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Jesus, John and Elijah: who were they?

[See also the sermon for Advent 3 Year A: Is he really the one?]

The big question was, who was Jesus, and it is still the question.  It is really amazing how much attention is given in the media, and in a multitude of books, to any wild theory which would make Jesus out to be anyone other than the Messiah, the son of God.  You can practically count upon it that the ABC (The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the national public TV and radio network in Australia) will put on some major anti-Christian program or alternative religious interpretation every Easter and every Christmas.  I don't know whether it is deliberate policy to try to counter the influence of the major Christian festivals.  Whatever the reason, it appears to be part of the elite culture of the West and much popular thinking that anything goes as long as it not Christian, so Jesus has to be understood as someone other than the Christ of faith.  Well, there is nothing new in that!   But they can't leave it alone.  The question will not go away: just who was that man from Nazareth who appeared with John the Baptist at the River Jordan and afterwards went about teaching and doing 'mighty works' before he was killed at Jerusalem on the orders of the Roman governor.  It was a real question during his earthly lifetime and it became increasingly a point of debate and inquiry as the years went by after he died, and, we believe, rose again.

The way the gospels are written is clearly intended to address this basic question of who Jesus was and indeed still is, and you can see different approaches to it in the different gospels as the evangelists responded to developments in different audiences at different times and places.  Each of them dealt with the relationship between Jesus and John and Baptist as part of their presentation of who Jesus was and they selected and emphasised various aspects of the story and character of the Baptizer accordingly.   John the Evangelist, writing later than the others and more deeply embedded in a Greek culture drew a sharper contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist than did Mark and Matthew, while Luke's portrait is somewhere in between, but they all emphasised the superiority of Jesus.  They are all primary witnesses to Jesus as the redeeming Word of God made flesh in human life, but when it is put that way, "made flesh", we see the maturity of the fourth gospel for it is John who wrote in those terms: the Word made flesh.

We will, of course, come to this on Christmas Day, but is as well to recognize now that in the way that John the writer of the fourth gospel tells it, this interpretation of what God was doing in the coming of the man Jesus is set between the two separate sets of verses which make up the gospel reading in the lectionary for today.  The whole should really be read together and extended. John had already introduced John the Baptist in verses 6-8 of Chapter 1, before he summed up the nature of the incarnate redeeming Word in verses 9-18, and then went on with the testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus in verses 19-36. He also interpolated another reference to John in verse 15 between speaking of the Word made flesh ... full of grace and truth (verse 14) and saying that from his grace we have all received grace upon grace (verse 16). The interpolation was,

That was after he had he had really said in the introduction that the Baptist was not himself the Messiah,

Jesus has not yet been introduced by name when John the Baptist is several times the focus of attention by way of contrast to one yet unnamed  who was with God at the beginning, the true light that was coming into the world.  What John the evangelist has to say about John the Baptist is intimately bound up with what he has to say about nature of Jesus.

John does not conceal the purpose of his writing, as he says at the end,

John has a purpose in the way he tells the story.  It is not to be judged as objective disinterested history, to the extent that such a thing is possible, but by how convincing he is in the case he makes that Jesus is the Messiah. You know where he stands from the beginning. If John treats the Baptist a little differently compared with the way that say Matthew writes, it is because he has something correspondingly different and significant to say about Jesus in the light of the debates which were going on at the time and in the place when he wrote (probably among Greek speaking people at Ephesus at the end of the first century). The debate about the nature of the person of the Christ, his divinity and his humanity, and whether he could really be both God and man, had become more intense, more sophisticated and there were many more competing ideas.  It is a debate that was not settled as far as the agreed teaching of the church was concerned for several centuries, and it is still going on in the world at large. Always there is the attempt to compromise one way or the other: either to reduce his divinity and emphasise his humanity or to compromise his humanity to his divinity, because it was and still is difficult to accept that a real man could be God, albeit God emptied of his power and glory. The writer about Jesus and John the Baptist in the fourth gospel was consciously dealing with big questions, the answers to which would determine the survival of the Christian faith in a hostile and seductive world.  There is a similar test today in the West, while in the East and in Africa it is subject to other trials and the Christian faith today is less under threat in the world at large because it is now faithfully held and lovingly nurtured in many different cultures.

