John the Baptizer According to John
By the time the Fourth Gospel was composed there seems to be an intensification in how John the Baptizer is denounced. As with the Synoptics we see John depicted as someone who knows he is not the Messiah (1.19-20). When asked if he is the eschatological Elijah he denies it and he denies that he is “the Prophet” which is a title that goes back to Moses’ claim that there will be a prophet like him to come (Dt. 18.15-19). Rather, he situates himself as the “voice crying in the wilderness” (Is. 40.3) who prepares the people for YHWH’s arrival amongst his people (1.21-24).
As with the Synoptics there is discussion regarding what this means. Again, John emphsizes that he is the one who baptizes with water but he doesn’t directly juxtapose this with the Messiah as the one who baptizes in the Spirit as we found elsewhere (1.25-28). Rather, John explains that he would know who the “one to come” was when the Spirit showed him and when the Spirit descended like a dove upon him it confirmed who he thought Jesus to be (1.29-34). Once again, though from a different angle, we have John as the one who baptizes in water to prepare for one who is greater and we have Jesus introduced in such a way that the person of Jesus as a Pneumatological significance not displayed by John.
It is John’s testimony that leads to some of Jesus’ first followers realizing who he is (1.35-37). This is the sum value of John’s ministry. John recognizes that Jesus “existed” before he did and there he is of a higher rank (v. 30; cf. v. 15). John is “the voice”; Jesus is “the Son of God” (v. 34).
As we move from Mark to Matthew, Luke, and Acts, and now to John we see that there seems to be more clarifications given regarding the identity of John. It seems that there were still disciples of John present even as Paul preached around the Roman Empire (Acts 18.24-19.7). All of these authors are quick to note that Jesus as the baptizer of Spirit has been vindicated and that the Spirit has been given while John the baptizer of water saw himself as nothing more or less.
Jesus is the “Word” with God in the beginning sharing in what it means to be God (1.1-2). Jesus is associated with the Creator (1.3). Jesus is the “Light” (1.4). John? He was sent by God, yes, but only as a witness (1.6-7)! This early mention of John seems to indicate to me that at least a small number of John’s disciples must have existed and they thought higher of John that they ought to have.
It must be clarified that John was not the Light (1.8). Jesus is the “True Light” who comes from outside our world into our world and is rejected (1.9-11). It is by receiving Jesus, the true Light, that you are defined as a true child of God (1.12-14) because Jesus is the Word who became human and it is because Jesus is the one who reveals the Father.
In the Fourth Gospel what separates John the Baptizer from Jesus the Messiah is that Jesus is the One to come, the one who is the Word, the Light, the reveler of Father, and the one from Heaven while John is simply the one who has been commissioned to prepare the people for his arrival. Our last vision (3.23-30) of John before he fades away depicts him as continuing his baptizing before his arrest. John’s disciples complain that people are now going to Jesus to be baptized. John reiterates that this is a work of God who has given Jesus the authority (v. 27). Jesus is the bridegroom come to receive his bride while John is merely the friend of the bridegroom. For John the greatest success is to see that the time has come for the bridegroom to be received.
John’s classic words come here: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” The commentator goes on to say that Jesus comes from Heaven, he speaks the words of God, and he gives the Spirit. “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hands.” It is belief in the Son that results in eternal life, not belief in John (3.31-36).
So by the time John exists the stage we have a fairly unanimous testimony about John though we must admit by the time of the Fourth Gospel the language has intensified (as it has in a positive way regarding the identity of Jesus). John is the one who prepares the way for YHWH, he calls the people to a baptism of repentance in water, he recognizes the Messiah and directs people to him, he informs everyone that the Messiah will be the one who brings the New Covenant Spirit.
Is there anything else we can learn about John? In the next two post I will explore the Gospel of Thomas and some other non-canonical literature. That will wrap up this series.