|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
The Gospel of John is a book of "signs" -- namely things and people who point to something or someone else. A sign comes between the looker and what s/he should be seeing. It is an intermediary, in that it comes between two things or people. Generally in John, intermediaries are necessary to come to the proper faith about Jesus. John points two of his disciples to the Lamb of God (1:35-39). Andrew brings Simon to Jesus (1:40-42). Philip tells Nathanael about the promised one from Nazareth (1:45-50). (Jesus finding Philip in 1:43 seems to be an exception to the "rule".)
Even Jesus is a type of intermediary as the logos -- the "Word" or "Revealer" of God. I think that this is the theme and purpose of the entire gospel: "These are written so that you may come to believe [or continue to believe] that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). This book itself is a "sign" to point us to the Messiah. It is an intermediary. As such, its importance is in whether or not it fulfills its task of directing our attention off itself and to Jesus.
The Prologue of John (1:1-18) can be divided into three sections.
a. The Word's relationship to the Creator and Creation (1:1-5)
b. The Word's relationship to John the Baptist (1:6-9)
c. The Word's relationship to the world (1:10-18)
The concern for this Third Sunday in Advent is the relationship between Jesus and John; and between John and the Jews.
John is sent to be a witness (martyria/martyreo), which is an emphasis of this gospel. The verb occurs once in Matthew, once in Luke, none in Mark, and 31 times in John (five times in chapter 1: vv. 7, 8, 15, 32, 34). Similar statistics exist for the noun, which occurs three times in Mark, once in Luke, none in Matthew, and 14 times in John (twice in chapter 1: vv. 7, 19). A literal reading of v. 7: "That one came as a witness so that he might witness concerning the light, so that all might believe through him." The purpose of his coming and his witnessing is to point to the light so that others might believe. He is a "sign," an intermediary.
The Jewish leaders are sent to question John about his activities. In essence, they put John on trial where he has to be a witness about the coming one.
I think that these two roles present an important contrast: being an interrogator or being a witness. I'm not sure about the effectiveness of our witness when we ask questions such as: "Are you saved?" "Have you been born again?" "Do you love the Lord?"
Witnessing seems to imply making statements. "Jesus has saved me." "Jesus died to save you." "I have been born again." "I love the Lord," or better, "The Lord loves me -- and you -- and the entire world."
While I believe that the gospel is always a proclamation about God's actions, effective witnessing involves a lot of listening. For a proclamation to be "good news" for someone, it has to address their needs, their questions, their concerns. I've often quoted this statement from a course on witnessing: "You don't throw a drowning person a sandwich, no matter how good the sandwich might be."
More about John as a witness will come later.
John was "sent" (apostello) from God (1:6, see also 3:28). Maloney (John) writes about this:
The hints of the Word's involvement in the events of history found in vv. 3c-5 continue as a historical figure with the proper name "John" enters the story. John was not just any man, for he had been sent by God (v. 6). This is an important claim, as no one else in the Johannine story apart from Jesus is described as having been sent by God. John was part of a divine plan: he came to give witness to the light, so that others might come to believe by means of the life-giving presence of the light. [p. 37]
If the "God-sent-ness" of John makes him part of God's divine plan; then does Jesus make us part of that same plan when he says: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent (apostello) me, so I send (pempo) you." (apostello and pempo are used interchangeably throughout John.) This suggests that we are not just ordinary people any longer, but part of God's continuing plan of salvation for the world. We are intermediaries or signs that are to point the world to Jesus, and through Jesus to the Father.
The introduction of John into the prologue brings the cosmic-ness of vv. 1-5 down to earth at a particular place and time. It is one thing to talk about Jesus dying to forgive all of the sins of all people. It is another thing to bring that "cosmic" forgiveness into the lives of people at a particular time and for particular sins. Perhaps that is part of our "job" -- to bring the eternal plan of salvation to particular people today. That is also our, that is, Lutheran, understanding of the sacraments. They bring the cosmic, transcendent, ubiquitous God, to a particular time and place and individual. (By stating this as a "Lutheran" understanding of the sacraments, I don't mean to imply that other Christians have a different understanding. I have met many non-Lutheran colleagues who have this "Lutheran" understanding of the sacraments.)
The priests and Levites are also "sent" (apostello, 1:19, 24; pempo, v. 22), but not by God, but by the Jews/Pharisees (1:19, 24).
