Meditation on John 1:29-33

My church is starting a collective bible-study of the book of John this month via the discussion section of our Facebook page, reading one chapter every day and commenting on any verse or section that catches our attention using the acronym SOAP — Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. I think it’s a nifty idea.

However, when I sat down and started writing, my intended forum post quickly grew into a 1,000-word treatise. (People who know me well are possibly not very surprised by that.) I think that was not really the idea, so … I’ll take up my own space and post my ideas here.

I’m looking at John 1:29-33, primarily because it gave me a serious “buh-whuh??” moment when I read it and what some others commented on it. John says in vv 32-33:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'”

The thing that brought me up short was remembering that John said to Jesus when he came to be baptized, “wait, isn’t this backwards? I’m the one who needs baptizing here.” I had to look up the reference, it’s in Matthew 3:13-15:

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’

“Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented.”

So the apparent sequence of events is that Jesus comes to be baptized; John protests at first, then agrees; Jesus is baptized; then the Spirit comes down to him in the form of a dove; later, John says that he didn’t know who Jesus was until he saw the Spirit come and remain on him. The apparent contradiction in all of this is, why did John protest that Jesus ought to baptize him, unless he knew who Jesus was? If he didn’t really know who Jesus was until the Spirit came down upon him after his baptism, why would he have hesitated when Jesus first came? And especially, why would he have said “no no, I really need to be baptized by you?”

I’m not sure how to crack this one. I can think of some possibilities; we aren’t told the full story here by one person in one narrative, so maybe some of the details have gotten muddled. Maybe the Spirit gave John some kind of advance warning, a premonitory nudge about Jesus’ real identity, but not full-blown knowledge until the baptism happened. Maybe he just respected Jesus as another teacher and preacher, someone who he thought would be better and greater than himself, but not THE GUY, the Messiah. I don’t really get that vibe from the story, though.

The thing that feels the most true to me today, the thing that I really need to absorb for myself, is that there’s a difference between head-knowledge and experiential-knowledge, between knowing a thing is true and actually having it happen to you. Whether or not John knew Jesus personally, he had to have heard the stories of his own birth and Jesus’ birth; his parents believed that Jesus would be the Messiah, so I think he had to have at least head-knowledge of who Jesus was supposed to be. When the man himself came to him, in the flesh, asking to be baptized, I think his head-knowledge would have been enough to prompt his hesitation, to say “wait, no, why are you coming to me for this?” But that’s a very different thing from walking with Jesus into the water and laying him under the surface, from seeing the living Spirit of God fly down out of Heaven and alight on him, from hearing God’s own voice speak His acknowledgement and blessing: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” In living through those moments, John had the chance to learn what he “knew” in an entirely different way, more vivid and real and present than was ever possible before. God in the flesh, right here. Standing in John’s own patch of river, soaked to the skin, with the Father’s voice speaking benediction over him that John was privileged to hear.

The same is true for all of us. It’s important to have head-knowledge in order to know how to respond to God and to events in our lives, but by walking through those events enables us to experience the truth of what we “know” in a much more deep, vivid, present way, a way that can really change what we believe and how we live. That’s what really transforms us, experiencing the truth that we know. And too often, I have to admit I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to experience the things that will transform me, because I know it means facing the hard stuff, the painful things that will provide the deepest lessons and the biggest opportunities for growth. But God knows that; he knows my hesitations and my sometimes-cowardice, better than I do, and he still helps me experience what I need to learn. Sometimes He helps me to be brave; sometimes he just doesn’t give me a choice but to go through what has to happen, brave or not. But he’s always present with whatever help I need in order to get through and learn what I need, and later on I can appreciate what I’ve gained.

Today I’m thinking hard about my own nature and hesitations, and I’m really grateful for being known and understood, down to the bottom, by a living God who wants the absolute best for me, who is always working to make that come about. I’m grateful for the experiential-knowledge I’ve been given so far, and the head-knowledge that helps me to know and trust my Lord, who knows and loves me.


1 comment so far

  1. Lisa on

    From In John, the Baptist acknowledges that the Spirit’s descent upon Jesus at his baptism is what enables him to recognize Jesus (1:32-33), but the event itself is not recounted. The emphasis is on the Baptist’s testimony arising from this event (1:34). It is when the Baptist identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God in the hearing of some of his disciples that they become his first followers (1:35-37).
    From my bible’s sidenote: John the Baptizer was preparing people to hear the message of God’s Son, but he didn’t know yet who this would be. God had told him that when he saw the Holy Spirit come down and stay on someone, this would be his Son. The kingdom of God had arrived.
    I’m with you on the confusion here, since we know John was Jesus’ cousin and they most certainly had to have known each other and grown up together, and grown up hearing the stories of both of their conceptions. But I just took from these notes that maybe wondering about how much he did/did not know Jesus and who He was is not the issue or where our focus is supposed to be.

    Maybe some things are not for us to question or wonder about. I think God wants us to follow John’s example in preparing a way for Jesus, and that is the point.

    Just my thoughts and what I took out of today’s reading…..


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