(Authors Note:In case you didn’t know this already, John the Baptist is not Author of the this Gospel. John the Apostle wrote the Gospel. I have tried to make it clear which John I am talking about mostly by referring to the Author as the Evangelist in this section, and every other mention of John being the Baptist. )
In the prologue the Evangelist talks about John the Baptist twice, and in the second reference he tells us that John bears witness to true light. He uses the present tense to describe his testimony. By doing so he is inviting us to hear him crying out with our own ears. John’s ministry prepares the way for Jesus by readying the hearts of the Israelites to meet their king, revealing him to the nation, and providing Jesus with his very first disciples. The Evangelist starts the action in his Gospel with John’s testimony, and let’s take a look and what he wants us to see.
John 1:19–34 (ESV):
19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
John the Baptist Testimony about Himself
When John the Baptist began to attract a huge following the Jewish leaders sent a delegation to find out more about him. In particular they wanted to know if he was one of the three eschatological figures they expected to come before God would intervene in history and usher in His kingdom at the end of the world. The foremost would be the expected messiah. Messiah is the Hebrew word for anointed one. The greek word is Christos which becomes Christ in english. Many thought the messiah would be of the line of David. He would be their long awaited deliverer from gentile oppressors. They also expected Elijah to come before the messiah because of a prophesy in Malachi 4:5. He was expected to prepare the hearts of the people. Lastly, they also expected a prophet like Moses to arise from among the people because Moses himself had prophesied as much in Deuteronomy 18:15.
Why would they think that John was one of these three figures? While the Gospel of John doesn’t give us many details on John the Baptist’s message or life the other three Gospels do. He dressed in camel hair that mimicked Elijah’s clothing. He preached repentance as more important than ethnicity, but he also pressed home to his followers that the Kingdom of God -the world ending intervention by God- was at hand and they had better prepare themselves for it. Lastly, He was baptizing those who came to him, and sought to follow his ways. Baptism wasn’t unusual in those days, but usually it was self-administered in a cleansing ritual, or when a gentile was becoming a proselyte. The fact that John himself was administering the baptism seemed to connote a type of authority, and set it apart as something that might be an end time ritual.
John answers their questions by refusing to fit any of their preconceived notions of who he might be. He rejects each of their characterization, but by quoting Isaiah he emphatically places himself as the messenger who comes in anticipation of the arrival of God to rescue his people and usher in the new age. He and Jesus both reject these preconceived notions in John’s Gospel. They refuse to be placed into categories by the religious leaders of their day. At the same time they make statements that undoubtedly reveal their true identities. It puts the religious leaders full spiritual blindness on display.
The Evangelist illustrates their blindness here when John rejects their categories, but calls himself the one crying out in the wilderness yet they ask him about his authority to baptize. They show themselves to be spiritually blind, and hard of heart. They show themselves to be concerned with their own power and position. They are afraid John threatens them.
John answers their question about his authority to baptize in two main ways. First, he emphasizes their lack of knowledge. Even though the promised one stands among them, they do not know him. Second, he answers them according his position to Jesus. He considers himself as one who was lower than a servant. For John his authority comes from the fact it is his role was to reveal the messiah to the people of God.
In this culture if you decided to become a follower of someone, a disciple, you had to agree to do everything for them except take off their sandals. This task was reserved only for slaves. So when John says he is not worthy to untie his sandals, he is saying he is beneath a slave. He shows an incredible amount of humility for one chosen by God to prepare the way for his Son.
John’s Testimony About Jesus
The very next day as Jesus approaches, John reveals Jesus identity, and tells us how John came to know Jesus was the messiah. John begins with a phrase “The Lamb of God” which almost immediately draws our mind to Jesus’ sacrificial death in payment for our sins. We do this because we know the end of the story, and where it goes. However, the real question is would this have been the thought of a Jew who heard John shout this out? No, I think not. Jesus own disciples didn’t understand this vital component of Jesus life, and constant misunderstanding of Jesus mission was large part of the conflict that existed between Jesus and the Jewish leaders of his day.
Would John the Baptist have even understood this phrase to point to Jesus death? While we can’t be sure because John obviously had communication with God that was not recorded for us, It seems unlikely given that in the other gospels we see John having a difficult time dealing with the idea of a suffering messiah and slow coming kingdom. In Matthew 11 when John has been put in prison he sends messengers to Jesus asking if he really is the one who is to come. This doesn’t seem to be the behavior of one who expected Jesus to be a suffering messiah.
If that isn’t what John meant and his hearers wouldn’t have understood it that way, then what is going on here? Jewish apocalyptic literature at the time used a metaphor likening the nation of Israel to a flock of sheep. This flock was oppressed, and pushed around by the gentile powers. They based much of this idea on Isaiah and his reference to the people of God as sheep. In these writings, from the flock arises a warrior-lamb who defeats the enemies and ushers in the kingdom of God. When John says Lamb of God, I think he is making reference to this idea. The second half of the phrase, “takes away the sins of the world” then takes on a judgement connotation. He will cleanse the world from sin by removing sinful people from the world.
D.A. Carson in his commentary on the Gospel of John points to this interpretation. His take is that while John the Baptist probably meant it this way, the Evangelist used it the first of instances that becomes a running theme in the gospel of people speaking better than they knew. The next of these instances we will see in the calling the first disciples.
What follows is John telling us how he received this revelation, why he received this revelation, and finally gives us a glimpse into Jesus ministry that Jews would have understood to be the dawning of the age of the messiah.
John had received word from God that when he saw the Holy Spirit descend on someone it was the promised messiah. We know that from the other three gospels that John saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus when John baptized him. John’s interaction withe Jesus here would be sometime after that event. The text we are looking at today could even be right after Jesus has returned from his 40 days in the wilderness. Accompanying this visible manifestation of Holy Spirit that John sees, he also hears a voice that proclaims Jesus to be God’s Son. The Evangelist records that testimony here without giving the full context.
Why? It brings more focus to the whole point of John’s ministry and his purpose. John’s whole purpose was to reveal Jesus to the nation of Israel.By recording John’s testimony for us in this way the Evangelist focuses on John’s revelatory testimony to the nation rather than John’s realization of Jesus identity at Jesus’s baptism. It is the reason I labeled him The Apocalyptic Messenger. The greek word that we get our word apocalypse from means to reveal. Johns mission was one of revelation.
In verse 33, John tells us that Jesus will baptize not only with water but with the Holy Spirit also. This idea is a reference back to many places and prophesies in the Old Testament, but certainly would have called to mind Ezekiel 36:25 where God promises to cleanse his people with water, and to put His Spirit within them. These verses in Ezekiel were an end times declaration that God was about to rescue His people, and deliver them from all of their enemies. John is telling his countrymen that the long awaited Messiah is here. The new age is dawning.
This is the reason the Evangelist has record these events for us. He invites you to hear a man who has been sent from God to reveal to you the messiah. His testimony is that the long awaited Messiah is Jesus. Though John might not have fully understood it, Jesus is the Lamb of God who by his death offers to take away your sins. John asks you to believe in him, and I ask you to believe John and trust Jesus with your soul.