- The Gospel of John was written towards the end of the first century. In those days, wherever there were communities of Jews in Palestine and in Asia Minor, there were those also who had come in contact with John the Baptist or who had been baptised by him (Acts 19:3). Outwardly, John’s movement was very similar to that of Jesus. Both proclaimed the coming of the Realm (Mt 3:1-2) and both demanded conversion (Mt 4:17). There must have been some rivalry among the followers of John and those of Jesus. Thus John’s answer concerning Jesus was not just for those sent by the priests and Pharisees in John’s time, but also for the Christian communities of the end of the first century. In fact, the four Gospels are careful to quote John the Baptist’s words when he says that he is not the Messiah (Mt 3:3,11; Mk 1:2,7; Lk 3:4,16; Jn 1:10-23,30); 3:28-30).
** Comments on John’s witness**
John 1:6-8: John’s place in God’s plan: to give witness to the light.
The prologue of the fourth Gospel says that the living Word of God is present in all things and shines like the light in darkness for each person. Darkness tries to snuff the light, but fails to do so (Jn 1:15). No one can hide it, because we cannot live without God for long. The search for God is born again and again in the heart of humankind. John the Baptist came to help people to discover this luminous presence of the Word of God in life. His witness was so important, that many people thought that he was the Christ (Messiah)! (Acts 19:3; Jn 1:20). Thus the Prologue explains: “John was not the light! He came to bear witness to the light! ”
John 1:19-21: John’s negative witness concerning himself: he is not the one others think he is.
The Jews sent priests and Pharisees to learn who was this John who baptised people in the desert and who drew so many people from everywhere. So they sent emissaries to ask: “Who is he?” John’s reply is strange. Instead of saying who he is, he says who he is not: “I am not the Messiah!” He then adds two other negative replies: he is not Elijah nor is he the Prophet. These are different aspects of the same messianic hope. In messianic times, Elijah would have returned to lead the hearts of fathers back to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. In other words, he would have returned to restore human solidarity (Mt 3:23-24; Si 48:10). The Prophet who was proclaimed would bring, in times to come, the work started by Moses to a satisfactory conclusion, he was seen by the people as the awaited Messiah (Dt 18:15). John rejects these messianic titles because he was not the Messiah.
Later, however, it is Jesus himself who says that John the Baptist was Elijah (Mt 17:12-13). How can we explain this statement? The fact is that there were various interpretations concerning the mission of Elijah. Some said that the Messiah would be like a new Elijah. In this sense, John was not Elijah. Others said that the mission of Elijah was that of preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah. In this sense, John was Elijah.
In this dialogue between John and the Pharisees and priests, we see the catechesis of the communities of the end of the first century. The questions put by the priests and Pharisees on the meaning of John the Baptist in God’s plan are the questions of the communities. Thus, Jesus’ replies as written by the Evangelist, are also addressed to the communities.
- John 1:22-24: John’s positive witness: he is only one who prepares the way.
“ Why do you baptise if you are not the Christ nor Elijah nor the Prophet?” Those sent by the priests and Pharisees wanted a clear answer, because they had to render an account to those who had sent them to interrogate John. It was not sufficient for them to know what John was not. They wanted to know who he was and what he meant in God’s plan. John’s reply is a phrase taken from the prophet Isaiah, a common phrase, which is quoted in the four Gospels: “I am a voice crying in the desert. Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23). In this use of the Old Testament we see the mysticism that animated the reading of the Sacred Scripture by the first Christians. They sought in the words, not just arguments to prove some statements, but much more to verbalise and explain for themselves and for others the newness of their experience of God in Jesus (cf 2 Tim 3:15-17).
- John 1:25-28: The meaning of John’s baptism and person.
In the Christian communities of the end of the first century, there were those who knew only John’s baptism (Acts 18:25; 19:3). When they met other Christians who had received the baptism of Jesus, they wanted to know what John’s baptism meant. In those days there were many kinds of baptisms. Baptism was a form whereby a person committed him/herself to a particular message.