Our understanding of Jesus and the way that faithful followers relate to him and how we think of him, certainly changes from place to place and time to time. That is to be expected for we do not have it laid out for us exactly in the precise form in which we will always think. Jesus himself spoke of the Spirit leading us into the truth (John 8:31-32;16:13). That was not a doctrine of human progress which tends to be opposed to biblical teaching, but a word about reliance upon the Holy Spirit, which was promised as a gift from Jesus himself. Nor does it mean that whatever the faithful think is in fact true. Some understandings are better than others, some are wrong and some are certainly more complete than others.  If Jesus is, in spite of all these human differences in how he is seen, the same reliable truth about God always and everywhere, then it is worth struggling with the different understandings that develop to see what we can learn of that reality from which they are formed and to which they witness. (We reject outright that post-modern cynicism in which there is no truth behind the words.) In New Testament times, just as people still struggle today to make him out, they struggled then too. There are always people who prefer to suit themselves while some more prepared to face the reality whether or not it suits their presuppositions.  In what ways was he, is he, then, was he for them, is he for us, a man like John the Baptist, a bold public figure, and prophetic preacher challenging injustice and calling people to repentance, and it what ways was he quite different, and more significant for humanity, as the light of the world, the Word of God through whom all things came to be and who can give power to become children of God to all who believe in him? (John 1:3,12)

When, just after the reading for today, John introduces Jesus the man, walking the dusty roads of Galilee, John the Baptist says he is the Lamb of God (so giving us the words used in the Eucharist). Then comes the saying about Jesus ranking before him (that is in importance) because he was before him (that is in time and creation).

You cannot get the point of John's testimony without going beyond verse 28, though the Baptist had already said that he was not even worthy to be the servant of Jesus,

The point of fundamental difference is demonstrated by the different kinds of baptism which are brought by John and Jesus, illustrated when John says.

Mark, of course reports something very similar when he tells of John the Baptist:

John baptised with water, Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit.  Here is the really big difference: John says that Jesus will work in a radically different way, renewing people in the Spirit rather than washing them with water as a sign of their repentance, and he will work differently because he is in himself an entirely different person: he is not merely a prophet, however noble in the sight of God and man that he may be, but he is the Messiah, the son of God, the one especially blessed by and in possession of the Spirit of God, and able to bring the Spirit of God into the lives of the people who follow him. So John the Baptist adds to the distinction between water and spirit the belief about him to which this leads:

That big claim made here in the words of John the Baptist is made by John the writer of the gospel from the beginning.  Not that readers are expected to accept it right away.  He has scarcely begun to make his case yet.  Soon he will be piling up the evidence, as he describes one dramatic sign after another: the wedding at Cana with the wine of the new age, his conversation with Nicodemus about being born again of water and spirit, the woman at the well in Samaria who became one of the first to witness to him as the Messiah, the feeding of the crowds, the healing of several people, and so on. At the beginning the evangelist seeks only to point to the kind of claim about Jesus that will be supported by the full gospel, and he calls John the Baptist to the stand as his first witness. The point for us, and for all who seek to understand who Jesus was, is to hear the claim that he was not only superior to John the Baptist but radically different.

There was a break from the past as well as the fulfilment of prophecy from the past. John was the forerunner, as John said of himself:

He came to prepare the way for the Messiah. All the gospel writers agree on this, but in the fourth gospel the radical break from the tradition of the prophets is stated more strongly by the way that John the Baptist is compared with the great prophet Elijah who was expected in Jewish tradition to return before the Messiah came. The coming of Jesus is seen here is something new and different and so in John's gospel John the Baptist is treated differently in relation to the ancient tradition; not only is his difference from Jesus emphasised, but he who points to Jesus as the Messiah is himself also different from the prophets of the past, so the break with the past in the coming of Jesus is further emphasised. We do not have in the fourth gospel the picture of John of the Baptist that is commonly in our minds from other writers, drawn in ways that make him look like Elijah: there is no mention here of his rough coat of camel's hair, or his living on locusts and wild honey, like the old prophet who survived in the desert when he was in conflict with the rulers. For some people similarity meant identity. Being like Elijah they wondered if he was Elijah returned. Indeed any sense that he might actually be the old prophet was denied by John himself. When he is asked whether he is Elijah, John the Baptist here replies that he is not,

That denial might even appear to contradict what is reported in the other gospels of what Jesus himself said about John the Baptist and Elijah.

