This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we looked at some of the verses that speak to John the Baptist as witness to the Messiah. In today’s post we will continue that line of thought as he gives a summary reason for his ministry of Baptism at the River Jordan. Where Mark’s gospel asserts it was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), John simply offers “I came baptizing with water … that he might be made known to Israel.” (John 1:31)
In other verses he offers details or images, but here his ministry served its purpose for a time, but ultimately it was that the Messiah could be revealed. The other gospel writers, all composing some 20-30 years before the Fourth Evangelist, report what is likely John the Baptist’s initial understanding of his prophetic role. What is reported here are elements that point to a more robust understanding.
The Baptist’s testimony continues: “John testified further, saying, ‘I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him.’” (v.32) John is not talking about a vision. He actually saw the Holy Spirit come down upon Jesus in a form like that of a dove. The Spirit not only descended but remained on him (a detail not in the other gospels). The tense of the verb used does not indicate a “once and done” event but rather an event that continues, meaning that the Spirit remained with Jesus permanently. There are two likely messages to be understood in that one verse. Given that the dove is a symbol of the new creation (Genesis 8:8) or the community of Israel (Hoses 11:11) this also emphasizes the permanency of the relationship between Father and Son and between the Son and the new community of believers.
“I did not know him, but 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.’” (v.33) John repeats his statement that until the time of this descent of the Spirit he did not know him. Recognition came not from prior knowledge, but from supernatural revelation. John does not say how and when he had been given the sign, but he says that he had it from God, who had sent him to baptize that the Spirit would descend and abide on the one whom he awaited. He does not say whether the sign of the dove was included in the original revelation, or whether he simply recognized the dove for what it was when he saw it alight on Jesus. But what is clear is that he had a divinely appointed sign, and that he knew Jesus by that sign.
In the fourth gospel, John the Baptist stands apart from the others. Every other disciple is dependent upon a human witness for the reception of divine illumination about the true nature of Jesus. The “next day” (vv.35-37) two of John’s disciples are pointed to follow Jesus as the Baptist again proclaims: “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The two disciples draw others to follow and so forth. The Baptist alone did not depend on human witness. This marks his special place in salvation history but also highlights the importance of human witness.
John goes on to describe Jesus as “he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” All three Synoptists make this point; Jesus came that people might be brought into contact with the divine Spirit. But baptism is a figure which stresses abundant supply. So John will mean that the Spirit leads people into the infinite divine spiritual resources. This had not been possible previously, for there is a quality of life that Christ and none other makes available. This life is a positive gift from the Spirit of God. It is the bestowal of new life in God.
The Baptist completes his witness in v.34: “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” The verbal form used points to the ongoing effect of the Baptist’s words. They were not the idle utterance of the moment, said and then over. They continued with full effect.
Note: you might see translations that hold “he is God’s chosen One.” There are some important manuscripts (Sinaiticus, P5) which have that wording, but the strongest of textual traditions in “Son of God,” something more in harmony with the Johannine language and theology.
Image credit: The preaching of St. John the Baptist. Chromolithograph by L. Gruner after C. Mariannecci after D. Ghirlandaio, 1490, Public Domain