The Baptism of the Lord, as we know, is described in the three synoptic Gospels – those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, there is nothing in the text of the Gospel of John about Baptism itself. This is despite the fact that the apostle had been a disciple of John the Baptist for some time, and therefore he probably was the only direct witness to this event. What is the reason for the apostle’s silence?
For starters, let us compare a passage from the Gospel of Mark with that from John.
And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Mark 1:9-11)
The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him. And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God. (John 1:29–34).
We see that John the Theologian, in contrast to the Apostle Mark (as well as Matthew and Luke), only conveys the monologue of the last prophet of the Old Testament – his testimony of Christ as “the Lamb of God” – while omitting the story of the Savior’s Baptism itself. Had only the fourth Gospel survived to this day, we would never have known anything about this event.
Why then, in fact, does the only direct witness to Christ’s immersion in the Jordan not say anything about it in his Gospel?
The fact is that the Gospel of John itself, as many Church Fathers and modern biblical scholars have pointed out, stands apart from other Gospels both in its style and structure. This is not to say that it contradicts them, of course – on the contrary, the text of John the Theologian complements them in a special way.
It is known that the Apostle wrote his Gospel later than others. Eusebius of Caesarea, an ancient historian of the Church, made the following observation, “When the first three Gospels spread everywhere and reached him, he (i. e. the Apostle John – Ed.) is said to have considered it his duty to testify to their accuracy but noted that they lacked the account of the first acts of Christ carried out at the very beginning of his ministry, which they really did not provide… Allegedly, they began to ask John to report in his Gospel about the time that the first Evangelists had said nothing about, and about the works done by the Savior at that time, namely, before the imprisonment of John the Baptist.” This accounts for the fact that the Fourth Gospel omitted many events already described by other apostles, including the Baptism of the Lord.
The apostle’s task, however, was certainly much broader and more significant. Using extremely plain and unassuming language — experts have noted that the number of unique words in his text is much smaller than in the rest of the Gospels — he managed to produce an astoundingly profound theological statement about Christ. As Father Sergius (Bulgakov), a theologian and philosopher, wrote, his is the real and the ultimate “theologian’s Gospel”.
It was important for the apostle to supplement the image of the God-man which the other Evangelists had developed; he was extremely focused on the words of his Teacher, so that every thoughtful reader of his text could experience what Peter was once struck by when he exclaimed Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. (John 6:68).
Moreover, in his Gospel, the apostle provided a theological rebuttal to some heresies and false teachings that had already sprouted out on the Christian soil. For example, he drew an “exclamation mark” in the biblical profession of the divine and human nature in Christ, paying great attention to the words of his Teacher about His divinity. To counter the proponents of a contemporaneous misconception, who claimed that the true Messiah was not Jesus, but John the Baptist, he himself, once a disciple of the prophet, renders in his Gospel the prophet’s own words about Christ: After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me. Later, the apostle quotes again the words of the Baptist, emphasizing his position in relation to Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).
At the same time, John the Theologian, more than any other Evangelist, emphasizes the importance of John the Baptist in the Baptism of the Lord. The last prophet of the Old Testament was not only the one who immersed the God-man in the Jordan, but also the only person who mysteriously felt and saw Christ in the great multitude of people. This day, as St. Nicholas of Serbia wrote, was the day of John the Baptist, a man whose holiness, according to the Church, is surpassed only by the majesty and righteousness of the Most Holy Mother of God:
“He (i. e. Christ. – Ed.) walks slowly towards the Jordan in the crowd. He does not catch people’s eyes, and no one pays attention to Him. His appearance is not as striking as John’s, His garments are not as jarring, and His life is not as rigorous and strict… However, there was only one man among all those gathered at the Jordan who recognized Him, and recognized Him truly. It was John the Baptist himself. The eyes of the austere hermit shone with joy, and his lips were silent for a moment; John forgot all the rest of the people who were standing in and near the water. He pointed his finger at Jesus and cried out in a propitious manner, “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).
This is how John the Theologian worked: while omitting some substantive events of the Gospel story, he often touches the canvas that his predecessors painted with terse and precise strokes, giving it a new depth.
“The Fourth Gospel is clearly a narrative by a person ‘in his own words’ and ‘by his own ear’, Father Sergius (Bulgakov) wrote, “with a personal touch, which, however, does not obscure the deep and essential truth of the divinely inspired narrative. Here (as well as in the synoptic accounts of the Sermon on the Mount, parables and sayings) we have not so much a literal record of what Christ said, but rather a work of art and theology, and a profoundly knowledgeable and original one to boot.”
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds