International Catholic University


The Gospel of John

James C. Turro


Lecture 2: St. John 1:21-31

When we left off the last time we were talking about the questioning of John the Baptist. We are struck as we are meant to be by the firm denial of the Messiahship. He has nothing to do with it and has delicately hinted, at least the gospel writer has delicately hinted, that though he is not the Messiah someone around here is -- a very subtle reference to Jesus. You see we're being prepared: shortly there will be a forthright identification of Jesus as the Messiah. But that's the stage that we're at now.

The next thing we have to address is this: these people who were interrogating John are not satisfied to ask him are you the Messiah, get a denial from him, and drop the matter. They pursue it and pursue it in rather a strange way. They are speaking about Elijah and the prophet. Now why should that be? The reason is this, that in the Judaism of that time the expectation was for the one who was to come -- some figure who would come from God to bring on the day of the Lord. Different people in different parts of the Israel envisioned that one who was to come in different ways. So for instance some people visualized this one who was to come as a royal figure, a Messiah. Messiah means anointed one, and kings were anointed. So that was the way they fleshed out that expectation, that a kingly figure would come, a Messiah, an anointed one. Other people were thinking the one who was to come would be Elijah; he would usher in the Day of the Lord. Lastly there were some who thought that the one who was to come would be someone broadly spoken of by Moses as a prophet like unto me.

Everybody agreed that someone was coming from God, mandated by God to bring things to a head, so to speak, to bring on the Day of the Lord. The way different people pictured this person who was to come varied, but most of the people pictured the one who was to come as Messiah. These interrogators want to cover every base, and when they hear John deny that he is the Messiah they may have been thinking, well he is being cute here, he is saying he is not the Messiah but he is Elijah. So they press the matter that far, are you Elijah? And still not satisfied, they wanted to be sure to cover the situation completely, and they ask if he is the one who is to come. So that explains this variation that we have here.

But let's dig deeper into this matter of Elijah. How could it ever come about that people would have supposed that Elijah was the one who was to come? An interesting conjecture is that, though it's not found as such in the Bible, a popular tradition arose that pictured things in this way. There is an account in Second Kings 2 about Elijah being swept up by a fiery chariot. Most people would have considered that a poetic, strong way of saying he was taken from this life, he died. Fine and good. But then some time later on reflecting that passage of time, there is in Second Chronicles 21 a reference to a matter coming from Elijah to the reigning king. This now is at some later date. So the popular imagery, the popular conclusion to all of this, was that Elijah really had not died. That reference to the fiery chariot did not speak of his death but meant that Elijah was off in the wings somewhere waiting to be sent by God to usher in the Day of the Lord.

Just to document all of this I am going to read first of all Second Kings 2:11. This is Elijah and his successor Elisha:

Now as they were going along conversing, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into the Heavens. (Goodspeed Bible)
Exactly what we are to make of this is not clear, but people back then construed this as a reference to his death, his being taken from this life into another existence. Now listen to Second Chronicles 21:12. The talk is about a king,
He [the king] also made high places in the mountains of Judah, and led the inhabitants of Jerusalem into unfaithfulness, and led Judah astray. (Goodspeed Bible)
This is very much to his discredit that he fosters paganism among the people. Then there came to him a writing from Elijah the prophet saying,
"Thus says the LORD, the God of David your ancestor: 'Because you have not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat your father, nor in the ways of Asa, King of Judah, but have walked in the way of the kings of Israel and have led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem into unfaithfulness, as did the house of Ahab, and also have slain your brothers of your father's house who were better than yourself, now the LORD will strike down with a great plague your people, your children, your wives, and all your property. . . ." (2 Chronicles 21:12-14, Goodspeed Bible)
So this letter suddenly comes to light from Elijah. And those are the deductions then made by the people, that therefore Elijah is the one who is to come. A bit of that continues on in the Judaism of today when people will speak of Elijah's coming at some times, and at other times of the Messiah's coming -- leaving the empty chair at the Seder dinner in case Elijah should be coming.

So much for that as a version, an aspect of the one who is to come, but how about the third one? The prophet. That all depends on Deuteronomy 18:15. This mysterious figure spoken of by Moses as coming to usher in the great period known as the Day of the Lord.

