"The Witness/Martyr"

March 14th, 2019

6 There was a man named John

who was sent from God.

7 He came as a witness

to testify about the light,

so that all might believe through him.

8 He was not the light,

but he came to testify about the light.

9 The true light, who gives light to everyone,

was coming into the world.

 

  Verse 6 represents the first example of John shifting from his preaching voice to his narrative voice.  It is a momentary break in the sermon.  Our English words witness and martyr are rooted in the same Greek word martyrion.  John the Baptist was a living example of both.  In the struggle between the light and darkness, Jesus has an ally, John the Baptist.  He is there in every Gospel, as the forerunner of Jesus' ministry.

  The three of them are actually cousins: John, the writer of the Gospel, John the Baptist and Jesus.  The Baptist's mother, Elizabeth, was a relative of Jesus' mother, Mary (Lk 1:36).  Two Johns: one preaching and writing, the other waiting, baptizing and prophesying.

  Jesus does not begin his ministry in a vacuum but rather in a firestorm created by his cousin.  John the Baptist is already under investigation by the Jewish authorities (Jn 1:22).  He will eventually stir up trouble with Herod Antipas over Herod's adulterous marriage to his brother's wife.  For this he will eventually become a martyr.

  The firestorm Jesus enters is not the only trouble John stirred up.  It is also the firestorm of renewed faith.  In the splintered religious world that was first-century Judaism, John the Baptist had sounded a clarifying note of repentance, and the starving people had responded by the thousands.  It was God's perfect preparation for the coming of the light to make people aware of the depth of the darkness in their own lives.

  When verse 8 states that John the Baptist was not the light, it is only the first of a long list of denials.  Again and again from his own lips John will deny that he is the Messiah.  This is because there were a growing number of people who were convinced he was.  Today there is still a small sect that worships John the Baptist as the Messiah, the Mandaeans.  As the story of John unfolds in the Gospel, it is striking just how many times the Baptist pronounces his litany of denials.  He is not theProphet.  He is not the light.  He is not the Messiah.  This is unique in all the Gospel portrayals of John the Baptist. 

  Acts 19:3 provides a clue to what is going on.  Here Paul encountered a group of disciples who knew nothing about the Holy Spirit.  When Paul asked them what kind of baptism they received, they responded "John's baptism."  It is no coincidence that this all happened in the city of Ephesus.  Could it be that group still existed, all these years later?  John needs to repeat theBaptist's denials?  The Baptist was not the light but merely a testimony to the light.  The true light was coming, John writes, and the very thought of it causes him to burst once more into song.

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