The way Jesus put it in Matthew's account does not say exactly that John the Baptist was Elijah in a strict and literal sense, but, if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. We might say, "if you will, you could see him that way" or he carried out the role of Elijah. But to see him that way, is to see that Jesus is the Messiah - if you are willing to accept it! That, the question of who Jesus was is the heart of the matter, and for Matthew no less than John the evangelist Jesus is the Messiah and represents a radical break with the past, introduced by John the Baptist who was the last and greatest of the old order. Nevertheless it is striking that in one gospel there is a direct denial that John the Baptist was Elijah and in another something that looks very like an affirmation that he was. We might say rationally that John the Baptist had a role of which he was not fully conscious even though he saw himself as the one who came to prepare the way for the Messiah, but it might help to look a little closer at what it meant for John the Baptist to have the role of Elijah.

Elijah was one of the greatest the prophets of ancient Israel and had he continued to have a special place in the fulfilment of the Jewish hope. Even today, when Jews celebrate the Passover there is a point during the meal when a child will be sent to the door to see if Elijah has come to join them and take the place at the table that has been prepared for him. Elijah was unique among the prophets in that there is no report of his death, but rather the tradition was that he was taken up to heaven directly:

The succession in the work of prophecy went on from Elijah to Elisha, and even in that place "on the bank of the Jordan" where John the Baptist appeared many centuries later, but Elijah who had disappeared so mysteriously was expected to return before the coming the Kingdom of God, as the later prophet Malachi said:

That is what Luke had in mind when he gave us the words of the angel to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist:

It is no wonder that the religious authorities of the time were anxious to discover whether John the Baptist was indeed the prophet of the Kingdom when the Messiah would appear.

And quite apart from the way he looked there was reason to think that he could be Elijah from what he had done as a public figure who would be well remembered in Jewish history. Much the same as Elijah challenged the corruption of the rulers of his day so too did John the Baptist. Elijah had lived in the time of King Ahab who had married a foreign woman, Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31), and had began to set up shrines to her false gods and to worship them. Jezebel had many prophets of the Lord put to death and Elijah fought against her false prophets. The enmity between Elijah and the court of the King was such that he had to flee into the desert for fear of his life. Much the same happened with John the Baptist. He had dared to challenge the corruption of the court of his day and again he got into a deadly conflict with the wife of the King. He too went into the wilderness. It was the wife of the king who eventually had John the Baptist killed. It is no wonder that they were asking whether he was Elijah; and if he was, at the same time, they would then have had to ask where was the Messiah. That was the link Matthew and Mark made, and why Luke said that John the Baptist would have the spirit and power of Elijah, but the evangelist John had a different point to make without denying the preparatory work of John the Baptist. The person and work of Jesus was radically different from anything that come before, just as Christian baptism joined with the gift of the Spirit is shown in Acts to be different from John's baptism. The point was that Jesus, working in the power and Spirit of God, and being himself the very presence of God, belonged to a different order altogether, so that even the Jewish ideas of the Messiah as a great king in the historical pattern of King David would be inadequate, just as the comparison of the Baptist with Elijah, in his spirit and power, did not being out the whole truth about him.

Jesus was no mere earthly king or leader, however great, even one called and marked out by God to bring justice to an oppressed people. He was the Word that was with God at the beginning and was God. For us it means that the social gospel is not enough, that no amount of good work or political and social reform will adequately express our faith in Christ. The claims we make about him are greater than any such work can express even though the lame walking and the blind seeing may be signs that the Messiah has come. So, the Old Testament lesson for today does not stand alone but as the passage which Jesus read and applied to himself when he was asked to read at the synagogue in his home town:

It was in a similar way that Jesus confirmed to John that he was the one who was to come,

Justice for the poor and the oppressed was a sign that the Messiah had come, but the good news was that which the sign signified. The good news was not the evidence or the result, but what it pointed to, the cause of the change: that is, that he had come: the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. {6} And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me. To make the bringing of justice the gospel in itself is to miss the point. Many have tried and failed to put right what is wrong in the world. The good news is that the one who can do all that needs to be done for humanity has come, and he is the very presence of God himself, the one to whom the Baptist looked when he said, Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:19).

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