Instead, the LORD your God will raise up a prophet for you from among yourselves, one of your fellow-countrymen like me (it is he that you must heed) . . . . (Goodspeed Bible)
The interesting thing about all of this is that this is the picture before the Messiah comes. You have this threefold expectation, tripartite expectation, of one who is to come after Jesus comes. It's interesting to note that his disciples describe in him aspects of each one of the three. Certainly as Messiah: Peter confesses Jesus to be the Messiah, it's clear in the gospels. Then the role of Elijah coming before to prepare the way: that is thought to have been verified in John the Baptist, that he has come to prepare the way for Christ. And then Jesus as the prophet like unto Moses: he is recognized by his disciples as being just that. Listen to this sermon that Peter gives found in Acts 3:21-23. He says this:
Yet he must remain in heaven until the time for the universal reformation of which God told in ancient times by the lips of his holy prophets. Moses said, 'The Lord God will raise up a prophet for you from among your brothers, as he raised me up. You must listen to everything that he tells you. Anyone that will not listen to that prophet will be annihilated from among the people.' (Goodspeed Bible)
That reference clearly is to Jesus and it is the reference of the prophet like unto Moses. So that then I hope elucidates the threefold interrogation of John the Baptist to ascertain if he is the one who is to come from God in whatever guise, as Messiah, Prophet or Elijah.

You see by the exasperation these questioners felt because they are getting nothing from this man. I'm not sure they hoped, but they probably foresaw that he would say oh I am the Messiah, and then they would know where they stood. I don't think I mentioned why they were concerned to know if John the Baptist thought of himself as the Messiah, but the reason probably was this. Messiahs were a dime a dozen at that time. The conception of Messiah that these people had was this, military leader. At the time the Holy Land, Palestine, was under Roman rule and many people were restive under that rule, foreign rule, and looked forward to deliverance from that foreign domination. They began to think of the role of the Messiah being just that: the Messiah would be the one who would drive the Roman occupiers into the sea. So it was not an uncommon occurrence for somebody to come up from the population and declare himself Messiah and get a raggle taggle bunch of followers with swords to go down to defeat the Romans. Well, that didn't happen, the Romans were practiced in the arts of war and made quick work of these people.

The religious authorities in Jerusalem worried that at some point they were going to exasperate the Romans and they were really going to take action, with all these would-be Messiahs coming down the pike to unseat Roman rule. That's why they were concerned to know if John the Baptist was one of these types that were going to cause a dustup and annoy the Romans even further. Ironically that's exactly what happened: the Romans finally lost patience and in the year 70 just leveled the city of Jerusalem to be rid of all this provocation. But that's the idea behind sending people off to interrogate John the Baptist precisely on this heading as to whether he was the Messiah. The questioners get nowhere in that regard.

So almost in exasperation they said, who are you then? Finally they have something positive to go on: almost grudgingly then John the Baptist speaks of himself, his self understanding and what he is there to achieve. I am the voice of one shouting in the desert, 'Straighten the Lord's way!' as the prophet Isaiah said. What he has to say about himself is minimal, but we're going to see that's very much in the character of John the Baptist as he is portrayed in the gospel, very self effacing. He's unhappy, uneasy talking about himself. We're going to go to some interesting contrasts. Subsequently he talks volumes about Christ; about himself, he barely eeks out a phrase and then only as a generality. I am the voice of one crying in the desert, 'Make the Lord's way straight'. And that's what we're seeing here. This definition of himself, I'm the voice of one shouting, is actually a quote from the Old Testament. In Isaiah chapter 40 verse 3 there are these words:

A voice of one crying "in the desert, make the Lord's way straight".

Here's something that recently has come to the attention of scholars, but they have wondered whether this might not be the way we should read this text. You may have caught the way I read it. ~ I am a voice of one crying: in the desert make the Lord's way straight. Normally people have broken that sentence down in this way. I'm a voice of one crying in the desert: make the Lord's way straight. The difference in meaning is considerable. In the way we have traditionally read that, I'm the voice of one crying in the desert, it speaks of the futility of the person who is clamoring for your attention. I'm like the voice in the desert. Nobody hears a voice in the desert; that voice dies on the wind.

