An Enigmatic Mirror
The Testimony of John the Immerser: John 1:19-34
Like Mark, the Gospel of John provides no background on the early life of Jesus. Instead there is an abrupt transition from the preexistent divine Word, to the sudden encounter between the "Word made flesh" (1:14) and John the Baptist, or "Immerser" (1:29). Any information we glean about the early life of Jesus before his meeting with John comes only from incidental comments throughout the Gospel. For John, Jesus' mortal mission begins when he is publicly recognized as the Messiah by John the Immerser.
The Testimony of John the Baptist
Read the account of Jesus' encounter with John the Immerser (1:19-34), and try to discover what's missing in the story. Don't peek! The synoptic gospels all describe John baptizing Jesus (Mt. 3:16; Mk. 1:9-10; Lk. 3:21), but the Gospel of John does not. As in the other three gospels, Jesus comes to John (1:29), John testifies that Jesus is the Messiah (1:29-30, 34), and the Spirit descends upon Jesus (1:32-34). Although it is clear that all the gospels are describing the same event, the Gospel of John never describes John the Immerser as actually immersing Jesus. Was this intentional? Or did John simply assume that his readers would understand that Jesus had been baptized by John without the need to explicitly mention it—why else would Jesus come to the Immerser?
My assumption is that John intended to imply that Jesus was immersed by John. However, it may be that John is veiling this event to emphasize Jesus' superiority to John, which is one of his main points here. Matthew takes pains to emphasize that John is not superior to Jesus even though John baptized Jesus (Mt. 3:14-15). It may have been that contemporary late first-century disciples of the Immerser were claiming their master's superiority to Jesus by pointing to the fact that Jesus had been baptized by John, and hence must have been some type of disciple of John.
Why does John begin with the story of John the Immerser? It is clear from all the Gospels that John's ministry both preceded and overlapped with the ministry of Jesus. John the Immerser already had many disciples and had attracted the attention of the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem before Jesus began his preaching (Jn. 1:19; Mt. 3:5-6; Mk. 1:5). For John the Beloved, Jesus' ministry begins with John the Immerser, and the first mortal revelation of his true nature as the Messiah. It is the Spirit's descent upon Jesus, as witnessed by John, that begins Jesus' ministry, and thus John is the first witness that Jesus is the Messiah.
In his testimony, John the Immerser emphasizes a number of important characteristics of Jesus that will be major themes throughout John's Gospel:
- Jesus is the Messiah (implied in 1:25-27).
- Jesus is the "lamb of God" (amnos tou theou) (1:29, 36).
- Jesus "takes away the sin of the world" (1:29).
- Jesus "ranks above" and "was before" John (1:30), probably alluding to his preexistent divine status as the Word.
- The Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove (1:32).
- Jesus will immerse his followers with the Holy Spirit (1:33).
- Jesus is the Son of God (1:34).
In other words, in just a few verses John the Immerser lays out much of his messianic theology that will be developed throughout the rest of John's gospel. Note, also, John does not mention a voice from heaven confirming Jesus as the Son of God, as do the other gospels (Mt. 3:17; Mk. 1:10; Lk. 3:22), although John does describe a similar incident later (Jn. 12:28-30).
William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.