The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Delegitimizing the Witness

Why doesn’t he point out Jesus, who is standing among them?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading:  John 1:6-28

For Sunday, Dec. 11 , 2011: Year B—Advent 3

John 1 is always a lot of fun for an exegete. There is so much grand mystery, set next to seemingly concrete particularities. This first chapter also introduces some of the gospel’s giant themes—the Word, light, life, glory, grace, the law, and witness. But on this reading my THQuestion-a-tor pointed to the witness, the first witness as there are others throughout the book of John.

Outlaw Baptism?

After the prologue of verses 1-19, the Gospel’s opening scene finds priests and Levites arriving on the strange scene of the man, John, out in the wilderness performing a ritual—but was it for purification or for conversion or what?

Baptism was used at the time, in Jewish ritual, in one of two ways. If one had become unclean after, say coming in touch with a dead body, one would have to be baptized, purified, before entering the Temple. Secondly, baptism was also used as the final step in the conversion process for a Gentile. First there was an oral test, then circumcision, followed by baptism.  Only then could a male “Proselyte of the Law” enter the Court of Israel in the Temple to offer the obligatory korban sacrifice.

Weird—and Unsanctioned

The nature and purpose of John’s baptizing is not clear. Why was this non-priest performing this ritual, which was closely related to Temple worship, out in the middle of nowhere? It was weird—and unsanctioned. So the priests and the Levites (they are basically the police) are sent by the Pharisees to check it out.

They arrive and question him, who are you? He answers; I am not the Messiah (if that is what you are thinking). That is what they are thinking. Well,. they don’t really believe he is the Messiah—they think he thinks he is the Messiah. He wouldn’t have been the first. Why else would he be doing what he’s doing?

Then are you Elijah?


Are you the prophet?


Then who are you?

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.

The what?

Finally they ask, if you’re not a priest, the Messiah, Elijah or the prophet, then why are you baptizing? Like, who said you could do this?

Alluding to Answers

John doesn’t answer directly, but sort of alludes to an answer. He says, I baptize with water and there is one who stands among you who you don’t know.

John refuses on any level to provide a legitimate reason for his actions. He is operating across the Jordan, away from Jerusalem, we will not connect his actions to the religious establishments understanding of salvation history. He is decidedly outside of their system. After all, the Pharisees sent them; but God sends him, the text tells us.

The Hardest Question

John in John tells the religious leaders next to nothing about who he is and why he is doing what he is doing. He is just a voice calling out in the desert, which seems like an allusion to futility, like a voice in the wind. What kind of witness is this? John even fails to identify Jesus as the one who legitimizes his actions.

If John is called to bear witness to the light, why doesn’t he point out Jesus to the crowd, who is standing among them?

 Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Robin says:

    I don’t know. Just like I don’t know why I don’t point out Jesus in the crowd, even when I know he’s there. Maybe I haven’t figured that part out yet, but I have to believe he’s there, or I’m just blowing smoke in the pulpit every Sunday. Thanks for asking the question I never thought of before.

  2. Robin says:

    Well, I’ve been thinking now. The textual reason John didn’t point out Jesus then and there is that John hadn’t seen the sign yet, the spirit descending and staying; but that comes later. Maybe at this point in the story, John is just figuring it out as it happens, but this is OK; he’s open to what comes next, whatever, whomever, that is. And in that openness, he gets the word, the sign, what to look for; and then when he sees it, he shares it. I wonder, too, if Jesus too far out of our system of reference, our habits of practice and systems of belief, to be seen and known unless someone grabs us by the collar and points him out? Are our systems so closed, that we’ll never get the word; are we impervious to information and people from outside our system?


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