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Sent of God to Witness (John 1:19-41)

by Fred B. Craddock

Fred B. Craddock is professor of preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 3-10, 1990, page 11, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Again, and so soon, we are in the audience listening to one of the most remarkable characters in the Bible, John the desert prophet, the one called the Baptist. Only recently, on the second and third Sundays of Advent, it was John who trumpeted the announcement concerning the One who is to come. Now in the Gospel lesson for the second Sunday after Epiphany (John 1:19-41), he stands before us again. How can we be surrounded by one person? It is as though one cannot go to Bethlehem, to Jerusalem or to Nazareth without passing through the desert where John is preaching.

However, the John portrayed in this text is vastly different from the one we met earlier in the synoptics. To be sure, he does here baptize in water, he is identified as the voice crying in the wilderness, and he speaks of one the thong of whose sandal he is not worthy to untie. But he is never identified as the Baptist; he rejects all titles. He is not a forerunner after all, "he who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me." His baptism is not associated with forgiveness of sin; the one to whom he bears witness takes away the sins of the world. He is not clothed in camel’s hair and leather; he denies being Elijah. His character is not developed and set in historical context as in Luke, nor does he exit dramatically through imprisonment and execution by the adulterous Herod Antipas. He appears and disappears with but one reason to be on stage: he is a witness to Christ. He does not speak eschatologically of the chopping axe, the cleansing wind or the consuming fire; rather he points to Christ: "Behold the Lamb of God." In short, John in the Fourth Gospel is a witness. In fact, the author gives 1:19-41 a heading: "This is the witness of John."

Does this mean that John has been stripped of his power and reduced, in significance? Not at all. On the contrary, no other Evangelist presents John as so striking, so commanding, so magnetic a figure. Twice the author interrupts the prologue-poem about the eternal Son to remind the reader that the subject is Jesus, not John (1:6-8, 15). John "was not the light but came to bear witness to the light." Such a statement would have been unnecessary, even meaningless, were John without prominence or praise. His ministry and his person attract disciples and command the attention of Jerusalem authorities who send investigators to the desert. Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet? In other words, are you the Christ or the forerunner of the Christ? If neither, then who are you? No one asks a powerless preacher, Are you the Messiah? No, the stature, the appeal, the capacity to influence are all there, but they are powers harnessed to one purpose: to witness to Jesus Christ as the revelation of God.

How then are we to understand a person of obvious gifts, immense drawing power and rare insight into the ways of God in the world, who is content to say, I am only a voice in the wilderness? Titles do not interest him: I am not the Messiah; I am not Elijah; I am not the prophet. He seeks no recognition: I am the best man, not the groom (3:29). He seeks no following; on the contrary, he is pleased when his disciples leave to join Jesus. His very last words in the Fourth Gospel are: "He must increase but I must decrease" (3:30). Perhaps he suffers from a debilitating lack of self-esteem. Or maybe John is better understood as an example of abdicating power, of evacuating one’s rightful place as a center of influence in the lives of others, of burying talent in some unhealthy religious quest for humility.

Robert Lynn, retired vice-president of the Lilly Endowment, recently remarked, "We are not attracting religious leaders of quality in either the Christian or Jewish traditions." Could it be that candidates of quality lay aside their strengths due to a notion that power is unbecoming to a minister? Or perhaps those of unusual capacity do not see room in the ministry, as broadly portrayed, for the full exercise of their gifts. It may simply be the case that the Fourth Evangelist is not telling the whole story. Surely, there are those who move into a life of service in relative obscurity, but they have ways of reminding us that they are out there. They write books, or they contact nearby radio and television stations and grant interviews to discuss the obscure life.

The fact is, there is no evidence of anything unhealthy in the life of John. No power, no influence, no capacity is abdicated or denied; all are fully and vigorously employed in the single service of witnessing to Christ. If he is speaking with one or two, he is a witness; if he is working with a crowd, he is a witness; if he is facing a forest of microphones and blinking into the flashing bulbs of Jerusalem inquirers, he is a witness, no less but no more. As such he is the perfect prototype of the Christian leader: sent of God to witness.

This is not to say there was no struggle, no temptation to use his gifts to elevate himself. On the contrary, such a battle must have raged within him at times. Since temptation is commensurate with strength, the unusually gifted face tests that the rest of us do not. As the late George Buttrick once observed, "There is no seastorm in a roadside puddle." But even with the wrestling, the great can and do turn all their gifts to the service of the gospel, and in so doing discover that their powers are not diminished but increased.


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