The lectionary gospel reading for Advent 3 is John 1.6–8 and 19–28, which picks out parts of John the Baptist’s testimony from the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel. Despite being highly selective from this remarkable opening chapter, it nevertheless contains key words and ideas that are carried through the whole gospel.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this selection of verses is where it starts. It passes over the opening cosmic vision of the step-stair depiction of the Word, who comes towards us through the sequence of God–Word–Life–Light, that follows the Jewish philosophical tradition of Philo and others in identifying the creative wisdom speech of God with the rational ‘logos’ principle upholding the universe, all expressed in the person of Jesus as the ‘Word made flesh’. Instead, it steps straight into the mundane, human reality of this that we first encounter in the testimony of a particular person at a particular time and in a particular place. (The contrast between the cosmic and the particular have made some commentators suggest that verses 6 to 8 are an editorial insertion, but in fact there is continuity in content between the idea across the verses, and it is the contrast in contexts which is surprising.)
In doing so, these texts make two startling theological claims. First, the coming of Jesus as the very presence of God in the world that he made undoes any idea of dualism between the transcendence of God and his coming close to us in Jesus. Secondly, the transcendent reality of God is made known in the particulars of Jesus of nazareth, and we cannot avoid the particulars of this revelation to us. So we can never oppose God’s truth with the particulars of the biblical witness, but must in fact attend to these particulars if we are to understand the reality of God that transcends space and time. And all that before we have yet considered the first word of our reading!
Despite what we find in most ETs, we are introduced not so much to a (male) man, as to a person (ἄνθρωπος). The simplicity of the introduction, ‘There was a person…’ locates him within the world created through the Word; it is part of creation which will point others in that creation to the source of creation itself.
This person has been ‘sent by God’, introducing us to another major idea in this gospel. It uses the language of ‘sending’ 57 times, in the form of the two verbs apostello (as here) and pempo, nearly twice as often as in the other gospels. Although we will come across opponents to the purposes of God being ‘sent’ (as in verse 24), the primary agent of sending throughout the gospel is God. He first sends this witness, then he sends Jesus (see John 3.17, 5.37 and so on), and Jesus then sends his followers in a similar fashion (John 20.21). Note that being ‘sent’ does not of itself imply any sense of pre-existence, so on its own does not make claims about the nature of who Jesus is. But this missionary impulse is part of the character of God, so that to know God and be obedient to him will always involve being ‘sent’ in some sense or other. Given the importance of this language, it is striking that the Twelve are described in this gospel as ‘disciples’ and, in contrast to the other gospels, not given the distinctive designation of ‘apostles’ (the term only occurs in a general sense in John 13.16). The apostolic commission is not limited to a select few but given to all who believe.
The fact that we are given his name without any qualifier means the gospel writer assumes that we know who this is—the first of many clues suggesting that this gospel was written for those who already have read the others, in particular the gospel according to Mark. So we should not think of the ‘Johannine community’ reading this, but the Johannine perspective on what we already know. The continuing testimony of John in John 1.32, to the coming of the Spirit on Jesus in the form of a dove, does not even mention the event of baptism at which this happened, so we need to supply not only John’s title but the whole narrative of his baptising as we read the Fourth Gospel!
What is John sent to do? To be a witness, and to bear witness, in a threefold repetition. The importance of this noun and verb, martureo and marturia (from which we get ‘martyr’, someone who is a faithful witness to the point of death, Rev 12.11) is diluted in ETs which mix the grammatically unrelated terms ‘witness’ and ‘testimony/testify’, both as translations of the same term. The verb and noun together occur in the Fourth Gospel 47 times, indicating their importance, whilst they occur only six times in the other three gospels, five of those negatively in the context of Jesus’ trial.
Although John strikes a lone figure here, especially in the following verses in the face of opposition, he does not remain alone for long! As this gospel unfolds, we find many of the characters that we meet joining in a chorus of testimony—the Samaritan woman, the Scriptures, the works of Jesus, Jesus himself, God, the man born blind, the Paraclete, the disciples, even on occasion the crowd—a veritable cloud of witnesses. And if the purpose of John being sent is to bear witness, then it is a purpose shared by the gospel’s writer, who has written this in order to bear witness (John 21.24). Testimony might sometimes feel lonely, but we are never alone when we give testimony.