How do I answer the question: "Who has sent me to the congregation I serve?" God? my bishop? the call committee? my self? my spouse? circumstances? (Lately, as we occasionally have to wear a light jacket, we wonder how much the weather influenced our move from Wyoming to California. I haven't had to shovel snow since moving here!) Anyway, assuming that we believe that God has sent us to our congregations, how do we claim that authority and not become arrogant? Should we continually remind ourselves that we are ambassadors for another? What we say and do reflect not just about who we are, but also about the One whom we represent -- the One who sent us?
However, John's first witness to the priests and Levites who question him was not about the Light, but about himself (v. 19). First of all, he talks about who he is not: He is not the Christ; he is not Elijah; he is not one of the prophets (vv. 20-21). Secondly, he talks about who he is: "The voice crying in the wilderness. . . ." (v. 23). Sometimes we need to be reminded that we can't just be against something (e.g., "Just say 'No'"), but we also need to be for something (e.g., "What are we saying 'yes' to?")
In Martin Luther's explanations to the Ten Commandments, he lists things he believes the commandment tells us not to do; but also things he believes the commandments tell us to do. It is true that we should fear and love God so that we do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or bear false witness; but our fear and love of God should also motivate us to "help and support [our neighbors] in all of life's needs;" "to lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse;" "to help [our neighbors] to improve and protect their property and income;" "to come to [our neighbors'] defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light" (quotes from The Book of Concord, "The Small Catechism," Kolb & Wengert).
Peter Steinke in Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, has a chapter called "The Immune Congregation." In this chapter he states: "The immune system is a network of cells that recognize and attack foreign invaders. The system asks one profound question: What is self, and what is not self?" [p. 91]
A little later he applies this insight:
The community needs an immune response, to determine what is self and not self. The community needs to ask, for instance, if a certain action continues, whether it will enhance the mission of the congregation or detract from it. Does an individual's or a group's behavior contradict or serve the congregation's purpose? Is there clarity about who is responsible for what and accountable to whom. [p. 91]
In a sense, that is what John does in vv. 19-28. He is both defining who he is and who he is not. He is clear about who he is and his mission. When he states that he is not the Christ and he is not Elijah and he is not one of the prophets, he is not saying that the Christ or Elijah or the prophets are bad; but simply that he is not them. Being clear about who he is and his mission, also means that he is clear about who he is not and what things will not contribute to his mission. While such an understanding of self (and non-self) is important for individuals, Steinke goes a step further and says that it is an essential part of being a healthy congregation.
Speaking as a Lutheran pastor, I think that we have to state, "We are not Baptists. We are not Methodists. We are not Roman Catholics, etc. We are Lutherans. This is not to imply that those other Churches are bad, but to be clear about our selves. We aren't them. I also think that every congregation should be clear about who they are that goes beyond a denominational label. How do we answer the questions: "Who are we?" Why are we doing what we are doing? Who's our target? What are our strategies for witnessing to our target?" [Hmm, I've become an interrogator again.]
Concerning John and Jesus: as in the synoptics, John is subservient Jesus. He is "not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal" (Jo 1:27; Mk 1:7; Lk 3:16; cf. Mt 3:11). John is the Isaian voice crying in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord (John 1:23; Mt 3:3; Lk 3:4; Mk 1:3, but, as I noted in last week's notes, Mark is likely quoting Isaiah in reference to Jesus, not John).
John down-plays the role of the Baptist even more than the synoptics. Whereas the synoptics consider John to be Elijah (Mk 9:13; Mt 11:14; 17:10-13; Lk 1:17), in the fourth gospel, he clearly states that he is not Elijah.
I think that the gospel writer wants to make it clear that John is not any type of messianic figure. John's whole purpose is to be a "sign" / "witness" who points to someone else. He is almost a nobody -- just a voice who witnesses to the greater one. There is no account of the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. John only relates the "sign" -- the descent of the Holy Spirit -- that indicated to him that Jesus is the Son of God who will baptize with the Holy Spirit (1:33-34). John's mission in the gospel is always to witness to Jesus -- to point to him as the greater one.
The ego eimi ("I am") sayings of Jesus are well noted in this Gospel (26 occurrences). In contrast, John says in 1:20, ego ouk eimi ("I am not" -- ouk eimi [ego] in 1:27 & ouk ego eimi in 3:28). Perhaps the gospel writer uses this contrast to further the distinction between John and Jesus.
What does it mean for us to declare, "We are not the Christ"? One implication is that we as individuals and as congregations cannot save people. If we are to fulfill our proper role of "not being the Christ," we need to be voices (and ears and arms and legs) that point others to Christ. Without such signs, the people will not know Jesus even if he is standing in their midst (1:26).
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