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§ 112. John points to Jesus as the Suffering Messiah, and testifies to his Higher Dignity.

On the day after John had thus (officially, as it were) pointed Christ out as having already appeared among the people, though unrecognized by them, the Saviour came forth from his seclusion, and showed himself in the midst of John’s disciples.245245   John, i., 29. The Baptist, beholding his approach, exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world.” The image of the Holy One, suffering for his people, and bearing their sins (Isa., liii.), stood before his soul as he uttered these words. As we have already seen, John believed that the Messiah would have to go through a struggle with the corrupt part of the people; and he readily joined to this belief the idea of a Messiah suffering for the sins of the people, and triumphing through suffering. The intuition to which he gave utterance was simultaneous with the appearance before his eyes of Christ’s person, so gentle, so calm, and 161so meek;246246   Hence the appropriateness of the figure of the lamb rather than of any other animal used in the offerings. What we say is enough to indicate the grounds on which we differ from other interpretations of this passage. Conf. Lücke, in loc. and his conception of the idea of Messiah, in a prophetic spirit, reached its very acme. Yet we cannot define precisely the meaning which John himself attached to the words; for we cannot suppose in him a doctrinal conception of their import such as a fully Christian mind would have.247247   We do not suppose, therefore, that the Baptist had before his mind the full sense which the Evangelist, from his Christian stand-point, connected with the words. It cannot be known with certainty but that the former used the word עָם, which the latter translated κόσμος. From a mind like the Evangelist’s we could hardly expect so fine a distinction between the objective and subjective to be distinctly marked in his statement of the words of another. He perhaps involuntarily blended them. He revered the memory of the Baptist, his spiritual guide; these words of the Baptist had greatly tended to develope his inner life, and had led him to Christ; it was, therefore, all the easier for him to attribute to them a higher Christian sense than the Baptist had when he uttered them. The interpretation which he gave to them may also thus have reacted upon the form in which they were impressed upon his memory. This view does not in the least impugn the veracity of the narrative, or tend to show that John was not its author. The whole tone of the Baptist’s words is consistent with his character and habits. Moreover, as we have before remarked (p. 54), the kingdom of God, as spreading among the heathen nations, had opened partially to his view; he may, therefore, in the passage under discussion, have had reference to mankind, rather than to the Jewish world. His was a prophetic intuition, bordering indeed on Christianity, but yet, perhaps, commingled with wholly heterogeneous elements.

After John had thus designated the character of Jesus, to whom he wished to direct his disciples, he repeats anew the testimony which he had before publicly given “of him that was to follow” (although probably not given, in the first instance, with the same confidence as to the person), and applies it, in stronger terms, to Christ—“This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man that is preferred before me, for he was before me.”248248   John, i., 30. These obscurely prophetic words were the Baptist’s own, and not put into his mouth by the Evangelist. But this only makes their explanation more difficult. According to the usage of the Greek, and of language generally, the before of place and time may express, figuratively, precedence of dignity; and, in this usage, ἔμπροσθέν μου γέγονεν is easily interpreted, “although (in the order of time) he comes after me, yet (in the order of dignity) he was before me.” In the full certainty of prophetic intuition, the Baptist describes this as already realized. It is harder to interpret πρῶτός μου ἦν. Referring the words “he was before me” to the pre-existence of Christ, they would imply that his dignity as Messiah was to grow out of his pre-existing Divine nature. Nor could it, in this case, be said that the Evangelist had involuntarily modified the language of the Baptist by an infusion of his own Christian ideas; for, in the mind of the latter, the higher conception of the person of the Messiah, as well as of his work and kingdom, may have been developed from a profoundly spiritual interpretation of the prophecies of the Old Testament. This much, indeed, is implied in his partial statements (recorded by the other Evangelists) in regard to the peculiar indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the Messiah; although it does not follow that the Baptist was fully conscious of this. It remains a question, whether it would not be more in accordance with the simple conception of the Baptist to take πρῶτός as referring, not to pre-existence, but to priority of nature, which interpretation I have followed in the text. This involves no tautology; the “becoming greater” is derived from the “being greater.” The word ἦν is used, and not ἐστί, to indicate that the “priority of essence” preceded “the priority of dignity,” which was not obtained by Christ, in its manifestation, until a later period. It is an oxymoron: “he was that, which he has become.” Thus interpreted, the passage corresponds to what John says of Christ in another form, in Matt., iii., 11. If this view be adopted, we must remember to distinguish between the sense in which the Baptist uttered the words and that which the Evangelist, from his higher Christian consciousness, attributes to them. (“Who has taken a higher place than I, according to his nature.”)

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