God in the Skin
Meditation on John 1:29-33 By Cris Cramer
Let's look at John 1:29-33 (NIV):
"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.'"
Something brings me up short here. Didn't John say to Jesus when he came to be baptized, "wait, isn't this backwards? I'm the one who needs baptizing here." That part of the story is in Matthew 3:13-15 (NIV):
"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: Jesus comes to be baptized; John protests at first, but finally 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 the sequence 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 completely 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 one, the Messiah. I don't really get that vibe from the story, though.
The thing that feels the most true to me right now, the thing 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 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 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. It's painful things that 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 to help me get through and learn what I need, and later on I appreciate what I've gained.
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 and 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.
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