v. 29:
all vanity, their works nothing.
42: 1:
mine elect in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my Spirit upon him.
42: 2:
he shall not cause his voice to be heard.
42: 3:
a bruised reed (Mt. 11: 7) shall he, not break.
42: 6:
for a covenant of the people.

What can John have meant by his repeated emphatic “I knew him not”? The words make best sense when taken literally-that the two men, although closely related, were quite unknown to each other, having grown up at opposite ends of the country. Only when John interrogated Jesus prior to baptism (as he did all other candidates for baptism), and found out who this newcomer was and that he had no sins to confess-only then would he realise, and with what excitement, that his ministry had now come to its climax.

The suggestion (in “Nazareth revisited”, by R.R. p. 57) that the two men enjoyed each other’s fellowship for only half an hour or so is full of improbability. With each one having so much to tell the other, and each realising that here was the best mortal fellowship he could hope to enjoy, it becomes incredible that they should meet and part so soon (note also the implication behind 3: 26).

Where John preached

All this took place, according to the common version, at Bethabara beyond Jordan. There is, however, better textual evidence for reading Bethania. This is certainly not the Bethany of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Various identifications have been suggested, but there are two which combine to give the same result. Conder (and there are few more dependable authorities on the topography of Palestine) says that this was a corrupted form of the name Bashan. Alternatively, Beth—Anijah means House of Shipping and would require a location on the shores of Galilee; there is some likelihood of the place being at the south-east corner of the lake.

It now makes an interesting exercise in New Testament geography to trace the movements of John in the course of his brief ministry. He began in Jerusalem, moving soon to the wilderness of Judaea (Mt. 4: 1); thence to the nearest part of the river Jordan (Mk. 1: 5). Then “all the region round about Jordan” (Mt. 3: 5) was covered, so there must have been steady progress up the Jordan valley, as far as Galilee (according to the identification already made). It would be in this locality that Jesus came to him for baptism. Here also Jesus was identified to some of John’s disciples as the Lamb of God. The mention of Andrew bringing Simon to Jesus and of Philip finding Nathaniel both fit in here, for Bethsaida was, of course, on the shores of Galilee, and Cana was not far away.

John is next heard of at Aenon near to Salim (Jn.3: 23). This probably means that his ministry had now taken him into Samaritan territory, either because hunted by Herod or out of a realisation that the great work of the Messiah would not be restricted to Israel and that therefore he too must be prepared to extend his call to repentance to others besides his own people. He is last heard of in Herod’s gloomy fortress of Machaerus (according to Josephus), just east of the Dead Sea.

Thus his preaching took him almost the full length of the country. At the most northerly point and at the height of his fame he baptized Jesus. Thereafter, “he must increase, but I must decrease”. Before long his work ended, both physically and spiritually, in tragedy-his mission almost a failure, and his life savagely cut short to give an evil woman the horrific satisfaction of a long-planned revenge.

John 1:19-34

l am not. This emphatic personal pronoun might well imply: ‘But soon you will know who is.’
Other examples of short-term prophecies presenting the credentials of a prophet: 1 Sam. 3: 12-14; 1 Kgs. 13: 3; Am. 1: 1,2; Is. 2: 10-22 (Uzziah’searthquake);Jer. 1: 11-14; Ez.4; Mic. 1: 1-4;Mal. 1: 1-5.

Whom ye know not.. A double meaning here; cp.v. 10,11
Taketh away. This Greek verb means (a) bear; (b) bear away. Both meanings here, surely.

The Lamb of God. Gk. amnos, as in Is. 53: 7 and Ex. 12: 5 LXX. But why amion in Apocalypse? To distinguish between the mortal and the immortal Son of God?
Is preferred. Literally: hath become. A decided difficulty for trinitarians, for would not a pre-existent Christ be always “before” John?
As a dove. Cp. this usage in 15: 16; Rev. 3: 3. Luke’s phrase: “in a bodily shape”, is not to be evaded; but the commentators manfully, and wilfully, do their best (worst).
And remaining on him. Contrast the experience of the disciples during the ministry, and the early church, and even John himself. This passage is surely in mind at Lk. 7: 21 and Mt. 16: 1,4.
I saw, a word often used of a divine vision.

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