How did John know? How do we?

There is no discounting the importance of John the Baptist’s testimony concerning Jesus. But how did he know that Jesus was the One?  How do any of us know? My Western naturalistic upbringing teaches me to withhold trust in anything that cannot be verified by others.  But we are not alone; the ancients set the bar of credibility fairly high as well- if for no other reason than the fact that Galilee, that seething hotbed of insurrection produced a number of ‘messiah’s’ that led movements to overthrow Roman rule.  Being wrong about following someone could get you and your friends crucified.  It was brutal.

The writer of this gospel said that ‘ 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. I have seen and testify that this is the Son of God.” (Jn 1:29-32)

Barclay tells us that the dove was a sacred bird in Palestine, neither hunted nor eaten.  “The Rabbis said that the Spirit of God moved and fluttered like a dove over the ancient chaos breathing order and beauty into it. The picture of the dove was one which the Jews knew and loved.”

No, this is not proof, but it is positive identification.  Because people of Jesus day didn’t need to be convinced that Messiah was coming- they needed to be able to recognize him when he came.  It can be compared to sending my brother to pick up my friend at the bus station and telling him, “You’ll know my friend because he will have his pet cockatiel with him- a rather rare identifier, wouldn’t you say? 

But how can we be sure that God spoke to John? In this case, the word and the sign form a self-authenticating pair.  If the John heard only a figment of his imagination,  no man would appear to have the Spirit alight on him. On the other hand, Jesus, the bestower of the Spirit is identified from among many people by reference to and an unusual sign that John could not have conjured.  Much faith is based on this sort of revelation. It does not qualify for proof, for proof refers to evidence of the kind that is repeatable and yields the same result to whomever performs the experiment. But it is a basis for a reasonable belief.

If prophecy X is true, then fulfillment Y will happen.          (Y being an unlikely occurrence.)Y occurs.                             Thus, the credibility of X is supported.

How do we know that John was an authentic prophet?  1) His message of repentance was in line with the prophets before him.                                                                           2) The popularity of a man with an unpopular message suggests spiritual empowerment and anointing.  Remember that baptism was for Gentiles wanting to cleanse themselves in preparation for admission to covenant Judaism. For a Jew to receive baptism would be make the humbling admission that one was an outsider, seeking to enter the covenant God had with Abraham.  This would raise questions about who John thinks he is and why he has the right to do this.(1:24)                                                                                                         3) He is willing to transfer his status and following to the one he has called, the Lamb of God. Furthermore, he says in effect that he is not worthy to be this man’s slave. ( Jn 1:27. To tie and untie sandals was the lowliest of the low. To middle-easterners, shoes were dirty and feet were the most despised part of the body.)

If you want to know who Jesus is, make yourself like John.






What Qualifies for Truth?

Dear Janice,

Forgive me for the length of time you had to wait for my response to your very reasonable questions. I wanted to honour the query by taking the time to answer it thoughtfully, and I thought it best to enter the discussion through your last question, “Why can’t the truth come as a set of ideas?”

For the most part, I have thought of truth as something that matches reality.  The Cambridge  Dictionary of Philosophy calls this the correspondence theory of truth. More formally stated, truth is the property of statements or propositions that correspond to reality.

Now I am a product of the Western modernist tradition so my tendency is to assume that the truth can and should be stated as a set of ideas. That assumption rests on a more fundamental conviction that ultimate reality is something like the natural world, which can be approached through testing, and detached reasoning. If so, then I can apprehend the truth concerning stars or electron states, hamster ovulation or neural networks apart from my personal involvement with them and without any expectation that my identity would be affected by my discoveries.

But what if nature is not the ultimate reality? What if the fine-tuned universe took its form not under the chaotic whims of chance, but the elegant and purposeful crafting of a Personality?  That would imply that the most natural way to ultimate Reality lies in the realm of revealed knowledge, through person-to person-relationships in history. Let me illustrate.

Suppose I am new to Toronto; I want to visit the Royal Ontario Museum and I ask you for help at the Bus Terminal. You could do one of three things. First, you could give me directions to St. Patrick station and tell me to ride the University line north to Museum. But because I am terrible with a sequence of verbal direction to places I’ve never been, you give me your trusty TTC map so I can picture where I’m going. Both the directions and the map are objectively  truthful in the sense that they correspond to a reality.  If I could follow either one faithfully, I’ll get there.  But suppose that I’m still confused and you realize that I’m going to the ROM by personal invitation from a grad student who happened to be one of your tutors in anthropology. ( When I was in Chicago, I  was actually invited for a personal guided tour of the Oriental Institute.) You find this to be a remarkable coincidence and it being a sunny day, you offer to walk with me to my destination and say hello to your teacher.

This last offer, though it takes the most effort on your part,  is the best for me because I can’t possibly misinterpret your directions and you would personally introduce me.

This is the force of Jesus’ claim,  ” I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No man comes to the Father but through me.”  Through his life, he demonstrated the pattern of loving submission to God, that we are to emulate – the Way. Through his words and deeds, we have an absolutely faithful and dynamic picture of the Father’s attitudes and intentions-the truth.  Then by putting ourselves in his hands he puts something of his own life and spirit within us that allows us to follow him as he walks us to his Father’s side-the Life.

Everyone who has ever come to God has been given access through him, whether one realizes it or not. (Jn 1:4, 8:56-58)

So that is how I have come to understand that the
Truth is not just a set of ideas.  If ultimate reality is really the Creator and not the creation, then Truth is a person and can only be represented by a person who can bring us into intimate union with the Creator.

Now what is the implication for those who seek to know the Truth.  Now truth about anything, propositional truth, is just information, most of which has no immediate bearing on our lives.  Now I believe that the existentialists are right in saying  that life cannot be thought, it can only be lived. Information can be understood, even enjoyed, but Truth has to be lived by choosing – by authentic commitment.  A woman who knows several men who would make good husbands but can’t decide on which one, has by default chosen singleness.

It is for this reason, that the call to relationship comes embedded within the revelation of Truth as a person.