19.01.2020 — John’s public witness to Jesus

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A – 19th January 2020 — Gospel: John 1,29-34

John’s public witness to Jesus

In coming towards John, Jesus appears on the scene for the first time in the Gospel. John’s baptism of water provides the context for the purpose of divine revelation in Jesus: “that he might be revealed to Israel” (1,31). The agent of revelation was the Spirit: “he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (Jn 1,33). Therefore in this section water is associated with the Spirit and it relates to the revelation of three facets of Jesus’ identity.

First, the significance of the water used by John relates to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (Jn 1,29.36) whose responsibility is to “take away the sin of the world” (Jn 1,29). By “Lamb of God”, John has in mind the Passover lamb (Jn 19,14). He may have in mind the Suffering Servant of the Lord who is compared to a lamb in Isa 53,7-12. Within the broader sacrificial system, a lamb figured regularly in rites of reconciliation and communion after sin. “Lamb of God” is Jesus’ love given to us by shedding his blood that washes over to cleanse us from sin (Rev 1,5; 5,9; 7,14; 12,11). Therefore this title indicates that Jesus’ sacrificial death is basic to his identity. On the one hand, the focus on Jesus as the one who takes away sin seems to exclude the idea that sin could be removed in other ways, including baptism by John. On the other hand, Jesus death purifies people from sin and through the work of the Spirit the cleansing effect of his death extends to all people. In any event, Jesus is the one who will destroy the sin that envelops humankind, but he does so as Lamb of God.

On the second level, the water helps disclose that Jesus was the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations. John denied that he was “the Christ”, but testified that he “saw the Spirit descend and remain” on Jesus (Jn 1,32-33). The descent of the Spirit marked Jesus as God’s anointed, the Messiah. Significantly, Israel’s first king Saul bore the Spirit for a time before it was given to David his successor (1 Sam 10,10; 16,13-14), and the messianic heir to David’s throne was also expected to bear the Spirit. Isa 11,2 said that a shoot would come forth from David’s line and that “the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him” and in Isa 61,1 God promised to put his Spirit upon his anointed one. Therefore after the Spirit descended, John testified that Jesus was “the Son of God” (Jn 1,34). This title is messianic and it is used by Nathanael in Jn 1,49, who couples it with “King of Israel.” 2 Sam 7,14 and Ps 2,7 speak of the anointed heir to David’s throne as God’s “son”. Thus the evangelist used the title “Son of God” to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations.

At the third level, John’s baptismal ministry provided a context in which Jesus divinity was made known. John bore witness that Jesus ranked before him (Jn 1,30). John’s allusion to Jesus’ preexistence (Jn 1,14-15) shows that as “Son of God” Jesus possessed a sense of divinity as well as Messiahship. John announced that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Jn 1,33), which meant that Jesus was the agent of God’s own power. The Spirit was God’s gift, which was given to Jesus alone and through Jesus to all people born from above (Jn 3,3-5.31.35). When Jesus finally gave the Spirit to his disciples after resurrection, he breathed it into them, just as God breathed the breath or “spirit” of life into Adam at the dawn of creation (Jn 20,22). The Biblical texts of Joel 2,28-29 and Ezek 36,25-27 used images of water to speak of the day when God would send his Spirit to enliven the people of Israel. By baptizing with the Spirit, Jesus not only shares his Spirit, but carries out the cleansing God himself had promised to perform.

The water John used for baptism did not cleanse people from sin, but provided the context in which the Spirit revealed the “Lamb of God”, whose death would take away the sin of the world. The Spirit’s descent marked Jesus as “Israel’s Messiah”, who fulfilled the eschatological hopes rooted in the Scriptures. And the promise that Jesus, “the Son of God”, would baptize with the spirit identified him as the one who wielded God’s own power to purify and enliven people. Unless one understands these truths in Jesus, one cannot bear witness to him like John the Baptist.