GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So today we are going to look at John 1:29-34.
This is the Baptist’s testimony to Jesus.
So we will read it together and then we will unpack it,
ask some questions, and see how the Old Testament readings go with this passage.
So John chapter 1:29 says this:
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.'
I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel."
And John bore witness, "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.
I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.'
And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God."
Alright, a number of questions here that this text raises for us, let’s just go through a couple of them.
Number one, what does John mean when he says that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?
As Catholics we are very familiar with this expression, but what would it have meant in a first century Jewish context for John to say that about Jesus?
Number two, why does John say that Jesus came before him and that he ranks before him because he was before him?
What does that mean?
Number three, this is a really interesting question, how can John say he didn't know Jesus — he says it twice — when he was Jesus’ cousin?
As we read in the Gospel of Luke 1 and 2, you have Elizabeth who was the cousin of Mary, you have Zechariah and Elizabeth bearing John, and John and Jesus are cousins.
So what does he mean “I didn't know him” — and he says it twice?
And then finally, what is the meaning of John's testimony to Jesus when he says “I bear witness”?
What exactly is that testimony, what is its significanc?
So let's walk through each one of those together.
First of all, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Any first century Jew hearing that expression “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” would've had to Old Testament passages that would immediately spring to mind.
The first is from the book of Exodus 12, that is the famous story of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb.
I have talked about this in a number of writings and in a number of videos so I'll just get at the basic point here.
If your recall in the Bbook of Exodus, it was the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb that not only set the Exodus in motion as the final plague that set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt, but it was also the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb that saved the Israelites from the destroying angel, from the angel of death as it's commonly called, and then allowed them to begin their journey to the promised land.
So the Passover Lamb was always associated with deliverance, with rescue, and in particular with deliverance from death.
So in this case John is signaling to us that Jesus is going to be the true Passover Lamb.
He is going to inaugurate a New Exodus that is going to deliver us not just from physical death but from spiritual death, and it is going to begin our journey toward not the earthly promised land, but the heavenly promised land.
So Jesus is a new Passover Lamb and we will see this in various places throughout the Gospel where Jesus will say in chapter 6 “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, you have no life in you” —
Just like you had to eat the flesh of the Passover Lamb in the Old Testament in order to be preserved from death.
So on the one hand Jesus is prefigured by the Passover Lamb, there's another text here that is very important.
It is Isaiah 53, this is Isaiah's famous prophecy of the suffering servant.
And the reason that text is behind what John said is because we don't have any text that talks about the Passover Lamb taking away sin.
It protects from death, it sets them free from Egypt, but the image of taking away the sin of the world is actually an allusion to the suffering servant.
So in the book of Isaiah 53, Isaiah describes this mysterious figure of the servant who will take upon himself the iniquities of all the people, and Isaiah says of the servant that “like a lamb he was led to the slaughter” and that “upon him were the sins of the many,”
that “he bore the sins of the many,” an image of taking away the sin of the people.
That's the image that John's getting at here.
So in a sense what John is doing in this opening statement is revealing that Jesus is the new Passover Lamb of the New Exodus, but he is also the true suffering servant, he's the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies of this mysterious servant who would take away the sins of the people, take away the sins of the world by taking them upon himself.
That is the first point.
What about the next question?
What does John mean when he says “after me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.”
That is a weird thing to say about your younger cousin.
So if you go back to the Gospel of Luke 1 and 2 you recall that John the Baptist is six months older than Jesus.
So in ordinary human terms I wouldn't say of my younger cousin, that he came before me, I would say that I came before him, that would be the ordinary course of things.
And yet John here says that Jesus came before him.
What does that mean?
Well John is pointing here to the mystery of Jesus’ divinity.
In other words, he is pointing to the fact that although Jesus was born after John in his human body and with his human nature, he is in fact the eternal son of God.
Theologians call this pre-existence.
In other words, before he became man, the Son — the divine person, the second person of the Trinity — already existed from all eternity.
He existed before he assumed a human nature and became man in the incarnation.
So the second aspect of John's testimony here is to the divinity of Christ.
He's pointing out the fact that although Jesus is coming after him both chronologically, in the sense of his ministry, and biologically, in the sense of his youth, the fact that he is younger, theologically he is before John because he is the preexistent son of God.
And you'll know this from John's 1 because how did it begin?
“In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, and the Word was God.
All things came to be through him.”
So Jesus is the eternal son of the Father.
He was never created.
He had no beginning.
He is the Great I Am.
He was begotten not made.
So on and so forth, all those things pointing to his eternal nature and his pre-existence.
So John here is revealing something very powerful about Jesus.
He's manifesting the divinity of Jesus by pointing to his pre-existence.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
...we’ll just end by going back and looking at the actual words Paul uses here in this opening letter. Because although it’s brief, as you’re going to see with Paul, just because it’s short, doesn’t mean it’s shallow. Paul will say a lot with a little, and there are a few key nuggets in this opening section that are very rich. The first is just Paul’s reference to himself as an apostle. It’s important to remember the Greek word apostolos
means “one who is sent.” So Paul’s self-conception is that he was somebody sent by God to Corinth to bring the Good News of salvation to them. It wasn’t just an accident that he ended up there. He is an apostle of Jesus Christ. He is sent with a mission to bring salvation to the people at Corinth.