But this other reading is fascinating because it offers a good rich background of meaning to the words. It would be this, I'm a voice crying, and here's what I'm crying out, this is my message: in the desert make the Lord's way straight. In other words, go out into the desert, that's the command, and there make the Lord's way straight. That meaning recommends itself to us for very good reasons. One is a conception that the Hebrews had about the desert: it was the ideal place for encountering God. Why should that have been? First of all, there is not much distraction in the desert. You look out and there's nothing to catch your eye, no beautiful lake or majestic surf, no tall mountains. It's just there -- so nothing can take your attention away from God.

But the other reason the desert was traditionally conceived of as the place for having proximity to God was this. In their history, at the time when the Hebrews were escaping from Egypt, it was in the desert that God was so close to the people. And it was a glorious reminiscence for them to think back on that. In those happy times God was close to us. They felt they knew that was the case because of the miracles that took place during that period. Fresh water gushes from a rock when the people are about to die of thirst. Food is provided in the form of manna in sufficient quantities for them to survive. These are miracles. It is not normal for this sort of thing to happen in the desert, but it did for them. It helped them survive. Their thinking was that these were miracles; only God can perform a miracle, and if God is performing a miracle here in our presence it means that he must be here to make the miracle happen. So they thought back on those years when their forefathers had marched through the desert as being a time of particular closeness of God to his people. The desert has that flavor to it, the suggestion that that is where you can best concentrate on God.

Of course we are all familiar with the Dead Sea Scrolls and perhaps know a bit about the people who produced them. They were Jews, a very Orthodox form of Jewry, very serious about the practice of the faith and about serving God. They read these words in Isaiah and construed them as a mandate to them from God to go out into the desert and there prepare to meet God in the next life, spend their life in the desert, a life of recollection, of meditation, of sharp concentration on God and the things of God, to prepare one to meet God eventually. For that reason scholars are thinking in terms of reading that line found here in that way, I am the voice of one crying. And then here's what I'm crying out: In the desert make the Lord's way straight.

I might just add in passing that there is a certain ambiguity to all of this. I've spoken about the very lofty conception of the desert that the Jews had in those days. But they also were aware of the other side of the desert. The desert was a risky place to find oneself in those days. There weren't state troopers that patrolled any lonely stretch. You were on your own, and robbers understood this, so that many of them lurked in the deserts to set upon the hapless traveler and take what they could from him. That was one risk. Another risk was that wild animals populated the deserts in those days. And then the obvious risk that the desert represents is that there is no way of sustaining oneself. Desert by definition is a place where nothing grows, so if you find yourself in the desert without provisions it's a deadly state of affairs that you are in. That was one side, but the other side was what we explained before, a kind of a glowing experience, an experience of God that one could have off in the desert.

One other comment about this particular quote that John uses to define himself: he says, I am the voice of one crying in the desert. Saint Augustine has come up with a very delightful and I think very apposite comment on that. He says, oh a voice indeed, John the Baptist's voice. A voice is a very tenuous thing. Now you hear it, and now you don't. A voice is not constant. Jesus on the other hand is spoken of in this gospel as The Word. The word is different. The word once spoken can have everlasting impact. Once again John the Baptist is contrasted with Christ. John the Baptist is weak, transient. Jesus is firm and permanent.

The next phrase that I want to comment on is why are you baptizing? That's a legitimate question. These men have come up, and they've asked for this man's identification, and finally they get some identification from him. What they remember so well, how could they forget, is his firm absolute, almost perturbed, denial that he is the Messiah. Now in possession of that fact they're puzzled by what he's doing, because they say, if you're not the Messiah why are you baptizing? This was the work that was particular to the Messiah. This is what the Messiah would do among other things when he came: he would baptize. So very legitimately these people were left puzzled. You say on the one hand that you are not the Messiah, and on the other hand I see you functioning as Messiah. How do you explain that? There's a very easy explanation. I'm baptizing only in water; when the Messiah comes he will baptize in water and the Spirit.

You see that what John the Baptist was doing was disposing the population for the time when the Messiah would come and the genuine baptism could be experienced by them. But this is, so to speak, to win converts for the Messiah even before he came, so that they could take full advantage of the baptism that He would bring on when in time He came. He says, I'm only baptizing in water. Someone is standing among you, this is his second rather broad hint that Jesus the Messiah is nearby, there is someone standing among you of whom you do not know. He is to come after me and I am not worthy to undo his shoe. His point is this, you're encountering me first but Jesus is before me even, and that of course harkens back to what you find as the opening line in the introduction in the prologue, "In the beginning was the Word". So Jesus has priority to me. I'm the first one you are encountering but he preceeds me, it's just that you haven't met him yet.

