John’s Understanding of Himself

This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Advent in Lectionary Cycle A. Earlier today in the post, we considered the nature of the baptism that John offered. In this follow-on post we take a brief excursion to explore John’s understanding of himself.

Did John seem to understand that the end-time were at hand? Or were his actions done in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah and the inauguration of new era?  Or was he fulfilling the role of the prophet to call people to the covenant now in anticipation of the unknown coming of the promised Messiah? These are questions about how John saw himself and his role in God’s plans.  If there is some scholarly consensus about the meaning of John’s baptism, there is far less concerning John’s own self-understanding, e.g., did John see himself as one like Elijah, the herald of the Messiah. And as a corollary question, did John understand his cousin Jesus to be that Messiah?

In the three Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) John’s motivation for his preaching and action are clearly prophetic, but there is nothing that seems to indicate John understood his role narrowly as herald of the Messiah (cf. Mt 3:11-12; Mk 1:7-8; Luke 3:15-18).  In Mark’s account Jesus then simply appears and is baptized – what transpires immediately seems to be a private intended for Jesus only. The Lukan account is similarly private.  In Matthew’s gospel (3:13-17) there is an exchange in which John asks Jesus if it is proper for Jesus to be baptized by John – at least indicating that John had some sense of Jesus’ role; but then the following events are again a seemingly private moment intended for Jesus alone.

It is in John’s Gospel that the Baptist calls out “Behold, the Lamb of God” (John 1:31) and where John testifies that he saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus and recounts that “the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit’” (John 1:33).

We must be mindful as we study Matthew’s gospel we should resist reaching into another gospel to exegete Matthew’s intention and understanding.  John’s gospel carries an account that is the same and yet differs from the Synoptic accounts.  All are the same Gospel, but each is according to a different inspired author.

So – what was John’s understanding of himself? After reading the corpus of scholarly works – again, concerning only Matthew’s gospel – it seems to me that the question is interesting, but in the end, obscures the more key question: Did Matthew, the inspired writer, see John in the role of Elijah and Jesus as the promised Messiah? From the whole of this gospel it is clear that Matthew indeed understood John and Jesus in those respective roles. (11:14; 17:12).  So, why didn’t Matthew include that information earlier in his account.  Possible answers range from its being part of the craft of the narrative, to the fullness of the revelation was only revealed by Jesus later in the ministry.

Image credit: Image credit: ‘The Preaching of Saint John the Baptist in the Desert’, ca. 1635,  a painting by Massimo Stanzione -1585-1656, Public Domain

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