Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | September 1, 2007

What is Significant about the Quotation from John the Baptist? (Lesson 3 Question 5 Answer)

5.  What is significant about the quotation from John the Baptist?

In verse 15 John the Baptist is quoting himself to the people, reminding them how he had testified that One coming after him was before him:

(John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.'”)

This is significant, because John was born into this world at least six months before our Lord (Luke 1:26).  We can be sure that John knew this information since he is explicitly conceding to the facts in this statement.  What do we do with this apparent contradiction?  First, let us look at some further interesting facts in the original language before answering.  Geerhardus Vos points out the following observation about this verse (specifically the statements “He…ranks before me” and “He was before me”): 

It had been overlooked, however, that though the second and third clauses sound very much alike in English, there is an important difference between them in the Greek:  the middle clause reads, εμπροσθεν μου γεγονεν, the final clause reads, οτι πρωτος μου ην.  Both the prepositions and the verbs are different: εμπροσθεν with the perfect verb expresses precedence in the sphere of becoming or appearing upon the scene, πρωτος with the imperfect of the verb signifies absolute anteriority as to mode of existence; it relates to the eternal existence of the Lord, usually his pre-existence [cp. John 1:1, 18].  On this view the conjunction οτι linking together clauses two and three is naturally explained: in Christ’s eternal existence before time lies the possibility of His appearance and activity under the Old Testament.  There is, therefore, no repetition between the clauses two and three. 44 

Therefore, this statement from the Baptist is providing explicit support for Christ’s pre-existence prior to His incarnation.  This should not have been something novel that John the Baptist was pointing out, however had been foretold by prophets in previous generations.  For example Micah 5:2, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”  This explains the previous statement where John the Baptist is conceding that Jesus possesses a higher rank than him.  It would have been unusual for an older person to concede this to a “younger” person in the ancient world. 45 Nonetheless, this is exactly what John the Baptist was brought into this world for, to “prepare the way for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

Another significant item within this statement is the verb tense selection that was pointed out in our reference to Calvin above.  The author uses the verb μαρτυρει (testify) in the present tense.  Many modern translators render this verb as if it were past tense, since it is not grammatically correct to render it as a present in English.  However, as Calvin pointed out above the connotation that is implied with the tense choice is a continued act.  Thus, the voice of John the Baptist or more appropriate the Scriptures continue to testify about Christ the Lord.  After 2000 years the message of the Gospel proclaimed by John has lost none of its potency, “for the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18).

44 Geerhardus Vos (1948) Biblical Theology Old Testament and New Testaments (Banner of Truth Trust, 2000) p 323

45 Leon Morris, The Zondervan NASB Study Bible – Study Notes (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1999) 1515

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