4. The Witness of John the Baptist
The Public Life of Our Lord, Jesus Christ, Vol. 1 by Bishop Alban Goodier, SJ;
Two months had now passed by since Jesus had come to be baptized. During all that time John had waited, looking for a further sign; meanwhile up in Jerusalem the talk was growing rife. Already John had warned his hearers that they should not mistake him, that they should not count him for more than he claimed to be; but that sort of warning did not carry far. The Scribes and Pharisees had shown him respect; men continued to talk; the more vulgar and more easily affected were growing in enthusiasm; they were quoting the prophets, raking up old local traditions, and applying them to him. Some were asking whether he were not the Christ that was to come; others claimed that at least he was Elias returned, seeing that it was from the very spot where he preached that Elias had been carried to Heaven in the chariot of fire [4 Kings ii]; others again, clinging more to the present, would maintain that he was a prophet, independent and inspired as the prophets of old, that the age of the prophets was returning. The talk was persistent, was threatening; it was time the authorities, the oracles of the Law, took more notice of this man and his pretended mission.
Yet what could they do? To condemn him unquestioned was unwise; to persecute and silence him might be dangerous. Besides, as they had owned from the beginning, there might be something in all this gossip. Were he indeed a prophet, or Elias, above all were he Christ Himself, they would need to be careful before they passed sentence. There must be some kind of formal enquiry; they would send trustworthy men to the Jordan to cross-examine him; whether he were all men said of him or not, they would judge him from his own mouth. Thus while Jesus in the desert but a few miles away was being tested by Satan the Tempter, John His witness was being questioned by the priests of Judaea; the time would come when the two powers would combine, and would test their victim with terrible effect.
The court of enquiry came down, priests and Levites, all of the sect of the Pharisees, sticklers for the Law, hard interpreters of the Scripture, suspicious of any innovation that was not of their own making, tolerating none but their own ceremonial, men not likely to let slip any single advantage. They came in all their authority; they stood about the Baptist and watched him. When he paused they came forward; they let him see that this meeting was more than a casual affair, as they put their question,
'Who art thou?'
And John understood. They meant more than the question conveyed. Deepest in their hearts, what made them anxious above all things, was the doubt whether or not he might indeed be the Messias.
Of that anxiety he would at once relieve them; on that point at least they could set their minds at ease.
'And he confessed
And did not deny
And he confessed
I am not the Christ.'
The main point was thus quickly settled. Next was the question raised among the people; at least to them, official judges from the Temple, he would be bound to give an answer.
'And they asked him
Art thou Elias?'
They were not disappointed; again he could reassure them; they had a right to question him and he had a duty to reply.
'And he said I am not.'
Still there was a further question. Once on a time Moses had spoken of a prophet that was to come; whether or not he had meant the Messias was a question disputed in the schools. He had said:
'The Lord thy God will raise up to thee
A prophet from the midst of thee
Of thy brethren
Like unto me
Unto him shall ye hearken';
'I will raise them up a prophet
From among their brethren
Like unto thee
And I will put My words in his mouth
And he shall speak unto them
All that I shall command him
And it shall come to pass
That whosoever will not hearken unto My words
Which he shall speak in My name
I will require it of him.'
---Deuteronomy xviii, 15, 18, 19.
This man might be that prophet; if he were, then again, from the warning of Moses himself, they would need to receive him carefully. So again they asked him:
'Art thou the prophet?'
and again they received the emphatic and laconic answer: 'No.'
Aftter that there was little that need trouble them. They had learnt nothing; they had only satisfied themselves on the points that gave anxiety to their masters in Jerusalem; the rest could matter very little. Still it would be well to learn something positive. John had said who he was not, could he be induced to say who he claimed to be?
'Then they said to him Who art thou? That we may give an answer to them that sent us.'
The question was contemptuous enough. For their part, they seemed to say, they cared not who he was; their business was official, their enquiry was official, and no more. And as such John treated them; he gave them the answer he had given when he had first formally begun his preaching, and until they asked for more he would give them nothing else.
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness
Make straight the way of the Lord
As the prophet Isaias said.'
It was the same answer, and yet in the last sentence there seemed to be a note of rebuke. Of course, that was not to be permitted to affect such men as these. They were 'of the Pharisees', and were above such hints; they were priests and Levites, and needed not to be told what the prophets said. Still they could not but retaliate. They would feign a counter-attack; if he hinted a rebuke to them they would openly rebuke him. It is a common method of falsehood.
'And they asked him and said to him
Why then dost thou baptize
If thou be not Christ
Nor the prophet?'
The fourth title they ignored, the only one which John had claimed:
'The voice of one crying in the desert.'
And in like manner John ignored their question. By what authority he baptized he would not tell them, for he had already told them what sufficed. He would call attention only to the nature of his baptism, which was feeble enough in itself. He would argue no more about himself; instead, with these men, whose duty and office it was to hear, he would seize the opportunity to proclaim Him for Whom he himself had come. They had pretended to be seeking the Messias; he would tell them He was at hand.
'John answered them saying
I baptize in water
But there hath stood one in the midst of you
Whom you know not
The same is He that shall come after me
Who is preferred before me
The latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose.'
We are told the exact spot where this cross-examination and this momentous declaration were made; Bethania across the Jordan, as distinguished from the better-known Bethania higher up the road at the foot of Olivet. We are even given a hint as to the day. In other words it would seem that the evangelist, John, who tells the story, was a witness of the scene; and it would seem that he looks upon it as one of the landmarks in the revelation of the Son of God. And indeed it was; there at the gate of Judaea the King was formally announced to the leaders of the Jews in solemn conclave; there from the first, had they wished it, they might have found and known their Messias.