In examining the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in Gospel tradition, special attention needs to be given to the expression o( e)rxo/meno$ (“the Coming [One]”, or “the [One who is] Coming”). This is a verbal noun from e&rxomai, a middle/deponent verb with the basic meaning “come, go”. It is used frequently in the New Testament, especially throughout the narratives of the Gospels and Acts. It plays a most important role in the message of John the Baptist, as recorded in the Gospels. The core declaration by John is firmly placed in the very earliest strands of (historical) Gospel tradition, being attested in at least five different places within the Gospels and Acts.
The Declaration by John the Baptist (Mk 1:7-8; Lk 3:16-17; Matt 3:11; John 1:27)
In the Gospel of Mark (Mk 1:7-8) it is as follows:
“The (one) stronger than me comes [e&rxetai] in back of [i.e. behind/after] me… I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in the holy Spirit”
Luke’s version (Lk 3:16) corresponds closely and reads:
“(On the one hand) I dunk you in water, but (on the other hand) the (one) stronger than me comes [e&rxetai]… he will dunk you in the holy Spirit and fire”
In Matthew 3:11 we have:
“(On the one hand) I dunk you in water into a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance], but (on the other hand) the (one) coming [o( e)rxo/meno$] is stronger than me… he will dunk you in the holy Spirit and fire.”
Interestingly, Luke and Matthew agree with each other (against) Mark on several details: (1) both omit “in back of me” [o)pi/sw mou], (2) both use a me\n…de/ construction [i.e. “on the one hand…on the other”], and (3) both add “and fire” [kai\ puri/]. Matthew differs from Mark/Luke, however, in the key phrase: “the one coming is stronger” vs. “the one stronger…comes”.
Finally we have the saying as recorded in Johannine tradition (John 1:26-27):
“I dunk you in water, (but one) has been stand(ing) in the midst of you whom you have not seen [i.e. known], the (one) coming [o( e)rxo/meno$] in back of me [o)pi/sw mou]…”
John’s version (independently) agrees with Mark in the inclusion of o)pi/sw mou (“in back of [i.e. behind/after] me”), and with Matthew in the verbal substantive (participle) o( e)rxo/meno$ (“the [one] coming”). It also contains detail not found in the Synoptic tradition, such as the idea that “the one coming” had been standing in the midst of the crowd (among those coming to be baptized by John), undetected by them. Keep in mind that the Johannine Gospel does not narrate Jesus’ baptism as such, but has John the Baptist describe it after it had occurred (Jn 1:29-34). It would seem that a common (historical) tradition has been preserved in various forms.
In the context of the Baptist’s message, this use of the verb e&rxomai almost certainly has eschatological significance, and is probably derived from Malachi 3:1, the last clause—”the Messenger of the covenant, whom you take pleasure in, see! he will come“. In the Greek [LXX] version, the form is e&rxetai, as in Mark/Luke (cf. above). In other words, “the one coming” [o( e)rxo/meno$] likely refers to the Messenger of Mal 3:1. Now, both the Hebrew Ea*l=m^ and Greek a&ggelo$ can mean either a human or divine/heavenly messenger—i.e. a prophet/herald or an Angel—depending on the context. Based on a comparison with Exodus 23:20, it seems most probable that the original reference in Mal 3:1 was to a heavenly Messenger (Angel), perhaps the “Messenger of YHWH” (virtually a personification of God Himself); note (the parallel elements being italicized)—
Exod 23:20: “See! I am sending a Messenger before you to guard you in the way, and to make you come [i.e. bring you] to the place which I have established”
Malachi 3:1: “See! I am sending my Messenger and he will (turn and) face [i.e. look at, examine] the way before me; and straightly [i.e. suddenly] he will come to his temple…”
Admittedly, the syntax of Mal 3:1 makes interpretation difficult, since there are two references to a Messenger. It is, I believe, best to view the structure of this verse chiastically, as follows:
- See! I am sending my Messenger…and suddenly he will come (to his temple)
—the Lord whom you are seeking
—the Messenger of the covenant (in) whom you have pleasure
- See! he is coming
- See! I am sending my Messenger…and suddenly he will come (to his temple)
We seem to be dealing with a single figure, a single Messenger (of the covenant), who is to be identified as “the Lord” [/doa*h*]. Now in the Old Testament and Israelite religious belief, God (YHWH) himself was represented by the Angel/Messenger of YHWH, and the appearance or manifestation of this “Messenger” signified the very appearance of YHWH. Here the appearance of the Messenger in Jerusalem, in the Temple, ushers in the great and terrible “Day of YHWH” (verse 2), whereby the people will be judged with fire. The righteous will be purified and refined (vv. 2-4), while the wicked will be consumed (vv. 5-6). This very clearly fits what John the Baptist describes of “the one coming” in Matt 3:11-12 / Lk 3:16-17.
