The Testimony of John the Immerser: John 1:19-34

William HamblinLike 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).

Finally, it is worth noting the importance of witnesses in the Gospel of John. The Immerser's major role in the Beloved's account is that of witness to Jesus as the Messiah (Jn. 1:7, 15, 32, 34). As we shall see, this becomes an important theme in John 5:31-39, where Jesus discusses the importance of witnesses in establishing that he is the Messiah.

The Lamb of God
The Gospel of John is the only gospel that uses the title "Lamb of God" (amnos tou theou) for Jesus, and only in the mouth of John the Immerser (Jn. 1:29, 36). Furthermore, this Lamb was to "take away the sins of the world." What would a first-century reader make of such a title? From the text itself, John's disciples saw it as a messianic title, for, shortly after being told by John the Immerser that Jesus is the "Lamb of God," the disciples tell their friends, "we have found the Messiah" (Jn. 1:36, 41). Something about this title apparently made the disciples think of the Messiah. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the Hebrew Bible that makes an explicit connection between messianic expectations and the title "Lamb of God." Scholars have proposed four possible antecedents.

  • The Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah are closely linked with early Christian expectations of a suffering Messiah who would "go like a lamb (amnos) to the slaughter" (Is. 52:13-53:12), a connection made explicit in Acts 8:32. The link to taking away sin is found in Isaiah 53:5, where the Suffering Servant is "wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought up peace." Thus, the lamb-like Servant suffers for our sins.
  • Jesus is the Paschal/Passover lamb. Elsewhere in the New Testament Paul calls Jesus "our Passover lamb (pascha)" (1 Cor. 5:7). Peter likewise calls Jesus, "a lamb (amnos) without blemish and without spot" (1 Pet. 1:19). John, however, says that the Messianic Lamb will "take away the sins of the world" (1:29). It is important to note, therefore, that the Passover lamb was not a sin offering (Ex. 12). Rather, each family offered its own lamb so houses marked with the sacrificial blood would be protected from the angel of Death, who would "pass over" them (Ex. 12:3, 7, 12-13). Thus, when God offers his Passover lamb, it is as Father of all Mankind, so that Death will pass over all who accept the blood of his Lamb. On the other hand, the term for lamb in John 1:29 and 36 is amnos, while the term for the paschal lamb in the Greek Septuagint—the Bible often quoted in the New Testament and used by the earliest Christians—is probaton (Ex. 12:3-5), which means sheep in general, but not necessarily lamb. Would John's earliest readers have understood these two terms as synonymous?
1/24/2011 5:00:00 AM
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    William James Hamblin is professor of Near Eastern History at Brigham Young University. You can follow and discuss "An Enigmatic Mirror" on Facebook.