Note of the Day – May 22

The saying of John the Baptist regarding Jesus and the Holy Spirit is found five times in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, as discussed in the previous note—three times as part of the triple tradition (Mark 1:7-8 / Matt 3:11 / Luke 3:16) and twice as a saying of Jesus in Acts (Acts 1:5; 11:16). It is also preserved independently in the Gospel of John.

John 1:26-27, 30, 33

The Fourth Gospel’s account of Jesus’ Baptism is unique in that it is only narrated indirectly as part of John the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus (1:19-34ff). Interestingly, the saying corresponding to Mark 1:7-8 par is presented as two (separate) sayings by the Baptist, in verses 26-27 (also v. 30) and 33:

John 1:26-27 John 1:33
“I dunk you with water; (but) in your midst has stood (one) whom you have not seen [i.e. known], the (one) coming behind me, of whom I am not worth (enough) to loosen the straps of the (shoe) bound under (his) feet.” “And I did not see [i.e. know/recognize] him, but the (one) sending me to dunk in water, that one said to me, ‘(the one) upon whom you should see the Spirit stepping down and remaining upon him—this is the (one) dunking in (the) holy Spirit’.”

This may indicate that separate sayings have been combined together in the Synoptic tradition. The first saying has different wording in John, but it shares with Mark (and Matthew) especially the phrase “the one coming [o( e)rxo/meno$] behind me [o)pi/sw mou]”. The use of o)pi/sw mou (“behind me”) has suggested to some commentators that the historical Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist prior to embarking on his own ministry. However, the context of the Gospel narratives as they now stand indicates no more than that Jesus appeared in public later than John, and with less prominence. The Synoptic version(s) of the saying emphasize the actual superiority of Jesus three ways:

  • The declaration that Jesus is stronger/mightier [i)sxuro/tero$] than John
  • John’s admission that he is not (worthy) enough [i(kano/$] to handle the shoes of Jesus
  • The contrast (me\nde/ construct in Matthew/Luke) between John baptizing in water, and Jesus baptizing in the holy Spirit

The Johannine version of the sayings include all three as well, though it is the first that is emphasized, with quite different language. Instead of the (comparative) adjective “stronger/mightier [i)sxuro/tero$]”, it is stated that neither John the Baptist nor the people in the crowds have seen (i.e. recognized) Jesus. This is important, for it indicates that only by way of divine revelation is Jesus’ identity (and his presence) realized (cf. Matt 16:16-17 for a comparable passage in the Synoptics). This revelation is narrated in verse 33, followed by the Baptist’s testimony “I have seen and have witnessed…” (v. 34). The saying in verses 26-27, in which John declares the superiority of Jesus, is repeated in modified form in verse 30 (also earlier in v. 15), again using different language:

“The (one) coming [e)rxo/meno$] behind me has come to be in front of me, (in) that [i.e. because] he was first (ahead) of me” (v. 15)
“A man comes [e&rxetai] behind me who has come to be in front of me, (in) that [i.e. because] he was first (ahead) of me” (v. 30)

Here the saying has been given a deeper theological (and Christological) interpretation. This involves a sequence of three key verbs:

  • “he comes [e&rxetai] behind me”
  • “he has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of me”
  • “he was [h@n] first (ahead) of me”

I have discussed this construction in some detail in an earlier note; here I will simply point out the essential significance of these verbal phrases in the context of the Johannine view of the person of Jesus:

e&rxetai (“comes”)—there are two aspects to note:

(1) The Gospel of John frequently refers to Jesus as one who has come (using the vb. e&rxomai) from God; specifically, in the Johannine prologue it is used for the divine Logos coming into the world (Jn 1:9), which primarily means the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Within the Gospel context, his public life and ministry begins with his baptism by John.
(2) The wider Gospel tradition inherited the Messianic title of “the one coming [o( e)rxo/meno$]”, drawn largely from Malachi 3:1ff (cf. also Psalm 118:26) and applied it to Jesus. This is at the center of the question of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in early Gospel tradition, which I have discussed in an earlier article. Its use in the Baptism scene identifies Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), i.e. God’s representative (Prophet/Messenger) whose appearance will precede and usher in the end-time Judgment. In the later scene of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where Psalm 118:26 is cited, the title signifies Jesus as an Anointed King and Ruler from the line of David.

ge/gonen (“has come to be”)—in the Johannine prologue (Jn 1:1-18) the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”) is used exclusively in the sense of created beings coming into existence (esp. being born); as applied to the pre-existent person of Christ, the divine Logos, it refers to his incarnation (“the Logos came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh”, Jn 1:14).

h@n (“was”)—again, in the prologue, the verb of being ei)mi is used essentially in relation to the life and presence of God (esp. Jn 1:1-2); within the content of Johannine Christology, it is a keyword indicating the deity of Jesus.

The portion of the saying dealing with Jesus dunking (baptizing) in the Holy Spirit differs from the Synoptic in two ways:

  • There is no mention of fire (Matt/Luke “…in the holy Spirit and fire“); indeed John has virtually removed the eschatological context of God’s coming Judgment (Mark 1:2-4; Matt 3:7-10, 12 par) from the narrative.
  • It follows directly after the reference to the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus (to be discussed in the next daily note). This emphasizes the presence of the Spirit (“coming down and remaining upon him”) in relation to Jesus’ identity—as Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God (v. 34).

Interestingly, it is only in the Gospel of John that we actually read of Jesus doing anything like baptizing his followers in the Spirit; this is in Jn 20:19-23, the climactic scene of Jesus with his disciples after the resurrection:

“…even as the Father has set me forth from (Him), so I (am) send(ing) you. And saying this, he blew [i.e. breathed] in/on (them) and said to them: ‘Receive (the) holy Spirit…'” (vv. 21b-22)

This should be taken as indicating what the Gospel writer (and/or his tradition) understood by ‘dunking/baptizing in the Spirit’. However, there are several other passages in the Gospel where Jesus refers to the Spirit in the context of water, and which may involve the symbolism of baptism. In Jn 4:7-26 and 7:37-39 Jesus declares that he is the source of living/eternal water, which may be identified with the Spirit (4:23-24; 7:39); here the emphasis is on the believer drinking of the water/Spirit. More directly relevant, perhaps, is Jn 3:5-6, where Jesus brings together the idea of being born out of water and out of the Spirit. Many commentators have seen here a reference to baptism—the believer is baptized both by water (the baptism ritual) and the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 8:12-17, 38-39 v.l.; 10:44-48; 11:15-17; 19:2-7). I am inclined to give somewhat more weight to the specific narrative context of the passage, i.e. as referring to a contrast between physical birth out of the mother’s womb (i.e. out of water) and spiritual birth (cf. Jn 1:12-13). Even so, the water/Spirit parallel is clear enough, and the person of Jesus—his teaching, work, and life-giving power—is specifically associated with the giving of God’s Spirit.


Leave a Reply