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The leaders in Jerusalem send an investigating team, referred to as the Jews (Ioudaios, v. 19). This term can mean either Jew in an ethnic sense (for example, 4:9) or Judean. When used of Jesus' opponents it seems to refer, in general, to a sect of Jews who were particularly associated with Judea, whether living there or not. More specifically, "the term frequently designates adherents of a particularly strict, Torah- and Temple-centred religion found especially (but not exclusively) in Judea and Jerusalem" (Motyer 1997:56). The Pharisees and a number of the leaders of Israel were important members, and at times the term is used of them in particular, as it is here. The term itself, however, refers to a wider group (cf. Motyer 1997:46-57) but still only one faction of Judaism (cf. Ashton 1991:132-59). In John's day they had become the representatives of official Judaism.
Those sent to interview John had a task that was far from simple. The Baptist was a religious leader outside the mainstream. He appeared in the wilderness with an eschatological message, that is, a message about the expected time of God's judgment and restoration. But although his message was not mainstream, it was not unique. Within Judaism there were many popular movements (cf. Horsley 1992) and much speculation concerning the Coming One prophesied in Scripture. It was as confusing a time as our own. Even the hope for a coming messiah was not a single, simple idea, but rather a complex variety of expectations that had been developing for several centuries (cf. Schürer 1973-1987:2:488-554).
The interrogation falls into two sections, the first concerning the Baptist's identity (1:19-23) and the second concerning his activity (1:24-28). As the interrogation begins, John emphatically denies that he is the Christ (v. 20). They then ask him, almost as if they were working through a check list of expected eschatological figures, if he is Elijah or the Prophet (v. 21). Elijah was expected to return just before the day of God's wrath to turn people hearts and thereby avert God's curse (Mal 4:5-6; Sirach 48:1-11) and the Prophet probably refers to the prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15-18; cf. Jn 4:19-25). When John rejects both of these suggestions they change their approach and allow him to identify himself in his own way (1:22). He does so by referring to an entirely obscure figure—not really a "figure" at all but only a voice (v. 23).
In this brief interchange we see that the Jewish authorities believe they are capable of passing judgment on religious claims, presumably on the basis of their understanding of Scripture. They come to the Baptist as those who know God's ways, even possessing a list by which to evaluate him. But when the Baptist quotes from Scripture to identify himself (v. 23) they ignore it entirely (v. 25). Despite their desire to be loyal to God, they lack an openness to God and his Scripture.
This lack of genuine openness is matched by a lack of personal desire. The Jews of Jerusalem are not interested enough to come themselves (v. 19), and those who come are not themselves interested—they only want to have an answer for those who sent them (v. 22; contrast Mt 3:7). So even when they ask what seems to be an open question (v. 22), they do so with a closed attitude of indifference. Such an attitude can never receive spiritual instruction, and therefore true teachers will not accommodate such spiritual voyeurism. Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus will cast pearls before swine. But while such people are not ready for pearls, it does not mean they are not ready for instruction altogether. It is said you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. True enough, but you can feed him salt. Much of Jesus' teaching is a matter of giving salt, seeking to arouse a thirst deep enough to enable a person to come and drink (cf. Jn 7:37).
In the Synoptic Gospels this "salty" teaching is given in parables (cf. Mk 4:10-12), but in this Gospel it is given through cryptic sayings. Almost none of Jesus' teaching could be understood at the time, yet it gives the hearer a hint at an answer and, in fact, actually contains a profound answer for those who can understand. The Baptist's reference to the "voice" of Isaiah 40:3 is also such a saying. It is a highly significant expression of who he is, what he is doing and why he is doing it. His identity is his task, and this task is directed entirely toward the Lord's coming and not his own. His reply does answer them and should arouse their curiosity. Unfortunately, it goes right over their heads; they do not even acknowledge it (Jn 1:25). It is outside their expectations, and they do not have the inner openness to be able to hear it.
What we have seen of the Baptist and his questioners is repeated in the second section of his testimony concerning his activity (1:24-28). They ask him why he is baptizing, but he does not respond to their question. He simply says that he is baptizing (v. 26) and then goes on to identify himself solely in terms of the one who comes after me (v. 27). His statement among you stands one you do not know sums up the picture of the opponents in this Gospel (cf. 1:10-11). This one of whom they are ignorant is far greater than the Baptist himself (v. 27). By such a response John the Baptist is true to his task, for he is testifying to the light (cf. 1:7). Even when he is asked to testify concerning himself he points to Jesus. Thus he is a model of humility, a key characteristic of discipleship in this Gospel. So the Baptist himself is a lamp (5:35), both shining on Christ and exposing the ignorance of the opponents. We find in him a powerful example of humility, single-mindedness and witness.