And John’s testimony has a quite clear goal: that those who hear his testimony might believe in the one that he bears witness to. Here we have another key term in the Fourth Gospel, the verb ‘to believe’ (pisteuo) coming 100 times in comparison with occurring 32 times in the other three gospels together. (It is fascinating to reflect that the gospel which is generally viewed as having the most elevated or sophisticated theology actually has the simplest and most repetitive vocabulary.) The point of testimony is not to draw attention to oneself, but to direct one’s listeners to the thing or person about which one is testifying—expressed most decisively in John’s declaration in John 3.30: ‘He must become greater; I must become less’. This goal is again shared by the writer of the gospel, who writes about what he has borne witness to ‘in order that you might believe’ (John 20.31) and that ‘believing, you might have life’ (compare John 1.4, 13). It is fitting that, despite the name attributed to this Fourth Gospel, it is more likely that it was written by an otherwise unknown Jerusalem disciple (at least in my view!).
The final key term in these opening few verses is ‘light’, the subject of one of Jesus’ great ‘I am’ sayings (John 8.12), repeatedly contrasted with darkness. This contrast points to the division that marks both the responses to Jesus and the difference between those who respond to the testimony of both Jesus and John by believing, and those who reject it (‘I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness,’ John 12.46).
Our reading now leapfrogs over the exposition of light, acceptance and rejection, new birth, and the grace of God in the incarnation, all of which are visited at Christmas itself, and focusses on the specifics of the challenge and opposition that John encounters.
It is curious that John’s testimony is introduced in the present tense (‘This is the testimony…’, corrected to the past in many ETs) though this perhaps emphasises the enduring importance of what he says, both here and in the verses to follow (not least because he is unique in identifying Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God in John 1.29).
We must be very careful in how we read ‘the Jews’ throughout the gospels. Sometimes the term is a general pointer to the Jewish people as a whole, including their customs and practices, which take centre stage in this most Jewish of gospels. At other times the term refers to the southerners, the Judeans (a possible meaning of the term Ioudaioi) in contrast to the northern, Galileean followers of Jesus. Occasionally it refers to Jews who had followed Jesus but have now turned away. And often (as here) it is a shorthand for the Jewish leaders, with their power base in Jerusalem, who are threatened by Jesus’ claims and his popularity and from the beginning oppose his ministry.
The challenges to John are sharp and direct. The questions from his opponents often make use of emphatic ‘deictic’ pronouns; since Greek is inflected, there is no need to include a term for ‘you’ since it is expressed in the verb—but most of these questions add the term in for emphasis. ‘Who are you?…Are you Elijah…the prophet…Who then are you?’ The repeated questions come as probing, jabbing, personal challenges. In response, John is emphatically open and transparent: ‘He confessed…did not deny…confessed…’ (John 1.20). And he repeated ‘I am not’s (ἐγὼ οὐκ εἰμὶ) set up the narrative to receive the sevenfold ‘I am’s (ἐγὼ εἰμὶ) from the one to whom he is pointing.
John’s denials might, at first glance, appear to be in tension or even contradiction to the accounts in the Synoptic gospels. There is a hint that his followers form a significant popular movement, in that he needs to deny that he is the promised Anointed One (Christ) sent by God—and the language of the Prophet (like Moses) runs in parallel with this. But he also denies that he is the ‘Elijah’ forerunner, which appears to contradict Jesus’ description of him in Matt 11.14.
But we need to locate this tension within the tensions around first century Messianic hope, and John is engaging in just the same careful management of expectations that we find Jesus engaging in within the Synoptics. Jesus is the one whom God has sent in fulfilment of his promises, but he will not be the kind of Messiah that people are expecting. So John then agrees with the Synoptics (and in particular Mark 1) that he is the one preparing the way for the presence of Israel’s God visiting his people and restoring them back to their true home in deliverance from exile. In this way, the Fourth Gospel shares the high Christology of the Synoptics in seeing the preaching of Jesus as the coming of God.
John’s exposition of baptism, and the contrast with the baptism of Jesus, remains incomplete here until he revisits it in John 1.33, beyond the scope of this week’s reading. We need to recognise that baptism had eschatological significance, a sign of repentance and cleansing in anticipation of the coming of God to his people in deliverance and judgement, even though this gospel seems less obviously ‘apocalyptic’ compared with the others. (There is other material in the so-called Johannine corpus that more than makes up for this lack!)
Once more, though, we are introduced to a repeated theme in this gospel—that Jesus is elusive, and remains unknown to those he walks amongst if they do not ‘receive’ him (‘among you there stands one you do not know’). What matters is not the seeing of a physical presence with the eyes of the body, but the seeing of truth with eyes opened by faith to the truth of who Jesus is and what he brings. This is as important now, in this Advent season, looking in faith and hope to Jesus’ return, as it was for the writer of the Fourth Gospel and his first-century readers.