Christmas Story IV: John’s Version

December 25, 2013

This is the fifth of a series of posts on the Christmas story in the gospels. The first one concerned Matthew’s account, the second concerned Mark’s account, and the third and fourth concerned Luke’s account.

Then there is John. Unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no Nativity story in John.  These both have Nativity stories, even if quite different ones. In John there is a narrative about the coming of Christ: that narrative concerns Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist. In this respect John’s account is like Mark’s, which also begins with the story of John the Baptist.  But John’s account is quite different from Mark’s. He tells the story from a different perspective, and he adds a commentary that is unlike anything in the other gospels.

Juan de Flandes, Baptism of Christ ca 1508We first hear of Jesus in John 1:15: “John [meaning John the Baptist] bore witness to him, and cried “He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.” That must have been puzzling to those who heard John the Baptist say this. What could this statement possibly mean?

John’s telling of the John the Baptist story really begins four verses later at 1:19, with John being questioned by “priests and Levites.” The story opens in the middle: John has been baptizing people, but we don’t hear about that. Instead we hear of his being under siege from the Jewish authorities for these baptisms. (In Matthew, John lectures the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them “a brood of vipers” (3:7)

John admits “I am not the Christ” and he says he is not Elijah either. So what are you up to, the priests and Levites ask.  John tells them of one who is yet to come.

“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29), John exclaims the next day when Jesus appears. And John continues “He on whom you see the spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”

In all four gospels John the Baptist tells the crowd that he baptizes with water, but Jesus, the one who is coming soon (or here now) will baptize with the Holy Spirit. But the announcement that Jesus is the Lamb of God, and that He “takes away the sin of the world” is only in John.

The Gospel of John connects the story of the baptism of Christ directly to the calling of Jesus’s disciples. In Matthew and Mark, the calling of the disciples comes soon after Jesus’s baptism, but only after he has left John behind and gone out into the wilderness. (In Luke, there is no wilderness experience, and the calling of the disciples also comes after Jesus has started his ministry.) In John, John the Baptist himself has disciples. On seeing Jesus again the day after the baptism, John says to two disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Then Andrew (one of the two) goes to his brother, Simon Peter,” and says “We have found the Messiah” (1:41). Then Andrew and Simon Peter, and soon others, become Jesus’s disciples. In these and other ways, John, the gospel writer, testifies that John the Baptist made even stronger assertions about Jesus as the Christ.

What we most notice in John, when we read this gospel, is the first 18 verses, which are unlike anything else in the gospels. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; and all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). There’s more, of course, another thirteen verses, including this Advent: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory of the only Son from the Father” (1:14).

This is John the gospel writer speaking directly to us, telling us what to make of the coming of the Christ and how to understand it – even though he is telling us that this coming is more than we can ever understand. John wants us to know of this mystery and wonder before he begins telling us the story itself. This is in no other gospel.

Friends have long had a special affinity for the Gospel of John, and for many reasons. We do not generally take easily to theology, but we love John’s talking of the light: ”The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

John, like Matthew, gives an account that stresses continuity with what has come before, but his continuity does not rest at all upon previous scripture. Instead he tells us something new, something true for all time and even beyond time: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Now there is something to wonder at on this Christmas Day.

[Image: Juan de Flandes, Baptism of Christ, ca 1508]


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Christmas Story IV: John’s Version

  1. Pingback: Christmas Story V: Afterthoughts | River View Friend

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