He goes on to say this: I am unworthy to undo the strap of his sandal. That has much more impact than we would imagine. It seems curious to be discussing this sort of thing, but this is the background to this supreme expression of humility to hear on the lips of John the Baptist. Back in those times people had a revulsion of feet and things to do with sandals with good reason. One supposes in the summertime people went about unshod, and so their feet were very dusty. In the winter they would be very muddy. As a result it was a disgusting thing. That's why in the more refined households when people ate, for example, they would eat reclining with their heads resting on their left elbow on the table raised maybe just six inches or so above the ground and eat with their right hand but with their feet away from the table and the food because feet were disgusting.

To show how far they carried this, when a person came on a visit to a well-to-do home, a home of people of substance, that person would be refreshed by having his feet washed. One of the slaves would be called to wash the feet of the guest. You can picture that. You know putting one's feet in cool water is very exhilarating. But it was a dirty task, and that's why you could not ask a Jewish slave to do that work. You would have to ask a Gentile slave. It was too degrading for a Jewish slave to do that task.

That was one example of how they felt about this matter. Another was this: that a teacher in those times could ask any favor at all of any of the students. He could ask them to get him a glass of water, or to bring him another scroll, or to do this or do that. But one thing he could not ask a student would be carry my sandals. That was considered simply too dirty a thing to ask of anybody. Against that background then here are these words of John the Baptist saying: this most menial of tasks, namely to unlatch the strap of his sandal, even that I am unworthy to do. Just as an aside against the background of what we've said about people's thinking and feeling about feet and shoes, think of the washing of the feet that Jesus engaged in during Holy Week as recounted in this very gospel.

The last comment that we are going to make in this segment has to do with the word Bethany. In the New Testament there are, it would seem, two Bethanys . One was and still is a suburb of Jerusalem, a short distance to the Southwest. That's the Bethany where Lazarus and Martha and Mary lived, a town that Jesus often visited because these were close friends of his. And that town had survived down to the present. It's no longer called Bethany, but it's called El Azurea, which is Arabic for Lazarus. The memory of Lazarus as having lived in that spot centuries ago has endured all these years. We don't often realize that that whole area was solidly Christian in the seventh century. When the Arabians came they spread by force in many instances the Muslim faith, so that now there are Muslims throughout the whole area and Christians are a minority. But the memory of the Christians about this place being the home of Lazarus, Jesus' friend, has taken hold, and the old name of Bethany has been discarded and now they know it by Lazarus.

Now to get back to the Bethany that is spoken of here, it's Bethany beyond the Jordan, therefore some distance removed from Jerusalem. We have not found the foundations of that town at all. We just have this note that it was on the other side of the Jordan. Interestingly, the etymology of the word bears on what has happened here. The word Bethaneniais is composed of two Hebrew words, beth, house, and anenia, testimony. So the house, the place of testimony. Here is John the Baptist doing nothing if not giving testimony, testimony to Christ, and this all happened in a place called the place of testimony.

We'll go on now to what follows right after that. Remember that all this is progressing in terms of days, successive days. Discussing something in terms of days, you see the development, the growth of a particular happening. We're going to see that now. Thus far what we have from John the Baptist is denial: I am not the Messiah. That serves to clear the decks for action: the very next day we are told who is the Messiah.

Read John 1:29-34.

Here it is then, all anyone would have hoped for as far as who is and who isn't the Messiah. There is a fascinating way that John the Baptist has of making this identification. He says, Look! There is God's lamb. That really is a formula that we really ought to be quite aware of. The formula works this way. It derives from the Old Testament where it goes along these lines, someone sees, that is the first thing seeing, someone says, that's the second, and then the third member of this combination, this formula, is look or behold or lo. So: sees, says, look. That's what we note from the Old Testament. Someone is pointed out, and then something is said, and what is said always has that now archaic word, lo, behold, there is so and so. Before we get any deeper into this examination we have to note that this formula is identifying Jesus as having a special role to play in salvation history.

I'd like to show you just one instance of this function back in the Old Testament, First Samauel 9:17. Now you know the three indications that you have to be on the lookout for, seeing, saying, and lo. First Samuel 9:17.

