Always Playing Second Fiddle? John 1:19-34

Studies in John’s Gospel:  Bible study lesson 3

By Reta Halteman Finger

I met an unusual friend my first year of college. “Lou-Bru” roomed across the hall in my dorm, had a crazy sense of humor, and lived and breathed art—her major medium of communication. When she dropped out and we wrote letters, I looked forward to her cleverly-illustrated envelopes. Lou-Bru did major in art later and along the way spent a summer at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. Her woodworking and ceramic creations were by then so stunning I was sure she could become a famous artist like Georgia O’Keefe.

Instead, she taught art in junior high and middle school for 36 years before retiring. Her students won many art contests on local, state, and even national levels. As successful with kids as she was, Lou-Bru simply did not have the personality to put herself forward. She needed an agent to publicize her work and push her into public life. It never happened.

John the Baptist as agent?   

John the Baptist
“John the Baptist” by Bartolomeo Veneto, a 16th century artist
From Wikipedia Commons
[Note: Latin text on scroll says, “Behold, the Lamb of God”]
Question:  would Jesus have become a popular public figure if John the Baptist had not served as his “agent”?

We catch a glimpse of the need for this agent in 1:26, where John is interrogated by priests and Levites from Jerusalem. “Among you stands one whom you do not know,” he declares. On one hand, John is criticizing these suspicious temple leaders for “not knowing” Jesus; they are outsiders and unbelievers. But would they ever have heard of Jesus were it not for John?

Throughout this chapter to verse 42, the persons and careers of the Baptist and Jesus are intertwined. John’s role is as witness, to testify to “the Light” (1:6-8). It is powerful, it is essential, but it is unrelentingly secondary. If you are studying this in a group, have different members read the antagonistic dialogue of verses 19-28 as a mini readers’ theater. Note how John forcefully defends his authoritative actions, yet asserts he is only an agent of someone else.

In that sense, John’s role in relation to Jesus is similar to a wife’s role in a patriarchal household. She is expected to be strong and productive (as in Proverbs 31:10-31) but always make sure her actions are enhancing the honor of her husband.

Losing ground little by little

Two further snapshots demonstrate how the spotlight keeps moving away from John and toward Jesus. In 1:29-34 John testifies that even though he himself baptizes with water, he witnessed the Spirit descending on and remaining with Jesus so that Jesus will go on to baptize others with the Holy Spirit—a far superior ability.

Notice how John never says that he baptized Jesus. In contrast, both Mark and Matthew are very clear that he did exactly that (Mk 1:9-11; Mt 3:13-17). Since John was preaching a baptism of repentance (Mk 1:5; Mt 3:11) and was of lower status than Jesus, one would expect Jesus to be baptizing John. Thus Matthew’s Gospel has John argue with Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (3:14). In fact, scholars identify Jesus’ baptism by John as strong evidence of the historicity of this account. Since it tends to undercut Jesus’ superior status or divinity, the Gospels would not have recorded such a baptism unless it had actually happened.

But the Fourth Gospel can neither say this nor identify water baptism with repentance. The author has presented Jesus as one who was “from the beginning” (1:1). John reaffirms this in 1:30—“After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” It would detract from the flow of the narrative and its theology to record John’s baptism of Jesus.

The second event concerns John’s loss of two disciples who instead choose to follow Jesus (1:35-42). One is unnamed; the other is Andrew, who races off to tell his brother Simon that “we have found the Messiah!” How does John feel about being left behind?

The River Jordan
This peaceful stretch of the Jordan River is near Yardenit, Israel, a touristy baptismal site where visitors can be (re)baptized in the same river as Jesus was. The Jordan River runs between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Though Yardenit is close to the Sea of Galilee, the site of John’s baptismal activity was farther south, near the Dead Sea, in what is now the state of Jordan. (Photo by Reta Halteman Finger)

What’s so great about a lamb?

In each of these last two vignettes, when John sees Jesus he calls him the Lamb of God (1:35-36), adding in 1:29, “who takes away the sin of the world.” What is the significance of lamb imagery? Christians who emphasize Jesus’ death as a substitution may immediately think of him as a sacrifice for sin. But the context here is not about his death, but about Jesus’ Spirit-filled power to baptize others with the same Spirit.

In his commentary on this Gospel (Cambridge 2007, p 52), Jerome Neyrey presents four interpretive options: Lamb of God may refer to (1) the King of Israel, a messianic figure; (2) the redemptive work of someone based on Isaiah 53; (3) the servant who purifies through wisdom; and (4) a victorious lamb who defeats lions and other beasts. Neyrey notes that all four of these roles are represented in various parts of this narrative, although the context here would favor the third option—Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit, thus offering new forms of purification from sin.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

1. Note how the author moves from the cosmic Prologue in 1:1-18 to the human narrative. How is this potentially rough transition smoothed out?

2. Compare the way Andrew and Simon Peter become disciples of Jesus in this Gospel with Mark 1:16-20. Can you account for the difference?

3. Have you ever been in a situation where you were expected to play second fiddle to someone of higher status? What was it like?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

3 COMMENTS

  1. In answer to question 2. In the “John” account, Jesus does not say anything directly to the disciples asking them to follow him. Even John doesn’t order them to do anything, he just points out who Jesus is to them. This really emphasizes to me the incredible power of knowledge of Jesus’ identity. Once these men knew who Jesus was the answer was obvious: follow him home.

    I am a very skeptical person by nature, and have moments almost monthly where I wonder if anything of what I believe is real. The last time I remember being face down in prayer begging God to let me know how to find certainty in faith. The answer I received was just a simple thought, “I can’t not follow Jesus.” Jesus is a healer, a transformer, a mother to new and liberated souls. Because of who he is, I must follow.

    Mark is striking because it paints a different picture of evangelism. Jesus calls directly, and the disciples respond. Two of them just leave their poor dad with a ton of work! I’m curious what they thought of his promise to make them “fishers of men”. The disciples in Mark seem particularly clueless as to who exactly Jesus is, making their unquestioning “immediate” response to him all the more intriguing.

  2. Morielle,
    I have just been reading a recent issue of Discover, the science magazine I subscribe to, as well as a whole book on cosmology from the Templeton Foundation. It seems to me that the knife-edge of belief and doubt is part of any honest thinking Christian.

    But when I consider alternatives, I am always reminded of the end of John 6. Jesus was doing some tough talking and many disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. When Jesus asked Peter if he was going to leave as well, Peter said, “To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

    I don’t see any better alternative than following Jesus morally and spiritually. Properly understood, the New Testament provides many guidelines that do not harm people (though it’s often been used to do so!). If all roads lead to the top of the mountain, as some will say, then one had better choose a road and stick with it, and not waffle around at the foot of the mountain! We could do worse than follow the motherly Jesus of the Fourth Gospel.

    In terms of the different accounts of the fishermen’s call to discipleship, I have no problem with that. I would guess most of them in Galilee/Capernaum grew up around Jesus or had heard of him for a long time. The Gospels simply record a story the authors knew about, which they adapted to their own purposes, and which in historical reality may have been a tipping point in the lives of these men. (And remember, James’ and John’s father Zebedee must have been fairly well off to have hired men who could help him with the work!) I also suspect that following Jesus around Galilee did not mean every hour of every day. We know, for example, that Jesus visited the home of Peter and his extended family (Mark 1:29f).

    You seem to be a very honest and careful thinker!

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