This brief encounter between the officials and the Baptist raises searching questions for us. First, do we have the inner openness and deep desire necessary to receive God's revelation? Second, since our identity, like that of the Baptist, is most truly seen in relation to Christ, how does our life—our relationships and responsibilities—flow from our relation to God? What would we say if asked "Who are you?" (v. 22) and "Why are you doing what you are doing?" (v. 25)?
The Baptist may be cagey about his own identity, but he is not so about Jesus' identity (vv. 29-34). Here also there are two parts, the first identifying Jesus as the Lamb of God who comes after the Baptist (vv. 29-31) and the second identifying Jesus as the one upon whom the Spirit rests, the Son of God (vv. 32-34). Taken together these verses read like a summary of his testimony, though there is no indication of where he gives it nor of who hears it.
He first testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (v. 29). It is difficult to know what precise background the Baptist has in mind here, since the Old Testament does not mention a lamb who is said to take away sins. Since Jesus is identified with the Passover lamb (cf. Jn 19:31-37; cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:25), this may be the primary allusion. While the Passover lamb was not specifically associated with taking away sins, it did represent the general theme of redemption. There may also be allusion here to such motifs as the lamb provided for Abraham (Gen 22:8), the ewe of the sin offering (Lev 4:32-35), the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 and the goat that bore away the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:21-22). Echoes of the apocalyptic figure of the conquering lamb (for example, Rev 6:16; 17:14; 1 Enoch 89:41-50; 90:8-12; Testament of Joseph 19:8) may also be present (cf. Dodd 1953:230-38). The primary focus, however, is obviously the bearing away of sins. The fact that it is the sin of the world that is taken away continues the theme of the universal scope of Jesus' ministry and the Baptist's witness (1:7).
In this passage we have the only clear expression in John of the idea of taking away sin (vv. 29, 36), though there are numerous instances of sacrificial language (6:51; 10:15; 11:50; 17:19). The only reference to forgiveness of sins occurs when the disciples are told "If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven" (20:23). John thus affirms the atoning significance of the cross but does not develop this theme extensively. Later when some in the community begin to affirm they are without sin John stresses the need for atonement (for example, 1 Jn 2:2; cf. Whitacre 1982:156-57). But in the Gospel the focus is on the cross as the revelation of God's love. This is a good example of the lush variety of language and imagery used in the New Testament to describe Jesus and his salvation. We are given not a single note, but a marvelous chord in which each note has a role to play. It is vital that we allow each writing to sound its distinct notes, thereby contributing to the harmony of the chord of Scripture.
The Baptist next says that Jesus is the one who has surpassed me because he was before me (v. 30). Some have suggested that the Baptist thought he was preparing for the coming of Elijah and therefore the statement he was before me would be a simple matter of history since Elijah lived 900 years before John (Brown 1966:64). But as it now stands this clause clearly refers to the preexistence of Jesus (Brown 1966:56, 63; Schnackenburg 1980a:302-3, 494-506). Thus the Baptist is speaking a more profound truth than he realizes, a common occurrence in this Gospel.
In the second section of his testimony the Baptist is able to recognize Jesus by the sign of the Spirit (v. 32). Here in a nutshell we have the Johannine teaching about the Spirit as the one who comes from God and points to Jesus. This "remaining" (menon, present tense) implies that all of Jesus' ministry, "must be understood as accomplished in communion with the Spirit of God" (Barrett 1978:178).
The Baptist concludes his testimony to Jesus with the central title for Jesus in this Gospel: I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God (v. 34). His testimony is a model of Christian witness to Jesus! He is also a model of Christian discipleship in his humility. His admission, I myself did not know him (v. 31) is startling since what he had just asserted concerning his examiners (v. 26) he now confesses of himself. It is important to see that such ignorance of Jesus is not bad in itself—everyone begins ignorant of Jesus. Even the fact that the Baptist's cryptic saying went over their heads (vv. 23-25) is not necessarily an indictment of them, as we will see later (for example, 4:1-26). But their ignorance and the Baptist's ignorance are two very different things. They thought they already knew all about the Messiah and other eschatological figures. The Baptist, however, knows his ignorance and is looking for the one to be revealed. In fact, it is for this very reason that he came baptizing (v. 31). So we see his humility in his recognition of his ignorance and in his waiting and watching for God's promised one.
Such humility is part of being receptive and obedient to God. One with such a heart is able, like the Baptist (v. 33), to hear God. Later in the story we will be told of God's speaking directly to people who are not able to understand (12:28-30). It seems clear that the Baptist must have had an inner receptivity that enabled him to receive God's message.
This section thus introduces us to four important truths about Jesus, one of which has already been introduced (preexistence; cf. Jn 1:1-18), another that is not developed further (Lamb of God), a third that is developed later (Spirit) and a fourth that is central in John (Son of God). We also see the Baptist as a significant model of humility, openness and obedience.