That's when Samuel saw Saul there is the first one: the Lord said to him there's the second: Behold there's the third, lo, the man of whom I spoke to you.
So in this subtle way but unmistakably and quite firmly Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God. Now there comes up before us the task of proving that phrase, Lamb of God. Of course we grow up familiar with it because of its use in the liturgy and the other references to Jesus as Lamb of God. But what are we to take from this? What meaning are we defined here? Some people have suggested that Lamb of God is a reference to the suffering servant that is spoken of in Isaiah. Isaiah 53:7 The suffering servant is a kind of a prefigurement of the Messiah. The Messiah is pictured in terms of a suffering servant, and here is what is said of him in 53:7. When he was oppressed he humbled himself and opened not his mouth, and here is what makes people think of this text here where we're finding it in John, like a sheep that is led to the slaughter or like a ewe that is dumb before the shearers, he opens not his mouth.

That's one possibility, that John the Baptist then in using these words, this particular formula, is suggesting that Jesus is that suffering servant figure that people are primed to know and to expect from reading Isaiah. Further reason for thinking that this may be the meaning of Lamb of God is that there are several texts in this part of John's gospel that derive from that same part of Isaiah's work.

Another possible interpretation of Lamb of God is to see in it a reference to the Paschal Lamb. The Paschal Lamb is what saved the Hebrews back at the time just prior to the Exodus. The Hebrews were instructed to take this Paschal Lamb and to slaughter it as a sacrifice and consume it. But they were to take the blood of this lamb and put it on the doorpost of the house, and any house so marked would be spared. It was the blood of the lamb that saved. Immediately we make this connection, because this is one of our understandings, one of the truths that we accept and live by, that Jesus saves. That seems to be the equation then, Lamb of God equals Paschal Lamb.

Also in this part of John's gospel there is a strong Passover symbolism. There were several broad references to the Passover in this gospel. For example, when this gospel is talking about the suffering and death of Jesus it makes a very interesting little allusion: it speaks about hyssop. When Jesus was hanging on the cross one of the soldiers takes pity on him, takes a stem of hyssop, puts a sponge on it, dips it in sour wine and holds it to the lips of Jesus. What is fascinating for us is that word hyssop. It's a rare word; it was rare in those days as it is today. Has anyone ever in the normal course of life heard that word used?

It was unusual even at the time when the gospel was written, and yet that word is used, and it calls to mind the Passover Lamb. When the instructions are given for the way the Passover Lamb is to be slaughtered and how its blood is to be sprinkled on the doorposts, they speak of dipping hyssop into the blood of the lamb and then sprinkling the doorposts with it. What I'm suggesting is that this reference to the Lamb of God would flow right into place, right in line with other Passover references that you have here. So that is the second possibility.

What we have confronting us now is a range of possibilities. John has said, look, there is God's Lamb. We want to be clear in our minds what he means by that, and we can suggest thus far that it's either suffering servant or Paschal Lamb. But there are still further possibilities. For instance Jeremiah makes reference actually to himself as a lamb. Jeremiah 11:19, But I was like an innocent lamb that is led to the slaughter. I knew not that they had plotted against me, but I was like an innocent lamb led to the slaughter.~

What makes that seem to be a possibility for construing this expression: Lamb of God is innocent, so is Jesus innocent. He wasn't put to death for killing somebody; he wasn't put to death for stealing. He was innocent. He went to death an innocent person. This is a real possibility. Jesus could be seen as a suffering servant. He could be seen as a Paschal Lamb, with very good reason because what the Paschal Lamb did was to spare the lives of those people and Jesus has come to save all of humanity. That's a very logical linkup and possibility.

Now we've seen a third, there are still others that we have to look at in Exodus. It speaks about the lambs that are to be offered every single day for the people. These lambs are sacrificed and offered one at daybreak and the other at twilight for the benefit of the people every single day. Let's look at the way they are spoken of in Exodus 29:38.

Read Exodus 29:38-42.

Here then is another possibility. These lambs are to be offered twice a day with this intent, with this thrust, in behalf of the people. That forces us to think of Jesus because his whole passion and death experience is in behalf of the people. So there is the connecting point between the two. There are other possibilities that we have to consider, factor in, before we try to reach a conclusion. It would be interesting to see what you think will be the final judgment to be made on all of this, but we are going to finish at this point and leave you in suspense.

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