The second thing that’s interesting about this opening line for me is when Paul says:
To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…
Notice there, first, Paul’s language of being “in Christ Jesus.” This is going to be at the very center of Paul’s thought. As we work through the letters of St. Paul, keep your eyes on that expression “in Christ,” because that’s how Paul thinks about what it means to be a Christian. It’s not just that I believe in Jesus or that I accept Jesus, it’s that through Baptism I become a part of the Body of Christ. I am now in Christ. I am a member of His mystical Body, and that’s going to govern everything Paul has to say about what it means for how we live as disciples. So he’s going to say, for example, to the Corinthians a few chapters down the road, you can’t go to a brothel and unite yourself to a prostitute, because you are a member of the Body of Christ. And to unite yourself with a prostitute is to make that prostitute a member of Christ. And he says God forbid that something like that should happen. So Paul’s ethics, his moral teachings, are going to flow out of the mystical reality that if you’re a baptized Christian, you don’t belong to yourself anymore. You’re no longer your own. You are Christ. You are bought with a price, and you now are in Him. You’re part of His mystical Body, and you have to live as if you are His Body living in the world. So keep your eyes on the expression “in Christ.”
And then finally, but not least significantly, notice here. I just told you that Paul was writing to a Church full of ex-pagans who don’t know their left hand from their right. They’re a very rich city, a very immoral city. And what does he say to them? You are called to be saints. And the Greek word there is hagios
is the plural. It literally means “the holy ones.” Now that’s really powerful, because when we—contemporary Catholics—use the expression “saint,” we tend to use it restrictively to refer to canonized saints who the Church has publicly proclaimed as exhibiting holiness and who have died and who are now alive with God in Heaven. That’s how we use the word “saint.” So we tend to use the word “saints” to refer to believers who are dead and alive in Heaven and have been publicly recognized by the Church.
That is not how Paul uses the expression “the saints.” For Paul, the term “saints” is his favorite way of referring to believers on Earth who are living right now, who have been baptized into Christ. That’s all it takes for Paul. You are called to be a saint by virtue of your Baptism and faith in Jesus Christ. We’ll see how this plays out. But I bring this up because it’s interesting. If you look at all Paul’s letters—we’ll read through them in the course of the next three years—you’ll see he never uses the term Christian, not once, to refer to those who believe in Jesus.
But over 30 times, you know what he calls his congregation, the people he’s writing to, the people he’s instructing? He calls them hagioi
. He calls them saints. So for Paul, all Christians are saints insofar as we have been set apart through Baptism and made members of the mystical Body of Christ. Now, as we are going to see, we’re going to have to live the reality of what we actually are and what we were called to be in Baptism.
You’ll see—gosh, there’s so much here—when Paul uses the language of “a call,” he’s doing something different than we tend to. We tend to talk about somebody having a vocation—having a call—to either religious life or the priesthood...entering into the consecrated life. Paul never uses the language of vocation that way. For him, when he talks about being called, he’s always talking about the call of Baptism. It’s the vocation of every single baptized person. And what is that vocation? It’s to be holy. It’s to be a saint.
Sometimes...one of my teachers said this once....asked a group of students, “How many of you want to go to Heaven?” Every hand goes up. And then you ask, “How many of you want to be saints?” Three go up. Well, guess what? Everybody in Heaven is a saint. That’s the only people who get in. So we have to kind of bring down that barrier in our concepts and our minds about the call to sainthood and the call to Heaven. There are two ways to talk about the same reality. So Paul here is going to be very clear here to the Corinthians that despite the many problems they have, they’re all called to holiness. They’re called to be saints.
And I think one of the interesting things about this is that if you look at contemporary Christian discourse, we tend to talk about people as believers. We put the emphasis on: “Do you assent to these doctrinal truths? Do you believe? That’s important.” Paul uses “believers” a handful of times in his letters. “Do you trust in Jesus? Do you believe in Jesus?” He uses “believers” to describe Christians about three or four times. He uses “saints” to describe Christians over 30 times. So think about the emphasis in what Paul’s doing on the universal call to holiness.
Now I’ll end with this final quote. You might be thinking, “Well, that’s fine, Dr. Pitre, if Paul says everyone is called to be a saint. But you know, isn’t Paul kind of the first Protestant?” Sometimes people see him that way. But no, this is just the teaching of the Church. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church
, paragraph 2013, it takes one of the teachings of Vatican II that was very central, which we refer to as the universal call to holiness. This is what the doctrine of the Church says:
“All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.” All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matt 5:48]
So notice what the Catechism
is saying. Holiness is not just something for bishops or priests or deacons or consecrated religious sisters (nuns), or monks, brothers, whatever. Every single Christian, in any state or walk of life, is called to holiness, and therefore is called to be saints. And that’ll be our challenge as we walk through the letters of Paul over the next three years, we’re going to see that the vast bulk of what Paul is doing in his letters is teaching believers—teaching the baptized—how to be saints.
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