However, by the time the book of Malachi was completed, an ‘appendix’ was added, which seems to identify the Messenger of Mal 3:1 with “Elijah” who will appear before the Day of YHWH (Mal 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24]). From this interpretation developed the Messianic/eschatological Elijah-tradition—at the end-time, just prior to the Last Judgment, Elijah (himself or a Prophet like him) will appear in order to bring people to repentance. For more on this tradition, cf. the current article. In drawing, it would seem, upon Mal 3:1ff, did John have in mind a heavenly/divine Messenger (representing God himself) or an end-time Prophet-like-Elijah? There is perhaps a clue to be found in Luke’s account (Lk 3:15), where it is narrated that John’s declaration in vv. 16-17 is in response to speculation that he might be “the Anointed” (i.e. the ‘Messiah’), as we see also in Jn 1:20ff. Based on what we know of the Baptist’s appearance and his ministry, it is unlikely that anyone would have imagined him to be a Messiah of the Davidic-King type, whereas he easily could have been thought to be a Messianic Prophet according to the Elijah-tradition. As in Jn 1:20ff, he eschews such an identification, reserving it for another (Jesus).
Development in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:15, 30 etc)
In the Fourth Gospel, we find that the declaration of the Baptist has undergone an important theological/Christological development, which is expressed in the parallel statement in Jn 1:15, 30 (see my earlier note and study for a detailed exposition of these verses). This is part of an intentional effort by the author (and/or the tradition[s] he inherited) to subordinate John the Baptist to Jesus more completely and profoundly than we see in the Synoptic Gospels. We may note: (1) the references to John in the Prologue (Jn 1:1-18, vv. 6ff, 15), (2) his explicit testimony in three consecutive episodes (Jn 1:19-28, 29-34, 35ff), and (3) the juxtaposition of John and Jesus in Jn 3:22-30. Throughout the Gospel of John, the verb e&rxomai (“come, go”) often carries a special significance, related to the idea of Jesus (the Son) coming from God (the Father), and going back (returning) to Him. Particularly, in this respect, e&rxomai relates to what we would call the incarnation of the pre-existent Son. Many examples could be cited, but I will limit them here to instances where the participle [o(] e)rxo/meno$ (“[the one] coming”) is used—Jn 1:9, 15, 27; 3:31 (twice); 6:14; 11:27, also 12:13. The occurrences in Jn 3:31 are especially noteworthy since they follow right after the Baptist’s (final) statement, and are thought by some scholars to be a continuation of his words. It is also interesting that the parallel formulations of Jn 1:15, 30 vary between the participle (o( e)rxo/meno$ “the one coming”) and indicative (e&rxetai, “[he] comes”), just as we see the Baptist’s declaration in the Synoptic tradition (cf. above).
There is an entirely different strand of Gospel tradition associating Jesus with “the one coming in the name of YHWH” of Psalm 118:26 (cf. Mark 11:9 [par Matt 21:9; Lk 19:38]; Matt 23:39 / Lk 13:35). Jesus is also connected with the king who comes in Zech 9:9ff—with both Zech 9:9 and Ps 118:26 being combined in the triumphal entry scene, most clearly in John 12:13, 15:
“…the (one) coming [o( erxo/meno$] in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel”
“…see! your king comes [e&rxetai]…”
In early Christian belief, and the developed Gospel tradition, Jesus’ identification as “the one coming in the name of the Lord” means more than that of the traditional Anointed King or Prophet. This is perhaps best seen by comparing Luke 13:34-35 (citing Psalm 118:26) with Luke 19:41-44 (a similar lament for Jerusalem, following his entry into the city, vv. 36-40). Here the appearance of God himself to his people is identified as taking place in the person of Jesus (v. 44). This brings us back to the language and symbolism of Malachi 3:1, as I understand its meaning and significance in the context of the original oracle.